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Standby (You)

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Chapter 1 – Soft hands and stupid smiles

 

            She wasn’t crying. Not yet. But she could feel the tears prickling at the back of her eyes, seconds away from causing a scene. So she left—taking a little break, she said—and made a beeline for the van. Maybe she had started crying and her eyes were too blurry to realize there was someone already in it, maybe that’s why she was so surprised when she yanked open the sliding door and came face-to-face with…

Of course.

Sitting in one of the bucket seats, staring straight back at her, looking appropriately shocked, was one Miss Matsui Jurina. And about five cameramen surrounding her.

Of course.

“Sorry,” she bows, instantly turning away, “I didn’t realize you were in here.” She reaches for the door handle, but is stopped by Jurina’s hand on her wrist.

“Wait, Nao-chan. It’s okay, we were just finishing up.”

Out of the corner of her eye she sees the ace closing off whatever interview she had been having, asking the crew to kindly edit around the little scene that had just happened. So she stays.

Moments later, their van is empty save for one Miss Matsui, and so Nao allows the hand on her wrist to pull her inside. And then the door is shut and they’re alone.

“… I can leave too, if you want.” Jurina’s voice is soft, but she can hear the worry in it clear as day.

“No, it’s fine. I just wanted to rest for a bit.”

Nao turns her face away and leans against the window. She could pretend to sleep, right? That was normal, right? Maybe their eternal center hadn’t seen the few tears that had managed to escape in their little scene a while ago.

“Mhm.” Does Jurina sound… sad?

What if…

Of course she’s sad. Nao wants to hit herself for not realizing what the other girl must be feeling. If she herself is this down—it’s only one single, it’s not like she hadn’t been chosen before—she can’t imagine what Jurina must be feeling. She had always been chosen. Always.

Even serving as the lone SKE representative at times, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Jurina was SKE for some of the management responsible for choosing these things. If the Nagoya ace hadn’t made it, then wasn’t it a miracle any of them had?

And here she was crying.

Nao discretely dabs at her eyes with her sleeve and slowly turns to gauge how the other girl was doing. Only to find her looking at her phone.

Jurina’s brow furrows, then her face relaxes into a look of understanding. “Ah. The senbatsu for the next single is out.”

Nao freezes. Wait… Jurina didn’t know yet?

Jurina gives her an apologetic smile. “Sorry, I’m still not quite back in the swing of things. I didn’t realize it was already time for the next one.” She scrolls down her phone—reading the list, maybe? “Maybe because I haven’t even filmed the last one yet.” She chuckles, but it comes out a bit awkwardly, so Nao doesn’t comment on it. “I see… Well. The show must go on, right?”

“Right…”

Nao doesn’t know how to feel. Doesn’t know how to interpret Jurina’s mood either—was she angry? Sad? Happy that she wasn’t chosen? Of course not, right?

“Wait. Is that why you were crying?”

“I wasn’t crying.” Her reply is immediate. She shakes her head because maybe if she keeps denying it, it’ll become truth, right?

“Nao-chan…”

“I wasn’t crying. See?” She turns to look at her, shows her her clear, not-crying eyes. But why does Jurina always have to look so… “I wasn’t crying.”

“Good.” The ace reaches out to softly stroke Nao’s short locks. “Because things like that aren’t worth crying over.”

Well, what does she know about that anyway? She has always been chosen. Always.

“I know.”

“And there are so many people who know how hard you’ve been working.” She keeps stroking her hair. “Thank you for your hard work, Nao-chan.”

“You didn’t get chosen either.” Crap, she didn’t mean to say that. But Jurina stops petting her head all the same, as if it’s the first she’s hearing the news.

“… That’s right.”

“It’s the first time, right? Since your debut.”

“Mmm… Except for one or two janken singles I think.”

“And you don’t care?”

Jurina pulls her arm back fully now. Her eyes find the ceiling of their well-worn van as she ponders.

What’s there to think about? Either she cares or she doesn’t, it’s not that hard—

“I’m not really sure how I feel yet.”

Yet. Is that the luxury of never having not been chosen? Amazing.

“I get it.” She doesn’t. “You’re not fully back yet, so you probably don’t want to go right back into promotions so soon.”

“That’s not it.” Jurina shakes her head. Good god, why is she still looking at that dirty ceiling? There’s nothing there.

“Then what?” She’s trying not to come off as hostile, but she’s not sure it works.

“I’ll put it this way, I’d feel much worse if I didn’t make the SKE senbatsu. A hundred times worse, I’d cry for sure.” The ace finally looks away from that god-awful ceiling. Now she’s looking right back at Nao. “So I’m saving my tears for that, I guess.” She laughs in that god-awefully beautiful way and – and seriously?? Is she serious right now?

“Then you’ll never cry again.” Nao smacks her arm, smacks her real good, but she’s laughing now too. How does she do that? She can feel her foul mode disappearing and it’s all because of that stupid smile.

“And you shouldn’t have to cry again either, right?”

“I can’t believe you…”

“Because they’re always going to choose you. Senbatsu Nao.”

“Seriously,” she’s still hitting her, but she’s still laughing too.

“I am being serious. I wouldn’t say only SKE matters to me, but it’s the thing that matters the most to me. Seriously.”

“I know that.” Everyone and their mom knows that.

“So I can’t help but think like that, sorry.”

“No, I get it.” And she… she does get it.

They fall into silence for a while, but it’s nice. Then Jurina reaches her hand out again to stroke Nao’s hair—

“I really like your new hair.” God. Why does that sound like a line she’d use on her fans during a handshake session? And why was it making her blush? “You cut it, right? Onstage. I saw the performance, it was really, really cool.” God.

Nao reflexively shys away, curling into herself, away from the insistent hands.

Jurina’s smile only grows bigger.

“What? Why are you blushing?”

“Jurina-san…” She doesn’t mean to sound whiny, it just comes out that way.

“What?” She’s laughing at her, the son of a gun is laughing at her. “It’s the truth. It looks really good on you. What?” Stop laughing, you—

The van door slams open causing them both to jump.

Minarun is at the door, with Sally and Dasu coming up behind her.

“Oi, oi, oi! Hands off Ojuri!”

Jurina ignores her and smiles cheekily instead. “Minarun~”

“Oi! You think the World Senbatsu Sousenkyo 8th place finisher will just let you get away with anything now that you’re back? We’re running things differently around these parts now.”

Nao rolls her eyes and of course Oba catches her.

“Oi! Did you just roll your eyes at the World Senbatsu Sousenkyo 8th place--”

“Just go inside already.” Sally pushes her into the van and they all laugh as the three newcomers get settled in.

Sally ends up sitting behind her and Nao soon feels a pair of hands massaging her shoulders. She glances back to see Sally smiling understandingly at her. Maybe she hadn’t hid her tears that well before she left after all.

“Food! Who wants food?”

“Me!” Jurina’s hand shoots up.

“Oh, is our little Ojuri hungry?” Oba pokes playfully at Jurina’s fuller cheeks and they all laugh when the ace plays into the little act, closing her eyes and allowing herself to be doted on. “Of course she is, of course she is.”

Dasu ribs at Oba in jest. “Of course you want to eat.”

“Ojuri look how mean they’re being to the World Senbatsu Sousenkyo--”

“Stop it already!” Dasu’s probably referring to the disgustingly cute baby voice Oba’s using. Or the near-constant reminder of her SSK rank. But Oba stops neither, of course.

--“8th place finisher. If only there was someone with a higher rank to help me put them in their place.”

“Alright girls, have we decided what to eat?” Thankfully Yuasa slips into the driver’s seat at exactly the right time. “Where to?”

Nao tunes out the suggestions. Instead, her head fills with memories of soft hands and stupid smiles.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2 – It’s a date

 

She’s still on her phone. No one’s said anything yet. No one’s called her out, so it’s probably not bothering anyone else half as much as it’s bothering Nao.

Still.

They’re eating, Jurina should know better than to be focused on her handheld device at a table. She’s still banned from SNS, so it’s not even her fans. Someone else is taking up her time.

“Ah… I’m full.” Dasu says it first, and then like they were all waiting for the signal, they all fold shortly after. All except for Jurina.

She’s still on her phone and Nao’s about to explode—

“Ojuri, manners at the table.” Oba says it like she’s scolding a child, like Masana used to do before she graduated. But it does get through to the ace.

“Oh, sorry.” She pockets her phone and smiles that stupid smile that means she’s already forgiven. Seriously, how does she do that? “Is everyone finished already?” Yes, maybe if you’d been paying any attention during dinner you’d have realized that. “More for me then.” Another stupid smile. Of course.

The rest of the table turns to the next topic naturally—they’d said a comment or two while they were eating, but maybe they hadn’t wanted to spoil their appetites by saying too much. Or was that just how Nao felt?

“Sugawara made senbatsu,” Dasu says, grinning like the proud Team E mom she is.

“I know! I’m so happy for her,” Sally says, looking like she might get choked up. “I messaged her when I found out, but she’s probably so overwhelmed right now.”

“She was crying when I called her,” Dasu informs them.

“Aww!” Sally may be crying too.

“It’s amazing. Really, really amazing. Really,” Oba starts and Nao can already tell where she’s going next before she says it. “And now I’m even more convinced that I have absolutely no idea how management chooses the senbatsu.”

“Well, the fans really like her. Her line is always full,” Dasu points out.

“Mhm. But we know that’s not the only thing they look at. Ryoha always has a good line too and Nao too…” Oba trails off and it takes another second for Nao to realize that it’s because of her. “The thing is it could be anything that they’re looking at, we just don’t know.”

“Yeah,” Nao adds. It’s not much, but she wants to be a part of this conversation too. She doesn’t want them to worry about stepping on her toes.

“And then we’ll work our butts off promoting, hoping that if we just keep trying they’ll see our efforts. And then the next single comes around, someone else gets plucked out of nowhere and it’s tears and insecurity all over again.” Oba shakes her head, laying out the argument they’re tired of having. “Feedback would be nice.”

Dasu and Sally nod, lost in thought.

Nao glances at Jurina, wondering what she could be thinking—the ace had been known to be somewhat of a management darling, but even she had her limits. SKE not getting their worth was a hard limit. Nao notices that her head is down, her food’s untouched and she’s… oh my fucking god.

Is she seriously on her phone right now??

“Jurina-san,” she says her name before she can stop herself. It just comes out, but everyone hears it. She rushes to find something else to say and hopes that it’s something that won’t bite her in the ass later on. “Did they tell you anything? About the new single.” That’s safe.

Jurina looks up at her, lost for a moment—because of course she has no idea what they’re talking about—but quickly clues in to the topic. “Ah, the new single? No, nothing more than the usual.” She better have more to say than that-- ”But I did hear it was supposed to be special, though. You know, like a reward for everyone who went to Korea.”

That… makes sense.  

“I wouldn’t worry too much about this one,” she dismisses with that stupid smile.

“So we should hold off on the skexit, then?” Oba jokes.

“Is that what you’ve been up to while I was gone?” Jurina plays along. “I did hear some complaints that training was too hard lately…”

“It’s survival of the fittest; we need the best once the revolution starts. Just give me the name of who snitched, Kaotan will deal with her.” Oba laughs as Dasu shoves her hard. “You’re getting stronger Dasu, good. Keep up the training.” Dasu shoves her so hard she nearly face-plants into the wall. “Oi!”

“This is why the juniors are scared of you,” Sally chides them good-naturedly.

“Hey, look at Yuasa,” Jurina suddenly points out their father-like manager who’s dozing off at the table right next to them.

“Ha! Of course he’s sleeping while we’re plotting to overthrow the management,” Oba shakes her head at him. She holds up her beer in toast. “As expected of the management.”

The other girls lift their glasses in mock toast. Nao raises hers too, because even if their ideas are outlandish at best, she still agrees with the sentiment. Something needs to change.

“As expected of the management!”

Nao drains her glass faster than the others. Maybe that’s why she feels brave enough to ask the next question.

“Jurina-san, is everything okay?”

“Hmm?”

By sheer luck, Nao finds that no one else is paying attention to them. Dasu had plucked a stray leaf from the hanging plant/light installation above their table and was on her way to using it to tickle Yuasa. Sally and Oba were egging her on, not even trying to be quiet.

“You’ve been watching your phone.”

“Oh, it’s nothing.” It was, though. Or at least, it had to be because Nao doesn’t want to admit she’d gotten so upset over ‘nothing’.

“Is it your mom?”

Jurina tilts her head as she considers the question. “Kinda.” Liar. “It’s my dog, Lips-kun. He needs to go to the vet soon, but I’m not sure I have enough free time in my schedule to take him.” Oh. It was… her dog.

“Oh.”

“My mom just got back to work, too, since she took some time off to stay with me. So, I’m trying to figure it out before I get too busy.”

“I see.”

“Sorry if I was ignoring you guys earlier.”

“No, no, it’s fine.” God, does she feel stupid. “Of course you should take care of your dog.”

“I was actually going to ask if any of you guys were free tomorrow.”

“Of cou--”

“Free? For what?” Oba decides on that exact moment to re-join the conversation. “Are you going to treat us, Ojuri?”

“I’m sorry, I have a photoshoot tomorrow,” Sally is the first to turn her down.

“I have a variety show recording all day.” Then Dasu. Now hopefully Oba will also magically have some other schedule preventing her from joining in—

“I should be free. What are you buying for me?” And of course she’s free…

“It’s not like that,” Jurina waves her off.

“Oh, are you refusing your elder? Wait till Yuasa hears about this.”

“It’s not like that!” She’s whining now, but it’s with an exasperated smile on her face. “I might treat you after if I have time, but I need someone to pick up Lips-kun from the vet tomorrow. I have an interview I can’t miss.”

“Hmm… I might need to stop by the theater, but maybe I could just wait till later--”

“I can do it.” Nao knows she sounds far too eager to babysit someone else’s dog, but she hopes they’ll chalk it up to the drinks she’s had. “I’m free, I can do it. Don’t worry, Minarun.”

“Well, there you go, Ojuri.” Oba leans back in her seat and sips at Jurina’s leftover beer. She points in Nao’s direction, as if imparting sage advice. “But if Ojuri doesn’t treat you after, just tell me. The World Senbatsu Sousenkyo 8th place won’t just let a senior take advantage of their junior like that.” Oba levels a mock glare at the ace.

But Jurina doesn’t see it because she’s on her phone again.

Nao tries not to give it a second thought, but then she catches sight of the last text she received as she hides it underneath the table:

Oh, I think I might be free after all! It’s a date

The contact’s saved as a single flower emoji.

 

That doesn’t… sound like it’s from her mom.

 

Jurina looks up at her and Nao can see the gears turning in her head. She’s about to turn her down. If it’s her mother, then why not just say so? ‘Actually, my mom’s free now, so don’t worry.’ Just say that. But Nao knows that’s not what’s about to come out of the ace’s mouth. She’s about to lie. Because that text was not from her mom.

Jurina opens her mouth—

“What time should I pick him up?”

“Um… That’s--” Nao’s caught her off-guard. Good.

“Why don’t you just text me the address and time? I’ll take care of it.”

“Yes… I – thank you, I’ll do that…” Jurina nods absentmindedly for a moment, then turns back to her phone, already typing away. Nao wonders what excuses she’s spitting out now. But that’s not her problem.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 3 – You’re too quiet

 

            Huh. They’re actually doing it.

Nao stares at the email her manager had forwarded to her. The Sentimental Train video was going to be re-filmed—well, partially, at least—so that Jurina would finally be in it. Finally.

Her phone screen goes dark and she presses the button to turn it back on; she wasn’t done staring at the announcement she thought would never come. She wonders who else was going to be there. Were they… all going to re-film it?

The cc field only shows the emails of the other SKE senbatsu members, but that’s to be expected. They all share a manager, after all. What about the other groups…?

Her phone goes dark again. She tries to turn it back on, but it doesn’t seem to be working this time. Crap… her phone’s dead.

“Here you go.” The taxi driver announces as he pulls up beside a small storefront. Well, at least she was here.

Nao pays him and alights onto the sidewalk, right in front of Touko Animal Clinic. Other than the name of the clinic, the glass windows are covered in faded illustrations of dogs, cats, rabbits—and were those snakes??—playing around happily. Hmm, shouldn’t they at least look sick? You don’t bring perfectly fine pets to an animal clinic.

Nao walks in, gives her name to the receptionist and then sits down in one of the hard plastic chairs in the waiting room. And then… she waits.

Her phone was dead, so she couldn’t even tell Jurina she’d made it. Hopefully, the ace wouldn’t try to check up on her before they were due to meet.

What to do, what to do…

Nao looks up at the small TV hanging in the corner of the waiting room. Some variety show rerun was playing. Now that she thought about it, she wouldn’t say she was much of a variety-type idol. Not like Kaotan or Tani or Dasu… Dasu really was everywhere these days. If anyone had gotten anything good out of the election, it was her for sure.

And Sugawara too… One of only two SKE representatives in the next AKB single. No matter what Jurina said, that meant something. The fact that she got in, the fact that no one else got in, the fact that Nao didn’t get in. That meant something.

The panel of guests bursts into raucous laughter at whatever the comedian guest had said on the TV.

She was a good performer, she knew that. She might not be very funny, but she could shine on stage. She does shine on stage. She’d felt it clearer than ever this past summer, when it had sometimes felt that there was a human-shaped hole missing from their performances. A missing center. Nao had made sure she shined then—when it felt like the audience would grow bored and look away from them if they made even one misstep. Was that how Jurina felt all the time…? It was exhausting.

“Furuhata-san?”

 

Nao stares through the bars of the dog carrier at the sleeping puppy. So, this was Lips-kun. He was cute.

They’re at a park now, because dogs like parks, right? This was the first place she’d thought to bring him when she realized she’d needed to kill some time waiting for Jurina’s interview to finish. But… he’s sleeping.

Nao looks up at the other people in the park. It’s a weekday, so not many students or office workers. Not many people at all, really. One or two moms walking around, getting the last bit of sun before the winter comes in. And then there’s Nao and Lips.

“Lips-kun, wake up. Come on,” Nao gently shakes him awake. He could sleep later, right? “Wake up, Lips-kun.”

He huffs and yawns as he opens his eyes.

She smiles at him. “Hi Lips-kun, I’m Nao-chan. Nice to meet you.”

And he just stares at her.

“You probably want to stretch your legs right, come on.” And she does something she probably should have thought twice before doing: she opens the carrier. “It’s okay, you can come out.” She hopes this isn’t the biggest mistake of her life.

Lips-kun slowly exits the carrier—almost reluctantly, like he’s only doing it so she’d stop telling him to. He looks around at the large, open park. He stretches out his hind-legs and…

He plops down and closes his eyes, ready to go back to sleep.

“Seriously…?”

Nao lies down on the ground beside him, getting down to eye-level. But sure enough, he steadfastly ignores her.

“I don’t really believe you’re Jurina’s dog,” she tells him like it’s some secret he’d care to hear. “You’re too quiet.”

And the two of them stay just like that, not moving an inch over the next hour.

 

Nao runs her hand through her hair, trying to get out whatever stray leaves might still be in it. In her other hand, she has Lips’ carrier, the silent dog sight-seeing through the bars as they walk down the sidewalk.

She should be meeting Jurina soon. She’s not quite sure when—no phone means no way to confirm their meeting time—but they had decided on a nice little restaurant over text this morning. So, she has a destination, a dog and a favour to cash in. Not bad.

In no time at all, she finds herself in front of the restaurant—she’s pretty sure this is the place. She places the carrier on the ground to rest her arm a bit and stoops down to talk to her ward.

“Are you hungry?”

He just stares back at her.

“Well, I am. Jurina will be here to feed us both soon, so… just keep doing what you’re doing,” Nao sticks her fingers through the bar and pats his head. “Good boy.”

She keeps petting him because she really has nothing else to do while they wait.

People pass her by on the sidewalk without a problem, so when a pair of white converse shoes stops in her field of view, she thinks it must be the ace, right?

She looks up and… her smile doesn’t drop, but it wanes a bit. Definitely.

This is definitely not Jurina. She should’ve known when Lips-kun didn’t even lift his head at the newcomer. She should’ve known.

“Miyawaki-san…” Nao greets her first.

“Furuhata-san, hi. Um… is that Lips-kun?”

“Yeah.”

Sakura shuffles slightly, as if about to stoop to greet him too--

“He’s sleeping, though. He just came from the vet.” It’s not completely a lie. She just hopes the quiet pup doesn’t suddenly decide to betray her little fib. Thankfully, he barely even moves. Good boy.

“Oh. I’ll say hi to him later, then.” Later? Later, when?

There are a lot of questions she could ask right now, the least of which being why Sakura suddenly decided to greet her. They’re not that close. This is probably half the number of words they’ve ever spoken to each other. As the seconds tick on and she finds that Sakura is still standing next to them, the only question on Nao’s mind becomes: Why are you here?

But then Lips-kun suddenly sits up and—

“Hey…” That’s definitely Jurina.

Wrestling hoodie, baseball cap and all.

That’s definitely Jurina… hugging Sakura. Oh.

“Jurina-san,” Sakura taps her arm and Jurina pulls back, smiling that stupid smile.

“You made it.”

“I told you I would.”

“I know, I’m sorry. Nao-chan was supposed to pick up Lips-kun, but she won’t pick up her phone—"

Of course Lips-kun picks that exact moment to start barking, finally alerting the ace to their presence.

Jurina whirls around and Nao wants to think that that’s guilt she sees in her eyes. But the next second, the ace is scooping up the dog carrier and talking directly to a suddenly over-excited pup.

“Lips-kun! How are you feeling? Did they put you to sleep? I’m sorry, baby.”

Nao tries to think back to the park an hour ago. When she was talking non-stop and Lips wouldn’t say a word. Oh, how the tables have turned.

Chapter Text

Chapter 4 – You’ll get it soon

 

            If she were to imagine the best-case scenario for the encounter to end, it would probably this one.

Nao, Jurina and Sakura are standing outside of the restaurant—she never did get the name of it, but chances are she won’t be coming back anyways—as Lips-kun yaps at Jurina like his life depends on it. The silent pup is silent no more.

The thing is, Lips-kun never does shut up.

After about ten minutes of the ace trying to shush him, she accepts that maybe… just maybe their awkward dinner date for three isn’t meant to happen. Jurina hoists the carrier and gives Nao her best regretful look—hopefully she can treat her some other time?

Nao is far too happy to take a raincheck.

She waves them goodbye and they all head off in different directions. Except, it’s really only Nao that goes off on her own. She can’t help but notice Sakura and Jurina walking off down the street. Together.

She tries not to think about it though.

 

Nao enters the practice room quietly. Jurina looks up when she steps in and says hello. They don’t really talk much while Nao gets herself set up for the dance practice session.

Jurina had texted her the day before asking for her help with the Ikinari Punchline choreo.

Apparently, she’d reached the limit of what the special trainer could teach her. She wanted to practice with someone who she’d actually be performing with.

Of course Nao had agreed.

Nao and Jurina had a little couple dance in the choreo too—at the center of the formation, no less—so they had to look good. The request hour performance would only be their second time performing this together, unlike the other couples who’d had the entire summer to build chemistry.

Of course Nao had agreed.

But what she wasn’t expecting was the near frigid silence as they got ready separately.

They do their stretches in silence, they do their warmups in silence and when they sit down to watch the video of the choreography together, it’s as if they’re in two separate worlds.

“Ready to start?” Jurina breaks the ice. Nao nods and then they take their places next to each other. There’s some fidgeting before the ace finally says, “How about we start from the top and then go into it?”

“Sure.”

And so they start dancing, with the music blaring loudly through the speakers.

Jurina is… slower. Definitely.

She’s hitting all the moves, but she’s more conscious now. Her smile’s tighter, no trace of her usually cocky demeanor—the very basis of what the song represents.

Then they turn to start their duet and their hands miss each other completely. They rush to compensate, but then they end up too close and off-beat, so they decide to call it quits on that attempt.

Jurina shuts off the music and paces a bit before speaking, “Again?”

Nao nods and they go again. It’s better at the start, and they don’t miss this time, but it’s tense and stiff. They finish off the duet and the song, but it’s no good and they both know it.

The ace takes a few moments to gather her thoughts, but instead of sharing, she just asks, “One more time?”

They do it again, they get the moves right again, but their chemistry is as good as dead. Again.

This time, before they can rush into another fruitless round, Nao calls out to her.

“Jurina-san.”

“Hmm? What’s wrong?”

“I think we need to…” How should she put this? “Can you come here for a second?” She comes closer and Nao grabs her hands before she can talk herself out of this. “Can you just spin me?”

“What?”

“Spin me. Do it really fast, but don’t worry about me falling or anything. I’ll be fine.”

“Okay…” It’s obvious she doesn’t quite get where Nao’s going with this, though.

“I think you’re too scared of me getting hurt.”

“Of course I am. Don’t you remember how many people got injured when we were first practicing?”

“But,” she tries to say this as delicately as possible, “I’m better at it now that I’ve performed it a few times. I know what to look out for.”

“Right. Of course you do.” Jurina’s voice sounds a bit down, but then she clears her throat and it’s as if it never happened. “How do you want to do this?”

“Grab my hand up here,” Jurina follows obediently, “snap me out all the way,” they do that part easily, “and then pull me in--”

Jurina pulls and Nao follows her lead. She allows herself to spin and turn and fall right into the ace’s waiting arms. They look apprehensively at each other for a moment before Nao nods and they separate.

“Now let’s do it really, really fast.”

Jurina chuckles, “This isn’t part of the choreo.”

“I know, but I think it will help you.”

“If you just wanted to me to hug you, you could’ve just asked,” there’s that stupid smile she’s been missing. They haven’t even really done much, but it already feels like Jurina’s getting her mojo back. Slowly, but surely.

“It’s not like that,” Nao smiles and allows the ace to have her much-needed fun. “You’re just trying to control too much sometimes. Not in a bad way, but it’s just… it’s okay to let go a bit and just let whatever happens happen.”

Jurina nods, thankfully taking in her advice. “Alright, let’s do it.”

And then… Nao isn’t sure what she really expected to happen anyway. But raucous, belly-aching laughter was definitely a pleasant surprise.

They spin and spin and then switch leads and she spins Jurina a few times too. They end up wrapped in each other’s arms each time, crashing together like two kids who never quite learned how to play safely. But then they’re rushing to do it again, danger be damned. It’s fun. It’s really, really fun.

They eventually break for water an hour or so later, worn out and tired. They sit down next to each other, backs against the wall, staring at their sweaty reflections in the mirror.

 

Nao glances over at Jurina only once, catching a glimpse of the sweaty ace gulping down water from her bottle. Then she looks away because… well… she just does.

“I’m so out-of-shape,” Jurina complains ruefully.

“You’ll be fine,” Nao reassures her. “You still remember all the steps, so it’s just practice.”

“You should be center, Nao-chan.” Well… how was she supposed to respond to that? “I’m serious. You’re such a good dancer.”

“I don’t want to take your center song, Jurina-san.” She probably doesn’t sound as grateful as she should be to hear a senior praise her like that, so she tries to backpedal a bit. “Thank you, but I’d rather perform my own song. I can’t compare to you at all. I don’t want to.”

Jurina regards her for a moment, sipping from her bottle still. “You’ll get it soon.” Nao appreciates the vote of confidence, even though the odds of that happening are…

A loud buzzing sound reaches them. It’s coming from their bags—probably a phone?

Jurina freezes for a moment, but then tries to play it off naturally. Definitely her phone, then.

And just like that, the memories of their little meetup at the restaurant the other day come to mind. That was a strange one, no matter how much she thought about it. She didn’t want to admit that she’d given it more than a fair share of thought, or that she’d spent a few nights playing it over in her head instead of sleeping, but… goddamnit.

“I didn’t know you were that close with Miyawaki-san.” The words are out of Nao’s mouth before she can stop them.

“We’re not that close.” Liar. Jurina tilts her head and purses her lips in that way she does when she’s thinking too hard. What’s there to think about? They’re close enough to meet up outside of work. And hug in public. And walk home together. For a pair of rivals in the 48g world, that was well past the ‘close friends’ threshold. “We talked a lot when we were in Korea.”

“I see.”

“We don’t really have a lot in common.”

Is she sad about that? Is that what that expression on Jurina’s face means? Maybe Nao should stop trying to examine that god-awefully beautiful face because it’s getting her nowhere.

“Do you like her?”

“Of course I like her.” There’s that stupid smile again, but this time it’s teasing.

“No, I mean, do you like her?” Is she going to make her spell it out? “Like how you liked Rena-san.” There. She said it.

And maybe she’s imagining it, but the room definitely feels colder now than it did five minutes ago. Maybe that’s why Jurina’s smile falls so fast. Because of the cold. Yeah, that’s why.

“It’s different. I don’t like anyone like how I like Rena-chan.” It’s an answer that Nao probably always suspected was true, but to hear her say it out loud does feel a bit saddening. “The same goes for Sakura-san. I don’t like anyone like how I like her.” Oh. Okay, then? “And you too, the way I like you is only for you, Nao-chan.”

Well.

What on earth was she supposed to say to that?

Nao tries to navigate through the ace’s explanation.

“But they’re different, right?”

“Right,” Jurina nods.

“Then who do you like the most?”

“Come on…” Jurina whines. Nao knows she doesn’t want to answer it, that she’ll probably think of some boring way to get out of it, but at least the question’s out there. The ace turns to look at her—wait… why does she look so serious all of a sudden? “Who do I like the most?” She’s making sure that Nao really wants the answer to this. Giving her a chance to back out.

“Right. Rena-san, Miyawaki-san or me.” She’s not backing out.

“Well, then it has to be you.”

Nao scoffs. Of course, what was she expecting?

But then Jurina’s hand is grabbing her arm, turning her back towards the ace.

“Nao-chan, I’m serious.”

She’s about to fire back—how was she supposed to take such flirty words seriously—but the look on Jurina’s face stops her. Or rather how she doesn’t look. She doesn’t have that playful look in her eyes she’d usually have when giving out a line like that. She doesn’t have that smug smile she’d use on her female fans during handshakes. This is different.

“Think about it,” Jurina tries to explain, even as her hands start gently massaging Nao’s arm. “There’s no one else next to me right now, right? It’s only you.” Her hands move down to grab Nao’s own, dragging it into her lap and playing with her fingers. “When I think like that… When I look around me, then all I can see is you, Nao-chan.”

Jesus.

Christ.

Nao’s pretty sure she’s blushing up a storm right now. Her mind is blank. Completely and utterly void of any means of responding to that.

And then Jurina’s stupid face starts doing that stupid smile and suddenly Nao regrets asking her anything in the first place.

“What? Why are you looking away from me? Nao-chan~”

She’s had enough. Nao pulls herself free and gets on her feet. She quickly puts some space between them, but she can’t hide her red face because of all the mirrors around them.

“Nao-chan~” God, why does she have to sound like that. “Nao-chan.” The tone is different that time, softer.

She takes the chance and looks up. Their eyes meet in the mirror and she can see Jurina slowly mouthing something to her. She only understands what she’s saying the second time through.

Then, she just watches her say it over and over again, that stupid smile never leaving her face:

I like you.’

Chapter Text

Chapter 5 – Serves her right

 

“And with that, we’ll be going ahead and starting rehearsals. If you have any questions about the order or anything I didn’t cover, please see me after this.” Makiko speaks clearly into the microphone as she addresses the entire group. “As always be mindful of the cameras, thank you.” She bows to the group and to the staff off-stage.

Soon after, everyone starts moving, quickly finding the next thing they should be doing.

Their Request Hour concert. They’ll be performing over a hundred songs in the next two days, so everyone has something to do, something to prepare, even the kenkyuusei.

Jurina is the only one who leaves the stage completely and sits down in the otherwise empty audience seats. That’s right, she’s not performing today.

Nao runs through her own performances in her head: 6 in the morning show, 6 in the evening, including team songs. The first one would be at #96, which means she had some time to spare…

Before she can talk herself out of it, she strolls off the stage and down the steps, past a few of the kenkyuusei who were expected to be watching the rehearsals attentively. She walks down the aisle, ignores Jurina’s inquisitive look, and sits down beside her.

“Hi…” The ace says first.

“You still owe me food.”

“Hmm?” Jurina looks confused for a moment before she remembers, “Ah, when you got Lips-kun for me.”

“Yeah. I’d like to think you’re not the kind of senior who’d take advantage of a junior, but--”

“Hey! I said I’d treat you, right? So I will. I always keep my promises.”

Nao smirks, letting Jurina know she’s only teasing her. “Thank you, Jurina-senpai~”

The ace shakes her head, but smiles all the same—juniors these days…

The screen hanging over the stage comes to life, announcing the song that had placed #100 in the fan voting for their request hour concert. It was a song belonging to Love Crescendo, SKE’s first official subunit. The initial 7-member group, turned 11-member group walks out onto the stage to start rehearsing. Except there were only 10 girls on stage.

Nao glances at Jurina to see her head bowed as she fidgets with her fingers. Jurina was supposed to center this song.

Nao doesn’t really know… what to do. Or say.

What kind of feelings must she be feeling right now? What kind of thoughts could be running through her head? Would anyone else be able to understand them?

It hadn’t happened much since Jurina came back, but Nao finds herself entertaining an all-too familiar train of thought. God, sometimes she seems so far away…

“Yunana makes a good center, don’t you think?”

“Hmm?” Nao snaps out of her thoughts to see the ace is seemingly over whatever insecurities she’d been having. “Yunana?”

“She’s very bright. When fans see her, they feel her energy. They feel happy.” Jurina nods as if reassuring herself. “I still want to see a Nao center though,” she ends with a smile.

“One day. Maybe.”

“I have to see it before I graduate.”

God, why would Jurina bring up the g-word? The topics you should never bring up in conversation: politics, religion, graduation. Thankfully, she keeps talking before Nao has to struggle to find a response.

“Nao-chan, I want to ask you something—and please answer honestly.”

“Okay.”

Jurina takes a moment to gather her thoughts, then: “If I’d stayed on the show, there’s a chance I would have made it, right? I’d probably be getting ready to leave for Korea by now, and then I’d be gone—not just for three months, but for almost three years… Would you have hated me for it?”

Oh.

That’s…

Nao takes her own time to answer. She looks at the stage as the second song is announced, also ranked at #100. Two songs had had the same number of votes cast for them—a tie. They weren’t the only songs that had tied for the same rank in the setlist today, and there would be more tomorrow, too. Theoretically, all 100 ranked songs could’ve tied. And then it’d be a matter of perspective: did they all tie for last place or first place? Theoretically, it could happen, but it never had and probably never would. Nothing was really equal—some people cared more for some things than others.

Which is all to say, of course she would feel differently if Jurina had planned to leave them for three years instead of just three months. Would she have hated her though…?

“No, I wouldn’t.”

“Really? I’d be leaving SKE, all of you, behind.”

“Hmm… I don’t think so.” Jurina looks confused, so she makes sure to flesh out her thoughts. “I don’t think you have what it takes to leave SKE. Even with your hiatus, you were still worrying about us and watching us when you should have been resting, so… Even if you went to Korea for good, I’d still think ‘Ah, she must be doing it for SKE.’” Nao sees a small smile form on Jurina’s face, so she knows she hit the mark. “Is that just wishful thinking?” It wasn’t.

“Maybe.” It definitely wasn’t.

 

The rehearsals go on without a hitch and before they know it, the noon’s show’s started.

The fans are loud, as always. The staff and the senior members work overtime to keep everything and everyone running on schedule—they’re being live-broadcasted, after all.

And things do go as perfectly as they could hope, so overall the show is a success.

Nao tries not to think about all the times a Jurina-centered song would appear and she could feel how hopeful the fans would get—maybe she’d appear for this one, maybe she’d do the MC after it—and then disappointment would come. The ace didn’t show up once.

Well, she didn’t show up on-stage, but she was camped out in the dressing room backstage chatting away with the other members. Cameras didn’t go in there because of all the on-the-fly changing that had to happen between performances. It was more a warzone than anything else.

And that’s where Nao finds Jurina after the show is over. Staring at her phone.

Many of the other members had already finished changing and had gone out into the hall for refreshments.

“Not hungry?” Nao asks as she sits down, finally resting her legs.

“I didn’t do much,” Jurina chuckles.

“You should still eat.”

“Don’t worry, I will. Soon,” she promises. She does put away her phone though, so Nao counts that as a win.

They sit silently together for a moment, neither making the first move. As if they were each waiting for the other to do… something. But what?

“Ojuri~” comes the call from the doorway.

“Mikotti~” Jurina responds, almost reflexively.

The Team KII leader walks in and makes a beeline for Jurina. The tall girl wraps up the ace in her arms, petting her head. Jurina is only too happy to oblige her and cuddles into the embrace.

“How’s my baby doing?”

Jurina laughs and tries to free herself, but Mikotti has her trapped. “I’m fine, I’m fine,” she answers.

“Good, don’t worry about today, okay? Tomorrow’s your day.”

“I know.”

“Okay, baby?”

“Yes~”

Mikotti makes the most obscene baby noises before patting Jurina’s head one last time and letting her go. Then, she turns to face Nao and her expression does a complete 180.

She cocks a hand on her hip and points the other over her shoulder at Jurina.

“If she’s bothering you Nao-chan, just let me know, alright? I’ll take care of her.”

“Hey!” Jurina protests, but Mikotti ignores her.

“Don’t let her scare you, she’s harmless.”

Nao laughs at the duo, but then decides to have some fun at the ace’s expense as well.

“Well, there was something…” she starts off cryptically.

Mikotti pounces as expected. “Oh god, what did the little ingrate do?”

“Hey! I didn’t do anything--”

“Well you see, she asked me for a favor the other day…”

“I already said I would pay you back--”

“Abusing her authority,” Mikotti tsks, shaking her head.

“And I did it because I didn’t want to disobey a senior, you know…”

“Nao-chaaaan,” Jurina whines in the back, looking altogether like a child kicking up a tantrum. Nao nearly breaks character at the endearing sight, but she pushes through.

“She did say she would pay me back, but…”

“She hasn’t, has she?” Mikotti’s head-shaking has reached near-record levels now. She lets out a deep sigh and turns to face the beleaguered ace. Jurina’s pout is almost comical at this point.

“Oi, Ojuri,” Mikotti cocks her head and gestures her over. Jurina sulkily walks over and allows herself to be led off to the corner—which doesn’t make much sense really, since Nao can still hear them just fine from her seat.

“We’ve had this conversation before, right? You know what I’m talking about?” Mikotti wasn’t even pretending to whisper.

Jurina nods her head, accepting the reproach.

“I thought you were on the right path, I thought my baby had finally grown up, but--”

“Mikotti--”

“But! We’ll go over it again, okay?”

Jurina stays mum, so Mikotti shakes her arm till she answers. “Okay, okay.”

The only other members still left in the room at this point are just a few kenkyuusei, who quickly hurry out, having finally finished changing their clothes.

Then, the room goes quiet.

Nao thinks for a moment that Mikotti’s little play might already be over, but then she realizes that they’re still talking. But, they’re actually whispering. Mikotti’s speaking so low, that Nao can only barely make out the sound of her s’s and Jurina… is just nodding along. Oh. Maybe whatever this was actually had a shred of truth to it if they were making the attempt to hide it. Nao feels a bit left out, but she reasons it can’t be too serious if they didn’t mind that she was still in the room. Right?

“Alright, Ojuri?” Mikotti’s voice bounces back up to its normal level and Jurina follows suit.

“Got it.”

“I better not hear about you mistreating any more women, okay?”

“I did not--”

Mikotti pats her head hard enough to shut her up and Nao laughs at their comedic act.

“She’ll treat you soon, don’t worry.” Mikotti fires off in Nao’s direction, smirking as if she’d just brokered a nuclear deal.

Nao nods, knowing full well Jurina would’ve followed through on her promise even without Mikotti harassing her. But she does wonder what they talked about…

The door opens just then and Makiko peeks in.

“You three better come eat before the food’s gone.”

“Aye aye, captain!” Mikotti salutes. She heads out of the room first, and then there were two. Jurina starts walking towards the door, but makes sure to hang back until Nao’s ready too. How considerate. Nao doesn’t realize she’s smiling until she’s halfway out the door.

 

And, as expected, the food’s almost finished by the time they get there.

They fill up their plates as best they can and find a seat away from the crowd. They try to dodge any patrolling cameras and end up dodging all the other members, too.

Mikotti leaves them to go harass Makiko instead, so it’s just Nao and Jurina, silently eating.

Well, Nao’s eating. Jurina’s just… staring at her. And she’s not even pretending to be subtle about it.

“What?” Nao asks around a mouthful of food.

“Nothing,” Jurina denies, but she’s smirking now, too. So something’s obviously going on.

Nao ignores her and finishes up her food. She’s about to interrogate her again, but in the next second Jurina dumps half her plate onto Nao’s formerly empty one.

“What…?”

“Don’t talk with your mouth full.”

Nao huffs, but speed-chews through her last bites. Just when she’s finished, Jurina scoops up some rice and tries to feed it to her.

“Ah…”

“Jurina-san!”

“I’m trying to treat you, I thought that’s what you wanted.” She pouts innocently, but Nao doesn’t believe it for a second. This was her revenge.

“This isn’t what--umph”

“There you go.” Jurina shoves a very healthy portion of rice into Nao’s mouth, smiling triumphantly. “Eat up.”

“Mhm-mmm! Mm-mhm mhmm!”

“What was that? Ah, you want more. Got it.”

This little… ugh!

Nao grabs Jurina’s hands to try and stop her, but it just turns into a mini-wrestling session. She knows they must be attracting attention by now. Especially with how much the ace is laughing and how red Nao’s own face has gotten. She wouldn’t be surprised if all the cameras they’d been hiding from had managed to find them either.

“Mhmm!” She lets out in frustration—Jurina is still so much stronger than her. But the ace does finally relent a few moments later.

“Okay, okay,” Jurina gives in. She grabs a cup of water off the table and hands it to Nao. “I don’t want you choking before the next show.”

Nao gulps down her drink, trying to calm down her breathing at the same time.

She testily meets Jurina’s eyes and sees that the mischief is still there. She worries what the ace might do next.

“What?” Jurina asks cluelessly.

Nao just glares at her. She’s not falling for her act.

“I’ll treat you properly after request hour’s over, okay? No tricks, I promise.”

Jurina tries to look as serious as possible, to show that she means it. A few moments pass where it seems that the ace is truly done playing around. Nao finally decides to give her the benefit of the doubt and accepts the promise.

She should’ve known.

She should’ve known better than to let her guard down.

Jurina furtively glances around, then leans in closer, right as Nao takes another drink from her cup.

“I won’t make the same mistake this time, alright?” Jurina smiles in that endearing way that she hates. Absolutely hates it. “It has to be special if I like you this much, right?”

She chokes. Literally.

Water comes flying out of her mouth and lands right on Jurina’s stupid, smug face. Serves her right.

 

At the evening show later that day, Jurina doesn’t stay backstage. Nao figures she might’ve decided to watch the show with the managers instead.

Nao does find a water bottle next to her bag, though. With the words ‘Drink slowly please’ written on it with a sharpie. So, she thinks, it’s a good thing she doesn’t see Jurina that night, else she would’ve chucked the bottle right at her stupid, smug face.

Chapter Text

Chapter 6 – Call it a good luck charm

 

[5:48 am] Jurina-san:

After the show tonight, you should come over. I’ll make you dinner

 

That’s the text that Nao wakes up to in the morning.

From the second she reads it, she doesn’t think about anything else. All throughout her shower, getting dressed and eating breakfast, it’s the only thing on her mind.

When the group van comes round to pick her up, she’s just managed to think up a response.

 

[6:39 am]:

Isn’t that too late? I don’t want to disturb your mom

 

The reply comes almost immediately, but she doesn’t read it until they’ve arrived at the stadium. It’s not that she’s trying to hide or anything, she just doesn’t want to answer any questions the other girls might have. ‘Is that Jurina-san texting you? What did she say?’ It’s not that important, anyways.

 

[6:41 am] Jurina-san:

It’s fine. My mom won’t be home tonight

 

Oh.

Nao leans against the wall in the hallway, just staring at her phone.

Staring at that text.

Okay.

“Everything okay, Nao-chan?” Churi asks as she walks by. She steps out of the way of the other members arriving in the same van she did. Nao looks around almost instinctively for the ace in the crowd. Is she happy that she doesn’t see her?

She’s probably in the other van.

“I’m fine.” Is she though?

“Tired?” Churi offers sympathetically. Nao decides to just roll with the excuse and she nods. Churi pats her back and leads her down the hallway after the other girls. Nao doesn’t really know how to explain what she’s feeling anyway.

They walk into the dressing room and Jurina isn’t in there either.

Nao taps out a reply on her phone before she starts getting ready.

 

[7:06 am]:

we’ll be too tired to make anything.

are you treating me to microwave leftovers?

 

Nao leaves her phone in her bag and grabs a copy of the setlist to review. She sees her phone light up a few minutes later.

 

[7:11 am] Jurina-san:

I already got the ingredients ready last night

 

Seconds after she reads that, Jurina enters the dressing room.

They don’t acknowledge each other aside from the customary hello that goes around as the new group of girls walk in.

Jurina sets her stuff down on the other side of the room, almost directly behind Nao. She sees her whenever she looks up into the mirror. She looks up a lot.

Makiko calls them to the stage soon after, so Nao fires off a text before they leave.

 

[7:23 am]:

what if I’m allergic?

 

Out on the stage for rehearsals, the energy is a bit higher than it was yesterday.

Maybe it’s the absence of their first day jitters. Or maybe it’s the excitement to find out which song would rank in at #1—the staff wouldn’t let them know until just before it was time to perform it. Maybe it’s the fact that their ace was finally back on stage with them.

Whatever it is, it’s infectious. Previously tired and worn faces are suddenly full of life and attentive as Makiko gives her announcements.

Yesterday had been fun, if not shocking—Kaotan had announced her graduation, after all—but now they knew what to expect. They just had to do it all again.

Something about today just feels right.

Nao only looks for Jurina once—she’s kind of proud of herself for that—and she finds her looking right back at her. But not in an ‘I was looking at you’ kind of way, but more of an ‘ah, it looks like our eyes just met, how nice’ kind of way. It’s nice.

They smile at each other, then look away.

“I think Akaipin is going to win. Definitely.”

Nao overhears a few kenkyuusei talking halfway into rehearsals and she doesn’t mean to eavesdrop… it just kind of happens.

“I don’t know, maybe fans split their votes this time.”

“I heard Donchan say she didn’t know which song to vote for, so who knows?”

“Yeah, if Donchan doesn’t know…”

“I still think it’s going to win.”

Nao doesn’t want to actually get caught snooping, so she rounds the corner she’d been hiding behind and walks past the now quiet kenkyuusei. On her way to the dressing room, she walks into Jurina and Churi in the midst of an argument.

“Nao-chan, tell her not to worry,” Jurina tries to get her to help, pointing to the worrying 2nd gen member beside her.

“Worry about what?”

“Churi’s worried my fans won’t like that she performed Omoide Ijou yesterday. Tell her how good she looked as the center.”

“It wasn’t that good,” Churi denies, trying to wave off the ace’s compliments, but Jurina is having none of it.

“You were so good, I nearly cried. I was so moved.”

“Okay, now I know you’re lying!” But Churi’s laughing now, so it looks like their argument’s already over. No input from Nao needed in the end.

Nao praises her anyways. “You were really great, Churi.” Then she walks by the bickering pair and into the dressing room.

She can still hear them talking by the doorway as she fishes out her phone out of her bag.

 

[7:31 am] Jurina-san:

unless you’re allergic to me, you’ll be just fine

come in my van on the way home please

 

Nao bites her lip as she tries to think of a response.

She glances up in the mirror and she meets Jurina’s eyes again. Did she notice she was on her phone? Was she waiting for Nao’s answer? Is that why she was hanging out by the door?

 

[8:11 am]:

is there room in your van?

who are you going to kick out?

 

Nao watches Jurina for a bit after she sends off her texts. Did she have her phone with her? Or was she waiting for the right moment to slip away to check it?

The ace doesn’t make any immediate moves, so Nao decides to not be a creep and looks away.

She does slip her phone in her sweatpants pocket, though.

 

Nao’s mid-turn in the 2nd verse choreo of Gonna Jump when her phone buzzes in her pocket.

Obviously she doesn’t check it until she’s off the stage.

She hangs back near the curtains as the other girls head off deeper backstage.

 

[8:24 am] Jurina-san:

I’ll kick everyone out, so it’s just the two of us

 

Nao snorts, then covers her mouth to keep herself quiet. Why was Jurina like this?

The phone buzzes again in her hand.

 

[8:26 am] Jurina-san:

you’re smiling

would you like that?

 

Nao shakes her head, not even bothering to hide her smile anymore. She quickly types out her response, but before she can send it, she glances up and sees Minarun staring at her with an amused smile on her face.

It’s too late to hide her phone, so she tries to play it off instead.

“What’s up?” Very smooth.

“Who are you texting?” Oba’s smile is as big as a Cheshire cat’s now, like she knows exactly who’s on the other end of her texts. But that’s impossible. There’s literally no way she could know, right?

“My mom.”

And right at that moment, her phone buzzes again. And again.

Honestly, can Jurina not see that she’s busy right now? Can she not wait two seconds?

“What did your mom say?”

“Oh, just some…” Nao briefly looks down at her phone, because she should at least pretend like she’s telling the truth, right? But she ends up seeing the latest texts in her notifications.

 

[8:27 am] Jurina-san:

no, don’t invite Minarun!

we’ll run out of food!!!

 

Nao bursts out laughing before she can stop herself. Full-bellied, clutching her stomach laughter.

Minarun looks startled and just all-around lost at her behavior, but she can’t even stop laughing long enough to lie herself out of this one. Darn you, Jurina-san.

 

The noon show goes well. Really well.

No, Jurina doesn’t appear in that show either, but it doesn’t bring the same anxiety that yesterday’s no-show did. There was still one more show left, with a very high chance of one of the ace’s songs ranking near the top, if not snatching 1st place. Jurina would show, for at least one song, right?

She would.

The fans were right to think that, and the ace was busy getting ready backstage for her appearance.

Nao finds her in an empty room practicing Akai Pinheel. The other members are off elsewhere winding down after the show. Nao should be too, but instead she’s here watching Jurina dance.

The song’s only halfway through, so she decides not to disturb her. Instead, she pulls out her phone and checks her messages.

 

[10:13 am] Jurina-san:

still waiting for your yes…

do I have to beg…

 

The song ends soon after and Jurina smiles at her as she picks up her water bottle.

Nao wastes no time giving her answer. “Yes.”

Jurina’s brows furrow. Of course she has no idea what she’s talking about.

So Nao texts her answer instead.

[3:58 pm]:

yes

 

Jurina’s phone vibrates on the table beside her. She glances at the text lighting up her phone and smiles. “I see,” she nods, resigning herself to her fate. “Alright.” She puts down her water bottle and walks over towards Nao.

Nao eyes her warily as she gets closer. When she’s right in front of her, Jurina reaches over and softly closes the door. Nao quirks an eyebrow at her—what’s she planning?

“I’d like to keep some of my dignity,” she gives in lieu of an explanation.

“What if I tell everyone right after this?”

“You won’t do that.”

“I’ll tell Churi.”

Jurina tilts her head, weighing the pros and cons of her bird-loving friend finding out about what she’s about to do.

“That’s fine.”

“Then it must not be that bad, then.”

“Why does this feel like you’re punishing me?” Jurina chuckles, but it sounds a bit strained. Like she’s starting to get annoyed maybe? Nao decides not to push her luck too far.

“I’m not, I’m sorry. You can go ahead.”

“Alright…” Jurina backs up a few steps, calculating her next move. Then she looks up, right into Nao’s eyes. And she doesn’t look away. She closes in once more, going toe-to-toe with her, but never looking away.

Then she gets closer.

They’re almost nose-to-nose now, but Jurina still doesn’t look away.

Nao thinks she’s still breathing. She’s not entirely sure, though.

“Come over, please?” Jurina whispers, giving an almost hopeful smile. “I’ve prepared all your favourites and there’s an extra seat in my van if we kick Yuasa-san out--”

She snorts, “We can’t--”

“I’m not done yet. You wanted me to beg, right?”

Nao’s starting to rethink that request.

And then Jurina grabs one of her hands and pulls it up to her chest, right over her heart. “This is how much I want you to come. My heart is beating like crazy just thinking you might turn me down. Please have mercy on my poor heart, Nao-chan. Please let me do this for you. I’ve never wanted anything more.”

Nao smiles as Jurina’s usual teasing tone starts to peek through her speech.

This is how they always are. This is what their relationship is.

Flirty words used to tease each other, always toeing the line of how far they can go. This is just how they are.

Then why can’t Nao agree to this stupid dinner that Jurina’s planned for her? What’s stopping her?

Just because it’s at her house? That shouldn’t change anything, right?

Just because she said she liked her…?

But that shouldn’t… change anything… right?

Nao flattens her hand over Jurina’s heart, pushing her back slightly, playfully. The ace picks up on it and holds her ground, pushing back against her. They’re grinning at each other now. This is how they are.

“You like me this much?”

“More than this. So much more than this,” Jurina speaks passionately, “but I can’t show it all now or else Yuasa-san would throw me out for harassing a member. I’d have to graduate immediately and then I’d never see you again.” Nao bursts out laughing, but Jurina keeps going. “And then what would I do huh, Nao-chan?”

“Come to my handshakes.”

“I’d buy all your tickets, I’d never let go of your hand.”

“Alright, fine. I’ll let you make me dinner.”

“Eh? Just like that?” Jurina’s eyes widen. “I didn’t know you were into that kind of play, Nao-chan.”

“I’m not!” Nao’s ears go red and she really pushes Jurina away this time. The ace falls back, laughing and clapping hysterically. “I’m not into any kind of play.”

“How do you know?”

“What?” And now it’s Nao’s turn for her eyes to go wide. Why won’t Jurina shut up? What kind of question is that?

“I don’t think we should rule anything out yet, not until we check carefully.”

“What kind of check--?” Nao’s whole face must be red by now.

“We’ll discuss it over dinner, okay? Don’t worry about it.”

Jurina’s grinning that stupid smile again as she reaches for the door handle.

“Jurina-san!” She pushes her back again. No way is she letting her leave just like that. Not after saying something like that.

“Come on, you know I’m just kidding,” Jurina laughs, finally toning down her teasing. Of course she’s joking. It’s always a joke with her. And then she calms down to ask her next question. “But can I ask you favor, at least for the rest of the day?”

“You’re the one that owes me, remember?”

“I know, but…” Jurina trails off, nervously. And Nao’s curiosity only grows. What’s got the ace acting like this all of a sudden? “Call it a good luck charm. For my performances later.”

Oh.

Of course she was nervous to get back up on stage again. Maybe that’s why she was so focused on this whole dinner ordeal, to distract herself from her very soon, very real comeback.

“Sure.”

“I hate hearing you call me Jurina-san. It feels so formal, I don’t like it.”

“What should I use then?”

“Hmm, I’ll leave it up to you. Tell me before our stage, okay?”

That was an interesting task. But Nao could see how genuine Jurina was being—she really wanted this, huh?

“Sure.”

“Thanks, Nao-chan.” Jurina shoots her a small, very sincere smile and then leaves the room, heading off down the hallway.

Nao lets her leave this time. A new name, huh?

What a strange request.

But it does fill Nao’s thoughts for the next few hours, at least. She lets it.

Maybe Jurina wasn’t the only one who needed a distraction.

Chapter Text

Chapter 7 –  Who needs teeth anyway?

 

Ojuri.

Jyuri.

J.

Ju.

Jurina.

Jurina-san.

Jurina… chan?

… MJ?

 

            “Good luck,” is all Nao ends up saying to Jurina before their Ikinari Punchline performance in the encore.

She does feel a bit guilty when she sees a bit of disappointment in Jurina’s eyes.

How was she supposed to just… come up with a new name for the ace? She’d felt a bit unoriginal if she used the nickname most of the other members used—the ones who were close enough to her anyways. The way Jurina had suggested it, Nao knew she was expecting something more, something just between the two of them.

And that was a lot of pressure.

Especially when she also had a full concert to do. Honestly, what did Jurina expect?

But, Nao allows herself to feel the guilt. Instead of coming up with a bad nickname, she just came up with… no nickname. To try to make up for it, she grabs Jurina’s hand and pulls her into the kind of hug the ace would normally give her instead. They’re backstage, all dressed up in their bright red dresses, Jurina the only one in a suit and hat. Their center.

She hugs her and whispers, “Good luck,” in her ear a second time. Hopefully that would make up for it, right?

 

Their performance goes well.

Their two-day Request Hour concert finishes well.

And as soon as they step off the stage, they’re bombarded by cameras and staff. Jurina is taken up in a whirlwind of interviews and Nao doesn’t see her again until their all due to leave.

Nao climbs into her new van as promised, taking a seat at the very back.

It’s a testament to how tired they all are that no one bothers to ask her why she bothered to switch vehicles. As members pile into the van one by one, they all follow the same fate: a quick hello, a few seconds spent settling into their seats and then out like a light before they know it.

Jurina is the last person to enter the van.

She looks around for an empty seat—usually, seniors could expect to get their pick of seats, but considering the late hour, no one was bothering to enforce that practice. Their eyes meet for a moment, then Jurina smiles ruefully at her. No empty seats in back, so she’d have to ride in the front seat.

It’s fine. At least they were still in the same van.

All throughout the ride, Nao fights the temptation to join the other members in deep slumber. She can hear Jurina talking to Yuasa in the front, probably in an attempt to keep him awake. Her voice is low, and strangely soothing to Nao’s ears. The soft rumbling of the engine and the street lights rhythmically flashing by don’t help her case either.

The next thing Nao knows, she’s being shaken awake by soft hands.

“Nao-chan,” Jurina’s voice fills her ears and brings her back to the present.

The van is stopped in front of a fairly upscale house in a pretty nice neighbourhood. This must be Jurina’s place.

“I’m awake,” she answers, rubbing sleep from her eyes. She looks around and realizes that they are only a handful of girls left in the van with them, but thankfully they’re all still sleeping. Well, they’re eyes are closed, at least.

“If you want to just go home…” Jurina broaches worriedly, surely having realized by now that it really was too late for them to do anything tonight. But, Nao’s having none of that.

“I’m fine. Let me just grab my bag.” She’s a woman of her word.

Jurina smiles, “Ok.” She backs up and lets Nao gather whatever she needs.

A few moments later, they’re both on the sidewalk, bags beside them, watching the van drive off down the quiet street.

The ace moves first, snagging one of Nao’s bags before she can stop her. “Let’s go.”

 

Jurina’s house is nice. Very nice.

She gives her a small tour of the place, looking more nervous than Nao expected her to be.

Maybe it’s the effects of the late hour, everything feels softer, more… honest.

And as promised, her mother is nowhere to be seen.

“Alright, so…” Jurina claps her hands once they’ve circled back to the living room. “If you just relax right there on the couch, I should have our food out in like 20 minutes at most.”

“Sounds good.” Nao falls down into the softest couch to ever exist. Wow.

“Okay,” Jurina nods and scurries off to the kitchen.

And… how is this couch so damn comfortable?

It feels like she’s lying on a bed of the fluffiest feathers in the world. This must have cost a fortune.

Nao tries to sit up to maybe start looking for a price tag or maybe even ask the ace herself but then she realizes…

Oh no.

Her body does not want to move. At all.

Instead, she feels her muscles unwinding bit by bit as she literally melts into this godforsaken couch.

Oh no.

“Ju…” she starts calling out, but stops when she realizes she still hasn’t come up with a nickname for Jurina. How nice of her brain to remind her of this fact now, right as she’s on the brink of slipping off into magic-couch-induced slumber.

And so she finds herself trapped in a mess of her own making.

Unable to move because her body has abandoned ship and left her stranded on this couch from hell. Unable to call out for Jurina to save her because her brain doesn’t want to see the look of disappointment on her face when she once again fails to grant her little wish.

Well.

All’s that left in that case is…

Yeah.

 

Nao wakes up the next morning on that same, stupid couch.

Something is licking her face.

She cracks her eyes open to see Lips-kun perched on her chest, enthusiastically greeting her face.

“Good morning to you too.” Of course it’s Lips-kun.

She plucks him off of her and sits up, stretching her body as she does. When she finally gets her bearings, she realizes that yes, it is indeed now the morning and yes, she’s still in Jurina’s house. It’s only her and Lips-kun in the living room, so the ace is probably asleep in her own room.

Lips-kun wiggles in her arms until she lets go of him. He jumps down to the floor and paces around in circles by her feet.

“You want something, right? That’s the only reason you came to me.”

He trots off to the kitchen, so Nao decides to get up and follow him.

The second she steps into the kitchen, the guilt hits her full-force. On the counter is at least five large Tupperware containers, holding what must be the food that Jurina prepared last night. Which means that the ace hadn’t realized she’d fallen asleep until after she’d gone through all the effort to make the meal.

A metallic clanging sound reaches her ears and Nao looks down to see Lips-kun nosing his water bowl in a very obvious manner.

Fine.

She might as well not disappoint at least one member of this household.

She opens the fridge, then almost slams it close a second later. There were more containers in there too, and Nao doesn’t have the heart to check if those were a part of the meal-that-never-was as well.

Tap water for Lips-kun it is, then.

 

Jurina comes into the kitchen a half-hour or so later, bearing towels and an unopened toothbrush. She’s probably shocked to see Nao lying on the floor having a stare down with the ever quiet Lips-kun, but thankfully she doesn’t comment on it.

“Good morning,” she smiles, wearing pyjamas and a pair of glasses, looking every bit like she just woke up. “I didn’t know if you wanted to get ready here or not, but I brought some towels and stuff.”

Nao clambers to her feet and spends a few moments stretching out the kinks in her body. When she turns to face the ace, she notices her ears are a bit flushed, but just chalks it up to the impressive heating system in the house.

Then, she realizes what she said. So she asks, “Ready for what?”

“SenTrain re-filming today.” Ah! That’s right! She’d completely forgotten about it. “I told Yuasa-san to pick us both up here unless you said otherwise. Hope you don’t mind.”

“That’s fine.”

Not knowing what else to do, Nao walks over to the towels and looks through them, picking the one she likes best. Really it’s just an excuse to busy herself while she thinks of a way to apologize for last night.

She glances at Jurina, who’s now stooped down next to Lips-kun, petting his head.

Was she mad…?

“Ju…” she starts, but stops herself again when she realizes that she still hasn’t thought up a nickname. Seriously.

Can she do anything right?

But then suddenly Jurina’s body is shaking, small snickering sounds coming from her crouched form. Is she… laughing?

Lips-kun has obviously had enough of the two of them, so he saunters out of the kitchen, off to do whatever as long as it’s far away from them.

“No, Lips-kun~” Jurina calls out through her fits of laughter, no longer able to keep quiet.

“What’s so funny?” Nao asks, because yes, she’d like some answers please. Here she was, quietly panicking over the upcoming conversation, and Jurina was just… laughing??

“Juju,” the ace whispers out before surrendering to the guffaws that overwhelmed her. “Juju,” she tries again, only to meet the same fate.

“Juju…?” What does that even mean?

Nao has to wait for Jurina to pull herself together—yes, it takes a while—before she gets the answers she wants.

“You called me Juju,” the ace explains, getting to her feet and resting heavily against the counter. She’s still trying to catch her breath from her laughing fit, but she seems more in control of herself now. “Last night, as you were falling asleep. I thought I heard you calling my name, but when I found you, you were completely out of it. You were sleep-talking.”

Oh no.

“And I said…”

“You said… Juju,” Jurina smiles wider than should be possible at this hour. She looks smug and like Nao’s just given her the best present in the world. “You kept calling me Juju.”

“Oh. I see.”

Nao nods once, picks up the first towel she sees, then turns and speed-walks down the hallway. She’d seen the bathroom only once on the tour last night, but like hell was she going to ask Jurina to help her find it.

“Nao-chan~” She can hear Jurina whining after her from the kitchen, but she doesn’t look back. She can’t. “You forgot the toothbrush!”

So? Who needs teeth anyway?

Chapter Text

Chapter 8 – It sounded like some teenage soap opera

 

            Nao looks up as the door to the recording studio opens. Minarun gingerly steps inside, bowing and greeting the technicians in the booth. Then her eyes find Nao’s on the couch.

“Oh, is it already lunch time?” Nao checks her watch and realizes that yes, it was well past the hour they had scheduled to meet each other. “It’s already so late? I’m sorry--”

“It’s fine, it’s fine,” Oba waves away her apology as she properly enters the room. She sits down on the tiny space still available on the couch. Nao tries to tidy up the dozens of lyrics sheets sprawled out next to her, but it’s a pretty fruitless effort.

“How’s it going so far?” Oba asks, looking around as if this were the first time she had ever been inside one of these rooms. In fact, Nao could remember SKE using this exact room at least 3 times before, so.

“Not too bad,” she shrugs. They’d all done this before. Recording songs. It was nothing new.

“Yeah, but it’s a bit different, isn’t it? This is your solo,” Oba responds like she’s reading her mind.

Yeah, maybe…

Maybe this was something new.

Her own mini-album. A promise for having sold enough copies of her previous single. The next step after that first step.

“I’d probably scare off the staff if they had to listen to just my voice over and over and over and over--” Nao shoves Oba playfully and the girls dissolve into a bout of laughter. Some of the sound technicians in the room chuckle along with them, although they try to hide it. But these were staff they’d worked with before. That was part of the reason why Nao had been so relaxed, so at ease. If she thought about this as just any another SKE single, then maybe she could avoid the nerves. “Want to take a break?”

Nao glances at the staff and they nod along at the suggestion.

She had a good team here.

“Sure.”

 

Nao stops in front of the little restaurant she thought she’d never see again.

“This is…”

“Ojuri told me about this place. She said the food was really good, so I wanted to check it out.”

Oba leads the way inside and Nao has to admit, it was a pretty nice place.

Evidently, the focus was more on the dinner crowd, but there was a good amount of people that had come in for lunch as well. The booth the waitress leads them to is a bit away from the main area and their closest neighbours leave a few minutes after they settle in, so they had a fair amount of privacy.

Nao should’ve suspected something was up.

“So how’s recording going? Do you want to talk about it?” Oba opens innocently, no trace of the interrogation yet to come.

“It’s alright. I like all the songs so far,” Nao sips at her water as she thinks about what to say. There really isn’t much to say. “It’s still just planning and ideas right now, though. We can talk about something else,” she chuckles, not knowing the trap she was walking headfirst into.

“That’s good. So…” Oba drags her last word out—so long, in fact, that Nao takes another sip of water as she waits. Big mistake. “About Jurina.”

Nao chokes.

She quickly grabs her napkin to stifle her coughing before any of the other patrons can notice her.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Oba doesn’t sound the least bit sorry, evidenced by the large grin now plastered on her face. “I meant to say Ojuri. So, about Ojuri.”

“What about…”—that stupid, smug little—“…her? What about her?” Nao finally calms down enough to get her question out, returning her napkin to her lap.

“No, I was just wondering,” Oba shrugs. “You stayed over at her place the other day, right? I didn’t know you were that close.”

Nao should’ve known.

That morning—the day of the Sentimental Train re-filming—the other members hadn’t said a word when she and Jurina had entered the van together. She’d assumed that Yuasa had explained the score, that maybe it wasn’t that big a deal anyway. Members have sleepovers all the time.

She should’ve known.

Oba was just waiting for the right moment to strike.

“We’re not that close,” Nao deflects.

Oba nods, like she believes her. She doesn’t. “You know when was the last time I stayed over at Ojuri’s house?” Nao suspects the answer isn’t one that’ll help her cause and she’s right. “Never.”

She was right.

“Ojuri used to hang out a lot with the other 1st gens, and sometimes with the 2nd gens like Churi, but she’s usually too busy to just… hang out.”

The waitress comes back at that moment and they put in their orders. Oba doesn’t immediately jump back into the topic when she leaves, so Nao tries to take charge of the conversation.

“I mean, her hiatus just ended, so…” Yes, so? Now that she thought about it, shouldn’t that mean that Jurina should’ve been eager to hang out with all of her close friends again? Nao and Jurina weren’t that close before the hiatus. But now… “She was just keeping her promise. From when I picked up her dog,” Nao finishes a bit lamely.

“Alright. If you say so.” Oba accepts her explanation—a bit too easily, but Nao wasn’t going to complain. Maybe she was just too hungry to bother with it anymore.

They talk about their team, about a few problems they’ve been having at the theatre, about the possibility of Kaotan never actually graduating even though she’d already announced it. They talk about every other topic under the sun until their food finally arrives.

Nao hated to admit it, but the food was good. Really good.

Jurina had good taste.

“Mmm, Ojuri was right~” Oba trills as she digs into her platter. And like she’s watching a far-off wave slowly but surely make its way to shore, Nao can sense Oba circling back to the topic of—“Did she cook for you? When you stayed over. Ojuri.”

Nao takes her time finishing up her last bites of her salad.

It was obvious Oba was after something, but what? And how long before she’d grow tired of Nao deflecting?

“She did,” she starts off carefully. It was like walking through a minefield, not knowing where the next hit would come from. She had to step carefully. “That’s what we had for lunch during the SenTrain shoot.”

“She made a lot.”

“Not really. I fell asleep, so we didn’t get to eat it the night before.” Nao sees the next question coming from a mile away, so she heads it off before Oba can even open her mouth. “I slept on the couch. Her dog woke me up.”

“Ah, I see.” Oba nods, picking through the salad on her plate. Which Nao knows is just her buying time, because she doesn’t even like salad. “You know what I think?”

Does she want to know?

“What?”

“You two…” Why does she have to pause so much when she’s talking? Can’t she just say whatever—“I like you two.”

“You.. like us?”

“Yeah. I like you two.” What does that even mean?

“As in… as people? As members? As--”

“As a couple.”

Nao’s fork falls out of her hand and clatters noisily against her plate, but she doesn’t even notice. Her eyes are wide and fixed on Oba’s face. Oba’s far-too-innocent-looking face.

“Don’t tell me you haven’t thought about it.”

She hadn’t.

Nao honestly had never thought about Jurina and herself… together like that.

She… had she…?

“I… I mean… we do fanservice all the time. Whenever we have a job together we always take pics and upload them for the fans.” Nao’s suddenly talking a mile a minute because she can just say words, she doesn’t have to think about—“The fans really like it, but I mean, all the girls do it. So it’s not like we’re any different.”

“That’s true.”

“And you know you sell more if fans can ship you with another member.”

“Mm-hmm,” Oba nods, a smile stretching across her face. Like she knows something Nao doesn’t.

“You take pics with Jurina-san all the time, too--”

“But I don’t stay over at her house, she doesn’t make me food, and I don’t have a cute personal nickname for her either.” Her attack is swift and deadly.

Nao’s words suddenly catch in her throat.

Oh no.

Did Jurina tell her…

She wouldn’t.

Oba smiles like she knows she’s won. “What was it again?” She rubs her chin, pretending to think. She definitely knows. “Kinda sounds like a fruit, right? Ju--”

“Okay!” Nao grabs her hand to stop her from uttering that embarrassing word. “Okay, so maybe… we’ve gotten a bit closer after she came back.” And just like that she throws in the towel. Admitting defeat.

Darn you, Oba.

Oba, for her part, decides to tone down the smugness to a more manageable level. A gracious winner. “You know I’m just teasing you, right? Ojuri’s always been very close with her female friends.”

“She’s very friendly.”

“Yeah and sometimes it gets kinda confusing,” Oba chuckles, finally pushing away her salad. “I can’t tell the number of times we’ve had to talk to the junior members about her.”

Oh?

“Talk? What do you mean?”

“Come on. A highly successful senior, suddenly paying a lot of attention to you--and don’t get me started on the skinship! If she were a guy, I’d tell every member as soon as they join to avoid her at all cost,” Oba laughs. Nao chuckles along a bit awkwardly, because now it was starting to sound like Jurina acted like this all the time. That maybe, she was just one person in a long list of girls who the ace doted on. And then after she got bored with Nao? On to the next one?

“What do you tell them?” She asks instead.

“Well first, I have to get a sense for how they feel about it. Most girls don’t expect much, and that’s fine. But we also have to scope out if there are any feelings going around. From both sides.”

“You mean, Jurina-san too?”

“Yep.” Oba sits back in her seat, like she’s getting ready to tell some old war story. “Like I said, it’s mostly fine now, but a few years back? Very very messy stuff. Kaotan, Masana and I were the ‘mediators’ for a lot of teenage drama.” She shakes her head. She was definitely too old for this. “We almost asked management for a pay raise.”

Nao doesn’t quite know how to process this.

Sure she’d suspected they were some members who felt that way towards each other, but to the extent that Oba was describing? It sounded like some teenage soap opera.

Somehow she’d manage to avoid most of that during her years in the group, though.

Still she listens to whatever Oba wants to share.

It’s better than having her pester her about her relationship with Jurina.

“Rena was the Big One. You know that, right?” Nao nodded. Everyone and their moms knew that. “I hear it wasn’t that bad at the start, but by the time my kennin position started with SKE, Masana said she was ready to strangle Ojuri so she’d stop talking about her. And it was very different from the other side—I mean, Rena was like 6 years older and she was just going through very different things, you know. So,” Oba claps her hands. “We started meeting to figure out what we could do about it. Management couldn’t fix it, it had to be us. And then, puberty hit and…” Oba grimaces, reliving the trauma in her head. “And Ojuri found out that she could get from other girls what Rena wasn’t giving her, so.”

Sweet Jesus, how the hell did Nao not know this was happening?

“It’s not as bad as it sounds, though,” Oba tries to clear up whatever dirty thoughts Nao might’ve been thinking. “Ojuri’s too dumb and pure about it to really hurt anyone. A lot of it boiled down to making Rena jealous, which didn’t really work. After a while—and a LOT of talking—I think she finally got that she couldn’t let her feelings for Rena mess with the group. And that’s what she loves more than anything: SKE.”

Of course.

That fundamental truth.

Nao’s sure that maybe even Oba got it wrong earlier: Rena isn’t the Big One, it’s SKE. Jurina doesn’t love anything or anyone more than she loves her group. And that’s how Nao knows that whatever Jurina may have done back then, it wouldn’t have been bad enough to jeopardize SKE.

And that was all back then, right?

“What about now?”

“Now? She’s mellowed out a lot, I think.”

“And Rena’s gone now, right?” If she did all that just to get her attention, then there’s no sense in her still doing it after Rena’s graduation.

“That’s right. But also…” Another Oba pauseTM. Nao smiles at her friend’s antics. “I think she’s ready to move on, you know. Maybe she already has.”

Oba smiles in that suspicious way again—like she knows something Nao doesn’t. And maybe she does.

And maybe Nao knows it, too.

“Actually--”

Oba cuts herself off as her phone starts ringing. It takes some time for her to fish it out of her purse. By the time she does, the ringing’s stopped. She widens her eyes when she sees who the caller was.

“It’s Ojuri.”

Nao feels a swell of something warm filling her suddenly. Maybe it’s just the food. Yeah, that’s probably what it is.

“You should call her back. It’s probably important.”

“Ah, she texted.”

And so Oba spends the next few minutes texting back and forth with Jurina. Nao doesn’t mind, because based on the furrow of Oba’s brows, it probably was something important.

Instead, Nao finishes up her food. When the waitress swings by a few moments later, she lets her take up all their plates—Oba was never going to finish that salad.

And she waits.

But she also thinks:

About how Oba probably did intend for this to be another one of her Jurina talks she’d had with enamored members. But she probably backed off when she realized that it’s not like that between them. They were just friends. A bit closer now, but still just friends.

About her solo album and how, even though this was a big new step for her, it hadn’t felt all that special to her yet. At least, not until Oba had pointed it out this morning. Maybe that’s what she’d needed: a friend to help break her out of her thoughts. This was real. This was happening. This was something new.

About Jurina. Wait, didn’t she already think about her?

About… still Jurina.

Well, she can think about her more, then.

She’d been thinking about her a lot these days.

“Are you sure you don’t like Ojuri?” That’s the first thing Oba says once she’s done texting and Nao’s scared for a second that Oba really can read her mind. But then she realizes that her friend looks a bit more serious this time. No longer teasing her.

“We’re just friends.” Nao feels like she’s said that a million times today.

“That’s good.”

Huh? Wasn’t she just saying how she liked them as a couple? What’s with the 180?

“Why?” Nao has to ask. It’s not that she’s against this new opinion, but she’d like to know the cause of it, at least.

“Because…” Stop with the pauses, already! “Ojuri was asking me for some advice. Relationship advice.”

Oh.

Well…

“S-She likes someone?” And then Nao feels like she has to clarify, because suddenly she remembers that day in the dance room. Looking at each other through the mirror. Mouthing those 3 words—“In that way? She likes someone like that?”

Because that was different, right?

“Well…” And Nao’s too lost in her thoughts to be mad at Oba’s pauses anymore.

That time was different. That’s how they usually play around with each other. Those were just words. They weren’t—

“She was asking about breaking up with someone.”

Oh…

Nao sees the questioning look in Oba’s eyes a second before she looks away.

But, she doesn’t know why she can’t meet her eyes.

She doesn’t know why it feels like time’s stopped. Like she can’t process anything else that might be happening right now, so it’s probably just as true that nothing’s happening right now.

And that cold feeling washing down her body?

She’s definitely not eating here again.

Chapter Text

Chapter 9 – Betrayed for a piece of chicken

 

 [11:23 am] Jurina-san:

Lips-kun only sleeps on the couch now haha

I think he misses you

 

Nao spends most of her days in the studio now. A lot of it’s for her solo album, but there’s also the matter of the upcoming SKE single. Management hasn’t announced the lineup for the senbatsu yet, but there’s still the team songs.

She sees Oba and the rest of Team KII a lot as they record their song.

The recording studio is loud and fun when everyone’s together.

It’s a great balance to the quieter sessions she has when she’s on her own. If she were to pick which one she preferred, it would probably be the boisterously noisy atmosphere that her team brings. She could just go with the flow. She didn’t have to think too much.

When it’s just her however, she thinks a lot.

She’s trying to avoid that.

 

[6:30 pm] Jurina-san:

minarun told me that you two are wcenters for the new kii song

I can’t wait to see it :D

 

The tenth anniversary shows are there before they know it.

The revival stages are fun—she goes to watch a few of them when she has time, but doesn’t get to perform herself.

And then it’s time for the concert and she embraces the energy that comes with it. From the fans and the members themselves, there’s an expectation of… something. Like they were on the cusp of unlocking a major achievement. And surely a reward would come… right?

Ten years doesn’t come easily.

They’re not used to having so many girls in the theatre—performing—at once. But they make it work. It does make it easier to avoid running into someone, though.

Not that she’s avoiding anyone, it’s just… the theatre is pretty full.

 

[3:58 pm] Jurina-san:

The flowers on your one-piece dress

Whirl up into the wind

And my heart tightens

I wonder if… :)

 

“You did great as the center Nao-san!” The other members congratulate her as she steps off the stage. She only smiles as she walks quickly by them.

She has to change for the encore.

She moves on auto-pilot, not even noticing she’s silently singing the words to the song she’d just centered. Bukiyou Taiyou.

“…and my heart tightens… I wonder if… something will start for us…”

It’s a bad habit of hers, singing to herself. She should probably stop before she scares of any more of her juniors.

 

As it turns out, the Big announcement they’re waiting for doesn’t come.

What does come—by the end of the 2nd day—is the announcement for their new single. Which is notable in and of itself, really. It’s the first time in years they would have three single releases in one year. But she can tell everyone was hoping for more.

But there’s nothing much they can do about it.

Plus she has her solo album release coming up anyways. Does she really want another big event that she has to prepare for?

No.

This is fine. This is manageable.

A good way to cap off a somewhat tumultuous year. A final single to celebrate all they’d accomplished so far and to provide a nice benchmark to jump off of into the new year.

Now that she thinks about it—

 

[1:47 pm] Jurina-san:

Center Nao

 

“Whoa! Are you alright Nao-chan?” Churi calls out to her as she stumbles on the sidewalk.

No.

She is not alright.

“Ah, your phone…” Churi grimaces.

And of course she dropped her phone.

Nao stoops down and carefully picks up her device. She inspects the shattered glass and gingerly tries to turn it back on. No go.

“It’s dead,” Nao laments.

“I think we passed a phone store a few blocks back, maybe they could fix it?”

“I can’t, I have to get back to the studio,” she groans. Nao stands with the corpse of her phone cradled in her hands. Why? Why now?

“I could take it in for you,” Churi suggests.

“No, it’s fine. I’ll get it checked tomorrow.”

They walk off in the direction of the studio, their lunch date as good as over.

As they say their goodbyes, however, Nao can’t help but think that maybe this is for the best. She needs to concentrate and her phone had not been very helpful on that front. Especially these last couple of days.

Now she didn’t have to worry about…

No.

No more distractions.

 

She doesn’t get the chance to get her phone repaired in the next few days.

She just keeps putting it off, finding a million and one other things she has to be doing instead. It’s never the top of her To-Do list so it never gets done. Maybe she should just buy a new one.

 

The door of the recording studio cracks open and Nao knows instantly it’s for her.

The other members had been coming by over lunch to hang out with her, remind her of the world outside of recording for her solo album. And also to give her any updates she may have missed being off the grid.

Nao knows whoever’s at the door is here for her.

It should be around lunch time now—the staff had gotten into a kind of working rhythm and noon almost always meant it was time to rest. And time to send off their little artist to de-stress with her friends.

So Nao only looks up to see who’s there as an afterthought.

And just like that, the rhythm is broken.

“Good afternoon,” Jurina bows to the staff. “Hi, hi,” she laughs as some of them rush to stand up and greet her. “No, no, no, it’s fine. I brought food for everyone.” She smiles big and wide and like she’s the literal sun come to brighten their day. And for a lot of the staff she is.

For Nao…

“Oh, and I was wondering if I could steal Nao-san for a bit. If you don’t mind,” she smiles that stupid smile. And of course no one can resist.

Of course she gets exactly what she wants.

Of course.

The staff all but push Nao out of the door as they rush to eat the catered food Jurina had brought in. Betrayed for a piece of chicken. A new low.

 

Nao silently follows Jurina down to the parking lot behind the building.

It’s there that she says her first words to the ace. It’s not by choice, though. The shock is just too much to contain.

“Wait, is this your car?”

“Yeah,” Jurina smiles, standing in front of a black sports car.

“Oh my god…”

Nao stares at what must be the most expensive car she’s ever been allowed to touch. Just to make sure though—

“Can I touch it?”

“Sure,” Jurina laughs.

Nao touches the most expensive car she’s ever touched in her life.

“Do you want to get inside?”

Nao doesn’t even care for whatever reasons she may have had before to not go with the ace. Her body just kind of floats itself into the passenger seat. And before she knows it, the car is on, they’ve pulled out of the parking lot, and Jurina is driving her to wherever it is they’re going.

Betrayed by her own body. A new, new low.

 

“I heard you’ve been busy recording so I wanted to treat you for a bit. Hope that’s okay,” Jurina says a few minutes into their drive. They’re stuck in traffic and the radio isn’t even on, so they kind of have to talk to each other.

“You didn’t have to,” Nao tries to refuse.

“It’s no problem, really. I realize I haven’t seen you in a while either, so…”

Nao doesn’t respond to that one.

“Churi tells me your phone’s broken too?”

Darn you, Churi.

“Yeah, I dropped it the other day.”

“Hmm, that’s no good. The managers must be worried out of their minds because they can’t reach you.”

“I told them what happened, so we use email now.”

“Ah, I see…”

Their conversation peters out after that and the rest of the ride is silent. Almost eerily so. Are all sports cars this darn quiet?

They park behind Nao’s favourite milkshake store and—at this point, she’s come to accept that Jurina just knows a lot about her. She briefly imagines the ace pestering Churi and Minarun for facts about Nao on her days off. Maybe Nao needs new friends. Friends who weren’t also friends with Jurina and would turn around and tell her every little thing about her.

Her carefully avoiding (but not really avoiding) the ace was all for nothing then if this is how it turns out. Betrayed by her own friends. Too low, too furious.

“I’ll be right back,” Jurina smiles as she exits the car. She has her mask on as she hurries into the not-too-busy store. Of course she didn’t have to ask for Nao’s order because she already knew it.

“Unbelievable,” Nao mutters to herself. Then she realizes she’s alone in the car now and everything she’s been bottling up just comes pouring out. “Unbelievable! How can she just—How? Does she even care? Is this her game? Playing around, making people feel special and then just—just… She can’t just do this!”

Nao fumes to herself, all alone in the car. She half-hopes no one was passing by and saw her little tantrum. But the car has tinted windows anyways, so who cares.

“And this car!” Looks like she still had a little more steam to blow off. “What even is this car??”

Of course no one answers her. It’s probably for the best too, because she was all sorts of fired up right now.

Thankfully by the time Jurina exits the store, Nao’s mostly calmed down.

“Here you go,” Jurina hands over the meal and milkshake to her as she slips back into the driver’s seat. It takes one glance for Nao to confirm that yes, this was her usual order and yes, she had had enough.

“Jurina-san,” Nao starts off. But she doesn’t know exactly where she’s going with this, only that she had to say something before she exploded again.

“Hmm?” Jurina’s mid-bite into her sandwich, so she quickly wipes off her mouth with a napkin. “No more Juju?” She smirks, but it soon disappears when she realizes Nao’s not going along with her usual teasing. “What’s up?”

“This car…”

“What about it?”

“I didn’t know you had a car.” Nao’s mouth is moving and words are coming out, but she has no idea what she’s saying. But she keeps talking anyway. “You didn’t tell me you had a car.”

“Yeah, sorry about that,” Jurina smiles bashfully. “I try to keep quiet about certain things. If it’s not important to the group, then it’s probably not too important, right?”

No.

That’s not how it works.

“Then why now? If it wasn’t important before?”

Jurina’s brow furrows. “It’s not like… I wanted to take you out, so I thought it would make it easier. That’s all.”

“You’re wrong.”

“Huh?” Jurina’s getting more confused and more off-kilter by the second. But Nao doesn’t really care.

“Just because you don’t think it’s important, doesn’t mean it’s not important to other people.”

“Whoa, hang on a second. It’s just a car--”

“It’s not just a car!”

Nao feels like she’s a never-ending well of bottled feelings that have finally made their way to the surface. In short, she’s reached her limit.

“Nao-chan…” Jurina’s searching for some purchase in the conversation, some way to right whatever wrong she’s done, but she’s lost. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, but I promise it wasn’t for any reason other than it just hadn’t come up yet. I swear.”

“You should know,” Nao shakes her head. “You should know that it changes how people act around you. And not just this, but if you behave a certain way and then turn around and go, ‘Oh, yeah, also I had this the whole time?’”

Jurina looks lost for words and Nao can’t blame her. But, no way is she explaining it to her. No way. She should know.

“You just can’t do whatever you want.”

“Stop.” Jurina shakes her head in disbelief. She’s had enough. “Nao-chan, what you’re saying doesn’t make sense.”

“We should go back then.”

“Stop.”

“Or I can walk, so you can go back to having your secrets all to yourself--”

“Stop it!” Jurina finally explodes. “Tell me what’s wrong and stop talking about the car! It’s not the car, I know it’s something else! What’s going on?!”

Maybe it was easier talking about the car.

“It’s why you were ignoring me, right? I kept texting you, but you never replied. So I asked Churi and I asked Minarun and they kept saying you were fine, just a little busy, I should just give you time. But time for what? It’s not just the recording, is it? You have time for all the other members, just not for me, right?” Jurina’s face is getting red and her eyes are getting glassy, but she’s determined to say her piece.

They should just go back to talking about the car. Why couldn’t Jurina understand that it was easier than whatever this impending train wreck was going to be?

“So what? You’re telling me you don’t like me because I have a car?” Her voice breaks and Nao can’t take it anymore.

“No, I don’t like you because you have a girlfriend.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 10 – Things were really bad

 

“Why do you care?”

She doesn’t even deny it.

The car is dead silent after Jurina mutters those words.

Nao’s milkshake is a sloshy mess in her cup, but she doesn’t care. It’s quickly nearing the time she should be returning to the studio, but that can wait. Her priorities have shifted since this car argument started and just as it seemed they’d reached the crux of the matter, Jurina had fired back with the million dollar question.

Why does she care that Jurina has a girlfriend?

“I don’t let it interfere with work, it’s my private life and I should have a say if I tell people or not.” The ace’s voice is steady, like she’s lecturing a junior and Nao doesn’t take too kindly to her tone.

“So you weren’t going to tell me.”

“Why should I?”

“Are you serious?” Nao scoffs. She wants to leave the car, but she also wants to make her point. She wants the ace to understand what she did and why she shouldn’t have done it. Guilt. Remorse. That’s what she wants from Jurina right now. But that’s not what she’s seeing.

“It’s my relationship. If I don’t talk about it, so what? As long as it doesn’t come in the way of anything I do for SKE, so what? I’ve done nothing wrong if--”

“This isn’t about SKE,” Nao shakes her head in disbelief. Is she being serious right now?

“Then it’s not a problem.”

“You! You are the problem!”

Nao can’t take it anymore. She yanks her door open and steps out into the cold air.

She needs a breather from this mess.

She hears Jurina’s door opening on the other side and she starts walking away across the parking lot. Maybe she should just walk back to the studio.

But Jurina grabs her arm from behind, stopping her from making her escape.

“Please don’t make a scene--”

“There’s no scene if you let go of me.”

A moment passes and then Jurina lets go of her arm. Nao’s cooled off a bit too, so she doesn’t immediately walk off either. Instead, she turns and faces the troubled ace.

“It’s not about SKE, Jurina. This is about you… and me.” Nao always knew Jurina was stubborn, but she’s rarely had to butt heads with her like this before. But maybe being outside is doing them both some good because Jurina looks… not quite repentant, but open. So Nao tells her her side. “You can’t treat me like that if you have a girlfriend… We can’t talk to each other like that if you have a girlfriend… I like you, Jurina and I know you know that. And not just as a friend.”

Nao says those words for the both of them.

She likes her.

She likes Jurina.

In a way that makes her stomach warm and her heart beat too fast. In a way that excites her and feels like magic. In a way that she thought went both ways.

But now she knows the truth. And it hurts.

It really hurts.

It’s a confession that had never had a chance to begin with.

“I’m sorry,” Jurina says and finally, finally, Nao sees the guilt she wanted to see on her face. The ace looks like a kicked puppy, but Nao’s heart is a bit too broken to be moved by the sight. Plus, it’s going to take more than two words to fix their mess.

And then Jurina’s stepping back into her space.

“I’m sorry,” she says again.

“No, I don’t want an apology--”

“I’m sorry.” And then Nao realizes that Jurina’s apologizing for something else entirely. Because the next second the ace is right in front of her face and—

No.

She wouldn’t—

And Jurina’s kissing her.

 

The drive back to the studio is quiet.

This time no one tries to talk and Nao isn’t complaining. The only thing she imagines would come out of her mouth are bad words. Very, very bad words.

So they don’t talk.

But.

But, Jurina’s hand holds one of hers the entire drive back.

But, Jurina leans over and kisses her every time they stop at a red light. The first time, it hits her cheek. The second time, they angle just enough that she reaches her lips. The third time, they get honked at by the car behind them for taking too long to drive when the light turns back to green.

But. They don’t talk.

Jurina parks behind the studio building and Nao half-expects another kiss attempt. Thankfully that’s not what happens.

“I have something for you,” Jurina reaches behind her seat and grabs a small black box. She hands it over to Nao, one of those stupid smiles on her face.

“You got me a phone.”

“I did.”

Nao doesn’t know what to say. Very, very bad words are on the tip of her tongue, so she reigns those in. So she doesn’t say anything and Jurina starts to look a bit nervous.

Good. She should be.

“Anyways, you should probably get back in. I think we ran a bit over lunch,” she chuckles weakly.

She knows they’re in a bad spot. Worse than that, even.

If things were just bad before they went out for lunch, then things were apocalypse-level bad right now. And it’d only been an hour and twenty-two minutes.

She really needed to get back to work.

“Thanks for lunch.” Nao reaches out for the door handle, but stops herself.

She turns back to the ace and she takes a bit of pride in the fact that Jurina looks scared out of her mind right now. Things were really bad.

So Nao leans in and kisses Jurina lightly on the lips.

A few seconds pass and then the ace presses even closer. As if asking—are you really doing this? And Nao presses back in—yes.

Nao’s lunch break officially clocks in at one hour and thirty-five minutes.

Even though it’s only a three minute walk from the parking lot to the recording room. She bows and apologizes to the staff inside, but they don’t mind. They were full and happy.

Must be nice.

 

[3:53 am] Jurina-san:

I know you’re mad at me, and I know I should’ve explained myself better.

I’m sorry.

You deserve the truth and yes, you’re right.

I shouldn’t have kept that secret.

You were right to be angry and I was wrong to be… me.

You deserve better, Nao-chan.

But I do like you.

I like you a lot. Not just as a friend.

 

Well, that’s all the proof that Nao needs that her new phone is working.

She wakes up to Jurina’s apology/confession and she just stares at it for the longest while. She’s saved from coming up with a response when her phone buzzes again—an email from Yuasa-san.

She opens up the email, already somewhat knowing what to expect. The senbatsu of their new single was being announced.

Suddenly she remembers that day—was it a month, two months ago?—where she was crying after having received a similar email, but for a different single. One that she hadn’t made it into. And then soft hands and stupid smiles and a van full of assurances and not-yet-realized feelings.

Maybe she preferred it back then.

Things weren’t so…

She absentmindedly reads through the announcements of the included members and the upcoming shooting schedule.

And then her eyes circle back to that name. That stupid name. That stupid person.

Of course it’s her.

And then her fingers are moving before she realizes it.

She pulls up the recent text and fires off the response that doesn’t actually address any of their problems.

Or maybe it does.

 

[5:09 am]:

Congratulations on your center Jurina-san

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 11 – Maybe Nao is the bomb

 

“Here. I made you lunch.”

Nao cracks open her eyes and sees Jurina standing in front of her desk. She has two lunchboxes in her hand because, like she said, she’d made some for Nao as well.

A nice gesture, except—

“You do know they’re catering the shoot, right?” Nao asks the obvious question.

They always catered their music video shoots. So carrying any real food besides snacks was unnecessary. Intentionally making food—not just for yourself, but for someone else as well—meant you definitely had ulterior motives.

Of course Jurina would.

“I know… but I just wanted to treat you.”

 If she had a dime for every time she’d heard that from the ace…

“Minarun warned me about over-attentive seniors.” And she should’ve listened to her, too. But no. She’d thought she was above all that—only teenagers get so blinded by their feelings that they do such stupid things.

Well, only teenagers and Nao, apparently.

“It’s just food. I promise,” Jurina smiles that hopeful smile and Nao already knows she’s going to accept it. She always does.

Is that Jurina’s superpower?

Able to bend everything and everyone to her will? Why had no one else caught on by now?

Or maybe they were all like Nao, helplessly falling to their doom and not able to do a single thing to stop it.

She should stop this.

She should—

“Come on, I think I saw an empty room down the hall.”

Jurina leads and of course Nao follows.

They walk out of the classroom they’d been doing most of the ‘Stand by You’ music video shooting in. A few other members were still in there, still taking down notes before going for lunch. Nao had been dosing off. Or not really. She had been just kind of… sitting. Sitting and thinking.

Trying to sort everything out.

Playing over that day in the car over and over again, trying to find the turning point.

She had been angry at Jurina—very, very angry. Angry in ways she hadn’t fully understood, but she knew the ace was the root of it. So she’d avoided her. She’d concentrated on everything else. Yet still, still, she’d kept slipping up.

Every time Jurina would text her, the feelings would come again.

The anger would build, the frustration would overwhelm her, and she’d try to shut her out.

Nao probably should’ve vented to someone else about this—maybe that’s why the car ride had ended like that.

Maybe if she’d told someone… but who?

And what would she have said?

I really like Jurina, and I think she likes me too, but I just found out she’s had a girlfriend this whole time, so I feel like she’s been playing with my feelings, but it still feels like there’s something there, so now I think that Jurina just doesn’t care that she’s taken, maybe it’s not that serious anyway, or maybe it is and I just don’t care either—and also she was apparently a player when she was younger too. So.

Nao imagines a frowning Minarun shaking her head in disappointment, “You should’ve stayed away from her.”

Yes. She should have.

“Hmm, these are all full. Maybe downstairs?”

Jurina ushers them towards the staircase and of course Nao follows.

Confused. That’s what Jurina makes her feel. Confused and frustrated.

She should definitely talk to someone about this before she blows up again. That’s what happened in the car. She’d kept everything bottled up for days on end and when Jurina had appeared out of the blue, the dam had burst. She’d shouted at her, accused her, tried to pin every one of the bad feelings she’d been feeling on the ace. But that didn’t work. Because apparently Jurina had needed to vent as well. Two dams bursting, crashing into each other.

Stupid, right?

And then…

“Jurina-san,” Nao calls out to the ace, stopping her halfway down the stairs.

“Hmm? What’s wrong?” Jurina turns back to face her and Nao takes her chance.

She kisses her.

Guilt. Remorse.

Before, she’d wanted Jurina to be the one feeling sorry. But now, maybe she sees why the ace acted the way she did. Why she could just flirt with her and not be ashamed. Why she could just kiss her like that, even though she has a girlfriend. Even though she shouldn’t.

When Nao thinks about it, about any of it, she feels the shame and confusion and frustration.

But when they kiss… when they kiss, it feels good.

Maybe she doesn’t want to think anymore.

 

“I really wish you wouldn’t call me that,” Jurina murmurs as soon as they separate. Like it’d been eating her up the entire time they were kissing.

Right. The whole nickname thing.

It takes Nao a moment to clue into what she’s talking about. But when she does—

“What does she call you?”

And Nao watches the smile fall right off of Jurina’s face.

Maybe Nao’s dam was still breaking, maybe this is how it would be from now on. Spikes of very, very bad emotions—and Jurina the prime target. This couldn’t be healthy.

Nao steps past the ace and heads down the rest of the stairs.

“Nao-chan--”

She steps through the door to the next floor, leaving Jurina behind. This isn’t healthy.

Nao doesn’t make it more than a few steps before someone calls out to her from one of the classrooms. “Oi! Nao-chan~”

It’s Oba. Having lunch with Dasu and Sally.

The juniors were usually too intimidated to sit with them, so they’d probably steered clear of this floor. Maybe that’s why all the classrooms upstairs were full.

“Come eat with us!” Oba waves her over.

The offer sounds great, but “I didn’t get any food yet.”

“And Minarun has too much as usual, so it’s perfect,” Dasu giggles. Oba puts on an exasperated face, but it’s clear she doesn’t mind the teasing.

“Hey, I’ll have you know that the World Senbatsu Sousenkyo 8th place finisher—”

“What, do you need more food now that your head’s so big?” Dasu cuts her off.

“No! What I’m trying to say is that as the World Senbatsu Sousenkyo 8th—"

Just then Nao spies Jurina exiting the stairwell, so she decides to jump in this time. “Fine, fine, I’ll eat your food.”

She hurries inside the classroom, but not before the ace spots her. By the time she sits down beside Sally, Jurina is at the door. Looking like the sad puppy she always is when she doesn’t get her way. But Nao doesn’t care. She turns to Sally and opens her mouth wide, hoping the other girl will play along without any questions. And she does, happily feeding Nao bits of all three of their lunches.

“Ojuri!” Oba calls out, looking like Christmas just arrived.

So Nao moans out just loud enough for it to be borderline indecent, “Mmm, this is so good~”

“I know, right? I was just saying how good the catering’s gotten lately.” Bless your heart, Sally. Nao thanks the older member a million and one times in her head, because now she doesn’t have to pretend to ignore Jurina. It just happens.

“Where’s this from? I don’t think I’ve had this curry before.”

“Me neither. I think it’s that new place that just opened up near the theatre. I’ve been meaning to check it out but…” And again, bless your heart, Sally. But, apparently Nao’s incapable of completely ignoring Jurina when they’re this close to each other. She should’ve known.

So, Sally talks on.

And Nao watches Jurina out of the corner of her eye.

The ace sits down—or is pulled down into Oba’s lap. Minarun holds on tight to the moping ace, in a way that kind of looks like she might know what’s wrong with her. Or maybe she’s just guessing. Or just being a good friend. Maybe Nao should stop thinking that everyone’s hiding something from her.

No, that’s just Jurina.

“Do you want to go sometime?”

Nao snaps back into the conversation just in time to hear the last sentence. Go? Where?

“Um, sure… I don’t know if I’ll have time, though.” That sounds safe, right?

“Oh yeah, your album,” Sally nods along. “How’s that going by the way?”

And just like that, everyone’s eyes are on her. Great.

“Good. We’ve got a few songs done.”

“Really? Can we get a sneak preview?” Dasu asks, lighting up.

“I don’t have them on me now. I had some on my old phone, but--” She cuts herself because dang it, she shouldn’t have said that. Please let nobody ask about the phone, please let nobody ask about the—

“Oh yeah, Churi told me what happened,” Oba points out obliviously. “You didn’t get it fixed yet?”

“Um…”

“She got a new phone.” Why are you talking Jurina? Why?

“Really? Let me see.” Oba asks, and of course she has to show them. So she takes it out and the reactions come immediately.

“Oh my god, didn’t this just get released?”

“How’d you get this so fast?”

“I heard the waitlist’s crazy, like a few months at least.”

Crap, crap, crap. Now she has to say it. Is this what Jurina wants?

“Actually--”

“I got it for her.” Jurina swoops in to take the credit. “I know how hard Nao-chan’s working on her mini-album, so I wanted to take some of the stress off.”

Take some of her stress off?

She has to laugh. Actually, she does laugh, but then ends up choking on the bit of food that’s still in her mouth.

“Careful, it’s kind of spicy.” Sally, you’re an angel, but this is not the time.

Nao still tries to get a word in through her coughing fit. “I didn’t ask her to, she just showed up out of nowhere.”

“Ah, that’s probably my fault.” Oba meekly raises a hand. “I’ve been reminding some of the girls to visit you in your little dungeon, so you don’t get lonely.”

“I’m fine.”

“That reminds me though. You still haven’t gotten me anything, Ojuri.” And just like that, Oba turns her attention to the ace in her lap instead. “It’s been months.”

“I did get you a birthday gift, though.”

“Not that…”

“She’s talking about her getting 8th place,” Dasu shakes her head.

“Come on, it’s not just 8th place, it’s--”

 “The World Senbatsu Sousenkyo 8th place.” Everyone finishes her sentence for her then they immediately burst out laughing.

This. This is what Nao needs.

Her friends telling tired, months-old jokes, just because they can. They may not see each other often, but when they do, it’s like no time has passed at all. So yeah, the jokes are old, but who cares.

“Ahh, don’t make me laugh so hard, my tummy hurts!” Dasu cries out in the middle of it all.

“You’re getting old!” Oba jokes.

“Look who’s talking!” Dasu fires back, but regrets it a second later. She clutches at her stomach, gasping out, “Seriously, no, I can’t take it. I’m still sore.”

“From what?”

Dasu calms down enough to give them her best unimpressed glare. “That stupid choreo.”

But that only confuses Nao.

They’d only started learning the ‘Stand by You’ choreography earlier today and, despite their group image, it was far from being a tough dance. That can’t be what she’s talking about.

“’No Way Man’, right?” Jurina asks.

Ah. Of course.

“Yeah,” Dasu groans. She finally manages to sit back up in her seat. “It’s ridiculous, I still have bruises all over.”

“I hear it’s really hard to practice,” Sally adds.

“It’s not really hard, it’s just…”

“Not easy to synchronize, right? Especially the chorus.” Nao wants to ask how Jurina knows that, but she decides not to. She already knows the reason.

“And it’s pretty non-stop, too, so you don’t really have time to second-guess anything.” Dasu’s obviously not a fan of the new AKB song.

“You’re practicing without the centers though, aren’t you? That can’t be easy,” Nao asks, because why not? Why not let her mouth do whatever it wants.

She notices the other girls glancing at Jurina and maybe that’s what she wanted to happen. Maybe she wanted to put the ace on the spot, too.

“Not exactly, but there’s ways around it…,” Dasu hedges, cautiously.

“Aren’t they doing that dance competition to replace them?” Nao pushes on.

“Yeah, that’s kind of weird…” Oba murmurs.

“Are you going to join, Jurina-san?” Nao makes sure to put extra emphasis when saying her name. That only makes the deafening silence afterwards that much more noticeable.

Nobody says a word.

It’s like a bomb was suddenly placed in their midst and the first person to talk would take the brunt of it. Maybe Nao is the bomb. But in that case, she only has one intended victim.

She wonders what everyone else is thinking.

Despite the very awkward question she’d brought up, there was also the matter of what to do based on how Jurina would respond.

If she said yes, then do they encourage her or try to talk her out of it?

If she says no, then do they console her that there would be other chances or that she didn’t need this chance anyway?

Maybe they’re just wondering why the hell Nao would ask that question. That’s valid too.

“Not this time.” Jurina smiles that press-conference smile that doesn’t quite reach her eyes.

Just as the others open their mouths to give their prepared responses, a loud horn blasts from downstairs. And then a megaphone, “Filming will resume shortly, kindly make your way back to the shooting site, thank you.”

The message is relayed a few more times and by the time it’s over, they’ve packed up everything. They’re on their way out the door, when Nao feels hands on her shoulders pulling her back. And also slightly down too, so she knows it’s Minarun.

“Let’s talk later,” Oba whispers in her ear. No one else notices though.

And Nao doesn’t refuse. Maybe this is her chance to finally unload some of what’s eating her up inside. She needs this.

 

And unload she does.

Oba calls her that night after they’ve gotten back home from filming. She opens with a simple, “What’s up?” and then Nao doesn’t stop talking for ten minutes straight.

“And then I get angry at her, so I kiss her. And then it’s fine for a bit, so I stop kissing her, but then I get angry again so--”

“Alright, alright, I get it. Thanks,” Oba laughs, thankfully able to find some humour in Nao’s mess of a love life. “From what happened at lunch, I kind of knew there was something going on, but this is…”

“Stupid, right?”

“Well, I wouldn’t advise it.”

“Not something the Sousenkyo 8th place would endorse?” And Nao knows Oba’s taking this seriously because she doesn’t immediately correct her on her title.

“Definitely not! Absolutely, one hundred percent, the worst possible outcome. Disapprove.”

“I know…” Nao sighs. This really is the worst timeline. “What should I do?”

“Well, let’s see. First off… you have to stop kissing her.”

“Interesting…”

“I’m serious!” Oba laughs at her, but keeps going. “Secondly… I think at this point you both know this isn’t right. Yeah you keep doing stupid things together, but you’re also getting more—what’s the word—angry? More catfighty? At least you are.”

“That’s not a word.”

 “Whatever it is, it’s starting to show and if you don’t want other people getting involved in this…”

Nao has to think for a moment if that would be such a bad thing. Oba’s obviously referring to management and the other members, but there’s someone else they’re not talking about. Someone who’s as much a part of this ‘relationship’ as Jurina and Nao herself. What would happen if she found out?

“I was kind of hoping you’d offer your special counseling sessions,” Nao tries, though she knows it’s useless.

“On whose dime? Unless you’re willing to shell out enough money to pay for the World Senbatsu Sousenkyo 8th place finisher’s services, then you’re out of luck.”

“I bet Jurina-san could pay--”

“The point is!” Oba stresses, quickly getting away from the testy topic of the ace. “The point is, I specialize in horny teenagers, and you two are horny adults. You can figure it out yourselves… Also, don’t tell anybody I just said that.”

“Don’t worry, I will,” Nao laughs.

Hearing it from someone else makes it sound so easy.

She could do this. She just has to talk to her, clear this whole mess up, stop being stupid.

She could do this.

Chapter Text

Chapter 12 – They both did this

 

She doesn’t quite do it.

Day 2 of the ‘Stand By You’ music video shoot and the first thing Nao says when she sees Jurina in the van is, “You can’t kiss me anymore.”

The ace is—understandably—confused. “What?”

“You. Can’t. Kiss. Me. Anymore.” If she just keeps saying it, it’ll work right?

“Okay…” Jurina laughs it off kind of nervously.

They aren’t alone in the van, after all. Dasu and Sally there, also Sugawara, Yuzuki and Kuma.

If they just leave it like that, then the others probably wouldn’t assume anything out of the ordinary. Everyone knows that Jurina’s a notorious kissing monster. So if they don’t say anything else, they could just play it off like a joke.

The kissing monster denied! Ha ha. Ha.

“Are you going around kissing girls again, Ojuri?” Dasu asks, because it’s funny right? That’s her reputation. Jurina likes to kiss a lot of girls. It’s funny.

“You make me sound like some kind of wanted criminal.” They weren’t too far off.

But it does get a few laughs out of the other members. As expected.

“You’ve never tried to kiss me before, Jurina-san,” Sugawara pipes up, joining in on the ‘fun’. Is this really something that she wants to happen? Was Nao like that too? Wondering what it would be like.

She wants to tell Sugawara to run. Run far away.

It’s nothing like you’re imagining, it’s just pure emotional torture.

“I’m sorry, Sugawara, but looks like I have to lay low these days. Wouldn’t want the kissing police to catch on to me.” More laughs, because it is funny. If Nao didn’t know what she knew now, she would’ve laughed too. Secrets sure are a powerful thing.

Nao feels a buzzing in her pocket and she knows it’s her phone.

She doesn’t read the text till they get to the school they’re shooting in, and it’s exactly what she expected to see.

 

6:57 am [Jurina-san]:

Can we talk before the shoot?

 

Jurina is hanging back by the van, one of the last persons to get out. So Nao hangs back with her. The two of them walk towards the school together, behind all the other girls.

“I’m going to tell her today,” Jurina starts right off. They don’t have much time to talk anyway.

“Why today?”

“I need to do it soon.”

“You should’ve done it before all this,” Nao insists. “Before the kiss, before the flirting, before you told me you liked me—everything.”

“I know…”

“It’s too late now.”

“I know, but…”

“But what Jurina-san?” Nao’s voice rises a bit and she notices Sally glance back at them slightly. They’re walking through the hallways now, so they had to be careful of the echoing. She makes an effort to lower her voice and ask again, “But what?”

“You kissed me back.”

Of all the stupid things…

“Now it’s my fault?” Her voice was rising again. Careful.

“No, but… you still kissed me back didn’t you? And even when we were flirting--”

“I didn’t know--”

“But then you did know and it didn’t matter.”

“You--”

Jurina pulls her back before they can walk into the dressing room with the others. It’d be impossible to keep their conversation private after this. They need to finish this out here.

“I’m not blaming you, Nao-chan, I’m just… I’m going to fix this, okay? I’m going to fix this.”

She looks so earnest. Like she knows they got into a bad spot, and yeah, maybe Nao did kiss her back. Maybe she wasn’t completely blameless in this either. But a relationship shouldn’t be about blaming each other. If that’s what this was.

Whatever this was, though, it wasn’t good.

“We need boundaries,” Nao proposes after a moment.

Jurina nods, then a small smile finds its way onto her face. “I can’t kiss you anymore.”

“You can’t.”

“Okay,” she nods again. Then, like she knows the exact wrong thing to say, Jurina adds, “I don’t like her like I like you.”

Nao closes her eyes for a moment. Why does it bother her so much when Jurina brings up her still-girlfriend? Because it reminds her of the guilt she should be feeling? That’s what Nao wants whenever she brings her up to spite the ace. She wants Jurina to feel guilty. But why can’t she handle it when the ace does it back?

She’s not a bad person. Jurina is, not her.

Nao’s not a bad person, just in a bad situation.

But… she kissed her back.

She let this go on for so long already before finally putting her foot down.

They both did this.

Nao opens her eyes and Jurina is closer than she remembers. When she next talks, Nao can feel her breath washing over her lips,  “I can’t kiss you anymore.”

“You can’t.”

And Jurina gets even closer.

“Okay. So I won’t.” And maybe the ace is just being her usual teasing self to take the edge off their conversation. Maybe this isn’t the psychological attack that Nao’s treating it as.

All she has to do is not kiss her.

Because she’s not a bad person. She’s not. She’s not.

When their lips brush, Nao wants to pretend it’s just because she lost her balance.

When she slowly bites at the ace’s bottom lip, she wants to pretend that she’s trying to hurt her.

When she pulls back and then goes for the top lip instead, she wants to pretend, but at that point she can’t.

She kisses her. And it’s almost all one-sided because Jurina keeps her word. She doesn’t kiss her back. This is all Nao. Pushing at her lips, teasing them open, capturing and then releasing them. Over and over again.

She’s not a bad person, but she feels like crying when their lip-lock finally comes to an end.

She feels… for the first time she feels it. She feels the guilt.

“I’ll fix this,” Jurina smiles once last time. Trying to reassure her. But this is the first time the ace’s smile doesn’t work on her at all.

Because Nao isn’t so sure they can fix this anymore.

 

“Ojuri!” The girls all call out loud.

Jurina smiles that heartwarming smile, looking right into Nao’s eyes.

“One more time, a little louder,” the director calls out, staring at the screen. He just wants a good shot.

“Ojuri!” Nao mouths the nickname, but doesn’t actually say it. She pretends like she does though—no way is she messing up this shoot just because her emotions are currently rioting like mad inside her.

It looks like it works, as the director nods, accepting the shot. “Good! Now, it’s your turn Jurina-san. And go!”

Jurina carefully runs up the small desk staircase, right into Nao’s arms. Well, she runs into the group of members that were all huddled together on top of the desks, waiting to hug their center. Nao just so happens to be in the middle.

What that means is, while the others can only get an arm at most around the ace, Nao gets to wrap both her arms around Jurina’s waist. Lucky her.

“And… cut!”

The huddle loosens up and Nao just so happens to be the last person to let go. Jurina’s smiling at her the entire time. God, she hopes they don’t have to shoot that again—

“Okay, one more time and then we should be good.” Of course.

 

Lunch is quiet that day.

They fall into mostly the same groups as the day before, except Sugawara and Churi decide to join theirs.

Jurina brought her own special lunch again for the both of them, but this time Nao doesn’t argue. They sit beside each other and silently eat together. The ace probably senses her mood because she squeezes her leg a few times under the table.

Nao wants to cheer up—it will all be over soon, right?—but she just feels exhausted.

And she quickly loses her appetite too.

Oba is the first person who notices her stop eating, “Alright there, Nao-chan?”

Nao only nods because she actually starts feeling a bit choked up. She doesn’t want to cry, not here.

Jurina’s arm wraps around her shoulder protectively, “I think it’s just the food. You should’ve told me you hated it. You didn’t have to spare my feelings Nao-chan.”

And like clockwork, the other’s laugh. Crisis averted. Wow, Jurina really could hide anything.

Amazing.

Oba takes a second longer to look away, but probably decides it’s best not to push while so many others are still around.

 

When the shoot finally, finally ends that day, Nao feels a rush of relief.

After today, she could go back to the studio and forget about the world. She didn’t have to see anyone until promotions properly started. Well, they also had to record the song, but she could get that done fairly quickly. There was a little over a month till the single would be released. She could take this time to relax and recover before things heated up.

And Jurina… she said she’d do it today.

Whatever the outcome was, by the time they saw each other again, this mess had to be over, right?

But things in life are rarely that easy.

She should’ve known when she saw Jurina staring at her phone in the dressing room. She doesn’t pay it much attention because she’s far past caring about who the ace talks to. She sees her frown a few times while texting, but she doesn’t think much of it.

On the way to the van, Jurina’s still glued to her phone, but who cares?

Not Nao.

They end up beside each other in the back of the van.

Only Minarun and Dasu are already there, but they’re half asleep anyways. The other girls are still getting dressed inside the school, still hanging out. It’s only the four of them for now.

And then Jurina’s phone rings.

It’s like watching a car crash, right? You just can’t look away. And the foreboding grips Nao in a way she’d never felt before. Because she knows who’s on the line.

“Ah yeah, I was trying to call you.” Jurina sits up. She fidgets for a moment—flight or fight, maybe?—before stilling in her seat. “What time is it over there?”

By now Oba’s opened her eyes and she’s pretty sure Dasu’s awake too.

“Have you been practicing late again?”

And Nao can hear a few more girls approaching their van now—they’d be here soon.

“Sounds pretty tough…”

Sugawara reaches the van first and she’d been mid-conversation, a smile on her face. But it only takes her a second to read the atmosphere. Her smile falls like lead and she stalls at the door. Should she come in? Should she leave?

She looks around for someone to clue her in, but no one says anything. They’re all definitely awake now. And the car crash is happening and no one can look away.

Nao is beyond frozen. Chills are running non-stop through her body, she’s pretty sure Jurina can feel it. But why is the ace still talking?

“I’m sure they understand, maybe not directly, but they know how you feel… That’s right, you’re not alone, so there’s no need to worry… Just keep working hard, Sakura. I know you can do it,” Jurina smiles and Nao sees the exact moment the ace steels herself for what she’s about to do.

No.

There’s no way she would—

“Listen, there’s something…”

The rest of the girls have arrived at the van now too, but no one’s coming in. They can’t all know what’s happening, but they know something is happening.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t see you off… Yeah, we should’ve talked…”

Nao blinks to clear her eyes and she realizes she’s staring right into Oba’s face. Minarun had turned around—when? She had no idea—and was looking sympathetically back at her. And it’s like someone finally shakes her awake. It reminds her that she isn’t some disembodied presence watching from afar.

She’s right here. She’s in this too.

That guilt she felt earlier? That’s because this was on her too, not just Jurina.

It’s time she started acting like it.

“Yeah, it’s just… I need to tell you something--”

“Hang up,” Nao interjects. But her voice is too soft and it breaks halfway through. Jurina hears her though.

The ace looks confused, so she says it again. Louder. “Hang up the phone.”

Jurina gets it now, but she’s stubborn, so she shakes her head. Nao just has to be stubborn too. “Hang up the phone, Jurina-san.”

Dasu turns around and reaches out gently, trying to diffuse the growing tension, “Maybe you should step outside and finish--”

“No, I need to do this. I made a mistake and I need to fix it, so let me fix it,” Jurina pleads, looking right at Nao.

But Nao finds a fire within her that’s kind of scary, and she lets it take over. “You’re not doing this--”

“Nao-chan, I’m sorry, but--”

“No. Hang up the phone, this isn’t the right time--”

“I can’t keep waiting anymore--”

“Can you just listen!” And before she knows it, Nao’s grabbed Jurina’s phone from out of her hand. She turns in the same moment, yanks open her window and chucks it out as far as she can.

“Hey!”

“Alright, alright! That’s enough!” Oba yells out in the suddenly cramped van. “Everybody take a breath!”

“But I need to--” Jurina tries, but she’s cut off immediately.

“No! Nobody is doing anything until we all calm down!” Oba silences her swiftly.

She knows she has no choice, so she obeys the order. Nao sees a figure circling the van out of the corner of her eye. When they make it to her side of the van, she realizes it’s Sugawara going to look for Jurina’s phone. Nao feels a twinge of guilt, but her emotions can’t dwell on much else besides the fiery rage roaring inside her.

A few seconds later, Yuzuki and Kuma join Sugawara in her search. Nao hopes they never find the phone.

“Okay… Now,” Oba brings their attention back to the matter at hand. “This van will be leaving as soon as Yuasa gets here. Maybe that’s ten minutes, maybe it’s five—I don’t know. The point is,” and here she does point at the both of them, “the point is that this van will be leaving. Now, whether the two of you will be in it is still up for debate.”

“Are you going to make us walk home?” Jurina asks stubbornly.

“Wanna bet?” Oba will not be swayed. “Nao-chan, give me your phone.”

“What--”

Your phone, please.” And she knows she has no choice. So she gives Minarun her device and she half-expects her to throw it out the window too. She doesn’t.

What she does do is gesture towards the still-open van door. “Now, I suggest you both start figuring out a way to get home.”

Minarun’s stare is glacial, so they don’t put up a fight.

Instead, they file out of the van, heads bowed as they pass their juniors standing awkwardly by the door. It’s not every day you see your seniors get chastised.

“There should be a bus stop down the street,” Dasu nods towards the lonely sidewalk leading away from the school.

This was really happening, huh?

Jurina and Nao both start walking at about the same time. They don’t talk about it.

Because they know that once they start talking, they’ll have no choice but to follow it through. All the way this time. No distractions. Just the two of them.

Chapter Text

Chapter 13 – Hiding their tears from each other

 

They make it to the bus stop in less than a minute.

They can still see the van from here, and it’s obvious some members are trying to sneak a peek at them but trying to not be too obvious about it.

Jurina walks up to the bus schedule and sighs.

“I don’t think she really wants us to take the bus,” Nao points out as she sits down on the bench.

“Good, because they stopped running two hours ago.” Looks like trying to get back into that van really was the only option for them.

Jurina sits down beside her on the bench, but not too close. Maybe she’s scared Nao will blow up at her again. She’d been doing that a lot lately.

“We need to talk.” Nao does not want to freeze her ass off outside tonight, so she might as well start them off.

“We did talk. This morning.”

“No, we need to really talk--”

“Can I ask you something Nao-chan?” And by her tone, Nao realizes that Jurina’s not really asking for her permission. “If you hate me so much, why do you keep kissing me?”

“I don’t--”

“Or allowing me to kiss you, whatever. It’s the same thing in the end, isn’t it? People usually kiss when they like each other. Maybe even more than that, at least that’s why I--” Jurina cuts herself off and bites her lip. She takes a moment to calm down an then she continues, “I like you. I didn’t lie about that, not once.”

“I don’t hate you.” There’s a lot Nao could say, but she settles for that simple truth.

“Sometimes, it doesn’t feel that way.”

Nao gets to her feet because she fees the emotions coming again. She doesn’t just want to explode this time. That hasn’t done them any good so far. She wants to do it right this time.

“I don’t hate you, but I’m mad at you.” Nao looks up at the dirty roof of the bus shelter covering them. “I’m so mad at you, you have no idea…”

“Why? Is it just because of… of her?”

“It’s more than that.” And Nao takes her time to unpack what she’s feeling. “I don’t understand what you’re thinking. At all. Ever since you came back, I don’t understand you. You do these things that… I have a hard time believing the Jurina I know would do. I feel like I don’t know you anymore.”

And that really was the root of the issue. Nao didn’t know this Jurina. She kept believing she did, just because they could play around like they used to do back then. But something had changed. And they needed to talk about it.

Jurina doesn’t respond for a while, so Nao looks back at her. The ace has her head bowed, staring at her fingers.

“Please explain it to me.”

“…Then you definitely won’t like me.”

“Maybe.” Nao walks back over to the bench and sits—a little closer to Jurina this time. “But I promise I’ll listen.”

Jurina takes a deep breath and finally lifts her head. She isn’t crying, but she does look sad. Like she’s being forced to remember a terrible ordeal. But she couldn’t just keep it in. She had to talk about it. At least, that’s what Nao hoped—that it would do her some good.

“It’s not very fun talking about the hiatus, mostly because there’s only version everyone wants to hear.”

“The one you talk about on TV?”

“Yeah, ‘cause it’s simple and it’s easy to understand, you know. I stayed home, I rested, and then when I got better I came back. Also, I made a lot of food, so that’s cool too.”

“Let’s not talk about that one then.”

“Okay, well… I cried. I cried a lot.” Jurina purses her lips tight as she thinks of what to say next. “And I felt really lonely, especially when I’d hear about how the rest of you guys were doing.”

The ace takes another moment to gather her thoughts and Nao doesn’t butt in. She just listens.

“For ten years, all I knew was how to keep going, going, going. And I kept getting faster, too. Like a racecar, kind of… And of course I did, I knew I was getting closer to the goal, you know. Number 1. I just needed to keep going, keep going.” Jurina furrows her brows, like she’s thinking about something she doesn’t quite remember. “And then I got it… And then I stopped. Just like that, everything shut down, all engines off, all at once.”

The ace smiles wryly, shaking her head. “Driving tip #1: Always park your car before you turn off the engine.”

“You’re not a car.”

Jurina nods, “I’m not a car. But I can’t explain it any other way. It was really like a car accident, for me. That’s how intense and sudden it was, just… But I had to come back, so I had to learn to drive again—”

“No, you’re not a car, Jurina-san.” Nao doesn’t know why, but she can’t handle the ace describing it that way. She said she was going to listen, but not like this. “You’re a human being. Human beings are allowed to rest.”

“Fine.” Jurina thankfully accepts the interjection. She closes her eyes—thinking of another way to express herself? “I really wanted to come back. Really. I thought about it every day, without fail. Every single day, until it finally happened.”

And Nao remembers that day, reading the news, seeing the dozens of texts from the members: ‘Jurina’s back!’

“I’m still thinking about it.”

“Huh? Thinking about what?”

“About coming back. Every day, I’m still thinking about it. I really want to come back, Nao-chan. You have no idea.” Jurina hands curl into fists and she squeezes them tight for a few seconds. Like she’s testing her strength.

“But you are back…”

“Is that what you think? Really?” The ace sounds sarcastic, like she already knows the answer. So Nao makes sure to tell her exactly what she thinks.

“You’re right here beside me, aren’t you? I can touch you now so,” And Nao reaches out her hand and touches one of Jurina’s clenched fists. Slowly her hand opens back up and Nao traces a path along her long fingers. “To me, yes… yes, I think you’re back.”

Jurina just watches their fingers move against each other.

“I’m trying to get my pace back up, but it’s not there yet. Either I’m doing things too fast or too slow.” The ace pouts and Nao lets her heart react. She lets the butterflies come. In a way, it’s comforting to still be this affected by Jurina’s simplest gestures. She doesn’t hate her, she just wants the truth.

“Too slow…?” Nao prods because she knows there’s something there.

“With dancing, with repaying everyone who thought of me while I was gone, with getting back the members’ trust, with…” the ace takes a deep breath, “…with Sakura.”

And Nao lets her heart react to that too. She lets herself feel everything, no more restraining herself. After most of it has washed over her, she moves on.

“Too fast…?”

“With… with…” Jurina’s hand suddenly closes and traps Nao’s own in her palm. Nao wants to hear her say it though. She wants to get everything out.

“Too fast?”

“…with you.”

And no, it doesn’t feel good to hear that. But she wants to make sure Jurina knows something that hasn’t changed.

“I still like you,” Nao confesses. “But…”

“I want to be better. I need to be better.”

“Not for me.”

“For everyone.”

“No. No,” Nao slips her hand free of Jurina’s only so that she can properly intertwine their fingers. “It has to be for you. That’s the only thing that matters.”

Jurina squeezes her hand in response. Maybe she believes her, maybe she doesn’t. But she doesn’t argue, so Nao takes that as a small win.

“But…” And as much as it pains her to do this, she has to say her piece too. Not for Jurina, but for herself. “I can’t… I can’t keep holding on, hanging around and waiting for this new, improved Jurina.”

“…I know.”

“It’s not fair.”

“I know.”

“I deserve better.”

“You do. You do. But… But, I’m still selfish,” Jurina chuckles lightly, her dimples making a brief appearance. “I want that to be me.”

“I want that to be you, too. But it’s not the you right now, and if I keep expecting it to be, I’m only going to be disappointed. I don’t like how it makes me feel, what it makes me do… I don’t want to feel this way… I’ll grow to hate you. And I don’t want that because…” No. She is not going to cry. Nao is not going to cry here.

“I know.” Jurina finally takes pity on her and pulls her hand away. The ace gets to her feet, stretching her legs. She walks a few feet out onto the sidewalk and looks up and down the empty street.

Nao takes the opportunity to wipe at her eyes.

 “Maybe if we try to head back now, we can still catch a ride?” Jurina finally offers shakily. And Nao realizes that she wasn’t the only one on the verge of tears.

They’re so stupid, the two of them. Hiding their tears from each other.

Nao smiles as she stands up too.

Yeah, it’s time to go back now.

 

Unexpectedly, the van is still there waiting for them.

Most of the other members are already asleep in their seats. Yuasa is chatting outside with Oba and Churi, so it’s pretty obvious that they were waiting for them.

Oba spots them first. She gives them both a once-over before nodding to herself, presumably satisfied that they weren’t still at each other’s throats.

But, even if they hadn’t talked, they’d probably be too tired at this point to still be fighting.

“Your phone’s lost, Ojuri,” Minarun says as they get within earshot.

“I’ll have to buy a new one, then,” Jurina answers easily.

“Oh, and I lost your phone too, Nao-chan. Sorry.” Nao knows it’s not true, and that she’s only poking fun at her, but she lets her. It’s too late to be fighting now.

“That’s okay, I’m sure you’ll buy me one to make up for it.”

“With whose money—”

“I’ll let you figure that out,” Nao smiles as she huddles into Churi to get some warmth. Churi eagerly hugs her, wrapping her up in her large jacket.

“All ready to go, then?” Yuasa asks, probably tired of having to deal with their messes by now.

“Yeah~” Jurina and Nao call out at the same time in the flattest voices possible. They share a smile as they pile into the van. They get stuck with the crappy seats up front, but no one’s complaining. It’s time to go home.

Yuasa quietly plays ‘Stand By You’ over the speakers on their way home, even though they’d probably listened to it at least a thousand times over the last two days.

Nao finds it doesn’t bother her much though.

She falls asleep to pieces of the lyrics echoing like promises in her head: “You are still a friend… Even if that doesn’t change in the end… I’ll always stand by you…

Chapter Text

Chapter 14 (Final) – It’s where she belongs

 

Stand By You dance rehearsals start up exactly one week before their first performance.

As planned, Nao spends most of her down time leading up to it trapped in the studio, working on her mini-album.

So, when she steps into the practice room, she’s suddenly hit by the fact that she hasn’t seen most of the members in weeks.

Including Jurina.

Actually, the ace is the first person she spots. She wants to blame it on Jurina’s ridiculously fluorescent practice outfit, but Nao’s done lying to herself. She was looking for her. And she found her. Walking through the dance with their choreographer in the middle of the room.

The other members are absentmindedly watching them as they get ready.

Practice hasn’t started yet, but of course Jurina’s already working hard.

Nao smiles to herself as she puts down her bag by the chairs. Some things never change.

“Nao-chan~”

She looks up and sees Oba calling out to her from the floor where she’s doing her stretches. Nao walks over to join her and asks something that’s been bugging her since she walked in.

“Why is everyone looking at me?”

“Hmm?” Oba feigns innocence and glances around the room. “You’re a pretty girl, Nao-chan. People like looking at pretty things.”

Nao gives her the most unamused glare she can muster.

“What? What do you want me to say?” Oba shrugs. “Maybe I’m not the right person to ask—ah, I bet Jurina would know.”

And there it is. Nao should’ve known.

She should’ve known that a few weeks wasn’t nearly enough time for the fallout of their fight to blow over.

It was honestly pretty stupid of her to think that the members would talk about anything else. It’s not like they’d heard a rumor or there’d only been one witness lucky enough to see it happen. No. Everyone had seen it happen. And for those who hadn’t been in the bus with them, they’d definitely heard it happen.

But context was important.

“What have you heard?” Nao wants to know what the rumor mill has been spinning about her and Jurina. She figures it can’t be too close to the truth—

“You and Jurina are in some kind of weird, open relationship with a few of the other AKB senbatsu girls. But then since you both aren’t in the latest senbatsu, you’re worried the others aren’t being faithful, so Jurina’s been checking in, trying to work things out, but then she’s started acting suspicious too, so you—”

“What?! Who have you been talking to?” Nao shouts out before she can stop herself. Unfortunately, she grabs everyone else’s attention too.

The choreographer takes that as his cue to start practice, so all she can do is glare at a smug-looking Oba as she runs away to the other side of the room.

Practice is fairly uneventful. So uneventful, in fact, that Nao finds she has more than enough time to spend watching the ace. It reminds her of their little Ikinari Punchline dance practice, where she’d been made aware of just how different Jurina was now that she was back. She’d been slower, less certain of herself. That was months ago. Now… now she was smiling.

In between the choreographer’s instruction, the members trying it out, the members missing a step here and there, the choreographer having to go over it more in detail—in between all of that, Jurina had an almost permanent smile on her face. Like she was happy just being there.

Nao finds herself smiling because of it, too.

“Alright, grab some water, take a break. When I get back, we’ll start again from the top,” the choreographer announces to them as he heads quickly for the door. When you gotta go, you gotta go.

Nao grabs the water bottle from her bag and glances absentmindedly around the room. She tries not to let her eyes immediately go towards the ace, but she ends up looking there anyways.

Except Jurina is looking right back at her.

Nao chokes on her water. She turns away as she coughs, trying not to make it too obvious she’s dying. Soon enough though, she feels a hand on her back, rubbing gently.

“Drink slowly, please~”

Nao looks up into the smug, yet hopeful smile on Jurina’s face. Hopeful? Because she knows there’s a chance Nao might actually throw the water bottle at her face this time? Well, she doesn’t. Instead, the first words that she says to the ace in weeks is a playful, “Shut up.”

Jurina hands her a towel and she uses it to cover her mouth as she finishes coughing up her lungs.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. Stupid, but fine.”

“Good to know.” Jurina nods and then takes a sip from her own water bottle.

And here comes the awkward. Nao’s never felt this way around Jurina before. Like they were constantly on the verge of saying too much, even though they’d said so little. They were wary and nervous and…

“Want to sit down for a bit?” Nao asks because standing around was doing them no good. Jurina looks grateful at the offer as she nods.

 

Turns out sitting down isn’t much better.

Backs against the wall, they don’t look at each other as they sip at their waters like they’re drinking tea. Except, it’s not tea. It’s water. That’s how awkward they are around each other.

The only thing they’ve accomplished so far is scaring off anyone who was trying to sneakily glance at them. That’ll teach them to be so… curious? Honestly, Nao can’t fault them for being so nosy. She would be too, if she wasn’t currently one-half of the most awkward pairing in the room.

“So…” Jurina starts off, obviously just wanting to say something.

“Yeah?”

“You, uh… Your album? How’s that going?”

Oh? Nao wasn’t really expecting that.

“It’s good.”

“Finished yet? The release date is this month, right?”

“It is.” I’m surprised you remember. “I’m surprised you remember.”

Nao’s eyes widen when she lets that last thought slip out of her mouth. She hadn’t meant to say it and she knew it sounded a bit mean. It wasn’t though, she was just honestly surprised that the ace had remembered that.

“Sorry—”

“I’m surprised too,” Jurina admits, smiling easily. “I kept saying it in my head as I was walking over. ‘Remember to ask about the album. Don’t talk too much. Don’t mess up. Don’t mess up.’”

“You gave yourself a pep talk?” That’s kinda… cute.

“I did! And then when I finally got over here, guess what?”

“What?” Nao asks, but she’s smiling along with the ace because she knows the answer. “You forgot everything?”

“Every word,” Jurina shamelessly admits. And then she lets out a tiny little chuckle, dimples and all. She looks so genuine and earnest, like she’s asking Nao to laugh along with her. So she does. And she shakes her head, because how does the ace do that? Pull her right back in so quickly, like she’d never left her orbit.

“Wait, wait, there’s something else,” Jurina says, cutting off their laughter. “I remembered something else.”

“What?”

“Lips-kun misses you.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. I told him I was meeting you today and…” Jurina clears her throat, “There’s a message, okay? Are you ready?”

Nao raises a suspicious brow at the ace, but nods all the same. “Sure…”

And then Jurina tilts her head back and lets out the loudest howls Nao’s ever heard come out of a human being. “Awoooooooooooooo! Ruff! Ruff! Ruff! Rrrrrruff! AwoooOOoooo!”

She finishes it up with a round of snarls before turning to smile innocently at a shell-shocked Nao.

What… How…

What was she even supposed to say in response to that?

“Want to hear it again?” Jurina asks cheekily, fully prepared to start howling again.

But she’s stopped from a repeat performance when Oba bellows across the room, “Oi Ojuri! Have you finally gone mad?!”

Nao looks around and she realizes she’s not the only who heard puppy J in action (obviously). All the other members seem lost for words. Until someone starts laughing, and then another, and then another. Then everyone’s burst out into a fit of laughter.

Nao too, but she covers her face to hide herself from Jurina’s smug mug.

Minarun storms over, grinning even while she berates the ace. “Oi! This isn’t that kind of place, you hear?”

“Fine, fine, I’m sorry,” Jurina gets out mid-chuckle. She holds up her hands in surrender, “I’m sorry.”

“Oi! Just ‘cause you’re the #1, you think you can do whatever?” Oba threateningly jerks her chin up as she heads back to her seat. “I’m watching you. The World Senbatsu Sousenkyo 8th place finisher won’t allow such rabble.”

“I’m… I’m… I’m sorry.” Jurina’s clutching her stomach now, in full fits. Most of the other members are in the same state. And Nao…

Nao shoves the ace hard, nearly knocking her over in the process.

“Not you too, Nao-chan~” Jurina complains as she tries to regain her balance.

So Nao keeps shoving her, until she’s right over her, pushing her down so she stays there. It’s where she belongs.

“Ah! I’m sorry! I’m sorry, Nao-chan! Please forgive me~”

“Stop talking!” But Nao’s smiling all the while too.

So, in a way, maybe she has forgiven her. Even a little bit.

 

Practice goes on for a few more hours, and then it’s over and it’s time to go home.

Nao zips up her bag, one of the last to leave. Jurina is still dancing in front of the mirror, trying to nail down her moves. As Nao walks out, she thinks about how similar the two of them are in the end. Jurina with her performances and Nao with her singing. Dedicated to their crafts, at a level that might seem a bit overboard to others. But to them, this was what they loved.

“Ready to go?” Oba asks as Nao reaches the door.

“Yeah,” she sighs, hoisting her bag over her shoulder.

“…You sure?”

“Yeah, let’s—”

“Nao-chan.” Oba’s voice and expression are no-nonsense personified. She casts a meaningful glance back at Jurina, now the only one left in the room. Nao follows her gaze and she sees the ace watching them in the mirror. When their eyes meet, Jurina smiles and gives her the tiniest goodbye wave before going back to dancing. “I’ll wait outside.”

And with that, Minarun closes the door, leaving Nao and Jurina inside.

“She’s so nosy for how small she is.” Nao sighs, dropping her bag back onto the ground.

“That’s Minarun for you. She used to do the same thing when I was younger.”

“I know, she told me.” Nao walks over to the ace and watches her for a moment. She quickly picks up where Jurina is in the choreography and decides to join her. They move in sync for a moment, slower than they need to, but in absolute perfect sync. “You were always getting in trouble.”

Jurina doesn’t deny it. “I grew up with SKE so… I was always learning.”

“The older members took care of you.”

“I was their little baby,” the ace nods. “But, it’s not always good having so many parents, you know.”

“Why?”

“They let me get away with too much sometimes…”

“But you learned. Like you said.”

“But not after messing up really bad first.” Jurina frowns as she misses a step in the choreo. Instead of starting over though, she carefully watches Nao’s movements, then picks right back up as soon as she can. “I learned to say sorry a lot.”

They don’t say anything for a few minutes, not until they finish the short part of the dance they’d learned today. Then Jurina turns towards Nao and just like that, she knows they’re finally about to talk about it.

“I went to Korea a few weeks ago. I visited Sakura and we talked.” The ace smiled ruefully. “She’s not stupid. She knew about some of it, and that call I made before I left certainly didn’t help any… I apologized a lot. More than I’ve ever done in my life… But not everything is so easy to fix with just sorry, and not everything deserves to be fixed, so… She broke up with me.”

Nao listens to the whole story, watching Jurina’s expressions throughout. She still can’t read her all that well, but she doesn’t have to. She can just ask.

“Did you want to fix it?”

“I didn’t want to hurt her… So, no.”

“You told her everything?”

Jurina nods.

“So, she probably won’t want to see me any time soon.”

“Probably not,” Jurina winces.

Nao nods, thinking about what to do next. Where do they go from here? This was what she’d wanted Jurina to do for so long and now that she had… now what?

“Not everything deserves to be fixed,” the ace repeats. She looks up, right at Nao, as she says her next works, “So… that’s why… I was hoping we could eventually make something new.”

Nao raises a brow at her, surprised. “…Something new?”

And there was that stupid smile again. As if signaling that the ace was about to take a chance on something, using her best weapon to aid her in her time of need.

 “I want to ask you out.”

And that really, really surprises Nao. “What? I’m sorry, what?”

“Not now, but later. After promotions.” Jurina nods, resolute in her wishes. She soldiers on, despite obviously knowing how crazy this all sounded. “I’m telling you from now, though. I’m telling you what I’m thinking right now. That’s my plan.”

“And if I say no?

“Then… Then I’ll have to work harder, right? I’ll have to do more to convince you to give me another chance.”

Did she want to? Nao looks at the ace’s nervous, yet determined face. She looks like she really wants this. But does Nao? “What if I don’t want to?”

“Then… That’s fine, too. But I can’t not try.” What a Jurina thing to say. Really.

“You think you…no, we—you think we deserve another chance?”

“I think we deserve a better chance. That’s my goal. And, I don’t know, it took me ten years to reach my last goal, so… it’s crazy, but I’ll work hard for it. I promise.”

Nao shakes her head, chuckling at how, no matter how much had happened, some things never changed.

Even now…

“Well… then I have a message too… for Lips-kun,” Nao finally says, after a moment.

“Are you going to bark at me?” Jurina looks a bit suspicious, but Nao shakes her head.

She wants to say it. For the both of them.

So they both can hear it loud and clear.

“Tell Lips-kun… I miss you too.”

And like clockwork, that stupid smile stretches across the ace’s face. And judging by their reflections in the mirror, the same smile finds its way onto Nao’s face too.

They part like that, with a not-quite promise.

Like maybe it wasn’t their time yet, maybe they still had a lot of work to do before they could get there. But they’d definitely get there. One day.