The keys juggles in Usami's hands as she quickly fumbles the door open. She is worried. The last text message she received from him that morning when she was at work basically yells danger. He sent her some random characters that don't really make sense but she knew are translated to 'I am too tired to even text and is probably passed out starving and exhausted'.
As she opens the door, the odor of trash and unwashed plates wafts to her. Not as bad as she expects, but definitely not a good living condition for a normal person. She turns on the lights and finds a trail of a bag, shoes, socks, jeans, and hoodie all leading to the only room in his apartment. The living room is also a mess: papers everywhere, eraser dusts covering the carpet, pens and brushes clattered. There has been a collection of three full garbage bags in one corner and one in another. She checks his refrigerator and sure enough, the vegetables are all spoilt. Most of the food products are past their expiration dates.
Usami sighs in frustration. This guy better be thankful that she’s there, she thought begrudgingly . The only good thing he remembered doing is locking his own front door.
She ties her short hair and wears the apron she found in one of the drawers that is almost collecting dust.
She peeks at the room and finds the owner of the house face flat in his bed. She guesses his face is sporting a very pale, lifeless expression and a really dark under eye circle.
This guy really works hard and most of the time, forgets to take care of himself. When they accidentally met again after almost a decade, she was surprised at how exhausted he seemed and how thin he was. He looked so tired but the moment he recognized her, his face lightened. Nothing beats seeing an old friend, at least that was the case for him. For her, seeing him, her first love, again after so many years revoked so many feelings. Like she was having a nostalgic trip and somehow even though work was stressful that day, it all went away, together with the fatigue painted on his face. They chat, catch up, and then things just go on further, like what is happening now.
Just like when they were in middle school, he is still careless whenever he’s really preoccupied by something. Usami is not sure if it is just her past crush resurfacing or she’s just being a concerned friend, but she always has the urge to take care of him, make sure he eats well or something.
Okay, it may just be a little of both, because the Uchimaki now, all grown up and adult, looks matured and all but deep inside his childish ways never changed. He still has stashes of manga, still into and draws 2D brides (as stress reliever, he claims), and still the helpful and kind person she came to love before. Maybe this consistency is what drives Usami into doing chores for him, because it feels nice to help and it most definitely is nice to be with him.
After two hours of deep cleaning everything: she sorted out the trash and threw the combustibles, washed the dishes thoroughly, his soiled clothes thrown into his laundry bin all sorted, his fridge all stocked with dishes she cooked and brought that he could just heat up, his drawing materials all sorted and arranged—she grins triumphantly at her job well done. All that is left is to wait for the stew she is cooking to simmer. She knocks on the door to his room loudly.
“Hey, Uchimaki-kun, wake up! Time to eat!” He didn’t budge.
Usami knocks louder. “Hey sleepyhead, come on, you have to eat. I cooked some stew. Hey!”
She hears him groan. She blushes at the thought of getting near him and shaking him awake herself. He is just clad in his T-shirt and boxers. She just knocks again.
“Usami-san, is that you?” he groggily asks as he stretches out against his bed.
“Yep, I received your text. Now, I’m guessing you are already asleep for about 12 hours. You need to eat, you know?”
He turns and sits upright. He rubs his eyes for a while and then gives her a lazy smile. “You’re a lifesaver. I haven’t eaten real food in three days.”
Her heart pounds at his smile. She hears Kaori in her head teasing her, 'First love never dies, Mizu', when she told her friends that she and Uchimaki met again. Maybe Kaori is right.
He stands up and blinks, still dizzy.
“You should at least remember to eat, you know? You’re really helpless,” she fakes a sigh as she quickly paces back to the kitchen. That is not good for her heart. For a moment, Uchimaki-kun really looks so cute, the way he rubs his eyes makes Usami's heart flip. It has been for a while now, sometimes he would look cool and handsome and then the next he would look cute and adorable. No matter which, it would still give the same effect to her.
Usami evens out her breathing as she hears him drag a chair and sits. She turns off the stove and prepares the bowl for him.
“That editor is really terrible, Usami-san! We just submitted the needed illustrations for the art books last week and then he suddenly said he needed a new 45-page chapter just four days ago? Who can even do that? Even though we're a team it’s still almost impossible,” he starts complaining after he drinks a glass of water.
She sets the stew on the table and takes a seat across from him. “That’s why you didn’t have time to eat?”
He just nods as he digs into his meal. “Are you not gonna eat, Usami-san?”
“I already ate, thanks. Anyway, I tidied up your living room, but all the stuff on the table is still there. I didn’t open anything, I promise! I just vacuumed the carpet and uncluttered the pens and brushes.” Now that she realizes, she might have stepped over the line and overdone the cleaning.
He shakes his head. “No, no! Thank you. I didn’t know you were coming though. But thanks anyway. This is so delicious, too.”
She smiles at him. “Uchimaki-kun, you texted me some unintelligible characters this morning. I know you’re probably too exhausted to even stand so I came here after work.”
“I did? Oh gosh, I didn’t mean to! I’m so sorry for the imposition.”
“It’s fine. Just don’t overwork yourself like that again. At least eat some biscuits or something. I also left some food in the fridge for the next few days. Gosh, I feel like a mom,” she pouts. Taking care of this guy really is a bit tedious, but Usami enjoys it anyway.
He smiles at her, his eyes twinkling and it’s as if she is shot by his cuteness. “Thanks, for always being there.”
For a second he holds their gaze then he quickly averts it back to his bowl. Kaori is right. Her feelings for him have resurfaced. Usami also knows that she still has no chance for him. He’s still going on about 2D brides and his work takes up all his time, even though he’s basically working at home. She’s just happy at what she could settle for: taking care of him as a friend. He even trusts her enough to give her a spare key to his home. That alone is enough for her.
He doesn’t raise his head from his food again. Probably his hunger overcomes his need to vent out. She eyes him discreetly. He’s gotten healthier since she saw him. She smiles.
“I think you can handle yourself now, right? I should be going now, it’s getting kinda late,” she says as she stands up and picks up her bag. “I’m glad you texted me even though you didn’t mean to. You could’ve died if you didn’t. When you need help, just call me, okay?”
She turns and catches how red his ears are. It is one of his tells that he’s embarrassed. She grins.
“No need to get embarrassed. You did help me a lot too. Friends help each other,” she says when he doesn't reply. She feels a little pang when she says the word out loud. It makes the line between them very visible.
He looks at her with a blank expression. Her heart starts pacing. This is one of the serious looks that would always make her nervous.
“Do you need anything…?” She trails. What if…? No, right? He’s not going to say anything like that, right?
“I finished it. I actually finished my life dream. You know, a bride.”
Yeah, what did she expect him to say? That he likes her? She chuckles out loud at her own ridiculousness. It’s like middle school all over again.
“You mean the 2D bride? Good for you, Uchimaki-kun! After ten years and hundreds of ex-waifus, you can finally settle for the 'Ultimate 2D waifu'.” She’s still laughing. It was childish, but it really brings back many beautiful memories. If it wasn’t for this 'life dream', they wouldn’t even know each other.
“Let me see it then. Can I?” She asks as she takes a seat back at the table.
He hesitates at first but then he smiles, “Sure.”
He stands up and proceeds to his room. He has so many previous brides kept in his closet. Some of them, the first ones and the ones in canvases, are nostalgic and full of stories she knew, but most are in his sketchpad, with stories she never witnessed herself. When he showed her the crying bride he painted before that was inspired by her during one of their reminiscing, that was when she knew that there's a chance that she still has feelings for him. Usami is excited to hear the story behind this ultimate 2D waifu, because for sure she can see him happily talk about it. If he’s happy, then she’s happy too.
He returns with a canvas in his hands. It’s actually bigger than the others.
“Oh, really special for the ultimate bride. She’s on a bigger canvas!” Usami exclaims, lately his drawings are just in his sketchpad because he barely has time. This one he actually takes time to paint. Uchimaki just smiles.
“So, let me hear the story. What inspired you for this ultimate 2D waifu?” She asks before he could turn the canvas. He scans his painting so lovingly and Usami cannot help but feel proud for him, although there is still the tinge of jealousy. She feels pathetic for a second that she just got jealous of a drawing.
“Well, this waifu is not as pretty as the previous ones. But she’s at least barely cute.”
She gives him a confused look; it’s weird for him not to call his waifu a beauty or a goddess. He continues, “And she’s violent and her punches hurt. But she’s kind and really reliable.”
Usami could feel her heart almost escaping the restraints of her ribs. Is it who she thinks it is? It isn’t, right? She shouldn’t expect much because this is Uchimaki-kun; another character must have stolen his heart again. She seriously should stop expecting anything.
“W-wow, that seems great, Uchimaki-kun. Now, can I look at it?” To stop her from worrying, from hoping. Because knowing him, it’s definitely going to be a character.
He breathes deeply and then smiles. He turns the canvas.
It isn’t a character. The ultimate 2D bride isn’t a moe drawing. It is a realistic portrait of a bride, wearing a wedding dress and holding a bouquet.
A portrait of a girl in short bob hair adorned with a bunny clip. The girl she saw every day whenever she looked at a mirror ten years ago.
Usami couldn’t believe her eyes. Words just won’t come out. This must be some kind of joke, right?
“So, what do you think? Do you think she would agree?”
Her chest starts to feel heavy. She feels warmth coursing from her core to her very tips. It feels like she’s drowning in a paint of different colors, mottling her in different hues. She’s happy and relieved but there is also doubt and sadness and fear that this is all a joke, that any minute he would take it back and tell her it’s a prank or something.
He does not. He faces her earnestly, waiting for her answer. She opens her mouth, trying to put her doubts into words.
“Uhm, haha, that’s a nice painting, Uchimaki-kun. I mean…” oh damn, she doesn’t have the right words. Does she run away? Is she supposed to answer the question he hangs? But that’s her, right? Or is she just hallucinating? Dreaming?
“I mean, the color. The shades of—”
“Usami-san,” he calls. She does not answer.
“Usami-san, may I ask you to be my bride?”
She hears it. Loud and clear with discernment. She buries her face in her hands. Her tears start to fall. She wipes her face and bites her lip. What is she supposed to say?
“Ah! Why are you crying?!”
“YOU LOLICON!” She yells as she throws her bag in his direction, which he barely dodges. For some reasons she doesn’t know, those are the first words that came out of her mouth.
“Why didn’t you paint me as I am now, you idiot! There’s no way I’ll be as cute as that anymore!” Usami complains. “And if that isn’t cute for you then I must be super ugly now!”
“That’s the issue?!” He retorts.
“Yes! And why are you asking to marry me when we’re not even dating yet! You got the order all wrong!”
“Eh? We’re not dating?” Uchimaki asks cluelessly. “I mean, we have spare keys to each other’s apartments. We call each other whenever we have time. Isn’t that what dating is?”
“Are you for real?” She barks incredulously, then sighs. She’s ecstatic that he thinks of her that way. She loves him more than he loves her for sure, but there has to be order to things.
“If you ask me to marry you right away, I will have to refuse. I mean, I… love you ever since we knew each other you know? Then out of nowhere you’re gonna ask me to marry you. It’s like a dream. I would love to hear more of what you love about me before we step to the next level.”
His face contorted into a confused look. “You loved me before?”
“You seriously didn’t notice?!” He shook his head.
“I just thought you treat me like you treat anyone. At least that was my impression in middle school.”
“You’re unbelievably stupid, you know that? Anyway! I would be your girlfriend first, to make sure you don’t neglect yourself. You can barely even take care of yourself and you’re wanting to marry? You’re really hopeless.”
He frowns a bit then pouts, “Hey that’s rude. I already treat you as my girlfriend though. It’s you who doesn’t treat me as your boyfriend.”
This is really bad for her heart. Usami wonders if her heartstrings are still intact after these endless attacks. “Th-that’s not how you treat a girlfriend though! I mean, we never even…,” she couldn’t finish her sentence.
He steps closer and before she could protest he plants a small kiss on her forehead.
“If that’s what you’re talking about I already am doing that every time you sleep here to help me with work. I’m always asleep whenever you leave in the morning so I just make it up for it.”
Usami is overheating. This is probably her middle school self reacting. “That’s so unfair,” she murmurs. “I kept my feelings for you for three years and more and then here you are just saying and doing those things so easily.”
He drags a chair and sits before her.
“Sorry for not noticing. Honestly, I never thought of it. This painting of you just came naturally to me. I was planning to draw some brides because my sister brought some extra canvas and then next thing I knew I just drew you.”
She frowns. “That doesn’t really help anything!” He wipes a tear from her eyes. She blushes more deeply as she hides her face again in her hands.
“I actually had this for a while now. When I saw you again, I just… realized it. And then we just naturally became friends again and then you’re already visiting me here often so I gave you a key and you also gave me your key so I thought, 'this is what dating in 3D is like',” he explains quietly as he looks at the painting again.
“So then, if this is the right order, then Usami-san, please be my girlfriend who will eventually be my wife.”
She doesn’t meet his eyes. Hearing those words with her eyes closed resonates inside her, sinking in deeper. Her first love, once hopeless and lost, is now in front of her sincerely asking her to be his girlfriend. She could say yes right away.
Yes . “But I’m not two dimensional.” She almost curses herself. Only one word and she still fails to say it.
He chuckles. “You’re my favorite three dimensional girl and the only one I would date. At least that’s what I feel. I didn’t think much of it before. I was a kid, you see. But now that I’ve seen you again, I just thought that you are it.”
She feels his arms snake around her shoulders. This is like her dreams, only it is warm and real . “So?” he whispers as he gently cradles her tighter.
“Yes,” she breathlessly answers. And she is floating. She gives in to the warmth and leans to him. She hears his heart, also pounding as fast as hers and right there she feels calm.
“But to give you a heads-up, please don’t throw out my other brides. You have no idea how many of those are inspired by you, Mizuki-san.”
Usami has a retort at the tip of her tongue, but she holds it back. Not now, she thinks. Maybe next time. Right now she just wants to bask under the warmth of her boyfriend and the fact that he has always been subconsciously in love with her.
After all that’s been said, Uchimaki suggested she stay for the night, which she agrees even if she didn’t bring her hygiene kit. She took a quick shower, borrowed his clothes, and volunteered to sleep on the couch. But after an argument of her being not entirely honest that she, in fact, also wanted to sleep next to him, she called truce and slept at the other edge of the bed with a pillow between them. She strictly prohibited him from doing 'weird things' which she didn’t specify, but he guessed was along the lines of looking at her or lewd touches. He didn't want the latter either, if that was what she was worried about. Plus he had no spare energy.
What he wanted was to bask in the mixed fragrance of his soap and her own smell that’s similar to some flowers and some really fragrant paint. He boldly leaned his face closer to her shoulder when he felt like her breathing evened out. To his surprise, she turned. Before he could prepare himself for a slap and prepare an apology, he felt a gentle breeze on his face. Usami was still asleep. He studied her face for a bit. She’s cute, but not the universal type of cute. He remembered the time she fell asleep on his shoulder, he felt a surge of inspiration too, only this time he was too tired to sketch her.
Instead he just held her closer to him. Relishing the scent of his soap on her skin, he let her head rest in the crook of his neck. In the end, he failed to say a lot of things.
That he always had an idea that she might like him during that time in middle school. That he secretly didn’t want it to be true because he knew he was not interested at that time and it could’ve hurt her, but when they parted ways he was a bit disappointed that it was probably just false rumors because she never said anything, even though that was what he wanted.
That during high school, although he found friends who enjoyed the same hobbies, he was confused as to why he couldn’t help but always hesitate whether to call or not whenever he reached her name in his contacts.
That he was almost falling apart when he met her again on that rainy night cursing at a broken umbrella inside a waiting shed; and although he initially would just like to give his umbrella to a stranger (because what’s the point of protecting himself from the rain, he’s almost on the verge of getting his series axed), he saw it was her and right then he felt saved like he was dragged up and away by a lifeline from the depths of where he was headed.
That in that instant he knew she’s definitely the girl he wanted to marry, even though he never really entertained the idea of loving someone before. He still doesn’t, but it seems as though she is an exception. Like it’s her or no one at all.
That he had a sketchbook full of rough sketches of her sleeping, smiling and almost every expression he drew by memory whenever he wanted to see her.
That most of his moe characters and waifus are based on her.
That probably he was even clingier to her than she was to him and he had no plans of changing it.
He leaned closer and whispered to her ear, “Sorry for the long wait, Mizuki.”