She remembered a multitude of feelings for him on that first day that they had met at the entrance ceremony.
The first, strangely to those that did not know Sakura Chiyo, was that he was sleeping, groggy and mildly irritated on being woken up. Not at her, just in general. She felt a kinship with him for that; her last few nights had been just as sleepless as his, although she was sure it was for different reasons.
The second was the intrigue, for that matter, about how he'd spent his night. He seemed to be battered and bruised - a little like she had been at some points of the evening, but found that she recovered quickly after being asleep for a little while - was he in a gang? Was he getting into trouble? Would she run into him one night?
The third was the blossoming of the romantic feelings she held for him, despite almost knowing somehow that he'd never figure them out, and probably hadn't thought of that day since the moment he'd helped her over the gate. She smiled sadly to herself as she thought of this.
"What's the matter, Sakura?" a familiar deep voice asked of her, and that voice automatically made her heart flutter.
She smiled to the owner of the voice, "I'm okay, Nozaki-kun. I'm just thinking of how we first met."
"Hmm," he said, and she watched him close his eyes and strain his mind over remembering it.
"It doesn't matter if you don't recall it, Nozaki-kun..." she sighed, dipping the brush in order to finish the last panel of beta. "Girls remember everything."
"I gave you my autograph?" Nozaki offered.
She smiled and shook her head, "We met before that, but we were both very tired." This apparently did nothing to help him, so she thought about another way to prompt the memory. "What project were you working on before we started at Roman High, Nozaki-kun?"
Nozaki slapped his fist on his open palm, "Another shoujo manga, but it got rejected, so I had to come up with the proposal for Let's Love on the night before the opening ceremony..." he paused here as if he should be remembering something, but he came up blank.
Sakura was heartened by this long pause nonetheless, then she said, "What sort of shoujo manga was it? Why did the editors not like it?"
"Oh, they liked it, but I didn't have the skills or references to do it justice. I'll show you the manuscript next time, I'll have to find it in my archived work."
She was intrigued by the lack of response to what sort of manga it was, but she nodded, "That would be great, Nozaki-kun! I look forward to it!"
"You said that like you're leaving, Sakura, are you done with the beta?"
Sakura looked at her little wristwatch and said, "I should be going, actually. Yes, I'm done with this chapter! Thank you for dinner and the drinks, Nozaki-kun."
Nozaki leaned over to admire the job Sakura had done on the beta, "Thank you for always doing this, Sakura. Cooking is the least I can do."
Sakura beamed up at him, resigned to the fact that he'd never treat her more familiarly than this, but pleased with the level of that familiarity, "You're welcome, Nozaki-kun."
He quietly followed her to the door as she slipped her shoes on, "Do you need someone to walk you to the station?"
"Someone?" Sakura asked, looking around him back into the apartment.
Nozaki looked away, "Well, me I suppose, I just wondered..."
It would have been a lovely moment to consider Nozaki's motives, but Sakura's phone gently vibrated in her blazer pocket and she was snapped out of any sense of pleasant surprise she was feeling, "Thank you Nozaki-kun, but I really have to hurry now, my mother will be home tonight."
"Of course," Nozaki said, and she stepped outside, "Thank you Sakura, have a safe journey."
Sakura held her appropriately swift walk for as far as she could before she turned it into a sprint. There was something going on in the city tonight, she could feel it.
Her mother wasn't coming home tonight. The notification to her phone was from a little-known service that reported any need for a special kind of intervention. She'd set up a special vibrate pattern for it. Coming to a queue at the station gates, she quickly whipped out her phone to check it.
A message arrived from Seo. [Stay safe tonight, Chiyo.] A surprising message from someone as complex and ordinarily blunt as Seo, but she really did care for Sakura.
She smiled and sent one back, [Thank you, I will. I was at Nozaki-kun's but I said that my mother was home tonight.]
Seo would keep her story straight.
Nozaki had watched from his apartment door as Sakura reached the street, however, and he'd seen her dart off. Had he made her feel uncomfortable? He wasn't sure why he was worried about that in particular, though. Maybe she was just concerned about getting home as soon as possible to see her mother.
He returned to the kitchen to tidy up the serving plates and cooking utensils used that evening, and noticed the television remote laying on the kitchen counter that separated the kitchen from the living space. He shrugged and turned the TV on, letting it quietly read out the news as background noise.
It was tough for Sakura to keep a low profile when her antagonists knew she'd be there to stop the slightest sign of civil unrest, the exact thing they used to draw her out.
She no longer noticed her backpack disappearing, her clothes transforming into something even less practical, one would think, for running around and dodging and fighting, but here they were. A conservative heel on some beautiful boots, long stockings, and a pretty dress with a voluminous underskirt. Based on reading magical girl manga since childhood, she'd hoped for a small trinket or a weapon, but she found that her innate ability to cast lightning attacks at the click of a finger was pretty cool regardless.
It didn't stop her constant would-be capturers from incessantly asking the source of her powers, of course.
She could hear police sirens in the distance as she leapt unimaginable vertical distances for a better vantage point. She could see smoke too far out for them to get there in time to put out the fire or whatever was over there. Sakura wondered how she was going to handle this - she lacked any magical ability to put out fires. She'd have to think about something else.
No sign of any of the usual grunts in their matching uniforms - something she'd thought was a joke the first time she'd encountered them, reminding her of the inefficient crime organisations from Pokémon - but there was a fire, in a perfectly nice ice cream shop frequented by girls from her class, probably with Kashima.
As luck would have it, there was a fire hydrant nearby; one above ground, rather than the more beautiful decorated grates that housed the underground ones. Sakura concentrated, dropping towards the ground with her arms outstretched, and unleashed a mighty blinding crack of lightning that hit the hydrant precisely where she wanted it to. One of the caps sprung off, and it twisted in its place, aiming the water directly into the broken front window, into the flames.
Nobody would believe this, Sakura thought, admiring her work. As she let her guard down for a second, someone or something took hold of her arm in a very strong grip, and she came face to face with a person in a familiar uniform.
"Are we going to see who's under that mask?" The person hissed.
Sakura panicked, apparently scorching the person in the process as an involuntary reaction. With that, she disappeared again into the night, but she knew that they had left a serious amount of bruising on her arm by that point.
She thought briefly about heading back to Nozaki's apartment rather than facing the empty house her parents frequently left her in, but she couldn't explain the state she was in. She needed to go home, struggle through her homework, and sleep off the exertion and injury.
Sakura started using her enhanced manoeuvrability to return home swiftly, but she could already feel her clothes changing back to her normal school uniform, and with the costume went her powers. She slowed to a half-hearted jog as she reached the edge of her neighbourhood. It was quiet by now; nobody to question why she looked so disheveled, and she was grateful as well that her neighbours often kept to themselves and didn't question why they only rarely saw a car in the driveway, yet often saw a 16-year-old responsibly getting herself to and from school every day.
But Sakura saw something new on her porch this time, and she was equal parts horrified and pleased. Nozaki stood there holding the other shoulder bag she often used to carry extra things to school.
"Nozaki-kun--" Sakura breathed, wishing she was more composed, "Nozaki-kun, what--"
She knew the answer before he interrupted her. Of course, she had left it at his apartment when she rushed away.
"You left this at my apartment, and I thought maybe you needed it, because my class certainly received homework for the books you have in here. I'm sorry for looking."
Sakura took the bag from him, looking as grateful as she could without wanting to usher him away, "Nozaki-kun, you didn't have to. I could have come back to get it if you'd texted me."
"I did." Nozaki said, showing her a number of messages in his flip phone's outbox.
Sakura dropped her bags on the floor and rummaged around in her blazer pockets. There was her phone - a stream of messages down the lock screen, most from Seo, peppered with a few from Nozaki.
"I'm sorry Nozaki-kun, I didn't see them."
"That's...okay. But Sakura, are you okay? You look exhausted. I thought you were coming straight here to see your mother."
Sakura was so overwhelmed by everything and the pressure of having to make up a story that she simply burst into tears, alarming Nozaki. He wasn't sure what to do, nor whether it was appropriate to make physical contact with her.
Sakura registered this, although she would have given anything for a hug at that second, and she blurted out, "Mama couldn't stay long enough tonight to come back to the house, so I met her in the city. But there was an explosion downtown and she sent me home halfway through..."
"I saw it on the news, you were downtown when that happened? Do you need medical attention?" Nozaki asked, grasping at all the information for something helpful.
Sakura wiped her tears on her sleeve and smiled, "I'm okay, Nozaki-kun, I just got a little bumped by other commuters trying to get home in the rush. It would really make me happy if you would come in and have a drink with me, I hate being in this empty house all the time."
Nozaki nodded in agreement, and she was still unable to read the look on his face. She went to pick up her bags, but he picked them up for her, so she smiled and went ahead with unlocking the door.
The house was quiet and dark at this point. It gave Sakura chills when she came in on her own during the week. Before she'd started visiting Nozaki several times a week, she'd always tried her best to get home before dark, but it had been worth it, no doubt.
Before Nozaki, of course, the whole mahou shoujo thing had happened. Sakura wasn't sure exactly why. The powers had simply awakened in her one day, and she'd told nobody except Seo, who'd put her in touch with someone her cousin knew, who hosted the app she used to find people and places to help. She would have liked to find out if it was something that ran in her family, but she didn't feel close enough to her parents any more to even tell them it was happening.
"Tea, Nozaki-kun?" Sakura asked, slipping her shoes off in the entryway and stepping out of the way so he could do the same.
"Please," Nozaki responded, following her to the kitchen and looking around in surprise, "Sakura, this kitchen is amazing!"
She filled the kettle and beamed back at him, "It's not really used to its full potential, to be honest, Nozaki-kun. Nothing here is anywhere near as nice as what I eat from your kitchen."
Nozaki wandered around, admiring the worktops, the oven, the hob - everything. The lovely knife rack, the saucepans and utensils hung above the hob. He saw dishes laying in the sink from Sakura's modest breakfast, and leftover scraps from making the bento she'd brought in that day, but nothing else was even remotely out of place.
"Sakura, this is a very strange request, and it feels almost rude, but if your parents are rarely here, would it be okay if I cooked here sometime?"
"Of course! We should invite some other friends. Mama wouldn't be happy if she knew we were here on our own."
"She just wants you to be surrounded by friends, that's nice."
Sakura visibly blushed, though Nozaki missed it through the steaming water she poured into a ceramic teapot, "No, it's because I'm mama's innocent girl and she'd worry about me having a boy here on my own."
"I see," said Nozaki, looking around further as Sakura calmed herself, rifling through a drawer for the matching teacups.
The walls were decorated with family portraits, all seemingly leading up to Sakura's first couple of years in middle school. At that point, they stopped, and the only new photos were of Sakura and Seo, and other friends from her class. A centrally positioned one was her and Seo with Kashima.
"You wore a sailor uniform in middle school, Sakura!"
She looked ruffled, "Yes, and that's where I'd like it to stay!"
Nozaki chuckled quietly to himself and then turned to receive a cup of oolong from Sakura, "Thank you."
Sakura sat down opposite him at the small two-person breakfast table and smiled, looking happier than she had in some time, Nozaki considered. And Sakura wasn't the type of person to be unhappy on a regular basis - she was generally chipper and enthusiastic about everything, but lately she'd clearly had something on her mind. Nozaki expressed this to her in his normal blunt way, and Sakura went a little pinker - or maybe she was just warming up after coming in from outside? - and then said, "It's okay, Nozaki-kun, it's nothing you should worry about."
"You're my friend, Sakura, you should tell me if you want to share your problems with me. I always share my manga problems with you, anyway," Nozaki sighed.
"I don't have any manga problems right now," Sakura joked. "It's okay, no offence, Nozaki-kun, but I talk to Yuzuki a lot about the little troubles I have."
"Girl things?” Nozaki asked, taking a sip of tea.
"You could say that," Sakura said, glad of him bringing up the one surefire way to stop a guy from asking further questions.
"Hmm," said Nozaki, and then he looked at her, "In that department, I can only help you with matters of romance. Are you worried because of a boy?"
Sakura sighed, "You could say that as well."
There was a long pause in which Nozaki battled with the idea of Sakura being anyone's girlfriend, and then he said, "I need to approve."
Sakura spluttered and laughed, "You need to what?"
Nozaki powered on through her laughter, "I need to know if it's someone who will treat you with the respect and care you deserve."
"Definitely, Nozaki-kun," Sakura said, "I think you will."
Nozaki sat and stared into his tea for a few minutes, so Sakura did the same. Then she leapt up and gathered the bag that Nozaki had brought round, and pulled out the homework she'd been assigned, double checking it against her planner.
"Do you want some help, Sakura? I did the assignment while I was waiting for you to reply."
Sakura looked over at him, "Sorry, Nozaki-kun, I didn't mean to be rude, it's just that it's already late and I've never forgotten to hand in homework before. If you wouldn't mind..."
Nozaki pulled his chair around to sit next to Sakura, "I think I can remember some of these."
"Japanese History is one of your best subjects, isn't it, Nozaki-kun?" Sakura asked as she penned the first answer in her exercise book.
He stopped to look at her, and said, "That's right, but we're in different classes...?"
She didn't turn to meet his gaze, "I like to learn things about the people I care about."
Because she hadn't turned to look at him, she didn't see the small warm smile he afforded himself, but he leaned in close to her to thumb back through the book for the next answer, "This is the sub-section for the second question."
Sakura felt conscious of him so close to her, dressed casually in jeans, a t-shirt she'd only seem him wear as loungewear, and a hoodie thrown over the top. His clothes carried the distinct but subtle scent of his cooking, fresh sheafs of sketch paper, and archival ink. She paused for slightly too long mid-sentence and he asked if she needed help again, but she hastily apologised and went back to the task at hand.
Strangely then, she didn't notice him rising from his seat to make more tea, helping himself to items in the kitchen as if he knew the place, Sakura only snapping out of her concentration when she heard the kettle come to a boil.
She considered that she was still in her school uniform and it would no doubt need washing before tomorrow, if she had any chance of getting it to dry before then.
"Nozaki-kun, I need to change my clothes, is it okay with you if I disappear for a few minutes?"
The tall young man at the other end of the kitchen nodded, his face once again giving nothing more away, and so Sakura skipped off upstairs as fast as she could in her socks without risking a cringeworthy accident.
She bundled her clothes up into a ball, pulled on some leggings and a long shirt, and descended back to the ground floor, rushing past Nozaki in the kitchen, into the bathroom and washer room. She was at least skilled at getting this part of the housework done - many a time she'd had to wash the bulk of her uniform midweek when she'd been called upon.
When she returned, Nozaki was pouring more oolong into the cups, and he'd produced biscuits from the tin on the counter, "I hope you don't mind, Sakura?"
Sakura seated herself next to him again and picked up her pen, "I don't mind at all, Nozaki-kun, thank you for making more tea. Are you sure you don't need to go home? It's not too late?"
"It might have been an opportune night to go to bed early, but it's more important to make sure you're okay," he said, helping himself to a biscuit.
"Thank you, Nozaki-kun, that means a lot to me."
Eventually, all ten questions were completed to a standard anyone would be proud of, and Sakura slumped in her chair, sipping the last of the tea Nozaki had made.
"Are you okay if I go home now, Sakura?"
Sakura looked at the clock on the wall with the photos and almost gasped, "Of course, Nozaki-kun, I can't believe it's so late. You should go. I mean, I'd offer you the guest room..."
He gave her a small smile, "Thank you, Sakura, but your parents wouldn't approve, right?"
Sakura slipped on some sandals that she normally used for short trips outside on the property, and she followed Nozaki to the garden gate, "It really does mean a lot to me that you did all this for me tonight, Nozaki-kun, thank you."
Nozaki found it hard to grasp the emotion he was feeling, but he said, "You don't have to thank me, Sakura. I think you'd do the same for me. Well, see you tomorrow."
Sakura watched him start to leave, but she ran a few steps after him on impulse and wrapped her arms around his middle, small hands clutching at the soft, thick fabric of his hoodie, "I mean it, Nozaki-kun."
She felt him stiffen, unsure how to react, and she realised just how forward she'd been. After what felt like several minutes, but was probably just a matter of seconds, she felt his hands on her shoulders, and a gentle pat on one of them.
"You have lots of friends, Sakura, you don't have to be alone."
He couldn't tell if she was tearing up again - there was a lot of this happening at the moment - but he had to go for the last train.
"Will you let me know when you're home?" Sakura asked, too shy to ask, but finding the courage as he left the gate.
He looked surprised, but he said, "Of course."
The text came in just over half an hour later, and she sighed with relief. She wasn't sure why she was holding her breath - he was more than old enough to get himself to and from places on the train with no problem.
She texted Seo, then, [I'm going to bed, I'm okay, I've got things to tell you tomorrow.]
But then, her phone rang.
Seo couldn't be considered Nozaki's biggest fan, and at first she had simply tolerated him and everything Sakura had to say about him because she loved Sakura dearly (if she was honest with herself - she'd never tell her that in person). She couldn't particularly fathom why Sakura was so attracted to the tall, oblivious bastard, despite Sakura retelling the time she met him four or five times before Seo had to tell her she knew the whole thing word for word.
At this point, Seo just wanted it all over with.
"And then, Yuzuki, I hugged him, and I thought it was going to be super awkward, but he said something really nice and cool and made it okay."
Seo closed her eyes, bracing herself for the answer she knew would come, "So you confessed properly this time, right?"
There was a brief but heavy silence.
"It was too nice a moment!" Sakura whined down the phone.
Seo pulled her phone away from her ear and groaned, not caring that Sakura could hear her at the other end - she was more than used to Seo's bluntness by now, but she loved it for the honesty that came with it. "Chiyo-chan, if it was a nice moment, wasn't it the right time to say something?"
There was a long pause at the other end of the phone, before Sakura cried, "I'm an idiot, Yuzuki!"
This time, Seo held in the heavy sigh she really wanted to vocalise.
"Are you going to tell me about the bad guys, Chiyo-chan?"
"Oh, they set fire to that café Kashima-kun likes, the one with the nice ice cream and waffles. I broke a fire hydrant and put it out."
Seo rolled over onto her stomach in excitement, "You did, Chiyo-chan? That's so badass!"
There was another pregnant pause on the other end of the phone.
"Chiyo-chan, you're a mahou shoujo and you're more excited about boring Nozaki than how amazing you are?"
"I like him so much, Yuzuki," Sakura said quietly, and Seo could almost hear her voice starting to break.
"Hey, hey, Chiyo-chan, don't be so sad. You're going to tell him. And he's going to realise he loves you, look how awesome you are at so many things! And how damn happy and cute you are all the time," Seo considered, except right now, but it was a practiced art to cheer Sakura up, and this was exactly what she wanted to hear.
Sakura sniffed, but it didn't sound like she had started crying, which made Seo feel relieved. "Thank you for the phone call, Yuzuki. Do you mind if I text you for a while? Sometimes I have trouble sleeping."
"Of course, Chiyo-chan, but why don't you text Nozaki too?" she suggested gently.
"I'll think about it," Sakura said, and they said goodnight to each other.
Sakura opened the message thread between her and her oblivious crush. Most of it was him asking if she was free, and she on other days asking if he needed her help, but if she scrolled back far enough and read back to the present day, she could see them becoming more and more familiar. Just in little ways, like more instances of him saying he'd made a new dessert that he wanted her to try, or that he'd made dinner for everyone and that he'd hate for her to miss out.
[Thank you for this evening, Nozaki-kun.]
Nozaki didn't have a smartphone, so she couldn't tell when he was replying, but after a few more exchanges with Seo, a message popped through as a notification at the top of the screen.
[Are you having trouble sleeping, Sakura?]
She tapped back a response quickly, [Sorry, I must be keeping you up!]
The reply came back just as fast, [No, I was asleep, but I was restless and checked my messages.]
[Then, do you want to text until one of us falls asleep, Nozaki-kun?]
Nothing, until a message through as she was eating breakfast the next morning.
[I'm sorry, Sakura. I guess I was more tired than I thought.]
She smiled despite her mouthful of tea, and replied again, [That's okay, I ended up falling asleep too! See you at school, Nozaki-kun.]