Title: Rising Star
Universe: Nobuta wo Produce
Theme/Topic: N/A
Rating: PG
Character/Pairing/s: Shuuji, Akira (vague AkiraxShuuji)
Warnings/Spoilers: slight spoilers for the end of the series.
Word Count: 7,885
Summary: The rise and fall of Kusano Akira, super idol.
Dedication:
for Ann! Happy Birthday!
A/N:
I was out of ideas and this randomly came to me in gchat convo. It is not as moving or thoughtful as I'd originally wanted a present for Ann to be this year, but I hope at the very least it is a little bit fun. I seriously worked on this nonstop for the last two days. I don't think I remember how to make proper sentences.
Disclaimer: Not mine, though I wish constantly.


Present

Akira, more than anything else, has always lived in the moment.

If he is hungry he will eat without hesitation, if he is happy he will smile without restraint, and if he is sad he will tug on Shuuji's sleeve and say, in a pathetic sort of whisper, "Shuuji, Shuuji, buy me ice cream!" like he's five years old and Shuuji is his mother, no matter where they are or who they're with.

Akira is pure like that, like a little kid, and so when he lives in the moment without always thinking about the consequences of what comes after that moment, Shuuji tells himself it is because that is just how Akira is.

Akira is Akira.

He is a person who lives in the here and now, to the fullest of each minute and every second. Sometimes he's so busy living in the moment he doesn't always think about the things that follow.

Which is why they are in a Jerry's Entertainment dressing room right now, preparing for a press conference in less than half an hour that is going to be broadcast live and nationwide across all of the morning news programs.

It is because Akira is going to be the new spokesperson for Lawson's convenience stores starting at the end of this week; it is because now, Akira has signed a contract with Jerry's Entertainment that means he will release CDs and be on TV programs and pose for magazines until JE decides they don't want him to do that anymore.

Sometimes Akira lives in the moment and doesn't think about the consequences that follow his actions.

And this, this whole star-studded, fan filled, widely televised mess, happens to be one of the consequences to one of those actions that Akira hadn't thought about first.

Shuuji sighs as a makeup artist swats angrily at Akira's hands for the tenth or fifteenth time in the last five minutes, the harried woman telling Akira (again and again and again) to stop smudging his foundation.

Akira frowns and says it feels like there's three days' worth of dirt on his face, which isn't fair because he just took a shower yesterday and didn't even go to the park once today. He scratches his head.

The hairdresser moans at him when he does, pulls his hands away, and hurries to fix the damage before the gel sets. Again.

"Shuuji," Akira sniffles, on the rising tide of what will surely be remembered in years to come as a Grand and Terrible Sulk, "All I wanted was to win the year's supply of wiener-san."

"I know," Shuuji responds calmly from across the room, schooling his features to keep from showing the Jerry's Jimusho representative sitting in the corner that he is as terrified about all of this as Akira is, "which is why you signed the contract when you entered the contest."

Akira slumps. "I signed the contract for wiener-san, not for this."

"Yes," Shuuji answers.

Akira slumps lower in his chair, and makes the makeup artist smudge his mascara as he does. "I should have read the fine print."

"Yes," Shuuji agrees.

Shuuji thinks he should have read the fine print too, except at the time, Akira had been caught up in the moment, and like a tornado, had sucked Shuuji into it too, into the prospect of a year's supply of Lawson's brand new all-beef bagel dogs, at the prospect of doing something silly with his best friend during the summer before Shuuji goes back to Tokyo for college, at the prospect of having something grand and adventurous to tell Nobuta about on the phone while she's over in London, studying abroad and trying not to be too lonely in a strange country all on her own.

In retrospect, Shuuji thinks he shouldn't have let himself get pulled into this like that; he should have been more careful and responsible and read the fine print. He should have told Akira that if he wanted, they could come to Lawson's and eat bagel dogs for lunch every day this summer, or at least until they were sick and tired of them.

But instead, he'd laughed and thought it would be funny if Akira entered the talent competition Lawson's was hosting, because it had been a long time since they'd had a proper adventure together. And Akira was really looking forward to those bagel dogs.

In a rare moment of recklessness, Shuuji realizes that he hadn't been thinking.

But to be fair, who would have guessed that Akira would win?


Two Months Ago

As they pass their town's only Lawson's convenience store on their way to the beach, Shuuji hears something a lot like the sound that happens whenever someone runs into a glass door on those TV variety shows or comedic animes about high school hijinks.

Instantly suspicious, he blinks and turns around. It seems that there are no glass doors involved after all, only a giant glass window. Akira's nose is pressed up against it, or more specifically, the giant black and blue promotional poster pasted to it, which at the very least, probably explains the smacking noise Shuuji had just heard.

"Akira," Shuuji says, and stops walking.

"Shuuji," Akira responds (except it sounds more like Hooji). He does not move from his place in front of the window.

Shuuji reads the part of the poster that he can see, around the Akira-shaped blockage across its front. "Bagel dogs?" he asks, eyebrows raised.

"Let's go to Lawson's," Akira answers, dreamily quoting the CM campaign they've been seeing over and over again the last few years. He makes grabby hands at the window.

Shuuji doesn't really want a bagel dog, but he doesn't mind stopping inside for some karaage and a TV programming guide while Akira gets one for himself.

So he silently leads the way inside while Akira happily un-smashes his nose from the window and follows. He sings, "Wiener-san, wiener-san, wiener-san," the whole way in.

The ojiisan who runs the shop greets them with a half-hearted nod when they walk in together, business being slow when summer arrives and all the high school kids go to the beach to get their snacks at the seaside shops there.

"Wiener-san, wiener-san, wiener-san," Akira chants faithfully, as he stops right in front of the hot-food display next to the register. "Weiner-san, please!" he chirps, to the ojiisan. He points at one of the hot, juicy bagel-dogs on the heat racks anticipatorily. "That one."

The ojiisan eyes him before wordlessly grabbing it for Akira, while Akira shuffles around the counter, bouncing from toe to toe eagerly.

It is then, right when Shuuji is grabbing an issue of The Weekly Television with a picture of some fresh-faced lemon-holding idols on it, when Akira lets out a familiar shout of "Akira-shock!" with his hands on top of his head.

It is followed by the slightly less-familiar shout of, "Akira-amazement!" and before Shuuji can ask, Akira is next to him by the magazine stand, holding a little paper tear out with a lot of blank spaces on it in one hand. "Shuuji, look!"

Shuuji obediently looks.

"It's a contest!" Akira says.

So Shuuji had read. "Yes."

Akira holds up his other hand, which has wiener-san in it. "Weiner-san," he says, next.

So Shuuji can see. "Yes."

Akira grins and holds both up at the same time, together, and nearly makes them kiss. "If I win this, I can have wiener-san every day for a year!"

Shuuji does not find that at all appealing, but it is hard not to humor Akira when he looks so euphoric. "Is that what the contest is for?"

"Yes!" Akira says, brandishing his bagel dog like one of those extendable pointer-things that their senior-year literature teacher had liked to use to emphasize her lessons. "All I have to do is get second place in a national talent show! I don't even have to really win, except I will, because getting a year's worth of wiener-san is way better than becoming a TV star."

A moment.

Shuuji wonders if Akira knows that taking part in a national talent show means that he will have to beat out kids from all across the country. And that's only if he gets past the write-in screening.

Shuuji thinks about maybe saying something.

Akira looks lovingly at his warm bagel dog.

Shuuji supposes there is no harm in trying; even if the rest of Japan thinks Akira is the most talentless person in the world, even if he gets up on that national stage and all he does is make a Kon fox in each hand so they can make out with each other (much like he did as the senior class representative during their graduation speech) Shuuji knows that no matter what, he Nobuta will always keep cheering Akira on anyway.

"Shuuji! Shuuji!" Akira buzzes in the meantime, somewhere near Shuuji's right ear. He is still holding the contest entry form up, right in front of Shuuji's face, while looking expectant.

Shuuji knows exactly what Akira wants.

Shuuji wordlessly reaches into his school bag and pulls out a pen.

He hands it to Akira and holds Akira's bagel dog for him while he fills out the contact information. Once he's done, Akira gives back the pen, takes his precious bagel dog, and pads right back up to the front counter to hand in his form.

"Oh, hold on," the ojiisan says, as Akira gives the little slip of paper to him.

He whips out a digital camera with Lawson's promotional logos printed all over it and snaps Akira's picture. Behind him, a wireless dock that looks way too nice to be part of the equipment in this store whirs to life and prints the photo out. Everything is done in less than a minute. "Entries valid only with photo," the ojiisan explains perfunctorily, like he's done this a hundred times since this whole stupid contest opened. Then he wordlessly clips Akira's photo to his entry form and puts it under the counter with all the others he has sitting there, as Akira blinks and totters a bit from side to side, trying to get the random dots out from places in his vision.

In the meantime, Shuuji opts for the TV Guide instead of The Weekly Television while Akira alternates between conversing with and then eating parts of wiener-san. "And a lemon karaage, please," he adds, when he goes to the counter to pay.

The ojiisan eyes him. "You don't want to try out too?" he asks, indicating the contest display. "You look like you'd make the first cut. Everyone who does gets a free weekend in Tokyo."

Akira grins and slings his non-bagel-dog-eating hand over his best friend's shoulders. "Shuuji's pretty, huh?" he asks the ojiisan, around a mouthful of chewy bread and beefy goodness.

Shuuji gets embarrassed. "I don't want a year's supply of bagel dogs," he answers sensibly, pink cheeked as he pays for his karaage and his magazine.

The old man shrugs. "Well, there's also the TV star thing."

Shuuji takes his magazine and his fried chicken and thinks that he doesn't really want that either.

During the year when he'd first met Nobuta and Akira, one of the many things he'd learned about himself was that he'd never really liked acting all that much.

The two of them leave the store without another thought about being TV stars after that, Akira finishing wiener-san off with relish while Shuuji picks at his karaage and peruses the article in his TV Guide about this year's upcoming 24 Hour Television marathon.

Eventually, Akira suddenly realizes something. "I hope I don't have to sing," he says, in afterthought. "I'm not really good at that."

Shuuji smiles a little and doesn't look up from his article. "Maybe you can juggle."

They reach the beach after that and don't think about bagel dogs or national talent competitions or much of anything for the rest of the day; they walk along the water, splash around a bit in the shallows, and talk about how they'll miss seeing the ocean like this in the fall, when Shuuji starts at Todai and Akira starts working in his father's company's mailroom, from the bottom up just like everyone else.

"When we miss seeing the ocean, we'll just have to make a trip to visit it," Akira decides, in all practicality. "I wonder if the water in this ocean connects to the water in Nobuta's. Do you think they flow together?"

Shuuji laughs. "Yeah, I think so."


One Month Ago

The envelope arrives in the mail on a hot, muggy afternoon in early July, while Shuuji and Akira are at Akira's place, weeding the garden for Akira's elderly, terrifying landlord.

"Shuuuuuuji!!!!" Akira shouts, when he opens and reads the manila envelope that looks slightly thicker than a regular letter ought to be.

Shuuji blinks in confusion and wipes sweat from his brow; he wonders if their graduation photos finally came in, and if Akira really did get the photographer to take his shot while he was doing the Nobuta Power pose.

Apparently it's not quite as good as all that, but still exciting nonetheless.

Akira waves a train ticket to Tokyo in the air as he declares, "A year of wiener-san!!" at the top of his lungs. It is all Shuuji needs to hear to know that Akira's picture has passed the preliminary screening for Lawson's August talent show.

Which is kind of miraculous, given that Shuuji is pretty sure the expression on the photo that the ojiisan had taken for Akira's application mustn't have been very good. He'd definitely been squinting, at the very least.

But then again, Shuuji has always thought that Akira has a special charm about him that goes beyond his looks, something that pulls a person in without meaning or trying to.

As if to confirm, Akira runs up to Shuuji and hugs him then, and the grin on his face is so infectious Shuuji finds himself starting to feel Akira's excitement like it's his own, even though he knows that the weekend the show is happening is when he's supposed to pick Koji up from summer camp; he'll probably have to do all of his brother's dirty gross camp laundry from the past two weeks afterwards.

"So…" Shuuji begins eventually, when the two of them hugging in the outdoors in Japan in the middle of summer like this starts to feel uncomfortable and sticky, "what are you going to do for your talent?"

Shuuji can tell by the look on Akira's face that Akira had completely forgotten about the whole thing.

And they might have panicked about it too, except that right then, Akira's elderly and terrifying landlady comes hobbling out of the building when she sees them just standing around not working. She waves her cane menacingly and shouts at them to get back to weeding so that she can live to see her yard put back to proper order. "I don't have a lot of time left in this life to waste waiting around for you idiots!" she huffs. The end of her cane smacks Shuuji in the butt in warning. "Get a move on it!"

Shuuji winces and bows and gets back to work promptly, while Akira dodges her second cane swing when it is directed at his butt this time. "This is slave labor, grandma!" he complains, narrowly escaping the subsequent swipes she takes at him by hopping out of the way.

Shuuji pulls dandelions while watching Akira bounce around the yard in his attempts to escape his landlady's vicious thwacks. Shuuji thinks that maybe Akira could dance for the talent show; he moves pretty well when it's his life on the line.


Three Weeks Ago

"How about this?" Akira asks.

Shuuji blinks. "What??"

"This!" Akira continues doing a series of strange motions in the air in front of him, and it isn't until after about the twentieth second or so of it that Shuuji finally realizes it is Akira's (very) stylized version of air guitar.

He feels his lips quirk up into a helpless sort of smile while Akira furrows his brow and concentrates very hard on keeping time with the imaginary music. "I don't think they'll let you do that," he admits to his friend, eventually.

Akira pouts. "I watched a drama where they did it to win hamburger-kun."

"Dramas and real life aren't the same," Shuuji reminds him. "Remember that drama where that yakuza flew across the school roof?"

Akira remembers, mostly because he had donned a cape and tried to fly across two school lunch tables the very next day, and that had nearly ended in catastrophe except that Shuuji had managed to catch him by the cape before he landed in the student council president's bowl of commissary ramen. "Maybe my parabola wasn't perfect," he had said sheepishly afterwards, while Shuuji was helping him very discretely hoist the school flag back to its proper place on the flagpole.

"Sometimes dramas and real life aren't the same," Akira concedes eventually, once he remembers all the events of that afternoon, and gives up on the air guitar.

After that there is speed eating plus carb loading, as Akira tries to impress Shuuji with his ability to eat an entire bowl of ramen with two scoops of rice added to it in less than five minutes.

About twenty minutes after that Akira decides that it isn't a very good idea either, and struggles for all he's worth in the battle against the ensuing food coma while Shuuji does the dishes.

From there, shadow puppets are a no-go as well, mostly because Akira can only make foxes and dogs and wolves and Vaporeons. Then, the self-proclaimed title of World Staring Contest Champion doesn't stand either, because after about fifteen seconds of the two of them just staring blankly at each other, Shuuji twitches and makes Akira burst out into a series of still-slightly-food-drunk giggles. "Shuuji," he laughs, "Shuuji your eyebrows are so sharp. I didn't notice until I was staring at them just now."

Shuuji rubs at his eyebrows a bit self-consciously, furrowing them in the process. "Really?"

Akira nods and reaches over, running his fingertips across them in an effort to smooth them out. "Don't worry," he insists, "it's another part of what makes Shuuji pretty."

Shuuji swats his hands away at that point and tells him his talent should be saying strange things.

Akira giggles and puts his chin on Shuuji's shoulder and promises he only says these strange things to Shuuji.

Five minutes later, he succumbs to carb coma and falls asleep drooling on Shuuji's shoulder.

They still aren't any closer to a year's supply of wiener-san by the end of the day, but when Shuuji calls Nobuta and tells her all about their talent ideas for the contest thus far, she laughs softly into the phone and says every one of them sounds like a winner to her.

"Nobuta power!" Akira salutes dutifully after about an hour or so, as they prepare to end the call so that Nobuta can get some sleep before morning dawns for her halfway across the world.

"Akira power!" she replies in turn, just before she hangs up. She sounds much more peaceful than when she had when she'd first picked up.

Akira laughs when he hears that, and turns to Shuuji afterwards, smiling softly. "She sounds strong, ne. I bet her English is really good."

Shuuji nods. "She sounds strong," he agrees, and thinks that Akira is good at giving strength.

To Shuuji, that has always been Akira's best talent.

Two Weeks Ago

"I love the ocean!" Akira shouts at the top of his lungs as Shuuji sits on the beach, watching Akira trying to surf on the small waves at their small beach just like he had last summer, after they'd gone on that trip to Okinawa with Shuuji's family and had seen what real waves looked like.

It doesn't work out quite as well here; mostly Akira spends his time paddling around chasing waves that he thinks might become big enough to ride but never are. "This one! This one will be good!" he yells, and doggedly pushes his board after a bump of water some fifty feet off from the shore.

He does the same thing for about an hour, until his arms are finally too tired to go on and he crawls back up the sand to where Shuuji is reading, plopping down doggedly next to him. "The big waves are coming," he says, with certainty, as he gets sand all over the left side of his face.

Shuuji offers him a sip of his tea and says, gently, "This is probably one of your talents too."

He means Akira's ability to never give up, to always hope for the best.

Akira, face down in the sand and panting, thinks Shuuji means something else altogether.

"Yosh!" he says, and sits up abruptly. "Shuuji is a genius!"

Shuuji blinks and wants to ask what he means by that, except that Akira starts to shake out his hair right then, and gets sharp smelling salt water all over Shuuji and Shuuji's towel and Shuuji's required summer reading novel for his freshman literature seminar this fall.

"Akira!" he complains, and Akira laughs at him, somehow freshly energized before he grabs his board and runs back down into the surf.

"The big one is coming!" he calls out behind him, and Shuuji sighs helplessly before drying the cover of his novel off and telling Akira that the big one better come in the next fifteen minutes, because they have to be back in time for dinner. Shuuji's dad is barbequing tonight, and Shuuji and Akira both promised to be there for his first attempt at Korean style short ribs.

Which end up tasting pretty good, if not entirely like Korean food in the end, to be honest.

During dinner, Akira stuffs himself on meat and rice and pickled cucumbers after exhausting himself in the water to the point of having to be half-carried home.

"Have you thought up a talent yet, Akira-kun?" Shuuji's dad asks, as he mans the barbeque with tongs in one hand and a beer in the other.

"Yup," Akira murmurs, around a mouthful of meat, hot off the grill. He hisses and blows air through his cheeks to try and cool it down.

Shuuji blinks. "Really? It's not the shadow puppets, right?"

Akira shakes his head. "It was Shuuji's idea!"

A moment.

"A comedy routine?" Shuuji asks, after a moment of coming up blank.

Akira snorts in laughter. "No! Surfing!"

"Su…" Shuuji trails off. "I don't think there's going to be ocean on the stage for you to use."

"Don't need it," Akira promises. "I'll give surfing lessons!"

"Oh."

Shuuji remembers when Akira had tried to give him surfing lessons once, but he supposes the failure of that whole endeavor had more to do with Shuuji's reluctance than Akira's inability to teach. Probably. As it was, Akira had been remarkably patient for someone who normally has so little patience.

Shuuji's dad laughs. "I think that sounds like a great idea! It's like in that one drama," he tells them, as he brings a fresh plate of meat to the table.

"I'm pretty sure that was self-defense lessons," Shuuji says.

"She did win," his father replies, undaunted. "I think Akira-kun can win too. First place!"

"Second place," Akira and Shuuji both say.

"Or that," Shuuji's father amends, dutifully. "You boys can do whatever you put your minds to," he tells them.

Apparently, they can do better.


Last Week

Shuuji sees Akira off at the train station the day before the talent show and promises that he'll watch Akira on TV and call in and vote for him to be the Lawson's Talent Competition runner up.

He's honestly a little bit worried about letting Akira take on the whole business alone, but his father left for a business meeting in Osaka yesterday and he's charged with picking Koji up at his school when his bus returns from summer camp; he'd promised his dad he'd take care of everything and not to worry, even though Koji is at that age where he's starting to be a little bit rebellious; everything is lame or embarrassing to him and he wants to be treated as an adult even though he isn't one yet.

Koji is the kid who needs to be taken care of, not Akira. Akira will be fine.

So after Shuuji sees Akira's train off he goes home that afternoon and makes a fresh pot of rice; he washes Koji's bed sheets for him and airs out his room for him and at four o'clock, he takes his bike and his keys and heads to his brother's school, where he waits for the bus to show up at five.

Akira calls him in the meantime and says he's made it to Tokyo, and that people gave him funny looks on the train when he took his surfboard, and that his dad wants them to have dinner together tonight even though Akira wanted to practice his surf lessons one last time in the hotel.

"Go eat dinner with your dad," Shuuji urges him. "I'm sure your surf lessons are perfect."

In the meantime Koji's bus finally pulls into the school driveway with a creaky puff of gasoline; the kids start climbing out immediately thereafter in their rush to get away from each other and their chaperones and the cramped quarters and the bus driver who smells like old socks.

Koji comes out towards the end, with his bag slung over his shoulder, looking tired. "Niisan," he sighs, when he sees Shuuji standing there with his bike, "you didn't bring the car?"

"Nice to see you too," Shuuji says back, and takes Koji's bag for him as they start walking home together. "How was camp?"

"Full of bugs," Koji replies. "What's for dinner?"

"Korean barbeque," Shuuji answers. "Leftovers."

"I missed TV," Koji says.

Shuuji ruffles his hair (which earns a whine of complaint), and when they get back home, he heats up some food and they eat dinner together while watching a drama on TV about a basketball team and their goals to be the best.

Later that night, after he's done the dishes and the laundry, Shuuji text messages Akira a good luck message for tomorrow and says he'll be watching.

Akira texts back that he'll happily share his year supply of wiener-san with Shuuji, because that way, even if it will only be half as much, it will taste twice as good.


Friday

At five the next evening, Shuuji dutifully turns on the TV and gets a rolling aerial shot of a stage set up outside the Fuji TV station, where hundreds of fans are gathered, smiling and waving at the camera while holding fans with idols' faces printed on them.

"Welcome to Lawson's National Talent Competition!" that same group of idols greets the camera, once it focuses in on them in the center stage. Shuuji recognizes one of the guys from that yakuza drama, and another from last night's basketball show.

"Today we've gathered fifty candidates from all across the country to compete for the chance at becoming a top TV star!" they add, and go on in detail about the prizes and the competition and what a nice day it is to be outdoors (even though it probably isn't, because it's August in Japan). The idols manage to make it look like it's cool and breezy and comfortable anyway, while most of the audience sweats and fans themselves and doesn't look nearly as fashionable or have as perfectly done hair.

Behind the idols on the stage are the fifty top candidates—all prettier-than-average people— and Shuuji squints trying to find Akira in the crowd.

He sees him after a few minutes, in the very back of the group, standing next to his surfboard.

He waves at the camera when he discovers that it's on him, and Shuuji sees it very clearly when he does the Nobuta power pose, because the cameraman sees it too, and thinks it's an interesting enough action to keep the focus on before cutting back to the idols.

Shuuji finds himself doing it automatically in response, and from there, each of the contestants is introduced by name and place, before being paraded off of the stage so that the idols can perform.

They don't sing very well and their dancing isn't any better than the impromptu male cheerleading squad that would sometimes gather at his high school's home baseball games; Shuuji thinks that if this is the standard, then maybe Akira could have sang for his talent after all.

Koji comes in to the room looking for a snack and is just in time to see Shuuji watching the idols dance. "Niisan, that's kind of lame," he says, before yawning and padding to the fridge in his very cool teenage way. He grabs a bottle of milk tea and a pudding before wordlessly returning to his room.

A commercial for Lawson's comes on afterwards, about bagel dogs on deserted islands, and Shuuji amuses himself a little bit, imagining Akira as the one stuck in the palm tree.

It would happen if he won, he muses to himself, despite the fact that the possibility is entirely impossible to him.

He keeps watching.

Akira doesn't come on for his three minute segment until after about twenty-two other people have already gone, and by then Shuuji's eyes are getting tired and he's sick of hearing the contestants try and sing Jerry's Jimusho songs in an attempt to win favor with the MCs and the majority of the audience, who are clearly only out here enduring the heat to catch a glimpse of the group hosting the contest.

Shuuji is busy yawning into his hand when Akira finally walks across the stage, but the moment he does, the audience clearly takes notice.

So does Shuuji, who sees it out of the corner of his eye mid-yawn and ends up choking on his own spit instead.

For his segment, Akira is standing on the stage in nothing but a loose pair of board shorts, holding his surf board tucked under one arm.

On TV, next to thin, creamy-skinned idols with permed hair, Akira looks tan and natural and more strongly built than any of those guys, probably from all that paddling around in the water he does every day, relentlessly chasing the next big wave.

Shuuji never noticed it out on the beaches here because when it's here, it's just Akira being Akira, but on TV like this, under the bright lights of a downtown Tokyo stage after twenty some odd contestants had sung strangled, off-key love-songs in the heat of the Japanese summer, Akira suddenly looks and feels a lot like the refreshing breeze most of the audience had undoubtedly been waiting for—hoping for— all afternoon.

The surf board tucked effortlessly under his flexed arm, the way the board shorts sit just a little bit low on his hips, the easy smile, and the bright way he says his talent is "surfing lessons" makes the crowd—for just a minute—forget all about the idols they came here to see today.

"Uh, okay, Kusano-kun," the tallest member of the idol group says, after a minute of staring himself, "please teach us how to surf, ne. I've always wanted to learn!"

"Sure," Akira says, again with that easy smile, and makes a casual Kon-Kon at the MC before he turns towards the main stage.

"He's good looking!" the member who had been in that yakuza drama adds in afterthought, loudly and without any tact as Akira puts his surfboard on the ground. "Ne, isn't that guy really good looking?"

The audience laughs at his bluntness, but everyone clearly, clearly agrees.

Akira gives his surfing lesson with great Akira-like enthusiasm after that, but at the moment when he jumps up from his paddling position to a standing one on the board and the side of those board shorts dips just a little bit lower as a result, Shuuji is pretty certain no one in the audience is listening to a word he's saying. Which is a shame, because Akira really loves surfing, almost as much as he loves the ocean and Shuuji and Nobuta.

Text, online, and call-in voting for the winner of the show doesn't officially open up until tomorrow night, after the second half of the contestants complete their showcases, but in that moment, when one camera pans in on those board shorts and another pulls in close on the faces of hundreds of blushing people, Shuuji thinks—with a slight feeling of dread—that he knows exactly what is going to happen tomorrow night, without having to watch twenty-five more people sing off-key love ballads from popular Jerry's Entertainment idol groups.

In retrospect, Shuuji feels like maybe he should have let Akira go with the shadow puppets after all, because with this, he doesn't think they're going to get a year's worth of bagel dogs.

He hops the next train to Tokyo.


Present

"We're live in fifteen minutes," a harried stagehand reports loudly, as he ducks his head into Akira's dressing room to check on the progress of hair and makeup.

"Almost done!" the hairdresser and the makeup artist both chirp, in much higher spirits now, after having finally taped Akira's arms down to his chair so he can't squirm or smudge or ruin anything else.

"Shuuji," Akira whines, "my head feels heavy."

"You can't say that on national television," the Jerry's Entertainment representative—a man by the name of Kaji-san— states flatly, before Shuuji can respond. "Kusano-kun, you have to try and act natural."

"I don't get it," Akira sulks, clearly confused. "If you have to act then it's not natural, ne."

Kaji-san sighs. "Just be like you were for your surfing lesson."

"I am beingme from my surfing lesson," Akira insists. "The only difference is now my head is heavy." He frowns at the stylists. "You two made my head heavy."

"Yeah, and you took two years off my life, kid," the hairdresser snaps back, and finally gets his bangs to sit in place.

"Sorry," Akira apologizes. "I'm sorry. Life is precious."

The stylists look slightly mollified by his contrition and concede to untape his arms from the chair. The natural Akira charm at work, Shuuji supposes.

"Ten minutes," the stagehand barks through the doorway, exactly five minutes after he'd announced fifteen. "Ten minutes until we're live. Please get Kusano-san to the stage."

"Shuuuuuji," Akira whines, starting to look uncomfortable again at the prospect of a press conference announcing his sudden and unwanted stardom. "My stomach hurts."

Shuuji digs around in his bag for antacids.

Akira keeps talking. "My mouth is dry. My eyeballs itch. There's a bruise on my butt from when I accidentally hit myself with the surf board yesterday. I ate too much dairy for breakfast and now I have gas. I dreamed that we were birds that couldn't fly and couldn't sing and had fish breath."

"We better go," Kaji-san says dispassionately, just as Shuuji is handing Akira his antacids and ready to tell him that his mouth is dry because he's talking too much, his eyeballs itch because he's forgotten to blink, the bruise won't show unless he drops his pants, gas won't show either, not on TV at least, and penguins are cute.

All he manages to say while Akira is being pulled out the door is a lame, slightly awkward, "Akira power!" with the pose and everything; he hopes that Akira can figure out that what he means is "Just be honest, just be Akira, and you'll be okay. I'll think of something, so don't worry."

When Akira sticks his hand back in the doorway before he completely disappears and answers with a "Kon," Shuuji thinks that the message got across.

In ten minutes, new top idol and CM spokesperson Kusano Akira is going to be formally introduced to the rest of Japan. He's going to become a star.

Shuuji blames the wieners.


Ten Minutes Later

As the press conference starts Akira is seated in the middle of a long table with a mic in front of him, between Kaji-san, a Lawson's Rep, and the director who is supposedly going to be in charge of shooting his first Lawson's commercial. Akira sees the cameras and waves at them before launching into an improvised version of his original shadow puppet show premise, the one where the wolf meets Vaporeon and learns the water gun attack.

Kaji-san hastily swats his hands away before the cameras actually start rolling, and makes him put them under the table like a civilized celebrity. The man looks like he's already sick of Akira as it is, and they've only known each other for eighteen hours.

Shuuji wonders if maybe, once they realize Akira's extremely un-idol like ways, they will be enough to get him kicked out of Jerry's.

The press conference officially begins a few minutes later, with a barrage of pictures and hands in the air for questions.

"So you must be excited to have this opportunity, Kusano-kun!" a lady reporter asks first, brightly, while Akira is still blinking under the flashes of the cameras much like he had when the ojiisan at the Lawson's had first taken his photo. "Have you always dreamed about being a star?"

"I just wanted the year supply of wiener-san," he explains, and makes Kaji-san visibly wince from beside him.

The press however, just laughs warmly. "Already a pro at being a spokesman, huh?" one says admiringly, as everyone writes down Akira's answers.

Akira blinks some more, this time in confusion.

"According to the schedule posted on the jimusho website, you start shooting your CM campaign as early as next week. Have you done anything to prepare for your first major acting job?"

Shuuji watches from the back of the room as Akira turns to Kaji-san. "Next week? Does this mean I have to clear my surfing schedule?"

Everyone laughs again; Kaji-san even manages a forced one himself, through gritted teeth. "Afraid so, Kusano-kun. The water will just have to wait. Ha…ha."

Akira pouts, cutely, and several more camera flashes go off in the distance to catch it.

The next question is, "Did you ever dream that teaching beginners how to surf would land you the chance of a lifetime?"

Akira thinks about it for a second, before answering, "I guess surfing is more popular in Japan than I thought it would be."

"This guy is funny," Shuuji overhears a nearby producer for the press conference say to one of his assistants, a 20-something young woman with a dreamy look on her face.

"That's not all he is," she answers, twirling a lock of hair around her index finger in a telling sort of way.

Shuuji supposes that if that is the reaction to his answers, then no, Akira probably won't get thrown out of Jerry's for being un-idol like because he's being so unintentionally fresh instead.

So Shuuji reluctantly throws that plan out and looks (a bit desperately) for something else as the press conference continues and Akira is next asked to demonstrate his wipeout technique (which he gladly does, complete with arms in the air, gurgly flailing, and a dramatic shout of "Noooooo!!!!!!!!" that ends with his slumped and twitching body spread out across the front of the stage for the photographers), much to Kaji-san's utter dismay and horror. Akira ends up irreparably damaging the set of his hair in the process and has to do the rest of the interview with half of his bangs flopping stiffly in his face.

Somehow, the press finds that charming too, and Akira doesn't seem to mind their attention so much as the hour goes on, except that every time they bring up a filming or a TV shoot or a CD he starts to get nervous again, and looks towards Shuuji at the back of the room for some sort of aid. His help me eyes.

Shuuji is thinking.

There are lots of ways idols get kicked out of their agencies, he thinks; it shows up on the news and on the covers of magazines all the time. So-and-so got drunk at such and such a place and did this, someone was caught with pot, someone slept with a costar twenty years older than them, got a Hello Project tween pregnant, mouthed off to the cops, made out with a transvestite, beat up a cab driver, etc., etc., etc.

But then again, Shuuji doesn't think Akira would be open to any of those options.

"So, Kusano-kun," the next journalist asks, stirring Shuuji from his thoughts, "do you have a girlfriend?"

Kaji-san hurries to intervene on this one (as is company policy), except that before he can, Akira miraculously says exactly the answer Kaji-san could have hoped for. "I don't need a girlfriend," Akira answers, honestly.

A general murmur of surprise goes up. "Because you have your fans now?" the journalist prompts. "Thousands of them voted for you last week, after all."

"Ye…" Kaji-san starts, just as Akira says, "Nope. It's 'cuz I've got Shuuji."

He points to the back of the room.

The cameras point to the back of the room right after that, and all the heads turn to the back of the room as well.

Kaji-san, Shuuji notes, looks absolutely green.

"Shuuji, say hi!" Akira calls, and waves to him from behind his podium.

Shuuji awkwardly raises a hand and waves back. "Hi."

"He's pretty, right? Even if his eyebrows are sharp." Akira sounds proud.

The journalists start to murmur amongst themselves again, though this time, the atmosphere in the room changes completely. "Oh," some say.

"Oh," others say.

"This press conference is over," Kaji-san finally announces after a beat, and may or may not be shaking with rage as he picks up his briefcase and stuffs his files into it. He glares at Akira and Shuuji as he does.

Akira doesn't notice; he's too busy looking relieved. "Does this mean Shuuji and I can go home now?" he asks.

"Yes," Kaji-san replies stiffly, "I think you two can go home now."


Two Weeks Later

After the press debacle and Shuuji and Akira both getting really weird looks the entire train ride back from Tokyo (and on the walk back home from the train station too), they're finally back at Shuuji's place again, escaping the last bits of summer humidity by lying on the couch under the ceiling fan. A new series of Lawson's ads runs on the TV in front of them.

"That's what they wanted me to do?" Akira asks, wide-eyed as the second place runner up from the talent show moves across the screen wearing glittering parachute pants, in perfect time with two life size, humanoid versions of wiener-san. They dance emphatically in a rainbow animated background as Hammer Time plays for them on the CM's gaudy soundtrack.

"Probably. Except you might have had to do the whole thing shirtless," Shuuji surmises, not incorrectly.

Akira looks relieved. "I'm glad they suddenly decided to let me go after all, ne." He puts both hands up in the air over his head. "V! V is for victory!"

"Bite into a bagel dog!" the new Lawson's spokesman declares at the end of the commercial, and tears into his bagel dog with sparkly, 80s vigor as rainbow starbursts explode on either side of him in the frame.

"It's too bad about the bagel dogs though," Shuuji feels the need to add, once the CM ends. "I don't think it's fair that they didn't let you take the second prize in this guy's place. You technically won it."

Akira looks sick at the thought (or possibly, from Shuuji having bought him five of the stupid things for lunch today). "I'm done with wiener-san forever," he declares loudly, and just in time for Koji to walk into the living room and overhear.

"Does that mean you and my brother are breaking up?" the younger boy asks drolly, tugging open the fridge and pulling out a bottle of melon soda.

"Not that wiener-san," Akira replies deftly. "The Lawson's one. Shuuji and I will always be together."

Shuuji groans while Koji and Akira grin at each other at the joke; Shuuji feels like throwing pillows at them both.

He doesn't though, because throwing things is childish, and Koji is drinking melon soda. Koji getting hit in the head with a couch cushion right now would probably just mean Shuuji having to clean spilled soda out the rug afterwards, which he doesn't fancy doing, not in this heat.

Koji triumphantly leaves the room to go back and do whatever it is he'd been doing on mixi after that, leaving Shuuji and Akira alone again, with the TV making advertising noise in the background.

"If you don't want the bagel dogs anymore, maybe you should have kept the Jerry's contract after all," Shuuji muses after a moment, when the second version of the Lawson's CM begins to air. He decides nothing good is on TV and flips it off. "You really were the best candidate for fame out of the whole thing that I could see."

Akira grins and makes the fox (now named Vaporeon) with his hand. "Akira is definitely more suited to being a normal person, Shuuji!" he says via hand-shaped Pokemon.

"Akira will never be a normal person," Shuuji answers Vaporeon honestly, and makes Akira laugh. "Akira will only ever be Akira."

"Akira is happy with that," Akira says, without Vaporeon.

Shuuji is also happy with that, Shuuji thinks.

After that Akira gets sick of hanging around Shuuji's place and drags them both out to the beach again, where he makes it just in time to catch high tide. He paddles excitedly in the water on his board, relentlessly chasing the next big wave, just like always. "One with enough power to make it from our ocean all the way to Nobuta's ocean!" he says, waving at Shuuji from the water, wearing those same low, loose board shorts and with sand and surf blowing freely through his wild hair.

The sight of it, happy and free and very, very Akira, is enough to comfort Shuuji about the fact that there are currently thirty high school girls standing at the edge of the sand, all "oohing!" and "aahing!" to each other every time Akira does anything, or worse, "kyaaing!!" and taking pictures and blushing every time Akira says anything at all to Shuuji or even breathes in Shuuji's general direction.

Akira doesn't seem to notice anything strange about it all, but then again, Akira is busy living in the moment, not thinking about the consequences, and in the water, full-heartedly chasing down his giant dream waves.

"Akira will never be normal," Shuuji reminds himself as the scene continues, determinedly keeping his eyes trained on the text for his last required summer reading novel. "Akira will always be Akira."

He (and Akira's new fangirls) will simply have to accept him just like that.

END