DISCLAIMER: Nobuta wo Produce and all canon characters belong to their rightful owner whose identity I was too lazy to look up. But it certainly ain't me :P
WARNINGS: MAJOR SPOILERS for the ending of the drama. Mild Akira/Nobuta in future chapters. Probable OOCness.
A/N: When the plot bunny strikes, you just write like crazy even if it is for a fandom you never thought you'd ever write for. This is one of those times. lol
This fic is what I call an experimental story. In here, I tried to explore the rare sides of the main characters, most notably Shuji and Akira, that were shown in the drama, but not deeply elaborated. I highly enjoyed writing it and I hope that fans of Nobuta wo Produce will like it. Happy reading. :D
THREE PIECES OF THE PUZZLE
CHAPTER ONE: WITHOUT THE THIRD PIECE
There were rare moments when Kiritani Shuji realised that, deep down, he still had some things that he regretted. Or just one, at the very least, but he did not recognise it for what it was for a long while. It nagged at him somewhere at the back of his mind, sometimes when he was in the classroom, idly watching the other students laughing and enjoying themselves; or at times when he was alone, left with nothing to do and simply whiling the seconds away.
But mostly, the then unknown, uneasy feeling of regret came over him when he was with Akira.
Strange, really, because ever since he had moved out of Tokyo, Kusano Akira was the one person in the entire new school in whose company Shuji felt at home and comfortable. He was still the same, just as whacky and endearingly weird as he had ever been with his trademark "Kon kon"s, lame butterfly imitations and the incurable touchy-feely clinginess. Among the confusing sea of new faces and unfamiliar territory, Akira was the solid rock that bound Shuji to the reality of his new home.
That was a truth that Shuji knew too well and he accepted Akira's grounded presence in his new life with gratitude too immense to be properly expressed. But with the passing of time, with the rise and fall of every tide, he began to grow more and more aware of something missing. There was a void – empty, dark and fathomless – between the two of them. It had been there from his first day at the new school, but it had been easier to overlook it back then when he had been overwhelmed with shock and pleasure to see his best friend there, waiting for him. But now, it had grown harder and harder to ignore it; and Shuji knew, like he had always known, exactly what was missing. What else could it be?
Of course it was her. She was the third piece of their three-bit puzzle, the special piece that had brought the three misfits together, binding each one to the other by the deep-rooted bonds of friendship and love. Without her there, they were incomplete, like two puzzle pieces that did not wholly fit together anymore. Certainly they kept in touch with her via a chain of letters, text messages, phone calls that sent their bills sky-rocketing and the occasional gift, but somehow, it just was not the same when he could not see her with his own eyes. He wanted to see her standing beside Akira, both of them waiting for him with open arms, which was the way things had been ... the way it always should be ... and Shuji felt her absence pierce him deeper every time he thought of her.
Often, he wondered if Akira felt the same way. And sometimes, he wondered if Akira felt Nobuta's absence even more intensely than he did, because Shuji knew that to this day, the other still harboured deep feelings for her. But if he did, he made no mention of it.
More than once, he questioned himself why he felt that misery so much. He had initially thought he was content to begin a new life, knowing that "Shuji to Akira to Nobuta" would always be with each other spiritually, connected across sea and sky by a bond that knew no bounds. He had said, 'The three of us – we can live wherever we are!' He still believed his words, still knew that Nobuta was with them both in their hearts, but that did not keep his regret at bay. It washed over him with increasing regularity, pulling him under and Shuji struggled to keep afloat, to understand his own confusing emotions.
The answer finally came to him late one night as he lay on the rooftop of his new house, raking the night sky with his eyes as he searched for whatever stars that could be seen, like he used to back in Tokyo when he was in need of comfort. The stars were scarce, most of them veiled by the harsh lights of the city, but there were a few bright enough to pierce through the haze of electric light. He counted slowly, keeping track of each little twinkling pinprick until his gaze landed on three lone stars, loosely arranged in a line.
For a second, he could have sworn that they suddenly flashed brighter, shining with more brilliance than any other star in the sky. But then he blinked and they were back to normal again. Watching more carefully, Shuji noticed that they were part of the Orion constellation, but the other stars were fainter and harder to see than the middle three, which outshone them all. A wave of nostalgia came over him as he realised that that was exactly what it felt like to be with Akira and Nobuta:
That everything and everyone else paled into insignificance beside Akira's lopsided grin and Nobuta's shy, hunched form. Even in a crowd, they were the two that stood out, the only people that his eyes automatically searched for because, when all was said and done, they were the ones that really mattered; and he had never felt more at peace with himself than when he was with them.
A tiny smile tilted his lips and he let his eyes close, remembering every moment he had spent with his two special friends. The recollections flashed through his mind with no semblance of order: dragging Nobuta between them to buy her more fashionable clothes, exchanging Christmas gifts at Akira's place, building a haunted house late into the night, following Nobuta after school, nearly kissing Akira in front of a teacher during a disastrous attempt to teach their inexperienced female friend how to go about on a date ... Shuji chuckled weakly at the now hilarious memory. There were more smaller yet meaningful ones, too, like meeting up at Akira's just for the sake of spending time together or lying up on the school roof, looking at the stars above...
Shuji's eyes snapped open. He could remember that night all too well – the three of them relaxing on the school roof after the end of the Cultural Festival. It was, he recalled, the first time that they all had acknowledged – albeit indirectly – that through strange and unprecedented circumstances, they had actually become friends.
'I was digging for a long time on my own, like a mole underground. And then, suddenly you two came up ... In the future, am I suddenly going to meet people like this? If so, it's not so bad, digging by myself.'
Then Akira, in one of his sudden bursts of serious sensitiveness, had replied to Nobuta, 'You will be able to meet ... different kinds of people.'
'And then one day, you will never see them again,' Shuji had added.
The last few words echoed in his mind and his heart gave a painful lurch in his chest. In that instant, he understood what it was he was regretting so much.
It hurt even more to know that it was beyond his help, out of his control.
'... you will never see them again.'
The soft music of the sea was like an unceasing lullaby, soothing and calming as the water lapped at the sandy shore, washing over his bare feet and sending a wave of coolness through his body. Putting his hands in his pockets, Shuji closed his eyes and savoured the feel of the cold water, the gentle sea breeze that tugged at his brown hair and the now familiar smell of salt that filled his nose. The tranquillity of the seashore comforted him and coming down to the beach for a few minutes after school had become a tradition; it was rather reminiscent of how he used to go and touch the willow tree everyday back hom – back in Tokyo.
However, he was hardly ever alone at the beach. Even now, he knew that it would not be long before the peaceful, rhythmic sounds of the ocean were interrupted. But it did not follow that the interruption would be unwelcome.
Barely a moment after the thought had crossed his mind, a familiar voice sang out in a familiar tune, 'Shu-uji-kun!'
Shuji's lips twitched up in a small smile when Akira pounced on him from behind, practically draping himself over the other boy. Still as touchy-feely as ever. Shuji shrugged him off at once, but now it was merely out of habit rather than annoyance. Leaving an arm propped on his shoulder, Akira stepped up beside him and flashed his customary, lopsided grin.
'Kon kon,' he said as a way of greeting, accompanying his favourite made-up word with its customary hand gesture.
'What kept you?' Shuji asked. Usually, his best friend was right there after school to accompany him to the seaside.
'Baka-sensei was driving me nu-u-u-uts,' Akira complained loudly, leaning against Shuji as if suddenly exhausted.
The other boy just shook his head, quietly amused. Baka-sensei was the affectionately insulting nickname (contradictory? Oh yes) Akira had come up with for the teacher that taught the extracurricular music classes he had signed up for earlier that year. Shuji had almost suffered a heart attack the first time he learned that Kusano Akira, well known happy-go-lucky lazy ass, had actually signed up for, well, anything of his own free will. But as it turned out, his friend did have a talent worth horning. And it was also well known that "Baka" was Akira's favourite teacher, which Shuji supposed was the twisted reason why he made a point of fondly insulting him on a daily basis.
'Ne, I'm starving. Let's go out to eat,' Akira suggested, perking up.
'Nah, I don't feel like it,' Shuji said, turning to walk up the beach to where his bicycle was parked.
'Sushi, Shuji! Sushi, Shuji! Sushi, Shuji!'
'I'm not going. I should get home.'
'Come on, Shuji-kun! Ramen? Onigiri?'
Akira looked sulkily down at him, almost pouting, but Shuji was firm. He occasionally did go out for meals with Akira, but right then, he had no mood and absolutely no appetite. That recurring, hollow feeling of sadness and regret was coming over him again and he turned away, not wanting to show it to the other.
Akira kicked rather gloomily at the ground, sending a spray of the powdery sand flying into the air. 'What's up, Shuji? You're acting the way you used to when we'd ask you to go out with us to eat or see the autumn leaves together. In fact, you've been really weird lately.'
Shuji froze. We. He knew exactly who Akira meant by we and us. Shuji turned round and stared at his best friend. He did not know how or why, but Akira had a unique way of talking about Nobuta as if she were right there beside him. The way he spoke of her ... sometimes, it seemed to Shuji that he was talking directly to her rather than simply referring to her. How did he do it? How could he do it? Shuji himself could not, because with every passing day, the lack of Nobuta's presence was driving deeper into his consciousness, reminding him over and over again of how utterly incomplete he and Akira were without her. For all that they were bonded together with the irrevocable chains of friendship, she was still the third piece of their puzzle; the physically missing piece. Surely, surely Akira felt the same?
Akira, feeling his stare, met his gaze with raised eyebrows. 'Wazzap?'
'Don't you miss her?'
There was no question about whom he was talking. Akira stared at him, taken aback. Every last trace of lingering humour vanished from his face.
'Don't you wish she was here?' The words tumbled out of his mouth, unbidden and uncontrolled, as if determined to be voiced now that he had started. 'Don't you wish we were back there with her? Don't you wish we could talk to her, actually talk to her again? Don't you feel incomplete? Don't you –?!'
Don't you feel this void between us? The void that only Nobuta could fill.
Akira gaped at him, eyes wide with surprise at the unexpected and extremely un-Shuji-like outburst. For one insane moment, Shuji imagined that he would make another one of his "Akira SHOCK" cracks, but instead, he simply sighed. Then, in the same dead-serious tone with which he had confessed his love for Nobuta to Shuji the previous year, he answered quietly, 'Everyday.'
Of course. Suddenly feeling awful for ever having brought up the topic, Shuji let himself collapse cross-legged onto the sand. Akira flopped down beside him, much to his discomfort.
'Ne, Shuji,' Akira nudged him with his shoulder rather playfully, but his voice was low and concerned. 'This got anything to do with why you've been so weird lately?'
Shuji was by then used to his friend's bluntness, but he did wish that Akira had not asked. He had never been one to be open about his emotions and, in any case, what he was feeling right then was not something he wanted to share. The thoughts on his mind were a burden that made him feel weak and unconfident, but to reveal them to someone else would make him feel more so.
However, Akira, being Akira, continued to stare persuasively at him. Shuji avoided his gaze for a long time, but at length, he began to speak. Though he had no desire to share his thoughts, there were answers he wanted to know.
'Don't you miss her?' he repeated his earlier question first, voice dropping low to just above a whisper. 'Doesn't being here with just me without Nobuta make you feel incomplete, like ... something's missing?'
Akira raised his eyes to the sky, chewing on his bottom lip. 'Yes, I do miss her,' he replied simply. 'And she is missing ... but I don't feel incomplete.'
Shuji looked up, disbelieving and curious. 'Why not...?'
'Because though she's not here ... she is still here.'
That was about the least helpful thing he could have said. Typical. 'Akira,' groaned Shuji, somewhat irritated and still anxious.
'She is, she is,' he insisted. 'Don't you feel her?'
Shuji looked at him, but kept silent this time. The truth was, he knew exactly what Akira was talking about. It was the bond, the love that connected them through space and time. No matter where they were, they were still together in mind and heart as long as their friendship thrived. In that respect alone, she was always with them and he could feel her; it was why he had said that they could live wherever they were. But that did not seem to do much to fill the void between him and Akira.
Besides, it was not the question he had asked.
'You know what I mean,' he muttered, turning his face away. 'Don't you want the real Nobuta here with us?'
Akira nodded, his eyes filling with longing as his lips twitched up in one of his quirky smiles. 'More than anything. But for now, it's enough to know that even in a small way, she's still with us.' He paused, glancing around at Shuji. 'But why do you feel incomplete?'
For a minute, Shuji could not think of how to respond. He was shaken and confused.
Why? The void between them existed only for him, not for Akira. He felt none of the weaknesses Shuji was feeling. For him, Nobuta was still there and he felt her presence so much more strongly than Shuji could.
Akira nudged him again and repeated his earlier question, this time in a singsong.
Shuji hesitated, unwilling to continue, but the words slipped off his tongue easily, almost without conscious control. 'She said she'd been alone, digging like a mole underground until we found her. And then you told her that, just like how she met us, she would meet a lot of different people.'
It took a few seconds for Akira to remember which night Shuji was referring to. Comprehension dawned on him and he nodded his head vigorously. 'Yeah, yeah?'
Swallowing hard, the other continued haltingly, 'But then I told her that one day, she would never see those people again.'
'Yeeeeaaah...?' Akira drew out the word, clearly wondering where his friend was going with this.
'I regret it now.' The confession fell from his lips effortlessly, but embarrassment was quick to follow and Shuji averted his eyes.
However, now it was Akira's turn to be confused. 'Eh? Regret? Whaddaya mean?'
Keeping his eyes firmly locked on the distant horizon, Shuji said, 'I wish I'd never said that to her.'
'Because ...' he trailed off, unable to finish.
Because it's the truth.
People come and people go. That was and always would be the way of the world. It cannot be changed. All his life, he had known this one absolute truth. He had had so many people stumble into his life; friends, students at school, teachers, random strangers that ran into him on the street. Some would stay for a season, others for a few years, but then in the blink of an eye, they would be gone forever, leaving nothing behind but just a shallow memory that too eventually faded away with the passing of time.
And there, right there was the answer to the questions in his mind! A lump seemed to form in his throat and Shuji gripped the knees of his black trousers, trying to hold the weakness inside him.
'Shuji...?' Akira poked him in the shoulder. Shuji could tell that he was seriously worrying his friend.
He released a breath he had not realised he'd been holding. With an effort, he forced himself to look Akira square in the eyes. 'Because I don't want that to happen with us,' he answered Akira's question steadily. 'I don't want to see that day.'
Because when it came right down to it, of all the people that had ever entered his life, Akira and Nobuta were the most important of all. They were the ones that he had used to look down on and yet, in the end, they were the ones in front of whom he had never had to hide who he was. Akira and Nobuta had seen the darkest aspects of his personality, the part that he kept hidden from the rest of the world; they had seen all his imperfections and ugly flaws ... but still, they had embraced and welcomed him into their hearts, and they were the only ones to have done so. Most importantly, they were his lifeline. They tied him to his reality, so that in their presence, he became his true self – the self that he had gradually come to respect.
To ever be parted from those two people, for a day to come when he might never see them again – Shuji could hardly bear the thought. It scared him to a degree he could not fathom.
But now it seemed to him that that day had nearly arrived. Already he was parted from Nobuta, who was the sole reason why they had come together in the first place. She was there in his heart, in Akira's heart, but he had no guarantee that he would ever lay eyes on her again. He needed to see her, to feel her, to know that she was really there. Without her hunched form between him and Akira, he was incomplete. They were incomplete. And if there were to come a day when Akira would leave his side as well...
Shuji did not say a single word of his epiphany out loud, but looking intensely into his eyes, Akira seemed to understand his cryptic reply.
He leaned back on his elbows and breathed out noisily through his mouth. 'Man,' he drawled, tipping his head back, 'Nobuta was right!'
Shuji looked at him sharply, startled. 'Huh?'
Akira grinned idly at him. 'Shuji, do you know why I really followed you here?'
Well, technically he had raced Shuji out of Tokyo, turning up at his new school a day before he had – and in a freaking helicopter too, which had made him the height of cool among their classmates. Show off.
Akira laughed and held up his hands amiably when his friend pointed this fact out to him. 'A'right, a'right, I give. But, seriously, do you?'
The other teen hesitated for a moment. 'Because ... It was Nobuta's idea.'
'Correct!' Akira crowed, snapping his fingers together. '"Shuji and Akira are both who I love, together," she said.'
'Mm, you mentioned that –'
'But that's not the only reason,' Akira cut across him. He gave a small, rather sad-looking smile upon meeting Shuji's eyes. 'Thing is, Nobuta and I knew that from among the three of us, the loneliest one was always you.'
The unexpected words startled Shuji. Speechless, he whipped around to gawk at Akira, mouth half open, but could not think of a single thing to say.
His best friend still had that same, little smile on his face. 'You used to surround yourself with people. Kiritani Shuji, the popular guy that got along with everyone, ne? But the day they weren't there, and even when they were – you were still the lonely one.'
There was absolutely nothing he could say to that, mostly because every word of it was true. Weaving a web of lies around him, he had had nothing until Akira and Nobuta had come along. And now that he thought about it, it greatly explained why he was feeling the way he did now:
He was afraid of being along again. There was a fear deep within him that he might go back to that empty life without his two true friends there to guide him. Nobuta's absence was already taking its toll on that weakness of his, and now he had begun to dread the day when he might be parted from Akira as well.
Shuji ran a hand through his hair and breathed in deeply. Determinedly avoiding Akira's gaze, he mumbled. 'I see. So, you came to keep me company.'
'Yep.' Akira aimed a finger gun at his head and pretended to fire. 'For you, Shuji-kun. Bang.'
'You didn't stay behind for Nobuta.'
'Nobuta didn't need me as much as you did. She's not alone or bullied anymore and it's her turn to rule the school now. Besides, she knows we're right there with her, just like she's with us.' With a grin, he clapped Shuji on the shoulder. 'We can live wherever we are, right?'
'No, what I meant was ... didn't you want to stay back with her?' Shuji looked at his best friend shrewdly. One look at the sudden change in his eyes and he knew with absolute certainty that Akira was still very much in love with Nobuta.
There was a short pause. 'I wanted to be with the one who needed me the most.'
Akira's voice was level and sincere and Shuji immediately believed him, though he knew that, deep inside, his friend did want to be with Nobuta. However, he had chosen the path that he believed to be the best; he had been selfless and chosen their friendship as the priority over his own desires and love. To Shuji, however, the notion of that sort of nobility was rather painful now.
He himself had been called selfless numerous times in the past. Always putting others' feelings ahead of his own, never complaining about anything – people always used to say that about him, praising him. To the very last, he had forced himself to hold on to that. For the sake of his family, he had let go of his friends, though back then, his greatest wish had been to be with them forever. He had almost given into his wants the day he had said goodbye to everyone; looking at Akira and Nobuta standing with their classmates, he had wanted nothing more than to be in their arms and remain that way – the three pieces of the puzzle together, united and complete.
But he had not. Now he found himself wondering what it would have been like if he had allowed himself to be selfish. The three of them would still be together, meeting on the rooftop and hanging out at Akira's. He would not be having these insecurities, would he? The fear of being alone again, the dread of going back to a fabricated life, the feeling of something missing from him...
Shuji and Akira sat in silence for a long while, the former brooding while the latter watched with idle eyes that betrayed the slightest hint of worry and understanding. At length, Shuji said quietly, summing up everything he was feeling into three words, 'I miss Producing.'
'We'll see Nobuta again, Shuji-kun,' Akira said bracingly. 'We can always visit!'
'I know.' He just feared the arrival of a day when that might be impossible. "...one day, you will never see them again."
'We ought to go see her soon,' the other continued, growing increasingly enthusiastic. 'October will end soon and – Hey, Shuji, it's almost your birthday!'
The abrupt change in direction of their conversation completely threw him. Shuji stared round at Akira, taken aback. 'Huh?'
'What are you on about? It's not for a couple of weeks yet.'
'Yeah, but that means that it's almost time for the annual Cultural Festival!' exclaimed Akira, practically bouncing up and down on his kneecaps.
Shuji nodded slowly, utterly perplexed. 'Yeah, so – Hey!' he yelled in protest when Akira unexpectedly tackled him, pushing him face first into the sand. By the time Shuji had freed himself and wiped his face clean on his sleeve, Akira had somehow whipped Shuji's cell phone out of his pocket (without him feeling anything. Huh?) and was fiddling around with it.
'Oi, give that here,' Shuji said indignantly, spitting sand out of his mouth.
Looking extremely self-satisfied, Akira flung over the small phone which Shuji barely managed to catch. He looked down at the screen and saw that it was currently calling up his old classmate, Tani.
'Why –?' he began, but Akira interrupted, 'Find out on which weekend they're holding the Festival.'
Confused, Shuji raised his eyebrows. 'Because?'
'Because, Shu-uji-kun,' Akira sang with a bright, sunny grin, 'you and I are going to pay Nobuta a surprise visit. And I'm going to prove to you that neither she nor you will ever be alone and that, no matter what, we will never be incomplete! KON!'
- to be continued -
A/N: So, how'd you like it? Please do leave a review and share your opinion! :)