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Akarsha walked outside into the warm spring sunlight and breathed deep, releasing a satisfied sigh. The spring semester was off to a great start. Of course, that feeling was diminished somewhat as she headed out for the usual lunch table and she saw Noelle hunkered over her shiny new camera, completely ignoring her food. She had been acting, frankly, super freaking weird lately. It was one thing for her to just be grumpy, but it was pretty reliably tempered with that look that said she was mostly angry because she was trying not to crack up laughing.

Now, she was mostly just... regular angry. But that didn't mean Akarsha wasn't going to try and pester her into happiness. “Ayyyy, Frenchman, what's good?”

“Literally nothing,” she muttered before idly dumping some soup straight into her mouth from her thermos, without a spoon. Noelle was drinking soup without a fucking spoon. This was bad. “I'm looking at all the pictures from yesterday and not a single one of them looks usable.”

Akarsha flopped down next to her and started peering over her shoulder as the pictures went scrolling by. “You're kidding me, right? These are all amazing.” Obviously, even for an arts credit class (poor Noelle had nearly retched when she realized she needed something non-music to graduate) she was dead-set on only ever producing perfect work.

“Yeah, sure, my framing is golden, and they all look fine. But the subjects...”

“You can just say it's all our fault, dude,” Akarsha said with a slight pout.

Noelle clicked over to one picture in particular. “Look at us. You somehow managed to slip on a pair of those ridiculous alien glasses of yours, and I'm blurry because I was turning to get mad at you. Diya and Min figured that was a perfect excuse to make out because 'oh look at us we're so perfect together' and somehow Min is playing with one of her five million knives at the same time! It's a total mess.” Before Akarsha could properly reply with another joke, she had already moved on to the next image. “Min is scowling, Diya forgot to smile, and you're doing some weird crouching rapper pose. Or here, Diya saw a dog and that blur there is her running off to go pet it. Ah, for this one, you and Min got into a random scuffle over nothing. I can't submit a single one of these...”

There was always at least a portion of Akarsha that felt bad every time Noelle got legitimately mad about something she'd done. It had absolutely nothing to do with friendship or feelings or whatever, obviously. It was just human decency to be at least a little ashamed of letting your absolute garbage ruin someone else's shit. That wasn't cool, and it was something that maybe Akarsha was worried about constantly. Maybe. “You still have time, bro. We can do another round in the park after class today.”

Noelle huffed and stood up from the table, quickly packing up all her things. “What's the point? The goal of the assignment is to photograph my friends. And seeing as I would have an easier time getting a decent shot of fucking... bigfoot or whatever, maybe I'll just take a picture of a blank wall and call it 'Isolation'. Maybe I'll get an A+ for being so deep and introspective.” She went storming right past Min and Diya, both of whom looked quite confused.

Akarsha knew she couldn't tell them the truth. Diya would be all worried until things were fixed, and Min probably wouldn't care – or at least pretend super hard that she didn't care. And really, the simple truth of the matter was that Akarsha knew this was just another instance in a long line of situations where she had fucked up and ruined everything because she had to go and be such a shitheap. “Said she was still really worried about that spanish test. Wanted to study in the library with her flashcards. You know how Noelle is with flashcards. They're her only remaining source of endorphins.” A goofy excuse and an exaggerated shrug was all it took to convince her friends that things were normal. Once school was over, she could fix this.

Noelle knew she was being ridiculous. She was always being ridiculous. How could she not? When going home meant putting up with her family and going to school meant putting up with her friends and she didn't have the option to go anywhere else because either her family or her friends would freak out about her missing.

But this particular issue was so dumb and so upsetting that she just felt like a total idiot for letting it get to her.

It had started somewhere around winter break. Noelle's family was going on a rather long break to visit relatives in Taiwan. She had hoped she might be able to find some memento or image of her friends, but that turned out to be harder to find than she'd imagined. In particular, Akarsha almost never allowed herself to take a normal picture. Just like the ones she'd screwed up at the park the other day, every single image on her facebook was ridiculous or memetic or had something to do with anime.

Why was it that Akarsha's behavior in particular had bothered her? After all, that was their entire relationship in a nutshell. But this had become actually upsetting for Noelle. So she did the only thing she could, she applied logic. Literally.

Premise: I want something to remember my friends by
Premise: I want something to remember Akarsha by
Conclusion: Akarsha is my friend

Okay, well that one tracked. So far so good.

Premise: I would appreciate a normal picture of Akarsha to take with me to Taiwan
Premise: Akarsha never takes normal pictures
Premise: I will never have a normal picture of Akarsha

Again, this was all straightforward, even obvious, and she knew to her horror that she was purposefully ignoring something.

Premise: I want a good picture of Akarsha
Premise: I do not care so much about getting a good picture of Diya or Min
Conclusion: I am experiencing specific feelings with regards to Akarsha

She swallowed the lump in her throat. Closer now.

Previous conclusion: Akarsha is my friend
Premise: Friendships can be confusing
Premise: Feelings can be confusing
Premise: Akarsha can be confusing
Corrected conclusion: Akarsha??!!??

That was about the point that things broke down. And since that day in December, things only continued to crystallize for her, much to Noelle's horror. She most definitely had a stupid idiot crush on her stupid idiot friend. And this stupid idiot class project to take a photograph of 'meaningful people' had somehow become much more than another grade in her stupid idiot brain. And failing to do this right meant something very different than a poor grade.

The familiar, almost Pavlovian sound of flip-flops brought her back to the present as she walked away from school. Noelle wanted to run away, and she also wanted to turn around and face this conversation, and feelings were stupid and she hated them.

Eventually she just found the average of the two options and slowed down while still walking away. Akarsha naturally caught up, slightly out of breath and chuckling softly. “Hey dude. Um... So... I, like... super mega want to apologize to you. Because you were trying to do a school thing, and those mean a lot to you, and we were being dorks, and that could mean you losing a few points on your grade, and that's just not cool, but also the thing is that I'm kinda photo-sensitive, and I'm really sorry because I thought up that pun while I was writing this apology in my head for the last, like, two hours and it was too good, and I hope you can forgive me for the pun and also screwing up your homework.”

Noelle finally stopped walking away, and Akarsha had to pull up short and spin around to keep from overshooting and walking past her. She crossed her arms, then remembered that this was a traditional distancing method that projected negative body language, and uncrossed them again. But now her arms were hanging awkwardly at her sides, and she preferred looking a little defensive to looking awkward, and crossed them once again. “I was... gonna head to the park. You wanna come?”

Akarsha instantly broke out in a huge goofy grin.

They were sitting on the swings together, and it was almost like something out of some teen coming-of-age movie or something. It wasn't so bad.

“Akarsha, I honestly owe you an apology, too. I know I always kind of.... put a lot of expectations on you guys. I should just be grateful you guys wasted an hour letting me take pictures at all.” She paused and seemed to still be cooking up further thoughts, so Akarsha bit her tongue to keep from speaking out of turn. She hadn't been this truly considerate in a while, and it was tough. “Can I ask you something kind of weird? It seems like there isn't a single picture of you in all of existence where you just... smile normally. What's up with that?”

Oof. Great. Awesome. Thanks, Noelle, really cut right to the core of the issue huh? Ugh, she knew her apology was going to seem a whole lot less sincere if she didn't at least try and actually explain this. “I mean, jeez bro, look at me. If I'm in a picture with the three of you, and I smile normally? I'm gonna look like such a little gremlin anyway. So I figure, y'know, I might as well just be a gremlin actively instead. If I throw up the deuces and stick out my tongue, then everyone's gonna be way too busy judging me for acting like a dummy, and they won't have time to judge me for the fact that I have no business hanging out with a bunch of regular, attractive people...”

Almost as soon as she started talking, all if it just came flooding out of her mouth. She had done it, she had finally let all the garbage come flying out and now Noelle knew and would probably be super judgmental. So it was kind of surprising that it didn't happen. “Honestly, I mean, I get that. You are... demonstrably wrong. But it makes sense.”

Akarsha instantly broke out in bright laughter, nearly doubling over, kicking her legs. She should have known Miss Reason would try and make this into something you could actually argue over. “Oh, what, you gonna use some scientific proof and show me that I'm being ridiculous? C'mon then, Coldplay's The Scientist, tell me your secrets.”

“Hah,” she scoffed in reply. Of course she did. Noelle was always scoffin'. “I don't even need something like that to prove my point. After all, I-!” And then she suddenly stopped talking. Normally, that was a good thing. Even better when she started blushing like that. But Akarsha wasn't dumb, and she didn't need long to figure out what Noelle was likely about to say.

And in spite of how dumb an idea it was to rely on old standards in times like this, she just couldn't help herself. She gasped loudly and sat up straight. “It's because you think I'm pretty! Oh my god this explains so much!” Noelle began facepalming, as per usual, and Akarsha slowly pushed her swing up closer, nudging her playfully. “You were gonna compliment meeeeee and you couldn't do iiiitttttt. You have a crush on meeeeee and you wanna marry meeeeeee...”

Only... Noelle wasn't firing back. She didn't even tell her to shut up. Oh.

“...Oh.” Akarsha quickly shuffled away from Noelle before she made this entire situation even worse. “...sorry. Again.”

“No, it's not... I mean... It's my fault. Pathetic, right? I can't even admit something like this, so I just hide it behind classwork and excuses.” Noelle scoffed again, followed by a dry laugh.

Akarsha couldn't have rolled her eyes any harder if she tried. “Yeah, and I hide my infinite sadness behind jokes. And, because I guess you never actually put it together, I hide actual flirtation behind fake flirtation. For months now. But I'm really good at hiding stuff.”

“Yeah, I guess I am too...” Noelle glanced over, and she still looked really fucking sad.

As much as it pained her to do so, Akarsha knew she was going to have to do something... ugh... nice. “I'm going to do you two favors, and I need you to promise me that you will keep both of them super-secret, under threat of death. Now give me your camera.” She held out her hand, motioning with her fingers.

For a moment they just stared at one another until Noelle finally relented and passed her the camera as if she knew she was never going to see it again.

“Drama queen~” she chimed affectionately. First, Akarsha held the camera out in front of her, did her best impression of a normal human being and smiled as she clicked the shutter. As much as she really didn't like what she saw when she turned it around to check the image, she got the impression that Noelle would. Then, she went scrolling back through all the pictures they had taken the other day. It didn't take long to finally pick out the right one that she was certain would net a perfect grade. “There. That's the one you should present. It's not perfect, but it's honest, and I know you can spin it so hard your teacher will applaud because you're a freaking wizard.”

“Alright, our next photo is from Noelle. Please, come up and tell us a bit about it.”

The projector flipped over and an image came up – from the left, Akarsha and Noelle were facing each other and clearly bickering, Diya was next to them doing her best to smile pleasantly as if the picture might still magically come out okay, and finally Min on the other side laughing her ass off as if her friends' argument was the funniest thing in the world.

Everyone in the class was laughing a little bit at the image, especially after five presentations in a row where people showed their families or friend groups looking perfect and angelic. But Noelle was finally starting to understand why Akarsha had chosen it. “Ah, thank you. Um, so I chose this image because it's very honest. It was hard to get a shot of the four of us looking normal, but this is better because of it. My friend Akarsha and I are always sparring verbally, and it's almost become a highlight of my day. Diya is just... the best, and even when things are crumbling around her, she really tries to keep being pleasant and positive and kind. Even when... it makes no sense. And Min, well, she's... She has a great deal of energy, and she can find joy in the strangest situations. But more than that, the image itself has an almost Renaissance quality to it, with this active through-line you don't always see even in the best of planned photography, giving it a pleasing visual coherence.”

She continued like that for a little while longer until it seemed she had rattled off all the terms she could and she was able to sit down.

After class, as she was walking out of the building, she was suddenly tackled by a flying Akarsha. Rather than her usual trickery, this one turned into an actual hug, which was almost as bad for poor Noelle. This was new. She could handle fighting and arguing and sniping and bickering. It would take some work to get used to proper affection. But... maybe she could do it. For Akarsha. “How did it go?? Did you get a hundred million points? Did the teacher applaud like that scene from Citizen Kane? I bet it was epic.”

Noelle just shrugged humbly. “I got an A.”

“But why not an A+?” she replied, in an impression of Noelle's mother that was so accurate it actually hurt a little bit.

She narrowed her eyes and glared at Akarsha, even as her arms tightened the hug just a little bit. “If you ever do that again, I'm canceling our date Saturday.”

“You wouldn't dare,” Akarsha said in a sing-song voice that was definitely very annoying and not cute at all. “You loooooove me.” She pecked her playfully on the cheek, pretty much shutting up Noelle forever.