“I’m not your mom.”
Sighing, Kamiyama lets the pencil fall. He stops it before it rolls off his desk, of course—that’s a lesson he learned hard and fast; stray pencils don’t last long in Cromartie High. “I understand that, Hayashida, But—”
“I don’t think you do. Because. See. You called me dearest mother.” With two hands on Kamiyama’s desk and a body leaned over so close that their noses are nearly touching, Hayashida’s confusion is almost understandable.
But sheer stupidity explains it better, and Kamiyama, knowing better than to reason with his friend without concrete proof, picks up his letter. He brandishes it in Hayashida’s face, explaining calmly, “I was writing to my mother. Reading aloud helps me decide what to write. You just happened to be in front of me.” Hayashida makes the usual ‘ohhh’ sound of acceptance and rolls back onto his feet, standing up properly. Kamiyama doesn’t bother resuming the letter; obviously, he’s been interrupted for a reason.
“You might want to tell your mother about Bass,” Hayashida says knowingly, nodding his head as his arms cross, purple hair flicking in the non-existent wind of the stuffy classroom.
Kamiyama deadpans back, “My mother doesn’t like fishing.” The look that comes over his face says it all, and Hayashida waves his hand in acknowledgement. That’s a dark story for another day.
“I meant about Bass High. Rumour is, they’ve been starting new rumours about us.”
Kamiyama squints, and, though he is, of course, curious, asks instead, “Where do you hear all these things? I go to the same school you do and I don’t hear these rumours.”
As expected, Hayashida doesn’t falter for even a moment. “That’s because you’re busy writing letters, while everybody talks to me.” His hair starts to fluctuate more rapidly than usual, and Kamiyama squints at the stray tuft—perhaps it covers a transceiver from which Hayashida picks up messages. It would make more sense than the gorilla in their class. It could happen.
But it’s not polite to ask about it, so he simply nods. “All right. What are these rumours?” Because obviously, he’s going to be the one to have to stop them. For justice.
Hayashida’s fist comes out, clenched in the air, and anguish suddenly paints his face. “They said... they said...” He pauses for emphasis, then inhales deeply and nearly shouts, “Kamiyama, they said none of us had girlfriends!” Hayashida proceeds to look aside, as though the truth is too painful to look at. Maybe it is. There’s a hushed silence in the class; everyone must’ve heard the outburst. Even Junior Fireball Number Two is watching.
Kamiyama is quiet for a moment to consider, then says, “Well, we don’t.”
“Kamiyama!” A collective gasp seems to echo the room, and there’s a muffled curse in the background. Kamiyama briefly considers turning back to his letter, though he hasn’t had any new sources of inspiration past: ‘dearest mother, none of us have girlfriends.’
Kamiyama blinks. “What?” He’s pretty sure he would’ve heard about that. Even if Freddie wouldn’t have told him. Now that’s a rumour no one can miss. But Hayashida looks dead serious, like he so often does in the face of total craziness.
“It’s the only way.” The look in Hayashida’s eyes says he really believes that. He’s nodding to himself and rubbing his chin now, hair going wild. “We’ll dress Maeda up in a dress—”
“What?!” Maeda’s blond head sticks out from a few desks ahead, but Hayashida, of course, doesn’t seem to hear him. Kamiyama doesn’t listen either—if there’s a good plan afoot that will show up Bass High—even though their rumours this time are entirely true—it’s vital that they succeed. There’s no sense in wasting time on Maeda’s whining.
“—And we’ll have him and Freddie walk past the gates of Bass, and they’ll think that Freddie’s got a girlfriend!” Hayashida’s eyes are now serenely closed: the plan is perfect. Nothing could go wrong.
“Guys, I’m not—”
Kamiyama cuts Maeda off to say, “Yes.”
“Yes, it’s perfect,” Kamiyama repeats, while the idea mulls itself over in his head. “No one can mistake Freddie. They’ll know instantly he’s from Cromartie, couldn’t mistake him for anyone else, and know he represents all of us. Maeda must fit women’s clothes, because his mom does, and let’s face it, they’re uncannily alike. Maeda won’t mind, because he’s a good sport, and Freddie won’t mind because he’s Freddie. And all without us ever having to approach any actual women!” Kamiyama’s fist hits the desk, drowning out Maeda’s continuing protests. Of course, none of them could ever really get girlfriends; that’d be insane. They’re delinquents. But the guys at Bass can’t either, and now they’ll have an edge.
Jerking suddenly to his feet, Kamiyama announces, “Hayashida, you’re a genius!” And Hayashida just nods proudly while Maeda shouts things that no one seems to hear.
Maeda’s not actually that surprised.
Upset, yes. Surprised, not at all.
This is hardly the first stupid scheme they’ve thrown onto him. It likely won’t be the last time they completely disregard his wishes. But they’re friends, so he begrudgingly lets them drag him home, or maybe he just gets tired of struggling.
His mother isn’t home, thank goodness, so it’s easy enough to sneak into her room. He hates that her clothes do actually fit him, but there’s nothing for it now—her bedroom window lets out into bushes she’d kill him if he crushed, and the only other exit is the door, back into the living room, where they’ll catch him. ‘They’ being said ‘friends.’ With an irritated grumble and a defeat sigh, Maeda picks out a simple bluish dress and slips it on, finds it looks ridiculous, and picks something else. A pink dress. It’s got to be a dress. They won’t let him go if it isn’t.
He looks better in the pink one. He looks awful in both. The pink one only comes down mid-thigh, but the sleeves are long and the off-the-shoulder neckline is mildly flattering. Sort of. Not really. He steps out of the room looking up at the ceiling and feeling decidedly stupid.
Kamiyama says, “Oh. My. God.” And Hayashida, as bizarre as everything about him, hands Maeda a pair of black panty hose.
Fully aware he’s red in the face, Maeda takes them and asks, “What the hell am I supposed to do with these??”
The two of them tell him in an irksome unison, “Put them on.” Kamiyama adds, “Unless you want to shave.”
“We’ll support you if that’s what you want,” Hayashida says, like he’s some amazing friend that’s totally there for Maeda and not forcing Maeda to steal his mother’s clothes to perpetuate a ridiculously unbelievable lie.
But the thought of shaving his legs sounds painful and difficult and Maeda’s brave but not that brave, so he takes the panty hose and starts to change into them, careful to keep his bits covered. He doesn’t bother asking where the panty hose came from. It won’t make any sense even if he knows. When he’s done, he puts his hands on his hips and grunts, “There.”
Kamiyama tells him quite seriously, “You are the ugliest woman I’ve ever seen.”
Which, Maeda supposes, counts for something. He still mutters, “Maybe because I’m not a woman at all.”
“That’s because we haven’t done your makeup yet,” Hayashida adds, just as seriously. “Sit down.”
“What, you didn’t say anything about...” But his anger dies off as they push him down, of course, right onto the floor, and so he sits there with his arms crossed and his face in a sneer while Hayashida and Kamiyama take turns making him look like a clown.
There’s a headband in his hair, and it vaguely matches the dress. Seventeen tries later, his makeup’s okay. Miraculously. He’s still an ugly woman, he thinks, but maybe he’ll pass. No one said anything about attractive girlfriends. Besides. He’s got a glowing personality. Yeah.
He stands around the corner from Bass high probably look as pissed off as he feels, and Kamiyama pushes Freddie closer to his side. Kamiyama then has to hold out Freddie’s arm, and Maeda, trying to keep his blush down, takes it. At least, he thinks, Freddie’s a far better choice than either of the two idiots in front of him. Freddie looks down at him at the touch but doesn’t say anything, as per usual. Just stares at him, with soft eyes and a bristling moustache and a full head of lush hair and a chiseled face. Maeda can feel the tone of Freddie’s impressive muscles, can feel a strong arm that hints at a stronger chest, cut out in a six-pack and dark patches of hair. He’s not wearing a shirt, like usual, just suspenders. At least it shows off his body. At least it looks like Maeda got a catch, even if that catch is ridiculously out of place and Maeda can’t be a great catch back.
Maeda clutches onto Freddie’s arm for support while Kamiyama and Hayashida go over their incredibly detailed and well thought out plan.
“Okay. So. You walk past the gates.”
“And they’ll see you.”
“And then we’ll shout, ‘hey, Freddie of Cromartie High School has a girlfriend!’”
“And then we’ll go home.”
And by home, they probably mean Maeda’s house, because that’s where the nonsense usually starts. Or school. Even though it’s after school hours. Ready to go, Maeda rolls his eyes and waits for the ringleaders to decide it’s time.
After sharing a look between them that communicates who-knows-what, Kamiyama puts his hands on Maeda’s shoulders and says firmly, “Remember. Think like a girl.”
...For walking. In a straight line. Not even sure how to deal with that level of stupid, Maeda grunts, “I’ll think like me.”
Hayashida says, “Close enough,” and Maeda shoots him a glare.
Then Hayashida and Kamiyama make off. They round the corner and start crouching, ducking below the school gates, evidently about to try hiding in the bushes. Maeda, fed up with this plan already, follows. A gentle tug on Freddie’s arm, and Freddie comes with him, wonderfully sturdy amidst the insanity that makes up the rest of Maeda’s world.
All they have to do is walk from this end of the street to the other end. That’ll take them past the open Bass gates, where, presumably, a number of Bass students will see them. And Maeda will firmly pretend he is not Akira Maeda. He’s someone else entirely. Right before the gates, he realizes he’s positioned to walk on the side of the school, and he doesn’t want that, so he detangles himself from Freddie. Freddie stops too, watching him studiously as he moves, and the other two make irritated warning noises from the bushes that Maeda steadfast ignores. He finds Freddie’s other side, so that Freddie’s between him and the students they’ll inevitably see. Freddie doesn’t seem to mind. This time, Freddie offers his arm, and Maeda, oddly relieved, takes it. At least he can bury his face in Freddie’s endless muscles if the shame becomes too great to bear.
A few steps, and they’re out in the open. Their feet are still on the sidewalk, but the sidewalk opens up into the pavement that leads to Bass’ front gates, and out the corner of his eye, Maeda can see all the people milling about. No on notices them at first, but in a heartbeat, Hayashida’s yelled, “Is that Freddie of Cromartie High? With a girlfriend?” Every eye, of course, turns to them. Chances are, most of them won’t know who Freddie is. But they’ll know the name of their rival school.
Maeda refuses to look, just keeps walking. It feels like it’s taking forever to pass the entrance. Freddie’s arm pulls out of his and subtly drapes around his waist, and though Maeda should probably feel horrified, it does make him feel inexplicably safer to be wrapped up in someone’s arms. He’s been kidnapped enough by hostile schools. Freddie will protect him. Clearly. Freddie’s hand rests lightly on his hip, long fingers spread along the fabric of his gown, and he can feel Freddie’s shoulder at his, feel Freddie’s whole arm brace his back. It keeps him tight at Freddie’s side, but he doesn’t mind. At least they didn’t make him wear heels. He probably wouldn’t be able to walk in those.
As it is, he finally manages to pass the gate. He breathes a sigh of relief, even as the lingering snide comments call after them. He barely hears them. At the end of the street, they’ll stop walking, he supposes, and then rush home and he can get out of this stupid outfit because Kamiyama and Hayashida will have had their fun.
But Maeda and Freddie hit the end of the street, reaching a crosswalk where their signal’s on, and Freddie keeps walking. He sweeps Maeda right along with him, past the waiting cars and two other people crossing, and right over onto the other side of the road. And Freddie keeps walking. Stunned, Maeda looks sideways at him and says, “Uh, you can stop now.” But Freddie’s looking straight ahead and just keeps going.
Kamiyama and Hayashida call after them, but the light’s changed and the cars separate them. Freddie turns the corner, taking them out of sight of the other two, and although Maeda peers over his shoulder, he’ll take Freddie over those guys any day. Especially today. After they did this to him. So he lets Freddie guide him along, holding him close, warm at his side.
Freddie leads them to a little restaurant where they sit on worn mats and pour over faded menus. Maeda mentions in embarrassment, “I didn’t bring money.” There aren’t any pockets in the dress, and his bag would’ve looked suspicious, but Freddie waves his hand. Maybe he’s paying. It’s Freddie, so it’s hard to tell.
Maeda’s stomach is rumbling, so he takes his chances. Freddie points to a big bowl of ramen on the menu, and Maeda settles for some dynamite rolls. Not too expensive. He thought of just getting kappa rolls, the cheapest thing they have, but then his stomach rumbled, and now he’s realized he’s too hungry. He tells Freddie, “Thanks,” under the assumption that Freddie’s paying. Freddie nods and points to something else on the menu, and the pretty waitress takes them away with a half bow, eyeing Maeda oddly. He can feels his cheeks turning pink again. He feels stupid. At least they’ve sat in the far corner of the restaurant, and it’s mostly empty, anyway, just a small place. They’re against the wall with no window. Cheap, packaged chopsticks are already on the table, and Maeda grabs his pair just for something to do. He splits them apart, and Freddie does the same.
Maeda mentions to fill the silence, “Sorry you got roped into this.” And Freddie shows absolutely no reaction. At least, Maeda decides, he doesn’t seem upset. Which would be the worst. At least Maeda’s not inflicting himself on poor Freddie. In an attempt to lighten the mood he’s bringing down himself, he jokes, “I suppose it’s only right for you to pay, though, if I’m your girlfriend.” He’s grinning, but he doesn’t laugh, because Freddie doesn’t, just looks at him totally seriously.
Maeda puts his chopsticks down on the wrapper and his hands on the table and sighs. He drums on the lacquered surface lightly with his fingers and wonders if his mother will notice the missing dress.
One of Freddie’s large hands lands on his, weighting it down, and Maeda stares at it, blinking.
Freddie’s hand is warm, strong. His skin’s soft. His masculine fingers close around Maeda’s whole fist, squeezing lightly, maybe reassuring. Maybe something else. There’s no way to know. The simple touch makes Maeda feel... strange.
He glances over his shoulder. There’s an old couple at another table, that’s all, and they’re not looking over. Maybe they think Maeda’s just an ugly date. But Freddie’s worth staring at too, in his shirtless suspenders and his bushy mustache and his American looks. He’s twice the size of the little stick waitress that took their order. They both stand out like sore thumbs.
Freddie’s thumb caresses Maeda’s, and Maeda wonders if it’s really caressing, or if he’s just gone as mad as the others. He keeps meaning to pull his hand away, but he doesn’t. Maybe this is how Freddie talks: through touch. Maybe they could teach him sign language.
He thinks Freddie’s trying to reassure him. Maybe make up for the stress of the day. But maybe that’s just in his head. The food arrives relatively quickly, but neither order was particularly complicated. The waitress shows back up with a small tray of sushi and a medium sized bowl. There’s only five slices of the dynamite roll. Before the waitress can leave, probably to get them water or green tea or whatever they serve here, Freddie points at Maeda’s sushi, then holds up two fingers. The waitress smiles and nods like she understands, though Maeda doesn’t understand how she could. Maybe Freddie comes here often.
Maeda says, “Thank you,” again, and to his surprise, Freddie nods. Then Freddie starts to fish the noodles out of his bowl and wolves them down, while Maeda, no more delicate an eater, starts in on his sushi. The rolls are a little big, and one comes undone in the dish of soy sauce he pours, but it tastes good, and that’s what matters, even if he has to dig it out in drenched parts. The waitress brings them water, and then, maybe five minutes later, another tray of sushi. Maeda blinks at it, takes it, and says, “Thank you.”
The waitress flashes him an odd smile and asks, “How is it?”
“Good.” She flitters off, leaving Maeda to start in on the next part.
He tells Freddie, “You didn’t have to.” He’s not surprised when Freddie doesn’t answer. But Maeda is a big guy, and he does like his food. Five pieces of sushi wouldn’t be enough. Ten’s better.
A few moments later, when Freddie’s halfway through his ramen—he’s eaten it remarkable quickly—and Maeda’s down to just two rolls, the waitress returns with a large cup of bubble tea. It looks strawberry, or at least, it’s pink. She puts it in the center of the table and stabs two straws into the thin wrapper stretched over the top with the restaurant’s logo on it, and she tells them, “Enjoy.”
Which leaves Maeda to blink at the one drink with two straws. Freddie leans over to take a sip, and Maeda watches in strange fascination as the thick liquid swirls up through the translucent straw and disappears into his mouth. Freddie’s cheeks hollow out when he sucks; he’s sucking hard. When he’s done, he pulls back, nodding to himself, as if to say, ‘meal well eaten.’ Then he gives the cup a little push in Maeda’s direction.
Maeda’s too shocked to refuse. He loves strawberry. Somehow, he ends up using the other straw to take a bit. And after the first sip, he takes another. And then they’re just sharing it, and Maeda can’t help but laugh, “You buy me dinner and they put me in a dress. Why do I ever hang out with those guys?” Freddie shrugs, still eating. He tips his bowl back and starts to drink down the liquid, leaving Maeda somehow sure he’s still listening. “I mean, seriously, can you believe those two?” Once he starts, he can’t stop. The complaints are too pent up, and he’s not used to having someone actual sitting in front of him willing to hear it out. “They probably don’t think so, but they’re always picking on me. I always draw the short straw. Why is that? I’m a good friend to them! But I always get screwed over. I get kidnapped the most and they take forever to rescue me, when they do at all, and then they always make me the butt of their hair-brained schemes, and they never even ask my input...” Freddie drops the ramen bowl down; it’s empty. For once, his blank expression is different; it looks sympathetic.
Maeda feels a pang in his chest: appreciation. Freddie is a good listener. That’s for sure. But he’s got a fish cake stuck to his mustache, so Maeda leans over to pluck it off. He means to drop it back in the bowl, but Freddie, instead, leans forward and bites it right out of his fingers. Freddie’s soft lips close over his fingertips and pluck the food away, chewing it down. ...And leaving Maeda blushing harder than ever and feeling very odd about the nature of this... date.
It strikes him suddenly that he’s totally on a date with Freddie.
He can never tell Hayashida or Kamiyama about this. Never ever ever. He bends town to take a sip of bubble tea to calm himself down. Freddie does too, their faces close enough for their noses to bump. Maeda, petrified in a mix of confusing reactions, doesn’t pull back like he should.
When he does, he starts spouting off about everything. Like talking will make him more comfortable. He rants about school and the others and the gorilla and the way his mom keeps bursting into his room and about how the blue dress looked on him and it’s supposed to ease the non-existent tension, but all it really does is make Freddie look intently at him like he’s the most interesting thing in the world, and Maeda falls deeper and deeper into a really okay evening.
Freddie did pay for dinner. Freddie pays for a cab. Freddie has it take Maeda home, and then Freddie gets out, and Freddie walks him to the door. Maeda turns around and says softly, “Thanks.” And he means for dinner, but also, kind of, for everything. It’s not that late yet. He could invite Freddie in.
He’s pretty sure he’s been blushing for the past hour. Maybe Freddie could buy him some ice cream to cool down his burning cheeks. No. He should stop.
Freddie looks gorgeous in the low evening light, or maybe the insanity at Cromartie’s just seeped into Maeda’s head and he’s lost it.
Freddie leans down and puts both hands on Maeda’s shoulders. His touch is as welcome and comforting as it was before. Freddie pecks him softly on the cheek, and Maeda turns foolishly into it. Couldn’t even explain why. So Freddie pecks him on the lips: the fastest, most chaste kiss possible, but a kiss, from Freddie, and Maeda’s stiff with uncertainty about... everything.
He somehow manages to mumble, “Good night.” Freddie nods and leaves. He heads off down the pathway, back to the cab, and Maeda watches him go, wondering. Maybe Freddie’s just doing what they told him. Maeda’s his girlfriend. Was his girlfriend. Boyfriend. For just today? Or will he still be like this tomorrow?
Maeda retreats into his home, muddled to death with questions.
In the morning, his mother brings him a letter. It’s a love letter. He thinks.
It’s got a heart on it. On the inside, there’s a picture of dorky looking teddy bears sharing chocolate. There aren’t any words.
That’s how Maeda knows it’s from Freddie.
He puts it on his nightstand.
At least someone’s thinking about him.
And he’d be lying to say he wasn’t thinking about Freddie too.
“Why do you keep thinking I’m your mother?”
Since it’s the second day in a row, Kamiyama reacts more fervently. “Damnit, Hayashida, I’m writing a letter.”
“Oh yeah.” But Hayashida’s still frowning, and his hair’s still swaying, and he scratches his cheek before deciding, “You should really stop saying those out loud. Anyway, I’ve been thinking, have you seen Maeda lately?”
“We saw him yesterday.”
Kamiyama thinks for a moment, then quickly surveys the classroom beyond Hayashida, who’s blocking most of it. Comprehension dawns, and, once again, Kamiyama tucks his letter away; it’s clearly not going to happen right now. He checks one last time for their blond friend, then announces, “My God, he’s gone.”
“The rumours say Destrade has him.”
Kamiyama nods. It only makes sense, after all; Maeda gets kidnapped on a regular basis. Fortunately, they make a good rescue team. They’ll need to gather up Takenouchi, maybe Mechazawa. Definitely the gorilla. But first Freddie—he can drive and Kamiyama’s running low on taxi money. Or at least, Freddie can probably drive. He can ride a horse?
Following Hayashida out into the hall, Kamiyama already starts calculating in his head the fastest way to Destrade. Assuming, of course, that the rumours are right. At least they dealt with all those girlfriend rumours. Now they can move on to more important things, like keeping Maeda alive. They pull the door open to Freddie’s classroom and march over to his desk, but they stop a moment later at seeing Maeda on the other side of it.
Sitting backwards in someone else’s chair, Maeda’s conversing with Freddie, or at least, talking, and Freddie, listening, looks like he’s really listening. There’s a comprehension in his eyes he doesn’t normally have. Kamiyama stares at it for a moment, disbelieving.
Hayashida jumps in to say, “Maeda, wrong classroom.”
But Kamiyama understands better, of course, and lifts a finger. “Hayashida, no. Don’t you see what we’ve done?” Hayashida looks at him expectantly. Kamiyama turns to Maeda. “We’re so sorry; we forgot to tell you. You only had to be Freddie’s girlfriend for one day. It’s over now.”
“Boyfriend,” Maeda says.
“Girlfriend,” Hayashida corrects.
Maeda slips into a glare and insists, “Boyfriend. And anyway, you idiots don’t get to decide when I stop dating people.” Hayashida’s eyes go so wide that his hair goes stock-still, frozen directly upright. Kamiyama’s staring just at hard.
He mumbles, “You’re... you’re dating Freddie?” That doesn’t make any sense. No sense at all. It made total sense yesterday, but that was different. Right now, it makes no sense.
Maeda sniffs an indignant, “Yes.” Then he stands and takes a step around the table, looking down at Freddie. “C’mon, let’s get out of here.”
“Class is about to start,” Kamiyama points out, but Maeda’s not listening to him. Neither is Freddie.
Freddie gets to his feet, ducks down, and abruptly scoops Maeda up bride-style. He then proceeds to carry a blushing Maeda out of the classroom, while Hayashida and Kamiyama stare.
“Dearest mother,” Kamiyama mumbles dryly, realizing slowly that this could be a very interesting letter. “Today I became a matchmaker.”
“Kamiyama,” Hayashida says, looking at him and probably about to take credit for what was, really, an amazing joint effort. “I’m not your mother.”
Kamiyama throws his arms up and gives up.