Summary: Even if all six of them have outgrown their Bakaleya days, there's no reason that they can't keep growing until they find a way to fit back together again.
AN: Repost of Wakamono fic. For elindar, who wanted "some general Bakaleya6 centric fic, maybe about what's happened with them lately and how they feel about being together again." Bet you didn't expect them to get a name suddenly after you left that prompt, but fortunately for you, that's how this fic was born. Initial interview with Hokuto and Taiga translated here and Taiga's comments more recently here were the inspiration for the title.
Bara Bara no Jigsaw
It's awkward after the interview, Taiga and Hokuto somehow managing to chat with staff while not making any eye contact with each other at all. Hokuto wonders if the staff can hear the fake ring to their polite and cheerful words, the same way that he can. Even when they're in the break room to pick up their bags and hanging out for a minute with the next group of juniors, Hokuto can still hear it, setting his teeth on edge. He wishes Kouchi were there, because Kouchi's voice is always soothing, or that Juri were next to them, distracting everybody with dirty jokes and implausible Tanaka sex tips.
When they're finally alone, the next group gone out to their photoshoot, Hokuto asks, "Did you mean it?"
Taiga doesn't ask him what or sidestep the issue, which Hokuto appreciates, just sucks in a breath so that it hisses through his teeth. "It's like saying nothing I've done since then has been any good." He glances over at Hokuto, finally, as if expecting him to interrupt, but Hokuto just lets him say what he wants. "We weren't even good enough for a name, but I'm supposed to wish to be stuck like that? Because girls think we looked cute together? And it isn't like any of us have been put in a better group since then, so might as well lump all these losers back together."
His words sting, but much like Taiga's sharp tongue always does, it hurts because it's true. And it probably hurts Taiga more than anyone else that he can't seem to make any progress despite putting so much energy into being an idol. Taiga hasn't even managed to escape high school in real life because of it, so it's no wonder he resents being pushed back towards Bakaleya unexpectedly after all this time.
Certainly that part Hokuto can empathize with.
"Jesse misses singing with you," Hokuto tells him, and it sounds like an evasion, but it isn't. "I miss singing with you." And what Hokuto misses most about it was how he could see the improvement in himself and in Taiga back then, how much harder he could work when it seemed like he was doing it for something. For somebody. Hokuto has kept growing since then, kept improving, but it's so frustratingly obvious how much he could have grown if it hadn't been for himself only.
Taiga clicks his tongue. "Yeah, well…" he trails off with a shrug. "If a couple cute duets on Shounen Club were all it took, you wouldn't be here having stupid magazine interviews with me about our band that never was, would you? You'd be face-squishing with Jesse on your third single by now."
"I don't mind them," Hokuto tells him. Taiga opens his mouth with a huge eye roll but Hokuto cuts him off. "Shut it, you said what you wanted and now you can listen to me say what I want. I said it was awkward because we had all changed, but that doesn't mean we can't keep growing and fit back together again. And you think so too; you said it would be great if we all found a place where we fit."
"I know what you meant," Hokuto interrupts, quiet but a little fierce. Taiga glares at him, and Hokuto knows he's right. It's Taiga who wants a group almost more than any of them, Taiga who probably needs a group the most, which is why he always brushes it off like he couldn't give less of a fuck. Even if Taiga were handed some other group, who knows how long it would take them to learn to read through Taiga's hedgehog prickles. Hokuto looks Taiga in the eye to tell him, "I know where I fit, and I know where you fit too."
"Don't give me your promises, Matsumura," Taiga says snappishly. He turns away to shoulder his bag and Hokuto lets him go because he knows right now Taiga doesn't want comforted.
Hokuto does, though. Which is why he mails Shintarou.
"Hokuto?" Juri guesses through a mouthful of ramen, and Shintaoru nods without looking up from his phone. It's completely commonplace for Hokuto to ask where Shintarou's at and what he's up to lately, but it must be a little serious given how Shintarou is staring down at his phone in concentration as he types. "He done with work? Tell him to come eat."
"Oi!" Akito protests from the other side, mock-indignant. "Don't be inviting all the other kouhai to come take advantage of me!"
"You love being taken advantage of," Shintarou comments dismissively, which makes Akito make a face and Juri nearly choke on his ramen laughing. "He says he isn't hungry but that I should break curfew and go to karaoke."
"Tell him I'll go," Juri offers. "You definitely can't; your mom will kill you after you stayed out with Fuma-kai last week. Such a rebellious teenager," Juri adds for Akito's benefit, making Akito snort.
"Shut the fuck up," Shintarou tells him, but he's already relaying the information. "When I'm on summer break I'm going to stay out so late that I could close out your brother's bar. He says he'll Line you the place."
"Is Taiga with him?" Juri asks, leaning his cheek against Shintarou's shoulder to peer down at his phone. "They had work together…but Taiga's been in a mood every time I've talked to him lately."
"That kid is a mess," Akito puts in, waving his chopsticks for emphasis. He nudges Shintarou's thigh with his knee. "Can't you get him to ease up just a little? It's great he likes Fujigaya-kun so much but he doesn't have to imitate all of his teenage tantrums and sulking."
"That's cause Fujigaya-kun didn't have a group for ages either," Shintarou says, like he's authority here. Juri rolls his eyes a little because honestly Shintarou kind of is. "If they'd just make us a real thing, we could take care of him better."
"Which us are you even talking about?" Juri asks, feeling cynical himself any time this topic comes up. "Team Ra us? Bakaleya us? Had a medley on Shokura last month us? There is no us, you know."
Shintarou gives him a withering look. "You know exactly which us I'm talking about, dickbag. And don't you start either, Taiga's bad enough."
"Speaking of that," Akito says, making Juri and Shintarou look over at him. "And also on the list of things that don't make Kyomoto-kun happy, I tried to tell him the six of you are listed together on the line-up for next month's filming. I thought it would cheer him up but it kind of just pissed him off more. Are you guys sure you even want him in your group? Seriously."
"Of course we do! Taiga's just a little…wait," Shintarou pauses, narrowing his eyes at Akito. "Did you just say we're listed together for next filming?"
"Did I?" Akito tilts his head as if thinking hard, blinking innocently. "Me? Are you sure? Because I know better than to leak line-up info before first practice, so it probably wasn't me."
"Akito-senpaiiiiiii," Shintarou and Juri chorus, making cute, pleading faces at him.
"Really? At your age? Maaa, okay okay." Akito grins, a pushover for some favorite kouhai as always. "What I hear is, Bakaleya crew has been causing some kind of fuss at Gamushara filmings, right? So maybe you ought to tell your little bunch of crybabies to think about what your plan is if a chance comes up. You won't get that many chances, you know."
"Really?" Shintarou presses, hope clear on his face. Juri's grin is a little more rueful, half hopeful and half exasperated at himself for not knowing better. It's so easy to get sucked into Shintarou's stubborn optimism and believe it when he insists that the six of them are something special, something management will notice if they just try a little harder. But there's a knot in the center of Juri's chest that draws tighter every time something happens, reminding him that hope tends to lead to broken hearts.
Just because you get a group, doesn't mean you'll get to keep it.
Juri leaves Shintarou trying to wheedle more details out of Akito to go meet up with Hokuto at karaoke. He tries not to dwell on the issue during the train ride, because Juri is supposed to be the moodmaker and go cheer up Hokuto, so it won't do any good if he shows up there in just as much of a mood as Taiga's been in. When the situation seems iffy at best, Juri has an idea, flicking closed TsumTsum on his phone to call in some reinforcements.
Hokuto is waiting in the karaoke place's lobby, staring at a vending machine like it's selling life choices instead of Fanta flavors, and he startles a little when Juri marches up and hugs him tightly.
"Hi?" Hokuto asks.
"This is from Shin-chan," Juri explains, tightening his grip and settling his cheek more comfortably against Hokuto's shoulder. "He said I can't let go until you're fixed."
"Geez," Hokuto grumbles. He doesn't push Juri off. "Couldn't you have waited until we were in the room? The register guy is staring at us."
"Then don't make any food noises or we'll get kicked out for sure."
"Uh, are you sure you guys need me here?" a voice says behind them, and both of them turn to find Kouchi grinning at them. "Do you guys want some private time?"
"I invited him," Juri explains, letting his arms slide off Hokuto's back. "Three's a better number for karaoke anyway. That's okay, right?"
"Yeah, of course," Hokuto says, holding out his fist for Kouchi to bump. He looks a bit sheepish. "Sorry to call you out suddenly…"
"It's fine," Kouchi assures. "No school tomorrow for me~." Juri and Kouchi high-five and laugh at Hokuto's annoyed expression.
Juri waits until they're settled in a room and have sung enough senpai songs to warm up before bringing up what Akito told him earlier. He watches closely for their reactions, Kouchi's eyebrows rising up into his hair and Hokuto's lips pressing into a tight line.
"You don't want to?" Kouchi asks, noticing Hokuto's pinched expression right away. Juri is surprised as well, since usually Hokuto is almost as vocal as Shintarou about wanting them together.
"No, it's…" Hokuto heaves a sigh. "That's what me and Taiga's interview was about today. They asked about performing together at Gamushara and we said it was awkward because we'd changed too much. It's going to look awful when they print what Taiga said, because you know how he is. He makes it sound like it'd be ridiculous if they tried to keep us together, like we're a kindergarten class that got split up. Then Taiga ended up talking about how we got split for Johnny's Ginza, and how he didn't even want Jesse and me to see it."
"Ugh, heavy," Juri agrees. He glances at Kouchi's face, but it's hard to read.
"I'm sorry we didn't at least talk to you about it, then," Hokuto says, looking down at the microphone in his hands. "We didn't talk about it much with each other, really."
"It's fine, don't apologize for stuff that isn't your fault." Juri speaks for all of them without hesitating, and Kouchi nods. Juri still can't read his expression. "What about you?"
"Me?" Kouchi asks, looking from Juri to Hokuto and back again. "If it would cheer you guys up I could make a speech about how I want us to make our dreams come true together…but the truth is that lately the only time I get attention is when I'm with you. So that's where I'd like to stay."
Shintarou and Jesse would argue with Kouchi, but Hokuto and Juri just nod, at peace with how Kouchi's words are unfair and true at the same time. Their expressions are pinched, but Kouchi smiles at them, reassuring.
"I'm fine with things being like this," he tells them. "If the place where I'm wanted is the same as the place it looks like I should be, that's fine."
"Ugh, you're so adult I hate it sometimes," Juri complains, but he feels reassured, just like he'd hoped when he invited Kouchi to meet them. Hokuto looks more relaxed as well, so mission accomplished.
Not long after that, Juri's mother calls and tells him in no uncertain terms that she expects him home on the next train and doesn't he know better than to stay out without calling home and worrying his poor mother? Her voice is plainly audible even with the phone pressed to Juri's head, and Hokuto and Kouchi are smothering snickers by the time Juri sheepishly says, "Bye, Mama."
Hokuto's probably in trouble too, but at this point another hour won't make him any less grounded. He makes Kouchi sing old Kis-My-Ft2 songs with him and whines fakely when Kouchi slips in his favorite Kamenashi solos, letting his head flop against Kouchi's shoulder. Just before their time runs out, they put in the few NYC singles that the electronic picker will pull up. Something about how late it is and how it's just the two of them makes it feel pleasantly nostalgic.
"Okay?" Kouchi asks as they stand and tug their coats on, checking their pockets for keys and wallets and train passes.
"Yeah, sure." Hokuto doesn't feel like he did before, at least, but he gives in when Kouchi just raises an eyebrow at him. "Better, I mean. I'm glad you're here. Not here at karaoke," he clarifies, before Kouchi can say something flip. "I'm glad you're here because you've been through all the same stuff as me. I know I can't keep everybody I want with me, but if I can just keep you…it feels important that I manage at least that much."
"Sap," Kouchi says, but he gathers Hokuto into a hug and squeezes him just as tightly as he did when Hokuto was fourteen and upset about his voice cracking. "Make your wish properly or you'll regret it if it doesn't come true."
"I just keep thinking, there must be a way, right?" Hokuto says, twisting his fingers in Kouchi's shirt. His words are half-muffled by Kouchi's shoulder, but he knows Kouchi can hear him, and that's good enough. "Every time they put me in charge I think, if I'm supposed to be the leader, why can't I figure out even how to keep my group? I want this group so much."
"Yeah," Kouchi agrees, fingers digging into Hokuto's back. "Me too. So let's do it."
Hokuto pulls away to give Kouchi a puzzled look. "Do what?"
"What Akito told Juri. Let's make a plan, all of us. So that when there's a chance, we're ready."
Kouchi grins like he's sure they can do it, and even if Hokuto can read worry in Kouchi's eyes, it's the smile that makes Hokuto more determined. Hokuto wants to prove to him that his faith in them isn't misplaced, wants to make it so that Kouchi can smile like that always.
All six of them show up early for Shounen Club practice, early enough that they don't waste time talking about whether or not each of them really means to be serious about trying to plan together. Jesse can't help but grin stupidly when they're gathered tightly around a table, each of them glancing at the others with a feeling that's less anxiety and a lot more like electricity. Jesse feels like he can barely keep still from the thrum of it along his nerves. For once even Taiga doesn't have anything negative to say, only suggestions like he's been thinking about it just as hard, and that's when Jesse thinks they can do this.
We're gonna do it, he thinks, bumping against Taiga's shoulder when he can't keep still. Taiga shoves him back, Kouchi pinches his side, and Shintarou kicks him under the table, eternally five. We're gonna do it.
When practice gets started, it's a mass of controlled chaos as always, not much of the line-up fleshed out and everyone shuffling about from medley group to half-formation and back again, trying to practice whatever has already been decided in the downtime because there's never enough actual practice time in the usual cycle of monthly filmings, never a day when everybody is there all at once, or in the right order.
The staff member with the schedule is already looking rather harried by the time she comes to them, all six of them loitering about as if its casual but refusing to stray far in case a couple of them are missing at a crucial moment. The staff member holds up her clipboard but barely gets out two words before Shintarou interrupts.
"We want to do 'HELL, NO,'" Shintarou says, making the staff member blink at him because Shintarou hasn't spoke up and demanded to sing something in about three years. "We can do something together, right? Usually we aren't blocked out yet at this first practice, so is that okay?"
They planned this part as much as the song, asking as if they don't already know they're on the paper. Shintarou and Hokuto had gone to Kawai as soon as he'd come in to ask his advice, admitting that Akito had already told them but wanting to know if Kawai knew if it was something real or just a medley bit, or what. Kawai, always ready to back a cute underdog cause, had coached them a little on their pitch, telling them to seem flexible but ready, to present some kind of solution that would emphasize their personal skills, but to seem casual about it.
Most of all, he'd said, be persistent because it might take a couple tries, but with the woman standing right in front of them, Jesse thinks what if we don't have a couple tries? If she flips the clipboard over right now, he knows he'll see his named penciled in a block by itself, maybe if he's lucky sandwiched in with Hokuto. Jesse loves Hokuto, and he knows half the kids in this building would push him down the stairs to take his solo spot, but that stupid lonely block is not what Jesse wants.
Somehow, somehow he's gonna make this woman cram a bunch of other names into that block along with his, this filming and next filming and the one after that. Until she gets so sick of doing it that she'll be ready to name them herself.
"I can do the whole rap," Juri is saying, making the staff woman roll her eyes a little.
"We sing it in parts at karaoke," Jesse speaks up, elbowing Taiga harder than he means to. Oops. "Taiga does Akanishi-kun and I do Kamenashi-kun."
"You do Akanishi-kun?" the staff member raises an eyebrow at Taiga, making him narrow his eyes.
"I do Akanishi-kun all the time," Taiga informs her frostily.
"You sure do," Juri says under his breath, and Jesse and Shintarou both have to muffle snickers so that Taiga doesn't murder them.
"Nearly all of us have backed for it before," Hokuto tries to get them back on track. "So it's practical, right? We can help out in other places, like in the medley and stuff."
Nice, Jesse praises Hokuto's timing, because the staff women pauses a second just as she's about to speak, probably about to suggest a medley version. She hesitates a moment longer as they all stare at her hopefully, and in the silence they hear Jinguji across the practice room bluster that they definitely will have an entire solo this filming because there is so much space in the schedule, clearly just waiting for him.
"Maybe you should do the long version," the staff woman grumbles to herself, scribbling on her paper. Jesse almost cheers out loud when she presses her lips together and has to start writing much smaller. An argument breaks out behind her, Genki probably breaking up with Jinguji for the third time that afternoon, and the woman grits her teeth and grumbles that the only thing louder than that kid is his pants.
"WE DID IT!" Shintarou whoops as soon as the woman moves away, making all of them jump and Jesse crack up in surprise. Taiga grumbles that they haven't actually done anything yet, morons, but Shintarou is already double hi-fiving Juri and then Hokuto and by the time he gets to Jesse, Jesse feels like it's all settled, slapping his hands against Shintarou's so hard they sting for minutes afterwards.
"Hey," he says, turning to Taiga. Taiga eyes him suspiciously, but is doing a poor job of keeping the smile off of his face. "Write a song with me. Hokuto said you want to write songs, right? Let's do it."
"Now?" Taiga asks, looking around, but no one is paying attention to them, stuck in a hi-touch loop that might last perpetually if Shintarou doesn't calm down. "Us? Why?"
"Because I want to be ready," Jesse tells him. He wants to reassure Taiga, and himself too, that between them there are plenty of weapons they can fight with if they've already got them on hand. "And I miss singing with you," he adds, because he does.
"Hokuto said that," Taiga says, and it's a little embarrassing, but Jesse shrugs. "I guess it's fine."
"You missed me too, right, right?" Jesse presses, poking Taiga's side, daring from too much victory.
Taiga flicks his forehead, but it barely even hurts. "Get over yourself, Lewis."
Some other interesting stuff happens that filming, like the "Unmei Girl" performance with so many of them that they could take JUMP in a gang war, and then they decide use the duet Taiga and Juri had filmed already in the January episodes as well. But the part that Jesse will remember most later is the dress rehearsal, the six of them bickering over costume colors. Standing half-dressed in the middle of them, holding his slick red jacket in his hands, for a few seconds Jesse lives in a world where they've done this hundreds of times since those shows where they did "Hair."
The illusion pops like a bubble when Shintarou snaps his fingers in Jesse's face, already dressed. Back then, after Jesse stole his red, Shintarou had been orange, bright and loud and cheerful, but now the green seems normal on him. He's the one that's grown the most, like a damn tropical plant, and still has the most to grow, so yeah, Jesse figures, green.
Even though he's already decided it, Jesse asks, "Gonna keep the green?" as he reaches over and tugs Shintarou's collar more into place.
"Too early to worry about colors," Shintarou informs him, but then grins. "But yep." Standing shoulder to shoulder, both of them watch the others debate who really ought to have the pink, and whether they should skip blue or purple this time. Juri solves the problem by holding up a sleeveless blue vest that gets an immediate yes from every costuming girl standing around, and then Taiga gives up in disgust and lets Hokuto have the pink. He also offers him the middle finger.
"Tell him, Tai-chan!" Jesse cheers, because he is an asshole. "You can take Fujigaya-senpai's color, Hokku, but you'll never steal his heart from Tai-chan!"
Kouchi hands Taiga a perfectly flattering bronze to occupy his hands before he strangles both Jesse and Hokuto, tells Juri to quit being such an exhibitionist and get dressed, then ruffles Shintarou's hair on the way by as if he were still the tallest.
That's what Jesse will remember most about it, looking back: the way that all of them are close enough to shove at each other, now that they know what it's like to be out of reach.
Like Taiga said, one song on Shounen Club surely isn't all that it takes, but after that some magazines catch on that something is happening, so their efforts gain a sense of momentum that monthly filming can't sustain on its own. Gamushara, which has always let them organize themselves to a certain extent, is also a godsend in that after not very long at all, everyone just assumes the six of them will be together, or as together as possible given their various work schedules.
Near the end of February, Hokuto and Shintarou are on the roof of Horikoshi during lunch, not exactly hiding but glad no one else has come up to find them. It's almost too cold yet to do it, but the sky is brilliant blue above them and they lie on their backs with their shoulders pressed together for warmth. Hokuto will graduate soon, and in the back of his mind Shintarou wonders if every lunch they eat together might be the last one.
Six months ago that would have made Shintarou's chest hurt to even think about, but it feels less urgent now. He's been seeing Hokuto at work practically every single day lately, so even if Hokuto and Jesse are going to leave school soon, they won't be leaving him behind in the places where it matters. They'll wait for him, he's sure; the confidence still feels weird, too new, but it covers over most of the ache of being left behind.
"I hope there's Gamushara again this summer," Hokuto says, as if he's reading some of Shintarou's thoughts.
"Yeah?" he asks. "Why?"
"Because it was fun, asshole." Hokuto flails a hand to thwack Shintarou in the chest, then leaves it there, too lazy to pick it back up. He doesn't say any of the other things that they both know are true: that last summer helped so many of them, not just the two of them. That it was the first time Shintarou found growing up fun instead of humiliating, and the first time that Hokuto agreed, however cautiously, that maybe he could be a leader, for them anyway.
Without Gamushara they wouldn't be here.
"But I hope we change teams, though," Hokuto adds.
"Me too," Shintarou agrees. Hokuto's hand is warm on his chest through his uniform, rising and falling gently with Shintarou's breath.
"Really?" Hokuto sounds surprised, and Shintarou doesn't blame him. They were a good mix, and sometimes they still go to Team Ra dinner (ramen, of course). Juri still wears his bracelet, and Shintarou will always keep their Line chat open, but even while Shintarou loves Ra for being the team he needed more than anything last summer, it's not the group that's always in the back of his mind.
"Yeah. I want to grow a lot this summer too, so trying to do the same thing over again is no good."
"You are definitely not allowed to grow anymore," Hokuto tells him, making Shintarou grin. "You're like three times bigger than you ought to be already, brat." Hokuto whacks Shintarou's chest again, then pulls his hand back. "I'm going to start university. It's the only way I can seem older than you in any way."
"You got in?" Shintarou sits up to look at Hokuto's face, feeling fierce pride when Hokuto nods sheepishly. He throws himself down to hug Hokuto, making him whine that Shintarou is crushing him, geez. Shintarou goes limp because it's warmer this way, and hopes nobody really does come up here to find them. His life is enough like a manga as it is.
"Man, the sky is so blue that it hurts my eyes," Hokuto says, rubbing Shintarou's back with one hand idly.
By March filming instead of being jammed into a medley, they get their own entire medley, and Shintarou supposes he's pretty satisfied with that.
"Hey, look," Akito comments as the six of them stroll off the stage during dress rehearsal. He nudges Kawai with his elbow and points at Taiga, who is smiling and shoving at Juri. "You guys fixed Kyomoto-kun after all!"
Taiga's smile disappears as he turns to give Akito an unimpressed look.
"Ah, I broke him again," Akito sighs dramatically, making Kawai crack up with his usual laugh. "Well, good try, kiddo."
"Thanks," Shintarou pauses to tell them, lingering behind as the others keep walking. "For before, I mean. It helped a lot."
"Well, I am a pretty great senpai," Akito says, grinning happily as he slaps Shintarou on the shoulder and saunters by, satisfied with himself. Kawai's face is uncharacteristically serious when Shintarou looks back to him, and Shintarou tilts his head.
"Don't stop running," Kawai tells him, voice serious too. "I guess it's not my place to say this, since I've had my group practically from the beginning, and even then we could barely manage to debut, so late. But when I see you guys…" Kawai looks up and away for a second, seeming lost for words, and that strikes Shintarou deeply, makes him pay close attention to what Kawai is trying to tell him. "I don't think 'good luck' or 'as I thought' or even 'hang in there.' What I always want to tell you is 'run harder, keep running and don't stop even for a second.'"
Kawai scrunches his face at himself, but Shintarou nods.
"I think I get it, at least a little," he says. "And if it's anybody's place to say that kind of stuff, then I think it's yours."
Hashimoto stumbles over them right at that moment, and takes one look at their faces before scolding them for fighting instead of hugging just before filming like this.
"We weren't fighting at all!" Kawai protests as Hashimoto sweeps both of them up with his stupidly strong arms into something that is half headlock and half hug.
"Then why do you need so much hugging, huh?" Hashimoto demands. "I can't fix everything, you know!"
Shintarou is laughing helplessly at that point, but peering over Hashimoto's elbow at Kawai's face he kind of sees what Hashimoto means about Kawai needing a hug, so he slides his arms around both their waists and squeezes tight. He's thankful they went first, thankful for senpai like Kawai and magic guys like Hashimoto and crazy units like A.B.C-Z, because if all of them can find their way, maybe there's enough magic for Shintarou and his group of morons too.
"If you guys don't shape up I'm going to have to make this a segment," Hashimoto grumbles, which makes Shintarou laugh so hard he still has tears in his eyes by the time he's released to stagger dizzily back towards his group.
Just after the filming, Taiga turns up work with hair so blond that it makes Kouchi choke on his Starbucks drink. He sneaks up on Hokuto and whispers boo into his ear, making Hokuto shriek, and Jesse and Shintarou are so startled by the look of it that they crack up laughing and can't stop for ages.
"What do you think?" Taiga asks Juri, so obviously pleased with it that there's no way Juri is going to say anything but that he likes it.
"It's cool," he agrees, reaching up to twist a bleach-rough strand of it between his fingers. "But why ask me? You always tell me my taste in hair is about as good as Junta-kun's taste in hats."
"You are the king of idiot hair," Taiga says, pretending not to notice when Juri bops him in the arm. "I thought maybe you'd appreciate somebody doing it right. Plus compared to these idiots…" Taiga jerks a thumb towards Jesse and Shintarou who are still laughing. "But they cut it too short, though, so it feels weird."
"It grows back," Juri assures. He reaches up and musses Taiga's hair suddenly before Taiga can stop him, making him whine and slap at Juri while Juri cackles at his pain. "Actually…"
Juri brings his palms up to both sides Taiga's face abruptly, almost a slap against his cheeks but not quite, and holds his face still to look his face over closely. Taiga looks back at him, wide-eyed with surprise, and for once doesn't struggle, even when a faint blush rises under Juri's hands from Taiga being stared at so closely.
"It surprisingly appealing," Juri tells him, his honest opinion. "I always think of you being done up best in traditional style, like when you do Kabuki. Dark. But the yellow makes your eyes really warm. Mm." Juri squishes Taiga's cheeks for a second, then drops his hands. "I like it."
For a second, they just stare at each other, still a little too close, until Jesse's "WOOO WOOOOO" interrupts and makes Taiga whirl to tell him to shut his stupid face.
"Oh man, it's like he went Super Saiyan!" Jesse exclaims, setting Shintarou off all over again. "This is the best hair you've ever had!"
"Too bad that's the best face you'll ever have!" Taiga snaps back, and Juri and Hokuto join Shintarou in cracking up while Jesse pretends to be affronted.
Taiga turns to whine to Kouchi, who has given up on trying to get the coffee out of his shirt, and then whines some more when Kouchi puts him in a headlock and gives the new hair a test scrunch.
"Oh, you love it," Kouchi tells him, and when his laughter dies down and he can see anything, Juri sees from Taiga's smile hidden behind Kouchi's elbow that he's absolutely right.
Crea grouping announcements go up on the website when nobody's looking, as usual. Juri happens to be out shopping with Taiga and Jesse when he gets a frantic mail from Shintarou, and then he fumbles his phone into a pile of ridiculously thin scarves. It seems to take him ages to dig the phone back out from the slippery material because Jesse and Taiga are both hovering over him impatiently.
And then it takes Juri three times as long to actually look up the information himself while trying to ignore Shintarou's rapid-fire messaging.
"Thank fuck, it's us," Juri sighs, then he drops the phone again because his hands are shaking. He curls them into fists to try and make them stop, and when he looks up, Jesse and Taiga are both staring at him like they need to be sure of what he said before they react. "I mean, its the five of us. Taiga's show and all."
Jesse whoops, making everybody in the store look over. Taiga looks partly relieved and partly frustrated, the second year in the row that they're supposed to be six and can't quite make it happen. Juri shoos Jesse off to pay for the hat he's been wearing the whole time they've been in the store, and then turns to Taiga.
"This is nothing like last year," he says.
"It's better, right?" Taiga heaves a sigh and tries to put on his idol face, but Juri can see through it easily. "Much less a chance they'll take anybody out at the last second if it only leaves three people behind."
"It's not better," Juri says firmly, and Taiga gives him a thin smile for his solidarity. "It's not better unless it's the six of us. How far in advance do you get your rehearsal schedule?"
"A week or so?" Taiga raises an eyebrow. "Why?"
"The theaters are pretty close to each other, huh," Juri says, as if he's just noticing that. "Hm, interesting."
"Shut up, that'll never work." Taiga shoves at Juri's shoulder and refuses to talk about it anymore, but Juri lets the seed of that idea just sit there.
Maybe they've been singing too many NEWS songs at karaoke or something lately, but Juri has a feeling they can make it work if they just want it bad enough.
Kouchi is retying his sneakers when Juri sidles up, tugging Jesse along with him by the wrist. Jesse's face is amused; Juri looks unusually serious.
"Hey," Juri says. "Can you come with me a second? I need your help with something."
"Sure," Kouchi agrees, game enough. Somehow he isn't surprised when Juri leads them over to the practice room that Hokuto and Shintarou are in, blocking out the choreography for Shintarou's solo.
It had taken days of full-group pressure before Shintarou would even agree to do a solo instead of just a dance break or something. It was one of the down-sides to being allowed to plan their shows themselves instead of having staff do the planning, that they had to coax him into it. They tried telling him that everybody else had one so it would look weird if he didn't, that he could pick anything he wanted, that they would all help him practice. In the end, the only reason he meekly agreed was that Juri looked him right in the eye and reminded him that Kawai had told them they had to keep running, so was Shintarou going to run with them or not?
"Is it really bad?" Kouchi asks in an undertone. Shintarou hasn't noticed them yet, focused on what he's doing and Hokuto's feedback. Kouchi's more confused by Juri's scowl the longer they watch, because it honestly looks fine to him.
"It can't be that bad," Jesse says. "We've all heard him sing a little, it's fine. Plus 'Mystery Virgin' is right in the middle of his range."
"You'll see," Juri tells them darkly. "Oi, Shin! Run through it once for these guys."
"What?" Shintarou stumbles over his feet, startled by their sudden appearance. When he looks over his shoulder and notices Jesse and Kouchi, he grimaces. "Right now? I'm not done."
"That's fine, I just want you to sing like first verse and chorus or whatever."
"But…" Shintarou glances from Juri to Kouchi and Jesse, obviously reluctant.
"You have to do it in front of a thousand fangirls in a month," Juri reminds sharply, and Shintarou stares at his sneakers, mouth pinched. Kouchi is surprised sometimes how brusque Juri is with Shintarou, but then again he supposes they've been friends for so long that Juri knows when encouragement won't get them past Shintarou's stubbornness. It doesn't keep Kouchi from wanting to go over and rub Shintarou's back, though.
"Please?" Kouchi asks, trying to temper Juri's bullying at least a little. "We want to help."
"You can't though…" Shintarou sighs and rolls his shoulders back. "Okay, fine. But it sucks."
Kouchi exchanges looks with Jesse and Juri while Shintarou fusses with his iPhone plugged into the stereo equipment, and then Hokuto when he trots over to join them. Juri and Hokuto have a wordless exchange that Kouchi can't read, Juri jerking his chin towards Shintarou and Hokuto spreading his hands wide in response.
After all of this Kouchi has no idea what to expect when "Mystery Virgin" starts, unable to come up with what sort of disaster necessitates all this fuss. He's even more surprised when there's no disaster at all; Shintarou's voice is smooth and on-pitch, not even that out of breath from dancing. He sounds really good, in fact, making Kouchi look to Juri in bafflement.
Halfway into the second verse, Shintarou's choreography runs out and he stutters to a stop in front of them, staring at a spot on the floor.
"See? I told you it sucked."
Juri blows his bangs out of his face in frustration. "You guys get the problem yet?"
Kouchi looks from Shintarou staring at the floor like he wants to burn a hole in it, to Hokuto and Juri's exasperated faces, and finally it clicks. "Yeah, I do. There actually isn't one."
"Right?!" Juri shoves his hands in his sweatpants' pockets as if trying to keep from strangling Shintarou with them. "If it was actually terrible, we could fix it! Do you know how much easier that would be than trying to fix the fact that he just thinks he's terrible?!"
"Well, you have to fix it!" Jesse blurts, starting to look a bit panicked. "You're his best friend, do something! Like hypnotism or something!"
"Don't you think I've been trying?!" Juri snaps back, clearly entirely out of patience with the entire situation. Hokuto is eyeing all of them nervously, like he isn't sure whether he should break the argument up or let it run its course.
"I'm right here, you guys," Shintarou says sulkily. Kouchi leaves the other three squabbling and comes over to stand in front of Shintarou, waiting patiently until Shintarou finally looks up at him. "What?"
"You know it isn't terrible," he says. It's not even a question really.
Shintarou scuffs a sneaker against the floor. "Yeah. But my voice is so…I hate it."
"Well, if you weren't so handsome and popular you could probably get away with that, but here you are," Kouchi tells him. Shintarou raises an eyebrow. "You can't hide in the back anymore. We let you do it way too long and that's how you got this way. If you want to be six, then there is no back, and you're going to have to keep singing until you get used to how it sounds because not even your magic is going to turn this into some kind of acrobat group."
"Even Hasshi-kun isn't that magic," Shintarou snorts, a trace of a smile appearing. "Much less me. I'll try, really. I'm sorry I'm so much trouble."
"We let you dig that hole so deep." Kouchi shakes his head. "It's our fault too. But that just means it's our responsibility to help you climb out of it." He turns around to give the others a pointed look. "Right?"
"Yeah, of course," Hokuto answers immediately, looking relieved.
"I keep saying, I've been trying!" Juri snaps, apparently not done with his mood yet. "If I could fix his brain with the power of friendship he'd be Doumoto fucking Koichi by now!"
"Just let me try again," Shintarou says, pushing Kouchi back towards the others. They watch him do it two or three more times before going back to their own practices, leaving Shintarou with fistbops and shoulder thumps.
"He'll get it," Kouchi tells Juri, who seems like he might be the only person more worried about it than Shintarou himself. "Look how far he's come since summer. You're doing everything you can for him." Kouchi pauses. "Only maybe don't yell at him so much."
Juri gives Kouchi a baleful look, and Kouchi pats his shoulder too.
It's actually Jesse who solves it as much as it can be solved in the short term. The next day, when they show up at practice, he hands Shintarou his phone and tells him to hit play. The opening lines to "Mystery Virgin" spill out of the phone's tiny speakers, a little muffled in the way that using the voice memo feature usually is. Shintarou listens for a minute before looking at Jesse in confusion.
"So what?" he asks. "It's Yamada-kun's solo, after all. I've heard him sing it before."
"That's not Yamada-kun, you asshole," Jesse tells him, reaching over to turn the volume way up with a flick of his finger. "It's you."
Shintarou opens his mouth, then closes it. He looks from Jesse's face back down to the phone, frowning.
"I recorded it yesterday while you were practicing. So what do you have to say for yourself?"
There's a very long pause before Shintarou says, "…..oh."
"That's right, 'oh.'" Jesse takes his phone out of Shintarou's hands and puts it back in his pocket. "You know you're the only person on the earth who hates your voice normally but likes how it sounds recorded? Be weirder, I dare you."
"Your mom is weirder," is Shintarou's retort, but it's distant because he's thinking hard enough that his brow is scrunched up. "…But thanks."
He blinks in surprise when Jesse grabs him in a sudden and fierce hug. "If you don't start acting like an idol again, they'll just take me away again," he hisses in Shintarou's ear. "So get it together!"
After a moment, Shintarou murmurs a muffled, "Okay," and when he hugs Jesse back, Jesse feels like he can draw a deep breath again.
Filming for May Shounen Club seems like a breeze compared to the stress of planning their own shows. Hokuto's only regret is that they're doing the short version of "Rockin'" instead of the longer one they did years ago, which is one of his favorites and also gets stuck in his head for days when he only hears half of it.
"Quit singing that!" Jesse yells at him during lunch break, mouth half-full. "You're gonna get it stuck in my head too!"
"You know I can't help it!" Hokuto protests, laughing. Both of them are still wearing the tracksuits, and maybe it's silly but Hokuto feels like maybe it'll bring them good luck any time they wear something of Kis-My-Ft2's. He remembers being just a kid and seeing Kisumai walk by wearing these costumes on the way to NHK Hall's stage, and thinking how cool they looked. He knows it makes some of the fans sad to see old costumes, but Hokuto likes the recycling, likes the feeling that he's giving something well-loved a second (or third or fourth) life in the spotlight.
The littler juniors wear his old B.I.Shadow stuff, after all; there's a little bit of sting left in it, but it makes Hokuto smile too. It's the same as getting clothes from your favorite senpai, isn't it? And here he is wearing Fujigaya's pink.
Minus the weird hood fur, which they took off without asking the staff. Hokuto's pretty sure that Fujigaya would approve of that choice too.
"Right on time to rockin' Neverland," Jesse is mumbling to himself, then gives an aggravated groan and punches Hokuto in the shoulder. "Take it back! Take it back right now!"
"Honestly, are you guys in kindergarten?" Taiga asks as he and Shintarou come back into the room with their own lunches, settling out of the range of Jesse and Hokuto's scuffling. He's still wearing his tracksuit too, and Hokuto lets go of Jesse with a final pinch in the side.
"The blue looks really good on you," Hokuto tells him, shamelessly abrupt. "You should definitely keep the blue."
"You just want pink, asshole," Taiga says, rolling his eyes, which is true, but Hokuto meant the other part too and he tells Taiga that. "Hmph. Well that kind of thing isn't settled, so. Don't get attached."
"I'm just glad you look happy again," Shintarou says through a mouthful of salad. He's halfway done with the bowl already, as if the Bakaleya eating contest for student body president is actually a thing that goes on every day. "When I see Tai-chan's smile, I can feel relieved~."
"Don't call me that," Taiga says, voice flat from repetition. He pokes Shintarou's cheek with his chopsticks. "And look who's talking! Nobody saw your smile for like two and a half years except for during a NEWS medley."
"It's great to see both of you smiling," Hokuto says before it can actually turn into an argument about who is the happiest. He'd been a little worried about how Taiga would take being separated for his Elizabeth shows, since when Taiga gets lonely he tends to withdraw even more, until even the five of them can barely draw him out. Hokuto is relieved that Taiga doesn't seem jealous at all, enthusiastic about giving his opinion when he's asked. It's a relief not to have to tiptoe around him.
He doesn't know whether the cameras will manage to catch it or not, but Hokuto hopes that everybody else will see how much brighter Taiga is shining these days, how different he is with their group. Maybe Hokuto or Jesse could make it with just anybody, or Juri, but Taiga isn't like that at all.
"So what's next?" Jesse asks, making all of them look at him. "You know, the plan? You didn't forget, right? You just said you wanted to keep these guys' smiles, so…"
Hokuto gives himself a little shake. "Jesse's right. We can't just focus on the thing in front of us and forget to look towards the next thing, or we'll end up right back where we were." Taiga and Shintarou nod, expressions turning serious. "After Crea…hm."
"Summer concerts," Shintarou says. "Maybe Gamushara?"
"We'll get split up for that," Jesse points out. "We should do something before. Something serious, before all of our promo time and Shounen Club and everything turns into splits for our teams."
"What can we do though?" Hokuto asks. "We go right from one thing to the other, so there isn't any time for something else in the middle. What can we do during Crea that will make that much impact?"
He knows what the answer is even as he finishes saying the words. He knows the one thing they're missing to be a real group, or as real as any junior group ever gets, but Hokuto isn't going to be the first to say it.
"A name," Juri says, right behind Shintarou suddenly and making choke on his food. Kouchi is coming up behind him, and now that all six of them are gathered, Hokuto guesses they're going to talk about it right now. "There's nothing else to do, right? We did all the other steps."
"We did most of them twice!" Jesse exclaims.
"That's fine and all," Hokuto says, "but if they haven't given us a name already, it doesn't seem likely that they will suddenly. And we kind of have one?"
"'Those guys who did Bakaleya' is not a name," Taiga says, mouth bunched in displeasure.
"It's not that I mind being named after a silly drama I did ages ago," Kouchi puts in, "but it'd be nice to have a real name just the once." Hokuto suppresses a small smile as he meets Kouchi's eyes and Kouchi rolls them a little.
"Let's do it ourselves," Shintarou says, making all of them pause. "At the shows, let's just name ourselves and go for it. We'll get yelled at but…it'll be all our fans there, so it'll be hard for them to take it back after that. Takizawa-kun named Snow Man himself and that stuck."
"You aren't Takizawa, brat," Kouchi tells him, bopping him on the top of the head. Shintarou leans his head back and sticks his tongue out. "Let's just invite him, and then he can name us too."
"No, Shin's right." Jesse leans forward over the table, eyes sparkling dangerously. "Let's just do it already! Let's do it ourselves. We'll either get fired or it'll be an amazing legend someday."
"They totally won't fire you," Juri wrinkles his nose. "But…at least we could pick it ourselves, then."
Even the idea of doing such a thing is making Hokuto's heart rabbit nervously, but it's exciting too, the idea that they might get away with it. If not now, when? What if they wait too long and it's too late again? As they all look at each others' faces, Hokuto thinks they probably all feel the same as him, scared but hopeful.
"Okay," Hokuto says, breaking the silence just a bit too loud. He clears his throat. "Let's vote. Close your eyes, hands in your lap. If you want to do it, put your hand in the center of the table; if you don't, keep it in your lap. Ready?"
Hokuto waits until everyone else has their eyes closed ("Don't be a cheater, Lewis") and their hands down before taking a deep breath and putting his own fist in the center of the table, knuckles down. He closes his eyes and hopes for the best.
"Vote," he orders. For a second nothing happens, and Hokuto is surprised at how quickly disappointment wells up in his chest. But before it can choke off his voice entirely, he feels knuckles brush his from across the table. Then another hand bumps his wrist, then another on the other side.
Hokuto opens his eyes to find the other five all staring at him, their fists pushed against his in the center of the table. Hokuto opens his mouth, but he has to clear his throat twice before any sound will come out, damn his crybaby nature.
"You guys are all cheaters," he finally manages, the tension breaking as they others all laugh. "Looks like we're on."
"Yes!!" Jesse pumps his fist in the air.
"Except we still need a name," Kouchi points out.
"I know it," Taiga says, making everyone tilt their heads in confusion. Taiga drops his gaze to the table. "I mean, I have one I've been thinking about. If you guys like it."
"We will," Hokuto says without hesitation. Taiga never speaks up unless he's sure, and Hokuto can see by looking that he's really sure about this. "Let's hear it."
Despite how much they talk about it between themselves, it's still a question whether they'll have the guts to actually announce their name during the concerts. Jesse blusters that he'll definitely do it anytime one of them mentions it, just leave it to him, but when they get to practice on the stage for the first time, they all stare at him expectantly. Jesse shakes his head sheepishly, too nervous to try when staff might overhear.
"And that might ruin the surprise, right?" he says. "Right, guys?"
Kouchi hopes Jesse has it in him, because he's already been using their group name in his head since Taiga said it out loud the first time, and if he has to backtrack now it'll be a lot more difficult than switching from "Bakaleya Group."
"It just sounds right," Kouchi says while they're packing up their stuff for the night. "So you better do it."
"Yeah, yeah," Jesse says, only half-listening while he tries to figure out how he can have fifteen socks but none of them match each other.
"If you chicken out and then they name us whatever, I won't forgive you," Kouchi continues, nudging Jesse's shoulder with his own. Jesse looks up at him in exasperation, but then he starts to laugh and that's never a good sign.
"What'll you do if I announce it as something crazy, huh?" Jesse demands. "What if I say our name is LOVE PANDA or something?"
Kouchi loses it, his laughter echoing off the walls of their tiny dressing area. "LOVE PANDA?"
"YEOOOW!" Jesse exclaims into his deodorant as if it's a microphone, looking every inch the 80's hair band rocker with his dryer-poofed hair and lack of shirt. "We are LOVE PANDA and tonight we are gonna ROCK. YOUR. PANTIES OFF."
"Stop, stop!" Kouchi gasps, unable to breath from laughing and clutching his stomach.
"Shit, that's a pretty good name," Jesse says, as if considering. "Lemme just ask Shin-chan what he—"
"NO," Kouchi orders between snickers, "no no no, you can't ask him anything like that. I refuse to go on Shounen Club Premium when I'm 35 and still be called some shit like LOVE PANDA."
"They'll show embarrassing clips of us like we are right now," Jesse says dreamily, Kouchi having triggered one of his favorite fantasies. Well, the fantasies that don't involve the majority of AKB48, anyway. "Shin-chan and Taiga will whine and squirm, we'll point and laugh at Juri's perm, and then they'll show a montage of me singing every fucking Kinki Kids song. They'll show tiny you and Hokuto, and then maybe Hokuto bawling his eyes out over double dutch."
"They do have an awful lot of dirt on all of us," Kouchi says gamely. Jesse leans into him, and Kouchi pats his back when Jesse's head leans cutely onto his shoulder.
"I really hope that happens," Jesse sighs. "You think it can, right?"
There's something kind of funny about sexy frontman Jesse Lewis asking Kouchi that kind of thing, but Kouchi doesn't tease, just this once. He's sure they can, he says instead, that after all of this it seems like they have a pretty good shot at it.
"Assuming you can be brave enough," he adds. "Don't let us down, Lewis."
The next day Jesse is like a hyperactive tornado, bouncing from staff to group members with suggestions and practically vibrating with excitement.
"What the heck is up with him?" Hokuto asks Kouchi.
Kouchi shrugs. "He's LOVE PANDA's Jesse after all," he says, and then strolls off with a smile, leaving a baffled Hokuto in his wake.
Backstage is a certain amount of chaos even though the shows only contain the five of them, but Shintarou focuses on tuning out all of it, ignoring it.
"Shin, will you come on!" Juri hollers. "We have to do the TakiCHANnel thing, and we're already running late!" Juri looks down at Shintarou, who has his eyes closed tightly, hands curled into fists.
"Shh, he's concentrating," Jesse says. Juri turns to Hokuto and Kouchi for help, but the two of them are only standing there watching, openly amused.
"Come on, don't encourage them, do something!" Juri protests, stomping over to shove at Hokuto. "We're gonna be totally la—"
The door bangs open right at that second, revealing a disheveled and out-of-breath Taiga, still wearing his costume from his play and grinning triumphantly.
"I made it!" he says, and Shintarou gives a whoop of victory that makes Juri slap a hand to his forehead.
"I knew you would," Shintarou says to Taiga as the others wave in the TakiCHANnel staff. "You should thank me for helping."
"I should thank you for shutting your face," Taiga tells him, but his grin seems glued on, making everything he tries to say meanly come out as affectionate. It sticks there the entire time they're talking to the camera, running last second staging changes, and trying to throw together some sort of costuming for Taiga that doesn't look ridiculous.
Shintarou doesn't give half a damn if any part of it looks ridiculous, because all of them are there, right beside him. However it turns out is the way it's supposed to be, Shintarou is sure, especially given how everything had to line up just right for Taiga to be with them. Jesse's right, after all; this is definitely going to be some sort of legend in the end.
"Seems like Jesse wants to tell us something," Taiga speaks up during the MC, which Shintarou finds hilarious because it's actually Taiga who got too impatient to wait any longer. Jesse glances around for a second, as if giving everyone a last chance to back out, but they're all grinning at him just as wide as Taiga and Shintarou are, watching him expectantly.
Jesse rolls his shoulders back a little, like okay, if that's the way you want it, and he barely gets out the words "name" and "six" before the crowd calls out loud enough to practically blow their hair back. They've been waiting ages for this name too, just as long as the six of them have. Once their fans manage to hear it, Shintarou is sure they'll love it right away too.
Maybe, after all of this, the six of them are a legend already.
As predicted, they're split for Gamushara, but that's all right since Taiga is buried in his play and everyone is shuffled up. Jesse steals Juri away for his team, and Shinarou gains both Kouchi and Reia. It's a little odd that the skills are the same, so some guys will really know what they're doing and other guys not at all, but Hokuto feels ready to roll with whatever this summer. His group has a name, printed right there on the glossy magazine page that his mom has stuck up in the middle of the refrigerator, and he trusts them to come back with new skills and confidence so that their group grows even stronger.
"I bet I won't even cry this year," Hokuto tells his team.
The four of them look at each other for a second before they all say, "Naaaah," and Hokuto pouts at their lack of confidence.
After filming a bunch of the older guys go out to eat at a family restaurant, Shintarou breaking curfew to squish into a booth with Juri, Hokuto, and Kouchi. Jesse jams in with them just long enough to film a dumb video to send to Taiga, before he goes to cause some ruckus at the other table. Over the hum of conversation and eating, Hokuto hears Yasui threaten to banish Jesse to the drink bar.
"So many shows, though," Kouchi marvels, making the others laugh because they felt the same way last summer, excited but overwhelmed, pressured. That pressure was a good thing in the end, and Hokuto doesn't mind it so much this year.
"It'll fly, since we're busy," Juri says. "Before you know it, we'll have done all the shows and summer will be ending."
"Good, the faster it seems, the faster we can get to the next thing," Shintarou says. "Not that I don't want to enjoy summer, but if we hurry up maybe we'll get some more shows. And then we can do the thing."
"The thing?" Kouchi asks. "What thing?"
Hokuto gets it right away. "Our name is…"
Juri and Kouchi catch on, along with a gleeful Shintarou. They clink glasses to that, worth a toast if anything ever was. "SixTONES!"