“Let me look at you!” Ren was bustling around like some proud mother hen, grabbing Noa by the shoulders and hips to turn him around and tug at his clothes, occasionally pinching his cheek.
“I’m wearing my regular clothes.” Noa laughed exasperatedly, gesturing down at his outfit, which consisted of stonewashed jeans ripped at the knee, a tank top, and a purple-and-black tartan shirt tied around his waist, covering his belt. His damp, towel-dried hair hung limply on his forehead.
“Okay, yeah, but you’re also super handsome right now.” Ren grinned at him, turning him around again. “Just let me . . .” He reached out and flicked Noa’s fringe to the side and proceeded to ruffle the hair at the top a little. “Let’s get some life into you!”
Noa stood awkwardly, allowing Ren to play around with his hair and tug at him until he was pleased. “Good. Very handsome. Now, let’s gay you up!”
“It’s his first Pride,” Insung commented. “Are you sure he wants to be all decked out for it?”
“Uh—” Ren shifted his gaze from Noa to Insung and then back. “Do you?”
“Um.” While he had told Haru he wanted to be slightly ambiguous, he didn’t particularly mind being dressed up, but then again . . . he looked at Ren’s outfit, a T-shirt that looked like it had been splashed with rainbow paint and one rainbow fabric bracelet on each wrist. To make up for his standard pair of jeans, he had upped his game with a drizzle of glitter on his face and neck. (The bathroom nearest his room was a disaster zone.) The icing on the cake were the painted rainbow flags on each cheek. “Let’s not go overboard,” Noa said hesitantly, “but let me have some of that face paint thing—”
“Will do.” Ren trilled happily and went to work. “Both cheeks?”
Noa nodded. “Sure.”
“Okay, stand still.” Ren pulled out a little gadget designed to paint perfectly symmetrical rainbows and pressed it against Noa’s left cheek with a look of deep concentration.
The overhead sun showed no sign of being chased away by storm clouds. Although most people in the city were probably just going about their Saturday business and not heading to the Pride festival, the streets already felt excessively crowded.
Noa’s heart was trembling in his chest, and the same tremble had found its way to his hands. He didn’t know if what he was doing was okay in any way. Actually, he did know. He was being selfish, but he couldn’t turn back.
He couldn’t say there wasn’t a chance that his parents would show up, after all. Stranger things had happened. He didn’t know what he was hoping for—or whether his inviting them had been to spite or educate them at this point.
He thought about his conversation with Haru earlier in the week regarding what he was comfortable with, and the conversation they’d had when he first roped Haru in, about how unethical it was. Haru had still happily agreed to it, but back then, the whole idea had been about deceiving and partially punishing his narrow-minded parents. No matter how today went, he’d have to lie. He’d have to lie to his friends about him and Haru dating, or he’d have to lie to them later about them breaking up or whatever—unless he piped up and told them the truth. After today he would, he decided.
But he was afraid of the truth. Maybe that was a consequence of spinning a web of lies? He sighed heavily.
“Hey, are you okay?” Ren put a hand on his shoulder. He winced, clutching his flag harder.
“Nervous?” Michio joined in, placing a hand on his other shoulder.
“Uh—” He swallowed. “A little.”
“Don’t worry about it. We’ve got your back.” Ren squeezed his shoulder gently.
“I know.” He smiled gratefully, and as he occasionally peeked around, he saw people were looking at them as they went along, flags in hand and glitter on their faces. Noa was used to blending in with the crowd, going unnoticed, and now it was like all eyes were on them, as they would be at the parade. It was an odd feeling. Daunting, somehow. How many of the onlookers were judging them or found them disgusting? Nobody raised their voices at them, but there were stares, and he could feel their eyes on his back. At the same time, he also felt Ren and Michio’s hands on his shoulders and the sun’s caressing heat. He felt safe—safe and grateful.
His hands went to rest on his two roommates’ lower backs, attempting to return the touch of camaraderie and closeness. It didn’t matter if everyone stared at them. They were together, looking out for each other. He had never felt such closeness to any of his friends before. He knew it came from the simple reason that they all dared to bare their feelings to one another and break the barriers of what was “acceptable,” whether in conversation or physical contact. The world he used to live in had felt cold, where physical contact like hugs or even sharing a blanket or ruffling hair was strictly limited to the person you were in a relationship with.
He refused to dwell on how much he would miss it. He pushed the guilt away.
They were set to meet at the corner in front of a bakery right at the junction where that part of the parade would march off from. The street was packed with people, banners and even a few small fleets; mostly small wagons with very powerful stereos, blasting loud pop music from all directions. They were boxed in by the incredibly loud noises, but wherever he turned there were smiling, joyful people decked out in gowns, glitter, costumes or just carrying flags or signs, holding hands and dancing to the music.
“This is amazing,” he shouted to his friends, covering his one ear with his free hand. “And loud!”
“What??!” Ren and Michio screamed back at him, grinning.
Insung had left them further up the street to go find his crowd. After the parade, he’d head straight to work. It was expected to be a busy day with all hands needed on deck.
Noa’s phone buzzed. He picked it up, but didn’t see how he’d hear anything in the ocean of noise, he pressed the phone hard against his ear and covered the other. “Hello?”
“Are you ready?” Haru’s voice came through like a yell.
“Let’s do this. We’re in front of the bakery.”
“I’ll be there asap! Breathe, and remember that we don’t have to push anything.”
He had to check the display to confirm Haru had hung up.
“Was that from Haruuu?” Ren nudged him. “I can’t wait to see him!”
“Are you planning to just look at him?” Noa laughed.
“What, are you saying I can do more?” Ren grinned wolfishly.
Instinctively, Noa found himself scouting their surroundings, where the crowd had grown even tighter in preparation for the parade to kick off momentarily. He hoped Haru would be able to find them in the chaos. Even if he had been less anonymous-looking, Noa thought, Haru would have a hard time locating him in this crowd. Everyone stood out.
“Relax.” Michio leaned over to him, speaking as quietly as he could muster, given the conditions. “He’ll be here, okay?”
Noa nodded, pulling himself together. He snuck glances over at Ren and Batman. They weren’t being overly affectionate, but they also made no effort to hide their relationship. Ren was still clutching Batman’s arm, occasionally laughing in a flirty manner and looking up at him devotedly when he spoke. Noa pondered if it was necessary for him to act like that. Did he want to act like that?
“Hey!” A hand grabbed his arm from behind and a flustered Haru fought his way through the crowd. His breathing was a little strained. “Sorry. It was a nightmare navigating the crowds. I don’t think there’s been this many participants before, so that’s cool!”
“Hi! I’m glad you found us.” Noa breathed in relief, giving him a quick half-hug. Haru smelled faintly like vanilla or something. Body spray? Shampoo? Maybe just soap? He’d noticed the same scent at Haru’s apartment too. He pulled him off to the side, their backs turned to the group. “This is crazy! I had no idea there would be this many people.”
“I know, right? It’s wild. Goes to show that we are everywhere, even in a modest city like this.” Haru winked. “Of course, there’s a lot of straight people here to celebrate with friends or because they think it’s fun, I guess, but either way, the world is moving forward.”
“It is.” Noa nodded. “I feel weird never having gone to one of these before. They’ve been doing them for a few years here, right?”
“Yeah.” Haru nodded. “I think it started around ten years ago, maybe? Not sure. So how are you feeling? You look good, by the way.” He near-whispered the last sentence in Noa’s ear, squeezing his shoulder.
“Thanks. You too,” Noa replied, leaning close. He didn’t know if he’d expected Haru to go over the top, but his outfit wasn’t too different from the usual. He, too, wore ripped jeans adorned with a studded belt. Over his shirt he wore a black jacket adorned with buttons, a lot of which were in rainbow colors or flag-shaped. There was some glitter around his eyes, and his rainbow fringe had been freshened up for the occasion.
“You cut it too,” Noa observed. One side had been cropped so short it resembled a sidecut. He held back, resisting the urge to reach out and feel it.
“How is it?”
“I think you can eat cotton candy fine now.” Noa shot him a teasing grin.
“So . . . are you ready?”
“I am,” Noa decided. “My friends are right over there. Let me bring you over.”
They weaved back through the crowd to get back to his friends, who had now been joined by two more people, probably Batman’s friends.
At last, the parade started moving in the distance; they could see a wave of colorful rainbows floating in the wind as the parade snaked its way down the street and around the first bend of the route.
“Finally,” Michio groaned. “I think my neck’s burning.”
“That’s gonna happen anyway, though,” Noa remarked. “It’s grossly hot.”
“Wanna use my umbrella?” Ren started rummaging through his tote bag. “It’s conveniently rainbow-colored, you know.”
Noa laughed. “Of course it is.”
“Nah, it’s gonna be in the way for everyone. I’ll tough it out. Or walk in your shade or something.” Michio turned to Batman.
“Batman’s always here to serve the civilians.” More laughter.
Noa felt light—giddy, almost. The atmosphere, the smiles, the supportive cheers from the people down the street . . . it was exhilarating. How could anyone think that this was dangerous or offensive? It was just happy people as far as the eye could see—of course, he knew some of them were wearing costumes so as not to be recognized and others were protesting discrimination or hate speech, among other things, but still. It wasn’t a violent protest. He didn’t know how to put into words or thoughts the feeling that being there gave him, but he felt grateful and . . . touched in some way.
The people ahead of them started moving and the crowd surged forward. Haru leaned over. “Want to hold hands?” He quickly added, “We don’t want to lose sight of each other in the crowd.”
“Good idea,” Noa replied. He slipped his hand inside of Haru’s and felt it close around his—and also felt Ren’s excited eyes ogling them but ignored him. Haru squeezed his hand encouragingly. He squeezed back. And they started walking.
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