"Whoa, you're tall!"
Inui turns around. He's still unsure in the first-year hallways, though of course he's had the blueprints for months now. Still, planning and actually doing things aren't the same.
"Yeah, you!" An older kid — older, but not taller, Inui observes — wearing a baseball cap walks up to him. They're not allowed to wear baseball caps indoors, but Inui isn't as much of a rule-stickler as Tezuka. The older kid gives Inui and up-down glance. "You look strong, too." The kid grabs Inui's bicep and squeezes, and Inui's so startled that he just lets him. "Do you play baseball?"
Inui shakes his head. "Tennis."
The kid sighs and blows his bangs off his forehead. "I swear, this is the only high school in Japan that cares more about tennis than baseball. I could turn that around if we just got to Koshien! So, I bet you were on the championship team, huh?"
"Yes." Rapid-fire memories of tennis start cascading through Inui's mind. The feeling he had at the end of Nationals is one he's been chasing, but something about it is just out of reach. Maybe things would always be like that, but it isn't worth bothering strangers with that. "I was a regular on the team."
The kid gives Inui an approving glance. "Well, if you ever change your mind about baseball, give me a call anytime. I'm Kuwata, the team manager."
"Nice to meet you, Inui-kun." Kuwata hands Inui a business card with all of his pertinent information on it: school year, mobile number, email, Twitter, LINE. Then he's bustling down the first-year hall again. Inui watches as he claps other boys on the shoulder and chats them up, but Inui watches and notices he's the only one who has Kuwata's card.
Inui goes to tennis practice after school and he's diligent, of course. He takes data on some of the older kids, on Tezuka and Fuji, who are already regulars. He runs laps. He bench presses twice his weight in the tennis club's state-of-the-art gym. The second year spotting him lets out a low whistle and says that soon the team will be all first years. He does a hundred racket swings with his right arm, then switches hands just for the heck of it.
Some things are the same, some things are different. High school has its own set of rules to learn.
When he gets home that night, his father is in the kitchen making dinner, but his mother is sitting on the living room sofa. She pats the spot next to her, and he sits down even though he has lots to do. Inui remembers that he used to be small enough to tuck himself under her arm, but he's been taller than her since he was eleven and he's too old for that anyway. The TV is on, a news report about a raging forest fire somewhere in Wakayama and the methods firefighters are taking to get the blaze under control.
"Forest fires can be good for the land," Inui's mother says. "They clear out the old dead brush so that new growth can happen."
Inui already knows that, but when he stares at the video of the fire, nothing about it looks good.
Later, Inui does his homework and compiles the data he took during practice. There isn't much, and Kuwata's card burns a hole in his pocket. Inui fishes it out and looks up everything he can find about Seigaku's baseball team on his laptop. Kuwata has a YouTube channel that shows clips from their practices, and it's no wonder they haven't gotten to Koshien. In fact, it's no wonder they've never gotten out of the district tournament. But, as Kuwata says in one of his videos, they sure have a lot of heart.
"What do you want?" Kaidoh turns around and visibly startles. Inui smiles. "Inui-senpai!"
Inui raises his hand in greeting. "Yo."
The middle school team is running back and forth, everyone doing shuttle runs except Kaidoh. The team looks miserable, but Inui can tell Kaidoh's dying to join them. He'd been bouncing on the balls of his feet, torn because he's trying to project an authoritative air.
Kaidoh jogs over to the chainlink fence, calling out "fifty more" over his shoulder. The tennis team groans, but Kaidoh ignores them. Inui thinks he's grown another centimeter since they last saw each other, but he'd need his measuring tape to be sure.
"What are you doing here?" Kaidoh asks. "Don't you have practice, too?"
Inui shrugs. "Took the day off," he says, and nearly laughs at the horrified expression Kaidoh makes. "Are you free after this?"
"I have to run," Kaidoh says. He takes his bandana off, wipes his forehead, and ties it back again.
"I'll run with you," Inui says.
A hint of a smile crosses Kaidoh's face, or maybe Inui imagines it. "Okay."
Inui stands on the sidelines and watches as Kaidoh puts everyone through their paces, assigning laps and racket swings and breaking up the second and third years into matches. The team is so disciplined under Kaidoh's supervision, but Inui can already see that they're going to have a tough time of things this season. Echizen's absence is possibly more palpable than everyone who's graduated, since he's still supposed to be there unlike the rest of them, but him going pro was just a matter of time. Data never lies.
Some of the third years wave to him or come by to say hello. Momoshiro has been helping the new group of first-years with their form, but he breaks away from them and jogs over to give Inui a hug. It's… well, it's weird, but Inui doesn't mind it. Momoshiro is a good teammate and a good co-captain, and he and Kaidoh work well together.
This team, he thinks, has a lot of heart.
Running with Kaidoh is different than usual. In the past, Inui has been the pacesetter, Kaidoh always wanting better, faster, more, now, and Inui wanting to do what's best for both of them. But today, Inui lets Kaidoh take the lead.
Kaidoh notices it right away because he automatically looks to Inui for cues, and today, Inui just doesn't have any to give. But as Inui had predicted, Kaidoh's annoyance soon takes over and he runs as he'd like with Inui matching him step-for-step. If Inui hadn't been too busy trying to catch his breath, he would have laughed over the way Kaidoh keeps slowing down and speeding up just to see what Inui does.
When they reach the usual halfway point and take their break, Inui shrugs his backpack off and digs out a drink bottle. He has a spare, so he offers it to Kaidoh, who shakes his head violently. That's probably a good move; this mix is still experimental and needs more cayenne.
They stretch on the grass. Inui drinks his juice, and Kaidoh drinks water, even though that lacks proper electrolytes. They're both quiet, which isn't strange for Kaidoh, but admittedly uncharacteristic for Inui.
"Why'd you miss your practice?" Kaidoh asks, breaking the silence.
Inui draws his knees up and wraps his arms around them. "That was really bothering you, wasn't it?"
Kaidoh shrugs. "It's weird."
"It is weird," Inui agrees. "I'm thinking of quitting tennis." His mouth feels weird forming the words, words he never really pictured himself saying. But the effect is satisfying; Kaidoh looks as horrified as he would if Inui had just confessed to murder. Possibly more horrified. "Something's missing," he adds, like that's a good explanation.
Anger crosses Kaidoh's face, and Inui wonders if he's going to get punched. If he were Momoshiro, Inui knows he would have. Instead, Kaidoh lets out a hiss and stands up, bending over to adjust his ankle weights. He starts to run back in the direction they came, even though their break's not over for another four minutes and Inui is still sitting on the grass.
Inui gives him a minute, then dashes to catch up. They finish their run together, but when Inui says goodbye, it's to Kaidoh's retreating back. He watches him go.
"That went well," Inui says, out loud, to nobody.
Inui texts Kaidoh that night: I didn't explain things properly. The baseball team showed some interest and I'm intrigued. I'm thinking of attending one of their practices tomorrow. He hits send and waits five minutes. Please don't be mad at me. Inui adds a jazz hands emoji. He hasn't done a proper study, but informally, he thinks people use emoji to diffuse emotion instead of intensify it. He adds three grinning cat faces to the hands and sends again.
A minute later: Do what you'd like, senpai.
Which. Well, it isn't exactly the over-the-top support Inui craves. But, honestly, if he really wanted that, he wouldn't have talked to Kaidoh.
"Why weren't you at tennis yesterday? No one knew where you were."
Inui looks over, stunned. "Tezuka?" he says, and thinks maybe he's still asleep. Inui pinches himself and it hurts. That had been possibly the most words Tezuka's ever said all in a row to him, unprompted. If Inui could ever forget about Tezuka even a little, he'd barely realize they were in the same homeroom.
"It's careless not to inform people of your whereabouts," Tezuka adds.
Inui props his hand onto his chin and just stares at him for a moment. "Can you let everyone know that I won't be there today, either?"
Tezuka's expression doesn't change, but he does blink twice. "All right."
Inui digs his phone out in between classes. Technically, it's against school rules to have it out even during breaks, and Inui can only imagine Tezuka's reaction if he knew Inui was breaking school rules on top of blowing off tennis club. But Kuwata did say contact him any time. He sends a text, asking if the offer's still open and reminding Kuwata about who Inui is. The answer's immediate:
do you pitch
So the baseball team's manager also isn't above breaking school rules. Good data. Inui types out a long reply about his tentative conclusions about his pitching abilities relative to his potential skills at the other positions, erases it, and sends Maybe instead.
Kuwata tells him to come to practice that afternoon.
Inui is the first one at baseball practice. He doesn't have a team uniform, of course, so he's just wearing his gym outfit, and he knows the glove his dad got him for his birthday one year is too small for him now. He figures he can borrow everything.
A kid Inui doesn't recognize eventually joins him on the field. His uniform looks official. He gives Inui a curious, maybe suspicious, glance, but doesn't say anything. A few more players, all older, eventually amble in and cluster together, away from Inui. They project a casual air and all know each other well. Inui starts thinking he's made a miscalculation. A mistake. It's not too late to just go to tennis practice, after all, and pick up where he left off.
Then Kuwata bounds out, whistle around his neck, clipboard in hand and lets out a delighted yelp when he sees Inui.
"Our first successful poaching!" Kuwata exclaims. He drags Inui over to the baseball team, and introduces him to everyone, pointing out the captain and co-captain by name. "Now —" Kuwata claps his hands. "— let's see what you can do."
Ten minutes later, Inui is on the pitcher's mound in a spare uniform and wearing a borrowed glove. They don't have cleats in his size, but Kuwata tells him that doesn't matter since it's just practice.
The catcher — Yoshida, Inui remembers — crouches down and pounds his glove, taunting, "Swing, batter batter, swing!" in English. The guy at bat turns around to give him a dirty look, just as Inui winds up and throws. The batter turns around just in time to swing, but it's a good pitch, low and to the left, and it slams into the catcher's mitt with a satisfying thump. Inui smiles to himself; Yoshida falls over from the force of the ball. He laughs and dusts himself off, calling to Inui, "Give me more heat, come on!" So Inui does, and the batter gets another strike, and the catcher falls over again and this time the ball rolls out of his mitt, too, so he has to scramble after it.
"Hope you didn't get too used to national championships," Kuwata calls to Inui from the sidelines. Half an hour later, Captain Matsui is introducing the team to their new starting pitcher. He holds Inui's arm up like Inui just won a boxing match, and the whole team cheers. Inui's face feels strange, and he realizes it's because he's been grinning for a long time.
Inui showers and changes back into his gym clothes, stuffing the spare uniform into his tennis bag. He'll need a new bag, he realizes, and all new equipment. His parents won't be happy about the expense. He's trying to figure out ways to pay them back — maybe he can sell bottled Inui Juice on Etsy — as he leaves. He walks out of the clubhouse and through the field, and he nearly walks right by Kaidoh standing by the outside fence.
"Kaidoh," Inui says, surprised. "Were you waiting for me?" He knows it's a stupid question as soon as it's out of his mouth, but lately Inui feels like his IQ drops a few points every time he's around Kaidoh.
Kaidoh shrugs. He's looking all around, hands jammed into the pockets of his shorts, and it occurs to Inui that this might be the first time Kaidoh's taken a good look at the high school campus.
"It's big, isn't it?" Inui says. "I got lost my first day."
Kaidoh looks at Inui then, his eyes a few millimeters wider than usual. He raises his eyebrows.
"But just the first day," Inui adds.
"You're a good pitcher, senpai," Kaidoh says, which means he must have come directly from his practice to catch the tail-end of Inui's. The timing doesn't work out otherwise, and Kaidoh must have gotten ready much quicker than average to even achieve that. That knowledge makes Inui's toes curl up in his shoes.
"Thank you," Inui says, and he wants to ask, Does that mean you're not mad at me? and Can you make it to my first game?, but all he says is, "Did you have a good practice, too?"
"Momoshiro is an idiot," is all Kaidoh says, but Inui's known them both long enough to know that means yes. "Did you want to train with me?"
Inui smiles. "Of course."
He hopes things go better today.
Inui and Kaidoh run together and, just like last time, Inui lets Kaidoh set the pace as Inui follows along. This time, Kaidoh doesn't hesitate. They take a circuitous route, not one Inui himself would have chosen, but it turns out he likes it very much. The scenery is nice, there are a satisfying number of dogs out on walks, and the hills vary in difficulty. Eventually, Kaidoh winds them onto their normal route and brings them to their cool-down spot.
As Inui catches his breath, he realizes neither one of them has said anything in a long time, but it's completely comfortable. A year ago, Inui wouldn't have known he could be comfortable in silence, didn't even think he was capable of it. There are so many times he can remember people telling him that he doesn't need to narrate every aspect of his matches or training or anything, but Inui used to feel like he did, filling up every single gap and driving out any potential awkwardness with facts.
Inui stretches his legs straight out in front of him and bends over to grab his sneakers with hands. He thinks again of new cleats, and how he'll have to alter his training menu to focus on the things pitchers need. He feels a hand on his back and he shivers as Kaidoh pushes him down, deepening his stretch. He can really feel that baseball practice in his hamstrings already.
"Thank you," Inui says, once he's straightened up. Kaidoh shrugs and stands, pulling back one of his legs so the sole of his foot is against the back of his knee. He winces and tries to cover it up, but Inui notices. Of course he notices. "What did you do?" Inui asks, as Kaidoh drops his foot to the ground again.
"I told you before, Momoshiro is an idiot," Kaidoh says. "He got in the middle of two stupid first year kids fighting and when he pulled them apart, he fell into me. I landed weird, my shin's bothering me after running."
"He's just doing his job," Inui reminds him. "How many fights did Oishi break up between the two of you, after all?"
Kaidoh wrinkles his nose. "I know," he says. "He's still dumb."
"Come here so I can take a look." Inui grabs Kaidoh's hand and tugs him down to the ground. He wraps his hands around Kaidoh's shin and starts pressing his fingers into Kaidoh's skin to gauge his reaction. Kaidoh's expression is carefully neutral and he focuses somewhere over Inui's right shoulder. "Why aren't you breathing?" Inui asks curiously. Kaidoh lets out a long breath, and continues to breathe strangely as Inui tries to find the source of his pain. It must be due to Inui reminding him to breathe, though; controllable automatic physical responses can be interrupted by prompts. Renji used to annoy him by muttering, blinking and breathing, blinking and breathing under his breath until Inui was forced to think about both.
Kaidoh lets out a pained hiss as Inui presses his fingers down, their eyes meet again, and Inui forgets to breathe himself. That's what he gets for thinking about automatic physical responses.
"Is that it?" Inui asks, pressing the spot again, more gently. Kaidoh nods. He doesn't look away from Kaidoh's face as he attempts to massage out the tension, even though that's totally illogical. Looking at Kaidoh's leg would be far more helpful in this instance. "It seems pretty minor," Inui says eventually, and clears his throat. "You'll probably be fine in the morning. Just ice it tonight and we'll walk back instead of jogging."
Kaidoh narrows his eyes at that, and Inui laughs.
"Missing one run won't kill you, I promise."
"I know that," Kaidoh mutters. "It's just —"
"I know," Inui says. He's still touching Kaidoh's leg, even though it's no longer necessary, and he briefly circles Kaidoh's ankle with his fingers before finally letting go. "Annoying."
"Yeah." Kaidoh leans back in the grass, his cheeks growing steadily redder, which is when Inui realizes he's still staring. Inui blinks. Inui breathes. "Senpai, can I ask you something?" asks Kaidoh eventually.
"Of course." Inui is surprised, and intrigued. Kaidoh so rarely asks anything of him.
"Will you— can you continue making training menus for me? Even though you're busy with baseball."
Inui raises his eyebrows. "I always have time for you, Kaidoh. Though I should remind you that you're the captain of the defending national champion Seigaku Tennis Club. You're very capable of looking after yourself. Are you sure you still want someone from a terrible baseball team helping you?"
Kaidoh rolls his eyes. "Don't be dumb."
That evening, Inui watches videos of baseball players doing their recommended workouts. He takes pages of notes, and after a moment's hesitation emails them to Kuwata with a note saying these are just suggestions and he's sure they could be more individually tailored by someone who knows the team better than he does. Kuwata emails him back just as Inui finishes revising his own training menu, and it's just a series of exclamation points. Inui assumes that's a good thing.
Then, Inui gets to work revising Kaidoh's training. He'd meant what he'd said earlier, Kaidoh is more than capable of getting himself to the next level now. A strange pang hits him when he thinks of the heights Kaidoh can climb without him, of all that he's sure to accomplish this year.
He watches all the video files of Kaidoh's tennis matches that he has, ending with the two of them playing Rikkai Dai in the finals at Nationals, even though it's painful to watch himself. But the way Kaidoh has evolved in the last year brings Inui nothing but good feelings: pride, joy, something else he can't quite name.
Inui digs out his mobile and calls Kaidoh. "Do you have any recent video of yourself playing a match?" he asks when Kaidoh answers.
"Just from practice."
"That's fine, as long as it's against someone who's a challenge."
"I'll send it to you in the morning," Kaidoh says, and yawns loudly enough that Inui can hear it on his end.
Inui looks at the clock and widens his eyes. "I'm sorry, Kaidoh, did I wake you? I didn't realize how late it was. I got caught up —" Watching you.
"It's all right." Kaidoh yawns again. His sleepy voice is softer around the edges somehow. "I don't mind if it's you."
"Well." Inui swallows. "That's good."
He lets Kaidoh off the phone, telling him to get his rest, but some part of him doesn't want to let Kaidoh go.
"Sadaharu, I have the rest of your new equipment."
Inui's mother is framing his bedroom doorway, holding a bag from a sporting goods store. He smiles and gets up to grab it from her.
"Thank you," he says. "I'll try to pay you back. I know it's a big expense, especially considering how much you've invested in my tennis things."
"I told you already, don't worry about it. People are allowed change their minds about things, and it's not the end of the world." Inui's mother reaches up and grabs his chin, tilting it from side-to-side. "You need to shave," she tells him, then pats his cheek. "Work hard."
Inui rubs his thumb against his chin, too. She's right. He then sits down at his desk again, just as his email chimes. It's Captain Matsui, sending the team's schedule with their first game scheduled for a week from Saturday. Inui forwards it to Kaidoh. It's only fair; he, of course, already knows the tennis team's schedule.
The next few days are so busy between school and training and baseball. Inui officially resigns from the tennis club on Monday, though he figures they already got the hint when he didn't show up for days and days. Tezuka actually initiates conversation with him in homeroom to ask about baseball practice. He seems interested in what Inui has to say, though he faces forward and stops speaking when Inui jokes that maybe he should switch sports, too. Inui hadn't known before that Tezuka could hang up on him in person.
Inui gets to know the guys on the baseball team better. Captain Matsui is a fine first baseman, as it turns out, and Yoshida reduces his falling over by 50% as he gets used to Inui's power when he throws. Pitching is going very well, but Inui needs to work on his batting. He thought he'd developed a fail-proof home run plan, but every time he attempts it, the ball goes foul. Still, Inui can hit okay even without homers, and he likes running the bases, especially when he calculates the perfect time to steal. Sliding into third and trying to beat the pitch to the base leaves Inui's heart beating fast and him grinning every time.
Practice before the first game ends earlier than expected, everyone too filled with nervous energy to properly concentrate. Inui slaps hands with his new teammates and bounces in his cleats, trying to break them in more.
"Oi, Inui-kun," calls Kuwata from the dugout. "Come over here."
Inui jogs down the steps, ducking so his head doesn't hit the concrete ceiling.
"I have something for you." Kuwata tosses Inui a plastic-wrapped package, hitting him square in the chest. Inui's arms go around it without thinking. "Welcome to the team."
It's Inui's new uniform, so now he won't have to use the borrowed things from the club anymore. The jersey has his name stitched across the back, and suddenly everything feels very official. Kuwata pats Inui's arm as he heads out of the clubhouse. "I heard you were the data guy on your tennis team. So what are our odds tomorrow, do you think?"
"Not good," Inui says, pushing up his glasses. "Kakinoki beat us last year and I don't believe we're sufficiently more skilled than last season."
"You really don't mince words, do you?" says Kuwata and laughs.
Inui shrugs. "It's okay. I'm discovering winning isn't everything."
The morning of the game, Inui wakes up with bugs crawling around in his stomach. Not literally, of course, that would be far more troublesome, but they're present nonetheless. He changes into his warmup suit and drinks a protein shake in the kitchen before going outside for his morning run.
Kaidoh is outside in his workout clothes, tapping at his phone. Inui's phone dings with a text message, and Kaidoh looks up.
"Hi," Inui says, surprised. "Did I forget we were meeting?"
"No. Today is your first game," Kaidoh says, which makes Inui smile.
"It is," Inui agrees. "I was just going out for my morning run. Do you want to go together?"
Kaidoh nods and as they're running shoulder-to-shoulder the bugs in Inui's stomach chill out a little.
Through his research, Inui's discovered that most of Kakinoki's sports budget goes toward baseball. It goes a long way to explaining their tennis team, and makes Seigaku's baseball team's chances of winning pretty low.
Captain Matsui gathers up the team before the game. Everyone is nervous enough that the atmosphere feels almost electric, like when Inui used to shuffle around the rug in his living room in his socks before he'd touch something to set off the static and ground him again.
"Team, I don't want you to be discouraged by last year's record," says Matsui, which as far as pep talks go isn't the most auspicious start. "I know that we haven't scored a run off of Kakinoki in the last three years, but this could be our year."
"To win or score a run?" asks Yoshida, but only gets a dirty look in reply.
"Anyway, I want us all to do our best," Matsui says. "That's all, go win." They all put their hands in and yell and Inui goes to gather his things.
Yoshida picks up Inui's sports bottle before Inui can get to it. "You're always drinking this stuff. What's in it anyway? Is it human growth hormone? You're so tall." He tilts the bottle back before Inui can stop him, not that he tries very hard. Then, Yoshida drops it and clutches his throat. Ah, good. Now it has enough cayenne.
Inui does a quick workout in the minutes before the teams meet: burpees, lunges, squats. He's sweating already when the team runs out onto the field.
The game goes about as expected, though Inui gets his first ever official strikeout at the top of the third inning, and Matsui actually manages to tap out the other two batters at first. Then they change sides and Inui realizes he'll definitely be at bat. Inui pulls his cap down low onto his forehead and taps the dirt off his cleats with his bat before he walks up to the plate. The Kakinoki pitcher stares at him as Inui sets his shoulders back and stares back. No one's going to beat him at the intimidation game.
The pitcher checks his sides and Inui decides there's a 75% chance of a fastball, low and outside. He readies his foolproof home run plan — he worked on it overnight, and he's pretty sure he's ironed out the wrinkles now. The pitcher winds up and throws; Inui swings and though he called the pitch correctly, it seems his foolproof plan isn't quite that as the ball goes far, but foul. Inui shields his eyes as he watches it go off into the stands and someone reaches up to snatch it out of the air.
"Kaidoh," Inui says, as he realizes who it was. And though it's illogical, Inui feels like his heart grows inside his chest. Kaidoh holds onto the ball and stares back toward home plate, waiting for something. Inui can't stop looking. Kakinoki's catcher clears his throat, and Inui realizes it's still his turn. Then, he strikes out.
Kuwata makes little guns out of his fingers when Inui comes back into the dugout. "Don't mind that," he tells Inui. "No one expects pitchers to be good hitters anyway."
"That's ridiculous," Inui says, as he takes a seat on the bench again. Then Captain Matsui actually hits a killer line drive that gets him onto third, and the next player sends him home. The team cheers in disbelief.
"Three year streak broken!" shouts Yoshida and falls over. Inui considers the possibility that he has vertigo.
The game continues and, honestly, Seigaku plays pretty well. Inui keeps Kakinoki's runs low and by the bottom of the eighth, they're only up by two. Every time Inui looks into the stands, Kaidoh's watching the game intensely. Of course he is. He does everything intensely; Inui's desire to have a little bit of that intensity directed toward him is what drove them together in the first place. And, he supposes as he goes for his next at-bat, he must have done something right. Inui hunches down and stares the Kakinoki pitcher down again. The pitcher's tired and his fastball's been fading for over an inning.
"Chance of a curveball, one-hundred percent," he mutters under his breath. He thinks he hears the catcher protesting that Inui must be looking at his signs somehow, but it doesn't matter because his bat connects and the ball goes sailing into right field. Inui rounds the bases, running as fast as he can, and maybe he hears someone shouting, "You can do it, Inui-senpai!" just as he slides into second, or maybe it's all inside his head. But it doesn't matter because he got a hit.
When he stands up on base, he's grinning, even though he's covered in dirt, and when he looks into the stands, Kaidoh's still on his feet. Inui tips his cap to him, pushes his sweaty hair off of his forehead, and puts his hat back on.
But in the end, the team just can't get it together enough to win. Yoshida claps Inui on the back, and Matsui tells everyone that he's proud of the way they all played.
"We'll get them next time," Kuwata says to Inui, who must look more outwardly upset than he intends. "Your boyfriend will get to see you win, don't worry."
Inui blinks. "Boyfriend?"
Kuwata laughs. "It's okay, Inui-kun," he says reassuringly. "The team's not narrow-minded, so you don't have to hide it. But if you're trying, you might want to tell him not to stare at you for nine straight innings." He turns and heads into the clubhouse, with his clipboard shoved underneath one of his arms, not even noticing that something in Inui's world just tipped sideways. When Inui tilts a little more, he notices Kaidoh standing by the fence still, waiting. Inui feels his feet moving toward Kaidoh automatically, like Kaidoh's a magnet and Inui's a ferromagnetic metal.
"Hi," Inui says, and finds that he can only think about how good Kaidoh looks right then. It's impossible to believe that Kuwata is right, that Kaidoh was looking at Inui the whole game when Kaidoh looks the way he does, especially when Inui can only imagine how he looks: sweaty and dirty and tired from playing.
"You played well," Kaidoh says. He's still holding the foul ball in his hand.
"Even with that?" says Inui, and points.
Kaidoh hisses and pulls his eyebrows together, his fingers tightening on the ball.
Inui sways forward a little; this is just like when they played doubles together, the way he'd try making his orbit around Kaidoh smaller and smaller, taking every liberty he thought he could get away with. Now, Inui realizes, that hadn't been very much about tennis at all. And Kaidoh smells really good. Inui also realizes that.
"Will you wait for me while I get changed?" Inui says. "You don't have to, though. It's okay if it's a bother."
"Do you want me to wait or is it a bother?" Kaidoh growls.
Inui smiles. "Please wait."
He runs inside and takes the shortest shower of his life, changing into his street clothes, and dashing outside again so quickly that he's already breathless when the clubhouse door slams shut behind him. Kaidoh is waiting for him, and Inui decides they've both done enough waiting and drops his bag in the dirt. Inui puts his hands on either side of Kaidoh's face, tilts up his chin, and leans down to press their lips together. It's quick, and no one saw them as far Inui knows, but there's still a decent chance Kaidoh's about to shove him down and run away.
Kaidoh doesn't shove him down. Kaidoh doesn't run away. Inui lost today and still feels like he won. The feeling he's been chasing for months slowed down and waited for Inui to catch up, and it's such a relief that Inui feels like he could run a marathon and take on Roger Federer and go to Koshien all by himself. But instead, he's going to kiss Kaidoh again.
The clubhouse door slams open. Inui drops his hands and Kaidoh leaps back. His face is bright red, and he's looking at the ground. Inui can't stop staring at Kaidoh, though. "Yo, Inui-kun," Yoshida says and slings a casual arm around Inui's shoulders, like he didn't just interrupt the single best moment of Inui's life. "The team's coming over to my house tonight for a celebration party."
"But we didn't win," Inui says. He wonders if it would be bad if he shoved Yoshida down and ran away with Kaidoh forever.
"Yeah, but we broke the streak!" Yoshida pumps a fist in the air. "You should come, we'll work on improving our battery. Bring your friend!" Then he finally, thankfully leaves.
"Well?" Inui asks Kaidoh, once they're alone again. "Would you like to go to a party with a bunch of people you don't know?"
Kaidoh shrugs. "If you want."
Inui shakes his head. "I don't." What he wants he can't say out loud. But maybe Kaidoh will let Inui show him. "Do you want to come over?"
"If you want," Kaidoh says again, but this time Inui notices the corner of his mouth twitch up. Then he steps into Inui's space, tilts his head up, and kisses Inui himself. It makes Inui's heart flutter and his breathing stop, and Inui wonders if he'll even make it through the rest of the day.
But what a way to go.