i will be watching you, always.
Akimaru came up to visit later that evening, after Haruna had taken Abe home. After greeting Haruna's mom and sister, he went directly to Haruna's room, and knocked before entering.
"Motoki? It's me."
"Come in. I have something exciting to show you!"
With no small amount of trepidation, Akimaru opened the door, cautiously peeking before stepping inside. Nothing illicit seemed to be going on, but through long association he'd learned to be wary of anything that Haruna termed "exciting." Haruna waved him over to his bed, where he was sitting down and looking through... a photo album?
"Seeing Takaya made me feel all nostalgic," Haruna explained. "So I wanted to look at all my old Todakita pictures."
Akimaru sat down next to Haruna, casually pressing his shoulder against Haruna's. "Move over." He then picked up the album, and after putting his thumb down to hold Haruna's current page, turned it over to look at the cover, and then flipped through the earlier pages. This was Haruna's personal collection of pictures, so it didn't contain any baby pictures or anything like that... just pictures he'd taken himself, after he'd gotten a camera of his own as a kid. Akimaru recognized the album, since many of the early pages were filled with pictures of Haruna's sister or of Akimaru, haplessly victimized by one scheme or another of Haruna's. "What's so exciting?" he asked, as he flipped back to the page Haruna had been looking at before.
"Oh, just how adorable Takaya used to be." Akimaru was looking at a page full of pictures of Haruna's Senior League catcher, all of them apparently taken while Takaya had been changing out of his uniform, probably after a day of practice. "He's still cute of course, but back then he was beyond-belief cuteness." The sequencing of the pictures revealed a catcher who at first clearly didn't realize he was being photographed, as he was taking off his shirt and pants in some locker room somewhere. But that quickly changed, and then there was a series of pictures of Takaya shouting and lunging for the camera, and lastly one of a tee shirt being thrown directly into the camera's line of sight. "See?"
"That looks like harassment, if you ask me."
"Who's asking you?" Haruna pouted, frowning mightily with a look of accusation Akimaru had learned to completely ignore.
"No one," Akimaru said instead, looking back down at the pictures. Abe Takaya didn't look especially cuter than any twelve- or thirteen- year-old boy in those pictures, which was the age Akimaru figured him to have been during that time. Instead, he appeared to be scrappy and dirty and slightly under-nourished, although that was probably more because of a growth spurt than because of any kind of insufficient diet. "It's amazing he learned to catch your pitches at all, looking at him. He was so small."
"That's what I mean!" Haruna held up his index finger in order to make a point. "You wouldn't believe it, looking at him, but he was really good. And he was soooo cute." Haruna was smiling down at the pictures fondly. "He was so much fun to tease."
"Yeah, well, you need to cool it. You should have seen his face earlier when I caught up with you two. He was absolutely mortified. It's bad enough when you do that sort of crap with me, but at least I'm used to it." Akimaru poked Haruna in the ribs.
Of course, Haruna poked him back, and five times harder. "He's used to it too."
It seemed like Haruna truly believed that. And maybe Takaya was "used to it." But... "Well, it's different for him."
Surely Haruna understood at least that much? That minimal, miniscule, microscopic much?
But Haruna was already piffling at him, waving his hand dismissively.
So maybe he didn't understand, at that.
"Remember all those girls you used to tease in elementary and middle school?" Akimaru said, deciding to give an example to illustrate his point. He didn't add 'before your injury,' since that was understood.
A reluctant admission.
"It's just like that!" Akimaru raised his voice, and then a fist, shaking it sternly over Haruna's head. "Do you think they ever got 'used to it?'"
"No, because they liked me." Haruna became smug. "Which, by the way, proves that I am so totally good with women."
"And that is different from Takaya how...?" Akimaru wasn't going to touch the second part of that statement. Since when was being an elementary school casanova proof of being 'totally good with women?' No, he absolutely wasn't touching that, not at all.
"What do you mean?" Haruna tilted his head to one side, a perfect picture of innocent incomprehension.
Akimaru rolled his eyes. "Don't you think your 'teasing' might be giving him the wrong idea?"
"Oh come on. He's a boy!"
"He's a boy." Haruna said, repeating himself, as if this were the final word on the subject.
"Boys don't like boys like th..." Haruna stopped. His eyes widened. "Kyouhei, do you think Takaya is gay?"
"Yes." Akimaru said this with as much patience as he could muster. Which wasn't much.
To be honest, Akimaru wasn't one-hundred percent sure he was buying into this innocent act. Haruna was pretty gifted at acting the fool, but that didn't mean that his knowledge was limited solely to the realm of baseball, physical fitness, and personal hygiene. Haruna often came off like some kind of charismatically idiotic savant, but if that were all there was to him, Akimaru wouldn't have followed him with anything like the ardent devotion he currently felt.
If Akimaru thought that Takaya had any chance at all with his friend, he wouldn't be saying anything now. It wouldn't have bothered him if Haruna were gay, and it would have made him happy to see his friend happy... and so he wouldn't want to meddle if something organic and positive were going on between those two, no matter the degree of misunderstandings that might crop up.
But this wasn't like that.
It would be one thing if Haruna was gay. Abe Takaya was gay. Akimaru had figured it out from the first time they'd met, and he'd figured it out based almost totally on the precise degree of betrayed hunger he saw lurking behind the other catcher's eyes.
No one who looked at Haruna like that didn't have a crush on him, or didn't at least used to have a crush on him. It just wasn't possible.
But Haruna wasn't gay, and so this whole charade was going nowhere. If Akimaru could stem the tide of flirtatious teasing, he would. It didn't help anyone if Haruna kept stringing Takaya along.
"But... but we slept together, and everything!" Haruna broke into Akimaru's contemplation, looking and sounding amazed. "I even kissed him!"
What? No, hold on... what?? That went beyond anything Akimaru thought was possible, even for someone as dense and as airheaded and as selfish as Haruna. Did he even want to know? "Do I even want to know?" Akimaru asked, faintly, words echoing his thoughts. It must have been from a long time ago... when Takaya was what, thirteen... or twelve???... which made it all that many more shades of wrong and what. As Haruna opened his mouth, apparently to offer up an answer, Akimaru cut him off. "No I do NOT." Except... "Do I?"
"Back when we were in a battery together!" Haruna said, with an air of protest, sounding a bit overly defensive. "It was no big deal. I just thought he was cute! So I kissed him! When we happened to be in bed together!" Haruna's eyes were wide. "Do you think I... turned him on?"
Oh, this was so much worse than Akimaru had ever imagined. "I think he fell in love with you," he said, flatly.
Now Akimaru was certain that he wasn't buying into the innocent act.
"Wow. Oh. Wow." Haruna acted like he was continuing to process this. "Really?"
"God, it sucks to be him," Haruna said, in that way of his that made him come off like a jackass to everyone who failed to understand Haruna on a deeper, crazier level. There was something going on here, something between Haruna and Takaya that went beyond hurting and being hurt, and so even such callous words probably held some non-callous meaning. "Didn't he know, though, that I'm totally straight?"
Are you, was what Akimaru wanted to ask, but there were lines he couldn't or wouldn't cross with Haruna, and this was definitely one of them. Because even though Haruna wasn't gay, that didn't make him "totally straight." It didn't make anyone "totally straight." Only people's own actions and preferences made them that.
And if Haruna had been kissing and sleeping with Takaya, no matter what he said, that wasn't "totally straight."
"Oh, yeah, I'm sure he figured that out quickly. No problem." Akimaru didn't bother to conceal the deep, deep sarcasm he was feeling, however.
Yes, that touched a nerve. Haruna sounded legitimately angered now, but Akimaru didn't care. "How did you kiss him, by the way?"
Akimaru steeled himself, not particularly wanting to know the answer, but realizing that he needed to understand the full extent of Haruna's depravity if he were to help Takaya escape from whatever web of accidental or non-accidental seduction Haruna had netted him in.
"Just on the forehead," Haruna said, his flash of anger dissipating into petulance. "He's the one who kissed me on the lips."
Even better. Oh god. "And what did you do then?"
"I hugged him, obviously! He was so cute! I had to grab him into my arms and hug him tight, so he couldn't escape!"
"You... you." Akimaru lowered his voice. Haruna noticed the change in tone, and backed away.
"What did I do?" Haruna was still in self-defensive mode, but there was a cautious edge to him now. "So, let's say he's gay. Doesn't that mean he enjoyed it even more? What's so bad with that?"
"Weren't you the one, not two minutes ago, who was saying it sucks to be him?"
"Oh yeah. But I just mean, because it's hopeless. I'm never going to have sex with him or anything." Haruna's mouth circled into an O of belated comprehension. "Are you saying I led him on??"
"That is exactly what I'm saying."
Haruna looked down, and for a moment there a fleeting sadness flashed in his eyes, betraying the fact that his facetiousness was all fake.
"I didn't lead him on," he said, quietly, after a prolonged and painful silence.
Akimaru pulled his knees up to his chest, and then folded his arms around his legs, huddling down with his face buried away. What was Haruna trying to tell him here? What was the point of this half-assed, carefully misleading confession? Haruna knew that Akimaru could see through him, and so whatever this fake behavior was about, it wasn't about trying to trick him into thinking that Haruna was clueless, even though that was totally how he was acting.
Someone here was hopeless. But it was not Abe Takaya.
After being dropped off at home by Haruna, Abe had retired directly to bed, a little too overwhelmed with all the memories that seeing Haruna had sparked.
With everything that was going on with Mihashi, these memories had lain dormant in his heart for a long time, and Abe had been more than content to let them sleep, not wanting to resurrect the pain and shame he had felt back then, pain and shame that Haruna had probably never even intended to put him though.
But now, because of seeing Haruna, those memories lived, and were awake.
It was... Abe buried his face in his pillow. God, he'd been so embarrassed earlier. But that was nothing on how embarrassing it was to remember how he used to behave around Haruna.
Being held by Haruna? Reminded Abe of being held by Haruna.
Things had been different with Mihashi. For a few precious months, Abe had been able to get exactly what he wanted with Mihashi. It was more than he ever dreamed he would ever be able to get.
But with Haruna...
Abe rubbed his face some more into the pillow. Doing so reminded him of how Haruna had been rubbing his face into Abe's back earlier. Between his shoulderblades and up to his neck Abe's skin felt so warm. So warm it was almost throbbing. Abe held his breath, counting slowly and pressing his closed eyes into the pillow, a kaleidoscope of false lights flashing and dimming before his eyelids as the phantom warmth across his back subsided.
When he could no longer tolerate it, he exhaled. The warm, throbbing sensation came back.
Abe then took a corner of his bedsheet, and then bit into it in frustration. With Haruna, it had just been the one night.
Just one night. Even now, Abe felt sick just from that one, stark fact.
At the time, he'd allowed himself to believe that the one sleepover was merely the first of many to come. That he'd get the chance to invite Haruna over and show him his own bedroom, and that they'd start hanging out regularly, and that... well, that he'd get more chances, frankly. That he'd get to make more moves.
He'd wanted Haruna to spend time with his family, also. He'd wanted Haruna to meet Shun. It seemed like it would be fun, for Haruna to meet Shun. They could all do things together. Haruna could tease Shun and then Abe would scold Haruna, and then they could argue for a while but it would be fun arguing, friendly arguing, and then they could...
Abe halted that line of thought. Another thing he'd wanted to do was to spend more time with Haruna's sister, Nao-chan, too. She had been so nice. And she used to come to their games sometimes, in the fall of his year with Haruna, bringing thermoses of fresh-brewed jasmine tea for Haruna to drink after the games were over. Tea which Haruna was always extremely reluctant to share, but which Abe usually got him to share anyway, after much coercion.
What was worse, really? Was it sadder that Abe had been given so much time to be with Mihashi, enough time to create many memories, memories he would now have to mourn? Or was it worse that he'd only had one night to really be with Haruna? Only one night to be with him in that way he had, at one time, so desperately longed for?
Taunting him with unfulfilled possibilities, and wasted dreams?
Slowly Abe unclenched his jaw, opening his mouth and letting the twist of cotton fabric go. Tajima liked to chew on clothes when he was frustrated, and it seemed like it should help. But it didn't help. Abe was still frustrated, monumentally frustrated. It had taken him years to build up that distance between he and Haruna, to create a wall of protection around himself. Years. But to spend just one afternoon with Haruna and become completely exposed... it was hardly fair.
He felt sick. Fever-sick, queasy-sick... his stomach was knotted so tight, and every muscle in his body ached.
No, he couldn't stop the memories. The were washing over him, like waves. They were washing over him, like a tsunami. They were washing over him, in a flood.
In the week preceding the final, losing Kanto match, that had been when Abe spent the night over at Haruna's apartment.
Abe remembered how eager he had been, how exceedingly, breathlessly eager. He remembered how he'd floated into Haruna's family's spacious apartment, feeling like he had been walking on air. He remembered how Haruna's sister, Nao-chan, had laughed at him, saying that he was acting extremely silly, but Abe hadn't cared, didn't care, since Haruna had kind of inured him to being laughed at.
He remembered what he'd told her, how he was just excited to be spending time with someone he played baseball with, "especially someone as amazing as Motoki-san."
He'd actually said it. Abe groaned, remembering. He said it, just like that.
Shun would say things like that. That was the kind of thing Shun would say even to this day. Back then, Abe had been a lot more like Shun was now, both in how he acted and how he looked. Shun was so happy, and well-adjusted, and normal. It was hard to believe, but once upon a time, Abe had been like that too.
The thought made him sigh. Was he jealous of Shun? Shun seemed to have the life that Abe should have had, and maybe could have had, if he hadn't gone crooked somewhere along the way.
Abe sat up, turning back the bedsheets and folding the spot he'd chewed at down away from him. He then frowned at his pillows, and punched one of them, taking the other and tossing it across the room. As soon as these arbitrary tasks were complete, he flopped back down onto the bed, this time lying down on his back.
Haruna. Haruna Motoki. It was frustrating. He was frustrating.
Why did Haruna have to have such an amazing body, and such a beautiful face?
Even now Abe had no satisfactory explanation for how such a physically astounding person had come into his life, because Haruna just was abnormally good looking. In comparison to Mihashi, there was no comparison, because Mihashi was tender and delicate and yet had an attractiveness like that of mere mortals, a species to which Haruna had never belonged.
On that night he'd slept over, Abe had eaten dinner with Haruna's family. They had all been so much fun, just like Haruna was, funny and friendly, and on top of that they were even kind.
Spending that time with them had simply added fuel to the flames of his fantasy life, because while it was happening, Abe could live with the extremely silly, extremely unrealistic idea that one day they would all be his family too, in that dream world where being gay was never an issue, and where Haruna loved him without any doubt or hesitation, or fear.
The problem with Haruna was that Haruna had given him hope.
For a time, he'd allowed himself to believe in his silly, unrealistic fantasies.
After the dinner, Haruna had invited (or rather, bullied) Abe to follow him into his room, where they'd ended up watching a movie together for a few hours until it was time to go to bed. Even that had been an amazing experience, dripping with accidentally-received significance, because Haruna had been as touchy and as pushy with him as he always had been, and yet in the privacy of his room, behind locked doors, it took on a higher level of intimacy, which Abe ended up convincing himself had special meaning related uniquely to him.
Abe remembered the specific movie they'd watched (a dubbed American film: Fight Club, which Haruna claimed was one of his favorites), but for the life of him he couldn't remember anything about the plot other than it involved a fight club, and that no one was supposed to talk about it. And the reason he couldn't remember any of it was because he'd spent the entire time leaning up against Haruna's chest, and Haruna had carelessly slung his arm around Abe's waist, fingers on the top of his thigh. Abe had leaned in, and breathed deeply (but quietly, he didn't want to be too obvious about it), soaking in every possible sensation his body could collect. Wanting to capture it all.
Thinking about locked doors, Abe wondered if his own door was locked. He turned his head and just stared at it for a while, but after his staring failed to provide Abe the answer he was looking for he ended up getting up, walking slowly over to the door. He checked. It was locked. He rattled it a little just to be sure. Yes, securely locked.
Abe went back to lie down. He felt so restless and yet so lethargic.
He missed Mihashi.
If he had Mihashi right now, he could put these memories back to sleep where they belonged.
Maybe Mihashi had been trying to tell him something, by sending Haruna to him. But what?
That he knew that Abe had been... attached... to Haruna, in ways that probably were way too unhealthy and extreme? That it was okay?
That Mihashi didn't mind, and it was okay?
This all felt like deluded, wishful thinking. Abe set these thoughts aside.
Abe's thoughts instead strayed back to the night of the sleepover. After the movie was over and it was time to go to bed, Abe remembered how he'd gone through all of the routine aspects of getting ready for bed (i.e. brushing his teeth, changing into pajamas, washing his face), filled with a giddy sense of anticipation, and nervousness. He hadn't even known where he was supposed to have slept, since usually it would be on a futon or a sleeping bag or something, but Haruna had seemed not to have any of those things.
And Haruna had also not made any moves to go collect any such things, from any place they might be hidden. Abe remembered how he'd allowed himself to build up the hope that he would be sleeping in Haruna's actual bed.
Which had turned out to be exactly the case.
"Here," Haruna had said, pushing Abe out of the bathroom and back into his bedroom, towards the bed. He'd pushed Abe with one hand on each shoulder, directing him from behind with a commanding, take-no-prisoners air. "I don't want to sleep next to the wall, so in you go."
Abe remembered how he'd nodded slowly, trying so hard to hide his eagerness. He would have done anything Haruna had asked of him at that point in his life. But when Haruna was asking something like that, to share his bed and be trapped between him and the wall? That had been too much happiness to contemplate. More happiness then he felt his heart was able to hold. So he climbed into bed carefully, trying not to disturb the covers on Haruna's side, and had moved over to the side near the wall, curling up with his face to the wall, closing his eyes tightly even as Haruna was climbing in next to him, turning off the light.
It would have been enough just to fall asleep like that. But the next thing Abe knew was that Haruna was again putting an arm around him, this time to manhandle him. "Come on Takaya, don't wimp out on me. A big part of the fun in sleepovers is in sharing dirty or scary stories. Now I dunno about you, but I prefer to talk dirty." Haruna pulled Abe around until he was lying on his back, and then put his hand on Abe's face, turning his head to face Haruna, fingertips pressed firmly along the line of his jaw. Haruna wasn't going to allow him to easily look away. "Right?" There was just enough light flowing in from the streetlamps outside, coming through the curtains to provide a dim view of Haruna's grinning face.
What the hell was Haruna so happy for? "I don't know any dirty stories, Motoki-san," Abe confessed softly, trying to be quiet, feeling a bit ashamed that he was so useless in this regard.
"I do! I know plenty!" Haruna seemed not at all displeased with Abe's confession, and it occurred to Abe that probably Haruna had planned on being the one to talk all along. "After all, I have my sister!"
Since Abe didn't have a sister, he wasn't sure how that worked. "She tells you dirty stories?" Abe asked, a bit doubtful. Haruna's sister seemed way too nice for that, but you never knew...
"Ew, no way. Gross!" Idea, rejected. Abe held back a sigh when Haruna removed his fingers from Abe's face. Haruna gagged obnoxiously. "No! I spy on her, obviously. I listen to her phone calls when she talks to her girlfriends or Kyouhei's sisters. And I read her diary and secret online journal which I'm not supposed to know about." Haruna leaned in, becoming conspiratorial. "She's totally a pervert. She acts all proper and stuff but secretly she is all about seducing guys. She's had three boyfriends and has kissed every one of them!"
Kissing was evidence of perversion? That was a new one to Abe. The idea made him smile. Sometimes Haruna could shock him simply by saying something so ridiculously childish that it made him feel like the grown-up. "I... see."
"Stop laughing at me, Takaya." Haruna rubbed his fingers roughly through Abe's hair, frowning as if insulted. "You are not allowed to laugh at me. That disrupts the natural order of things." Abe closed his eyes, and bit his lower lip. "So stop it!"
Well, at least now he was no longer laughing at Haruna.
"Kissing isn't that bad," Abe clarified, feeling a bit stupid for having to explain but knowing that Haruna would give him no rest until he did. "I'm sure lot of girls and boys do it and there's nothing wrong with it at all." Plus, talking about kissing made him want to squirm. "Why would you say that's perverted?"
"Uh..." Haruna stopped moving his hand, although he left it pressed against Abe's forehead. Haruna looked off to the side, and surprisingly, seemed... embarrassed? "I've never done it, that's why."
So? Come on. They were only in middle school, for pete's sake. What sort of unrealistic life expectations was Haruna deluding himself with?
Nonetheless, Haruna's confession made Abe feel all warm and sticky inside. It also made him feel, weirdly, like he was taking advantage of someone. Despite the fact that there was no doubt that Haruna was the one who was always pushing him around, getting Abe to do things he normally wouldn't dream of doing because of his own reserved nature, it was so totally clear to Abe that Haruna was completely lacking behavioral filters, or even basic common sense. If he wanted to, Abe was pretty sure that he could manipulate the hell out of Haruna.
But Haruna had a way of making him not want to.
Instead, Haruna made him want to be honest and vulnerable. Haruna made him want to be himself, despite all of his own repulsive flaws and desires. Somehow Haruna made him feel like it would all be okay, and that he would be accepted exactly as he was, because there had never been a time when Haruna didn't take him at face value, never sparing him any honest criticism or sincerely-meant praise. Sure, Haruna acted like an ass around him, constantly, but that just meant Haruna was real.
Abe desperately wanted to be real.
"And you think I have?" Abe said dryly, after an embarrassingly prolonged pause. He was answering Haruna with all of the precocious maturity he tended to like to suppress, since people usually thought it made him creepy and weird.
"Of course not! Since when are you a pervert?!" Haruna was speaking a bit too loudly, and so Abe reached out and pressed a hand over Haruna's mouth, blushing fiercely.
"Do you want your sister to overhear us?" Abe whispered harshly. "Don't you think that she probably spies on you too?" Probably, as a matter of self defense? Abe didn't say that, but anyone who lived with Haruna was operating under special rules and so if she was spying on Haruna, it would be a completely justified act.
Abe held his hand there firmly until Haruna stopped working his mouth, and when he finally withdrew it, Haruna looked like he had been properly chastened. Obviously, the idea of being counter-spied on by his sister was as horrifying as the idea of her kissing boys. "Sorry," Haruna mumbled. "I'll try to be quiet."
Yeah. Okay. Abe would believe it when he heard it. Haruna might be acting all quiet now but that was simply because he'd been freshly reproved. It wouldn't take long for him to crescendo back up into loudness. "Anyway," Abe whispered. "Kissing isn't perverted. You're the pervert for thinking so."
"You're sure?" Haruna apparently needed reassurance about this.
"Hmm." Haruna mulled it over some. And then, defying Abe's already generous lack of expectations, Haruna leaned forward and pressed his lips to Abe's forehead.
Now it was Abe's turn to react incredulously. "What are you doing?!"
His skin burned at the point where Haruna had touched it. Abe wanted to reach up and put his fingers over that spot, to hold in the warmth, to hold in the feeling just a moment longer. But he didn't.
"I just want to see if I'm a pervert or not," Haruna said, grinning as if he'd won a major battle. "Now that I've done it, does that overrule my previous opinion? Or does it just make me even more of a pervert for thinking it's perverted but doing it anyway?"
"It makes you insane," Abe said breathlessly. His heart clenched with so much longing. It wouldn't take much to kiss Haruna back, now. The distance between them had never felt so small before. It felt like it would be okay, no matter what, since it would be tit-for-tat no matter how you wanted to slice it. He wanted to kiss him. He wanted to kiss him. Unconsciously, Abe leaned forward a little.
He wanted Haruna so bad, in every sense of the word. Was it okay to want someone that hard when that someone was admittedly iffy even on the concept of kissing?
And then Haruna kissed him again, in the same place, a little bit more boldly. Lingering just a touch longer. "You're so cute," he whispered. "It's unbelievable how cute you are."
Add the fact that Haruna was making fun of him on top of everything else, and Abe couldn't resist.
So, not believing that he was actually doing this, feeling a kind of out-of-body dizziness and disorientation, Abe dipped his head down a bit, and kissed Haruna on the lips, close-mouthed and dry. But he pressed his lips there for a long time, and with a shaking hand reached forward to place it on Haruna's cheek.
Haruna could never be his, not really. But in this moment Abe could pretend it was true.
And it was in that moment, without ever intending it, Abe had deceived himself. Because now, looking back, he realized that deep down, it hadn't been pretending.
Why had Todakita ended up losing the Kanto match? Was it really fair to blame the entire team's loss on just one person?
Just what did Abe think that Haruna was, anyway?
That night, Abe had been the one to finally break the kiss. Haruna hadn't moved a muscle from when Abe first pressed a kiss onto his lips, until Abe slowly, furtively backed away. Abe had wanted it to go on forever, had wanted to deepen it and press on further, but instead of all that he backed off. He kept his hand to Haruna's cheek, and didn't move far, and his breath was heavy and haggard, like the breeze on a spring day.
Oh, he'd wanted Haruna so much. So much. So, so much.
But he just couldn't say it.
"How cute am I now?" He whispered instead, sounding arch and challenging and a bit like an asshole.
"You cheat." Haruna pulled Abe into a sudden, fierce hug, bringing his smaller body up over on top of him with careless ease, his arms tight around Abe's shoulders, pressing Abe's face close to his chest, to his heart. Haruna then buried his face into Abe's hair, rubbing back and forth. "That was my first kiss, and now you made me a pervert for sure." Haruna sounded overwhelmed. "I hope you're happy. I wanted it to be with a girl."
That was when it occurred to Abe that Haruna must have probably been lonely for a long, long time.
Just what had Haruna lost, when he'd had his injury?
"I'm happy," Abe had said, rubbing his face against Haruna's chest. Rubbing the tears out of his eyes. "I'm happy."
"Hmph. You'd better be."
And Haruna held him even tighter.
"Hey. Can I come in?"
Haruna looked up from his bed, where he'd been lying down, pitcher's mitt on his right hand, baseball in his left. He had been tossing the ball over and over again into the worn center of the mitt, conditioning the leather. Thinking. Akimaru had left only a little while ago, and the picture album was still set out, opened to the pages of Takaya, next to him on the bed. Haruna wasn't looking at it now.
The door opened, and for a moment Haruna's sister just stood standing there, giving him a small, unreadable smile. She was holding a tray, with a pot of tea and two cups. After looking him over she stepped across the threshold. "I made you some tea."
Nao-chan was always like that. She seemed to have the most uncanny ability to know when Haruna needed to talk to her. And she always brought tea-- jasmine, freshly brewed. His favorite. Heaving himself up to a sitting position, he took off his glove and set it down on top of the album, obscuring the pictures. He held out one hand. "Gimme," he said, casually demanding.
"Say please," she said, gently scolding, but she handed over the tea anyway, before he said anything. Haruna never actually had to say please, not to her.
After giving him the small cup, his sister set down the tray on his desk, taking the extra cup for herself. Very gracefully, she sat down on the edge of his bed, right next to where Haruna was sitting. She took a little sip. He downed the entire cup in couple swallows. When he was done he wiped off his mouth with the back of his hand, and dropped the empty cup down carelessly onto the his bed... it tilted sideways, and a few drops of tea seeped into the duvet.
Nao-chan gave the tilted cup a look out of the corner of her eyes, but didn't say anything. Instead she continued to take deliberate, small sips of her tea, holding it up properly with both hands. She was always extremely patient, and could outwait just about anyone. After a minute, Haruna sighed and picked up the cup and set it down onto the bedside table instead, grumbling just a little.
"Better?" he asked.
"Mm-hmm." Once she finished her cup, she set it down right next to his. And then she picked up the photo album, letting the mitt slide off it back onto the bed. "Takaya?" She smiled down at the pictures. "It's been a while. What's he been up to?"
"Not much," Haruna answered. After a pause he added, "I saw him today."
"And how was he?"
Not good. The answer was 'not good.' Haruna looked down. He'd been able to put up a front for Takaya, and even for Kyouhei, but right now he just couldn't. "Akimaru thinks he's gay," Haruna said, bluntly. Around most people, including his sister, he spoke of or addressed Kyouhei as he would any other teammate.
"Oh yeah. He always did have a little crush on you, didn't he?" She apparently didn't find this news to be surprising, let alone shocking, and Haruna made a face. Nao-chan frowned at him. "Is that a problem?"
Was it? Was it a problem? Frankly, the answer was yes. It was a problem for a lot of reasons. "Not really," he said instead, trying to sound indifferent.
"Liar," she said, frown dissipating into a warm laugh. "It pisses you off. I can tell." She took another look at the pictures. "So Takaya finally dared to grow up. Is that the issue?"
"What are you talking about?" He gave her one of his intense, scary glares, but as usual it didn't phase her at all.
"He found someone, didn't he? He found someone, and you can't handle it. Just like you couldn't handle it when I started dating, too." She was still grinning. "Am I right?"
"You're wrong." She'd hit the nail right on the head.
That was the heart of the problem. Right there.
Haruna hated it when the people he cared about grew up around him.
Ever since he'd been little, he had always been bigger than all the other kids his own age, and so for as long as he could remember, everyone other than his immediate family treated him as something other than a child. Even Akimaru, who was his same age, tended to look up to him and idolize him. Hell, even Kaguyan did it, and that was crazy because Kaguyan should know better than anyone just how childish he was on the inside.
Maybe it was a reaction to all the pressure people had put on him, maybe it was just his basic nature, but whatever it was, Haruna was resistant to the very idea of growing up. At least emotionally, he didn't like it.
For people like his parents, who had always been grown up in his eyes, they could and should stay that way. But for people like his sister or his friends? He couldn't handle it. He couldn't.
"What happened?" Nao-chan asked, running her fingers over the pictures of Takaya.
Wrapped in coldness, turning on the switch that made people take him very, very seriously, Haruna began to speak. "At his school, some boys beat him up and humiliated him. They called him gay. They threatened to make it an issue with his friend, the pitcher he works with. He quit his team, in some stupid attempt to protect them, and now is miserable and unhappy because he's abandoned everything he cares about. That's basically it."
"Sounds serious," she said, softly. "So you think he shouldn't be gay?"
Yeah right. Like that was even possible. Even Haruna knew that wasn't possible. But he also knew that wasn't really what his sister was saying.
"Or maybe," she added, so quietly that it hurt, "you think that he should have stayed with you?"
...and remained Haruna's catcher forever. And made himself content with his silly, childish crush. And not gone for anything more than that.
Oh yes, Haruna knew what she was really saying.
Laid out like that, it was just obvious how selfish he was being.
"You need to let people grow up, Motoki," Nao-chan said finally, when it became clear that Haruna had no answer to give her.
The problem, though, with letting people grow up, was that it meant that Haruna should probably start doing the same.
Few people understood how terrifying Haruna had found his injury. If it had happened to his left hand, sure, maybe they would have got it... just like they would have understood if he'd been a pianist and had lost the use of his fingers. But it wasn't like his pitching arm was the only thing that was going to make Haruna a pro... it was his whole body. Everything was connected.
Nowadays, Haruna had made his peace with the fact that tragedy could strike at any moment, and that the thing he'd always depended upon could be taken away from him in an unfortunate instance of fate. Nowadays he knew that the work he did bore meaning, even if something might happen to him that would make it so that it would never bear fruit. But back then, such reassurances had been unknown to him, and he wouldn't have believed them anyway, since they pointed to a truth he had to come to himself, all on his own.
His time with the Seniors had been a test. A test to see what baseball meant to him, to see how far he could go with his training when self-improvement, not victory, was the goal.
Haruna, too, remembered the night that he'd invited Takaya to sleep over, in the week before the Kanto match.
That year had been so hard on him. He'd hurt his knee, he'd left his team, and he'd alienated every single friend he'd ever had, including Akimaru. At home, he'd discovered to his shock and dismay that Nao-chan was starting to date, and that meant that even when he wanted her to talk to and hang out with, half the time she wasn't even around, and the other half the time she didn't want him bugging her. He bugged her anyway, but all that did was make her mad at him, and several times she even yelled at him, telling him to go away and leave her alone.
If he hadn't found Takaya, Haruna didn't know what would have become of him.
Takaya had made training fun. Takaya had shown him what it could mean to have a catching partner who was just as motivated and driven as he was. Haruna had never met anyone who spent so much time obsessing over baseball strategy before, and considering how useless his own middle school coach had been in that regard, he tried to soak up as much as he could from both Takaya and Takaya's father, who apparently was some kind of baseball guru and a former catcher in his own right. Until he'd met Takaya, he didn't even know how useful better control could be, because up until that point he'd been beating everyone with his super fast, super wild, super scary pitches, and it wasn't like Akimaru had ever been able to give him any kind of useful lead.
Sure, it pissed him the hell off that Takaya had always nagged at him about his lousy control. It wasn't like he could have suddenly made it all better overnight, so he'd been trying to work on it, but Takaya had never found his efforts sufficient and could never understand why Haruna had such difficulty following signs. If a sign was given and he aimed for it and failed, then not only he would know it, but Takaya would know it too... but if Haruna kept trying to throw pitches the old way, as he had with Akimaru, then the only person who would have a full accounting of his failures would have been him.
It had been shameful to have to share his failures. But that had been enlightening too. It showed Haruna that there was a whole higher level of baseball that he could aspire to, and so becoming a pro would mean more than simply getting stronger and more nimble. It meant learning a lot of different things, and that was interesting beyond any simple winning or losing. There was a mindset there, and it made Haruna realize that even if his body became broken with injury, the mindset he would shape through his training would never leave him... and that could be beneficial in a lot of ways, because it would help him struggle and live on. No matter what.
And Takaya had helped him with his non-baseball related problems too.
That kiss had been one of those things. Haruna had been intensely curious about kissing, wanting to know why people did it. It made him feel so gross to think about his sister doing it, and yet time and time again that image had come to his mind unbidden, and had given him uncomfortable feelings. He'd never really thought of her as a pervert, not really, but deep in his heart he was afraid that he himself was becoming one, since it was just wrong to have those kinds of thoughts about his sister, and yet he couldn't help it. The images plagued and haunted him. It was becoming like an obsession, but it wasn't any kind of obsession he wanted, and so he found himself becoming colder and harder and more distant, even as he kept trying to keep Nao-chan from ignoring him and telling him to stop being an annoying little brother.
Having kissed Takaya without the world ending had helped him a lot. And then when Takaya kissed him back it helped him all that much more, because for the first time ever he thought about kissing and forgot completely about his sister, and it made him realize that maybe his problem had simply been that he didn't have enough of an alternate basis of comparison.
When Takaya had told him that he was happy, Haruna had been happy too.
For a while, it had been so simple.
But then Haruna had felt it. Holding Takaya tight, his smaller body warm and comfortable against his own, it started occurring to him that the pressure against his thigh was not right, and after a little thought it made him realize that Takaya had become hard. That his penis had become... hard.
And then he didn't know what to do. Because if it had been anyone else but Takaya, he would have shoved that person away from him, because whether or not it was accidental it was also totally unpleasant, and he didn't like it at all. But this was Takaya, the person who had been taking bruise after bruise from Haruna, the only person he'd ever met who had the fortitude to actually learn how to catch his pitches. Akimaru didn't count.
Takaya sometimes cried from the missed pitches, and sometimes complained about them, but he never gave up.
So Haruna owed him. He owed Takaya almost anything Takaya might want to ask of him, so long as those things were not anything that might hurt his body, and so long as Takaya didn't outright try to tell him what to do.
Besides. Takaya had still just been a kid. He was nearly two years younger than him, despite only having a one year difference between them in school. Haruna remembered when he had started going through puberty, and at that time, any random thing seemed to be able to set him off. This had probably been something similar. If Haruna had made a big deal about it then Takaya probably would have felt ashamed, but if he'd pretended nothing was happening then maybe Takaya could get over it on his own, without needing to be troubled.
Haruna didn't let go of Takaya, that night. He'd continued to hold him, and murmur silly things at him, telling him how cute he was, hoping that Takaya would get the hint that "cute" did not equal "sexy" and therefore would he please take that boner of his and move it off to the side or something? Unfortunately, this seemed to have had the opposite effect from what he'd intended. Instead of moving off him, Takaya started to move against him, and with no little amount of terror, Haruna had realized that perhaps Takaya was getting off on him.
It was... Why. It was so... Why was this happening?
It didn't feel good. Haruna hadn't liked it, not at all.
But it was Takaya. And Haruna owed Takaya. And he loved him. So much.
"I miss him, Nao-chan," Haruna confessed, thinking back on that night with warmth in his cheeks. Although he didn't like to think about how Takaya had used him to jack off, everything else about that night had been so right. He liked everything else: holding Takaya, being near him, even kissing him. He liked those things.
But just because there was one thing he didn't like, probably it had been for the best that Takaya had left him. Because eventually Takaya had figured it out... figured out that his attraction was not properly reciprocated. And he'd stopped moving, and for the rest of the night hadn't said another word.
"I know," his sister said. "But?"
"But I don't want him to be... like that. I don't want him to be gay."
It was time for Haruna to grow up.
He just didn't know how.
"Yeah," his sister said, taking his hand and squeezing it. "I know."
The sad reality was that Takaya had been right to leave him. That they were not good for each other. That they should not be together, even though on some level they would always want to be.
When Haruna had dropped Takaya off earlier that evening, there had been a moment of awkwardness after Haruna finished up with taking Takaya's bike down from the car. That had taken a long time. While Haruna had been fumbling around with the rack's mechanism, Takaya ended up gathered his things and stood silently by, watching. Takaya hadn't offered to help, although he could almost certainly make a better job of it, and Haruna hadn't asked for help either.
Since... well, since if anyone had the right to stand by and watch him fumble and flail, it was certainly Takaya.
Once finished, Haruna wordlessly offered the bike back to Takaya. Takaya took it, giving Haruna one of his dark, unreadable looks, and for a moment neither of them said anything. Probably neither of them really knew quite what to say.
But it had eventually been Takaya who spoke. "I will always be watching you," he'd said, with a sad and somewhat bitter smile. "That's not a promise. It's just the truth."
And then Abe Takaya had stepped away from the car, wheeling the bike around back of the house, and back out of his life.
"Nao-chan... can I have some more tea?" Haruna swallowed. He needed to grow up. "Please?"
Haruna would always be watching Takaya, too.
It wasn't a promise. It was just the truth.