“I’ll be with you all the way, no matter what.”
“... do you promise?”
In the spring of their second year, after Abe’s recovery and the high spirits from the newcomers tournament, most of the team is on a first-name basis. Except for Abe.
Ren had been trying to work up the courage to ask him since he started playing again, but the flurry of activity, with the new school year and the push by Momoe to recruit new members, hadn’t given the two of them a real chance to talk. Every time he tried, every time an ounce of courage hit him, Abe would start the conversation and steer it elsewhere. How was his new pitch coming along, was he eating enough, what did he think of the new members, did he want to try pitching to the new catcher, did he need help on his homework?
Ren liked that Abe was talking to him so much. The thought crossed his mind that Abe might be trying to make up for the time they missed while he was injured, and so Ren did his best to try to answer everything Abe asked. It helped too, and after two months Ren didn’t stutter as much with the team, and even less with Abe.
But he still wanted to ask him. Maybe Ren was being selfish, wanting to get closer to Abe, but he couldn’t deny the warm feeling in his chest every time Abe smiled at him, or told him he was doing well. So he was going to ask him. He had to ask him.
“Abe-kun?” he asks, in the middle of an after-practice homework session at Abe’s house.
“Hm?” he grunts, shooting daggers into his math exercises.
“I, um, I was—” and Ren is more nervous now than he has been with Abe in a long time. Abe sets down his pencil and looks at Ren calmly. “I already… with Yuu-kun and Yuuto-kun, so um…”
He’s on the precipice, and starts spiraling. What if Abe was going to say no? He probably would, he doesn’t use anyone else’s first name, and the team doesn’t use his, but Hanai also doesn’t want people using his first name and Yuu-kun said that’s because he’s embarrassed, so what if Abe is embarrassed too? Now if he asks Abe is going to be embarrassed, and he’s going to hate him.
“Mihashi,” Abe says, and Ren jumps out of his thoughts.
“First names!” he yelps. “C-can we use first names?”
“Sure,” Abe says, and turns back to his homework. That was that, and Ren felt a little embarrassed for feeling like it was such a big deal.
It wasn’t too hard for Takaya to start calling Mihashi by his first name. It took him a bit of practice, a few times he went “Miha—Ren,” but Ren seemed to have a harder time with it than he did. Ren always got a little flustered and red in the face when Takaya called him by name, but Takaya was hoping Ren would get used to it after a bit longer. They were spending a lot more time together, after all.
Takaya was trying to determine why Ren got so flustered. Takaya called him Ren at practice, around the team, and Ren dropped all the equipment he was holding in shock. Takaya called him Ren at school, during lunch break, and Ren nearly choked on his food. Takaya called him Ren when they were alone, studying or hanging out after practice, and he nearly snapped his pencil in half.
So it wasn’t where Takaya said it, and he knew it wasn’t how he said it. He thought he’d try talking to Tajima, who sometimes had better luck understanding how Ren’s mind worked.
“Abe. Abe!” and he breaks out of his thoughts. Tajima glares at Takaya from his position on the ground.
“Switch legs before you break them!” Takaya lowers Tajima’s leg, and lifts the other one to continue the hamstring stretches. “What’s gotten into you man?”
“Ren,” Takaya says, pushing Tajima’s leg towards his shoulder.
“I told you dude! He’s just not used to it yet, you gotta give him time!” Takaya drops Tajima’s leg. He glances at the pitcher’s mound and sees Ren hastily look away.
“But—” and the hard crack of a bat cuts him off. Hanai stands at home plate, shading his eyes against the sun as he watches the fly ball arc across the blue sky.
“Heads up Mihashi!” he calls. Takaya watches Ren on the pitchers mound, startled by Hanai’s shout. Ren isn’t watching the ball and when Hanai shouts again he jerks his hand up by instinct to catch the ball hurtling towards him. His right hand. His pitching hand.
“Ren don’t!” Takaya shouts.
It’s too late. The ball collides with Ren’s hand, fingers bending unnaturally backwards in slow motion. Takaya is on his feet, running to Ren as fast as he can but it’s like his running through mud. Someone is calling for Coach but it’s background noise, Takaya tries to focus on Ren through the static.
“Ren, Ren you’re okay,” and Ren is nodding, Takaya watches his face for any signs, trying to see how bad it is. Three of his fingers are already a swollen, angry red, and he tries to bend them and a sound of pain escapes him. The sound twists Takaya’s gut uncomfortably. He should’ve been paying attention, he should’ve pulled Ren out of the way, because now Ren was hurt.
Coach presses Takaya to the side, gingerly prying Ren’s wrist out of Takaya’s grip to examine his fingers.
“Mihashi, how bad do you feel? Zero to ten?”
“S-six,” and Takaya can see that he’s shaking. Coach continues to examine Ren’s fingers, and he jumps when she sighs. Takaya grabs Ren’s left hand automatically, almost as a reflex, to comfort him.
“You’re going to be fine, nothing’s broken. We’ll tape you up and get some ice on it, but I don’t want you pitching for the rest of the week, okay?” Ren nods quickly, following her back to the dugout and his hand slips out of Takaya’s.
“Hey, Abe! Let’s practice,” Hanai calls to him, and Takaya tears his eyes away from Ren’s back. Ren’s been hurt before, but why does Takaya still feel so… wrong? His chest is tight, like someone was squeezing his ribcage, and his stomach is all in knots. He mechanically puts on his catcher’s gear, wondering if he tightens the chest protector he’ll feel even worse, but that actually happens when he slips on his glove and Hanai’s first pitch sinks into it. He doesn’t even grip it, the ball just falls out of his hand. He’s a catcher. He should have caught that ball, not Ren. Takaya probably could have caught it barehanded without hurting himself, but Coach wanted him to warm up with Tajima to get more “catcher practice” in, which wasn’t his usual practice routine, and if Coach hadn’t told him to he would have been able to catch it and then Ren wouldn’t be hurt, and a fastball smacks directly into his chest and Takaya falls backwards.
“Abe! Pay attention!” Hanai yells, stomping off the mound. He yanks Takaya back on his feet. “What’s wrong with you?”
I don’t know, Takaya thinks.
“Mihashi got hurt,” he answers instead.
“Yeah, Coach said he was gonna be fine.”
“Yeah…” and now Takaya is thinking, what if Ren’s injury is a lot worse than it looks? What if he’s got a hairline fracture, or nerve damage? What if his joints got hyperextended and he can’t pitch anymore?
“Abe.” Takaya snaps back. Hanai puts a hand on his shoulder. “If you’re that worried, go check on him, okay? I’ll drag Tajima over here.” He jogs towards third base, and Takaya tears off his mask, making a beeline to the dugout. Ren sees him coming and waves, right hand covered in an ice bag resting on his lap.
“How are you feeling?” he asks, willing his voice to conceal how worried he is, but Ren seems to perk up when he sits next to him.
“B-better! It doesn’t hurt as much as it did.” Ren smiles nervously, and Takaya thinks that he might just be saying that to make him feel better. Takaya’s chest feels tight and he’s still vaguely panicky.
“Really? Are you telling the truth?” He gets in close, leaning in with one arm on the bench until they’re face to face. Ren’s face goes red and he flinches back, looking away.
“I-I am. I’m not… I’m not going to lie to you. Takaya.” And Takaya believes him, because Ren isn’t jittery like he is when he’s trying to dodge a question. Ren gives a reaffirming nod, and Takaya’s gut untwists. He’s relieved, really relieved, but he harrumphs anyways.
“Go easy on your hand, okay? I don’t want to catch Hanai for any longer than a week. He hit me in the chest.” Ren gives him a guilty smile, like he wants to laugh but he doesn’t get into trouble. Takaya smiles back.
He was going to be fine.
Late that night, after practice and cleanup, after his homework is finished and his dinner is eaten, after his mother’s bedroom light turns off and the house settles in the quiet, Ren whispers into his pillow, barely beyond a breath, a confession.
“I like him.”
A year later, what Ren realized was a crush after he sprained his fingers develops into a far worse beast. It’s eating him up inside, because there’s hardly a minute when he isn’t with Takaya.
“Takaya?” he asks after the end of a Friday practice, half-asleep leaning on Takaya’s shoulder in the dugout, both sweating and exhausted.
“Hm?” Takaya grunts in response.
“Do you want to go to college?” Ren feels his shoulder tense up. He responds after a pause.
“... yeah. We’re probably going to get recruited somewhere.” And even though Takaya says “we,” Ren feels like it’s really more just him. Takaya made some incredible plays in their last few games, games that scouts had been at. Ren was having a string of poor performances and minor injuries that kept him from much game time. He was falling behind.
“Why’re you asking?” Ren straightens and scuffs at the dirt with his feet. His fingernails bite into his palms as he deflects, instead of answering.
“Every school is going to want you, you’re the best catcher in the prefecture.”
“Ren…” and Ren knows that if he looks at Takaya right now he’ll start crying. Hot tears are already pricking at the corners of his eyes and he breathes slow and deep, trying to stay steady.
“You… you’re gonna be great, n-no matter where you go.” That’s all he can manage to get out before the tears come, spilling down his cheeks like fire and he stands up like he’s been burned.
“I-I’m going now.” He grabs his bag and all but runs off the field, knowing that Takaya’s going to be mad at him.
A small, tiny, infinitesimal part of him wants Takaya to run after him.
But he doesn’t, and Ren runs all the way home and lets himself cry until he’s drained and numb and falls asleep with tear tracks etched into his cheeks.
Ren leaves Takaya stunned in the dugout. He sits there for a long time after Ren leaves, trying to figure out what just happened. Takaya finally realizes how late it is when the sun finally sets and it gets very dark, very quickly, and he too rushes home.
That night, an unseasonably intense rainstorm hits and doesn’t stop. Takaya’s texts to Ren go unanswered, and his mother threatens him with something much worse than a cold if he tried to go out in the rain. So Takaya waits, and worries, and goes to morning practice on Monday to find the ballfield was almost a pond. The team has their meeting in a classroom, and Ren isn’t there.
“He’s probably gonna be late, look how hard it’s raining.” Tajima elbows him and Takaya snaps his gaze away from the window. “Don’t worry.”
Morning practice passes, and Ren doesn’t show up.
Classes start, and homeroom goes by, and Ren doesn’t show up.
Then Japanese, and History, and Takaya stops paying attention because he’s running in the halls for practice after school and Ren isn’t there.
He ducks into an empty classroom on the third floor and calls Ren’s phone three times before Coach finds him and drags him out by the ear to do wall sits as punishment.
Practice ends, and Takaya has never changed so quickly in his life, stuffing his gear into his bag without care.
“Why are you in such a hurry?” a second year asks, as Takaya shoves past him out of the locker room, and he doesn’t bother to respond. He dashes out into the rain and just barely hears Tajima yell,
“He’s going to see Ren, OOooOOH!” as the door swings shut behind him.
The bike ride to Ren’s house feels longer than it ever has, and his wheels almost skid out from under him twice on the rainy streets, but he finally makes it to the Mihashi house, throwing his bike on the lawn and pounding on the door. Ren’s mother answers.
“Oh, Abe-kun, what happened? You’re soaked!” She pulls him inside.
“W-where’s Ren?” He’s breathing hard, shaking from the cold and the adrenaline. A clean towel is handed to him as he wipes off his face and kicks off his shoes.
“Eh? He’s upstairs sleeping. He got quite a fever over the weekend.” Takaya takes three steps toward the stairs before Ren’s mother grabs him by the scruff of the neck.
“Abe-kun,” she smiles. “You’re not going upstairs soaking wet. Let me get you some dry clothes.” She pushes him back towards the door and disappears into the house, coming back with a bundle in her arms. “Once you get changed I’ll wash your clothes, okay? You can leave them on the floor there.”
Takaya strips as quickly as he can once she’s out of sight, pulling on pants that go to his ankles and a shirt that’s even more ill-fitting. The thought that these are probably Ren’s clothes barely registers as he kicks his wet clothes into a pile and sprints up the stairs. Ren’s door is open a crack and he pushes past it, a lecture building up in his lungs, and he deflates at the sight of Ren, covered in a mountain of blankets, softly snoring.
He’s sick. Takaya scolds himself, and sits on the side of the bed, brushing stray hairs away from Ren’s forehead, which is much warmer than it should be. At his touch, Ren lets out a soft moan and unconsciously moves toward his hand. All of the anger drains out of him, but the confusion remains. Why did Ren run away from him? Why didn’t he talk to him all weekend? And why did he get sick? He watches Ren breathe for a long time, unwilling to disturb his peaceful sleeping face, and his own breathing slows as well. The exhaustion of his mad dash creeps up on him, eyelids growing heavier, until he curls up next to Ren, like he’s done many nights before, and falls asleep.
Hours later, he wakes up with Ren still beside him, snoring softly. Takaya slips out of the room to pee, and then goes downstairs. His mother is probably expecting at home. Ren’s mother is in the kitchen, preparing dinner, and smiles when she catches sight of him.
“Thanks for washing my clothes,” he says, bowing his head. She waves her hand dismissively.
“It’s no trouble, Abe-kun.”
“I should go, my parents will be wondering where I am.”
“Oh, I gave your mother a call right before you got here, don’t worry. She knows you’re staying for dinner.” He tries to suppress a yawn, and she gives him a look. “Go back to sleep, I’ll call you two when dinner’s ready.” Takaya nods, too tired to argue, and trudges back to Ren’s room.
The mattress dips under his weight as he slides under the covers, and Ren rolls toward his returning warmth. Takaya tries to sleep, closes his eyes and counts his breaths, but the feeling of Ren’s arm pressed against his keeps him from doing so. He couldn’t think of anything he might have done to make Ren so upset, to the point that he wouldn’t answer any of his texts. Before he ran off after practice, he’d been talking about college, and something about his word choice made it seem like he didn’t think he was going to get recruited with Takaya, as though Ren hadn’t been performing the best he’d been all year. And then he’d gotten sick somehow over the weekend, sick enough that he couldn’t come to school, or even text him back, and Takaya starts rehearsing what he’s going to say to Ren when he wakes up.
As if sensing Takaya’s thoughts, Ren groans and rolls over, eyes fluttering open, and he smiles as he focuses on Takaya.
“Hi,” he says, voice sleepy and warm. Any thoughts Takaya had to say to Ren are gone. He can’t stop looking, dumbstruck at how good Ren’s face is.
“Hey,” is all he can manage, and Ren seems to remember what happened the last time they saw each other and immediately turns away, yanking the blankets over himself in a protective shell, leaving Takaya with one pillow and a baseball.
Ren sleeps with a baseball and it’s the most Ren thing Takaya has ever seen and the words bubble out of his mouth before he can even realize he’s saying them.
“I think I like you.”
It’s rushed, and he doesn’t think Ren heard him because the mass of blankets doesn’t move at all, and then Ren surfaces with an extremely red face and squeaks,
“I-I think I like you.” Takaya repeats. “Like, like like you.” And in repeating himself he realizes what he’s said and the panic sets in: he has no idea if Ren likes him back, likes him back like that. What if he hates him? What if he doesn’t feel the same and this panic comes to a razor’s edge, ready to cut into his heart the moment Ren says something, anything.
But it seems that he can’t find any words, more so than usual.
“Y-You—Taka—you—” Takaya takes Ren’s flapping hands, trying to transfer some calm through his palms.
“Yeah, me.” His response makes Ren even more flustered. “Is… is that bad?”
“No!” Ren almost shouts, and claps his hands over his mouth. “Not bad! I’m—I mean I thought—Takaya—”
There’s a quiet knock on the door.
“Dinner’s ready, boys,” Ren’s mother calls.
Ren dives back under the covers, tearing his hand out of Takaya’s. The footsteps of Ren’s mother fade away to the creaking of the stairs as she descends. Takaya’s hands are cold.
“Let’s go eat.”
They sit together with his mother and Ren can’t stop sneaking glances at Takaya. He can scarcely believe it, that Takaya liked him back. Especially with how stupid Ren felt after the last time he saw him. Ren has burned for years and he never thought Takaya would ever like him like that . He wanted him to, he daydreamed and pined and watched for signs, signs for baseball and affection, and he realizes that he hasn’t answered Takaya yet.
Ren doesn’t think he’s ever eaten so quickly in his entire life, and before he can take Takaya’s hand and run back upstairs his mother stops him.
“Let me check your temperature, your face is so red.” He feels like he’s going to jump out of his skin, she’s never moved so slowly before, the thermometer has never taken so long to read, and when she pulls it out of his mouth and reads it he starts edging towards the stairs.
“You’ve gone down a bit, thank goodness. Go on back to bed then.” She turns to Takaya. “Abe-kun? I can drive you home if you’d like.”
“Ah—Takaya is—I mean, c-can he stay over?” Ren nearly shouts. Takaya looks at him, surprised. So is his mother.
“S-Sure. I’ll… I’ll go call your mother and let her know, Abe-kun.” She takes a step towards the phone and Ren takes his chance, grabs Takaya and bolts up the stairs, slamming the door shut, and they’re alone together.
They’re alone together, and Ren quickly realizes he doesn’t have any idea what to do next, nervously fidgeting with his hands.
Both go silent. Takaya starts again.
“How did you get sick?” and Ren jerks towards the bed, instinctively trying to avoid the question before he’s barely even processed it, but Takaya’s gaze freezes him in place.
“Ah, um… well…”
“Ren,” Takaya’s hands come down on his shoulders, voice soft. “I’m not going to get mad at you. I was worried about you when you didn’t answer my texts, or go to school and when you missed practice.”
His face is pinched in that way Ren knows it gets when he’s upset, but his voice stays calm. He really isn’t mad.
“Please tell me, I came straight here after practice.” Takaya’s head tips down, and he takes a shaky breath. “I was really scared.”
“I—I was—” and it isn’t working, he can’t speak with Takaya so close to him, hands on his shoulders, a breath away from crying, because now he’s a breath away from crying too . Takaya likes him, Takaya likes him back and he was being so stupid, being so selfish and making him worried and he just couldn’t talk.
“It’s okay Ren, you can tell me.” He wobbles to the bed, curling in on himself, and Takaya follows. Ren takes a deep breath.
“I was practicing,” Ren tells his knees. “I-I want to get better. I want to keep up with you.”
“You… you’re only getting better and—and I’m not. I’m falling behind and I don’t w-want… I don’t—” and he doesn’t want to start crying, he pushes his face into his knees and tries to hold back but he can’t, he can’t and his words slip out with the tears in his eyes. “I don’t want you to leave me behind.”
“Ren, you don’t need to worry about that—”
“But I do! ” he shouts. “I can’t help it, I’m scared . You’re s-so much better than me, Takaya and I’m scared that you’re going to leave. T-That a school will take you that doesn’t take me and you’ll be gone, I’m scared that you’re going to leave me and I’m going to be alone and you’d never like me back the way I like you and you’d hate me if I told you , because I’ve liked you since we met and you gave me signs.” Ren clutches his chest, tears streaming down his face as the words pour out of him like rain. “It’s been tearing my insides apart because I like you, Takaya, I like you so much and I n-never thought you’d like me back, and—and—” and he runs out of steam, hiccuping and crying, face burning red, and he can’t look at Takaya now that he’s said everything, every last embarrassing detail.
But Takaya is quiet. Ren’s room is only filled with sniffles and hiccups, and he finally gets the courage to peek at Takaya. He’s crying too, small tears slipping down his frozen face, and Ren starts apologizing but Takaya cuts him off with a crushing embrace.
Takaya’s never hugged him like this before, arms wrapping around him so fully his hands press into the sides of Ren’s ribcage. He’s warm, so warm, and Ren thinks he’s never been hugged by anyone like this before, and he doesn’t realize he’s stopped crying until Takaya pulls away slightly and gives him a watery smile.
“I don’t hate you, idiot, I told you first.” Whatever Ren was going to say catches in his throat, and he tries to will himself not to cry again. Takaya’s expression turns serious. “Ren, I’m not going to leave you. I’m gonna be with you as long as you want me. Okay? I’m not going anywhere without you.” His thumbs swipe at Ren’s cheeks, tracing the dried tear tracks and a swell of unbearable affection bubbles up in Ren’s chest.
“Okay.” It’s all he can manage to say for now, burying his face in Takaya’s shoulder, but it’s enough.
They’ll be together, and that’s enough.