subject: I’m sick!
Sorry, Shin-chan, but the rear car will be out of service today! I’m super sick! ⋆* ⁑⋆* (๑•﹏•)⋆* ⁑⋆* I’m going to the doctor later, I’ll let you know if I’ll be in school tomorrow or not. Don’t skip practice just because I won’t be there!! (･｀ｪ´･)つ
The message was waiting for Shintarou when he unplugged his phone after breakfast on Tuesday morning. Upon reading it, he huffed in annoyance. As if he would ever skip practice! He detested people who missed practice for no good reason. Knowing he would need to leave early to walk to school on time, he gathered his things to leave (book bag, sports bag, lunch, today’s lucky item: a basket) and headed out the door.
It was a crisp autumn morning, cool without being chilly, perfect weather for a walk to school. (If one cared about such things, which Shintarou did not.) More importantly, it was blessedly quiet without Takao’s incessant chatter. It was a shame that Takao was sick, though...hopefully it wasn’t too serious. The team couldn’t afford to lose one of its starting members so close to the Winter Cup preliminaries. It was surprising Takao was sick enough to miss school, though he supposed it shouldn't be. In the year and a half he'd known Takao, he'd never seen such a poor performance as yesterday's practice. During the mock game they’d played, Takao had accidentally passed to the opposing team a number of times, and once even threw the ball out of bounds because nobody at all was in the line of his pass. It was almost a relief to know that had simply been due to illness. (Had Takao just been tired, or did illness cause his hawk eye to malfunction?)
Alone with his thoughts, Shintarou’s walk to school went more quickly than anticipated. Morning practice went well enough, though he felt as though he was constantly interrupted by teammates asking for Takao’s whereabouts. Why did everybody assume he knew where Takao was?
The rest of the day was much the same. Classmates (not to mention students from other classes—how many friends did Takao have?) he was sure he’d never spoken to before asked him where Takao was and when he would be back. He had the same tired conversation with teachers (yes, Takao is sick; no, I don’t know what’s wrong; no, I don’t know when he’ll be back), with the added insult of being asked to take handouts to Takao’s house after school, as if he had nothing better to do with his time than run errands.
The day dragged on. By afternoon, at least nobody asked after Takao anymore, but once that stopped, he was surprised to find that time seemed to pass even more slowly, leaving him feeling irritated for no reason he could pinpoint. It was a relief when the last class ended and he was free to escape to basketball practice. He checked his phone on the way there, but there was no word from Takao. Hadn’t he been to the doctor yet?
The team seemed strangely subdued during practice. Did they all miss Takao, or was Takao just that noisy? Soon enough, though, practice ended and Shintarou was left alone, shooting baskets. The swoosh of the ball passing through the net was a familiar, comforting sound, yet the balls bouncing off the gymnasium floor sounded obnoxiously loud and echoing. He barely stayed a half-hour before cleaning up the basketballs to leave. At any rate, Shintarou decided he really should drop off Takao’s handouts before it was so late it would be discourteous.
When Shintarou rang the bell at the Takao residence, the door was soon opened by Takao’s mother. He had met her a number of times, but for some reason today it struck him for the first time how much her son took after her. Her eyes, especially, and—she smiled broadly when she recognized Shintarou. Yes, the smile, too.
“Oh, Midorima-kun! How nice of you to come and see Kazunari when he’s sick. I’m afraid I can’t let you see him, though; he just started antibiotics and he’s still contagious until tomorrow. We can’t have Shuutoku’s ace getting sick, too!”
Shintarou blinked in surprise. It had never occurred to him that he wouldn’t be able to see Takao, to scold him for not taking care of himself and getting sick, for missing class and practice and forcing Shintarou to have the same boring conversation all day. “Oh,” he said, unable to think of anything better. “I brought some handouts from class…” he trailed off, reaching into his book bag to find the handouts and hand them over.
“How thoughtful,” she said as she accepted the handouts. “I'll be sure to give them to Kazunari and tell him you stopped by.”
Shintarou bowed his head briefly and politely said his goodbye. He could not explain the strange deflated and empty feeling he had.
The next morning, he found himself checking his phone for messages as soon as he woke up. He didn’t expect Takao to come to school today, of course, but there had been no word since yesterday morning. Takao normally texted Shintarou at least 50 times a day, so it was strange to not hear from him for so long, especially since he had said he would write later. But there was still nothing. “That idiot,” Shintarou muttered, snapping his phone shut in annoyance. Takao had probably just forgotten.
The day seemed to crawl by, and, like the day before, Shintarou was filled with an inexplicable feeling of irritation. Wondering if he had a calcium deficiency, he bought a carton of milk to drink with his lunch. Halfway through lunch break, his phone finally vibrated with an incoming message.
subject: still sick...
Shin-chan, do you miss me?? ( ´ ▽ ` )ﾉ Sorry I didn’t write sooner, but I’ve been sleeping all day and night. [(－－)]..zzZ Being sick is the worst! Bad news: the doctor says I have to miss school for a week! (╯°□°）╯︵ ┻━┻ What should we do?? I don’t want to miss the practice game this Saturday, but I know my mom has already called the school to say I won’t be in all week. Do you think they told Coach? If he doesn’t know, maybe I can just show up to the game anyway, what do you think?
I’m going to go crazy if I really go a week without playing basketball!!! ヽ(≧Д≦)ノ
Shintarou stared at the screen in horror. A week. A week? He snapped his phone shut and stood up, abandoning the remains of his lunch. This was an emergency. He had to talk to Miyaji right away.
Miyaji, however, did not seem to think it was an emergency. “Midorima, relax! It’s weeks before the Winter Cup prelims. Better now than once that starts!”
Shintarou stared at Miyaji like he had two heads. Did he really not see how important this was? “Who’s going to play point guard on Saturday?” he asked.
“Oh, I have some people in mind. Actually, this will be a great chance to try out some of the guys on the team who don’t get as much of a chance to play in games. The third-year, Tanemura, has been asking me and Coach to let him start.” Miyaji clapped Midorima on the back. “We’ll try out some plays with him in today’s practice, okay?”
Shintarou dredged through his memory in attempt to recall who Tanemura was, but without success. He was going to kill Takao once he was back in school. No, wait. They were going to make it through the Winter Cup, and then he would kill Takao.
As expected, practice that day was a disaster. When he’d read Takao’s text earlier, Shintarou had dismissed the idea of sneaking Takao into the game this Saturday (what good could he possibly be after having been sick all week?), but now he was seriously reconsidering. Even Takao’s pathetic performance the day before his first absence was better than this. Coach Nakatani had put in a string of (in Shintarou’s opinion) increasingly terrible point guards to try out plays with the rest of the regulars. After having yet another wild pass thrown his way, Shintarou was lecturing a cowering first-year on the value of hard work and practice when he suddenly had to duck to miss a basketball aimed at his head.
(Takao had once speculated that the Miyaji household must be constantly full of flying projectiles. Shintarou found it hard to disagree.)
“Midorima! For crying out loud, you’re scaring the poor kid! Yelling at the team is MY job, okay? Why don’t you go run a few laps outside and then call it a day. You’re not doing anyone any good right now.”
Stunned, Shintarou was about to protest, but then thought better of it. He had been in a bad mood all day, and for once, basketball hadn’t made him feel any better. He gave a short apology to the terrified first-year and headed outside.
When Shintarou first started at Shuutoku, Coach Nakatani had been so thrilled to have one of the Generation of Miracles on his team that he’d devised all kinds of rules to keep Shintarou placated: he was allowed three selfish requests per day, the lucky items were always allowed on the team’s bench, and arguing with him was highly discouraged, if not outright banned. But as Shintarou had become more at home on the team, and started thinking of them as comrades working toward a shared goal (instead of extra bodies that allowed him on the court for official games), that had dropped away. There were no daily selfish requests. In turn, the lucky items sat on the bench as if they were members of the team, with no complaints. And, when the team’s captain told Shintarou he had overstepped his bounds, he listened.
Still, he couldn’t pretend it wasn’t a bit of a sting to his pride, being kicked out of practice. He finished his laps and quickly changed his clothes so he could get out of the club room before the rest of the team was there to make snide remarks at him.
With nothing better to do, Shintarou headed over to Takao’s house to drop off today’s handouts. Like the day before, Takao’s mother greeted him with a big smile, but today she invited him in because “the antibiotics should have kicked in by now.”
She started into the kitchen to get tea, but Shintarou said, “Please don’t bother. I’ll only be a few minutes.”
She beamed at him. “Such a polite boy! I wish your manners would rub off on Kazunari a little!” Shintarou privately thought that none of his habits or manners were likely to influence Takao in the slightest, but merely thanked her and headed upstairs. Takao’s door was open just a crack, so Shintarou pushed it open, saying, “Excuse the intrusion.”
Takao was in bed, propped up on some pillows and reading a magazine, but when he saw Shintarou, he dropped it and struggled to sit up. The smile that lit up his face made Shintarou’s stomach do a funny flip. “Shin-chan! You came to see me! I guess you did miss me, even though you didn’t answer any of my texts!”
“Of course I didn’t, I was at school,” Shintarou said, shortly. The smile on Takao’s face was so bright, he had the strange feeling that, like the sun, looking at it for too long would damage his eyes. He glanced around the room, trying to find something safe to look at. The table, the bookshelf, anything. Why did he suddenly feel so strange? It was hot in this room, definitely too hot.
“Don’t just stand there, dummy, come and sit down!” Takao said, patting his bedcovers invitingly. Shintarou swallowed. He had been in Takao’s bedroom before, and they had sat on his bed together to watch basketball games or movies, but somehow it seemed wrong when Takao was in bed. He sat down as close to the foot of the bed as possible, on the very edge. He was hyper-aware of Takao’s legs under the covers. This was absurd. He had seen Takao naked any number of times, why did his legs being under a blanket suddenly seem so strange?
Unaware of Shintarou’s inner turmoil, Takao blithely asked, “How’s everything at school? How was practice? Did everyone—wait...” Takao glanced at the clock next to his bed. Shintarou suddenly regretted not taking a detour to a bookstore before coming here. “Why are you here so early?”
Shintarou coughed, studying the bookshelf. “Practice ended early today.” For him it had, anyway.
“Ended early? Why? And you didn’t stay after?”
Shintarou glanced at Takao, trying to determine the best way to avoid these questions, and decided to just ignore them. “How’s your health?”
Takao eyed Shintarou for a moment, and Shintarou was sure he was going to persist with his questions, but then he collapsed against the pillows with a groan. “Terrible! I can’t keep any food down, I have a fever, I’m tired all the time, and I’m bored out of my mind. Being sick is the worst.” He pouted, giving an exaggerated puppy-dog-look at Shintarou (who normally would have rolled his eyes at this, but now somehow found this...cute?) and asked, “Did you bring me anything to do?”
“Your homework,” answered Shintarou, truthfully.
Takao groaned again. “Not that! A game, a magazine...the new issue of Shounen Jump?” The hopeful note at the end of this sentence was pitiful, and somehow Shintarou found himself fighting the urge to rush out and find all these things. What was wrong with him? Leaving the house, at least, was definitely a good idea, maybe the best he’d had all day. He’d felt strange ever since he got here.
Instead, he cleared his throat again, pushed his glasses up on his nose, and said, “You know I don’t read that trash.”
“Shin-chan! Don’t call it that, it’s great!” He leaned over, rustling around in some magazines next to his bed, and came up with the offending comic. “Here, you can have my copy of last week’s issue, I’ve read the whole thing like five times now. Did I mention I was bored?”
Shintarou eyed the magazine being offered to him, but didn’t take it. For a moment, Takao held it there with an expectant look on his face, but then dropped the magazine on the bed and collapsed against the pillows again, as if holding the thing had completely exhausted him. Shintarou squashed down his rising concern and said, “You’re not going to be in any shape to play on Saturday.”
Takao covered his face with his hands. “Tell me about it! I’m as weak as a baby. I can barely stand up!” He let his hands drop, and then said, more hopefully, “But that’s three whole days away, right? Maybe I’ll be better by then!”
Given Takao’s current condition, Shintarou doubted this very much. He studied his hands for a moment, and then looked up. “There’ll be other games,” he said.
It was the wrong thing to say. He could tell immediately. Takao bit his lip and looked down at the bedcovers, bunched up in his fists. Shintarou felt terrible. He wanted nothing more than to fix this, to make Takao smile and laugh like usual, but had no idea what to do or say. And, of course, nothing he did would change the fact that Takao was too sick to play right now.
Finally, Takao laughed bitterly and said, “I know. It’s just bad timing, you know? I can’t afford to take a week off of practice right now.”
“Miyaji-san said better now than during the Winter Cup preliminaries.” That was the right thing to say: Takao smiled. Shintarou wasn’t sure who he hated more at the moment, himself for saying the wrong thing, or Miyaji for coming up with the right thing.
“Ha! I guess that’s true. Who’s playing point guard this Saturday?”
“I don’t know yet,” said Shintarou. He wanted to tell Takao that they were all terrible, no match for him, that Shuutoku’s team wouldn’t be the same without him—
“Tanemura-san, maybe. He’s been practicing a lot,” suggested Takao.
“Not enough,” scoffed Shintarou.
Takao laughed. “Shin-chan, you don’t think anyone practices enough!”
Takao’s laugh wasn’t bitter like it had been a few minutes ago. It was his usual laugh, full of joy and happiness, and suddenly Shintarou understood what he’d been missing in the past days; why he’d been so irritable and bored.
He stood up. “I should get going.”
Takao’s face fell. “Already? You just got here!”
Shintarou fished around in his bag, pulling out today’s handouts to give to Takao. He bent over to set them on top of the rejected Shounen Jump issue and straightened back up, avoiding looking at Takao’s disappointed face. He pushed his glasses up and said sternly, “You need to rest.”
Takao must have truly been tired, because he didn’t argue with this. “See you tomorrow?” he said, hopefully.
“Yes. Get some rest,” Shintarou said again, and left.
Once he reached the sidewalk outside the house, Shintarou stopped and stared up at the sky. As anxious as he had been to leave, he now found he didn’t want to go home, or to school, or anywhere but back up to the bedroom he’d just left. There could be only one explanation for these feelings he was experiencing, but it was so terrible he didn’t even want to think about it. Couldn’t think about it. The best thing he could do was pretend he’d never noticed these feelings and try to act normally.
The next morning, Shintarou found about 20 unread messages on his phone. Apparently Takao had woken up in the middle of the night last night. He complained about being bored, said that he had managed to keep his dinner down that night (which was good news, but his graphic description of the first day of his illness made Shintarou cringe), suggested several plays the team could try with Tanemura, sent one message full of nothing but emoticons (Shintarou couldn’t make heads or tails of this), and discussed in great detail the recent plot developments of some Shounen Jump series Shintarou had never heard of.
subject: Re: \(._.\) ƪ('-' ƪ)(ʃ '-')ʃ (/._.)/
Stop texting me all this nonsense and get some rest!
Shintarou was determined to make better use of today than he had the previous days. At morning practice, he showed Miyaji the one useful message Takao had sent, of possible plays that would work well with Tanemura’s playing style.
Miyaji nodded when he saw them. “These are good ideas. Just basics this morning, and we’ll try some of these this afternoon.” He looked up from the screen. “You saw him yesterday? How was he?”
“Extremely weak. He hadn't eaten in two days. There's no way he'll be able to play on Saturday.”
Miyaji sighed, but then smiled and clapped Shintarou on the back. “Cheer up, Midorima! Takao’s tough. You'll have your partner back in no time.” Shintarou frowned, wondering if his bad mood had been that obvious to everyone.
Takao, not unexpectedly, completely ignored Shintarou’s admonition and continued to text him throughout the day. There were useful messages, like plays for the other point guard hopefuls on the team (Shintarou forwarded these to Miyaji), more nonsense about manga series, and complaining about not understanding his homework (at least he was trying to do it). Though he had told Takao not to text him, Shintarou was actually glad to see Takao acting more like himself. Besides, checking his messages between classes made the day go by more quickly. In what seemed like no time at all, classes were over and he was headed for basketball practice.
Of course, without Takao, Shuutoku wouldn't be in top condition for Saturday’s game, but Shintarou had no intention of losing, even if he had to play point guard himself. Before it came to that, though, he would do his best to be patient and work with these...non-Takaos. Whether it was Shintarou’s improved attitude, the new play suggestions by Takao, determination by the new players to not let the team down, or some combination of these, practice went more smoothly that day.
As the first-years cleaned up after practice, Miyaji clapped Tanemura on the back. “Good job out there today. Coach and I want you to start on Saturday. Satou will sub for you.” (Satou was the first-year Shintarou had lectured the previous day. He'd been almost a different person in practice today.) “Let's work on some of these plays again tomorrow, okay?” Tanemura nodded, said a quick thanks, and headed off to change his clothes. Miyaji turned to Shintarou, who had been standing near them getting a drink. “Midorima, what do you think? Can you play with Tanemura?”
Shintarou adjusted his glasses. “I'll do everything humanly possible to ensure a victory for Shuutoku.”
Miyaji smiled. “Yes, yes, of course, you always do everything humanly possible. That's not what I asked, though.”
Frowning in the direction of the gymnasium door, Shintarou said, “He's not as good as Takao, of course. But I believe he plays with pride for Shuutoku. I respect that.”
“I’ll take that as a yes. Well, to be honest, I'm glad we're not playing any of your old middle school buddies on Saturday. But I think it’ll be good to give some of the other guys on the team more experience.”
Shintarou nodded, and headed back onto the court to practice shooting. Like the other day, however, he found it difficult to concentrate. One minute, he would decide to stop and do what he'd wanted to do all day (go see Takao), but the next he would remember how he'd said the wrong thing and hurt Takao yesterday, or imagine Takao discovering these feelings he was having, and he could think of little worse than losing the person who'd become his teammate, friend, and partner.
Another ball swooshed through the basket and landed with a noisy bounce. Shintarou had never been good at concealing his thoughts and feelings, which hadn’t ever made him very popular. He didn't mind solitude, so it hadn’t bothered him before, but now he was desperate to hide his emotions and had no idea how, especially from someone as perceptive as Takao.
Swoosh, bounce. But then again, surely it was just a matter of control? No one, he was positive, had more control and self-discipline than he did. He simply hadn’t ever bothered to control his emotions before, because he didn’t care what other people thought of him. Yes. There was no reason he shouldn't be able to control himself, remain calm. He shot one more ball, and turned to clean up before it dropped through the basket.
Shintarou paused and took a deep breath outside Takao’s bedroom door. Calm. Remain calm. He pushed the door open and walked in, saying “excuse the intrusion.” Takao was sitting up a little better today, and looked a little less pale. There was definitely no reason to have heart palpitations just because he looked happy to see Shintarou. Takao smiled that way at everyone, Shintarou told himself sternly.
“Shin-chan! I wasn’t sure if you were coming today.”
Shintarou huffed in annoyance. “I said I would.”
“And you’re a man of your word. That’s why I love you so much, Shin-chan.”
Shintarou felt his face growing hot. He stared out the window (conveniently located above Takao’s head) and tried to steady his breathing. Of course Takao didn’t mean anything by this. He’d probably said it a hundred times. Shintarou tried to remember what his usual reaction was, but failed, because all he could think about was how much he wished Takao did mean it.
The silence seemed to stretch on for hours. Finally, Takao said, “What’s in the bag, Shin-chan? Did you bring me something?”
Relieved to have something ordinary to talk about, Shintarou held the plastic bag out to Takao. “I apologize for my rudeness in not bringing anything yesterday.”
Takao laughed and took the bag. “Shin-chan, you shouldn’t have!” He rustled through the bag, pulling out items. “Pudding, an apple...are you going to cut it for me? I want the slices to look like bunnies!”
“I am not slicing your apple into bunnies,” said Shintarou, irritated.
Takao just laughed and continued going through the bag. “The new Shounen Jump! Shin-chan, I knew you were just pretending to never listen to anything I say.” He pulled out the last item and frowned. “What’s this?” It was a pack of gum. Certainly not standard fare to bring to someone who was sick.
Shintarou pushed his glasses up on his nose. “It’s Scorpio’s lucky item for today. I thought you could use it.” Takao’s smile faltered, and Shintarou cursed himself for saying the wrong thing again. “If you don’t need it—”
“No! No, it’s great, thanks.” He turned the gum over in his hands a few times, looking at it like it was a foreign object he was trying to identify. Shintarou was sure he’d made another mistake, but it wasn’t like Takao to be polite, either. He was still trying to decide what he should do when Takao looked up with a smile that took Shintarou’s breath away. “Thanks, Shin-chan.”
Shintarou was seized by an overwhelming desire to take Takao in his arms and—no. Calm. Control. Discipline. He cleared his throat and reached into his book bag, pulling out today’s handouts. “I brought your homework, too.”
Takao groaned. “I didn’t even understand the last ones you gave me!”
“Yes, which is why I thought you could use these, too.” He handed Takao his class notes along with the handouts.
“Shin-chan! You never let me copy your notes!”
“Not when you sleep through class, no. Missing class because you’re sick is different.”
Takao looked pleased again, and Shintarou hoped he’d somehow smoothed over the gum incident. “You'll stay until I'm done copying them?” asked Takao.
Shintarou supposed that would make the most sense. He would need to take notes in class tomorrow, after all. He nodded, and said, “I can do my homework while you're copying my notes.” He settled himself on the floor at the low table that was ostensibly for studying (Shintarou suspected Takao didn't use it for that very often) and spread out his things. Takao set a lap desk on his bed and got to work copying the notes. For a time, there was nothing but the sound of two pencils scratching on paper.
Takao’s voice broke the silence. “Shin-chan.”
Shintarou looked up, but Takao was still looking at his paper, writing. “What?”
“How was practice today?”
Of course Takao would bring up the subject Shintarou was hoping to avoid. He knew how proud Takao was of his position on the team, and the idea of someone else playing in his place must be incredibly frustrating for him. “Tanemura-san is going to start on Saturday. Miyaji-san said the plays you sent were helpful.”
Takao finally looked up. “What do you think?”
“I wish you weren’t sick and could play on Saturday,” said Shintarou, truthfully.
Takao smiled, but didn’t look very happy. “But Tanemura-san? How was he?”
Shintarou studied the pencil in his hands, as if the right thing to say might be found on it. “His playing style is very different from yours, and he lacks experience. I think if the rest of the team can get used to playing with him, we have a good chance of winning.” He looked up at Takao. “But if you were playing, I know we would win.”
Takao’s eyes opened wide in surprise, but then he looked down quickly. Shintarou wasn’t sure if he’d said the right thing or not, but Takao said, “Thanks, Shin-chan.” He supposed it must have been good enough.
They went back to writing in silence. After some time, Shintarou paused in working on a difficult math problem and realized there was no sound coming from the other side of the room. He looked up and saw Takao sitting with his chin resting on his hand, watching Shintarou. As soon as Shintarou looked up, though, Takao started and looked away.
“Are you finished?” asked Shintarou, puzzled.
“Yeah,” said Takao, closing notebooks and stacking them. His voice sounded strange, but when he looked up, he was smiling as usual. “Thanks, Shin-chan. This will be a big help.”
Shintarou reluctantly began gathering his things. “I should be going.” He didn’t look up because he was sure if he saw disappointment on Takao’s face, he would never leave. He couldn’t avoid it when he approached the bed to collect his class notes, but Takao still had a smile on his face. Unfortunately, this didn’t make leaving any easier.
“I’ll stop by again tomorrow, to bring your homework,” said Shintarou.
“Great!” said Takao, and then laughed. “Only you could make me look forward to homework, Shin-chan.”
Shintarou wasn’t sure what this meant. Another one of Takao’s jokes, he supposed. “See you tomorrow,” he said, turning around and heading out the door. Sleep well. Get better soon. Come back to school, back to practice. I miss you, I—
“Good night! See you tomorrow, Shin-chan!”
Shintarou closed the door behind him, wishing he could leave his feelings behind, too.
Friday morning, Shintarou got up earlier than usual. In addition to it taking longer to walk than bike to school, he wanted to get some practice shooting in before the team’s morning practice started. He felt he hadn’t had a satisfactory shooting session all week, and he didn’t want to stay too late after school; it was rude to show up at a person’s house in the middle of the night. Even an extra hour of practice, he hoped, would help calm this turmoil of feelings he was having.
Though Shintarou didn’t find any messages on his phone when he checked it first thing in the morning (he hoped this was because Takao had slept through the night), later in the morning his phone started buzzing and didn’t stop for most of the day. Shintarou couldn’t imagine where Takao came up with the nonsense he sent. (One message said only: “Shin-chan, did you know the fish at Sunshine Aquarium would be worth ¥1,128,010 if sold at market?” It was beyond Shintarou who would calculate such a figure, or why, not to mention why Takao had chosen to share it. Did he want to go to Sunshine Aquarium?) But even if he didn’t understand Takao’s texts, it still pleased Shintarou to know that Takao was thinking of him.
At afternoon practice, the new (temporary) starters were coming together. Miyaji, in particular, seemed pleased with the progress Tanemura was making. “You know,” he said thoughtfully to Coach Nakatani, “It could be useful to vary our play style more in games. Throw off the opposing team’s defense a little.”
Shintarou scowled. “The plays aren’t that good,” he said.
Miyaji looked at him in surprise, and then chuckled. “Relax, Midorima! We’re not taking your partner out of the starting lineup. But it’s never a bad idea to increase our arsenal.”
Intellectually, Shintarou knew this was true. But the idea of playing on the court while Takao sat on the bench didn’t sit well with him. Besides, it was true that Tanemura simply wasn’t as skilled a point guard. Takao hadn’t been made a starting member in his first year at Shuutoku for no reason.
He stayed after practice for a half-hour or so, letting the rhythm of basketballs sailing through the hoop and hitting the floor soothe him. Yesterday had been fine, he told himself. He would be fine again today.
When he arrived and Takao’s mother greeted him at the door, however, he was surprised to hear her say, “Midorima-kun! What good timing, some of Kazunari’s other friends are visiting him just now.”
Why hadn’t it occurred to him that someone else might visit Takao? He thought of how many people had been asking after Takao at school. Of course some of them would come and visit. Shintarou wanted nothing more than to turn around and leave. But it would be unthinkably rude to do so, so he followed her inside, even though he had no desire to see any of Takao’s “other friends.”
“The other boys are having tea just now. Why don’t you head upstairs while I go fix you a cup?” Reluctantly, Shintarou climbed the stairs. Even before he reached the top, he could hear voices—laughter—from Takao’s room. He briefly contemplated “remembering” he had an errand to run, but then pushed open the door. “Excuse the intrusion,” he said, adjusting his glasses.
Takao was sitting up in bed, looking much better than he had the previous days. The other two boys were sitting on the floor at the table, which had tea and cookies set out on it. Shintarou recognized them from class, but couldn’t recall their names. Mori, maybe, and Yama...Yamanaka?
“Shin-chan, you—” Takao broke off in laughter. He fell back on the pillows, still laughing, leaving Shintarou wondering if his assessment of Takao’s recovering health had been mistaken. But then Takao sat up again, wiping his eyes. “Have—ha ha!—have you been carrying that around all day?”
“Of course. It’s today’s lucky item.” Cancer’s lucky item for the day was a helium balloon. Oha-Asa hadn’t specified a shape, but the lucky color was gray, so he’d chosen an elephant-shaped balloon.
This reply only made Takao laugh harder, though Shintarou couldn’t see what was so funny about what he’d said. The other boys didn’t seem to find it funny, either; Mori chuckled nervously, but Yamashita(?) just sat there, looking uncomfortable.
“Shin-chan, you’re the best,” wheezed Takao, wiping his eyes again. Just then, Takao’s mother came in with a cup of tea for Shintarou, so he sat down at the table with his classmates. He had tied an S-hook to the string of the balloon, which he now used to attach the balloon to his bag to keep it from floating to the ceiling.
Takao’s mother saw this. “Oh! I thought that was a present for Kazunari,” she said in surprise.
This set Takao off again. “Pfft! No, Mom, that’s—ha ha ha!—that’s Cancer’s lucky item for today!”
Shintarou was used to people finding his lucky items strange, but nobody had ever seemed to find them so funny as Takao did. Today, though, he felt relief, not annoyance. It had been far too long since he had heard Takao laugh like this.
Takao’s mother looked at her son, shook her head, sighing, and then turned to the other three with a smile. “You boys make yourselves at home, okay?” She left the room.
By this time Takao had calmed down enough to ask, “How was practice today, Shin-chan?”
“Fine.” He decided not to share what Miyaji had said about using new plays regularly. “I think the team is adjusting well to Tanemura-san’s playing style.”
Shintarou was about to say more about Tanemura’s weaknesses, but was interrupted by a heavy sigh from Takao. “I wish I could at least see the game. Maybe I could go and just sit on the bench? I feel way better today!”
This seemed to Shintarou a terrible idea for any number of reasons. He pushed his glasses up and said, “It would be foolish to prolong your recovery for such a minor thing.”
“Maybe it seems minor to you,” said Takao, sulkily. “How would you like to not play basketball for a whole week?”
Shintarou couldn’t deny that it was an extremely displeasing prospect, but before he could reply, Mori laughed. “You guys are crazy! The baseball team practices are killer. I’d love to have a week off!”
“Yeah, having a week off to puke your guts out is really awesome,” replied Takao sarcastically.
Shintarou scowled, unsure whether he was more annoyed at the implication that the baseball team worked harder than the basketball team or having his conversation with Takao interrupted. How long had these “friends” been here? Were they leaving soon?
Just then, the cell phone sitting on the table in front of Yama-whatever played a short jingle. He opened it and almost immediately started typing a response. Watching this, Shintarou felt a sinking feeling in his stomach as something occurred to him. Had Takao been texting these two all day, too? Invited them to come over? I’m so bored, you guys, the only person from school I’ve seen all week is Midorima and he’s such a drag. His throat tightened as he remembered hearing the three of them laughing before he had come in. Having fun. Shintarou was no fool; he knew “fun” was not a word anyone would use to describe him. The opposite was more likely. He shouldn’t be waiting for Takao’s friends to leave; he should be the one leaving.
Shintarou stood, reaching into his bag to get the handouts and notes for Takao. “Shin-chan? Are you going somewhere?” asked Takao.
“I have an errand to run. I need to leave,” he replied. He remembered Takao’s smile (of relief?) as they had said goodbye yesterday and could not look at his face. Shintarou kept his eyes on the papers as he held them out.
“Oh,” said Takao as he took the papers. “...Okay. You’ll come tomorrow? After the game?”
Do you want to see me, or do you just want to know the outcome of the game? Shintarou hesitated, but then finally said, “Yes.” He turned to leave, feeling as though he couldn’t get out the door fast enough.
“See you tomorrow, Shin-chan!” called Takao.
“Yes, see you tomorrow,” he muttered in reply, and escaped.
He was several blocks away from the house before he realized he was all but running and slowed down, trying to control his breathing. He stopped at a crosswalk and stared at the red light on the other side of the street. The idea that Takao didn’t want him around made him feel sick to his stomach. Just then, his phone vibrated. With dread, he pulled it out of his pocket. It was from Takao. He closed his eyes for a moment, and then opened the message.
Rest up tonight, and good luck tomorrow! Score an extra three for me.
Ю ○三 ＼(￣^￣＼）
Go Shuutoku! ＼＼(゜∇＼＼)Ξ(／／∇ ゜)／／
Shintarou let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. Suddenly, his reaction in Takao’s room felt foolish. Takao had never given any indication that he didn’t want to be around Shintarou; there was no reason to think he felt that way. Shintarou scrolled back through his inbox. They were almost all from Takao. All silly, inane messages that were certainly not sent out of any sense of obligation. They were just Takao being Takao, chatting with a friend. He closed his phone with a sigh and put it back in his pocket. His disciplined control over his feelings had lasted all of one day. How on earth was he going to survive the next year and a half of high school?
Classes the next morning passed in a blur, as did the game. Shuutoku won, but for Shintarou, the victory had a hollow, unsatisfying feeling. His phone had been silent all day. Thinking of Takao, lying in bed at home, made him feel terrible. Right after the game, he had sent a text to let Takao know they had won, but there had been no response. In the club room, he changed his clothes at a snail’s pace, staying long past his other teammates, because he was dreading seeing Takao. What embarrassing overreaction would he have today? He had to learn to control these feelings as soon as possible.
Lost in his thoughts, Shintarou almost didn’t notice a familiar figure standing outside the school gates. He froze for a moment, and then strode over.
“Takao! What are you doing here?”
But Shintarou didn’t wait for a response. He took Takao by the arm and all but dragged him across the street to a park, and then pushed him into a sitting position on a bench. He stood over Takao, arms crossed in front of his chest, furious.
“What were you thinking? How long were you waiting out there? You should be home in bed!”
“I’m better today! I can walk around. I feel fine!” Takao said, defensively.
“You’re white as a sheet!”
Takao hunched his shoulders in, looking miserable. “I wanted to talk to you about the game.”
“I texted you that we won!”
“I wanted to know more details than who won! And—”
Takao hesitated, and then looked up. “I wanted to know why you left yesterday.”
Shintarou looked away. So that was it. This foolishness was his own fault. He should have known Takao would see right through his excuse. He sighed and sat down on the bench next to Takao.
“I thought…” He looked down at his hands, at the taping on his left fingers. Another strange habit that nobody understood. “I thought you would rather be with your other friends. That they were fun to be around, and I’m...not.”
There was a long silence, and finally Shintarou risked looking over at Takao. He had his hands over his face, and his shoulders were shaking.
“...Takao?” said Shintarou, confused.
Takao dropped his hands, and Shintarou realized he was laughing. “Shin-chan, are you crazy? Why would I spend so much time with you if I didn’t like to be with you?”
“Because we’re teammates, I suppose.”
“Is that how it is for you? Am I just a teammate to you?”
Shintarou looked away again. “...No.”
“So you spend time with me because you like me?”
Oh, yes. Far too much.
It would have been easy, perhaps, to simply say yes and move on. But it felt like a lie.
He looked at Takao, who was waiting expectantly, and swallowed. “I like you as more than a teammate.” He hesitated, and then plunged forward. “I like you as more than a friend.”
Takao’s eyes widened in surprise. “What did you say?”
Shintarou cleared his throat and pushed his glasses up on his nose. “I have romantic feelings for you.”
Takao burst out laughing, and then threw his arms around Shintarou in a hug. “Shin-chan, that is the least romantic confession I’ve ever heard. You’re lucky I’m crazy about you, or I’d have to turn you down.”
Stunned, Shintarou said, “You—what?” In his wildest dreams, it had never occurred to him that Takao might return his feelings.
Takao pulled back slightly so he could meet Shintarou’s eyes. “I’m crazy about you,” he said again. Then, as if to leave no doubt exactly what he meant, he slid his arms around Shintarou’s neck and pulled him down for a kiss.
Shintarou had, of course, seen plenty of kisses in movies and on TV (and even in real life, by couples who didn’t have the discretion to keep such things private), and he’d always imagined it to be vaguely unpleasant. It looked uncomfortable and sloppy; he was surprised to find it was neither. It was warm and soft, and sent a tingle of pleasure down his spine.
When Takao pulled away, his eyes were shining with happiness and Shintarou felt he might get lost in them. Then Takao broke the moment by laughing and saying, “Midorima Shintarou lii~ikes me,” in a sing-song voice.
“I’m sure I don’t know why,” snapped Shintarou, perhaps more harshly than he’d intended.
But Takao did not seem bothered by this in the slightest; he pulled Shintarou down for another kiss. It was definitely not unpleasant. In fact, he would have been happy to continue for some time, but Takao pulled away and said, “We probably shouldn’t be doing this in public.”
This brought Shintarou back to his senses. He looked around quickly, but luckily there didn’t seem to be anyone in the vicinity. He frowned at Takao, who still looked terribly pale other than his flushed cheeks. “We need to get you home and into bed,” he said, standing up.
“Shin-chan, I’m shocked! Not on our first date!”
Shintarou felt his face get hot. “That’s not what I meant!” He waited for Takao to stop laughing and then said, “Can you make it to the bus stop?”
Takao grinned. “Are you going to carry me if I can’t?”
Shintarou looked at Takao seriously. “Do you need to be carried?”
But Takao stood up and said, “It’s not that far to the bus stop. I’ll be fine. I could walk home, even. You worry too much, Shin-chan.”
“We are not walking home,” said Shintarou, firmly. They made it to the bus stop, but Shintarou could tell Takao was tired by the time they got there. He slid his arm around Takao’s waist to support him while they waited.
“Shin-chan, if you’re going to be this romantic all the time, we’re going to have big problems.”
“Why?” asked Shintarou, alarmed. They weren’t twenty minutes into this relationship and he was already making mistakes.
“How open do you want to be about this? Because I really want to kiss you right now.”
The bus pulled up just then, sparing Shintarou from having to come up with a coherent reply.
They made it back to Takao’s house without incident. The rest of the family was out (which explained why nobody had stopped Takao from leaving the house), so Shintarou helped Takao up the stairs and into bed. He looked exhausted. Sitting on the edge of his bed, Shintarou smoothed the hair back from his face. Takao smiled up at him, and Shintarou felt his chest tighten. The strength of his feelings frightened him a little, but compared to the emotional turmoil of the last few days, he welcomed it.
“Will you stay until I fall asleep?” asked Takao.
“If you insist.”
Takao chuckled, then said, “Will you sing me a lullaby?”
He chuckled again. One of his hands slipped out of the covers and found Shintarou’s. He squeezed it and said, “I’m not dreaming, am I?”
“If you are, we both are.”
Takao smiled again and his eyelids fluttered closed. Shintarou stayed there, holding his hand, long after he fell asleep.