Jun clucks his tongue, leans back, as the pulsating hitch of wheel on rail coaxes his own eyelids shut, if only for a second. Said second could have been an eternity and it still wouldn’t be enough. Through his bangs, he scans the empty train. Decides against craning his neck forward, doing more than necessary, lest he develop another bothersome crick. (Furuya isn’t around to give him a massage. Not anymore.)
He’ll doze off as well, eventually. Probably. In a minute. But not before crossing his arms, tightening his muscles. Not before furrowing his brows, looking the other way all together. And that will complete the picture. Make them what they appear to be: a coincidence, two players from the Seidou baseball team who just happen to be taking the same train home. All the little details – how Ryousuke had quietly offered to wait outside his room at dawn, prominent dark circles beneath their eyes, how they had walked together from the dorms to the station, past Tetsu’s shadowed gaze in the hallway, their nods curt and painfully distant, how they themselves had barely spoken a word to each other, fingers brushing then drawing apart as they had paused at a crossing – will melt away.
All of it, their kouhai’s tears, the dragging pace, Masuko’s hunched back a few steps ahead, the pile of leftovers from their supposed victory dinner thoughtfully taken apart and presented on smaller plates as if to appear less extravagant – everything will cease to exist. That wouldn’t be so bad, Jun thinks, settling against the thumps and chugs, gritting his teeth. Yeah, that wouldn’t be so terrible. They could get a do-over.
He bangs the back of his head against the window. Wants to do it a second time, on purpose. Stills as he feels Ryousuke ease in, closer. Swears beneath his breath. Tries to think of something else, or nothing at all, whichever comes first.
Jun remembers the first time. The sky is a cindered orange, bruised purple. And they are lined up like a firing squad on the field for assessment. He isn’t worried about anyone else. All he has to think about is himself, and how to make the perfect first impression. He’s already got a plan. Full name. Hometown. Affiliations. Preferred position. Hobbies. One random, amazing fact. Anything to get the head coach to remember him.
He repeats the bulleted list in his head over and over, trembling in anticipation. The bubbling sensation threatening to keel him over. Until he realizes that he’s already started his introduction, without missing a beat, the words tumbling out, like vomit. That he’s inevitably begun to deviate, to name all his favorite players. Gotten much too excited. Never mind, Jun apologizes. Puffs his chest out. Glares at the other freshmen, at all their curious faces, for good measure. It’s fucking rude to stare.
He mulls over what he could have done better, what comes next. Barely pays attention to Masuko who admits to having gained weight due to cramming. Side-eyes Tanba, taller than the rest of them but unable to complete a sentence. Keeps his eyes on the senpai with the clipboard. Imagines his name written at the top, underlined, having made first string in a matter of weeks. Focuses on that wish, willing it to come true with all his might.
And then Jun hears a little guy with pink bubblegum hair announce that he won’t lose to anyone who is just big. Forgets about pride. Forgets about singular-minded wishes. Grins in spite of himself.
“We’re not there yet,” he grumbles at the seventh stop, though he can’t help extending his arm, wincing at the pinpricks, working out the kinks. If his companion were the type to apologize for being an inconvenience, he would. Jun knows better.
“Were you able to get some sleep?” Ryousuke asks him instead, their hands inches apart on the plush seat. He keeps his firmly in place. Looks on as other commuters begin to board. A child on the platform sees him, begins to raise a hand to wave hello. Drops it when she notices the sour expression on his face. Grips at her mother’s skirt, shaking her head.
“Nah,” Jun replies, thoughtfully, “there’ll be plenty of time to sleep when I’m dead.”
Ryousuke quirks a brow, chuckles as the statement lingers and permeates the air. “I’m sure you think that sounds cool. But it doesn’t,” he stresses, “It doesn’t.”
Jun feels the heat on his cheeks, purses his lips. Feels Ryousuke slip his hand the rest of the way, bumping their pinkies together. Resists the urge to snap. Hisses. “Bite me.”
“I would if I could,” Ryousuke sighs.
Quite a few of the senpai think he’s a delinquent. This is likely because Jun has developed a bad habit of leering at every single person he admires. He leers at Chris, the golden boy, who is naturally great at everything, but is also Animal’s son – and Jun can’t abide by that sort of thing. Leers at Yuki, who is seemingly always there to steal his thunder, idea for perfect introduction included. Leers at the coach, openly, with his cool-as-fuck beard and badass shades, just because.
After a while, he finds that he doesn’t mind. It’s actually kind of cool, like a superhero’s secret identity. Only backwards. Because Jun knows he isn’t really a yankee and he doesn’t really want to get on anyone’s bad side, except when on the field.
He plans a big reveal, decides to let his actions do the talking. Make first string in the next few months, to give himself an allowance. Then, instead of a problematic delinquent, he’ll be the team’s hero for real. Him and his bazooka ball, the legendary pitcher of Seidou High. He’d probably need a catchphrase.
But Kominato Ryousuke has plans of his own. Beats him to the proverbial punch.
“He’s not a bad guy,” the kid says unexpectedly, as they are winding down in the bath, Jun slumped forward and frozen over the side of the tub. Everyone stares at Kominato. It’s the first time anyone has ever tried to start a casual conversation in the presence of their coach, back ramrod straight, arms crossed, position centered.
“Who?” Yuki asks after a moment’s pause.
“Isashiki,” Kominato clarifies, turning his way, with barely so much as a splash. Jun tries to ignore him, ignore them all and their prying eyes. He grips on the edge of the tub, hoping to use the heat to mask his embarrassment. He’ll probably have to get out first. (That’s another loss to Yuki, he concedes in his head.)
“It’s true,” Sakai chimes in, tomato red in the face. Jun wonders if he can run. Wonders if possibly slamming his face on the tiles is worth the trouble. “I thought of quitting, but he changed my mind.”
That was a few days ago, as they had jogged across the fields. Jun had been muddled in the head, thinking about having to switch from pitcher to outfielder at the coach’s suggestion. Had told himself he could keep trying anyway. He did have time. But, he’d frowned then, the team didn’t. If he decided to work on his pitching, there was no telling when he’d get to stand on the mound, whom he would have to compete with, if he ever would. No telling when he’d be ready. Whereas if he trained as an outfielder, trained with the others, they could likewise focus on the batting order. Step out on to the diamond together, help each other. It was now or never, if he wanted to win with them by his side.
The realization had been punctuated by Sakai’s fall, his sudden huddled form shaking the fence. The rest had stared, dispirited, afraid to be picked off next by their exhaustion, a monster on their heels. He was scared, too, all things considered. But he was still thinking, still trying to decide, and Sakai’s sobs weren’t helping. So, Jun had stepped forward, reached for one of the other boy’s arms. Had told to him to get up. Had added, forcefully, that he wasn’t alone. That none of them were. And, maybe, somehow, Jun knew he meant it. Had convinced even himself.
So much for being the hero, for being the legendary pitcher.
He forgets a lot of things when they’re together; the time, how far they have to travel, his frustrations and regrets, his guilt, his pride. Today, he is grateful for that.
“You should stay over at my place,” Jun says evenly, deciding to get up, to stretch his legs. Ryousuke takes a second and a half to think about it, mull it over, replies that he might be intruding, when was the last time Jun had seen his family. He tells his friend not to worry, his parents and sisters are going to be cool with it. It’s only two stops away from Ryousuke’s home.
“My sisters are gonna like you, trust me,” Jun tries again. Imagines them gushing about manga, as Kaede’s going through a Junji Itou phase. Jun, on the other hand, will be glad to claim his seat in the corner with his collected volumes of Itazura na Kiss. He’s been meaning to binge-read that one.
“Oh? They gonna like me like you do?” Ryousuke grins, joining him on his feet, nudging at his side. Jun rolls his eyes.
It’s not just because Ryousuke has an aura about him, wears his sarcasm and easy-going grin like a shield. It’s not just because Jun’s gotten used to it, learned to navigate the fine line between a half-hearted joke and a pointed remark, not with the consistent way Ryousuke continues to surprise him. But it has plenty to do with the little things. Like how when they’re next to each other, standing inches apart, Jun imagines Ryousuke intentionally shifting his bag to his right, to match how Jun’s is on his left, creating a comforting space between them. A space either can cross, a magnetic tug – a permanent possibility.
He’s never asked outright though, never needed to. Never confirmed for himself if Ryousuke truly is left-handed. (His friend claims he’s ambidextrous, and Jun is inclined to believe him.) Either way, it doesn’t matter. He’s lost himself in nonsensical thoughts, again.
He forgets a lot of things when they’re together. Even the bit about their summer being over.
Kominato uses a distinct kind of bravado to mask his insecurities. This is a strategy Jun is familiar with. It’s what prompts the kid to purchase a uniform two sizes too large, half of his jersey tucked in, the sleeves all the way down to his elbows. What prompts him to laugh when asked about his mistake. What prompts the kid to declare that he’ll eventually grow into it, predicting the future as if he were a shaman. What prompts him to anticipate that he can make all his blustering promises come true.
Jun wants to believe him, of course. It’s reassuring, in a way. But he worries. He’ll admit it. He worries about the kid. Worries he’s pushing himself too hard, showing so much spirit, yet can barely carry it with that small frame of his. Worries Kominato might burn himself out one day, push too hard, too fast, while no one is paying attention.
“I can shorten them temporarily,” he offers, arms crossed, back against the wall, gesturing to Kominato’s sleeves with a tilt of his head. The kid sizes him up, as if he’s as large and imposing as Azuma-san.
“How? Can you sew?”
“Yeah,” he nods, reaching into his bag. When Kominato sees the clear case packed with needles and thread, he gets a maniacal glint in his eyes.
“Howling Isashiki keeps a sewing kit in his bag,” he hums, threatens to compose a full song.
Jun, in true yakuza fashion, says he’ll kill him if he breathes a word about it to anyone else. Prays that Kominato never find out that he used to help sew Kaede’s cosplay outfits.
Ryousuke decides to visit his parents first, let them know he’ll be spending the night at Jun’s. They take the same path he and his younger brother have always trudged along, the only path from point A to point B. If they are lines, Jun muses, then Ryousuke is a straight one, his route clear, barreling onward till he touches the light.
“Don’t be silly,” Ryousuke tells him, as they stop at a nearby park, “No one’s future is that certain.” He pokes Jun’s cheek, glides his calloused fingers across it, before narrowing the space between his thumb and pointer, squeezing until Jun tells him to let go.
The park remains empty, still too early in the day, as Ryousuke uses the opportunity to take his hand, clasp it firmly, pulling him quickly behind the washrooms. This is what Jun means: a resolutely straight line, almost unforgiving. Ryousuke quirks his head before burying it in Jun’s neck, breathing him in. Pulls him down, presses their lips together, tentatively at first.
And, as Jun closes his eyes, drags his hands down Ryousuke’s back, deepens the kiss, he tells himself it would be nice, damn perfect, to travel next to that line for as long as he can.
Ryousuke tells them he’s excited because of the gutsy kid from Chiba. With training and more experience, he’s going to become an asset to the team. Tetsu agrees, mentions that another promising recruit is Miyuki Kazuya, who may very well take Chris’s spot. He checks himself at the last second, apologizing profusely. Chris, ever the mystery, only smiles back, tells them there is a chance it could happen, though Tanba is ready in the wings to argue that it won’t, not in this lifetime. Nevertheless, Chris says that he will meet the challenge head-on.
The somber change in atmosphere doesn’t last long. After dinner, Jun finds them all in Miyuki Kazuya’s room, crowded around the Chiba kid’s gaming console. Masuko is off to one side, stuffing his face full of pudding, while Tanba and Chris have decided to retire early.
“What’s this?” Jun whistles, settling down next to the fidgety freshman. He can tell, by the look on Kuramochi’s face, that he’s eager to get started, but that he also doesn’t want to leave a bad first impression by appearing rude. Jun tells him to knock it off, they’re not on the diamond at the moment.
“Street Fighter,” the kid replies finally, offering him a controller. Tetsu has cornered Miyuki on the other side of the room, suggesting they settle whatever it is they’re debating about through a round of shogi. He wants to warn Miyuki that Tetsu is all talk, but he sees the confidence in the kid’s eyes. Shrugs that the genius catcher can figure it out for himself – it’s a rite of passage.
Jun asks Ryousuke if he wants to try. After a beat, Kuramochi hands them the other controller, explains that the winner can play against him.
“You that good?” Jun smirks, eyes sharp, meaning to intimidate.
Kuramochi blinks rapidly, about to apologize for seeming arrogant, but checks himself. Admits that he is that good, he’s been playing for years. Cheeky brat. Ryousuke chuckles darkly.
“Looks like you need to be put in your place, Kuramochi,” he says. Jun’s smirk widens, feral.
This is what he learns that night: Kuramochi is that good, but he has earned the kid’s respect. He did put up a fight, after all. Ryousuke, on the other hand, is terrible at video games. Terrible. There’s no saving him from that.
“Mom, this is Jun,” Ryousuke smiles, pulling him through the doorway. Ryousuke’s mother looks just like him, the face shape, the polite tone, the concerned expression. Looks just like him, but kinder. Jun grins broadly, introduces himself. Bows deeply.
When he looks up, Mrs. Kominato seems confused. She edges towards her son, whispers a tad too loudly behind an open palm.
“Ryou-chan, he’s from Kanagawa too, right?”
Ryousuke laughs, tells her she’s embarrassing his friend. Though he ought to be embarrassed, with that awful Kansai-ben of his. Jun snorts, wants to tell him to fuck off. But he sees the genuine uncertainty in Ryousuke’s mother’s eyes and promises her it’s all right. It’s just a habit he’s developed.
“On purpose,” Ryousuke adds in a sing-song tone, sidling into the kitchen. He asks Jun if he wants iced tea.
Jun follows after him, as if he’s been inside the Kominato home before, countless times. Ryousuke’s mother trails behind them, smiling the whole way. Asks Jun what he’d like to have for lunch.
Once, during the training camp in their second year, Jun heard an unwitting freshman ask, “What makes Isashiki-senpai and Kominato-senpai so similar?” This was preceded by a discussion on rumors and Seidou urban legends. There is, for example, one about how the coach’s doppelganger haunts the dorm bathroom. And, consequently, if you’re the first to take a dip (after said apparition) and the last to leave, you’re guaranteed a position in the first string. Many have failed in their attempts, having to be hauled off or nearly drowning as a result.
There’s one about how rubbing Azuma-san’s belly brings good luck. He’s noticed the timid Kawakami try to test it out on numerous occasions, but the kid always runs off at the last possible moment. This is likely how Azuma-san comes to notice him, how Azuma-san decides he’d like to give the kid a pep talk every chance he gets. Which eventually leads to the secondary rumor about how getting a lecture from Azuma-san means a successful debut in the first string.
There’s also a rumor about Chris’s magical scrolls. Don’t you know? Only the chosen few receive carefully planned menus from him. (“Both Yuki-senpai and Tanba-senpai have received one before!”) One which explains the lack of pudding in the vending machines. You offer them to a base-granting fairy, which some have speculated is actually the God of the Diamond. And one about the random shoujo manga you might find littered around the dorms. You don’t ask about those. You just don’t.
“What’s similar about them? Isn’t it obvious?” Kuramochi replies, eyes completely serious, “They both like to play around with their kouhai.”
“Play around?” Watanabe presses on, as Shirasu and Higasa lean in, closing around their circle more tightly. Miyuki crosses his arms behind Kuramochi, cap falling lower to cover his eyes, expression grim, twitching ever so slightly.
“Yeah, I mean,” Kuramochi scratches his nose, “who do you think started all those rumors?”
Ryousuke offers to help Jun’s mom with the cooking. As they rhythmically chop vegetables next to the sink, Kaede sidles over. Her glasses glinting under the fluorescent light, she asks which Junji Itou title is Ryousuke’s favorite. He thinks about it before admitting it’s probably Uzumaki, there are so many iconic moments in that one.
“Shuichi’s dad!” He exclaims, reaching for another carrot, and Kaede nods her head vigorously.
“When I remember Uzumaki, I think of the snail people!” She shivers in delight. Jun’s mom asks them what they mean and they tell her she has to read the story herself; it’s just too good to spoil. Beyond the counter, Jun shakes his head. Warns his mom she’s better off not reading that stuff. With her constitution, she’ll be sure to get nightmares.
“Aww, Jun, you never want to try this genre. It’s always the romantic stuff for you,” Kaede pouts, turning to Ryousuke to regale him with the tale of how Jun spent three days straight catching up on Skip Beat and crying his way through one arc in particular.
“Oi, don’t tell him that!” Jun glares, but his older sister is immune to it. He’s all bark and no bite. Ryousuke grins. Says that he knows.
At the dinner table, he feels Ryousuke’s leg hitting his underneath. He knocks back, linking their ankles, struggles to meet his sister’s curious gaze. Across from him, she rests her chin against the back of her palm, smiling faintly.
“Where’s Keiko-nee?” He asks, unable to stand the prolonged silence.
“She and dad’ll be back late,” Kaede hums, offering Ryousuke more salad. He accepts graciously, piling more on to his plate. Jun grumbles that he’s being way too polite, it’s creeping him out. Ladles more curry on to Ryousuke’s plate as well.
“You should have more of that. It’s your favorite, right?”
“Oh, I didn’t know that, Ryousuke-kun,” Jun’s mom’s eyes widen, “You should have told us!”
“I didn’t want to trouble you,” Ryousuke answers evenly, turning his head away to hide his embarrassment. “And, now, it’s a happy coincidence.”
It’s a combination of Ryousuke’s charm and wit that wins his family over, just like Jun predicted. If he had waited to mention that he’d invited his friend for a sleepover, he’s sure his mom would have still agreed, maybe even asked if Ryousuke could stay the entire weekend.
“You should bring home more friends like this one,” his mom smiles. Secretly, Jun is grateful that this means they don’t have to talk about the Inashiro game just yet. Can see that his sister wants to ask but knows not to, having figured that not only would it upset Jun but their guest as well.
“It’s growing quite nicely,” Ryousuke laughs, cupping his cheeks. And that is something he’s had to grow accustomed to – the constant, almost belligerent, touching. At first, they’re thwacks on the head, pats on the back, high fives, fist bumps. He doesn’t remember anymore when they started, when they changed. But no matter how deliberate they are (because, yes, Ryousuke can fool everyone else, but he has the guy’s number), no matter how sneakily subtle, they happen naturally, with a certainty, as if he and Ryousuke are always just falling into place. Pieces in a puzzle.
“Get off,” Jun frowns. He doesn’t mean it, doesn’t put any strength into it. Doesn’t even raise his arms. Tries to look away.
“I promise I won’t tell,” Ryousuke tries again, skimming his thumb over the patch of hair on Jun’s chin, chuckling to himself. “I think it’s a waste though. The coach, at least, should know.”
“He doesn’t need to,” Jun gives up, cheeks hot, breathing heavy. Ryousuke already has a hand on his pants, on his zipper.
Well, Ryousuke adds later, at least Jun has stopped leering.
Jun offers Ryousuke the bed, while he takes the spare futon. Spreads it out next to his desk. On the perpendicular wall, his shelves are lined with manga, pastel-colored covers waiting to be dusted. He runs a hand through his hair, stifling the urge.
“You took a while,” Ryousuke states, already lounging back against the comforter, thumbing through the first volume of Kimi ni Todoke. Jun doesn’t want to talk about it, but can’t think of anything else to say. Decides to be honest. Anticipates the sting.
“Yeah,” he manages, “I told my mom about the game.”
“What did she say?” Ryousuke asks after a pause, appearing indifferent.
“There’s still a chance,” he replies, weakly, sitting down on the edge of the bed, “There’s still a chance the team can go to koshien in the spring.”
In his heart, Jun knows. His mom had probably meant for it to be a consolation of some sort. He’s often spoken about the team before, after all; enthused how much their year had improved since they were freshmen, mentioned the promising new members. She wanted to be kind, to tell her son that the team he had grown to love would be left in good hands. Jun knows all this the same way he knows that, somewhere else, somewhere buried, deep in the trenches of his already broken heart, it’s just not the same. It won’t be. Knows that there’s still a great chance, of course, but that it is, nonetheless, a chance without them. A chance without him.
“Don’t do that,” Ryousuke sits up suddenly, grasping his shoulders, knuckles white. Jun stares back, pale-faced.
“You don’t get to do that!” Ryousuke hisses, “At least you finished the game.”
He wants to shout that it doesn’t matter, that it didn’t make a difference. Longs to freefall, allowing self-pity to consume him. Feels Ryousuke give him a shake, an abrupt one as if he were immediately stopping himself from doing it again. Realizes that it’s actually Ryousuke’s body quivering all on its own, holding back tears. Suffers from a cold sweat.
“You would have been the odd kind of pitcher,” Ryousuke muses after their practice match against Osaka Kiryu. They’re both seated on a bench, watching the fields. In the distance, they can hear someone – Tetsu, most likely – practicing his swings, the air trembling around them, hanging in suspense.
“The odd kind?”
“Yeah, the kind that isn’t greedy,” Ryousuke explains, leaning forward, allowing himself to slouch, “You care too much about other people, coming out of battle together. You couldn’t care less about the spotlight.”
Jun doesn’t correct him, doesn’t admit that he has some regrets. Still dreams, from time to time, about pitching and perfecting his bazooka ball. Still believes that he can probably do it, later, someday, soon. But there are more important things, he tells himself. More important things than being the hero, or besting Tetsu, or roaring from the mound, pointing to the crowd. More important things than uncompromising goals.
He remembers the look on Furuya’s face when he scolds the rookie for playing by himself, for forgetting that the team is behind him. Wonders if, in an alternate reality, he would have done the same.
“Maybe it wasn’t meant to be,” Ryousuke smirks, a twinkle in his eye, urging Jun to tell him off, to prove him wrong.
Jun surprises them both by replying quietly, almost too soft to hear.
Ryousuke informs him that he’ll walk to the station alone, it’s fine, really. They’ll see each back at the dorms. Jun wants to argue but his head is pounding, temples throbbing. He hadn’t been able to get any sleep again. Understands that Ryousuke knows this, had waited in the dark of his bedroom, had heard him fidget this way and that. Which is why he walks off without saying another word.
At the last second, by the gate, he turns back, pink bubblegum hair floating in the wind.
“There will be more games,” he says lightly, their thoughts and routes and hearts aligned, “and more dreams to fulfill, too. So, stop lingering in the past.”
Jun knows this, too. Knows that eventually the pain will transform into a dull, sporadic ache. Knows that it will take a bit more time for him, but that he’ll get there all the same. Hopes that, by then, he’ll be on his own clear, straight line, barreling onward until he catches the light.
After four hours in transit, he imagines seeing himself from above, watches a trail of steam connecting the dots between point A and point B. There is a thrill to it, a trail full of possibilities. A line that precedes what can happen, what ought to, and what eventually will. Whatever. All paths end at Seidou anyhow, where they are holding a reunion, where he’ll get to see all his friends again. Where he can’t wait to see the look on the coach’s face. Where he can show off his badass new shades.
He whistles low, withdraws his phone from his back pocket. Sees a message from Ryousuke. Decides to give him a call. This time, he’ll say Jun’s Kansai-ben is perfect.