Ryousuke Kominato goes to Kyoto University, where he does not play baseball.
“You quit, Ryou-san?” Kuramochi asks, his mouth turned down in a sad frown, when he and Haruichi come to visit on a Saturday.
“Their team sucks,” Ryousuke says, unapologetic.
It’s winter, early December; snow hasn’t fallen yet but the wind cuts to the bones, the air is dry. Kuramochi is wearing the ugliest scarf Ryousuke has ever seen, striped green and blue and white, and Haruichi—
“What’s up with the hat?” Ryousuke asks, tugging at the end of the strings that hang from Haruichi’s ear flaps.
Haruichi smiles, small and secretive, gently batting Ryousuke’s hands away.
“It was a present from You-san,” he answers. Next to him, Kuramochi’s ears have gone red, his grin hidden behind his scarf.
You-san, he says, the name rolling off his tongue naturally, while Ryousuke never graduated from Kuramochi.
“Ah,” Ryousuke says. “I see.”
He takes them on a tour of the campus, and he watches as Kuramochi puts his hand on Haruichi’s shoulder and lingers, as Haruichi gets on tiptoes to see inside a lab and leans his back against Kuramochi’s front.
When they’re eating, Kuramochi says, fond and proud, “Haruichi is the best player I’ve played with.”
Ryousuke smiles, nods, lets them split the bill and keeps them fifteen minutes longer than they should, just enough so they miss their train home.
In May, Ryousuke gets a text.
ur coming to graduation right ryou-san????
His inbox consists of texts from Kuramochi, Haruichi, his mom, and, for some reason, Sawamura Eijun. Of Kuramochi’s and Haruichi’s combined 563 messages, 168 have replies.
(He texts his mom back every time. Sawamura, too, answering Lame and You’re a loser to the cheerful and bright messages that actually make him smile most of the time)
I’m busy, he answers this time. And: Use proper grammar.
He is indeed busy, knee-deep in library books about legislation and holes in the constitution. He has three papers due and twice the number of tests, no time at all to sit idly on the Tokaido Shinkansen and attend a ceremony that lasts for about four hours.
Still, on the day, Ryousuke’s phone beeps four times. He checks it after coming home from his part-time job on the campus cafe, his roommate snoring loudly and wetly in the tiny room.
They’re pictures. The first one shows Kuramochi, profile serious and tall, being handed a rolled up diploma by the school’s principal. The second has Miyuki and Kuramochi poking each other, their mouths open in laughter like children. In the third, Sawamura is crying, holding Kuramochi by the shoulders; Kuramochi is making a face and weakly attempting to fight him off, but he has tears in the corners of his eyes, too. In the final picture, Kuramochi has his arm around Haruichi, holding his diploma high above his head with his other hand. They’re both smiling so wide, so happy. The second button of Kuramochi’s uniform is missing. Haruichi has written He did it! under the picture, followed by a celebratory emoji.
Ryousuke does not answer that text.
They win, they actually win: Kuramochi and Miyuki shout from the stands and cry, and Tetsu and Jun are here, too, but there is only buzz in Ryousuke’s ears.
He sees his brother and Furuya run to hug Sawamura, who is so shocked he just stands motionless on the mound. A bunch of other kids run, too, kids Ryousuke has never seen before, on a team that used to be his but isn’t anymore, hasn’t been for a long time now.
Still, it’s not fair. Ryousuke had the same three years as his brother, and he worked just as hard, so why couldn’t he win? Why does Haruichi get everything and he gets nothing? Why, why, why?
“Ryou-san!” Kuramochi yells, shaking Ryousuke by the shoulders. “He won, Ryou-san!”
The teams line up, and after they bow Haruichi looks up to the stands. He smiles the brightest smile Ryousuke has ever seen on him, and gives a thumbs up.
A few years ago, that gesture would have been for Ryousuke alone. Today, he shares it with Kuramochi, who laughs wetly by his side and raises his thumb.
Kuramochi is grinning so much his face must hurt. His eyes are wide and full of tears, and he looks so head over heels in love Ryousuke stops breathing for a second looking at him. He can’t see Haruichi’s eyes from up in the stands, but they must look the same. They have looked the same, do look the same.
Something inside Ryousuke finally finishes breaking.
“Ah,” he says.
For the first time in a long time, he smiles genuinely at his brother. He gives Haruichi a thumbs up.
They both come home for their dad’s birthday in October. They eat dinner at a nice restaurant and Ryousuke pays with the money from his internship (“At the best law firm in Kyoto,” his mom keeps adding, wiping away tears), then they go home and sing Happy Birthday over a chocolate cake.
“So, Haruichi,” says his mom, cutting Ryousuke a second, enormous slice of cake. “Are you planning on going to Kyoto University, too?”
Haruichi swallows while their mom places the plate in front of Ryousuke on the table. Their dad is humming quietly to himself, one hand on his round belly while he looks on.
“Not really,” Haruichi says. Both their parents tilt their heads in confusion, and Haruichi sighs, shrinks in on himself a little. “I was thinking Osaka University, actually.”
“Osaka University,” he says, voice dripping with fake innocence. “I wonder if we know anyone who goes there.”
Haruichi blushes to the tip of his ears.
“Didn’t you mention a friend in Osaka?” mom asks, frowning. “Kuramochi, was it?”
“Yes,” Haruichi whispers, his mouth barely moving.
Ryousuke suddenly feels an overwhelming fondness for this boy, sitting at their parents' kitchen table and being brave enough to follow after those he loves.
“I say go for it,” he says, patting Haruichi’s hand.
His dad lets out a shocked “Eh!”. His mom frowns harder.
“Thank you, aniki,” Haruichi says, smiling.
Ryousuke goes back to eating his cake. He breathes easy.