Takumi found the following autumn a study in change and continuity.
The second-years had become third-years; the third-years were scattered across Nitta and beyond. But Kaionji, whose new school was an easy bike ride from Nitta East Junior High, still dropped by to observe practice or to chat with Nonomura and their coach. Takumi often saw that small, tanned figure leaning against the ground's fence during their training sessions, hands in pockets and smiling to himself. If ever asked what he thought of this he would have said, nothing much, and it would have been the truth. What Kaionji chose to do with his free time outside of high school was Kaionji's own business. If it had been possible to distill that nothing much into words he would have admitted that Kaionji had been a good captain, and continued to be someone he could tolerate for an extended amount of time (which, in Takumi's book, meant more than five minutes at a stretch). Besides, it was obvious that Kaionji's semi-regular visitations made his other former juniors happy. Higashi in particular fairly sparkled every time Kaionji had a word of encouragement or advice for him about playing shortstop.
Gou, observing the same thing, raised an eyebrow at him when he agreed.
"Eh, you're changing, Takumi, you'd never've cared enough to notice that sort of stuff before..."
"What 'sort of stuff' do you mean?"
He didn't think he was changing, since it wasn't like he cared any more about anything else that went on outside the 18.44-metre radius from the pitcher's mound than he had a year before. He told Gou as much. The assertion drew nothing more than a half-smile from his catcher. For some reason the lack of a verbal response irked him, and before he knew it he'd continued speaking: of course, my *body's* changing. Those developments were tangible ones. His shoulders were a touch broader and he'd grown three centimetres (though Gou had added seven, curse him). Otomurai had started nagging about the increased importance of warm-ups and conditioning at this stage.
But that's all, Takumi finished. Nothing else. Unfortunately his voice, which he'd thought had finally stabilised a month ago, swooped an octave up the instant he said Nothing, sending Gou into a smothered laugh and an equally muffled apology.
Why, Takumi briefly pondered, did I end up being partnered with the one guy in my year whose voice broke when he was twelve?
He didn't think Gou had changed, other than continuing to develop a height and musculature the envy of almost everyone on the team. Predictably enough Gou had been the first to get to know the new first-years - their names, their positions, their strengths and weaknesses. Yoshisada had remarked that he would make a good captain. Takumi agreed. Not that it particularly concerned him. The important thing was that Gou still crouched across from him every week, almost every day in fact, mitt cocked and eyes steady. Waiting for him to throw. Waiting to catch, to take, to save. Facing him as if it were the one thing he had been meant to do.
They shuffled into the habit of interacting outside the context of baseball. Most times Higashi, Sawaguchi and Yoshisada were with them, whether at the local burger shop or video game centre or someone's house. Then there were the times when Gou came over to his place to study and got asked to stay for dinner, or when he got a reciprocal invitation. In due course he came to know the layout of Gou's room as well as he did his own. He discovered Gou's inclination towards pencil-chewing when thinking about homework.
They used words sparingly, almost unwillingly. Sometimes Takumi would look at the boy opposite him, all broad angles and steady air, and feel a warm current of relief course through him. Here. Now.
Takumi didn't like the past or future tense.
He wondered if Gou enjoyed meeting him without a mitt and a ball. He didn't know how to ask, and in moments of full honesty he knew he was afraid to. Better not to upset a balance that hadn't been easy to recover, better not to meddle with something that wasn't broken.
Gou saved the bulk of his unfettered smiles - the full-face ones that made him look like a child - for horsing around with Sawaguchi and the rest.
Takumi thought there were far too many extraneous things about Gou that he had started to notice.
"Something on your mind?" Gou asked.
They were leaning against one of the trees outside the shrine, taking a break after an extended session of catch. The afternoon was sweltering; Takumi wiped his forehead with the sleeve of his T-shirt and blinked. Sweat stung the insides of his eyes.
"Not really," he said at last.
He looked over at Gou, who was absently scratching his head. Gou's arms, sticking out of the cut-off sleeves of his faded white shirt, looked especially large and tanned.
"Do I look like something's on my mind?"
"What? Mm, no, not really."
"Do I or don't I?"
"Well. Sort of, yes."
"Maybe you should try reading my mind," Takumi said dryly. "You might find out more than even I know."
"Believe me, Takumi," Gou said equally wryly, "I've often wished I could do that."
He'd learnt that words were ridiculously ineffective at understanding Harada Takumi. The only way to do it was to observe, to be indirect, to come at him from an angle. The total opposite of what he did when catching Takumi's pitches. He'd noticed, for instance, that Takumi was spending more time with him outside the context of their battery. It surprised him, frankly. He hadn't thought Takumi cared about interacting without the medium of a ball and mitt. Gou sensed that this change was due to a gradual shift in certain aspects of Takumi's attitude towards life outside baseball. He didn't know how to describe these changes. They were grasped only in the finer details of his interactions with Takumi on the ground. If he had to sum it up he would have said that Takumi was just - for whatever reason - more interested. In people.
Takumi, he once asked, are we friends?
A year ago he would have phrased it as more of a confirmation: we're friends, right? He'd learnt since that Harada Takumi held no certainties off the pitcher's mound. Initially this hadn't been pleasant knowledge, but he thought he'd since come to accept that Takumi didn't recognise his existence outside the baseball ground. Somewhere he held the realisation that he would follow Takumi regardless of what their relationship - or lack thereof - outside baseball was.
And so he asked, although he hadn't meant to.
Are we friends?
They were in Takumi's room with their mathematics textbooks spread before them. Gou was taken aback by his own question. It had slipped right out of his mouth, like a fish tumbling out of his catch pail.
What surprised him even more was Takumi's reaction. Gou had half expected a brutally frank No or a Maybe or a furrowed brow and a brusque What are you talking about? Instead Takumi kept silent, biting his lip, and refused to look at him.
"I don't know," Takumi said, his voice uncertain. "But..."
Takumi's hand reached out, caught hold of his sleeve. Fingers tightened. Takumi was looking straight at him, his eyes strangely intense.
"I don't mind," Takumi said, very slowly. The words seemed to cost him a great deal of effort. "I don't mind...being around you. Even when we're not playing ball."
"Takumi," Gou said quietly. Gently but firmly he pried Takumi's fingers off his arm, holding them loosely in his own.
"Last time you said this was a bad idea," Gou said. Only his voice was low and quiet and carried a note of...*something* Takumi had never heard before. "Remember?"
Yes. He swallowed, blinking. His heart had started to pound. I know. But...
Takumi, Gou said, his voice still unnaturally quiet. And then his face drew even nearer.
The sun behind was bright. Sweat and water and when did I last see him look like that maybe never I don't know I -
It took a few seconds for the situation to sink in. The smell of cut grass tickled his nose; his ears rang with the shrilling of cicadas. Sun and sweat and the squelch of damp fabric and topping it off, topping all of it off was the shadow of Gou's solid, warm body. Pressing against his chest and belly, fingers digging into his upper arms -
In his mind there was a soft click, like two pieces of a jigsaw fitting together.
After some eternal seconds, the mouth on his finally pulled back. Takumi sucked in a deep breath, keeping his eyes closed, and gave in to instinct. His body knew better, as it usually did. He should have known. His arms slid up around Gou's neck. It felt like the most natural thing in the world.
Gou's voice, hoarse and taut, seemed like it was coming from very far away.
Gou's left hand slowly reached for his right. A light, prickly feeling raced up his arm. Takumi looked at the fingers of his pitching hand, caught in that large, warm palm. He hated being touched, and he hated his right hand being touched most of all. But it was all right, with this person.
Takumi leaned back against Gou, awkwardly, and listened to the trill of a lark somewhere in the trees above them.