旬 [しゅん] Shun
"in season" (e.g. fruit, fish)
November brought a sweet crispness to the air. Like freshly-picked apples, Seiha said one dinner, drawing laughter from their parents and grandfather, but Takumi found the comparison oddly apt.
He slowed down as he neared the shrine. Then, taking a deep breath, he sprinted up the long flight of stone steps.
The sun was in his eyes at the top. He shaded them, shoulders heaving. There was a familiar figure in a long-sleeved T-shirt leaning against a tree, one hand holding a mitt, the other in his jeans pockets.
"Am I late?"
"No," Gou said, smiling slightly. "I'm early."
He nodded, and took the ball out of his pocket.
He started giving Takumi rides home after class or club practice. Most days they shared the same schedule, anyway, and it helped that they were classmates this year. Gou always pedaled, since the fact of his being (considerably) heavier remained.
"Not worried about being caught by the cops anymore, are you?" Takumi had asked.
"I'll deal with it if it happens," he'd replied.
"Hrm," said Takumi, raising an eyebrow. "Doesn't sound like you, Nagakura-kun."
"That so?" he replied, keeping his feet pumping. "Though you clearly think the same, since you're doing this too."
After some weeks it became a routine. Their rides mostly passed in near-silence, except for the sound of tyres crunching over the scattering of red and brown and orange-yellow leaves that was slowly but steadily thickening. He soon grew used to the sensation of cycling with Takumi perched on the back of his bike, gripping his shoulders with firm, steady hands.
Like how he held the ball, it occurred to Gou one day. The thought brought a vague sense of content.
Through the kitchen windows of the Nagakura house he could see the snow-covered garden, gleaming in the fading light. He flexed his fingers - they felt slightly cramped from rushing a composition for English class tomorrow - and shifted his gaze back to inside, where Gou was pouring steaming water into a teapot.
"What, you're not wearing the check apron today? The one that makes you look like your mother."
The glare he received was swift and deadly. "Shut up or your tea's going down the sink." There was a tinge of pink in his cheeks. Takumi coughed in lieu of laughing.
"Don't forget the milk."
"Next time," Gou said very patiently, "you're making your own tea."
"But yours tastes better," Takumi replied, very matter-of-factly, and watched with interest as the pink marched up to Gou's ears.
It was a morning where icicles were hanging off windowsills and roof eaves. On the way to the grocery store he bumped into Takumi, heading back from a run. The white landscape threw his flushed face and black fleece pullover into sharp relief.
Takumi stopped, raising a hand in greeting. Gou considered his heaving shoulders; it hadn't escaped his notice that Takumi had upped the distance and pace of his daily runs, in recognition of their promotion to full regular status.
"Don't overdo it," he said.
" 'm not," Takumi shot back.
"Well," Gou said in resignation. "Just don't collapse after practice. It's hard carting corpses on a bike."
"If you're going to stand around saying stupid things like that, we might as well have some catching now."
"No, that's not actually why I'm out here," Gou said dryly, and paused. "...Give me half an hour?"
At Yoshisada's suggestion, they had gathered outside for an impromptu hanami session during recess. This presently involved said Yoshisada trying to steal omelette rolls out of Sawaguchi's lunchbox while Higashi lectured Yoshisada on the evils of pilfering the food that someone else's mother had put time and love and effort into making for them.
The lush green carpet below them was liberally speckled with bits of pink and white. Takumi polished off the last of his food and stretched, contemplating the spreading trees above them. Pale sunlight filtered through the flower-laden branches. Beyond them he could just make out the washed blue of the sky.
Something brushed his hair, briefly, and pulled away. He blinked, stiffening.
To his side, Gou held out his hand without comment. In it sat two cherry petals, small white shapes that looked even more frail in the tanned expanse of his palm.
"Never knew pink was your colour, Takumi."
He didn't dignify that with a reply. Gou cracked a smile. He watched the breeze blow the petals off Gou's hand onto the grass, where they vanished from sight.
In the last inning Higashi hit a home run so clean the ball practically sparkled. And the whole team exploded. There were whoops, tackles, caps and gloves flung to the ground. The first major tournament of the new year; the first victory; the first rush of euphoria. Everything sweeter than honey. Takumi had been in top form; every ball had hit his mitt with a ridiculously satisfying thud, right where he'd signalled it to go.
Giddy with cheer, he unthinkingly grabbed a silent Takumi (who had struck out every last batter on the other team) and yanked him into an embrace by the shoulders. It took a few moments to realise that Takumi wasn't actually shoving him off, a fact surprising enough to make him let go.
"Gou," Takumi said, holding his gaze directly. "Nice catching."
His face, as ever, was utterly serious. Gou swallowed the impulse to reach out again, settling for a slap on the back that almost made Takumi fall over.
The long break only meant an increased training load for the regulars. In this season the locker room was warm and stuffy, redolent with the commingled odours of sweat and earth. The one thing it did have to offer was shelter from the blazing sun outside.
Gou, down to boxers, was rummaging in his duffel for clean clothes. Is this guy ever going to stop growing, Takumi wondered, eyeing the span of his shoulders and chest with faint envy. Gou had gained seven centimetres in the last year, putting him at a towering 182. Takumi had also grown, of course, but he'd long since stopped entertaining brief fantasies about overtaking his catcher in height or breadth.
At this rate, Takumi thought, he'll be even taller than Kadowaki-san...
He blinked. Gou, one arm out of a sleeve, was looking at him quizzically.
"You going to stand there looking at me all evening? I mean, put your shirt on, at least."
"..." Takumi said, and reached for his own bag.
The thick grass under the huge tree at Sawa's place held the remains of sandwiches and strawberry tops and the prone forms of five boys, three unconscious, one snoring. Cicadas were shrilling in the leaves overhead.
Gou yawned and rolled over, meeting Takumi's open eyes head-on. Takumi didn't blink or look away; neither did he.
"Yoshi's awfully loud, isn't he?" he said at length.
"Worse than the cicadas," Takumi replied.
He laughed, which coaxed the briefest of returning smiles from his pitcher. Takumi rolled onto his back and shifted his gaze upwards. His hair had grown, Gou saw; he would need to cut it soon.
It was the same face he'd bumped into that evening in the woods of Nitta. A little longer, a little more tanned, the mouth a little less apt to let cutting words fall. But still the same unwavering air, still the same merciless focus on the mound. Had it really been almost two years since they'd first begun playing together? Unbelievable, Gou thought. Unbelievable.
Long, slanted eyes flicked back to him. "What?"
Gou paused, thinking, and gave up looking for words that wouldn't come.
"Nothing," he said, and rolled over on his own back. Takumi was a mere inch away, lean body radiating heat.
"What are you, a space heater?" Takumi muttered. But he didn't attempt to move away.
Gou closed his eyes, giving himself up to the languid warmth of the afternoon.