“Hanai, right?” Tajima asks, standing behind a chair in the teacher's lounge, wearing a t-shirt and a backwards baseball cap, still short and freckled and lithe like he hasn't stopped playing baseball for even a second in the three years he's been off the map. Hanai can smell grass and summer and dirt just from looking at him, and his tongue goes heavy in his mouth at the memories.
“That's me,” he responds flatly, the best he can manage. He starts as Tajima pulls out the chair and sits in it, leaning forward to put his forearms on the table.
“I'm Tajima Yuuichirou, the new baseball coach,” Tajima says, and Hanai nods noncommittally. Obviously. He's been the talk of the school – besides being a superstar in high school, he was meant to go pro. He should've, he would've been amazing, but an injury three games into his first season after being pulled from college cut that short. Besides that, Hanai remembers perfectly well who Tajima Yuuichirou is. “I need a faculty advisor. I want you.”
Hanai lets his gaze slowly blink up to the boy – no, man, despite the fact that Hanai can merely picture him as the shorty on third base with a ridiculous batting average – in front of him. I need a faculty advisor. I want you.
“No thanks,” he says, getting up to throw away the remnants from his lunch – suddenly he's not feeling very hungry anymore. He can hear Tajima scooting out the chair and abandoning it to rush over to him, grabbing his wrist.
“We played each other in the summer of our third years, wasn't it?” Tajima asks, though it's not really a question. Hanai turns to look at him, and he continues. “It was really cold that day for some reason – I couldn't even feel the tips of my fingers and I fumbled a throw to home.” He tightens his grip on Hanai's arm. “You scored your team's only run.”
Hanai would be impressed with his memory if it wasn't for the fact that he also remembers it – he can't stop remembering it, he replays it over and over again in his mind and tries to find all the faults in their team, to figure out what they could have done better, because if they had just won that game they would've made their goal and gotten into the best 8. His mouth goes dry and a bitter feeling rises in his throat, which he tries to swallow back without thinking.
He pulls his arm away roughly and dumps his trash into the can on his way out into the hallway. There's only a few moments of silence before he hears footsteps tapping against the linoleum behind him as Tajima tries to catch up to him.
“C'mon, I’m not asking you to marry me or something, just to be the faculty advisor!” He calls, waving his arms out in front of him in exasperation.
Hanai bristles and stops in his tracks, making Tajima scramble to stop before running right into his back. He turns around to face him and stares down at him. What is he even supposed to say to that? He closes his eyes and takes in a deep breath. He counts to three and then exhales, pointing a finger to Tajima’s chest.
“Coach, I think the idea of what you want to do is great. It’s going to be really cool for the kids to have a coach who was a pro. But I’m not who I was in high school.” He runs a hand through his hair, grown out and a silvery-black. He adjusts his glasses, still white rimmed and thick. “I don’t need the nostalgia.”
“You’re my only hope, Hanai! I know you love baseball! What happened to that!” It’s not a question.
“Reality,” he grumbles, turning back around and sliding open the door to his classroom. Tajima’s footsteps pick up again, and Hanai hesitates until he’s right next to him, grabbing onto his arm.
“Then don’t do it for me!” Tajima pleads, looking up at him with big, warm brown eyes. “Do it for the kids! You’re a good teacher, right? You care about them, right?” His arms fall to his sides and he lets out a hard sigh. “If you won’t do it, no one will.” He pauses, and the air conditioning unit hums, filling in the gap. “Just think about it?”
Hanai wasn't going to think about it. He swore to himself that he would not even think about it, despite Tajima's big doe eyes and enthusiasm and his plans for the team that he has explained over and over to Hanai in attempts to persuade him. It was on the third day of him not being able to stop thinking about it that he gave in and told Tajima that he would do it, for this season only. Until they could find someone else to replace him.
Tajima had cheered in the middle of the faculty offices and grabbed Hanai's hands in both of his and looked so happy it was like the sun was beaming from him.
“Good game,” Tajima had said to him, right after they lost. He had extended a hand out to him to shake it, and Hanai did, nodding with red eyes and a lump in his throat. “Are you going to keep playing baseball?” He asked.
Tajima's team went on to win Koshien that season while Hanai went to college to become an English teacher, and he never touched a baseball again.
“You'll never guess who is the new baseball coach at school,” Hanai says at the next meetup he has with his old teammates. Everyone looks at him expectantly and he lets himself bask momentarily in feeling like a captain again. “Tajima Yuuichirou.”
“What!” Mizutani practically yells, jumping up from his seat, and Izumi pulls him back down by the shoulder, shushing him.
“Are you kidding?” Abe asks, skeptical. “Why Nishiura?”
“I have no idea.” Hanai uses his thumb to wipe away some of the condensation on the outside of his beer glass. “He asked me to be the faculty advisor.”
“And?” Suyama asks. “What did you say?”
Hanai can feel himself preemptively turning red and he rubs his cheek, willing his skin to cool down. “Yeah,” he mumbles.
“Of course you did, Azusa,” Izumi says, sounding unimpressed. “You're just a caring kind of guy. You weren't gonna let him drown.”
“Pretty sure he would do anything the great Tajima asked him to though,” Mizutani says, a totally shit-eating grin on his face meaning that whatever is about to come out of his mouth will be terrible. “He was totally obsessed with him in high school.”
“That's not true!” Hanai says, voice cracking unbecomingly and even the tips of his ears turning pink. He takes a sip of his beer, using the mug to cover his wavering mouth. He swallows it thickly. “Look, no one else was going to do it. I couldn't just let the team die out like that.” He eyes his teammates. “You guys would've done the same.”
The next day, Hanai goes to practice after classes are over and Tajima introduces him to the team. They look like a good bunch of kids, smiling and eager and mostly first years except for a few random upperclassmen who switched sports when they heard the baseball team was to be revived. He tries to not let himself get wrapped up in the nostalgia of it all, but he takes Shiga-sensei's place in the dugout anyway. He grades papers, or tries to, anyway, for a majority of the practice, only taking note of a few things to talk to Tajima about after practice. Maybe he can instill the old 5-minute meditation ritual in them, too.
Hanai finds himself staring at Tajima much more than he would like – but how can he not? Honestly, he's still an amazing player, fluid and agile, like he was never injured at all. It's only when he's running around the bases, leading the kids along, when Hanai can just detect the faintest of grimaces, for only a moment. Then, like a switch, he turns it back into smiling like a 100-watt bulb, and Hanai wonders if maybe he imagined it.
Once, Tajima catches him watching and he flashes him a peace sign, making Hanai flush red and jerk his eyes down to the papers resting in his lap.
“These kids are so lucky you actually played baseball,” Tajima says. “My faculty advisor didn't know a thing about it!”
Hanai gives a half-smile, a bit nostalgic for Shiga-sensei. “Yeah, mine didn't either. He knew a lot about other stuff. I'm probably pretty rusty, though.”
Tajima throws him a baseball, which he fumbles with but does manage to grab.
“Why don't you show me what you've got?” He grins at Hanai, punching his mitt and backing up a few yards. Hanai stares down at the baseball in his hand, turning it over once or twice. He throws it to Tajima, who catches it easily, and then makes a face.
“Seriously? You are rusty.”
“Well! What am I supposed to do!” Hanai grumbles, turning red. “It's not like we're playing a game, here!” He lowers his voice. “It's been awhile.”
“You played right field, and you subbed as a pitcher and a catcher. Also, you were the team captain. I expected a bit better from you, Hanai,” Tajima teases – Hanai gives him a look. How on earth does he remember all that? It was at least 6 years ago and they only played together once.
“I can't believe you remember that.”
“I wanted to play you for a long time.” He fidgets a little before jerking his head in the direction of the fence, at the house with a field of sunflowers next to it. “I live there and I would watch you guys practice sometimes. It's too bad what happened during that game,” he says, no malice in it at all – a simple, innocent statement. Objective. But it makes Hanai's chest twinge. “I remember you took a run from me by making an incredible play from right field. I couldn't stop thinking about it! If I had been only a few seconds faster, or if the ball had gone just a few inches further... !” He reaches out his arms, closing his eyes and tilting his head up towards the dimming sky, looking almost at peace, while Hanai's heart is pounding so loudly in his ears that it's a wonder that Tajima can't hear it. He drops his arms and opens his eyes, taking a few steps towards Hanai, quickly closing the physical gap between them. “Man, even thinking about it now! If my teammates heard me talking about it they would make so much fun of me. They used to tease me about you.”
Hanai gaze snaps to Tajima's, which is now dangerously close – he didn't even realize how close he was. He's a few inches shorter than him, though he has definitely grown some since he remembers playing him. He swallows back the tightness in his throat, ignoring the similarities between what Tajima is telling him and the way he himself felt and was teased over by his teammates. A warmth spreads over his face and down his throat and he hopes he's not blushing, but with the idea of Tajima agonizing over him – how can he not? He blinks dumbly as Tajima looks at him, eyes big and reflecting the fading sunlight.
“Um,” Hanai manages to mumble out.
Tajima, apparently saying to hell with subtlety (though Hanai doesn't even know if he has a subtle bone in his body), continues on, ignoring his very intelligent interjection.
“They joked that I had a crush on you.” He laughs a little, boyish. How is he so calm? “Maybe I did.” He lets his gaze flicker down to the lower part of Hanai's face before locking on his eyes once again. “Maybe I still do.” Hanai notices that his baseball mitt has long since been abandoned to the ground, and that Tajima's hand is now on his chest, burning a hole through his shirt and onto his skin, and he is grabbing his tie and pulling him the few inches down and making their lips meet and Hanai's whole body is now flushed with heat, worse than before, worse than ever before, worse than when he saw Tajima play for the first time and was definitely, unequivocally, absolutely in love with him (his hormones definitely had a play on that one).
He lets their teeth clank together a little bit and his hand grasp at Tajima's shirt, all while trying desperately to ignore the heat coiling in his stomach, fighting against every instinct that this is wrong, unprofessional, inappropriate, they're in public, it's wrong, wrong, wrong, until one of those thoughts screams loud enough in his head, right around the time that Tajima is actually loosening his tie right in the middle of the baseball diamond, that he releases his grip on the fabric of Tajima's jersey and pushes him away.
“No-- no,” he chokes, attempting to catch his breath. “We can't, don't be--”
Tajima looks up at him, pupils blown out from more than the dimming light.
“Don't be what?” He asks, voice low, and Hanai wants to kill him for even being able to sound like that, he must be doing it on purpose to fuck him. Wait, he means to fuck with him. Damn it–
Hanai curls his hands into fists, trying to calm down and slow his racing thoughts, trying to organize what he wants to say – what he needs to say.
“Tajima, this is just a bad idea no matter how you look at it.”
“I have lots of bad ideas, they always work out fine for me.”
“But, we can't-- I mean, right on the diamond? Someone could see us.” Hanai can hear his voice taking on a more desperate edge, and he knows that whatever Tajima proposes next he won't have it in him to deny him anymore.
“Then,” Tajima murmurs, pausing just long enough to run the tip of his tongue just barely over his bottom lip, forcing Hanai's gaze down, “your place or mine?”
“Hey, sensei,” Tajima chirps from the doorway of the classroom, dragging out the word. He's holding his hands behind his back and Hanai raises his eyebrows at him as he bounds in. Wearing his practice jersey and a backwards baseball cap, he looks almost like a student, and a few of the students already in the classroom who don't know of him look over quizzically.
“Good morning, Tajima,” he responds, a little nonplussed. “Is there a reason you're here?”
“Other than the fact that I wanted to visit my favorite faculty advisor?”
Unimpressed, Hanai looks at him.
“You don't believe me?” Tajima asks, actually managing to sound a little hurt, though the act is deceived by his ever-present smile. “Fine! I wanted to show you something I found!” He pulls his hands from behind his back and presents a framed photograph out in front of him. Hanai looks at it briefly before realizing what it is and grabbing it from Tajima's hand.
“Where did you get this?” He asks, gliding a hand over the glass, trying not to leave fingerprints. It's of the whole team. Their first year as a team together, just the ten of them, a big banner reading “Best 8” hanging up above them. They're young looking and small and he feels something catch in his throat and heat start to rise from his jawline.
“I was cleaning out the desk in the coach's office and I found it! Pretty crazy, huh? I was thinkin' of putting it up in the locker room--”
“No way,” Hanai cuts him off, voice low. Suddenly feeling protective, his fingers curl tightly around the wooden frame. Tajima tilts his head at him, but backs off.
“See you at practice then,” he says, voice cheery. He saunters off towards the door, waving his hand behind him. “Don't be late!”
They go to a game later that day to watch a team they could possibly have as opponents.
“Our coach did something similar,” Hanai tells Tajima after they get back and have dismissed the students. They're in the coaches office; Tajima sitting in the chair and spinning himself around.
“Yeah, our's too. I want them to start thinking about the summer tournament.”
“What's your goal, then? For them?”
“Winning Koshien, obviously.” Tajima doesn't even hesitate, and Hanai wants to slap him. He's seen it all before – he saw his team at this very school, who had a good coach but were just a team of 10 freshmen when it came down to it, who couldn't even make it to the best 8. Even in their third year they didn't accumulate many more players, and he saw their pitcher crumble under the pressure and their catcher try to work through an old, injured knee, and he saw their only chance to get that far slip away even as he slid into home plate after Tajima himself had dropped a routine throw to home in the 8th inning. He feels his throat threaten to choke him in the memory, and he shakes his head.
“Coach, don't be ridiculous. Don't fill their heads with unrealistic ideas.” Hanai swallows. “Just to have them be disappointed in the end.”
“If we don't believe they can do it, how are they supposed to?” Tajima stares at him and Hanai makes the mistake of meeting his eyes. “You know, if you feel that way, maybe you're not the right person to be the faculty advisor.”
Hanai feels his face heat up.
“This whole thing is just a pipe dream, Tajima!” He explodes, hands clenched into fists, holding his fierce gaze even though he desperately wants to look away. “Just something for you to do to make yourself feel better about the fact that you blew your career before it even started!” As he says the words, he immediately regrets them – he sees something break on Tajima's face, the already too-serious facade cracking into something even more anguished. Tajima turns on his heel, storming from the coach's office and slamming the door as he goes, leaving Hanai behind to slowly collect himself and go back to his office. He gathers his things, shouldering his bag and getting his bike, but he doesn't ride it. He walks to the train station instead, fingers gripping the handles too tight, knuckles white.
He's always been the cynical one – or maybe just the insecure one. Izumi had said that he was a caring sort of guy, and maybe he's right, maybe a little too caring for his own good. He just can't shake the empty feeling inside of him that took over, that feeling of his heart dropping into his stomach when their last chance at winning slipped away. And he could blame it on Tajima, if he wanted to be unfair. But he knows that Tajima it better than him, not only in baseball, but somehow in life – even though he was injured and lost his career, he found a way to pick himself up and have hope again. He didn't become cynical, or set boundaries for himself to avoid feeling that way again, or give up altogether.
Hanai lets his last spoken words choke him for the entire train ride home.
Hanai hesitates outside of the gate of the diamond, willing himself to go in, fingers looped through the chainlink, watching Tajima rake the red dirt of the infield, evening it all out and filling in any dips. It's 5 in the morning, and it looks like he's been here for awhile, if the lines crisscrossing the field are any indication, tracks left in the dew. In a show of strong will, he pushes open the gate with a creek, noting that Tajima doesn't even look up at him as he approaches.
“Hey,” he says, nervous.
Tajima stops raking, resting his hands on the top and leaning his cheek on the back of his stacked hands. He looks like such a child.
“Hey,” he responds, noncommittal sounding. Hanai gulps.
“Look, Tajima, I wanted to... you know.” He gestures loosely, and Tajima actually looks unimpressed, raising his eyebrows over half-lidded eyes and a mouth that's nothing but a line. He blows out a harsh breath. “Apologize. For saying those things. It was out of line and untrue and...” He hesitates, unsure of how much he should lay bare in this apology, really how much he should lay bare in front of Tajima. Which is definitely him being unfair again. “And I only said it because I am angry at myself for giving up. For not being as good as you. For... a lot of things, I guess.”
He shrugs, and there's silence. Tajima blinks at him a few times before lifting his head and hauling the rake over his shoulder, starting to head back towards the clubhouse.
“S'okay,” Tajima says, and Hanai follows him. “I know you didn't mean it. You were being a total dick, though.”
“I know. I'm sorry for that, too.” They walk back to the clubhouse in silence, Tajima shoving the rake back into the storage closet. Finally, Hanai speaks again. “Is there anything I can do to make it up to you?”
Tajima whirls around and looks at him, expression serious, too serious – Hanai wilts under it.
“You were your team's captain?” He phrases it like a question even though he already knows the answer. “Use that and talk to the kids about reaching their goals.” He pauses, gaze flicking to the ground briefly before coming up to Hanai's face, and his hand comes up to gently rest on his chest, fiddling with the tie for an excuse to be there. “Prove to me that I was right about you, Hanai.”
Hanai stands in the front of the locker room. He just nailed in the picture that Tajima had found in the coach's office, and he steps back with his hands on his hips, making sure that it's not crooked. The team files in, Tajima at the end – he goes to stand in the back of the group.
“Everyone, listen up to Hanai. He wants to talk to you about something.”
Tajima gives him a thumbs up and a grin and then leans against the row of lockers behind him.
“This is me,” Hanai says, pointing at the picture, finger on his 15-year-old face. He towers over absolutely everyone in that picture despite them all being the same age. The “Best 8” banner hangs above them and he hates it, he hates it. He wishes he could retroactively tear it down, but he pushes himself to continue. “After my third year, I quit baseball. I was never going to touch a baseball again until Coach asked me to be your faculty advisor.” He looks at Tajima momentarily, catching his gaze before looking at the students again. He clears his throat. “I had a lot of regrets about my time playing baseball, because of my abilities and my insecurities. No matter what you do here, or after your three years of high school, wether you don't continue with baseball or you only do in college or...” His gaze shifts back to Tajima and holds it, “or if you're meant for something much bigger, I don't want any of you to regret a moment of it.”
Tajima claps his hands together. “Alright! Let's get to warm up. Everyone start with ten laps around the bases!”
A chorus of yeses bounces off the walls, followed by sounds of scuffling as the group gets up and walks towards the door, chattering along the way. Tajima goes to Hanai and clasps him on the back.
“Nice speech, captain.” He tilts his head to the side. “But I still think you might owe me something for being such a jerk.”
Hanai wilts a little.
“What else can I do?” He asks, desperate. Tajima shrugs slightly, rolling his neck and stretching his arms out, stalling probably just to make Hanai squirm. After a long minute, he takes a step towards a fidgeting Hanai and leans forward, looking him in the eye.
“You could start by taking me out to dinner. Then we'll talk.”
Hanai actually lets out a sigh of relief, actually enjoying the pounding of his heart against his ribcage.