In the end, it hadn't mattered how loudly Tanthai cheered from the sidelines, or how many times he had prayed the day before for their team's victory. Even after screaming until lung his throat hurt and enduring various glares throughout the game, they still lost, and badly. It hadn't even been close.
Tanthai knew what that meant. He had promised to - as he had worded it - reward Japan if they won. It was a poorly concealed excuse, just a safety net in case Japan didn't want him, but now that was gone, and he was back to square one. Biting back his disappointment, Tanthai hoisted himself to his feet to congratulate the team on their effort, because really, they had tried their best. The other team was just better, and that was that. They'd have to practice harder next year, but by that time Japan would be gone, so it wouldn't even matter.
Oh. That's right, Japan wouldn't be here next year.
Tanthai couldn't find it in him to smile as he joined in with the rest of his team, his heart throbbing in his chest so painfully he could hardly breathe. Maybe this was for the best. Japan could do better than some kid, and it wasn't like Japan liked Tanthai back, right? He always pulled away, putting up a wall between them that Tanthai couldn't climb over or break down, no matter how hard he tried.
"We'll beat them next year," Blue piped up, the top of his head just barely visible in the crowd.
"Too bad we couldn't this year," Champ said, but he was smiling. He ruffled Blue's hair, making the smaller boy smile. Tanthai felt a spike of envy lodge itself deep within his chest, something he had never experienced before. He didn't get jealous. What was wrong with him?
Lost in thought, he didn't notice that Japan had approached him until he set his hand on Tanthai's shoulder. "Hey Tai, you okay?" He asked, noticing the far-off look in Tanthai's eyes. "You aren't upset that you didn't get to play, are you? I did tell the coach that you should be a part of the lineup, but he said it would be best if we had the more experienced players on the field."
"Oh, it's not that," Tanthai said, forcing himself to smile. "I'm hungry, and I've been under the hot sun all afternoon. I'm not feeling the best, that's all." The lie came easily, because it was partially true. He hadn't eaten much for breakfast, too excited for the game to work up much of an appetite, which he now regretted. "I think I'll go home early today," he said out loud, already shrugging off Japan's hand. They had reached the point where casually touching one another seemed normal, but at the moment it made his eyes sting, and he didn't want to cry in front of his crush.
"The guys are going out to eat, you can join us if you want. You're still a part of the team even though you didn't get to play today," Japan said kindly, and Tanthai debated it, then shook his head.
He hated saying no to Japan, but he wasn't feeling up to socializing, especially not with the football team. The more time he spent with Japan, the more it hurt. Better to end things now, before he got too attached. "I'll pass," he declined. "I need a break from all the people, you know? I'll, uh, see you at practice next week."
"Wait," Japan said, grabbing Tanthai's wrist before he could leave. "You and I could go off by ourselves, if you want. I have to talk to you about something anyway, so it works out better this way."
A pit of dread had formed in Tanthai's stomach, only deepening the more Japan spoke. What on earth could Japan need to talk about with him, unless it was about the last time they spoke? Tanthai usually had control over himself, and he never got too close to Japan, in case he scared him off. The last time, however, Tanthai had gone a bit too far, and they had nearly kissed. Sure, Tanthai had done that a few times before then, but this time had been different. All the times before had felt lighthearted, teasing. Nothing about this past time had been either of those things.
There had been this intimacy between them, so strong it had scared Tanthai in the moment. To make it worse, Japan had leaned in himself, fully willing to go along with it if Tanthai had truly gone all the way. Only he didn't, he chickened out, and now they were stuck.
"We can talk some other time," Tanthai said, but Japan was already half dragging him to the locker rooms, still holding onto Tanthai's wrist.
"I won't keep you long," Japan promised, as if that was what Tanthai was worried about. "Get changed, okay?"
"Aren't you going to shower?" Tanthai asked, glancing over at Japan, who had a frighteningly stern look on his usually smiling face. He didn't look mad, but he didn't look happy, either. Tanthai averted his gaze.
"I guess," he said. "Wait out here for me, okay? Don't run off."
Tanthai had been debating it, but he wouldn't disobey a direct order from his football captain slash crush, so after he finished changing into his everyday clothes he sat down on one of the empty benches, waiting patiently as he listened to the sound of running water.
Before, he might have been tempted to sneak a look when the water finally stopped and Japan came out to get his clothes, but now he wanted to get over Japan as fast as possible, so it might hurt less when he left. He pointedly kept his eyes on the floor as Japan walked past him, dressed in only a towel that hung down way too low on his hips, and oh shoot now Tanthai was staring.
He sharply turned his head away, flushing up to the tips of his ears. How was he supposed to get the image of that out of his head? "Put a shirt on," he muttered out loud without thinking, and Japan chuckled.
"Don't be shy. We're both guys, aren't we?" Japan asked as he dug through his locker, but he complied, maybe a bit too quickly. And I'm the shy one? Tanthai thought, smiling to himself for the briefest of seconds, before he forced his affection down.
"You're right, we are," Tanthai hummed, leaning back against the hard wall behind him. It was a fact he was growing increasingly frustrated with as the months stretched on. If I were a girl, would Japan like me back? He found himself wondering, and not for the first time. He knew it was stupid, and that Japan wasn't the sort of guy to judge based on gender, but Tanthai couldn't help but wonder if it might change how Japan saw him.
Tanthai politely turned his head when Japan put on his boxers and pants. They were both guys, true, but it seemed wrong to stare, seeing as how strongly Tanthai felt for him.
"What do you want for lunch?" Japan asked, and Tanthai found himself envying how at ease Japan seemed in that moment.
Tanthai shrugged. "Anywhere is fine, you can choose. I have somewhere to be after this, so pick somewhere close by." It was a lie, of course. Just another excuse he made up. "Let's go somewhere cheap, okay?"
Japan agreed, grabbing his keys from his locker. "I'll drive you home afterward if that's alright with you. Okay, Tai?"
Tanthai didn't want to spend any more time with Japan than necessary, but he couldn't turn down any offer from Japan, even with something as small as driving him home. "Thanks, P'J," he said gratefully.
Japan chose a small fast food shop a couple of blocks from campus. They picked a spot in the corner, a table meant for two, and Tanthai couldn't help but let out a humorless laugh when he thought about how boyfriend-y this felt, when in reality, this was the opposite of a date. Tanthai was trying to get over Japan, trying to push him away. He wasn't sure what Japan wanted out of this, and the uncertainty nagged at the corner of his mind as he settled into his chair.
"What do you want to talk about?" Tanthai asked, not wanting to waste any more time fretting over this.
"It's about what happened...earlier. With us." Japan frowned, visibly cringing at his own choice of words, and Tanthai winced.
He figured, but that didn't mean he prepared himself to hear it. "Look, about that," he started, the quickening of his pulse drumming in his ears. He couldn't figure out why he suddenly felt so nervous. "I didn't-"
"Here are your drinks," the waitress said, interrupting him before he could explain himself. Tanthai let out a shaky breath, reigning in his frustration. He just wanted to get this over with before his head exploded. "Have you decided on what you want to eat yet?"
Japan ordered for them while Tanthai stared out the window, desperately scrambling to organize his thoughts and get a grip on his stupid feelings, which he doubted would go away anytime soon unless he did something about them. He had to deal with this properly, and fast, before he crossed the threshold of no return.
Maybe his feelings for Japan were stronger than he originally thought.
"I'll be right back," the waitress said, flashing them a bright, cheery smile, one that Tanthai couldn't seem to return. As soon as she left Tanthai took a long sip of his water, trying to calm his racing heart. Japan copied him, avoiding his gaze.
The silence stretched on past the point of being bearable, both of them staring down at the table and trying to think of something to say. Tanthai didn't want to apologize for the almost-kiss, because he didn't regret it, and he wouldn't make excuses he didn't mean, but he also didn't want to make it sound like he wanted to do it. Which, he had wanted to, of course, but even more than that, he wanted Japan to be okay with it.
"Too bad we didn't win," Japan said out of the blue, almost wistfully, and Tanthai's gaze shot up from where it had been lingering on the glass in front of him. Japan went pink, giving Tanthai a shy half smile that caused Tanthai's heart to skip a beat. "I mean, not like I wanted...I'm just curious what you meant when you said you'd reward me," he stammered, and Tanthai's breath got stuck in his throat. "I know it's not all that important, and I'm not asking for it! I just wanted to know what it was," Japan explained quickly, his face darkening further, the red color spreading down his neck and disappearing under his shirt.
He wanted to see how far down it went, but not here, and not now. Not when their relationship was so shaky - nonexistent, really. "It doesn't matter now, P'J," Tanthai said, trying to sooth his senior's sudden outburst. "Don't stress about it."
"Aww c'mon, can't you just tell me what it was?" Japan asked, the slightest whine entering his voice. Tanthai had never heard him beg like this around anyone else, and for a moment, Tanthai wondered if that made him special, getting to see a side of Japan that no one else did. "Please Tai, I'm curious now."
He asked as if Tanthai hadn't made it painfully obvious what he wanted. Did Japan think it was funny to make him say out loud, to completely embarrass himself? "You know what it is," he said, just as the waitress came back, once more ending their conversation. This time, Tanthai was grateful for the interruption.
"Here you go!" She said, handing them their corresponding plates. Tanthai looked down at his food, which seemed unappetizing in light of their previous conversation. "Let me know if you need anything else, alright?" She practically chirped, her cheerfulness making Tanthai feel worse.
"We will, thank you," Japan said politely, waiting until she walked away to turn back to Tanthai. "So? What's my reward?"
Tanthai shook his head, his words failing him. This hadn't been how he wanted their relationship to go, but had it always been inevitable for them to end this way? Japan would be going off into the world soon, and Tanthai wouldn't see him again. Japan shouldn't have to wait around, chained down by Tanthai as he frantically tried to keep up. Maybe if they had met later on, once they were on more equal ground.
All these maybes. Maybe if we were older, maybe if I were a girl, maybe if I had tried harder in the beginning...
"Tanthai," Japan said, a bit firmer this time, but the flickering of doubt that crossed his face took away from the effect. "Tell me, please."
"It's nothing," Tanthai insisted. He had to get out now, before he broke down and got himself even deeper into this mess. "You didn't win, so it doesn't matter. Look, thanks for the meal, but I have to get home."
Japan nodded, looking a bit hurt, and the jab of guilt lodged itself further into Tanthai's chest. He didn't mean to make Japan feel bad, but he knew Japan wasn't comfortable with his advances - he had made the obvious many times over - and telling Japan he wanted to kiss him would only make matters worse.
"I'll drive you home, then," Japan said softly. Those were the last words he said to Tanthai for the rest of the day.
* * *
Japan couldn't figure out what he had done wrong. Ever since the game, Tanthai had been sulky and unfocused during practice, and he refused to make eye contact with Japan, despite how Tanthai usually clung to him like a second skin. He knew it had something to do with the game, or maybe the meal they had got afterwards. Did Japan push too hard when he asked about the reward? Had Tanthai changed his mind?
Or was it because he felt like it was no longer worth anything, since their team had lost? Oh.
Tanthai was taking this reward thing seriously, then. Japan never thought of it as the deciding factor of the next step in their relationship...whatever their relationship was. It had been a joke in his mind, just another thing Tanthai used to tease him. He didn't know that Tanthai had actually meant it.
Japan cornered him the next day between classes, which he knew since he had - embarrassingly enough - memorized Tanthai's schedule. He'd never admit it to anyone else, not even to Tanthai himself.
Japan ambushed him on the staircase, stopping him before he could disappear into the crowd. His friends, too caught up in teasing Zon about something, didn't even notice that one of them had vanished. Tanthai seemed startled, probably because Japan never approached him outside of football practice.
Looking back, he realized that had been a mistake.
"We need to talk," he said sternly, grabbing one of the straps of Tanthai's backpack. "Come with me."
"What do you need, P'J?" Tanthai asked as he half walked, half stumbled after him. Japan relaxed his hold, not wanting to accidentally trip Tanthai and send him tumbling down the stairs.
"We're going somewhere more private," Japan said simply. He didn't want to embarrass Tanthai in front of a bunch of people. Tanthai jogged to catch up, so they were walking side by side. He kept his head down, avoiding looking Japan in the eye. Japan didn't like this new side of Tanthai, the quiet and distant side that felt like Tanthai was almost trying to push Japan away.
The best spot he could think of was the boys bathroom, which wasn't exactly private, and definitely nowhere near as romantic as Japan had wanted, but they didn't have any better options at the moment, and Japan couldn't push this off. He already felt like he was losing Tanthai, watching him slowly disappear from his life. At the beginning of the school year, when he found Tanthai's advances annoying rather than endearing, he would've been perfectly fine with that outcome. Now, the thought of losing Tanthai made him want to punch the nearest wall, and Japan wasn't even an aggressive person.
In the boys' love movies Japan had seen - yet another secret he'd take to his grave - whenever one of the guys dragged the other off to the bathroom like this, it was always empty. Or, at the very least, there'd be one boy in there who quickly left as soon as they arrived. Maybe Japan had been watching too much television, since he had assumed that's how it would be for them.
Only he had been dead wrong, and the bathroom was nearly full with male students taking their bathroom breaks between classes. No way was he going to do this in front of people, it would be hard enough as it is, with just him and Tanthai. "Not here," he muttered, grabbing Tanthai by the sleeve and dragging him from the room, fully aware of the confused muttering from behind them.
He led Tanthai into one of the unoccupied classrooms, far away from prying eyes.
"P'J, wait," Tanthai said, the slightest tremor in his voice.
Japan mentally cursed himself, seeing the confusion and the growing fear on Tanthai's face. He hadn't even given the poor boy an explanation. "Be quiet," he said, fully aware that they were still within earshot of other students. Hopefully no one had seen them disappear into an empty room together and reported their supposed indecent behavior to a teacher.
Yes, he had definitely not thought this all the way through.
Tanthai obediently closed his mouth, though the worry in his eyes hadn't left. If anything, it had gotten worse. Japan thought back to that day where Tanthai had nearly kissed him on the steps, the day that had started this all, and he smiled. He wanted to make Tanthai feel the same way he had, flustered and nervous and yet so excited he could hardly contain himself.
"Close your eyes," he instructed, knowing he wouldn't be able to go through with it if Tanthai watched him. Tanthai did, and Japan let himself admire how good he looked like this, just for a moment. He rarely got the chance to just sit and look at Tanthai, and he relished every second he got. How he hadn't noticed how cute Tanthai was back when they first met, Japan had no idea, but at least he caught on eventually.
Japan couldn't believe he was doing this, but he had already made up his mind a while ago, during one of the many times he had been unable to sleep due to Tanthai running through his brain until well into the night. Bracing himself against the wall with one hand, Japan leaned forward, resisting the instinct to let his own eyes shut. He wanted to see Tanthai's reaction, just in case it was bad and he had to step on the brakes.
Once their lips touched in what was not quite a kiss, Tanthai's eyes flew open in surprise, the breath hitching audibly. Japan didn't push any further, and he wouldn't until Tanthai gave him some sort of sign that it was okay to continue.
Tanthai blinked a few times, slowly processing what Japan was doing, and then he let out a low whine, the sudden desperation in his eyes startling Japan. He could feel Tanthai lips move against his own, parting slightly to allow Japan to go deeper, and Japan took the hint, allowing their lips to fully connect, finally getting the kiss he had been dreaming of for months. The sensation of Tanthai's mouth, pliant and wet and deliciously warm, scorching hot against his own lips, flooded the rest of his senses. Japan knew that if he wasn't careful, he could easily become addicted to this.
From now on, there would be no more teasing almost-kisses between them. Japan wouldn't allow it. Now that he knew what he was missing, he wouldn't let Tanthai get away with that kind of behavior.
Japan let his tongue slip between the other's lips, testing the waters. Tanthai opened his mouth wider, and the kiss deepened even further, though their pace remained almost agonizingly slow. Japan knew he was stepping into dangerous territory, the kiss growing too passionate too quickly, and if they didn't stop now they might miss their upcoming classes.
Breaking the kiss was one of the hardest things Japan had ever done, but he managed to pull away, smiling like an idiot as he watched Tanthai try to catch his breath. He looked stunned, confused, and elated all at one, the resulting expression surprisingly vulnerable. Of course, Japan couldn't leave it at just a kiss. He didn't want Tanthai to overthink things again.
"Tai," he started, surprising himself by how solemnly his tone came out. "I need to tell you something."
Tanthai nodded silently, the excessive pink color in his cheeks fading, ever so slightly, as time went on. Still, he looked like a mess, with his flushed face and swollen lips, slightly glossy with spit, and the tempting way his pupils had blown, a silent invitation to do more - a temptation Japan resisted for now.
"Do you remember that time when you kissed my hand?" He asked, and Tanthai grinned slyly.
"When you were playing with your mom's cat?" He asked teasingly. "Yes, I remember that."
Japan should've known Tanthai would bring that up. "Yeah, then." He leaned against the wall next to Tanthai, keeping his eyes on his shoes. Looking at Tanthai always flustered him, and he'd be unable to say what he wanted if he had to watch Tanthai's face as he said it. "That was the moment I realized I liked you. I guess I had known for a little while before then, but that's the first time I admitted it to myself."
He wasn't sure what reaction he was expecting from Tanthai. For him to laugh, maybe, and tease him about it. He thought Tanthai might say something back, something sweet and embarrassing. The one thing he hadn't anticipated was the silence that followed his confession.
He found himself fidgeting, picking at his shirt sleeve as he waited for Tanthai to speak. When no words came, he continued, if only to fill the silence. "I know I don't express it very well, so I figured you hadn't noticed. I was thinking that, if you're okay with it...we could hang out? Maybe after school sometime, as long as you aren't too busy."
"Are you being serious?" Tanthai asked quietly. "This isn't a joke?"
"No, of course not!" Japan didn't like how sad Tanthai now seemed. "I mean it. I want to go out with you. Tanthai, will you be..." He trailed off, fumbling for the right word. Lover sounded weird, and the word Tanthai had used before - significant other - felt wrong, too. Boyfriend seemed overused, but he couldn't think of anything else on the spot, and the longer he hesitated the more awkward things got. "Will you be my boyfriend?"
Tanthai leaned his head on Japan's shoulder, and Japan could've swore he saw him smile, though it was hard to tell from this angle. "Yes, but only if you'll be mine, too," he said. They sat like that for a moment, but before Japan had the chance to enjoy how close Tanthai now was to him, the bell rang.
"We're going to be late for class," Japan said, sitting up sharply. Tanthai pouted, but didn't argue. Not only were finals coming up, and neither of them could afford to miss class this time of year, but the longer they were missing the more those who saw them disappear together imaginations would run wild. "I'll find you for lunch, okay? If you don't mind eating with me, that is."
"Of course not," Tanthai said quickly. "I'll wait for you."
Japan just barely made it to class before the last bell rang, slumping in his seat and hoping none of his friends would ask where he had been.
"I thought you had gotten lost," Dew commented, and Japan shrugged, trying to act casual. He glanced over at Champ, who was watching him with a poorly concealed smirk. That wasn't a good sign. "At least," Dew continued. "I had originally, until I saw you sneak off with that underclassman."
Japan choked, his face growing uncomfortably hot. "Huh?"
"Dew, don't tease him," Champ said, his grin widening.
"It's not what you think, don't be dirty minded," Japan scolded them. "We were just talking." A partial lie, one that neither of them seemed to believe. Luckily for him, their teacher came in just then, and they both went quiet. Still, he could practically hear them laughing at him. Japan rarely dated, much less snuck off in the middle of the day with someone, and much, much less with a guy. They were going to have a field day with this.
Funnily enough, he didn't really care. They could tease him if they wanted to.
Halfway through class, Dew leaned over to whisper in his ear when the teacher had her back to them. "Did you finally work up the courage to ask him out?" He asked, and this time, it didn't sound teasing.
Japan nodded silently, grinning as he played the scene back in his mind.
He hadn't expected for things to work out this way - he had always assumed Tanthai would be the one to take that first step, to be the one that would ask Japan out - but this worked just as well.