Chapter Forty-One: Courage

This was crazy. This was insane. He couldn't do it. No way in hell could he pull this off. Better cancel all plans, there were pillows that needed to be screamed into and ideas forgotten—

"Shut up!" Ritsu hissed at himself. He grabbed a hand towel off the bathroom counter and rubbed at the foggy mirror till he could see himself. He'd just gotten out of the shower and was wearing a robe Takano had lent him, though it was parted to show his torso all the way down to his enormous stomach. He'd had taken his time in the bathroom this morning, even going so far as to rub heavy duty skin cream on the stretch marks made by the baby bump growth.

He had done this primarily because his mind was wrought with an idea that he knew was time to carry out…oh but who was he kidding? He could never pull this off. He was just standing here staring in the mirror trying to stall for the next hundred years!

With a heavy sigh, Ritsu stepped away from the counter and sat on the edge of the tub, holding his head in his hands. His eyes squinted shut as an emotion he knew well seeped through every pore in his body: fear. He admitted it. He was afraid. More afraid than he had been back in middle school, staring at Saga from afar and trying to work up courage to talk to him. But he was young and naïve back then, and in a way that made things so much easier. Now that he was older and knew the cruelty of the world oh so well, it only made it harder to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Ritsu bowed his head and stared at his stomach as he felt a tiny flutter of movement. He smiled a bit at the rustling inside him and gently placed a hand on his bare skin.

"Please," He murmured. "Help your daddy to be strong. For all of our sakes'."

Ritsu carefully stood and wrapped the large navy robe over his stomach and tied it as he headed for the door. His hand paused on the doorknob as he tried to gather his thoughts together, but in the end, he knew that no matter what he said it would be improvised.

After all, how exactly could he say he wanted to stay by Takano's side? Not just for the rest of his pregnancy, but beyond it.

Takano's eyes gazed up from the storyboard he was browsing over on the couch, looking to the bathroom door where he heard quiet puttering. Ritsu has been in there for quite a while, but it didn't seem like he was sick or anything. Even still he wondered. Ever since he'd had lunch with his father, Ritsu had seemed to be in an entirely different world these past few days. He always seemed to be staring off into space, as if he were pondering some endless enigma.

Takano sighed, setting the pages on the coffee table and running his hands through his shaggy hair. Truthfully, Takano hated the silence. It was far too like the home he'd grown up in, where quiet tension was never heard but always felt.

And he didn't have to be a genius to guess what lay at the heart of this tension. Ritsu was stabilized now, huge, but steady. Meeting with his father had seemed to close a wound in him, and Takano could see him improving even through his stillness. And that meant that things would change, and change was one of the things Takano feared the most.

The dark-haired man was shaken out of his thoughts as the bathroom door opened and Ritsu stepped out, wearing his robe with the slightest bit of his pale skin peeking out near his collarbone. Takano averted his eyes from the sight to spare himself (and his very unused cock) the pain, but was forced to look back up again as Ritsu walked over.

"Uh, Takano-san…can I talk to you for a second?"

"No problem," He replied. Ritsu sat down on the other end of the couch, fidgeting a bit and biting his lower lip. He was nervous, Takano could see it written in black ink.

"So what's up?" Takano said, even though he could barely keep his tone placid. Ritsu took a long breath before replying and slowly looked him in the eye.

"Takano-san…I want to say that…I truly appreciate everything you've done for me during my pregnancy. Without you, I don't know that the babies would even still be alive, and I thank you for that."

Takano's amber eyes widened in shock, but he quickly masked them.

"Well Onodera…they are my children too."

"Yes, they are. And…And I'd like t—to talk to you about that. You see, I know these past few months I've been a burden to you, but I—"

"Ritsu," Takano cut in desperately. "You've never been a burden on me. Not once. I need you to know that."

"I—I know Takano-san, but there's something we need to talk about…as adults."

Takano swallowed hard as he struggled to fight against the overwhelming sense of melancholy that was descending on him. He knew what Ritsu wanted. He wanted to leave…and Takano knew he couldn't take that kind of rejection again. And yet, he knew that Ritsu had his own life to lead. He'd have children to raise, probably with An and his father's help. Hell, they would certainly be better than he would. And even though he'd fought to keep Onodera Ritsu in his fists for so long, Takano realized now that his blind desperation was no longer an option.

For the sake of the man he loved, and for the sake of their children, he know had to do what killed him the most.

He had to let Ritsu go.

"Ritsu," He said, lifting his weary eyes. "I understand. Do what you have to do for yourself….and the twins. But no matter where you go…please remember that I love you. And I always will."

Ritsu felt his lip part in shock as he saw Takano lower his head, refusing to look up. The misery of it lit a spark, not just in his brain, but his heart. With a slight shiver, Ritsu moved to the other side of the couch and placed a hand on Takano's knee. Only then did the man's gaze rise.

"T—Takano-san," Ritsu said, trying to keep the tremor out of his voice. "You—you misunderstand. I…I don't want to leave this place…and I don't want to leave you."

Takano chin rose as he beheld with wonder words he thought he'd never hear.

"Takano-san," Ritsu said, tears gathering in his eyes. "I…I want to stay by your side…if you'll let me. I want to try it again…l—l—loving you."

Ritsu coughed uncomfortably as those last few words left his clenching throat, and he hurriedly averted his teary eyes, blushing all the way to the tips of his ears.

Two large hands slowly rose and gently took the sides of Ritsu's face, tilting it until he was staring into warm pools of amber, also shiny with moisture.

"Ritsu," Takano murmured. "Do you mean that?"

"Yes." He breathed back, closing his eyes as he felt Takano's warm breath on his lips. Their mouths touched and Takano gently kissed him, breathing in his scent and feeling the warmth of his skin. This was not the apparition of Oda Ritsu he had imagined so many times. This was the real thing.

And because of that, Takano knew that things needed to go differently this time. As much as his passion fired inside, he knew that Ritsu's confession made him as fragile as an eggshell. Ritsu had made himself incredibly vulnerable, and Takano vowed he would not abuse that again.

After a short, gentle kiss, Takano unlocked his lips, his fingers stroking Ritsu's damp chestnut hair.

"Ritsu," He breathed. "I love you."

The smaller man gave him a tiny smile of acknowledgement, but kept silent, having used up all his confession energy. But Takano understood.

"And because I love you, I want things to be right between us. Everything is going to be different this time. I know it may take you a while to truly love me back, and I accept that. You take as long as you need Ritsu, I'll be here. But in the meantime, let's do things the way we should have done ten years ago."

Gently releasing Ritsu's head, Takano stood and motioned to him with a smile.

"Go get dressed. We're going on a date."

With a slight look of bewilderment, Ritsu nodded and headed to the other room to change. And as soon as the door shut, Takano let a tear that he'd been holding back fall, which he wiped away with a smile of pure joy.

Whew! Here we are at last. The big emotional confession: the finishing point of the Hatsukoi story (in theory) but the beginning of so much more! Thank you all for being so patient with the updates and thanks a billion for your reviews. I know this chapter is a big one for everyone, and I hope it met the expectations of all.

And next up, we have a bit of fluff with a Nostalgia date followed by a couple other nice, sexy things ;) Stay tuned!

With Love,