A/N: First of all: Happy birthday, Masamune-san! :D Please read Volume 8 Chapter 8 first.
AAAAND…this would be a long A/N. You could skip it of course, but I would be grateful if you spared some time to read this part.
The main reason I wrote this fic was to address my own conflicting opinions about SiH. I hate to admit this, but I'm starting to really hate this series. It's romantic and funny and entertaining, yes. But it also propagates some values and ideologies that I would never want my future daughter to have, if ever I have one. I'm afraid for all the young girls out there who may absorb the very disturbing ideas (not-so)subtly interlaced in this manga.
This fic is an alternative to Volume 8 Chapter 8. It's about Onodera and Takano finally addressing the very precarious and ambiguous relationship dynamic between them. For this reason, it's very dialogue heavy. This is the tangent I've been hoping Nakamura-sensei would take, although I doubt she ever will. After all, the current oppressive and abusive tone benefits the sales part of SiH. It may not matter at all, but here's my take.
The elevator doors shut and Onodera dreads the onslaught he's sure will come.
"What time did you go to bed last night and what time did you wake up this morning and what time did you eat breakfast and what did that breakfast consist of?" Takano says with one unbroken breath, his face deadpan.
This irks Onodera more than he can voice out. That twinge, again. That small fire with an unexplainable source igniting at the back of his mind. "Ugh. What's with the third degree?"
In response, Takano grabs his face and presses his cheeks together, rendering Onodera unable to speak properly. "Like a little kid," Onodera thinks. Instead he says, "Yesh?"
"If I don't keep tabs on you like this, you'll wind up just keeling over again!" Takano reprimands him, obviously irritated. "Exactly like a little kid," Onodera amends in his head. "Plus, Isaka-san's backing me up on this, so give up."
"He's my boss at work, not the boss of my life," jabs Onodera's mind again. "And neither are you." What comes out is, "You really don hab to. I know my libits now, I'll be fine on my own."
He sounds ridiculous, and even he can't take himself seriously like this. "And please, led go of me!"
Instead of complying, Takano's grip clenches tighter. "Little jerk, is that any way to speak to someone you owe a debt to?"
"I'll be all ride now, so led go of me—" Onodera struggles, then he snaps. "Ngh, why are you being so insistend?!"
That's when Takano's head drops to kiss him. As always, Onodera is taken by surprise. But what surprises them both is Onodera forcefully turning his head away and pushing Takano off, hard.
"I said, let go," Onodera breathes out, more shocked than angry.
Takano steps forward, looking at his subordinate like he's a kid throwing a tantrum. This is the wrong move. Onodera steps back and spits out, "I'm fine. I'm not a goddamn five year-old kid. Stop looking down at me."
"You just called me an idiot with a bullshit manuscript. So let this idiot fix it," Onodera says, for lack of better escape plan. That twinge again—it's suffocating him, and he desperately needs some air.
Takano uses his unguarded moment to close the distance and take Onodera's face in his hand again. This time, the hold is gentle. "I've said many things in the past," Takano starts, running his thumb across Onodera's cheekbone. "That was me pushing you to work harder, to be better. That was me being your boss. This is me being your friend—I've never looked down on you."
Instead of the perpetual protestations, the editor-in-chief gets a small smile. Somehow, this makes him feel worse.
Onodera walks out of the elevator and Takano follows suit. Onodera collapses at the visitor's couch, as if all energy has gone out of him. "Why is it that when I'm with you, I feel so small?" the words are broken and tired, and his stare at Takano unbearably sad. "Maybe it's my fault. I've let myself feel small beside you. You cast a very large shadow, Takano-san. You always have."
When Onodera shuffles through the automatic doors, Takano feels the urge to break the damned glass and pull him right back in. He doesn't know what keeps him rooted on the spot.
Given the morning's awkward exchange and the fact that he just had dinner with Haitani, Onodera has no idea what to say to the sullen Takano waiting by his doorway.
"Good work today…" he manages, and the moment it tumbles out they both know it's bullshit. So Onodera does the worst next move: he babbles some more. "Umm, that was quite rude of me before…I'm sorry. It's just, when you called, I'd only just finished eating dinner."
"Why am I making excuses?" That voice in his head again. Lately it's becoming too bothersome. With nothing more to say, Onodera fumbles, "Uh…um…"
Time to bail out. "You're kind of in the way. Can you please move?"
"Onodera," Takano firmly cuts him off. "Why were you with Haitani?"
Onodera feels the weight of unreasonable guilt on his shoulders with the forlorn look in Takano's eyes. Like somehow it's him who's on the wrong side. "We…We just ran into each other by coincidence on my way home. He'd invited me out and I felt it would be rude to refuse him…"
"I told you not to hang around him, didn't I?" Takano says mildly, standing up.
"Honestly, there's no need for you to keep harping on about him, really. Hey—" Onodera feels a sharp tug at his arm. "Wait!"
Takano Masamune never waits. Instead, he slams his apartment door wide open and shoves the Onodera inside. It hurt. That spark is back, and it's ignited an explosion within Onodera. "What are you doing?!" he shouts indignantly.
"Why don't you ever listen to what I tell you to do?!" Takano shouts back.
"Because there's no reason for me to!" Onodera quips, feeling every bit a juvenile teenager. This only makes him angrier.
"Listen up," Takano rebukes him, every bit a tightly-wound parent. "You might not understand this—being the pampered little prince you are—but there's no telling what's going through Haitani's head!"
Onodera's mouth opens immediately, and Takano stands waiting to counter the argument he's sure to hear. But like this morning, it doesn't come. Onodera closes his mouth and looks away, rubbing his face with his hands. When those green eyes snap back at him, they're filled with something that takes Takano by surprise. Because he's seen embarrassment, determination, fear and frustration in those eyes, but never defiance.
"And there it is," Onodera finally says, tone icy calm and level. "You've never seen me, have you? Never seen me as an equal, never seen me as a man."
It is Takano's turn to open his mouth, and shut it again. That's not how it is. He hates that for the first time, he can't find the words to convince Onodera otherwise.
He hates the treacherous part of him that whispers, "It's true."
"I'm just that to you, a pampered little prince," Onodera barrels on, his fury descending on him. "A sheltered little idiot, whose delicate self-esteem depends on you scribbling an A on his report card. Newsflash: I lived ten years without you. Maybe I'm not some hotshot editor-in-chief who takes no shit from his parents, but you have no right to tell me what I can and cannot understand."
Takano can't stand it, the tears held in check, the way Onodera's throat trembles in the effort to contain his emotions. Like his feelings make him weak, and he's resolved not to trust Takano with any of his weaknesses anymore.
"Maybe you're right," he continues, his gaze on the floor and his voice gone dangerously soft. "Maybe Haitani-san is a terrible, manipulative bastard who wants to hit on me just for the kicks. Since everyone gets away with it, that tends to happen a lot." Onodera runs his fingers through his hair and chuckles cuttingly, as the sharp sting of his words sink in.
"Look at me," Takano thinks, but is unable to ask. Why can't he just come out and say it?
Nevertheless his silent plea is answered. Onodera looks him straight in the eye and says, "Or maybe I'm right. But what I do is my choice, and I'm choosing to leave now."
He really should've known Takano's next move. Onodera yelps when his boss pulls him back, grabbing the same forearm he grabbed and bruised earlier. Not noticing, Takano crushes their lips together. Onodera succumbs for a while—Takano's kiss is not something he can ever think clearly through—but when he comes to his senses he pushes him off.
Those gray eyes lock him in place. "Stop running. If you love me, face it."
"Who says I love you?" Onodera says out of spite.
"Don't you?" Takano counters evenly. "Then…" he takes Onodera by the wrist and rests his hand on his chest. "Tell me that you hate me. Reject all that I am."
As always, when confronted by this, Onodera is stumped. "I…"
"If you don't hate me, why do you refuse me?" Takano charges on. The assured authority in his tone bolsters Onodera's resolve, and he says something he never even knew he thought.
"Because you can't do that! You can't walk all over me and then shove me down your bed and fuck me!" Onodera answers vehemently, his voice so scathing that Takano's hand falls as if burned.
"I never meant to offend you," he states calmly. "I'm doing my best to keep our professional and private lives separate and I thought that's what you wanted."
"I'm not asking you to give me special treatment," Onodera snaps. "Don't you understand? I can handle it. I can handle the workload, I can handle the criticism, I can handle being an adult. I can't handle you looking down at me."
Onodera starts pacing the room. "That's what it always comes down to, in the end," he adds bitterly. "It will never matter how many hours I spend in overtime, how many books my authors sell. It's only my last name that matters."
Takano placates him instantly, an inexplicable unrest settling on the spot where Onodera's hand was. "I've told you before, it's not your fault you were born with a head start. You're the privileged heir of the Onodera family. That's who you are, but that's not all you are."
"I do believe that. But I want to know," Onodera stops in his tracks. "How can I know if I can't see myself? I left my father's company because I'm standing in my family's shadow…and now I'm standing in yours."
The tension hangs heavily in the air and something drops inside Takano. He doesn't want to hear what he's hearing in Onodera's silence. It's as if the end of his sentence is the edge of the world. Call him coldblooded, call him unbreakable, but not even the almighty tyrant of Emerald is going to survive the fall. This is the ultimatum, the last chance he's ever gonna get.
"Don't," Takano says resolutely, closing the distance between them. "Look at me," he silently pleads him. Because he's finally found the right words—the truth he needs Onodera to hear. "I see you. You can stand in anyone's shadow and still be so bright you're all I'll ever see. That is the reason why I love you."
And then it comes out—the hope, the fear, and the first thing Takano thought when he realized he's still in love with Ritsu Onodera. "Don't walk away from me."
Takano's eyes fall close and he rests his forehead on Onodera's. Onodera sighs and lets their weight fall on the wall behind him. He's always thought he's too scared to make his own choices. He never truly believed he had a choice. And now he knows. It's awfully simple, and completely clear to him.
But when he says the words, they're a promise. Because the road he's going to choose is not an easy one.
"I won't. Never."
Takano pulls back, eyes wide and reveling. Before he loses his nerve, Onodera pulls his head down and kisses him long and deep. When they finally pull apart, he hangs his head on Takano's shoulder and they say nothing, just listening to each other's heartbeats receding.
It's not okay. It's not okay because Onodera is trembling with fear, inside and out and always. It's not okay because Takano is trembling too, and unlike what most people believe, he doesn't have all the answers and he doesn't have it all together. It's not okay because they're growing together and drifting apart and there is still an ocean to cry and bleed before whatever could be between them will be. It's not okay.
But it's gonna be.