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Another Time, Another Place

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Mitsui cracks his knuckles, more out of habit than genuine threat, but the kid takes it as one. That's good. Maybe he'll actually make a little money here without too much hassle. Tetsuo always tells him he's too soft.

"You play baseball, right?" Mitsui says. His face is hidden by the mask and he's not wearing his bridge. It makes his mouth feel weird and uncomfortable, and who's he trying to impress anyway? "A real sportsman."
 
The kid nods and swallows, his eyes darting from side-to-side. Maybe he's just nervous, maybe he's looking for a rescue, who knows? Who cares? Mitsui cracks his knuckles again.

"Do you think they'd kick you off the team if they heard you were fighting?" Mitsui steps in, grabs a handful of the kid's shirt, leans in just enough that it's dangerous or promising, depending on a person’s outlook. "Or I can start other rumors about you." 

The kid sucks in a breath, and Mitsui knows he's hit a sweet spot, something a little too close to home. Tetsuo might think he's too soft, but he's not; he just doesn't like to waste energy.
 
"If you want, I can make this all go away." Mitsui pulls his face mask down and grins. "For a price."
 
One of the doors in the alley opens and someone tosses a bag of garbage into a dumpster. Whoever it is glances in their direction, then does a double-take.
 
"Mitsui?"
 
Mitsui's been running with his gang for so long that he sometimes forgets there was a time when he didn't. He hates being reminded of back then, hearing the roar of the crowd inside his own head, of his teammates thumping him on the back and calling him MVP. He forgets there was a time when people expected big things from him, and he likes it that way. Everyone, even his own mother, has given up on him now.
 
But memory is funny that way, and sometimes he can't help think about what might have been, but wasn't.

Seeing Kogure makes his whole body freeze up, his fingers going slack on his target's shirt. The baseball kid steps back and runs away as fast as he can. He's got good legs, Mitsui vaguely notes, watching as the guy's heels disappear around the corner.
 
"What was that?" Kogure asks and sighs. He's wearing an orange apron over his clothes, the name of the combini in the shopping center stamped across his chest. They haven't seen each other in a year or more, not since Mitsui barely scraped his way out of Shohoku and Kogure went off to Jindai. He looks good – still goody-goody, but tall and fit, and way too concerned for Mitsui's well-being. That's always the same.
 
Mitsui jams his hands deep into his jeans pockets and snorts. "Who are you, my mother?" Then he turns around and walks off, not turning around even though he can feel Kogure watching him. The hair on the back of his neck stands up.
 
*

A couple of days later, Mitsui’s back at the shopping center. There’s no reason for it, really. It’s nearby. He’s always there. Mitsui shoves his hands deep into his pockets and runs his tongue over his fake teeth. Today, he’s not wearing his mask.

He’s slumped against a wall when the back of the combini opens and closes again, and Kogure comes out into the alley. Kogure reaches under his glasses and rubs at his eyes. He looks tired. University and working are probably a lot together, not that Mitsui knows or cares. Kogure reaches into his apron and pulls out a pack of cigarettes –
Bats, Mitsui thinks. He watches as Kogure cups his hand and lights one up, then calls out, “Don’t you know those will kill you?”

Kogure doesn’t even look at him. “Who are you, my mother?”

Mitsui laughs and strides over. He grabs the pack of cigarettes out of Kogure’s apron and takes one for himself; Kogure leans in close and lights it for him. He wonders when Kogure started this. Is it because of university stress? Or did he pick it up after Shohoku lost to Shoyo in the district tournament? Mitsui remembers seeing the way Akagi’s giant shoulders slumped for weeks afterward. He never said anything to him at the time, no words of comfort. Why would he?

They stand around smoking, though Kogure’s better at it, as much as Mitsui hates to admit. The smoke burns his lungs and he can’t breathe it in right. He knows Kogure can tell because he smiles every time Mitsui exhales, his smoke looking nothing like the smooth plumes Kogure creates. When Mitsui finally drops the end onto the ground and grinds it into the pavement, Kogure’s watching him with a look that’s somehow both calculating and friendly.

“Want to go someplace else?” Kogure asks.

Mitsui shrugs. It’s not like he has anywhere else to be.

Kogure smiles and reaches behind his back to unknot his work apron. He struggles for a bit and Mitsui tamps down his urge to help. Instead, he thinks about trapping Kogure’s arms behind his back himself and wonders if Kogure would even resist.

*

The street courts aren’t what Mitsui had in mind. His heart thumps hard and blood rushes through his ears as Kogure sweet talks a couple of kids into borrowing their ball.

Kogure starts dribbling and throwing frees, missing one, sinking another. He doesn’t pass to Mitsui, just lets him watch as he goes outside the key and jumps up for a three-pointer. It misses, hitting the rim and bouncing back to the ground.

“I never could get that,” Kogure says. “Anzai-sensei was always nice about it, but we both knew I have no real talent for the game.”

Mitsui’s mouth is dry. He swallows and runs his tongue over his teeth.

“I couldn’t give Akagi his dream,” Kogure goes on. He sighs, then smiles. “This year, maybe they have a chance, if Miyagi can keep everyone in line.” Now he bounces the ball to Mitsui.

Muscle memory kicks in and Mitsui has a basketball in his hands for the first time in god only knows how long. He lets out a shaky breath and starts to dribble the ball from hand to hand, moving slowly around the court. He feels weird as he does an easy layup and it’s not only because he’s in jeans and the soles of his shoes are nearly worn through. Mitsui’s hair is in his eyes, and his legs feel slow and heavy, and Kogure is watching him, and it’s all too much.

“Fuck!” Mitsui yells and throws the ball as hard and as fast as he can, until it’s rattling against the chain link fence. If this bothers Kogure, he doesn’t show it, jogging over to scoop up the ball and toss it back. Mitsui stares at Kogure. “What do you want?” he asks.

“You know everything I want,” Kogure says. His glasses have slipped to the tip of his nose and he pushes them back in place with the side of his hand.

Mitsui narrows his eyes. He should drop the ball and leave; he should turn around and forget he ever saw Kogure. They never even played together, nothing more than a few practice games their first year at Shohoku. This shouldn’t matter, not really, not at all.

“Show me that shot,” Kogure says.

Mitsui slowly dribbles the ball, positions himself just outside the key for a three. He raises his hands up and leaves the ground, rolls the ball off the tips of his fingers. And it’s easy – it’s natural, he feels like he did when he was fifteen and won the championship.

His shot goes in.

Kogure isn’t watching the ball. “Beautiful form,” he murmurs, and Mitsui feels lost.

*

He tries grounding himself again by crowding Kogure against a wall next to the bathrooms. It’s daytime and anyone could see, but Mitsui has nothing left to lose. Kogure lets Mitsui kiss him, opens his mouth for him easy as anything, spreads his legs so Mitsui can fit one of his in between. He tastes like the cigarettes he probably now smokes too often.

The slide of their mouths, wet and open, feels unlike any other kiss Mitsui’s ever had. He hates it because he feels out of control, and he loves it because he feels out of control, and he keeps kissing Kogure over and over, rocking against him until he’s groaning and whimpering. Mitsui breaks away on a gasp and rests his forehead against Kogure’s shoulder, and Kogure mumbles, “Mitsui,” into his hair.

After he comes, he doesn’t check to see if Kogure has, he just heads into the bathrooms to clean up. Kogure’s still there when Mitsui comes out again, still wearing a patient, concerned expression. His mouth is used and red.

“This wasn’t a good idea,” Mitsui says.

Kogure shakes his head. “No, it wasn’t.”

*

It’s a while before Mitsui goes back to the combini again. But he does.