Junta is pitching, and it's odd, Kazuki thinks, that it feels remarkable. For most of his life that behavior's been an axiom: birds fly, fish swim, and pitchers pitch. (Catchers do more than catch—they guide the infield, read the batters, work closely with the coach—but pitchers are different. A law of nature, or at least a law unto themselves.)
But winter break started yesterday, and Christmas is soon. The gym should be empty, not occupied by a lone figure puffing clouds of white in the cold air.
Kazuki lingers at the door for a while, watching. Junta's expression is a little different; the crease in his brow is there like always when he pitches, but he doesn't hunch his shoulders as much. He holds his wind up for longer than usual before throwing the ball, as if taking the time to feel his body inside his skin.
"Hey," Kazuki says. "Do you want a partner, or are you okay just pitching at the catch net like that?"
Junta jumps, and his head swivels to find the source of the voice, owl-like. Kazuki smothers a laugh. "You're pitching," he points out.
Junta raises an eyebrow, his breath coming a little fast. Kazuki can tell that he's twisting the ball inside the hollow of his glove. "Yeah," he says. "And you're my catcher, so come catch for me."
Kazuki snorts, but since he was offering anyway, he puts on his catchers' gear and walks with Junta towards the bullpen they normally use. "Why are you still at school?" he asks. "We're on winter break."
"I could ask you the same thing."
"I forgot something," Kazuki says. "I came to get it."
Junta gives him a look, clearly not believing him. Kazuki gazes back, noticing how red his cheeks are in the cold; they're indoors, but the school turns the heat off when no one's there. Knowing how much Junta hates the cold, he thinks he couldn't have been here for very long. "This is the time we normally have practice," Kazuki guesses.
"Is it?" Junta blinks at him, wide-eyed, but Kazuki knows him too well by now.
"I knew you were a creature of habit, but I didn't know it was this bad."
He cocks his gloved hand on his hip, waiting for Kazuki to finish settling into position. "I'm like you," he says, "I just forgot something. I was almost done for the day when you came."
"Sure," Kazuki says, "let's just do a few pitches, then." Junta stands the set distance away, waiting for Kazuki to send him signs, he knows. Kazuki doesn't. "Pitch whatever you want," he says.
Junta stares at him. "What?"
"You're stuck in your routine, right? So I want to shake you out of it," Kazuki says. "Pitch whatever you want to me. I'll catch it."
"That's no different from pitching at the catch net," Junta protests.
Kazuki doesn't bother replying, just slams his fist into his mitt and holds it out.
He's half-expecting a sinker, some kind of punishment for lying and not owning up to it. When Junta throws a fastball, and not a particularly fast one at that, he's not too surprised either; it's just like him to be lazy in protest.
Still, it makes a good sound in Kazuki's mitt, the sound ringing clearly in the still air of the gym. Kazuki throws it back. "Would you rather pitch to the net?" he asks again.
Junta stares at him for a long moment, and then throws another pitch. A curveball, a little harder this time. It cracks loudly against Kazuki's mitt, and he starts to grin a little.
"The season's over," Junta says, and the smile fades. "I thought I wouldn't see you here anymore."
"You make it sound like I died," Kazuki says. He throws the ball back.
Junta's brow is furrowing again. He pitches another straight, a ball this time. Kazuki has to stretch a little to reach it. When his eyes return to Junta he sees that his eyes have gone wide.
He hesitates before throwing the ball back, waiting until Junta's mitt comes up. "I'm going to go a good university," he says, "you should apply," and throws it back.
Junta throws a sinker this time but an easy one, one that Kazuki doesn't have to dive to catch. "I still have two more years of high school," Junta replies. His voice sounds brittle. "But you're not going to play baseball there, right?"
"I'm not," Kazuki murmurs.
Junta looks away.
"Did you know I'd be here?" Kazuki says, to catch his attention again. He throws the ball back.
"I heard from Shimazaki," Junta says. He's twisting the ball in his glove again, staring down at it. "He says the captain usually comes back and cleans the gym on the first day of winter break."
Kazuki doesn't say anything.
"Between the two of us, who's the one stuck in the routine?" he asks.
Kazuki sighs. "All right," he says, "You caught me."
A smile pulls at the side of Junta's mouth. It's another beat before he looks up.
"Give me a sign, catcher," he says.
Kazuki pauses for a moment, considering, before he flicks his fingers. Junta grins.
"I knew it," he says.
He throws the fastball again with all his strength. Kazuki traces the familiar arc with his eyes, and the shock of it meeting his glove makes his fingers go a little numb. It's deeply satisfying: his favorite pitch to catch.
Junta comes over then to help Kazuki strip out of his catcher gear. "The next time you'll see me pitch is from the bleachers," Junta says.
"You guys will do fine."
Junta pulls his shin guard free, and then presses his hand to where the light plastic covering was. "Kazuki," he whispers.
He really did wait for me, Kazuki thinks. He wanted one more time. He kneels down in front of Junta, pulling his hand away to hold in both of his. His hands feel like they burn against Junta's cold skin, and without thinking he blows on the hand he's trapped in his fingers, trying to warm it.
When he looks up, Junta's eyes are wide.
"I'll still be around," he says, his voice warm with amusement. "You still have my phone number, don't you? Aren't you still coming over for new year's?"
Junta nods, then leans forward and presses his forehead to Kazuki's shoulder.
"I'm freezing," he says at last.
Kazuki laughs and wraps his arm around Junta's shoulders, pulling them both to standing. "Help me clean up, and then let's walk home together," he replies.