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One thing Kazuya has found difficult, in the transition from high school to university, is the beginning of the semester falling after summer tournament season, when he’s used to term exams chasing hot on the heels of either a victory or a loss. Soon there will be a slight chill in the air, wind grazing his throat like the icy fingertips of someone fresh from a wait at a bus stop. So he relishes the remnants of summer weather as he leaves his last class of the afternoon to head for the Izumi Library.

Kazuya’s got a little time before practice, which starts back up today, and he’ll need to make the most of it. He’s always too exhausted to get anything done after running laps and batting exercises; not even to mention that Kuramochi’s dedication to procrastination via Mortal Kombat is a force to be reckoned with, in those last late evening hours before bed.

Kazuya often wonders why he continues to share an apartment with his high-energy teammate, when most of their shared cohabitation is Kazuya cooking and Kuramochi yelling and attempting to tackle him for something rude he’s said offhand. It is, Kazuya supposes, with a wry grin he hides behind the collar of his jacket, the path of least resistance.

At the entrance, he flashes his ID card to the girl working the help desk. She blushes, waving him through. Thinking about it, he does vaguely remember her from a writing course he took last spring. She’d sat on the other side of the classroom, but she’d stared at him a lot. Kazuya hadn’t encouraged or discouraged the attention, he never does, but it seems she expects him to know who she is, so…

He settles for nodding at her with a quick smile, before he shuffles over to his favorite table, dropping his things and quickly retrieving the books he’d looked up last night from the shelves.

With the reality of the autumn tournament starting in less than a month, and the loss of their ace pitcher, Kazuya knows he needs to get ahead on his work now, before the easy three hour practices extend to a grueling five. He’s sure, already, that breaking in a new battery, even if he’s not the starting catcher yet, is going to turn free time into a distant memory.

It’s worth it, of course. Kazuya loves baseball.

Still, school is important, too. With that in mind, he hunches over his books and gets to work.

He manages to progress uninterrupted on his journalism project for a grand total of forty-five minutes in one of the open alcove reading rooms, which, honestly, might be a new record, before distraction personified comes bumbling into the library to dog his heels.

"Knew I’d find you in the library, you hermit. Did you ever study this much in high school? Go out and make some friends or something."

Kazuya looks over at Kuramochi out of the corner of his eye. "I thought you said my personality was too twisted for friends." It’s probably true, too. Kazuya’s sense of humor is apparently an acquired taste. Kuramochi has just been surprisingly stubborn over the years. "What do you want?"

"The rest of the new kids are coming on Monday," Kuramochi singsongs, plopping down next to Kazuya at the long wooden desk, legs splayed and hair sticking up messily in its usual style. "The ones who couldn’t make it for the summer season."

"They’re not kids," Kazuya replies, not bothering to look up. "They’re college first years, thankfully. I got my fill of babysitting in high school."

"You loved it." Plucking at one of the textbooks Kazuya has stacked up beside him with disgust, Kuramochi grins. "You’re a control freak. It’s probably been unbearable hanging out at the bottom of the ladder again, with no one to call you senpai or captain." He curls his tongue around the last word in a noisy imitation of Sawamura, and Kazuya’s stomach twists at the unexpected nostalgia.

"With how shitty your batting was last month in practice, you might as well call me senpai." Kazuya smiles broadly, and straightens the sloppily stacked books in front of him just to do something with his hands. "Maybe if you show me that kind of respect, I’ll deign to help you out."

"I’m not one of your pitchers." Kuramochi scrunches up his face, finally settling, resting his cheek in an open palm. "And you definitely aren’t captain anymore. I don’t have to put up with your garbage."

"Yet here you are, uninvited, putting up with my garbage," Kazuya replies.

"I need better taste in best friends."

"And in hair products." Kazuya taps his fingertips on the edge of the table. "I do actually have work to do, you realize."

"How?" The cute library assistant, surrounded by volumes needing to be returned to the long open access shelves in the back, is giving them dirty looks, and Kazuya sighs resignedly, staying her wrath temporarily with his most charming smile. He then sets down his pen and gives Kuramochi his full attention. "Class started Thursday. How can you possibly need this many books?"

"I asked for my work in advance in two of my classes." Kazuya sweeps his hair out of his face, and then pushes up on the nose-bridge of his glasses. "Our ace pitcher and two of our reliefs graduated, you know, and we better pray Assistant-Coach Numamoto managed to recruit two or three good ones because the third years are a grim prospect in that regard. No one wanted to come here when we already had a star pitcher and two solid closers, knowing they wouldn’t get much time on the mound."

"You talk like you’re already the starting catcher," Kuramochi jokes, stretching his arm out across the back of Kazuya’s brown leather-upholstered chair with a fake grimace. "God help us all."

Kazuya smirks. "Matter of time. Haven’t you read all six articles about me this summer?" He selects three books from the pile for the presentation he knows is going to be due in three weeks—had class always gotten into swing this quickly? "Ichinose’s captain, but he isn’t going pro; he’s applying for law school, and I’m the best of the underclassmen catchers. Either way, I’ll be working with whomever Numamoto has reeled in, and it takes time to build a battery. Hopefully it’s someone who doesn’t shake signs."

"So you’re doing your homework like a good little university student so you can whip a new ace into shape?"

"I do have to keep my scores above a certain level to keep my scholarship." Kazuya rolls his eyes and tucks his notebook into his bag, dropping his pen and highlighters into his bag. "My dad can’t really afford my tuition if I fuck up my grades and don’t pass above the regulation minimums. So. Planning ahead, I guess."

Kazuya’s not terrible in school, really, he just doesn’t particularly shine. He’d chosen Meiji University for a lot of reasons, and academics had been near the bottom of the list despite the sterling reputation. Even choosing a major with its freshman and sophomore classes at the Izumi campus had been about baseball, not interest. Even so, as long as he picks his classes wisely, he’ll be fine. He can make grades good enough to keep everyone off his back.

"I forget you have a dad, sometimes." Kuramochi’s eyes narrow, considering, trying to read something in Kazuya’s face, but he seems to decide on letting it go. "Well, Mister Responsible Student, we’ve got thirty minutes until we’ve gotta be out on the practice field to meet the assistant coach for our first pre-season meeting. Chop chop, don’t make me late."

"Or what, you going to Grand Octopus strangle me?" Kazuya arches one eyebrow disdainfully. "No one asked you to come pick me up."

"We’re roomies," Kuramochi replies. "It’s the principle. Besides, I wouldn’t want you to be late to newbie interrogation and hazing day—I mean, new club member introductions." He cackles loudly, and the cute library assistant, no longer pacified enough by Kazuya’s apologetic grins to overlook Kuramochi’s enthusiasm, stands up from her seat behind the help desk, hands already on her hips.

"I think you have a new admirer," Kazuya murmurs, and then quickly slides up from under the table, snatching the books he needs to check out and heading toward the front desk, leaving Kuramochi to get chewed out by the assistant on his own.

He smirks when, after he’s handed over his university ID to the bored student behind the main computer, he looks over his shoulder to see Kuramochi stuttering and blushing as the tiny girl speaks to him in quiet, terse tones, leaning into his space. Still no good with girls,, he thinks, victoriously, before heading outside into the brisk cool afternoon.

Kuramochi catches up with him halfway back to the apartment as he’s passing Tsukiji Honganji temple, collaring him in a painful headlock that has Kazuya listing down sideways. "You haven’t grown enough to make this remotely comfortable," he says, and Kuramochi drags him down harder.

"It’s not supposed to be comfortable, you dickbag! You just abandoned me!"

"Well, you know, I’m not the captain anymore." Kazuya pries Kuramochi’s arm from around his throat. "I don’t have to put up with your garbage." He shoots him a smug look. "Besides, she looked like your type. It’s not my fault you’ve got no charisma."

"I hope you die alone," Kuramochi mutters, digging for his ID in his pocket as they approach their apartment building.

"Don’t worry, I will," he fires back, with a wry grin.

Kuramochi looks disapprovingly at him over his shoulder, still rooting around for his ID. "Don’t say it like that. It makes me want to encourage you or something, and a man who gets confessed to as often as you do should never need to be encouraged."

"As if I want someone as hopeless as you to encourage me." Kazuya flicks his own ID out to admit them to the building, moving past Kuramochi and over to the elevator, passing by the narrow stairway that he makes sure to climb during the offseason for extra exercise.

"Lazy," Kuramochi says, but he doesn’t move to take the stairs either, and Kazuya smirks.

"Not always," he replies. "Hardly ever." He flexes his arm, making the muscle pop. "Don’t get jealous."

"The fact that you could crush a man’s skull with your thighs does not mean you could defeat me in a wrestling match, Miyuki!" Kuramochi angrily punches the button for the fifth floor. "Don’t test me!"

"Hmmm," Kazuya hums, then grins. "Well, then I guess it’s super lucky for me we have fifteen minutes to get to practice, and you don’t have time to beat me up!" Kuramochi swears, and Kazuya laughs. "You can run if you’re scared of the assistant coach~!"

"Numamoto’s not that scary, but Maeda usually looks like he wants to wear my skin as a coat." He pulls out his phone to check the time. "Goddamnit, Miyuki! You could make a stopwatch late!"

"One of my many talents!" Kazuya agrees. "No one told you that you needed to come get me, Kuramochi."

"Yeah, yeah," Kuramochi grumbles. "Whatever. Next time I’ll leave you in the library to die."

"That’s the spirit." Kazuya’s smile gets a bit wider. "You don’t need to go out of your way to be considerate to me. I won’t do it for you."

"You’re such an ass," replies Kuramochi, as though he’s talking about expected weather, his voice flat and bored. "Why do I live with you again?"

"Maybe you’re a masochist." The elevator dings, and they step out into the long hall. "You should advertise that. Might get you a date with a fun girl." He unlocks the door. "Should I help you?"

"If you put an advertisement up on the campus search-and-find for a dominatrix," Kuramochi growls, "and list my phone number as the contact, I will bury you alive under home plate at Meiji Jingu so you can die there, tethered to that spot, your spirit-self ignored by pitchers for your entire stay in the afterlife."

"Harsh!" Kazuya cackles as Kuramochi shoves him through their front door. "But probably worth it."

"You’re dead to me," Kuramochi says, and amused, Kazuya mentally calculates how late they’ll be if he keeps prodding Kuramochi. Probably too late to skate by on Numamoto’s beginning-of-the-season good will.

"Hurry up," Kazuya teases, already pulling off his shirt and trying to remember where he’d left his clean practice jerseys after he washed them last week. "You’ll make us late!"

Kuramochi swears again, and Kazuya cackles as he rushes through his preparations for practice, happy to return to this daily routine.

The first weekend of practice passes in conditioning, the remains of last year’s first string running drills under the grueling late August sun as Maeda watches them, offering criticisms in a perfectly even, unchangingly grim tone that has every single one of them pushing themselves a bit harder.

"I can’t be this out of shape," Ichinose, Meiji’s team captain, mutters to Kazuya, shaking out his left leg, then his right, after their six kilometer run. "How am I this out of shape?"

"Coach is just channeling his inner demon lord," Uchida mutters. "It’s because the managers aren’t here, so he doesn’t even have to pretend to be nice."

"It’s also significantly less attractive out here without Takarada and Kumai," says Kuramochi. "We have the best managers."

Shirasu, the only other member of Seidou’s team that had taken Meiji’s offer, grunts in agreement. He’s smiling a little, though, softening the usually unreadable expression into something obviously amused, and he runs a hand through his freshly cut hair as he looks up to check the position of the sun.

"I dunno," Ichinose says, pulling at the neck of his jersey with one finger to ostensibly let air in. It’s hot enough that most of them had forgone compression shirts, and Kazuya’s as relieved as Ichinose looks to be one of that number. "Those girls pressing their faces to the fence do brighten practice up a little."

"Yeah but they’re all here to look at this tool over here." Kuramochi gestures to Kazuya with his thumb. "Their horrible taste makes them significantly less attractive. Takarada would rather spit on Miyuki than date him, and that’s why she’s my favorite."

"I thought Kumai was your favorite," Ichinose replies, grinning.

"I don’t know if she’d rather spit on Miyuki than date him, and that’s my criteria at the moment."

Kazuya snickers, and opens his mouth to retort with something about the girl at the library last week who’d clearly wanted to burn Kuramochi in a ritual fire, when Maeda calls across the field at them, his mild tone threatening immediate demotion back to second string for anyone not lined up in front of him in the next fifteen seconds.

"Maybe I should go back to the second string," Sanjo groans, and Ichinose smacks him lightly upside the back of the head. "Sorry, captain."

The thing is, second string doesn’t have it any easier. Hasegawa, a former second string pitcher who’d been promoted before the summer tournament, who Kazuya’d worked with when he’d first started at Meiji, still has his second string pre-season conditioning fresh in his memory. His reminders of the equally punishing schedule faced by second-string players, an experience shared by most of the first string’s current players thanks to Meiji’s policy of throwing even their most promising candidates into the second string for the summer, make them slightly less envious, despite Numamoto having a much softer touch in the practices he leads.

Kazuya and Kuramochi practically stumble their way home from practice Sunday night and both of them are in bed before nine.

"It’s just light practice tomorrow, right?" Kuramochi mumbles into his takeout an hour later, his hair wet and floppy from the shower. "Light practice and first years?

"Light practice and first years," Kazuya confirms. His muscles ache, but he’s not nearly as tired as Kuramochi. He’d spent most of his summer break at home in Tamagawa, and without countless brothers and people demanding his time like Kuramochi’s got, there hadn’t been much to do beyond work out and watch celebrity cooking shows.

"Still," Kuramochi says, "it’s nice to be back at practice. Time off always feels so weird."

Kazuya would describe time off from baseball as empty and pointless. He knows even pros get an off-season, though, so he might as well get used to the lulls that had seemed so much shorter in high school then they do now. It might, Kazuya admits to himself, have something to do with the fact that school breaks had been short, and even when they weren’t practicing, Seidou’s baseball team had lived in the dorms save for the few weeks they had off every new year. It was hard to be bored or lonely surrounded by that team, and Kazuya had gotten accustomed to noise.

Breaks are really, really quiet these days, because Kazuya’s not all that close with his new team. Maybe he hadn’t realized he was close with the old one until he’d left it.

"I’m ready to get back on the field," he says, instead of all that.

"You’re always ready," Kuramochi agrees, offering Kazuya a small, tired smile. "Baseball nerd."

"That’s the pot calling the kettle black," says Kazuya, and, in solidarity with the metaphor, gets up to make a pot of tea.

Naturally, on Monday afternoon, they’re running late. Kazuya’d been held up by his physiology professor working out a backloaded assignment schedule that would work around the tournament season, and he’d run into Kuramochi, red-faced and out of breath, outside their apartment building. "Oh ho? Are you late?"

"Ugh, I took extra time to finish my lab work today! And anyway, you’re late too! You probably don’t even have an excuse! It’s not like you can claim you overslept like you do for seventy percent of our morning practices, either, you bastard!" Kuramochi looks him up and down, taking in Kazuya’s casual, relaxed appearance. "You didn’t even hurry to get here, did you?!"

Kazuya winks at him. "I don’t run if I don’t have to," he replies, but then his phone is vibrating in his pocket with his alarm, signaling that they’ve got twenty minutes before they have to be at practice. He and Kuramochi share a mildly panicked look before they’re letting themselves into the building and taking the stairs two at a time, in too much of a hurry to wait for the elevator.

"Look who’s running!" Kuramochi says, pulling his keys out of his bag.

"Maeda will kill us both if we’re late in front of the new first years and promoted second-stringers," Kazuya replies breathlessly, and Kuramochi grunts his agreement as they rush in to change.

They dump their school bags and change into their practice uniforms quickly, grabbing their gear bags and heading back out before even ten minutes have passed. It’s a ten-minute walk out to the practice field, or a five minute jog, and Kazuya, when he checks his phone, notes that they’ve got thirteen, so they don’t even have to jog.

"I guess we won’t be seeing any familiar faces," Kuramochi muses, filling in the silence as Kazuya blinks carefully, eyes still adjusting to his contacts. He’d considered not even bothering with them today, but it’s bright, and he doesn’t know what kind of pitches he’s going to have to catch, if they’ve even got a new reliable pitcher. He hopes they don’t get any knuckleballers. "Little Kominato started playing in the minors after spring training, and Furuya’s taking a year before going pro, training in the States with a AA team while he recovers from that sprain, right?"

"Yes, he’s found a few more catchers he can work with, it seems." Kazuya hides a small smile at the thought of Furuya by tilting his head back, staring up at the changing gingko leaves, greens fading to browns and golds. "Not that there was a doubt, after being in a battery with me, of course."

Furuya is a great pitcher. He’s finally learned to control those wild fastballs a little, and Kazuya won't be surprised to see the guy pitching at the highest levels of the sport in a few years. There’s a drive in Furuya that revs to full power when he’s pitching, and it’s a real treat to catch for him. It’s fun, and Kazuya loves fun pitchers. He’d been spoiled at Seidou, really.

They still exchange e-mails pretty often; Furuya reporting a list of stats and issues and Kazuya replying with reminders for Furuya to look after his health and tips he's picked up from watching other pitchers in university that Furuya will stubbornly try to bend to fit his own style. Not the most personal of letters, but he knows it's Furuya's way of keeping in touch, and Kazuya appreciates how non-invasive it is. Furuya gets Kazuya the same way Kazuya gets Furuya.

Kazuya’s always thought Furuya was easier for him to connect with because Furuya knows the importance of the distance Kazuya keeps between himself and the rest of the world. They understand each other in that, having tasted isolation and deeming it a worthwhile cost for being the best at what they love. Furuya makes sense, to Kazuya, for all that their personalities aren’t very alike.

"Yeah, yeah, pretty boy catcher," Kuramochi says, bumping him with an elbow as they pass by the temple again, this time from behind as they enter through the West Gate. "Your talent was definitely your strength as a mentor, hands down."

"What can I say? A good catcher makes a pitcher better."

"And speaking of pitchers!" Kuramochi crosses his arms behind his head. "Have you heard anything about what Sawamura is gonna do this year? I haven’t talked to him in a couple of months, and he’s been pretty quiet on our LINE group chat."

The LINE group chat Kazuya’s not on because he’d never bothered to download the app in the first place. That should clue Kuramochi in on how well Kazuya’s keeping up with anyone, to be honest.

"Not really." Kazuya starts to walk a little faster. "He went back to Nagano after graduation in March, according to Chris. I guess they keep in touch."

"And you don’t?" Kuramochi looks surprised, but Kazuya doesn’t know why.

It’s not like he and Sawamura were secretly ~best friends forever~, or even really got along all that well personally. Sawamura, unlike Furuya, treats emotional distance as a nuisance and takes everything literally. He’d been fun to wind up and let loose on the team, and Kazuya’d found it generally entertaining to watch Sawamura blow his top over whatever the team had decided to taunt him about for the day, but for the most part, what he and Sawamura’d had in common was their battery, and without it, there was never much to talk about.

Besides, Sawamura is notoriously shit at replying to texts, and Kazuya is even more shit at sending them in the first place even when he does care, so Kazuya didn’t even bother to get Sawamura’s number when he graduated. He only knows the kid’s still alive because Chris keeps up with both of them, checking in on Kazuya once a month like a distant but doting uncle and reporting on Sawamura’s exploits in far too much detail.

It’s Chris that Sawamura’d really bonded with on a personal level. Kazuya, honestly, has never really been into the puppy type of underclassman. If watching Sawamura’s eyes sparkle at Chris’s every word had made him a little jealous, it’d been primarily about the fact that he couldn’t get even a quarter of that respectful obedience out of the brat for himself outside of play. Then again, he was never really sure, with how funny it was when Sawamura was rude, that he even wanted it.

"Why would I need to know what the idiot’s up to?" Kazuya makes a point of relaxing his shoulders and raising his eyebrows. "I don’t really need someone else to yell at me daily when I already have you, Kuramochi."

"I thought you were kind of fond of him." Kuramochi sucks his teeth. "You’re cold, Miyuki."

"As ice," Kazuya agrees, letting the size of his smile close his eyes halfway.

"Man, I’ll bet a lot of places wanted Sawamura, though. Hell, I wonder if he got recruited back in Nagano?" Kuramochi snorts. "Our hidden gem of a first year turned into a great big sparkling pitcher for someone so completely dense, didn’t he?"

"I guess you could say that." Three no-hitter games last regionals as the starting pitcher in a battery with Okumura, when Furuya'd been out with another damn sprain, Kazuya thinks. A second trip to Koushien where he'd managed to keep the opposing team scoreless for the entirety of the nineteen innings he'd been in pitching over the course of four games. "He cleaned up the control on those moving fastballs pretty well."

"I guess."

Yes, Kazuya thinks, despite the blasé response. He’s fairly sure someone’s putting Sawamura on the mound as a starter in the spring if he hasn’t flitted off to the minor leagues, after all that rapid and noticeable development. Mine Fujio at Monthly Baseball Kingdom had written up a huge article on his potential that Kazuya’d skimmed a few times, and there’d been the Sports Nippon mention that had done a side-by-side of Sawamura and Furuya as Seidou’s double-aces last spring, too, that had made Kazuya want to get another look at Sawamura’s cutter from behind the plate. Kazuya would have liked, maybe, another year with the kid, to see how that particular eye-catching flower bloomed, or maybe even...

Well, it doesn’t matter. Meiji is a Big6 school. They’ll get a good pitcher, this year, hopefully, since Maeda’s been aggressively looking. Someone who’ll finally be able to challenge Mei at Waseda as long as Kazuya’s leading them, if they get lucky. Numamoto had mentioned trying to reel in someone Kazuya in particular would like, and Kazuya trusts Numamoto as a coach, so the pitcher is bound to be at least Kazuya’s type; someone with a good range.

He’s really hoping it won’t be someone as abrasive as their former ace, Gousho, who had irritated the sports journalists, and graduated with a chip on his shoulder and no offers from the minors. Kazuya has always hated pitchers that shake signs, and Gousho had steamrollered Ichinose more than once during important games last year.

"You guess?"

Kazuya blinks, returning to the conversation. "Maybe Okumura is just making him look good!"

"Hah! Maybe! Let's just hope we don’t end up facing that loud and optimistic guy in a practice match in two weeks, ha! He’d yell us into a loss!" Kuramochi scratches his nose. "Unless he was drafted and I missed it?"

"I followed the NPB draft last October, and Sawamura wasn’t even an available pick. He’s not on there for this year, either, so far." Kazuya twists his lips into a mocking smirk as he looks over at Kuramochi. "Maybe he’s given up on professional baseball entirely." Kazuya sincerely doubts that, since Sawamura’s most redeeming quality is that his enthusiasm for the sport drives him to seek extreme challenges. "More likely, though, is that he went home until the minor league season starts up again in the spring. It’s probable that his core still isn’t quite strong enough for the majors yet."

"How would you know? You haven’t seen him pitch in person in forever, especially if you haven’t even talked to the guy. Maybe he just didn’t want to get drafted by the Hawks. They’ve got priority draft pick this season." His friend tucks his hands into the pockets of his Meiji jacket, the cursive navy letters dragged out of shape from the pull. "Actually, don’t be a jerk about this, but I was thinking that it’s kinda weird that we don’t really know what a lot of our ex-teammates are doing. I mean, I know Sawamura ate sushi last week because of Instagram, but I have no idea where he’s playing ball. If he’s playing. That’s weird."

"Why is that weird?" Kazuya licks his dry lips, and then rubs at his temples. He’s so tired. He’d found himself staying up too late last night, long after Kuramochi had passed out like a worn out toddler after a play date, and watching a horrible documentary on the mating habits of tropical fish as he planned out how he wanted to organize all his time-sensitive classwork projects around tournament and practice matches. He’d ended up with his whole semester planner filled out with carefully pencilled in blocks of study and working, and a slight migraine. "We’re busy."

"Not that busy." Kuramochi squints at him. "Although don’t think I missed that you filled out that whole planner last night with imaginary deadlines like the overthinking asshole you are instead of sleeping." He bumps Kazuya with his bag. "It’s not that hard to keep up with people, is it? I already feel bad about not being as close with everyone."

"Feel bad?"

"A foreign concept for you, I know." He laughs. "It’s just, in high school, it felt like our teammates were… I don’t know, it felt like we’d be together forever or something, fighting for victory, but now, it’s already starting to feel like a memory."

"It already happened," Kazuya drawls, turning his cap sideways as he eyes Kuramochi incredulously. "How can it be anything but a memory?"

"That's not what I meant!" Kuramochi hunches forward, leaves crunching underfoot as his steps turns shuffling. "Like, huh, I’ll always remember our teammates, our seniors and our underclassmen, you know? But there’s already so much distance. We’ve stuck together, you and me, and Shirasu, since we're still on the same team." He pins Kazuya with an oddly intense stare. "When’s the last time we’ve really seen anyone else, though? I mean... Even with the chat, Seidou is so firmly in the past, or something. It was home, but now it isn't?" Kuramochi laughs, suddenly looking a little self-conscious. "That’s kinda heavy, sorry, I know you hate that kind of thing."

Kazuya scratches at the nape of his neck, fingers catching in the long hair there while he tries to figure out how to reply.

The truth is, Kazuya's never really associated much with the idea of home. Home has always been a fractured, temporary thing, and he'd always known Seidou wouldn't be any different, even if he'd fit in there better than he ever had anywhere else.

The space between himself and everyone else never feels more necessary than when it’s time to say goodbye.

Swallowing that thought down, he looks over the upper edge of his glasses to meet Kuramochi’s eyes. "Ah," he says, playfully, "did my roommate sound like an adult just now?" He keeps his tone light and taunting as he shoots Kuramochi his biggest mocking grin. "I didn't know you were really capable of introspection."

Kuramochi flushes delightfully, as expected, distracted from his gloomy thoughts. Kazuya loves it when he can rile Kuramochi up, and not having to continue talking about losing touch with their friends from high school is a definite bonus. "You're such an ass."

"It's a gift." He dodges Kuramochi's attempt at another headlock. "Since we’ve got four minutes, I’m going to go and get a drink; I’ll be there in a few."

Ushering Kuramochi on ahead with a hand between his shoulder blades, Kazuya veers off, toward the small convenience store frequented by the team at the edge of campus. The track team, in warm-up shorts despite the early fall weather, are clumped outside the door, guzzling Aquarius like they’re dying of thirst. They’ve clearly run here from the other end of campus. In the spring, sometimes the coach has the baseball team do laps with the long-distance runners, so Kazuya has a passing familiarity with their faces; enough to wave, at any rate.

Kazuya navigates past them, nodding in greeting to the guys he’s positive he recognizes and easily skirting the tiny panting firsties. He heads straight to the back where the canned coffee is lined up underneath the rows of saran-wrapped onigiri, and snags a can of his favorite. It tastes, in his honest opinion, like engine fluid might, but it’s got a clean aftertaste and doesn’t leave him feeling dehydrated. Perfect for before practice, even if today’s won’t be physically grueling.

"Missed you last month," the clerk says, when he sets a can of Boss on the counter, unzipping his baseball bag to pull out the small coin purse he keeps in there for coffee and sports drink purchases.

He drops two 100yen coins on the counter and smiles at her. "No practice for about a month after the summer tournament," Kazuya tells her. "I left campus."

He'd ended up visiting his father's house-- cleaning, sleeping, cooking, and preparing for the upcoming semester with the break. It should have been relaxing, but Kazuya’s always done better with games on the horizon, his time stretched thin with practices. Empty hours remind him mostly of middle school, and he can’t really claim to want to be reminded of middle school, when kids had bullied him about everything from his feminine face to his mouthy attitude to barely being able to afford his uniform.

"Oh," replies the clerk. Her last name is Uehara, Kazuya thinks. Ichinose had mentioned after practice once that she’s nice to everyone, if he’s recalling correctly. "You from far away?" She drops four 10yen coins into his open hand.

"Not really. Just the outskirts of Tokyo, at the edge of Setagaya-ku."

"And you didn’t come back at all?"

"Had other things to do." Kazuya withdraws his hand away quickly when he notices hers is lingering. She's looking at him through her eyelashes, too, blushing. She's cute, he supposes, the same way the girl in the library earlier was cute, or the managers are cute. Kazuya has practice, though, and no time for flirting, especially when Kuramochi isn't here to get jealous about it. "I'll see you next time."

"Of course! Have a good practice!" She waves, and he adjusts his cap again, scoops up his coffee, and walks back outside. The usual team latecomers are trickling down onto the practice fields, so Kazuya picks up his pace, not wanting to make a scene by getting to the gate as one of the managers tries to close it. There isn’t a real penalty for being late, since players have to come from all corners of campus and both assistant coaches are aware that some classes don’t let out until fifteen to the hour, but their managers always tease him if he gets there even one minute after practice begins.

He slips in right at five. Takarada Seira, the only manager in Kazuya’s year, gives him an amused smile as the student center clock chimes faintly in the distance. "Cutting it close, Miyuki?"

He waggles the coffee can in her face. "I need sustenance to deal with first years."

"We’re only second years, you know." Takarada pushes her bangs out of her face. "You probably just pulled another of your infamous all-nighters."

"It’s true; I was thinking of you, and I couldn’t sleep." He follows that up with a sleazy grin and an over-exaggerated wink.

Takarada stares back, patently unimpressed. "Do you practice those lines on me because you know they’re ineffective, or…?" She rubs her palms on her jeans, shaking her head at him. "Get in here so I can shut the gate, Miyuki."

He offers her a jaunty wave, then proceeds down to the benches to drop off his bag. He probably won't need his gear until after the new players have been introduced, he reasons, changing his shoes anyway before abandoning the rest next to Kuramochi’s stuff.

The ground is soft under his feet. It’s been over three rainy weeks since summer training camp ended, and Kazuya’s just glad the whole field isn’t puddles, really. Otherwise they’d be spending more time in the gym, and as much as Kazuya respects strength and resistance training as part of their regimen, nothing compares to being out on the field.

Kazuya easily finds a capless Kuramochi’s wild haired silhouette out on the far practice diamond, where he’s standing next to Shirasu, and he weaves his way through a cluster of outfielders toward them, still holding his coffee. He pops the top as he stops next to Kuramochi, acknowledging Shirasu briefly before he looks back toward the gym.

"Coach is inside filling out safety forms with the new players," Shirasu informs him, face smooth and blank. "Even with the new players, it’s still a small intake year, according to the managers. We only got seven players who are really in contention for first string, meaning we’ll have a total of thirty-six before selections."

"Seven?" Kazuya taps the arm of his glasses. "That's not too bad. We lost ten to graduation and the pros, right?"

"Right," Kuramochi agrees. "I know we met four of them already during summer camp, but the other three… Who knows? We need a pitcher and a solid center fielder to beat anyone but Tokyo, considering the underclassman hitters the other teams showed off last year." He grins. "Toudai is going down no matter what."

"Poor Toudai," Kazuya grins like a shark. "Hasn't been anywhere but last place in the Big6 in sixty years. They haven't learned the true joy of sports scholarships after all this time."

"Hidokoro and Narumiya are hard to beat as a battery, too, considering how familiar they are with each other," Shirasu says, frowning at the memory of batting against them last year. "Waseda’s the overwhelming favorite for the spring already, especially with those two Korean players. Thank goodness they didn’t get Hongou."

Hongou Masamune, another pitching prodigy, is headed straight for the MLB. He’d been plucked right out of Waseda’s hands, and they’d had to watch him forlornly disappear across the Pacific wearing a Baltimore Orioles cap. Kazuya bets Mei is actually ecstatic about that. He’s never liked standing even with anyone else, and Hongou is one of the few pitchers that can match him on innate talent alone. Kazuya’s not sure how Mei is ever going to cope with the majors, where he’ll be a talent but not an unrivaled one.

"How we do this season is going to depend on a lot of factors." Taking a sip of his coffee, Kazuya scans the field, eyes lingering on the C Club Gym when he sees the doors opening. "Primarily, though, we need a pitcher I’ll be able to work with--" He stops on the last new player bounding out the doors like an unbroken baby stallion, talking vibrantly with the coach, arms waving in the air and voice carrying annoyingly across the field. "Shirasu, tell me truth: Am I having a lucid nightmare?"

"Miyuki, what're you..." Kuramochi stops too as a loud laugh rings out across the field. "I’m gonna throttle him!" His expression is caught between snarl and smile. "I’m gonna throttle him until he’s blue in the face, and he can put that on Instagram!"

Curling his hand around the can of coffee, letting the chill of it bite, Kazuya blinks to clear his vision. One of the figures approaching them, walking backwards across the grass while babbling at another, smaller newbie who looks patently overwhelmed, and wearing a sideways Seidou cap and a bright yellow shirt, doesn’t disappear just because his contacts are a little less dry. Kazuya swallows around a sudden and unexpected tightness in his throat.

Kuramochi is now vibrating with excitement beside him, neck cracking as he surveys the incoming first years, a chuckle low in his throat. "That fucker!" he crows. "He didn’t say anything!"

Kazuya’s grip on the coffee can tightens, crushing the aluminum slightly, and he can feel the involuntary grin splitting his face at the messy haired pitcher now standing six meters from him, bouncing back and forth from heel to toe with that familiar determined glint in his eyes.

He listens with half an ear as the coach introduces the other first years-- none are from Seidou, though he recognizes two others from various other Tokyo high school teams, not well enough to put names to the faces but enough to remember that one of them is a leftie at bat and another hits a lot of efficient grounders.

His focus remains, though, on Sawamura Eijun. He's taller than when Kazuya last saw him, more than a year ago. Probably taller than Kazuya, and definitely over 185 centimeters, at least, with broad shoulders and big, sun-freckled hands, and though he still has that wide, childish grin, the beginnings of true manhood are evident in the emergence of his cheekbones and in the faint stubble barely visible along the line of his jaw, patchy and the same rich brown of his hair.

"We also have one new pitcher," Numamoto, their assistant coach, says, looking pointedly at Kazuya and Ichinose in turn. "Introduce yourself, Sawamura."

"I'm Sawamura Eijun from Seidou High School!!!" He bows sloppily, his cap falling to the ground and hair flying in every direction as the wind blows gently, making the gingko trees whistle outside the fences. "I’m 186 centimeters tall, 78 kilograms, and I have recently learned I am allergic to bees! I’m gonna be Meiji’s ace, and you’d better anticipate it! Please take care of me!" Then he looks up, and meets Kazuya's eyes. He beams, and Kazuya, still surprised, still achingly and unfortunately amused, smiles back at him more genuinely than he means to.

"That fucker," Kuramochi says again, and Shirasu makes a quiet, pleased hum as Kazuya keeps his gaze locked with Sawamura's.

"Well, well, well," Kazuya murmurs, bringing his marginally crumpled coffee can up to his lips and taking a long final swig, draining it. "Practice is going to be significantly noisier from here on out, isn’t it?"

"Is that a pitcher you can work with?" Shirasu asks, a hint of entertained pleasure at the corners of his lips, and Kuramochi smothers his laugh behind his hand as Ichinose grills Sawamura about what he can throw, Sawamura overly-enthusiastic in his bragging responses. "Hmm, back-up catcher?"

"Eh." Sawamura as a person, well, that, Kazuya can take or leave. Sawamura as a pitcher, though… Plenty of talent, plenty of potential. Perfect for Meiji, with a mound that might as well be empty and Kazuya waiting in the catcher’s box. "He’ll do," replies Kazuya, catching Sawamura’s eyes again, and taking pains to ignore the tiny flutter of excitement in the center of his chest.

It lingers, though, even after Numamoto has dragged him and the other first years off toward the second-string bull-pen. Kazuya thinks it’s because he can hear Sawamura’s cheerful yells over everything else, reminding him of times he’d thought were behind him.

They don’t get a chance to speak until the very end of practice. Sawamura’s face is a furious pink from some arcane combination of too much exertion and shouting. The color extends all the way down his throat and across his collarbones, revealed by the stretched out neck of his practically ancient T-shirt.

"Don’t give yourself a heart attack on the first day," Kazuya says, and Sawamura, who’d been digging through his bag for his water bottle, tossing things messily about in an achingly familiar way, looks up at him with puffed out cheeks and furrowed eyebrows. "Yelling that much is no good for your blood vessels. They’ll burst."

"Shouting expresses determination!" Sawamura’s expression relaxes back into a grin. "And I have excellent circulation!" He flexes, and Kazuya raises both eyebrows when the muscle stretches at the material of the old yellow tee, threads turning pastel under the strain where it pulls too tight around his biceps. 78 kilograms, he’d said in his overly informative introduction, and Kazuya thinks it must be entirely clean bulk. "Aces need both of those things!"

"Your shirt’s too small." Kazuya looks away from Sawamura, out to where both Shirasu and Kuramochi are finishing batting practice with two other second years. He should say something else, probably, about Sawamura being here in the first place, but he still hasn’t figured out how he feels about it beyond weird. "Sort of like your brain."

"Ah, Miyuki Kazuya, you haven’t changed at all, have you?! You’re still such an asshole!" Sawamura jolts up, leaning into Kazuya’s personal space, pointing at him aggressively enough that Kazuya takes a careful step back just in case. "Aha, but you have to catch for me now!"

"That’s what catchers do, evidently," Kazuya agrees, lips twitching at Sawamura still calling him by his entire name. Poking at Sawamura tends to have that effect on Kazuya. Narrowing his gaze behind his sunglasses, he takes in Sawamura’s conflicted expression, his new height, and the way his hair is still just the same under that blue baseball cap, worn straight forward, the bright red and yellow ‘S’ facing Kazuya head on.

"Yeah, but you always want to weasel out of it!" Sawamura leans back. Kazuya hadn’t realized he’d been holding his breath. "Not this time! This time you’re going to catch for me!"

"Practice is over," he says, taking another step back to protect his hearing from Sawamura’s overexcited stuttering response of "Who cares?! Catch for me anyway!". "I don’t have to catch for you in my free time, you selfish first year."

"I’m going to be such a good pitcher you’ll want to catch for me, Miyuki!" Sawamura’s yelling has caught the attention of several other players coming in from fielding practice, and they’re all looking at him incredulously. Kazuya’s smirk is in true danger of becoming a genuine smile. "Bastard!

"Shouldn’t that be Bastard-senpai, Sawamura? After all, you’ve made yourself my underclassman once again…"

"Of course I did! How else am I going to make you pay for always catching more for Furuya than me?!" Sawamura pulls a face. "I’m totally going to become the ace faster this time, so you’ll have to keep catching for me until your hands fall off!"

"How Spartan." Kazuya swallows, Sawamura’s words branching out to a hundred different possible meanings. Picking up his gear and circumnavigating the contents of Sawamura’s half unpacked bag, Kazuya easily gives Sawamura one of his more irritating smiles. "Don’t tell me you came all the way to Meiji so that I would be obligated to catch your pitches, loudmouth."

"I got offered a place here and it’s got nothing to do with you! You’re just a bonus!" Sawamura doesn’t look embarrassed in the least, which is faintly impressive. Kazuya needs time to gather his strange, scattered thoughts, away from this noisy mess of a person. "I have two new pitch variations to add to the numbers, so you better be prepared to—"

"Show me tomorrow, then," Kazuya says, cutting him off. He pulls on the brim of his cap, twisting it. Two new pitch variations? Kazuya can see that moving fastball repertoire sprawling out before him, offering up so many options in-game. That four-seam and that change-up running the numbers that Sawamura already had in high school alone will totally change their defense in the upcoming season, and if he’s added something else interesting…

"You’re always like this," Sawamura grumbles. "Putting me off." He scowls down at Kazuya, somehow once more inside his personal space bubble. He’s definitely taller than Kazuya now, making each one of those five centimeters count. "We don’t have practice tomorrow, Miyuki Kazuya!"

Kazuya licks his lips, annoyed, noting that Kuramochi and Shirasu both are coming back in. Kuramochi looks ready to pounce.

"Obviously, Sawamura." He flicks his gaze back to Sawamura. "Your senpai is generously offering a part of his free afternoon to examine your new pitches."

Sawamura’s eyes widen with delight, along with his mouth in that open, stupid looking grin that makes him look like he’s moments from screaming like a five-year-old. His whole face transforms. Kazuya never ceases to be amazed by how transparent Sawamura truly is. "Name the time!"

"Five, then," Kazuya says. He doesn’t wait for a reply, leaving Sawamura there to get Grand Octopus strangled out of earshot.

Someone falls into step beside him, and when he looks, it’s Takarada again, carrying a clipboard under her arm. "He’s interesting," she says. "Sawamura, I mean."

Her statement is underscored by a scream from behind them, and Kuramochi’s familiar cackle.

"There are only two settings for Sawamura." He adjusts the weight of his bag, considering a second coffee. "Loud and louder. He’s also obtuse, annoying, and embarrassingly enthusiastic about, well, pretty much everything. But I won’t deny that his pitching style is exactly what I was hoping for, and..." Kazuya hesitates. "Ahh, well, he can be seriously hysterical to work with. He has a way of really changing the atmosphere, even if it’s just because he’s doing something humiliating."

"He does change the atmosphere," Takarada agrees immediately. "After all, that smile when you saw him was one I’ve never seen before. Sure you’re not fond of him, Miyuki?"

"Stockholm syndrome as the result of dormitory life in high school," is Kazuya’s glib reply, but Takarada doesn’t seem to buy it.

"This year is going to be fun, isn’t it?" Takarada laughs, tucking her hair back behind her ear. "As a manager, all I can say is that he might be just the thing to liven this team up."

"He always is." Kazuya hooks his fingers into the metal gate, looking back over his shoulder at the clustered people on the field. "That’s probably his greatest personal talent. Livening things up."

"Livening you up, too?" Takarada asks. Kazuya doesn’t dignify that with a response, and pretends he can’t hear Takarada’s laughter as he heads home, knowing he’ll hear about ditching Kuramochi later.

Kuramochi texts him thirty minutes after he gets back to their apartment, letting him know that most of the team is going over to Uchida’s for drinks to welcome the new club members. Kazuya declines, as usual, and Kuramochi sends back a yellow and pink bear emoji of disgruntlement. Kazuya considers ignoring it, but instead texts back looks just like you and then plugs in his phone to charge.

He takes a long, indulgent shower, washing his hair and thinking about his journalism project. He’s doing it on baseball, naturally, and focusing in on Koushien coverage as a social mania. It sounds impressive enough, and it’ll give him a chance to finally sift through last year’s Koushien stadium tournament footage and figure out who other schools might be picking up this intake season.

He knows Todoroki Raichi was picked up by Fukuoka in the draft, and that he made ichigun in April after spring training, but he doesn’t know where any of the other rising stars of Furuya’s cohort were headed after graduation season in March. Fewer ball players have been choosing the university route in the past couple of years. Kazuya himself had only done it because his injury reminded him of the importance of a back-up plan, but people like Raichi are destined to go out and challenge more experienced pitchers, play the highest stakes games.

But if Sawamura isn’t going pro yet, maybe there will be a few other surprises among the Big6 teams’ new recruits.

When he gets back to his room, he doesn’t even spare a look at his abandoned homework, knowing his concentration is probably shot for the day in the wake of Sawamura’s unexpected entrance. So instead of staring blankly at his texts, trying to read ahead, Kazuya grabs his phone, plops down on his bed, and calls Chris.

There’s no answer, so he ends up playing online shogi with Tetsu for over an hour, mindlessly defeating him over and over again. Neither of them utilize the chat option, and haven’t over the past two and a half years, but it’s interesting that despite having moved on with his life, Tetsu’s still found a way to challenge Kazuya to a match from the other side of the country on a regular basis.

Chris returns his call a little before nine, after Kazuya’s eked out minimal progress on his physiology homework and watched three clips from this year’s Japan-USA game.

"Did you know Sawamura was coming to Meiji?" Kazuya asks, as soon as he answers the phone.

Chris's reply is preceded by a small noise that passes for his laugh. "He mentioned he was considering it when I asked him why he was studying so hard."

"You didn't think I'd want to know?" Kazuya lies back on his bed, staring up at the bottom of Kuramochi's. His mind keeps wandering back to Sawamura's happy, amazed face when Kazuya agreed to catch for him tomorrow. What is Sawamura doing back in Kazuya's hair? Still, he can’t help but chuckle, remembering Sawamura’s flustered face as Kazuya teased him.

"It didn't really come up?" The tone of Chris's voice is as close as it gets to outright laughter. "I would have told you if you’d asked about him, but you didn’t. It’s not so bad, is it? You’ve always found him intriguing as a pitcher."

"I've spent a whole year recovering from the constant headache that is Sawamura’s personality, and now he's landed in my lap again." And damnit, Kazuya thinks, he sounds way too pleased about it. He doesn’t like being transparent.

"Has he shown you his improved pitch control yet?" Chris asks, changing tracks, and Kazuya grips his phone tighter. "There are a couple of new variations, and he can send them consistently to all four strike zones without error. Plus, over the summer he converted that cutter of his into something more like a slider. It’s more of a hard slider, right now, but it’s close to being ready."

"So he’s been with you, not back home, huh?" Sawamura had gone back to Nagano, probably, but then he’d found his way to Nagoya, where the Chunichi Dragons are based. It was silly to think Sawamura wouldn’t find some way to play baseball with Chris over the long break. He always finds his way back to Chris, like a bird returning from the south in the spring. "He's been working with your team, then?" Chris can't have that much free time, as the main catcher for a professional team.

"He was invited to our developmental training camp this spring since he was unattached to a program. My coach wanted to sign him on for the Diamonds this year, in prep for the Dragons next year, after watching him work with us for barely a week."

Kazuya blinks. "Really? Then what is he doing here?" Major league is what Sawamura's frequently said he was aiming for. To pass up a chance to play for a minors team... And the eventual chance to pitch as part a battery with Chris in the ichigun... "I'm not going to lie, I've never seen Sawamura as the university type."

Memories of Sawamura and Furuya both pulling their hair out over exams has him chuckling again. The kid probably only survived classes at Seidou thanks to Kanemaru. Meiji’s not a pushover as a university student, so even with a sports scholarship and lowered standards for academics, Sawamura’s still got to pass.

"I'm not entirely sure what the reasoning is," admits Chris. "He was surprisingly... close-lipped about it." He clears his throat, pretending seriousness, but Kazuya can still hear the laughter as easily as Chris must hear his. "Anyway, I'm leaving his development to your discretion, Miyuki."

"Furuya is easier to work with." It's a half-hearted complaint at best, and he knows it. He blames it on being tired. It’s hard to muster up a suitable amount of disdain for Sawamura’s sheer…. Sawamura-ness on three hours of sleep. Instead, Kazuya kind of wants to just smile.

"Last season didn’t go well for Meiji," Chris replies. "Sawamura can change that with his presence, no matter why he's there."

"He told me I have to catch his pitches now." He loosens his grip on the phone, grinning. "Demanding little punk."

"Of course he’s going to be."

"Because all pitchers are?" Kazuya wrinkles his nose, lips twitching. He likes pitcher egos, most of the time, and Sawamura’s is usually pretty entertaining.

"It’s more that he's always wanted you to catch for him, Miyuki. He respects you as a catcher, because you were the first person who showed him how important a catcher can be for a pitcher. And…" Chris audibly hesitates, this odd intake of breath all the more noticeable for how rarely Chris gives away hesitation.

Biting his lip, Kazuya closes his eyes, his grin slipping slightly. The nosepieces of his glasses dig into the skin. "Whatever it is you want to say, you should say it."

"Sawamura has become accustomed to fighting for acknowledgement, after years of being considered second-best to a pitcher he’s mostly caught up with," Chris eventually says.

Kazuya can so clearly recall Sawamura in front of him, sweaty and angry and yelling at Kazuya about how people want to be praised when they're doing well. "So?"

"Meiji doesn’t have a strong pitcher. He'll be your starter. When you work with him, you need to acknowledge him from the beginning. Don't compare him to the pitcher he used to be, or to Furuya. He isn't either of those things, but he’s definitely a product of them."

It's a long speech from Chris, whose answers are usually far more succinct, bordering on stoic. Chris can get longwinded, though, about things he’s passionate about. Sawamura has been one of those things ever since Kataoka paired them up four years ago to pull Sawamura up from mediocre to starting quality.

More than that, though, Chris understands Sawamura, or at least how to reach him, far better than Kazuya does. Kazuya wonders if he'll ever truly learn how to deal with a pitcher like that, all emotions and instinct, without needing Chris's help to navigate. "He should have stayed in Nagoya with you," Kazuya says. "Not that I can’t use him, but I’m not the touchy-feely sort and I’m bound to be hopeless with him if anything goes awry."

"And I am the touchy-feely sort, then?"

"You’re soft with Sawamura." Kazuya turns his head at the sound of a knock at the front door. "I’m not soft with anyone. I’m not a teacher or a babysitter."

"Sawamura’s grown up in the past couple of years, Miyuki." Chris pauses. "He’s still a little bit of an idiot, but he’s definitely matured."

"I don’t see it," says Kazuya, getting out of bed to stand in the doorway to the bedroom and watch the front door. Now there’s the sound of a key scraping at the lock. Kuramochi’s trying to open the door with the wrong one from his ring. "Still a brat to me!"

"I think..." There's a shout of Takigawa! in the background, and Chris sighs.

"You think…?"

"I think you should stop trying to figure out why Sawamura’s there, and think about what a daring catcher like you will be able to do with that array of fastballs." As Kazuya processes that, Chris sighs again. "I have to go. I have a workout with my trainer now."

"Thanks for the advice," Kazuya replies. "If not for the gift."

"You’re welcome for both," he gets in reply, and he lets Chris end the call as Kuramochi comes stumbling into the apartment, tipsy and flush.

"You are here! Why didn’t you open the door?" Kuramochi’s words are slurred as he shuffles over toward the bedroom.

"Didn’t feel like it." Kuramochi rolls his eyes as Kazuya grins at him. "Have fun?"

"You should have been there," Kuramochi says. "The first years are hilarious. Sawamura drank Ichinose under the table; it was fucking amazing!"

"Really? He doesn't look like the type that can hold his liquor," replies Kazuya, walking around Kuramochi and into the kitchen to get to the refrigerator. He takes out the water filter and pours a cup full, returning to the bedroom and pressing it on Kuramochi, who has made himself comfortable on his bare desk, listing dangerously leftward towards Kazuya’s desk.

Kuramochi's lips split in a liquor-lazy grin as he grips the cup. "Maybe it's just that Sawamura is rambunctious enough regularly that I can't tell the difference between drunk and sober."

"Likely," Kazuya replies, adjusting his glasses.

"I took a photo of Shirasu passed out on the kitchen table, though." Kuramochi starts feeling around for his phone. "Where--? Shit!"

Like clockwork, Kazuya's phone starts to ring from somewhere in the sheets of his bed. When he collects it, the caller registers as Kuramochi. "Looks like it didn’t wander off far, lucky for you."

"Someone found it, thank fuck," Kuramochi says, taking a long draw of the water.

Snickering as water spills down Kuramochi's chin, Kazuya answers his phone. "Dumbass roommate phone retrieval center," he says dryly.

A breathy huff of laughter on the other end of the line. "Miyuki Kazuya, you sound even pettier over the phone."

That flutter again, in his chest. Kazuya thumps a fisted hand against it. "What's it going to take to get you to remember the senpai, moron?"

Sawamura's chuckle in reply is lower than Kazuya expects it to be. "Where do you live?"

"I’m definitely not handing that information over to a first-year pitcher," Kazuya drawls. "You’ll be at my door demanding I catch for you day and night."

"I need to return this phone to its rightful owner," whines Sawamura back. "Stop being a jerk and give me an address so I can hurry up and go to bed. I know you live close to the practice fields so I’m already headed in that direction."

"Kuramochi deserves to have his phone left outside somewhere. How about on the field? I hope it rains." When Kuramochi kicks at him, barely missing Kazuya’s shin, he reluctantly concedes defeat, rattling off an address. Sawamura makes an exasperated half screech half triumphant squeal into the mouthpiece before repeating it back, and it’s loud enough that Kuramochi can hear it, face contorting with laughter.

"This Sawamura Eijun is on his way!" He sounds super-determined.

Kazuya envisions Sawamura running to their apartment, three tires attached to him by the waist, and barely swallows down a belly laugh. "Delivery service? Maybe there's hope for you yet on the respecting your elders front."

Kuramochi fist-pumps, but he uses the hand holding the cup, and water splatters all over him. He yelps, and Kazuya knows his vindictive sneer is ugly but who cares, it’s just Kuramochi, who seems to stick around despite the fact that Miyuki’s efforts at friendship consist of constant personal insults and casual enjoyment of other people’s frustration.

"Unlike you, Kuramochi-senpai is one of my favorite upperclassmen," retorts Sawamura, only slightly slurring his words. "If I don't get lost, I'll be there in ten minutes."

"You plan on getting lost?"

"It's my first week! I don't know the buildings off-campus well at all, and I'm slightly drunk." A loud crashing noise, and a muffled swear. "Don’t say a damn thing, Miyuki!"

"Only slightly?" Kazuya teases, anyway, as Kuramochi wipes his face off with the bottom of his shirt and stumbles out of the room and down to the bathroom with his pajamas in hand, leaving Kazuya to wait for Sawamura and his phone.

"Better off than Shirasu-senpai." Sawamura laughs again, and for some reason, the resonance of it makes Kazuya's stomach clench. "I think Mishima… That’s another first year, he’s from Yakushi… I think Mishima walked him home before Kuramochi-senpai left." Another laugh turns into a giggle, and it’s bizarre how appealing the sound is. "They were talking about comics or something? Or, well, Mishima was, Shirasu-senpai was mostly making fish sounds." A weird noise comes through, and Kazuya can easily imagine Sawamura pushing his lips out into a pucker to make it.

"I hear there's a photo," he prompts, to distract himself from that image. "I hope you haven't accidentally deleted it, since you're unreliable when it comes to phones."

"I'm not bad with phones," Sawamura protests. "I don't like answering text messages." A groan, and then a door opening. "I don't like the way things can be... taken wrong, in a text, and I like to see people's faces when I'm talking to them, since I'm kind of... bad at reading the moment sometimes! That doesn’t mean I don’t know how to use a phone!"

"Oh, you’re more aware of your obvious social deficiencies than expected." Kazuya smirks as Sawamura growls. He’d forgotten how fun it is to mess around with someone as easily worked up as Sawamura.

"You’re such a dick." Another huff. "This better be your building after I've climbed all these stairs, Miyuki Kazuya!"

"I thought basic reading was within your capabilities. I think you can manage a building name."

"You trying to pick a fight with me?" Sawamura sounds shocked, like Kazuya hasn’t been going out of his way to pick fights with Sawamura for years. "Anyway, letters are a bit blurry right now."

"But you’re only slightly drunk."

"Shut up!"

Kazuya can hear Sawamura over the phone and out in the hall simultaneously. He ends the call, tosses his phone onto his desk, and moves out of the bedroom and into the living room, toward the door, opening it to find Sawamura with one hand raised to knock. "You’re in the right building, noisy brat."

Sawamura grins at him again, like he hadn’t just been angry, and Kazuya’s stomach does another traitorous flop at the picture he makes. His lips are pink and sticky-wet from constant licking, and alcohol has made him redder than usual, drawing attention to the three undone buttons of his shirt, a smooth expanse of tanned neck and the sweat-shine along the collarbones. "Hey, I’m not a brat anymore. I’m nineteen."

"Definitely still a brat," Kazuya says, holding out a hand for the phone. "Trust me, I'm an expert."

"I don't trust you at all, off the field!" Sawamura stares at Kazuya's extended hand, then realization hits him, molasses-slow as usual, and he nervously chuckles, handing over the phone. "Ah, where’s Kuramochi-senpai?"

"Showering." Kazuya looks away from him. "Which you clearly need to do."

"They grabbed us right after practice!" Sawamura leans against the door, crossing his arms. "I barely had time to change." His shoulders don’t look any less broad with his hip cocked out like that. The more than ten centimeters he’s gained since Kazuya played with him in high school, along with the thick muscle, have only added the physical to Sawamura’s already considerable mental presence. "Why didn’t you come hang out with us?" He puffs out his cheeks briefly. "Not that I wanted you to, I’m just! Curious!"

"I don’t drink." At Sawamura’s shocked expression, he rolls his eyes. "It kills brain cells. Can you really afford to lose any more of those?"

"Jerk, jerk, jerk!" Sawamura sticks out his tongue at him, and Kazuya resists the urge to grab it and pull. "You can just answer questions without being so… so…" Clearly struggling, his face contorts. "Whatever, you know what I mean!" Sucking his lower lip into his mouth, he considers Kazuya with surprising solemnity. "Even if you don’t drink, you can still chill out with your team, right?"

Unable to help himself, Kazuya peers at him over the rim of his glasses. "Don't worry, you'll get to spend plenty of time with me, Sawamura. No need to get greedy~"

Sawamura, as expected, sputters indignantly. "I’d rather get a tooth pulled than spend time with you and your twisted personality!"

"Then why does it matter whether I go out with the team?"

"I'm not the only person on the team!" Sawamura's hair, soft and fluffy, falls across his forehead. Drunk, he looks even more like a puppy, with those shiny, overly intense eyes.

"You're the only person who's ever complained about it." That's not strictly true, but what Sawamura doesn't know won't hurt him. "The only conclusion I can draw from this is that you missed me so much last year that now you can't get enough of me." He uses his most annoying flirtatious voice, and he's rewarded with a full body blush from Sawamura.

"I almost forgot how much I hate you when you’re not wearing a catcher’s mask." Sawamura scowls at him, eyebrows furrowing. "I meant to ask you where to meet you tomorrow for catching, anyway."

"So what would you have done if Kuramochi hadn't forgotten his phone?"

"I'd have found you anyway!" Sawamura insists. Then he pulls out his own phone and offers it to Kazuya, who is still holding on to Kuramochi's. "Give me your number!"

Lips parting incredulously, Kazuya studies Sawamura. His expression has changed again, this time to something resolute and earnest. Kazuya's going to get whiplash from the rapid mood changes. "Not unless I like your pitches tomorrow. Meet me at the practice diamonds, idiot. At five. Don't be late."

Sawamura's eyes blaze at the challenge. "Of course you're going to like my pitches! They'll be the best damn pitches you've caught in forever! Prepare to be impressed! Chris-senpai told me I'm awesome and the best!"

"I'm positive he did not say that." Kazuya takes his free hand and presses it to the center of Sawamura's chest. He almost draws back immediately at just how warm Sawamura is, despite what must undoubtedly be a cool night. Instead, he pushes, just enough to nudge Sawamura back out into the hall. He stumbles, slightly, and Kazuya takes advantage of his surprise to step back into the room. "Go away, now, delivery boy. Shoo~"

"Hey, Miyuki Kazuya, don’t you call me--" The rest is muffled by Kazuya shutting the door, and Kazuya makes sure to cackle loud enough that Sawamura will hear it.

The shower shuts off in the bathroom as Kazuya wanders back into their bedroom and sets Kuramochi's phone on his empty desk.

"That guy..." he mutters, and despite himself, he laughs for real.

"Why are you out here laughing creepily to yourself?" Kuramochi says, pink from the shower and somehow looking disdainful as he drunkenly sways.

"Sawamura is a riot," Kazuya replies. "I think it’ll be an interesting season."

"Yeah!" Kuramochi grins, walking up to the ladder that leads to the top bunk. He’s glaring at it like it’s the ladder’s fault he’s drunk. "I’m looking forward to it."

"So am I," Kazuya says, and he’s surprised to find he means it.

There’s a sale on eggplants when Kazuya goes to the supermarket after his two-thirty class lets out. He has a small snatch of time to get food for the next four days before he has to turn right around and meet Sawamura, so he focuses on essentials. Eggplants are healthy, are of equally good quality at the supermarket as they are at the outdoor market down the road, and Kuramochi whines less about them than some of Kazuya’s other favorite vegetables, as long as he peels it.

"Miyuki?"

Looking away from the two eggplants he’s evaluating, he finds the clerk from the convenience store near the practice fields smiling up at him sweetly. "Ah, Uehara, hey." He takes the slightly larger eggplant on the right and sets it in his basket. It would be better if he had time to hit the outdoor market, but with meeting Sawamura this afternoon, there’s just no time to spare. "Off work today?"

"I don’t work on Tuesdays. That’s the only day the baseball team is off, too, right?" She holds the metal basket in front of her in a too-tight, anxious grip. "So you’re using your free day to get groceries?"

"My day isn’t exactly free," replies Kazuya. "I’m doing extra practice with my… a new pitcher." The vocal slip makes him frown. He’s not the head catcher, yet, and he can’t call any of the pitchers his. He’s not even sure if he wants Sawamura to be his main pitcher, yet. It has been a while since he’s tried to catch one of those scary wall-hidden moving fastballs. "Besides, if I don’t get groceries," and cook them, he mentally adds, "my roommate and I will starve."

"Oh, you live with… Kuramochi, right?" Her fingers are finally easing their hold on the basket handle. "Is it hard to live with a teammate?"

Kazuya snorts. "I went to a baseball high school. I lived with my teammates for three years there. It’s basically habit, now."

"Don’t you ever want to do things that aren’t baseball?" She picks up a hothouse tomato, but she doesn’t really check it for softness, her gaze too steady on Kazuya to pay attention to anything else.

"No," he replies bluntly. "Not really."

She jolts back at that, lips parting then closing. She looks… well, she looks a bit like Kazuya’s mother, when she does that. It’s hard to be mean. "Oh," she says. "You’re very dedicated."

"I’m planning on playing professionally." He looks down at his own basket. "I need to pick up a few more things before I go meet that pitcher."

"Oh, right, of course." She laughs nervously, flushing, and Kazuya, with a sinking feeling, acknowledges that it’s probably going to be an issue. "I’ll see you around, Miyuki."

He nods, then walks away from her. He’s used to girls liking him from high school. It’s calmed down in college, but… Sometimes, Kazuya considers dating one of the girls that circle into his orbit, just to give himself an excuse to turn down the others. Even he isn’t that heartless, though, and so he dismisses the idea every time it flitters to the forefront of his mind.

He doesn’t even have time to date someone he likes, let alone someone he’ll never actually be able to want. Besides, it’s far more fun to watch Kuramochi rage over every confession. That’s enough to cheer Kazuya up as he picks up a package of buckwheat noodles and walks toward the checkout.

When Kazuya arrives, Sawamura is asleep in the center of the practice diamond, head resting on his bag and his cap over his face as he audibly snores.

Kazuya stares at him for a few moments, eyes narrowed, before he comes to a decision, approaching the slumbering boy and nudging him gently with the toe of his Converse sneakers right below his ribs.

"Wake up, Sawamoron," he says, loud enough that Sawamura jolts up straight, looking around wildly for the fire.

"I'm awake, I swear, I wasn't sleeping in class—!!" He blinks, returning slowly to reality, as Kazuya snickers. "Oh, it’s you."

"Oh man, you're unbelievable!" Kazuya tells him, laughing and clutching at his sides. Sawamura's sleepy face falls into a deliciously familiar exasperated embarrassment. "You're not in high school anymore, kid. No one cares if you sleep in class."

"Ugh, I didn't get to bed until like, three last night." He rubs at his face, and then picks up his cap, pulling it on as he opens his bag, taking out his glove and a worn looking baseball. Then he stands up, dusting off his jeans. "I ended up talking to Wakana until two and then I was too wound up to sleep."

"That's your girlfriend, right?" Kazuya asks, setting his own bag next to Sawamura's. He starts pulling out his gear, knowing he needs it if Sawamura's going to be pitching seriously, at least until he gets used to Sawamura’s pitching speed again. "Wow, how long have you two been dating? Your whole lives? When are you getting married? Baseball cake at the wedding, or does she want something more traditional--"

"She's not my girlfriend!" Sawamura's protest, Kazuya thinks, can probably be heard on all four campuses. "Kuramochi was harping on that last night, too! Give me a break!"

"I hear she's pretty, though." Kazuya pulls out his shin guards, snapping the straps on the left leg before moving to the right. There's something soothing about putting on his gear for the first time in almost a month. It settles him. "So what's the hold up? Or are you just as dense about girls as you are about everything else?"

Sawamura pouts at him. "She's not..." He flounders a bit. "She's just a friend. I don't know why I'm not allowed to have a friend that's a girl! We both like baseball and manga, and we've known each other a long time. It's..." He makes an irritated noise. "It sucks that people are always trying to make it something else!"

After pulling his chest protector over his head, Kazuya considers Sawamura again. It's a more comprehensive answer than he expected from the scatterbrained guy.

"Kuramochi's just jealous that attractive girls are willing to speak to you," Kazuya decides to say, instead of dragging out the joke. Normally, Sawamura's unexpected sensitivity would paint a bulls-eye on the subject, but there was something in his tone just now that makes Kazuya want to back off. "You should take lots of pictures with her, and send them to Kuramochi periodically to remind him that he has zero game."

Sawamura's stare is almost admiring. "Your personality really is nasty all the way around, isn't it?"

Like Kazuya doesn’t know that. Honestly, it’s just that, no matter what, he’s always going to upset someone. Might as well have it be purposeful. "Thank you~" he replies, just to watch Sawamura flush with displeasure.

"It's still not a compliment!" Sawamura has his glove tucked under his arm, and he's tossing a ball up and down in his left hand, conditioning himself to the feel of it. Rosin leaves his palm and fingers a chalky gray-white, and it puffs into the air every time he wraps his fingers around the ball. "It has never been a compliment!"

Kazuya twists his torso, checking the fit of his protector, and frowns when he realizes that while he has good mobility, it's loose. He’d known he lost a little weight, over the break, but he didn't expect it to be noticeable.

When he moves to take it off so he can adjust the shoulder straps evenly, Sawamura comes up behind him, dropping the baseball and glove on top of Kazuya's bag before reaching for the straps above Kazuya's waist. "What are you doing?"

"Okamura's gear is too loose all the time," says Sawamura. "Let me tighten it for you so it's even." The tips of his fingers tickle at Kazuya's ribs as he tugs at both straps until the protector is snug at the waist. Then he slides his hands up Kazuya's back until he's at the backs of his shoulders, tightening the straps there, too. "I've gotten pretty good at this, right?!"

"A two-year-old could do this, Sawamura," Kazuya snaps, stepping out of Sawamura's reach as his heart does this weird skip. He looks over his shoulder to see Sawamura staring at his own hands. "I’m not praising you for toddler-level competence."

"That gear is softer than what you usually wear." He looks up, eyes bright with the early evening sun glinting in them. "Or what you used to wear, I guess, since it's been a while."

"It's not what I wear during games." Kazuya pushes his glasses up, his heart still beating a little too fast. "When did you feel up my gear before now, anyway?"

"I didn’t feel it up!" Sawamura squats down to pick up the ball and glove. "I just noticed it looked different so I wanted to touch."

Kazuya raises both brows. "Maybe that's why your pretty friend won't date you! Maybe you got as handsy with her as you get with me and groped somewhere sexy inappropriately—" He's cut off by Sawamura swatting him on the shoulder with his glove.

"Don't talk like that about Wakana! Or any girl! It's rude!" He swats Kazuya again. "And Wakana did --" He stops, blushes, and Kazuya watches with interest as Sawamura goes almost purple. "Ugh! Never mind! It's none of your business! You're the worst!, Miyuki Kazuya!"

"I do aim to excel at whatever I try!" Kazuya puts on his helmet, letting his mask fall into place. He grabs his own baseball glove. "So why were you up so late with your not-girlfriend on the phone?"

"Oh," Sawamura tosses the ball up and down in his glove. "We had some stuff... to talk about, I guess." He drops his chin, and the brim of his Seidou ball-cap casts his face into shadow. "Can we pitch now?"

Kazuya drops into a crouched catcher's stance, weight on his right leg, left ready to take a shift. "You need to replace that with a Meiji cap."

"Yeah, yeah, I know." He grins. "Gotta make the team first, eh? At least I won’t be running laps for weeks before I even get to show off a little."

"I don’t know," Kazuya teases. "A few words in the right ears and that can be arranged." He punches his mitt, enjoying the worn feel of the leather.

Sawamura bares his teeth.

"I’m only kidding, brat. Show me what you’ve got." He cracks his neck. "I'll give you ten pitches to impress me."

"I won't need ten!" Sawamura's eyes burn into him, and Kazuya smiles. He'd forgotten this; Sawamura's dangerous energy when he's at his most focused, and the way calling his pitches has always been fun. "I still remember all the signs we worked out for the numbers!"

Alluring. That’s the word he used with Chris to describe this pitcher, all those years ago, when Sawamura’s throws were still unreliable and unpredictable.

Furuya had been an easy pitcher to lead, with his devastating splitters and outrageous speed, in addition to a natural connection. Sawamura, though, has his own charms. It's a wild exuberance that makes every ball he throws a little bit of an adventure for everyone out on the field, defense and offense alike.

"Bring it on, then, Sawamura," Kazuya says, as Sawamura shakes out his arm, loosening the muscles in his shoulder. Kazuya signs for the bottom right corner, asking for a straight fastball and shifting his position, and Sawamura nods, changing his grip on the ball without even looking at it, index finger pulling down on the seam. There's a fluidity to his movements that's new, almost pretty, as he winds up, his leg rising high, and when he throws, it's so fast, spinning into Kazuya's glove with unexpected force, his naturally moving fastball finally the weapon it’s always been destined to become.

Kazuya grins, knowing Sawamura won't see it through the mask. "Nice pitch," he calls out.

Sawamura, he thinks, was right. It won't take nearly ten pitches. Kazuya is already impressed.

Damn, I might have to give this kid my number after all.

Two practice games, two victories. Sawamura’s balls settle beautifully into the pocket of his glove in the first game, and in comparison to Uchida and Sanjo, it’s clear, to Kazuya at least, who should be starting most of their games. The press knows it too; more of them slipping Sawamura’s name into questions about the upcoming season in their small prediction write-ups and talking about Kazuya and Sawamura’s battery in the sort of anticipatory terms Kazuya thinks in on his own time.

Ichinose and Uchida work as a good battery in the second game, too, Sawamura only coming in to pitch relief for the last two innings with Kazuya at catcher, but in those two innings, they double Meiji’s run-count.

"The first-year is good," Uchida says to Kazuya. "I haven’t been paying much attention during practice, but I have been wondering if you’ve been focusing on him because you knew him in high school."

Kazuya grins. "Why, senpai, did you miss me?"

"I always feel a little more on the edge of my seat when you’re calling the shots, Miyuki." Uchida pulls a face. "Ichinose’s more predictable, and never asks for weird balls."

"We’re very different catchers," Kazuya agrees, wondering why Uchida says predictable with so much relief. "That’s why we’re both first-string."

"Shockingly diplomatic of you, Miyuki. Didn’t think you had it in you." Uchida slaps him on the back and walks away, leaving Kazuya to watch him bemusedly for a while until he hears Sawamura yelping at Kuramochi’s attempt to help him stretch out.

Kazuya could go help, but he’d rather do his own stretches and just laugh at Sawamura’s disgruntled faces.

"Having fun, Sawamura?" he drawls. Sawamura makes a lewd gesture in his direction, and Kazuya just flashes a grin back at him. "Not enjoying your stretches?"

Kuramochi guffaws. "Buck up, Sawamura! We used to wrestle each other into submission and you can’t handle a little stretching from your Kuramochi-senpai?"

"That was extremely one-sided wrestling!!"

"It was fun! The springtime of our youth!" Kuramochi thumps Sawamura on the back hard enough to knock the air out of him. "Besides, we wouldn’t want you to get tight muscles!"

"But I wanna pitch more," is the piteous reply, and Kazuya considers. It hadn’t been enough for him, either, today’s last innings. Kazuya wants to play more, to be in more. Sawamura’s really saying it for the both of them, this time. "Miyuki Kazuya! Fifteen pitches at least!"

"All right," Kazuya agrees, squatting down until he’s eye-level with Sawamura, who looks back at him with determined eyes. "You’re so whiny, Sawamura. If I want any break from it, I’ll have to indulge you."

"You’re indulging yourself, too," Kuramochi whispers, when Sawamura’s gone off to get his glove.

Kazuya winks at him. "What the noisy kid doesn’t know won’t hurt him."

meiji is going to destroy the big6 this season, Kazuya texts to Chris later. you should come to our first game. two weeks, versus keio.

He attaches a brief internet article about Meiji’s team this year from 'Number Extra!' that features him and Sawamura pretty heavily, and lies back in bed to wait, scrolling through his Yahoo account to check out yesterday’s MLB scores. It’s coming up on the World Series, and Kazuya’s looking forward to see who makes the ALDS finals. The Climax Series is amping up, too, with the Central and Pacific League both figuring out their top contender for the Japan Series, and Kazuya probably shouldn’t expect Chris to be all that prompt in replying to him.

Sometimes Kazuya regrets not going pro straight out of high school, especially when he sees some of the games his friends are playing in. He’s never loved classes all that much, and he’s not good at them, either. But university ball had felt logical, and getting a degree had felt like the smart thing to do, and Kazuya’s not arrogant enough to think that a teenager fresh out of college would have been given as much control as Kazuya has at Meiji even in the minor leagues, no matter how many Monthly Baseball Kingdom articles have been written about him over the past five years or so.

He’d never been sure how to articulate that to Ouwada, any of the times she asked him on or off the record, without sounding like a massive tool. He imagines someone like Sawamura would say something cheerful instead, like I want to play all the baseball I can at every level!! or something like that. Kazuya just murmurs deflecting things like wanting to be sure he’s finished growing, or having decided an education is important. It’s all nonsense, of course. Kazuya just likes the power that comes with crouching at that pivotal spot on the field, and coming to Meiji ensured he’d get to do it all he wants.

Baseball’s important, and it’s mostly all Kazuya’s got. He wants to play as much as possible. Maybe that’s something else, Kazuya thinks, that he and Sawamura have in common.

If it’s at all possible, Chris texts back, thirty minutes later, i would enjoy that a lot.

That night, despite Kuramochi’s loud snores, Kazuya puts on his eye mask and falls quickly into an easy sleep, remembering the feel of Sawamura’s pitch slamming into his mitt, and feeling the potential for victory deep in his gut.

Sawamura, under the early autumn sun, shines with his own light on the mound. It’s obvious to everyone, now, after another practice game with Sawamura dominating, that he’s their new starting pitcher, and even the third years who’d maybe entertained hopes of taking over as the team’s ace recognize Sawamura’s better suited for the job.

As the tournament approaches, the whole team falls into more serious workouts, but when it’s time for individual practice, Sawamura, without fail, finds Kazuya. "Catch for me, Miyuki!"

"I am your upperclassman," Miyuki reminds him, as the third-years snicker behind their hands. "You should ask if you want favors, kid."

"Well, then, be a good upperclassman and help me practice!" Sawamura pauses, then sighs, as if he’s being put-upon. "Please."

And Kazuya should point out that it’s Ichinose who’s the main catcher, not himself, but the truth is, Kazuya doesn’t actually mind catching for Sawamura, and more than that, he feels oddly entitled to catch for this powerful pitcher he’d had a part in training when he was still a fledgling who didn’t know there was more than one way to grip a baseball.

"If you want," Kazuya says to Ichinose later, "I can send him to you more often."

"That’s okay," Ichinose says, as Sawamura runs screaming behind Kuramochi and Shiba, another second year on the team. "He seems like a handful."

"You have no idea."

"Besides, you’ll probably be starting most games this season."

"Oh?" Kazuya adjusts his prescription sports glasses as Sawamura trips over his own two feet trying to catch a ball in the outfield. "What makes you say so?"

"Don’t play coy with me, bastard," Ichinose replies, looking none-too-bothered. "You know you’re better at batter-profiling, and a stronger hitter, too." He cracks his knuckles. "Coach already brought me in to discuss it, and I’m not going to argue about it. I’m not going pro."

That surprises Kazuya, actually. "Really? You’re probably good enough, senpai."

"I’ve got a job in the family business waiting for me, and enough filial responsibility to know I need to take it." Ichinose hunches forward a bit, then. "Plus my parents are setting me up with a business associate’s daughter, and it’s all just falling into place away from baseball. I’d never make the major league, anyway, and I’d probably get bitter watching all my underclassmen in the majors while I wallowed in the minors. Better to quit while I’m ahead, you know?"

Kazuya doesn’t know. There’s nothing out there more important to him than baseball, and he can’t imagine anything that would make him leave it. Especially not filial responsibility. He does get not wanting to languish in the minors, but there are plenty of great games to play in that league, and if it means playing baseball for a living… Kazuya would just use the time there to get better. He’s hoping to go straight to the ichigun after graduation, but he’s very aware that he might have to spend a season in the minors.

He’d never settle for something else, some other life, not when there’s baseball. He’d give up anything for it; play injured, hurt his friends’ feelings, ignore school and people and current events. He has done all of those things, because victory on the field is worth more than most things off it.

But that’s part of what draws a line between Kazuya and most other people, maybe.

"Yeah," Kazuya lies. "I get it."

Ichinose leaves Kazuya after that, heading towards where one of the relief pitchers is warming up in the bullpen, and Kazuya returns his attention to Sawamura, who seems to be involved in a shouting match with Shiba.

Some things, Kazuya thinks, never change. "Oi, Sawamura!"

"What?!" Then he waves both arms in the air. "You finally ready to catch for me today?!"

"That depends," replies Kazuya, smile pulling at the corner of his lips. "Do you think you’ve been made to run enough laps?"

Sawamura froths, like egg white being whipped into a fluffy meringue, and Kazuya’s smile spreads into a full, satisfied grin.

Some of the things that don’t change aren’t so bad, maybe.

The coach calls Kazuya into his office a week later. Practices have been getting longer and more grueling by the day, and he can see the strain of this in some of his teammates’ shoulders. Sawamura, on the other hand, is thriving, energetic and bouncy enough to make most of the remaining fourth-years want to punch him.

"You’re in charge of Sawamura," Coach Maeda says firmly, shuffling papers on his desk. The dark circles under Maeda’s eyes are the same Meiji purple as the chair upholstery, and Kazuya bets his own are getting pretty close. "You’ll be our main battery. Can you handle that?"

"Absolutely," Kazuya agrees, and Numamoto smiles.

"It was always the plan that after your adjustment year, you’d become our starting catcher." The coach looks at him. "Your play calling is very reliable, and your teammates respect it. It helps that you get along so well with our new starting pitcher, too."

Kazuya’s not sure ‘get along’ is the right way to put it, but Maeda is a little like Kataoka in that Kazuya’s learned not to talk back.

"Sawamura all but demanded you anyway, when I scouted him," Numamoto informs him with a wink.

"He’s always demanding something. Pitchers are inherently selfish." Kazuya tugs on the brim of his baseball cap. "Sawamura’s less subtle about it, because he doesn’t realize he’s being that self-centered. Mostly he’s just focused on getting better, though, so it’s not too bad to deal with."

"His ability to keep his focus on improving makes him attractive as a pitcher for a team with a hole to fill," says Maeda. "His single-minded focus is an asset we can use."

"I agree." Kazuya knows what those hungry jungle cat eyes of Sawamura’s look like, pinned on him from the mound. The electric pressure of Sawamura’s presence on the field as he prepares to throw his favorite ball. "No one is better than Sawamura under pressure, now, even if he is a goofball."

"You sound confident," Maeda observes.

Kazuya looks at the man, carefully considering his answer. "Sawamura and I usually make a pretty strong battery," he says, finally. "I’m confident that working together, our defense will be good enough to win any game we play." Especially now, he thinks, that Sawamura’s getting closer and closer to fulfilling all the promise that Kazuya’d seen way back when Sawamura had been just a tweedy middle-school twerp with a big mouth and an irregularly moving fastball. Kazuya has improved, too, his reflexes even sharper and the scope of his mind-games extending through multiple rotations. Playing with Sawamura these days sort of sings through him, and he can’t see them losing when it feels so damn good giving Sawamura any sign and knowing he’ll get the ball he wants.

"Big words," says Coach Maeda, as Numamoto grins. "Can you back them up, Miyuki?"

He’d wondered, two years ago, how Sawamura would grow. If he would become a small, strong flower, or one that bloomed high to reach the sun. Sawamura, though, hasn’t bloomed into a flower at all, but instead put down roots that stretch the entirety of the pitch, a giant strong tree pushing up from the mound.

"Yes," Kazuya says, a particular smile pulling at his lips that he associates with handling Sawamura in particular. "We can. He has good instincts, and what he lacks in strategy, I possess in spades."

The coaches dismiss him, and Kazuya stops to refill his water bottle before he continues toward the front of the gym, where he can hear the clink of weights. The entire team is on resistance training today, and Kazuya’s a bit behind, only halfway through his necessary exercises.

Sawamura is obviously waiting for him, because his head perks up as soon as Kazuya walks into the room. His skin glimmers with sweat, his sleeves rolled up to reveal icy-hot strips on his shoulders that stretch down across the thick muscles of his arms. His hair sticks to his pink face, damp, and his eyes are bright. "You’re my catcher now, right?" He asks cheerfully. "Can we go pitch?"

Kazuya squats down next to him, setting down his water bottle and then running his hands along the strips on Sawamura’s arms, giving him a deadpan look. "Not if you’re already experiencing muscle pain, idiot. Don’t get overexcited and hurt yourself." He lightly slaps Sawamura’s arm. "And you’re my pitcher. I’m the one who makes up for your lack of situational awareness on the field. Aren’t you getting too cocky, Sawamura?"

"Same difference," Sawamura says bluntly. "Either way, you’re going be catching for me all the time." He wrinkles his nose. "Just trust me like I trust you, and we’ll win any time!"

Trust, Kazuya thinks. Sawamura throws that word around so easily, but it’s not something that comes naturally to Kazuya. "Definitely too cocky."

"And," Sawamura adds, "I don’t have muscle pain. I just don’t want to tighten up before I get the chance to pitch with you!" His eyes brighten. "So can we?!"

Kazuya realizes that he’s been running his thumb up and down one of the heat strips as Sawamura talks, too distracted by Sawamura’s rapidly shifting expressions to pay attention to anything else. "Twenty balls," Kazuya agrees with a sigh. "It’s going to have to wait until I finish my reps on the barbell squats."

Sawamura looks up at him through his lashes, then, eyes shimmering molten copper. "Thanks… Miyuki-senpai!" He shouts the honorific, and then flushes, getting up quickly and walking out the door, toward the restrooms. Kazuya is left watching him leave, hand still stretched out from checking the strips on Sawamura’s arm. He blinks in surprise, and then he chuckles, curling down into himself when his laugh starts to get too loud.

"Well now I’ve seen everything," Sanjo, one of the relief pitchers, says, when Kazuya’s calmed himself enough to stand and return to the mat where he’d been working out earlier. "Miyuki Kazuya doting on a pitcher."

Kazuya shoots him an unimpressed look as he drops his water bottle and slips on his lifting gloves. "I don’t know what you’re talking about."

"I don’t think I’ve heard Sawamura call you senpai more times than I can count on one hand," Kuramochi says. "If you keep being that nice to him, he’s gonna start to follow you around like he did Chris."

Kazuya groans, and it’s only partially from the weights on the long barbell he’s holding to his upper back. "Don’t you dare curse me like that, Kuramochi."

"It’s only what you deserve for being such a sweet senpai," is how Kuramochi replies, as Kazuya dips into a low squat.

"I am too kind," Kazuya says. "I’ve clearly been too kind to all of you." He smiles benignly at the relief pitchers, and Ichinose barely manages to turn a laugh into a cough. "Perhaps I should tell Coach Maeda we aren’t working out enough in the gym, since we have all this time to chat…?"

"I’ll kill you, Miyuki," Kuramochi growls, starting another set of leg-press reps. "They’ll never find the body."

"You would go to jail for me, Kuramochi?" Kazuya asks, after a harsh exhale, shifting his grip on the bar slightly. "Maybe it’s you who deserves something for being sweet."

Kuramochi mumbles an obscenity, and Kazuya smiles in victory before his attention is devoted to getting a clean form on each squat.

Sawamura returns halfway through his second set, face wet from splashed water, droplets licking at his throat and collecting in his collarbones. Kazuya immediately looks away, but he can feel Sawamura’s eyes on him anyway for a few moments, before the pitcher busies himself with rotator cuff exercises that Kazuya recognizes from his Chris-designed high school menu. The weight has been increased, he notes, while taking a deep breath and lifting out of his squat. His thighs burn just right as he sinks back down again into another.

Takarada brings Kazuya a towel right after he finishes. He smiles and takes it from her after gulping half his water, but before he can engage her in conversation she’s already wandering over to Sawamura, handing him a towel as she introduces herself to him for the third time.

"I’ll definitely remember it next time, Takarada-senpai!" He offers her a boyish grin, making Kazuya’s stomach do that weird thing it has been doing for a little over a week. Takarada actually blushes when Shiba wolf-whistles from the other side of Kazuya.

"No big deal, Sawamura," she murmurs, continuing on to the next player but casting another look back over her shoulder at Sawamura as she goes. Kazuya, wiggling his toes, observes with interest.

Sawamura is oblivious to the extra attention, toweling his face dry before moving to his neck, dragging the towel across slick skin. "Can you catch for me now?!"

Kazuya rubs at his sore thighs. "I’m going to have a constant migraine for the next couple of years, huh?"

"Why?" Sawamura puts his hands on Kazuya’s shoulders and looks into his eyes. "Is your prescription bad?"

Up close, his eyes are too intense, and Kazuya pointedly punches Sawamura lightly in in the stomach. It’s not hard enough to hurt him, not with those toned abs of his, but Sawamura huffs, curling back. Kazuya laughs at his shocked but furious face. "I have a negative physical reaction to morons."

"Are you trying to insult me?!" Sawamura pouts as Kuramochi guffaws from over on the leg press. Sawamura shakes his hair out of his eyes, but it falls right back into place.

"That would be like trying to insult a brick," replies Kazuya. "The brick would probably notice it was being insulted before you did, though."

Sawamura grabs a fistful of Kazuya’s sweaty T-shirt, knuckles digging into the sternum. "Asshole!"

"Let’s go, then. Ten pitches, Sawamura. That’s it."

"Right!" Grinning again, he drops Kazuya’s shirt, then swoops down and grabs Kazuya’s water bottle, taking a long sip.

"Sawamura!"

"Mine’s empty!" He hands it back. "I’m not diseased, you know, Miyuki Kazuya! No plague!"

Kazuya surveys the bottle cap with feigned suspicion. "How about rabies?"

"Of course I don’t have rabies!" He wipes the back of his hand across his mouth, smearing water. "Freakin’ asshole."

"How can we be truly sure?" Of course, Kazuya thinks, Sawamura doesn’t find it at all weird to drink from Kazuya’s water bottle. He looks over at the teammates closest to them, and they’re all looking at Sawamura and Kazuya with varied levels of incredulity. Kazuya widens his smirk to hide his discomfort. "My offer to catch for you expires in three minutes."

"You can’t catch ten pitches in three minutes!" Sawamura explodes into motion, snagging Kazuya by the arm, just above the elbow, tugging him out of the gym. "We’re going to win the Emperor’s Cup this year! Together!"

"On that, we can agree," Kazuya says, letting Sawamura pull him through the double doors to a soundtrack of laughter from their teammates.

The afternoon has turned to early evening when they get outside, but the field is bright with high floodlights. Sawamura is bouncing from his heels to his toes as Kazuya gets into his catcher’s gear. The wind blows, and Kazuya spares a moment to worry about how sweaty Sawamura is, pores open in the autumn weather.

In the bottom of his bag is his team windbreaker, and Kazuya tosses it at Sawamura. It lands on his head. "What are you doing?"

"Don’t you know how to dress for the weather, yet, Mister I’m-Nineteen-Now?" Kazuya pulls down his mask to cover his face as Sawamura’s face brightens. "Chris will kill me if I let you get sick after only a couple of weeks with me. You’re lucky monsoon-season came early this year."

Sawamura pulls the jacket on. It barely fits him in the shoulders, and Kazuya’s surname stretches taut across his back in English block letters. "Do I get one of these?" He plucks at the sleeve, then nuzzles his nose into the collar. "It smells like you."

Kazuya licks his lips, his stomach turning. Then he spins a ball around in his hand, studying the way Sawamura’s white powdered hand tugs up the zipper. "Orders for them went in yesterday, so by next week." He lobs the ball at Sawamura, who catches it reflexively in his glove. "Hit me with a four-seam, Sawamura."

"You’ve been telling me what to pitch with your voice way too often." Sawamura digs the rubber toe cap of his cleat into the dirt as Kazuya sinks to a crouch, ignoring the burn in his thighs. "I still remember all of your signs, Miyuki. How you shift your weight to catch certain pitches. You don’t need to tell me."

"Even in the dark?" Kazuya leans his center of gravity over to his right leg, and gives Sawamura the sign for the bottom right inside.

Sawamura grins, and that arm whips back, hidden from Kazuya’s sight. "Even then," Sawamura replies. "I know you." The ball thumps soundly into Kazuya’s mitt, right where he asked for it.

"Well," Kazuya says, but he has nothing to add to that, or no idea how to reply, so he tosses the ball back before signaling for another, and the ball he gets is even more perfect than the last.

Takarada comes out to find them as they’re wrapping up. Sawamura is unsnapping Kazuya’s right shin guard as he works on the left. When Kazuya tilts his head at her in query, her eyes are fixed on Sawamura, tracing the letters of Kazuya’s name with her eyes. Kazuya coughs conspicuously.

"Ah," she says, grinning at him. "Hey there, first catcher, there’s a team meeting in the C gym. You and Sawamura need to get in there."

"We’re on our way!" Sawamura says, shoving his rosin-covered hands into the pockets of the borrowed jacket as Kazuya zips up his gear bag.

"Why don’t you two start back, and I’ll go stow my gear?" He lets Takarada and Sawamura walk in front of him. He notes the way she walks closer to Sawamura than she would to Kazuya, with both eyebrows raised. Interesting, he thinks.

He’s the last to arrive to the meeting, slipping in at the back and nodding to Coach Maeda. He crosses his arms and leans against the wall as the coach discusses the starting lineup for their first game in two weeks. Sawamura wriggles with delight at being offered the start so early, his grin eating up his whole face. The kid wiggles his feet for the rest of the announcement, that Uchida and Sanjo will be pitching relief, and Kazuya has to cover his mouth to keep from laughing at how much Sawamura looks like an overgrown elementary student anticipating his first field trip.

He meets eyes with Ichinose, who nods at him good-naturedly, and Kazuya allows himself to peek at Sawamura again. Sawamura is looking right back at him, with a shit-eating grin on his face, and then he pulls down on the skin under his eyelid while sticking out his tongue.

Another laugh sneaks out before Kazuya can catch it, and Kuramochi elbows him in the ribs after Coach Maeda shoots a withering look in their direction.

"What do you think about Sawamura getting the start as a first year?" Kuramochi asks Kazuya, when they’re walking back to their apartment, passing by the women’s track team on their evening run. Kazuya’s overly hot in his sweatshirt, but his windbreaker is still in Sawamura’s possession so he has to make do.

"He’s going to be insufferable about it." Kazuya chuckles, looking up at the night sky. It’s easier to see the stars tonight than it usually gets at Izumi campus, with all the tall buildings lit up late with salarymen putting in overtime. "That’s all right. Insufferable pitchers are interesting to catch for. I’d get bored if he wasn’t like this, and I’ll be sure to puncture his ego plenty." He cuts a glance at Kuramochi. "For the sake of the team, naturally."

"Your heart is made of coal," replies Kuramochi, but he bumps Kazuya lightly, shoulder to shoulder, grinning right back in response to Kazuya’s wicked smile.

"By the way," Kazuya says, after they get home and he’s already laid claim to the first shower, "I think Takarada has a little crush on Sawamura." He closes the door to the bathroom then, but he can hear Kuramochi calling Sawamura up on the phone and starting to yell at him for having two girlfriends, even from under the falling water while he washes his hair.

He’s in a great mood for the rest of the evening, even with a pile of homework in front of him that’s clearly going to keep him up late into the night.

I heard from Sawamura that he’s in a battery with you, is written as a post-script on Furuya’s next e-mail. Even without any special punctuation or emphasis on the words, Kazuya can imagine the glittery look in Furuya’s eyes that indicates amusement tinged with fiery competitiveness.

Kazuya hadn’t known they were still in regular contact, but he figures Sawamura could probably make friends with a feral wolf, so it’s no surprise he’d managed with his own rival. He replies with jealous? and a bullet-point list of Sawamura’s new pitch repertoire, and signs the mail with a smiley face, knowing it’ll make Furuya huff angrily and go out for a long, painful run. Kazuya hopes there’s a tire involved, just for continuity’s sake.

"Why is your face so evil this morning?" Sawamura asks him at morning practice.

Kazuya throws an arm across his shoulders, not for the first time noticing how broad those shoulders have become, or the shift of heavy muscle that’s developed since they were in high school. "Furuya’s started running more," he says, slyly. "Seems like you won’t be able to keep up with Monster’s growth, hmm?"

"He didn’t mention that when I talked to him yesterday!" Sawamura clenches his hands into fists. "I’ll run more than he can even think about running! Running is my specialty!"

As Sawamura takes off into a sprint, Kuramochi comes to stand next to Kazuya, chuckling. "You’re basically Satan," he says, and Kazuya doesn’t bother to disagree with a statement that true.

The next week passes in a blur of classwork crammed into the tiny pockets of time between practice, of strength training and batting practice and catching Sawamura’s hot fastballs until his hand stings.

When he can, in moments that feel stolen, Kazuya watches videos of last year’s Koushien interviews for his journalism project; recaps of different West Tokyo teams’ seasons and stellar plays, and interviews with the players that the nation connected with most—the cocky batting superstars and the quiet underclassmen who caught game-ending fly balls, the captains and the third years making their last grasp for the high school dream.

Amidst all of these players, including power hitters like Todoroki Raichi, it is Sawamura Eijun, baseball cap pulled down straight and grin carved into his face like an autumn party pumpkin, who gets the most coverage. Like Narumiya Mei before him, cameras follow Sawamura into the locker room lobby, zoom in on him in the dugout, focus on him during Seidou’s defense. The Koushien producers find in Sawamura the same things Seidou’s team had: magnetic spirit, excitement, and a love of baseball so genuine it’s contagious.

Furuya also has a certain charisma on the screen, but his quiet leadership doesn’t appeal as much to a media hungry for a showman. No, it’s Sawamura, with Kanemaru standing like a human-form collar and leash next to him, that warms up the cameras with loud boasts and effervescent smiles, the obvious warmth of him making up for the absolutely reckless way he vows demolition of the other teams’ batting lineups, as brash and unaware of mounting tension as always, even if Kazuya’s seen a little less of that obliviousness lately, despite the rest staying true.

Kazuya ends up having to watch a whole lot of Sawamura. His voice is less annoying than it used to be, back before and during the crackling of puberty, but it’s still a lot to deal with, especially with just how much he sees the brat at practice. It’s like Kazuya went almost two years without seeing the kid or even thinking about him that much at all, and now suddenly he’s everywhere; his English class is even in the same building as Kazuya’s second year journalism seminar, apparently. Kazuya’s been careful to avoid Sawamura by going out the back door instead of the front, where Sawamura often lies out on one of the couches with his legs spread obscenely, a book over his face so he can pretend he’s studying, but his luck will probably run out eventually. And then there’s the constant catch for me, asshole! that haunts him in the morning and the afternoon when he’s in the weight room or perfecting his swing; a constant harangue that Kazuya is unable to escape.

And it really bugs him. Not seeing Sawamura this much, but that he doesn’t hate it. Sawamura is not the sort of person Kazuya’s ever gravitated towards on instinct—Kazuya has never minded loud, but Sawamura’s naïve in ways that Kuramochi, who can equal the kid’s decibel levels, has never been. Sawamura is often bad at judging the atmosphere, at being self-aware in general, and in high school, Kazuya had alternated between laughing about it and loathing it.

Now, Kazuya would be hard-pressed to find any genuine dislike, and he wonders if he’s gotten softer, or if Sawamura’d just… grown up, in that time Kazuya’s been spending looking everywhere else.

For some reason, the whole issue creates a tiny ball of tension that just sits there in the bottom of his stomach and compounds with everything else going on in his life. Though Kazuya takes pains to get eight hours of sleep and eat three times a day between all this study and practice, because he’s a responsible athlete who needs to take care of his most important tool, he can still still feel the exhaustion start to wear him down the week before the fall tournaments start. He doesn’t even know why, when he’s ahead of the curve with his work and the team looks so good.

"You need to honestly do something zen, like right now," Kuramochi tells him one afternoon. "Go jerk off. Or call Chris-senpai and have him talk at you until you fall asleep or something."

"Why do you even associate those two activities, Kuramochi? Is there something you’d like to tell the class?" Kazuya says, propping his chin up in his hand, and Kuramochi flicks him off. "I didn’t know you were into that kind of thing! Kinky."

"I meant you need to relax your brain, dumbass. Getting off is relaxing, and you’re only relaxed when you’re talking to Chris!" He pauses. "Or playing with Sawamura, I guess."

"Playing?" Kazuya closes his laptop, because his eyes sting. "Playing baseball, you mean?"

"No," says Kuramochi, grimacing at him, "I mean that bantering kindergartener thing you guys have going on. It’s cute. Like two six-year-olds arguing over whose turn it is to use the pink crayon to color the sun."

Kazuya snorts dismissively. "I have to talk to Sawamura on his own level for our battery to function."

"If you say so," Kuramochi replies. "Does he have to wear your team jacket for your battery to function, too?"

Kazuya’s heart stutters with surprise, but he makes sure his face doesn’t show it. "He just never remembers his own," he demurs, pulling his beanie down over his face and accidentally knocking his glasses askew. "Don’t you have homework?"

"Definitely." Kuramochi grins. "Not sure if I have plans to do it tonight, though. Why don’t you take a break and come out with me and Sawamura to try the new soba place that opened near the overflow international student dorms?"

Kazuya thinks about his assignments and his sore muscles and how much he doesn’t want to cook, and sighs. "More time with the baseball team. Yay."

"We’re your everything, Miyuki. You don’t need to hide it." Kuramochi drapes himself across Kazuya’s back and digs his chin into his shoulder. "You really do need a break. Come get dinner with us."

"Fine, fine." Kazuya leans back in his chair, causing Kuramochi to stumble back laughing. He pushes his beanie up on his forehead and fixes his glasses. "I suppose I can tolerate the disgusting way Sawamura eats just this once."

The evening is cool. It’s a Thursday night, so the sidewalks are fairly crowded with rowdy students on their way home from various club meetings or night classes, carrying bright bags and laughing. The pedestrian bridge that opens out to the front of campus is all clogged up with loitering smokers with their back to the rails, but despite the clamor, Kazuya can still hear Sawamura over the crowd when he waves and yells at them from across the other side. He’s up on his tiptoes, and he looks for all the world like a child waiting for his parents after the first day of kindergarten, a tiny slice of his firm belly bared by his raised and waving arm.

To Kazuya’s surprise, Takarada is standing next Sawamura, smaller and quieter in his shadow, her hair in pigtails and a scarf around her neck. She’s waving, too, in a much more subdued way, but a smile pulls at her lips. They’re both wearing their team jackets, and it’s a cute image, with Takarada barely reaching Sawamura’s shoulder.

"I brought Takarada-senpai!" Sawamura says, unnecessarily, when they get to the other side of the bridge. "I ran into her after English class and she was most valiantly helping me study!" He falls easily into that weird, archaic Japanese he uses sometimes when he’s unsure about something.

Whatever he’s unsure about isn’t Takarada herself, though. Kuramochi looks absolutely flabbergasted when Sawamura pats a blushing Takarada on the shoulder, seemingly unfazed by studying with a really attractive girl all afternoon.

"Why are you taking English?" Kazuya asks, tucking his hands into his pockets. "That meets for too many hours a week for an academic pariah."

"Yeah," Sawamura agrees, sucking his lower lip into his mouth as they wind down a side street, "but it’s useful to know for baseball, even if I play for the NPB. Foreign players always know English, right?" He scratches his head, curly hair flopping side to side under his fingertips. "I also kind of like it. Anyway, it’s lucky Takarada-senpai has class at the same time as me in the same building!"

"It is," Takarada agrees, falling into step with Kuramochi ahead of Kazuya and leaving Sawamura to walk next to him.

"Will you do anything if it’s for baseball?" Kazuya teases, and Sawamura hums thoughtfully.

"Probably," he replies. "Baseball is the thing that matters most to me right now, so of course I want to do everything possible to reach my goals!"

Kuramochi leads them down a side street Kazuya’s never taken, and it’s narrow enough that Sawamura pushes into him to avoid getting in the way of students riding their bikes in the opposite direction. He smells like bath soaps and sugar, Kazuya notes briefly before he dismisses the thought for a more pertinent one. "Matters most right now?"

"Yup," Sawamura looks over at him, his eyes bright in the darkness. "I think if I fell in love or something, that would matter the most, too!"

"Only one or the other can matter the most," Kazuya chides, stepping away from Sawamura as they step out onto a wider street again. This one’s familiar, full of brightly lit street vendors and noisy bars. The people clustered in the streets here are dressed for going out; women in strappy heels and soft, pretty dresses, and college-aged guys in designer sneakers that contrast pretty obviously with Kazuya’s broken-in New Balances. "That’s how superlatives work."

"You’re missing the point!" Sawamura elbows him.

"What is the point?" Kazuya grins at him. "That you’d quit English if you fell in love?"

Sawamura snarls, and looks down at the collar of Kazuya’s shirt like he’s contemplating a throttle for old time’s sake. "No!" His lower lip falls into a pout, and even in the dim light Kazuya can make out the cartoonishness of the expression. "I just meant I might have more things to work at, someday! So I might have to choose things that aren’t for baseball! That’s it!"

Kazuya raises both eyebrows in surprise as they turn the corner onto a new side street. This one is lined with bicycles chained up on long racks, bike locks hanging in bold colors that shine under the building sidelights. Sawamura’s still the most colorful thing even in front of this backdrop, Kazuya thinks, and he turns his head forward to see Kuramochi laughingly looking over his shoulder.

"Riling him up so soon?" Kuramochi asks. "They might not let us in if the kid is already hollering!"

Sawamura manages a raucous protest as Kazuya snickers openly, and a young woman wearing oversized headphones gives them the disbelieving look of someone who’s never tried to drown out Sawamura’s noise with loud music before.

The shop they stop in front of is lit with a low-light lantern hanging above the door, and a bamboo sign with the menu in lovely handwritten calligraphy covers the window. Sawamura, fuming now, moves in front of Kazuya and turns to open the door to Kichijoji Soba. Kazuya’s eyes drop to the back of his jacket and gapes for a moment, because Sawamura is wearing Kazuya’s jacket instead of his own. Kuramochi follows his gaze and coughs so hard it chokes him.

"You have your own one of these now," Kazuya says, when they stop just inside to locate an empty table that’ll accommodate four in the tiny restaurant, grasping the zipper of the windbreaker and sliding it up and down three times, knuckles brushing the soft cotton of the Dragons T-shirt Sawamura’s wearing underneath it.

"Yeah, but I haven’t washed it yet," Sawamura replies, grabbing Kazuya’s wrist and pulling him in the direction of a vacant table. "It still smells like, that new plastic smell, so…"

Kazuya snorts. "So you prefer to smell me?"

"You smell like baseball," Sawamura mumbles, unconcerned, still scoping out a table in the back corner.

Kazuya’s stomach does that weird thing again, but he rolls his eyes even as he ignores it. "You have such a one-track mind," he says, and weaves between the crowd toward the table Sawamura’d noticed.

Kuramochi slides into the booth first, the bamboo-patterned plastic of the seat squeaking, and Kazuya sits down next to him, as Takarada gets in first across from Kuramochi.

Sawamura, wanting his left hand free probably, plops down across from Kazuya. "Tell me what you like that isn’t baseball, then!" He crosses his arms and grins happily, and Kazuya kicks him under the table.

"Are you both five?" Takarada asks, eyes already up at the menu on the wall.

"Only soft," Kazuya replies immediately. "I’m a grower."

Takarada gives him a withering glare while Kuramochi chokes again. Kazuya smiles back, unrepentant, as Sawamura looks between them.

"What does that mean?" He kicks Kazuya back. "Hey, explain it to me!"

"Children should be seen not heard," Kuramochi says, when he’s caught his breath, and Sawamura sputters, face reddening, only the arrival of the waiter thwarting a shouting demand for Kazuya to explain his juvenile dick joke.

Sawamura blusters and slurps noodles and spills broth on the table when he forgets he’s lifted a bite, and Takarada is absolutely, disgustingly charmed by him. He talks mostly about baseball, and how excited he is to kick Keio’s ass next week, and as he rambles, the tension in Kazuya’s back slowly eases.

He starts to feel himself smiling as Sawamura complains about studying for the Meiji entrance examinations, his impersonations of Kanemaru not at all accurate, and he hides it with his hand because it’s too soft, too genuine, and that’s not an expression he wants to share with Sawamura just yet.

And maybe Kuramochi’s right, and being around Sawamura has become something relaxing, after all.

A tiny piece of mushroom sticks to Sawamura’s chin, and without pausing to consider it, Kazuya reaches across the table and flicks it off. "Hey!"

"Food goes into your mouth, not around it," says Kazuya, his brain catching up with his actions too late. He forces himself not to flush under Takarada and Kuramochi’s scrutiny.

Luckily, Sawamura’s phone chimes, drawing their gazes back to him.

"Wakana wants to come and visit," Sawamura says, after he quickly reads, tucking his phone away without answering the message. "I don’t know when is good. We have too much practice for it to be fun for her until the fall tournament is over, probably."

"You don’t want her to see a game?" Kuramochi frowns. "Bring her around so she can watch us!"

"Ahh, yeah, she’d love that, but I don’t want to abandon her while she’s here." He taps his own nose with his index finger. "I’m also worried about the photographers who come to games… Ah, I’ll figure something out!"

"Who’s Wakana?" Takarada asks. She’s leaning into Sawamura’s personal space, but he doesn’t seem to notice.

Kuramochi aggressively stabs at his soba. "Sawamura’s girlfriend."

"She is not!" He turns to Takarada. "She’s my childhood best friend. She used to play on my baseball team in middle school. And the girlfriend thing is why I’m worried about the baseball journalists! I don’t want anybody bothering her over untrue stuff like that!"

"You had girls on your baseball team?" Takarada winds a long piece of hair around her finger. "That’s rare."

"I went to school in a pretty rural area." He picks up his bowl and slurps a mouthful of broth. "We barely had enough people to field a team with boys and girls combined."

"How did you end up with these two at Seidou, then?"

"Scouted." Sawamura wipes his face with the back of his hand. "Was gonna reject it but that guy over there"--he points at Kazuya with his chopsticks--"he sorta convinced me to go."

"I did?" He recalls Chris’s words from the night of the team’s first fall practice. You were the person who showed him how important a catcher can be for a pitcher. "You mean when we took down Azuma?"

Sawamura puffs out his cheeks until he looks like a squirrel jealously competing for acorns. "Yeah!" He exhales heavily, then smiles wide. "Before that, I never had anyone to catch my pitches! Like Furuya, kind of, except I didn’t even know that catchers could help call pitches like that, because Nobu just sort of…" He flaps his arms around like a drunk bird. "Wakana would tell me not to go too crazy, I guess? Anyway, I ended up attending Seidou and became awesome." Eyes lighting up, he turns back to Takarada. "And then we went to Koushien twice!"

"Became awesome?" Kuramochi leans back. "Whatever, Sawamura! You’ve always been more noise than action!"

"Maybe at first, but I’m really good now, admit it!"

Kuramochi looks like he’d rather catch Sawamura in a headlock than admit anything, but Kazuya’s not finished eating yet so he doesn’t want to get kicked out the restaurant this soon. "You should invite your friend to the final series," he says, intervening. "She can arrive the day of the first game and then you can spend time with her afterwards." He smirks. "Unless you’re not confident about winning any games."

"You bet your ass we’re gonna win the Emperor’s Cup!" Sawamura leans across the table to get up into Kazuya’s face. "What kind of captain doesn’t think his team’s gonna win?!"

"I’m not the captain, remember?" Kazuya replies, dryly, spreading his palm and fingers against Sawamura’s face and pushing him back. "I’m starting to think you like me having a little authority over you, Sawamura. Besides, I very much believe we’re going to win. I hate losing."

"Everyone hates losing! And what’s that supposed to mean, about the authority thing?! Miyuki Kazuya!!"

Kazuya crumbles in laughter, letting his face fall to the table as he holds his sides, Kuramochi flopping into him laughing just as hard. "Nothing, Sawamoron!"

They pool loose bills and coins to pay the tab, Kazuya still laughing as they make their way back outside into the night.

Kazuya pulls up the hood of his sweatshirt as Takarada exchanges numbers with Sawamura, thinking about all the batter statistics he needs to memorize tonight for Saturday’s game when he gets back to the apartment. He and Sawamura are going to destroy Keio, because even if they have stats on Sawamura’s season last year, that had been a Sawamura without Kazuya leading him.

He’s brought back to the moment when Takarada excuses herself, telling them all she has a few things to do for the team tonight, leaving Sawamura, Kuramochi, and Kazuya standing in front of the restaurant, shivering from the cold.

"I should go finish my English homework." Sawamura is obviously reluctant, but his shoulders are squared like he’s going to war.

"I’m not going to do my homework," Kuramochi admits. "I finally got that new horror game my brother’s been talking about all month, and during baseball season all the professors are lax with submission dates…"

"Tsk tsk," Kazuya teases, waggling his finger at Kuramochi chidingly. "Naughty."

"You’re probably going to stay up late memorizing stats and watching player footage instead of working on any of those assignments piled up on the side of your desk."

"But that’s for Saturday," replies Kazuya. "What’s that horror game for?"

"Family bragging rights." Kuramochi puts his hands on his hips. "Which are super important."

"Oh, are you going to be looking up batting stats for our opponents?" Sawamura has Kazuya’s windbreaker zipped all the way up, now. Kazuya licks his lips at how unabashedly Sawamura’s wearing Kazuya’s name across his back. Doesn’t he find that weird? That’s girlfriend behavior, Kazuya figures, not that he’s ever had or wanted a girlfriend. "Chris-senpai was teaching me how to do that kind of research but I’m not really great at it."

"You don’t need to be," Kazuya says. "I’m great at it."

"A pitcher needs to know how to make calls too!" Sawamura blows his bangs out of his face. "Catchers offer advice, and can make calls that the pitcher can’t, sometimes, but ultimately, it’s me that’s throwing the ball, Miyuki!"

Kazuya blinks at him, his heart stuttering a bit in his chest at the intensity of Sawamura’s eyes. It’s like when he’s determined to pitch inside to a strong batter, that same unstoppable heat, and Kazuya would be lying if he didn’t admit to himself that it’s his favorite of Sawamura’s expressions.

"Oh ho? You want to hone those good instincts of yours?" Kazuya toys with the strings of his hood, contemplating. After a few moments’ hesitation, he decides. "Do you want to go over the stats together?"

Sawamura’s whole face brightens, a sun in the middle of the night. "Yeah!" He cuts his gaze to Kuramochi warily. "Can we do it at my place, though? I don’t… like horror games."

"Sure," Kazuya answers. "As long as I can safely use your computer." He leers, and Kuramochi cackles.

"You’re in rare form tonight, Miyuki."

"Why wouldn’t you be able to safely use my computer?" Sawamura asks. "It’s new!"

"I just don’t know how often you wash your hands," Kazuya says, shrugging, and the second that Sawamura gets it, his whole face turns the color of a tomato.

"Why are you like this?!"

"You like me like this," says Kazuya mildly. "You missed me. You came to Meiji to get some more of me~"

Sawamura’s apoplectic. "Miyuki Kazuya!!!"

"Well, as entertaining as I’m sure you two attempting to study our opponents without strangling each other is going to be, I’m headed back home, Miyuki." He waves jauntily. "Sawamura, don’t call me if you kill this guy. I won’t be your alibi." He slaps Kazuya’s back and walks off.

Sawamura, still flustered, reaches for Kazuya’s arm and snags his sweatshirt sleeve, wordlessly dragging him in the opposite direction.

It’s a relatively quiet fifteen-minute walk to Sawamura’s apartment in the direction of the Surugadai campus, with Sawamura muttering insults under his breath about Kazuya the entire way. He doesn’t, though, relinquish his hold on Kazuya’s sleeve, which Kazuya finds funny enough not to remark on, letting the first-year drag him along at a steady pace through streets Kazuya is surprisingly unfamiliar with.

Sawamura lives alone in a one-room on the top floor of a building with no elevator. "No one wanted this room," he says, as he unlocks the door. "I’m not sure why! It’s great cardio!"

"For a masochist." Kazuya replies, pushing Sawamura in and following behind him. The place is surprisingly tidy, the pile of dirty practice clothes overflowing the hamper the only real mess. Back issues of Number and Monthly Baseball Kingdom spill over in a pile next to the bed, and he has a neat bookshelf along the wall filled with books, although some do seem to be volumes of that romance manga Sawamura and Isashiki had always liked back in high school. He toes off his shoes and stands waiting while Sawamura pushes his low table to the center of the room, tossing a few of the cushions stacked up next to his television out for them to sit on. "Not bad, Sawamura! I expected it to look like the abyss in here!"

"Ah," Sawamura blushes. "Well, it’s not like I’ve been home enough to make a mess, yet."

"Still, yours and Kuramochi’s dorm room looked like the aftermath of a tornado, even on a good day."

"Your apartment now isn’t messy." Sawamura pours two glasses of water from a water-pitcher set on the edge of the narrow kitchen counter, nestled between stacks of instant noodle packages. "Do you make Kuramochi-senpai keep it clean?"

"I don’t make people do things," Kazuya says, accepting the water and padding over to the low table as Sawamura unplugs his laptop from the wall by his futon. "I make people want to do things."

"Those nasty mind games of yours." Sawamura makes a funny little displeased grimace in his direction, then comes and sits down next to him with his laptop. "I don’t know if that’s something to be proud of, bastard."

"This is how I am." Kazuya shrugs, scooting over a bit when Sawamura’s elbow brushes his ribs. "And I like myself just fine."

Sawamura stares at him, uncomfortably close. The lighting comes from a single bulb above them, and it catches in Sawamura’s eyes. "Were you always like this?" His eyes are unblinking as he nibbles lightly on his lower lip. "So… well, you know, like you are now."

"What kind of question is that?" Chest tight, feeling trapped by Sawamura’s stare, Kazuya slides the laptop in front of him and logs into his school account. "What do you know about our opponents?"

Kazuya spends a good hour quizzing Sawamura on Keio’s starting players from last season; everything from batting averages to ERAs to WHIP values, and Sawamura fumbles at remembering the numerical values but he brings something else to the table—flashes of brilliance about batting habits from short clips and odd little memories from having played defense against certain batters before in previous years.

Somewhere along the line, Kazuya gets drowsy, eyes fluttering shut as Sawamura tells a long, winding story about some kid in Kazuya’s year from Kiryu who he’s sure went to Keio. He’s pretty certain he’s only closed his eyes for a moment, but he wakes up warm, head resting on something firm and cheek mashing into denim. "Where--?"

"Oh, you’re awake?" comes Sawamura’s voice from somewhere above him, and Kazuya’s eyes open wide. He’s lying in Sawamura’s lap, one of Sawamura’s hands fluttering around with the sleeve of his sweatshirt while the other clicks between videos. "I didn’t want you to get a neck cramp, so… I… uh. Well."

Sawamura’s thighs are as firm under his head as Kazuya has thought, during strange, absent moments of practice, that they looked, even if they’re significantly narrower than his own. He can feel the anxious clench and release of the muscles there as Sawamura observes him warily. Throat dry, Kazuya tries to stop the quick-beat of his heart against his ribs at the way Sawamura’s hair falls around his face as the pitcher hunches over him, the hand stretching the sleeve going still but not withdrawing.

"What time is it?" His throat is dry, and his voice cracks a little.

"A little after midnight," Sawamura answers, his fingers tickling Kazuya’s side through the sweatshirt. Kazuya shivers, despite how warm he is lying so close to Sawamura’s heat.

Sawamura smells like the baseball field, like rawhide and summer, despite the fact that it’s fall. Kazuya’s throat is so dry.

The heaviness of Sawamura’s arm across his chest is comfortable. "I should go home," he says, voice rasping, and Sawamura’s face goes pink.

"Right," he says. "Um, thanks, Miyuki-senpai. For going over the stats with me." His brows drop. "We’re going to be an amazing battery again."

"Every battery I’m in is amazing," Kazuya replies, sitting up and fixing his cap. "So give me your best pitches."

"I will!" Sawamura says, arm falling into his lap, as he watches Kazuya walk to the door. "Make sure you get some sleep, or you won’t be able to catch them!" He averts his gaze, then, blush disappearing down below the collar of his shirt.

"Aww, are you worried about me, Sawamura?" Kazuya drawls as he slips into his shoes. He winks at the first year, who looks to be gearing up to shout something profane at him. "That’s so cute."

He closes the door behind him, leaving a noisy, embarrassed Sawamura behind him. He hunches against the autumn wind as he walks, wishing he was already in his bed.

He thinks about the weight of that pitching arm across his chest the whole way home, though, and it’s to the thought of that fresh leather scent that he finally falls asleep.

The call from his dad comes at seven the next morning, waking him up just before his alarm.

"Kazuya," his dad says, low and stiff. Kazuya can hear the shriek of the table saw in the background. His dad must already be at work.

"Hey," Kazuya says, warily. His dad calling him is unusual, really, and never just to chat.

"I need to speak with you in person," his father says, after a stretch of silence. "Is tomorrow okay?"

"I have a game." Kuramochi, in the bed above him, groans as his own phone alarm goes off. "I could… Afterwards, I could take the train."

"That’s fine," his dad says. "We could meet for dinner at the usual place, and you can stay in town for the night. I should get off work around eight?"

"I need time to go home and shower," Kazuya replies. "Depending on our post-game meeting, it could be later. Is nine okay?" His dad doesn’t usually stay up past ten, since he gets up at five to go to work. In some ways, it’s a test, to see how important whatever he wants to talk about is.

"All right. Until then."

Important, then.

Kazuya sighs, crawling out of bed. He uses the bathroom quickly, before returning to the bedroom to make sure Kuramochi’s up. He is, and he’s looking at Kazuya blearily, one arm hanging down from the top bunk as his face presses awkwardly into the guard rail. "Was that your dad?"

"Yeah," says Kazuya, crossing the room to pick up his last clean practice uniform. He needs to do laundry as badly as Sawamura. "He wants me to go home after the game tomorrow, and I’ll make sure to come back in time to meet the team in the morning."

"Is everything okay? It’s not like him to call you, is it?" Kuramochi sits up and yawns, stretching his arms up over his head. "Too busy or something, right?"

Kuramochi speaks with the luxury of someone whose parents adored him even when he was out causing mayhem in the streets. Kazuya’s family isn’t like that, at least anymore. He remembers affectionate hair ruffles from his dad, and quiet whispers of affection, but it was so long ago Kazuya often thinks he might have imagined it.

"It’s complicated." Kazuya runs a hand through his hair. "And none of your business, really."

"What time did you get back from Sawamura’s last night?" Kuramochi lethargically makes his way to the bathroom, leaving the door open as he uses it. "I went to bed at midnight, and you still weren’t home."

"That’s also none of your business." Kazuya pulls his navy compression shirt over his head. "I got back about one, I think."

"Party animal!" Kuramochi leans out the door, toothbrush hanging from his mouth. "Look at you! Late nights being a baseball nerd!"

"My research wins games." Wearing just his briefs and his compression shirt, he pushes into the bathroom and shoves Kuramochi out, toothpaste all over his roommate’s lips and dripping down his chin. "More than your batting this summer~"

"Fuck you, at least I’m a switch," Kuramochi probably says, around a mouthful of toothpaste foam, as Kazuya turns on the water to wash his face. Kuramochi shoulders him sideways to share the sink, and after he’s rinsed his mouth, he waits for Kazuya to dry his face and pluck up his own toothbrush. "I’m glad though."

"About what? Me taking my school work seriously, about me winning games, or me being a ‘party animal’?" He checks the time on his phone and shoves the toothbrush in his mouth when he sees they’ve only got twenty minutes to get to practice.

"That Sawamura joined our team again," Kuramochi says. "He brings out a side of you I like."

"An aggravated side," Kazuya says around the toothbrush. It comes out warped.

"A flustered side!"

Kazuya glares at Kuramochi in the mirror, and this time, when he kicks him out, he doesn’t sidle back in.

The Tokyo Big6 League is not nearly as popular as Koushien, but it’s top of the top for Tokyo university-level baseball. It’s mostly eight straight weeks of best-of-three series games, and it marks a return to Kasumigaoka’s Meiji Jingu Stadium for anyone on the team who ever played in Tokyo for lead-ups to Koushien. Sawamura’s won more than fifteen games for Seidou on the mound he’ll be pitching from today, even if now he’s wearing a different uniform and he’s got a different team at his back.

With their gear, the Meiji team still makes use of one of the campus vehicles, a bus big enough to hold all thirty-something of them, despite how close their club rooms are to the stadium. The shove of oversized purple baseball duffles into the bottom of the bus as the managers check off player names on the equipment roster is a familiar thing, even if the bags used to be blue and gold.

Sawamura arrives ten minutes late, by the skin of his teeth, brand new Meiji ball cap so dark a black it looks like a shadow, and official uniform jersey still creased from the packaging. His hair is a mess of curly tangles under his hat, and his compression shirt collar is folded lopsided at his throat, but his cleats are tied with neat bows and his grin is totally awake and excited.

He’s also, for the first time, wearing his own windbreaker instead of Kazuya’s. It’s looser at his shoulders, and Kazuya can’t help the swoop of, well, something at the reminder that Sawamura’s shoulders have gotten broader than his own.

"So you made it," Shirasu says, squinting at Sawamura. It’s hard to tell what expression Shirasu is making, sometimes, but this one is clearly his own brand of understated mirth.

"Ahhh, Shirasu-senpai! I slept a little late… But I didn’t mean to! I was so excited that I couldn’t sleep! And then when I did sleep, my body didn’t wanna wake up!"

"Still," lectures Ichinose, "cutting it this close to leaving-time is unprofessional, Sawamura." He juts his chin over to where Assistant Coach Numamoto is checking players off on his clipboard. "We don’t have time to waste. The press is going to run us through a gauntlet thanks to the pretty boy starting today"--he gestures at Kazuya with vaguely disguised disgust--"and that’s going to take at least thirty minutes. If you’d gotten here after Coach Maeda, there would have been hell to pay."

"He makes Coach Kataoka from high school look like a newborn kitten when he’s mad," Kuramochi agrees, drowsily cracking his knuckles like he’s contemplating a take-down move.

"Oh, I don’t know," says Kazuya, "I think Coach Maeda is much less hung up on politeness." He taps his chin. "But if you’re ever late for a game, he’ll skin you and then stuff you and make you a trophy in the staff office."

Sawamura squawks, and Shiba rolls his eyes. "Already at maximum volume at nine-thirty in the morning, Sawamura?"

"Sorry, Shiba-senpai!"

"Am I really the only person who doesn’t get a ‘senpai’ from you, Sawamura?" Kazuya asks, with no real intent, and Kuramochi, who is still half-asleep, still finds it in himself to snicker.

"Well—"

"Sawamura, Miyuki, come here!" Numamoto calls. Like an obedient pup, tail wagging, Sawamura picks up his bag and hurries over to the assistant coach. Kazuya follows at a more sedate pace, marveling at how much sillier his excited wiggling looks in that big adult body. "Feeling good today, guys?"

"I’m ready to pitch a shut-out game!" Sawamura responds immediately, loudly, and Numamoto laughs.

"You’ll have more than one chance, Sawamura. It’s best of three to take the series against Keio." Numamoto taps his clipboard with his pen. "I wanted to tell you to be prepared to pitch the whole game," he continues. "We’ll definitely put in a relief pitcher if we’re leading by more than five runs, but otherwise, Coach Maeda wants you both to be our defensive heads for as many innings as possible."

Kazuya nods. "So you’re warning me to pace us carefully," he says, and Numamoto smiles.

"Exactly," he says. "We’ll try to keep Sawamura under 100 pitches in today’s game."

"I pitched 144 balls in my first Koushien game this year," Sawamura says. "It was rough on my arm and back, but I’m generally fine until 120, no burn or pain from my fastballs."

Kazuya processes that unexpected information. "Chris didn’t say anything about you pitching that much?" He pins Sawamura with a glare. "I kept Furuya to 90, max."

"I’m not Furuya!" Eyes flicking back over to Kazuya briefly, Sawamura continues. "You know how my form is kinda…" He gestures vaguely, and Kazuya nods.

"Yeah, I know. That delayed visibility."

"Right, well…" He tilts his head, scratching at the hair grown out on the back of his neck. "It’s like, it uses my core strength and it’s not too hard on my arm? I get tired more slowly than Furuya, because of the way our pitches work…?"

"That makes sense." Kazuya had sort of known that already, but with Furuya’s improvement, he’d never played with Sawamura for long enough to really test his endurance. Furuya’s high-octane pitches get their strength from every part of him, while Sawamura’s moving fastballs are more the product of effective velocity and confusing the eye than Furuya’s actual hurtling missiles. "120 pitches is still pretty high."

"A pitcher wants to pitch the whole game," says Sawamura. "I want to be on the mound for as long as possible, with good strong pitches." He bows to Numamoto. "Please allow me 120 pitches!"

Kazuya lifts both eyebrows, and exchanges a look with Numamoto, who looks incredibly pleased.

"I’ll talk to Coach Maeda about it," Numamoto says, "but as long as you’re pitching well and you want to stay in… With back to back games, you will have to worry about being over-tired…" He hums. "We’ll see, Sawamura. We can’t have you getting injured."

Kazuya frowns. There’s no need, he thinks, to even put that idea in Sawamura’s head. "Let’s get on the bus, brat."

"You’re only one year ahead of me, Miyuki Kazuya! Where do you get off calling me a brat!"

"Nowhere you can watch, so don’t get too excited, Sawamura." One of their two new first year managers drops her clipboard, looking at Kazuya horrified, and he grins back at her until she blushes red from head to toe.

Then Kazuya shoves Sawamura forward, and the pitcher catches himself with both hands, stepping up into the bus while glaring over his shoulder. "You’re the worst!"

Sawamura sits four rows back, and without thinking, Kazuya sits next to him, bickering for the entire loading of the bus and half the trip there, before getting inexplicably caught in an across-aisle debate about whether Keio’s managers will hold a candle to Takarada and Kumai, a fourth year manager Kuramochi thinks walks on water. It somehow devolves into which of Meiji’s four main managers is the prettiest, and Kazuya leans back in his seat with an annoyed sigh.

Sawamura is awfully quiet, though, so Kazuya checks to make sure he hasn’t fallen asleep. A groggy Sawamura has a terrible attention span, and they’ve got the opening ceremony at fifteen after ten. "No opinion, Sawamura?"

He shrugs uncomfortably. "Not really," he replies. "They’re all pretty in different ways, right?"

Kazuya stares at him for a minute, then pushes the brim of Sawamura’s hat down to cover his eyes. "You’re too good a boy," he says.

Sawamura pushes the cap back up and meets Kazuya’s eyes. "It’s like with baseball, right? You wouldn’t want ten of the exact same players on your team! You want to have lots of different players for different situations, and every player has their strengths…" His eyes suddenly open to reveal too much of the white, and Kazuya looks around to see that almost everyone around him is staring. "Or something…" He trails off, and Kazuya claps.

"Well said, Sawamura." He crosses his arms. "That’s why girls like you, while those clowns just look at dirty videos on the internet."

"Why do girls like you, then?" Kuramochi grouches. "It’s gotta be your face!" He looks at Sawamura. "Your face is kind of good too, isn’t it, Sawamura?"

"Is it?" Sawamura pokes his own cheek with one finger, mystified, then looks at Kazuya. "Is it?"

"How should I know?" Kazuya grins, his blood rushing to his head as he fixes his gaze straight forward so that he can’t even catch Sawamura’s dopey, hopeful expression in his periphery. "Why don’t you ask Takarada?"

"Why?" Sawamura asks, and Kuramochi growls with outrage at the injustice of it all as Kazuya sinks back into his seat, vowing to sit in the back with the fourth years on the way home. "Wait, why?"

"Don’t worry about it," Kazuya says, patting Sawamura’s thigh consolingly, still not looking at him. Sawamura’s warm through the thin material of his baseball pants, and his quadricep twitches under Kazuya’s palm at the touch. "Think about the nine innings you’re going to pitch today."

"Miyuki-senpai," Sawamura says, and the sudden seriousness of his voice has Kazuya’s eyes flicking right to check his expression. He’s humming with focus and intent. "Let’s destroy them."

"Oh, feeling vicious?" Kazuya grins gleefully. "I like that kind of attitude." He swallows, and lets Sawamura’s determination sink into him as they approach the stadium. He can’t wait to be greedy about winning again—that’s when baseball is the most thrilling.

They’re up by six runs by the top of the fourth inning. Sawamura has only let one batter on base alternating between straight fastballs and change-ups, and Kazuya gets him out before he can make it to second after catching a pop fly. The other team is getting frustrated, but Sawamura is only getting better, the converging, spinning seams of his fastball creating spots in Kazuya’s eyes as they out another batter by jamming him, pitching to contact just like Sawamura likes.

Kazuya loves baseball, and baseball is at its best when he gets to play with people like Sawamura, who burn brightest under pressure. A true ace, like Furuya, like Sanada, like Narumiya. The whole field is sprawled out before him and he’s making gutsy calls again, and this, he thinks, is what he wants. What he craves. The burn in his thighs and the ache in his palm from catching Sawamura’s straight fastballs are what he’d been missing most over the past year when he’d been the substitute instead of the starter.

"Oshi!" Sawamura yells when they get their last out of the inning, Kuramochi hollering their team chant triumphantly right after, getting everyone on the field save for Kazuya to join him.

"Nice pitching," Ichinose says when they come in, slapping Sawamura’s back and giving Kazuya an easy smile.

Sawamura preens under the attention, taking off his hat to push his hair back before settling it back into place. "Well, I told that bastard we would destroy them. Ha!" He points at Kazuya with his thumb.

After pulling his chest guard up over his body, Kazuya tugs at the neck of his compression shirt, hot even in the cool weather. "Yeah, and you have to pitch well to keep that promise, considering you bat like a toddler swinging a tree branch in the dark."

"No one bunts like me!" Sawamura pulls a face. "I was Seidou’s Kawai Masahiro, and don’t you forget it! Anyway, my batting’s not that bad."

"You’re right," Kazuya says, sitting down on the bench next to Shirasu to take off his shin guards. "Maybe it’s only a toddler at twilight, not full dark." He cuts his gaze to Kuramochi, who’s next up at bat. "You’ll probably have a better batting average than Kuramochi did this summer."

"Get off my back about this summer, Miyuki!" Kuramochi complains. "I know I didn’t have a great season last year but I’ve been kicking ass today!" He taps the bat lightly against the toe of his shoe. "I’ve hit more than you!"

Kazuya shrugs. "Yeah, but I’m a catcher." He stows his gear under the bench and checks the batting order. He’ll be up fifth this inning, if Keio continues fielding like they have been all game. "You’re here for your batting, Kuramochi, since Sawamura and I are making shortstops superfluous."

"I’ll use this bat to make your face superfluous," Kuramochi grouses, as Hirahata, one of the team’s strongest power-hitters, slams a curveball deep into left field, running easily to second base. "That’s my cue. Try not to make Sawamura cry while I’m not here to chaperone, Miyuki."

"As if I care what this guy thinks!" Sawamura has a thin sheen of sweat on his face as he slumps into the seat on Kazuya’s other side.

"You care," Shirasu says, leaning forward so he can see past Kazuya. "Now calm down."

"I’m calm, I’m calm!" Sawamura belies the statement by bouncing in place, and he’s clutching a stress ball in his left hand, probably trying to keep his arm loose.

"You’re at about 40 pitches," Kazuya says, grabbing Sawamura’s hand to stop his compulsive squeezing. He takes the stress ball and presses his palm to Sawamura’s, using his fingers to push Sawamura’s straight. "You might not need 120 to stay in the whole game. Don’t make your fingers tired."

Sawamura looks down at where Kazuya’s hand rests on top of his own, and his eyelashes flutter, several expressions crossing his countenance so fast Kazuya can’t register all of them. "Your hands are smaller than mine, now." Sawamura wiggles his fingers, and they slip partially between Kazuya’s.

It’s too close to holding hands. He snatches his hand back and rubs it on his uniform pants. "You’re bigger than me in general, now. What have you been eating?"

"Lots of cake," Sawamura replies, pleased with himself. "I’m taller than Furuya, too." He looks out into the field as Kuramochi hits a foul. "Not Chris-senpai, though…" He curls his hand into a fist. "I still have to look up at him."

"Most of us do," Kazuya replies. "In more ways than one."

Sawamura nods. "He knows more about baseball than anyone, and he’s a good teacher. Working with Chris has always been a privilege, and I’m really… lucky he’s always helped me so much." His eyes drop to half-mast. "I’ve only been in a real battery with him once, but I could feel his strength from the catcher’s box. I’d like to feel it again someday."

"Then why didn’t you sign with the Diamonds?"

Eyes darting over to Kazuya and then away again just as quickly, Sawamura curls his pitching hand back into a fist. "Are you spying on me, Miyuki Kazuya?!"

"Chris mentioned you’d rejected the chance to sign with the Dragons’ minor team."

"Yeah, I did!" He swallows, visibly, then runs his tongue along his teeth, flashing Kazuya the veiny pink underside of it. "It was the right decision for me, I think."

Sawamura’s eyes blaze, his lips stretching into a firm line. Kazuya’s gaze catches on a tiny patch of stubble Sawamura likely missed while shaving this morning. He continues along the line of that strong jaw, up to those high cheekbones and chapped full lips, and it’s only a shout from the field, Hirahata stealing third and coming home for a run, that breaks his weird focus on the pitcher and returns him to the moment.

"Why?"

"Because I do want to be the best pitcher in the NPB. I want people to think I’m as good as Saito Yuki! But… I also…" He flushes. "I also have other things… It’s got nothing to do with you!"

"I was just curious, Sawamura, no need to pop a blood vessel." He quickly turns to Shirasu, not waiting for a response from Sawamura. "Are my gloves over there?"

Silently, Shirasu passes them over along with his batting helmet, and Kazuya sets that in his lap while he pulls his gloves on, followed by his elbow guard.

"I just have some things to do before I go pro," Sawamura says, when Kazuya picks up his helmet and stands to go wait at on-deck. "Like graduate from college! And besides, the battery I made with Chris-senpai isn’t the only battery I’ve wanted to make again."

Heart in his throat, Kazuya studies Sawamura, whose eyes glimmer like molten gold as he looks up through his lashes. "You’re too straightforward, sometimes," he manages, feeling flustered and off-center, and hoping that his tinted eyewear hides at least some of it.

"Not all of us can be confusing assholes like you!" Sawamura grins up at him, breaking the tension, and lightly puts his fist to the center of Kazuya’s chest. "Don’t strike out, jerk."

"Wasn’t planning on it," Kazuya says, stepping out onto the field to face down Keio’s pitcher, who isn’t nearly as unpredictable as Sawamura on the mound.

He hits the second splitter right off the field and into the stands, bringing Kuramochi and Tanaka home. Shirasu fist bumps him, and Kuramochi slaps him on the back, and Sawamura beams at him, and Kazuya thinks, in a second of weakness, that he misses Seidou, and he’s so, so glad that the world was able to bring a small piece of it to him.

They win in a landslide, and Kazuya’s thighs ache but he knows, the moment the first game of the Keio series ends in their favor, that this season is going to be a great one.

The press shoves microphones in their faces, and Sawamura soaks up their attention and praise like a sponge as he drags Kazuya out toward where the team is meeting up to get on the bus. He says all the right things, too, a total natural, and Kazuya just smiles charmingly a few times at familiar photographers so he looks like less of a jerk for wanting to collapse into a seat on the bus and truly take in the victory.

"Miyuki," asks one university sports journalist he recognizes, "is it exciting to play with Sawamura again?"

Sawamura throws an arm around Miyuki’s shoulder and pushes their cheeks together. "He’s extremely lucky to have me!" he says. "One day he’ll definitely appreciate my amazingness—"

"It’s not the worst," Kazuya interrupts, and Sawamura sputters as the journalist laughs, surprise evident in her eyes at Kazuya, notorious for being perfectly cordial but a little standoffish, cracking a joke, and for a brief moment, Kazuya feels exposed.

"You’re the worst!" Sawamura replies, and then he’s grinning as the cameras flash, pulling Kazuya in a little closer until they’re narrow enough to get past the flood of the crowd.

He means to sit with Ichinose on the way home, but Sawamura snags him by the back of his uniform shirt, and pulls him down next to him, into the middle of a huge cluster of chatty, excited first and second years, talking about their plans for their next game tomorrow. Kazuya gives in, sinking back into the seat and joining the conversation with a few pointed insults, and ignores how close his back is to Sawamura’s chest, the space between them as warm as if they were touching.

"You don’t like the reporters much, huh?" Sawamura asks him, when they get off the bus, luminous eyes intent as he shifts his bag around to accommodate the ice cooling his shoulder. It drags his jersey open a little further, revealing a stripe of untanned skin down his chest and stomach, and a dark trail of hair that disappears down below the waist of his uniform bottoms.

"Not all of us need constant praise like you," Kazuya replies, averting his eyes. "I like to keep to myself."

"I don’t need constant praise," Sawamura says, bluntly. "Some praise means more than others!"

"Like mine?" Kazuya lilts, and Sawamura goes a startling shade of red and his gaze skitters away, toward where Kuramochi is making loud reenactments of his last run with Kumai. Kazuya licks his lips, tilting his head curiously. "Hmmm?"

Sawamura swallows. "Stay next to me with the reporters!" He darts his gaze back to Kazuya. "I’ll talk to them for both of us!"

"I don’t need anyone to speak for me."

"Obviously," Sawamura says. "But you don’t have to always suffer through things you don’t like if I can help."

"Oh," says Kazuya, hating the syrupy warmth that floods his veins, wiping away exhaustion and replacing it with some unnameable other. "You’re really arrogant, aren’t you?"

"Miyuki Kazuya!!!" Sawamura’s yells have him laughing to himself, and he thinks again: This season is going to be a great one.

During the post-game meeting, Coach Maeda tried to hammer home that they shouldn’t get cocky because their first game in the Keio series had been such a landslide. He’d looked pointedly at Sawamura, who was still wriggling around flush with victory, Kuramochi’s weight pinning him to the floor with a knee to his back doing nothing to stop his loud mouth.

Kazuya begs off from team dinner, reminding Kuramochi with a look about his appointment with his dad when he starts an aggravated protest, and fends off both Ichinose and Sawamura as he goes to part ways from the team at the parking garage.

"You didn’t come last time, either!" Sawamura is in his personal space again. Kazuya’s not touch-shy, but Sawamura just seems unaware of the way he barges in to Kazuya’s bubble, in stark contrast to Kazuya’s purposeful invasions. "How are you still popular if you never spend time with anyone?!"

"That’s probably why, actually," interjects Kuramochi. "After all, it’s hard to really get how twisted Miyuki is until you’ve been long-term exposed!"

"Thank you!" Kazuya grins, shifting the weight of his bag where it’s started to dig into his shoulder.

"No one’s complimenting you!" Sawamura pokes Kazuya’s chest. "What are you gonna do tonight, huh? Huh?!"

"I’m sure you’ll have a blast without me, ace!" Kazuya says, hooking his free arm around Sawamura’s neck and dragging him down. "Try not to get slightly drunk this time. We’re the afternoon game tomorrow, but hangovers aren’t acceptable." Sawamura’s cheek brushes his own, and Kazuya rapidly pulls back, swallowing harshly.

"Is this a habit of yours?! Ditching get-togethers?!" Sawamura yells after him as Kazuya waves jauntily without turning around. "Don’t think I won’t bring the whole team to your apartment!"

"Like hell you will!" Kuramochi says, and Kazuya laughs at the loud thwack of Kuramochi’s hand slapping Sawamura’s shoulder.

He walks home and quickly showers, scrubbing clean of sweat and dirt and rinsing the ripples from his hat out of his hair, then selects a clean T-shirt and his cleanest pair of jeans. Checking his phone and finding the time to be just after seven, he throws a sweatshirt and jeans along with his toiletries into a backpack and heads back out into the cool evening in the direction of the train station.

It takes an hour by train to get to Tamagawa from Meiji University, on one of the Setagaya-ku-bound trains. Kazuya stands, even though his thighs and hips are sore from today’s game, leaning against the side of the seats, next to the door, his backpack between his feet. The closer he gets to his dad’s home, the more dread pools in the pit of his stomach, replacing the hunger that’s been gnawing at him since the ninth inning.

Stepping out of the train station into the night air around eight-thirty, the first faint whiff of the river has Kazuya slipping his hands into his jacket pockets and wishing he could turn around. Though a lot of this area has changed, with new high rises and a hotel and the shopping center re-done into something barely recognizable in comparison to the one that had been here when he was a kid, the air is the same.

Kazuya had spent a lot of nights, as as a first-year in middle school, breathing in air like this as he practiced batting, swing after swing to strengthen his muscles. Even more nights standing out on the front step to his house, waiting for his mother to come home, when he knew, in the back of his mind, that she probably never would.

Smelling the Tamagawa just reminds Kazuya of learning how to smile through being lonely, and he hates those reminders almost as much as he hates that he has to go have dinner with his father.

The restaurant his dad likes is a small family-run place, not too far from Takashimaya Tamagawa Center. It’s a place that reminds Kazuya a bit of Murakami Haruki’s version of the 1960s, with faded orange walls, beer-sticky floors, and old records nailed as art behind every wooden table for two.

They never would have eaten at a place like this when Kazuya’s mother had still been around, because they serve all the foods she liked to cook: warm, traditional soups, and the crunchy, partially melted rice at the bottom of the cooker. Sometimes, Kazuya thinks that’s why his father likes it, but it’s hard to tell if he ever thinks of Kazuya’s mother at all.

At eight-forty-five, he arrives, weaving through the drunken men huddled around the television watching the Swallows game to find his dinner companion.

His dad has already started on his first 50cc of beer, and several papers are spread out on the table in front of him. He looks tired, Kazuya notes, but even so, he’s changed out of his usual work uniform and into clean clothes, his hair wet from the shower. He still smells like sawdust and oil, though, just like the house always did. Probably still does. At one time, Kazuya found the smell comforting, but now he’s used to it symbolizing unfilled and awkward silences more than anything else.

Looking up at the sound of Kazuya’s chair pulling back, his dad clears his throat and stares. "You’re early."

Kazuya nods, taking in the dark circles under his dad’s eyes, and the new streaks of grey in his hair. "I wasn’t sure how long the post-game meeting was going to take," he says. "The coach didn’t have much criticism for us, so it was shorter than expected."

"Did you win?" His dad picks up his beer and takes a sip. His wedding ring glimmers even in the dim light, polished like he cares about it, which is a complicated thing for Kazuya to think about.

Kazuya clicks his tongue. "Does it matter to you?" It’s his mother, who’d played softball and been a manager for her high school team, when she wasn’t playing her own games. His dad used to pretend. Had bought him the wrong kind of mitt for his birthday, once, back when he’d been able to look at Kazuya without seeing the ghost of someone else.

"It matters to you, doesn’t it?" His father presses his lips into a thin line. He’s bad at talking in a different way than Kazuya is. Kazuya says a whole bunch of things he doesn’t mean to deflect, and his father barely says anything at all.

"We won pretty handily. We’ll be in contention to win the Emperor’s Cup if we can maintain the kind of performance we had today."

"Old Kasuda at work thinks you should have gone to Waseda, if you were offered it. They have the best team." His dad scratches at his neck, and there’s a bit of oil under his fingernails. "They were one of the universities that wanted you, right? That coach at your school said you got a lot of offers."

Coach Kataoka had pretty much handled Kazuya’s entire college search. Kazuya hadn’t known that his father had really been briefed on any of it, since Kazuya was doing his best to help avoid needing any financial support at all. Because while things aren’t as tight, financially, as they were when Kazuya was in middle school, his father’s business is barely self-sustaining, and Kazuya’s always been aware that if he wanted to go to high school and college it was on him to earn a scholarship for it. He’s lucky, in that sense, that he loves baseball so much, because it’s gotten him through where his academics never would have.

"Kazuya?"

He blinks, coming back to the conversation. "You were talking about colleges with Kasuda? Why?" His dad hadn’t gotten to finish university. He’d inherited the family business after Kazuya’s grandfather had kicked the bucket during the recession back in the 1980s, and it had taken all his energy just to keep the place afloat. "My father built this shop," he used to tell Kazuya. "It’s important that I carry it into the future."

"It came up." His dad hesitates. "I was asking him about university baseball."

Oh. Kazuya’s hands curl into fists in his lap. "I didn’t realize you were interested." He takes a deep breath. "I didn’t really want the best team, though."

He can tell immediately that dad doesn’t really get it, probably because he doesn’t really get Kazuya. It’s fine. Kazuya likes it that way. It makes him feel less guilty, about giving up on building any kind of expected relationship with the man beyond the tentative bond they’ve already got that mostly involves birthday cards sent in the mail and avoiding each other on major national holidays.

His dad scratches his jaw. "I thought you wanted to win? Don’t you have to win to get scouted?"

"We won," Kazuya replies, scanning listlessly through the laminated menu. Nothing appeals. He would have liked cold soba tonight. "One of the pitchers from my high school joined our team, so there’s been little adjustment for me." A teenager, maybe the owner’s daughter, since she looks a bit like him in the face, drops by with styrofoam-textured beer snacks. He pushes them away to the side. "We’ll take the series in back-to-back games." Kazuya looks at his father, who is looking past him, just over his shoulder. He hardly ever looks at Kazuya, though. That’s nothing new. Kazuya thinks it’s because as much as he looks like his father, he’s got his mother’s eyes. "You really like this place, huh?"

"The food is simple and the beer is cold." Swirling it in the glass, his dad studies him over the rim of his own thick glasses. "You’re old enough to have a beer now, right?"

"No, I’m nineteen," Kazuya says. "And I don’t like alcohol." He purses his lips. "You didn’t call me here for baseball or for beer, though."

"Well, I haven’t seen you in a while."

It’s unusual for his father to prevaricate. Kazuya doesn’t know what it means.

"You wouldn’t be home even if I did drop by." Kazuya’s eyes drift to the Pink Floyd album cover on the wall behind his dad, scratched up and hanging crooked, a stain at the curled corner. "You’re busy."

"Work is pretty busy," his dad says, setting down his beer and stacking his papers as the possibly-a-daughter returns with two glasses of water and her notepad. He waves her off and she smiles at him anyway, like she knows him. Maybe she does. "Tokyo’s small-industrials are going to be doing large-scale protests." He gestures to the paperwork. "I’m going to be at the head of this thing, and I know… Well, I reckon Kasuda says you’re pretty famous, because of your baseball stuff, and I didn’t want you to get blindsided if the press ask you questions."

Kazuya stares. "Protests?"

His father clears his throat again, fumbling in his pocket for a cigarette before he remembers he’s not allowed to smoke inside anymore. "The new Tokyo tax laws are going to crush our businesses if we don’t do something."

And that, Kazuya thinks, might explain the more extreme than usual exhaustion lining his dad’s face in hard lines. "You think it’ll be big enough to cause me problems?" he mumbles, looking down at the table. "Since it’s university level ball I’m playing, it’s only going to be the real fans still paying me much attention." That’s not precisely true. Kazuya’s self-aware enough to know he’s been marked out as a shooting star since junior high by all the major baseball journalists. "Maybe in a couple of years it’d be a bigger issue."

The server approaches again, and Kazuya doesn’t even pay attention to what’s on the menu, just ordering a rice dish with chicken and some kind of sauce he’s gotten before.

"Do you still plan on playing professionally instead of…?"

Working at a steel mill? Kazuya laughs. He’s got no problems with his dad’s job, but that doesn’t mean he’d be any good at it. It would probably choke the life out of him just the same way, too, because Kazuya’s inherited a lot of his personality from his father fair and square, even if the quiet man across from him is a shadow of the charismatic guy his mother apparently married.

"Yeah," is Kazuya’s reply. "Sorry."

"No," his father says. "Don’t be. I’m glad you found something you love."

Kazuya’s eyes widen at the unexpected sentimentality. His father is staring out at nothing, though, and Kazuya licks the backs of his teeth.

"Yeah."

His dad’s phone rings, and he excuses himself, leaving Kazuya alone at the table. He pulls out his own phone, planning to check his school e-mail, and sees that he has two unread texts. Both are from Sawamura. Kazuya’s surprised, because Sawamura has yet to use the number Kazuya’d eventually caved and given him, and because he’s only received a handful of texts from Sawamura in his life. There’s no good reason Sawamura should be sending one now.

Kuramochi-senpai says you had to go home! If you have a good reason to skip, just say so next time!!! It’s followed by an angry-face and a baseball bat emoji.

The second text, sent ten minutes later, says: Bring me a souvenir!!!

Kazuya snorts, then looks around quickly to make sure no one’s heard it. Then he types a quick reply. I’m from Tokyo, remember, moron? Besides, why would I bring you a souvenir?

Because I’m the ace!!

I thought you didn’t like texting. Kazuya checks for his dad, but he’s still out front, a cigarette freshly lit and his phone to his ear and eyebrows drawn. You know, it’s bee season in Tamagawa. Should I bring you a few back?

He laughs to himself, putting his phone away, and it’s just in time, his father striding back to the table and sitting across from him again.

The tension Kazuya hadn’t noticed leaving him while he was messaging with Sawamura returns full force as his dad sits back down again. "So."

"So," Kazuya echoes, not knowing how to pick the conversation back up.

"What…" His father hesitates again, and his gaze meets Kazuya’s for the briefest moment before it skitters away again. "What classes are you taking?"

"A journalism class." Kazuya shrugs. "My major is Information and Communication, so a couple of mandatory classes in that area." He takes a sip of water to keep his throat from getting too dry.

"Journalism?" His father tests the word on his tongue.

"Right," Kazuya says. "I’m doing sports stuff."

"I never liked sports," his father says, shifting in his seat.

"I know."

Their food arrives. Kazuya can barely taste it. He just wants to go back to his apartment, and listen to Kuramochi play videogames as Kazuya watches the NLDS semifinals on his laptop. He doesn’t want to sit here, across from his dad who won’t look at him, eating food like his mother used to cook but with way too much salt, trying to pretend like they’ve been more than ships passing in the night for the past ten years. Kazuya doesn’t hate his father, most days, but he’s got hundreds of things he can barely forgive him for and fairly few reasons to try any harder with him.

"Couldn’t you have told me about the protests over the phone?" he asks, pushing a piece of pepper across his plate. "Or is there something else?"

"Can’t I just want to see you?"

Kazuya grips his spoon too tightly. "You’d have to actually look at me for that."

His dad flinches, and then sets down his chopsticks, suddenly looking smaller, nothing like the man a younger Kazuya hadn’t dared ask anything of beyond the signing of school forms and his first set of catcher’s gear, back before he’d gotten a high school scholarship to pay for everything baseball in his life. "Kazuya…" His dad’s silent for a long moment. "I know you resent me, but to say that—"

"I don’t," Kazuya says. "I don’t resent you. I know you care about me as much as you’ve been able to, since—" He swallows. "What’s done is done." He musses his hair. "It’s just, do you think, after mom— after all that, when you basically worked day and night at the mill just so that you didn’t have to see me at all, that now you can call me out of nowhere and I’ll want to get dinner?" he scoffs. "As if it’s not too late for that."

His father frowns, expression tightening. "Kazuya…"

Kazuya interrupts him with all the viciousness he can never suppress when he’s really angry. "Don’t bother pretending you can stand my face, after all this time." His father’s hand slips around the beer stein. "I’m not the child who wanted your attention anymore." He slides fingers through his hair. "I’m not the child that needed you. I’m grown up, and I won’t ask you for anything. I don’t want anything. So you… You don’t get to ask me for anything, either."

Quiet, his father stares down at the table.

"If that’s it," Kazuya says. He glances down at the remains of his food. "I’m heading back to school tonight instead of staying, after all. Thank you for paying for dinner." He stands, and his father does not try to stop him. He picks up his backpack and jacket, and heads out the front, back into the fall evening, wishing his temper would cool as fast as his body temperature.

Kuramochi looks over his shoulder in shock from his seat in front of the television when Kazuya lets himself into their apartment a little after midnight.

"Thought you weren’t coming back from your dad’s place tonight?" Kuramochi has paused his game, turning completely around, and whatever he sees in Kazuya’s face has him grimacing. "Went that bad, huh?"

Kazuya doesn’t answer, slipping out of his shoes and dropping his bag right next to them before joining Kuramochi on the floor and picking up the second N64 controller. "This better not be that horror game."

"No, it’s just Donkey Kong Country," replies Kuramochi, after visibly hesitating at the subject change. "Don’t tell Sawamura, but I got nightmares from that game; I’m only playing it in the day from now on!"

"So instead we’re playing a game with a protagonist that looks just like you?" He snickers when Kuramochi elbows him, allowing himself to relax and forget all about that terrible dinner in the wake of Kuramochi’s presence.

"You’re such a piece of shit," Kuramochi growls. "I’m a cheetah! Cheetah! I’m going to destroy you."

"You can certainly try." Kazuya laughs. "But you know how much I hate losing!"

They play for over an hour, until Kuramochi, tired but wanting, unnecessarily, to take care of him as usual, falls asleep sitting up with the controller slipping out of his hand. Kazuya still has too much restless energy to sleep, though, so, after a few minutes of dithering, he changes into a pair of sweatpants and an old LA Dodgers hoodie, grabs his gear-bag, and heads out to the practice field.

He and Kuramochi had both insisted on getting a place close to the field, knowing Kazuya’s habit of accidentally oversleeping and Kuramochi’s desire to purposefully sleep as late as possible. They’d taken their current place even though it was a one-bedroom, and Kazuya thinks, once again, that it was the right choice as he spies the field coming into view after mere six minutes of walking.

The gate leading to the field is locked up, but Kazuya climbs it easily, tossing his gear over first with a loud clang and then following it over to the other side. Coach doesn’t really mind them using the fields at night, but the school policies require them to lock up. The security guards are used to the baseball team’s fanaticism for practice, though, and never bother to check up on late night visitors.

Picking up his bag, Kazuya starts to walk toward the batting cages, but out of the corner of his eye, he sees movement over on the far side of the fields. Stopping to stare, he watches as a singular figure runs the perimeter of the area, faster than should be possible at one-thirty in the morning the night after a nine-inning game.

"Sawamura is an actual idiot," he says aloud, to no one, as the pitcher continues to circle the field, slowing as he catches sight of Kazuya.

"Miyuki Kazuya!" Sawamura shouts, coming to a stop in front of Kazuya, bending forward to rest his hands on his thighs, panting. He’s just wearing a thin cotton tee, and it sticks to his skin with sweat. "I thought you wouldn’t be around until tomorrow!"

"Did you write my schedule in your diary?" Kazuya reaches out and flicks Sawamura’s forehead. "You’re actually going to get sick if you insist on not wearing a jacket, brat."

"I don’t get sick!" Sawamura straightens up and grins. His lips are so chapped, and even in the dark, Kazuya can see how pink his cheeks are from exertion. "I wanted to know where you were so we could practice that slider! But Kuramochi-senpai said you were gonna be somewhere else until the game tomorrow!"

"I came back early," replies Kazuya. "I had some extra energy so I was going to practice batting."

"You don’t want to catch?" Sawamura pouts. "I keep thinking about that bad pitch. It’s going to be a killer backdoor slider! Maybe I can even use it as a brushback! It’s making me frustrated!" He clenches his hands into fists, and his mouth purses into that pout of determination that makes him look like that fifteen-year-old first-year with an uncontrollable pitch all over again.

And Kazuya doesn’t know what it is about Sawamura that makes him relax, but there’s something about the idiot that drives everything but his general amusement away from the forefront of his mind. "I’m frustrated, too, Sawamura," he says, finally. "So sure, let’s work on your slider. Go turn on the flooders."

"Oshi!" Sawamura says, pumping his fist, and with renewed energy, he runs toward the main building, where the light switches are connected to the outside circuit breaker.

Kazuya walks to where the nets are set up and unzips his bag. Lying on the top of his gear, innocently, is his windbreaker. He fingers it, running his thumb over the embroidered ‘M’ of his family name, then glances over at Sawamura, who is squatting down in front of the lights in a damn T-shirt, and he wonders how long it’ll be before he gets his jacket back this time.

The thought, inexplicably, makes him smile, and he keeps smiling, all the way up until three in the morning, when he finally sends Sawamura to bed, half-asleep and dressed in Kazuya’s windbreaker.

"Thanks," Sawamura mumbles, as they stop in front of Kazuya’s apartment. "I couldn’t sleep at all. It wasn’t just the slider. I’ve been worried about all sorts of stuff, and running wasn’t helping."

Kazuya, surprised, takes in Sawamura’s earnest face, and then rubs at the back of his neck. "Yeah, I couldn’t sleep either, obviously, so it’s fine."

Sawamura laughs sheepishly. "For some reason, catching with you always…" He makes the weird sound, like a gurgle or something, and tilts his face away. "Well, anyway, thanks, Miyuki."

"Disrespectful even when you’re thanking me," Kazuya says, feeling inexplicably warm and ruffled. He punches Sawamura lightly in the arm. "Go to bed. Remember what Chris told you? Overworking yourself is no good."

"Yes!" Hair flopping into his face, obscuring those bright eyes, Sawamura offers up his signature grin. "You too! Tomorrow my slider is going to be perfect, so you’d better be prepared! Then we’ll use it!"

Then Sawamura’s gone, leaving Kazuya staring at nothing, his chest tight with undeniable affection. "Pitchers are so high-maintenance," he murmurs, before heading back upstairs to see if Kuramochi is still sleeping sitting up.

He checks his phone one more time before sleeping, and sees an unread message from Sawamura, sent just before ten, while Kazuya was still at dinner. Asshole! But, I guess bringing yourself back is enough…

Kazuya presses his hand to his chest, fingers splayed wide, and feels the erratic beat beneath his palm. "Idiot," he says, and doesn’t know if he’s talking about Sawamura or himself.

Their second game against Keio, the next afternoon, doesn’t start as smoothly. Keio’s fourth-year starting pitcher, it turns out, isn’t their real star, and when their third-year from China comes out onto the mound, the easy runs dry up in the face of truly masterful curveballs that remind Kazuya of nothing so much as Tanba.

But between Hirahata, Shirasu, Kuramochi, their fourth-year batting lineup, a clutch hit from Kazuya, and a sacrificial bunt from Sawamura with bases loaded in the sixth inning, Meiji pulls out their second victory over Keio with a four run advantage, giving them a two-nothing victory for the series.

The crowd roars as Sawamura pitches the last out in the top of the ninth, negating the need to continue play, and Kazuya thinks he hears shouts of Sawamura’s name from the surprisingly full stands as he comes out onto the field, as well as his now infamous Oshi Oshi Oshi.

"They like you," Kazuya says, and Sawamura, face glowing in the floodlights, adjusts his cap. "Does it feel good?"

"A lot of them probably remember me from Koushien. They remember Seidou from back-to-back visits, you know."

"Or they saw the game you just pitched. Not bad, Sawamura."

Sawamura’s eyes shift from their usual honey-color to a burnt orange. "Are you praising me, Miyuki Kazuya?" His teeth are so white, and his lips are so chapped. His nose and cheeks are sunburned. "You, the bastard, are praising me!"

"I didn’t say it was good," Kazuya fires back, his stomach suddenly hot like it’s filled with lava at the way Sawamura takes off his hat and pushes his sweaty hair back. "What was with all those balls in the third, eh? Thought you were going to walk their number 12."

"You shitty senpai! You were being nice, and you had to ruin it!"

"I’m never nice to you, on principle." A quick breath. "You might get spoiled."

"And why didn’t you want me to throw to the inside?!" He’s about to say more, but then Shiba, one of the few members of the team substantially bigger than Sawamura, comes in from right field and drags them both back toward the dugout, where Coach Maeda is waiting with his arms crossed.

"Well done," he says to Kazuya, when Kazuya sits on the bench to remove his gear, both of them watching as Sawamura and Kuramochi bicker over the last bottle of Aquarius. "I can see why you were confident. I was worried in the third inning, but Sawamura didn’t even seem to notice the pressure from those batters after the first few balls."

Kazuya wants to tell Coach Maeda that Sawamura hadn’t been balking so much as fighting his pitcher instincts to obey Kazuya’s lead. Kazuya’d wanted to play a particular mind game, and it hadn’t worked. But in the end it doesn’t really matter, so he focuses on other things that do.

"That’s his best quality as a pitcher," Kazuya says, so as not to be overheard by anyone but the coach. "His pitches are more than good, but it’s his resilience and attitude that make him a real ace player."

"He wasn’t the ace at Seidou, though." Coach Maeda looks away from Sawamura to Kazuya.

"Well…" Kazuya laughs. "Seidou had two ace pitchers last year, if I’m honest. Furuya Satoru…"

"The 155 km/h pitcher." Coach Maeda nods. "He’s strong."

"He is. When I was captain, Furuya was the ace for the team. His pitches would usually scare the opponent enough to destroy their timing. He’s got a commanding presence." Kazuya unsnaps his chest protector as he weighs his next words. "But Sawamura’s got a commanding presence, too. A strong closer. He’s always learned things in every game, and the feel of him, standing there about to pitch… It’s electric." He gently sets his protector in his bag, with his face mask, and starts on his shin guards. "He’s the ace Seidou played for most of last year’s game on the national stage, and he was pretty much unshakeable."

Coach Maeda hums. "That was my impression of him, when Numamoto mentioned we might be able to pull him here."

"Speaking as a catcher," Kazuya says, "there are few people more interesting. We developed a system together for his pitches already. We call it 'the numbers'. I’ll have him show them off to you next practice. He likes doing that."

"I want to snatch the Emperor’s Cup from Waseda this year. Do you foresee that being impossible?"

"Narumiya Mei is a pitcher who should be playing in the major leagues already." Kazuya pulls on his baseball cap, turning it sideways as he looks up at the coach. "He’s talented, and sharp, with unbelievable instincts. He must not be underestimated." Then he grins evilly. "But he doesn’t have me."

Coach Maeda, unexpectedly, chokes on a laugh. "Well said, Miyuki. I’m going to go speak with our team captain."

Kazuya zips up his bag and checks the immediate vicinity for anything he might have forgotten, as Shirasu does the same. He looks up when he’s suddenly cast under a shadow, though, to find Sawamura, left arm in a cool-sleeve, staring down at him with eyes narrowed. "Can I help you?"

"We’re all going over to Ichinose’s when we get back to campus."

"And?"

"You’re coming!" Sawamura bends down so that there are only a handful of centimeters between their faces. "No excuses, Miyuki Kazuya!"

"It’s a Sunday night, and I have homework, airhead."

"So do I!" Sawamura fills his cheeks with air, as scary as an aggravated chipmunk. He exhales it all at once, and mixed in with the smell of sweat and leather that clings to Sawamura’s skin is the faintest hint of watermelon Aquarius. "So we’re both going to go for a while before we head home, because we’ve swept the opening series against a school Meiji didn’t even beat last year, dickbag! Now it’s only four schools to go!"

Studying Sawamura through his lashes, Kazuya takes the path of least resistance. "Fine. Thirty minutes, Sawamura."

Sawamura’s grin is as bright as the sun, and Kazuya almost forgets it’s already late evening as he blinks to clear the spots from his eyes. His heartbeat is thrumming too fast, blood rushing through his veins, and he has to close his eyes for a moment to center himself. When he opens them again, Sawamura is still smiling down at him. "It won’t kill you! Promise!"

"Why do you care so much about me going to these things?"

Sawamura just laughs. "Don’t you remember how much fun it was to have the whole team in your room when we were in high school?" He looks over at where most of the rest of the team has started filing out of the dugout. "You told us first-years it wasn’t so bad to get to know the people guarding your back."

"I know my teammates," Kazuya tells him, gripping the handle of his gear bag like a lifeline. "As much as you like to forget it, I’m your upperclassman. I’ve been on this team longer than you."

"They don’t know you, though, except for Kuramochi-senpai." Sawamura leans in closer to him. It’s too close, and Kazuya finds it hard to breathe. "You’re kind of…" He shifts backwards, putting his right arm across his body in his distinctive pitching position, blocking his throwing arm completely from view. "You always have this, you know?"

"Sorry, I don’t speak moron," Kazuya replies, grinning to hide his confusion.

Sawamura huffs exasperatedly. "I’m saying your personality is my right-arm wall! Like you don’t want anyone to know where you’re going to throw!" He drops his arm, face screwing up thoughtfully. "But remember, Miyuki Kazuya, when you’re fielding, you don’t throw to your teammates with a wall up! You want them to see your throws! That’s how you work together to get an out!"

Mouth dry, Kazuya lets his head thump back against the wall of the dugout. "Your baseball metaphors are really…" Why is Kazuya’s skin suddenly too tight around his body? He flexes his hands and half-expects to see bone when he looks down at them, clutching at his knees, white-knuckled.

"Awesome?" Sawamura, when he looks up at him, is doing the whole wide-eyed determination thing, and it does nothing to make Kazuya want to crawl out of his skin any less.

"Awful, Sawamura. I’m not even a pitcher, and of course you don’t pitch the same way you throw to a teammate to tag runners out." Sawamura blushes, fit to argue. "I guess I could spare an entire hour."

"Good! And you’d better have fun!" Sawamura reaches out and grabs Kazuya’s wrist, yanking him up from the bench. Kazuya barely gets a hold of his gear before Sawamura’s dragging him out of the dugout, in the direction of Kuramochi’s ebullient laughter.

It’s impossible for Kazuya to miss the way Takarada's eyes light up when she notices Sawamura. The thought causes a weird twist in his chest that he can easily ignore by slipping an arm around Kuramochi’s neck and informing him that he looked a little less like Donkey Kong today when he hit that long ball into the left stands.

It’s not so bad, Kazuya thinks, to be around the team when none of them smell terrible. It’s a good thing, since Ichinose’s place is barely big enough to fit almost thirty people, and they’re all half on top of each other. The population, he notes, from his spot on the floor near the entrance to the kitchen, is thickest around the table of various hard liquors and cheap beers.

He leans back against the wall, letting the cool plaster soothe him in the heat of the room, and watches everything unfold with an entertained eye. He’s been quietly orchestrating little pieces of chaos: telling Kuramochi and Hirahata both that Kumai’s been checking them out all night while knowing that she’s actually smitten with Shirasu, telling Ichinose that the two other first years were throwing up on the balcony to watch him panic, and infuriating Sawamura with consistent veiled references to Takarada's attention on him.

Now he’s content to sit back and reap the rewards of his efforts, out of the way of Shiba’s increasing drunken stumbling as he’s goaded by Uchida, the third year relief pitcher Kazuya barely talks to, into joining another round of the Yamanote-Sen game. Kazuya doubts, at this point, that Shiba will be able to even keep time with the clapping required, which is potentially hilarious. Takarada is teasing a red and whiny Kuramochi, who probably won’t remember Kumai’s sheepish rejection or the confession that summoned it tomorrow. She’s patting his back comfortingly as Kumai tries her best to talk to Shirasu without passing out from embarrassment.

A warm, soft weight appears at his left, and Kazuya jolts, not having expected the press of a body this close. "What are you over here smiling like that for?"

"I’m having fun," is Kazuya’s mild reply, trying to slow his heartbeat. It’s just Sawamura, he tells himself. "Isn’t that what I’m supposed to do?"

"That’s not a smile of having fun," Sawamura says. His words are slightly slurred, but his eyes are clear as he peers at Kazuya through his still shower-damp hair. "That’s a smile of having fun at someone else’s expense, you damn tanuki-senpai."

"You never specified what kind of fun I needed to have~" He raises an eyebrow at Sawamura. "Besides, overindulging in alcohol in public is just asking for someone to make fun of the silly things you do."

"Is that why you don’t drink?" Sawamura shifts, until he’s pressed against Kazuya from shoulder to thigh. Sawamura’s not just warm, he’s burning hot, even through Kazuya’s sweatsuit, but he is soft, muscles loose enough that he’s slumping into Kazuya. "Because you’re too cool to be silly?"

"You think I’m cool?" Kazuya runs his tongue over his teeth, then grins with mischievous glee. "The truth comes out!"

"No way!" Sawamura’s weight dips into him further. "Actually, right now you do feel really cool. It’s so hot in here." Those round, sparkling eyes are still fixed on Kazuya’s face, and Kazuya isn’t sure if he wants to keep looking or get as far away from that probing stare as possible.

"Girls are statistically cooler than boys, body temperature-wise, so maybe you should go lie all over Takarada instead of me."

"This thing you’re doing with Takarada is like Kuramochi-senpai’s thing with Wakana, isn’t it?" Sawamura mumbles, letting his head loll sideways, his cheek mashing into Kazuya’s shoulder. His hair tickles Kazuya’s neck. "I wish people wouldn’t do that."

"Do what?" Kazuya asks. He tries to reposition himself, but he only ends up curling his back enough to make Sawamura fall more easily into him, cheek in the curve of his neck. He quivers at Sawamura’s sunburned nose brushing his Adam’s apple. At least, Kazuya thinks, like this, Sawamura can’t pin him with that fiery gaze of his. "Tease you? Good luck, first-year."

"No," Sawamura says, the backs of his knuckles brushing Kazuya’s forearm as he hiccups and shifts. Drunker than last time, Kazuya notes. "Teasing’s okay. It’s just… It feels like you’re all trying to make me like something I don’t." Now the back of Sawamura’s hand is pressed to the back of Kazuya’s own. "I just want to play baseball with you."

"With me?" Kazuya’s embarrassed that it comes out a little more like a croak than words, but Sawamura is so… "Hey, aren’t you too young to be drinking? You might say something you regret." He pushes up on Sawamura’s head, and Sawamura lets himself be righted. His eyes are a little less clear, now, than they’d been minutes ago. "How many drinks have you had?"

"I’m very bad at ‘pin pon pan’," replies Sawamura, glaring blearily. "That doesn’t reflect on my intelligence, though, Miyuki! Don’t get any ideas!" He blinks, twice, as Kazuya chuckles. "You’re kind of fuzzy, now."

"I hear that’s an effect of alcohol consumption." Kazuya holds up the sign for a four-seam, smirking. "What am I doing, Sawamura?"

"Being an asshole, probably." He trips over the qualifier. "Is this how you see without your glasses?"

"Most likely not—" Kazuya starts to say, but then his glasses are being clumsily removed from his face, the calluses on the tips of Sawamura’s fingers leaving behind a tingle where they skim the spot just in front of his ears. "Sawamura?"

Sawamura looks back at him, eyes owlish behind Kazuya’s lenses. He’s close enough that Kazuya can still see him clearly; can still see that Sawamura’s lips are irredeemably dry, that his nose is going to peel soon, and that his eyelashes are too long to be trapped behind glasses. He can still see the fall of Sawamura’s hair across his forehead and cheeks, and the way his tongue peeks out as some errant thought or another flits in and out of his head.

"Did you know you have two tiny freckles?" Sawamura says, leaning in so close that their noses could brush with one false move. Then Sawamura lists into the wall, turning his torso so he’s once again in profile. "These glasses make everything more spinny."

Kazuya plucks them from Sawamura’s face by the nose-bridge, and returns them to their rightful home on his face. "No, they don’t. You’re just inebriated." He pulls out his phone, and gapes at the time. "We’ve been here an hour and a half?"

"Yeah," Sawamura says, licking his lips. "I was coming over to tell you but then I got distracted."

"Distracted by what?"

"I don’t know," says Sawamura, face pinching with confusion. "By—"

Ichinose screams, and Kazuya jerks his head in that direction to see his joke had actually been a prophecy, because now the two first-years really are puking out on the balcony.

Kuramochi is laughing and hovering protectively at the same time, and Shiba is lying on his back only a meter away from the disaster zone, staring at Ichinose’s ceiling like it’s the night sky as Hirahata humors him, switching his attention between Shiba and the first-years.

Returning to Sawamura to make a comment about how Kuramochi is surprisingly like a mother duck, the words die on his lips when he realizes Sawamura is still just staring at him. It’s a reminder that Sawamura is touching him, their hips bumping and Sawamura’s hand still back-to-back with Kazuya’s. "What are you looking at?"

"Still an asshole," Sawamura replies, reflexively, dropping his chin down to the left afterwards. His ear is red, Kazuya thinks. Sawamura’s red and blurry and saying odd things, and Kazuya should send the kid home, and head back to his homework himself.

"You two okay over here?" Takarada, a little vodka-pink herself, is smiling down at them.

"I am now," Kazuya says. "Why, someone is looking positively radiant tonight." Takarada narrows her eyes, and Kazuya notices she’s put extra effort into her eyeliner tonight, and that her lashes are longer, almost as long as Sawamura’s. "It’s me, of course, but you do clean up nice."

She kicks him. "Your face isn’t nearly pretty enough to make up for your personality, Miyuki."

"Who says I’m counting on my face for that?" She kicks him again. "Ah, you’re my favorite girl, Takarada."

"Lucky me." Still she grins at him. "It’s almost midnight, so I’m going to head home."

"Isn’t it late to be walking by yourself?" Kazuya gestures at Sawamura. "I’m going to walk the ace home, want to come along?"

She blushes and glowers in one impressively cohesive expression, as Sawamura stumbles to his feet, all smiles. "Miyuki stayed for way longer than he said he would," Sawamura tells her, resting one hand on her shoulder. Kazuya watches the casualness of the touch. He wonders how much time they spend together, outside of practice. Takarada's apparently really good at English, at least according to Sawamura, though Kazuya’s unsure how well Sawamura would know.

Ichinose’s still screaming when they leave. Kazuya texts Kuramochi that he’s headed home without him, unwilling to wander into the fray to tell him face-to-face.

Sawamura walks between them, talking to Takarada about the new chapter of some manga serial they both read in Shoujo Beat as he walks in a wavy line down the sidewalk in the direction of his apartment. Kazuya eventually just wraps an arm around Sawamura’s waist to keep him steady, and he probably imagines the flinch under his hand as he settles it into place just above Sawamura’s hipbone.

By the time they get to the building, Sawamura’s clearly feeling much more sober, the chilly night air probably waking him up from his haze, and Kazuya puts distance between them, shivering at the loss of Sawamura’s body heat and almost wishing he could tuck himself back into the pitcher’s side.

With Sawamura so steady on his feet, Kazuya feels no guilt leaving him to face the extensive stairs up to his room on his own, and Takarada laughs when Kazuya explains the bullet they’re dodging.

"He lives on the top floor, and there’s no elevator," he tells her in a stage-whisper, definitely loud enough for Sawamura to overhear as he punches in his building’s access code.

"Shut up, Miyuki Kazuya! It’s cardio! Cardio!"

"All you need is a tire to tie around your waist as you run up them and it’ll be just like old times!" Kazuya grins at him, and Sawamura keeps grinning back, until Kazuya realizes it’s gone on too long and looks away, back to a clearly cold Takarada. "See you bright and early at practice tomorrow, Sawamura! Don’t be hungover!"

"Fuck you, I’m fine!" Sawamura stomps into his building as Kazuya laughs.

"He’s so much calmer when he’s talking to me," Takarada says. "Formal. He has a weird tendency to slip into really old Japanese, like an old man in one of those nostalgia films my dad likes."

"He used to use shogunate forms of address with our coaches and what he considered the scariest third years."

Takarada laughs. "He’s kind of cute all riled up like that, though."

"It’s hilarious," Kazuya says. "I knew he’d be amusing the moment I first met him. He was about a meter tall," Kazuya holds a hand up to his waist, "and he was just yelling at Azuma, who was a third year on the Seidou team, probably three times his height, three times his width, and aggressive. It was like a chihuahua yapping at a grizzly bear." Casting one last look at Sawamura’s building, Kazuya picks out the direction both he and Takarada live in, toward the baseball fields, and starts to walk. "I just knew I had to catch for him. I love it when my pitchers amuse me."

"And then he came to your high school because of that incident?" Takarada laughs. "That does sound a little like him. The yelling at a third year bit, I mean." She nudges him with an elbow, a teasing smile at the corners of her lips. "That story he told us at the soba place made it sound like he hero-worshipped you."

"He didn’t. Doesn’t. That’s Chris." Kazuya rubs at his beanie, pulling it down to cover his ears. "Takigawa Chris, from the Dragons."

"He went straight to the pros after a year off finishing rehabilitation, right?" She makes a thoughtful noise. "My brother—he’s in middle school—that’s his favorite player."

"Mine too," admits Kazuya, earning a surprised look from Takarada. "He’s also my friend, but he’s extremely talented, and I want to play him on a fair stage, one day."

"What about Sawamura?"

"Chris taught him most of what he knows about pitching, fixed his form, all that." He wishes he’d brought another jacket to layer on top of this one. Fall is thick in the air. Kazuya doesn’t like to play baseball in the cold. "He took Sawamura’s raw ability and gave him the tools he needed to become formidable."

"And what about you?" Kazuya looks down at Takarada, wrapped up in her pretty purple jacket, her hair mussed and her smile clear. "Surely he wouldn’t have wanted to play baseball again with you if you were just your usual charming self."

"You’d have to ask Sawamura about that." Kazuya chuckles. "He might not even know. He’s stubborn. Chris thinks he wants my acknowledgement."

"He already has that," she says. "I saw it in your face from the moment he walked onto the field, the first day of practice."

"Maybe." Kazuya clears his throat, suddenly thirsty. "Can we stop at the convenience store?"

"Didn’t want to touch anything beverage-like at Ichinose’s, huh? I don’t blame you."

"I also have a lot of homework, so I’ll need some coffee. I shouldn’t have let Sawamura talk me into this tonight. It’s a Sunday."

"It’s Monday now," is Takarada's cheerful reply. "Besides, I saw your devious hand behind that confession Kuramochi made to Kumai tonight, so don’t pretend you didn’t get your kicks."

"I was aiming for two confessions, but I think Hirahata-senpai was pretending to be drunker than he was and saw through me." Kazuya shrugs. "Two confessions would have been funnier."

"There’s definitely something wrong with you, Miyuki." She shakes her head. "Twisted."

"Not the first time I’ve heard that."

"Of course it isn’t." It’s less than a block away from here to Takarada's apartment, where she lives with one of the soccer team’s managers and another girl who is apparently also a whiz at English, doing global studies with Takarada. "It’s not even the first time you’ve heard it from me." She yawns.

"Straight to bed after this?" He smirks at her. "If I recall correctly, you’re an early riser." She’d called him before six in the morning, once, an hour before he’d even planned on waking up for practice, sounding cheerful and unperturbed by the horrifying fact that the sunrise was still happening.

"Coffee instead of sleep for me, tonight," Takarada says ruefully. "We’re in the same boat, as far as the homework situation goes."

"We both should’ve skipped out."

Takarada squints at him. "It was a pleasant surprise that you didn’t, for once. Sawamura must be magic."

Kazuya pushes into the convenience store, holding the door open for her.

"Do you think Kumai finally got Shirasu’s number?" Kazuya asks, as Takarada makes a beeline for the hot coffee station. Kazuya doesn’t like the hot coffee here, so despite the chill, he directs himself toward his usual ‘Boss’ brand, selecting something with a lot of milk but no sugar. "If so, probably a night well spent for all of us, honestly."

"Poor Kuramochi," Takarada says. "You could be a more supportive friend."

"I could be," Kazuya agrees. "But he knows better than to expect that."

"He should by now, given that he willingly cohabitates with you."

They approach the front counter together, Kazuya pulling out his wallet to pay for both his and Takarada's drinks. "On me, manager! Just being the supportive friend we all know resides somewhere deep, deep inside of me."

"Stop pretending you have a soul, jackal," Takarada mutters.

A shy voice gives him the total, and Kazuya looks at the cashier as he hands over a 500yen coin. It’s Uehara, who is only off on Tuesdays. "You’re working late, Uehara."

"I take the late shift sometimes," she says. "Congratulations on winning your baseball game today." She darts her eyes up to his face, makes a small, anguished noise, then puts the total into the cash register to get his change. "I heard the season was going well."

"It is," Kazuya replies, tucking his drink into his pocket as Takarada wraps both hands around hers for warmth.

"Miyuki and Sawamura are a pretty great battery," says Takarada. "Do you come to games?"

"I… When I can!" Uehara has that same focused look she’d had when they bumped into each other that Thursday at the grocery store. "I really like to watch Miyuki play."

"Ah, I see," Takarada replies, with a good-natured smile.

She looks like she’s about to say something else, but Kazuya grins and interrupts. "We better get going. See you later, Uehara."

He walks slowly and deliberately out of the store, Takarada following after him.

"You were sweet to her."

Kazuya almost trips over his own feet. "Not really."

"Well, what passes for sweet, with you. You didn’t insult her looks or her intelligence, or offhandedly imply that you hated her, so…"

"You make me sound like a real catch." Kazuya smirks. "Which I am."

"I still can’t get over how popular you are with girls," she says. "You’re not that good-looking."

"I’m just not what you go for, Takarada. Clearly you’re more into the overgrown pet kind of guy."

She blushes, barely noticeable in the dark. "Well, Uehara clearly isn’t what you go for." She taps her lips, leading the way to her apartment building, blush fading as her expression falls into a teasing grin. "Probably not someone shy, either, and she’d have to like baseball to even deal with you… So c’mon then, Miyuki, tell me what your favorite kind of girl is?" She’s doing her best not to laugh as she raises her eyebrows in a clear imitation of him, looking over invisible glasses with a haughty tilt to her lips.

Kazuya smiles back at her, all teeth, but inside, his guts twist around each other into knots. "My favorite kind of girl is the kind of girl who isn’t interested in me." He winks to soften the statement when Takarada's lips make an ‘o’ of surprise. "So girls like you, Takarada. Are you ready to marry me yet?"

"Yeah, I’ll pass," Takarada answers, as Kazuya focuses on the cracks in the sidewalk to calm his heart. After another minute, they stop in front of Takarada's building. "Thanks for walking me home. Guess you can’t be a jerk all the time."

"Even the hardest working jerks need a night off." He leaves her laughing, heading back to his own place, past the convenience store again, his heart still beating uncomfortably fast against his sternum, with all the strength of one of Furuya’s 155 km/h pitches right to the center of his mitt.

Exhausted from his three Wednesday classes, sandwiched between a morning and evening practice, Kazuya curls up in front of the television on a pile of cushions and turns on the Giants-Hawks game while the MLB scores for the week roll ticker-taped across the bottom of the screen.

During the bottom of the first inning, following a pretty phenomenal shoelace catch from the second baseman, Kuramochi comes home with tonkatsu carry-out for the both of them, tossing the plastic bag roughly onto the floor in front of Kazuya and building his own nest of cushions next to him.

"Who’s winning?" Kuramochi asks, reaching right across Kazuya’s line of sight to snag the top box, along with a set of disposable chopsticks. He loudly snaps them apart, cursing when they’re uneven. Kazuya wonders how long it’ll take him to remember he needs a fork and knife to eat tonkatsu, and pointedly doesn’t remind him.

"The Giants," Kazuya says, lazily pinching the plastic bag between his index finger and thumb and dragging his dinner toward himself. Kuramochi manages to grab plastic utensils out of the bag before it gets too far away from him. Kazuya smirks. "Their new catcher is doing some out of this world game-calling. The second base seems to be a real utility player, too, but from the point of view of another catcher, theirs is really good."

"He’s an American, right?" Kuramochi’s words are only distinguishable around the massive bite of pork cutlet because Kazuya’s had years of practice. "His thighs look even thicker than your tree trunks."

Kazuya debates kicking Kuramochi for that comment, but decides it would take too much effort. "Catchers naturally do about two-hundred squats a day." He grins widely at Kuramochi. "Don’t be jealous, Kuramochi. I’m sure there’s a girl out there who will settle for second-best." He pauses, for dramatic effect. "Or, twentieth-best, as it were."

"Be nice to me," Kuramochi whines. "I brought you dinner."

"I cook for you four to five days a week," replies Kazuya, unmoved. "I don’t need to be nice." The crack of the ball hitting wood draws their attention back to the screen. "This’ll tie the game up."

Kuramochi takes another bite of cutlet as Kazuya pops open the lid of his meal, pouring the brown tonkatsu sauce all over everything. It smells good, and Kazuya’s hungry enough that, in retrospect, the Seidou summer training camp law of three bowls of rice doesn’t seem that ludicrous.

"Do you ever think about the fact that you’re boring?" Kuramochi asks. "I mean, we went to baseball practice twice today, and you come home to relax by putting on a pro baseball game?" Kazuya takes a healthy bite of rice, then offers Kuramochi a judgmental stare. "What? Don’t you think you should have other hobbies? Something? I play Tekken or flip through porn mags to unwind. Even Sawamura reads those girly comics in his free time. But you? Baseball, baseball, with a side helping of baseball."

Swallowing the rice, Kazuya licks a grain caught at the corner of his mouth. "I cook," he tells Kuramochi, aiming for lighthearted even if he feels defensive. "I’ve always cooked."

"You do," Kuramochi says. "And you’re good at it, but that’s not…" He blinks. "Wait, you like cooking?"

Kazuya sighs, using the dull plastic knife to cut a piece of cutlet. "Do you think I would do it, otherwise?" Of course he likes cooking. He’s in total control of the preparation, the process, and the outcome. What it becomes is entirely up to him. It’s right up his alley.

"Huh. Who’d have thought?" Kuramochi sets down his utensils, resting his hands on his knees so that he can balance as he lunges closer to Kazuya. "You’re not the easiest guy to read."

Gripping the plastic fork tighter, Kazuya glares at the television screen. "Sawamura told me my personality was like his right-arm wall."

"Wisdom comes from the most unexpected places sometimes." Kuramochi exhales loudly. "Did you learn to cook ‘cause you stayed by yourself all the time when you were younger?"

Kazuya takes another bite of rice and considers his answer. "I like cooking because it requires focus, skill, and practice. Like baseball." This feels too personal. He wishes he could stack some of the cushions higher, so Kuramochi couldn’t stare. Instead, he grins. "Must be why I’m so good at both of them while you…"

Kuramochi throws a cushion at him, knocking his glasses askew, and Kazuya’s grin turns genuine, laughing as he throws one back, dangerously close to Kuramochi’s food. He hunches over it protectively. "You win this time, Miyuki! But I know where you sleep!"

"You should be more worried that I know where you keep those aforementioned porn magazines."

"You looking at them when I’m not around?" Kuramochi makes a suggestive expression, baring his teeth.

"I have no need to indirectly touch your—" He stops as a quick news report breaks into the game coverage. His father’s face takes up most of the screen, along with a running ticker-line along the bottom that clarifies that Tokyo-wide protests have begun for industrial blue collar workers, affecting traffic throughout the metropolitan area.

Kazuya watches his father stand nervously behind a podium in front of the Setagaya municipal building, where protesters have gathered in large numbers. He’s wearing a suit jacket that’s a shade too tight and slightly out of fashion. Kazuya’s mother had probably picked it out ten years ago.

Despite everything, once his father starts speaking, slowly, tersely, his natural taciturnity fades slightly, and Kazuya can sort of see the man he’d admired so much when he was small. He’s a young-looking sixty-five, Kazuya thinks, vaguely, as his father winces in the light of photo flashes. Vainly, he hopes that’s genetic, so at least he’d have gotten something good from him besides his work ethic.

Kuramochi coughs awkwardly. "Guess that’s what dinner was about, then?"

"Yeah," Kazuya says. He doesn’t want to talk about this.

"Well?"

"Nothing for you to concern yourself about."

"You really don’t understand how friendship works, do you?" Kuramochi narrows his eyes. "See, it’s not just the jokes and the teasing. Sometimes it’s me not telling the coach you’re injured." He points at Kazuya with a steady finger. "Sometimes it’s bitching about your dad. You get it?"

"What do you get out of this arrangement?" Kazuya asks quietly. His face feels like stone.

"Sometime you’ll have to listen to me, too," Kuramochi replies, with a half smile, despite the intensity of his gaze. "Especially when I can’t sleep because I played a horror game. I’ll probably complain a lot about zombies."

"How can you have nightmares about something as mundane as zombies when you have to look in the mirror every day?" Kazuya jokes, but it falls flat because his voice is wavering.

"Asshole." Kuramochi runs a hand through messy dark hair. Then, softer: "So. Did your dad tell you to expect this, Miyuki?"

Sucking his lower lip into his mouth, Kazuya contemplates doing something to distract Kuramochi, or to derail a conversation that has veered too far into uncomfortable and unfamiliar territory. But Kuramochi isn’t likely to let him, and it’s not like… Well, it’s not like Kazuya can’t trust Kuramochi not to say anything. For all their bickering, Kuramochi has probably gotten closer to the real him than anyone else.

"He told me he was going to possibly be on the news. I didn’t actually expect they’d make a guy like that spokesperson for anything." Kazuya waves his hand dismissively. "I guess being good-looking makes up for obvious flaws."

"Don’t you already know that from your own life?" Kuramochi’s uncompromisingly loud tone has Kazuya turning to look at him in amusement. "You don’t have to worry about this, you know. No one is going to know he’s your dad, if that’s what’s bothering you. It shouldn’t affect baseball."

"I’m sure it won’t." Kazuya shrugs with a nonchalance he doesn’t actually have. "He asked me… He asked me about my classes, and about the game." He can feel his nails digging into his palms, and he hadn’t even realized he was clenching his fists. "He’s never done that before."

"Maybe with his job at risk he remembered he has a son." The simmering anger is the same as it had been last year, when Kuramochi had met his dad the day Kazuya moved into this apartment.

Kazuya had needed his father’s signature on the lease because he was underage, and so the man had dutifully shown up, signed the appropriate forms, and left. He’d cast a vaguely interested eye over at Kuramochi and his family on the way out the door, but that had been all of his interaction with them before he was gone as quickly as he’d come, on his way back to work after exchanging only quiet greetings.

Kuramochi’s family helped them move in, took them to dinner… Kuramochi’s mom had stayed way too late helping Kazuya set up the kitchen, treating him with so much kindness he’d felt the remnants of it every time he’d stood in front of the stove for weeks after they’d been left on their own.

He’d been jealous, even if he’d never admit it aloud.

Kuramochi hadn’t brought it up after that until Kazuya mentioned his father offhand a month later. "Your dad… he didn’t come to your high school graduation, did he?" Kuramochi had asked, quietly, staring down at his homework instead of looking at Kazuya. Kazuya had swallowed and said nothing, but that had, apparently, been enough. "Or when you got hurt?"

"No," Kazuya had replied, just as quietly. "He didn’t."

And Kuramochi, who sees through Kazuya when other people’s gazes slip off his slick outer shell, has dragged out other bits and pieces of the story from Kazuya over the past two years. Kazuya doesn’t like talking about it. He prefers talking about baseball, and the life he’s built for himself since he was fourteen, built around teams that want him and goals that seem accomplishable.

"He does the best he can," He thinks his voice sounds steady, or bored, or like he couldn’t care less. He’s good at all three. "That’s enough. I can deal with the rest."

The game comes back on, and Kazuya resumes eating. His muscles are all tense, though, and he knows Kuramochi is watching him. He forces himself to ease back into his pile of cushions and focus on the game. After all, it’s a good one. Every Giants-Hawks series in the past three years has been great.

The pitcher for the Hawks hits one into the stands during his at-bat, and as the crowd on television roars, Kuramochi finally breaks the silence.

"So, I’ve been thinking," Kuramochi says, eventually, and Kazuya braces himself. "We have got do something about Sawamura’s batting." Kazuya steals a glance at his roommate, noting that he’s staring just as steadily at the game, now. "The bunts are fantastic, but imagine if he could actually take a solid swing like Furuya could."

After taking a deep breath, Kazuya lets some of his stress and misery flow out with a deep sigh. "I don’t think we should pin our hopes for the Emperor Cup on a Sawamura batting miracle," he says, grasping the subject change like a lifeline. "Maybe if Chris was around, he’d work his ‘understanding-Sawamura’s-brain’ magic and help him have a breakthrough, but otherwise…" He sighs again. "Sawamura’s not Furuya, anyway. They have different strengths."

"I bet you could teach him," Kuramochi replies. "He listens to you when he thinks you won’t notice, and he picks up things faster than we give him credit for."

"Pitching things. It’s been four years with no substantial improvement on the batting." The Giants are back at bat, and their seventh-in-line batter is stepping up to the plate. "You could give it a whirl. You can bat left, after all. His form’s not bad, though."

"I think his center is off," says Kuramochi, leading them into a long conversation about the various strengths and weaknesses of their batters as the Hawks take over the lead going into the third inning. "And hell if I know how to get through to Sawamura."

"You think I do?" They both laugh.

As they’re cleaning up their carry out trash, Kuramochi shoots Kazuya an evil little smile. "Don’t think I missed that passionate defense about Sawamura having his own strengths, by the way," he says, and Kazuya’s neck starts to turn red before he can will the blush down. "Sawamura’s not Furuya, eh?"

"Furuya and I get along, for one thing." Kazuya shakes his hair out of his face, then adjusts his glasses. "Last I recall, you aren’t Furuya, either. Isn’t his batting average a little higher than yours, Kuramochi?" Kazuya smiles, shark-like, as Kuramochi lunges for him, dodging a headlock by a hair’s breadth.

When the game goes off, and the news starts, leading off with coverage of Kazuya’s dad’s announcement, Kuramochi switches the HDMI input to his Playstation, and shoves aside the tangled N64 controllers to search for a wireless PS4 one. He starts up that zombie horror game he’d vowed less than a week ago never to play again at night, and as it loads, he pulls his phone out of his track pants and calls someone. "I owe you an ass-kicking," Kuramochi says, to the person on the other end of the line, probably his brother. "Get online."

Kazuya leaves him to it, finding his own phone and walking outside.

Kazuya’s apartment building has a roof accessible from the top floor fire-escape. He hasn’t been up there since the new semester started, but there’s a great view of the field from the right edge, if he leans against the bar. Last year, he used to watch Ichinose and Kuroda, their star pitcher, practicing until late, remembering his own late nights with two stubborn pitchers.

He has a little of that back this year, and maybe that’s why he doesn’t need to watch it from afar.

Regardless, the roof is a quiet spot to think, away from the sounds of machine guns and lead pipes hitting wailing zombies or whatever other game Kuramochi is playing in any given month. It’s also a good place to make private phone calls.

He stares at his phone, thumb hovering over his recent calls list. He can taste the tonkatsu sauce on the backs of his teeth as he presses his tongue there in deliberation. Then, resting his forearms against the railing, he scrolls down past his father, Chris, and Kuramochi, to his grandmother’s number.

It’s only a little after nine, so she’ll probably be awake. Kazuya has called later, certainly, but the thing about his grandparents is that they don’t have cell phones, so he has to call the house.

Only two rings before she’s answering. "This is the Shinoda residence," his grandmother says.

"It’s Kazuya." He wishes he’d thought to bring up a can of coffee, to get the taste of sauce out of his mouth.

"Oh," she says. "I haven’t heard from you since July. Are you doing well? How’s baseball?"

"We have a new pitcher this year," he says. "He’s good. We’ll do better than last year." He doesn’t bother going into details. His grandfather is far more into baseball than she is, but he and Kazuya haven’t gotten along well enough to really talk about it in years. He can’t remember if he’s told either of them he’s planning on going pro after he graduates. He guesses they’ll find out about it when Kazuya gets picked up. "We have a game Saturday."

"That’s nice." She sighs softly. "Is something wrong, Kazuya?"

"Dad is going to be on the news for a while. I know he won’t have told you, so. Don’t let her see."

"Oh." It’s a resigned sound, that resonates with Kazuya’s own thoughts. "Do you know what’s going on?"

"Labor protests. Tokyo tax laws. Blue-collar small business owners trying to get the new tax plan repealed before it crushes everyone but big-industry."

"He’s a man of principles," his grandmother says. "Your mother always loved that about him."

"About Mom," Kazuya says, voice catching in his throat. "Can I…" It’s the same helpless feeling he got when he didn’t know what to do about Nabe, or when Sawamura had the yips, only worse, because it’s not that Kazuya can’t figure out how to deal with this, there’s just nothing to be done. "Can I speak to her?"

A long silence.

"She’s not feeling very well today, Kazuya," his grandmother says gently. "You know how it is. Good days and bad."

"Yeah," Kazuya curls his hands around the rail, wishing he had a bat in his grip instead. So he could swing it again and again until he’s numb. "Well, okay, I just wanted to give you a heads up that things are going to be a circus down here."

"We appreciate it," she replies. "Come visit us… visit her, when you get a chance."

"Sure." It’s said without much intent, because Kazuya will probably never go, even when he knows it’s not his mother’s fault at all that he waited for her every night for a year on the front step, the smell of the river water and mockingbirds his only company.

He knows it’s not her fault but a part of him is angry anyway, because she’d left him in that house ten years ago, waiting, and Kazuya hasn’t had a home in anything but name since she left, the closest thing to it a school dormitory room with an area of twenty square meters and a rowdy group of boys who made Kazuya their captain.

She doesn’t want to see him, anyway. The last time he saw her, she’d refused to look at his face, clutching at her frail arms and turning those eyes just like Kazuya’s own out the window to stare at nothing instead.

"I’m sorry," his grandmother says. "You know it’s not anything about you, right? She’s sick."

"I know."

"Good luck with the game this weekend."

Kazuya ends the call with the usual murmured platitudes, casting one last look out at the empty practice diamonds before returning inside to the sound of zombie screeches and Kuramochi yelling at his brother over the PS4 headset to make cleaner head-shots.

He doesn’t bother to ask Kuramochi to turn it down. He retreats into the bedroom, instead, opening his laptop and bringing out the checklist for his journalism project.

Baseball is always good for helping Kazuya push out his other thoughts. That’s why he threw himself into it, picking the most brain-intensive position on the field and practicing until he excelled.

Even watching baseball can be an escape, because whatever his reasons for getting into baseball, he loves it on its own merits—the strategy and the personalities and the sound of a perfectly controlled pitch hitting leather. It’s better than music, it’s better than anything, and Kazuya can’t see himself ever caring about anything else as much. He fills as many gaps as he can with the slide of dirt in his cleats and the weight of a bat in his hand and the burn in his thighs in the ninth inning, and holds onto that happiness the only way he knows how: with force and focus and intensity.

Kazuya pulls his headphones on quickly, cutting off the death cries of what must have been a particularly stubborn enemy, and shuffles through more of the collected Koushien footage he’d downloaded last week, looking for locker-room coverage.

The first file he clicks on pops up Todoroki Raichi, the scar down the left side of his face pulled with his grin. He takes notes on how the interviewers react to him, and on how he speaks back to them. Raichi’s eyes are already out on on the field, even hours before the game, Kazuya thinks, and the interviewer knows it.

The second video is Furuya. Kazuya laughs at the way Furuya stares his interviewer down, and looks at the camera like it’s an enemy. He’ll send Furuya a mail tonight to tease him about it.

The third video, though, is Sawamura. He’s electric, even on camera, and Kazuya can see how he became a media darling. They can’t be aware of how annoying he is in real life, shouting and screeching his way through practices and meals and everything in between. They can only see the way his eyes glow with an inner fire, and the way his enthusiasm boils over in his rapidly shifting expressions and gape-mouthed grin that make him look like he’s waiting for a treat.

Somehow, the cold loosens its icy grip on Kazuya’s heart in the wake of the sunshine smile, in a way Kazuya had thought only an exhausting practice with the weight of his gear on his shoulders could do. He watches Sawamura pantomime a swing that wouldn’t even hit a ball down the middle at a juniors tournament, and laughs along with the interviewer, who looks as besotted as Takarada as she asks him another question.

"What is it about you," Kazuya mumbles at the screen, nails clicking just below Sawamura’s chin "that makes you so hard to look away from?"

That night, for the first time in a long time, Kazuya dreams about high school. He’s sitting in front of a shogi board, across from Tetsu, Isashiki ranting about something or other in the background. He looks left, and Sawamura is staring down, mystified, at the board, his pink lips parted, his hair a mess, clutching a tiny bottle of apple Qoo. He peeks up at Kazuya through a tangle of bangs still wet from the bath, and Kazuya’s stomach aches.

He wakes up to Kuramochi’s snores. He takes off his eye-mask, and goes to the bathroom, rinsing his face with cold water, staring at himself in the mirror. His glasses are still on his desk, so the image is unclear. He likes it better that way, right now.

He doesn’t manage to fall back to sleep. Instead, he e-mails Furuya a long and winding e-mail that never really gets to the point, talking vaguely about the season so far and the upcoming potentially series ending game and the general state of the Big6 league. He asks Furuya how he’s pitching, too, making sure to put in a few digs about Sawamura to spur him on.

He gets back into bed ten minutes before Kuramochi’s alarm is set to ring. Kuramochi doesn’t say anything about the dark circles under Kazuya’s eyes, but Kazuya can feel his scrutiny the entire morning, all the way until they get to practice.

They play a practice match on Saturday against Sophia University’s team, and win, eleven to nothing.

Sawamura’s hands, brown and freckled from the sun but also chalky from rosin, leave white-gray streaks across his forehead when he wipes away the sweat. "Let’s win every game, just like this."

"Oh, talking big?" Kazuya asks, closing his eyes because they seem to want to linger too much on the redness of exertion climbing Sawamura’s neck. "We’d better finish perfecting that slider then."

"You’re going to catch for me?!" Sawamura’s vibrating with more energy than everyone else on the bus has, combined.

"It’s ten at night, Sawamura."

"So?!"

Kazuya laughs. This kid, he thinks, is never satisfied. It’s something he actually likes about Sawamura. Something he appreciates. Has always appreciated.

"Tomorrow," he says, looking out the window, but paying too much attention to the reflection of Sawamura in the glass.

Sawamura is giving him those puppy eyes. "You mean it?"

"Yeah," says Kazuya. "I mean it."

The Hosei series sneaks up on him after their bye-weekend. It’s not that he expected longer between series, but that he gets caught up in classwork and practice and the concentrated effort to avoid his father’s activism mess. Television ads are banned until the two week lead-up to the actual election, but the local news is interested in his father, doing profiles on him and touting him as a man of conviction, forcing Kazuya to stare at his face way too much.

So on the fifteenth of October, when the first Hosei game is only two days away, the world snaps into focus for Kazuya again, the Emperor’s Cup more than enough of a challenge for him to chase.

Hosei has four power-hitters in their starting lineup, three of them lauded for regularly slamming it out of the park and one of them fairly reliable on clean-up, despite a high number of room-service hits.

Kazuya quizzes Sawamura on what kinds of pitches he should throw throughout main practice, Takarada watching for a little while just outside the net, bemused, as Sawamura fumbles out fairly good answers as he pitches his still-rough brushback slider over and over into Kazuya’s mitt.

One comes in slick and perfect, and Kazuya nods, pulling up his mask instead of tossing the ball back. He grins at Sawamura wickedly. "That one was a little evil," Kazuya tells him, delighted. "You pitch it just like that, you’ll scare the batter into trying to hit plenty of outside pitches."

Sawamura returns his grin. "Not as good as a real head-to-head, but close enough!" He wiggles his fingers to loosen the tension.

"Out-reading the batter is the real head-to-head, idiot, not pitching right to a sweet spot."

"You think I don’t know that?!" Sawamura’s grin transforms to a petulant scowl. "But the best is when you throw a ball to their sweet spot and they still don’t hit it!"

"It’s good pitch-calling that makes that happen, Sawamura." Kazuya pushes up at the bridge of his nose. "That’s what you need me for."

"I know that too, Miyuki Kazuya!" He demandingly holds his glove up, asking for the ball back, and Kazuya chuckles and gives it to him. It smacks into his glove with a couple of cracks, and before he can lower his hand, Kazuya notices there’s split leather at the seams, along with the popped laces. "Why do you think I’m here, anyway?" The last part is quiet, and Kazuya licks his lips, focusing on the glove instead.

"You need a new glove, Sawamura. That one is wearing thin."

"No, it’s just broken in!" Sawamura says, shaking his head. "I have replacement laces back at my place, and I can just mend this one." He opens and closes it. "I definitely don’t want a new one."

Kazuya frowns, standing up, tucking his mitt under his armpit, and approaching Sawamura, grabbing his right forearm lightly to look at the glove. "It’s a little small for your hand, too. How old is this thing?"

Sawamura hums thoughtfully, flexing the glove open and closed, pulling at the already strained web-stitch. "I got it before my first year of middle school, so… I guess eight years?"

Kazuya looks up from the glove to stare at Sawamura. "This is the same glove you used at Seidou?" He runs his fingers along the thinning leather. The glove is well cared for, soft and pliable with a great pocket. It’s also, he notices, an infielders’ glove, not an actual pitchers’ glove, the webbing partially open.

"Yep," Sawamura says, staring right back. "It’s the only glove I’ve ever had since I stopped needing a kid’s glove. It used to be too big, and I couldn’t control it well, but around my third year of middle school I really got used to it."

"You’ve gained a lot of height since then, Sawamura." Kazuya runs his thumb over the exposed heel of Sawamura’s palm, analyzing his finger position. Sawamura trembles when Kazuya lets the touch linger. "Plus, this isn’t a specific pitchers’ glove."

"It is so!" Sawamura’s eyebrows gather. "I’m a pitcher, so it’s a pitchers’ glove, now!" The brim of his hat bumps into Kazuya’s lifted catcher-mask, and Kazuya hadn’t realized he was leaning in so close. "I repair it often enough, and I make sure to keep it conditioned, so what’s it matter?"

"Why don’t you want a new one?" He slides the glove off Sawamura’s right hand, turning it around in his palms. Patches of the black have faded to a dull gray, especially at the fold. "It’s not that hard to break one in."

"My friends back in Nagano gave me my glove, when we first created our team. Wakana called it a ‘future superstar gift’. Before that, I’d had a youth glove, but my hand was too big for it, and I kept making catching errors because I couldn’t cradle the ball well." He chuckles, tossing the ball up and down in his left hand, toying with his bottom lip with his teeth. "When I was leaving everything and everyone behind, bringing my glove with me felt like taking them along, in a small way."

"So it’s that kind of thing, huh?" The laces are different colors, some in a medium brown rawhide, and the rest the original black. They’ve been excellently threaded, though, and clearly it hasn’t affected Sawamura’s catching in the recent past.

"I know it’s… You probably think it’s stupid!" He takes the glove back, his hand sliding back into it and folding it immediately, right along the gray. "But it feels like those guys are with me, when I use the glove they gave me!" He purposefully leans in until the brim of his hat rests against Kazuya’s mask again, unblinking. "And we finally won Koushien while I was wearing this glove! I’ll keep fixing it until it’s impossible!"

Sawamura’s breath smells like sticky rice and miso, hot where it hits Kazuya’s chin and mouth. Kazuya drops his eyes back to Sawamura’s strong, veined hands, only skimming Sawamura’s lips and neck. He resolutely rests on the rough callus developed along the slightly curved inside of his index finger on his left hand, between the first and second knuckle. "I don’t think it’s stupid." He sighs, as though he’s being bothered. "It’s to be expected, I guess, considering you’re the kind of sentimental guy who cries a lot over things."

"Hey!" Sawamura’s gloved hand whaps Kazuya on the chest, at the center of his chest protector.

"Just make sure you re-lace the whole thing tonight, Sawamura, and moisturize the rawhide."

"I know what I’m doing!" Up in Kazuya’s face again. Kazuya smirks, and Sawamura fumes, lip pulling back in a snarl, and Kazuya doesn’t doubt that if Sawamura weren’t holding the baseball, his hand would be grasping one of the shoulder straps of Kazuya’s gear, trying to shake the smile off Kazuya’s face. "You’re the biggest dick!"

"Have," Kazuya corrects, narrowing his eyes with glee. "I have the biggest—"

"Um," Shiba says, and Kazuya immediately takes two steps back, pulling down his mask. Sawamura is still gaping at him, pink and infuriated, and Kazuya’s stomach swoops, like he’s just jumped from a plane or something, as he turns away from him to reply to Shiba.

"You need something?" He consciously drops his shoulders, tilting his head casually as he takes his glove out from where he tucked it under his arm

"Assistant Coach Numamoto wants to talk to you at the end of practice." Shiba is staring back between them, hesitant. "You guys fighting?"

"We’re always fighting!" Sawamura says. "Because that guy’s a tanuki!"

"Thank you~" Kazuya says reflexively, before he shrugs. "Now, now, Sawamura, I was just making sure you were going to have a useable glove in the game tomorrow." He walks back to where he’s been catching Sawamura’s pitches, mitt up. "Now stop yelling and give me that slider again."

"Yeah, yeah," Sawamura says, as Kazuya watches Shiba lean, arms crossed, to watch Sawamura’s pitch. It comes searing through the air right into the pocket. "Take that, bastard!"

"Nice pitch," Kazuya says, returning the ball. "Five more, exactly like it."

"You got it!" And just like that, Sawamura’s grinning again.

Kazuya’s pulse is racing far faster than it should be, for practice pitches in front of the net, but he doesn’t want to examine it, so he just… doesn’t, pushing it aside with everything else that isn’t baseball; compartmentalization that has served him well throughout his life.

They wrap up just as twilight falls, heading over to where Numamoto is observing a pepper game cool-down with Shirasu batting and Kuramochi, Hirahata, and Uchida doing infield catches. Numamoto doesn’t want anything major, just feedback from Kazuya on Sawamura’s core strength and areas where they might need to improve his training.

Sawamura waits for him, dogging his heels all the way back to the dugout. "No more catching today," Kazuya says, finally. "Go home."

"I don’t wanna pitch!" He stops, then smiles goofily. "Well, I do, I always do, but I actually wanted to re-lace your mitt."

"What?" Kazuya pulls his bag up onto the pine bench, unzipping it to take a look at his mitt.

"Your web stitching looks almost as bad as mine," Sawamura says, leaning over his shoulder, chest pressed to Kazuya’s back and chin digging into his shoulder. "See?"

"You think I’m going to let you re-lace my mitt?" Kazuya purposely zips his bag up again, taking care not to lean back into Sawamura.

"I’m good at it," Sawamura says, plaintively. It’s right in Kazuya’s ear, and Kazuya shivers, jamming his elbow backwards, scoring a hit right in Sawamura’s stomach. "Ugh, why?"

"I’m not Chris," Kazuya tells him. "Don’t hover. I don’t do well with pets."

"You don’t do well with anything except being terrible," Sawamura replies, still winded. "Come back to my place and I’ll do them both."

Kazuya thinks longingly about his shower, and his statistics homework, and then, with what feels like inevitability, gives in. "Fine, fine." He trades his sports glasses for his regular ones, and shrugs on his windbreaker. It’s too long in the arms, and hangs too low past his hips. Twisting, he catches sight of an embroidered blue ‘S’. "Yours?"

"Oh, yeah, we can trade back tonight," Sawamura says. "I’ve had yours all week."

Kazuya stares at him in a mixture of fascination and horror. He hadn’t even… noticed. He’s worn this jacket at least twice this week, during and after practice. "All week?"

"I’m going to go get my bag!" Sawamura smiles at him, then heads over toward the bleachers with way too much energy for someone who ran so much today.

Someone makes a strangled noise, and Kazuya turns to see Kuramochi watching him with enjoyment he hasn’t bothered to conceal. "Tonight?"

"We’re going to do maintenance on our gloves for the game," Kazuya says. "Re-lacing." He glares, then. "Why didn’t you say anything about the jacket?"

"Ichinose-senpai was taking bets on when you’d realize," Kuramochi says. "So I shouldn’t expect you for dinner?"

"I guess not," Kazuya says. "Sawamura’s sucking up way too much of my freedom, the brat. There’s fried eggplant in the refrigerator from yesterday if you don’t feel like a convenience store bento."

"That’s cool," Kuramochi says, and then he flashes all his teeth at Kazuya, eyes curling with mirth. "You sure spend a lot of time with that brat voluntarily, Miyuki." Scratching his neck, he searches Kazuya’s face. "Little brother you always secretly wanted?"

Kazuya’s jaw tightens, Kuramochi’s words squeezing tight around his lungs. He makes himself smile. "Do you take me for the sort of person that secretly wants a little brother?" He hefts his bag as Sawamura comes hurrying back over. "See you later, Kuramochi."

He and Sawamura get meat buns on the way to the apartment, curry oozing out of Sawamura’s every time he takes a nibble, leaving a yellow ring around his mouth.

"What’s wrong?" Sawamura asks, after he’s greedily swallowed down the last bite. "Did Kuramochi-senpai say something bad?"

"Why would you think that?" Kazuya shoves his hands in his pockets, Sawamura’s pockets.

"You’re worried now," Sawamura says bluntly. "Your smile is really awful, Miyuki Kazuya."

"It’s not important," Kazuya says. "Why do you care, Sawamura?"

"Why wouldn’t I?" Sawamura blinks at him, his eyes bright even in the falling darkness. "You’re self-centered, mean, and you give me a hard time about everything, but…"

"But?"

"I’m used to it," Sawamura says. "That arm wall of yours."

Kazuya swallows.

Sawamura punches in his door access code, then holds open the door for Kazuya. "Besides, you look out for me in your own way, Miyuki-senpai."

"Why do you only use respectful language with me when you’re being sarcastic?" Kazuya manages, and Sawamura laughs, loudly. It echoes up the stairs, and Kazuya grins at the sound.

Sawamura does a good job with the lacing, hands as steady as Kazuya’s mother’s used to be, letting out the hem of his elementary school baseball uniform, the whole time telling stories about his grandfather and his friends. About Wakana, and Nobu, and how bad his team was in middle school. Every time he mentions one of them, he rubs at the leather of his glove.

"This is the glove I used the first time I pitched to you, too," Sawamura says, setting it down on the low table, and picking up the cutters to start removing the laces in Kazuya’s mitt. "It’s not practical, to hang onto things like this, but…"

"You’re never practical," Kazuya says, looking at Sawamura holding Kazuya’s mitt, his baseball cap turned backwards and holding his hair out of his eyes. His eyebrows are furrowed, crushed together in the center of his forehead, lips puffy because Sawamura bites down on them as he stitches with the oversized needle. "I have no expectations that you ever will be."

Under the table, Sawamura’s toes brush his ankle. "Just like I have no expectations that you’ll stop insulting me!"

"It wouldn’t be any fun if I did," Kazuya replies, stretching his leg out just a little further, until the length of Sawamura’s foot rests along his calf.

"Maybe not," says Sawamura, snipping another stitch.

They’re one-one against Hosei in their second series of the autumn Big6 tournament.

They’d been in the same position in the spring, their defense dominated by Hosei’s power-hitters in the first game, and their offense only squeaking out enough runs in their second game for wins against the well-oiled infielders, none against their stellar outfield.

Hosei had tied it up after that, and gone on to win the last game, as well. Defeat had been ugly, and Kazuya had thought for weeks about his last strike out in game 3, even though they’d played an entire series after that, Kazuya only in for one of the games.

Last spring, though, had been defeats handed to a team still building. Meiji hadn’t had Sawamura and Kazuya starting, so that final game hadn’t gone in their favor. This time, Kazuya’s pretty sure it will. They’re not lion cubs waiting to grow up into a dangerous team anymore. They have claws.

The team turn-around this season, brought about by Sawamura’s gloriously deviant moving fastballs and Kazuya calling the games with brutal precision, is audible in the stands on their side of the field. They chant Sawamura’s name when he comes out to pitch, more excited than they’ve been in the entire time Kazuya’s been playing for Meiji. The school band starts, in the second inning, to play the Jaws theme whenever Sawamura comes out to the mound, and Kazuya laughs at the thumbs up Sawamura sends them, as well as the delighted upturn of the pitcher’s mouth as Kuramochi slaps his back on the way to shortstop with a "don’t get cocky, Sawamura!".

Meiji was not a winning team when Kazuya came to join it. He’d been scouted by two schools in the wake of his third year autumn post-season at Seidou, when he’d made it clear he wasn’t preparing to declare immediately for the pro draft thanks to lingering injury: Waseda and Meiji had both come knocking in those long three weeks of break he’d spent back at the Tamagawa house.

Waseda, the top team in the Tokyo Big6 League, told him they were looking for a catcher to fill a pretty big set of shoes. They presented their case: the number of players drafted in their third and fourth years, the number of Emperor’s Cups they’d brought home, the battalion of star pitchers.

But then Meiji had offered him something different. Assistant Coach Numamoto had sat down at the kitchen table in Kazuya’s empty mill-scented family home, and told him that their team was in shambles, and they wanted to build a new one around him. They had a few solid relief pitchers and an ace going into his fourth year, and they’d have to hope for a recruit from the next year to fill his slot when he left if none of the relief pitchers could step up. Kazuya had stared at Numamoto, and the question on his lips had been "will you bring me one of mine?"

Seeing Sawamura there, that first day of fall practice, after a summer season bereft of a new pitcher, had been, Kazuya realizes now, exactly what he’d wanted, when he’d enrolled in Meiji University instead of Waseda, with their bullpen of champions. He’d wanted to be somewhere a pitcher like Sawamura could shine, and he’d be able to work with someone idiosyncratic and complicated and unpredictable like that.

He remembers Narumiya Mei coming to see him, the week before the autumn tournament began, last year. "I know Waseda wanted you," Mei had said, wearing a new team baseball cap, his blond hair sticking out at all angles as he glared up at him. "You really don’t want to be my catcher, do you, Kazuya? It’s not because we…" He trails off, and Kazuya had remembered the taste of cheap beer and someone else’s mouth and guilt. "Is it?"

"It’s not about you," Kazuya had replied, meeting Mei’s eyes even though he’d wanted to look away. "I don’t hate the idea of catching for you."

"But you don’t love it, either." Mei’s face had contorted into a scowl. "I have excellent control, a wide variety of pitches, and everyone knows I’m going to be an ace wherever I end up playing pro, but this is the second time you’ve avoided being on my team."

"I can’t grow, catching for you," Kazuya had finally answered. "And I can’t help you grow. A catcher like me, for you, can’t ever be a partner." He’d thought of Furuya, then, and the first time he’d thrown the splitter Kazuya’d taught him. Of Sawamura, eyes bright as he finally realized why Kazuya’d had him throwing so many low and aways, excitement growing as he read the sign for an incurve.

Mei is more skilled, more polished, than either of them, but that’s not what Kazuya is looking for. Kazuya prefers what he has now at Meiji, anyway, because he can see the shape of his catching in the outline of Sawamura’s windup, and the echo of Sawamura’s battle-ready attitude in his boldest play calls. They’re partners, even if he’d never admit it to Sawamura aloud. Kazuya likes partners, not bosses.

Staring at Sawamura now, owning the mound tonight during this Monday tiebreak game, he considers the current batter and signals for the brushback slider for the first time. Sawamura grins at him from the mound, dropping his rosin satchel behind him and taking the ball in hand. The light in Sawamura’s eyes zips up Kazuya’s spine.

The batter tenses, and then Sawamura throws, the ball pushing at the right edge of the plate. The batter jumps back, but it’s still a definite strike stinging against his palm. Sawamura’s grin widens, and he yells "one out!", Shiba shouting "nice pitch!" right back at him as Kuramochi demands they let him catch something during this series.

They’re up five-two in the sixth inning, Sawamura, with his compression shirt sleeve hiked up, massaging cream into his elbow as he sits on the edge of the bench to watch Hosei’s pitcher on the mound. "His catcher’s weak," Sawamura says, shifting his rubbing up to just above the joint. "He’s a good pitcher, but the play-calling…"

"Oh ho? You think pitchers need a good catcher? What happened to the middle school punk that wanted to beat Azuma all by himself?"

"I was thirteen, damnit!"

Kazuya bats his eyelashes at Sawamura. "Little baby Sawamura, thinking he was good enough to be an ace."

"I am now, so there." Sawamura scowls, and moves his right hand back down.

"Why do you need the icy-hot? Something wrong?"

"I’m not injured or anything like that," Sawamura says, immediately. "Unlike you, I wouldn’t lie about it. It’s just that our innings at bat today are so much longer than mine on the pitch, and I’ve been told I tighten up faster than usual."

"Oh?" Kazuya hadn’t thought that was really the case in high school, but maybe it’s because he or Chris or Okamura always had Sawamura throwing between his stints out at play. He never had a chance to tighten up. "You learn that when you were hanging out in Nagoya?"

"Their team doctor told me I needed to be careful." Putting the cap on the cream, Sawamura grins. "Don’t worry about it, bastard."

"I’m not, I was just wondering. You’ve only thrown around fifty pitches today, and you don’t usually get sore."

Sawamura tilts his torso sideways until Kazuya is holding most of his weight. "I’m not sore," he says belligerently, glaring out of the corner of his eye. His cap scratches at Kazuya’s neck. "I’ll pitch until the end of the game, Miyuki Kazuya!"

"As long as it’s just a precaution." Kazuya shoves back, until Sawamura has to catch himself with an open palm to the bench to keep from tipping over completely.

"Children, please," Ichinose says, from the other side of the dugout, next to the cooler with all their drinks, "behave."

"Right!" Sawamura jumps to his feet and salutes him, and Kazuya just smirks unrepentantly, setting his half-empty water bottle standing up in Sawamura’s seat and then cracking up when Sawamura sits on it, yelping in discomfort as it digs into his buttcheek. "Shitty ass senpai!"

"A pitcher needs to be aware of his surroundings," Kazuya says, facetiously, as Kuramochi points and laughs from the front of the dugout, on deck, having turned around just in time to see the joke play out. "Maybe that’s why you can’t hit a baseball with a bat!"

It’s a low scoring game, but in the bottom of the last inning, Kazuya manages to hit the ball out into the bleachers with two on base, bringing Shiba and Shirasu home and solidifying Meiji’s lead, earning them the series victory.

Coach Maeda, his eyes up on the scoreboard where the one run Meiji had given up in the entire game sits lonely in the seventh inning slot, looks pleased, speaking in a low voice to Numamoto as the team cheers in celebration.

With no game until next Saturday, the post-game discussion gets put off until tomorrow when several players mention that their parents had come to see today’s game. "You can come back on the bus or on your own," Maeda tells them, and Kazuya figures he’ll probably get dragged off by at least Kuramochi and Sawamura for food while they’re out here, since both of them are reliably hungry all the time.

They make their way out of the stadium, down into the hall that leads to the player exits. Sawamura is babbling about Hosei’s "super-cool relief pitcher, did you see that curveball? Do you think you could catch that, Miyuki Kazuya?! Do you?!" while Kuramochi talks on the phone to his brother, trying to yell over Sawamura’s excited tone.

Kazuya hooks his index finger through Sawamura’s belt-loop to slow him down as they pass the visiting team club room, for whomever has come to play the Tokyo Yakult Swallows. "Of course I could catch it," he says condescendingly. "After catching your wild pitches, it would be--"

"My pitches aren’t wild!" Sawamura shouts, his voice echoing through the hall.

"Not anymore," Kazuya says. "But for a while there…" He trails off, his eyes catching on a familiar figure standing in the entranceway, his arms crossed and two curls of light blond hair falling into his eyes. "Chris-san?"

Sawamura jolts like he’s a horse at the gate and he’s just heard a gunshot, mouth contorted already in one of those face-eating grins he’s known for. "Really?!" He rushes ahead of them, reaching Chris first, asking him if he’s been here for the whole game or not as Chris claps him on the shoulder.

"You came," Kazuya says, sidling up at a more sedate pace. "No Monday game this week, then?"

"I was tapped to be in the lineup during both weekends you played," Chris answers, with a tiny smile almost entirely conveyed by his eyes. "Glad I could make it."

"You didn’t tell me you were coming!" Sawamura looks back and forth between them. "You planned this without me?!"

"Miyuki didn’t know I was coming either." Chris tugs at the neck of his sweater. He’s as imposing as ever, still a full hand above Sawamura in height, and even amidst the fairly tall Meiji third and fourth years, he stands out. They pass by with curious looks on their way to the bus, and Uchida actually openly gapes in recognition. Chris doesn’t seem to notice. "He invited me to see a Keio game, but we’re still in season."

"If I knew you were here, I would have looked for you in the stands!"

"Then it’s a good thing you didn’t know," Kuramochi says. "You’d have been waving and shouting and generally making a nuisance of yourself!"

"I’m not a nuisance!"

"Sorry, Sawamoron, you’re definitely a nuisance," Kazuya says, leading everyone out of the underground and into the milling remainder of the crowd at the exits. "Just a nuisance that can pitch."

"I’m gonna strangle--"

"I see you’re playing as the team ace, Sawamura," Chris says, stopping Sawamura before he can complete his threat. "How does it feel to start again?"

Sawamura had worn the ace number his last tournament for Seidou, and for Koushien. Kazuya remembers Furuya’s passive-aggressive texts about it, as he nursed his injured wrist.

Kazuya thinks it’s fitting that both his pitchers got to wear the ‘1’ at least once, when they’d both worked together to win so many games. He hadn’t said that to Furuya at the time, though. It would have been too sentimental. He’d just texted him back, in the blip of time between two of his Wednesday classes, that he’d better grab a couple of tires and run laps if he didn’t want to be left behind.

Looking at Sawamura’s beaming smile, that has, if possible, gotten even bigger, Kazuya realizes all over again just how much the ace position suits him.

"It’s the definite best!" Sawamura tells Chris, who always has a peculiar sort of charmed look on his face when it comes to the pitcher. "I was meant to be a starting pitcher!"

Shirasu smiles, looking away from the two of them, as Ichinose approaches their small cluster of Seidou alums. "You guys coming back on the bus?" He double-takes on Chris, probably recognizing him, but then directs the question to Kazuya with his eyes.

"Chris-senpai! Go to dinner with us!" Sawamura has a fistful of Chris’s jacket, peering hopefully at him from under those long eyelashes. Kazuya’s eyes linger on the curl of Sawamura’s fingers in the soft material, and swallows down an unwelcome twist in his gut at how eager and happy the two are to see each other.

"I could," Chris says. "I’m staying with Kanemaru, but I told him I wouldn’t be back until late."

Sawamura fist pumps, and Kuramochi chuckles at him, stealing his hat and mussing his hair. "You should invite him. Think he’d still be willing to tutor Sawamura?"

"Takarada-senpai is tutoring me already!" He snatches his hat back. "I don’t need two tutors! I’m doing just fine in my classes!"

"You think you’re something now that you’ve got a hot girlfriend like Takarada, Sawamura?!" The chokehold is anything but unexpected.

"She’s not my—" Sawamura gasps, mostly unheard under Kuramochi’s cackling as Chris calmly tries to defuse the situation for the second time in the span of ten minutes.

"Miyuki?"

He pushes up his glasses and gives Ichinose his focus. "I think we’ll be passing on the bus. It’s a regular high school reunion, it seems."

"I’ll let the coach know," Ichinose agrees. "Have fun!"

"Oh, we will," Kazuya replies, waving Ichinose off. He notes the bus driver opening the door to admit Ichinose, and then the engine starting in preparation to head back to school.

Kazuya scans the area around them as Sawamura screeches, trying to wriggle free of the torturous position Kuramochi’s bent him into. The crowd is thin, already having left the stadium grounds in droves. Meiji-Hosei was today’s last game.

His gaze lands on someone he recognizes walking towards them, her fingers twisting around each other. It’s Uehara, from the convenience store, dressed adorably in Meiji colors, her hair pulled away from her face.

"Miyuki?" Uehara smiles at him tentatively. "Could I… talk to you?"

Kuramochi is immediately at attention, releasing Sawamura, and Shirasu turns with a speculative expression. Chris’s face is impassive, but he’s definitely interested.

Damnit. "Sure, Uehara," he replies, slowly. "Thanks for coming to the game today, by the way. I thought you worked on Mondays?"

She pinks, her hands still twined together in an anxious grip. "Ah, no, I love to watch baseball, so I traded shifts." Licking her lips, she loses a bit of her pale gloss. "And could we speak… privately?"

With a sinking feeling in his stomach, Kazuya nods. He steals another glance at his companions, lingering on Sawamura, whose lips have twisted into an odd half-frown as he evaluates Uehara. His eyes flick over to Kazuya, and their gazes meet and hold for a second too long, something incomprehensible lurking in Sawamura’s expressive, glimmering eyes.

Sawamura breaks away first, and Kazuya drops his gear bag next to Kuramochi and hooks his thumbs on the waist of his trousers with feigned nonchalance. "Okay," he says, eventually, and lets Uehara lead him away to a relatively deserted stadium exit. "So what is it?"

"I…" She looks up at him. "I know we don’t know each other well." A strand of hair has escaped her ponytail, and the end of it curls just below her chin. "I’m just… the girl who works near the baseball field to you, probably. Despite that, Miyuki, I’ve admired you since the first time I saw one of your games!" She speaks quickly, like she’s trying to get it all out before he interrupts her, or she loses her nerve. "Since then, I’ve seen you around campus, and…"

The muscle in Kazuya’s jaw twitches.

He hasn’t had to deal with this much, since he got to college. Even though he’s on the baseball team, and there are just as many girls in his classes, most of them have grown out of the sort of crushes based on his looks and his so-called mystery, or whatever else had led to plentiful amounts of love letters left on his desk, and more Valentine’s Day chocolate than his entire second-year cohort on the team could eat.

Plus, Kazuya doesn’t really give a lot of girls outside his team managers the opportunity to get to know him, wanting to avoid situations like this entirely. He prefers flirting casually with strangers he’ll never see again, and only when Kuramochi is there to suffer because of how easy Kazuya finds the whole thing.

"And I’d really like it if you would give me a chance!" Uehara finishes, clearly summoning her courage. "I’d really like to learn more about you, and…" Her whole face is a dark red now, and Kazuya stares at her, lost. "You probably aren’t interested, but will you go on a date with me to see if we might make a good match after all?"

Unfortunately, Kazuya’s out of practice at rejections.

"I’m flattered, Uehara," Kazuya says, when the silence stretching between them becomes almost unbearably heavy, hating that he can feel everyone watching them, waiting just out of earshot to see if Miyuki Kazuya makes this girl cry, like he’s in a television drama. "But I… I can’t accept your feelings." Her mouth goes tight, and her eyes well up with tears, and for a brief, irrational, and unfair second, Kazuya hates her for putting him in this situation, before a wave of calm washes over him. "It’s nothing that’s wrong with you, specifically, I’m just not interested in dating any girl right now. If I made you feel otherwise…"

She shakes her head and smiles at him, a miserable, wobbly thing. "No, I… I expected it, but I had to… I had to try, because I wasn’t getting over it! Now I will. Thank you for hearing me out."

She bows, briefly, before spinning on her heel and rushing out to get lost in the crowd of people leaving the stadium. Kazuya combs his fingers through his hair, and walks over to join the former members of Seidou’s team, whose low-voiced conversation stops when he gets close enough to overhear.

Sawamura is conspicuously absent, the general volume of the group a lot lower without him. Kazuya wonders where he’s gone, but doesn’t get the chance to ask before Kuramochi starts in on him.

"It’s disgusting how lucky you are with girls!" Kuramochi says, plaintively. "That’s probably why you never give any of them a shot. You always know there’ll be a next time."

I’d prefer there not be, Kazuya thinks, but he just looks at Kuramochi over his glasses instead.

"She was cute!" Kuramochi continues. "I recognize her."

"Uehara works at the convenience store by the practice field," says Kazuya, staring at a spot just past Kuramochi’s shoulder. "Every day except Tuesday." And today, because she traded shifts to confess to me. His face is making the wrong expression, he can tell, so he fixes it, putting a smug grin on his face and tries to redirect the conversation. "Maybe you’d get confessed to by cute girls if you remembered their names…?"

"Look, dickbag, I can remember--" Kuramochi whistles, interrupting himself. "Wait, you know her schedule?"

"She mentioned it once, when we saw each other at the grocery store." With his free hand, he pushes up on his glasses. There’s a fingerprint on the lens, so he takes them off to wipe them clean on his fresh T-shirt instead. Putting them back on, Kuramochi’s incredulous face comes back into focus. "Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean to use words you aren’t familiar with, Kuramochi—a grocery store is a place where people go to buy food that isn’t already cooked with extensive amounts of MSG, for the purpose of preparing a meal that will not drive them into an early grave."

"It’s after the game," Kuramochi says, flexing his fingers exaggeratedly. "No one is going mind if I choke you out a little, Miyuki."

"You always resort to violence!" He grins as Kuramochi snarls at him. "That’s not attractive to girls, either, Kuramochi." He wags his finger. "Be a gentleman."

"Shut the fuck up, Miyuki."

"I’m just giving you advice, since you seem to want it so bad~"

"I thought you were going to say yes for the first time ever, for a second there." He narrows his eyes. "Are you not into dating because of…" He catches himself. "Uh, baseball?" Kazuya appreciates him not mentioning his dad in front of so many other people.

"Don’t we have an Emperor Cup to win?" Kazuya raises both eyebrows. "Do you really have time to concern yourself with my love life?"

"You hypocrite!" Kuramochi points at him accusingly. "Don’t think I’ve totally forgotten what happened at Ichinose-senpai’s gathering after the Keio series victory!"

"It would have been better for your self-esteem if you had," Kazuya replies, but Kuramochi has already devoted himself to prodding Shirasu for information about Kumai, leaving Chris and Kazuya to speak to each other. "Where’s Sawamura?"

Chris gives him a long, searching look. "He went to make a call right after that girl asked to speak to you."

"Oh?" Kazuya immediately looks around, trying to find him, and when he can’t, he offers Chris a raised eyebrow. "Did he not get reception or what?"

"He seemed uncomfortable watching you get asked out," Chris says, and though his tone doesn’t vary from his usual calm, his eyes are trained on Kazuya’s face.

Kazuya’s pulse speeds up, and he averts his eyes. Why is Chris looking at him like that? "Probably not as uncomfortable as it was for me to get asked out."

"You never liked it." Chris tilts his head thoughtfully. "Back in high school. Getting confessions, I mean."

"They don’t know me." Kazuya shrugs.

"Is that the only reason you’re not interested?" Unable to discern why Chris is looking at him so carefully, Kazuya frowns.

"Who was Sawamura on the phone with? Shouldn’t he have wandered back by now?"

"It sounded like his grandfather," Chris replies. "He was talking about the game. I’ll call Kanemaru, if you wanted to go get Sawamura." He nods toward the nearest upper-level entrance. "He went up into the stands." The corner of Chris’s mouth lifts.

"Don’t let Kuramochi convince you that ice-cream waffles are dinner," he says, shifting his weight from foot to foot as he looks up to where Sawamura’s apparently gone. "I’ll go find the brat."

"You’ll eat ice cream and like it," Kuramochi says, tuning back into the conversation when he hears his name. He’s already pulling out his phone to presumably scan local eateries that will agree with all five of them. "Go retrieve Sawamura, we’ll have something you hate picked out by the time you get back, Miyuki ‘I’m-too-good-to-go-on-a-date’ Kazuya."

Rolling his eyes, Kazuya steals one last look at Chris, who is still looking penetratingly at him, still smiling, and gulping, Kazuya turns around and heads back toward the stadium.

Sawamura is sitting in the front seats in the second tier, right in front of home plate. His phone is held up in front of him, and his tongue sticks out of his mouth at the left corner as he concentrates.

His hair is tousled under his hat, and his eyebrows are furrowed, like something's bothering him. Kazuya wants to smooth the wrinkle between his brows with his thumb, but that's… It's a weird urge, easy enough to suppress in favor of teasing.

Kazuya clears his throat. "I thought you were making a call."

Sawamura ‘eep’s, almost dropping the phone, and only his fast reflexes keep it from shattering on the stadium floor. "Miyuki!" His eyes flash.

"What are you up to?" He hovers over Sawamura, their knees bumping, and takes the phone right out of his hand, earning a yelp. There’s a somewhat blurry picture of the field at dusk, the scoreboard still set with Meiji’s win, and Kazuya smirks. "Better stick with the baseball, Sawamura, since your photography skills are tragic."

"Give me that!" Sawamura jumps up to take it back, his fingers tangling with Kazuya’s as they grapple for the device. "You’re the one that ruined the shot!"

"Now, now, don’t blame others for your own failures." Kazuya’s back hits the rail, and he laughs, holding the phone up in the air above him. "This doesn’t look like a call to grandpa, Sawamura~"

"I’m taller than you now!" He grabs for the phone, his chest pressed to Kazuya’s, knee sliding between Kazuya’s thighs. He can feel Sawamura’s right hand holding onto Kazuya’s waist for balance, and Sawamura’s laughing, exasperated pants against his neck. He’s so warm, covering Kazuya like this, and dangerously close. "It’s just a picture for Wakana, since she couldn’t come to the game!"

Finally, Sawamura gets his fingers around Kazuya’s wrist, then slides up his palm to snatch the phone back. He pulls away, flushed and scowling, and Kazuya laughs around his breathlessness. His heart is racing, and his whole front tingles, like pinpricks of blue-hot fire everywhere Sawamura had touched. Kazuya knows his face must be red, and hopes the cool wind blowing is enough to excuse the color in his cheeks. "Shouldn’t have taken that long to get a picture. We thought you’d gotten lost."

"No one thought that but you, ass!" Sawamura folds his arms on the railing, deletes the messed up picture and then opens the camera back up to take another.

"Maybe that’s true," Kazuya agrees, letting his eyes close as he presses a hand flat to his chest. His heart is beating too fast. Too fast and too hard.

Sawamura exhales, tapping at something on his touch screen. "So how did it go?"

"With Uehara?" Kazuya turns around so he’s facing the field too. Sawamura has an open text message to his friend Wakana. The last message is from two weeks ago, and it had been from her.

"Yeah." Sawamura’s eyelashes catch tiny little bits of light from the evening-game spotlight, and leave shadows on his cheeks.

Sawamura’s cap is tilted sideways from their struggle, so Kazuya reaches up and turns it straight again. "She asked me out. I turned her down."

Blinking in surprise, Sawamura’s lips part to reveal a flash of teeth, but he still doesn’t look at Kazuya. "Kuramochi is gonna give you hell all night." Then, exhaling, Sawamura starts smiling, nose crinkled up as he examines the picture on his phone with way too much concentration.

Kazuya looks pointedly out at the field. "Let’s just say that I don’t like it either," he says, letting his arm rest against Sawamura’s.

"Like what?"

"When people tell me what I’m supposed to like." Sawamura’s arm is so warm against his own. He’s wearing his own jacket tonight, but it smells like Kazuya’s shampoo now, just like Kazuya’s jacket smells like a new baseball glove.

Kazuya’s heart is still thrumming like a hummingbird in his chest, threatening to shatter his ribs, as Sawamura licks his lips and turns to face him.

Sawamura’s smile is slow but sure. "We should head back to everyone else," he says, and Kazuya’s muscles tighten and release as he takes a deep breath to slow this all down, and make it something less overwhelming.

"Well, if someone hadn’t had to take pictures…" Kazuya turns to head back down the stairs.

"Sometimes it’s important to commemorate important moments! We just won our second series!" He reaches out and grabs Kazuya by the back of his jacket, causing him to stumble backwards. Then his hand skims up Kazuya’s back and hooks on his shoulder, and Sawamura’s cheek is pressing to his own, his five o’clock shadow tickling at Kazuya’s smooth skin, Kazuya’s glasses bumped askew as Sawamura holds his phone in front of them. "Smile, bastard!"

Kazuya’s eyes widen at the sound of a picture being taken. "What are you even doing, idiot?"

"Commemorating a moment," Sawamura says, laughing, letting his hand fall from Kazuya’s shoulder. "The moment Miyuki Kazuya was honest with me for the first time!"

"Delete it," Kazuya says, already knowing how he must appear in the photo, cheek mashed to Sawamura’s and caught in surprise. If anyone looks, they’ll see his heart in his eyes. "I don’t want that photo on your Instagram or on that damn chat!!"

"It’s not for Instagram or the chat! It’s for me!" He sticks out his tongue.

Flustered, Kazuya makes a grab for it and misses. "I’m your upperclassman, Sawamura! Delete it."

"It’s my phone!" Sawamura sticks out his tongue at him. "Let’s go, ~senpai!" He grabs his bag and takes the steps two by two, laughing as Kazuya chases after him.

They walk almost fifteen minutes to get to the cluster of restaurants around Yoyogi Station. Kanemaru meets them there, looking a little shivery from just the ten-minute walk to Yoyogi from Kitasando.

"It’s getting so cold so soon this year," Kanemaru says. His right arm is across his chest in a white and blue sling, and the sleeve of his jacket hangs empty. "I don’t envy you guys the training season, even if I do miss baseball."

"The captain of Seidou’s second Koushien-qualifying baseball team in a row isn’t playing this season," Kazuya says, grinning at Kanemaru. "As your predecessor, I’m disappointed Meiji won’t be able to personally kick your ass this year when we defeat Waseda in a streak."

Kanemaru adjusts his sling. "Next year, Miyuki-senpai, I’m going hit off of Sawamura so many times you’ll wish my arm was still broken."

"In your dreams!" Sawamura pulls a grotesque face at Kanemaru, who has long become immune to them.

"Don’t tease the invalid," Kazuya says, grabbing Sawamura by the collar and reeling him back.

Kuramochi slaps Sawamura in the stomach with the back of his hand. "We’ll get him next year, Sawamura."

"Wish I could play you guys this year." He musses his dyed blond hair. "Though honestly, I might not have made first string anyway; Waseda has a hell of a team. Still, if I hadn’t gotten injured…"

"Injuries happen," Chris says, rubbing at his own shoulder. "You’ll recover."

Kanemaru winces. "Yeah, but what kind of batting shape am I going to be in?"

"Make sure you attend practices and watch pitches." Kuramochi nods. "Don’t lose your pitch judgment."

"Don’t give advice to the enemy!" Sawamura gives Kuramochi the evil eye, his hair catching in Kazuya’s knuckles where he’s still grabbing at Sawamura’s jacket.

"Calling him the enemy isn’t the way to get Kanemaru to help you pass your Japanese History class," singsongs Kuramochi in the face of Sawamura’s ire. "Didn’t Kanemaru get you through high school?"

"Yeah, Sawamura, show me some gratitude." Kanemaru laughs. "Pay for my dinner."

"Hell no!"

They get shabu-shabu at Imahan, a restaurant five minutes away from the station. They get a big pot of Wagyu beef, crammed in on two sides of a booth. Sawamura, crushed between Kazuya and Chris, tries to eat before the vegetables are cooked all the way through, and Kanemaru keeps clumsily using his chopsticks to slap him on the wrist without jarring his arm.

When it’s finally ready, Sawamura eats everything too hot, not giving the meat a chance to cool before he’s shoving it in his mouth. He talks to Chris with his mouth full, and his left arm keeps digging into Kazuya’s ribs until Kazuya shifts back to be behind the line of fire, stretching his arm out behind Sawamura and moving so that Sawamura’s back rests partially against his chest.

"The cow’s already dead," Kazuya says to Sawamura, reaching over with his own left hand to grasp Sawamura’s forearm. "It can’t run away from you."

"Eating with Kuramochi-senpai is Darwinism at its finest," Kanemaru says, struggling to pick up a piece of beef with his chopsticks in his non-dominant hand. "Survival of the fittest."

"You snooze you lose," Kuramochi replies, unrepentant. "Plus, Miyuki’s my roommate, and he hasn’t starved yet."

"I eat while I cook," says Kazuya. "Wouldn’t want to risk losing a hand during the actual meal."

"You cook?" Sawamura’s knee slaps against Kazuya’s as he swivels. A piece of shiitake sticks to his lower lip. "Really?"

"Why so surprised?" He releases Sawamura’s arm and pulls out his phone.

"I dunno," Sawamura says, shoving a big chunk of cabbage into his mouth. "We lived in a dorm, and it’s not like we ever had to cook, so I never thought about it." He spits little pieces of the cabbage as he speaks around it, and more things stick to his lips.

"He’s really good at it," Kuramochi says. "Lucky for me, since I can barely boil water. My mom thought I was going to die when I moved out for college. When we moved in she and Miyuki bonded in the kitchen because he knows to prepare so many types of vegetables."

"Cook for me!" Sawamura says, the same glint in his eyes as when he asks Kazuya to catch.

"No." Kazuya lifts his phone and snaps a photo, and Sawamura’s mouth falls open in shock, full of half-chewed food. Taking another one for good measure, Kazuya smirks.

"You asshole!" Sawamura leans over to see the screen, and realizes his face is covered in pieces of food. "Why would you want a picture of that?" He wipes at his mouth with the back of his hand.

"Payback’s a bitch," Kazuya says. "I’ll delete it if you delete the one of me on your phone."

"No way!" Sawamura is clearly mutinous. "Besides, that’s a good picture of you! Those are terrible pictures of me!"

"I don’t know," Kazuya teases. "I think this is pretty much how you always look." He tilts the phone toward Sawamura a bit more, so he can see the vacant, shocked look on his own face. "Especially this one."

Sawamura growls low in his throat.

"Try not to kill Miyuki at the table," says Chris, mildly. "I’m still eating."

"I know it’s hard to resist the urge, Sawamura," Kuramochi agrees. "We’ve all been there. But it would add substantially to our bill if we had to pay to replace the table."

"Also you definitely won’t beat Waseda next year if your catcher’s been murdered," Kanemaru says, leaning back in his seat.

"Besides, fair is fair." Kazuya locks his phone and tucks it away. "You didn’t ask my permission to take a picture, either." He grins at Sawamura, who glowers back.

"You look good in the one I took, though," Sawamura mutters, aggressively using his chopsticks to stab a piece of potato. Chris and Kazuya both flinch.

They walk off dinner in one of the local parks, fountains still running despite the chill in the air and plenty of people still out on a Thursday night. Sawamura sticks to Chris like glue, as Kanemaru walks between Kazuya and Kuramochi and talks about the classes he’s taking, and about how Narumiya Mei’s managed to piss off Zono every day of practice that Kanemaru’s attended so far.

"He’s something else as a pitcher, though," Kanemaru says. "I mean, Furuya was amazing, and Sawamura too, at the end, but Narumiya-senpai…"

"As an opponent, he’s one of the worst people to face on the field," Kazuya says, not for the first time.

"He’s definitely great," Kuramochi agrees. "He’ll be playing for MLB someday, I’m sure of it."

Since everyone but Chris and Kanemaru has gear from the game, they choose a small seating area just inside the park near the exit to the train station to sit. Kazuya loudly mentions that first years should go get drinks for their upperclassmen, and Sawamura’s desire to please Chris wars visibly on his face with his desire to argue with Kazuya. Ultimately, Kuramochi puts a hand on his and Kanemaru’s shoulders and volunteers to go with them.

"You’re way nicer than Miyuki," Sawamura says, looping his arm through Kuramochi’s.

Kuramochi shoots an incredulous look at him. "Setting the bar real low, there, Sawamura."

Sawamura, Kanemaru and Kuramochi shuffle across the street toward the vending machine, leaving Chris and Kazuya alone again.

"You played well today," Chris says. He looks like something out of a magazine, tall and strong, light from the moon casting parts of his face into shadow and highlighting his cheekbones. "Strong performance from Meiji."

"The team has come together just right this year." Kazuya squats down to tie his shoe. "Save for our pitcher and one great left-fielder, the fourth years were generally a wash of a year. The new fourth years are all pretty solid as team seniors, though, and more of the third years made first string, meaning that, with the three second years and one first year rounding out the first string, we’ve got a good mix of players that won’t all graduate out in the spring. The two other first years are also great fielders, so they’ll step up satisfactorily next year too."

"People in the audience were pretty stunned that Meiji got Sawamura."

"I’m still stunned, too." Straightening up, Kazuya glares at Chris. "You should have convinced him to play in the minors, but I’m not going to complain about it. If he’s a moron enough to come play here, I’m going to use him to get the win."

"He has his reasons." Chris rolls his shoulder, the one he’d injured four years back. It seems like an odd thing to do in the moment. "Besides, once Sawamura makes his mind up about something, he plows toward it with determination."

"Understatement." Kazuya rubs at his temple. "That’s something good about him as a pitcher, though."

"And as a person," Chris replies. "His pitches were all at really good angles today, too. That control… it’s made him even more threatening."

"With him playing, our defense is more confident. They’re making plays I’d thought were beyond their abilities because of his influence." Chuckling, Kazuya shrugs. "That’s Sawamura for you, I guess."

"Mmm." Chris taps long fingers against the edge of the table. "You’ve done a great job with that slider, Miyuki. It’s really clean. The ump-in-chief had no leeway to call ball instead of strike on those backbrushes."

"All I have to do is imply that I think something is too hard for him, and he improves so fast I’m winded." A few stray leaves fall from the tree above them, and Kazuya picks them out of his hair. "He somehow hasn’t realized yet that I never really believe he can’t do something. It would be silly to think Sawamura is going to stop pulling through when he’s needed most."

"You should tell him that."

"Not for a billion yen," is Kazuya’s rapid reply, peering at Chris incredulously over the frames of his glasses. "It’s better to watch him squirm!"

Chris just shakes his head, eyes laughing. "Well, it’s your call. You’re his catcher."

Something about the way Chris says it makes Kazuya’s chest clench, but he pulls up a smirk. "He’d get an even bigger head if I complimented him that much. He’s already got enough ego, even if it’s not as bad as some pitchers I could name."

Chris hums lowly. "Some of that egotism is deserved."

"True. He’s useless on offense unless we need a sacrifice out, though." Kazuya, to ease the sudden itch under his skin, toes at his dropped gearbag, pushing it further under the table. "Actually, I have a favor to ask of you."

Chris stares at him, nonplussed. "What is it?"

"I was wondering if you had some time in the next couple of weeks to help me work on Sawamura’s batting." Kazuya tugs up the zipper of his windbreaker at another strong gust of wind. "A few guys on the team have been helping him out, but nothing’s getting through to him."

"You’re better at bat than I am." Chris soothes his hair back. "Why don’t you work with him?"

"I’ve always had trouble reaching Sawamura when we’re not out on the field making plays," admits Kazuya. "You’re able to really make a difference with him." He chuckles. "You’ve a real way with the hard-headed ones, senpai~ Sawamura, Tanba…"

Chris looks unimpressed despite his smile. "Have you already figured out what’s keeping his average so low?"

Kazuya calls up an image of Sawamura at bat, back hip tilted perfectly toward home plate. "He needs to fix his center of gravity, so he can get a faster weight shift, I think. He’s losing momentum when his weight lands on his front leg. Fixing his grip might help, too, if anything can help the kid’s batting. It might be a hopeless cause."

"You’ve already realized what the problem is, then." Chris’s smile does a weird little twitch. "That’s a pretty detailed analysis on Sawamura when he’s batting, though, Miyuki."

"Kuramochi brought up that we should fix it, but he doesn’t have the patience to teach someone like Sawamura. That kid either gets things immediately or it’s a painstaking, no-progress process that culminates in him getting it immediately later, based on some random hint that no one thought mattered!"

"What about you?"

"Eh?" Kazuya puts a finger in his ear and twists it. "Me, what?"

"Don’t you have the patience to teach him?" Chris has both eyebrows lifted. "He mentioned last time we talked that he’s been spending a lot of time with you, anyway."

"Not really." When Kazuya thinks about it, though, it’s true. This year, he has been spending a lot of time with Sawamura, more than just what they spend together as a battery in the bullpen. "Well, kind of."

"You could devote some of that to batting practice, right?"

"My patience isn’t the issue." Kazuya frowns. "I can polish Sawamura’s pitches by tricking him, usually, or goading him into hyper-focus. But you’ve always been best at getting him to move forward."

Chris doesn’t reply for a long while, and a combination of loud bickering from their companions across the street and the last dregs of the seasonal crickets fill the silence. "Do you want my opinion?"

"If you must," says Kazuya, meaning of course. There aren’t many people Kazuya respects as much as he respects Chris.

"You’ve never really tried. You saw my initial successes, and kept calling me when Sawamura needed help." He rests a finger on his chin thoughtfully. "When he had the yips, you knew what to do, but called me to do it, even though I’d graduated."

"Because I knew that he’d rather talk to you." Kazuya hunches forward slightly as Sawamura’s laugh rings through the night. "That whatever you told him, he’d believe it." He waves a hand dismissively. "He ~looks up to you~ and all that jazz."

"I’m not the other half of his battery."

"You could have been, eventually," Kazuya says. "If Sawamura had stayed with the Diamonds."

Chris, amused, shakes his head. "Do you know what Sawamura said to me, the first time he successfully threw a strike to me with the first version of that new slider of his?"

Kazuya looks up at the moon, his hand opening and closing just remembering how that pitch feels coming home. "Chris-san, despite what you may have heard, I don’t actually have any interesting mind-reading abilities."

"He said ’I can’t wait to see the look on that bastard Miyuki Kazuya’s face when I pitch this to his mitt’." Chris puts a large hand on the back of Kazuya’s neck. "Sawamura admires me, Miyuki, but it’s not me he’s thinking about, when he throws that ball. It’s not me he’s still aching to finally impress."

Kazuya’s mouth is a desert. "Why are you telling me this?"

"Because you’ve always been asking me how to talk to him, how to deal with him." Chris lets his hand fall. "It’s easier than you’d think. He’s been waiting for you to try."

"Oh," Kazuya says, looking over his shoulder at the street-side vending machine, where Kanemaru is trying to break up a scuffle between Kuramochi and Sawamura over a wrongly pressed button. Sawamura’s vibrant arm-waving and yelling is garnering attention from passersby, and Kazuya’s torn between wanting to laugh and wanting to cover his eyes. Sawamura notices him staring halfway through a rant about the texture of the Strawberry Lite one or the other of them had accidentally bought. He reflexively smiles at Kazuya, with all his teeth, eyes crinkling up, and Kazuya immediately glances away again, back at Chris, who is watching him gently. "He’s a real idiot."

"You like him that way." There’s no doubt in Chris’s voice.

Kazuya can’t decide if he’s hot or freezing at Chris’s surety. It feels like Chris is saying something Kazuya can barely even admit to himself. "It’s a little endearing, I guess."

"So my answer is no."

"What?"

Chris chuckles. "No, I won’t help him with his batting. I’ll leave that to you, first-string catcher."

"Thanks," Kazuya drily replies. "You know batting has nothing to do with the catcher-pitcher relationship, right?"

And then Sawamura is bounding up behind him, pressing a cold drink to Kazuya’s throat. "Miyuki, take your damn drink!"

Kazuya hisses, quickly grabbing it from Sawamura’s hand, shifting his collar up to cover the now chilly skin. "Can’t you hand it to me like a normal person, Sawamura?"

Sawamura’s laugh is too loud, next to him. "That’s for the water bottle in the dugout, bastard!" His arm drops across Kazuya’s shoulder, in a role reversal from their very first meaning. "But I did get you something you like, Partner."

"Ah," says Kazuya, flushing, "you mean that Strawberry Lite wasn’t for me?"

"It can be," Kuramochi says darkly, casting a disgusted look at the can in his right hand as Kanemaru hands Chris a Blizzard.

"You pressed the button, Kuramochi-senpai," Kanemaru chides him. "Drinking that is your equivalent of running penance laps."

"Who died and made you Coach Kataoka?" Kuramochi snaps the pop-top. "Last chance, Miyuki."

"No, no," Kazuya says, dredging up a smirk as Sawamura laughs again. "You go right ahead, Kuramochi. Only the best for my roommate."

"Mean," Sawamura says, right into Kazuya’s ear.

"Thank you," Kazuya replies, and slips out from underneath Sawamura’s arm. The word Partner still echoes in his ear as they pass another thirty minutes in easy conversation, ambling slowly in the direction of the train station.

"Good luck with that thing we talked about," Chris says, as they part ways at Yoyogi. "Keep me updated."

"What thing?" Sawamura asks him, repeatedly, on the way home. "What are you and Chris-senpai talking about?"

"Nothing~" Kazuya replies, as Sawamura crowds him into the side of the seat, Kuramochi standing in front of them and looking down, probably pleased to be taller for once.

"Tell me!" Sawamura’s nose scrunches up. "Or cook for me."

"No to both," says Kazuya, affection bubbling up at the put-out look on Sawamura’s face. He splays his hand across it, Sawamura’s nose flattened by his palm, and pushes him back. "Now get away."

"Miyuki Kazuya!"

Kuramochi laughs as a drunk salary-man glares at the group of them from the other end of the train car.

Right before Kazuya goes to bed, his phone buzzes. It’s a message from Sawamura. Expecting another demand for something or another, Kazuya almost drops his phone on his face when he opens the message to see a single photo. It’s the one from the stadium earlier today.

In it, Sawamura’s laughing, mouth wide enough to show every single tooth inside of it, and his eyes looking straight at the camera. Kazuya, though, is looking at Sawamura, his own lips parted in surprise and what looks a little like wonder, and his glasses are askew but don’t do anything to obscure his eyes, lit with something bright and happy.

Kazuya’s heart is too full, and it’s leaden against his spine as it sinks down toward the bed. He locks his phone screen, turning it black, but the picture is burned on the back of his eyelids, and it’s all he can think about until he goes to sleep.

Kuramochi wakes him up the next morning with a vicious kick to the bedframe. "Miyuki, your phone!"

Kazuya blinks up at his roommate blearily through unfocused eyes. "Go die," he says, blandly, then closes his eyes and rolls over.

Kuramochi kicks the bedframe again. "It’s been ringing for like twenty minutes, and if I have to be awake, you have to be awake!"

Kazuya groans and reaches for his phone. It’s still open to that picture of himself and Sawamura when he touch-unlocks it, and he’s thankful he can barely see as he exits the text message screen to see several notifications of missed calls from his father. "It’s my dad," he says, turning off the sound on his phone.

"Is it an emergency or something?" Kuramochi runs a hand through his hair. "We have to get up in ten minutes anyway, so I guess I won’t suplex you this time."

"So gracious," Kazuya murmurs, sitting up and turning so that his feet fall to the floor. The ground is cold beneath his feet for the first time since fall began, and he looks out the window to see plenty of blurry figures with scarves about their necks walking along to morning practices and meetings. He hopes it’s not the beginning of an early cold-snap, since he prefers warmer fall weather, at least until baseball season ends. "I don’t know if it’s an emergency; it’s only a few calls and he didn’t leave a message, so probably not. I’ll call him back and find out, I guess."

"Must be something if he’s calling so much at six in the morning."

"Maybe." Kazuya stands up and crosses the floor to his desk, picking up his glasses and setting them onto his face, bringing the world into focus. He picks up his phone again, sighs, and then pockets it before he grabs a sweatshirt, pulling it over his head. "Heading up to the roof. Start the rice-cooker."

"You got it." Kuramochi’s brushing his hair up, fingers sticky with gel. "As soon as I finish getting dressed. You gonna be long?"

"Hopefully not." Grabbing his keys, he heads out of the bedroom to the front door. Out in the hall, the air is even colder, and Kazuya’s shivering slightly by the time he gets to the roof, his breath visible. He really hopes today is a fluke.

He returns the most recent of his father’s calls with trepidation. "Ah, Kazuya. I was… I was hoping you’d call back." His father says, quietly, when he answers.

"I was asleep," Kazuya replies mildly. "I didn’t hear the phone ringing. I had a game yesterday, so I was tired." He wonders if it’s strange that he talks to his father like a stranger he has to impress, when Kazuya’s given up on impressing him and never tries all that hard to impress anyone else, either. "Is something wrong?"

"No." A moment of silence. "I wanted to catch you before baseball practice."

"You could always leave a message if it’s not important." Kazuya leans against the cold railing with his elbows. Down below, he sees Kumai and Shirasu walking together towards the gym, even though there’s no practice this morning.

"I didn’t say it wasn’t important," is his father’s slow reply. "I… I might need your suit measurements."

"Why?" Narrowing his eyes, Kazuya presses the phone more firmly to his ear. "I already have a suit.."

"Old Man Kasuda from the mill died." He can hear the click of his father’s old lighter. "He used to come over for dinner a lot, back before your mom…" He coughs, a thick, phlegmy sound, and Kazuya thinks about Old Man Kasuda bringing him dinner sometimes, in middle school. He’d had a sad face, like Kazuya’s father. He’d stopped coming around quickly enough. "You remember him. He kept up with your baseball career."

"So you want me to attend a funeral?" Kazuya licks his lips, and the wind stings them. "It’s still baseball season. I don’t know if I’ll be able to."

"Not the funeral. That’s tomorrow. But there’s the annual association dinner and they’re going to be honoring him, since we co-ran it for so many years. It’ll be the Thursday before your Tokyo game." Kazuya feels slightly nauseated at the whole concept of it. He hates sentimentality, and he hates the idea of pretending he and his dad are close for a whole evening even more, when it’ll be obvious to everyone that they can barely speak to each other. "I was thinking it’d be nice if you’d say a word or two."

"I’ll pass," he replies.

His father clears his throat. He’s been doing that a lot. "I hope you’ll reconsider." He sighs. "He asked about you a lot."

Kazuya’s lips twist, and he thinks again about Kasuda’s small offerings of kindness at a time in his life he’d really needed them. "An hour and a half," he bargains, in a strange echo of his conversation with Sawamura, only when Sawamura had asked him, all earnest and well-meaning, Kazuya had found himself wanting to say yes. "I won’t speak, though."

"That’s fine, Kazuya." He sounds so tired. "Your measurements?"

"I’ll get a new jacket that's appropriate," Kazuya replies. "I think I can afford it. I’ve been doing really well with budgeting, and I know you haven’t been putting in as many hours lately with the protests."

"I’ll make sure you get an invitation in the mail." His father coughs. "Talk to you later."

"Bye."

His father hangs up, and shoves his phone roughly back into his pocket, breathing out in a puff of air that fogs up in front of him like a tiny cloud. The sky above, though, is cloudless, which bodes well for the day warming up.

"What did he want?" Kuramochi asks, when Kazuya walks into the kitchen, hip-checking Kuramochi away from the stove and pulling out the ingredients for a simple soup.

"Eh," Kazuya says, focusing on measuring out the miso paste, "nothing that really required waking us up."

"Was he always like this?" Kuramochi asks quietly. "I mean, did you always…"

No. Kazuya’s mother broke, and Kazuya’s father broke with her. Maybe Kazuya broke too. "I don’t know." Kazuya turns the hob on. "I might have been too young to tell the difference."

Kuramochi makes an understanding noise, and lets the subject drop.

"Your proposal looks good, Miyuki," Professor Wada says, smiling at him. "I don’t know a lot about baseball, but my brother used to play when we were younger. He still faithfully makes an event out of Koushien for his family every year. Both of his kids play, too, I think."

Kazuya nods, accepting his gathered notes back with slightly shaking hands. He hates being this tired. With weary eyes, he notes the questions scribbled in the margins for Kazuya to consider later, in Professor Wada’s usual pretty handwriting. "I’m going to be focusing in on what makes certain players popular. Media fascination with high school athletes, what that represents, and so on."

"It’s still a little broad." Professor Wada leans against her desk, tilting her head. She reminds him of Rei, the way she treats him. Maybe he’s just getting old enough that people are more inclined to treat him like an adult, and Rei had just been ahead of the curve. "You should give some thought to picking a few popular figures and doing in-depth work on them. Were there any really stand-out players in the past few years?"

"A few," Kazuya says, stifling a yawn. "I’ll see what I can come up with before class next week."

"There’s no rush. I know it’s baseball season. It’s a semester-long project, and I can be flexible with your deadlines and backend the workload." She grins. "So take your time." She glances down again at his notes. "Your notes are thorough. I peeked at your transcripts, and I wasn’t expecting a strong performance from you academically."

"I’ve got a good memory for details when it comes to baseball." Kazuya shrugs. "Nothing else to it."

She hums thoughtfully. "See you next week, Miyuki." She pauses. "And get some sleep."

He thanks her, pulling his backpack around to the front of his body to push his papers into the front-most folder in the largest zipper compartment. After he’s jammed the papers in, undoubtedly wrinkling them, he pulls out his cap and situates it sideways on his head.

Kazuya’s tired today. He’d pulled an almost all-nighter last night to finish up all the homework due for the rest of the week. They’re playing Aoyama in their week 4 matchup, and they have long morning and evening practices for the rest of the week until their Saturday morning game. He’s just trying to keep his head above water, even if Kuramochi seems to have given up until the fall Emperor’s Cup Championships are over.

"Caffeine," he mutters to himself, swinging his backpack back around to hang from his right shoulder and heading toward the front of the building, where the small coffee bar is located, instead of doing his usual ‘sneak out the back door’ approach. The smell of freshly brewing coffee drags him out into the study lounge.

"Miyuki!" Kazuya lethargically swings his head toward the tables to see Sawamura and Takarada sitting at a small round table, books spread across the surface and two hot-cups tucked in among the papers. Sawamura is grinning at him and waving way too enthusiastically. Takarada has her face propped up on her hand, and she’s grinning.

Kazuya sighs, resigned, and walks over to their table, dropping into an unoccupied chair.

"Well, someone looks like roadkill on this lovely autumn afternoon," says Takarada.

"Don’t be so cruel," Kazuya replies, words muffled by his arm as he drops his face into the crook of it. "Sawamura can’t help the way he looks. He was born like that."

"Bastard," Sawamura says, but he doesn’t actually sound all that upset. Kazuya peers up at him, his chin digging into his own forearm. Sawamura’s mouth is curled into a tiny frown. "Coach’ll fry you for being tired at practice."

"No helping it." Kazuya eyes Sawamura’s drink. "I need to go get coffee or I may never make it to practice."

"Caffeine is not a replacement for sleep all the time." Takarada wags a finger at him, smiling gently.

"You think I don’t know that?" Kazuya exhales heavily. "I’m totally swamped."

Sawamura tugs at the neck of his sweater. It’s a rust brown, thick-knitted thing with a really wide collar, exposing too much collarbone and neck. The bright color contrasts well with his skin. He looks like autumn. Kazuya blames noticing any of that on his sleep-deprivation.

"What do you want?" Sawamura asks. Kazuya blinks at him slowly. "To drink? I’ll get it for you."

"Why." Kazuya licks his lips as he studies the creeping flush that brings Sawamura’s skin a shade closer to red. "What are you up to."

"I’m not--!!" The words seem to get stuck in his throat, and his eyes flash. "I can be nice if I want to, Miyuki Kazuya!"

"Oh ho?" Kazuya lazily grins the way he knows pisses Sawamura off, despite how tired he is. "Then be a good underclassman and fetch me an Americano." He drops his eyelids, his lashes catching on the lenses of his glasses uncomfortably. His eyes feel heavy and sticky.

Instead of yelling at him to get his own damn drink, like Kazuya’s expecting, Sawamura leans across the table and presses his palm to Kazuya’s forehead. "Not too warm…"

Kazuya’s breath catches at the touch, and at Sawamura’s closeness.

Sawamura, as usual, smells so warm and good, and his rough palm feels shockingly cool against heated skin.

Kazuya’s heart, already beating irregularly the way it always does when he pushes his limits, seems to pick up the pace, drumming against his ribs with the fervor of Meiji’s marching band, all the members of the drumline playing in unison against the cage his ribs make around it. "Oi, Sawamura, no one asked you to play mom," he manages, barely.

Sawamura jerks his hand back as Takarada chuckles. "No one was trying to do anything gross like that!"

"You don’t think it’s cute that Sawamura’s worried about you?" Laughing, Takarada leans in slightly toward Sawamura.

"I’m not worried about him!" Sawamura scowls deeply. "Just making sure he’ll, uh, be able to catch! Yeah!"

Kazuya presses his cheek to the cool table to hide his flush. The brim of his cap cuts into his bicep. "Don’t worry, Sawamura, I’m just a little tired." He’ll move in just a minute, he thinks. He just wants to rest his eyes for a few moments before he gets in line.

A long moment later, there’s a hand on his shoulder. "Want anything in your Americano? Anything extra, I mean?" Sawamura is leaning over him from behind, voice soft, and his thumb teases bare skin just below the nape of Kazuya’s neck. "Well, senpai?"

"No," Kazuya says, closing his eyes tight and trying to ignore the tingle left by the slow circles Sawamura continues to make, catching the fine hairs against his skin, catching and pulling on a few stray pieces of hair. "Just the Americano is fine."

The weight of Sawamura’s hand disappears, and Kazuya opens his eyes to Takarada looking at him, amused. "He’s good for you."

"Are we talking about the same kid?" Kazuya blinks heavy eyes at her. "Sawamura? Who yells at me all the time?" He lets his head fall forward, back onto his arm. "At least he’s not always trying to strangle me anymore," he mumbles, and Takarada laughs.

"Well, you do rile him up. Even so, he makes you come to team events and spends extra time re-lacing your mitt and totally defends you when you’re not within earshot."

"Defends me from what?" Ah, he’s so exhausted. Still, he can sleep like the dead after practice today. Just six more hours until bedtime. "Is there a dragon on campus I don’t know about?"

"The managers heard what happened with Uehara." She leans forward, mimicking Kazuya’s position so they can look each other in the eye. "She’s a pretty good friend of Kumai’s."

"Why do I have to be defended for that?"

"In my opinion, you don’t." Takarada smiles. "But Sawamura heard someone call you a heartless jerk, and went on a huge rant about how there’s nothing heartless about not wanting to date someone you’re not interested in, even if you like them as a person." She slants her gaze over toward the line. "He didn’t deny you were a jerk, though."

Kazuya curls his toes in his sneakers. "He calls me a jerk every day. It would be hypocritical of him to deny it." Sighing, he follows Takarada's gaze. Sawamura is speaking animatedly to the barista, his hands waving wildly as he orders Kazuya’s coffee. "I still don’t get how he’s good for me."

"For all that you pretend you don’t get along, you smile more around him."

"Because he’s ridiculous," Kazuya says. "Noisy, dense, easily wound up—"

"Because he’s charming," Takarada interrupts, meeting his gaze. "In his own boisterous way."

Kazuya grins at her. "Careful, your crush is showing, Takarada."

"There are worse people I could have crushes on." Her hair falls across her forehead.

"Like me?" Kazuya makes a thoughtful noise in the back of his throat. "That’s true."

"I didn’t say that," laughs Takarada.

"Maybe you meant Kuramochi, then." Kazuya runs his tongue along his teeth. "I’m sure he’ll make his right hand very happy someday."

"You’re awful." She reaches across the table and flicks his arm. "Kuramochi is a better friend than you deserve."

"I know." He closes his eyes again. "Kuramochi’s going to find someone cool and get married and have like, five kids, and start a baseball team someday, anyway. I have to tease him while I can." His nose hurts where the bridge of his glasses presses into his nose. "Don’t tell him I said that."

"Would he even believe me?"

"Here," Sawamura says, and then there’s a spark of warmth on the back of Kazuya’s hand. He looks up to see a warm cup of coffee resting just in front of his curled fingers. "Coffee."

"Ah, it’s a bit big for an espresso, isn’t it?"

"Espresso?!" Sawamura, having collapsed back into his seat next to Takarada, straightens up indignantly. "You asked for an Americano!"

"I’m pretty sure I know what I drink, Sawamura." Kazuya watches Sawamura’s face twist up.

"You definitely asked for an Americano, damnit!" Sawamura puts both hands on the table. "You’re messing with me!"

"Ah, maybe~" Kazuya sits up and wraps both hands around the cup, taking a deep breath of coffee scent. "Thanks, Sawamura."

"You could have just started with that," grumbles Sawamura, pouting at him. "Idiot Miyuki."

"Shouldn’t you be studying?"

"Shouldn’t you?" Sawamura’s face changes again, into a curious, surprised expression. "Hey, wait a minute, what are you doing here?"

"I have my journalism class here at the same time as your English class."

"Then how come we’ve never seen you?!"

"You wouldn’t have been avoiding us, now would you?" Takarada closes the two open textbooks, and checks her watch.

"Why would you avoid us?!" Sawamura gesticulates wildly, and people from several other tables look over, irritated.

Kazuya chuckles, taking a long sip of his coffee. It’s perfect. "Relax, Sawamura, before you get yourself into trouble."

"But you--!"

"You’ve finished your English homework, then?"

"Eh? What’s that got to do with anything?!"

"If you have all this time to yell at me, you should be finishing up. Practice in two hours, remember?"

"There are only two questions left," says Takarada, rapping her knuckles on the worksheet in front of Sawamura. "And they’re about the book you read last week on dinosaurs. You can do it."

"I should get going, too."

"Are you going to take a nap?" Takarada gives him an arch look. "That’s what you should do."

"If I sleep now I won’t get up for practice." He tugs on his cap and takes another sip of coffee. It’s almost scalding, but he likes it like that. "I guess I’ll watch more videos for my journalism project."

"What kind of videos?" Takarada hands Sawamura his pen before looking back at Kazuya. "Won’t that make you even more sleepy?"

"Probably," Kazuya admits, watching Sawamura stick his tongue out in concentration. Then he silently reads the sentence on his homework, lips moving in the shape of foreign words, before scribbling out an answer in his sloppy handwriting. "They’re Koushien videos."

Sawamura’s head pops up, meerkat-like, all round eyes and curiosity. "Koushien? Ours?"

Kazuya doesn’t expect that. "No, just yours. My project’s on baseball." He chuckles. "Not even sure that’s enough to fight my urge to pass out, though."

"Good luck, Miyuki." Takarada shakes her head. "I’d volunteer to call you to make sure you’re up, but I’m not going to be at practice today. I’m sitting an exam."

Sawamura purses his lips. "Would company help?"

"You volunteering?" Kazuya looks at Sawamura disbelievingly.

"I like watching baseball." Sawamura looks back down at his worksheet. "I can keep you awake, and if not, I can wake you up to make sure we’re on time for practice." He writes the last answer in the blank, then smiles triumphantly. "Well?"

Kazuya drums his fingers against the table. "You sure you’ve got time for that?"

"Finished my English homework," answers Sawamura, beaming, and Kazuya forgets to take his next breath until Takarada sighs loudly and reminds him he needs to, checking her watch.

"I’ve got to go to a review session," she says, reluctantly. "Otherwise I’d join you. It’s always entertaining."

"Sawamura is like a movie," Kazuya agrees. "Complete with surround sound."

"You’re totally, one-hundred percent asshole!"

"Thank you!"

Takarada shakes her head, standing up and grabbing her book, her coffee, and her leather satchel. "I’ll see you both at morning practice tomorrow."

"Thank you for your help, senpai!" Sawamura grins up at her, and she blushes lightly.

"My pleasure," she replies, and then she hurries out the door, leaving Sawamura and Kazuya alone at the table, a mess of English vocabulary handouts and Sawamura’s surprisingly precise and neat notes covering the table between them, along with their two cups of coffee.

Sawamura hastily starts to clean up his school things, and Kazuya’s eyes drop again to the wide collar of Sawamura’s sweater. "You don’t have to come, Sawamura."

Sawamura looks up at him, startled. "You don’t want me to?"

"I didn’t say that." Kazuya rubs at his sore neck.

"Then what’s the issue?!" Sawamura shoves everything unorganized and messy into his bright green backpack. It looks like the sort a little kid would have, with oversized zippers and a sewed on patch of a stag beetle over the front pocket.

"Don’t you have other friends to pester?"

"Yeah." Sawamura stares at him. "So?" He rises from his seat, throwing his backpack over one shoulder, stretching his sweater out even further across sun-golden skin. "Are you trying to get rid of me or something?"

"No!" Kazuya blurts out, too fast, way, way too fast, and Sawamura gives him a soft, pleased expression of surprise before it melts into a megawatt grin. "I… don’t. Want to get rid of you."

"Good! Cause I like being around you, even if you are a mean, narcissistic, warped—"

"Now, now, you’re flattering me," Kazuya interrupts, knowing that his face is probably pink from all the blood rushing up to his head. He picks up his coffee and his own backpack, and turns his back to Sawamura. "Let’s go then, puppy."

"Puppy?! What’s that supposed to mean?" He takes two long steps until he’s at Kazuya’s side heading toward the door.

Sawamura jostles Kazuya with his arm, walking closer than he should, leaning into his space looking like autumn and smelling like summer, and Kazuya is just tired enough to think it’s a good idea to ruffle Sawamura’s hair with his free hand. It’s soft, fluffy.

"Hmmm, nothing," Kazuya murmurs, letting his fingers tangle briefly in the dark, wavy strands before he lets his hand fall back to his side. "I don’t mind being around you either, noisy brat."

Sawamura makes a tiny hiccup of surprise, his eyes flashing through a few unnamable emotions. "Really?!"

Kazuya looks past Sawamura, to where all the leaves have been raked neatly into a pile. With a thoughtful hum, he reaches out, takes Sawamura’s coffee, and then, using his shoulder, shoves him off-balance and into the dead foliage. As Sawamura sputters and wriggles around, gold and brown gingko leaves flying everywhere, stuck in his hair and sweater and shoelaces, Kazuya laughs wholeheartedly, his heart finally slowing down as Sawamura swears and tries to kick his way out of the leaves. "Really!" Kazuya says, around his chuckles. "You’re always entertaining, Sawamura."

"You’re always a jackass," Sawamura replies, struggling up out of the leaves. He picks a few out of his hair, and dusts himself off. "What was that for?"

"Just felt like it," Kazuya says, taking a long sip of coffee. "You coming?"

"Yeah," Sawamura says, slinging his bag back onto his shoulder. "I’m coming, Miyuki Kazuya, damn it."

The walk back to Kazuya’s apartment mostly involves Sawamura fishing leaves out of unexpected places while rambling about a sumo match he watched last night, and then some manga he likes where the princess protagonist can control the wind and rain, or something. Kazuya listens to him, teases him about his taste, and doesn’t tell Sawamura about the little red leaf caught in a tangle of hair right around his crown.

"You know," Kazuya says, unlocking the door and letting himself and Sawamura inside, "I have to wonder where you and the rest of the manga-friends found the time to get into comics between failing school and baseball."

Sawamura squats down to untie his sneakers, while Kazuya just slips out of his leaving the laces tied, taking both their empty coffee cups to recycle. "When I was little, in elementary school, Wakana and I used to sit out under this gigantic tree during lunch on Thursdays and read comic magazines."

Sawamura doesn’t bother to line up his shoes, just walks deeper into the apartment. "We’ll watch in the living room," Kazuya says, pointing, and Sawamura nods but follows Kazuya toward his bedroom instead. "So, what, seven-year-old Sawamura let Wakana pick the reading material?"

Sawamura leans against the doorway as Kazuya unplugs his laptop and the Ethernet cord. "Not exactly. Her big sister used to buy them every Monday on the way to class, and she would finish with it on Wednesday. Then she’d pass it on to Wakana. I was never really into comics at all until then. Then Spitz-senpai introduced me to the stuff his sisters like, so my taste kind of became skewed toward the romantic high school stuff."

"Not sports manga?"

"Nah," Sawamura says, now trailing Kazuya into the living room. He takes in all the cushions on the floor that they have instead of a real sofa, and immediately goes for Kuramochi’s favorite, a huge purple one with a diamond pattern in lavender. "I live sports all day every day. Sometimes it’s nice to read something… I dunno. Something different."

"Hmm." Kazuya drops to his knees and plugs his laptop into his television via an HDMI cord. "Always dreamed of a high school romance, Sawamura?" He looks over his shoulder to see Sawamura staring down at his hands.

"Not exactly," Sawamura replies. "I guess I could have had that, if I wanted it."

"With Wakana."

"Yeah." He looks up. "But what I really wanted is…" He rubs at his cheek, grinning ruefully. "Ah, it doesn’t matter. What kinds of videos do you have to watch?"

Kazuya flips through his folder of unwatched tournament footage, all the while considering Sawamura’s odd reticence. "Player interviews."

Eyes widening, Sawamura’s lips form a perfect ‘O’. "Like… from last year? Of… of Seidou?"

"Why, Sawamura? Embarrassed to watch yourself?"

Sawamura groans, flopping back on the pillow as Kazuya starts a video of a pre-Koushien semi-finals Yakushi High hype piece. "No, it’s just my dad taped every single one of them, and they teased me the whole time I was home this summer! You know, just dad stuff."

No, Kazuya wants to say, I don’t know.

He laughs, instead. "You poor thing." He grabs a big blue cushion and drags it next to Sawamura’s. "Should I play your Nikkan Interview? The one where you imitated Todoroki Raichi for three minutes while a professional scout from Hiroshima tried to discuss your pitching technique?"

"No, that one’s the one everybody likes to make fun of the most! My dad plays it every time someone comes over!"

"Sucks to be you," Kazuya says, leaning over Sawamura so he won’t miss Kazuya’s smug expression, planting his hand on the floor on the other side of him so that he can look right down at him. Sawamura looks up at him through half-lidded eyes. His eyelashes are so thick, and they curl up slightly, so that when he blinks they fan out briefly against his suddenly pink cheeks. He still has that stupid leaf in his hair. "Luckily for your pride, I’m watching Yakushi stuff today."

"Okay," Sawamura replies, breaking eye-contact. His blush is spreading, and Kazuya becomes overly aware of the fact that there’s barely a centimeter between his hand and Sawamura’s hip, and that the rest of him is close enough that he can feel every place their bodies almost touch because Sawamura is so warm. "Then shouldn’t we…"

Kazuya clears his throat. "Right." He rolls over onto his back, putting space between them. His heart’s out of sync, again, irregularly beating, and yeah, Kazuya’s not in any danger of falling asleep anymore.

Sawamura sits up, pulling his knees up to his chest and resting his chin on them. "I remember this," he says. His voice is raspy, and strange, but when he looks over at Kazuya, his smile is the same. "Harucchi, Furuya and I watched it together the week before the Kanto decider game. Do you have to take notes?"

"Yep," Kazuya says, sitting up as well so he can curl forward and open a small notepad on his laptop. It pops up large on the right-hand corner of his television screen. "Bothering you to have it there?"

"No," Sawamura says, softly. Not expecting that tone, Kazuya looks over at him again, and Sawamura is staring at him, looking bewildered and kind of… Kind of something else, that Kazuya can’t quite figure out. "This is just fine."

Kazuya swallows, looking back at the screen just in time to see Coach Todoroki yelling out something at his son in the batting cage.

The strange atmosphere fades over the almost hour-long video. When it ends, with Sawamura yelling belligerently to the Raichi on screen that he’s going to kick his ass in the semis, Kazuya’s laughing again, exhaustion and mirth making it hard to stop.

"You always laugh with your whole body when you’re making fun of someone!" Sawamura punches Kazuya in the shoulder. "Geez!"

After wiping a tear from his eye and grinning, Kazuya pushes his glasses back into place. "I can’t believe you get all hyper just watching a video of someone playing baseball!"

"That’s not someone! That’s Raichi!" Sawamura waves his arms wildly. "You don’t understand! He’s like… a super-rival!"

"I thought Furuya was your super-rival?" Kazuya teases, tilting his head.

"Yeah, but, Furuya was my rival for the same place on the team! I don’t wanna defeat him, I wanna be better than him!" He blows his bangs out of his face. "But Raichi, he plays the opposite position! I love squaring off against that guy!"

"You’ll have to go pro to play him again."

"I know, I know," Sawamura nods seriously. "I will, too, just you watch!" His phone buzzes in his pocket, and when he takes it out, his eyes widen before he even checks the message. "Miyuki, we’ve got to go to practice!"

Kazuya looks at his laptop to check the time. "Relax, Sawamura, we still have thirty minutes."

"I didn’t bring my practice uniform, though!" He runs a hand through his hair, and it falls right back into his face. "My cleats, my glove, and my bat are in my locker down in the gym, but I took all my clothes home to wash, so I’ve got to run home and grab them!" He starts to scramble up, and without thinking about it, Kazuya grabs a big handful of that rust sweater and tugs, sending Sawamura topping down again onto his butt, legs thrown across Kazuya’s and eyes wide.

"You can just borrow mine," Kazuya says. "Aren’t we on the same team?"

Sawamura just stares at him like a guppy out of water. "Oh," he says. "Can I really?" He narrows his eyes suspiciously. "What’s the catch?"

"You have to hand over your soul," is Kazuya’s dry reply, and he rolls his eyes when Sawamura starts to sputter indignantly. "The catch is neither of us are late for practice."

"Sure you’re not going to try to use me as a human sacrifice like you did back in high school?"

"Tempting, but no, not this time." Kazuya’s eyes drop down to Sawamura’s shoulders. "You’re not that much bigger than me. We wear the same size practice uniform, so no one will even know the difference."

Sawamura’s teeth pull at his lower lip, and he hesitates. "You’re not usually openly nice to me."

"Well," Kazuya lightly answers, "you did buy me that Americano, even if I asked for an espresso."

"You did not!" His hands twitch, like he wants to shake Kazuya. "That’s bullshit!"

Cackling, Kazuya picks up his laptop and takes it back to the bedroom, Sawamura at his heels, still protesting.

Kazuya loans Sawamura a compression shirt, a pair of pants, and one of his Meiji button ups. Sawamura strips right there in Kazuya’s bedroom, pulling off that brown sweater and dragging the compression shirt down over his head. The static electricity causes his already wild hair to look even wilder, and that red leaf finally breaks free and flutters to the ground.

Wearing just the compression shirt and his jeans, Sawamura pauses, biting his lower lip and holding the sleeve up to his nose. Before Kazuya can make a joke about it being clean, Sawamura gives him another of those strange looks. "I thought it would smell like detergent, but it smells like you."

Kazuya swallows. "Like baseball, you mean."

"Well…" Sawamura grins at him, pulling the button up shirt over his head without bothering to undo any of the buttons but the first. "Like baseball, but… Miyuki, too. I dunno. It’s like…" Sawamura undoes the first button of his jeans, and Kazuya looks away, pulling on another of his practice jerseys. "Rawhide and dust and glove oil, maybe, but also this… Miyuki-only thing, too."

"Ah," Kazuya says, stomach aching, and wishes he didn’t understand exactly what Sawamura means.

When Kazuya looks back over at him, his stomach settles again. Kazuya’s uniform does fit Sawamura just the same as his own does, which means Kazuya won’t spend the entirety of practice thinking about the fact that Sawamura’s wearing Kazuya’s uniform.

Still, Sawamura doesn’t look exactly right. Kazuya takes off his hat and reaches up to pull it down onto Sawamura’s head, brim straight the way he likes it.

Sawamura smiles broadly, lighting up the whole room. "You sure I can borrow this, too?"

"I’ll be wearing my head gear so it’s not a big deal," Kazuya says, grabbing his cellphone and his bag. His windbreaker and another zip-up sweatshirt hang on the back of his chair. He goes to offer the sweatshirt to Sawamura, but Sawamura is looking only at the jacket. Kazuya’s breath hitches. Those, he wants to remind Sawamura, they wear in a different size. Those, people can tell when they’ve got the wrong one. "Fine," he says, aloud. "Weirdo."

Sawamura’s smile gets impossibly brighter as he shrugs the jacket on, and Kazuya looks away, kicking at the pile of clothes on the floor. Sawamura can come get them after practice, along with his backpack, before Kazuya passes out for ten hours straight.

When he returns his gaze to Sawamura, he’s scrolling through his phone. "Wakana’s gonna come up the weekend of the final games," he says.

"You’d better not lose, then," Kazuya says. "That would be embarrassing, Sawamura."

"We’re not going to lose!" He slips his phone into the pocket of Miyuki’s jacket, and zips it up. "We’re going to beat Narumiya and Waseda! And everyone else, too!" He throws an arm around Kazuya’s shoulders, pulling him toward the door. "We’ll win the Emperor’s Cup, Miyuki Kazuya!"

"Will we, now, Mr. Confident?"

Sawamura nods, no doubt in his eyes. "’Course," he says, fingers gripping the brim of Kazuya’s hat and pulling it down more firmly on his hair. "We’re unstoppable together as a battery, right?"

"Huh," Kazuya says, curling his hands into fists, hidden in the pockets of his sweatshirt. "Are you looking at yourself clearly right now?"

"I’m looking at you!" Sawamura replies. "It’s your job to look at me! Give me a sign, and I’ll give you a pitch!"

"Cocky," murmurs Kazuya, letting Sawamura drag him out of the apartment and into the chilly late afternoon.

Sawamura walks ahead of him into practice, first through the gate as Kumai takes attendance. Miyuki stares at his name across Sawamura’s back, and breathes around his throbbing, uncontrollable heartbeat, and, for the first time, admits to himself what he’s been aware of for a while: that he might be in trouble where it comes to one Sawamura Eijun.

"What’s wrong?" Kuramochi asks, later, when they both take a trip to the faucets outside gym to refill their water bottles at the same time. "Is your stomach upset or something? You’ve had a look on your face all practice."

"Nothing’s wrong," lies Kazuya, screwing the cap off his bottle, his thumb brushing the lip where Sawamura had pressed his lips and stolen the last sip. ("Mine's at home, Miyuki! Don't be an ass about it!") "Nothing at all."

Sawamura returns his uniform to him that night an hour after practice, freshly laundered and smelling of summer. He picks up his soft brown sweater and jeans from Kazuya’s floor, shoving them into his lime green backpack, and leaves in a flurry of laughter before Kuramochi even gets out of the shower.

Sawamura doesn’t, Kazuya realizes, give back Kazuya’s jacket, and that’s…

It’s too close, and too much. It was better when Sawamura was just an annoying kid to him, with an unusual pitching form and an amusing outlook on life, and Kazuya didn’t notice things like his smile or his shoulders or the way his touch tingles along Kazuya’s skin. When Kazuya didn’t like the way his own name looks stretched across Sawamura’s back or the way it sounds on Sawamura’s lips.

It keeps him awake despite his physical and mental exhaustion, clawing its way up the insides of his ribs, making him curl up in bed and stare out at nothing for a good hour before Kuramochi comes into their bedroom, hair still damp.

Rather than going up to his own bed, though, he sits on his haunches and studies Kazuya instead. "Thought you were going to go to sleep a while ago." He drops his gaze to where Kazuya has his arms wrapped around himself. "You sure it’s nothing bothering you? My mom taught me how to make this tea, you know, that can help with digestion. It makes sense you’d have trouble with that, considering all the absolute bullshit--"

"I’m going to sleep," Kazuya says, cutting Kuramochi off. He closes his eyes resolutely, and finally, finally, his body gives in, and he falls into slumber.