Actions

Work Header

crossfire

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

Morning practice drags along, and Kazuya takes the opportunity to separate himself from Sawamura by spending most of his time in the batting cage, slamming ball after ball from the machine into the fence.

"You’re really on fire, today," Shiba tells him, one huge hand on his shoulder as Kazuya takes a quick break to readjust his stance. "Hit like that in games, Miyuki."

"I do try, you know," Kazuya replies, but the laugh he follows it up with is a little hollow.

"You still look tired." Shiba pats him twice before withdrawing his hand. "Take care of yourself."

Kazuya pastes a grin on his face, and this one feels a little more natural. "We’ll all sleep better when we’ve brought the Emperor’s Cup home for the season."

Shiba chuckles, walking over to the batting machine to adjust the angle so that it sends Kazuya more difficult balls. "In that case, work harder, second-year."

He spends the rest of his time in the cage exchanging jibes with Shiba, and toward the end of practice, he starts to feel more like himself again, resettling into his own skin.

He doesn’t know why he’s so shaken. It’s not like admitting to himself that he likes Sawamura a little more than he should has set off some kind of identity crisis, or will change anything fundamental about Kazuya’s world. Not really.

He’d spent his middle school years getting bullied for his pretty face just as much as his smart-ass quips, after all. Been called enough homophobic names in the locker room by his own junior high teammates for his brief obsession with Nomo Hideo that he’d had to examine his own feelings and then learn quickly how to put them aside.

Honestly, his realization, that he really would never like girls in the way all the other men he knew did, and that this was just one more thing other people could use to drag him down and tear him apart, had been a gradual one that started long before he met Sawamura. It had stayed tucked away in the back of his head most of the time, only brought to the forefront again halfway through his first year of high school, after a growth spurt, when he started receiving confessions from girls who wanted things from him: attention, dates, a boyfriend.

On Valentine’s Day at the end of his first year at Seidou, fresh off an unexpected promotion to first string thanks to Chris's injury, it had come back. As he flipped a love letter from the cutest girl in his class backwards and then frontwards again in his hands, his only thought had been: I really am ‘like that’, huh? Then, without reading the letter at all, he’d thrown it in the trash, and his hands hadn’t trembled even a little, because Kazuya’s always been good at pretending to be fearless when fear is constantly sinking all the way down to his bones.

His hands aren’t trembling now, either. He takes one last swing when Maeda calls time on morning practice, and Kuramochi applauds him slowly, with a low whistle. "Who are you trying to impress, Miyuki?"

"Your mom, Kuramochi," Kazuya replies breezily, lowering his bat with a cheeky grin. "She’s not my type but I make exceptions—"

Kuramochi tosses an arm around his neck in an abbreviated sleeper hold. "You know my mom, you fucker!"

"You definitely didn’t get her looks! Haha!"

He expects Kuramochi to tighten his grip, but instead, he laughs, letting go. "Well, at least you sound like yourself again."

"What?" Kazuya stares.

"You were really gloomy last night. I thought your dad might have called again, or something." Right. Kazuya had forgotten about the business association gala thing in two weeks that’s really going to be more like a memorial service, and the last thing he needs is to have that hanging over him too, along with the season and Sawamura and trying to stay on top of his classes. It’s all a big ball of dread so big in the pit of his stomach that he could play basketball with it. "But you’re back to your usual nasty self, so I guess I was worried about nothing." Kuramochi bumps shoulders with Kazuya. "C’mon, let’s go listen to the coach."

After practice is dismissed, Kazuya waves off Kuramochi and Sawamura, who look set on waiting for him, instead staying to run laps around the field. The sun is high but the breeze is strong enough that he doesn’t overheat. October is halfway over, and Kazuya can smell it in the morning air. It clears his head, and helps him think.

He runs until every breath stings, and the only thing on his mind is the way his thighs feel like cement blocks as he keeps pace.

He takes a shower back at the apartment, washing the sweat from his skin, then goes to class. He only has two on Thursday, but they’re both seminars, in three hour blocks. He throws his focus into following along with class discussions, and for most of the day, he doesn’t think about Sawamura much at all, save for when he puts on the practice uniform Sawamura borrowed yesterday and smells Sawamura’s detergent instead of his own in the fabric of the jersey.

Kazuya pushes that thought away, and by the time he leaves his apartment for practice, his heartbeat has returned to a steady, even pace.

But then the kid is waiting for him right by the chiming door to the convenience store, with that big sparkly smile, holding his baseball bag and wearing Miyuki’s jacket still, and… Kazuya wants, maybe, to write his name with the Sharpie he uses to mark his uniforms across the smooth skin above Sawamura’s shoulder blades, in the same place the embroidery sits when he’s wearing Kazuya’s windbreaker.

"I thought you might want me to go in with you," Sawamura says, puckering his lips afterwards into an expression that passes for thoughtful. "Since that Uehara girl works here."

"So you’re here to protect me? How cute~" He’s suddenly kind of grateful Sawamura’s around, not that he’ll tell him so.

"Screw you, Miyuki Kazuya!" Sawamura kicks at the ground and glares down at Kazuya. "I don’t know why I even care!" He releases an exasperated huff and pushes into the convenience store, Kazuya a step behind him. "It wouldn’t kill you not to tease me!"

"You just make it too easy," replies Kazuya, unrepentant. He plucks two chilled sports drinks from the shelf and offers Sawamura a smirk. "So, bodyguard, do you need anything?"

Sawamura is crouched down in front of a line of teas, and when he glares up at Kazuya from under his bangs, lips drawn into a thin irritated line, Kazuya uses his free hand to push the brim of Sawamura’s cap down, covering his eyes. Sawamura takes his hat off completely, pushing his hair back from his face and fitting his cap back down correctly. The way he looks up at Kazuya, then, is defiant. "I’m not being your bodyguard! I’m being your friend!"

Kazuya flinches. "Oh, are we friends? I thought I was your senpai and you were my disrespectful underclassman!"

"You’re doing it again!" Sawamura is distinctly unimpressed, picking a honey tea from among the twenty or so options that Kazuya feels all taste the same. "The wall thing! It’s annoying!"

"Noisy, noisy." Kazuya snags the bottle right out of Sawamura’s hand, and walks toward the counter. Uehara’s there, but she isn’t looking at him. Her head is down, and her fingers are dancing in absent patterns along the countertop. He sets all three drinks down, and digs out his change purse. "We’re inside, Sawamura. Use your inside voice."

"Stop being a jerk, then, Miyuki!"

"I’m paying for your drink, aren’t I?"

Sawamura huffs again, only he’s so close behind Kazuya that his breath tickles his ear. "Only because I paid for yours yesterday!"

Kazuya leans away, rubbing at his ear with exaggerated motions, like Sawamura’s hurt him with his volume and not made heat pool in Kazuya’s belly. "I thought I returned that favor with the uniform loan?"

Uehara looks up, and her eyes only meet Kazuya’s for a fleeting moment as she rings up the drinks. She mumbles the total, and Kazuya offers her the correct change. Her hand doesn’t linger, taking the coins.

"Thanks, Uehara," Kazuya says, grabbing his two sports drinks and leaving Sawamura to grab his own.

When he pushes open the door, he sees Sawamura leaning on the counter with both arms, whispering something to a wide-eyed Uehara. Then Sawamura smiles at her, before rushing out after Kazuya. "Wait for me, asshole!"

"I’m not walking fast," replies Kazuya mildly, shoving one bottle into his bag. He opens the other, and takes a sip. "What did you say to her?" He winces. He hadn’t meant to ask, really, but…

"Oh," Sawamura’s face goes oddly stiff. "I was… she looked so sad?" He tilts his head back, to stare up at the sky. The afternoon is clear, no clouds, and the sun is still shining down as it nears five o’clock. "So I..." He takes a long drink of his tea, then licks some of it from his lips. "Well, I just told her something silly to cheer her up."

"Something silly?" Kazuya snorts. "Unsurprising. It is you."

Only slightly bristling, Sawamura closes his tea up and trades it for his baseball glove. He slips his hand in, and folds the glove easily. "Liking someone who is never going to like you back sucks." His voice is sort of serious, low like it gets when he’s been drinking. "Even if you get why, it still hurts."

The field has come into view, and Takarada is waiting for them.

"Learn about that in a manga?" Kazuya starts to walk a little faster, but Sawamura’s legs are long now, and he easily keeps up.

"I wish," Sawamura answers. Kazuya darts a look at him. Sawamura’s eyes have darkened, and his brow is furrowed. "More like I’ve been there." He shakes his head, shaking off his gloom like a furry dog coming in from the rain. "Anyway, I just wanted her to feel a little better, so…"

Kazuya stares at Sawamura in profile. The sunlight catches in his eyelashes, turning them gold, and the wind has left his cheeks slightly pink, his lips chapped.

"You’ve ‘been there’?" He makes air quotes with the index and middle fingers of both hands. "Is there a girl Kuramochi doesn’t know about?" He pats Sawamura’s stomach with the back of his hand. "Tell me all about your unrequited love, Sawamura!"

Sawamura frowns at him, leaning in close to study Kazuya’s face. Kazuya’s chest tightens. "Like I’m gonna tell you about it! You’ll just say something terrible, like…" He pulls his face into an imitation of Kazuya’s smirk. "’It would take a real idiot to like you, Sawamoron!’ or something like that!" He makes a "harrumph" noise, and then skips ahead of Kazuya to check in, calling out to Shirasu, who’s already headed toward the gym.

A real idiot, Kazuya thinks, greeting Takarada and holding a conversation with her on autopilot, and somehow, all his efforts to avoid dwelling on Sawamura today seem kind of hopeless.

They’re doing indoor training for the first half of practice. Kazuya’s on the leg press, and Sawamura’s on the other side of the gym, with Uchida and Sanjo, doing elastic band work. When Sawamura’s finished, he’ll undoubtedly come find Kazuya to go outside and call pitches with him in the dark, and Kazuya will agree after putting up a token resistance. That’s the pattern they’ve fallen into, the past couple of months, like they’d never fallen almost completely out of contact for almost two years, news of each other passed only through the offhand comments of mutual friends.

Kazuya told Furuya once, in a quiet conversation after dinner, the two of them sitting out on the bleachers overlooking Seidou’s second baseball field, that Sawamura is just the sort of person it’s simple to get close to; simple to like.

The brat is noisy, friendly, and eager to please, as well as a harmless kind of selfish that makes people want to indulge him. He’s also painfully honest, everything written out in his expressions like billboard signs, and just as painfully optimistic, in a way that infects everyone around him, with Kazuya being no exception to that. He’s as drawn to Sawamura as everyone else is.

Kazuya’s good at compartmentalizing, though; learned to be good at it, and at taking flickers of desire and putting them out as easily as snuffing a candle.

The real problem is that Sawamura is far too bright a candle to ever be allow himself to be put out.

Kazuya allows Sawamura to drag him out of the gym forty minutes later, hand warm around Kazuya’s wrist. Sawamura’s fingertips rest right at Kazuya’s pulse, but he doesn’t seem to notice that it’s too fast, racing under his touch.

A few team members are already outside practicing ball handling on the far practice diamond, but the nets are still empty. Kazuya puts on his gear as Sawamura warms up with a towel exercise, and then, sinking into position, calves aching, Kazuya hides his face from Sawamura with his mask, and asks for the first pitch.

Like this, Sawamura is at his brightest. The thin sheen of sweat on his skin, the powder trapped under his fingernails, the dryness of his lips. Kazuya moves his mitt, muscle memory automatically making him test for spot control in the four strike-zones, but really, he’s just letting Sawamura throw his favorite balls, because Sawamura is all power when he’s throwing a pitch he likes.

"Throw a strike this time!" Kazuya tells him, just to rile him up, and eyes blazing under the spotlights, Sawamura grins at him, winding up, left arm disappearing as he prepares to throw. When the four-seam flies into Kazuya’s mitt, the rush leaves him burning.

"How was that one?!" Sawamura yells, the sleeves of Kazuya’s windbreaker pushed up to bare his forearms.

"Would have been another ball, not a strike," Kazuya replies, tossing it back without lifting his mask. "Planning on walking Aoyama’s batters?"

Sawamura holds his glove up and snatches it out of the air. "You gotta be kidding! That was totally a strike!"

Kazuya laughs, punching into the pocket. "Try it again, Sawamura. You pitch like that on Saturday, Zaizen is going to slam it out of the park."

"Over my dead body!" Sawamura plucks the ball from his glove. "I’ll never let him get a hit off me! Here it comes again!" He lifts his right leg, his arm crossing his chest. The muscles in his thigh clench, and that arm comes into view last minute, delivering a picture-perfect slider, and following it up with a triumphant smile that sends a jolt straight to Kazuya’s heart. He grabs at his chest with his left hand, and Sawamura’s smile drops. He takes a step forward, and Kazuya lets his hand fall. "You okay, bastard?"

"Nice pitch," Kazuya says gruffly, standing up and taking off his mask. "No more today, though, since we’re playing on Saturday. Go cool down with laps."

"You’re not running with me?" Sawamura nudges him with a fist, leaving rosin on his chest plate. "You’re not too tired out from those leg presses, are you, Miyuki Kazuya?"

"Aww, Sawamura, do you need me to be your chaperone?" Kazuya raises an eyebrow challengingly, making sure to tilt his sports glasses so that they catch the light.

Baring his teeth, Sawamura leans into Kazuya’s space, and Kazuya reflexively steps back.

"No! Who’d trust you to chaperone anyway?!" Sawamura tugs on his cap brim. "Just figured we both have to run, so…" He licks his lips, and Kazuya follows his tongue before looking away.

"I already did laps this morning." Kazuya smirks. "I’m going to go talk to Numamoto, then I’m leaving. Have fun running." He waves. "See you tomorrow at morning practice."

"Tomorrow?" Sawamura’s voice rises, garnering looks from Shiba and Shirasu, who both turn toward the sound. "You’re not going to wait to walk home until I’m done?"

"I’m going to start thinking I’m your favorite if you keep this up," Kazuya jokes. "I thought you were all grown up. You going to get lost?"

"Like hell I will!" Sawamura growls at him, but starts to run, anyway. Kazuya watches him for a couple of seconds before turning around and approaching the assistant coach and the managers.

"Sawamura looking good for the game?" says Takarada, when Kazuya gets there. She offers him her clipboard, so he can fill out his and Sawamura’s practice stats. "He was looking consistent from over here."

"He threw some balls left of home plate, today. Not sure why." Kazuya scribbles in their data and hands it back. "But other than that, yeah, he’s looking good."

Takarada grins, and then excuses herself as Kumai calls to her from over at the batting cages.

"You need something, Miyuki?" Numamoto seems surprised that Kazuya’s come without being called over. "Problem?"

"I think Sawamura and I both need to switch partners tomorrow," Kazuya says, retying his bandana. His hair keeps slipping out. It’s getting a bit long, brushing his shoulders. He needs to get it cut before it starts getting in the way.

"Why?"

"I’m worried we’re both getting out of practice working with anyone but each other." Kazuya pushes his sports glasses up. "Never know what’ll happen during a game, and I need to get a feel for Uchida and Sanjo's pitches again. Plus, Sawamura has barely worked with Ichinose."

Numamoto is considering him carefully. "So you’re not worried about anything in particular?"

"No," says Kazuya. "It’s just a thought, since we’re approaching mid-tournament. I’ve got no plans to get hurt, and I’m sure Sawamura doesn’t either."

"How’s his arm?"

Kazuya scratches his nose with one finger, catching sunscreen under his nail. "His arm? You mean, how he’s throwing?"

"Have you noticed anything else off about his pitch?" Numamoto’s tone is nonchalant, but his brows are furrowed.

"Should I have?" Sawamura, with those icy-hot strips. Rubbing cream into his arm to keep it from tightening up. "Is there something wrong with it? Is he injured?"

Is this like with Furuya, hurt right in front of Kazuya’s eyes and he’s too caught up in other things to notice? Kazuya, just going right along, even when he’s the closest, the one who should be paying the most attention?

"If I were injured, I wouldn’t lie about it," he hears in his head, in Sawamura’s voice.

"No," Numamoto says, then he hesitates. "Sawamura didn’t mention it to you?"

"He hasn’t said anything." Kazuya crosses his arms, and stares hard at Numamoto. "No one has mentioned anything about me needing to look out for his throwing arm. Coach Maeda even okayed 120 pitches a game." He narrows his eyes, hating the sudden anxiousness bubbling in his gut. "If there’s something wrong, I need to know."

"There’s nothing wrong, necessarily," Numamoto says. "If you haven’t noticed anything, there’s probably nothing worth noticing."

Kazuya’s mouth tightens, and Numamoto sighs.

"You know Maeda wouldn’t play an injured pitcher, Miyuki," adds Numamoto quietly. "It’s just Sawamura’s here under unique circumstances."

Unique circumstances. Okay. Kazuya takes a deep breath. "All right. I’m going to head home."

"That’s fine." He makes a note on his own clipboard, identical to Takarada's. "You’re with Sanjo tomorrow. He’s our second choice for starter, after all. Sawamura’ll be with Ichinose."

Nodding, Kazuya returns to the locker room in the gym, storing his gear and changing into his regular sneakers to walk back to his apartment. He pulls off his bandana, grabs his Meiji cap, and jams it sideways onto his head to cover the mess of his hair.

He pauses for a moment on the way out, spying Sawamura still running laps. Uchida has joined him, and the two of them are chatting as they sprint. Sawamura is laughing, flush and windswept, and his arms are waving in the air as he yells, Kazuya hears Kuramochi’s name, and other tiny pieces of what sounds like a story from high school. Uchida is rolling his eyes, but he’s keeping pace with Sawamura to make sure he hears the rest of it.

Sawamura’s still wearing Kazuya’s jacket, tied around his waist. Swallowing harshly, Kazuya leaves practice, and walks home without ever once looking up from his shoes.

"Miyuki?" Chris’s voice is rough when he answers the phone, and Kazuya pulls it away from his ear to check the time.

It’s only a little after ten. "Were you asleep?"

"Ah, yeah, I’m down in Osaka for a game, and we left at five this morning."

"You shouldn’t answer calls if you’re already asleep." Kazuya throws an arm across his face, pushing his glasses down into his cheeks. It’s uncomfortable, but he doesn’t care enough to fix it.

"You only call if it’s important," replies Chris. "Did something happen?"

"We’re playing Aoyama this weekend. Your old rival Zaizen’s in the lineup. Clutch hitter."

"Sawamura can strike him out, no sweat, if you’re careful with your calling." A yawn. "That’s not why you called, is it?"

"Why didn’t Sawamura sign with the Diamonds after spring training?" Exhaling heavily, he curls and uncurls his toes.

Chris is quiet for a long moment, and then he clears his throat. Kazuya can hear him getting up, and the running of the tap. His next words echo, like he’s in a bathroom. "I already told you he was cagey about it. He didn’t tell me much."

"That doesn’t mean you don’t know." Kazuya opens his eyes, and sits up himself, staring intently at the far wall, where Kuramochi has hung a girl idol group calendar on the wall, still open to July because that’s the swimsuit picture. "Chris, is there something wrong with Sawamura’s arm?"

Chris sighs. "Something about his pitching alarmed one of the team physicians, and after a consultation with them, Sawamura started using a few different muscle relaxation techniques on his arm. They all seem designed to take the stress off his elbow."

"His elbow…" Kazuya thinks about the weird whipping motion of Sawamura’s arm when he throws, that allows for his late release and irregular timing. He’s long thought Sawamura might be double-jointed.

"The thing is, he doesn’t favor it at all. Sawamura lacks the capacity to lie effectively, too, and if it hurt, we’d know it. It seems like there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it." The water runs again. "That’s all I know, Miyuki. And if Sawamura does end up telling me, it’ll be between him and me. You’ve got to learn how to talk to him on your own."

"I know," Kazuya says. "It’s not like I can’t talk to him at all." He runs his tongue along his teeth. "But this is important. It’s about the team."

"If it’s about the team, why haven’t you asked him yourself already? You didn’t have problems confronting Furuya when he was injured." Chris laughs quietly. "Or me, actually."

"Everyone keeps telling me Sawamura’s not injured," Kazuya snaps back. "And Sawamura dodged the question when I asked him why he was babying his pitching arm during the Hosei series."

"Didn’t like that taste of your own medicine?"

"Whose side are you on, Chris? The kid's?"

"There are sides?" A cough. "I’m sorry, Miyuki, but I have to go to sleep. It’s Sawamura with the answers to your questions, not me." Kazuya closes his eyes, flopping back down into his pillow. The smell of his shampoo wafts up to envelop him, and he takes a deep breath of it to calm himself. "Miyuki?"

His nails catch in his sheets as he digs in with his fingertips. "Really, I feel like if I ask Sawamura more about himself, he’s going to think it’s fine to ask more about me," he admits, throat dry.

Chris is unresponsive for so long that Kazuya is left with nothing to focus on but the loud, insistent sound of his heartbeat in his ears. "Is that such a bad thing?"

Yes. "Ah, that kid is too much work for someone heartless like me."

"You’re just—" The front door slams open, and Kuramochi yells "I’m home!" down the hallway toward the bedroom.

"Looks like I have to go, too," says Kazuya, not giving Chris the chance to say whatever it is he was about to. "Kuramochi’s back."

"I heard him." Chris hums. "Talk to you later, then, Miyuki. Good luck."

"With the series?"

"No," Chris says. "With the other thing. Good night."

Kuramochi peeks his head around the corner. "You’re here?"

"I was on the phone with Chris." He looks Kuramochi up and down. He’s still wearing his uniform, smudged with dirt and grass-stains. "You stayed at practice this late?"

"In the batting cages," Kuramochi replies. He stretches his arms up over his head. "With Shirasu." He grins. "Channeling our inner Masuko, I guess. Then I went with Sawamura to get ice cream crepes."

"Sawamura was still out there, too?"

"Not practicing batting." Kuramochi pulls off his shirts, leaving his hair a rumpled mess. He pulls a disgruntled face. "He was throwing by himself to the net, with Takarada watching."

"I told him not to overdo it. He’ll never learn. What a stupid guy."

"Saw something interesting, though." Kuramochi dumps the uniform in the dirty clothes hamper, and grabs a pair of clean underwear from the pile he didn’t put away after washing last week. "He can crossfire that slider."

Kazuya jolts up. "Really? On purpose?" Sawamura's not a side-arm pitcher. His only crossfires have been accidents.He shouldn't be able to regularly pitch them, with the way his arm moves.

Kuramochi nods. "Yeah, I think so, and since he’s a southpaw, that sucker’s gonna look like it’s flying at you from first base. Dirty as hell pitch, and unexpected considering he doesn't have the same form as Uchida."

"He has done it before, with his easier to pitch balls. If he can crossfire a slider on purpose without breaking his form…" Kazuya shakes his head. "Geez, this idiot's going to give me a heart attack."

"Sawamura is always full of surprises, isn’t he?" Kuramochi finally finds an oversized T-shirt and walks toward the bathroom. "Bet you’re excited, as usual! You won’t get bored, with a pitcher like that!"

The shower turns on, Kuramochi belting out what is barely recognizable as one of his video game theme songs at the top of his lungs, and Kazuya musses his still-damp hair with both hands.

"Bored?" Kazuya says to the empty room. "As if I was ever in any danger of getting bored with Sawamura around." He thinks about Sawamura’s wide grin and gleaming eyes, his unpredictable moods, his fierce determination, every single thing about him demanding that Kazuya watch him.

Kazuya had known from the beginning, when he’d called out Azusa with that cocky attitude, that Sawamura would be someone to keep an eye on. He just hadn’t realized that eventually, if he kept stealing those glimpses, he wouldn’t be able to look away.

"Sawamura! You’re with Ichinose today!" Numamoto says, when Sawamura comes huffing and puffing into the pre-practice meeting with five minutes to spare.

His eyes flit from Numamoto to Maeda in the distance to Kazuya, then back to Numamoto. "Why?"

Throwing an arm around Sanjo's narrow shoulders, Kazuya grins. "Just letting you practice with someone else, Sawamura, while I put our relief pitcher through his paces."

Sawamura wrinkles his nose. "But you’re my catcher!"

"We’re on a team," Kazuya points out. "You don’t get a monopoly on my time. We have to make batteries with other people."

"But we have a game tomorrow!" Sawamura’s face is all tight and weird. "Why now, all of a sudden?!"

Kazuya shrugs. "Why not?" He drags Sanjo in a little closer, and Sanjo laughs awkwardly, eyes darting between them.

Sawamura stares at the spot where Kazuya’s fingertips rest just above Sanjo's collarbone, and he licks his lips. Then his eyes shutter, unusual expression shifting into something Kazuya can’t quite read, and he sucks his teeth. "Fine then!"

"Aw, we’ll have fun today, Sawamura!" Ichinose thumps Sawamura on the back with his mitt. "Show me that flashy moving fastball of yours, yeah?"

Sawamura sends Kazuya one last confused glare, and lets Ichinose drag him off to the nets, and everyone else peels off in twos and threes for drills, leaving Kazuya and Sanjo by the bleachers alone.

"You need help with your gear?" Sanjo asks, haltingly, like he’d rather be asking anything else.

Kazuya raises both eyebrows incredulously. "Not even remotely."

"It’s just that Sawamura’s always messing, well, you know, messing about with your buckles, or fixing your straps," the pitcher explains, and something in Kazuya’s stomach twists. "I figured I’d offer."

"That’s just Sawamura being Sawamura," says Kazuya. "Let’s get you warmed up, and then we’ll see what you’ve got."

Sanjo is a good, solid pitcher. He has reliable control, and for the most part, sends pitches to where Kazuya asks for him. He has no presence, though—across from Kazuya, it could be anyone standing there.

He steals a glance over to where Ichinose is laughing, one hand on Sawamura’s shoulder as they examine his grip on the ball. Sawamura is grinning as Ichinose speaks. Kazuya’s gaze lingers on the hair damp with sweat curling at the nape of his neck, and then the dip of Sawamura’s lower back where his uniform clings.

Shifting his gaze back to Sanjo, he asks for another curveball. Sanjo politely obliges. It’s not the same, Kazuya thinks, tossing the ball back, as when I’m catching for that noisy guy.

He waits a good fifteen minutes after Ichinose and Sawamura wrap up before he calls it an afternoon with Sanjo. He talks to Sanjo about his ball placement, and about how it would be nice if he could get a bit more speed on his ball, and Sanjo smiles.

"Thanks for the tips," he says. "I’ll work on it. Not sure I’ll be needed much this tournament, with Sawamura pitching so effectively."

"You can’t place all your faith in one person," Kazuya replies. "Players get injured, have downswings. That’s why you have a team. That’s why you have a bullpen of available pitchers."

"And alternate catchers," agrees Sanjo. "This was a good chance to refresh on signs, then, wasn’t it?"

"One of the reasons I wanted to do this."

Folding his glove and tucking it under his arm, Sanjo quirks his lips into a curious smile. "One of the reasons?"

"You don’t work with just one pitcher on a professional team, either," Kazuya replies, evenly, and then turns away to gather his things.

Sanjo goes ahead of Kazuya, and Kazuya sits down on the empty stretch of field between the cages and the A gym, just watching the outfielders do pepper-drills. Practice is winding down, and unless Maeda needs to speak with him about tomorrow’s game, he should probably head home. There’s plenty of homework to do, and he’s been meaning to write to Furuya all week about his training.

He just sits right there in the grass for a spell. The ground is a bit soft, from the sprinkling rain they’d had early in the afternoon. It hadn’t affected things by the nets much, but the outfielders are so dirty they look like they’re dressed in camouflage, instead of their bright-white practice uniforms.

The chest protector comes off first, settled into the bottom of his half-empty bag, next to his mitt and face mask. When he pulls it over his head, he drags his bandana off with it.

"Haha! Your hair looks really stupid!" Kazuya blinks up at Sawamura, who looks back down at him with a wide grin, stretching out with one hand to comb his fingers through Kazuya’s hair, nails lightly scratching his scalp.

Kazuya shudders. He smacks the hand away. "I can do it myself."

"With no mirror?" Sawamura sits down beside him on the ground, his heat and scent immediately recognizable. He’s flushed, and the sleeve of his compression shirt is scrunched all the way up to the top of his bicep on his left arm, where he’s clearly applied some kind of muscle-relaxing cream. "You can’t be the pretty boy catcher if you look like you’ve been caught in a windstorm, Miyuki Kazuya!"

"I thought you’d have left by now." Kazuya’s fingers tangle in his hair in the back. He gives up, pulling one of the hats he keeps on hand down over it, and vows to get a haircut.

Sawamura’s legs are crisscrossed in front of him, one muddy cleat barely a centimeter from touching the thigh of Kazuya’s white pants. "Was waiting for you, bastard."

"Why?"

"Ichinose-senpai’s a good catcher," Sawamura says, reaching for the clasps on Kazuya’s right leg-guard. "He’s way nicer than you, you know!" His fingertips graze Kazuya’s calf, sending tiny bolts of electricity right up his leg. "He praises me all the time!"

Taking both guards and putting them into his bag with the rest of his gear, Kazuya gives Sawamura his back. "Oh? So you didn’t mind working with Ichinose-senpai today, after all?" He chuckles. "You were giving me such a hard time with that pouting face, too."

"I don’t mind it every once in a while," says Sawamura, "if it’s for the team. But…" He trails off, and Kazuya makes the mistake of looking over his shoulder, just in time to watch Sawamura suck his lower lip into his mouth, teeth nibbling at the plump swell of it. "It’s not the same."

Isn’t that just what Kazuya had thought? "Spoiled," he breathes out. He’s not sure which of them he’s referring to.

Sawamura growls at him low in his throat. "I’m not spoiled!" He crosses his arms. All that does is emphasize the breadth of his shoulders. With his eyebrows drawn in like this, mouth tight, Sawamura’s intensity is undeniable. "I’m the starting pitcher! I should work with the person who catches for me!"

"What if I got injured, hmm?"

Sawamura’s eyes sharpen, glinting oddly. "Are you?!" His knee bumps Kazuya’s, but he doesn’t draw back from the touch. "Huh? Tell me!"

"I’m fine." Kazuya tilts his head. "And you, Sawamura?"

"Of course not!" Sawamura’s grin, now, is smug. It reminds Kazuya a little of his own. "I’m from the countryside! We’re bred stronger and tougher, you know! I once fell off a cliff into a lake and I didn’t break a single bone!" He laughs. "Wakana told me it’s cause my head is so hard it might as well be iron!"

Kazuya stares at Sawamura, who looks so proud. "Oh? Then how does a mighty warrior like you develop an allergic reaction to bees?"

"You remember that?!" Wincing, Sawamura pulls down the stretched out sleeve of his compression shirt to cover his arm. "Do you only remember the embarrassing things people say, or what?!"

"It’s a gift," is Kazuya’s easy reply. He shifts slightly to the left, separating his knee from Sawamura’s. "Go home, already."

"I already said I was waiting for you."

"I already took my gear off. I’m not catching for you today, Sawamoron."

A frustrated grunt from the pitcher makes Kazuya’s stomach clench. "I know that!" Sawamura says. "That’s not why I was waiting!"

"Then why would you wait for me?"

"Ah, um," starts Sawamura, looking down abruptly, floppy hair obscuring his face. "Well, usually I get to talk to you when we practice. But today you… You didn’t talk to me at all."

That’s… Kazuya fixes his gaze on his bag, and zips it up. "I’m talking to you right now, aren’t I?"

"I mean, yeah, because I waited for you!" Sawamura exhales, and Kazuya doesn’t have to look to know what expression is on Sawamura’s transparent face. "Otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten to say anything to you today at all!"

"You mean, I could have gone a whole day without hearing you yell at me?" Kazuya stands up, shouldering his bag. "You’ve ruined it, Sawamura!"

"Don’t say it like you don’t like talking to me!" Sawamura scrambles up to his feet.

"What gave you the impression that I enjoy conversing with you?" He doesn’t meet Sawamura’s eyes as he grins tauntingly. "Don’t be late for the game tomorrow."

Sawamura grabs a fistful of his uniform shirt, right along the side-seam, stopping him from walking away. "Hey, let me just grab my stuff and we can go over stats again tonight—"

"I’m headed in to talk to Coach," interrupts Kazuya, reaching down and peeling Sawamura’s rosin-chalked fingers from the fabric. The hand is warm, callused. For a brief moment, their fingers are laced awkwardly together, and Kazuya quickly draws back, rubbing his hand on his pants to try and stop the tingle. "Don’t wait. I don’t have time to humor you today. Go over the stats yourself, we’ll confer tomorrow."

Sawamura flinches, and for a moment, he looks absolutely bewildered, before he gathers his face up into something angrier. "Geez, what's up with you today, Miyuki Kazuya?!" he mutters, before his mouth puckers in an exaggerated pout. "Fine! I’ll see you tomorrow, then!"

He stomps off, and Kazuya watches him go with a helpless feeling of resignation warring with the desire to call him back and mess around with him a little more.

Maeda is in his office, cigarette hanging between his lips as he looks over the same Aoyama player profiles that Sawamura undoubtedly wanted to review tonight. Kazuya frowns. Sawamura can do it well enough on his own—despite how inelegantly he goes about it, he does understand far more about how to read through this stuff than Kazuya would have believed possible four years ago. He doesn’t have to feel guilty for rejecting the guy's invitation to do it together.

"Ah, Miyuki," he says. "I have a couple of notes for you." He taps the papers in front of him. "I’m starting Sawamura tomorrow, but I’m probably taking him out in the fifth."

Kazuya taps the arm of his sports glasses. "Batters are strong against southpaws?"

"Sawamura’s delivery is unusual, but possibly not enough for a team of left-handed batters who decimate southpaw pitchers." Maeda lifts an eyebrow. "We’ll leave you in as catcher until the seventh, and have Ichinose close out. That’ll give us a good view of what’s effective against Aoyama for Sunday. If it turns out that Sawamura’s getting outs, we’ll leave him in the entire time in the second game."

"Sanjo is also good at-bat," Kazuya says, keenly, and Maeda nods.

"Sawamura can bunt, but at the end of the game, if we’re in a position to need runs, I’d rather have Sanjo in the lineup. I might bring him in as a pinch hitter even if he’s not in as pitcher."

Kazuya nods. "Sawamura’s going to whine about it."

"I’m sure you can handle it." Maeda’s fingers drum aimlessly on his table. "I’m glad you chose Meiji, Miyuki."

"Me too," says Kazuya, before excusing himself with a short bow.

Kuramochi is lying in wait for him outside Coach Maeda’s office, legs crossed as he leans back against the wall. "All done?"

"Did you need to speak to him, too?"

"No," Kuramochi replies. He straightens up, falling into stride next to Kazuya as they work their way out of the gym, their bags banging against each other. "I need to speak to you."

"About what?"

"What was all that today, with Sanjo?"

Sighing, Kazuya shifts his bag to his other shoulder. "I’m going to be working with Sanjo some in tomorrow’s game. It doesn’t make sense for me to practice with him a little?"

"Sure it does," Kuramochi agrees easily. "But I’m talking about the extra-touchy bit at the beginning, and taunting Sawamura."

"He’s getting clingy." It’s dusk outside as they cross the field toward the front gate. "I’m not Chris. I can’t deal with it."

Kuramochi gives him an unimpressed glare. "You were encouraging that until now."

"Sawamura doesn’t need encouragement." Kazuya tugs on his cap. "It’s getting draining."

"You really hate getting attached, don’t you?"

Kazuya hunches his shoulders at a strong gust of wind. "Drop it, Kuramochi."

"I mean, there’s me, and Chris, and Furuya… that’s it, really, isn’t it? For a while I thought you and Narumiya were close, but that’s something else entirely." They pass the convenience store. Uehara is sweeping the floor just behind the door, and when she looks up and sees him, she freezes. Kazuya looks away quickly, speeding up his steps. Kuramochi keeps pace.

"Is this any of your business?"

"You’re my friend." They turn the corner, and Kuramochi takes the opportunity to cross in front of Kazuya, walking backwards so he can face him. "One of my best friends, the best if I’m honest. I let you get away with a lot because of that, and ‘cause I know you’ve got a good heart."

"I don’t have a good heart—

"Yeah, you do, jackass!" Kuramochi scowls at him. "You know you do. You’re brave and focused and you care about people, even when you won’t admit it. It’s no big deal if you act like you don't care about anything but baseball, most of the time. But."

"But?" Kazuya raises an eyebrow. "But what?"

"Sawamura’s my friend too, you know?" He stares Kazuya dead in the eyes. "He’s a little loud, and thick as mud sometimes, but he’s honest and straightforward. If you play hot and cold with him, you’ll hurt him for real. Worse than when you used to take your frustration out on him in high school, because now you’re not just an upperclassmen. You’re his friend."

His friend. Kazuya’s not built for ordinary friendships, and the way Kuramochi is looking at him reminds him of the way everyone had looked at him when he told Nabe it was fine if he quit the team; fine if he just gave up, and that Kazuya wouldn’t care. Like Kazuya’s missing some obvious emotional cue.

That’s all right. Kazuya’s always been better at upsetting people than playing nice. It’s easier, he’s almost always known, when people have low expectations for his behavior.

He stares back challengingly. "Is that all?"

Kuramochi’s lips tighten into a frustrated frown. "Yeah, I guess it is." He pauses. "You’ve got rosin in your hair, by the way." He turns around, and walks ahead of Kazuya the rest of the way home, and Kazuya’s fingers comb through the exposed bits of his hair and come away a little chalky from Sawamura.

He expects Kuramochi to be angry at him for the rest of the night, but he’s acting normal by the time Kazuya’s finished cooking dinner, retelling a long complicated story he’d heard from Kominato Ryousuke when they’d video-chatted each other earlier today, about some language difficulties between Kominato and his Korean teammates.

Kazuya watches him warily from across the table, chopsticks pushing into his rice, and thinks about how much better he likes it, when dinner isn’t so quiet. Maybe that’s why, despite how well he connects with people like Furuya and Chris, who are so much like him, who get him, a part of him still gravitates toward people like Kuramochi and Sawamura, who fill up the sorts of silences that had made up most of Kazuya’s childhood.

"I’m not going to change," Kazuya says abruptly, when Kuramochi gets up to refill his rice bowl from the cooker, his back to Kazuya. "I am who I am. Twisted personality and all." He doesn’t look over at Kuramochi, even though he can feel his stare on him. "I’m not really sorry about it."

The rice cooker closes again. "I don’t want you to change. I like you just fine the way you are." Kuramochi slides back into his seat, setting his bowl down and then resting his weight on his forearms. "When you don’t know how to react, you push people away. I just don’t think you should push Sawamura away. Not only for his sake, but also for yours. He makes you laugh in a really genuine way." He gives Kazuya a crooked smile. "Somehow, you’ve still got a way with first-year pitchers, huh?"

"Lucky me," Kazuya says, throat dry. He pushes his glasses up on his nose.

"You pretend like Sawamura annoys you, but the past couple of months, you’ve spent a lot of time with him. Maybe as much as you spend with me, and we live together." Kuramochi picks his chopsticks back up, and crams a huge bite of rice into his mouth. "You like him."

Yeah, Kazuya does. He wonders what Kuramochi would think, if he knew how Kazuya liked him. If he’d still be telling Kazuya not to push Sawamura away.

The thing is, as much as Kuramochi understands about Kazuya, there’s so much he doesn’t. Sympathy isn’t empathy. Kuramochi’s never had to protect himself in the same ways Kazuya has, and that makes it harder for Kazuya to take Kuramochi’s advice, even when it would sound rational to anyone else. Kuramochi will never really know what it’s like to face Kazuya’s choices, to look at what people offer him and know it’s safer to turn all that down.

Kazuya’s stomach churns. He won’t be able to finish his dinner.

"He has a certain charm," Kazuya says, eventually, forcing himself to sound like he usually does, with just a touch of amusement. "If you don’t mind that he isn’t housebroken."

Kuramochi’s laugh is stifled by his mouthful of stewed chicken. "You’re awful," he manages, and then he drags the plate of stir-fry closer, starting in on Kazuya’s uneaten share.

Kazuya sits next to an alert Ichinose on the bus to the stadium.

"Looks like the actual captain is going to be seeing the field for more than an inning today," he says to Kazuya, pointing at himself with his thumb. "You worried I'm going to show you up?"

"Captain, you know it’ll be fine. I can share the spotlight just this once." Kazuya watches Sawamura get on the bus and look around for him, probably planning to snag the seat next to him like he has every other time they’ve ridden to or from a game.

Their eyes meet, briefly, and Sawamura’s face takes on a wounded cast for a moment, but then he’s plopping down next to Takarada, yelling something about how great his shoulder feels today.

"I can’t believe they’ve got a whole team full of batters with high averages against left-handed pitchers." Ichinose relaxes back into his seat, and Kazuya tears his gaze away from Sawamura to pay attention. "Pretty rare that a southpaw on the mound is a disadvantage."

"I think they’re assembling a team to combat Mei—" He stops, corrects himself. "Narumiya, I mean. I think Sawamura was just a lucky coincidence for them."

"Can Sawamura handle it?" Ichinose pulls out his phone, pulling up the statistics. "This is top level college batting. Maybe even stronger than Waseda. Their defense isn’t all that impressive, but the offense is ridiculous."

"Sawamura has a way of exceeding expectations," Kazuya replies. "When I first met him, he was throwing fastballs with no idea about grips or anything. Now he has so many pitches; two and four-seam fastballs, an unbelievably unique change-up that breaks differently every time he changes the grip, a splitter, and a slider that’s getting so fast it’s almost a slurve." He rubs at his neck. "And I have a suspicion that he’s been working on his own learning how to consistently crossfire that slider despite the fact that he absolutely shouldn't be able to."

Ichinose low-whistles. "Doesn’t that mess with his form? Crossfires are a side-arm pitcher specialty."

"I don’t know yet. His other pitches don’t seem affected, but I’ll keep an eye on it."

"Getting Sawamura was kind of a coup, wasn’t it?" Ichinose leans into him slightly. "It’s thanks to you, right?"

Kazuya blinks slowly. "I didn’t do anything but go to the same high school as the kid. I wasn’t even his main battery."

"Yesterday, he told me he chose Meiji over Rikkyou specifically because you were here." Ichinose grins. "He said it all formally, too, like he was in some kind of samurai movie." Pausing, his grin softens. "I might not have been supposed to tell you that. Oops."

"Rikkyou?" Solid team that also needed new blood in their bullpen, if Kazuya remembers right. He narrows his eyes, disliking the idea of Sawamura playing college ball at Rikkyou, even though he knows it’s irrational. Teams are close, but players change, age out, get traded, split up with people they’ve known for years. Being… possessive of Sawamura is out of place, out of character. Unprofessional. "Would he have started there? I thought they picked up a first year pitcher from Osaka."

"I don’t think that factored into the decision at all, Miyuki. The whole time he was pitching to me, he was complaining about you." Ichinose laughs. "But he kept looking over at you and Sanjo anyway. I’d be a little jealous, second-year, if Sawamura weren’t so…"

"So Sawamura?" Kazuya hates the fond smile that tugs relentlessly at the corners of his lips. He sneaks another glance up toward the front of the bus, where Sawamura’s now lunging across the aisle to arm-wrestle Kuramochi. Despite the huge size advantage, he’s losing, his face in an exaggerated grimace as Kuramochi laughs victoriously. Takarada has one hand resting on Sawamura’s back, a new bit of skinship that Kazuya forces himself not to linger on. "Noisy brat."

"Yeah," Ichinose says, opening his water bottle. "He makes me feel old and tired."

"Well, it’s true that you are getting a little old," Kazuya says without thinking, and Ichinose, who’s just taken a sip, spits it out in a spray.

"You two deserve each other," he croaks, and Kazuya slaps him on the back with a gleeful grin as his complicated feelings about Sawamura burn just under his skin.

Thirty minutes later, they’re in the dugout. Kazuya’s putting on his gear when familiar hands come from behind him to check the waist straps of his chest protector. "We warming up together today, or am I doing that with Ichinose, too?" Sawamura sounds belligerent, but his hands are as sure and steady as usual, sending tingles that Kazuya’s starting to expect every time Sawamura touches him along his ribs to tangle in his gut.

Kazuya looks over his shoulder to give Sawamura an arch look at his tone. "No, it’s me and you for the first five innings."

Sawamura hesitates. "The first five?"

"Coach didn’t tell you?" He sits down on the bench, double-checking the buckles at his knees on his leg-guards. Sawamura sits down next to him, no space between them as usual, thigh pressing to Kazuya’s. "Coach doesn’t want to overpitch you today, Sanjo's going in at the sixth."

"Is it because the batters are all good against left-handed pitchers?" Sawamura asks. Almost tentatively, and Kazuya, holding his headgear in his lap, studies Sawamura thoughtfully. Sawamura’s eyes are exceptionally bright today, but there are tiny lines of stress in the set of his eyebrows and around his full mouth. His sunburn has turned to freckles across the bridge of his nose, and his hair is its usual mess under his cap. He looks… like he hadn’t slept well last night.

"Were you up last night studying Aoyama?" Kazuya pulls his sports glasses off and cleans the lenses with his shirt sleeve. "Idiot, don’t you have to pitch today?"

A thumb soothes just under his eye, across skin that isn’t often left open to touch with Kazuya’s glasses in the way. "You were obviously up late, too, bastard, so don’t go lecturing me."

Gulping, Kazuya leans back, and puts his glasses on. "See? You don’t need me to go over stats."

"I like doing it with you," replies Sawamura. "It’s—"

"Let’s go warm up," Kazuya interjects, grabbing his mitt and standing up. "We’re on defense first."

"Osh!" Sawamura yells, and goes running down the line toward the other side of the dugout to get his old glove and a ball.

It’s a tough game.

This year, Aoyama has fielded a stronger team. Like Meiji, they’ve won both series they’ve played so far this season, and they’ve got one of the best hitters in the Big6 league, Zaizen Naoyuki, just back on the roster from injury.

It’s raised the team’s morale, and Kazuya can tell they feel a little invincible.

By the time they return to the dugout after the fifth inning, Aoyama’s adjusted to Sawamura’s four-seam and his slider, slamming the former out for long flies and tipping the latter on most swings. They’re up on Meiji by three runs, all three of them scored by Zaizen in a devastating 3 RBI before Kazuya and Sawamura had gotten the last out.

It’s not that Sawamura’s not pitching solidly. The control issues he’d had on Thursday are nowhere to be found, his full focus on Kazuya’s mitt, fire in his eyes as he hits whatever strike-zone Kazuya asks for with alternating ins and outs. But Aoyama’s done their research, and they know Sawamura’s repertoire. Not only that, but they’re strong against it, even with the confusion his change-up causes.

"Nice pitch," Kazuya says, curling his hand into a fist and forgoing the usual pat on the back.

Sawamura nods. He doesn’t look discouraged. Mostly he just looks determined, face all twisted up like he’s trying too hard to think something through.

Kazuya sighs. "You’re not about to moan about getting pulled out, are you?"

"Not this time," Sawamura mutters. "Even though I think I could have—"

"Give it up, brat. They were hitting off us big-time. Sanjo's a right-arm pitcher. He’ll clean up the mess."

"I wanna clean it up myself!"

"It’s a team sport, Sawamoron. You don’t do anything by yourself."

"I know, but—"

"Careful, your ego is showing." Kazuya’d batted last inning, so he doesn’t bother to take off most of his gear, just his face mask, sitting down on the pine as Sawamura tucks his glove into his bag and starts to stretch out his arm, pushing up at his long sleeve to bare it.

The cream Sawamura uses smells like eucalyptus. It’s not the same as the IcyHot, and Kazuya watches him rub the cream into the skin for a few seconds before he looks away.

"So what are we going to do tomorrow?" Sawamura sets his hand firmly on Kazuya’s thigh, seeking his attention, fingertips brushing the inseam of his uniform pants. "To get past that line-up, I mean." His middle finger rubs absently along the seam, and heat rushes up to collect in Kazuya’s lower belly.

It’s too much. Sawamura is too close. He’s always too close.

"Stop touching me." Standing abruptly, Kazuya makes Sawamura’s hand fall away, grabbing his water and taking a long sip. "I’ll think of something." He starts to walk away, toward Sanjo, who’s watching the game with Ichinose up near Assistant Coach Numamoto.

Sawamura grabs his arm, keeping him from going. "What’s wrong with you?!"

"Nothing," Kazuya replies, shaking his arm free of Sawamura’s grip. "I just told you to stop touching me. Have you yelled so much it’s hard for you to hear things said at normal volume?" His voice is mostly calm, if a little sharp.

"It’s not nothing! You’re even more of a jerk than usual. You should tell me, if something’s bothering you!"

He looks so earnest. So hopeful. Like a real, stupid, big, loyal puppy, refusing to learn his lesson no matter how many times Kazuya rebuffs him. Worse, that look makes Kazuya feel trapped, makes him want to not be cruel.

"Like you told me about your arm?" Kazuya snaps quietly in reply, and Sawamura’s mouth drops open in surprise, eyes bright with anger and hurt.

"That’s—" Sawamura grabs at Kazuya’s shirt, knuckles grazing just below his ribs. "That’s different! It’s just a stupid thing I have to prove everyone wrong about, and it doesn’t change anything!" He presses his forehead to the curve of Kazuya's hip, right below the lowest strap of his chest protector, hiding his face from view. "But you’re… you’re avoiding me!" The words are muffled by Kazuya’s sweaty uniform, but he hears them clearly anyway. He feels them, through two layers of clothes.

"In what parallel universe am I avoiding you? I’m talking to you right now, aren’t I?" he says, under his breath, knowing that if he speaks any louder other people on the team will notice. He doesn’t want that. He doesn’t know what his face looks like right now, but it’s probably nothing he wants anyone to see.

"Only because I’m making you!" Sawamura looks up again, and the bottom drops out of Kazuya’s stomach when he realizes that Sawamura’s about to cry. "I thought we were friends!"

"And I told you we were teammates." Kazuya stares at the scoreboard, and feels Sawamura’s hand tighten in his shirt. "Focus on the game, Sawamura." One more out and they’re back on the field. "Try to learn something for tomorrow."

"Asshole," Sawamura says, letting go and standing up, heading to the other side of the bullpen and dropping down next to Shirasu. He pulls his cap down, obscuring his face, and Kazuya goes to join Sanjo, making himself focus on Aoyama’s battery instead of the slump in Sawamura’s shoulders.

He’ll get over it, Kazuya tells himself, throwing an arm around Sanjo's shoulder and filling him in on the strategy he wants to use for the next two innings.

They lose by a single run. Kazuya sits in the back of the quiet, subdued bus, in a seat next to his and Ichinose’s gear, and plays a mindless game of shogi with Tetsu on his phone.

At the bottom of the game window, a red circle appears over the never-used chat option.

Are you well? You’re not playing up to your usual standards. He can imagine Tetsu’s face, stern and concerned.

Playing well enough to beat you! Kazuya replies, but when the game ends, he doesn’t initiate another.

Sawamura hasn’t looked at him once since Kazuya had gone back out into the cage in the sixth inning to catch for Sanjo, even when he congratulated Kazuya on his base-clearing hit in the seventh.

That’s fine. It’ll be easier if Sawamura only looks at him on the field to read his signs, anyway. Easier to avoid things like Sawamura’s fingertips skating along the inside of his thigh like they belong there.

When Kuramochi first found out that Kazuya really knew how to cook, he’d promptly bartered cleaning the bathroom for all eternity if Kazuya would run things in the kitchen. At the time, Kuramochi hadn’t known that cooking, for Kazuya, was something like meditation. Slicing green onions into tiny rings, the methodical chop of the knife against the cutting board rings through the empty apartment. Kazuya lets the sound soothe him.

Kuramochi’s having dinner with his brother tonight, so Kazuya doesn’t expect him home until midnight at the earliest—they always end up singing anime songs from the ‘90s at karaoke, no matter what, and Meiji’s playing the afternoon game tomorrow, so it’s not like they have to get up early.

They’d invited Kazuya along, but as always, Kazuya had turned them down. Kuramochi’s brother always looks at Kazuya with something sad in his eyes, and Kazuya hates it despite knowing it comes from the same place of kindness that had Kuramochi’s mother teaching Kazuya that any sauce comes out richer if you allow the sugar to cook a bit before adding the rice vinegar.

Without the repetitive screaming noises from Kuramochi’s Playstation, it’s really quiet. There’s just the knife, the soft whuffing of the rice cooker, and Kazuya’s overthinking to fill the silence.

He scrapes the scallions off the cutting board and into the bowl of eggs, and turns on the stove. Waiting for the pan to heat up, his mind turns inevitably back to the game, and then, without fail, to Sawamura.

Kazuya has seen Sawamura cry before. Everyone from Seidou has, because Sawamura wears his feelings in every line of his body, whether he’s playing or eating or napping through his homework. He cries as easily and honestly as he shouts or laughs or demands, tears welling up and spilling over, and Kazuya’s told him more than once to stop but Sawamura never listens.

It’s more difficult, Kazuya thinks, picking up a spoon and starting to stir the mixture of egg, sugar, cream, soy sauce, and onion in the bowl, to think about Sawamura’s stare back during the game. Because almost-crying is Sawamura trying to shove his feelings down, to stop them, and that’s not Sawamura at all.

And, he admits, as he adds little chunks of cooked chicken to the mix, Kazuya doesn’t think he’s ever been the reason Sawamura wanted to cry, before. Sawamura’s always rolled with Kazuya’s punches, getting up into his face, getting worked up, getting mad. Kazuya’s barbs and insults never faze him. Then again, Kazuya’s usually just trying to wind him up. Today, Kazuya had wanted to push him away.

Kazuya’s always at his ugliest when his actual feelings are involved.

He’s about to pour the egg into the skillet when there’s pounding on his front door. He sighs, looking at the spitting oil, and then at the clock on the microwave: It’s after nine. Too late for visitors.

He sets down the bowl, turning the stove down to low before walking over to the door.

Sawamura stands there on the other side of it, still wearing parts of his Meiji uniform. He’s clearly been running: his face is covered in sweat, and his breathing is harsh and unsteady. His lips are red from being licked and bitten too much, and Kazuya only notices that Sawamura’s hands are clenched into fists so tight his knuckles are white when he has to look away to catch his own breath.

"Eh?" Kazuya swallows around the lump in his throat. "Did you need something, Sawamura?" He positions himself in front of the doorway fully, projecting how unwelcome Sawamura is. "It’s a bit late to come knocking on an upperclassman’s door." He crinkles his nose. "And you’ve been running. We have a hard game tomorrow, so save your energy next time."

"I run whenever I’m nervous. Or scared. Or angry." Sawamura doesn’t move closer, but his presence seems to bear physical weight down on Kazuya, with some of that intensity he’s known for as a pitcher. It’s strange to feel it now, off the field.

"I know, idiot." Kazuya takes one step back. "Which one are you right now?" He smirks, wanting to lighten the mood, wanting to make Sawamura do something expected.

Instead, Sawamura’s face settles into solemn lines that look all wrong on his face. "Tell me what I did, Miyuki Kazuya!" His voice cracks; echoes. "I watched you! It’s just me! You’re treating me like you’re mad at me!"

Kazuya winces, looking up and down the hallway. "Stop yelling, brat, it’s late."

"Who cares?! I want… I want to finish our conversation!"

"Oh?" Kazuya smooths the hair in front of his ear. "I want you to leave. Because it’s night-time. Go home."

"No! The keeping me out thing, it was okay before! But now… Now I…" He’s red with frustration and his mouth is curling down in a pout. "It’s got to stop Or… or I’ll…!"

"I’m your teammate, Sawamura. I’m not obligated to interact with you outside of practice."

"That’s bullshit!" Sawamura shifts his weight forward, and his eyes are too blistering, the sun on a cloudless day in mid-July Tokyo. "It’s… It’s affecting my pitching! I want to throw the ball at your face instead of your mitt, you goddamn—"

"Stop yelling," Kazuya says, more firmly, and then, with hesitation, with resignation, moves aside. "Come in so I can close the door, then."

Sawamura clumsily drops his bag and takes off his cleats, then wipes his hands on his already filthy pants. His compression shirt clings to him like a second skin, and Kazuya can see every shift of his muscles beneath it.

Now that they’re inside, Sawamura seems at a loss for words. He’s still pink, still sweaty, still ablaze, but his mouth opens and closes several times before Kazuya narrows his eyes at him.

"Well? I thought you wanted something?"

"You don’t think I’m annoying," says Sawamura, with unwarranted confidence and bravado. Where does he even get it? Kazuya’s incredulous and envious in the same breath. "I know you don’t! So I must have done something to make you act all weird, and you’re always calling me an idiot, so maybe I’m just missing something obvious." He points at Kazuya. "And don’t say it’s nothing, or say something awful just because you don’t want to tell me!"

Somehow, Kazuya wants to laugh. Of course Sawamura’s going to be pushy. He’s a pitcher—all ego and selfishness and determination. That’s what pitchers are like, and Kazuya should never forget that.

"You don’t tell me things," says Kazuya, tugging at the collar of his sweatshirt. "And I don’t come knocking down your door late at night."

Catching his lip with his teeth, Sawamura rubs at his forehead with the back of his arm. "This is about my arm, isn’t it? That’s what you were talking about earlier." His eyelashes flutter. "Is that why you’re all weird? Because—" He just stands there, in Kazuya’s hallway, looking a bit lost. "Do you know who R.A. Dickey is?"

"Sure," Kazuya replies, off-kilter at the subject change. "Older player. Knuckleball pitcher. Mets?"

"I’d never heard of him," Sawamura replies, eyes drifting toward the kitchen. "I don’t know that much about baseball. I mean, about that kind of baseball trivia, cause I know plenty about pitching and the game!"

"Yeah, I know." Kazuya leans back against the hall wall and crosses his arms. "Don’t think I’ve forgotten the flash cards of baseball terms, Sawamura. Embarrassing."

"Shut up!" Sawamura’s gaze comes back to him, and Kazuya stares back. "There’s nothing embarrassing about trying your best!"

Kazuya’s heart contracts harshly. "You’re right about that," he murmurs. "Guess you can’t be an idiot all the time." Sawamura gapes at him, and Kazuya flushes. "What about Dickey?"

"He was born without something called a UCL. I don’t remember what that stands for, so don’t ask me! But it’s a muscle-thingy in your elbow, and you need it to do stuff."

"Ulnar collateral ligament," Kazuya says. "You can’t even turn a doorknob without pain when it’s damaged."

"When the Dragons’ team doctor saw me pitch, the first thing he did was take an X-ray of my left arm." Sawamura reaches over to his arm and pulls up the sleeve, revealing those icy-hot strips going down his biceps. "I don’t have that UCL- thing either. I shouldn’t be able to pitch at all, let alone at more than 145 kilometers per hour. And it doesn’t hurt!"

Kazuya unfolds his arms and reaches out for Sawamura’s arm, gently cupping the elbow. It looks normal. Same as always. He runs his thumb along the crease of the elbow, and goosebumps rise on Sawamura’s skin, along with the fine downy hair on his forearms. "At all?"

"No! Promise!" Sawamura says, as Kazuya taps his index finger on one of the strips. "Those are for, uh, muscle tension? My arm gets tight really fast, I guess."

"The Diamonds were hesitant to sign you because of your arm." Kazuya looks up, and Sawamura is staring down, at where his hand is holding on to Sawamura’s arm. Kazuya’s breath hitches, and he steps back again, reestablishing the distance between them.

"It’s not that," Sawamura replies, voice raspy, low. Kazuya hates Sawamura’s voice like that the most, because it sends heat down his spine. His fingers come up to trace where Kazuya’s just touched, and Kazuya’s mouth goes dry. "It’s just… I talked to Gramps, and Wakana, and, well… they convinced me it would be better to get a degree, ‘cause you can teach high school? And most schools don’t hire a separate baseball coach like Seidou, you know? You’ve gotta be a teacher, too."

Kazuya exhales heavily. "A fallback if they’re right, and something happens with your elbow and you can’t go pro."

"They’re not right!" Sawamura shakes his sweaty hair out of his face. "I’m gonna be one of the best pitchers in the history of baseball! I’m gonna play for twenty years and no stupid UCL-whatever is going to stop me!"

Kazuya’s startled into a laugh, and then he’s laughing so hard tears prickle at the corner of his eyes, and he has to lean forward to clutch at his sides.

"Don’t laugh, asshole! I’m serious!"

"I know you are," Kazuya gasps out, and it’s weird, how much he’s laughing, because his pulse is racing and he has butterflies in his stomach at the same time, but maybe he’s spent so long not processing emotions that he can’t remember how to do it right, anymore. "I know you’re serious, that’s…" He peeks up through his hair, and he expects Sawamura to be scowling at him, affronted, but Sawamura’s grinning, wide and delighted. In the face of it, Kazuya’s laughter softens. "Why’re you looking at me like that?"

"I don’t know," Sawamura says. "It’s just been weird, the last few days! Without you treating me like normal!" He runs a hand through sweaty hair, and his grin falters. "It was… Don’t do that! Don’t make me…"

"Oh," says Kazuya. "I…" This is another one of those moments, where he has no idea what to say that won’t be too much or not enough. He’s spent years avoiding caring about things like that, saying whatever he wants regardless of consequence. "What are you expecting from me right now, Sawamoron?"

Sawamura stares at him for a long moment, unblinking. Kazuya straightens his shoulders, refusing to shrink under that strong gaze.

"The first time we met, you called me ‘partner’." Sawamura pulls at the scrunched up sleeve of his compression shirt, dragging it down until it almost reaches his wrist again. "I want that."

"I’m already assigned to you," Kazuya replies, lightly. "I’m catching for you. Isn’t that enough?"

"No!" There’s a flicker of something in Sawamura’s eyes that is far too aware, that Kazuya must be imagining, and Kazuya’s heart is going to beat right out of his chest. "I want to fix your glove when it needs re-lacing and watch videos for your journalism projects and go over stats before games! And… I don’t want you to put up a wall!" He leans closer to Kazuya, and grasps at a handful of his sweatshirt, like he used to do in high school when Kazuya teased him too much. "And I don’t like it when you treat Sanjo like you treat me!"

"Jealous?" It slips out before Kazuya can stop it, and Sawamura goes such a deep red it’s almost purple.

"So what?!" Sawamura’s yelling again, steam coming out of his ears. "I had to share you already! I’m your ace now!"

Kazuya put both his hands on Sawamura’s shoulders and pushes him away, and Sawamura lets his hand fall from Kazuya’s sweatshirt. "You’re dirty."

"I’ve been running!" Suddenly, Sawamura’s stomach growls.

"Let me guess," Kazuya says, concentrating on slowing down his heart-rate. "You didn’t eat dinner."

"I was busy!"

"Busy running."

"Right!" Sawamura growls. "If you hadn’t been so weird, I wouldn’t have had to run so much!!"

"So now it’s my fault you can’t take care of yourself?"

"Everything’s your fault!"

And maybe that’s true, right now. Sawamura’s in his hallway, dirty and gross and yelling, and Kazuya wants to drag his hands up Sawamura’s stomach, to feel the abs he can see the shape of through his shirt, and also because he suspects Sawamura to be ticklish, and Kazuya likes that stupid braying laugh of his enough that he wants to hear more of it.

It’s hard, Kazuya thinks, to push someone away when you constantly find reasons to bring them in closer. "Go shower."

"What?" Sawamura’s making that confused face of his, lips pursed, and Kazuya shoves his hands into the pockets of his track pants.

"You have a change of clothes in your bag, right? Go take a shower. I’ll feed you, and we can discuss the game." Kazuya points in the general direction of the bathroom, turning away so he doesn’t have to know what Sawamura’s expression looks like. He walks into the kitchen, and turns the stove back up to medium heat. The egg mixture has started to separate, so he starts to stir it again.

"Miyuki?"

"My soap is the blue stuff, and the green towel folded on the shelf is the extra one," he adds, when Sawamura sort of trails him into the kitchen. "Do you need instructions on how to take a shower? If you do, you’d definitely better call me senpai because that’s going above and beyond the call of duty!"

"Of course I don’t need instructions!" Sawamura shouts. "Don’t talk down to me!"

It’s only after Kazuya hears the bathroom door close that he allows himself to curl forward, bracing himself on the counter.

It’s fine, he thinks, if Sawamura assumes this was about his arm. Kazuya’s been trying to handle this whole attraction thing like a child, avoiding it until it went away. That’s clearly not going to work, so he’ll approach it like he would a savvy batter at the plate. He’ll try something else. Come at it from another angle.

He gathers himself, then pours the egg into the skillet, and as he tilts the pan to spread it, he pauses. Another angle? He sets the bowl and spoon down in the sink, watching the egg pucker and bubble. It might be easier to confuse the batters trained to battle left-handed pitchers if the ball comes from somewhere they can’t expect. Can’t anticipate.

Carefully, he watches the egg until the edges are cooked all the way through, going over today’s game in his head as he pushes with a spatula to keep anything from sticking to the pan. Sanjo hadn’t fared much better than Sawamura had, for all that he’s a right handed pitcher. Sanjo's form is textbook, though, so Sawamura’s irregular form had probably made up some of the difference.

He doesn’t realize that Sawamura’s out of the shower until a loud voice asks, "What are you making?" from the kitchen doorway.

He flips the omelet, and then looks left to observe Sawamura. He’s wearing a Chunichi Dragons sweatshirt and a pair of faded, soft jeans that are too tight on his thighs, and his feet are bare. He looks clean and sleepy, hair falling damp across his face. He smells like Kazuya’s body wash.

"Nothing fancy," Kazuya says, willing his voice not to give anything away. He fixes his gaze firmly on the egg. "So. How good is that crossfire slider you’ve secretly been working on?"

Sawamura makes a squeaking sound of surprise. "How did you—?"

"Kuramochi saw you at it a couple of nights ago." He turns the heat low on the omelet, and makes the first fold. He smirks, knowing Sawamura will see it. "Another secret?"

"I wanted to surprise you with it, once it was good enough! I was planning to show you yesterday, but…" He gulps, audibly. "Well, I was planning to show you!"

"How well can you control it?"

"Inside or outside," Sawamura replies. "Two zones, not much control within them. But I can get it to your mitt, I think."

"How long can you pitch them without tiring yourself out?"

"Not 120 of them, but I can mix them in without messing myself up!" Sawamura comes up to stand next to him. "I was careful! I didn’t screw up my form! It's not… exactly like a regular crossfire, anyway, so…!"

"Did Chris give you the idea to work on something like that?" He finishes folding the egg. "Get two bowls for the rice from the dish strainer."

Sawamura moves past him to follow directions, grabbing the bowls and the chopsticks and, without being told, serves the rice. "You should cook for me for real someday."

"Why, exactly, should I?" Kazuya watches Sawamura with one eye as he lifts the egg out of the skillet and onto a clean plate.

"I dunno. Kuramochi-senpai says you’re really good at it. Did your mom teach you?" Kazuya’s hand stills, and Sawamura’s gaze flickers over. "Uh, I mean—"

"No," says Kazuya, holding in the impulsive flash of anger. "She didn’t." With the knife he used earlier to chop the scallions, he slices the egg into eight pieces. "I taught myself."

"Oh." Sawamura obviously has words on the tip of his tongue, but then he seems to change gears. "Harucchi told me I should work on my crossfire. I did it by accident, again, when he came to visit my family’s house, after I left the Diamonds’ training camp. He told me it was really hard to hit since I’m a southpaw."

"Little Brother Kominato thinks it’s hard to hit?" Kazuya sets the egg on the table, then opens the refrigerator to pull out the various vegetable side dishes he made yesterday. "In that case, what do you think about premiering a crossfire slider against Aoyama tomorrow?"

"Is there spiced chicken in this?" Sawamura’s already munching on tamagoyaki. "That’s weird but good! Not bad, Miyuki Kazuya!"

"I’m glad you approve," Kazuya says, sliding into his usual seat at the table. Sawamura, though, doesn’t sit in Kuramochi’s seat. He slides into the empty chair next to Kazuya’s, his left arm rubbing against Kazuya’s right, like when they were back in high school. "Where’s my honorific, first-year?"

"Do you wanna go out and try the sorta-crossfire after this?" Sawamura’s tongue snakes out to snag a piece of rice, and Kazuya stares down at the sliced and pickled yellow peppers on the table between them. "I’m not sleepy."

"It’s almost ten at night. We can do it in the morning, Sawamura. Just a few, so we don’t wear you out."

"Mmkay," agrees Sawamura, resting his elbow on the table, cradling his cheek in his hand as he chews, the other cheek puffed like a chipmunk. "Did you make these pickles, too?"

Kazuya chuckles. "Why?"

"’Cause they’re sour, like you!" He laughs, obnoxiously, food in his mouth, and Kazuya should be disgusted but instead he just feels warm.

After they eat, Sawamura helps clear the dishes, taking them over to the sink and turning on the water to fill the basin. "I’ll wash."

"I hope you don’t suck, like Kuramochi does." Kazuya watches him out of the corner of his eye as he puts the leftovers back in the fridge. "He usually turns the kitchen floor into a swimming pool with all the water he splashes around."

"Not to worry, I’m an expert!" Sawamura puts in just a little soap, and doesn't bother with the gloves, plunging his hands right into the water and then hissing when it's so hot it scalds him. "Ow, ow, ow!"

"Don't hurt your hands, idiot!" Kazuya turns on the cold tap, and grabs Sawamura's wrists, dragging his hands under it, their fingers twining together under the water as Kazuya checks his fingertips. "You can't pitch if your calluses are sore." He clicks his tongue against the back of his teeth. Sawamura's hands are pink, but nothing to worry about. "Why didn't you cover them with the plastic gloves if you were going to get the water temperature that hot?"

"Don't use them at home," he says. "Not my apartment, home, but back at home-home. Washing the dishes has always been my job." Sawamura's looking down, at their hands, and Kazuya lets go immediately, flushing.

"Hold them under the cold water for another thirty seconds," he says. "Or maybe your hands will fall off~"

Wiggling his fingers, Sawamura grins. "They feel fine already! No big deal!"

"So you were in charge of dishes on your farm?" He wipes his hands on his pants, and throws the dishwashing gloves at Sawamura's head. They bounce off, falling to the ground, and Kazuya snickers. "Do you have twelve brothers and sisters and a dog?"

"I'm an only child!" He shakes his hands off, and then bends down to pick up the gloves, frowning at them before putting them on. "And we didn't live on a big farm, just, you know, in farming country. Nobu's parents were big vegetable farmers, though, and they had these woods on the edge of their property that had plenty of stag beetles! Big ones the size of my hand." He holds up one pink-gloved paw, and then looks at it. "Well, maybe my hand when I was ten, haha!"

"Stag beetles, huh? Like on your backpack."

"Yeah!" He plunges his hands back into the water, scrubbing at the skillet with practiced ease. "Used to see how many types we could find. Wakana was the only one who could tell them apart, though, so..." He sets the skillet in the drainer and goes back in for a plate.

"You are pretty good at doing dishes, Sawamura." Kazuya leans back against counter. "You have a use, after all!"

Glowering, Sawamura splashes at him with dirty water. "Jackass."

Kazuya laughs, wiping a few stray suds from his cheek. "So how does a dish expert like you burn his hands because the water's too hot, huh?" He drawls the word ‘expert’, enjoying the way Sawamura bristles.

He can do this, Kazuya thinks. He can interact with Sawamura like this.

"Ever since I was tall enough to reach the sink, me and Gramps were in charge of dishes. My mom does all the cooking, and my dad always puts the leftovers away, and we do the dishes. Both my parents work, so it's not like we shouldn't all split the chores, right?" Sawamura laughs self-consciously. "Only the water in my house doesn't even get this hot! Spring water, I mean." He hums happily. "Or maybe Gramps knew I'd burn my hands if he made it this hot and always turned it down a little, ha!"

"Silly me, not planning ahead for you to be an absolute moron." Kazuya tries to imagine a tiny Sawamura barely big enough to reach the sink. It reminds him of his own childhood, dragging over a chair from the kitchen table for himself, so that he could reach the stove.

"What about you?" Sawamura rinses his hands, the last plate in the drainer. The pink has completely faded from everywhere except around his knuckles. "Did you have chores around the house as a kid, or what?"

"All of them," Kazuya answers. "My dad was busy, and my mom couldn’t do them. So."

His mom hadn’t been able to do much of anything, even months before she was gone. Then it was just Kazuya, left to run a house by himself even though he was barely big enough to safely put the dishes away.

"You’re an only child, too?" Sawamura stretches his arms up above his head, flashing the skin just below his navel. "And you grew up in Tokyo, but an hour away from here at least."

"Setagaya-ku." Kazuya leaves the kitchen, entering the living room, and Sawamura follows him, automatically grabbing for one of the cushions and plopping it right in the center of the room, like it’s a baseball diamond and he can’t bear to be situated anywhere else. "You making up a dossier on me, or something?"

"I’m just curious how someone ends up as twisted as you," Sawamura replies, extending his arm to snag another cushion off the pile and throwing it at Kazuya, who catches it neatly.

"Thank you!"

"For the pillow or what? Cause I’m definitely not complimenting your personality, jerkwad."

"I let you yell at me in my own apartment, use my shower, and then fed you dinner, and I’m still a jerk?"

"Your mouth is a jerk!" Sawamura replies. "The rest of you is normal!"

"Is that supposed to make sense, Sawamura?"

"Yeah, of course it does!" He points at Kazuya accusingly. "Your mouth says all this terrible stuff, but your eyes and your body say other things entirely!"

"I’m so glad every part of me is capable of independent thought!" Kazuya says, with a wide false grin.

Sawamura shakes his head aggressively. "Ugh, never mind! Just know that I’m on to you, Miyuki Kazuya!"

"I’m beginning to think you just like the sound of my name."

About to respond with something undoubtedly far too observant for Kazuya’s comfort, Sawamura’s interrupted by his phone chiming loudly. He blinks, clearly distracted from his thoughts, and pulls his phone out of his pocket. He taps in a four-digit code to unlock it, and then grins. "Oh, it’s Wakana again, asking about tonight’s NPB games." He types something back quickly, probably not more than a word or two. "Can we turn on the TV really quick? Apparently the Swallows and the Dragons are in a really tight game, and it’s about to go to extra innings!"

"Is Chris in?" Kazuya asks, already reaching for the remote sitting on top of a stack of Kuramochi’s games.

"Yeah, and the defense is up!" He flops forward, onto his belly. "Chris-senpai is so cool!"

"He is pretty cool," says Kazuya. "So why don’t you go home to watch him?"

"It’s twenty minutes away! I could miss everything!"

Grinning, Kazuya shakes the control in his hand. "You should run. You like doing that."

"Don’t be impossible, Miyuki Kazuya!" Sawamura lunges for the remote, his phone tossed aside, and tackles Kazuya back into his cushion, one knee between Kazuya’s thighs and his hand stretched out along Kazuya’s solar plexus for balance. "Gimme that!"

Kazuya inhales harshly, and lifts his hand with the remote up above his head, focusing on keeping it out of Sawamura’s reach instead of the heat of Sawamura on top of him, breath smelling of green onions as he huffs hotly on Kazuya’s chin. "It’s my television. I don’t have to give you anything."

Sawamura’s hand slides up his abs, and Kazuya wonders if Sawamura can feel Kazuya’s rapid heartbeat through the material of his shirt. "You’re being a dick about this for no reason!"

Kazuya manages a laugh, but it comes out breathless. "Maybe I want you to go home?"

"We have to talk about tomorrow’s game!" Sawamura’s right hand skates up the inside of his arm, leaving fire in its wake, as he stretches for the remote. Kazuya gasps, shifting up to keep Sawamura’s knee from crushing his balls, trying to shift as Sawamura’s weight bears down on him. "Let me just—"

"You’re so demanding," gasps Kazuya, and there’s a steady pooling of heat in his lower belly that’s as dangerous as what he’d felt in the dugout during today’s game, with Sawamura’s callused fingers teasing at his inner thigh. Luckily, even though Sawamura’s taller than Kazuya, now, Kazuya’s still stronger and sturdier, and, planting his feet into the ground, he pushes up with his hips, dislodging Sawamura and reversing their positions, Sawamura now pinned beneath him instead. Sawamura’s eyes are wide with shock as he registers the way Kazuya’s got one of his wrists captured, legs on the outsides of his hips, and his other hand holding the control high up in the air. "I’ll turn the television on for you if you call me senpai."

"Screw you, senpai!" Sawamura snarls, and Kazuya’s fingers tighten around Sawamura’s wrist before he slowly, deliberately, moves, letting Sawamura go.

"Now if only you’d be a good boy and remember it all the time," Kazuya murmurs, licking his dry lips.

"In your dreams!" Sawamura rubs at his wrist, still lying down, eyes on the ceiling as he takes large, heaving breaths.

"Too bad." Kazuya leaves Sawamura there, claiming the other cushion Sawamura had previously occupied as his own, and distracts himself by flipping quickly from the MLB game over to channel 8, Fuji TV, to see the NPB match up of the night. It’s broadcasting from Nagoya, the Dragons’ home turf, and the stands roar right as the game comes up on the screen, the bottom right registering Chris’s defense’s first out.

The Dragons end up winning with a grand slam in the bottom of the eleventh, Sawamura talking through the thing with anecdotes about the players on Chris’s team, punctuating most of them with wide, gape-mouthed yawns.

"Time for bed," Kazuya says, nudging Sawamura’s thigh with his toes.

Sawamura rubs at his eyes, and frowns. "Shouldn’t we plan more for tomorrow’s game? We can’t lose again!"

"We won’t. Even if we can’t rely on your crossfire, we’ll have you pitch twice as many of your various change-ups, and then scare them with occasional backbrushes so that they never know what kind of slider will be coming—" He’s not expecting Sawamura to put a hand on his ankle, but the shock of it shoots right up his system. "Sawamura?"

"It’s really is easy for me to be confident when you’re going to be holding your mitt up for me, Miyuki-senpai," Sawamura says, his palm so warm on Kazuya’s cold ankle, his thumb stroking warmth up the skin of Kazuya’s calf. "Against Aoyama, or anyone else. Even against a team with a Narumiya Mei! Or a Hongou Masamune!"

"I am the best," rasps Kazuya, wanting to move away but not sure he can, with Sawamura looking at him like that.

"I already knew that." Sawamura’s hand tightens just slightly on Kazuya’s ankle. "Something has to make up for your attitude!"

"You talk a lot of trash about my attitude, Sawamura, but you keep coming back for more~"

"I’m used to it!" Sawamura scrunches his nose. "Like getting tackled by Kuramochi-senpai! Or like when Shirasu-senpai gives me that slow, judgmental stare…" He chuckles nervously. "Maybe I’m not used to that, yet, actually. But you? I already know you’re gonna piss me off."

"Good to know you’ve gotten used to me." Sawamura’s thumb lingers on the skin right above the bone. "You piss me off too, for the record." Kazuya’s heart is threatening to splinter his ribs. "But if I piss you off so much, what are you doing in my apartment, hmm? Or at my school, even. Ichinose says you almost went to Rikkyou."

"Not really. They offered, but…" Sawamura swallows, his Adam’s apple bobbing. "It’s not just because I wanted a fallback, do you hear me?!"

"What?"

"University." Sawamura smiles at him, slow and sweet and new, all teeth but gentle in a way Kazuya hasn’t seen before. "It was also because—" The news starts blasting at a high volume as game coverage ends, and Sawamura seems to suddenly think better of whatever he’d planned on saying, withdrawing his hand so fast that he falls backwards into the cushion. He turns his attention rapidly to the television. His face is so red, blush coloring his ears to strawberry and extending all the way down past the v-shaped collar of his sky-blue Dragons pullover sweatshirt.

Kazuya doesn’t pick at it, not sure he even wants to know if even shameless Sawamura’s embarrassed to say it, and turns to the news as well, only to see, with a sinking stomach, that it’s local news streaming.

"Oh, one of my professors is really into this whole labor protest thing. I think this is the guy she was talking about. 'Cause of how well he speaks about issues." It looks like Sawamura’s brain is sizzling in his head. "Or something to do with taxes?"

"Overtaxing is stifling small businesses while no additional taxes are being leveraged against larger corporations." The footage on the screen is one of Kazuya’s dad’s first municipal building speeches on the effects of trickle down economics in his slow, quiet voice, and his surname is crawling across the bottom of the screen on a news ribbon along with information about the protest’s gained momentum.

"Hey, is he…" Sawamura looks with narrowed eyes at the television, then looks back at Kazuya. "Is he related to you?!"

"Why?" Kazuya asks, rejecting his immediate impulse to lunge for the remote. Instead he forces himself to lie back and rest his weight on his elbows. "Do we look alike?"

"Maybe. It’s just, when he smiled just now, he did this thing with his eyebrows—he reminded me of you. That, along with the name…"

"My father," Kazuya says. "That guy is my father. Don’t ask me any more or mention it to anyone."

"Is it a secret?" Sawamura looks entirely perplexed at the very idea. "Why is it a secret?"

"Tsk, I don’t want that kind of attention during baseball season."

Sawamura just blinks at him. "But he’s doing a good thing, right? It’s unfair for small businesses to lose so much when big companies don’t have to pay anything, right?"

"It would seem simple to you, wouldn’t it?" Now Kazuya’s thinking about the damn association gala again. He’s never been good at playing socially-adjusted longer than a few minutes. It seems to involve a lot of saying what people want to hear and having no real opinions, and Kazuya’d realized that wasn’t a particular strength of his way back in middle school, when he’d isolated himself from everyone else on his team and wound up getting shoved around far too much because he’d still cared about things like making friends and ‘getting along’ with people. "The politics of this is more complicated than that."

"Why’s it more complicated than that?" Sawamura’s lower lip juts out.

"The world’s not built to be fair. We didn’t let Ouya go to the next phase of the tournament back when you were a first year just because they weren’t a baseball school, right?" Kazuya sighs. "We won, and they lost, because we were more prepared, more skilled, and had more money to pay tuition for the best players we could scout."

Sawamura’s quiet for a long moment, his mouth opening and closing like he badly wants to protest but can’t find the words. "I think sometimes, we should go out of our way to make things more fair." Then he looks at Kazuya more carefully. "I think you probably agree with me."

"It doesn’t matter if I do or not." Kazuya tries to loosen his muscles, but he can hear the tension in his voice. "The point is, I don’t want anyone thinking about labor politics when it comes to me and baseball. I want to make a good impression on scouts so that I’m eventually drafted for a good team. That’s it."

"So it’s that you don’t want people asking you about this stuff? Not that you’re, like, his secret kid or something?"

"What kind of weird things run through your head?" His father’s voice in the background is low and stern, and Kazuya’s had a rough enough day already without listening to his dad say more words to a bunch of strangers than he’s said to Kazuya since he was like, nine. He takes the control and turns the TV off. "Of course I’m not that guy’s secret kid. I have the same family name, don’t I? Wouldn’t be the best secret-keeping technique."

"It’s not like you’re the only person in Japan with that name!" Sawamura scratches his scalp with polished fingernails. "Although, it is pretty uncommon…?" It reminds Kazuya of Sawamura’s hands in Kazuya’s hair just yesterday, leaving rosin dust behind. "It’s just, you’ve never talked about him, and I’ve known you kind of a long time. Has anyone ever met your dad? Because… I remember not meeting him at your graduation."

Kazuya swallows. "Kuramochi’s met him. Kids I knew in elementary school, I guess, but I don’t know. It’s not a big deal, but I’d rather you didn’t mention all this to the whole team or anything."

"You can count on me! I won’t tell a single person!" It would be more convincing, Kazuya thinks, if Sawamura weren’t shouting it at the top of his lungs in the middle of the night.

"You should just forget about it, and focus on the important things." Kazuya gives Sawamura one of his smuggest looks, the remote still heavy in his hand. "Like beating Aoyama."

He expects that to fire Sawamura up about the game tomorrow, but instead, Sawamura just stares at him. "You called him ‘that guy’ before." He leans forward, searching Kazuya’s face for something. "Did you—" Sawamura stops, yawns, and rubs at his eyes with the heels of his palms.

"You really should go home and sleep."

Sawamura nods, then, aborting a motion to get up, puffs out his cheeks and points at Kazuya. "I changed my mind!"

"About… what?" Kazuya watches him carefully. "Going home?"

"No, you cooking for me. I don’t want it anymore!"

"I wasn’t going to do it anyway," Kazuya replies, blandly. "I hope you enjoyed tonight, since that’s the closest you’re getting!"

"Instead, I want to cook with you!" His finger pokes Kazuya in the chest. "I’m a terrific water boiler! They’ll write articles in the newspaper about how great I am at it, along with my pitching! Toujou told me last year that my ramen skills are unparalleled as long as I don’t overcook—"

"You’re really inspiring confidence in your kitchen prowess with this story already, Sawamura." Kazuya grabs Sawamura's finger, and for some reason, holds onto it. "Why the differentiation?"

"Eh?"

"I mean, why ‘with’ instead of ‘for’? What does it matter, if I’m doing all the hard work anyway?"

"Because…" Sawamura wiggles his finger free, flexing it warily. "I dunno, I’m just getting the idea that you’ve cooked a lot of meals alone, and…" He laughs, a weird, strangled sound. "That’s no good! My mom always told me cooking’s more fun if you have an assistant!"

"You want to be my assistant?" Kazuya can’t help but ask, even as his lungs seize up, Sawamura’s words making it impossible for them to work as they should. The kid is always like this, he thinks. A human battering ram at the doors of Kazuya’s fortress. "I know you love it when people tell you what to do, Sawamura, but—"

"No!" Sawamura shouts, getting to his feet. "I mean, well, yes! But only for cooking!"

"Maybe for your birthday," Kazuya finds himself replying, and that stops Sawamura from bubbling and frothing over like he’s a pot of overcooked ramen himself. "No promises." He looks away from the sudden sparkle in Sawamura’s eyes.

"I’m holding you to it, anyway!" And with that, Sawamura is rustling his way out of Kazuya’s living room, and into the hall. He jams on his dirty baseball cleats, no socks on his feet, and snags his gear bag. "I’ll see you in the morning! Be prepared to be amazed!"

"You’re really going to catch a cold," Kazuya says, trailing behind him, still a bit winded from the general emotional whiplash Sawamura’s causing him tonight. "I’d give you something else to wear, but who knows when you’ll give it back."

"I gave back your uniform!"

"But what about my windbreaker?"

Sawamura’s hand freezes halfway through turning the lock, and the back of his neck is reminiscent of a summer sunburn. "Ah, that’s… I’ll give it back to you tomorrow!!"

Then he’s out the door, leaving Kazuya staring at the muddy footprints left behind by his cleats and wondering why he’d even allowed Sawamura in to start with. Weak, he thinks. You’ve totally gone soft. Kazuya had never meant to let down his guard. If there’s one thing Kazuya knows, it’s that nothing good can come from doing that.

He’s cleaning up the mud on the floor when Kuramochi gets home.

Kuramochi looks down at him curiously. "Did you take in a stray?"

"Close," Kazuya replies. "Sawamura was here."

"Did you patch things up?" Kuramochi shrugs off his coat, and skirts around Kazuya, going into the kitchen and opening the fridge. He pours a glass of water before turning around and leaning back against the counter to wait for an answer.

Kazuya frowns at him as he picks up the dirty paper towel and walks into the kitchen, too. "There was nothing to patch up."

"If you say so." Kuramochi punches him lightly in the shoulder as he drops the paper towel in the trash. "Glad you patched up nothing, then."

"I hate you," says Kazuya, and Kuramochi’s cackle rings through the apartment.

"Nah," Kuramochi says. "You really don’t." Then he raps his knuckles on the kitchen counter behind him. "I’m beginning to think you’re all bark and no bite, Miyuki."

"Bullshit."

"Sure, sure. You keep telling yourself that." Kuramochi gestures to the two sets of freshly washed chopsticks on the drying rack. "Maybe you’ve just got a soft spot for baby deer."

Kazuya runs a hand through his hair. "I’m going to bed," he says, leaving Kuramochi in the kitchen and retreating to the dark of his bedroom, hoping he’s tired enough to fall straight to sleep.

Seven o’clock the next morning finds Kazuya watching from the fence as Sawamura throws his slider crossfire into the net. It looks… fairly useable, and Kazuya lets his eyes linger on Sawamura’s broad shoulders as he pulls back into a wind-up.

"He’s not overworking himself, is he?" Kazuya looks left to see Assistant Coach Numamoto standing on the other side of the fence, clipboard in hand.

"I don’t think so," Kazuya replies. "Sawamura told me about his arm."

Numamoto raises both eyebrows. "He was fairly adamant that we not tell people, but I shouldn’t be surprised you’re the exception."

Unsure how to take that, Kazuya just sighs and pushes forward. "It doesn’t seem like it’s going to be an issue. He’s never had a UCL, so it’s not like he’s recovering from an injury." He flexes his gloved hand. Sawamura hasn’t noticed him yet, but Kazuya isn’t in his direct line of sight, so it’s not that big a surprise. Still, Kazuya should go and interrupt him so they can do a few together before Sawamura has to stop to save his arm for the game. He’ll have to warm up again in a couple of hours, too, and Kazuya doesn’t want to waste too many of their starter’s pitches outside of innings in what’s sure to be a tough game. "What do you think?"

"About the crossfire slider?" Numamoto hums. "It’ll probably be effective against Aoyama’s batters for at least the first half of the game, especially considering how late Sawamura’s delivery is. It seems strange to even classify that as a crossfire, considering how he's pitching it, but for all intents and purposes, that's exactly what it is."

"I’m planning to mix it in with his two-seams, and hopefully we can really confuse them." Kazuya straightens up, lifting his weight off the fence. He’d only gotten six hours of sleep last night, but he doesn’t feel tired, and though there’s still that knot of anxiousness all wrapped up in the inappropriate feelings he’s got for Sawamura, he’s always been able to put personal feelings aside for baseball. "No one's ever seen anything like that, really. We’ll win today."

Numamoto nods. "I think so, too." He grins. "You’d better go get a few pitches in with him before we all have to meet up at the bus lot."

Kazuya slips in through the gate, walking slowly toward Sawamura, who already looks well-ruffled, hair a mess and all pink from the early morning cold. He’s wearing Kazuya’s jacket again.

"How are you supposed to give that back to me if you’ve got it on?" Kazuya asks, and Sawamura almost drops the baseball he’s swirling around for grip in his surprise.

"Don’t sneak up on me!" He puffs his cheeks out, a belligerent glint in his eyes. The thin sheen of sweat on his face draws Kazuya’s attention to the smooth line of the bridge of Sawamura’s nose, all finished peeling and dotted with new freckles. His neck is red from exertion. "Where’ve you been, anyway?! I thought we were going to meet at seven!"

"I’ve been watching you for awhile, Sawamura. Not my fault you’re a box of rocks and didn’t notice Numamoto and I standing over there."

Sawamura puts his hands on his hips, the faded black leather of his glove dark against the white of his uniform. "Why were you over there instead of catching for me?!"

"I wanted to watch you execute that crossfire a bit from a distance," Kazuya says. It’s partially true, at least. "I think we can use it. And now that you’re all warmed up…"

"Gonna catch for me now?!" Sawamura’s grinning again, leaning into Kazuya’s space, resting his ungloved hand on Kazuya’s shoulder, first finger brushing the side of Kazuya’s neck. Sawamura’s looking down at him all excited and awake, and Kazuya’s stomach bottoms out. "C’mon, Miyuki Kazuya, prepare to be amazed!"

"You know amazed and amused don’t mean the same thing, don’t you?" Kazuya asks him, voice coming out a little too high. Sawamura doesn’t seem to notice, though, and Kazuya’s next words sound exactly the way he wants them to. "I’ll be surprised if you even get that thing to me at all, Sawamura."

He pushes Sawamura back and drops his bag between them, pulling out his chest protector. He'll need the gear for a pitch like this.

"Of course it will!" Sawamura sputters, after he catches his balance. "I’m the ace! It’s my job to find your mitt!"

Kazuya peeks up at him through his overgrown hair, a smile playing at the corners of his lips even as he ignores the tingle along the curve where his neck meets shoulder, the memory of Sawamura’s hand enough to keep his heartbeat accelerated. "Oh really?" He slips his chest protector over his head. "Well, it’s my job to make a pitcher shine. So let’s see what you’ve got, then."

Sawamura’s answering smile, determined and triumphant, makes Kazuya want to stare at him. Instead, he drops his gaze and focuses on fastening his shin guards with steady hands, his glasses fogging up in the cold as he exhales.

The first crossfired slider that slams into his glove five minutes later, with a fiery pitcher still in release posture, is a perfect strike.

"What do you think about that, Miyuki Kazuya?!" Sawamura yells at him from the mound. He glows, and his grin shows all his teeth.

"I think," Kazuya replies, breath catching in his chest, "that Aoyama’s leftie-killers have got another thing coming if they think they’re going to get a win off of our defense today."

"Are you praising me?!"

"If you can’t tell, I’m not going to enlighten you." He smirks at Sawamura’s growl, throws the ball back to him, then punches his mitt. "Give me another. We need to work on your aim a little if we want to completely destroy their confidence."

"Sometimes I love your nasty personality," says Sawamura with a laugh, easily catching the ball with his outstretched glove, folding it up into the pocket and pulling it toward his chest.

"Oh?" Kazuya keeps his tone light and mocking. "How flattering~!"

Sawamura’s eyes narrow. "Not when it’s turned on me, though!"

"You think you get to pick and choose now?" Kazuya signals for a ball to the deep inside. "That’s not how it works. All or nothing, Sawamoron."

Sawamura scratches at his cheek with his left hand, leaving streaks of rosin like gashes on the skin. He tilts his head to the side, pursing his lips. "Then I’ll take all of it," he finally replies, and then lifts his leg to wind up for his next pitch.

Kazuya barely catches it, even though it goes exactly where it’s supposed to.

After ten or so more pitches, Kazuya keeps the ball and takes off his mask. "That's enough. You've got an entire game to pitch today."

"Is Coach Maeda going to start us?" Sawamura drops his glove into his bag, and then leans down to pull out the cream for his arm.

Standing up from his crouch, Kazuya starts taking off his own gear as Sawamura inefficiently pushes up his compression sleeve and the sleeve of Kazuya's jacket. The bunched up fabric cuts into his thick bicep as he screws the lid off the tube. "That's the plan," Kazuya says, stopping briefly to watch as Sawamura carefully starts to massage the cream in. The fingers of Sawamura's right hand are free of rosin at least, he thinks, as he watches the thin, callused fingers drag down the smooth, tan skin of Sawamura's pitching arm, toward his elbow.

Shaking his head, Kazuya turns his attention back to taking off his chest protector and packing it back up safely for the game.

His thighs burn a little when he squats back down to take off his leg gear, still sore from yesterday's game. He'd only been in seven out of nine innings, but they'd been long, and Kazuya might be in great shape but he still feels it when he plays bloated innings. It's nothing that will affect him out on the field this afternoon, but it’s noticeable.

He sighs, and his glasses mist up once more from the hot air.

Suddenly, the early morning sunlight is gone, replaced with Sawamura's shadow. "Doesn't that get inconvenient?"

"Doesn't what get inconvenient, Sawamura?" Kazuya looks up at him. "Dealing with first-year pitchers who never remember my honorific?"

"No, asshole, your glasses!" Sawamura squats down in front of him, way, way too close, his knees bumping Kazuya’s, and he reaches out and snags Kazuya’s glasses before he can react. "They’re all fogged up again."

His fingertips, there only fleetingly, are cool against warm skin. Sawamura's breath smells of minty toothpaste as he exhales through his mouth instead of his nose.

"That’s what happens when it gets cold." Sawamura is blurry in front of him. "Give ‘em back, brat."

"You're really blind without these, aren't you, Miyuki Kazuya? You always worn glasses?"

"I’ve worn glasses since I was six." His mother had noticed him squinting down too hard at the page. He remembers her pushing his hair out of his face and saying "just like your father," gently and then calling on the phone to make an appointment with the optician. "If I could see without them, I wouldn't wear them."

Sawamura sets them carefully back on Kazuya’s nose, wiped clear, with much more precision than the last time he’d taken Kazuya’s glasses, on the floor of Ichinose’s living room, drunk and silly. "That's better," he says, softly, another puff of mint.

"I can clean my own glasses," Kazuya says, curling his hands on his thighs, fingers digging into cramped muscle. "I've been doing it for years." He doesn't meet Sawamura's eyes, looking just past him as he raises one hand to push his glasses back up on his nose, out toward the empty field.

"You look younger without your glasses." Kazuya flicks his gaze to Sawamura's in surprise, and gets caught by the inquisitive brightness of them. "Or, no, not younger. Older."

"Wow, Sawamura; drawing such definitive conclusions this morning."

Sawamura licks his cracked, dry lips, then scowls, his nose scrunching up in annoyance. He doesn't straighten, or move back, and Kazuya doesn't either, trying to figure out how to put at least fifteen more centimeters between their faces without looking like he's running away. "Shut up, I'm trying to figure out what I'm saying!"

Kazuya snickers, even as his heart thuds rapidly against his sternum. "Most people do that before they open their mouth, idiot."

"Your face is distracting me!" Sawamura replies hotly, and then flushes a dark red. "Don't take that any kind of way, Miyuki! I mean that your glasses are back on so it's changed your face back to normal!"

Kazuya swallows harshly. "You know that my actual features don't change when I put glasses on, don't you?"

"Obviously," huffs Sawamura, leaning in closer, his knees resting against Kazuya's now as he starts to chew on his lower lip. If he does it much more, it'll bleed, Kazuya thinks, running his tongue along his teeth. His neck feels hot, and he hopes his face isn't flushed. He's never been one for blushing, anyway. "I meant that, I don't know, you look softer or something, without them." Sawamura then pokes Kazuya in the forehead with his left index finger. "Less evil."

It surprises a laugh out of Kazuya, and he releases the air he hadn't noticed he was holding hostage in his lungs. "I'm exactly the same amount of evil with or without them, Sawamura." He smirks, then splays one hand across Sawamura's breastbone, shoving with enough force to knock him back onto his butt.

Sawamura squawks, the tension breaking completely, and he screeches as he catches his weight with both hands. "Bastard!"

"Now, now, no need to get bent out of shape about a little fall like that," Kazuya croons, and Sawamura, flustered and overexcited as usual, glares up at him as Kazuya quickly finishes taking off his leg guards, straightening up with another whine of complaint from his quads. "Hurry up and grab your stuff so we can walk to the parking lot."

"It's only eight!" He pick himself up, dusting off the dirt on the front of his uniform pants, leaving brown handprints on the white. "We don’t have to meet everyone until fifteen minutes to nine!"

"Oh?" Kazuya arches one eyebrow at him. "You don't want to get something to eat?" Sawamura gapes at him, like the thought of breakfast had completely slipped his mind in all of his single-minded crossfire practice, and Kazuya rolls his eyes. "Wouldn't it be hilarious if you got hungry halfway through the game and became even worse at batting? If that's even possible." He drops his guards into his bag and hefts it up onto his shoulder, zipping it as Sawamura scurries around to pick up his things and throw them into his own bag.

"My specialty is in bunting! Bunting!"

"Whatever helps you sleep at night!" Kazuya starts to walk toward the gate, knowing Sawamura will catch up.

The weight of hands on his shoulders stops him, and the blue material of his jacket, warm from Sawamura's body and smelling of Sawamura's shampoo, falls over his arm on the left and pools on his gear bag on the right. "Don't forget your jacket, you jerk."

The hands pull away, and Kazuya fights the urge to lean back in search of them. "After you’ve been wearing it while you practice? Gross, Sawamura."

"I washed it last night!" Sawamura complains, hurrying to fall into stride next to him. "Ugh! You're the worst!" For all of that, he bumps Kazuya companionably with his shoulder, and Kazuya shoots him an amused look that is returned with a half-hearted grimace. Kazuya wonders, a little helplessly, how they got here, to Sawamura thinking of Kazuya as more friend than enemy, and Kazuya thinking Sawamura might look pretty when kissed. "Want to brave the convenience store? It might be too early for Uehara-san to be on shift."

"How about the coffee shop by the parking lot? You can buy me an Americano in gratitude for me putting up with you at seven in the morning on a late day."

"Only if you don't lie about wanting an espresso when I bring it back to you!" Sawamura gives him the dirtiest look, and Kazuya bursts out laughing, holding his sides, his jacket almost falling to the ground. "It's not funny that you're the world's biggest asshole!"

"Yes it is!" Kazuya wipes at his tearing eyes. "You're so easy to rile up! It's definitely funny!"

"You're lucky we're friends!" Sawamura crosses his arms, pouting. "You're really the absolute worst."

"We're not friends." Kazuya wags a finger at him. "I'm your senpai."

"Partners, then!"

"Yeah, yeah," Kazuya says, thinking about the way Sawamura had yelled at him for real last night like an idiot in the hallway until Kazuya'd let him inside his apartment. Perhaps it's Kazuya who'd been the idiot, thinking he'd be able to ignore someone like Sawamura, who'd gotten way too much of his attention even when Kazuya hadn’t really been his catcher, and had had Furuya to fill up his time. Sawamura's the sort of person you sort of have to look at, really, and fighting against it is a futile gesture at best. "Partners."

"Don't forget that," Sawamura mumbles, mostly under his breath.

Ignoring that pointedly, even as his stomach flops over, Kazuya looks up at the clear sky, no clouds marring the grayish-blue of early morning Tokyo. "Good weather for a game day," he says, and when he looks over at Sawamura again, it's to find Sawamura staring at him with an odd expression, his lips curling down in a tiny frown and his eyes heavy-lidded, lashes obscuring his eyes. "What?"

"Nothing," Sawamura says, shaking himself like a wet dog before he grins. "Race you to the cafe!" He takes off in a loping sprint toward the gate.

"Not everyone likes to run everywhere, idiot!" Kazuya yells after him, but he increases his own pace to a light jog to make sure Sawamura doesn't get too far ahead of him.

Sawamura, with flakes of croissant sticking to the corners of his mouth, falls asleep on him about five minutes after they get onto the bus, before it even starts moving, trapping Kazuya’s arm underneath him.

"Geez," Kuramochi says, hunching over the back of the seats in front of Kazuya to poke at Sawamura’s cheek. "Out like a light."

"He uses up way too much energy in everyday life," Kazuya says, shifting around in his seat, trying to get comfortable with Sawamura’s elbow digging into his side. "What a moron."

"You could wake him up," Kuramochi says, as Kazuya sighs and pulls his phone out of his jacket pocket, scrolling to his e-mail. Furuya’s sent him a long one, full of information about his current training regime, and how it’s better than Sawamura’s. "You know he’s always groggy when he first wakes up."

"I’ll wake him up ten minutes before we get there," Kazuya replies absently, switching to another mail from his journalism professor about his edited project proposal. "We were up early so it’s probably better to let him rest a little."

"Doting~" Sanjo singsongs as he slides into the seat next to Ichinose, across the aisle from Kazuya and Sawamura. Kazuya gives him an arch look, but Sanjo is unperturbed. "Having Sawamura here this year has been great."

"Because we’re winning?" Kuramochi asks, as Kumai and Takarada come onto the bus, each carrying a backpack bigger than they are, probably filled with towels and first aid kits. They drop them off in the front-most seats, and then Kumai sits down next to Shirasu as Takarada heads back toward the empty seat next to Kuramochi.

"No," Sanjo says, "because we’re finally getting to see Miyuki do something other than casually insult people."

"I’d like to think of that as my best quality," Kazuya says flippantly. "Besides, I casually insult Sawamura more than I do anyone else." He makes a show of pausing to consider. "Except for maybe Kuramochi."

"Yeah, but Sawamura gets you to come to team parties and makes you laugh for real," Takarada says, mimicking Kuramochi’s pose, her fingertips curling over the seat-back to help her balance on her knees. "Like I said on the first day of practice, he livens you up." She looks at Sawamura’s sleeping face with undisguised adoration, and Kazuya takes a deep breath when he feels an unwarranted clench in his gut.

"It was like that in high school, too." Kuramochi pokes at Sawamura’s cheek again. "Between Sawamura and Furuya, Miyuki never had a chance." He pokes harder.

Takarada slaps his arm. "Let him sleep," she chides, and Kuramochi shrugs and flops back into his seat facing forward again, Takarada setting down beside him and bickering.

Sanjo, sensing that the show is over, picks up a conversation with Ichinose, talking as much with his hands as with his mouth, kind of like Sawamura does but less like a fish pulled up out of the water. Kazuya snorts.

He looks back down at his phone, planning a reply to Furuya’s e-mail that’ll be just the right amount of taunting and encouraging. He opens up a draft, but before he can start to write, the bus’s engine starts, jostling him into the window. Sawamura makes a low whine in the back of his throat and leans.

Kazuya closes his eyes as Sawamura snuffles, then, throwing one arm across Kazuya’s hips and turning more onto his side, his face pressing into the curve of Kazuya’s neck. "Miyuki Kazuya," he mumbles, chapped lips catching on the neck of Kazuya’s compression shirt, "I’m gonna be the ace—" The rest is lost to the fabric of Kazuya’s uniform, but the warmth of Sawamura’s breath, and the weight of his arm so low on Kazuya’s hips, causes an embarrassing surge of heat in his lower belly.

Kazuya swallows, slumping down a little further in his seat, and Sawamura unconsciously takes advantage, nuzzling closer, curling into him completely. "What the hell are you doing, Sawamura?" He hisses it under his breath, not wanting to catch anyone else’s attention, and not even entirely sure that he wants Sawamura to wake up at all while they’re tangled like this.

Sawamura only coos softly in response to Kazuya’s prodding. He already smells of sweat and the field, and Kazuya feels unduly warm, his heart pounding. He stares out the window, as the familiar buildings en-route to the stadium pass them by. There’s a lot of traffic for a Sunday morning. He figures it must be a combination of sale-hungry housewives and people catching the beginning of the autumn leaves at the park.

Takarada and Kuramochi are having a hushed conversation about Kumai and Shirasu in front of them, and Kazuya tries to pay attention to that instead of Sawamura, but when the bus drives over a pothole, bumping them, some of Sawamura’s hair starts to tickle under his ear. He lifts a hand to brush it away, his fingertips skimming Sawamura’s temple. Sawamura’s hair is as fluffy-soft as it looks, and Kazuya lets a few strands slide through his fingers.

"Aww," comes Takarada's voice from above him, and Kazuya flinches back at the sound of a phone camera going off.

"Delete it!" he sneers at her, and she grins, unrepentant.

"This is historic," says Takarada. "I’m taking a picture to remind myself later that this wasn’t all some kind of hallucination."

"It’s not a big deal." Kazuya levels a glare at her. "That picture better not end up anywhere on the internet, Takarada." If he weren’t sure that Sawamura would wake up and cause a scene, he’d grab that phone right out of her smug little hands and delete it. "I’m serious."

"Don’t worry, it goes no further than me." She pauses. "It’s a cute picture, you know." She turns the phone screen toward him, but Kazuya refuses to look at it. He doesn’t want to see the way Sawamura looks fitting into his side like this, breath hot on his throat and cheek warm where it rests against the curve where his shoulder meets his neck. He doesn’t want to see the way he’s looking at Sawamura. "Your friendship with Sawamura really is often pretty unexpectedly cute."

"Why unexpectedly?" Kazuya’s voice comes out all wrong, and he hopes Takarada takes it as him not wanting to wake Sawamura up.

"Because as hot as girls inexplicably find you, Miyuki, you’re not cute." She gives him a small grin. "Or, really, all that good at friendship. So like Sanjo said earlier, seeing how you are with Sawamura is… well…" She laughs, a small chuckle that’s eaten up by all the noise at the front of the bus. "It’s honestly refreshing? You’re not just phoning it in when you talk to him."

"Have you ever talked to Sawamura on the phone?" Kazuya asks, around his heart lodged up in his throat. "He’s unbearably loud. At least in person I can put a little physical space—"

"Not that loud," Sawamura mumbles, and his lips drag across the line of Kazuya’s jaw, making Kazuya shiver. "Shut the hell up, bastard."

"Are you quite finished using me as a pillow?" Kazuya uses the heel of his hand to press on Sawamura’s forehead, lifting him from Kazuya’s shoulder. "We’ve got a game to win."

Sawamura gives him a sleepy smile. "Thanks for letting me sleep," he mumbles, and then rubs at his eyes, looking for all the world like one of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys, like he’d looked at fourteen at six AM practices, all soft and warm. For all of Sawamura’s thick muscles and stubbled cheeks, he can still seem, in moments like this, so young.

The bus stops in the stadium parking lot, and Kazuya is one of the first off, heading toward the bathroom he sees. He splashes his face with cold water, and stares into the mirror. "What are you going to do?" he asks his reflection, glasses folded on the sink edge in front of him.

"Talking to yourself is a dangerous sign," Uchida says, walking past him toward the stalls. "We’d hate to lose you less than halfway through the season from stress, Miyuki. Or maybe you’re just giving yourself a pep-talk?"

Kazuya swallows quickly, and then fishes his contacts case out of his pocket. Quickly, he pops in the lenses, puts on his sports sunglasses. "Well, you know, just checking in with the best player on the team." He runs a hand through his too-long hair. "Got a game to win and all."

"Ass," Uchida snorts, from behind the stall door. "By the way, Sawamura was looking for you. Better go find your pet pup before he gets himself lost searching."

"I don’t do pets," Kazuya replies shortly, and then pushes out of the bathroom before Uchida can reply.

"Where’d you go?" Sawamura asks, pulling on his sleeve, when he joins back up with the team migrating toward the dugouts.

"None of your business," Kazuya replies. To distract the pitcher, he takes the baseball cap Sawamura is holding in his hands and shoves it down onto Sawamura’s unruly curls. "Arm tight from all that lazy sleeping?"

"No, jerk!" Sawamura says, grinning. "I’m ready to kick their butts! That’s what aces do!"

"Well, then, Sawamura, let’s make sure they don’t even come close to winning today." He flicks the brim. "Let’s crush them."

Sawamura’s grin turns a little ruthless, and Kazuya’s blood rushes. "You’re the worst."

"You love it," Kazuya says, as they drop their bags on the floor in front of the benches.

Sawamura looks at him out of the corner of his eye. "Yeah," he says plainly, sucking his lower lip into his mouth. "Guess I do."

Kazuya pretends he doesn't hear him, moving away to sit next to Shirasu as the two of them get ready to bat first for the offense.

The look on Zaizen’s face when Sawamura strikes him out with a bizarrely crossfired slider is perfect. "Didn’t think we were going down that easy, did you?" Kazuya digs, and Zaizen snarls as Sawamura beams at him like some kind of star going supernova from the pitcher’s mound. "Nice pitch," he calls out, and if possible, Sawamura gets even brighter.

Together, they strike out the second and third batters up for Aoyama, too, putting them up by two runs going into the second inning.

Sawamura peacock-walks his way back to the bench, the idiot, and Kazuya snickers as he sits down, Sawamura taking the seat next to him without pause. Kazuya pushes down hard on the brim of Sawamura’s cap, covering those gleaming predator eyes of his. "Don’t get cocky, Sawamoron," he teases, adrenaline making it easy for him to assign his elevated heart rate to the game.

"There’s a difference between cocky and prepared!" Sawamura straightens his cap as he says it.

"Yes, but do you know what that difference is?" Kazuya raises an eyebrow and pulls his headgear off as Kuramochi walks out to take their first at-bat of the inning.

"My grandpa says prepared is when you know your opponent’s abilities as well as your own, and you’re certain you measure up, but cocky is… cocky is thinking you’ll be the best no matter what your opponent has up their sleeve!" Sawamura nods, satisfied with his answer, and Kazuya leans forward to rest his elbows on his knees and study Sawamura carefully.

"Oh ho?" He gives into impulse, and looks right into Sawamura’s eyes. "So which are you?"

"If it was just me…" Sawamura leans back against the wall. October wind blows down into the dugout, ruffling his hair and feathering it out across his forehead where it isn’t under the hat. "If it was just me, that team is too strong. But it’s not just me. We’ve got Kuramochi-senpai, and Shirasu-senpai, and all the third and fourth years, too! Takarada is rooting for us, as well, along with the rest of the managers, and their fighting spirit is nothing to overlook!"

Kazuya tilts his head. "What about me?" He hears the crack of the ball against bat, but the sound is wrong. A fly tip, and an easy catch.

Sawamura looks up at the ceiling, then rubs at his neck in an unexpected show of sheepishness. "Well, I’ve known since the first time we met that if a pitcher has you catching for them, they can slay giants," he says, lips quirked up at the corner.

Even though Sawamura’s not looking at him, Kazuya’s suddenly glad he switched to his tinted sports glasses before the game. "Obviously," he says, after a touch too long pause.

"Don’t get cocky, bastard," replies Sawamura, returning his gaze to Kazuya, his grin widening again into something pleased and bereft of any smugness.

"This," Kazuya says, roughly, breathlessly, "is prepared."

"Don’t waste your breath, Sawamura!" Kuramochi’s arm drapes across Kazuya’s shoulder. "I’ve been telling him that for years, but this guy’s been cocky as long as I’ve known him!"

"That’s only one year longer than me!" Sawamura puffs out his cheeks. "And why are you back already! Did you strike out?!"

"He hit the ball, but it was caught by third base," Kazuya says, smirking when Sawamura gapes at him, because he’d never once looked out at the field. "Impressed by my situational awareness, first-year?" He taps the underside of Sawamura’s chin. "You’ll catch flies if you keep your mouth hanging open like that."

Kuramochi laughs. "Why aren’t you watching the game, Sawamura?" he teases, wagging his finger in facetious reproach. "Pay less attention to this pretty boy catcher and more to what’s happening with your team on the field!"

"Yes!" Sawamura’s flushing a dark, dark red, clenching his white, chalky hands into fists on his lap. "Sorry!" His voice cracks, and he shoots Kazuya a questioning, furtive look that Kazuya doesn't completely understand.

Kuramochi cackles, tightening his arm around Kazuya’s shoulders. "What are you so red for, Sawamura?!" He leans toward Sawamura, dragging Kazuya with him. "Hmm? You look like all the blood vessels have burst in your neck and your head is gonna explode!"

"What lovely imagery," Kazuya remarks lightly, as Sawamura bares his teeth at Kuramochi. Kazuya is in high school all over again.

"I'm not!" Sawamura blusters, scrubbing at his cheeks and leaving white rosin fingerprints behind on his still-freckled cheeks. "I'm just full of vitality! About baseball!" He hops up from his seat as Numamoto calls out for him. "Just... focus on winning!"

"Who are you talking to, kid?!" Kuramochi looks positively delighted about having gotten under Sawamura's skin, still laughing loudly into Kazuya's ear even after Sawamura's gone to the other end of the dugout. "Sawamura is always a riot."

Kazuya hums in agreement, squinting out at the field. Sanjo is up to bat, rocking back and forth from the balls of his feet to the heels as the catcher and pitcher confer at the mound.

"Not like you to get distracted during a game, though."

"I'm not distracted." Kazuya adjusts his sunglasses. "I knew what was happening."

"Only because you're good at multitasking. You were paying way more attention to Sawamura than the game."

Kazuya's stomach tightens. "Not really. Laughing at an idiot is only worth, say, twenty percent of my focus."

"Then why was he getting ninety percent?" Kuramochi runs a hand through his hair. "You—" He's interrupted by an excessively cheerful text message alert that sounds like it came right out of an anime. "Is that your phone?"

Kazuya shoots him an amused look, and then bends forward to pluck Sawamura's phone up from where it rests on top of his bag. 1 New Message is lit up on the screen. "Aotsuki Wakana."

Kuramochi's arm finally drops from around Kazuya's shoulders. "It's absolutely ridiculous that Sawamura's got two hot girls after him!" He snags the phone right out of Kazuya's hands, staring hard at the new message like the glare will reach Sawamura's friend all the way back in Nagano and pushing the home button to pull up the lock screen. "Do you think he's changed his passcode since high school?"

"You knew his passcode?"

"How else was I suppose to reply to all of his text messages for him?" Kuramochi grins. "Unfortunately, it looks like he's wised up."

"Too bad," Kazuya deadpans. "Think of the hundreds of unreplied-to messages you could have read."

"He does reply sometimes." Kuramochi scratches his neck. "You just can't have any urgent conversations with him that way most of the time. Takes him hours."

That makes Kazuya think of when he'd gone to have dinner with his father back in Tamagawa, and Sawamura had texted him out of the blue and then kept on texting him. Kazuya smirks. He really should have gotten Sawamura something with bees on it, just because. "Maybe if we told him replying to text messages might make him a better pitcher."

Kuramochi snorts. "It might work. Single-minded focus is definitely one of his strong suits." Shaking his head, he tosses Sawamura's phone back to where it had been on top of his bag. "And in that case, maybe we're lucky Sawamura doesn't have a girlfriend. Can you imagine?"

Kazuya can, sort of. He wonders if Sawamura would look at her like he looks at Kazuya when they're both out on the field, ready to strike someone out, with all that fire. If he'd devote himself to another person the way he does to running and weight-training and throwing balls at the net late at night even when there's no one around to help him.

How well he can see it rests in his belly like curdling milk. Kazuya swallows. "Sawamura'll probably never date anyone but baseball," he says, finally. "His love affair with being ace pitcher is pretty exclusive."

Laughing again, Kuramochi pokes Kazuya's arm. "Time to put your face mask back on. Looks like Shiba struck out, and Sawamura's waiting for you over there next to Coach Maeda."

"Same plan as last inning?" Sawamura asks, when Kazuya moves to walk out with him.

"Backbrushes and your dirty crossfire sliders," Kazuya agrees. "Let's keep them at zero for the rest of the game to pay them back for yesterday."

Sawamura puffs out his cheeks, then shares a conspiratorial grin. "I can't wait to e-mail that bastard Furuya and tell him all about my no-run game!"

"You need to pitch one before you start bragging to anyone!" Kazuya thumps Sawamura's chest with his mitt, and veers off toward home plate.

"Didn't you just tell me to?!" Sawamura yells after him. "God-damned asshole!"

Kazuya grins.

They win eight runs to zip, and Aoyama's shell-shocked faces, at the end of the game, are as delightful as Kazuya had hoped.

"Well done," Maeda says to Kazuya, as Shiba and Ichinose take turns hassling Sawamura and thumping him on the back. "I think the crossfire experiment was a success. We need something else to call that pitch besides a crossfire, though."

"His control could be better." Despite the breeze, Kazuya's hair is sticking to his neck and cheeks with sweat. "But it was enough to stop Aoyama today. It'll stop them tomorrow in the tie-breaker, too, and they know it. With Sawamura pulling an ace out of nowhere, it raised the morale of the entire defense. The outfield was at the top of their game. Sawamura's got that effect, if you can pull it out of him." A smile pulls at the corner of his lips.

"You seem to be able to." Kazuya is surprised when instead of dismissing him, Maeda instead pins him with a careful stare. "Your play-calling is exceptional. You're the right choice for our starting catcher, not that there was really any doubt. That's why we recruited you, after all." He says it bluntly, like it's fact and not praise. Kazuya knows it's fact, too; he's just as good a catcher as Chris is, in a lot of ways, and Chris is already becoming a star in the ichigun. "Still, I haven't been considering you for captain, despite your ability and your previous experience as a captain in high school."

Not expecting that, Kazuya's grip tightens on his gear bag. "Coach?" In some ways, Kazuya has always thought it was a matter of time until he was made captain. Not because he's entitled to it, or even because he even really wants the responsibility, but because being captain gives him more control over the team, and over the game. It puts him in a position where he doesn't have to fit in, only be in charge, and Kazuya likes that kind of position. That's why he's a catcher in the first place.

The silence between himself and the coach is broken by Sawamura hollering loudly at Kuramochi to let go of him, and Numamoto trying in vain to be heard over the commotion. Takarada's laughter echoes through the dugout woven in among the shouts, and Kazuya would, for the first time in a long time, rather be with a loud group of players than observing them from the outside.

"However, that's because I thought you didn't know how to communicate with others off the field. A captain is more than a star player." He gives Kazuya a long look, and Kazuya remembers Nabe, again. Remembers how helpless he'd felt looking at Sawamura's empty eyes when he'd gotten the yips. Remembers not knowing how to deal with everyone on the team looking at him like his practicality made him a villain, even though he's always believed that sacrificing being liked is a sacrifice that he's willing to make to win. "I'm reconsidering that."

Maeda waves a hand to tell him the conversation is finished, gesturing for Ichinose to come in for his chat, and Kazuya runs through the conversation over and over again as they prepare to leave.

"Why does your face look like that?!" Sawamura asks as he plops down next to Kazuya on the bus. They might as well, Kazuya muses, have assigned seats the way everyone just sits in the same places every time.

"Genetics," replies Kazuya. "Sorry about yours, but it’s not your fault." He pats Sawamura on the back absently, his thoughts still on what Maeda said. "No need to be jealous. You’re better looking than Kuramochi, at least."

"Fuck you!" Kuramochi says from the seat in front of them, but it barely interrupts his conversation with Takarada. Kazuya grins, and Sawamura pouts.

"I don’t mean your actual face!" Sawamura pokes his jaw. "I mean the tight muscle thing in your jaw, like something bad happened. We won, didn’t we?"

"Are you still not sure?" Kazuya arches an eyebrow. "Did you want counting lessons alongside your English ones? I’m sure Takarada would be glad to help."

"You’re impossible!" Sawamura’s pink with irritation, and it really is an ugly grimace his mouth is making. It’s still cute, though, and Kazuya’s annoyed to think so.

Kazuya leans back in his seat. "Then why do you try so hard?"

"Trying hard is an important part of improvement!"

Kazuya gives Sawamura an incredulous look. "Improvement at me?"

Sawamura bites his lip before bunching his eyebrows together in a scowl Kazuya’s pretty sure is reserved just for him. "I hate you."

Kazuya just chuckles as Takarada peers around the seat to look at them both. "You bicker like little kids over cake at a birthday party." Her gaze lingers on Sawamura before she catches herself.

"I would never argue over cake." Kazuya wiggles his fingers at her dismissively, and she rolls her eyes, turning forward again in her seat, as Sawamura shoots him another displeased look and leans across the aisle to talk to Ichinose.

It’s a much cheerier team that disembarks back in the athletics parking lot.

"You coming out to eat with us?" Kumai asks, leaning against an implacable Shirasu as Kuramochi and Sanjo jan-ken for which restaurant they’ll go to.

"Not this time," Kazuya replies. "Work to do. Game tomorrow."

"What about you, Sawamura?" Shiba asks, tugging on the strap of Sawamura’s gear bag. "If you come along, we won’t stay out too late!"

"What’s that supposed to mean?!"

"That you’re as noisy as an ambulance, and you’ll get them kicked out!" Kazuya dodges Sawamura’s kick to his shins on reflex, taking three steps back. "Have fun~"

"I can’t go out either, for your information!" Sawamura wrinkles his nose. "I’ve got an English assignment due in the morning. On the dinosaur book."

"Do you need help?" Takarada rests her small hand on Sawamura’s elbow, and Sawamura isn’t fazed by the touch.

He just smiles down at her. "It’s okay! It’s just one of those journal entry things, not a serious essay assignment."

She nods. "Good luck!" She’s blushing. Kazuya doesn’t like the traitorous clench of his heart in his chest, and he spins on his heel, in the direction of the baseball practice fields and his apartment.

"See you tomorrow," he says with a tight grin, adjusting the weight of his bag and not waiting for acknowledgement to begin his hurried exit.

The loud thuds of cleated footsteps catching up with him has him slowing down, and Sawamura huffs. "You could wait!"

"But you do so love running," replies Kazuya, letting Sawamura elbow him. "Why would I deprive you of that joy?"

Sawamura looks torn between laughing and getting frustrated, and Kazuya has to look away because either way, Sawamura’s face is flushing.

"Did the coach say something to you?"

Kazuya almost misses a step, but recovers, his face falling into a practiced smirk. "We had a whole conversation. Two intelligent people can have one of those."

"So can two not-jerks!" Sawamura grabs a handful of Kazuya’s jacket. Kazuya hadn’t realized he was cold until he feels the warmth of Sawamura’s knuckles against his side. "Did he say something bad?! Did we do something wrong during the game today?!"

"We won." Kazuya keeps his eyes straight ahead. "We did something right. Stop yelling!"

"I’m going to kick you again!" Sawamura yanks, and Kazuya stumbles, reaching out to catch his balance by gripping Sawamura’s shoulder. He’s hot underneath Kazuya’s palm, and against Kazuya’s waist, where Sawamura’s other hand immediately goes to steady him, his right hand still gripping a handful of Kazuya’s jacket tightly enough that pulling away will tear it. "Partners, remember?"

"As much as you like my jacket," Kazuya says, voice raspy, "it’s not yours to grab whenever you want." Sawamura just stares at him intently, and Kazuya is caught again by the ferociousness of Sawamura’s eyes. Sawamura, he decides, can’t be anything but intense, with eyes like that. "And partners doesn’t mean gossip buddies."

Sawamura’s lips thin. "Batteries can’t work if power doesn’t flow from one end to the other!"

"Is that real science?" Sawamura’s hand at his waist tightens, and Kazuya can feel the heat rushing to his face. He hates it, but for some reason, he can’t bring himself to push Sawamura away. It’s probably a combination of how he’s warm and smells like sweat and baseball, and how he looks every time Kazuya tries to shut him out. It was easier in high school, when Kazuya found him amusing and mildly endearing instead of… whatever he finds Sawamura now.

"Who cares?!"

"I’m just questioning your premise." Kazuya licks his lips. "I’m not… amazing at getting along with people."

"No shit," Sawamura agrees, nodding his head authoritatively.

"That’s what the coach said. I won’t make a good captain because as good as I am at baseball, that’s not what being captain is about." Kazuya sighs. "He’s not wrong. I wasn’t a great captain in high school, either, really."

Sawamura’s eyes close halfway, lashes casting a shadow as they catch the last of the evening light and glitter. They’d reached the baseball fields, before they stopped, and Sawamura gives them a longing glance before tearing away to meet Kazuya’s eyes.

"You're an asshole," he says. Kazuya does his best not to flinch. "You tease people because you like to see them uncomfortable, and you, like"—Sawamura contorts his face—"poke at people's raw spots until they bleed sometimes, when you don't know what else to do." He exhales. "You can be polite if you want, but you usually don't want, and you get mean as hell when you think people are getting too close to you." He crosses his right arm across his chest and grins. "That's the wall thing." Then Sawamura wrinkles his forehead, his thick eyebrows gathering. "But."

"But?"

Sawamura leans in, and his breath smells like the soy sauce and vinegar-rice from the convenience store bento they all had for lunch. "But someone would have to be a bigger idiot than me to think any of that means you don't care about anybody or the team." Kazuya can see the pores in Sawamura's skin. The last of his sunburn is gone, and all that's left are the patches of freckles and the pink of his chapped lips. "All the stuff you do without making a big deal about it is the stuff that makes you captain material." Sawamura narrows his eyes. "Not that I want a cocky bastard like you to be in charge of me! Don't get any ideas!"

Kazuya feels short of breath. "I wouldn't dare."

"You always looked after Furuya, you know?" Sawamura drops his hands and looks up at the sky. "With the nail polish and the pitching stuff. And you made sure Chris looked after me, even after he retired from the team."

Kazuya’s eyes widen. "You—"

Sawamura gives him a little secretive smile that Kazuya’s never seen before. "You’re not that sneaky, Miyuki Kazuya!"

"That’s Miyuki-senpai to you, Sawamura," he drawls, covering his surprise immediately. "You should respect me." He drops his hand from Sawamura’s shoulder. "Especially since I’m such captain material."

Sawamura blushes such a dark red that Kazuya’s actually worried he’ll pass out. "I’m never going to say anything nice to you again!" His hands curl up into fists, and he fixes his gaze on the ground. "You’re full of yourself enough already!"

"But you told me people want to be praised when they’re doing well!" Kazuya’s heart is beating too fast again. At least his mouth is still working, even if his brain is tripping over how much he wants to reach up and cup Sawamura’s cheek with one of his cold hands, to find out if it’s as warm as it looks.

"That’s because you hardly ever praise me, even when I’m awesome!"

Shoving his hands in his pockets, Kazuya chuckles. "There are plenty of other people who do that."

"They’re not you!" Sawamura zips his jacket three-quarters of the way up. It looks big on him, despite his broad shoulders; probably because Kazuya is so used to the way Sawamura looks in his own smaller-sized one. "Not that I need you to think I’m good! It’s just! If I am, then you should say so!"

Kazuya reaches out and zips the jacket those last few centimeters. His index finger tickles the underside of Sawamura’s chin, brushing soft skin with just the hint of facial hair. Sawamura’s soft, surprised exhale is warm against his fingers. "Nice pitching today, Sawamura," he says, and at Sawamura’s pleased, gaping expression, Kazuya pushes him gently away. "Now go to sleep early tonight, and don’t fuck it up tomorrow."

He starts walking toward his flat, leaving Sawamura out on the main road to make his way back to his own place.

"You always ruin it!" Sawamura yells at him, and Kazuya waves his hand dismissively without turning around. "Wouldn’t kill you to just give me a compliment, you bastard Miyuki!" He doesn’t sound all that upset, and Kazuya’s not going to dig into that, or make something of it.

"Flirting with him is just as stupid as ignoring him," he says to himself as he climbs the steps up to his apartment. He can still feel Sawamura’s heat, and see the redness of his cheeks. "Miyuki Kazuya, what are you doing, being so stupid?"

And really, isn’t it wanting Sawamura that’s the stupidest thing of all?

we won yesterday, he texts Chris the next morning. Sawamoron pulled a crossfire out of his ass.

You sound impressed, answers Chris. Still alluring?

"Yes," Kazuya mutters.

"You texting Chris-senpai?" Kuramochi asks, dragging him into the convenience store. "Why is he even awake?"

"Even the pros have morning practice." His eyes flit over to the front counter, where Uehara is watching them both. Grabbing his usual can of Boss, he approaches her with feigned nonchalance. "How’s it going, Uehara?"

"Fine," she says, in a surprisingly firm voice. She meets his gaze, and taken aback, Kazuya stares at her for a moment before he smiles.

"Good to hear that," he says, dropping three coins into her hand to pay for his coffee. She hands him back his change with a steady hand.

"Congratulations on the win yesterday," she says, as he pops the lid of his coffee can and waits for Kuramochi to figure out what he wants.

"You came?"

Uehara’s smile wobbles a bit then. "I kind of… just like baseball now," she admits.

"Oh?" He takes a sip of cold coffee. It’s almost time to switch to hot until spring rolls back around. "Can I ask you a question?"

Uehara fiddles with the neck of her uniform apron. "Sure, Miyuki."

"What did my moron underclassman say to you, the other day?"

Uehara’s lips curve into a tiny smile. "I’m not allowed to say." Her smile grows as Kuramochi slides a huge onigiri and two sports drinks across the counter, even though he and Kazuya have just had breakfast. "Sawamura told me it’s our secret."

Kuramochi looks between the two of them curiously. "You’ve got secrets with Sawamura?" She rings Kuramochi up, accepting the change and offering him a small smile too. His lips part in surprise as he looks at her. "It’s Uehara, right?"

She nods. "Ah, not secrets. Just one. He talked to me after…" She swallows. "It’s easy to see why Takarada likes him."

"Is it?" Kuramochi asks, his face caught between curiosity and disgust. He snags one of his sports drinks and chugs it. "Sawamura’s almost as popular as you are."

"Almost being the key word," Kazuya says. "But I think what you’re worried about is that he’s so much more popular than you!"

"Let’s see how much girls like you when you’re a corpse!" Kuramochi lunges for him, and Kazuya sidesteps just enough that Kuramochi’s arm wraps around his shoulder instead of his neck.

"Now, now, we’ve got practice."

"Miyuki, you might not make it to practice," Kuramochi grumbles, and Uehara laughs as he drags them both out, dropping his onigiri and other sports drink into his bag. "You must really not have been cruel."

"What do you mean?" Kazuya flicks his gaze in Kuramochi’s direction. "That onigiri has tuna with mayo in it, it’ll go bad if you don’t eat it now."

"Sawamura said that you didn’t look like you were being mean, when you were talking to her. I told him you weren’t always mean on purpose." Kuramochi hums. "Sawamura knows you pretty well these days." He squints at Kazuya as they approach the fence. "And whatever, it’s not going to go bad in an hour."

"If you get food poisoning and die, I’ll laugh." Kazuya shrugs free of Kuramochi’s arm. "Uehara reminds me of someone," he says, vaguely. "That’s all."

"Of course you’d laugh, you’re pure evil. Does Sawamura remind you of someone, too?"

"That idiot is one of a kind." Kazuya shrugs.

"Yeah," agrees Kuramochi. "He really is." He punches Kazuya’s shoulder. "Ready for today’s game? You and the kid gonna pull out another miracle?"

"We don’t need a miracle," Kazuya replies. "We’ve got me."

Kuramochi rolls his eyes. "Charming."

"Sorry, I can’t hear you over the romantic sighs of my admirers."

"That’s the worst part," Kuramochi says grimly, pulling the onigiri back out of his bag and pointedly taking a bite, mayo smearing across his lower lip. "Don’t remind me."

Aoyama goes down kicking and screaming to Sawamura and Kazuya’s battery, and an exceptional performance from Meiji’s lead batters. It’s not a sweep like Sunday’s matchup had been, and they get a few hits off Sawamura’s two-seam, but it’s not enough.

Kazuya’s high from the win, and Sawamura is bouncing off the walls enough that it takes Uchida and Sanjo both to hold him down with their arms crossed over his shoulders. There’s reason to be excited—only Meiji and Waseda are undefeated so far, and it’s fitting that they’ll be facing each other last this season. That game is so close Kazuya can taste it.

"Can you catch for me a little tonight?" Sawamura asks, as they make their way out of the dugout. "Not a lot, just…"

"Too much energy?" Kazuya looks at him. Sawamura is shivering, like he’s going to jump out of his skin. "You really need to get yourself a tire so you can wear yourself out without me."

"Is that a yes or a no?!"

"You really do think you’re entitled to my time these days, don’t you?"

"No," Sawamura answers, impatiently. "But if you’re willing to give it to me, I’ll take it!"

"Pitchers are so greedy," Kazuya says. "Greedy and selfish!"

"So?!" Sawamura wets his lips with a pink tongue, and Kazuya’s mouth goes dry. "I know it’s a Monday, but I—"

"We have practice early tomorrow morning, Sawamoron. Surely you can wait?"

"Fine," grumbles Sawamura. "It’s just that—" He stops, and blinks, and Kazuya follows his gaze.

Narumiya Mei is leaning against the wall, legs crossed at the ankle, his Waseda uniform still pristine. They’re playing an afternoon game today, Kazuya remembers suddenly— against Rikkyou.

Mei pouts as he sees them, his eyes lingering too long—too resentfully, really—on Sawamura, before he speaks.

"Oh, it’s you again," he says to Sawamura, his lips curling down in a pouting frown. "The next Narumiya. As if there could ever be a need for another."

"Don’t you have a game to play?" Kazuya asks, as Sawamura bristles like a dog guarding its master’s door.

Mei shrugs. "In a bit." He tilts his head. "Saw your game today, Kazuya." His eyes flick back to Sawamura. "Is that what you wanted?"

"What are you talking about?!" Sawamura starts, and Kazuya sighs, pulling down on the brim of Sawamura’s hat so that it covers his face and muffles the yelling.

"What do you want, Mei?"

"Wanted to see what all the fuss was about." His boyish grin is everything it’s always been. "I still don’t get it."

"You’ll get it when we beat you," Kazuya says, with a grin of his own, and Mei scoffs, looking up at them both.

"Kazuya, Kazuya, you’re into pipe dreams now?" He pushes himself off the wall, and gets up into Kazuya’s space. "It’s not too late to transfer to Waseda~"

"No way you’re stealing my catcher!" Sawamura’s got his hat crunched up in his hands. His hair is a sweaty, tousled mess, flattened on the top from getting smushed.

"I don’t belong to you." Kazuya elbows him. "Anyway, if you keep asking, Mei, I’ll think you’re desperate."

"I just don’t get it. You passed up a chance to join the best team in the Big6 to go to Meiji and work with a pitcher who wasn’t even your ace at Seidou. It doesn’t make sense. Unless…"

"It has nothing to do with who you are," is Kazuya’s immediate response, cutting Mei off before he can say something Kazuya doesn’t want him to say. "And everything to do with what I want out of being catcher. I already told you that."

Mei pouts at him again, and Kazuya lifts both eyebrows when Mei suddenly snorts, a smile at the edges of his lips. "Fine, whatever, your loss." He walks between them and down toward the dugouts, where the rest of his team has probably already gathered.

"You could have gone to Waseda?"

Kazuya squints at Sawamura. "You could have gone to Rikkyou."

"But I didn’t!" Sawamura nibbles at his lip. "I came to Meiji!"

"So did I."

"Why?"

Kazuya shrugs, then looks over his shoulder to where Mei is still walking down the hallway, whistling jauntily, his blond hair sticking up in the back. "I had my reasons."

"What reasons?"

"None of your business!" Kazuya flicks Sawamura’s nose, and Sawamura snaps at his finger like he’s going to bite him. "Still not housebroken?"

"I’m not a dog!" Sawamura yells, and Kazuya leaves him hollering behind him as he makes his way toward the bus outside, where the rest of the team is probably waiting for them.

Kazuya steps out of his Roman History course with the beginnings of a headache, tight muscles in his back, and a growling stomach. He pulls out his phone to check his e-mail as he walks toward the main lobby, deleting two spam messages and opening the one from Furuya with no subject line, only to find that it’s one of his rare longer messages, full of the customary typos. Kazuya wonders how Furuya’s doing with his English, without a Takarada to keep him on track.

"I didn’t know you were in this building on Thursdays, Miyuki! So am I! You should have told me!"

Kazuya looks up from his phone to see Sawamura and another girl he doesn’t know standing in the lobby, each carrying a stack of papers three centimeters thick. Sawamura’s wearing his Seidou baseball cap again, and carrying that atrocious green backpack. The girl, as seems to be the usual with Sawamura’s female friends, looks absolutely smitten with him. "How am I supposed to know your class schedule? It’s bad enough that I know your baseball schedule."

"We have the same schedule!"

Kazuya arches a single eyebrow. "Obviously, Sawamura." A pang in his head has him cringing.

"What’s wrong?" Suddenly Sawamura is in his face, those big gold eyes blinking owlishly right up close. "Why’re you making that face!"

"Not so loud." Kazuya winces, taking a step back. "What are you doing here?"

"Posters!" The girl smiles at him, not with quite the wattage she’d offered to Sawamura. "For literature club. You’re Miyuki, right? From the baseball team. You know Yukimi, I think. She’s mentioned you. She works at the convenience store. Uehara Yukimi."

Kazuya swallows. "I—"

"He’s my catcher," Sawamura says, before Kazuya has to scramble for a socially acceptable response.

"No," Kazuya corrects, tucking his phone away and adjusting his backpack to obscure his relief. "I don’t belong to you, idiot." He rubs at his temple. "What are the posters for?"

"Are you sick?" Sawamura’s hand presses to his forehead, all tough skin and warmth. "Do you have a fever?"

Kazuya grabs Sawamura’s wrist and pulls it down. "It’s just a headache. Probably tension. I’ll bet it’s my body telling me I see you too much. An allergic reaction, maybe." He lets go of Sawamura and shoves his hands into the pockets of his sweatshirt. "You’re in the literature club, Sawamura?"

"No!" Sawamura flushes. "I just… read the books sometimes. And maybe in the winter I’ll go to a few more meetings, and, I… Well, it doesn’t mean I’m not giving the baseball club one-hundred-percent, Miyuki Kazuya!"

"I hope you can make it to more meetings when the season ends," the girl says. "We love having you!" The sparkle in her eyes would be prime teasing material if Kuramochi were around, but it just leaves an acid taste at the back of Kazuya’s tongue when it’s only an oblivious-to-his-charms Sawamura.

Trying to convince himself that he isn’t jealous, Kazuya drops his gaze back to the posters. "Looks like you’ve got a lot of work to do, and I’ve got to get home…"

"Oi, are you going to be okay to get home?" Sawamura is squinting at him now, pouting. "Are you—"

"I’m not sick, idiot," Kazuya interrupts, then he brings a hand up to massage his neck. "Have fun postering campus!" He grins, nods at the girl, and then heads out of the building into the chilly afternoon.

He makes it all the way to the back gate before the familiar thunder of footsteps catches up with him. "Wait up!"

"Did you leave that girl with all those posters?"

"Ah, well, yes, but it was her responsibility. I just ran into her on my way out of my Environmental Science class, and she asked me to go with her to hang them up!" He puffs a little, breath a gray cloud in the air. "She took them back when I said I wanted to follow you!"

"I don’t need an escort home." He brings both hands up to rub at his temples this time.

"You’ve got one anyway!" Sawamura is walking so closely beside him that their arms brush with every step. "Geez, Miyuki, it won’t kill you to let me walk you home."

"It might," he says. "Since you’re clearly giving me tension headaches—"

"Jackass," Sawamura replies, with no real heat. "Do you have painkillers at your place?"

"I don’t take them," Kazuya replies. "Sleep will do the trick."

Sawamura goes quiet, for him, just his noisy shuffling footsteps, and on autopilot, Kazuya walks back to his place, peripherally aware of how close Sawamura is walking to him, and just how warm he is, too.

When they arrive at Kazuya’s building, he turns to say goodbye to Sawamura, only to find him staring at Kazuya with a determined face that fills Kazuya with trepidation. "What?"

"I’m coming up with you."

"Going to tuck me in?"

"So what if I am?!" Sawamura puffs his cheeks out. "I can’t have you getting sick when we’re in the middle of baseball season!"

"I’m not getting sick," Kazuya says again, impatience leaking into his voice as he walks up the stairs, Sawamura at his heels. "I didn’t sleep well, Sawamura, and it’s left me with a headache and an aching back, and neither of those things are going to be helped by you hovering."

"Muscle tension?" Sawamura hums thoughtfully. Kazuya unlocks the door, watching surreptitiously as Sawamura leans against the wall. He’s wearing another of his baggy sweaters, and even with the loose cut of it, Kazuya can see the bulge of his biceps. Worse, still, is the way the collar hangs loose, showing way too much collarbone and throat. "Actually, I can help, so there!"

"No thanks," Kazuya says. He shucks his shoes and moves toward the kitchen. "Go home. No practice today, so you can call Takarada or something and get started on your homework like a good little first year." He pulls some of last night’s vegetable stir fry out of the refrigerator and dumps it into a microwave-safe bowl.

"I’m all caught up already," Sawamura promptly replies. Kazuya can feel his eyes on him as he plugs in the rice cooker to warm up the rice he made this morning. "Even in English."

"Wow, when did you get so studious? Literature club, ahead on your homework… Where’s the idiot who would never have passed Seidou’s entry exam?"

"Hey!" Sawamura shouts, too loudly for indoors. "Don’t be a jerk! I try, okay? My grades were better than Furuya’s!"

"Furuya did pass Seidou’s entrance exam, though." Kazuya thinks about the e-mail he hasn’t finished reading, and smiles a bit. Then Sawamura, with his sunkissed skin and freckled nose, moves back into Kazuya’s field of vision, and at the frustrated pink of his cheeks, Kazuya’s stomach twists up.

"Yeah, yeah," Sawamura grumbles. "Whatever, bastard. Are your grades any good?"

"Undoubtedly better than yours," Kazuya replies, as the microwave dings. He goes over and takes the bowl out of the microwave and sets it on the table, dishing some lukewarm rice from breakfast out of the cooker into a smaller bowl and bringing that over too. He sits down, and Sawamura sits across from him, crossing his arms on the table to pillow his chin. He stares at Kazuya through his bangs, the brim of his baseball cap casting his eyes into shadow. "Don’t watch me eat; it’s totally creepy."

"Can I have a bite?" Sawamura sits up straight and stretches an arm across the table to stick his fingers into Kazuya’s bowl, pinching a slice of pepper between his fingers and shoving it into his mouth without waiting for a reply. "’s good," he says around the bite. Some of the sticky sauce clings to his lower lip. "You make this?"

"If Kuramochi had, we’d both be dead right now," Kazuya manages, tearing his eyes from Sawamura’s mouth to stare down at his lunch. He takes a huge bite of rice to try to calm the hungry grumbling of his stomach. "Poisoned."

"He’s that bad? Maybe you should teach him." Sawamura takes his cap off and sets it on the table. "Ahhh, when are we going to cook together?"

"I still haven’t agreed to that," Kazuya reminds him.

"You never agree to anything, because you’re a dick who likes being stubborn on principle!" Sawamura grins at him. "Besides, I’m curious!"

"Your curiosity is not an obligation for me." Kazuya shifts in his seat, his back so tight even sitting up straight is uncomfortable. His head is throbbing, now, too.

"Your back’s really giving you problems, huh?" Sawamura’s lips pucker into a pout. "I can-"

He’s interrupted by the sound of the doorbell, and they both turn in unison to look in the direction of the front door.

Kazuya sighs, standing up and setting his chopsticks across the top of the bowl.

At the door is a courier, dressed in the beige and green Yamato Delivery uniform and holding a thick padded envelope along with a clipboard. "Miyuki Kazuya? Package for you." He holds out the clipboard. "You’ll have to sign for it."

Kazuya nods, taking the clipboard and the pen and scrawling the first kanji of his last name in the tiny box left for it before accepting the padded envelope. "Thanks," he says absently, closing the door and returning to the kitchen. Taking a pair of scissors from the last drawer on the right, he cuts it open, and a handwritten note drops out and flutters to the floor by Sawamura’s feet.

Sawamura picks it up and squints at it. "Thank you again, Kazuya," he reads, brow furrowed. "What is it?"

"You’re being awfully invasive today, Sawamura," says Kazuya, as he slides the embossed gala invitation from the envelope. Like today hasn’t been long enough.

"You don’t look like yourself today," Sawamura says quietly, and when Kazuya looks up sharply from the invitation, Sawamura bites his lips and turns a fiercer red than Kazuya’s seen from him in years. "I don’t want you to miss practices or anything like that, is all!"

"I see," Kazuya says, his heart squeezing in his chest. It’s the worst, he thinks, that even when he feels awful, he still can’t think of a thing he’d like more than to tilt Sawamura’s chin up and kiss him. He wonders if Sawamura’s chapped lips would feel rough against his own, or—

He looks back down at the invitation. "My dad wants me to go to a gala on the fifth. They’re honoring… Well, someone I used to know that died."

Kazuya sets the invitation down between them and resumes his meal. The rice is completely cold, now, and the vegetables are soggy. He’s hungry enough to eat it anyway.

Sawamura peers at it speculatively for a few moments. "Someone you knew, huh?" he says. "Were you close?"

"No," Kazuya says. "Not really. I’m not close to anyone." He sighs. "Neither is my dad, but I guess Old Man Kasuda’s an exception or something."

"Not letting anyone get close?" Sawamura chuckles. "That does sound familiar."

Kazuya chokes on his bite of onion, looking at a cheekily grinning Sawamura over the top of his glasses frames. "Yes," he says, after he’s swallowed. "Came by it honestly."

That starts Sawamura on a long diatribe about things he inherited from his father, somehow, ("not his hair, though, it’s terrible, just like gramps") and Kazuya just listens to him as he finishes his food, musing on how comfortable it is to sit across from Sawamura at the table as he eats, despite the simmering attraction. He wonders if that’s another one of Sawamura’s talents. It seems counterintuitive, what with how good Sawamura is at aggravating people, but it’s easy to lower his guard around him. Too easy.

He puts his dishes into the sink as Sawamura continues to ramble, and then, spins around to watch him gesturing with his hands for a few moments before coughing, interrupting him mid-sentence. "I’m going to sleep now, Sawamura. Go away. I’ll see you at practice in the morning."

"Not yet," Sawamura says. "We’ve got to get rid of your headache and back tension."

"We?" Kazuya rolls his eyes, but then he’s blinking as Sawamura ushers him toward his bedroom, tugging at his sweatshirt. "What are you doing?"

"Take this off," Sawamura insists, "and get into bed."

Kazuya bites down on a joke about being propositioned, and instead stares incredulously at Sawamura as his sweatshirt is lifted, almost taking his shirt with it. He shucks it himself to avoid losing his glasses to Sawamura’s enthusiasm. "What are you doing, Sawamura?"

"Lie down on your stomach, Miyuki Kazuya!" Sawamura’s face is too close, and Kazuya stumbles back just to give himself space to breathe. One of Sawamura’s hands is splayed across his ribs, guiding him back, and Kazuya wonders if Sawamura can feel his racing heartbeat.

"Pitchers are always so demanding," he mumbles, breathlessly, but he lets Sawamura push down on his shoulders, and lies flat on his stomach without too much of a fight, sighing with relief as he stretches out, pressing his face to the pillow. "I’m lying down. Now what, Dr. Sawamura?"

"It’s not a doctor thing," Sawamura says. "It’s a family thing, actually." The bed dips as Sawamura kneels next to him. "My dad is kinda high-tension, and when he gets headaches my mom always massages his neck and uses, I dunno, pressure points." Sawamura’s hand rests lightly on his neck. "So, I figured, maybe I could…?"

Sawamura’s mother, in all the stories Sawamura tells him, always sounds nice. Empathetic. Sawamura’s surprisingly those things, too, despite the selfishness and stubbornness. Maybe it’s also an inherited trait, like Kazuya’s twisted personality. Kazuya’s not sure what he’d gotten from his mother.

"Someone in your family is high-tension? I’m shocked."

Sawamura’s fingers remain gentle even as he growls. "Shut up."

Kazuya shivers, pressing his face more firmly into the pillow. He means to say something scathing; something that will send Sawamura on his way scowling and huffing and puffing, but words get stuck in his throat as Sawamura’s fingertips, hot and rough, drag down the nape of his neck until they reach the stretched collar of his T-shirt.

"Careful, Sawamura, you sound tense."

"This angle won’t work," Sawamura says, ignoring him for once, his hand slipping lower to rest between Kazuya’s shoulder blades. "No leverage."

"Leverage?" Kazuya is about to ask, but then Sawamura’s weight goes from next to him on the bed to over him, balancing with one arm brushing his ribs while the other holds steady at the center of his back, hot through the cotton of his shirt. Sawamura’s breath puffs along the side of his neck in frustration.

"These bunk beds are low," he complains, and Kazuya can feel the words as they send a shiver down his spine. His headache and his sore back and his business association gala are suddenly the last things on his mind as every centimeter of his skin reacts where Sawamura touches, and some places where he doesn’t. "I do not miss these from Seidou."

"They’re space-efficient," says Kazuya, clenching his hands in his sheets. The warmth pooling in his belly is unfortunate. Physical attraction right now is unfortunate—just as unfortunate as it had been back when he was actually in high school, on a Seidou bunk bed. Even then he’d been resigned to shoving feelings like this away, but it’s a whole lot more difficult when Sawamura can’t seem to follow Kazuya’s unwritten rules, bludgeoning in too close, wanting too much. "If you don’t like it, go home."

"You remind me of the main guy in half the romance manga I like to read," Sawamura says, his thumbs pressing in, hard, to Kazuya’s neck. It hurts, briefly, but then Kazuya forces himself to relax into it, even as his mouth goes dry. "You can admit you like having me around, Miyuki!"

"I hate pets," says Kazuya, closing his eyes as Sawamura works on the knots at the base of his neck. "Don’t strain your thumbs. We only have one week off."

"Just shut up and accept the massage!"

"You’re being really stubborn about this." Kazuya’s words are muffled by the pillow. He has to clench his jaw at the arousal when Sawamura’s hand slides into his hair for just a moment.

Kazuya should stop him. Kazuya should have stuck to his guns when he tried to push Sawamura away before. He should go back in time, and never give Sawamura his jacket, or let Sawamura re-lace his glove, or sit next to him on the floor cushions as he spills his guts about his dad in a way he’s never done with anyone except Kuramochi.

"It’s ‘cause… I hate it when you look like that."

Kazuya should have taken one look at Sawamura standing there on the first day of practice, still the same boisterous kid but with his edges smoothed down, and found some way to be Uchida’s catcher. But as much as Kazuya had always liked working with Furuya best, Furuya who is simple to understand and thinks like Kazuya himself does, a part of him has always wanted to be the hand that shaped Sawamura, pruning stray branches and cultivating him into the strongest possible plant. He’d known from the moment Sawamura grinned at him from under that familiar front-facing cap that he was going to stake his claim on him as a pitcher. He really should have counted on Sawamura’s warm nature melting him a little, should have counted on all of this.

Sawamura’s got a way of surpassing even Kazuya’s expectations. "Look like what?"

"Defeated," Sawamura says, and the hand that had been dangerously close to playing with Kazuya’s hair is now at his ribs, right where it had ached, and taken away baseball. "Sick. It reminds me of that time you were hurt, and you didn’t want anyone to know."

"No one needed to know. It would have distracted you all from the game, and the game is what matters."

"Everyone knew but me," replies Sawamura. "In the end, everyone but me—" He stops, and Kazuya waits for him to start again, but he just sighs angrily. "Anyway, your face looked like that today when I saw you. How am I supposed to put up posters when you’re making a face like that?"

"I told you I’m not sick."

"I didn’t believe you until you got that invitation, though. From your dad. You just looked… more terrible, so I figured your thoughts are sick instead."

Kazuya licks his lips. His thoughts, huh? Sawamura is always insightful at the worst times. "So you pushed me down and took me hostage to your holistic treatment practices in my own bed? And that’s supposed to help my ‘sick thoughts’?"

"Getting rid of your headache is something I can do!" Sawamura leans forward, then sighs again, his breath ruffling Kazuya's hair as he moves one hand to grip Kazuya’s wrist and turn his palm up. Then he pinches between Kazuya’s index finger and thumb. "There’s a pressure point here. When I was little, my mom would do this when I had a headache, so…" He exhales. "I don’t talk to anyone else as complicated as you, Miyuki. I don’t know how to cheer you up, so this will have to do!"

"What are you talking about, Sawamura?" Kazuya is all too aware of Sawamura’s weight pinning him to the bed, lean thighs on either side of his hips and Sawamura’s left hand still lightly holding on to his hand, fingers pressing into the fleshy part of his palm as Sawamura’s right thumb starts to dig into what must be another pressure point just underneath his shoulder blade at the same time. Sawamura’s breath smells faintly of Kazuya’s stirfry, of soy sauce and pepper. "I don’t need to be ‘cheered up’." Sawamura's hands on him like this is almost more than Kazuya can steel himself against. "Especially not by you."

"You do so, bastard! I’d ask if you wanna get ice-cream, but you’ve never seemed to like it as much as ‘Mochi-senpai." Kazuya tries to laugh, but with Sawamura on top of him, he can’t get enough air to manage it. "And I’d ask if you wanted to go out for drinks like on TV, but I'm not old enough and you don’t drink, either." Sawamura rolls off Kazuya slightly, to lie half on him, half on the crumpled blankets. "Is it because alcohol is bad for athletes?"

"It’s because when I drink, I…" Kazuya stares fixedly at his pillowcase. "I act differently. Make decisions I wouldn’t normally make." Sawamura’s hand drags down his back, finding bare skin where his shirt has hitched up, and Kazuya bites back a gasp. "I don’t think out my play calls."

He remembers that one time in fragments, tiny pieces of an evening out with his some of his old Senior League teammates moaning about graduation: of picking a bar in an area that wasn’t known for checking ID, of Carlos handing him a beer, of Mei handing him something even stronger in a shot glass, of feeling liquor burn in his throat and his stomach as Mei, with his shimmery eyes and soft blond hair, talked about all the pitches he’s never thrown to Kazuya, and sat so close that Kazuya could smell his body soap.

They’d stepped outside, and Mei, tipsy, wobbling, had stared at Kazuya for a long moment, under the street lights. "You’re sort of pretty like a girl, sometimes," Mei’d said, and he’d tugged Kazuya down and kissed him. Kazuya, drunk for the first time and unattracted to girls and emptied out from a retirement from high school baseball that seemed more scary than it was, had kissed Mei back for seconds too long to ever forget the feel of him.

Kazuya remembers the way Mei’s lips had been smooth, and the way he’d demanded more than he’d given, just like on the field, tongue slipping between Kazuya’s lips and stealing a moan Kazuya hadn’t wanted to make.

Kazuya remembers the world spinning, and pushing Mei away to catch his balance. "What the fuck?" Kazuya’d said, and Mei had laughed, unperturbed.

"It’s not quite as good as kissing girls, though, is it? Sorry, Kazuya."

And Kazuya also remembers the way the alcohol had suddenly felt heavier than anything in his stomach, like a pile of stones from the bottom of riverbed in the spring, and that he’d brushed his teeth four times and still tasted Mei.

Most importantly, he remembers the next morning, when, with a headache and dry eyes and a nausea that wouldn’t fully leave even after retching for thirty minutes over the toilet, he’d thought to himself that kissing Mei had been, for him, far better than it would ever be kissing a girl.

"I don’t like that feeling," Kazuya says, pulling himself out of his memories. To his surprise, his head hurts far less, and the pangs in his back have soothed, even if now it’s his guts all tied up in knots. "That out-of-control feeling."

"I guess that’s not so surprising for someone like you," says Sawamura slowly. "Cause you’re a little bit of a control freak on the field and all, along with being a jerk dometimes."

I want to be the player that makes the important decisions, he’d told himself in middle school. At least on the baseball diamond, I can be the one who determines how things turn out.

"Gonna be my therapist, now, too? You’re revealing all sorts of unknown depths today." Kazuya gathers his strength and bucks Sawamura loose, causing him to topple to the side. The mattress squeaks, and Sawamura yelps, bewildered, as he blinks at Kazuya from his new position. Their legs are tangled, and now Sawamura’s breaths tickle at Kazuya’s nose. "Your persistence is a good quality in a pitcher, I’ll admit, but off the diamond, it’s really too much."

"You’re definitely a dick," says Sawamura, eyelashes fluttering, cheek mashed into Kazuya’s pillow. Now Kazuya knows what Sawamura’s hair looks like, against the soft cotton of his sheets. "But you’re also my partner! And you’re the one who told me I couldn’t bring down Azuma all by myself! Neither can you, no matter how good you are!"

"My life isn’t a baseball game, Sawamura. Stop comparing things." He reaches up to pull off his glasses, and folds them up in his hand. Now Sawamura’s freckled nose and long lashes are blurry, and it might be enough to help calm his heartbeat if it weren’t for Sawamura’s calf trapping his legs under them. "If It were…" He doesn’t finish, letting the words trail off.

"If it were, what then?" Sawamura’s eyes are still that pretty, piercing gold. "What would you do?"

"Skip that gala," Kazuya replies. "He asked me to speak. That’s definitely ball four."

"Ball four?" Sawamura hesitates. "You catching or at bat?"

"At bat. My dad’s a worse pitcher than you were when you showed up at Seidou, too caught up in his own problems and no idea how to grip the seams."

"Hey!" Sawamura’s scowl doesn’t need to be seen. Kazuya can hear it, and it makes him smirk. "I learned! I’m learning still!"

"That’s something you’re better at than my old man is." He snorts. "Learning, I mean." It’s always easier, when he can’t see well, to imagine no one else can see him well, either, even if he knows Sawamura’s got better eyes than most people he knows, and he’s had a disturbing tendency, lately, to see Kazuya better. "But he hardly ever asks me for anything, and even though it doesn’t feel like I owe him anything anymore, I guess I can’t say no."

Sawamura laughs. "You say no to me all the time!" His laugh bubbles warm in Kazuya’s chest.

"That’s because you ask me to catch all the time, idiot." He hums. "I’m not nice."

"But you can be nice. You were nice to Uehara. You were so nice to her that I thought maybe you liked her."

"No," Kazuya says, shortly. "Uehara isn’t like you, with a head so hard it takes a hammer to get anything through to you. It was… Easier for me, to be nice."

"You didn’t want her to cry," Sawamura says, and he pinches between Kazuya’s thumb and index finger again. Kazuya hadn’t realized Sawamura had retaken his hand, so distracted he’s been by the pitcher’s eyes, which are somehow closer now, clear with the lack of distance. "You don’t have many female friends, right? Just Takarada, huh?"

"I’m not… I don’t have a lot of friends, in general, haven’t you noticed?"

"That’s because you’re awful," Sawamura says. "Sharp and pointy at every angle. No one wants to hug a porcupine."

"Then why are you almost hugging me?"

"We had a porcupine living on our land, you know? My dad found it, one day, after it had chewed through a bunch of Mom’s Japanese Maples." Sawamura’s thumb is pressing in long, rough circles on his palm. "I think for a while he thought we had termites, or something, but… But then one day the porcupine got sick, and I forced him to bring it into the barn."

"Thought you didn’t live on a farm."

"We live on farmland though, Miyuki Kazuya! Let me finish the story!"

"Right, right." Kazuya sighs.

"Anyway, my father told me… Well, he said it was my responsibility. The porcupine was afraid of me, though, always puffing out its spines when I tried to feed it, until I got kinda scared, you know? And my dad told me, then, that things are harder to care for when you’re afraid they’re going to hurt you, and they’re afraid you’re going to hurt them! And Kuramochi-senpai said…" Sawamura hesitates. "When you weren’t talking to me, he told me that you don’t want anyone to get to know you, because you might get hurt, and that’s why you’re so mean." He pauses. "Kinda like that porcupine!"

"There’s nothing to get to know," Kazuya says, after a long moment. "You already know what my personality is like, Sawamura. Don’t tell me you hugged that porcupine."

"I didn’t!" Sawamura’s hand squeezes a bit tighter on Kazuya’s.

"You did!" Kazuya laughs, loudly, because of course Sawamura keeps beetles and hugs porcupines, because he’s a moron, even if a surprisingly observant moron. "Did it hurt?"

"I didn’t hug it!" Sawamura yells over Kazuya’s continuing laughter. "That wasn’t the point of the story!"

"What was the point, then, Sawamura?"

And then Sawamura is pressing his forehead to Kazuya’s, noses bumping as he looks into Sawamura’s eyes. Sawamura is staring at him, into him, like he’s trying to figure Kazuya out. "So are you a porcupine, Miyuki Kazuya?" His lashes are darker than his hair, and long. This close, Kazuya could count them, only that’s weird and Kazuya’s not… not soft, not romantic.

"I thought I was a tanuki," he replies, and Sawamura’s gaze flickers down briefly, before returning to Kazuya’s eyes. Kazuya’s too-loudly beating heart stops, stutters, and then starts again, faster and more wild. "Make up your mind."

"I have," Sawamura says, "about most stuff." Then he rolls over onto his back, staring up at the top bunk. "Do you really have to go to that gala?"

"Yes." Kazuya tries to catch his breath and follow the shift in topics. "If not, he’ll… well, it’s funny, but… I think I’ll regret it if I don’t."

"Can you take someone with you?" Sawamura’s gaze slides back over to meet his.

"What, were you thinking I should take Uehara?" Kazuya absently reaches up to touch his forehead where he can still feel the echo of Sawamura’s against it.

Sawamura blushes. "No," he says, fingers tangling in Kazuya’s sheets. "I was thinking me?"

Kazuya pushes a smirk onto his face even as his body flashes cold, settling his glasses back on his nose. "Going to be my date, then?"

"I only meant—!" He’s sputtering, going redder. "As a friend, I mean, I wasn’t—"

"Your face!"

"Asshole!" Sawamura looks like he wants to throttle him. He has such a great frustrated face.

Kazuya tentatively flexes his toes, and the tension is gone from his back now. Sawamura’s weird pressure point thing had worked.

"Anyway," says Sawamura, sounding less sure about this than he had about Kazuya being an asshole. "Why shouldn’t I go with you?"

"What?"

"To the thing with your dad. Since you really don’t want to go, but really have to, I’ll go with you. We can just…" He hums. "We can just talk to everyone about baseball, and you can blame it on me!" Sawamura sits up excitedly, and bangs his head into the edge of the top bunk.

"That’s a terrible idea." Kazuya turns his head to the side to look up at Sawamura out of the corner of his eyes. "You know it’s a terrible idea." He clears his throat. "You’d hate it. It’s a bunch of guys who are better at running businesses than being part of a family, just like my dad."

"All the more reason for me to go with you!" Sawamura’s still rubbing at his head, where a faint redness remains from its impact with the metal upper bunk frame. "At least you’ll have a friend there, if I go."

The thing is, it would be better, with Sawamura there. The idiot’ll miss all the social cues, probably, and step on a lot of toes, but no one can ever stay mad at Sawamura’s social fumbling, because he’s so damn earnest. He’ll chew on the leather shoes of every one of his dad’s associates there, and not a single one of them will hold a grudge.

But.

"You keep saying we’re friends," Kazuya says, slowly, breath catching in his throat as Sawamura’s hand sneaks over to his own again, pinching at the pressure point right as Kazuya’s pulse starts to pick back up again. "I don’t recall agreeing to that, either."

"That’s because you’re an asshole! Didn’t I just say it?"

"An asshole you volunteered to go to a gala with," Kazuya teases. "You’re willing to wear a suit, Sawamura? Didn’t you call them penguin costumes when we went to Rei-chan’s wedding right before my graduation?"

"Yeah, I’ll wear one," Sawamura says, and then he looks away, his face completely hidden by his hair and the tilt of his torso. "For you."

Kazuya’s heart stops. "Then okay," he says, in a voice that doesn’t sound his own. "You can go with me."

He calls his dad about Sawamura later, after a nap, and gets only his voicemail. "I’m bringing a friend. You don’t need to call me back, I’m just letting you know I’m using the plus one option."

Sawamura will drive me mad, Kazuya writes in his reply e-mail to Furuya the next morning. It’s just a post-script; the majority of his e-mail is about the rest of their match-ups this season, along with a recap of their Aoyama games, but Kazuya needs to confess it, and Chris and Kuramochi are out of the question, since both of them will try to delve deeper into it. Ask why.

Kazuya doesn’t know how someone like him collected such nosy people in his life.

"You coming to practice or not?" Kuramochi asks, peeking into the room, the sound of dying zombies finally gone silent. Kuramochi had been up all night playing with his brother, and he’s got hellacious dark circles under his eyes, even if he’s not acting all that tired. "Or are you still writing that novel of an e-mail?"

"Only you would think a page or so is a novel," Kazuya replies, closing his laptop and standing up. "Just catching up with Furuya."

"Oh yes, your other first-year."

"Furuya’s not in college or pitching to me anymore. Not a first year at all." Kazuya grabs a beige beanie and tugs it down over his ears. He’ll be cold until they finish running their laps, and it’s six in the morning, so the sun’s barely peeking out enough to warm the autumn air. "And Sawamura is not mine."

"Oh, he’s yours," Kuramochi says. "You’d have to be blind not to the notice the way he treats you like you’re captain still, even as he argues and spits and hisses at you." He twists the brim of his cap as he squints up at Kazuya. "And, Miyuki, you might wear glasses with lenses so thick they belong in a telescope, but you’re not blind."

Kazuya smirks to hide the unsettling possessive shiver that slithers through him, same as when Sawamura wears his jacket, and does up his zipper just to remind himself that he’s wearing that jacket, right now. "You should tell Sawamura all this. I’ll enjoy him shouting your head off."

"Eh, I dunno about that," says Kuramochi, following Kazuya down the hall to the front door. "I think he wouldn’t put up too much of a protest." He grins. "Kid is loyal if nothing else."

"He’s plenty else." Kazuya bites his lip in regret, and thinks quickly as he locks the door. "Except a batter."

"You asked Chris-senpai about helping him when we went to dinner that night, didn’t you?"

"He told me to do it myself." Kazuya shoves his hands into his jacket pockets. "Even though he knows he gets through to Sawamura best."

"That might have been true before this season." Kuramochi takes the steps two by two. "It might not be so true now. You see him differently."

"Oh?" Kazuya looks straight ahead, mouth dry. "He’s still loud and selfish and annoying."

"But now," says Kuramochi, pushing open the front door of their building, letting cold morning air curl in, "he’s also your ace."

Relief and guilt mix in Kazuya’s chest, burning like a rush of fresh air after the wind’s been knocked from his lungs on a slide for home. "Perhaps," he rasps dryly, as the convenience store and loitering, underdressed track team members come into view, along with Takarada, already cheerfully chatting away to Shirasu.

The odd call from his grandmother comes late at night, long after Kazuya has gone to bed. At first he doesn’t hear his phone ringing at all, but then Kuramochi is slapping the metal frame.

"Miyuki," he groans, "get your damn phone."

Kazuya feels around until he finds the mobile device, fingers curling around it and squinting at the touch screen and debating whether to pick it up or ignore it. It’s the fact that not many people have his number that has him ultimately hitting the blue button to accept the call without bothering to press his nose to the screen to read it.

"Miyuki Kazuya speaking," he says groggily, lips sticking to his pillowcase as he mumbles.

"Kazuya?" His grandmother’s voice is anxious. "I’m sorry to wake you, but…"

A surge of adrenaline at her tone has him opening his eyes completely. "What’s wrong?"

"It’s your mother," she says. "We’ve had to take her back to the clinic."

Fear creeps up his spine, the light touch of spider invisible in the dark, and Kazuya has to swallow twice before he can form a reply.

"Why?" He speaks lowly, not wanting Kuramochi to wake up, and he presses his phone more closely to his ear.

"Can’t you guess?" She sounds stressed and angry and sad all at once, and yes, Kazuya can guess. It's not the first time he's heard his grandmother sound like this, even if the last time was a year after his mother was gone, and the call had been to his father instead of him, left on the voicemail for a man who didn't come home until the next morning in his wrinkled uniform when Kazuya was on his way to school with a lunch he'd packed clumsily by himself. "She… you should come and see her, Kazuya."

"She's not badly hurt, right?"

"No, but..." She shakily breathes out. "It was close. I haven't been locking her door, lately, when we go to bed, and if I hadn't heard noise from outside… Well. You know how she gets confused sometimes. She wandered out of the house." A long moment of silence as they both consider the implications. Kazuya might throw up, a wave of nausea cresting and breaking as he clutches his mobile. "You should come see her."

"It’ll just make her more upset." He's remembering, against his will, her white face and blue lips, the whites of her eyes red with exhaustion. He remembers the way she'd only relaxed her grip on his grandmother's hand when he'd taken a step back from her bed, out of sight behind his grandfather's hulking frame. That day had been worse than the visit before, when she'd looked through her fourteen-year-old son instead of at him. "Seeing me always makes her upset, somehow. It won't help, me being there."

He wishes it would. He wants to talk to her, or see her; catch glimpses of the woman whose picture is still on his dresser back at the old house, who read books to him and sang sotto voce when he had nightmares and told him she loved his hair often enough that he'd started wearing it shaggier than all the other boys at school, flouting the dress code and barely getting away with it. He wants to talk to her, but as much as Kazuya pretends not to have feelings to most of the people in his life, he knows that's not true.

The first time Kazuya had hit a baseball correctly, with the full force of the wooden bat, it had torn across the yard and gone right through his neighbor’s kitchen window. He hadn't meant to do it, but he'd been chastised all the same. "You can't unbreak glass," his mother had said, ruffling his hair. "Even when it's an accident. Windows are fragile." She'd laughed. "Especially when baseballs sent by future pros go soaring into them!" She'd laughed even louder, then, her hand trailing down to tangle in longer wisps of hair on his neck, and smiled down on him. "Don't worry too much. You can’t unbreak glass, but windows can be repaired."

When it comes to his mother, Kazuya is that same kind of glass, but he, unlike windows, cannot be fixed. At this point, he's not even sure he wants to be. He'd probably just get broken again, and it isn't worth it. It's never worth it, getting too attached.

It's easier to offer to talk to her on the phone. The rare times his grandmother allows him to talk to her, he listens to her softly murmur about television shows or knitting or making rice cakes by hand with sweet canned coconut milk, and when he doesn't have to look at her, he imagines their relationship is normal: He's just a normal boy, away at school, and his mom is waiting for him to come home for the holidays, or... That his mom is like Kuramochi's, or Sawamura's.

Or, well, used to imagine. He doesn't do that, anymore. It's childish, and Kazuya hasn't been a child in years.

"Kazuya?"

"I'm still here." His eyelashes are heavy with crusted sleep. He's so tired, but his heart is beating so fast.

"You know it doesn't have anything to do with you, she's just—" She cuts herself off. "Well, she's just."

"Yeah."

His grandmother sighs. "She was so happy, when you were born. I thought, then, that at least one good thing had come out of her marriage."

"If I'm the one good thing about a situation, you know times are bad," he says, aiming for the deadpan drawl that never fails to make someone want to smack him. Instead it comes out bitter and acidic like the taste of the umeboshi at the center of a rice ball.

As a small child, he'd picked them out. Now, they're his favorite part, and he saves the umeboshi for last. It figures his tastebuds would reflect the way he's changed.

"It's not because of you, Kazuya," she says again, more quietly, and Kazuya stares up at the steel frame of the bunk above him without really seeing it. Instead, all he sees is the empty dinner table he longed for years to see someone else sitting at, and the way he tiptoes around mentions of his mother whenever someone edges too close to asking about her.

"That doesn't mean it sucks less." His whisper is harsh in the still night air, still aware of Kuramochi's restless tossing and turning above him. He can feel the bile in his throat. "I don't want to deal with it. I don't have to deal with it."

"She's your mother." There it is. He's been waiting for the disappointment. Kazuya always thinks it's unfair, how his life fell apart because of the people around him who were supposed to take care of him, when he was only twelve, and yet he's always expected to be the mature one. How he's supposed to do the right thing. He wishes it were easier to feel the way he's supposed to. "You can't give up on your own mother."

"Why not?" He closes his eyes, feeling the beginnings of a headache.

"She's sick, Kazuya." His grandmother is stern, now, the anger directed at him instead of the world, and Kazuya clenches his jaw. His tension headache, which had been all but gone thanks to Sawamura's surprisingly effective ministrations, comes back with a vengeance, throbbing behind his right eye.

"You think I don't know that?" His voice is barely audible, but his grandmother must hear him, because she exhales loudly but doesn't keep scolding him. Clenching his fists in the sheets, Kazuya bites back the rest of what he wants to say and steels himself. "I'll catch the first train, okay?"

"Good," she says, softly. "I don't know how she'll react to seeing you, but it's been... it's been a long time. Maybe it'll be better?"

"I'll try not to count on it," Kazuya replies, ending the call in a way he's sure to be rebuked for later. It won't be the first or last time someone's accused him of being rude. Miyuki Kazuya and his terrible personality. He wonders if he'd have turned out more polite if he hadn't spent so much time alone, without anyone to be polite to. Then again, maybe Kazuya was never meant to be good at people, either way.

Staring at the phone for a moment, he analyzes the tremors in his stomach, fear and anger curling around each other and hissing as he tries to calm himself down. It doesn't work, and he sits up, urgency causing him to throw off his sheets. They fall to the floor in a crumpled heap as he rubs at his eyes, and he steps on them when he lurches off the bed to go and get his glasses. Blearily, he checks the time again. Four AM, which means practice in three hours and class in eight. He'll need to e-mail both his professors while he's on the train.

"What's going on, Miyuki?" Kuramochi groans, turning onto his side away from the light peeking in through the single narrow window.

Kazuya swallows. "Family thing," he replies. "I'm going to miss practice."

Kuramochi hums in agreement, and then three minutes later he jolts up to look down at Kazuya from the top bunk, like he's suddenly put together the pieces of overheard conversation. "Wait, is everything okay?"

"It’s fine," Kazuya replies, running fingers through his hair to comb out the worst of the tangles before tugging a beanie down over the mess, covering his ears. It's freezing in their room, which means it's probably subarctic outside, so he pulls on his bulkiest sweatshirt over the long-sleeved T-shirt he wore to bed and then looks through his drawer for a thick pair of socks that will keep his feet warm while he waits for the train. "Go back to sleep, Kuramochi. I'll call you later to ask about practice."

"Miyuki, who..." A pause. "Who always gets upset when they see you?"

No. Kazuya does not want to have this conversation now. Honestly, he doesn't want to have it ever, but especially not right now, when he's all raw and worried. "I don’t have time to play twenty questions," he replies, harshly. "I said I'll call you later."

"Right," Kuramochi says, slowly, as though he can hear how close Kazuya is to snapping. He probably can. Kuramochi is another person in Kazuya's life who is more observant than he should be. "You should probably call Sawamura, too. He'll get worried when you don't show up."

Kazuya ignores that and exhales, casting around the room trying to spy his wallet. He finds it on the floor next to his baseball bag. He picks it up and shoves it into his pocket, along with his phone, and then heads to the bathroom to brush his teeth. He does a shit job of it, and there's still a thin film on the surface of his teeth, but he does feel a bit more awake. He sneaks a glance in the mirror and regrets it, because he looks like a ghost, dark circles under his eyes and hair obviously frizzy from sleep. "Not like it matters," he thinks, scrubbing away toothpaste from the corner of his lips.

He doesn't say goodbye to Kuramochi as he leaves, casting one last glance over at his baseball bag and cleats before locking the door behind him. He takes the stairs two at a time, wondering why he's rushing when there's plenty of time before the first train.

He walks briskly to the train station, shivering the whole time in the morning chill. There aren't many people out this early, only a quarter past the hour, and the few that are on the streets are either late getting home, stumbling drunk, or early in to work at the sorts of jobs that have them bundled up for the day far better than Kazuya is. He wishes he'd unpacked his winter gear already, but it's still in storage back in Setagaya. Hopefully, he thinks, it'll warm up by the time he gets out to the countryside, where the winters are milder and the wind less vicious without tall buildings to trap it.

After charging his Suica and hopping on the subway at Meidaimae, he rides the train for the twenty minutes it takes to get to Tokyo Station, his headphones shoved into his ears as he contemplates his shoes to avoid contemplating anything else. He sits slumped in the seat closest to the door while the other poor saps riding the train this early shuffle in and out as the train makes its way toward Ogikubo. His heart is still beating way too fast, and anxiety is heavy on his shoulders as how much he doesn't want to go wars with how much he needs to. Maybe it'll be better this time, his grandmother had said. Kazuya licks chapped lips, and presses a hand to his chest to try and force his heart to calm itself.

He buys a rail-ticket from the deserted ticket machines, letting it eat a 1000yen bill and spit out his small orange non-reserved ticket. His toes go numb as he waits thirty-three and a half minutes on the platform for the first Boso Penninsula bound train, standing next to an old couple cheerfully drinking tea out of thermoses like they're always awake at this ungodly hour of the morning. There's no one else waiting besides the three of them for a long while, and he clutches his ticket in a cold hand and stares at the tracks, trying to keep his mind blank.

His thoughts wander back to Kuramochi. He has no idea how he'll explain all this to him later, and he knows it’s too much to hope his friend won’t ask. He doesn't want to talk to Kuramochi about his mother; he doesn't want to talk to anyone about his mother. He's managed to avoid it for most of his life since middle school, when people would ask why his parents never came to games. After one or two refusals to talk about it, journalists or curious spectators have always responded with murmured apologies and a subject change, afraid of stepping on a landmine.

Kazuya’s never had that kind of tact. Instead he just never talks about her, and with teenage boys, often that’s enough to imply that he doesn't want it to come up. He's pretty sure most of his friends think his mother is dead. Selfishly, sometimes he thinks it would be easier on him if she were. Mostly, though, when he thinks that, it makes bile rise in the back of his throat, and he goes outside and hits baseballs with an aluminum bat until the calluses on his palms burn and his arms have lost feeling from shoulder to elbow, even though he knows that's as dangerous as playing with lateral side strains.

The train arrives into Tokyo Station a little after 5:30 AM with a low whistle, and the transportation music plays as he finds a seat on the mostly empty train. Kazuya hasn't gone out to Ichinomiya in a long time, but every time he used to go, with his mom, it was on the last evening train, arriving at night to find his grandfather waiting for him with his hands in his pockets and his eyebrows high with amusement just like Kazuya. (That, Kazuya decides, is a trait he'd gotten from his mother.)

After settling into his seat, Kazuya hunches down, wishing he'd thought to bring a book or some of his readings for class. Instead, he pulls out his phone, only at 80% battery now, and calls his grandmother back. "I'm on the train," he says, when she answers. "Sotobo Line. I'll be there in an hour or so."

"One of us will be there to pick you up," she replies, and Kazuya ends the call before he does something silly, like asking if his mother even knows he's coming, or if he might as well just turn around now and save himself the trip.

He spends the next ten minutes composing e-mails to his two professors and to his advisor, explaining why he'll be missing class in the vaguest possible terms. Then he composes another message to Coach Maeda, this one more halting and with even less information, but more sincere in the apology at the end. Kazuya hates missing practice, even if their next match isn't until the following Saturday, and it's against Toudai, the worst team in the league.

When he's finished with that, he watches the sterile, boringly gray villages transform into the low green hills of the countryside, chewing on his lower lip, before starting a final message, this one to Ichinose, detailing what he wants Sawamura to work on today and asking him to make sure Sawamura doesn't overdo it. He's sure Ichinose will tease him about it later, since he seems to find Kazuya's interactions with Sawamura funny in general. That's almost enough to keep Kazuya from sending it, but as with all things Sawamura, Kazuya's sense of self-preservation seems to be completely overruled.

It's nearing six in the morning when Kazuya gets a text from Kuramochi. u headed out to Setagaya?

no, Kazuya types back. ichinomiya

what's out there?! Kuramochi's text seems to glare up at him, and he can see the impatient twist of Kuramochi's mouth in his head, same as when Kazuya says something he particularly disapproves of, or when he's worried and thinks Kazuya ought to be more worried, too, about his health or the team or anything, really.

i don't have to report to you, Kazuya replies, typing carelessly so that Kuramochi doesn't think Kazuya's putting any thought into the reply.

i hope everything's okay is all Kuramochi writes back. Kazuya inhales, smelling the bleach of early morning, freshly cleaned trains and someone's coffee, and tucks his phone back into his jeans, battery all the way down to 72%.

Grandpa Shinoda is waiting for him at the Kazusa-Ichinomiya station at forty-five minutes past six (just like old times, Kazuya thinks, keenly aware he's only made this trip alone twice before) when Kazuya's walked purposefully out to their usual meeting spot by the old white-painted station building, across the overpass from the station's single platform. His grandfather is wearing a twill hat that doesn't cover his ears, and age spots seem to cover more of the skin on his chin and neck now than they used to.

He looks so tired, and at least, Kazuya muses, they match, with their drawn together eyebrows and raccoon eyes.

"Hey, grandpa," Kazuya says, with a tentative smile that doesn't reach his eyes.

"You've gotten taller," is his grandfather's gruff reply, his warm-looking coat pushed up his forearms to reveal his wrists to the morning air. It's warmer out here, Kazuya thinks, but not warm enough, and he shoves his hands deeper into his pockets. "You'll be taller than me."

"I'm not growing anymore," Kazuya says, smile turning more genuine. "I don't think."

"I grew five centimeters when I turned twenty-four," his grandfather says, not quite affectionately, but close to it, brushing past Kazuya to lead him to the car. He smells like fresh Aiberry and morning soil and mint. Kazuya's always liked the smell. Always liked his grandfather, really, much more than the man will ever like Kazuya again. "There's still time."

"I'm big enough to play catcher," Kazuya replies, opening the passenger side door of the old car. "That's all that matters, right?"

The doors are never locked; Kazuya's pretty sure it's because someone would need to be out of their mind to steal it. The old Toyota was made in the 1980s, a beige model that almost anyone else would have replaced. It only has a hundred-thousand kilometers on it, though, used for trips to this station and back for as long as his grandparents have had it. Out on the farm, there's an old truck that they use for market runs, with an open bed that's stacked high with wooden crates of melons year-round.

Kazuya's grandfather used to joke that he'd teach him how to drive in this car someday, but they'd been closer, then. Or, well, Kazuya had been closer. Had spent time out here with his mother with his knees in the dirt in early winter, his hands sifting through the leaves of low-growing plants for strawberries as she laughed and taught him how to tell when they were ripe.

Nowadays, though, Kazuya's grandparents alternate between being understanding and blaming him for not coming out here more often. He knows what they think of him. Grew up to be just like his father, didn’t he? Uncaring, cold, no comprehension of what it means to be filial.

Kazuya has always found it easier to cut emotions off than to feel them. He's learned how to protect himself, and often that means closing doors other people would rather he leave open.

Besides, he doesn't like all the memories of this place, just like he doesn't like the house in Setagaya-ku. He doesn't like looking everywhere and seeing shadows of when his mother used to make him wash his muddy hands in the sink, or read to him, or sing to him, or be there in the evenings when he changed into his pajamas for bed, instead of staring through him like she didn't give birth to him and pick out his name. (Kazuya, after her favorite baseman from the Lotte Marines, she'd told him once, wrapping his fingers around a baseball, placing his fingers for a two-seam.)

Other times, though, Kazuya misses this place the same way he misses his childhood home, and he wishes he could have learned to drive in this old car the same way he wishes he could like girls or that he could have taken Seidou to a total Koushien victory, instead of watching Kanemaru do it, Sawamura and Furuya pitching to Okumura in Kazuya's spot in the final game the following year.

He curls his fingers around the top strap of his seatbelt as they drive down the bumpy road.

"It's been a while since we've had you out here," his grandfather says, after a long few minutes of silence pulling out onto the road. "Years."

Kazuya's tongue is thick in his mouth. "I've been busy," he says, knowing how it sounds and hating that he cares. The scenery outside is still green even in the middle of autumn. "Baseball. Boarding school. University."

Grandpa Shinoda clears his throat. "Heard your team's been doing well. Your pitcher... You went to high school with him, didn't you?"

"Yeah," Kazuya says. "Sawamura Eijun. Pitched the last out in Koushien last year." His grandfather grunts in acknowledgement, turning off the main road onto an unpaved one, wide and rough, jostling them both. "He's good."

"He seems like a good kid."

Kazuya looks out the window to hide his expression, unsure what it might say. He can see the withered dragonfruit plants of a neighboring farm, barren for a short while until the weather warms up just a bit, and the rains start again. "He is," Kazuya replies, thinking of Sawamura's thumb pressing into his palm, or his lips ghosting just to the right of Kazuya's throat as he slumps into him. "All ego, but he works hard." As an afterthought, he adds: "He's from farming country."

"Good."

Silence for a minute, as his grandfather turns the old Toyota again, this time onto a smoother road lined on both sides with rocks to discourage free-range pigs from wandering out in front of the infrequent cars.

"We watch your games together," his grandfather says then. "Big6 League games air every weekend. We watch them."

"You and Grandma?"

"No," is the reply, and Kazuya is so unprepared for it that his head whips around to stare at his grandfather.

"Oh," Kazuya says, closing his eyes as his chest suddenly becomes too small a cage for his heart. "That's..." He doesn't finish, not really having anything to finish with, and his grandfather doesn't speak again until they park in front of the old farmhouse. His grandmother is sitting out on the engawa, a basket set beside her, the pink of the cloth inside matching the faded pink of her zip-up sweatshirt. Her long hair is tied back severely from her face, and her face is worn and tired. She smiles wanly, though, when Kazuya gets out of the car to hug her, briefly, just a few moments before he's stepping back out of reach, leaving behind the earthy smell of walnuts and her warm cheek.

"Was it an easy trip?" She hands him the basket.

"Empty," he replies, walking back to the car, this time to the backseat. "It's a weekday, and early."

She nods, climbing into the passenger seat he just vacated, and Kazuya sets the basket beside him in the back and rests his head against the threadbare seat fabric.

There are four vehicles parked outside the clinic: two pick-up trucks, an old sedan, and a motorbike. It's not anything like a clinic would be in Tokyo—it's just a 1970s style concrete and brick building with four wide windows, big enough to hold twenty patients at most. Kazuya's been here twice before.

His grandmother hits the buzzer, and after giving their names, they’re allowed in through the low gray gates.

When they walk through the creaky wood and steel door, the nurse working the front desk gives Kazuya a speculative look as she nods to his grandparents, and he takes off his glasses to clean them on his sweatshirt so he can pretend he didn't notice.

"I'll go in first," his grandmother says. "To make sure she's not sleeping."

Kazuya swallows and nods. "Good idea," he says, then looks at his grandfather. "You can go in, too, if you want. I promise not to sneak off." His phone vibrates audibly with a call in the back pocket of his jeans. "I’ll take this call while I wait."

Without meeting their eyes, he walks back down the hall toward the front lobby, where there are two chairs on either side of a small end table stacked high with fishing magazines. He sits in the one closest to the door, and looks down at his phone. Under the time display, reading fifteen past seven, is Sawamura’s name.

He hesitates, looks up to where the hallway is now empty, his grandparents having already gone into the room, and then reluctantly answers the call. "What."

"Where are you?!" Sawamura’s voice is loud, even through the phone, especially in the quiet, mostly deserted clinic lobby. The nurse behind the desk looks up in surprise, and Kazuya rolls his eyes as he lowers the volume of his phone. "How dare you miss practice during tournament season?! Are you sick?! You better not be sick!!!"

"Stop yelling," Kazuya replies, slumping back into the seat. Somehow, Sawamura’s voice, all righteously indignant and way too full of energy for this time of morning, is comforting, something to retreat to right now while he’s waiting. "I’m not sick, Sawamoron. What’s it with you and my health these days?"

"Why are you missing practice? Kuramochi-senpai said he didn’t know, and Ichinose-senpai said you e-mailed him this morning about not letting me throw too much!" Sawamura huffs. "Which I wouldn’t have done, jerk, even without you saying so!"

"It’s none of your business why I’m missing practice," says Kazuya, eyes still on the spot right outside his mother’s door. "And don’t pretend like you won’t throw as long as someone lets you, idiot."

"I have to practice or I’ll never fix my backbrush!" There’s the sound of Assistant Coach Numamoto’s whistle in the background, and Sawamura yells out an "Oshi!" before he returns his attention to Kazuya. "And of course it’s my business! You’re my partner!"

Kazuya loathes the rush of heat that gives him, right up his chest like fire, climbing all the way up to his cheeks. Even here, all the way in Ichinomiya, waiting outside his mother’s clinic room to see if she’s up to him going inside, Sawamura is distracting him, his petulant expression audible in his voice.

"This isn’t baseball related," Kazuya replies, after a few moments of indecision. "Who said you could call me?"

"If you didn’t want to talk to me, you wouldn’t have answered!" Sawamura replies, and Kazuya closes his eyes and rests his head back against the cold wall.

"I didn’t notice who was calling."

"Liar!" Sawamura shouts, and Kazuya winces even as a begrudging smile pulls at his lips. "You’d better be at practice tomorrow, Miyuki Kazuya!"

"You’ve forgotten the ‘senpai’ again," Kazuya teases him, and at Sawamura’s grumbling swears, he licks at his lips. "And stop saying my whole name. I’ll be there. Try not to miss me too much~"

"I don’t miss you!" Sawamura squawks, and… there’s something strange in his tone, but Kazuya lets the observation slip away as the door opens, and his grandmother peers out, looking for him.

"I have to go now," Kazuya says, lowly, the anxiety that had briefly melted away in the warmth of Sawamura’s voice freezing him right back over. "I’ll see you later, unfortunately."

"Yeah, you gotta help me get a suit since I outgrew my old one!" Then, more quietly, Sawamura says: "Everything is all right, yeah, bastard? Kuramochi-senpai looked kind of worried."

Rubbing with his free hand at the throb behind his eyes, Kazuya swallows. "Everything’s fine, first-year. Go run laps before Numamoto assigns you extra for slacking."

"How’d you know I’m supposed to be running laps?!"

Kazuya hangs up on him.

"She's awake," his grandmother says.

"Oh," Kazuya replies. "Is she..."

"I think so," she says, wrapping her fingers around his arm, giving him a firm, serious look that reminds him, for some reason, of Chris. "Come in, Kazuya."

His mother isn't in the bed. Instead, she's curled up in the chair by the window, looking out onto the parking lot. She has bandages going up her left arm and ankle, and an IV dripping a lavender tinted clear liquid into a tube that’s fixed in the crease of it.

She must have seen them come into the clinic through that window, Kazuya thinks. Known he was here all along.

Kazuya lingers in the doorway, still somewhat unsure of his welcome. He's glad no one from the team will ever see him like this: tentative, cautious. He doesn't want anyone to see him like this, but it's especially important to him that they don't, because he's spent years building his reputation and he'd hate to have it all tumble down at once.

She looks over her shoulder, her hair spilling long and wavy against terribly pale skin, gone translucent, and gives him the ghost of a smile. "It’s longer," she says, and he feels like he's been punched. "Your hair. Like when you were a little boy."

Her voice crackles from disuse.

"I'm getting used to it," he says, keeping careful eyes on the minute tilt of her head, reading her like she's the pitcher for another team, and he's on his last out, trying to predict what kind of ball she'll throw. "Yours is long, too."

She wraps a piece around a skeletal finger, and frowns. "I hadn't noticed."

"I guess you wouldn't," he replies, and then snaps his mouth closed before he can say anything else. This is harder than talking on the phone, isn’t it? When he can see her avoiding his gaze.

Her eyes shutter, and Kazuya's grandfather clears his throat. "Your mother brought breakfast," he says to her, and Kazuya leans against the doorframe as she slowly uncurls herself in the chair, scooting it over to the narrow table that Grandpa Shinoda has dragged out from its position against the wall to sit in the center of the room.

His grandmother pulls out sealed containers that turn out to be filled with fried tofu and salads made of fresh vegetables from the garden. A thermos at the bottom contains corn soup, and when she sets out four small bowls for rice, Kazuya realizes he's supposed to join them.

Pulling the last free chair up to the table, he sits across from his mother, who holds the chopsticks with trembling fingers. She has smaller bandages up her inner arms, tiny brown ones masking the needle marks along the center veins from where the nurses have drawn blood. She's so small and frail that Kazuya can barely associate her with the woman who’d taught him how to hold a baseball bat.

"You’re playing baseball," his mother says, and Kazuya jerks his head up to meet her eyes. It's not steady, and her eyes are distant, but she's looking at him, and she's not angry or sad. "I thought you'd be a pitcher, when you were little."

The sound of the metal spoon hitting the ceramic bowl as his grandmother dishes out rice is loud and jarring. Kazuya hunches his shoulders.

"I could be," Kazuya admits. "Or, I could've been. I like playing catcher, though. It lets me run the game."

Her mouth twists. "That sounds like you."

Kazuya, turning his chopsticks around in his hands and using the back ends to pick up tofu (like you do with a stranger, he thinks) glares at his breakfast instead of at her. "You don't really know me well enough to say that." The words spread out around him like ice, and his mother shivers.

She worries at her lower lip, eyes wide and suddenly more lucid. "Will you play pro ball?"

"If I get scouted," Kazuya says, pushing his rice around to bury the balls of dried tofu. "I think my chances are pretty good, actually."

"More than that," says his grandfather. "They talk about you when they air those games, kid. About how good you are. I saved a few articles from MBK, too."

Kazuya's eyelashes hit the lenses of his glasses as he blinks rapidly, trying to clear his eyes. He's so tired, and this is harder than it should be. "Well, I'm one of the better catchers playing on the college scene right now, though Hidokoro isn't anyone to take lightly."

"If you go pro," his mother says, "I'll be sure to come to a game, Kazuya." Her eyes flit around the room.

His grandfather takes a sharp breath, and his grandmother's hand comes up to cover her mouth. Kazuya drops his chopsticks on the floor. "Don't say that," he replies, keeping his voice absolutely level as he leans down and picks them back up, using a napkin to clean the tips. "It’s not necessary."

"I want to," she says. "You know I've always loved..." Her eyes lose their focus, and she lifts a hand absently to rub at where the IV enters her arm. She doesn't look well, but she doesn't look like a woman who'd been on the precipice of death again this morning. She blinks. "Baseball."

A good son would smile at her, and tell her he was looking forward to her coming to his games, but that's not what Kazuya is. So he just stares at her, blankly, not telling her anything at all.

"Kazuya," his grandfather says roughly. "Eat your breakfast."

"I mean it," his mother says insistently, the crackling roughness destroying the soft alto he remembers singing him lullabies. "Kazuya, I promise—"

"Don't promise me anything," he says, cutting her off, his throat tight. "I don't want any sort of promise from you. You can't remember promises. It's irresponsible to make them." His eyes burn. This is stupid, is what it is. He should have stayed in Tokyo, gone to practice, and bullshitted his way through his Friday classes. "I don't need anyone to come to my games. Just take care of yourself." He makes his voice as soft as he can, but it still comes out a little twisted, a little off, just like Kazuya.

She crumples; not completely, but enough that they all notice, and his grandmother gives him a withering look that he refuses to flinch from, meeting it head-on until she's the one who looks away. Then, with his free hand, he reaches out just enough that their fingertips brush on the top of the table. "I'll make sure you have a ticket waiting for you, though, if you decide to come," he says.

She nods, stiffly, and Kazuya wonders if she'll remember this, or if the next time he sees her she'll again be in the grip of monsters he can't see. He withdraws his hand, not wanting to touch her, or remember what her hands felt like carding through his hair.

Kazuya's lost his appetite, but he forces himself to keep pushing bites of rice between his lips as his grandmother talks about the farm, and how the crops are doing in this unusually cold fall.

His mother's still silent as his grandmother packs up the dishes. Her bowl of rice is mostly untouched. Maybe she wasn't supposed to eat in the first place, and the bowl had been set in front of her for appearances’ sake. Kazuya doesn't know. He doesn't know anything about how to deal with someone with an illness most people in the country pretend is imaginary, even when it tries to kill them. He doesn't even know how to deal with people without it.

A nurse comes in, with only a quick knock at the door to warn them of her entrance. "We need to run some tests on Miyuki-san," she says apologetically. "It will only take an hour, if you wanted to wait in the lobby."

"We'll come back in the afternoon," his grandfather says, standing up and walking to the door. Kazuya turns his back on his grandmother fussing with his mother's hair, finger-combing it like she's eight instead of forty.

"Goodbye," he says, when his mother looks up at him. He smiles at her, gently.

"You’re wearing your hair longer," she says to him again, intently, with complete focus this time. More focus than she’d had when she'd said it just under an hour ago, a flicker of a memory in her eyes.

"Yeah," Kazuya replies.

"It still suits you."

His tongue is too thick for his mouth. "Thanks," he manages, and then he walks out of the room to stand in the hallway.

"We can come back in the afternoon," his grandmother says, when they get into the car again. "After lunch."

"No," Kazuya says, too loudly, and he slumps back into his seat at the way both of his grandparents freeze in the front seats. "I can't—"

"She'll be more like herself, in the afternoon," she continues. "It's the pills she takes—"

"I can't stay," he says, into the oppressive tension. "I have to go back to school. I didn't take an official leave of absence."

"You could." His grandmother turns around in her seat. "You could stay down here for a few days."

"It's the middle of the fall season. I can't miss any more practice. Today was bad enough."

"I shouldn't be surprised you ended up so distant," she says, as his grandfather puts the car in reverse and pulls out of the clinic parking lot. Kazuya looks up to his mother's window, and imagines her looking out of it, despite knowing she probably isn't.

"What exactly did you think would happen when everyone left an eleven-year-old boy alone in a house for years to raise himself?" Kazuya's words resonate in the enclosed space. He fights the urge to get out and walk. He doesn't know why he missed this car, or this place, when they can trap him like this. "Could you drop me back at the station?"

"After lunch," his grandfather says. "You've missed the ten o'clock, so you can help me out back home for a few hours, and catch the one o'clock train out after lunch."

"Okay," Kazuya agrees, watching the green hills out the window.

His grandfather puts him to work sorting through winter melons when they get back to the farm, separating the perfect green ones from the slightly yellowed. It's barely the beginning of the season, so the white fuzz is still thick on the peel, and it tickles his palms when he picks one up to test its ripeness. His grandfather works next to him, quietly, doing the same task much faster. They have similar hands. Something else he's inherited.

"We would have taken you if we could've," Grandpa Shinoda says, breaking the continuous, stifling silence. "But someone had to take care of your mother, and with the way she reacted to you, still reacts to you sometimes, it wasn't… your father so adamant that you'd be able to get a good education in Tokyo. We thought he'd at least manage to look after you if he couldn't take care of our daughter like she is."

The thing is, Kazuya definitely understands. It's stupid for him to be upset about any of it, because if there's anything the world keeps reminding him, it's that there are very few things in it he's capable of controlling.

"He's good with the mill," Kazuya says. "I've heard he's been an excellent leader of his business association, too, and he’s been popular with the public for the most part, in the midst of all these protests." He cradles a large winter melon in his left hand. It's heavier than a baseball. "That kinda thing doesn't leave time for much else."

"He was always dedicated to the business." His grandfather sets the lid on a wooden crate, and quickly hammers it closed with two nails. "Hardworking. When she brought him home to meet us, she said 'he's the type of man who dedicates himself completely'." He sets the hammer down. "He’s doing a good thing, at least. And he’s good at it."

I'll lie if I have to, and make myself hated if I have to, Kazuya hears himself saying, and it sounds just like his father. Whatever I have to do to succeed.

"Yes," Kazuya agrees, because his father's dedication to this cause echoes Kazuya's to baseball, and Kazuya's damn good at what he does, at the expense of everything else, too. "He is."

They eat dragonfruit and sandwiches sitting on a heated blanket out on the engawa, staring out across the acres of farmland that make up his grandparents' property.

Then his grandfather drives him back to the station, pulling in right in front of that old white building again.

"Good luck next week," he says, as Kazuya moves to unlock the door. "Against Tokyo."

"Thanks," Kazuya replies. "I..." He pauses, fingers curled around the handle. "I'll call after the game. To see how she's doing."

Nodding slowly, Grandpa Shinoda looks him over. "I'd tell you to look after yourself, but you've been doing it for years, haven't you?"

Kazuya pushes his glasses up on his nose, and gets out of the car.

It's a fifteen minute wait for his JR train. There are plenty more people waiting for it, this time, most of them carrying produce in bags or clutching their fortunes from Tamasaki Shrine.

He feels heavier from this trip, like he's carrying his own box of winter melons on his back, and his limbs are lethargic from bearing the load. He keeps hearing his mother's voice, saying "It still suits you," and resentment with no outlet wraps fingers around his neck and squeezes as he watches a little boy waiting on a platform further down play with his mother's hands.

Kazuya fiddles with his phone just to have something to do, responding with a tonight to a message from Kuramochi asking when he'll be back, and checking the scores for last night's late-night NPB games while he waits. The Dragons pulled out another win in an away game, so he texts Chris a quick congratulations.

Soon he gives up his seat on a bench for an old woman with a box of berries bigger than she is, and moves toward the far end of the platform instead. There's a kiosk just by where he stops, selling newspapers and bubblegum and ancient looking watch batteries, and Kazuya contemplates buying a sports drink before his eyes catch on a pile of keychains half-buried underneath three copies of an August edition of Nylon.

They're gaudy yellow and black bumblebees. Kazuya laughs, the fingers about his neck loosening enough for the sound to escape. They've got Ichinomiya black pines behind them, the kanji in bubble print across the front wing of each bee.

And, well, he'd told Sawamura once he'd bring him a bee if he just had to have a souvenir, hadn't he? "How much is this?" he asks the man behind the kiosk, pointing at one of the keyrings, already fishing for some change in the pocket of his jeans.

Kazuya gets back to Tokyo a little before four in the afternoon.

He lets himself into the empty apartment and wanders through it to the bedroom in a haze. He sits on the edge of his bed, still wearing his hat, playing with the ring of the bumblebee keychain, letting it hang from his fingers as he tries to melt into the mess of his tangled covers. It feels like it’s been years since he answered the phone this morning and stumbled out of bed to catch the first train.

He's tired, but filled with too much restless energy to lie down and nap. Twirling the bumblebee in circles, stretching his legs one at a time, wondering what to do with the rest of his afternoon. He could do his homework, probably, or watch another few interviews from last year's Koushien, but his mind is scattered, little pieces of it still standing on the platform waiting for the train in Ichinomiya, or in his mother's eerily quiet room at the clinic.

He shouldn't have gone to see her. Every time he thinks about her, it's picking off a scab before the skin underneath has healed, and Kazuya has never, ever liked feeling raw.

Time passes like this, the sunlight streaming in through the window changing angles as he stares into space.

The sound of the front door opening makes him stiffen, building up the right kind of unconcerned, faintly amused expression that'll pass for his default. Catching the bumblebee, he puts it back into the small paper bag the shopkeeper had given him, and stands up to shove it in the top drawer of his desk, amongst his highlighters and pens and the baseball shaped post-its Tanba had reluctantly given him as a gift when he retired from the team, that Kazuya uses mostly to write annoying notes to Kuramochi all around the apartment when he's bored.

"You're back." Kuramochi drops his backpack by his desk and looks Kazuya up and down. "You look like shit, Miyuki."

"I can see why you're such a hit with the ladies," says Kazuya. "It's your way with words." He smirks, expecting that to set Kuramochi off, but Kuramochi doesn't take the bait, continuing to search for something in Kazuya's face, and clearly displeased with what he's found.

"Seriously, are you okay?" He's quieter, this time. "Is something going down with your dad, or... I don't know, your grandparents or something? Do you even have grandparents?"

"Tell me how practice went."

"No. Not until you tell me what's wrong with you. You look like someone died."

No, not yet, his thoughts whisper, traitorously, and Kazuya grits his teeth. "Stop trying to get involved in things that have nothing to do with you."

"You don't want to talk about it. Of course. You never want to talk about anything of substance, even when you should."

"That's right," Kazuya replies. "I don't want to talk about it, and supposing I did, what makes you so sure it would be to you?" He says 'you' like Kuramochi's not his best friend, and one of the people in this world he likes best. He says it like Kuramochi is an earthworm burrowing out of the dirt on the diamond in the spring, nothing more than something for Kazuya to crush as he steps up to the plate. "Do I look pathetic enough that I'd turn to you for a heart-to-heart?"

Kuramochi looks briefly taken aback, but then he seems to gather himself, straightening up his back and crossing the room to get into Kazuya's personal space.

"Okay, look, I don't know what's up with you right now, but stop being such an ass!" Kuramochi runs a hand through his hair, messy green-black strands sticking between his short fingers. His eyes are narrowed, sparkling with frustration and a little anger, and that's better, Kazuya thinks, than the thick, ugly concern. Kazuya doesn't like concern. He doesn't need it.

"Didn't you know? I'm always an ass. I was an ass when we met, and I’ll be a ass for the foreseeable future. It's not a temporary thing. I'm not going to turn it off, or grow out of it." And Kazuya’s never wanted to be like his father, but maybe he is, at the worst times, when it comes to connecting. Like this morning. Like now. "I’m not going to magically blossom into someone else if you find out enough about me, all right?" He says it with all the cool bitterness he can muster. "So you can stop trying so hard to find some hidden part of me that wants to tell you all my problems."

Kuramochi replies to it with fire, like he always does, snarling at him. "You're not always an ass," he says, hands clenching into fists. "It's mostly just when you’re too afraid that being nice will make people want to know you that you're the nastiest." He gets up into Kazuya's face. "'Cause you're brave as hell, but a fucking coward about the weirdest shit."

"So what?" Kazuya says, pushing Kuramochi back firmly with both hands. "I don't owe you explanations about my feelings, just because you've kept a secret for me a time or two." He swallows, letting the light reflect off his glasses to obscure his eyes. "Don't confuse getting along for best friends forever, Kuramochi. You’ve never really had the greatest intuition about friends, so let me assure you of this: We're not that close."

Flinching at the dig about his middle school friends, Kuramochi just gapes at him for a moment, and then he roars back to life in a barely restrained, intense anger that chases away Kazuya's emptiness and fills him with a sense of futile helplessness. It's better, at least, than what he'd been feeling since seeing his mother, but it's still terrible and dark inside of him, growing in tandem with Kuramochi's frustration.

"And whose fault is that?!" Kuramochi looks like he'd like nothing more than to punch Kazuya in the face until he sees reason. "You'll just sit there and let the weight of the world crush you. I don't even know why I care when you're such a stubborn piece of shit!"

"So stop caring," says Kazuya. He snatches his keys from his desk. "That's what I want everyone to do, anyway. Not my fault you didn't get the memo."

"Fuck you," Kuramochi says, as Kazuya pushes past him and toward the door.

Kazuya doesn't slam the door behind him, but it feels like it's been slammed anyway, with the way his hallway is so silent. It's barely dusk, and the sky is the dark lavender of the ending Tokyo day as he steps back outside.

He considers going to the library and checking out that book on interview analysis for his journalism class, or going to the grocery store to restock the bare refrigerator, but he doesn't want to do either of those things, and instead, without purpose, he begins to walk.

He knows Kuramochi doesn't mean to be unfair, when he demands things that Kazuya doesn't want to give. He's only trying to help. But Kazuya doesn't want to be helped, and doesn't need a friend to play confidant.

Swallowing, Kazuya keeps walking.

His phone vibrates when he gets to the coffee shop just inside the main campus, where Takarada and Sawamura are always studying English at a table too small to hold textbooks. He digs it out to find a new text, and he momentarily considers the idea that it might be from Kuramochi. When he presses his thumb to the unlock button, though, he finds that it's from Chris.

Up against Tokyo might be a good time to test a new batting strategy with Sawamura, it says.

Stopping and leaning against the building to answer, Kazuya shivers as the wind bites his cheeks. He shouldn’t have left without his jacket, but it’s not as cold as it had been this morning. He’ll manage without. He still has his hat to protect his ears. do we really have outs to just give away?

You haven't been working with him?

Kazuya scratches at the underside of his jaw, nails catching stubble. working on the crossfire-ish thing, he replies, skipping over the days of avoidance and his general reluctance to try to teach Sawamura something. He’s not sure he's really cut out for teaching the same way he is for smoothing out something already taught. Kazuya polishes diamonds; he doesn't exactly dig lumps of coal out of the ground.

My coach watched a tape of the second Aoyama game last weekend. Three dots symbolize Chris pondering over his next text. I'll be surprised if people don't try to draft him way before he graduates, despite his batting.

Something inside Kazuya lurches at the idea of it.

even if they know about his arm? He regrets it as soon as he sends it, but there's no reason to mince words, is there? Chris probably knows about it, even if he hadn’t wanted to tell Kazuya. Chris is Sawamura's real catcher, isn't he? The one Sawamura looks at with starry eyes and admires. The one who can get things through his thick skull.

Chris doesn't reply for a long minute, just long enough to remind Kazuya how windy it is. He starts moving again, not paying complete attention to where he's walking, dodging people instinctively as he waits for his phone to notify him of another message.

What about his arm? Kazuya stares at the text, which is quickly followed up by another, in mild shock. Did he tell you about it? He still won’t talk to me about it.

Kazuya licks his lips and considers. i meant his terrible aim with sliders half the time, he types. he's not hurt, relax papa bear. He puffs a tiny, amused hum picturing the slightly constipated expression of displeasure on Chris's face at being called 'papa bear', and it's almost enough to distract him from the perversely pleased part of himself that likes Sawamura having told him something he's never told Chris. just as cheerful and moronic as usual

You'd be sad if he weren't.

he does make the more boring parts of practice a little livelier Kazuya hesitates. he's all right

Who are you trying to fool, exactly? He can now imagine Chris's straightforward, unwavering stare, and Kazuya again wonders how much Chris has noticed. If Chris...

Brushing that aside, Kazuya ignores the last message and slips his phone back into his pocket of his jeans. Then he looks up, and realizes he's in front of Sawamura's building. He sighs at himself. "He's probably not even home," he mumbles under his breath, before punching in a remembered door code and pushing at the glass door, preparing to trudge up Sawamura's unconscionable amount of stairs.

There's a thin sheen of sweat on the back of his neck when he gets to Sawamura's door, making tendrils of his hair stick to skin under his hat. He knocks sharply, and then relaxes his whole body to look as nonchalant as possible, in case Sawamura is home and answers.

Sawamura blinks at him owlishly when he opens the door, in low-hanging sweatpants and an old holey shirt that doesn't quite meet them at the waist, revealing a good three centimeters of pale, toned belly and a thin line of chestnut hair that tracks down past his navel to disappear into the elastic of his underwear. Kazuya lifts his eyes back up to Sawamura's face when his throat goes dry.

There's a cranberry colored Anpan-man gummy hanging between Sawamura's lips by its head. "Eh? What are you doing here?" The jelly candy wobbles as Sawamura speaks. "Thought you wouldn't be around."

Kazuya shrugs, because truthfully, he doesn't know why he's here. He's stressed, and tired, and Kuramochi is angry, and somehow, Kazuya's feet had led him to Sawamura's apartment without him even really thinking about it.

"You're allowed to follow me home but I'm not supposed to come here?" Kazuya asks lightly, adjusting his beanie and jarring his glasses out of place. His lips tilt in a grin as Sawamura narrows his eyes thoughtfully.

"I didn't say that! You just usually don't!" Savagely, Sawamura rips the head off the Anpan-man candy, holding the body between two fingers. "You look kind of—"

Kazuya waits for him to say something about Kazuya’s dark circles, or maybe the general mess of his appearance, but instead, he just chews his gummy and slowly looks Kazuya over.

"Kind of…?"

Sawamura shrugs. "Anyway, you missed practice today, so I wasn't even expecting you to be around! Otherwise I'd have come and found you already!"

"Really?" replies Kazuya, shoving his hands into his pockets. "Do you have a tracking device on me? Is that how you always pop up uninvited?"

"No! You're just always in the same places!" Anpan-man's body follows his head into Sawamura's mouth. Kazuya catches a glimpse of a red wine colored tongue and briefly closes his eyes. "So, you wanna catch?! Ichinose caught for me today, but I want you to!"

"Greedy," Kazuya says, watching Sawamura carefully through the fringe of his hair hanging into his eyes.

"Can't get better without practice! So let me throw to you! Ten balls? Five?!"

Kazuya flexes his fingers, trying to chase the chill out of his knuckles. "Actually," he says, in a moment of whimsy, "I'd like to practice batting."

Sawamura grins. "You want me to share my awesome bunting techniques or something? Because too bad, Miyuki Kazuya! It takes a special man to bunt like I do!"

"I'm sure," Kazuya replies, letting Sawamura's easiness drag all the tension out of him, just like it had this morning over the phone. It makes sense to him, suddenly, why his body had brought him here. Sawamura, for all that his existence makes Kazuya's life so complicated, right now, has always had a way with people that makes them relax, Kazuya included. "But actually, I'm going to teach you how to hit a ball, Sawamoron."

"Hey!" Sawamura leans forward, out his door and into the hallway. "I'm just fine! I might not be able to hit balls out of the park like Furuya, but I—"

"This isn't about Furuya," says Kazuya, poking Sawamura in the forehead with one outstretched finger. Sawamura's eyes cross trying to look at his, and a laugh tears its way out of Kazuya's throat. "He's better at bat than you are, but you have a wider variety of pitches. Neither one is more valuable." He wrinkles his nose, pushing hard with his finger until Sawamura takes a step back into his apartment, Kazuya stepping in after him. "He's much less annoying than you are, though!"

"Shut up!" Sawamura grabs his finger, and then holds onto it, suspending it between their bodies at the height of Sawamura's chest. He's too close again, and Kazuya can see the ropey muscles of Sawamura's left arm flexing as it hovers, holding fast to Kazuya's hand as he pulls him inside. "I'm not annoying!" He comes in closer, suddenly, reaching past Kazuya with his free hand to push the door closed. He smells like cheap shampoo, today, and a little like miso.

Kazuya shoves that thought away. "Would you know if you were?" He makes it extra condescending, just to get a rise out of Sawamura.

"Yes!" Sawamura scrunches his face up. "I mean, probably!" His face falls into that familiar frustrated scowl. "Do you want some water or something?"

"No." Kazuya laughs, yanking his hand free from Sawamura's, stepping out of his shoes and into the main room of Sawamura's apartment, the wood warm underfoot through his thick socks. "Well?" He looks over his shoulder, still chuckling, and Sawamura fluffs his messy hair, reminding Kazuya that he still hasn't brushed his own today. "How about it?"

"How about what?" Sawamura's sweatpants shift even lower as he shuffles back into the room. He's barefoot, Kazuya notices, when Sawamura sits down on the edge of his coffee table and curls his toes under as he looks up at Kazuya with a blank expression.

Kazuya looks away, scanning the apartment. It's more lived-in, now that Sawamura's been here a few months. There are piles of comics next to the television, and plants are somehow still blooming in every available windowsill. There's a big cardboard box just by the entrance to the kitchen area filled with an assortment of baseball things: strips of lacing leather, magazines, and what looks like... He walks over to it, and plucks a handful of the stacked index cards from the top. "You still have these?" He traces Sawamura's thick-lined, square kanji, the picture of an elementary school student's copy-workbook, with his thumb. "And batting practice, of course. How about batting practice?"

He returns his attention to Sawamura, only to find Sawamura is studying him, eyebrows furrowed as he watches Kazuya's hands. His gaze trails up, pausing inexplicably at Kazuya's throat, and then finally he meets Kazuya's eyes.

"Oh!" He flushes, slightly. "Sorry! I was just! Um!"

Kazuya's heart constricts when white teeth bite into Sawamura's lower lip, but he lifts an eyebrow inquisitively while schooling his features. "Hmm?"

"Batting, not catching... If that's what you think we should do." He scratches at his stomach, nails leaving thin pink lines on skin where his shirt doesn't cover. "Harucchi gave me some tips I'm supposed to try out, anyway." He looks down at himself, and then grabs the hem of his shirt. "Just let me change."

"You don't have to," Kazuya says quickly, averting his gaze back to the cards in his hands. Four-seam, it reads. He remembers when Sawamura thought all he threw was one type of unpredictable fastball, and tightens his grip on the cards until they dig into the slightly fleshy part of his fingers. "We're not going to an official practice or anything. Just put some shoes on, idiot."

Sawamura hums, standing up again, and digs into his pockets, pulling out the rest of the package of gummies, five other Anpan-man candies still in the white plastic case. He tosses it onto the table, then digs into his other pocket, coming out empty. "Need to find my phone," he says.

"So you can ignore your text messages?"

The look Sawamura gives him is deliciously irritated. "Have I ever ignored a text from you, Miyuki Kazuya?!"

"No," Kazuya replies slowly. "Aww, Sawamura, am I special?"

Face turning the same red as his candy-stained lips, Sawamura pulls at the neck of his T-shirt. "Absolutely not!"

Stomach tangling up with a weird mix of pleasure and confusion, Kazuya watches as Sawamura huffs his way into his bedroom, really more of just a separate end of the long, narrow apartment, to root around for a jacket from the pile of clothes at the foot of his bed. He comes out with a fluffy black Meiji University sweatshirt, the kind they sell at open house days, and his team jacket.

He stomps back out into the living room, and tosses his team jacket at Kazuya. "Put that on! It's cold outside!"

"You're surprisingly worried about my health," Kazuya drawls, tossing the index cards back into the box so that he can put the jacket on. He turns his back to Sawamura when Sawamura pulls the sweatshirt over his head, not wanting to see the way his unforgivably small T-shirt inches up along his toned abdomen.

"Yeah, well—" Sawamura's voice is briefly muffled by the sweatshirt.

"What was that?" Sawamura's jacket sleeves tickle Kazuya's first knuckles, hanging past his thumbs. Another reminder that Sawamura is taller than him now, broad in the shoulders and all grown up. He inhales, and is relieved when all he gets is the mild scent of detergent. "I don't speak gibberish."

"I said, not any more than you're worried about mine!"

Kazuya means to refute that, turning to face Sawamura now that he's safely swaddled in heavy black fleece, but there's a thump of something heavy against his hip. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out Sawamura's smartphone. "Oh, look, I found your phone." He presses the center button at the bottom, wondering how many unanswered messages from that hometown not-girlfriend of his will show up on the screen. Instead of anything like that, though, Sawamura's phone lights up with a lock screen photo that makes the bottom drop out of Kazuya's stomach.

It's that stupid photo from after the Hosei game, right after Uehara had asked Kazuya out on a date. Kazuya's face is as horrible in it as he had remembered it being, far too open and soft as he looks at Sawamura with unvarnished surprise, lips parted and cheeks pink.

Sawamura snatches the phone out of his hands. "Hey! Don't look through other people's phones, asshole!"

"It's your lock screen," replies Kazuya, throat tight. "It's not like I scrolled through, or anything."

Sawamura shoves the phone into the pocket of his sweats, then sits back down on the edge of the table to jam his feet into socks. Kazuya can see that his ears and the back of his neck are red. "Still!"

"You haven't deleted that photo yet?" Kazuya doesn't know what his voice sounds like, but Sawamura looks up at the tone of it, eyes flashing defiantly even as pink suffuses his cheeks.

"It's my picture! I don't have to delete it!" His jaw juts out.

"You took it without permission," Kazuya points out. His pulse is so loud in his ears. "How would you like it if I put that picture of you eating hotpot as my lock screen?"

"Don't you dare, Miyuki Kazuya!"

"Oh, are you my boss now, first year?" Kazuya watches Sawamura fume for a moment, before he takes three long steps to the genkan to slip back into his shoes. He squats down to tie them.

Sawamura comes up behind him, their arms brushing as the pitcher reaches for his own shoes. "I like that picture," he says, quietly, as Kazuya sloppily double-knots the laces of his right sneaker. "You forgot to be so far away in it."

Slowly, Kazuya exhales. "Whatever," he says, and then pushes out the door into the hallway to wait.

The beginning of the walk out to the practice field is strangely awkward. It's not usually awkward, to walk with Sawamura, but he's not filling the silences. He just walks, shoulders slightly hunched as he gnaws at his lower lip. In the evening light, Kazuya can't make out any of Sawamura's sun-freckles.

Kazuya doesn't want to think about everything else waiting in his brain right now for a moment when he's not distracted enough, so he clears his throat. "You still talk to Kominato a lot."

Sawamura, startled, trips, and without thinking, Kazuya grabs his arm to steady him, appreciating the warmth of the forearm under his palm for a couple of seconds before letting go again.

"Um, yes," Sawamura says. "Everyone in my year, I guess, and Chris-senpai, of course. Masuko-senpai writes me sometimes, too! Plus we have LINE chat, and—"

Ah, right, the LINE chat. Kazuya’s never going to download that app, even if he's been begrudgingly dragged into the present with a smartphone this year. "I didn't ask for the entire contents of your phone's contact list in dictionary order, Sawamura." He smirks as he says it, knowing Sawamura will hear it in his voice.

It's enough to get Sawamura shouting again, and Kazuya eases into it, letting his tongue be as sharp as he wants and letting Sawamura's presence keep him from thinking about anything else that's happened today.

They retrieve their gear from the locker room, Sawamura looking longingly at Kazuya's catcher's mitt when Kazuya shoves it back into his locker.

"Bring your glove," Kazuya says, when Sawamura makes to leave it. "If you learn anything I might let you throw a couple." He pulls out his own, barely-used outfielders glove. It looks almost new, and it's a lot bigger than Sawamura's.

"It looks like Azuma-senpai's." Sawamura looks amused at the prospect of Kazuya using a glove the same size as Azuma’s. He takes the glove and puts it on, surprised at how it sits. Then he puts it between his knees to hold it, and squints down at Kazuya's hand. Without warning, he wraps his fingers around Kazuya's wrist, lifting it and pressing his own right hand to Kazuya's, palm to palm, lining their fingers up.

Warm, Kazuya thinks, staring at their touching hands. Sawamura's fingers are thicker than Kazuya's, and slightly longer, but his palm is narrower. They both have callused hands, but the calluses on Kazuya's right hand, his lead hand, are more pronounced than the ones on Sawamura's. "I guess it'll work," Sawamura muses aloud, flexing the ends of his fingers to press down on the tips of Kazuya's.

Kazuya snatches his hand away. "I don't like small gloves like yours," he says. His hand tingles, and he clenches it, willing the feeling to disappear.

"Can you even pitch?" Sawamura asks him skeptically.

Kazuya rolls his eyes, grabbing his bag and leading the way out onto the field, knowing Sawamura will follow. "We'll see, won't we? Come along."

"Hey, slow down!" Sawamura's bag slaps against Kazuya's thigh as he catches up.

Kazuya tugs down on his hat to pointedly cover his ears. "Don't fuss so loudly, Sawamura."

He drops his bag just outside the batting cages, and turns on the lights. They have two ball machines, but Coach Maeda hardly ever turns them on, preferring someone toss 50 kph hittable balls to batters during batting practices. It's the variation, Kazuya's sure, but he thinks it helps batters like Kuramochi develop bad habits, even if it's fun to watch. With Sawamura, though, those pitches might help him start getting the hang of a new swing.

Sawamura takes out his batting helmet and puts it on, before pulling out his aluminum bat. It's still got the original grip tape on it, peeling up near the wider end. "All right! Give me your best shot, Miyuki!"

Kazuya unzips his bag and pulls out a roll of navy grip-tape, tossing it up and down in one hand as he holds out the other. "Give me your bat."

Sawamura doesn't hesitate, spinning it in his hand and offering it to Kazuya handle-first. "What are you going to do to it?"

"Your grip is no good," Kazuya replies, sitting down on the ground and trapping the bat between his thighs. He sets the blue grip tape next to him and plucks at the worn tape on the bat until he gets it loose, then peels it off. "Before we even start, we should change it."

"No good?" Sawamura sits down crosslegged in front of him. There's a good couple of meters between them, but the intensity of Sawamura's gaze makes him seem like he's sitting closer.

Rubbing at the handle until the last of the old adhesive peels away, Kazuya rips half a meter of grip tape off the roll, twirling it between his fingers, adhesive side out, until he's made a skinny rope of it. Starting at the base of the bat, he makes a spread out spiral, going up two thirds of the way to where the original grip had ended, and then presses it down. "You need to have a comfortable hold on the bat if you want your swings to be any good."

Sawamura watches his hands as Kazuya rips off another piece of tape about the same size and repeats the process, winding this piece around the bat handle in the opposite direction. "What was wrong with the old grip?"

"For one thing, it was worn out." Kazuya uses the roll of grip tape to neatly wrap the handle, trapping the rolled pieces crisscross underneath the outer layer. He goes all the way up to the top of the handle and then all the way back down again, making sure to layer tape thickly on the end of the bat, smoothing out the bump. "For another thing, I think your hands need a bigger grip. Some batters use really thin grips, but you've got those pitching calluses, so if a ball comes inside and you actually by some miracle manage to hit it, it's going to hurt like a bitch. Besides, you stick your pinky out when you swing, and it's better if you've got tape here." He taps the end of the bat, right where Sawamura's pinky always rubs.

"I never noticed," Sawamura says, lips puckered thoughtfully.

Kazuya's glad that no one else is here, to take note of just how much Kazuya himself has noticed about Sawamura at bat. Using a bit of finishing tape, he secures the grip and hands the bat back to Sawamura. "Here," he says, and after Sawamura's taken it, he stands up, brushing his hands on the front of his jeans.

Sawamura stands too, moving toward home plate and settling into his usual off-balance stance, swinging thoughtfully, twisting his hands to decide on his grip. Kazuya takes in the position of Sawamura's fingers, of his knees, of his hips, cataloguing the things he wants to correct. Then, bracing himself, he closes the distance between them, coming to stand just next to Sawamura. He tugs lightly on Sawamura's left hand. "You're holding the bat in your palms," he says. "You should be holding it in your fingers."

Sawamura doesn't learn with words. Kazuya might not be an expert with him, like Chris is, but he knows at least this— Sawamura might love words, and read everything from old novels to teenage girl comics, but he doesn't learn through detailed explanations. He learns with his eyes and his hands; through repetitions and being dropped into the deep end.

So Kazuya gives him the explanation, but moves his fingers as he speaks, giving Sawamura something tangible to focus on and associate with the words.

Sawamura looks up at him, close enough that Kazuya feels each word as an exhalation on his cheek. "Boss Kataoka said the same thing, once, but I don't get it." He lets Kazuya manipulate his grip on the bat, line up his second knuckles, his face a mask of concentration as Kazuya sneaks a glance at it out of his peripheral vision.

"Your fingertips are stronger. More flexible, too." Satisfied with Sawamura's new grip, he steps back. "Plus gripping with your palms tightens your back and your shoulders. Swing."

Sawamura does, and his eyes widen with amazement. "Why didn't you ever say anything before?!"

"Didn't think about it until this year," Kazuya admits. "When we were in high school, there was enough work to do with your pitching!"

"It wasn't that bad!" Sawamura throws the bat over his shoulder, like he's about to take a whack at Kazuya's head using his neck as the tee. "I never had anyone show me anything before that! I improved!"

Kazuya grins at him slyly. "You improved at lugging tires around! Maybe that's why you don't want a date! You already have a true love~"

Mutinous, Sawamura digs his lead foot into the dirt. "You'd better toss me a ball before I take a swing at your pair of them!"

"My balls are made of stronger stuff than aluminum," replies Kazuya, tapping his chin. "I’m a tanuki, you know. I had no idea you wanted to get closer to my balls, though, Sawamura—"

"I don't!" His shout echoes across the empty field, embarrassed and frustrated, and Kazuya laughs.

"Relax, Sawamura, I'm not finished fixing your hideous swing." Approaching again, Kazuya comes up behind Sawamura this time, lightly setting his hands on his hips. "You're not centered well. Your stance isn't quite wide enough."

Sawamura shivers, muscles of his back visibly bunching before he forces them to relax. "What does that mean?"

"Normally batters stand with their feet about shoulder-width apart, but that's not enough for you, since you swing with too much force. So go a little wider." He pushes down. "Settle into it a little lower, for power and balance." His lips brush Sawamura's jaw, and he should step back. He should definitely step back, but Sawamura is leaning into him a little, listening, and Kazuya has excellent self-control, but apparently not when it comes to this. "It'll be easier to shift your weight to the back leg when the pitch heads toward you, too."

"Oh," Sawamura says, a croaked whisper, and Kazuya swallows. "What else?"

"You have a nice follow through, but make sure you don't step too far with this leg"—he slides his hand down the outside of Sawamura's right hip to pat his flank, and the muscle jumps under his hand—"when you actually swing."

He breaks away then, and the evening, true evening now, is startlingly chilly without Sawamura's warm back. Sawamura looks lost, lips parted and eyes wide as he looks at Kazuya. The cage lights glint in his eyes.

Kazuya looks away first. "That's a start," he says, into the stretching silence. "Let's try it out."

He walks back to their bags, dropping into a crouch to grab the outfielder's glove out of his bag, as well as a few baseballs, tucking two into each pocket of Sawamura's jacket and palming a fifth one as he walks out to the pitcher's mound.

He slips his glove on, stretching out his calves as he finds his pitching stance. He hasn't pitched in a while; not since this summer, when he was helping Kuramochi repair his battered confidence from his abysmal summer season performance. He's always been good at it, though, just like he'd told his grandfather earlier—

He shakes the thought off, and spins the ball around in his fingers. "You ready?"

"This feels all backwards!" Sawamura is grinning back at him, though, swinging the bat, his legs at the width Kazuya had just showed him. And, oh, Sawamura glows just as bright from home plate as he does on the mound, when Kazuya's holding up his mitt for him. Kazuya should have expected that, really, but he hadn't. "You up there!"

"Keep your eye on the ball!" Kazuya calls back at him, a smile tugging on his own lips as he winds up.

Sawamura doesn't hit the ball, but his swing is clean, and he skims it, sending it off into foul territory with a triumphant crash into the fence. "That pitch should have been a ball, Miyuki Kazuya!"

"You swung at it!" Kazuya grabs another ball out of his pocket, wishing he'd thought to grab the rosin, and tosses it into the air, catching it in the pocket of his glove. "So that's a strike!"

"Don't I get a little leeway?!"

Kazuya teasingly chuckles as he prepares for another pitch. "Do I ever give you any leeway?"

Sawamura doesn't miraculously start hitting all of Kazuya's pitches. He'll need time against the machines, and more practice with better pitchers than Kazuya before he improves significantly. Kazuya can see the changes in his swing, though, and the looseness of his arms as he judges the feel of his grip.

"It’s a start," Kazuya says, to himself, watching Sawamura swing his bat a few more times. The sweat on his forehead has caused his hair to curl up into soft wisps. His mouth is set in a determined grin, and the space around him is electric.

Kazuya can't look away from him.

Sawamura's the middle school third-year who yelled into Azuma's face, and the high school first-year who swore he'd be an ace. He's the high school second-year with empty eyes who refused to throw to the inside, and he's the third-year who used an inside pitch to take down the top team in Japan and help Seidou usurp their throne.

He's the college first year that buys Kazuya coffee and learns to control a crossfire pitch in the late hours of the night, too; Meiji University's ace pitcher, promise fulfilled every time he stands on the mound. Kazuya sees every single one of those images layered on top of each other in this boy turned man he's known for almost five years, and he guesses he's lucky he's only recently tumbled into some kind of infatuation with him, given how intrigued he'd been from the first time he met Sawamura. By his pitching, by his personality, and all the things in between. Kazuya sees, in Sawamura, a thousand things he likes and another thousand he wants.

So maybe it's more that Kazuya doesn't want to look away from him, even when he knows he should.

Sawamura meets him at their gear bags. "Should I pick up the balls?"

"It's dark," Kazuya replies. "They'll still be there in the morning."

Picking up his glove, Sawamura sighs. "Guess I really shouldn't pitch tonight." He traces the edge of his glove, fingers skating along the laces. He tosses it down and links his fingers before stretching his arms up over his head.

Kazuya throws his outfielder glove down on top of his bag, and it looks even newer in comparison to Sawamura's broken-in one, with its faded leather and replaced lacing.

"You really should get a new glove," he says, picking it up and settling down in the grass, lying on his back despite the coldness of the ground. It hasn’t rained in a few days, at least, so it’s firm, and Kazuya’s wearing Sawamura’s jacket, anyway, too large in the shoulders and a collar high enough to protect his neck.

"That glove is my heart," Sawamura says, collapsing beside him, sprawling out like he’s planning to make snow angels and exhaling all the breath in his body with a loud huff. "You can’t just easily get a new heart, Miyuki! You’ve gotta take care of the one you have, and repair it when the laces get torn or worn through."

Kazuya snorts, running his fingers across the frayed bottom edge. The leather’s gone soft as butter. "And oil it when it’s dry?"

"Yeah," Sawamura agrees blithely, missing Kazuya’s sarcasm entirely, his eyes looking up at barely visible stars. "But a good glove… If you take care of it, it can last a whole career, right?" He thumps his chest with his fist. "Just like a good heart can last your whole life!"

"What if it’s not a good glove?" Kazuya asks, digging the fingers of his free hand into the dirt, his nails catching in soft earth and grass roots. He watches Sawamura’s tongue peek out to wet his lower lip, and doesn’t manage to look away again before Sawamura’s gaze drifts from the sky back to Kazuya. "What if it’s a glove that no one’s taken care of in a really long time?"

Sawamura blinks at him, eyes bright even in the darkness, amber and glimmering with all his inner fire. "There’s nothing wrong with your glove, Miyuki Kazuya." His eyelids fall closed, shuttering his eyes and leaving Kazuya with only the suggestion of lashes against his cheeks.

Kazuya wants to reach out and touch those eyelashes; feel them tickle his fingertips. Instead he slips digits between the laced webbing of the glove. "How would you know?"

"I’ve gotten to know your glove pretty well this year," he says, eyes opening again, teeth showing as he grins. "It’s a good one, jerk."

Pulse pounding in his ears, Kazuya takes a deep breath as he tries to shove down the treacherous swell of affection he feels for Sawamura right now, out here alone on an empty baseball diamond. It’s bad enough, he thinks, to admit a physical attraction to Sawamura, but worse to consider how fond he’s grown of Sawamura’s stupid metaphors and stupider smile. Of Sawamura’s endless optimism, unceasing determination, and of his big, hopeful heart that seems more than willing to let Kazuya into it.

It’s more than dangerous, the way Sawamura makes him feel, because Kazuya doesn’t need any more people in his life that he can’t quite reach out to the way he wants to.

"You’ve got no respect," he says, instead of thank you or I want to kiss you, you fucking moron.

"Is there someone out here I should be respecting?" Sawamura grins, smug and triumphant at his own joke, ears and the tip of his nose pink from the cold, and Kazuya isn’t thinking about his mother or the gala or Kuramochi’s angry words.

What he’s thinking about is how unfair it is, really, that of all the people in the world for him to fall for, it would be Sawamura Eijun, who lights up the dark places inside him with that glowing grin like it’s nothing at all.

"Maybe I won’t catch any balls for you tomorrow," Kazuya says, barely able to catch his breath around the twinge in his heart.

"Oi, oi, oi!" Sawamura's sitting up now, eyes wide. "You'd better, Miyuki Kazuya!!"

"We'll see," replies Kazuya, running his tongue along his teeth, thinking, as he drags his thumb back down the outer edge of Sawamura’s glove, that Sawamura’s awfully comfortable letting Kazuya hold onto his heart.

They get hot chocolate and sandwiches from one of the eateries just outside campus that Kazuya remembers Sawamura likes. Sawamura gets breadcrumbs stuck to his face, and Kazuya mocks him for it.

"I should head home," Sawamura says, afterwards. "I’m supposed to submit an assignment by midnight."

"Cutting it close, aren’t you?" Kazuya leans forward, resting his weight on his elbows. "You could have said you had work due."

Sawamura hums, then puffs out his cheeks. "But then you would have left."

"Yes," Kazuya says, slowly, like he’s talking to a pet instead of a boy. "So you could do your work."

"I didn’t want that," Sawamura replies, eyes sincere as he pins Kazuya with his gaze. "I’d rather have this."

"What’s ’this’?"

"You being your normal, asshole self," Sawamura replies, and then shoves the rest of his sandwich into his mouth as if to say what else could I have meant?

They part ways a block from Kazuya’s apartment, Sawamura yelling after him for something or other Kazuya’s said offhand, and Kazuya keeps his smile until he’s standing outside his apartment again.

Kuramochi is sitting in the kitchen when Kazuya opens the door. He's dressed for bed, wearing flannel pajama pants and the oversized black T-shirt with a skeleton print on the front and back that Kominato Ryousuke had given him last year for his birthday. He's aggressively munching on pieces of dried fish as he glares at the table, mouth carving a slash of misery across his face.

He looks up at the sound of the door, and his frown only deepens when he registers Kazuya. "You're back?"

"Sorry about that," Kazuya replies, grinning hard enough that it hurts his face, even if all he wants to do is climb under the covers.

It's been, he realizes, a very long day.

Kuramochi grunts and stands, walking out of the kitchen, leaving the plastic package of dried fish sitting on the table. Kazuya seals it with a clip and gets himself a glass of water as he hears the sink come on in the bathroom, and then moves to follow in Kuramochi's wake, toward the bright light pouring out of the open bathroom door.

He can see the tension in Kuramochi's shoulders as he brushes his teeth with far too much force, and it makes him ache a little, in a way that's familiar but he rarely associates with Kuramochi. It's the feeling, he thinks, of letting someone down, and the whole reason Kazuya avoids letting people have personal expectations of him in the first place. Kuramochi rarely ever gets upset with him; not earnestly, at least. They fight often enough, but it hardly ever lasts beyond the moment. He can count real arguments on one hand, and bitterly, Kazuya can pinpoint himself as the cause of each of them.

"Kuramochi," he starts, as Kuramochi cups his palms and catches enough water to rinse out his mouth, "I..." He's not sorry, is the thing. Kazuya doesn't like that Kuramochi is upset, and he’d said a few things he’d knew would hurt to make him back off, but he also knows that the secrets he doesn't want to tell belong in the cage he's made for them, and it's enough to still his apology.

Shoulders hunching, Kuramochi slurps the water and sloshes it around in his mouth, a few dribbles escaping the corner of his lips to guide a trail of pale blue foam down his chin.

Kazuya zips and unzips Sawamura’s jacket, realizing he’s still wearing it.

"I care about you because I want to," Kuramochi says, into the strange silence, after he spits the toothpaste into the sink. "But you still piss me right the fuck off, Miyuki!"

"Your apologies are as terrible as your bedside manner," Kazuya teases, echoing a conversation from years ago, hand shaking as he grips his water glass. "Haven’t you learned better?"

"It’s you that hasn’t learned," Kuramochi says, eyes fixed on his toothpaste foam whirling down the drain. "How to look after yourself in more ways than just food and laundry. How to at least talk to people so you don’t have to be so fucking alone all the time." He’s not angry anymore. He just sounds sad, which is something far worse. "It wouldn’t be so horrible for you to trust me a little, Miyuki."

It might be, Kazuya bites back, keeping it firmly behind his teeth. Instead, he sets his water down on the edge of the sink, perilously close to Kuramochi’s elbow, and uses both hands to push shaggy hair out of his eyes. "I do, you know." Kuramochi turns to look at him, and Kazuya grimaces. "Trust you. More than, well, anyone else. Telling people my problems… That’s not something I do, Kuramochi. It’s not something I want to do."

"Keeping everything inside makes you do terrible stuff, Miyuki," Kuramochi says, but the corner of his mouth twitches. "You’re always calling other people idiots, but you’re the biggest one there is."

"So what’s that make you for being my friend?" Kazuya swallows, pinpricks at the corners of his eyes.

"Tolerant," Kuramochi replies. "Charitable."

"I didn’t ask what it made me for dealing with you—"

"Dick!" Now Kuramochi’s eyebrows are lifted in full amusement, even if he’s still mostly frowning.

A bubble of relief pops in Kazuya’s gut. "I know it’s huge," he replies, turning around to head back to their shared bedroom, unzipping Sawamura’s jacket a final time, "but there are other things to notice about me. For example, my superior batting stats—"

"I’m going to step on your face!" Kuramochi threatens.

Kazuya grins fiercely. "I need my face to play baseball!"

"Not all of it!" Kuramochi slams the bathroom door closed, but it’s not real anger, this time; just bluster and teasing.

He sets his phone on his desk. Eleven percent battery. He sticks the charger in, and it lights up his lock screen; an aerial picture of Meiji Jingu Stadium that Tetsu had sent him last year over e-mail, when he’d first moved into this apartment.

He hesitates, then unlocks the phone, going into the settings to wallpapers and changes the image. When he re-locks it, the picture of Sawamura eating hotpot, the remains of noodles and vegetables decorating his face like some kindergarten art project, stares up at him. "That’s what you get," he murmurs to the phone, mouth twitching, before he hangs Sawamura’s jacket over the back of his desk chair, and starts to get ready for bed.

"You busy tonight?" Takarada asks Sawamura, watching him rub his scented ointment into his arm.

Kazuya, adjusting his grip on the barbell, sinks into another squat. A bead of sweat is making a slow crawl down his spine as his muscles quiver with exertion.

"Um," Sawamura pauses, thumb still absently massaging the cream into his skin as he considers. "Not really. But I don't have any homework to work on, so there's no need for us to get together to study tonight!"

Ichinose, who's spotting him, chokes on a laugh, and catches Kazuya's eye, lips curled in a smirk. Kazuya lifts an eyebrow in response, and both of them turn to see Kuramochi scowling blackly at Sawamura and Takarada.

"Oh," Takarada says, deflating slightly, "it wasn't about studying. I just thought you might like to get something to eat after practice?"

"Ah!" Sawamura's face lights up with a grin. "That sounds like fun, Takarada-senpai!" Finished with his ointment, he reseals the small container and takes the towel Takarada offers with a smile. "Who else is coming?"

Takarada grimaces, and Kazuya lifts the barbell back up again with straining thighs. "I... hadn't asked anyone else," she says. "I wanted..." She sighs. "Never mind."

The silence that follows it is filled only with Sawamura's confused blinking and Takarada's darkening flush.

"He's not actually free tonight, anyway," Kazuya says, loudly. "We have plans~"

"We do?" Sawamura is now wiping the sweat from his neck and collarbones, and Kazuya focuses intently on his last rep instead of the low, wide collar of Sawamura's tank shirt. "What plans?! You didn't tell me we had plans!"

"We don't have to have plans," Kazuya replies, after he's set the barbell down. He pulls at the velcro of his lifting gloves, and offers Sawamura a little smirk. "If you want to procure a penguin costume on your own..."

Sawamura stares at him for a long moment, perplexed, before his expression suddenly clears, enlightenment surfacing in his eyes. "Oh!"

Kazuya snickers. "Yeah, oh."

"...Penguin costume?" Takarada asks, hesitantly. "Is that... code for something else?"

"It's gotta be," Ichinose says. "Even Sawamura wouldn't buy an actual penguin costume. Especially considering Halloween was Saturday."

"We probably don't want to know," Kuramochi says, coming up behind Kazuya and resting a hand on his shoulder. He shoots a glower in Sawamura's direction but it's half-hearted; Kazuya wonders if he's getting used to having the least game out of everyone he knows. "Sometimes with Sawamura it's best not to ask."

"Hey!" Sawamura shouts, and as he and Kuramochi start to playfully wrestle, Ichinose shakes his head at the both of them and heads over to where Kumai is attempting to reach the extra stacked towels on the top shelf of the supply closet, to give her a hand.

"You know, Sawamura is a straightforward guy," Kazuya says to Takarada, who still looks a bit flushed, even if his interruption had saved her from having to backtrack her way out of a failed date invitation. "You'll probably need to just say to him directly that you're interested in going out on a date of a romantic nature with him, if you want him to realize that's what you're after." He grins unrepentantly at her when she groans and covers her face with both hands.

"That obvious?"

"Pretty much." He nudges her with his elbow. "Do you really... Is your crush really enough that you want to actually date him?"

Licking her lips, she looks up at Kazuya. "Probably," she says. "I just have no idea if he's even interested."

He's not, Kazuya thinks, almost fiercely, and then he takes a deep breath and reconsiders. Sure, Sawamura had said he wasn't, but that was months ago, and he and Takarada have spent a lot of time together since then. A lot of time studying and talking over coffees on campus. It wouldn't be unreasonable if Sawamura had changed his mind, even if a part of Kazuya hates to admit it.

It's not, after all, like Kazuya is the only person allowed to look at Sawamura's mouth and wonder what it would feel like under his own.

"Neither do I," Kazuya says, slowly, pushing his glasses up on his nose, swallowing down what once again feels like the worst cocktail of frustration and want. "Whether he does or doesn't like you that way, I guess there's still no accounting for your taste!"

"Who asked you?!" Takarada slaps his shoulder lightly. "We all know you aren't the man to ask about relationship advice!" She sniffs, tossing her hair back.

Kazuya, chuckling, shakes his head. "Anyway, just remember that he's not going to get subtle."

"I hear you," Takarada says. "By the way, what is the penguin costume for?"

Pushing his hair out of his eyes, Kazuya winks at her. "That's between me and Sawamura," he replies, and he laughs harder when she huffs in disappointment, returning his gaze to where Kuramochi now has Sawamura trapped under his knee on the mat, wailing for mercy.

The locker room clears out fast, many team members opting to head home for showers, since none of them have dirty uniforms that can be washed with the towels here on gym days.

Kazuya plans on doing the same, dropping his own dirty towel into the hamper by the door after wiping his face off again, heading over to his locker where he'd left the jeans and sweatshirt he'd worn to classes today.

Sawamura, though, is pulling his thin white T-shirt over his head, skin stretching over ribs and muscle, and his bag of shower supplies is out on the locker room bench next to a fresh clean towel. "You're showering here?"

"It's half-past six," Sawamura says, looking over his shoulder in surprise. "It would be better to catch the bus here than to waste time walking all the way home!" He grins at Kazuya. "How late does the place you want to go stay open, anyway?" His hair, damp with sweat, sticks to his cheeks, and even in the heat of the locker room, his hard nipples keep catching Kazuya's eye. He's all too aware that they're the last people left in the locker room. "Way to ask me if I was free, by the way! I could have had something, I dunno, important to do!"

"Nine-thirty," Kazuya replies, slowly, tongue sticking to the roof of his mouth. "And clearly you didn't, if you were letting yourself get asked out on a date—"

"Takarada was not asking me out on a date!" Sawamura's voice is too loud, ringing across the tiles. His hands fisted in the material of his gym shorts, Sawamura turns to look at Kazuya head on. "...Was she?" The odd dread is like a cold stone sinking to the bottom of Kazuya's stomach, because Sawamura looks so lost at the very idea of it.

Kazuya, not wanting to continue seeing that particular face, just pulls up on the hem of his own shirt, tugging when the neck of it gets caught on his ears. "It's a good idea to save time by showering here," he says, instead of answering. He turns his back to Sawamura, so he won't be tempted to skim his eyes down the muscles of Sawamura's thighs as he hears the sound of shorts dropping to the floor.

"You didn't answer my question!"

"Do you really want to know the answer?" Kazuya replies, tugging at the drawstring of his track bottoms. He steps out of them slowly, eyes firmly fixed on his locker now.

"No," Sawamura says. "But I probably should, right?"

Kazuya swallows, taking off his glasses and setting them down with his things to change into. "It's sometimes easier not to."

"Yeah," Sawamura says. "When Wakana told me she liked me, last year, I... I really didn't know what to do." He sighs, heavily, and then chuckles. It sounds strange. Hollow. "But! I'm glad she told me. That she felt that way, I mean. Because..." He rubs his face. "'Cause she's important to me, and I didn't want to hurt her by accident."

Kazuya grabs his body soap and a small travel-container of shampoo. "Do you think of her like a sister, or something?" He remembers Wakana, vaguely. He remembers seeing photos of her more than seeing her in person, when they'd been wrapped up in the tournament.

"Well," Sawamura says, "I don't have any sisters, so how would I know that? But Wakana's an important friend. We like a lot of the same stuff and she cares about me a lot, just like I care about her." He hums. "I just, you know, don't want to do... romantic stuff with her. Or kiss her."

Walking past Sawamura toward the shower, Kazuya's careful not to look at him as he hangs a clean white towel on one of the hooks next to the shower. "Well, what about Takarada?"

"I don't want to kiss her either," Sawamura says. "I already told you that!"

"That was a long time ago. You were drunk." The showers are lined up along the far long wall, a drain between every other pair of shower-heads. Kazuya places his soap and shampoo on the small shelf next to the farthest left shower-head. "Who's to say you haven't changed your mind now that you know her better?" He turns on the water. It's chilly for a few moments as it comes up through cold pipes, stuttering out at a weak pressure, but Kazuya tenses his jaw and bears it until it heats up enough for him to step completely under the spray. "Perhaps Takarada is just the girl you want to date, now!"

"I'm not interested in dating girls!" Sawamura comes up to stand at the shower next to his, turning on his water as well. "Not Wakana, not Takarada, not Sakamoto from the literature club, either!" He huffs loudly, and Kazuya can hear him aggressively shampooing his hair as Kazuya soaps himself up. "You never wanted to date any of the girls in high school! Or Uehara!"

"I doubt it's for the same reasons," Kazuya says, before he can think better of it. The water pelts Kazuya's face, slightly too hot, and he scrubs up quickly, far more aware than he should be of Sawamura under the shower-head next to his. Even out of the corner of his eye, he can see the water pooling in the dips and grooves of Sawamura's collarbones and sternum, and clinging to the lines of muscle.

His heart is in his throat again. He can't get used to this. It's like being fourteen all over again and sitting next to Chris in the dugout, only there's not a bit of hero worship to get tangled up in the way Kazuya thinks of Sawamura. It's just all attraction, and he wonders if he should turn his water back to cold when he feels his cock start to thicken.

"Yeah, probably not," says Sawamura. The water almost drowns it out, but Kazuya hears it loud and clear. He bites his lip, reaching blindly for his shampoo bottle, finding it with his fingertips then grasping it firmly as Sawamura continues. "Still, though, you can understand it, right?"

"We both spend too much time at practice to date, anyway," Kazuya says, clearly and steadily. "Stop thinking about this."

"You started it!" Then, suddenly, there's a blurred hand coming up to his face. Kazuya flinches back, but his nose gets dabbed with a big blob of shampoo foam. "Hah!"

"Mature," Kazuya says, aware that Sawamura hasn't moved back to his own showering space yet. He's almost as warm as the water pouring down on Kazuya from the shower. "Are you finished?" He turns the water off, shaking his wet hair out of his eyes. The world is still blurry, his glasses folded up on-top of his clean clothes outside.

"Almost," replies Sawamura, and Kazuya turns his back on him, grabbing the towel he hung up and wrapping it around his waist before snagging his soaps.

He hears Sawamura's water shut off, too, and he moves quickly toward the bench, determined to get dressed so that if he says anything else he doesn't mean to, at least he won't be naked as the words come out of his mouth. He gets halfway there before he feels Sawamura coming up behind him.

"I never knew you had a scar," Sawamura says, startling Kazuya into almost dropping his towel. He clutches it tighter in his hand, resignedly turning around to look at Sawamura. He can make out the outline of tan, broad shoulders. If he focused, he'd be able to make him out clearly, and even imagining the way the water must be dripping down to settle in Sawamura's clavicles sends a spark of heat down his spine to settle low in his belly. "On your side."

Kazuya's hand moves to trace the thin scar just along the swell of his ribcage, looking away again. "Yeah," he says. "From the surgery I had when I got the second-degree strain." An accident at the very end of his third year, another painful injury in the same place, but worse, infinitely worse. Kazuya remembers the way it felt like his side was collapsing in on itself, the way fear had seemed even more incalculably large than the pain. He remembers watching Seidou open a new season from a hospital bed, his high school career at a definite end.

"It was really scary," Sawamura says. "When you got hurt again. It was scary when Tanba-senpai got hurt, too, or Furuya... but... With you, that was the scariest. Scarier than the first time you got hurt."

"Why?"

"You're Miyuki Kazuya!" Sawamura steps closer to him, warm and tall. One of his fingers lightly touches the scar, following the path that Kazuya's own fingers had taken moments earlier. "Our captain, you know? And you were always there. In my head, you were like, this pillar, and so when you..." Sawamura's fingers still where the scar is thickest. Kazuya's pulse is racing, and his face feels hot. All his breath is trapped in his lungs at the press of two fingers to his side. He wonders if Sawamura's shower-wrinkled fingertips can detect how fast his heart is beating, even there. "You getting hurt again was terrifying, okay?! Like—" Sawamura's fingers disappear, only to be replaced by a warm palm. "You're strong and... and untouchable and stuff!"

"Clearly not untouchable," Kazuya replies, his voice lower than he'd like, and shaky. This close, even without his glasses, he can see the slickness of Sawamura's skin at his neck, and the rivulets of shower water that fall from his messy brown hair. It curls tighter when it's completely wet. Kazuya hadn't remembered that. He wishes he still didn't. "What are you doing, Sawamura?"

"I'm not sure," Sawamura says, and his voice is low, too, and that spark in Kazuya's lower belly turns into a roaring flame. "Your skin is soft."

"Not really." He grabs Sawamura's wrist and lifts his hand away. "It's just wet." Slowly, he forces himself to relax. "Go get dressed, Sawamura," he says, dropping the hand. "We've got things to do."

"R-right!" Sawamura shuffles away, his feet making wet smacking sounds on the floor as he makes his way back toward the bench, while Kazuya stands very still and attempts to catch his breath, unable to make sense of what's just happened.

When he puts his glasses back on, Sawamura is pink and staring very fixedly at the floor. Kazuya takes in the lean line of his torso, and he's just glad Sawamura's not looking back at him.

Tokyo is always bustling at rush hour, people streaming in and out of the massive Shinjuku station as Kazuya looks for exit B4, eyes scanning the arrows overhead for the correct way. With over two-hundred exits, Shinjuku-sanchome station is a nightmare even when the crowds are thinner. Now, with work having just let out, Kazuya feels himself getting jostled every other second.

Sawamura has grabbed a handful of his pullover, knuckles brushing Kazuya's side through the thick fleece, in order to keep himself from getting separated in the push and pull of the crowd.

"I got lost in here for two hours once," Sawamura says, right into his ear, cutting through the loudspeaker message about two-minute delays on the Keio Line, and Kazuya flinches away. "Right after I moved to this part of Tokyo."

Kazuya snorts, sure the sound gets swallowed up by the crowd, and spares a glance in Sawamura's general direction before resuming his examination of the exit signs. "Two hours? Why am I not surprised that you lack enough situational awareness to get lost in Shinjuku Station for two entire hours?"

"Don't judge me!" Sawamura tugs on Kazuya's pullover. "This station is confusing and actually more like five stations?! And I was trying to meet Harucchi at a specific exit, so it's not like I could just go up and figure it out up there! Also there's too many damn people in Tokyo!"

"Poor little country boy," Kazuya says, just loud enough to carry, and then he finds the exit. "Lucky for you, it would waste my time to abandon you down here."

"Asshole," Sawamura grumbles, bumping into Kazuya multiple times as he leads them in the direction of their exit. "I don't understand why I even hang out with you!"

Dodging a group of already-drunk salarymen coming down the stairs, Kazuya leads Sawamura up. "I don't either," Kazuya replies, frankly, and this time, Sawamura's huff is against the back of his neck, stirring the damp hair as he pushes Kazuya with his free hand, the other still tangled in pullover. "You need to make more friends."

"No I don't!" Sawamura moves to walk next to him instead of behind him as they emerge from the east exit into the already dark evening. "I have plenty of friends, Miyuki Kazuya!"

"And yet," Kazuya replies, turning right and counting on Sawamura to keep up, "here you are with me." He hesitates. "Getting a suit so that you can spend more time with me."

"Yeah," Sawamura says, shrugging and looking ahead of them, even though he has no idea where they're going. "It's like I said before, you know? I'm used to you."

And maybe Kazuya's thoughts are still caught up in the way Sawamura's fingers had slid across his scar, and the steam rising between them in the abandoned locker room showers, but the way Sawamura says I'm used to you sounds an awful lot like I like you. Kazuya hunches forward against a stubborn burst of wind, and bites his lip. "I love your dedicated masochism," he says, finally, and laughs as Sawamura starts to sputter loudly enough to gather the attention of everyone around them as Kazuya leads them toward the department store.

Kazuya's only been to get formal wear once. It had been for a funeral when he was thirteen, for his dad’s mother’s funeral. He remembers feeling antsy as his measurements were taken, thinking about dust and runs and calling strike-outs as he suffered through jackets in six shades of navy being forced onto him for the associate’s approval. He's too young for black, he remembers the consultant saying to his silent father, and Kazuya can bitterly recall not caring at all what color the suit ended up being.

Sawamura has quieted down since they entered the department store, and he's almost silent as they cross the fifth floor, away from the casual sweaters stacked on warm brown counters and toward the more formal options, the items becoming more and more sparse as they go deeper. "Fancy," he says, his eyes catching on glass topped counters displaying diamond-encrusted watches. "There are people who actually dress like this not-on-television?"

"You probably have to get a custom jacket like me. Because of our builds." He watches Sawamura carefully. "Not too late to back out, Sawamura," he says. "If you've bitten off more than you can chew."

"No way!" Sawamura's voice rings across the floor, and he flushes a deep red as all the consultants in various departments turn to stare at them. "I might need slacks, too. I’ve gotten taller since Takashima-san’s wedding." He smoothes his hair subconsciously, and offers one of those dazzling grins of his. "Can I buy those off the rack?"

Kazuya just rolls his eyes, even as his own stomach does a tiny, rebellious flop at the warmth of that smile. "Maybe."

"Can I help you?" The woman behind the desk is tall, and pretty. She's wearing the typical sales-consultant uniform, all black with the Isetan logo on the starched collar of her blouse, and Kazuya catches the way her eyes drop to his worn sneakers and Sawamura's holey jeans, flashing bits of thigh with every shift of his weight.

"We need custom tailoring," Kazuya says, in his most business-like tone. The consultant's posture straightens subconsciously, and Kazuya rolls his eyes at how easy some games are to play. "We're attending a gala." He holds up a finger. "Night-time, and the venue is Tokyo Sky View, so we should go with white or slightly off-white button-downs, but I don't know about the cut."

"Full suit, or just the jackets?" The consultant is already looking dubiously at Sawamura's arms again, now with the eye of selling him an expensive garment, and Kazuya knows she’s noting just how broad he is.

"He needs a full suit, and I just need a new jacket in black," Kazuya replies. Sawamura makes a tiny, concerned noise next to him as the consultant smiles and disappears into a back room.

"I don't think I've heard you speak like that in a long time," Sawamura says. His hair is falling into his eyes. "It's weird now, to hear it. You sound..."

"What? Intelligent?" Kazuya pats Sawamura's arm. "Don't worry, you too can someday sound like—"

"Cold," Sawamura interrupts. "It's just... I don't like your voice like that."

Kazuya curls his hands into fists, and smirks. "Do you usually like my voice?"

"Shut up, bastard!" Only his neck goes red, this time, and Kazuya can see the faint shadow of stubble creeping up his jaw.

"Now, now, Sawamura, use your inside voice," Kazuya teases, as the consultant re-emerges from the back room with a tall man wearing thick glasses and carrying a measuring tape. "Or I'll start leaving you at home until you're fully leash-trained."

"I'm not a dog, Miyuki Kazuya!"

"Good," Kazuya replies. "I hate when people dress pets up in costumes, and it would make me getting you into a suit a little hypocritical."

Kazuya gestures for Sawamura to step up onto the wooden stool the consultants have produced first, and watches the woman sweep through the rows of black jackets hanging in various sizes on the rack.

The man rattles off a string of numbers, and the consultant plucks two from the end of the rack and drapes them over her arm, along with a dress shirt and a pair of slacks.

Kazuya steps up on the stool as Sawamura goes to change in a black curtained-off dressing room, letting the man take cursory measurements of his own thickly proportioned muscles.

"Athletes?" the woman asks, as she hands him his own bundle of clothes.

Kazuya nods. "Baseball."

And then Sawamura emerges, dressed in dark charcoal trousers that make his legs look impossibly long and a tucked-in dress shirt in a crisp, clean white that sets off the last remnants of his summer tan and the dusting of freckles across his cheeks, and Kazuya almost drops everything he's holding.

It's not that Sawamura looks better in half a suit than he looks in casual clothes. Kazuya thinks Sawamura looks best in that cozy brown sweater of his with the oversized neck and messy hair and a pair of jeans so worn the denim stretches to white whenever the muscles in his thighs flex. But Sawamura, dressed like this, looks like he's set one foot into real adulthood, and maybe it's that thought, along with the fact that Sawamura’s dressing up so that he won't have to go to this stupid event by himself, that emphasizes just how good Sawamura looks, draped in dark silk.

"I feel like a grown up," Sawamura says, buttoning the cuff of the dress shirt. The consultant, holding out the first of three jackets, hides a smile even as she gives Sawamura an appreciative glance, raking her eyes along his broad shoulders.

"It's amazing what a nice suit can do," Kazuya replies, struggling for offhand when his mouth is so dry, and then he brushes past Sawamura to step into the now vacated changing room, kicking aside Sawamura's discarded clothes and changing out of his shirt and into the one the associate had handed him.

Sawamura's back on the stool when Kazuya's finished, his jacket getting pinned and tucked. He looks over at Kazuya and grins, but it falters slightly as he looks Kazuya up and down. "What?" Kazuya raises an eyebrow, and Sawamura loudly clears his throat.

"It's amazing what a nice suit can do," he says, averting his gaze even as he imitates Kazuya's own speech cadence.

"Do I look devilishly handsome?" Kazuya asks lightly, and the woman laughs.

"You certainly look like the devil," mutters Sawamura. "That's no different from usual, though."

"You always say the sweetest things, Sawamura." He walks over to Sawamura and watches as the associate adjusts a sloppily tied bowtie. "Your tie was always passably neat in school, but this kind escapes you, huh? Just wear a regular tie." Kazuya takes a step closer and examines the whole picture, taking in the pinned jacket waist and the too-short sleeves. "It'll do," he says, pretending he can't still feel his own heart racing, and looks at the attendant. "Can you have it ready by Thursday?"

"Two days?" the tailor says. "Yours can be done tomorrow since you’ll probably need fewer alterations to the jacket, but his," he points to Sawamura, "won’t be done until Thursday afternoon."

"I'll pick them both up then," Kazuya says, and he shrugs into the first offered jacket.

Kazuya winces at the cost, but careful budgeting with his stipend have given him a cushion in his budget, and he can afford it, so pays for both himself and Sawamura. It’s an amount that has Sawamura's eyes going so wide Kazuya fears the eyeballs might roll out of their sockets and down across the department store floor.

"You’re only getting it because of me," Kazuya says, on their way out into the night. "Don't worry about it."

"We need them for the end of season awards if we win the Emperor’s Cup," Sawamura says. "So I’ll be paying you back."

"I hardly ever spend money." Kazuya shoves his hands into his pockets. "It’s not that big a deal."

"It’s a lot to spend on me." Sawamura seems to be weighing his words, and in the dark, Kazuya can't make out his expression. "Thank you very much for your most necessary help in this quest to obtain suits!"

"Still talking like you’re a vassal of Tokugawa Ieyasu, Sawamura?"

"I'm getting better about that!"

"You've only called Coach Maeda ‘Our Feudal Lord’ twice this season, it's true."

Sawamura shoves him lightly as they walk. "Not even once to his face!" His mouth is a thin line.

"Kataoka would be proud!" Kazuya laughs.

"Yeah, yeah," Sawamura says. He starts to say something else, and then, instead, bumps Kazuya with his arm. "Let's get something to eat! I'm starving!"

"Not sure if I want to be seen eating with you in public without Chris and Kuramochi around to divert some of the negative attention." He grins teasingly at Sawamura, who scowls at him.

"My manners aren't that bad!" He wraps his fingers around Kazuya's wrist, thumb sliding up along the vein, and pulls him into a bento shop.

They bicker through dinner, and Kazuya allows himself to relax into it, the unnerving feelings of attraction from the locker room and from the department store taking a backseat to amusement as Sawamura entertains him with a silly story from last year about Okumura, and Yui Kaoru, the backup catcher, getting into a physical argument on first base until Rei-chan had convinced Kanemaru to break it up.

"Those kids," Sawamura says, at the end of his tale, shaking his head, and Kazuya throws his head back and laughs.

"You're just like that!" He scratches at his cheek. "I'm surprised you weren't out there fighting too!" Sawamura, always mature, flicks a piece of ginger at him, and cackles when it sticks to Kazuya's glasses, and Kazuya just smirks when a bunch of people send their table dirty looks. "See? Can't take you anywhere."

"I took you," Sawamura replies, sticking his lip out stubbornly, and Kazuya forces himself to look away from Sawamura's mouth.

They ride the train twenty minutes back toward Meidaimae station. The train is calmer than Kazuya would expect, and quieter, absent of the pushy little old ladies and high school students that had plagued their ride out.

Kazuya's comfortable, relaxed in his seat, belly full, and not as tired as he could be. And Sawamura is... inexplicably so warm against Kazuya's side as they watch the train tunnels go dark and light through the grimy subway windows.

Sawamura, Kazuya thinks, is inexplicably warm and even more inexplicably here, with Kazuya, spending his free time trying on suit jackets or keeping Kazuya awake while he watches videos for his journalism class or going over baseball stats at three in the morning, tipsy and smiling. He's here, and not in Nagoya playing for the Diamonds or back in Nagano at a local school, close to his parents and his childhood friends. He's not with Kominato Haruichi or with Furuya training overseas. He's here.

Kazuya still doesn't understand why.

"Why did you really decide to go to university?" Kazuya asks. "You said before that it wasn't just so you'd have a fallback, in case something happened with your elbow. So why?"

Why is Sawamura with Kazuya, at Meiji, when Kazuya had already written him off as past, not present, two years ago when he graduated empty-handed? Why is Sawamura here, picking at Kazuya's so-called 'right arm wall' and wrapping one of those big strong pitcher hands around Kazuya's cold heart?

Sawamura tilts his head back, baring his throat. "Why did you?"

"Experience," Kazuya says. "Lack of open positions that suited me on the minor league teams. A chance to build a new team at Meiji."

"Build a new team..." Sawamura peers at him through thick dark lashes. "Make your own success?"

"Something like that," Kazuya murmurs. "But you had an offer to play for the Diamonds. That would have fed right into the Dragons, and working with Chris."

"Practicing with Chris-senpai was good. Sometimes too good. Pitching to him is like..." Sawamura sucks his upper lip into his mouth, still looking at Kazuya. "It's like coming home, and your mom's made your favorite food, and your dad has the NPB game on, and they've all been waiting for you."

Kazuya flinches, slightly, and Sawamura doesn't seem to catch it, his brow furrowed in concentration. "So why would you leave that, if you don't care about having a backup plan?"

"Because..." Sawamura looks down at his hand. "Because sometimes I think maybe pitching should also feel like moving to Tokyo, and getting lost in Shinjuku Station!" He looks up at Kazuya and grins. "Or like getting a love confession from a girl I don't love back. Or like something new, and scary, because half of beating batters is letting them know how brave you are, how much you aren't scared of them, right?" Sawamura leans into him more, and Kazuya takes the weight. "And I dunno, Chris-senpai is like a mountain. He's steady and unwavering and really strong and he knows so much! It's amazing! But you..."

"But me?" Sawamura's hair tickles Kazuya's mouth.

"You're like a river during rainy season," Sawamura says. "Like, we'll get to the ocean eventually but it's gonna be a bumpy ride."

"You're..." Kazuya laughs, low, and Sawamura shakes with the motion of his chest along with the motion of the train. "Something else, Noisymura."

"You're going to have to admit how awesome I am real soon, Miyuki Kazuya!"

"Don't hold your breath," Kazuya murmurs in reply, his heart beating so fast, the adrenaline of being at bat with one strike left and being centimeters from home plate all at once. He brushes Sawamura's hair out of his face and lets his fingers linger in those thick, soft strands for a few moments, and closes his eyes as he waits for their stop.

Chris calls him in the morning, as he's sifting through the papers on his desk looking for his Wednesday lecture's reading packet, wondering vaguely if he's going to be late to practice. He'd slept terribly last night, unable to drift off as his thoughts kept drifting back to the weight of Sawamura against him, late at night on the train, soft breaths and warmth.

Kazuya doesn't know how he's fallen to the level of pining. He'd thought pining was for less practical people than he's been since he was too small for even the smallest middle school team baseball cap. He'd thought pining was for movies and college boys with the luxury of admitting their feelings; for college boys who didn't mind the heaviness of emotions sinking like stones to the bottom of his gut.

University second-year Kazuya would be laughed at by high school second-year Kazuya, who didn't bother to read love letters and thought Sawamura was a self-centered moron that was funny and kind of annoying, instead of admirably simple and earnest in all the ways Kazuya's never been able to be.

Distracted by his thoughts, he answers the phone just as he unearths the journalism packet, trapping the phone between his ear and his shoulder as he shoves the packet into his backpack and zips it. "It's time for practice," he says, not sure if he's expecting his father or Sawamura.

"It is, but I thought we could talk as you walk," says Chris, smooth voice way too composed for early morning. He does it a lot more effortlessly than Kazuya, who despite years of early practice has never quite managed to transform into a morning person.

"I'm going to leave you, slow-ass!" Kuramochi calls from the hallway, and Kazuya huffs before pulling the phone away from his mouth and yelling back: "Go ahead, I'm on the phone!"

Kuramochi closes the door too hard, as usual, and Kazuya checks his desk one last time and pulls on a beanie to cover his ears. There's a bit of frost at the edges of the windows, morning cold, and he pulls on his windbreaker wondering if it's thick enough. It probably will be, after a few laps, he figures, and zips it up.

"Are you running late?" Chris asks.

"Just a little." Kazuya says, shouldering his backpack and heading out into the hall. "You don't call me very often."

"I don't call anyone very often," replies Chris.

Kazuya slips on his cleats and grabs his trainers for later, shoving them into the tote bag of clothes he'd left last night by the door to change into after practice. "I'm not complaining. I'm just curious as to what's so important you'd call in the morning when you know I have practice."

Chris audibly hesitates, and Kazuya curls his fingers around the handles of the tote bag tightly as he nudges the door open. "I talked to Sawamura last night," he says, finally.

"Did you call him, too?" Kazuya keeps his tone flippant, but suddenly he recalls the way Chris had looked at him, the night they all went out to dinner, far too perceptive and looking right through Kazuya's feigned nonchalance to whatever is underneath. "Are you turning over a new leaf?"

"He called me." The rustle of sheets informs Kazuya that Chris is still in bed. Kazuya locks the door as Chris sighs. "He said you went suit shopping together and he's going with you to a gala thing?"

"Yeah," Kazuya says. "He volunteered." He licks his lower lip, then has regrets as the wind starts to sting the wet, cracked skin. "Wagged his tail as he did it. You know the deal."

"Miyuki," Chris says, and then there's that hesitation again. Kazuya hates it. "What are you doing?"

"I thought you'd be happy I was getting along so well with your little first-year," Kazuya replies. "You're always encouraging me to get closer to him, to work more with him." His glasses slide down his nose. "Work with him on his batting, Miyuki, you're his catcher now, and all that, and now you're asking me about it? I'm just following your advice."

"Yes," Chris says slowly, deliberately. "I guess you are." He clears his throat. "You know Sawamura's not—" His voice stops, and Kazuya's heart stops with it.

"Not what?"

He can hear his pulse in his ears, louder than Chris's steady breathing. His palms feel slick, and the cloth handles of the tote bag bite into his fingers as he clutches them tighter in his hand.

"Not... good at games, like you are," Chris says, after a long minute. Kazuya can see the gates up ahead. "When he feels things, he acts on them. He's honest, and sometimes he's short-sighted, and he jumps without looking where he might land."

"Are you telling me Sawamura's going to squash me flat, or are you after something else, senpai?" Up ahead, he can see the gates of the field, and Takarada standing at the gate, laughing and sparkling up at Sawamura, who is all over-articulation with his arms and big, obnoxious smiles, as usual. Kazuya hates that, too. "I don't see why a repeat of all the reasons Sawamura's useless without a tricky catcher was important enough to call me."

"I won't tell you what Sawamura said," Chris says, "but it's one thing to be his catcher completely on the field and another thing entirely to be his friend off the field, and you've never really been interested in having many friends. You go out of your way to avoid it."

"Sawamura's not my friend," is on the tip of Kazuya's tongue, but that's a lie he doesn't think he'll be able to sell Chris when he can barely sell it to himself anymore, no matter how often he says it to Sawamura. "I guess I'm getting used to having a newborn pup knocking things over in my life," he says instead.

Chris doesn't laugh, exactly, but now Kazuya can hear a smile in his voice when he speaks. "As long as you're..." Chris seems to struggle with the metaphor, wanting to use it for continuity as much as he wants to avoid calling Sawamura a puppy, "not going to lock him out of the house when he mauls your shoes."

"He's chewed every pair I own already," Kazuya complains, and then, more quietly, he adds: "The scary thing is, I didn't even notice until I went looking for a pair and couldn't find any." He thinks of Sawamura on his doorstep, demanding to be let in, demanding to know why Kazuya was avoiding him. He thinks of Sawamura in his bed, hands on his back as he dug into muscle. Sawamura sliding a coffee across the table, and Sawamura's fingers gliding along the straps of his chest protector, and Sawamura painstakingly re-lacing Kazuya's glove. Sawamura leaning into Kazuya's touch as Kazuya repositioned his swing, muscle bunching under Kazuya's fingertips... "I've got to go. To practice."

"Right," Chris says. "Have a good practice."

"I always do," Kazuya says, ending the call as he gets down to the gate. Sawamura looks up at the sound of Kazuya's voice, and Kazuya's stomach flops at the almost imperceptible widening of Sawamura's already luminous grin.

"Just in the nick of time," Takarada says, hands on her hips.

"You don't seem to be counting the seconds." Kazuya lifts an eyebrow and darts a glance at Sawamura who has squatted down to tie his shoes, and she gives him a filthy glare. Sawamura, thankfully, doesn't notice. "I made it, so you can lock us in here now, officer."

Rolling her eyes, Takarada gestures them inside, and Kazuya chuckles and obeys, Sawamura bumping into him.

"You are later than usual," Sawamura says. "I was waiting for you."

Kazuya's breath hitches. "Do I need a keeper or something?"

"Not really," Sawamura says, then he waggles his eyebrows. "Just thought maybe you'd overslept."

"If I had," Kazuya replies, shifting the weight of his backpack, "I definitely would have found some way for you to take the fall for it." He peers up at Sawamura, his eyes mostly hidden by light glinting off his glasses but knowing Sawamura will know his expression for the taunt it is. "Since you're so gullible. Wonder if Maeda would have you lugging your favorite tires for weeks with no pitching, ace or no ace."

"You suck," Sawamura says, pouting at him.

"And yet, you were waiting for me," Kazuya points out, and Sawamura looks up at the sky.

"Yeah, and you took forever!" He swallows, and Kazuya traces the movement of his throat. "You were on the phone?"

"Just Chris," Kazuya answers, and watches Sawamura flush slightly, and dart his eyes to Kazuya's own for a moment before he seems to purposefully shrug it off, water from a duck's back, and nudge Kazuya with his elbow. "He wanted to ask me something."

"What—" Sawamura stops, his mouth opening and closing in an absolutely unattractive expression of utter blankness, and then he scrubs at his face with one hand before rounding on Kazuya, getting too close as he leans in. "Hey!" He's shouting, and Kazuya's so used to it again that he doesn't even flinch: "I'll race you for our first lap, Miyuki Kazuya!"

"Do I look like Furuya to you?" Kazuya responds mildly, but when Sawamura drops all of his stuff in a messy pile on the grass, he drops his own bags unceremoniously next to Sawamura's, and hurries after him anyway, a smile tugging secretly at the corners of his lips, hopefully hidden by the tickling ends of his overgrown hair.

"Looking spiffy," Kuramochi says, leaning against the doorframe as Kazuya scowls at his own reflection. "Got a hot date? Trying to impress somebody?"

"I don’t have to try," Kazuya replies, pushing his fringe out of his face. "I’m not Cro-Magnon in the face like you are."

Kuramochi frowns grumpily at him, then cracks his knuckles. "Still, you're working pretty hard for someone that doesn't have to try. Besides, must be a special occasion to get you into a suit."

"You're being nosy." Sighing, Kazuya pulls one last time on his bow-tie, and looks at Kuramochi out of the corner of his eye. "That business thing for my dad is tonight."

"Oh," Kuramochi says, frown exaggerating, nose crinkling with obvious distaste. "You told me you didn’t want to go to that!"

"And yet," Kazuya says, lightly, closing his eyes.

"So…"

"So?"

"Are you taking a date or something?" Kuramochi scratches his neck. "I mean, not a date, since, well, it’s you, but like, you know, a guest?"

"Yes," replies Kazuya, his lips twitching slightly. "Actually—" The doorbell rings, and they both turn as one in the direction of it.

"What kind of guy doesn't pick up his date?" Kuramochi points at him. "You made some poor girl walk all the way here in heels to pick you up? Is it Takarada? She's the only girl you hang out with, because you’re awful and don’t realize how much better girls are in all ways."

Kazuya rolls his eyes, pushing past Kuramochi as his friend continues his rant about being a gentleman and social skills and whatever else he thinks is involved with Kazuya's plans tonight.

Sawamura is standing on the other side of the door when he opens it, shirt still untucked and jacket over his arm. His tie hangs from his neck, untied, and his hair is a desperate, damp mess falling into his eyes. Kazuya licks his lips, throat dry, and then forces a grin.

Kuramochi's words trail off as he realizes who's come to pick Kazuya up, and he stares at Kazuya for a moment, genuine surprise on his face, before huffing, crossing his arms. "You could have just said it was just Sawamura, asshole."

"But you were so worried about his footwear," says Kazuya, as Sawamura closes the door behind himself. "How was I meant to get a word in edgewise?"

"My footwear?" Sawamura’s face goes mulish as he looks down at the dress shoes Kazuya had helped him select. "What’s wrong with my shoes?"

"Not as much as is wrong with your tie, Sawamura." Kazuya grins as Sawamura’s cheeks go pink.

"I didn’t know how to tie it, okay?! It’s not like it’s supposed to have the same knot as my uniform tie!" He pulls on both ends of it at once, and Kazuya laughs, helplessly, affection bubbling up from his gut to settle, frothy, right at the center of his chest, between his lungs. "What’s the big deal?! Geez, not much use for stupid stuff like tie knots when you just play baseball, Miyuki Kazuya!"

Lifting his hands, Kazuya swats away Sawamura’s, and turns up his collar. He runs his fingers along the silk of the mustard-colored tie to smooth out the wrinkles, nail catching on the tag, and he scoots it to shorten the tie just enough that the left end hangs four centimeters longer against the white of Sawamura’s dress shirt. "This is an important life skill," Kazuya replies, and Sawamura exhales as Kazuya crosses the longer end of the tie over the shorter end, looping it under where the two sides meet. "What if the only way to save the world was for everyone to tie a pretty Windsor?"

"Shut up, bastard," Sawamura grumbles, his breath warm and minty as he exhales, his chest moving under the side of Kazuya’s hand. "I said it’s useless!"

"Just because you can’t do it, doesn’t make it useless~" Kazuya folds the hanging end of the material into a loop, and deftly brings the long end down over what will form the center. "Is that slider of yours useless? You couldn’t do that before."

"Everything you say is useless!" Sawamura bumps his forehead against Kazuya’s, his damp hair leaving smudges on Kazuya’s glasses. "Sliders are baseball. Ties are not baseball!!!"

"Oh ho ho," Kazuya says, finishing the last loop and straightening the silk, "Sawamura, you master of stating the obvious, you." He smooths the collar down over the immaculately tied Windsor knot. His fingertips linger just below the sharp wings of the collar, feeling the warmth of Sawamura’s skin bleeding through the starched material of the dress shirt. "If we’re not careful, you’ll be dangerous!"

"If it wouldn’t mess up your clothes I’d throttle you!" Sawamura’s too loud, this close. Kazuya’s eyes shutter closed so he doesn’t have to see how near Sawamura’s lips are.

Kuramochi clears his throat, and Kazuya remembers himself, stepping back and taking his glasses off, tsking at the smears on the lenses. "Always resorting to violence. You learned too much from this barbarian over there." He gestures to Kuramochi with his free hand, even as he turns his back and walks in the direction of the bedroom, where his lens cloth sits on his desk. With his glasses off, he can’t see whatever look is on Kuramochi’s face. His insides are hot, and he does his best to make sure that’s not reflected on his face, for anyone to look at and know what he’s thinking.

"He didn’t learn that from me," says Kuramochi. "Something about you just inspires that kind of reaction in people, Miyuki." Kuramochi’s voice is strange, and Kazuya’s shoulders tighten. "Not my fault or Sawamura’s!"

Kazuya methodically wipes his glasses clean and puts them back on, before he goes back into the hallway. Sawamura is shoving his shirt into the waist of his trousers, and Kuramochi is watching him, amused, until he looks over at Kazuya again, his expression morphing into something undefinable before he seems to shrug whatever he’s thinking away.

"Does your pops know you’re bringing a bull in a china shop to his fancy party?" Kuramochi asks, lightly, and Kazuya offers him a crooked grin.

"Well, he didn’t ask," Kazuya replies, as Sawamura makes an indignant squawk. "I think it’ll be a nice surprise."

"I’m not a bull!" Sawamura’s hair flops as he shakes it out of his eyes. "Or a dog, or whatever other animal you think of next! How many times do I have to tell you guys?!"

"At least one more time!" Kazuya beams at Sawamura, resisting the urge to push his overgrown dark fringe out of his face. "You’ll also probably have to stop barking so much—"

Sawamura growls, and Kuramochi bursts into laughter. "And doing that," he wheezes, slapping his thighs as Sawamura’s face gets redder. His lower lip sticks out in a pout, so childish, and Kazuya wonders if part of Sawamura’s appeal is the little bits of childishness that cling to him in the places Kazuya had always brushed them off. "Shouldn’t you be going?"

"Probably," Kazuya says, slipping his phone out of his pocket to check the time. It’s a little past seven. "But the taxi’s not here."

"Taxi?" Sawamura’s eyelashes flutter as his mouth falls into an 'o' of surprise. "We’re not taking the subway?"

"No," Kazuya says. "I figured it would be easier to just order a taxi in advance, since we’d have to take three different subway lines." He’d looked it up earlier, making the call that a twenty minute taxi ride was far superior to an hour train ride.

"Wow, making a real date of it," Kuramochi teases. He’s about to say more, but then his phone starts to ring. He takes it out of his pocket, and smiles. "Oh, it’s… I’m taking this." He looks between Kazuya and Sawamura again, and then shrugs. "If you get back after midnight I’m calling the police, Cinderella."

"Fuck off," Kazuya replies, rolling his eyes, and Kuramochi laughs at him, retreating into their bedroom and closing the door behind him.

"You didn’t even want to go, but you still really planned ahead." Sawamura hooks a finger carefully into the collar of his shirt, and his broad shoulders shift as he tugs. "Your personality is pretty awful, but…" His mouth quirks. "You’re a reliable jerk."

"Are you complimenting me?" Kazuya lilts, but then his phone vibrates with a notification from the driver that they’re almost to the apartment. "Five minutes." He runs his thumb across the message. "You really don’t have to come, you know? It’s not going to be fun, or interesting." He lifts his eyes to Sawamura. "I still have the receipt for the suit~"

Sawamura just looks at him for a long moment, before he scoffs, taking four wide steps into the hallway to stand in front of Kazuya again. He smells like new suit and his shampoo, in addition to the minty toothpaste, but Kazuya only has a moment to take it in before Sawamura socks him in the shoulder. "Stop asking me that! And stop making that face, too!"

"And what face is that?" Kazuya’s brows furrow slightly.

"The sad one that makes you look more horrible than usual," Sawamura says, his eyes intent as they pin Kazuya’s. "I’m going with you, okay? Get used to it!" His irises glint amber.

Kazuya releases a slow breath. "Well," he says, low, "at least I won’t get bored, having a traveling circus act along."

Sawamura keeps staring him down, searching Kazuya’s face for something, and then he nods, dropping his gaze. "My shoes!"

Snorting, Kazuya pushes Sawamura back with his hand flat to the center of Sawamura’s chest. "Bad dog," he says, the beat of Sawamura’s heart oddly quick against his palm.

"Cut it out, jackass!!" Sawamura shuffles back to the genkan, every inch the high school first year, and Kazuya runs his tongue over his teeth. "Should we go outside?"

"Sure," Kazuya says. He stops at the door to slip on his own dress shoes, tying neat, even bows in the laces, aware of Sawamura’s gaze. He straightens up, and moves to open the door, when Sawamura puts a hand on his shoulder to stop him. "Need something?"

"It’s cold outside," Sawamura says, like he isn’t only wearing his jacket and doesn’t have damp hair despite it being early November. "Shouldn’t you bring a scarf or something? What if you get sick?!"

Kazuya finally gives in to the impulse to slide his fingers into Sawamura’s hair. It’s as soft as it looks. "Isn’t that a bit much, coming from you?" He lets his hand fall when he feels Sawamura lean into the touch, stomach clenching. "Who’s the one always forgetting his jacket, eh?"

"I just don’t get cold easily!!"

"That’s because you’re hot-headed~!"

"Miyuki Kazuya!" Sawamura wraps a hand around his wrist, but despite the roughness of his tone, his grip is loose and careful. "You can’t get sick! 'Cause if you get sick you’ll pretend you aren’t, and then you’ll play, and it’ll be—" He cuts himself off. "Just take a scarf, okay?!"

"Just admit it, Sawamoron, you’d be hopeless without me," Kazuya says, plucking a thick black one from where he has several folded on top of the small shelf above the shoe rack. He unfolds it and hangs it over Sawamura’s shoulders. "But sure, I’ll wear one. You first, though." Unlike when he fixed Sawamura’s tie, this time his hand brushes the underside of Sawamura’s chin, feeling the smooth, freshly shaved skin, and Sawamura shivers. "See? You’re chilly already."

"Maybe," Sawamura mumbles, pink tongue wetting his lips as he exhales shakily, and Kazuya retreats, taking a second scarf in dark gray and winding it around his own neck. "Bet that taxi is here."

"Bet it is," Kazuya agrees, trying to will his pulse to slow down. He doesn’t think, as he steps out into the hallway, that he’s going to have a problem with the cold anytime soon, when his face feels so hot.

The driver is standing outside the vehicle, smoking. "I hate cigarettes," Sawamura whispers, loudly, when Kazuya opens the backseat door after a brief nod to the unhurried driver.

"Just get in," Kazuya says, shoving Sawamura inside. Sawamura shrieks, loud as ever, and Kazuya laughs vindictively as he gets in after him.

The city is vibrant and alive as they drive deep into Roppongi. The Roppongi Hills are lit up, nightlife venues taking the place of stars against the dark night sky. Sawamura’s nose is mashed to the window as the city passes by, his callused hands fiddling with the seam of the leather seat between his thigh and Kazuya’s. His knuckle occasionally brushes Kazuya’s knee, and Kazuya ignores the urge to either edge closer or flinch away.

"You look like such a farm boy, all gape-mouthed like that," Kazuya says, breaking the weird silence, and Sawamura peels himself away from the window to look at Kazuya.

"Well," Sawamura says, flopping back on the seat, "I am!" He blows up, lifting his fringe temporarily from where it’s been tickling his eyebrows. "It’s so… bright." He laughs. "Or, I don’t know, loud."

"You’re talking about something being loud?" Kazuya teases, wanting to rile Sawamura up a bit.

Sawamura doesn’t yell at him like Kazuya expects, though. He instead tilts his head curiously. "I always wondered why no one talks to each other," he says. "Back home we talked to everyone we passed, waved at the convenience store workers and the bus drivers and stuff."

"What’s the point in that?" Kazuya asks. "Pretending to be interested in other people? They’re all busy, anyway; with work, probably, since it’s only Thursday. Maybe they’re calling home, even. They don’t need to intrude on each other’s lives."

"Just feels like a shame, though. All these people squished together and none of them acknowledging each other."

"It’s not all that much of a shame." Kazuya hums. "It’s more like everyone is on their own path. They stop if they have to. It’s not like people from Tokyo are all unfriendly like I am."

"You’re right, you’re right. Takarada's from Tokyo and she’s really friendly!"

Kazuya bites back the immediate tease about why Takarada is so friendly, remembering the way Sawamura’s lips had curled down the last time Kazuya brought it up. "Gifts are friendly. Didn’t I promise to bring you some bees from my home ward?"

"You’d better not!! Asshole!" Sawamura huffs. "Still, it makes sense. You’re kinda like this part of the city, Miyuki Kazuya."

"What does that mean?" Kazuya narrows his eyes at Sawamura, trying to puzzle out where he’s going with the analogy. "Are you calling me bright?"

"Yeah," Sawamura says. "Bright and full of noise just like this part of Tokyo." He reaches, just slightly, until his hand rests hot, like a brand, on Kazuya’s thigh, just above his knee. Kazuya’s breath hitches. "But also somehow kind of lonely."

"I’m not lonely," is Kazuya’s automatic response, as he processes Sawamura’s pinky finger curling into the sensitive skin on the inside of his knee.

"Well," Sawamura says, as the car turns, pushing them into each other, "I guess you’re not lonely now, when you’ve got an ace like me."

"Eh?" Kazuya swallows, as Sawamura’s hand rides a little higher on his thigh. "Whether I’m lonely or not, I’ve definitely got more headaches with an ace like you."

"I can see through your right arm wall now, bastard," Sawamura says. "Your mouth is saying different things from your eyes again."

Kazuya immediately looks away. "You definitely think highly of your observation skills, Sawamura. Pitchers always have such egos!" The car coming to a stop saves him from Sawamura’s answer. "It’s show time."

"I don’t have to remember all those rules about silverware, right?" Sawamura scrambles out of the car after him in front of Tokyo City View. "My mom taught me rules about silverware once, when I was like thirteen, but I’ve forgotten all that stuff by now! This looks like a place where I have to remember rules about silverware, only I only ever use forks to eat tonkatsu—"

"Relax, Sawamoron," Kazuya says, steadying Sawamura with a hand at the small of his back. "I won’t let you humiliate yourself." He pauses. "Much."

"Miyuki Kazuya!!"

"You might not want to yell my name so loud here," Kazuya says. "Or yell, in general. Some helpful advice."

Sawamura shuffles after him as they head into the lobby, falling into stride with Kazuya as they approach the elevator, where several other people in suits and long dresses wait, clearly headed to the same event. "This is terrible already," Sawamura says, shoulders tense.

"Absolute last chance to turn back," Kazuya says, in a low whisper, as they come to a stop in front of an elevator attendant, dressed in a dark navy uniform, looking bored out of her mind. He smiles at her winningly, and Sawamura smiles at her too, all boyish charm. She flushes under the attention, and anxiously presses the 'up' button again as an impatient man clears his throat.

"And leave you here alone?" Sawamura whispers back, eyes taking in the high glass windows, and the almost futuristic decorations.

"I’m perfectly capable of doing most things on my own."

"That’s what makes you lonely." Sawamura wrinkles his nose. "I read a manga like this before, you know."

"Oh?" Kazuya elbows him. "A shoujo manga?"

Sawamura nods seriously. "Yeah! One of Beard-senpai’s favorites. There’s this part where the protagonist goes with the second male lead to his uncle’s birthday party—" Sawamura’s words seem to catch up with him as the elevator dings, and he blushes, biting on his lip.

"So you’re the plucky and helpful protagonist," Kazuya says, as they get into the elevator, and Sawamura jostles him, earning them both an amused look from a woman decked out in a thick black wool coat next to them, "and I’m the second male lead?"

"Actually," Sawamura says, almost too quietly for Kazuya to hear him, dropping his gaze to his feet, "didn’t I tell you before that you remind me more of the main guy?" The scarf Sawamura’s wearing reveals the thinnest slice of neck, red as the tips of his ears. "I mean, a total jerk."

"Mmm," Kazuya says, not sure how else to respond, instead swallowing and trying to ignore how much he wants to see Sawamura’s face, the sun freckles standing out against red cheeks. "Cute."

"What’s cute?! Don’t insult my taste in manga! It’s flawless!!"

Kazuya just laughs.

The gala is already in full swing when the elevator opens out to the 52nd floor. With the expanse of windows, it seems like all of Tokyo is laid out for them to see. Sawamura wriggles, clearly wanting to run over to press his hands to the glass like a child, but instead he just presses his arm to Kazuya’s and sticks close as they line up to get checked in by security.

"Miyuki Kazuya and guest," Kazuya says to the older woman with a clipboard who is checking off names. He hands her his invitation, and she looks up in surprise. "I didn’t know Miyuki had a son," she says, and Kazuya smiles at her thinly until she looks back down. "Go on through."

Sawamura shifts uncomfortably, and he’s probably more conscious than Kazuya of how much they both stand out despite their clothes. Sawamura’s broad and tall in a way most other people at the party aren’t, and his hair is a wavy, fluffy mess that he hasn’t bothered combing, and his skin is obviously tanned from long hours outside. They’re also a lot younger than almost everyone else here, and Kazuya knows Sawamura notices, because he’s squirming as his gaze flits from face to face. "You sure this is the right party?"

"Yeah," Kazuya says. "Everyone here runs or works for a small scale production, construction, or fabrication business." He scratches his cheek. "Fewer and fewer young people are wanting to get into that kind of thing, nowadays."

"Oh," Sawamura says. "What’s your dad do, exactly?"

Kazuya shrugs. "He owns a small steel mill, and works at it. It was my grandfather’s business, and he inherited it." He looks at Sawamura out of the corner of his eyes. "You don’t have to look so stiff," he murmurs to Sawamura, taking off his scarf and handing it to another attendant in front of the coat check. Sawamura mimics him, movements disjointed.

"This is like Kuramochi-senpai’s zombie horror game," Sawamura replies, in his own attempt at a murmur, and Kazuya barely stifles a laugh, sucking his lower lip into his mouth. "I don’t want to make the wrong move and get a Game Over!"

"You don’t have to worry so much," Kazuya says, wrapping his fingers around Sawamura’s wrist. Sawamura’s pulse quickens under his fingertips. "Or try to be someone else. I brought you with me knowing you’re obnoxious and lacking basic manners, idiot. It’ll be amusing."

Sawamura smiles, and has it always been warm in here? Kazuya hadn’t thought so. "I thought you brought me for moral support!"

"A little bit of of column A, a little bit of column B." He releases Sawamura’s wrist. "Just be your normal self and I’ll clean up after you, as usual."

"As usual?!" Sawamura crosses his arms. "What’s that supposed to mean?"

Kazuya snickers. "It means you’re a messy pitcher on and off the field." The buzz of the crowd as they walk into the main observation desk seems to put Sawamura on edge again. "Seriously, Sawamura, just relax. You’re not going to do anything too horrible. It’s not like everyone here isn’t an average person dressed up nicely for once."

Sawamura pulls a face, before he blinks twice, his lashes dark against his cheeks. "Do you not care if I mess up because you don’t care how it reflects on your dad?"

Kazuya ponders that as he comes to a stop in front of the huge windows overlooking the city. Sawamura doesn’t look out them, though, despite how eagerly his eyes had fixed on the view earlier, and instead keeps his gaze on Kazuya.

Kazuya clears his throat, fiddling with his cufflinks. He’d forgotten to pick Sawamura out any, but he has them anyway, in a simple burnished gold that’s comparable to the color of his lion eyes. "No," Kazuya says. "I care." He stares out the window. "My father is trying to do something that’s important to him and everyone else in this room, and I’ve got no problem with that." Down below, he can see cars still arriving. "With how shit he is at being my dad, I think he owes it to me to be really good at this." He flicks his eyes back in Sawamura’s direction, only to see something odd in Sawamura’s expression, soft and out of place in this setting. "What now?"

Sawamura’s lips curl up in a small grin. "You’re being honest with me," he says. "That’s always a little special." Then he turns, to face the floor to ceiling window in front of him, and presses his hands to the impeccably cleaned glass, leaving smudges. "Tokyo doesn’t look so bad from up here."

"Really?" Kazuya stares at Sawamura’s profile, his heart so full in his chest he fears it might burst. "A matter of perspective?"

Sawamura’s grin gets a little wider. "I guess," he says, his eyes following something-or-other below. "Maybe it’s because I can see more of it. Reminds me of how much more there is to discover."

"One day," Kazuya says, balling his hands into fists in order to keep himself from reaching out to cup the back of Sawamura’s neck, or something equally revealing, "you’ll realize that you didn’t join the lit club, and not everyone wants to talk in metaphors, Sawamura."

"You don’t really mind," Sawamura says, with a flash of his white teeth. "Shouldn’t we say 'hi' to your pops or something? So he knows you’re here already."

"Mmm," Kazuya agrees, and he tears his eyes from Sawamura to glance around the filled deck. The biggest cluster of all is by the temporarily erected stage, where recent newspapers are framed along with pictures of Old Man Kasuda. Kazuya guesses the protests will be a major speaking point tonight. Scanning the group, he can easily pick out his father, slightly taller than those around him, listening with that calm implacability that reminds him of his early childhood, back when his mother had been a vibrant figure on her side of the dinner table. "Over there," he says, and Sawamura seems to pick the man out just as easily, squaring his shoulders.

"Let's get this over with, then," he says, and Kazuya nods, taking a few steps in his father's direction, skirting around a waiter with a tray of champagne flutes.

They're stopped, though, by an older man, in his late sixties maybe, wearing a tux that’s a shade too small. "Excuse me, you wouldn't happen to be Miyuki Toku’s son, would you?"

Kazuya nods, stiffly, and Sawamura, who'd been only a step behind, bristles, but somehow manages to avoid saying anything silly. "Yes," he says. "That's me."

"I haven’t seen you in years. You’re not even a child anymore," the man says, and he laughs, sharp. "You used to cling to your mother any time anyone tried to talk to you. You must have been six." Sawamura makes a strangled noise in the back of his throat. "So sorry, I'm Shinamoto." He bows slightly. "I own a construction company that contracts with your father."

"A pleasure," Kazuya says dryly. "I'm Miyuki Kazuya. This is my teammate, Sawamura Eijun."

"Teammate?" The man gives Sawamura a once-over, faint recognition that's quickly dismissed lighting his eyes briefly. "You do look like you play a sport, now."

"Baseball, sir." Kazuya's mouth is dry, but an earlier scan had revealed only alcoholic choices available. He’ll probably have to ask specifically for water. "We play for our university team."

"Big6?" Shinamoto raises his eyebrows. "Which team? Waseda’s the top school recently, right?"

"Meiji," Sawamura says. "We play for Meiji, and we're going to kick Waseda's—" He stops, and coughs. "We will defeat the formidable Waseda in every skirmish!" The overly formal and archaic Japanese tumbles out of Sawamura's mouth and Kazuya can't stop his reflexive laugh at the look on the old man's face.

"Ah," Shinamoto says. "Meiji’s a good school. Did you choose it for academics or baseball?"

Kazuya shrugs. "Baseball," he replies. "Meiji gave me the opportunity to build a team from scratch, mostly."

"Gave you the opportunity?" The man takes a long sip of his champagne.

"Yes," Kazuya says, evenly, not explaining, but Sawamura is already gearing up for something, and Kazuya looks over to see he's gone that mottled frustrated pink he goes when he thinks Kazuya's being unreasonable.

"Because Miyuki-senpai is the best amateur catcher in Tokyo!" Sawamura blurts, and both of Shinamoto's eyebrows rise. "He helped lead us to our first Koushien, because the catcher is the brains of a baseball team!"

Kazuya almost chokes on the earnestness in Sawamura’s voice, and bites back the immediate teasing comment that springs to the tip of his tongue.

"Oh, and are you the expert on catchers?" Shinamoto asks, slightly condescending.

"He was one of Seidou's pitchers," Kazuya says lightly. "Last year's Koushien winning team, if you don't follow high school baseball."

"I thought you looked familiar," says Shinamoto, swirling the last dregs of his champagne in his glass, expression shifting into something less smug. "Both of you, actually. My oldest grandson loves to watch baseball, and we do, indeed, watch Koushien every year."

"Miyuki-senpai is one of the catchers that trained me!" Sawamura says, and Kazuya flinches as Sawamura puts an arm across his shoulders. It’s nothing he hasn’t done to Sawamura a hundred times, at least back in high school before Sawamura shot up like a weed, but Kazuya isn’t expecting it here and now. "He's the best, except maybe for Chris-senpai, but Chris-senpai is playing for the Dragons now and I decided I'd rather play with Miyuki Kazuya at Meiji this year, since my family thinks university is important!"

Shinamoto looks at Sawamura for a long moment. "It is," he says, after a long pause, and then he turns speculatively to look at Kazuya again, as if re-evaluating him. "I take it you have no plans to take over your father’s business, then?"

"Not at all." Kazuya adjusts his glasses. "I plan on pursuing professional major league baseball. Steel and construction…" He denies himself the comfort of fidgeting with his tie, which Sawamura next to him is doing for the fiftieth time tonight. "It's not for me."

"Hmmm," the man says. "I'd thought maybe you hadn’t turned out right and your old man was ashamed of you, what with how little of you we see, but it seems I was mistaken." His watch slides down on his wrist to clink against the glass.

"He might be," Kazuya says, framing it like a joke even though it feels a little real at the back of his throat, licking his lips. "He's not very interested in baseball."

Shinamoto laughs. "Perhaps he isn't interested in baseball, but working hard and a being a leader in your own field of experience isn't anything to scoff at, I should think. The apple does not fall far from the tree, does it?"

"For better or for worse," Kazuya demurs, and the man nods, satisfied, and moves on to another guest that catches his eyes, leaving Kazuya standing there with an obviously unhappy Sawamura.

"What’s wrong?" Sawamura asks, heated. "Why were you all… modest and shit?" He runs a hand through his hair, agitated. "Why were you going to let him think you aren’t the best?! That's not like you at all, Miyuki Kazuya!"

"What happened to Miyuki-senpai?" Kazuya teases, trying to diffuse some of Sawamura's irritation. "You called me senpai twice. I should record the date on the calendar, don't you think? And you acknowledged my position as the brains! My, my, is it my birthday~?"

"Shut up! I just hate it when you aren’t a cocky, arrogant jerk, okay?!" Sawamura's hair is disastrous now, and it would be easy for Kazuya to fix it; comb his fingers through the pieces in front of Sawamura's face just enough that he looks less like a wildling and more like a boy in a suit. "I’m not gonna say this again so you better listen up! I respect you, Miyuki Kazuya! Even if you're an asshole and bad at people!" His face twists up. "And not just because you're the best catcher, either, okay?! So don’t let anyone underestimate you!"

"Aww," Kazuya says, hiding his sudden flush and exaggerated heartbeat with a mocking smirk. "Are you confessing to me, Sawamura?" He leans in and whispers: "Is this also from your shoujo manga?"

Sawamura gurgles, face going such a dark red that Kazuya fears he might pass out from all the blood rushing to his head. "Why would you--?!" He covers his face with his hand. "Why are you the worst?!"

Kazuya chuckles. "Weren't we going over to greet my dad?"

"Until you said something like that!" Another waitress walks by, with a tray of champagne, and Sawamura snags one this time, taking a drag of the liquid, leaving his lips wet and shiny when he brings the glass down.

"Embarrassed, first-year?" Kazuya says, wishing he had something to drink as well. Something to do with his hands. "I understand that my charisma can be overwhelming—"

"Your jackassery can be overwhelming—"

"Is that any way to talk to someone you respect, Sawamura?" Kazuya’s grin grows as Sawamura, grumbling, takes another sip of champagne. "That’s not water, you lush. Plus, you’re too young to drink that here."

"Then there should be water," Sawamura says. "It’s not very good, anyway. Bitter."

"That’s very expensive champagne." Kazuya smooths the lapels of his jacket. "Some might question your taste."

"Wakana likes that pink stuff," Sawamura says, squinting at the rising bubbles in the remaining champagne in his flute. "It tastes like strawberries. Sweet. I like that, too."

"What about wine?" Kazuya queries, tilting his head in his dad’s direction again, and Sawamura nods, curling his fingers more tightly around the stem of his glass and taking two quick steps so he can walk side by side with Kazuya.

"My grandpa makes some kind of wine-ish stuff every year," Sawamura says. "He used to make me help roll the barrels down to the cellar, and every time he opened one of the old barrels he’d give me a sip. It’s sorta… sour? I guess? I don’t hate it, because it reminds me of mashing grapes. Nobu and I always volunteered to help mash the grapes, and ruined our play clothes every time." Sawamura’s nostalgia is palpable. "Did you do anything like that, as a kid?"

"I didn’t exactly hang out with a lot of other kids," says Kazuya, thinking of digging up the vegetables in the summer, and of his mother’s hair tickling him as she squatted behind him to guide his hands, and then he catches his father’s eye.

"Kazuya," his father says, interrupting his conversation and drawing the attention of the whole group to him.

"Dad," Kazuya replies.

"I thought you might not come."

"We got here thirty minutes ago, but we were held up talking to Shinamoto."

"Shinamoto?" His father nods, looking just over Kazuya’s shoulder as usual. "You met him before when you were small."

"So he said." Kazuya swallows. "This is Sawamura."

His dad looks head-on at Sawamura, maybe taking in the messy hair and broad shoulders. "The pitcher," he says, and Sawamura nods like an eager to please child as Kazuya gapes a little. "You… went to high school with Kazuya, right?"

"Yes!" Sawamura bows at the waist, his hair flopping. "It’s an honor to make your acquaintance, Miyuki’s dad!"

"Yes, well…" He coughs, thickly, then gestures to the man standing next to him, who has a younger woman hanging from his arm. "This is Morimoto, a friend of mine, and his daughter, Sachiko." He turns to Morimoto’s daughter, and there’s something presenting, hopeful, in his tone as he says: "This is my son, Kazuya."

"A pleasure," Kazuya says, with a creeping suspicion as the woman smiles, blushing.

Sawamura pivots and bows next to Morimoto and his daughter in turn, too formal for the group of them. He straightens up and smiles, then, at the daughter, and Kazuya doubts she’ll bother to look at Kazuya again. "My mom’s name is Sachiko, too! And a manager we had in high school, too! The kanji are very beautiful!"

Morimoto laughs, and Kazuya grins. Kazuya’s father, surprised, looks at Kazuya with a strange expression on his face. "I like you, kid," Morimoto says. "Young Miyuki’s teammate, you say?"

"Yes sir!" Sawamura’s still speaking feudal gibberish. "I have the incontrovertible honor of being the ace!"

Morimoto’s thick mustache wiggles with amusement. "Miyuki, I don’t think I knew that your son plays baseball."

"Ah, yes." His father fixes the cuffs of his tux and clears his throat. His fingers fidget like he wants to light up a cigarette. "Well."

Morimoto laughs. "Well, I know now!" And then he and Sachiko both are peppering Sawamura with questions, leaving Kazuya and his father watching the conversation evolve and grow past them.

"It’s always like this," Kazuya’s father says, making Kazuya flinch in surprise. He tries to disguise it in a shrug. "Watching from the outside."

"Yeah," Kazuya says, knowing if he looks at his father now, he won’t be looking back.

"Interesting guest you brought," his dad says mildly.

"What’s with Morimoto’s daughter?" Kazuya replies, just as mild.

"She’s a second child," his father says, and Kazuya’s stomach sinks. "No business to inherit, but she’s got a good head for running one, according to Morimoto."

"I won’t ever agree to an arranged marriage." Kazuya’s voice sounds colder than he means it to, because he doesn’t like to let his feelings escape like that. "You know that. Was this really about Old Man Kasuda at all, then?"

"I wasn’t plotting an arranged marriage," his dad says. "It’s just… I thought you might like her."

"How would you know what I might like?"

"You’re a little like me in all the worst ways," his father replies. "Sachiko reminded me of—" He cuts off whatever he was going to say. "I’m getting old. I only thought you might like her. That’s all."

"Don’t do this again," Kazuya says harshly, and his father exhales heavily.

"It’s not good, to be alone all the time. Kasuda tried to tell me that."

"It doesn’t matter if it’s good. It's my choice. I don't need or want help making it."

His father has no reply to that, and Kazuya wishes he felt more satisfaction about it.

Kazuya stands stoically as his father goes up to the stage to welcome the guests and thank them for their support in the protests, and for coming to honor Kasuda’s memory. He tells an anecdote that does tug on Kazuya’s memory, maybe, and he’s surprised to see his father so sentimental. Or maybe he isn’t. It’s not like he knows his father all that well, so how can he be surprised when the only baseline he has is that his father never forgets his birthday, and never forgets New Year’s, even if he hasn’t seen him for either of them in years.

Other people go up to speak, too, like Kazuya’s dad had wanted him to, but Kazuya doesn’t have any memories as nice as the ones other people share. He fed me like a stray cat on a whim for a while after my dad tried to wish me away is probably the best he could come up with, and here, in a room with a hundred people who think his father hung the moon, Kazuya’s not sure even his twisted personality would take any joy from that.

He just wishes the night was already over, and that he was at home listening to Kuramochi have a screaming match with the television, or out on the field under the floodlights with Sawamura, practicing batting and laughing too loudly into the night at his antics.

He’s startled out of his memories by a hand wrapping around his wrist, and he looks left to see Sawamura has abandoned Morimoto and his daughter to stand with Kazuya again. Sawamura’s making a stupid-as-fuck face at him, and the pressure in Kazuya’s chest eases slightly. It’s easy to endure the next fifteen minutes of eulogic reflection with Sawamura’s thumb drawing soothing patterns up and down the vein in his wrist, knowing if he looks over at him, Sawamura will return it with a silly expression just because. It’s calming, and it’s always surprising, Kazuya thinks, when someone as energetic as Sawamura calms him. Maybe Sawamura is like his pitches have become— unpredictable and frightening unless you’re the catcher that’s memorized just the way each one is going to hit the mitt until it feels like something closer to reliable.

And then, as his father closes the open podium, Kazuya feels Sawamura tugging on his arm, pulling him away from the stage.

"What was with the face contortions?" Kazuya asks him, as they move back from the stage and toward the buffet table, where food is lined up in a pointlessly extravagant presentation.

"I was trying to make you laugh," Sawamura says. "Obviously!"

"You don’t need to do all that to make me laugh at your face," Kazuya teases, and Sawamura rolls his eyes, holding out his plate for dining staff to fill it with marinated shrimp and snags another glass of champagne. "It’s always so vacant—"

"And yours is villainous!" Sawamura replies, and he grins at Kazuya again. "To match your personality!" Kazuya doesn’t know how they got here, to where Sawamura finds his dealt insults more funny than mean, and has the speed to deal them right back.

"Thank you~!"

"It’s not a compliment!"

He doesn’t know how they got here at all, but it’s tangled up in everything that’s changed between them in the past three months spending almost every day in each other’s company. He’s known Sawamura for four years but it really feels like he’s only starting to know him now, just as he’s only now letting Sawamura see parts of him that he mostly still thinks aren’t fit for sharing.

"What’s wrong?"

"Hmm?" Kazuya blinks.

"You were gone for a minute there," Sawamura says. "You didn’t have a drink while I wasn’t looking, did you? You’ll get drunk super-fast if you don’t have any practice at drinking, you know!"

"Says the minor," Kazuya retorts, shaking his hair out of his face and missing his baseball cap. "I don’t drink, Sawamura, not even behind your back." He side-eyes Sawamura.

"You're a minor, too!" Sawamura's nose crinkles. "Wait! You said that like it’d be more appealing to do it behind my back!"

"It would," Kazuya swiftly replies, and Sawamura scowls as he holds out his plate for some toasted bread hor d’oeuvre thing that Kazuya’s already had dropped onto his own plate, and that’s better, Kazuya thinks. It’s easier not to think about how much he likes Sawamura’s smile when he’s scowling.

"Don’t change the subject!"

Kazuya considers. "What do you think of arranged marriages?" He pushes food on his plate with his thumb.

"Is this about Miss Morimoto?" Sawamura purses his lips.

Kazuya narrows his eyes. "Why can’t you be this perceptive on the field?"

"I am!" Sawamura points at him with the hand holding his glass, champagne dangerously close to sloshing out. "Acknowledge that I’m far beyond your expectations, Miyuki Kazuya!"

"My dad wanted me to meet her," Kazuya says. "He probably knew I’d completely object to some kind of blind-date or omiai."

"You shouldn’t marry anyone you don’t want to marry!" Sawamura’s suddenly fierce. "Morimoto was really nice, but you definitely shouldn’t let your dad force you to marry her!"

"He’s not going to, Sawamoron, calm down," Kazuya says, guiding him away from the buffet table, not wanting to be overheard. "I'm too young for that, anyway. Are you one of those people that thinks marriage is a sacred flower, or something?"

"I am calm!" Sawamura lets Kazuya lead him to a small pocket of quiet. "It’s just that… I know marriage isn’t important to everyone. And I’m not so dumb that I don’t realize life isn’t a romance movie, and that some people get married for reasons other than love, okay?!" He leans into Kazuya’s space. "It’s none of my business why people do stuff, as long as they want to do it!"

Kazuya raises both eyebrows, then teases: "What if I want to marry Morimoto?"

Sawamura gapes at him briefly, and then, surprisingly, he bites down on his lip, looking conflicted. "Then… that’s okay. As long as it’s your decision, then—!"

Kazuya doubles over laughing. "You’re so…"

"So…?" Sawamura looks like he wants to throw his plate at Kazuya. "Damnit, so what?!"

"So nice," Kazuya manages.

"Why do you manage to make it sound like an insult?!"

"Sorry, sorry," Kazuya says. "It’s just sometimes it’s easy to see why you’re popular with girls nowadays."

Sawamura scrunches his nose. "What are you talking about? I have lots of friends who are girls because I like stuff lots of other boys look down on or think it’s not manly to like!"

"That’s not what I mean at all," Kazuya says, taking a deep breath before someone notices him laughing. Sawamura, he thinks, is unreal in how honest he is. "Idiot."

"You’d better be nicer to the honorable Miss Morimoto if you marry her, Miyuki Kazuya!!" Sawamura’s eyebrows crush together. "D-don’t treat her like you treat me, do you hear me?! At least not until she figures out you hardly ever mean it!"

It almost sets Kazuya off laughing again. "Don’t worry, Sawamura, I was just joking~" Glad that he hadn’t dropped his plate, he winks at Sawamura. "Ah, but I do feel better! Laughing at you always improves my mood!"

"You’re terrible!"

"You say the sweetest things!" Kazuya pops a grape into his mouth. "Maybe I should marry you!"

"That’s—!" Sawamura is at a total loss for words, flushed and wide-eyed. "Don’t say weird things like that!"

Kazuya hides a wince by eating another grape. "I wasn’t implying anything about your sexuality, Sawamura, so don’t—"

"Who cares about stupid things like that?!" Sawamura twists his face up and looks at his plate as fiercely as he’d just looked at Kazuya. "I just mean, I take marriage very seriously! So!"

"Oh," Kazuya says. "I see. Sorry to assume that your wedding would be anything less than novel-worthy!"

"Someday, someone’s gonna fall in love with me, and it’ll be special, and…" Sawamura’s ears are the brightest red Kazuya’s ever seen, and that really is saying something. "And it’ll be super romantic!!"

"Mmm, yeah, I guess I’m not the guy for that," Kazuya replies, his brain still repeating who cares about stupid things like that in Sawamura’s offended tone. "But maybe I’ll catch for you as a wedding present."

"I can’t believe no one here knows you play baseball," Sawamura mutters. "You bleed baseball!"

"Morbid." Kazuya licks dry lips. "My father and I aren’t that close. Even if we were, he’s not really one for baseball, anyway, so why would he talk about it?" Sawamura starts to speak, then hesitates, and Kazuya continues before Sawamura can say something else for his brain to overanalyze. "Come along, Sawamura, let’s see who else you can yell at tonight."

"I don’t yell!" Sawamura yells, and Kazuya laughs again, leading him into the crowd. They mingle for a while with a few other guests, Sawamura managing to be as upsetting as he is charming and leaving a string of bemused big-name political types in his wake.

They ultimately end up back at the window, where they’d begun the evening, out of his father’s line of sight, and Kazuya lets bone-deep weariness weigh him down enough to lean his shoulder against the window. Sawamura leans next to him, not close enough to touch but close enough that his body heat is a stark contrast to the cool surface he’s resting against. Sawamura has cocktail sauce at the corner of his lips, and another dab at the tiny dimple in his chin, and he’s uncharacteristically quiet as he chews on a curled steamed shrimp.

"Hey, can I ask you a question?"

Kazuya cocks his head, slipping his thumbs into his pockets to hang his hand as lively dance music starts to play. "If it’s stupid, I won’t answer it."

Sawamura’s head smacks the window. "It’s not gonna be stupid!"

"I won’t hold my breath," Kazuya replies, and Sawamura closes the distance between them, tilting just enough that their arms bump. He’s still gnawing on his lower lip. "Well? Spit it out, then, Sawamura."

"How did you get into baseball?" Sawamura watches the dancers spinning in boring, sedate circles, and Kazuya watches Sawamura, just like he has most of tonight. "Your dad’s not interested in it, and your—" He stops, then, seeming, shockingly, despite his usual obliviousness, to notice the invisible line he shouldn’t cross. "Well, you’ve only told me about your dad, so…"

Kazuya shrugs, avoiding the second part of the question, eyes lingering on the fall of Sawamura’s hair. "Maybe I saw it on television."

"Maybe?" Sawamura pouts, then licks at the cocktail sauce. He takes a sip of champagne. "That’s a shitty answer, Miyuki Kazuya!"

"Now, now, Sawamura, I thought we’d graduated to senpai tonight!" Kazuya lets his eyes fall half-shuttered, and contemplates the myriad of emotions that flicker across Sawamura’s face in the competing lights of the observation deck and the Tokyo night. "Maybe in elementary school a really enthusiastic teacher taught me, since I’m clearly so charming…"

"You could just say you don’t want to answer, asshole!"

No one is listening but Sawamura, so he could say: "My mother taught me the rules of baseball. She also taught me how to ride a bike. She taught me hiragana and katakana and my first one-hundred kanji. Then she taught me how to survive being left alone and how to take care of myself and how not to depend on any one person too much. See? All the important life lessons." He could also say "My dad bought me a mitt for my ninth birthday, but it was the wrong kind. We ate cake together, though, so I never minded. It was the last time he stuck around for the occasion."

Instead, he reaches up and wipes the sauce from Sawamura’s chin with his thumb, smirking. "It was a stupid question."

"Bullshit," Sawamura replies, strangely breathless. "Hey, Miyuki Kazuya?"

"Another question? I only agreed to answer one."

"Wanna get out of here?"

Kazuya blinks. "But the taxi I pre-ordered isn’t coming for another hour."

Sawamura grins. "It’s almost midnight. The subway’s still running."

Kazuya sticks his thumb into his mouth, tasting the horseradish in the sauce. Then he looks one more time at his father, who’s standing in front of Old Man Kasuda’s picture, resembling a photograph more than a breathing man. "Sure," he says, after a long moment of deliberation. "Let’s go."

"Do you want to say goodbye?" Sawamura hums. "To your dad?"

"There’s no need," Kazuya says. "I know you’re probably really into filial respect, since you live your life like you’re emerging from the Heian period—"

"Is it because he won’t look at you?"

"I…" Kazuya freezes, then forces himself to keep moving, playing with his cufflinks again, remembering how his father had left them for him on the kitchen table on his thirteenth birthday, along with a card he hadn’t signed. He swallows, and doesn’t say "Hey, Sawamoron, you can stop noticing things at any time, here!" like he wants to.

"It’s true that I respect my parents very much," Sawamura says. "And I don’t think that’s bad!"

"I’m not trying to ruin your image of families here or anything—"

"But it has to be earned!" Sawamura explodes, fiercely, managing to convey a yell even as he speaks under his breath. "You have to earn respect! You have to fight for it! Relationships are a like a garden! If you don’t take care of them you can’t just— You can’t just expect flowers to grow later if you never watered them!"

"Yeah," Kazuya says, heart in his throat, anger and something unnameable heavy on the back of his tongue. "I know." He waves a hand flippantly in his father’s direction. "Neither of us are much good at tending gardens, obviously."

And Sawamura deflates, looking at Kazuya helplessly. "I still don’t know how to cheer you up."

"That’s not your job." Kazuya blinks, and Sawamura bites his lip.

"Why can’t it be?" Kazuya stills, forgetting to exhale, and Sawamura looks at him, looks into him, as earnest as ever. "Why can’t I—"

"We were on our way out," Kazuya says. "Remember?"

They get their scarves from the coat check, and Kazuya’s thankful Sawamura insisted on him bringing one when they emerge out into the frigid evening air. When Sawamura speaks again, Kazuya steels himself, but Sawamura just says: "It’s going to be a cold winter." They skirt around the lined up black cars, waving to the guards. "Might not have as many beetles in the woods at home next spring."

Kazuya recalls the beetle patches stitched into Sawamura’s backpack. "What a tragedy," he says, dryly, and Sawamura shoves him lightly, all pretense of manners gone as the venue disappears behind them. "We should just hail a random taxi instead of the subway, by the way."

"The beetle larvae produce some kind of internal anti-freeze, though, so we won’t lose all of them," Sawamura informs him, unfazed by Kazuya’s tone. "Why a taxi?"

"Because it’s cold, and I was serious about three different subway lines to get home." Kazuya flags down the nearest taxi and it pulls over to the curb. "Beetle larvae? A scientist and handsome! My, my, you’re such a catch!"

"You think I’m handsome?!" Sawamura says it loudly enough that a few people waiting at the crosswalk turn to look at them, and Kazuya laughs, halfheartedly, his thoughts still back on his father’s expression, climbing into the taxi first, leaving Sawamura to scramble in after him. "Are you being sarcastic? You’re being sarcastic, aren’t you?!"

Kazuya just keeps laughing as the driver turns around to ask them where they’re headed.

Sawamura rambles off his address in a jumble the taxi driver manages to understand, and Kazuya raises his eyebrows. "You’re not dropping me off like you picked me up, Sawamura?"

"My place is closer," he says, purposely looking out the window to avoid Kazuya’s gaze. "You can just spend the night."

Hesitating, Kazuya takes in the movement of Sawamura’s throat, and the tight muscles in his neck. "I’m only teasing, idiot. I can walk home."

"No!" Sawamura turns to face him. "Stay with me!"

"Demanding," Kazuya murmurs. "You’re not still thinking of cheering me up, are you? What a devoted little underclassman!"

Sawamura’s jaw clenches stubbornly. "So what if I am, jerk?!"

"You’ve only got one bed," Kazuya replies. "And why would staying with you cheer me up? Plus, we wouldn’t want Kuramochi to call the police, would we?"

"It’s a big enough bed for both of us." Kazuya almost chokes, and Sawamura doesn’t notice, too busy plucking at his tie, long, calloused fingers tangling in the scarf as he undoes the top button of his dress shirt. "And Kuramochi definitely doesn’t care how long you stay out, 'cause he’s playing one of those creepy games! So stop whining and stay over, Miyuki Kazuya!"

"One day, you’re going to stop calling me by my whole name." Kazuya closes his eyes, but Sawamura’s behind his eyelids, too. He’s like a virus, Kazuya thinks, and Kazuya is infected the same way Takarada is. "Or call me senpai, like you’re supposed to."

"I called you senpai twice tonight!" Sawamura drops his head onto Kazuya’s shoulder. "That should be enough! Don’t get greedy!"

"The first time I saw you in almost a year, the first thing you did was order me to catch for you on my day off!" Kazuya pokes at Sawamura’s head. "Get off me, you hypocrite."

"But that’s baseball!" Sawamura hums, persistently making his bodyweight lay more heavily on Kazuya. "It’s okay to be greedy about baseball, Miyuki Kazuya!"

"That sounds like nonsense to me," Kazuya replies, curling the hand closest to the door around the edge of the seat as the taxi navigates them home. "Like you’re making excuses for yourself. Besides, you call me all sorts of things on and off the field."

"What should I call you then?" He shifts, just enough to peer up at Kazuya through his lashes. "Kazuya?"

The sound of just his first name, without the rough edges of impatience, has Kazuya’s heart throbbing in his chest. He hates the way it makes him feel fourteen, like it’s his first crush, like he hasn’t learned how to shove things like this aside. He hates that it’s Sawamura who makes him feel this way. He hates that he doesn’t know how to make it stop; how to make Sawamura stop being something Kazuya wants. "How about Miyuki-senpai?"

Sawamura doesn’t answer, instead straightening up and digging in his pocket and emerging with a battered brown leather wallet, then pulling out a few bills and handing them to the driver as the taxi pulls to the curb outside Sawamura’s apartment building. "Does this mean you’re staying?"

"It’s not like you left me much choice. Besides, Kuramochi’ll get mad if I wake him up this late when we’ve got practice so early."

They climb the stairs up to Sawamura’s apartment, Sawamura unbuttoning his shirt as they go, borrowed scarf hanging, unwound, down to his knees. Kazuya rethinks staying a hundred times as they ascend, the pale skin of Sawamura’s chest contrasting his tanned hands as his shirt parts down to his navel, where it’s tucked into his waistband.

And somehow, he finds himself down to his boxers and his undershirt, lying on Sawamura’s bed as Sawamura neatly hangs up both their jackets and slacks on the single hanger his had come on. Sawamura’s broad shoulders shift as he works, and Kazuya takes off his glasses just to stop himself from watching the movement of muscle under skin.

"I don’t have my toothbrush," Kazuya says, staring at the blurry ceiling.

"I’ve got a couple of unopened ones my mom sent." Sawamura turns out the lights, then, and tumbles into bed next to him, dropping an arm casually across Kazuya’s waist, like it’s normal to be this close. "You can borrow one of my uniforms, too. It’ll be payback for the loan before." Sawamura’s warm. He’s warm and not so loud, and with the lights out, Kazuya can’t see even an outline of him, only feel the movement of his chest as he speaks.

Each of Sawamura's exhales is sticky hot on Kazuya's neck, and his weight pushes Kazuya into the firm mattress. "You just have all the answers, don’t you?"

"Miyuki Kazuya," Sawamura says, one of his hands sliding up Kazuya's stomach, hot, hot, to rest over his scar, "just let me water our garden." His voice is thick with sleep, but his thumb, rubbing small, impossibly cruel circles on Kazuya's sternum, is steady and deliberate.

"That sounds dirty," Kazuya chokes out, glad the lights obscure the redness of his face, and wondering if Sawamura can feel his heart pounding. "Are you sure you want to say that while you’re in bed with another man?"

"Asshole!" Sawamura’s voice cracks, and then he clears his throat. "I think I learned a lot about you tonight." Kazuya shivers as Sawamura’s lips tickle the sensitive skin under his jaw, heat coiling low in his belly. "I want you to know I’ll always look directly at you, Miyuki Kazuya."

Kazuya knows that Sawamura is one of the few people that always has, brilliant and boisterous, shouting to make sure Kazuya hears him, and making Kazuya forget, in snatches, how much he needs to keep some distance between them. "Gonna be hard to pitch if you don’t."

"Is your dad… always like that?" Sawamura’s fingertips trace along his right collarbone, stealing Kazuya’s breath. "So distant?"

"Yes," Kazuya cuts him off. "That’s the way it is."

"Oh," Sawamura says, and for a few long moments, it’s quiet, only the low hum of the heater breaking the heavy silence. Then Sawamura speaks again. "He’s very lonely."

"Yeah," Kazuya breathes.

"You don’t have to be, because now you’ve got me." His lips brush Kazuya's throat as he shifts. "Aren't you glad we're friends, bastard?"

"You're a stubborn guy," Kazuya replies, relieved that Sawamura, for once, isn’t pressing him, and Sawamura's chuckle against his skin is electric.

"Of course I am," is the drowsy reply. "Never'd get anywhere in life if I wasn't. Especially with a bastard like you."

Maybe he imagines it, Sawamura kissing the skin just under his ear. It’s probably just the pressure of his lips in speech, a movement Kazuya is mistaking for something else. He stares up at the ceiling, heart hammering, and doesn't acknowledge the possessive curl of Sawamura's hand around his waist, holding him close, because he’s afraid to examine what it might mean.

"My mom loves baseball," Kazuya says, after a while, and it feels a bit like baring his throat to a lion. "She taught me all the rules." Sawamura only hums, already, it seems, asleep.

Just for tonight, Kazuya lets his cheek press into Sawamura’s hair, and closes his own eyes, missing his eye-mask even in the pitch dark, the taste of the cocktail sauce from Sawamura’s chin still lingering on his tongue.

Kazuya wakes up to an alarm that definitely isn’t his, and the light streaming into the room has him scrunching his eyes closed more tightly, groaning as he’s jolted into awakeness. He reaches up to touch his face, wondering where his eye mask has gone, but as he lifts his arm, a weight half on top of him shifts, and Kazuya’s eyes fly open.

Sawamura’s golden eyes are the first thing he sees, framed by dark brown lashes, sleep in the corners as he blinks slowly.

"Why are you staring at me?" Kazuya croaks, licking his lips, and Sawamura’s lips quirk.

"I was thinking before, when you fell asleep here," Sawamura says, more gentle than Kazuya usually hears him sound, seeming to respect the early morning quiet for once in his life, "that when you’re sleeping, you look soft."

"What?"

"When you’re awake," Sawamura continues, "you’re always laughing, or insulting people, or making your face all cold. But when you’re sleeping…" He trails off, tilting his head slightly. He shifts his weight again, and Kazuya becomes aware of their legs tangled under the sheets, and Sawamura’s free hand, the one not propping up his cheek as he looks down into Kazuya’s eyes, cupping Kazuya’s hip, rough fingertips brushing against bare skin just above the elastic waist of his underwear. "Ha, I guess you look kind of angelic? I mean, for a total bastard."

"Angelic?" Kazuya snorts and rolls over, dislodging Sawamura’s hand and covering the natural reaction of his body to the touch. "What time is it, you king of flattery, you?"

"Five-thirty," Sawamura replies. "Practice is in an hour."

Grunting, Kazuya presses his face into the pillow, the lingering tingle of Sawamura’s fingers still elevating the beating of his heart. "An hour? Why does your alarm go off an entire hour before practice, Sawamoron?" Kazuya’s words are muffled by the pillow, but Sawamura understands him anyway, voice rising with irritation.

"It’s important to take the time to eat a proper breakfast, Miyuki Kazuya! And wake up completely so that you don’t have to run extra laps for three weeks without pitching!!"

Kazuya’s shoulders shake with laughter. "What, you think Coach Kataoka is going to burst out of the wall with his sunglasses on and order you to eat your three bowls of rice or something?"

"N-no!" Sawamura rolls out of bed with a loud thump, and Kazuya sits up to make sure he hasn’t hurt himself in his early morning fervor, snagging his glasses and shoving them onto his face carelessly. "Those are just important life lessons I’ve taken to heart!" He points at Kazuya. "So now I’m going to make rice, and you’re going to eat it!"

Kazuya raises both eyebrows, feeling hopelessly fond as Sawamura, mussed and pink and vibrant even at 5:30 AM, proceeds to stomp around his room, dressed in low-hanging, too-small, baseball-patterned pajama pants that showcase his hip bones and the curve of his rear, throwing uniform pieces in Kazuya’s general direction after inspecting the size. Kazuya snatches a compression shirt out of the air before it can hit him in the face.

"Throwing your clothes at me, making me breakfast… is this what it’s like for everyone that spends the night in your bed, Sawamura?" Kazuya lets his tone lilt up, taunting.

Sawamura blushes the color of a ripe tomato, hands clutching an unspecialized Meiji practice jersey, crumpling it in his hands. "Don’t make it sound perverted, asshole!"

"I dunno," Kazuya continues, pulling off his undershirt so that he can pull the compression shirt on in its place. "You had your hands up my top, Sawamura! Were you thinking of your dream babe?"

"Your shirt just rode up like that! I wasn’t…" Sawamura turns to look at him, eyes wide, still so pink and lips so chapped. Then he bows. "I’m sorry if you feel I sullied your virtue, Miyuki Kazuya!"

Kazuya bursts out laughing, letting go of the compression shirt before he even starts to put his arms through the sleeves and clutching at his sides. "Sullied my virtue? Seriously?"

Sawamura waves his arms. "It wasn’t my intention to make you feel uncomfortable! I sort of did it without thinking because I was still groggy and you still smelled like your shampoo so I knew it was you and—" His words catch up with him, and he gets impossibly redder, and Kazuya’s laugh peters out as the meaning of what Sawamura said filters into his brain. "I’m going to make rice now!"

Sawamura escapes to the kitchen, leaving Kazuya to change, and Kazuya stares at the place where Sawamura had been standing with his lips parted, his pulse racing. "Knew it was me?" he mumbles to himself, considering the way Sawamura, stupidly honest Sawamura, hadn’t taken the out Kazuya had offered him; that he’d been thinking about someone else, or wanted to touch someone else. It’s another tiny piece in a puzzle Kazuya hadn’t quite realized he’s been putting together, and he pushes aside the sheets and stands as he thinks about the weight of a drunk Sawamura leaning against him in the back of Ichinose’s apartment, talking about people wanting him to like something he doesn’t like.

Swallowing, Kazuya pulls on the compression shirt and the practice jersey, then puts on the pair of uniform pants. They’re tighter on his thighs than his own, probably shrunk in the wash since they wear the same size, and they pull at the inner thigh seams. The shirt smells like Sawamura’s summery detergent when Kazuya brings a hand up to run his fingers through his bedraggled hair. He can hear the faucet in the kitchen, water beating against the sink basin, and Sawamura humming off-key as he bangs around.

Kazuya picks up his phone, noting the battery is down to twenty-three percent, and sees several missed calls from his father last night at around one in the morning, and one text from Kuramochi that says ’if ur not at practice in the morning i’ll actually call the police’. It’s enough to make him laugh, loosening the knot in his gut just slightly.

Then Sawamura’s crossing the apartment again, appearing in the doorway. His complexion has returned to normal for the most part, though the pink lingers in his ears. "I left a toothbrush out for you in the bathroom," he says. "And the rice will be done in fifteen minutes."

"Sawamura," Kazuya says, slowly, not sure what he wants to ask but a hundred questions on the tip of his tongue. "Do you…" And Sawamura blinks, slowly, waiting, his face openly expressive, eyes brilliant and fierce, his hair a shocking mess of brown waves not yet tamed enough to be anything but a disaster, and Kazuya, unsurprisingly, can’t bring himself to ask anything at all. "Mmm, never mind~"

"Never mind?" Sawamura scrunches his nose. "If you’ve got something to say, you should just say it!"

"It’s nothing important," Kazuya replies. "I was going to ask if those pajamas you’re wearing were made for someone nine years old or ten years old."

Sawamura looks down at himself, and then looks back up to scowl at Kazuya. "These were a birthday present from my mom when I was in middle school! They’re a cherished gift!"

"Not quite as old as your glove, eh?" Kazuya grins. "So sentimental~ Are you sure you aren’t just secretly a hoarder?"

"Shut the hell up, Miyuki Kazuya!" Sawamura grabs the pair of uniform pants he left out for himself from the pile on the floor next to his dresser and stalks off with them, and Kazuya laughs as he goes, following sedately behind him on his way to the bathroom, pushing aside all thoughts of Sawamura’s warm fingertips drawing circles on his skin to the back of his mind, locking them away with other, equally unnecessary and unfortunate memories. "And hurry up, or we’ll be late to practice!"

"You woke us up at the crack of dawn, brat," Kazuya says, huffing out a laugh. "There’s no way we’ll be late."

"But if we are, you’ll blame it on me!"

Kazuya chuckles, stopping at the open bathroom door. "Yeah," he says, looking around at the clean bathroom. Sawamura has indeed left a toothbrush, still in the package, on the sink counter, along with a washcloth, and Kazuya marvels at all the tiny ways Sawamura is considerate, despite his brash and demanding personality. "I definitely would."

"Because you’re a twisted asshole!"

"Thank you~!" Kazuya calls out, and shuts the door as Sawamura shouts back "It wasn’t a compliment!"

Kazuya finally calls his dad back late that night after evening practice, from up on the roof of his apartment building. It’s freezing cold, but Kuramochi’s in the kitchen burning eggs in the skillet and Kazuya doesn’t want him to overhear.

"Kazuya," his dad says, picking up after two rings. "You left without saying goodbye."

"Sorry. You were… you were next to the portrait and I didn’t want…" Kazuya trails off. "Did you need something?"

"I…" Another cough.

"You should take something," Kazuya says. "For your cold. Or stop smoking."

"I want to quit cigarettes," his father says. "But I keep putting it off." He clears his throat. "I wanted to apologize. For Morimoto Sachiko."

"Oh."

There’s a long silence. "Shinamoto and a few other of my colleagues were very impressed with you. With your baseball."

Kazuya leans back against the railing. "It is Japan’s most popular sport."

"You know I’ve never been very interested in athletics. I don’t think I realized you were so good."

"You don’t pay a lot of attention to me, regardless." Kazuya runs a hand through his hair, still wet from his shower. "It’s not that I mind that, anymore, so, it’s fine."

His father sighs. "I’m trying, Kazuya."

Kazuya’s shoulders tighten. "It’s a little late for that," he says, harsher than he means to, too revealing, and then he swallows. "Is that all you wanted to talk about?"

After a few moments, his father sighs again, and anger curls fierce in Kazuya’s belly, digging into the knot of frustration and anger that often accompanies conversations with his father. "No, I’ve been wanting to tell you—" He stops, gives up, same as always. "Yes, I suppose it is."

"Good," Kazuya says, and then he ends the call. His breath is coming too quickly, wispy like white smoke in the early November air. He looks down at his phone, and clicks it to locked.

The photo of Sawamura pops up, little bits of hotpot stuck to his lips and cheeks, and Kazuya rubs his thumb across the screen. "Moron," he says, quietly, fondly, letting his anger simmer down before he goes back into the apartment, where Kuramochi has probably started a fire in the kitchen. Sawamura brings up other emotions, uncomfortable ones that Kazuya has trouble dealing with, as well, but… Something about looking at him makes Kazuya think about the way Sawamura’s pushed his way in so damn close, which is as comforting as it is frightening, most days.

"Why are you staring at your phone with that creepy look on your face?"

Kazuya looks up to see Kuramochi standing at the roof door, still wearing one of Kazuya’s aprons, his hands on his hips. "Awww, Kuramochi, you look adorably domestic," Kazuya teases, glad the dark outside will disguise any physical signs of embarrassment and tucking his phone away.

"Shut the fuck up," Kuramochi replies, reflexively. "What are you doing out here?"

"I was just making a phone call." He smirks. "Did you miss me~?"

"Shut the hell up," Kuramochi repeats. "Like fuck I missed you." He tilts his head, then walks further out onto the roof, until he can lean on the railing next to Kazuya. "Although, now that you mention it, you didn’t come home last night."

"It was late. I crashed at Sawamura’s."

"I figured, since you showed up together to practice this morning." Kuramochi hums. "Sleepovers now, eh? Cute shit."

Kazuya presses his lips into a thin line briefly, before answering: "It was convenient. Maybe I wanted to test whether you’d make good on your promise to call the cops."

"I might’ve, except it was nice to have the whole place to myself last night to do manly alone-time things," Kuramochi says.

"Is that what we’re calling jerking off now?" Kazuya chuckles as Kuramochi sputters.

"I meant games, asshole!" He glowers for a couple of seconds, then grins. "Glad you’re totally over the 'avoid-Sawamura-so-he-can’t-hurt-me' thing, though."

Kazuya laughs, but it’s bitter. "Guess my self-preservation isn’t all it’s cracked up to be."

Kuramochi bumps his shoulder against Kazuya’s. Unlike when Sawamura does it, Kazuya’s heart-rate doesn’t pick up. "Sawamura’s a good kid. I think the you that’s been around since he showed up again is the best you I’ve seen in a while."

"Hmm," Kazuya says. "Are you just saying that because we’re winning this year, and we don’t have to rely on your subpar batting to get through games~?"

"Don’t think I won’t choke you," Kuramochi says, throwing an arm around Kazuya’s neck. "Let’s go eat dinner." He coughs. "Or, well, order dinner."

"You didn’t set the kitchen on fire, did you?" Kazuya asks, gleeful.

"Shut the fuck up, Miyuki!" Kuramochi shouts out into the night air, and Kazuya laughs, pushing off the railing and walking toward the door.

"C’mon, Kuramochi, let’s clean up your mess," he says, and keeps laughing as grumbling, Kuramochi follows him back down to the apartment.

Chapter Text

Tokyo University has Umemiya at starting pitcher. Getting him was a real coup for the team last year, and it had taken them from negligible schedule filler to minor threat on defense. Still, they’re the worst team in the Big6, and Coach Maeda has Sawamura benched for the entire first game, letting Uchida and Sanjo share the mound, and allows Ichinose to start as catcher, meaning Kazuya’s on the bench with Sawamura, given free reign to catalogue the outfield during a live game for the first time all season. Kazuya itches to play, but instead, he tries to take notes.

Sawamura, naturally, sulks.

"Chin up, first year," Kuramochi says, back in the dugout fresh off a run. His pants are caked with dirt down the left thigh from a stolen slide into third base, and his face is pink from the cold. "You look like Christmas just got canceled. You can manage one game on the bench!"

"I wanna play against Umemiya!" Sawamura says. He’s as crisp and fresh as he’d been that morning on the bus, drowsily grinning at Kazuya from the seat beside him, and he’s squeezing a stress ball in his left hand as he watches the field longingly.

"Greedy," Kazuya says, looking over the four people sitting between them to smirk at Sawamura, and Sawamura’s pout exaggerates. "Uchida deserves the mound sometimes too, you know."

"I know that!" Sawamura springs up from his seat, jostling Kuramochi as he moves to the edge of the dugout to cheer for Shirasu, who’s got two balls and one strike as he hoists the bat for his next swing. "I just wanna strike him out! When he’s looking at me from the batter’s box I get so excited! Almost as much as with Raichi!"

"Excited?" Sanjo, who’s freshly back from warming up his arm in the bullpen with Ichinose, laughs. "He’s the only monster Tokyo has at bat, and you want to pitch to him?"

"Yeah!" Sawamura looks confused that Sanjo doesn’t, and Kazuya swallows down a laugh at the bright, earnest look on his face. "Facing people like Umemiya… it’s fun! He’s bright!" Sawamura makes some uninterpretable gestures with his hands. "Like! Like an explosion, or something! Fun! He’s horrible to face at bat, too! Ahhh, I could look into his eyes forever!"

"Look into his eyes…?" Sanjo asks, bemused.

"Kyahaha, you act like you’re in love with him, Sawamura!" Kuramochi jokes, elbowing Sawamura in the side, and Sawamura yelps, stepping away from Kuramochi and glaring at him.

"Umemiya?!" Sawamura shakes his head hard enough that his cap falls to the floor. "No way!"

“Aren’t you protesting a bit too much?” Ichinose asks, and Kazuya snorts, leaning his head back against the dugout wall and watching Sawamura through slitted eyes, when he should have his eyes on Shiba in the batter’s box, facing off against Umemiya and his mediocre catcher.

"He’s not my type!" Sawamura squats down to pick up his cap, and settles it back on his head.

Chortling, Kuramochi rubs his hands together like a villain, fighting off the chill in the air. "Oh ho ho, Sawamura, you have a type?"

"Doesn’t everyone?" He’s loud, as usual, but his gaze skitters over to Kazuya, looking away as soon as he realizes Kazuya is returning his stare. "It’s not that strange, right?"

"First I’m hearing about types from you, though, Sawamura," Kuramochi says, plopping down on the bench. "With you, it’s all, ’every girl is unique and special’ or 'how can you compare one beautiful rose to another and expect one to be superior' or some shit like that!"

Uchida hides a laugh behind his hand. "The lines are right, Kuramochi, but you lack the sparkly eyes and charm!"

Ichinose, who’s sitting next to Kazuya, adjusting his gear, settles his mask in his lap and turns to look at Sawamura speculatively. "So tell us, Sawamura, what makes Umemiya not your type, then? Is it the pompadour? The personality?"

"Is it the penis?" Hirahata adds snidely, and Sawamura blushes such a dark red that Kazuya fears he might pass out, and his gaze flickers to Kazuya again before he studies the floor.

"It’s just, he’s! Not!" He curls his hand into a fist and then looks up defiantly. "I don’t like pitchers, anyway!"

"Hahaha!" Kuramochi slaps his leg. "What’s that supposed to mean, anyway, idiot?!"

"You have to like people that you can trust!!!" Sawamura adjusts his cap, for want of something to do with his hands. "You can’t trust rival pitchers!"

"What logic!" Kuramochi is laughing like he’s never heard anything funnier in his life. "Sawamura, you’re a riot!"

Takarada, who, along with Kumai, has just brought out fresh towels from the bus, sits down next to Kazuya, curling a long dark strand of hair around her finger. "Does that mean you could date a pitcher on the same team?" Her eyes sparkle with laughter, and Sawamura sputters.

"Takarada!" He wrinkles his nose, and Kazuya rolls his eyes. "All pitchers are rival pitchers!"

"I’m heartbroken," Uchida says. "Really."

Sawamura blinks earnestly in Uchida’s direction, eyes wide. "Uchida-senpai! You’re very handsome and I’m sure you’ll find someone who loves you very much someday!"

Kuramochi chokes, actual tears of mirth at the corner of his eyes, as Uchida, disbelievingly, tries to thank Sawamura around his own uncontrollable laughter, and only the crack of the bat as Shirasu sends the ball over the fence distracts them, causing them all to look out at the field again as Sawamura leans out of the dugout to cheer Shirasu on along with Kumai.

"That kid," Ichinose says, shaking his head, and Kazuya chuckles, forcing himself not to follow Sawamura with his eyes.

"You’re telling me," he replies. "The worst part is that he means it."

"It’s one of Sawamura’s best qualities," Takarada says. "He’ll be a good boyfriend someday." She tilts her head inquisitively in Kazuya’s direction, still watching Sawamura. "Has he ever dated anyone before?"

"Sizing up the competition?" Kazuya asks, and Takarada blushes faintly, finally looking at Kazuya directly.

"No," she says. "I was just curious."

"Are we really discussing Sawamura’s dating history during a league game?" Ichinose asks, plaintively, as Kazuya leans back against the dugout wall again. "Or ever?"

"You don’t have to join in, Ichinose-senpai," Takarada says, nudging Kazuya. "Well, Miyuki?"

"Not that I know of," Kazuya admits. "But there was a long period of time where I didn't talk to him, honestly." He taps his fingers on his knee. Sawamura had made allusions, he remembers suddenly, to having liked someone who’d never like him back, after he’d spoken to Uehara at the convenience store. "So who knows?" He grins at her slyly. "Angling to be his first, Takarada?"

"Wouldn't mind it," she replies, without hesitation, and Kazuya's gut clenches. It's not exactly jealousy; or maybe it is, really, jealousy that Takarada can say that, and he can't, won't ever. It feels terrible, but he's no stranger to that.

He licks his lips. "You could do worse," he says, quietly, and Takarada raises her eyebrows slowly as Ichinose whistles.

"Sawamura really took you out of the freezer and left you to thaw, didn't he?" Ichinose says, as Meiji gets a fourth run, Shirasu crossing home plate to the cheers of the crowd on the Meiji side of the stadium.

Kazuya smirks, shrugging, wishing he had his catcher's mask on to hide his face, and doesn't say anything about how it's not that he's thawed, but instead, he's afraid he might melt.

Sawamura and Kazuya are in for the second game against Tokyo. Sawamura's full of excess energy from being kept off the field yesterday, staring each batter down from the mound like Meiji's the underdog of the match, and Kazuya holds up his mitt for each bizarre, idiosyncratic pitch while he mentally catalogues the perfect flexibility of Sawamura's wrist, and how beautiful his form has gotten over the years under real coaches and catchers and teachers.

"You look good," Kazuya tells him, after the fifth inning, walking over to meet Sawamura at the mound so they can walk together back to the dugout. He raps Sawamura's chest lightly with his catcher's mitt. "Sharp."

Sawamura glares at him suspiciously. "What's the catch?"

"I thought you liked compliments~" Kazuya pats Sawamura's shoulder, feeling the shift of muscle under his palm.

"Of course I like compliments!" Sawamura shouts, and Kazuya leans away to protect his hearing as he laughs. "But you don't give them!"

"I thought you'd throw uncontrollable balls today with all that hyperactive energy, is all," Kazuya says. "But you found my mitt after all!" He hums. "Guess even a braggart like you can occasionally do his job!"

"Asshole!" Sawamura shoves him lightly as they approach the dugout. "See? You always ruin it!"

Snickering, Kazuya flexes his mitt. "Still, I mean it. You're throwing nicely today."

"I throw nicely every day!!" Sawamura flexes his arm. "I'm the ace!"

"I suppose," Kazuya says, pretending reluctance, but he doesn't bother to fight the grin tugging at the corners of his mouth.

"Admit it, Miyuki Kazuya!! I'm amazing now!!" Then Sawamura looks out around Meiji Jingu like he's never seen it before, or like he might never see it again, and Kazuya's heart clenches.

"Yeah," Kazuya says reaching out and wrapping his hand around Sawamura's wrist, feeling his elevated pulse against his palm, spiked with adrenaline. Delighted, Sawamura looks at him with that gaping mouth smile, invisible tail wagging. "Don't let it get to your head, Sawamura."

And Sawamura's eyes drop to half-mast. "There's a difference between cocky and prepared, remember?" he says, stepping into the dugout, and Kuramochi, hearing him, takes the water bottle he's been drinking from and upends it on Sawamura's head.

"Oi, who do you think you are?!" Kuramochi yells, and then he catches Sawamura in a headlock as Takarada shuffles forward with a towel, lecturing Kuramochi about colds and making a mess and Sawamura having at least four more innings, and Kazuya just shakes his head, laughing around the burbling affection in his chest.

Sawamura doesn't give up a single run in Meiji's second game against Tokyo, and the ref calls strike after strike as the ball comes home right to where Kazuya settles his mitt.

"Only three hits, and no runs. That's impressive," Numamoto says to Kazuya, after the game, as the rest of the team jostles onto the bus ahead of him. "This might be our year. Sawamura's really brought the team together, and with you out there calling our defense, the field is looking super strong."

"The upperclassmen are playing better, too," Kazuya says, zipping up his windbreaker. It's 13C, and he can feel the cold in his fingertips.

"That's thanks to you and Sawamura, as well, I think." Numamoto claps him on the shoulder. "You're fitting in with the team better these days. That's good to see, too. Maeda was worried, last year."

"He told me," Kazuya says. "I'm not... a people person. Never have been."

"That's fine, Miyuki." Numamoto taps his clipboard against his open palm. "You just have to be a leader the other players can connect with. This year... it's looking good. You're doing exactly what we hoped you would, when we wooed you away from Waseda."

"To be honest, Coach? I didn't much want to go to Waseda anyway." Kazuya smirks, and Numamoto laughs.

"Get on the bus, Miyuki, we've got to get back to campus for our debrief."

"Right," Kazuya agrees, and he ascends the steps, looking down the bus, seeking out Sawamura on instinct and finding him near the back, sitting alone in the row behind Ichinose and Shirasu, a seat saved for Kazuya next to him.

"What took you so long?" Sawamura asks, scooting over to let Kazuya sit, and Kazuya turns his cap sideways and makes a thoughtful noise.

"Just talking with Numamoto about how we shouldn't let you play against Rikkyou," he says, and Sawamura puts up the expected fuss, as Ichinose shakes his head, laughing.

"You're too easy to bait, kid," Ichinose tells him, and Sawamura huffs, falling back into his seat with his arms crossed. His compression sleeve is pushed up, and he's got his icy-hot stripes down his arm.

"No I'm not! Miyuki Kazuya's just a jackass!!"

"You should be used to it," Kazuya replies. "Did you ice that shoulder properly? If you didn't, maybe I'll convince Coach Maeda to bench you for real~"

"Of course I did!" Sawamura invades Kazuya's space so that he can glare up close, his nose only a couple of centimeters from Kazuya's own, and Kazuya's breath catches, because all he can see is Sawamura's bright gaze. "What were you really talking about, huh?!"

Kazuya shoves Sawamura back with both hands. "You already speak in surround sound, Sawamura; no need to get that close!"

Sawamura scowls. "Just making sure you weren't actually talking about me," he says. "You're sneaky, after all."

"Spoiler alert, Sawamura, we talk about you all the time in strategy meetings. Don't worry, I only imply you're totally incompetent about seventy percent of the time!"

"Didn't anyone ever teach you that if you can't say anything nice you shouldn't say anything at all?!"

"Nope," Kazuya replies, and even Shirasu laughs, this time, as Ichinose pushes down on the brim of Sawamura's hat.

"Stop yelling," he says, exasperated, before turning to Kazuya. "And you! Stop instigating."

"Who me?" Kazuya asks, innocently, and a towel slaps the back of his head from behind, courtesy of Kuramochi, knocking Kazuya's sports glasses into his lap.

"You're in a good mood, which is gross," Kuramochi says, and Sawamura laughs happily, picking up Kazuya's glasses and sliding them onto his own face.

"Do I look cool?" Sawamura asks, as everyone settles down into their seats and the bus starts rolling.

"You've never looked cool in your life," replies Kazuya, plucking them carefully off Sawamura's nose and hanging them from the collar of his uniform shirt, closing his eyes to cut off that lion gaze fixed on him.

"But I looked sharp on the mound today! That's pretty cool! And no runs—!"

"Shh," Kazuya says. "I'm tired." He takes a deep breath.

Sawamura sighs, but quiets, and Kazuya curls his toes, clenching and unclenching the sore muscles of his thighs.

Then an arm slips behind Kazuya's neck, and Sawamura's calloused hand gently cups the side of his head, pulling Kazuya's head down onto his shoulder, Kazuya's nose nestled into his neck. Sawamura smells like sweat and dirt and rawhide, nothing like he had three nights ago when Kazuya'd slept next to him in bed, but it's just as good, and Kazuya has to focus nearly all his energy on keeping his heart from beating right out of his chest.

"Still," Sawamura says, voice low, "a game with no runs is thanks to a good battery, so thanks I guess, bastard."

Kazuya breathes, somehow, not moving again until they get back to campus, and slipping off the bus without acknowledging Sawamura at all.

He sets next to Kuramochi during the debriefing, and Sawamura settles down between Takarada and Sanjo, only looking over at Kazuya a couple times to smile when their performance is mentioned.

Kazuya's phone vibrates halfway through the meeting, as Maeda goes through the game's few infielder errors, and he discreetly pulls it out to see a message from Ichinose, who's standing at the back of the room. Kazuya looks over his shoulder, curiously, but Ichinose just grins at him, and he opens the message to see a photo of himself with his face buried in the curve of Sawamura's neck, Sawamura's fingers loosely tangled in his hair. It's... it's too much, and Kazuya closes it immediately and locks the phone when Kuramochi leans over to look over his shoulder.

Kuramochi makes a weird noise in the back of his throat. “Gay,” he whispers, and Kazuya fights back a flinch.

“What?”

“Your lockscreen photo being Sawamura." Kuramochi rolls his eyes. "Super gay battery shit."

"I just did this so I'd have the photo at hand any time Takarada starts thinking Sawamura's boyfriend material," Kazuya whispers back.

Kuramochi snorts, earning Maeda's gimlet eye, and they both pretend to be contritely listening as Kazuya's heart beats like a drum in his chest. "Good thinking," Kuramochi replies, when Maeda's moved on, and Kazuya smirks, crossing his arms across his chest and focusing for the rest of the debrief.

He sidles up to Ichinose in the locker room after he's put away all his gear. "You didn't send that photo to Sawamura, did you?"

Ichinose gives him a considering look, and it reminds Kazuya far too much of how Chris had looked at him, last time they saw each other. Like Kazuya has become far too transparent. "No," he says, eventually. "Don't worry, Miyuki, the secret that you can make friends is safe with me. Catcher solidarity."

Kazuya rolls his shoulders. "Solidarity, huh?"

"Yeah," Ichinose says, slamming his locker door closed. "See you at practice on Monday."

"See you," Kazuya echoes, and then Kuramochi is yelling at him to hurry up from the hallway, and so he sets his mitt on the top shelf, closes his own locker, and walks out to where Kuramochi, Takarada, and Sawamura are waiting to go get dinner, wondering when he became so easy to read.

The week leading up to the Rikkyou game feels almost interminable as classwork gets piled on and practices run long. It doesn’t help that the weather takes a turn for the worse, windy afternoons making batting practice an actual nightmare and leaving Sawamura, underdressed as usual, shivering in front of the net like the hardheaded, hardworking fool he is as they try to tame his still unpredictable crossfired slider.

Kazuya drinks more coffee, writes devious e-mails about training to Furuya, and spends long afternoons in the library working on his journalism project, losing sleep on the wayside.

"You don’t look so hot," Takarada says on Wednesday when she sees him at lunchtime in the lobby of their building. "Sawamura’s going to be upset."

"I don’t answer to that kid," Kazuya says, rubbing at his eyes. "He can’t even remember to wear a jacket." He pushes his glasses up on his nose. "And I always look hot. Don’t be ridiculous."

"Whatever you have to tell yourself to get by.” She sits down across from him on the sofa, pulling out a thermos and taking a sip.

"Where is your shadow, anyway? Isn’t it time for weekly English tutoring?"

"He got cornered by some girl from the literature club," Takarada says, making a disgruntled face. "He’s not even in the literature club."

"He loves that stuff, though," Kazuya says. He sets aside his transcripts from one of Todoroki Raichi’s interviews. "Maybe that’s the way to his heart and you’re missing out~"

"You’re the absolute worst, Miyuki," Takarada replies, dryly. "There’s nothing wrong with having a crush. Just because you don’t believe in human emotions, doesn’t mean the rest of us don’t." She narrows her eyes. "Have you ever even had a crush?"

"Ah, ah, ah, Takarada," Kazuya replies, crossing his ankles. "You can’t accuse me of not having human emotions and then ask if I’ve ever had a crush!"

"I’ll take that as a 'no', then," she says. "I guess that’s the only way someone as popular with girls as you are wouldn’t ever have girlfriends."

"I don’t have time for a girlfriend. Neither does Sawamura, by the way. Baseball and all."

"Baseball season doesn’t last forever." Takarada takes another sip from her thermos. "A few more weeks."

"Good thing, what with the weather lately." Kazuya looks outside, to where most of the trees have bare branches, discolored leaves a blanket on the ground. "Unseasonably cold."

"It definitely didn’t get this cold until early December last year," agrees Takarada. "It’s not just Japan, either. Everyone was wearing heavy jackets at the World Series this year, too, and that was two weeks ago—" She stops, craning her head around, and Kazuya can hear Sawamura’s laugh echoing down the hall. "There he is."

Sawamura has all his attention focused on the girl next to him, and Kazuya’s surprised to see it isn’t the literature club girl, with all the posters and the blushes, but instead Uehara, who is explaining something to him in detail, gesturing widely with her hands. Kazuya’s never seen her so animated, and that thought makes him smile wryly.

She catches sight of Kazuya and Takarada and points them out to Sawamura, whose head whips around immediately to seek them out, finding Takarada first and then moving onto Kazuya. His gaze lingers, and he frowns, and Kazuya sighs.

"Told you," Takarada says.

Kazuya prepares himself for yelling, and he isn’t disappointed, because Sawamura’s first words are: "Hey! Miyuki Kazuya! Why do you look so tired?!"

"Some of us have work to do," Kazuya replies, and Sawamura plops down next to him on the short sofa, crowding in, crumpling Kazuya’s notes and plastering himself against Kazuya’s side as Uehara sits at a respectable distance from Takarada. Uehara smiles shyly, and Kazuya nods at her as he wiggles a little to the left, to put space between himself and Sawamura. "Why are you so energetic?"

"I’m always energetic," Sawamura says, slowly, like Kazuya’s missing something obvious.

"Maybe it’s just more annoying than usual, today," replies Kazuya, flippant, as he tries to reclaim his notes from underneath Sawamura, successfully freeing them and setting on the small table next to his empty cardboard Americano cup.

"Have you been staying up all night again?!" Sawamura leans into him, resting a hand on Kazuya’s thigh, and Kazuya fixes his gaze on Takarada and Uehara to avoid Sawamura’s intense stare.

"Why are you so interested in what I do at night, Sawamura?" He feels Sawamura stiffen beside him, strong fingers digging in, and he smirks. Takarada rolls her eyes and wads up a napkin to throw at his face. Kazuya neatly catches it in his palm before it can smack him in the face. "Maybe Takarada should replace you at pitcher, Sawamura. Her control’s better than yours."

"I think I’d enjoy it," she says, sarcastically. "It would be a joy to throw things at your pretty face all day."

Kazuya flutters his eyelashes. "You think I’m pretty?"

Uehara gapes, looking like she doesn’t know what to do with the situation.

"Only on the outside," Takarada says. "You should aim to match the exterior and interior a little better."

Sawamura makes a noise of protest beside him. "That’s not true!" Sawamura’s broad shoulder rests against his, his so warm and solid, strong pitching arm pressed to Kazuya’s lead catching arm. "Miyuki Kazuya has a nasty personality, and a shitty sense of humor, and has no idea how to give a compliment—"

"Wow, Sawamura, you’re really coming to my defense here—" he starts to tease, but Sawamura doesn’t seem to hear him, barreling on.

"But he’s fine just the way he is!" Kazuya looks at Sawamura out of the corner of his eye, only to find Sawamura looking back at him, his eyes wide and lips parted, like he’s on the cusp of a realization.

"You know I’ll catch for you either way, right?" Kazuya says. "No choice, and all." It breaks the moment.

Sawamura’s face relaxes, and he turns back to Uehara. "Ignore him, Uehara-senpai, he’s the worst, there’s nothing we can do about it, after all!"

Uehara laughs, and checks her watch before standing. "Oh, sorry, Sawamura, but I have to go. We’ll finish our discussion another day, okay?"

Kazuya raises an eyebrow at Takarada in question. Takarada replies with a subtle shake of her head and a shrug.

"Right!" Sawamura grins at her. "See you at the store later!"

Uehara bows to them all and leaves, and Kazuya leans back into the couch, watching her go. "Since when are you and Uehara friends?"

"Um," Sawamura scratches his chin, "I dunno? She wanted to talk to me about— Well, something I mentioned to her before, and so we talk sometimes?"

"She’s not as awkward around me," Kazuya says to both Sawamura and Takarada. "Uehara, I mean. It’s good that I’m so easy to get over."

"That’s not it," Sawamura says, frankly. "It’s that now that she’s already told you about her feelings and gotten an answer, she can move past them!" He plucks at his sweater, a brown knit that stretches over his broad shoulders and thick arms. "Besides, she just… had a crush on you. It’s not like she knows you all that well, right?"

"If she knew me all that well, she wouldn’t have liked me in the first place," says Kazuya, and Sawamura narrows his eyes at him.

"Have you ever told someone you like them, Sawamura?" Takarada asks, thankfully saving Kazuya from whatever unfortunately perceptive thing Sawamura’s about to say, closing her thermos and recrossing her legs.

"Not—" He hesitates. "Well, not really, but it’s different for me."

"What’s that supposed to mean?" Sawamura’s hand is still hot on Kazuya’s thigh, but Kazuya’s not sure if moving it at this point will draw attention to that fact, so he ignores it. "I guess pets don’t ask to be adopted…"

Sawamura’s whole face crumples up, and he looks down at his feet, shoulders hunching. "Well, it’s like, there’s baseball? I don’t want to mess that up."

Kazuya tries to work that out, but he can’t, so he takes the opportunity to scoot sideways, away from Sawamura, under the pretense of shoving his transcripts back in his messenger bag. "It’s true that you’ve never been much of a multitasker," he says, as he zips his bag back up.

"I can multitask just fine!"

Kazuya sits back up, plugging the ear closer to Sawamura and grinning. "Your single-mindedness is useful sometimes, though."

Sawamura tries to figure out if it’s a compliment or an insult as Takarada rolls her eyes. "Do you need help with your English homework today, Sawamura?"

"Not really," he says, pulling on his sweater again. “It’s all just prepositional collocations and stuff.”

Kazuya blinks, feeling a flicker of surprise at Sawamura casually mentioning some grammatical concept Kazuya’s never even heard of, before his sluggish, sleepy brain burns out on it, and it’s forgotten in Takarada’s shuffling preparations to leave.

"Then I guess I have no excuse to put off my own assignments." She pats her own bag. "I’d better get to the library so I have time to type at least an outline before practice."

"Later, Takarada," Kazuya says, waving lazily as Sawamura makes a show of grinning at her widely enough that Kazuya can see every tooth in his mouth.

"Bye, senpai! Good luck!"

"Thanks," she says, giving her own small wave to them both, and then it’s just Kazuya and Sawamura, mostly alone in the lobby and sitting too close to each other on the small sofa.

"And what about you, Sawamura? Going to leave me in peace to work, now?"

"Why?" Sawamura asks, digging into the front pocket of his obnoxious lime green backpack to pull out his phone. "You should take a nap, you ass. You really do look horrible!"

"Why are you so concerned about how I look today?" Kazuya laughs, and then rubs at his gritty eyes.

"Because you’re important to me!" Sawamura says it so shamelessly that Kazuya swallows.

"And I’m supposed to care about your feelings, Sawamura?" He runs a hand through his hair.

Sawamura wraps a hand around Kazuya’s arm, pulling him in. "You’ll get sick! Then who’ll catch for me, huh, Miyuki Kazuya?!"

"Ichinose," Kazuya replies, blandly.

Sawamura’s face goes red. "Ichinose’s not you!"

"Obviously, Sawamura," Kazuya says, and Sawamura makes squawking, angry noises. "Do you have to be loud even when you aren’t saying anything?"

"I don’t want to pitch to anyone else!" He tugs at Kazuya’s sweater with a sharp jerk, and Kazuya lets himself be maneuvered, allowing Sawamura to position them both until Kazuya’s lying across Sawamura’s legs, glasses askew as he stares up at the pitcher. "Well, maybe to Chris-senpai, or to Okumura if I have to, but they don’t play for this team so! They don’t count!"

"They don’t count, eh?"

"No," Sawamura says, his voice a little wobbly, a little strange. He has that look on his face, like he’s on the precipice of something, like he’s just figured out how to grasp the ball to throw a new pitch, but Kazuya doesn’t know what. Kazuya’s heart is in his throat. "You know that I… I always end up coming to Tokyo to make a battery with you, Miyuki Kazuya!"

Kazuya… Kazuya has to do something about this, maybe, but he’s not sure what, because he’s tried pulling away and he’s tried getting closer, and both have led to this: To Sawamura Eijun, who Miyuki Kazuya cannot have, pillowing Kazuya’s head on his strong, warm thighs, the only soundtrack the noise of people changing classes and Kazuya’s too-fast beating heart. Kazuya licks his lips. "When… will you stop yelling at me all the time?"

"When you stop deserving it!" Sawamura’s eyes seem to drop to his mouth, before Sawamura turns his attention to his phone. "I’ll set an alarm so you aren’t late for class," he says. "So take a nap."

"I need to work right now," Kazuya replies, half-heartedly, but Sawamura, still staring at his phone, typing slowly with one thumb, ignores him, even as one of those pitcher hands toys with the ends of Kazuya’s hair.

"Overworking is just like overtraining," Sawamura informs him. His face is still so pink, and Kazuya wonders if it’s warmer in the lobby than he’d thought. "Chris-senpai says that’s dangerous and inefficient."

"Well, we should always listen to Chris-senpai," Kazuya allows, letting his heavy eyes close, even though he wants to keep looking up at Sawamura from this angle, with the floppy fall of his hair across his forehead and his ears inexplicably pink. "Just a little while."

"Just a little while," Sawamura agrees, oddly calm, oddly quiet. "I’ll make sure to wake you up, partner."

"Mmm," Kazuya says, and he’s tired enough that despite his racing heart, he lets Sawamura lull him into a doze, and finally, to sleep, with Sawamura’s hands tangled, again, in his overgrown hair.

"What’s up with Sawamura?" Shirasu asks, the Friday before their first game against Rikkyou. Kazuya’s just finished batting practice, and is getting ready to go corral Sawamura in from where he’s running laps with Uchida and Sanjo for extended pitching practice, since the weather has been messing with his control.

"I’m not sure," Kazuya says, setting his batting helmet aside and peeling off his gloves. "I think the cold is making his muscles tighten up. I’ve got to figure out if it’s fixable or if I have to call for pitches that work around it."

"Not what I meant." Shirasu taps his bat against his open palm, staring at Kazuya as calmly as ever.

"Um," Kumai says, clearing her throat, "I think he means Sawamura’s behavior…?" Kazuya turns to look at her, and she smiles. "I mean, it’s just, usually he’s here, right? Waiting for you to finish batting. But the past couple days…"

Kazuya looks down at his lap, pressing his lips thoughtfully into a thin line. "Shouldn’t you be asking Sawamura?"

"Too noisy." Shirasu, having said his piece, heads back to the batting cages.

"Sawamura’s just been acting strangely, and we thought you might know," Kumai continues, "since you spend the most time together. Have you noticed that he’s been a little off this week?"

Kazuya has, of course. Sawamura’s been strange since he’d woken Kazuya up from his nap on Wednesday in the lobby of the history building, with his lower lip chewed swollen and avoiding Kazuya’s gaze. "Not really," Kazuya says, and Kumai sighs.

"Maybe Kuramochi will have an idea."

"They are closer in IQ," says Kazuya. "That should help."

Kumai laughs despite her best effort not to, wagging her finger at Kazuya. "You’re so mean."

"Don’t sound so surprised," Kazuya says, as he starts putting on his gear. "I’ll… ask him about it."

"Look at you," Takarada says, chucking a towel at him. Kazuya lets it hit him and pool in his lap. "Attempting basic human interactions. This must be what they call a character development arc!"

"Do you read shoujo manga, too?" Kazuya raises a brow. "I never took you to be the type."

"There is no type," Takarada replies. "And no, I haven’t read manga since I was in middle school, Miyuki, but that doesn’t mean I can’t recognize clear personality growth."

"Aww," Kazuya says, adjusting the straps on his shin guards. "You think my personality is getting better?"

"Maybe two percent better," says Takarada, and Kazuya laughs, standing up so he can put on his chest protector. "That’s still failing."

"I know you love me, Takarada."

"In your dreams," she replies, and he leers at her.

"How did you know?" Kazuya teases, moving to fasten his chest protector only to have his hands swatted away by Sawamura’s. "Oh, have you finished running off all that excess energy, Sawamura?"

"Shut up, Bastard-senpai," Sawamura replies, breath hot on the back of Kazuya’s neck. Kazuya hides a shiver. "I’m ready to pitch."

"Impatient as usual," Kazuya says, as Sawamura’s hands idly tighten his shoulder straps, even though Kazuya hasn’t changed them since he put his gear on yesterday. "You don’t have to always do this, you know."

"R-right!" Sawamura says, immediately withdrawing his hands, and Kazuya turns to look at him curiously. This, he thinks, is what Shirasu was talking about. These moments of hesitation that are Sawamura’s version of subtle. "It’s habit, that’s all!"

"Sure it is," Kazuya says, smirking. "So helpful."

"Well, I won’t keep you, Miyuki," Takarada says, laughing. "Kumai and I have plenty to do getting ready for the game tomorrow."

"I suppose I do have to take care of the team mascot here before he starts pouting."

"What do you mean mascot?!" Sawamura shouts with less fervor than usual, and Kazuya looks at him speculatively as Takarada laughs even harder. "I’m the ace pitcher! I’m an important part of the team!"

"I never said you weren’t," Kazuya says, bending over to get his catcher’s mitt. Sawamura’s rooting through his own bag for his glove, and he crows triumphantly when he finds it. "I thought you were ready to pitch?"

"I am!" He plucks at Kazuya’s practice shirt, and Kazuya chuckles, walking in front of Sawamura, leading the way to the empty second training field. The second string is off today, leaving more space for the first string to spread out, and Kazuya likes to let Sawamura practice from the mound the day before games, because it seems to remind Sawamura that the mound is his now, to reassure him in a way Kazuya’s never been able to do with words.

Sawamura’s cradling a baseball in his left hand, looking at it thoughtfully as Kazuya drops into a crouch and punches the mitt. "Gonna throw me something today or are you just going to think about it?"

Sawamura grins, and Kazuya’s heart swells at the fierce look in his eyes. He winds up, his leg going high up into the air, and then the ball is hurtling toward Kazuya’s mitt, right where Kazuya’d asked. It thuds in hard, with a sharp crack, and satisfaction over the beautiful control Sawamura’s been showing off this season has Kazuya remembering how wild Sawamura’s pitches had been when they first met. A tree with deep roots, Kazuya thinks, tossing the ball back.

"Nice pitch," he says, and pointedly doesn’t admire the pleased crinkling of Sawamura’s eyes.

Kazuya stops him after thirty pitches, walking up to the mound. "The backbrush is… really good," he says, resting a hand on Sawamura’s arm and smiling at him. "Are you really Sawamura?"

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?!" Sawamura pouts. "I’m amazing!"

"Hmmm," Kazuya says, low in his throat, as though he’s skeptical, and he looks away from Sawamura’s pursed lips to find Takarada watching them, leaning against the fence with her arms crossed. He returns his attention to Sawamura when Sawamura steps away from him, shaking away the hand Kazuya hadn’t realized he let linger. "Something wrong?"

Sawamura’s looking at him oddly, and his skin is ruddy from the cold. "I should hurry and go ice my shoulder," he says, too quickly, and Kazuya frowns.

"Is it bothering you?" That would be a neat explanation for Sawamura’s somewhat skittish behavior; if he’s worried about Kazuya picking up on an injury. But Sawamura isn’t like Kazuya, and he’s not the type to hide something like that. Still, Kazuya reaches out and runs his hand up Sawamura’s arm, pressing his fingers into muscles to check for reflex tension.

Sawamura grabs his wrist to stop him. "No, it’s not bothering me!" His chalky fingers squeeze slightly. "Let me just… go ice it, and you can finish talking to Takarada-senpai!"

"Takarada?" Kazuya cocks his head, and Sawamura’s eyes widen fractionally. "You’re in a strange mood. Are you sick, Sawamoron?"

"No! Of course not!" Sawamura scratches at the back of his neck. "I don’t get sick!"

"Then…" Kazuya takes a deep breath. "Then what’s up with you, lately?" A question like that feels strange on his tongue. Kazuya doesn’t… He doesn’t ask people about their personal problems unless it’s an opportunity for teasing.

Sawamura seems equally caught off-guard. "Is there something wrong with my pitching?"

"No," Kazuya replies. "Shirasu thinks you’re being more of a weirdo than usual."

"Oh," Sawamura says, and he swallows, letting go of Kazuya’s wrist. "Nothing’s wrong." He looks down at his cleats, and Kazuya takes in his furrowed brow and the stubborn slash of his mouth, his chest tightening.

"Fine," Kazuya says, trying to figure out the uncomfortable tightness in his gut. "I guess I shouldn’t expect a kid as empty-headed as you to have much going on besides baseball." He smirks. "Just don’t hurt yourself, thinking so hard."

Sawamura’s face falls into a more familiar expression, full of righteous indignation. "You’re such a bag of dicks!"

"Thank you!" Kazuya replies, with a laugh, turning around to leave Sawamura fuming on the mound. "Don’t forget to stretch out, idiot!"

"I won’t, asshole!!" Sawamura yells, and maybe, Kazuya thinks, ignoring the memory of Sawamura’s pensive face, Sawamura’s just fine after all.

Only it becomes clear, eventually, that something really isn’t quite right.

Sawamura isn’t avoiding him, exactly. He still drags Kazuya to his apartment after practice to review stats for the next day’s game, keeping him up way too late asking silly questions he won’t remember the answers to later. He still crowds into Kazuya’s personal space the following morning, pushing Kazuya’s messy fringe off his forehead when Kazuya teases him about the bedhead sins his own baseball cap must be hiding. He still shares his water bottle with Kazuya before they get on the bus, and nudges Kazuya with an elbow when Kazuya’s taunts to Hirahata about his batting get a little too mean.

It’s just when Kazuya touches back, crowds back, that Sawamura hesitates, withdrawing from Kazuya like every overture Kazuya makes burns him a little, and it leaves Kazuya feeling like he can’t catch his breath, his chest uncomfortably tense and his ribs aching unexpectedly at the unspoken rejection.

"I’m not going to be a human pillow," Ichinose warns him, when Kazuya sits down next to him on the bus, when it’s time to head to Meiji Jingu, instead of waiting in an empty row for Sawamura. "I know you have high expectations of your seat partners, but we’re just not that close."

"Captain," Kazuya says, with a teasing lilt to his lips that belies the tension in his spine, "I’m wounded." He presses a hand to his heart.

Ichinose chuckles. "I don’t believe you. Can you even be wounded?"

Kazuya’s hand tightens a little on his uniform jersey, nails crumpling the material. "Senpai, I have feelings too, you know."

Ichinose looks at him, considering, and then his gaze flicks to Sawamura. "Hmm, yeah, I guess you do, sometimes."

Kazuya’s breath hitches, and he covers it with a laugh. "Like annoyance. I feel that one a lot."

Shaking his head, Ichinose slumps back in his seat. "I’m not going to judge you for adopting that kid, Miyuki. It’s interesting, is all."

At the word 'adopting', a tiny knot of tension unravels at the small of his back. "Well, I’ve been practicing handling temperamental pitchers since middle school. It’s good practice for when I get saddled with a real diva when I go pro."

"Taking a break from handling this morning?" Ichinose gestures at Sawamura sitting next to Uchida, already making way too much noise for the early morning. Uchida looks annoyed, but there’s a bit of amusement lurking at the corners of his mouth.

"I wouldn’t want to get burnt out," Kazuya replies, and Ichinose snorts. Kazuya rolls his shoulders. "Shirasu thinks he’s acting differently. I’m observing, in case it becomes a problem on the field."

At that, Ichinose gives Kazuya his full attention. "You think Shirasu’s right, otherwise you wouldn’t bother."

Kazuya hesitates, knowing his collection of evidence is mostly Sawamura doesn’t want me to touch him, but then he settles himself. "He’s a bit… finicky." He frowns. "It’s just… unusual. He was pitching well yesterday. It’s probably nothing."

"I haven’t noticed anything," Ichinose says, thoughtfully. "I haven’t caught for him in a while, though, and I also don’t know him as well as you do."

"He’s a simple-minded idiot. It’s not like he’s difficult to know," Kazuya says reflexively, but when Ichinose just continues to look at him, Kazuya deflates. "He’s been acting normal with other people. It’s just. Me. Maybe."

Ichinose sighs. "Don’t mess up your battery when the team is doing so well, starting catcher."

"You and Uchida can’t pick up the slack, Captain?"

"Don’t be respectful," Ichinose says. "It doesn’t suit you at all."

At that, Kazuya laughs, and pulls out his notebook so he can review the stats one more time, only without Sawamura’s constant questions about how his change-ups would stack up against Rikkyou’s clean-up hitter.

"You ready?" Kazuya asks Sawamura as they get ready for their first inning on defense in the bullpen, Sawamura throwing reliably to his mitt.

"Why wouldn’t I be?" He looks up at the sky. "Looks like rain, though."

"Shouldn’t be a problem for you. If you eat dirt I’m going to laugh."

"That’s because you have a nasty personality!" Sawamura tosses the rosin bag a couple of times, recoating his hand in chalk. His movements are confident, and Kazuya wonders if he’s overthinking Sawamura’s mood. The fact that Shirasu and Kumai had pointed it out, though, makes Kazuya hold on to the thought that something’s up. "A normal catcher would be worried about their pitcher!!"

"Aren’t you supposed to be a farm boy made of tougher stuff than that?" Kazuya straightens from his crouch, pushing back his face protector. "Besides, I’ve seen you fall on your face so many times it might not even be a novelty anymore."

"There’s no shame in falling down as long as you get back up again!" Sawamura yells, getting the attention of Numamoto, who gives Kazuya and Sawamura a mildly annoyed look that only makes Kazuya laugh as he approaches Sawamura easily.

"Pipe down, dumbass, you’ll distract the rest of the team." He goes to tousle Sawamura’s hair, but when he gets close, Sawamura flinches back with his whole body, face flushing in horror right after as he realizes he’s done it. "Sawamura?"

"Don’t think you’re going to mess up my hair just because your own looks wild!" Sawamura blusters, clenching the rosin bag too tight and staring back at the dugout.

"Ah, why so suspicious, Sawamura?" Kazuya asks, around the lump in his throat.

"You’re a wily bastard, I can’t let my guard down around you!" Sawamura narrows his eyes at Kazuya, and Kazuya takes a deep breath.

"Let’s get back to the dugout for Coach Maeda’s pep talk," Kazuya says, letting his arm fall when he realizes it’s still poised to muss Sawamura’s unruly hair. "You’re warmed up enough."

"I wouldn’t want to waste my extremely valuable pitches," Sawamura agrees, and Kazuya curls his fingers into a fist as he walks ahead of Sawamura toward the rest of the team. "Wait for me you bastard!"

"Just keep up instead! If your ego isn’t weighing you down, of course!"

"Look who’s talking about ego!" Sawamura yells, but he quickens his step, only a few seconds behind Kazuya entering the dugout.

"What was that about, hmm?" Kuramochi asks, quietly, when the first inning starts, Meiji on offense as Rikkyou’s pitcher, a first year Kazuya’s never heard of, takes the mound. He’s a right-handed pitcher, not a southpaw like Sawamura, Kazuya notes, and the way he’s gripping the ball looks pretty experienced.

"What? Warming up? We do it before every game, if you haven’t noticed." Kazuya crosses his arms, watching the wind-up for the game’s first pitch with careful eyes. Rikkyou’s pitcher isn’t as flexible as Sawamura, either, but has good control, and he watches the catcher attentively, which is always a nice trait in a pitcher.

"What’s put a bee in Sawamura’s underwear, Miyuki?"

"Hopefully nothing. He’s allergic to those, and we need our starting pitcher."

"Miyuki," Kuramochi says, clamping down a little too roughly on Kazuya’s shoulder. "Cut the bullshit. Did you do something?"

"No," Kazuya snaps. "I don’t know what’s bothering him, okay?"

Kuramochi whistles. "And it’s bothering you that you don’t know, too, huh?"

Kazuya gives Kuramochi his smuggest grin, shuttering his eyes so Kuramochi won’t read anything in them. "As long as he pitches well it doesn’t matter to me!"

Kuramochi shakes him. "Liar, liar," he says. "If you didn’t do anything, why’d he dodge like you were the bee, then?"

"How am I supposed to guess what someone as stupid as Sawamura is hung up on? I told Shirasu he should’ve asked you to figure it out since you’re closer to the same level of intelligence."

Kuramochi doesn’t take the bait. "He’s not acting any differently with me, so why should I have to put in that effort?"

"What happened to the concerned upperclassman that warned me to treat him better?" Kazuya complains.

"You seem to be treating him just fine, and I’m sure this will frustrate you enough that you’ll take action on your own," Kuramochi says, pulling his batting gloves out of his back pocket as Maeda signals that he’s up next at-bat. He’s watching the pitcher too. "This is the other school that wanted Sawamura, right?"

"Yes," Kazuya says, watching another pitch follow a perfectly controlled trajectory. "Looks like they found another first year to take their empty mound instead."

"Heh," Kuramochi says, picking up his bat and looking down the bench at Sawamura, who’s speaking animatedly with Kumai and Sanjo about who knows what, a smear of chalk across his cheek and his eyes bright. He looks ready to pitch, Kazuya thinks, vaguely, and Kuramochi seems to agree. "We should probably rub it in their faces that we got him, then."

"Of course," Kazuya says, letting a wicked smirk tug at his lips.

"You’re horrible," Kuramochi says, patting him on the shoulder more lightly again. "Should have known you’d already have something like that in mind."

Sawamura doesn’t allow anyone on base for the first two innings, pitching solidly despite several batters attempting intimidation tactics. Kazuya almost shakes his head at them in chastisement, because they should know, from Sawamura’s videos, that he doesn’t get intimidated. Instead, though, he just calls for some of Sawamura’s more bizarre pitches, some of his most interesting fastballs, and watches them naturally move as they fly towards his mitt with a casual grace. This, he knows, is what Rikkyou’s competent first year pitcher doesn’t have: the excitement, and the unpredictability that Sawamura’s strange form and whip-like arm bring to the table. Setting aside everything else, everything complicated and emotional, Kazuya would never have been as interested in catching for the kid Rikkyou put on the mound, because Kazuya has always preferred a challenge with baseball. Preferred not to be complacent, at least in this.

Sawamura’s pitching had been entertaining, when he was a fresh high school student. Something that amused Kazuya just as much as Furuya’s unfathomable power-throws. Now, Sawamura’s pitching is electrifying, and it’s clear from the cheering in the stands and the zeroes on the scoreboard that everyone knows it. If Kazuya could think about anything but calling plays, right now, he’d let himself admit that with as much as he loves baseball, it’s no surprise Sawamura Eijun has clawed his way into his affections.

They’re leading four runs to nothing at the bottom of the third when it starts to downpour. One minute, Kazuya’s asking for a two-seam, and the next, the skies have opened up to pelt them with frigid, unrelenting rain. The referees immediately call time, postponing the rest of the match, and Meiji’s team pushes into the dugout to watch the stadium field turn to mud.

Kazuya sits down next to Sawamura on the bench, watching as Sawamura rolls up his compression sleeve and rubs some of his ointment into his upper arm with his right hand. There’s still chalk on his fingers, and it leaves white streaks on his arm. "You okay?"

"I can pitch 120 times before I have to be taken out!" Sawamura says stubbornly, and Kazuya hums.

"I know, I know." He pushes his sports glasses up into his hair, holding back his fringe. "You’ve got to know, in Major League ball, most pitchers don’t stay in all nine innings. You’re certainly a selfish pitcher."

"Most catchers don’t either," Sawamura replies. "So what’s that make you, Miyuki Kazuya?"

"Necessary," Kazuya replies, promptly, then laughs at Sawamura’s disgruntled expression. "Don’t make such amusing faces." He pokes Sawamura’s cheek before he remembers that’s a thing, lately, and Sawamura flushes, pressing his lips into a thin line. "It makes it too rewarding to tease you."

"Whatever," Sawamura says, scooting away. It really is cold today, Kazuya thinks, at the loss of Sawamura’s body heat. He watches as Sawamura quickly rolls his sleeve back down, frowning at his ointment-slick hand. "I’ll be right back."

Kazuya’s eyes trail Sawamura as he disappears into the underbelly of the stadium, and there’s another flicker of frustration that Kazuya doesn’t bother to snuff. He eyes the torrential rain, judging that they have at least ten minutes before it’ll stop, and gets up to follow him.

He makes his way to the locker room, assuming that’s where Sawamura’s gone. He’s surprised, though, when he hears two people talking when he rounds the corner. Sawamura is leaning, drenched, against the hall wall, arms crossed, and standing in front of him is Rikkyou’s captain, who’d shaken hands with Ichinose during the national anthem. Sawamura doesn’t look upset, so Kazuya doesn’t get tense, and instead jokingly asks: "Back here fraternizing with the enemy, Sawamura?"

The captain looks over his shoulder at Kazuya, and smiles. "Ah, you’re the catcher, right? The one Sawamura came to Meiji for."

"Kanno-senpai!" Sawamura’s face twists up, and Kazuya licks his lips as rain clings to his jaw and rolls down the column of his throat.

"I admit, I’m a little jealous," the captain, Kanno, says. "After Sawamura and I got along so well at the Diamonds’ training camp I thought we had him for sure." He shrugs. "Guess nothing can beat high school bonds."

"We do have several members of Seidou’s team at Meiji," Kazuya says easily, watching Kanno reach out and tap Sawamura with one finger on the shoulder. "At least your pitcher can hit a ball at bat."

Kanno laughs. "He’s a good underclassman," he says. "Anyway I’m only on this side of the building because the vending machine on our side is out of order, and I’ve got to get back to my team." He returns his gaze to Sawamura. "Tell Chris I said hi, yeah?"

"Okay," Sawamura says.

Kanno smiles at him. "I hope you’re happy with your choice," he says, and Sawamura nods twice, sharp, and bows.

"Thank you, Kanno-senpai!" he says, loudly enough to echo down the hall, and then he pushes into the locker room, the door swinging behind him.

"He’s a good kid," Kanno says. "Or, well, he’s an adult, isn’t he?"

"He’s…" Kazuya rubs at his neck. "Yeah, he’s good." He scans Kanno’s face. "You were at Diamonds’ training camp, too?"

"Mmm, probably going to play there after I graduate this year." He looks Kazuya up and down. "Chris told me I probably wasn’t going to be able to lure Sawamura to Rikkyou once he was offered Meiji."

"Oh?" Kazuya’s eyes slide to the door. "Sorry, I have to go wrangle my pitcher."

"Tough job?"

"You have no idea," Kazuya replies, with feeling, and Kanno laughs.

"Good luck," he says. "We’re going to beat you with or without Sawamura, though. He’s a great pitcher, but our pitcher is great too."

"But Sawamura has me," says Kazuya, bluntly, and he nods just enough to pass for respect before pushing into the locker room.

Sawamura’s sitting on one of the long benches, looking like a drowned rat. "I thought you came in here to wash your hands," Kazuya says, and Sawamura looks up at him before quickly looking down again. "Or did you just feel like taking a stroll through the rain so you could play with a wet uniform today?"

"Yours is wet too, now," Sawamura says, then holds up his hand. "The rain rinsed it enough, anyway."

"So what are you doing in here?"

"Dunno," Sawamura says. "Just wanted to." He looks up at Kazuya again, and then back down at his knees. "Why did you come after me?"

"Well," Kazuya says, shifting his weight. "Sounds more like you’re the one who came after me~" He smirks, and Sawamura’s eyes go round as 500yen coins, his lips parting as he blushes a furious red.

"Shut up!"

"But it’s kind of funny," Kazuya says, "since it feels like the past couple of days you’ve been acting a bit like I might have a contagious disease." He approaches the bench slowly, sitting down almost a meter from Sawamura. "What’s with that, after all the effort you’ve made to violate my personal space?"

"That’s not—!" Sawamura bites down on his lower lip, hard, teeth digging in and turning the flesh white. "I haven’t been—!"

Kazuya swallows back bitterness at the back of his throat. "I’m a catcher, Sawamura, not a self-centered pitcher. I pay attention." He can feel his smirk getting larger, and he lets it. "Even Kuramochi noticed, and he’s a huge idiot like you. If I did something and it’s not inconvenient to fix, I will."

"You didn’t do anything!"

Sawamura’s shoulders, usually broad and loose, are so tense that Kazuya can trace the knots with his eyes. He slides closer, and settles a hand between Sawamura’s shoulder blades. "You know, if you’re going to make such a big deal out of us being partners, you shouldn’t be such a hypocrite." Sawamura flinches again, but doesn’t pull away from the touch completely, so Kazuya leans in, resting his chin on Sawamura’s shoulder, his nose brushing his cheek. "Now who’s making a right arm wall, hmm?"

"It’s true," Sawamura says, suddenly, so loud in the enclosed locker room. "I did end up choosing Meiji so that I could pitch to you again. I didn’t… I didn’t come to university for you, but once I’d decided I was going, I chose you. Again."

In most respects, Kazuya has already acknowledged that. He’s never been one to miss the obvious, and Sawamura’s told him before, more than once. Kazuya knows Rei-chan planned it just like that, anyway. Still, hearing Sawamura admit it again is a rush, warm in his belly, because it sounds kind of like Sawamura’s saying something else, something new; like he came for Kazuya himself, and not just Kazuya’s catching, and that’s… Kazuya’s hand twitches slightly on Sawamura’s wet back, before he forces himself to calm. "That just proves you have some sense of how talented I am," Kazuya says, low, and Sawamura shudders, his breath coming out in a hiccup.

"I didn’t know what it is about you that always makes me want to prove myself," Sawamura says. His jaw clenches, and Kazuya’s too close to Sawamura to see it but he can feel it, the tendon under his chin stretching. Kazuya’s blood is rushing too fast. He’s lightheaded, and all he smells is sweat and chalk and rain. "I never did understand why I wanted to pitch to you so much!! Even back then, I…"

"You make it sound like you do understand now," Kazuya says.

And Sawamura looks at him, then, with his thin pink lips and faintly freckled nose and wet fluffy hair. He’s searching Kazuya’s face for something, and Kazuya isn’t sure what to show because he doesn’t know what Sawamura wants to find. So he just looks back, holding Sawamura’s gaze, and waits. He sees it, the moment Sawamura seems to come to some kind of a decision. It reminds him, in a weird way, of the first time Sawamura threw an in-course ball right to his mitt during a game after struggling with the yips. Like he’s just rediscovered his endless spring of determination. It’s a strange counterpoint to the way he’d looked down at Kazuya in his lap on Wednesday— like whatever he’d figured out then has crystalized into something else, and Kazuya doesn’t know what it is but he finds himself relieved to see that familiar spark of courage.

"Yeah," Sawamura says, his voice cracking. "I guess I do." He shifts, dislodging Kazuya’s chin from his shoulder but not moving far enough away that Kazuya’s hand falls from his back. "So keep catching my pitches, Miyuki Kazuya!!" His eyes are bright, fierce, the uncertainty that’s been lurking at the edges gone all at once. It’s everything Kazuya loves to see when he’s crouched behind the batter, calling for that evil crossfired slider. "I, Sawamura Eijun, am gonna pitch to you until my arm falls off!"

"So determined all of a sudden, aren’t you?"

"So what if I am?!"

"That’s…" Kazuya’s mouth is so dry, and he can’t look away. His fingers tighten in Sawamura’s uniform shirt, his knuckles digging into Sawamura’s back. "Overzealous, as usual, Sawamoron." Sawamura’s stare does not let up. "But I don’t… mind it. You following me here." He takes a slow breath, careful not to let his expression change. "Guess I’m a pet person after all."

He waits for Sawamura to get it, and watches the intent look on his face transform into a snarl, those eyes of his like molten gold flashing. "I’m not a dog, asshole!!"

Laughing, Kazuya stands, letting his hand fall from Sawamura’s back, a twinge at the loss of contact easily suppressed. "Come along, Spot. We’ve got a game to finish." He reaches out to ruffle Sawamura’s hair, and he’s more than a little gratified when Sawamura doesn’t move away from it.

"Damnit, you asshole! You always ruin everything good you say!!"

"I said something good?" Kazuya turns away, toward the door. "Which part? The part where I called you Spot? Should I teach that nickname to Kuramochi?"

Sawamura’s shouting an infuriated reply as he walks out, but, Kazuya notes, he still follows, and Kazuya holds that realization in the palm of his hand and tries not to crush it.

"I should call Zono and tell him you handled an interpersonal problem all on your own," Kuramochi says to Kazuya, after they win the first game, as Kazuya watches Sawamura accept slaps on his back from most of the team. "Then again, I don’t want to drive him to drink that it took so long to reach this milestone."

"What was that, Kuramochi? You want me to put arsenic in your dinner?"

Kuramochi laughs. "There’s the asshole I know and tolerate," he says, throwing an arm around Kazuya.

Kazuya chuckles, meeting Sawamura’s eyes, and when Sawamura grins at him, Kazuya’s heart skips at least three beats.

They take Rikkyou in two straight games.

When the team rushes up from the dugout, after Kuramochi hits a ball past Rikkyou’s exhausted third-baseman, Sawamura catches Kazuya in a one-armed hug, mushing Kazuya’s face into the sweaty curve of his neck. "One more, partner," he says, right into Kazuya’s ear, and Kazuya stops himself from tumbling forward from the pull at his shoulders with a hand to Sawamura’s chest. Sawamura is big and sturdy, and the weight of his arm around Kazuya’s shoulders is almost as reassuring as the steady thrum of his heartbeat under Kazuya’s palm. "Just one more!"

"Who’s the upperclassman, here?" Kazuya says, shoving Sawamura away, and Sawamura laughs, loudly, until it turns into a shrill yelp of surprise as Kuramochi catches him in a chokehold.

"Are you gloating, Sawamoron?!" Kuramochi yells. "It’s only thanks to our efforts you were able to throw pitch-to-contact, you little twerp!"

"Ah, but Sawamura’s taller and bigger than you!" Kazuya says, because he can’t resist. "Kuramochi, are you still waiting for puberty?"

"You’re next," Kuramochi says, pointing a finger at Kazuya with vindictive promise in his eyes. "Don’t think you aren’t!"

And Kazuya laughs, pleased, as Sawamura preens under all the attention for the rest of the evening, but somehow, always, finds his way back to Kazuya’s side.

"You look a bit dazed," Takarada says, as Kazuya picks at his dinner. He can still feel Sawamura’s lips at his jaw, feel his heartbeat in his empty hand, and every time he looks across the table, Sawamura’s looking right back, showing all his teeth in a happy grin. "Are you that surprised we won? You shouldn’t be. Meiji’s the talk of the Big6 this year, thanks, in part, to you." The stress, Kazuya is sure, is completely intentional.

"Takarada," Kazuya says, batting his lashes at her, "are you falling for me?"

"That’s probably the most disgusting expression in your arsenal," she replies, poking him aggressively with the backs of her chopsticks. "Don’t practice that shit on me just because you know it’s ineffective."

"If I really wanted to win you over, I would speak a little archaic Japanese—" She pokes him again, and he laughs.

She gives him a considering look. "You are in a good mood tonight. How odd."

"You act like I’m never in a good mood," Kazuya replies, watching Kuramochi attempt to start a food fight by tossing a piece of leek at Shiba. Kumai looks gently and mildly murderous about it when it hits her instead.

"You’re always in a smug mood, or a taunting mood, or a mean-spirited amusement kind of mood," she promptly retorts. "It’s not the same thing."

"I personally think all those moods are good."

"That’s because you’re a little broken," says Takarada. She rests her cheek in her palm, all her weight on her elbow. "But Sawamura’s rubbing off on you."

"Please take that back," Kazuya says, curling his hand around the edge of the table. "I don’t want to pick up any traits from that kid."

"It’s so cute the way you pretend he’s not your friend." She takes a sip of her water, and her gaze wanders to Sawamura, just like Kazuya’s has been doing all night. "You’re good for him too." Kazuya blinks at her in surprise, and then tilts his face so the light catches his glasses, obscuring his eyes. "You focus him."

"He doesn’t need focus," Kazuya says, bluntly. "He’s got enough of that on his own. He never lets anything go. He’s persistent and determined and very annoying about it."

"That’s true," Takarada says, but she sounds knowing. "I guess you’d know, since most of the time, he’s focused on you."

"You mean pitching," Kazuya corrects, shifting in his seat.

Takarada purses her lips thoughtfully. "Maybe," she says. "But it feels like you and pitching are sort of tangled up for him?" She quirks a grin. "You baseball nuts are all the same."

Kuramochi makes a victory yell as a piece of eggplant slaps into Sawamura’s neck, and Sawamura picks up an udon noodle with his fingers and drops it down the back of Kuramochi’s sweater. "You don’t need to compare me to that bunch, really." Sawamura looks at Kazuya again, his eyes gleaming mischievously, and then darts his gaze to Takarada. It feels like he’s asking for a call, and Kazuya is quick to grin back, picking up a piece of baby corn with two fingers. "Then again, we are a team," he says, dropping it right down the thin gap at the neck of Takarada's button up blouse.

Her squeaky scream gets the whole table laughing even louder, just like they had right after the game, and under the table, Sawamura links their ankles together, while Kazuya pretends not to want to reach across the table, drag him in, and kiss him.

The last place Kazuya expects to run into Sawamura on Monday is at the supermarket.

At first, Kazuya thinks he’s a mirage or something; and Kazuya’s just been spending way too much time with Sawamura in general, if he’s starting to see him when he’s not around. But then Sawamura looks up from his intense study of a pile of late fall apples and his whole face lights up, and Kazuya’s pretty sure his imagination would never get that particular expression quite right.

"Miyuki Kazuya!" Sawamura says, bowing at him. "Might I trouble you for some of your expert advice?!"

"Lower your voice," Kazuya says, intending to sound stern and failing as a smile curves his lips. "What do you want, Sawamoron?"

"I have to have fresh food in my house, but I have no idea how to pick out vegetables!!" Sawamura looks genuinely harried, and Kazuya gives up, grinning.

"Oh my," Kazuya says. "Sounds like someone else’s problem." He hoists his own small basket. "I’ve got my own groceries to get, after all." Sawamura pouts, his lower lip sticking out, and Kazuya, without thinking, reaches up and tugs on it, earning himself Sawamura’s widening eyes and a fierce blush. "So," he adds, clearing his throat and dropping his hand back to his side, "I guess you’re on your own."

Sawamura sucks his lip into his mouth. "Be a good senpai for once in your life, Miyuki Kazuya!" His voice wobbles slightly, and Kazuya’s eyes narrow, sharpening on the way Sawamura’s Adam’s apple is bobbing nervously and the way his flush highlights the last remnants of summer freckles on his cheeks.

"I’d need an incentive for that."

Then he watches, with fascination, as Sawamura’s eyes shutter, half-open and dark, his lips parting, a hundred thoughts flickering in his eyes before he says: "What kind of incentive?"

Kazuya gulps, then grins to cover his uncertainty about what Sawamura’s expression might mean. "Maybe you should beg me to help you," he says.

Sawamura’s eyelashes flutter, and then he’s up in Kazuya’s face. "Why should I? You should be honored that I’ve requested your aid!"

"Oh? So it’s not just that I’m conveniently already here?" Kazuya pushes him back. "Honored to be grocery shopping on the same day as you?"

Sawamura sheepishly shows Kazuya his phone, and Kazuya focuses on the screen to see his own contact information up. "I was going to call," he says. "But then you were here. Like magic!"

"Well," Kazuya says, "if it’s magic I suppose I can be bothered to help you out."

"Thank you!" Sawamura looks down at his phone again, scrolling, and then turns his phone back to Kazuya with an open text message on screen. "Wakana’s coming to visit and she told me if I didn’t have any produce in my home she was going to kill me!"

"Would she really?" Kazuya asks, intrigued. He’s always been very curious about Wakana, but he’d never really wanted to ask back in high school, and it had felt strange to ask more recently. It reminds Kazuya of when you wait too long to ask for the name of someone who sits next to you in several classes, too awkward to bring up past a certain point. Not that Kazuya follows unspoken rules like that, but Sawamura’s often close-mouthed when Kuramochi brings up Wakana, and even Kazuya can respect boundaries like that if it suits him.

"Yes," Sawamura says, fervently. "You’ll see. Wakana is a fearsome warrior and she seems very concerned I’m going to die of malnutrition.”

"A fearsome warrior," Kazuya echoes, with a laugh. "You’re something else, Sawamura." He takes a closer look at Wakana’s list. "And what do you mean, you’ll see? Planning to introduce me to her? You should. Pretend like it’s a blind date so Kuramochi can stew on it."

"You have the worst personality of anyone I’ve ever been friends with," says Sawamura. "And of course I’m going to introduce you to her. She’d never let me get away with not introducing you."

"Why’s that?" Kazuya picks up a bundle of green onions for himself, and then selects a second fresh bundle and drops it in the basket hanging from Sawamura’s arms. "Do you talk about me, Sawamura~?"

"You’re my catcher!" Sawamura blurts out, and several people in the store turn to look at him, like their disapproval will have some kind of shaming effect. Might as well try to stop a natural disaster, in Kazuya’s opinion. "How am I gonna not talk about you, Miyuki Kazuya?!"

"I’m not your catcher," Kazuya says, wagging his finger at Sawamura before dropping beansprouts into his basket. "I’m Meiji’s catcher, and you’re my pitcher, since I’m the one who has to manage you."

Sawamura scowls. "I don’t like that," he says, and then he wraps a hand around Kazuya’s wrist, pulling him toward the back of the store, where the baking supplies are. "Not one bit!"

"You don’t want to be my pitcher? Or you don’t like that I have to manage you? You could make it a bit easier by being a bit less high-maintenance, but I don’t expect miracles—"

"That’s not what I mean!" Sawamura stops in front of a long row of icings. "You don’t like caramel, right?"

"Right," Kazuya agrees easily, watching Sawamura pick up two packets of icing mix and look between them with too much consideration. "Don’t fry your brain, Sawamura, it’s just icing." He kicks at his foot. "What did you mean, then?"

Sawamura looks at him and blinks slowly, like a sleepy cat, and then his face scrunches up. "I don’t like that I’m your pitcher but you’re not my catcher," he says. "That’s not partners, either."

Sawamura’s honesty is always so overbearing, Kazuya thinks, wryly, and it’s frightening in its intensity. Kazuya’s never seen its like. He’s never met a single person who wields the truth like Sawamura does, not a weapon but an outstretched hand, asking for Kazuya to grab hold and trust him, like he does now on the field.

"You’re very hung up on that word," Kazuya says, after a silence that’s a few ticks too long. "Partners."

"It’s one of the first things you ever said to me," replies Sawamura. He’s gripping the icing packets too tightly to come across as casual. He’s coiled tight, like a spring, and he’s watching Kazuya carefully, like he’s worried he might bolt. Kazuya’s a little worried he might bolt, too. "And I think you know by now that to me, your opinion is pretty important."

"Even though I’m a huge jerk?" Kazuya asks, lightly.

Sawamura grins. "At least you’re self-aware."

"One of us has to be." Kazuya steps in closer, just enough that the toe of his sneaker taps Sawamura’s. He plucks the vanilla icing out of Sawamura’s hand and drops it into the basket. "This one tastes better," he says, taking in the gold eyes through the dark brown spread of Sawamura’s lashes.

"Yeah?" Sawamura asks, and he sounds breathless.

"Yeah," Kazuya says, and then he flicks Sawamura’s forehead. "Can we finish with the vegetables now? We wouldn’t want you to die of that malnutrition before I get to watch your Wakana murder you."

"So twisted," Sawamura says, but he doesn’t, in Kazuya’s honest opinion, look like he minds all that much.

On Tuesday, Kazuya gets a call right when he gets back to his apartment from morning practice, as he puts on hot water for tea to warm himself up, since Kuramochi had already snagged the shower.

"Hello?" Kazuya answers, not paying attention to who it might be, since it’s not the ringtone he uses for his father’s calls and not too many other people have his number.

He’s half-expecting Sawamura, but the person who says a calm, measured "Kazuya," on the other end of the line is Grandpa Shinoda. "Happy birthday."

"Oh," Kazuya says, and then he looks at the calendar. November 17th. "I forgot."

Grandpa Shinoda chuckles. "I did too." He pauses. "Your mother remembered. She told me to call."

Kazuya licks his lips, then steals a look in the direction of the bathroom. The shower is still running, and Kuramochi is singing off-key Ace of Bass songs at the top of his lungs. Kazuya sits down at the kitchen table. "That’s… She hasn’t remembered in a while."

"We’ve been watching the league games," his grandfather says. "You and your pitcher are playing really well. Makes me remember going to watch your mother play softball in high school. Her team was really good, too."

"She told me about it," Kazuya says. The electric kettle makes a warning noise. "She’s back home, then?"

"Yes," his grandfather says. "Do you want to talk to her?"

Yes, Kazuya thinks, but he runs a hand through his sweaty hair and sighs. "I don’t want to set her back."

"You won’t—"

"I might," Kazuya says. The shower turns off. "I have to go."

"All right," Grandpa Shinoda says. "Have a happy birthday."

"Thank you," Kazuya says.

"Best of luck with Waseda." His grandfather sounds like he’s smiling, calm and steady like when he’d taught Kazuya how to pick the seeds out cucumbers for planting.

"Mmm," Kazuya says, and ends the call as Kuramochi emerges from the shower. Kazuya pours himself a cup of hot water and drops in a lemon tea bag.

"Who was that?" Kuramochi asks. "Not your dad, right?"

"No," Kazuya says, taking a slow sip and lightly scalding his tongue. "It wasn’t anything important."

Kuramochi is toweling his hair dry. "You can have the bathroom if you want." He walks over to the electric kettle, and pours a cup for himself, making a face at the lemon tea and skipping straight to Hibiki green. "Oh, and don’t make plans for tonight because Sawamura cornered me and asked for me to go over and help taste test something he’s cooking for his not-girlfriend Wakana."

"What’s that got to do with me?" Kazuya swishes the tea around in his cup, then fishes the bag out with a crooked index finger. "Seems like you’re the one with the invite, Kuramochi-senpai."

"Man, you are so bitter about the fact that I always get a senpai and you don’t, haha," Kuramochi doesn’t even seem to notice his tea is hot. Then again, Kazuya thinks, he barely chews his food, so Kazuya shouldn’t be surprised. "Anyway, the invite was actually for both of us, but you saw how big a hurry Sawamura was in this morning, running around like a chicken with its head cut off."

"What if I already have plans?" Kazuya raises an eyebrow. "This first year is so determined to monopolize my time, I swear."

"C’mon, Miyuki, I know your profs have totally told you you can have extensions on your work, or backload it until after the season, so you can stop staring at those interviews for tonight. It’ll be worth it, because Sawamura is guaranteed to be super embarrassing in the kitchen."

"Are you sure you’re one to talk?" Kazuya replies. Sweat sticks uncomfortably to his skin, now that he’s warmed up. "But sure, whatever, we can go babysit Sawamura’s attempts at domesticity."

"Cool," Kuramochi says. "I’ll probably be gone when you get out of the shower. See you at practice."

Kazuya takes a long shower, using up the last of the hot water before he heads to class.

Sawamura’s only allowed twenty pitches by Numamoto at practice. "You’re looking tired. We’re using you too much," he explains, when Sawamura whines about it. "I know the season is short, but Uchida and Sanjo are capable pitchers and we don’t want to ruin your arm. We’ve just also been trying to play headgames with Waseda, by having a pitcher consistently capable of winning games."

"And by having it be a pitcher Mei knows…" Kazuya says, and then, when his words catch up to him, he starts over. "Narumiya, I mean. By having it be a pitcher Narumiya knows, but can no longer predict, it might unsettle him." Kazuya puts a hand on the back of Sawamura’s neck. "Especially since Sawamura here is a southpaw."

"I can pitch as much as you need me to!" Sawamura protests. "I’ll show that Narumiya—"

"Shhh," Kazuya says, pressing a palm over Sawamura’s mouth as Numamoto stifles a smile. "You’ve told us a million times. Relax. Ace pitchers need to rest their shoulders. Yours has got to be feeling pretty sore."

"It’s nothing unreasonable," Sawamura replies, when Kazuya drops his hand. "If it were important, I would tell you. I’m not the one who hides injuries!"

"Like you told me about your arm?" Kazuya prods, and Sawamura actually rolls his eyes as Numamoto conspicuously stares down at his clipboard.

"I’ve already told you, Miyuki Kazuya, I don’t think that’s important." He flexes his elbow in show. "I’m not defined by something I was born with!"

Kazuya’s thumb rubs up and down the bump at the top of Sawamura’s spine. "Calm down, Sawamura. Just take it easy for a little while. You’ll pitch all you want against Waseda."

Sawamura shivers, leaning almost unnoticeably into Kazuya’s touch. "We have to show Narumiya Mei that you don’t need him to win!"

Numamoto glances up from his clipboard at them, his eyes going back and forth. "Got some history there?"

"He’s always trying to steal my catcher," Sawamura grumbles, and both of Numamoto’s eyebrows rise as he looks to Kazuya.

"I wasn’t aware you knew him that well," Numamoto says. "But I guess you do call him by his first name."

"We met when we were little kids," Kazuya says. "Nobody called each other by their last names back then."

"Well, I think we’re done for today." Numamoto looks over to where Ichinose still has Sanjo pitching at full strength. "I’m going to go check on another first string battery." He returns his attention to Sawamura. "Good luck with your plans this evening!"

"Thank you!" Sawamura beams.

"Even the assistant coach knows you need luck not to burn down your whole apartment complex, Sawamura."

Sawamura pulls away from Kazuya then with a dissatisfied face, and stares mournfully at the ball in his hand. "I could have pitched more."

Kazuya’s lips twitch. "So greedy~" His own thighs are cramped, from his workout in the weight room followed up with catching for Uchida and then Sawamura. "Besides, aren’t you cooking for me today?"

Sawamura’s head jerks up in surprised pleasure. "Yeah! You’re actually gonna come?"

Kazuya hesitates. "I’m supposed to, right? Not just Kuramochi?"

"Yes!" Sawamura’s face goes pink. "Yes, you’re supposed to! I just—" He scratches at his head, leaving chalky lines in the dark brown curls. "I thought I was going to have to ask you, because Mochi-senpai was being so difficult!"

"What do you mean, difficult?" He pushes Sawamura lightly in the direction of their bags.

Sawamura huffs. "Complaining about having to ask you to do anything when it’s all my idea—" He stops, with an exaggerated grimace. "Never mind!"

"But now I’m all curious," Kazuya says, coming to a stop in front of his gear bag and starting to take things off. Sawamura immediately squats down to unfasten his shin-guards, despite Kazuya being capable of doing it by himself.

"I’m curious too," Sawamura replies, looking up at Kazuya. Kazuya stares, for a moment, because Sawamura on his knees in front of him like this, looking up at him so earnestly… It’s a lot, and heat coils in his belly in a reaction completely inappropriate for a baseball field. "Does Narumiya really call you by your first name because you met when you were kids?"

"Why else would he call me that?" Kazuya asks, and he can’t resist sliding turning Sawamura’s baseball cap sideways, so he can see his eyes better. "Are you jealous?"

"Yes!" Sawamura scowls up at him. "You’re not in a battery with him anymore, but he still says your name so familiarly!"

"So do you," Kazuya replies. "My whole name, all the time!" He grins. "So rude."

"That’s not the same!" Sawamura looks thoroughly riled up, and Kazuya’s warm despite how frigid cold it is outside.

He steps back from Sawamura, and bends forward so he can take the shin guards from Sawamura’s weak hold on them. "Don’t you need to get home? It’s almost six."

"Come over at seven," Sawamura replies. "Don’t be late! Or fall asleep! Or decide not to come!"

"All right, all right," Kazuya says, with a crooked grin. "Since you can’t seem to get enough of me, I’ll show up."

"You’d better!" Sawamura yells, as Kazuya snags his bag and heads toward the main gym, where he left his neoprene.

He checks the mail, and sure enough, there’s a birthday card from his father. He doesn’t open it yet, leaving it on his desk and rushing to steal the bathroom before Kuramochi gets his shit together.

He beats Kuramochi to the shower, and he pulls on one of his coziest sweatshirts, a thick green one with 'Meiji Gakuen' in bold Roman letters that he’d bought the first time he came out to visit the team, and pulls on one of his slouchy knit caps to hide his hair.

Kuramochi gives him a cursory once over when he comes into the kitchen. "Why are girls so attracted to you, again? You look like a hobo."

"I’m a teenage dreamboat," Kazuya replies, with a straight face, and Kuramochi makes a disgusted face at him.

"Are you even still a teenager?" Kuramochi’s eyes flick over to the calendar on the wall, and Kazuya narrows his eyes at him suspiciously.

"You’re definitely not." Kazuya adjusts his glasses. "So you’ve no excuse for your adolescent behavior, Kuramochi."

"Hah!" Kuramochi sneers at him. "I know you envy my youthful vigor." Kazuya pointedly examines his nails instead of replying, and Kuramochi makes an annoyed noise in the back of his mouth. "Let’s head over to Sawamura’s before the kid blows a gasket."

"I think he’s going to blow a gasket either way," Kazuya replies, turning out the kitchen light and pocketing his keys. "His blood pressure must be so high!"

"I’m sure you don’t help," Kuramochi says, pushing Kazuya out into the hall and locking the door. "With the constant taunting."

"It’s our thing," Kazuya says, heading for the stairs.

"Yeah," Kuramochi says, catching him around the shoulders. "It’s your thing."

Kazuya leads the way to Sawamura’s apartment when he realizes Kuramochi has never actually been there. Kuramochi complains bitterly as they stomp up all those flights of stairs to Sawamura’s top floor abode, and Kazuya just laughs, ignoring the twinge in his own thighs, still sore from practice.

"Oi, Sawamoron, open the door!" Kuramochi yells, knocking hard enough to wake the dead, and Kazuya shifts his weight from foot to foot. "It’s probably a mess in there."

"It’s not," Kazuya says, as Sawamura yells "Coming!", and Kuramochi rubs at his chin.

"That’s right," he says. "You’ve been here a bunch, haven’t you?" He wiggles his eyebrows. "Had a slumber party like a couple of teenage babysitters. Did he braid your hair?"

"I dare you to tease me like this in front of Takarada." Kazuya gives him his sharkiest grin. "She’ll eviscerate you for daring to stereotype like that."

He hears Sawamura scrambling for the door, and it cracks open seconds later, Sawamura swinging the door open to reveal a room cramped with too many people for Sawamura’s small space. Ichinose is sprawled on the floor with Chris next to him, and Kanemaru is playing mahjong with Maezono and Uchida and Shirasu. Tetsu, who must have come up from Nagoya with Chris, is leaning against the wall, arms crossed, talking to Sanjo, and Takarada and Kumai’s laughing voices come from the back of the room, where someone else’s TV and Xbox have been set up on the usually bare back wall of Sawamura’s living area, his shoujo comics and large bin of flashcards shoved into the space next to his bed. Even Toujou, who Kazuya hasn’t seen since his own graduation, has dropped by, and he’s draped over Sawamura’s bed, taking pictures of the group with an oversized camera. It flashes brightly in Kazuya’s eyes, and he blinks.

Kazuya’s eyes widen. "What—?"

Kazuya’s always been careful that his birthday wasn’t one of the ones people made a big deal over. People tended to forget he was one of the youngest in his year, and he liked keeping it that way.

"Happy birthday, asshole," Kuramochi says, slapping him on the back. "Even if you didn’t say anything!"

Kazuya looks around the room again, and then at Sawamura, who looks soft and pleased and moments from wagging his tail, and Kazuya doesn’t know, exactly, what to say, so he says: "I’m so glad you didn’t actually try to cook."

Grinning, Sawamura reaches out and pulls him in. "We’ve got pizza, jackass, so come inside and eat some!"

Kazuya lets himself be pulled.

He finds himself playing shogi with Tetsu, Sawamura folded into his side and giving him absolutely terrible advice the whole time until Kuramochi kidnaps him for Call of Duty, and then gets caught up with Takarada and Kumai in an impromptu shoot-out to get balled up napkins into the garbage bag taped to the edge of Sawamura’s desk. He talks baseball with Chris and Zono as Kanemaru digs through Sawamura’s flashcards incredulously, with Shirasu judging them all silently.

"You know, we’re going to flatten you guys this weekend, birthday or not," Zono tells him, eyeing his Meiji sweatshirt.

"Mmm, whatever you say~" Kazuya replies, grinning, and Kanemaru, with his busted arm, still has the Sawamura-wrangling reflexes to grab hold of Zono’s shirt before he tries to throttle Kazuya at his own birthday party.

"It’s something of a miracle you have friends, really," Uchida tells him. "What with how mean you are to them."

"I keep getting put on teams with masochists," Kazuya replies, and Uchida laughs.

"Must be," he says, picking up another piece of pizza. "We’re really not supposed to eat crap like this during the season."

Kazuya picks up his own slice, probably his fourth, and Takarada looks at him with mild disgust, so he winks at her and Uchida both. "It’ll probably go straight to my thighs," he says.

"Fuck off," Takarada hisses at him, and then she passive-aggressively grabs herself another slice, too.

Later, when Kazuya goes into Sawamura’s small kitchenette in search of water, Chris follows him, leaning against the wall as Kazuya pulls the pitcher out of the refrigerator and pours it into one of the disposable cups stacked on the counter. He picks one of them up, bemusedly. "Never seen these being used for water," he says.

"Sawamura insisted no one bring any alcohol, because you don’t drink," Chris says, holding his own cup of sweetened cold tea. "Kuramochi tried to reassure him that the best birthday gift to you would be allowing people to make fools out of themselves, but Sawamura would not be budged."

"That’s…" Kazuya starts, but then he takes a sip of water, instead.

"For someone you can’t communicate with, he reads you pretty well."

Kazuya shrugs, eyes flicking out to the living room as Kanemaru challenges Sawamura to an arm wrestling match, of all things. "It’s getting better."

"He called all of us, you know, weeks ago. Made a big deal about doing this on a weeknight and everything, so you wouldn’t suspect."

"What an idiot," Kazuya says, setting his cup down since his hand is kind of shaking. "I don’t even celebrate my birthday."

Chris gives him a long look. "Sawamura cares a lot about you."

"He’s always talking about the power of friendship or some shit," replies Kazuya. "He won’t take no for an answer."

"The power of friendship?" Chris swirls his tea in his red plastic cup. "He probably didn’t say it exactly like that." He smiles. "And, well, it worked on me, didn’t it?"

"I’m not exactly friendship material."

"You’ve never really let yourself be," Chris replies. "Which is fine. Not everyone is going to be Sawamura. I’m not." He pushes his hair out of his face. "But you weren’t happy, the way you were before. Content, maybe, but not happy."

"What about now?"

Chris’s smile grows slightly larger. "Almost," he says, and then turns to go back into main room, bumping into Sawamura on his way in. "I have to leave soon," he says to Sawamura, resting one of his huge hands on Sawamura’s shoulder. "Yuuki and I are staying at my father’s tonight, but I’ve got an early train tomorrow."

"But we have to sing the birthday song first, Chris-senpai!" Sawamura says, like it’s obvious.

"We absolutely do not," Kazuya replies.

Sawamura turns to him, outraged. "Miyuki Kazuya, you will obey birthday tradition!" He pushes past him, and grabs a large box pushed all the way to the corner of the counter, pulling it towards himself and pulling off the lid. Inside are a couple of dozen misshapen yellow cupcakes, with white icing sloppily applied.

"Did you… make those?" Kazuya asks, lips quirking, and Sawamura blushes.

"So what if I did, huh?!" He looks right into Kazuya’s eyes, and Kazuya’s reminded, all of a sudden, that Sawamura’s a little taller than him, just enough that standing this close he has to slightly tilt back his chin. "You’re such an asshole, you know that?"

"I pride myself on it, really."

Sawamura huffs, then dips his thumb into the thick icing on one of the cupcakes and smears it at the corner of Kazuya’s lips. "It’s vanilla. You picked it, bastard, so now you have to eat it!"

Kazuya flicks his tongue out to taste the icing, watching Sawamura’s gaze drop down to his mouth. "I’m not exactly a connoisseur of all things sweet," he says. Sawamura’s gaze flies back up to Kazuya’s, and for a moment, Kazuya sees something flicker in Sawamura’s eyes before it’s gone. "But since you made the effort, I’ll have one."

"So even you can be considerate!" Sawamura picks up the box of cupcakes. "Now we’re going to sing the birthday song, Miyuki Kazuya, so stop hiding in the kitchen!"

"Demanding," Kazuya says, with a sigh, but acquiesces anyway, and doesn’t react at all to the embarrassing spectacle of a bunch of people Kazuya’s met over the past eight years singing off-tune in honor of his birth.

Almost everyone stays after the cupcakes, despite the fact that it’s a Tuesday night and they all have to be at a morning practice tomorrow. Kazuya’s starting to feel trapped in the small room, and he ducks out into the hallway for a breath of air. He spots stairs at the end of the hall that look like the ones in his own building, and upon investigation, he finds that they do, in fact, go to the roof.

The air is brisk as he exits out onto the roof. There are no railings, like at Kazuya’s place, so he sits down on the concrete and presses his back to an air vent. He wraps his arms around himself, and looks up at the starless sky.

He pulls out his phone after a few minutes, to check the time. A little after ten, and if Kazuya were smart he’d go to sleep soon, since seven in the morning always comes so unreasonably early.

He’s startled when the door to the roof opens, and Sawamura, with an oversized sweater pulled over his tee, emerges, eyes searching until they land on Kazuya. "Kuramochi-senpai was right! You are hiding up here!"

"I’m not hiding," Kazuya says, as Sawamura walks over to him. "I was just getting overheated."

"My apartment really is too small, but it was the only place I thought we could trick you into visiting with no notice!"

"Trick me?" Kazuya smiles up at him, and Sawamura swallows, smiling back. "Am I teaching you bad habits?"

"You’re so full of shit!" Sawamura gingerly takes a seat next to him, hissing at the cold. "Aren’t you a snake, Miyuki Kazuya? How can you sit here in this weather?"

"Now I have you to steal body heat from," Kazuya replies easily, laughing as Sawamura’s thigh slides along his own.

"Evil to the end," Sawamura says, and even in the dark his grin is stunning. Kazuya inhales deeply, and smells vanilla frosting.

"So," he says, after a long stretch of silence, "you planned all this for me?"

"Well, I’m… I’m your partner!" Sawamura’s so red, so inexplicably flushed, and Kazuya’s stomach flops. "And Kuramochi helped!"

"Did he help you bake the cupcakes, too?" Kazuya teases.

Sawamura’s annoyed breath puffs gray-white in front of his mouth. "No, and he made fun of me for doing it, at that!" He shivers, and moves closer to Kazuya, pressing them together down the lengths of their whole bodies. Sawamura’s warmth bleeds into Kazuya just as effectively as his smile. "He told me I should have bought a cake, but it doesn’t have the same sentiment!"

Of course, Kazuya decides, Sawamura’s the type of guy that would learn how to make chocolate just to return the favor for the girl that confesses to him on Valentine’s Day. The type of guy who folds a thousand paper cranes for a classmate with the flu. Sawamura’s romantic, like something straight of a teen novel, and Kazuya’d never have thought he’d think it so charming.

"I wouldn’t know," he says. "It’s been a lot of years since someone made me birthday cake, though." He licks his lips, letting the wind chap them. "Thanks, Sawamura, even if I wouldn’t have minded if you just bought it."

Sawamura looks inordinately pleased at the praise, like always. "I was going to cook with you, like I promised before, but…" He nudges Kazuya gently. "Maybe next year, right?"

"Next year?" Kazuya looks at Sawamura, stares at him. Next year, he thinks, shouldn’t sound like a promise. Not when they’re on the same team, and will be for longer than that. "I’m never going to cook for you, Sawamura. Hang it up."

"With me," Sawamura replies, curling his hand around Kazuya’s wrist, easy and bizarrely possessive. "With me. Stop making it sound like you have to do everything by yourself."

Kazuya considers the firm pitcher’s grip Sawamura has around his heart, and he kind of wonders if next year, he’ll want Sawamura less. He doubts it, and that’s frightening, because Sawamura’s laugh sticks to the insides of his ribs and his smile lingers behind Kazuya’s eyelids, no matter how much he tells himself that Sawamura isn’t something it’s okay to want.

Emotions like this are stupid, and Kazuya’s even stupider for letting himself get this caught up in them.

"You’re going to be the death of me," he says, resigned, and Sawamura laughs, leaning into him completely, warm in contrast to the cold winter air. He can still see Sawamura’s breath in the air, and feel his calloused fingertips against Kazuya’s wrist.

"That’s pretty dark, Miyuki Kazuya!" Sawamura looks at him, and reaches with his free hand to pull on Kazuya’s knit cap, tugging it down so it covers his right ear, then his left. "Maybe I’ll be the life of you, instead!"

"Too optimistic," Kazuya replies, resting his head back against freezing cold concrete behind him. "Where’s my honorific?"

"My mom’s always said I have enough optimism for five people!" Sawamura’s voice bubbles with pleased amusement. "I’ve got you covered!!"

"Stop yelling, idiot," Kazuya says, closing his eyes so he doesn’t have to see Sawamura shining like a sun in the pitch dark. "It’s the middle of the night."

"Speaking in a strong, clear voice is the best way to express conviction!"

"And to wake up the neighbors," Kazuya teases. "Can’t you express your conviction in a less noisy way?" Sawamura growls, and his hand lets go of Kazuya’s wrist. Kazuya only has a moment to miss it before he realizes Sawamura’s fingers are sliding up his palm and threading between his own fingers, linking their hands together in a loose grasp. "What are you doing, Sawamura?"

"What you told me to do!" Sawamura’s cheek rests on Kazuya’s shoulder, and his hair tickles at Kazuya’s chin and mouth. Kazuya’s afraid that Sawamura can feel his heart, which is louder in his ears than the roar of the crowd on a game day. He keeps his eyes closed, but that just makes him all the more aware that Sawamura’s hair smells like fresh lemons and that his body is so warm Kazuya’s forgotten it’s the coldest Tokyo November in years. "Expressing my conviction."

"Oh," Kazuya says, and his voice cracks as Sawamura’s thumb grazes the outside knuckle of Kazuya’s.

Then the door to the roof opens again, and Kazuya opens his eyes even as he snatches his hand back from Sawamura, startling him into straightening up. It’s Takarada, and her eyes land on them after a few moments of getting adjusted to the dark. "Kuramochi told me to come get you, since Sawamura failed in his birthday boy retrieval task," she says.

"I didn’t fail!" Sawamura pulls his knees up to his chest. "I never said I was coming to get this asshole, I said I wanted to find him!"

Kazuya shakily takes a breath as Takarada chuckles. "I figured, but I think Kuramochi wants to crush Miyuki in CoD a couple times before common sense sends us all to bed."

"Well, I haven’t embarrassed Kuramochi at his own area of expertize in a while," Kazuya says, easily, standing up and immediately missing the feel of Sawamura’s weight pressing into him. "Oh wait, I scored two runs in last week’s game and Kuramochi struck out. Never mind."

Takarada tries her best not to laugh. "You coming too, Sawamura?"

"I have to root for Kuramochi-senpai!" Sawamura says. "Since this guy’s such an asshole."

"It’s my birthday," Kazuya replies, walking toward Takarada, and past her. "I’m allowed to be an asshole."

"What’s your excuse the other three-hundred and sixty-four days of the year, then?" Takarada asks, rhetorically, and Sawamura snickers as Kazuya gives her a smug smile, holding open the door for her.

"Well, it wouldn’t be fair to everyone else if I had an amazing personality to go along with my other spectacular attributes." He juts his hip out suggestively, and Takarada doesn’t even bother to respond, brushing past him, her hand wrapping around Sawamura’s forearm to drag him along.

"Whatever," she calls over her shoulder, and Kazuya snickers as Sawamura whispers, loudly, to her, asking if Kazuya had been talking about baseball.

"You’ll understand when you’re older," he tells Sawamura, wickedly, and lets Sawamura’s boisterous shouting about their insignificant age difference wash away the weird tension that had fallen over them on the roof, and lead him back into the apartment, where Kuramochi awaits an ass-kicking.

Walking home at the end of the night, Kazuya shoves his hands into the pockets of his jeans and looks over at Kuramochi in consternation. "You lied to me."

"You lie to me all the time," Kuramochi replies, unrepentant. "You had fun, though, so it was worth it."

Kazuya sighs, breath fogging his own glasses.

"What’s actually bothering you?"

"Nothing." Kazuya takes off his glasses and cleans them on the cuff of his sweatshirt.

"See?" Kuramochi bumps into him. "Lying."

"I don’t get why Sawamura, or you, went through all this trouble on a Tuesday night just for my birthday," Kazuya admits. "It’s not like I really celebrate it."

Kuramochi snorts. "You’re so shitty at understanding anything about people beyond what to say to piss them off most." He looks at Kazuya out of the corner of his eye, and then shrugs. "We’re not your shitty dad, or whoever else in your life made you feel like you have to… I dunno, be such a jackass that no one will bother getting close enough to you to disappoint you."

Kazuya’s breath catches, and he forces a snicker to cover it. "Hate to break it to you, Kuramochi, but you’ll always be a disappointment, especially when you’re up at bat—"

"I’ve put up with you for four years now, and I’m going to keep putting up with you," Kuramochi says, interrupting him. "And you know that Sawamura’s as stubborn as a mule." He laughs. "As stupid as a mule, too." He keeps his gaze resolutely ahead. "You might as well get used to it."

Kazuya’s not sure how to respond to that, the memory of Sawamura’s fingers laced with his own making him clench his fist. "If I have to," he says, too late to be as casual as he wants.

"Happy birthday, fucker," Kuramochi says, looking over his shoulder to grin knowingly at Kazuya.

Kazuya makes a lewd gesture when they pass under a street light, just to make sure Kuramochi won’t miss it. "You’ll never get a girl with language like that," he jokes.

"Fuck right off," Kuramochi replies, but he’s laughing.

"Your batting is looking slightly less abysmal, Eijun," is the first thing Kazuya hears Sawamura’s childhood friend Aotsuki Wakana say, when he arrives twenty minutes late to voluntary practice on Friday, after a scheduled meeting with his communications professor to reschedule his midterm.

"Wakana!" He looks at her, betrayed, not even noticing Kazuya’s approach. "I can’t be perfect at everything!"

"You could try being perfect at one thing, first, Sawamoron," he says, with just the right amount of teasing to be sure all of Sawamura’s ire transfers to him, keeping an eye on Aotsuki as she turns to look at him, too. "And what did I tell you about your hip?"

"Rome wasn’t built in a day!" Sawamura sets his bat down so that he can use both of his hands to emphasize his point.

"Says the brat that learned a breaking ball in one pitching session, while recovering from the yips." Kazuya lets himself into the batting cage, walking over toward Aotsuki, out of the range of the bat.

"What kind of backhanded compliment is that?!" Sawamura adjusts his hips, though, like Kazuya’s taught him, and takes another swing at an imaginary ball.

Aotsuki bows to him. "You must be Miyuki Kazuya," she says, studying him. "I’m Aotsuki Wakana. I’ve heard a lot about you."

"And I’m sure you heard all of it at maximum volume," Kazuya replies, studying her right back. She’s pretty, he thinks, with her shoulder-length brown hair and bright brown eyes. She’s dressed for the weather, and she’s got baseball calluses of her own on her small, thin-fingered hands.

"Eijun can only be Eijun," she says, not disguising the fondness in her tone. She sounds… well, Kazuya thinks she sounds a bit like Kuramochi’s mother, when she talks about how hopeless Kuramochi would be if he lived alone, or maybe like how Takarada talks about her brother sometimes. "Apparently you have the worst personality on the planet."

"The whole planet?" Kazuya taps his chin thoughtfully, glancing over at Sawamura who is pointedly not looking at them, his ears red. "Well, I’ve always aimed to be of superlative quality."

Aotsuki laughs. "Hmm," she says. "We’ll see." Then she turns back to Sawamura. "Lift that elbow, Eijun! You going to go pro someday batting like you did in middle school?"

"I’m working on it!" He doesn’t sound mad at all, though, and his grin stretches wide across his face.

Aotsuki gives him a small, smug smile, and Kazuya thinks he might like her. "You’re going to win this series too, right?"

"And the championship," Kazuya replies.

"I’m looking forward to seeing how much Eijun’s grown since Koushien." Aotsuki pushes her bangs out of her eyes. "He’s working with the catcher he’s been aiming for all this time, after all."

Kazuya swallows. "What a single-minded guy."

She looks at him speculatively. "I don’t think it bothers you much."

Kazuya flicks his gaze back to Sawamura, then, watching the way his foot pivots in the dirt as his knee turns in. "Maybe not," he agrees, then raises his voice. "Are you up for practicing your slider, Sawamura, or do you want to swing that bat at nothing for the rest of practice?"

Sawamura drops the bat like it’s on fire, and both Kazuya and Aotsuki laugh.

It’s strange to share Sawamura’s apartment with Aotsuki that night as they review stats like they do the night before every new series. He’s overly conscious of how close he sits to Sawamura; of every brush of their knees or the way Sawamura almost hugs him from behind when he comes back from the kitchen with water for all three of them. Aotsuki knows her stats better than Sawamura, and has a grasp of strategy that makes Sawamura pout every time Kazuya pointedly praises her, and Kazuya finds it harder to grapple with how much he wants to suck Sawamura’s lip into his mouth when Aotsuki is right there, and he knows she might see it in his face or in every careless gesture he makes.

When he leaves, Sawamura stops him at the door. "You’re not sick, are you?"

"Hmm?"

"You seemed weird tonight." Sawamura puts his hand to Kazuya’s forehead, and Kazuya allows the touch. "Not warm."

"It is almost winter," replies Kazuya. "And you haven’t turned on your heater yet."

"I’m still from Nagano, you know. This isn’t even cold!"

"Wear a warm enough jacket tomorrow, anyway."

"If not, can I borrow yours?" Sawamura rests his head against the doorframe, and his hand falls from Kazuya’s face, brushing his cheek before Sawamura shoves it into the pocket of his sweatpants.

"No way," Kazuya replies, licking his lips. "You never give it back, even though you’ve got your own. I don’t even know why you kept borrowing it—"

"Because it smells like you," Sawamura blurts, and Kazuya stops, gapes. "I mean, I was kind of nervous in the beginning, but I can’t be nervous when you’re around because you’re kind of merciless, so I just… sort of… wanted to keep you around? To remind myself not to be nervous!!!"

Kazuya can’t help the laugh that bubbles up, tinged with a bit of hysteria. "Are you saying I’m comforting, Sawamura?" He carefully enunciates every syllable of the name, letting them drop tauntingly from his tongue.

Sawamura hisses like a feral cat. "No!" He screws up his whole face. "You’re just!! You’d have made fun of me if I acted nervous about being the ace! So it helped me not to be, because I just imagined your awful laugh!"

"Sure," Kazuya replies, and, in a moment of daring, he stretches out to press his hand over Sawamura’s heart. It’s beating quickly under his hand, and he bets it’s from embarrassment, because Sawamura’s face is the same vibrant red of a baseball seam. "In that case, maybe I’ll let you borrow it after all. Wouldn’t want you to be nervous tomorrow, would I?"

"You’re the worst!" Sawamura shouts, stepping back into his apartment and slamming the door as Aotsuki laughs in the background.

Kazuya takes a long, shuddering breath, resting his forehead against the hall wall. "Okay," he says to himself, adjusting the weight of his bag on his shoulder. Then he pushes back, stares at Sawamura’s closed door, and turns away, walking down the stairs and out of Sawamura’s building.

By the time he gets home, he’s mostly compartmentalized it; tucked it away with a lot of other recent moments he can’t dwell on, because he can’t afford to nurture the tiny voice in the back of his head that tells him that what he feels for Sawamura might be worse than a simple infatuation, and he can’t afford to acknowledge how scary that is.

We’re getting close to the end of the Big6 tournament, Kazuya writes in his latest e-mail to Furuya. If you’re not careful, Sawamura’s going to leave you in the dust.

"I think you might be the devil," Kuramochi says, reading over his shoulder.

"Only might be?" Kazuya tips his head back to see Kuramochi’s amused smile. "Shouldn’t you already be asleep, Kuramochi? Or were you waiting up for me~?"

"Ugh," Kuramochi says. "Don’t talk to me in that voice."

"What voice?" Kazuya bats his lashes, enjoying Kuramochi’s disgusted shudder. "Ku-ra-mo-chi~"

Kuramochi climbs the ladder into his bed. "That ’flirting-with-Takarada-to-see-if-this-is-the-time-she-punches-me’ voice." He slumps back against the wall, his legs dangling over the edge of the bunk. "It’s disgusting."

Kazuya smirks. "Takarada thinks it’s funny. She wouldn’t punch me."

"It’s a relief that there’s at least one girl in this world not taken in by that face of yours."

Kazuya finishes up his e-mail, sending it and then shutting down his laptop. "I don’t think Kumai is interested either, if that’s any consolation."

"It isn’t," Kuramochi replies, dryly. "The worst part is, you’re not even interested in dating!"

Kazuya shuts his laptop, pushing back his chair and walking over to the bunk, sitting down on his bed so Kuramochi can’t see him. "I’d only disappoint them," he says, his tone joking. He takes off his glasses, folding them up and then shoving his hand through the gap in the metal bars to set them on his nightstand.

"What’s that?" Kuramochi asks.

"The people who confess to me," Kazuya says, clarifying. "I’d only disappoint them. They think there must be more to me than this, or that I have a heart of gold or something." There’s nothing wrong with your glove, he hears, in Sawamura’s voice, as he pulls on his eyemask, stretching the elastic to put it under his hair so it’ll hang around his neck until he’s ready to sleep. "But this is all there is. I don’t have hidden depths." He sighs, stretching a cramp out of his calf. "Accepting confessions and dating when I know that, and when my time would be better spent on baseball… It’s not practical. It’s like calling for an intimidation pitch when Todoroki Raichi is at bat."

Kuramochi’s silent for a long while. Then he clears his throat. "Well, yeah, you are pretty shitty." He laughs. "Personal relationships aren’t exactly like baseball calls, though. Emotions aren’t always practical. Haven’t you ever liked someone?" He says it like the idea of Kazuya liking someone is ludicrous.

Staring up at the blurry top of his bunk, eyes unfocused, Kazuya swallows. "It’s inconvenient, to let that kind of thing distract you from your priorities."

"By priorities, you mean baseball." Kuramochi laughs, then. "You know, for all that you call Sawamura a baseball idiot, you’re just the same."

"Ha!" Kazuya closes his eyes. Runs a hand through his hair. "I never said that wasn’t one of his good qualities."

"You think he’s ready to take on Narumiya?" Kuramochi shifts in bed, his legs disappearing as he stretches out above Kazuya. "I can’t believe we’re playing Waseda last. What a stress test."

"Meiji’s a strong team this year." Kazuya lies down, resting his hands on his stomach. "I’m starting at catcher. Sawamura’s performing well, and Sanjo and Uchida are stronger as closers with a good lead on the scoreboard than they ever were with the pressure of starting. Our batters are pretty reliable, too." He allows a little mocking to curl his mouth. "Most of them, anyway. When you stop hitting like you’re protecting a .23 average, I might add you to that list."

"You’re supposed to encourage your teammates," Kuramochi says. "Ass."

"I’m encouraging you not to suck. Just doing my part."

"Yeah, yeah." Kuramochi’s laughing, though, and Kazuya prefers this topic to the previous one, which skirted too close to danger. "Listen up, all star catcher and clutch hitter Miyuki Kazuya, I’m at a .462 this tournament, so stop holding this summer against me."

"Better than Sawamura’s bunt-inflated stats," Kazuya agrees.

"His form’s looking better lately. You say something to him?"

"I might have," Kazuya says. "Just practiced with him once."

Kuramochi makes a thoughtful noise. "Sometimes he learns things so quickly it’s scary, but the rest of the time it can feel like talking to a brick wall."

"He just learns differently," Kazuya replies, his thoughts wandering to the strength of Sawamura’s hips under his palms, or the way his back had felt against Kazuya’s chest. "And different isn’t bad." It’s not until Kuramochi doesn’t reply that Kazuya reviews his own words, and realizes they might be too honest. But it’s a little late to take them back, because Kuramochi is laughing, loudly, and Kazuya covers his face with his hands.

"Oh my God," Kuramochi wheezes, sounding slightly deranged. "You’re so soft about that kid nowadays, it’s amazing!"

"Isn’t everyone?" Kazuya pulls up his eyemask, plunging the room into darkness. "Goodnight."

"Hey, I’m on the top bunk, so get the light, first, fucker!" Kuramochi says, and Kazuya, still uncomfortably aware that his heart is racing, snorts.

"Nope," he replies, curling onto his side. "Guess you’ll have to get up if you want that to happen!"

"I hate you," Kuramochi says, and Kazuya makes sure Kuramochi sees nothing but his back as he stumbles down the metal ladder to go walk over to get the light.

A few minutes later, with Kazuya still lying awake, turning batter stats and strategies over in his head in the dark, Kuramochi speaks again. "Tomorrow," he says, "I’m honestly really excited."

"It’s fun," Kazuya replies, "isn’t it? To be the challenger. To take someone else’s crown."

"Even your baseball is twisted. Why did I choose the same school as you?"

"I’m not sure. Maybe you’re a little twisted, too."

"Probably," Kuramochi says, and then he doesn’t say anything else, and Kazuya finally drifts off to sleep.

The energy on the bus is frenetic.

Sawamura’s loud, as usual, but with everyone on edge, it’s annoying instead of funny, so Kazuya hooks an arm around his neck to reel him in, holding him close. He can feel the tenseness in Sawamura’s muscles, and he sighs.

"Did you sleep last night?"

"Why wouldn’t I?!" Sawamura wiggles, making a half-hearted effort to break free of Kazuya’s hold. "The ace has to be in top shape!"

"I just thought you might be nervous," Kazuya purrs, and when Sawamura freezes in his hold, Kazuya bites his lower lip, regretting that tone and switching back to a more regular one: "You’re not, are you?"

"No," Sawamura’s voice wobbles, and he tilts his chin back to meet Kazuya’s gaze. "I mean, I’m mostly not."

"Just remember the batter stats, and we’ll be fine." He lets go of Sawamura, who shifts back into his own seat, vibrating a little less. "You can pray Maeda puts a pinch hitter in for you, too."

"I’ll bunt my way out if I have to!" Sawamura yells, and Kazuya rolls his eyes. "Wakana told me to focus on my strengths during games and my weaknesses during practices!"

"She should have come to Seidou just to keep you in line. That might have made all our lives a little easier."

"What’s that supposed to mean?!"

"You’re a lot of work," Kazuya facilely replies. "Maybe we should assign Takarada as your full time manager?"

"I’m not a lot of work!" Sawamura wriggles in his seat for comfort, knocking their knees together. "Also stop talking about me like a little kid!"

"Stop acting like one, then~" Kazuya pats his thigh. "Let’s have fun today, Sawamura."

"I want to show Wakana how much I’ve grown." He straightens. "And Furuya, too! And that freakin’ Narumiya Mei!"

"A whole laundry list," Kazuya murmurs. "Better save all your energy then."

"I’ve always got more energy," Sawamura complains, slouching down in his seat and finally subsiding, a glower on his face.

Kazuya laughs, even as he looks Sawamura over again, taking in the tapping toe of his cleat and the still twitching muscles in his thigh. "That’s true."

Sawamura’s still a little too keyed up as they stretch out for the game, dashing back and forth during pepper drills and then throwing balls with too much swerve to the net during warm ups. "C’mon, Sawamura, you going to let Waseda walk to a Big6 championship?" Ichinose asks, lightly slapping the back of his head, and Sawamura howls at him about how he’s not going to walk a single one with all his average fervor.

"Sawamura’s a mess today," Kuramochi says bluntly, as Kazuya starts to suit up for the game.

Kazuya snorts. "He’ll be fine. He’s always fine once he gets on the mound."

"Yeah, the upside of how ornery he is!" Kuramochi seems to take it at that, but Kazuya eyes Sawamura as he rolls a stress ball in his hand, keeping warm as Meiji’s defense takes the field.

Kazuya knows something’s wrong with Sawamura’s pitch when he’s lunging to catch the first one. The ref calls "ball!" as Kazuya palms the ball, watching Sawamura’s oddly stiff form. He tosses it back, and Sawamura catches it easily, lips pressed into a thin line. Kazuya asks for a slider, and Sawamura nods.

The windup looks good, but then it comes in too sharp, and Kazuya’s lunging again. "Sorry!" Sawamura yells, bowing to Kazuya and then the people behind him. "I’m not all the way warmed up yet!"

"Get it together, Sawamura!" Kuramochi yells back, and Sawamura pulls down on his cap and tosses the rosin bag a couple of times before asking for the ball back. Kazuya throws it, knowing it’s too soon for a time out.

The next pitch is a foul-tip, and after that a fly, and only Kuramochi’s speed keeps the batter at first.

Kazuya steals a look at Numamoto and Maeda, who are watching Sawamura carefully, and then he turns back to Sawamura with a sigh.

The top of the first drags, Sawamura’s pitching veering erratic, and then Narumiya is up to bat, sauntering into the batter’s box.

"What’s up with your pitcher, Kazuya?" he teases, digging his foot into the dirt as Kazuya adjusts for a left-handed batter. "He’s been getting all this hype in the press but he doesn’t look like anything special to me."

Kazuya looks up at him and grins. "Well, you’ve always had trouble looking beyond yourself." He watches Mei’s eyes narrow and grins harder. "Geez, pitchers are such divas."

Mei scoffs. "Try not to choke on regret too badly when I beat you for the second year in a row, then." He’s amused though, in that bratty way of his. Kazuya’s still kind of fond.

"Baseball is a team sport.” He tosses the ball toward Sawamura. "I like my team."

"You’ve never wished you could catch for me?"

Kazuya signals for the brushback, and Sawamura, wound so tight Kazuya’s almost worried he’ll hurt himself, nods, eyes dark. "I don’t hate the thought of catching for you," he says, quietly. "You’re just not the sort of partner I’m looking for on the field." And then Sawamura winds up, leg lifting high, and the brushback goes right to Kazuya’s mitt, soaring over the plate dangerously close to Mei’s elbow when Mei takes a swing at it. He holds the ball in his mitt and nods to Sawamura, before looking back up at Mei. "Too boring, really."

Mei makes this high, squawking noise of protest, and Kazuya gives the ball back to Sawamura.

They manage the out, Mei skulking off, and Waseda finally retires with no runs despite full bases.

Sawamura immediately goes to stand at the front of the dugout, slumping forward as he looks out at the field, and Kazuya leisurely follows him into the dugout behind a cluster of infielders. Maeda gives him a look, and Kazuya nods his understanding. He starts toward Sawamura, but then he hesitates, gaze sliding over to where his gear bag is tucked under the bench at the far side, next to Takarada.

After a few moments’ indecision, he squats down in front of his bag and unzips it, snagging the team windbreaker he’d folded and stuffed in at the last moment this morning before bringing his bag out to catch the bus. Then he walks over to Sawamura, stopping beside him and hesitating again before giving in. "Here," Kazuya says, unfolding his windbreaker and putting it over Sawamura’s shoulders.

Sawamura’s eyelashes flutter in surprise. "You…"

"You’re too tense," Kazuya replies, looking out on the field as well, watching one of the fourth-years flex his knees, raising his bat into waiting position. "You know already that’s why your pitches are going a bit wild."

Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Sawamura press his nose to the collar, and Kazuya exhales carefully, pushing down the pooling heat in his belly. "Yeah," Sawamura says. "It’s not like this atmosphere isn’t awesome, but seeing Narumiya Mei always makes me…"

"Jealous?" Kazuya leans out of the dugout, letting his arm brush Sawamura’s through his windbreaker. "Narumiya Mei is an exceptional pitcher."

"I’m a good pitcher too! Just because I had a rough first inning, doesn’t mean that guy’s better than me!" Sawamura’s vibrating with ire.

"In all honesty, he is a more skilled pitcher than you." Kazuya finally looks directly at Sawamura, who is holding on to the edges of his jacket, lips curled in a determined frown, eyes bright. "He’s got a faster, harder throw, more pitch range, and his control is excellent. He’s all talent." Sawamura opens his mouth to protest, but Kazuya presses his index finger to Sawamura’s lips. "That being said, I didn’t choose to catch for Narumiya Mei."

Sawamura’s breath is a warm puff against the digit, and then he pushes Kazuya’s hand aside, jaw jutting out. "You didn’t know I’d be your pitcher when you chose Meiji, either."

"That’s fair enough." He scratches at the back of his neck. "If I had to choose again now, though…" He trails off, and tries to keep a straight face as Sawamura leans in closer to him.

"Then what?!" Grabbing a handful of Kazuya’s shirt, Sawamura shakes him lightly, with none of the force he used to have back in high school. "What’s that expression on your face, Miyuki Kazuya?!"

"I was just thinking I’d choose you," Kazuya replies, smirking even as his stomach swoops. In the background, he hears the ref call "Out!", and Kuramochi swear vividly, but he can’t look away from Sawamura, who is wearing Kazuya’s windbreaker and looking at him with open-mouthed astonishment. "If I had to choose a pitcher to catch for right now, I’d choose you."

"That’s—" His tongue peeks out to wet his lips. "Well, of course you would! My control’s a lot better than in high school, and I’ve been expanding my repertoire, and I—"

"You work hard," Kazuya says, firmly. "You don’t shake my signs unless you think I’m underestimating you. You don’t get shaken very often, and you do your best when the situation is the worst. You can change the mood in a heartbeat with your obnoxious yelling." That’s all a little too honest, maybe, so Kazuya plants a hand on his hip, exaggerates his smirk, and adds: "Besides, laughing at an absolute moron always raises morale."

"You’re a real asshole," Sawamura says, but he’s grinning wildly, the tension from earlier gone. "I’m not letting anyone get a run off me today, bastard! Then you have to admit I’m great!"

"Oh?" Kazuya turns Sawamura’s baseball cap sideways, like he wears his own. "You’re going to get them out by yourself, Sawamura? Like a lone ranger?"

"No!" He wrinkles his nose. "Of course it’s us, and the fielders!"

Kazuya runs a hand down the front of the windbreaker, smoothing an imaginary wrinkle. "Then do you really need this"— he plucks at the fabric—"to remind you that I’m with you for this game?"

"All I need is your mitt," Sawamura says, all fury, all brightness, and Kazuya feels like he’s had all the air punched right out of him.

"Good," he says, and then returns his attention to the game, aware that Sawamura is sliding his arms into the sleeves of the windbreaker, and not moving away until Waseda clocks Meiji’s ticket and goes back onto offense.

The first Waseda batter of the second inning comes out cocky, because he thinks he’s ready for Sawamura. Kazuya eases into a crouch, asking for Sawamura’s favorite fastball right off the bat with a sign against his inner thigh, and loves the way Sawamura’s eyes gleam ruthlessly. "A full-grown predator," he murmurs to himself, as the batter gets into position at the plate, whistling jauntily.

Kazuya delights in the abrupt end to the playful noise as the batter takes an instinctual swing at Sawamura’s naturally moving fastball, hitting nothing but air as it sings its way into Kazuya’s mitt.

Sawamura’s radiant.

When Waseda retires after three batters, with Sawamura only pitching eleven times, all traces of cockiness are gone from the other side of the dugout, and Kazuya can feel Mei’s eyes on him as he casually crosses over to the mound and slings an arm over Sawamura’s shoulders. "Well, now, ace, that’s more like it~"

Sawamura’s flushed, pleased face makes Kazuya swallow. "Let’s crush them," Sawamura says.

"That’s been my plan all along," Kazuya replies. "Nice of you to get on my page."

Sawamura laughs, and Meiji’s up to bat again, Kuramochi at home plate, knees bent and eyes narrow, Mei on the mound.

And Narumiya’s good, he’s always good, but Sawamura at his best is a momentum stealer, and the entire feel of Meiji’s dugout’s changed with Sawamura’s stunning second-inning pitching. Mei can feel the change, too, and his frustration leads to predictable balls, as fast as usual but right in Kazuya’s sweet spot, so Kazuya hits it right out of the park to bring himself and Kuramochi home for two runs.

And two runs is enough to secure a first game win in a pitcher’s battle, because Sawamura and Mei both allow no hits for the rest of nine innings. The crowd is on the edge of their seats screaming, cheering for Sawamura and Mei in equal measure, and when it’s over, Waseda losing its first game all season, Meiji’s first string rushes the mound, clapping Sawamura on the back and congratulating him as Kazuya watches from just outside the huddle.

They shake hands and bow to Waseda, Kazuya saving a wink for Zono who looks particularly unimpressed by the action.

Sawamura’s got Kazuya’s windbreaker on again, zipped up to his chin, MIYUKI written across his back as the press take photos of the team, and Kazuya almost wants to remind him to take it off, but he’s always liked the way it looks stretched across Sawamura’s broad shoulders and it’s too late to make a big deal about it anyway.

When Kazuya helps him ice, Sawamura just slips his left arm out of the sleeve and lets the fabric of Kazuya’s windbreaker pool in his lap, refusing to relinquish it.

Aotsuki is waiting for them with Uehara of all people when they walk out of the stadium, and she hugs Sawamura close despite his sweaty face and whispers something in his ear that has him squirming with embarrassment.

"It was a good game," Uehara tells Kazuya. "Sawamura’s really fun to watch!"

"He always has been, even when he didn’t have the talent to back it up," Kazuya replies, smirking, but it softens as he watches Sawamura genuinely talking about Mei’s pitching when Aotsuki chastises him for his two at-bats. He looks back at Uehara when she laughs, and he notices she’s watching Sawamura, too. "Have you set your romantic sights on someone new?"

"Sawamura?" Uehara looks genuinely surprised. "No, he’s not…" She pauses, and blows her bangs out of her face, scanning Kazuya for something. Then she hums. "No, I’m happy with school and work for now, I think."

Kazuya bets there’s more to that response, but he’s not sure how to ask about it, so he doesn’t, letting the conversation die, both of them waiting for Sawamura and Aotsuki.

When Ichinose and Numamoto start rounding them up for the bus, Aotsuki shoos them off, promising Sawamura she can find her way back to his apartment on her own, Uehara vowing to get her back to campus.

"So how does it feel?" Kazuya asks Sawamura, after they’ve chosen their usual seats on the bus. "Standing toe-to-toe with Narumiya Mei?"

"Like I never want to do anything else!" Sawamura replies, and Kazuya laughs.

"Of course," Kazuya says, and then he lets Sawamura buzz around, his chatter and shouting not nearly so annoying to everyone on the bus when it’s on the way home with a victory.

Maeda congratulates the entire team on spectacular defensive play, and digs into their offensive fails with a lighter hand than usual, the mood in the main gym high as they break until tomorrow morning. "The second game is an early one," Numamoto tells them, "so don’t stay up too late celebrating."

Team members filter out one by one, and Kazuya’s about to go to the locker room to put away his gear when Maeda beckons him over for a chat.

"Excellent work with Sawamura today," he says. "You handled him perfectly."

"He’s pretty resilient on his own," Kazuya says, and Maeda nods in agreement.

"You mentioned it was his strong point at the beginning of the season, and I believe you." He sighs. "But we’re over-pitching him. I know he likes pitching whole games but Waseda’s a strong team, and he pitched over a hundred today, and now that they’ve seen most of his pitches, they’re going to drag more of them out of him tomorrow. We need to start with Sanjo and Ichinose, I think."

"Is that a good idea, when Waseda’s going to play Narumiya Mei straight through?" Kazuya’s worried about over-pitching Sawamura, too, if he’s honest. Sawamura loves to pitch, and probably wouldn’t even notice the strain.

"If this goes into a third game, we can’t have Sawamura coming off two full niners. He’ll get injured."

"I’m watching," Kazuya says. "I’m… I won’t let it slip by, if I see something wrong."

"Good." Maeda seems like he’s finished, but then he looks at Kazuya again, straight into his eyes. "Excellent play-calling today, Miyuki. And excellent teamwork."

Kazuya bows, and then crosses the nearly empty room to pick up his gear bag to take to the locker room. It’s empty, most of the team having cleared out while he spoke to Maeda, and he takes out his water bottle and his extra shirt and puts them into the backpack he’d left that morning.

Sawamura comes in as he’s shutting his locker, putting his gear away until tomorrow’s game. He’s sweaty and tired looking, his hair a mess, and he’s not smiling, exactly, something intense and serious in his expression. "I was looking for you," he says.

"Did you come to return my jacket?" Kazuya asks lightly, turning to regard him, and he’s surprised to see Sawamura looking at him uncertainly. "What?"

"Thanks for the loan," Sawamura says, and Kazuya’s eyes drop to the windbreaker before returning to Sawamura’s face. Suddenly, the atmosphere is heavy, and it’s harder to breathe as Sawamura seems to struggle for words.

"Anything for a spoiled pitcher," Kazuya says, forcing levity, but Sawamura doesn’t shout, doesn’t protest the statement, and Kazuya’s left searching for something else to say to break this strange tension between them that he can’t identify.

Then, without any warning, Sawamura takes two large steps forward into Kazuya’s personal space, pulling Kazuya into a hug, face hiding in Kazuya’s neck. Kazuya curls his hands into the material of his own windbreaker, fingers crumpling up his own name, letting Sawamura hug him, hugging Sawamura back. "It helped." His lips graze Kazuya’s throat, and adrenaline and victory coil low in Kazuya’s belly along with all the want.

"You did good, kid," Kazuya says, his words muffled by Sawamura’s hair. Sawamura shivers in his arms. "You pitched just the way I like."

"You’re complimenting me," Sawamura says, and those lips, chapped, catch at the collar of Kazuya’s compression shirt. "Without even saying anything bad afterwards."

"You want me to?" Kazuya takes a deep breath. Sawamura smells like grass and rawhide. "I could probably talk about those two balls in the first—"

"Just shut up, bastard," Sawamura says, and then he squeezes Kazuya one more time. When he lets go, he looks right up into Kazuya’s eyes, embarrassment written all over his face. "We’re going to win this series, Miyuki Kazuya!"

"Naturally," Kazuya says, and then Sawamura is gone as quickly, leaving him standing alone in the locker room, pulse racing and unable to forget the press of Sawamura against him.

"What’s taking you so long in here?" Kuramochi asks, a few minutes later, when he comes looking for Kazuya and finds him sitting on the bench, holding one strap of his backpack in his hand and staring into space. "Let’s get home, dude."

"Right," Kazuya says, and he shoulders his bag, hoping Kuramochi will blame the redness of his face on exertion and not the lingering warmth of an unexpected hug. Kazuya has a reputation, after all.

When he gets home, he calls first shower, escaping into the bathroom and locking the door. He takes out his contacts with shaking hands, and then he gets into the shower and turns on the water, letting it pound into his back as he rests his forehead against the shower wall. He thinks about Sawamura’s sweaty skin, slick against his own, and Sawamura’s flushed face, and the way Sawamura had said his name, his lips pressed to Kazuya’s throat.

He blinks unfocused eyes, looking down at himself and realizing he’s half-hard, and with resignation he slides his hand down the flat plane of his stomach, curling his hand around his dick, thinking of lion eyes and a perfect pitch to the inside that lands right at the center of his mitt.

"That was a long shower," Kuramochi complains, and Kazuya smirks at him, pushing aside guilt and embarrassment as he gestures flippantly toward the bathroom.

"All yours now," he says, and once Kuramochi is gone he lies down in his bed and tries to smother himself with his pillow. You’re so fucking stupid, he thinks to himself, but it doesn’t do anything to banish the image of Sawamura, with his eager eyes, emotional fortitude, and arms around Kazuya’s middle.

They’re on a natural high going into the second game, and it carries them through the first inning easy, Ichinose and Uchida starting for their defense. But Waseda, after yesterday’s shocking loss, are hungry, and they keep Meiji scoreless into the second, and in the bottom of the second, three batters manage to hit off Uchida before he can retire Waseda’s offense, leading to a two run lead for Waseda at the top of the third.

Sawamura’s all restlessness beside him, itching to get on the mound. He’s wearing Kazuya’s jacket again, this time zipped up, his hands hidden in the sleeves.

"Selfish~" Kazuya murmurs, right in his ear, and Sawamura growls at him.

"I’m just! Ready to go at any time, that’s all!"

"Sure, sure," Kazuya says. "Want to warm up?"

"Yes!" Sawamura’s up on his feet before Kazuya’s really finished the question, and Sanjo laughs at them both as Sawamura drags him out to the warm-up area.

Maeda signals for them both to come back into the dugout when Mei and his catcher retire Meiji’s latter half of the rotation with some of Mei’s harder balls. "We’ll send Sawamura and Miyuki in early," he says, when they’re in range. "Good job, Uchida, but they’ve figured out your pitch, and now it’s time to reveal more of what Sawamura’s been hiding."

"Miyuki, we trust your calls, but focus on giving them as many variations on that fastball as you can for the first few innings." Numamoto smiles at him and Sawamura both. "Save the slider for a while so they can’t get too many peeks at it again until the latter half of the game."

"That was mostly my plan, anyway. I also want to save that crossfired slider, since it’s scary enough even Narumiya Mei will flinch." Kazuya nudges Sawamura. "You ready?"

"It’s the ace’s job to take back the lead!" Sawamura grins at him. His lips are chapped.

"Okay, ace," Kazuya says, grinning back. "I guess you’d better prove you’re not all talk."

"Miyuki Kazuya!!" Sawamura yells, full of fire as they take the field.

And Sawamura delivers. Kazuya doesn’t know if his high school first-year self would ever believe that the Sawamura Eijun pitching to him now was the same boy he’d coaxed into striking out Azuma, over five years ago. Would have realized that all that potential would turn into this, an almost monstrous presence on the mound that has even the skilled Waseda batters taking intimidation swings.

They crush Waseda’s momentum in the third, and the strong part of the rotation comes back up to bat in the fourth, and on the backs of two great hits by Shirasu and Kuramochi, and a long fly by Kazuya with both of them on base, they even up the score, bringing it to two-all.

Sawamura sends consistent pitch after consistent pitch to Kazuya’s mitt, and they strike out every member once before Kazuya starts mixing in Sawamura’s scarier balls— the brushbacks, the crossfired fastball he’d accidentally learned in high school. He sends a change-up at a hulking batter in the four-hole that has him swinging at a ball below his knees that falls right into Kazuya’s mitt, and his slider has Mei swearing under his breath, refusing to swing even on perfect pitches across the plate.

Waseda doesn’t score, and Kazuya can almost taste victory.

At first, he doesn’t notice the slight slowing of Sawamura’s fastball, because it’s still singing so clean. But the third time he signals for it during the seventh inning, the batter tips it, sending the pop fly straight to Kuramochi for the out, and Kazuya knows that something’s off with the pitch.

He lifts his mask as Maezono enters the batter box, mouthing ’you okay?’, and Sawamura rolls his shoulder, picking up the rosin bag and tossing it as he nods to Kazuya.

"Is this really our idiot?" Maezono asks, adjusting his grip on the bat, and Kazuya laughs.

"I was just thinking the same thing," he replies, lilting, and he’s never had a perfect relationship with Zono, because they’re too different to get along easily, but in this, at least, they can share the joke.

"You’ve done well with him."

"Ah, well, I can’t take too much credit. He’s always seeming to grow when I’m not looking."

"So do pumpkins," Maezono grumbles. "Doesn’t mean nobody planted them and took care of them."

"Two things I like about that, Zono," Kazuya says, easing into a different position so that Maezono won’t use familiarity to read his play. "One, that you’re saying nice things to me about my lead for Sawamoron when you think I’m a shit leader." He pulls his mask back down. "And two, that you just called Sawamoron a pumpkin."

"How," Maezono asks, testing his swing a bit, "did I not kill you in high school?"

"My charm and good looks," Kazuya replies, and Sawamura drops the rosin bag, and holds out his hand to Kazuya for a ball.

The first pitch is a ball, but with Sawamura’s deceptive arm it looks like a strike until right before it gets to the plate, and Zono swings for it, grunting as it veers left of his bat. Kazuya snatches it out of the air and calls for the crossfired slider, and Sawamura acknowledges the call, rolling his shoulder again as he shifts his weight onto his standing leg.

Kazuya feels like the next few moments happen in slow motion. Sawamura winds up, long leg lifting high into the air, and his glove coming up to cover his left arm. But when he twists for the release, something in his form crumbles, and the ball leaves his fingertips at an odd angle, flying wide of Kazuya’s mitt and making him scramble forward to snatch it. Holding the ball, Kazuya stares, for a moment, at Sawamura, back curved forward as he holds his left shoulder with his gloved right hand, his hat falling to the mound in front of him as he curls into himself.

All Kazuya can think, for a brief moment, is how he’s fucked up with a pitcher again.

Maezono drops the bat, and Kazuya’s world starts moving again as it hits the ground. The ref calls for time, but Kazuya’s already ripping off his mask, crossing to the mound in oversized steps that are almost a run. He barely beats the tournament medics and Kumai, with Sawamura’s medical chart on Numamoto’s clipboard. "Sawamura?!"

His face, when Kazuya catches a glimpse, is twisted up in pain, and Kazuya’s breath burns with every frantic inhale as the medics guide Sawamura back toward the dugout while a ripple of confusion surges through the crowd, concern and heckling pouring out of the audience in equal measure.

"Miyuki," Numamoto says, when Kazuya tries to follow the medics into the dugout, "you have an inning to finish."

"Right," Kazuya says, and looks to Sanjo, who is stretching out, having had no time to warm up in the past two innings because he hadn’t expected to go in today at all. Sanjo is looking at Sawamura with wide, concerned eyes, but when Kazuya barks his name, he strips out of his jacket and grabs his glove, going out to the mound as Kazuya returns to the batter box.

"Is he okay?" Maezono asks solemnly, and Kazuya swallows, pulling his mask on to hide whatever might be written on his face.

"I don’t know," Kazuya replies tersely. "But we’re playing a game, and you’re the opponent." He asks for one of Sanjo's easier pitches, wanting to warm him up a little in the lurch, and even with Kazuya’s mind back with Sawamura, they manage to close out the inning without bleeding any runs in the transition.

Kazuya runs back to the dugout when the inning is called, paying no mind to the raucous noise from the stands as he searches for Sawamura and comes up with nothing. "Where is he?"

Takarada, sitting next to Kuramochi and talking in urgent whispers, looks up to smile wanly at him. "He’s inside the stadium in Medical 2," she says. "The medics said they weren’t taking him to the hospital because it’s not an emergency."

With a twisting mouth, he peels off his gear, leaving it in a pile by his bag and catching Numamoto’s gaze, gesturing with his chin toward the stadium underground. Numamoto taps his watch, and then holds up all ten fingers, and Kazuya takes note of the time constraint and hustles from the dugout to head toward the indoor treatment rooms.

Medical 2’s door is ajar, and Kazuya doesn’t bother knocking, pushing in to find Sawamura alone, sitting on a steel table covered with an unrolled white paper sheet. He’s pale in the fluorescent light, and his arm, his pitching arm, is in a sling. Kazuya’s heart stops at the sight.

"Is it bad?" Kazuya asks immediately, when Sawamura looks up briefly before dropping his gaze again. His voice echoes, and is tinny to his own ears.

"No," Sawamura says, wavering. "It’s just a bad sprain, nothing permanently damaging if I…" He stops, and then muffles a whimper with his good hand. "If I don’t pitch for a while. Should be good for next season."

Next season, Kazuya thinks, crossing the room and stopping in front of Sawamura, who looks devastated and sounds even worse, with that defeated voice and his trembling declaration. "All right," Kazuya says, and he doesn’t mean to sound so angry, but he does, and Sawamura cringes.

"I’m sorry," he says, miserably. "I can’t throw to you. I can’t help Meiji win!"

Kazuya just stares at him. At this stupid pitcher who thinks Kazuya’s more concerned about the series than his arm, and who sounds like he thinks he’s to blame for being unable to continue on the mound. He stares at him, and then something bubbles up, dangerous and large, in his chest, crawling up his throat, demanding that he shout or yell or shake some sense into Sawamura before the moron crawls all the way inside himself.

"Are you a complete idiot?" Kazuya slips his hand into Sawamura’s hair and tugs, hard enough to get Sawamura’s attention but not hard enough to hurt. Sawamura looks up at him again, now with glassy eyes. "It’s not something you should be apologizing for, unless you knew you were injured!"

"I knew my shoulder didn’t feel right," Sawamura says. "I didn’t think it was a big deal, so I didn’t mention it, because it was just two more games, and I—" He chokes on the words, and a tear escapes from the corner of his right eye, rolling fat down his ruddy cheek. "I wanted to be dependable, because that’s what an ace is supposed to be!"

"Fucking hell." Kazuya tugs at Sawamura’s hair again. "You are dependable," he says. "Getting hurt is something that happens, and you shouldn’t ever not mention something like this. Didn’t you get mad at me, when I hid my injury? Didn’t you hate it? And that was before we…"

"Before what?" Sawamura’s genuinely crying now, and he’s always worn his feelings plainly, without shame or regret. It seems exhausting, but Kazuya’s way is exhausting too. What Kazuya doesn’t understand is how Sawamura can be so fucking honest all the time, or how Kazuya ever could have thought less of him for it.

"Before we became a battery like this, I mean," he says. "Look, Sawamura, I’ll spell it out for you, because you’re kind of a dumbass." He breathes. "If I were hurt, would it be my fault?"

"No," Sawamura says immediately, then he shudders, lifting the arm not in a sling to sloppily wipe away his tears. "No, it wouldn’t."

Kazuya releases Sawamura’s hair, and puts that hand on his own hip, repressing the urge to carefully help clear the tears clinging to Sawamura’s lower eyelashes. "That’s right." He swallows. "Now, we have to go out and finish the game. Are you coming to cheer on the rest of your team, or are you going to wallow?"

"I don’t wallow," Sawamura says, without any fight, standing up on wobbly legs. "Okay, Miyuki-senpai."

Kazuya reaches out to steady him, and pretends not to notice when Sawamura’s hand digs too hard into his arm. "So now I’m senpai?"

"You finally did something upperclassman-like," Sawamura manages. He sniffles, and nods. "Let’s go, then."

"Let’s," Kazuya agrees, and then he leads Sawamura back to the dugout just in time to see Sanjo, who’d clearly been keeping warm, getting ready to take the mound for the eighth inning with Kazuya.

"Not what we wanted," Sanjo says to Kazuya as they head out onto the diamond, "but we’ll do our best." He’s calm enough, and although Kazuya isn’t, he won’t let that show in his calls. He leads Sanjo as best as he can, but Sanjo doesn’t have Sawamura’s range, or Sawamura’s reliability. At the bottom of the ninth, Kazuya calls for Sanjo's forkball, and of course Narumiya hits it, right into a distracted left field. The fourth-year in for Sawamura and taking Sanjo's position fumbles the ball, and that’s it, two runners making it home and two still on base waiting to score. Sanjo's confidence, which despite his calm, must have been already shaken by Sawamura having to pull out unexpectedly, decreases further, and then they give up another run, sealing their fate.

Despite the tie Kazuya and Sawamura had guarded with their five clean innings, Meiji loses, two runs to five, and Kazuya ushers Sawamura past the gathered college baseball press, holding onto him by his right arm and dragging him up onto the bus as photographers ask in eager voices if Sawamura will be back on the mound tomorrow, ready to pitch again. Kazuya ignores them, not even meeting anyone’s eyes.

The bus ride back to campus, when they’ve all settled, is as silent as the grave, Sawamura curling into Kazuya’s side, making himself smaller as he clutches at the strap of the sling.

Sawamura apologizes with a full bow to the entire team, shaky-voiced and pale, before the debriefing, and then Numamoto takes him away to the hospital to get his arm checked again, and the rest of the team doesn’t know what to do, loitering after the meeting with uncertainty written in every line of them.

They’re slow to disperse, and finally, when it’s just Kazuya, Ichinose, and Kuramochi left to lock up the gym, Ichinose turns to Kazuya and pins him in place with a direct stare.

"He doesn’t… He doesn’t think it’s his fault, does he?" Ichinose looks pissed at the thought, his hands curled into fists. "Apologizing like that for being injured? That’s got to be what he was thinking."

"I told him not to, but he’s not the brightest crayon in the box," Kazuya replies.

"Damn right he isn't!" Kuramochi cracks his knuckles. "We had the lead and we lost it! Not him!" Kazuya can see Kuramochi’s concern in the twitch of his jaw. "He better not fucking fall apart again over this!"

"Again?" Ichinose asks, sharply, and Kuramochi just swears.

And Kazuya remembers the yips just as well as Kuramochi does, and the idea of seeing Sawamura Eijun like that again leaves him numb. "I won’t let that happen," he says, grimly, and Ichinose gives him a long, serious look.

"Miyuki, explain."

"The yips," Kazuya says. "He learned an outside pitch to compensate for the inside until he got over it, but it was a rough time." He kicks at the ground. "This is different, though. This isn’t a dead ball."

"No," Kuramochi says. "But it is a game where we were relying on him being able to pitch, and he knows it."

Ichinose nods, and then adjusts his cap. "I’ll leave it to you, then, Miyuki," he says to Kazuya, and that sits heavy on Kazuya’s shoulders as he and Kuramochi walk home.

Kazuya doesn’t bother showering, just changing out of his uniform and putting on a pair of jeans and the same green sweatshirt he wore on his birthday, covering his messy hair with another knit cap. He should leave a note for Kuramochi, who is in the shower, so he opens the top drawer of his desk to find a pen. Instead, he finds the small bag he brought back from Ichinomiya, with the bumblebee keychain. He considers it for a few moments, and then slips it into his pocket, before picking up one of the blue ballpoints he keeps around for marking up his notes and scribbles a post-it for Kuramochi.

gone pitcher-wrangling. dinner’s your problem, he writes, and then he’s out the door.

The walk to Sawamura’s apartment is both too long and not long enough. He climbs the stairs slowly, and holds his hand in front of the door for a few seconds before rapping with his knuckles.

Aotsuki answers the door, her face set in solemn lines. "Miyuki Kazuya," she says, and Kazuya quirks a grin at her.

"You’re not going to call me by my whole name, too, are you?"

"Sorry," she says, with a faint smile of her own. "Ei-chan calls you that, so it’s habit."

Kazuya’s not surprised Sawamura refers to him by his entire name even when talking to other people, so he rolls his eyes. "Probably without an honorific, too."

"Yep," Aotsuki says, opening the door wider and inviting him in. "I take it you’re here to see him." She’s lowered her voice, and Kazuya nods, biting his lip. "Good."

"Good?" Kazuya rubs self-consciously at the back of his neck. "I’m not actually known for having any success at dealing with this kind of thing."

Aotsuki hums. "When Eijun and I talk, he says all sorts of awful things about your social skills," she whispers. "But your opinion, I think, means quite a lot to him." She moves into the room as Kazuya slips out of his trainers in the foyer. "Also, it’s good you’re here, because he needs to take a shower."

Kazuya freezes. "What?"

Aotsuki laughs, and Kazuya thinks it’s a bit evil. "He’s in the bathroom, but he’s trying to work around that sling of his. He might need a little help, and we’re close, but there are some things that I just don’t have to see."

"Right," Kazuya says, faintly.

"You don’t mind, right?"

Kazuya stares at her, taking in the enigmatic curve of her lips, and swallows. "No," he says, and walks past her, stopping in front of the bathroom. He presses his hand to the door for a minute, listening to the running water, then knocks. "Sawamura? It’s me."

"Miyuki?"

"Yeah," Kazuya replies. "I’m going to open the door, okay?"

"I…" Sawamura’s close to the door, not in the shower. "Why are you here?"

I came to see you sounds confessional, so Kazuya sighs instead. "Why do you think? Can I come in or not?"

The door opens suddenly, and Kazuya’s face to face with Sawamura, taking in his red-rimmed, puffy eyes and the pain visible in the tight line of his mouth. "Will you… I can’t get my shirt off."

"Aotsuki figured," Kazuya admits, and Sawamura gives him a tentative smile, and lets him into the steamy bathroom. The mirror is already fogged from the hot water, and the thick heat in the air makes it an even more intimate situation as he closes the door behind himself, leaving Aotsuki out in the main room. "Come here, Sawamura."

Sawamura moves closer, and Kazuya carefully unfastens the buckle in the back that hangs the sling from his neck. Then he holds Sawamura’s forearm in a careful grip, easing the sling off and letting it fall to the floor. With his free hand, he unbuttons Sawamura’s uniform jersey until it’s hanging open, revealing the tight purple shirt underneath. Sawamura hisses as Kazuya carefully pushes it off both his shoulders, and Kazuya doesn’t look up at his face, keeping his hands steady.

"This might hurt, Sawamura," he warns, after the uniform shirt has dropped to the floor. He lifts the bottom hem of the compression shirt. "But I’ll try to make it fast."

"It’s fine," Sawamura says, as Kazuya peels it up his chest, revealing firm abs and a trail of dark brown hair that disappears into the revealed waistband of his briefs. Kazuya’s hands are less steady than he’d like as his fingertips drag up Sawamura’s sweaty skin, goosebumps rising in their wake. Sawamura pulls his right arm out of the shirt, and Kazuya moves in just a little closer, sliding his hand up Sawamura’s neck to stretch the neck of his compression shirt so that it’ll go easily over his head. "You didn’t shower yet either, Miyuki Kazuya."

"Are you telling me I smell?" Kazuya asks. His glasses are fogged up from the steam now, too, so he doesn’t know Sawamura’s right hand is even moving until it comes to rest at the dip of Kazuya’s waist. "Rude."

"Ah, no, I just…" Sawamura’s words cut off in a whimper as Kazuya eases the shirt off his injured shoulder and down his arm. "You came right over. You… Came right over to see me."

Kazuya does the unthinkable, looking up from Sawamura’s swollen shoulder and meeting his eyes. They’re luminous, so bright in the steamy room, and Kazuya’s lightheaded from more than just the heat as Sawamura’s hand tightens, like… almost like he doesn’t want to let Kazuya go. And that’s…

"An idiot like you shouldn’t be left alone with his own thoughts for too long," Kazuya rasps, stepping back, dislodging Sawamura’s hand. "Do you think you can handle the rest?" His back thumps against the door. "Because like I said before, you’re really going to have to get consistent with the senpai if you need me to do anything else."

"I—" Sawamura blinks at him, slow, focused, clutching at his upper arm to support it as he watches him, and Kazuya feels like a batter facing off against him, instead of the catcher calling his plays. "I’ve got it. But don’t leave, okay? I’ll be fast and…" He blinks again, and that fierce look is gone, replaced by that tired, miserable look Kazuya had witnessed in Medical 2. "I might need help putting something else on."

"I’m not going anywhere," Kazuya says. "I came over to talk to you, anyway."

"About the game."

"Yeah," Kazuya says. "So." He fumbles for the door. "I’ll be out there."

He escapes the bathroom, closing the door behind him and then leaning back against it for a moment to catch his breath. He can hear Aotsuki singing to herself in the kitchenette, and when he thinks his face has faded back to its normal color, and that his heart has slowed down enough, he goes to join her.

"Sawamura has knives?"

She looks over her shoulder, knife poised above a thick radish Kazuya remembers picking out on Monday. "His mother sent him with a basic kitchen set," she replies. "Hopelessly optimistic of her. Most of this stuff has never been opened."

"He told me he was excellent at boiling water for ramen," Kazuya jokes, sliding up next to her and picking up the peeler and one of the three potatoes she’s set aside. With a practiced hand he starts to peel it, the skin coming off in a single long perfect coil.

"That’s a lie," Aotsuki says, both eyebrows raised. "He is moderately capable of boiling water, if, and only if, he doesn’t forget he’s doing it." She chuckles. "You look like you’re pretty good at it though."

"It’s a hobby." He hands her the peeled potato for slicing, and then picks up another. "Did our grocery shopping trip save him from certain death?"

"I knew he must have had help." She pushes the sliced radish aside and starts on the potato. "Everything was too well chosen." She pauses. "Did you have any trouble getting him in the shower?"

"His shoulder looks bad." Kazuya sighs. "He’s definitely out for tomorrow’s game."

"What caused it?"

"He’s been over-pitching." Setting the second peeled potato down, Kazuya clenches the peeler tightly. "I wasn’t paying close enough attention. Again." He smiles at her, but it’s a crooked, forced thing. "Pitchers are self-absorbed morons, but I should be used to them trying too hard by now."

"Between you and Eijun, I’m probably going to drown in all the pointless self-recrimination flooding this apartment," Aotsuki says, and Kazuya looks at her in surprise. "I thought you were supposed to be the smart one."

Kazuya accidentally digs into the potato. "What?"

"You’re not responsible for Eijun thinking his aching shoulder was nothing too bad. Pitchers often get sore." She snorts. "He also probably wanted to keep playing."

"He never wants to get off the mound. He was like that in high school, too. Frustrated when Coach Kataoka wouldn’t put him in, desperate when he was pulled off. He and Furuya both." Kazuya finishes peeling the last potato. "Putting the weight of being the ace on his shoulders probably doesn’t help. He doesn’t want to disappoint the team."

"Or you," Aotsuki says, and Kazuya’s eyes widen, so he drops his gaze down to the sink, where the potato peels stick to the metal basin. "Did you know he had a magazine cutout of you that he pinned to the wall after he visited Seidou the first time?" She shakes her hair out of her eyes, and then takes the last potato out of his hand. "That’s when Nobu and I knew he was going to go. When he fixated on you like you were a star he was going to grab right out of the sky, even though he didn’t even like you all that much."

Kazuya turns on the faucet to rinse his hands. "You’re giving me a lot of fodder to tease him with, I hope you know."

"It was different this time." She picks up the chopped vegetables and drops them into the simmering pot on the stove. "A lot of scouts came to see him, not just Meiji."

"Rikkyou, too."

"Two schools from Osaka, as well, and two minor league teams besides the Diamonds." She brushes past them, sticking her hands under the still-running water. "He turned them all down, and said he still had someone he wanted to form a good battery with." She huffs. "I wish I could say I was surprised it was you, but I wasn’t."

"I didn’t keep up with him after high school. I never really thought about catching for him again. It’s not that he wasn’t fun, I just—"

She turns off the water. "Well," she says, "what about now?"

"What do you mean?" Kazuya asks, even though he has a good idea what she probably means.

"How do you feel about him as a pitcher now?" She looks up at him, craning her neck but somehow not giving an inch in presence.

"He’s not so bad," Kazuya says, teasing, and Aotsuki’s gaze seems to cut right through him before she huffs and moves past him again, returning to the bubbling pot.

"The shower just turned off. Go help him with his fresh shirt."

"Bossy~" Kazuya says, laughing, and Aotsuki ignores him. It figures, Kazuya thinks, that Sawamura would have a best friend like her.

Sawamura’s already struggled into his clothes this time, a soft button-up flannel, and Kazuya’s thankful he doesn’t have to look at Sawamura’s bare back, slick from the shower, or see the dark purple spreading across his shoulder.

Kazuya helps him put the sling back on, though, and the thin paper bag in his pocket crinkles loudly when he bumps into the sink, so he pulls it out of his pocket.

"What’s that?"

Kazuya purses his lips thoughtfully, then dangles it in front of him. "A gift~"

"For me?" Sawamura looks rightfully suspicious, though it lacks some of his usual spirit. "What’s the catch?"

"I’ll trade it for complete obedience during practice," Kazuya replies.

"No deal," Sawamura says, tentatively rolling his shoulder and wincing. "Besides, I don’t know when I’ll be at practice again, anyway."

"Tsk, tsk, no skipping everything else because you’ve got a bum shoulder." Kazuya shakes the bag again. "We spend the winter in the gym, and I expect you to spot for me as usual."

"No pitching," Sawamura says.

"Not until your shoulder’s at a hundred percent." He hums, his most teasing lilt. "I guess since you’ll already be suffering I can give this to you free of charge."

"What is it?" Sawamura holds out his right hand, and Kazuya upends the bag, dumping the keychain into his hand. Sawamura’s brows knit curiously as he turns it around in his sturdy hands. "A keychain."

"Just a little souvenir for my most annoying teammate."

Sawamura finally realizes what the keychain is, and makes a tiny outraged sound. "Are you wishing me death, Miyuki Kazuya?!"

"Nah," Kazuya replies, and carefully, he reaches up to comb his fingers through the crown of tangled curls that Sawamura won’t be able to brush with his dominant hand. "They just remind me of you, now."

Sawamura holds up the keychain between them, careful not to jostle Kazuya’s hand in his hair. "Why would bees remind you of me?"

Kazuya shrugs, smirking. "You have so much in common with bees, Sawamoron!"

Sawamura scowls at him. "Like what?!"

"Like all the buzzing around and making a nuisance." He pulls his hand back slowly, wary of brushing Sawamura’s bad shoulder.

"Ass!"

"I swear your mouth didn’t used to be so naughty," Kazuya says, crumpling up the bag and tossing it into the trashcan between the sink and the toilet.

"Maybe you just weren’t listening," Sawamura replies, and it’s even and honest, without any exaggerated anger.

"You do yell a lot," Kazuya says. "It was self-preservation." He smiles a little, then flicks the bee again with his thumb and index finger. "Bees are hard working."

"Eh?" Sawamura’s arm drops to his side, the bee hanging from his middle finger.

"Bees are hard working," Kazuya repeats. "And they’re distinctive. They’re friendly until they feel threatened, and they like bright things almost as much as you." He licks his lips. "And yeah, they buzz around, but some bees pollinate flowers while they do that." He gives Sawamura one of his rare, genuine smiles. "I know you’re super into cultivating gardens~"

Sawamura’s eyes widen as he slowly blushes, and then he looks down at the bee keychain again. "Oh." He leans his hip against the sink. "So you’re not insulting me?"

"Me? Insult the ace?" Kazuya regrets the word immediately, as Sawamura’s face falls dramatically.

And Kazuya’s been trusted with this, by the coaches, by Ichinose and Kuramochi, and by Aotsuki, too, so he pushes aside the discomfort that accompanies any kind of emotional conversation, and clears his throat.

"Sawamura," he says then, looking for the right words and coming up with nothing, as usual. Kazuya’s only ever known how to pick the words that will hurt, not the ones that might heal. "We’re all disappointed you can’t pitch tomorrow. We’re disappointed because you’re so good, and because you and I are so effective, as a battery. We’re disappointed because it lowers our chances of defeating Waseda tomorrow." He takes a heavy breath. "But we’re not disappointed in you, idiot." Taking a chance that Aotsuki’s right, he adds: "I’m not disappointed in you."

Sawamura makes a tiny, whimpering noise, and then he’s dropping his forehead to Kazuya’s shoulder, and it’s the only point of contact but Kazuya can feel it all the way down to his toes. Sawamura’s breathing is uneven, and he’s probably crying, and Kazuya lets him, not moving to push him away or to bring him closer, and he’s not sure what else to do because despite Kazuya having the charge of this pitcher before, Kazuya has never been this to Sawamura.

Kazuya has never been this to anyone. Has never been someone to come to for comfort. Kazuya has gone out of his way to make himself indispensable on the baseball field and undesirable off it; sharp words of criticism tagging along with every word of praise, taunts to encourage better performances from players and deflections to push away questions about his personal life. Even at Seidou, where Kazuya had found the first bit of home he’s felt since his mother had left and never come back, he’d kept a certain distance between himself and the rest of the team, and even those he allowed close enough to see more of him, like Kuramochi or Chris or to some extent, Furuya, knew that there was plenty more he didn’t want to share, and for the most part never pushed those boundaries, and he’d been the kind of captain that let people grapple with their own crises, and occasionally nudged them toward the right person to help them, knowing it would never be him.

But Sawamura has changed the rules, somehow. He looks to Kazuya as someone dependable, and Kazuya finds himself wanting to be dependable to meet that expectation. He’s terrified that Sawamura is curling into him like this, needing him to be here, because Kazuya is not built for comfort or affection, but at the same time, he’s glad that for the first time, he might be enough to bridge the gap between Sawamura and his confidence.

When Sawamura’s hiccuping sobs slow to almost nothing, Kazuya risks resting his hand on the back of Sawamura’s neck, wet hair sticking to his fingers. "This isn’t the end, you know. You’ll be pitching in the spring again, and then next year in the fall, and then the spring after that. We have three years to get that naturally moving fastball of yours all the way to unhittable." And he’s talking about baseball, but maybe it’s also about more than that. I’m not going anywhere, and You’ll have the chance to shine in front of me over and over again.

"Right," Sawamura says, and when he lifts his head, his eyes burn the bright of a roaring flame.

"Are you boys just going to talk in the bathroom all night, or can I serve dinner?" Aotsuki calls, and Sawamura seems to realize where they are, because he’s suddenly pushing Kazuya out into the hall, to meet Aotsuki’s amused but approving gaze.

"Smells good," Kazuya offers, smiling wanly, and she smiles back at him.

"Are you staying for dinner, Miyuki Kazuya?" Aotsuki asks.

"Yes," Sawamura answers for him, before he can give some excuse, and disappear out of Sawamura’s apartment and hopefully find a quiet spot out on the Meiji practice fields to put all the emotions too close to the surface back in the boxes they belong in. But Sawamura’s got a hand around his wrist now, and Kazuya’s no good at putting this kid off anymore.

Kuramochi would laugh at how easily he’s giving in.

The three of them sit on the floor around Sawamura’s low coffee table and eat, and Sawamura keeps Kazuya’s keychain around his finger, hanging into his palm as he shovels rice clumsily into his mouth with a spoon, hopeless with chopsticks as long as his left arm is in a sling. He’s vibrant again, the dangerous dark in his eyes gone, and Kazuya feels an overwhelming relief even as the tension about tomorrow’s game lurks at the back of his mind, bumped back every time Sawamura’s knee digs into his thigh.

Around ten, Sawamura starts to wilt from exhaustion, and he lets Kazuya and Aotsuki bully him into bed, carefully lying on his right side, curling up like a small child and falling immediately to sleep. Kazuya squats down next to his bed, waffling for a bit as he eyes Aotsuki, before he says, softly, to Sawamura’s slumbering form: "You played a good game today, Sawamoron. No runs, just like you promised."

He fidgets as Aotsuki turns her full attention to him, but she doesn’t ask him why he waited for Sawamura to fall asleep to tell him that, and it’s a small mercy, he supposes, when she’s been so easily reading him tonight.

"I’m glad," Aotsuki says quietly, after she smooths the blanket over Sawamura, "that he’s in good hands here with you."

"He’s really not," Kazuya replies, but Aotsuki just gives him a tiny, smug smile, and Kazuya doesn’t want to respond to that look so he lets himself out of the apartment.

He calls Chris on the way home, and Chris answers despite the late hour. "Miyuki?"

"Just wanted to give you a heads up, but Sawamura sprained his shoulder today."

"How bad?"

"I haven’t talked to Numamoto, who took him to the hospital, but I get the impression it’s not serious, and no permanent damage has been done." He sighs. "I let them overpitch him."

"Miyuki," Chris says sternly.

"Yeah, I know." Kazuya looks up at the sky, and sees nothing but gray.

"How is he?" Chris’s question is careful. "I know he doesn’t react well to things that affect the whole team. Should I call him?"

Kazuya puffs out a breath. "I think…" He hesitates. "I think maybe I took care of it." Chris makes an approving noise in the back of his throat. "Don’t do that."

"Why not? I’m glad." Kazuya scoffs, and Chris laughs. "Can I tell you a secret?"

"Can’t promise I’ll keep it, if I can use it," Kazuya replies.

"I was worried your battery with Sawamura wasn’t going to work out."

Kazuya almost drops his phone. "What?"

"Sawamura’s stubborn, but so are you. And you’ve always been able to separate trust on the field and trust off the field, but Sawamura can’t do that. It’s one way or the other."

"Then how did he ever pitch to me at all?" Kazuya asks, shivering in the cold. He’s feeling the grime, now, and the sweat of the game, and he’s exhausted mentally and physically. "Not like I’m the most emotionally available guy on the planet."

"Sawamura’s also surprisingly patient," says Chris, after a long moment. "But it was about time you embraced the full job of a catcher."

"As a therapist?" Kazuya snorts. "A child minder?"

"As a center," Chris says, like he thinks Kazuya should already know the answer. "A battery always works best when the power flows both ways."

"Hah," Kazuya says, as his stomach twists. "You’re still trying to mentor me?"

"Not really." Chris chuckles sleepily. "Sometimes I think you just need someone to say things you already know aloud so you can’t ignore them."

"That might be fair." Kazuya stops outside the door of his apartment. "I’m going to go."

"Good luck at the game tomorrow."

"Thank you," Kazuya says. "Between you and me, without Sawamura, we need it."

Kazuya meets Sanjo at seven in the morning at the practice field. Maeda is there too, his face set in a grim frown, but he’s on the phone, and not paying attention to their conversation.

"Hah, we’re kind of screwed, right?" Sanjo says quietly even as it crosses the meters between them, as he rolls the ball in his hand. "Without Sawamura."

"No," Kazuya says. "He’s important, but this is a team."

Sanjo sends a competent forkball to his mitt, and Kazuya tosses it back.

"Yeah, but Sawamura’s worked miracles for team morale." Sanjo easily snatches the ball out of the air with a left-handed glove. "It felt impossible to lose with him pitching, even when he was in his pitch-to-contact moods."

"That’s the kind of guy he is," Kazuya replies. "He’s always been like that, even when his pitches weren’t reliable at all."

"Is that so?" Sanjo scratches his neck. "Maybe I should try to be more like him."

"Don’t you think one is enough?" Kazuya punches his mitt. "Just be Sanjo-senpai, and that’ll be good. I’ll bring out the best in your pitching."

"Talking like that, even now…" Sanjo laughs. "I’m not really skilled enough to take on those batters. I don’t have enough spots and I’ve got a few effective pitches that are strong against lefty batters, but we’ll be in real trouble after their rotation goes through once."

"I’ll keep you strong as long as I can," Kazuya says. "I’m good at reading batters. I’m a great catcher, and not just a great catcher for Sawamura. What I need from you is faith in my calls. It’s just like when we practice. Don’t shake my signs."

Another forkball. It’s a bit right, and Kazuya shuffles to catch it.

"No one doubts you as a catcher, Miyuki. It’s just with a pitcher like Sawamura, you can really show off."

Kazuya grins, straightening up. "That’s enough. We don’t want to waste your arm, since we need five innings from you if we only have two pitchers for the whole game."

"Is it too late to pull someone from the second string, since Sawamura’s a scratch?"

"None of them are ready for the pressure of going in during a one-one tiebreaker for the tournament with Waseda." Kazuya pushes up his sports glasses. "We really were in a pitching crisis without Sawamura. This is just what the team would have looked like without me to lure him in."

"Don’t say it all sketchy like that," Sanjo laughs. "Man, were we taking him for granted?"

"Not any more than he wanted you to." Kazuya shrugs. "But now we’ve got to win without him. I for one don’t plan to throw in the towel before the game even starts." He laces that with gentle rebuke, and Sanjo winces.

"You never go easy on anyone, huh?"

"Why should I? I’m here to play baseball. I’m here to be part of the building a winning team." He points at Sanjo. "That’s not just one pitcher."

"I hear you loud and clear, Miyuki." Sanjo taps his shoulder with his glove. "I’m not giving up, and I’ll try really hard to give you what you ask for."

They walk with Maeda to the parking lot. A lot of the team has already shown up, and Kazuya notices the mood is considerably less optimistic than yesterday. Kuramochi’s leaning back against the bus in deep discussion with Shirasu, and Uchida is helping Takarada load the usual manager bags onto the bus as a lot of the third-years cluster around Numamoto, and Kazuya sighs, going to join them so he can report on Sanjo's condition and hopefully wheedle information about Sawamura’s injury from the man.

He notices the moment Sawamura arrives, because a ripple of excitement surges through the parking lot. Shiba lets out a loud "whoop!" of enthusiasm, and Uchida and Hirahata throw their arms around his waist.

"Sawamura, you’re alive!"

"Ah, yes," Sawamura sucks on his lower lip. "Sorry that I wasn’t— that I wasn’t able to stay for the debriefing—"

He’s cut off by people ruffling his hair, and he smiles at everyone on the team broadly. At least it breaks the tense atmosphere, and everyone’s a little lighter as they prepare to head to Meiji Jingu for their third game against Waseda.

"You look better than I expected." Kuramochi scans Sawamura’s face. "Good."

Sawamura smiles sheepishly. "I was kinda messed up, but Miyuki Kazuya told me"—he sneaks a look at Kazuya, then, and Kazuya looks away, hands in the pockets of his windbreaker—"that I’m not a disappointment."

"Obviously!" Kuramochi whaps the back of his head with a fielder’s glove. "What are you thinking, first-year? That you’re the only one on the team that matters?"

"No!!"

Sawamura’s so much taller than Kuramochi, but somehow Kuramochi still manages to loom over him. "Then why were you so gloomy yesterday, little punk?!"

"Well, sometimes I—" He falters. "Sometimes I forget. I get caught up in my own head, and my own problems get magnified, so—" He flushes. "Anyway, it’s fine now!"

"It better be," Kuramochi says, gruffly. "Do your job and cheer us on, rookie."

"It’ll be just like your first year at Seidou," Kazuya teases. "You on the bench."

Kuramochi sends Kazuya a sharp look, but Sawamura just huffs and shoves him lightly with his right hand, before getting swept off in a conversation with Kumai.

"Well, well, well," Kuramochi says, "Miyuki Kazuya’s new career as a motivational speaker is looking great!"

Kazuya slyly narrows his eyes, smiling. "Wow, now I really am better than you in every way, Kuramochi!"

"You’re dead to me, Miyuki," Kuramochi replies, heading off towards the bus.

They lose.

It’s not a crushing defeat, and they hang on to a tie until the top of the ninth, thanks to Kazuya’s guidance of Sanjo and Mei’s tired arm, but at Waseda’s last at-bat, as Kazuya watches from the dugout, dirt-skids on his uniform pants from a failed run to first off a grounder and a mild pain from wrist to elbow from six innings catching for Sanjo, Waseda succeeds on a gutsy swing at Uchida’s fastest pitch, Maezono bringing everyone home with a heavy ball that misses Hirahata's glove and bounces into the bottom set of bleachers in front of a cluster of students in Meiji colors.

The crowd goes silent, and then the Waseda fans roar, and Kazuya just licks his lips and watches as Waseda players stream out of the dugout to hug the players running in home, the defending champions. For someone regarded as something of a genius, Kazuya thinks he does an awful lot of losing.

"Don’t forget what you said," Sawamura murmurs to him, resting a hand at the small of Kazuya’s back for a long moment. "We have time. We have more seasons. We’ll win, and then we’ll protect it."

"Heh." Kazuya turns Sawamura’s cap. "Don’t lecture me. I’m your upperclassman."

"Nope," Sawamura says. "We’re partners, now! So I’m going to call you Miyuki Kazuya and tell you when you’re being stupid!"

"Buzz off," Kazuya replies, and Sawamura chuckles, going off to work a little of his cheerleader magic on Kuramochi or anyone else in the dugout.

Mei tries to corner him, when they all go onto the field to shake hands, but Kazuya’s not in the mood, escaping the field and the reporters and getting onto the quiet bus for the ride back to Meiji.

"You did exceptionally well this year," Maeda tells them. "Excellent performances by the first string. You all stepped up, and it’s unfortunate that our last game against Waseda couldn’t be played with our strongest possible bullpen, but we have the spring tournament. This team is so far ahead of last year’s, and that’s thanks to your hard work."

"Don’t cry, idiot," he hears Kuramochi whisper harshly, and the tight, angry bubble at the pit of his stomach bursts as he looks over to see Sawamura sniffling, his eyes watering. "C’mon, you’re in university now—"

Maeda coughs, and it sets off laughter through the gym, and only Sawamura, Kazuya thinks, has ever been able to so easily change the mood.

They don’t have practice for a week, and Kazuya, strangely, does not see Sawamura.

On the one hand, it’s a relief, because wrestling with his feelings is starting to feel like a winter climb up Mount Fuji, dangerous and impossible. On the other, though, Kazuya can’t help but feel everything is so quiet, and he used to crave quiet moments but now they’re a little like punishment.

That might just be, he realizes, going from all to nothing, like back when he was seven and his mother disappeared for the first time, vanishing from the Setagaya house on a Wednesday morning and not reappearing for two weeks. The time had dragged, and Kazuya remembers crying every night at the creaky silence, at the heaviness of the convenience store food his father brought home in bulk in his stomach, at the burns on his fingertips from taking too-hot containers out of the microwave on his tiptoes. Kuramochi is loud, too, but it’s not the same as Sawamura, who’s always demanding Kazuya catch for him, talk to him, look at him, pay attention.

Maybe, Kazuya thinks, it’s got something to do with why he became a catcher: To be integral, to be necessary. Sawamura, in every clawing grab for Kazuya’s time and attention, tells him he’s necessary, and the absence of that leaves him anchorless in the wake of the team’s loss.

He texts Sawamura once, when he doesn’t see him after class on Wednesday. how’s the arm?, he writes.

fine!!!! u will be catching 4 me in no time!!!!

Kazuya can imagine it in Sawamura’s voice, and he can’t help but grin.

"Ew." Kuramochi says, breezing past him on his way to the bathroom. "Don’t look happy; it’s gross, and I can’t live with it."

"You look gross all the time, and I live with that," Kazuya replies, tucking his phone into his pocket, his smile lingering for a good while.

Grandpa Shinoda calls him on Thursday, as he’s on the way back from the gym, working out despite Maeda’s commands for them to rest, just to burn off extra energy. "Tough loss," the old man says gruffly, when Kazuya answers, without a greeting or any other hesitation.

"It was." He swallows, and wrinkles his nose to push his glasses up without using his hands. "Is this… going to be a thing now? Calling me?"

"Would you like it to be?" His grandfather clears his throat. "Your grandmother would like to call more too."

Kazuya stops to wait for a car to pass before crossing the street. "Why now?"

"When you came to visit, you were so angry."

Kazuya runs his tongue over his teeth. "Not really."

Grandpa Shinoda sighs. "You were such a happy child, Kazuya. I don’t think either of us wanted to see it when you lost that, and that meant looking away more."

"Looking away always, you mean," Kazuya replies. "Everyone in my family is always doing that with me."

He doesn’t know what to think when his grandfather sighs again. "You should come down to Ichinomiya in January. For your coming-of-age day."

"Why?" Kazuya realizes he’s made it back to his apartment, and he lets himself into the building, shivering at the cold air trapped in the lobby. There’s never any heat until it’s freezing.

"You can visit the shrine your mother visited. It’s an option, if you want it to be. You still have family."

"I’ll think about it," replies Kazuya, starting up the stairs. "I have to go."

"All right," his grandfather says, and Kazuya hangs up before he can say anything else.

You still have family, his grandfather had said, like Kazuya hasn’t been carrying that knowledge around as proof that his loneliness is a flaw that he shouldn’t bother trying to correct.

He’s surprised to find Kuramochi already home when he opens the door, and to find Shirasu at the kitchen table as well. "Are we having a party?"

"Our biology class let out early," Shirasu says. "Group project."

That reminds Kazuya of his own project, waiting for him to finish up with his transcriptions of useful segments so he can start with detailed analysis. That, he thinks, with resignation, includes upwards of an hour of Sawamura interviews from Koushien. "I hate when baseball season ends," Kazuya says, and Shirasu’s mild nod is his version of emphatic agreement.

"No more excuses to put aside work!" Kuramochi shoves dried squid into his mouth. "Miyuki’s already kept up with a ton of his work though, so I don’t know why he’s complaining!" He laughs. "Oh, by the way, we do have an end of season party coming up, so don’t make any plans for Friday!"

"Oh, you know my busy social calendar," Kazuya mutters, grabbing a sports drink out of the refrigerator, and when he looks over at Kuramochi, he sees him looking at him archly. "I’ll consider going."

"No," Kuramochi replies. "You’ll go, or Sawamura will pout all night, and that’ll put Takarada in a bad mood!" He slams his hand on the table. "I can’t believe they’re not dating yet! He’s so oblivious!"

"He just doesn’t like her that way," Kazuya says, without thinking, and as Kuramochi’s eyes widen, Kazuya looks away, regretting opening his mouth. "I think."

"No you don’t think," Kuramochi says. "He told you that, and you believe him!" Kazuya takes a long sip of his drink as Kuramochi continues: "He’s pretending to be oblivious?"

"Not really," Kazuya says, and then he considers. "Well, I don’t know, actually. It’s not like she’s directly asked him out."

"Sawamura’s always had a unique approach to social interaction." Shirasu coughs pointedly after the statement, and both Kazuya and Kuramochi turn to look at him. "I wonder what else we think Sawamura doesn’t notice that he just doesn’t find worthy of commenting on?"

Kazuya’s fingers clench tightly around the plastic bottle in his hand.

"More importantly, why is that guy so popular with girls?!" Kuramochi slaps the table again. "Like, what the fuck? Girls are totally wasted on him and Miyuki both!"

Kazuya forces a laugh. "Wasted?"

"Yeah, 'cause Sawamura’s clearly a moron, and you’re a cold-hearted bastard!"

"Thank you~!" Kazuya says, and then he escapes from the conversation, leaving Kuramochi ranting and Shirasu sighing in the kitchen as he sits down at his desk to boot up his laptop.

As the rainbow wheel spins, he tries to think about the call from Grandpa Shinoda, but he keeps coming back to Shirasu’s question, and wondering if Sawamura has noticed how Kazuya feels about him, too.

The whole team, including Kazuya, gets together that Friday night, the last weekend of November. It’s not a celebration, by any means, but it’s not a sad occasion either. Ichinose’s been given club funds to rent out the space, and Numamoto makes a brief appearance to remind them to be safe and not get arrested before he leaves them to their evening, giving Ichinose an extra hard clap on his shoulder and a reminder that he’s in charge.

Sawamura shows up thirty minutes late. He’s lost the sling, but Kazuya immediately sees the way he’s favoring it, and so he sidles up and blocks Kuramochi from throwing his arm across it. "Shoulder, ‘Mochi."

Sawamura gives him a tiny little smile in thanks, and Kazuya’s heart jumps.

"Shit," Kuramochi says, words slurring. "Sorry, Sawamura! Let me get you a drink to make up for it!"

"But we’re in public," Sawamura says. "I’m only nineteen."

"Shhh," Kuramochi says, winking. "Everyone’s twenty tonight!"

"That’ll definitely hold up in court," Kazuya replies, dryly, and Kuramochi rolls his eyes, linking Sawamura’s arm with his.

"If you’re going to be a downer, you can go home."

"You’re the one that forced me to come," Kazuya points out.

"You weren’t going to come?" Sawamura narrows his eyes. "Why not?"

"Why should I?" He pokes Sawamura’s cheek. "Did you miss me, Sawamura?"

Sawamura blushes, and Kazuya raises his eyebrows. "That’s—!" He looks away, toward the table of drinks in the back of the room. "I haven’t seen you in a week, is all!"

"You could have," Kazuya replies, poking Sawamura again. "I wasn’t hiding."

"He was doing homework," Kuramochi says, disgusted. "I felt so guilty watching him I did homework, too."

Sawamura slowly lifts his left hand to scratch at his chin, and Kazuya can tell his clear nail polish has chipped and he hasn’t bothered to repaint them. Kazuya supposes it doesn’t matter, as long as Sawamura’s not allowed to pitch. "I was… I was thinking about some stuff!"

Kazuya nods sagely as Kuramochi guffaws, and mockingly curls his lips up. "That must have hurt worse than your shoulder," he says, and then he hums, looking at Sawamura’s hair from the left and then the right. "No smoke coming out of your ears…"

"I think about stuff!!"

"Like what?" Kazuya teases.

Sawamura’s fading blushes resurges, and he tugs on his and Kuramochi’s linked arms. "Weren’t we getting drinks, Kuramochi-senpai?!"

"Too tough a question for you?" Kuramochi asks, but he allows Sawamura to drag him away.

Kazuya finds a seat toward the back of the room, observing his teammates interacting with his usual amusement and distance. Shiba’s already shitfaced, laughing hysterically as his girlfriend, who Kazuya vaguely remembers being a music major, turns on the music extra loud and starts to make him sway with her to the beat.

Around nine, Ichinose uses his captain voice to call for a toast. He yells "Get over here!" and as people start to gather, he narrows his eyes in Kazuya’s direction. "You too, Miyuki!"

"Yeah, yeah," Kazuya yells back, but he joins the huddle, ducking under Sanjo's arm, across from Kuramochi in the circle.

"We didn’t win this year," Ichinose says. "But we’ve done better than Meiji’s done in years! This is only the beginning of our comeback!" He looks at Kazuya pointedly. "I don’t think we got one of Tokyo’s best high school players just to lose." He winks. "I’m talking about Sawamura, of course."

Kuramochi snickers, and Kazuya smirks. "This is a winning team," Kazuya says, when everyone’s eyes turn to him. "It’s no fun playing as a champion, anyway. It’s more fun when you get to snatch the crown."

"Nasty to the end," Sawamura says, bluntly, and everyone laughs. Kazuya admits to himself it’s one of the first times he’s felt like an actual part of a team outside of a game since Seidou.

Everyone minus Kazuya drains their drinks, and then Kazuya uses the distraction of laughter to move back to the rear of the rented space, returning to his bench seat to watch the dancing start to spiral. Shiba and Uchida start up a drinking game at one of the tables, luring in Hirahata and Sanjo with bottled beers and jeering, and Kazuya keeps an eye on that as Kuramochi starts to mess with the playlist controls, selecting random songs and turning the volume up to maximum.

"You’re sitting back here again," Sawamura says, sprawling out on the bench next to him, physically taking up as much space as his personality. He’s liquor-flushed and languid, and Kazuya’s amused by the powdered sugar at the corner of his mouth from the sweet baked treats Kumai had picked up. "You always sit and watch, like you’re just waiting for something embarrassing to happen!"

"I am," Kazuya agrees easily, shifting toward Sawamura without really thinking about it, an instinctual response he should learn to curb. "Are you caught up on your work enough to be out playing this hard, first year?"

"I only had two drinks," Sawamura replies. "But, well, I didn’t do much work this week!" He scowls at his arm. "Hurts to type for too long, or write."

"Then what were you so busy thinking about this week, if it wasn’t English class?"

"Oh," Sawamura says, sneakily peering up at him, like Kazuya won’t notice if he tilts his head just right. It’s adorable. "Do you really want to know?"

"Hmm," Kazuya replies, "it probably isn’t all that interesting, if it’s you."

"You—!" The chime of Sawamura’s phone interrupts him, and he fishes it out from his pocket and squints at the screen, before his eyes widen and he flushes. He quickly shoves it back into his pocket without replying, and in doing so, accidentally knocks his keys onto the bench between them.

The bumblebee keychain Kazuya gave him hangs from the ring along with a baseball with 'Dragons' emblazoned in the team’s special typeface. Sawamura follows the path of his eyes, and snatches the keyring back up, shoving it back into his pocket along with his phone.

"You’re going to scratch up the screen, keeping your phone and your keys in the same pocket, Sawamoron."

Sawamura leans back against the bench, his arm pressing against Kazuya’s. "It’s just for now," he mumbles.

It’s quiet between them for a while, as the table closest to them bursts into screaming around their drinking game. Sawamura’s knuckles brush his thighs, and Kazuya’s gaze skitters down. Sawamura’s playing with the bumblebee keychain, his thumb feeling the grooves between the cartoon yellow and black stripes.

"You’re actually keeping that?" Kazuya asks, breaking the silence, and Sawamura’s thumb stills, before it starts moving again, almost defiantly.

"It’s a good reminder," Sawamura replies, and then he leans tipsily into Kazuya. "It’s not like I can keep your jacket."

"Why do I matter to you so much?" Sawamura’s cheek is scruffy, rough against Kazuya’s forehead. He probably hadn’t wanted to shave with his right hand, Kazuya thinks, in an attempt to focus his thoughts on something besides the heat of Sawamura’s skin, or how exposed he feels, sitting here in the back of a rented party room with his feelings probably written all over his face. "It’s not like I wanted to."

"I don’t know," Sawamura slurs. "It’s kind of funny, because you used to make me so mad."

"I still make you mad," Kazuya points out. His pulse is pounding in his ears, and it’s almost enough to drown out Kuramochi heckling the two other first-years as they sing an Arashi song from ten years ago off-key at the top of their lungs. "I can’t help it. It’s so much fun."

"You don’t really," Sawamura replies. His lips brush Kazuya’s forehead. "You make me frustrated, sometimes, but mostly you make me…" He trails off.

"Are you too drunk to finish sentences?"

"You make me want," Sawamura says, so lowly Kazuya almost misses the words. His world stops, and he can no longer hear the singing or the drunken laughter. There’s only Sawamura, his hand heavy on Kazuya’s thigh, his head resting atop Kazuya’s, his even breathing and steady heartbeat. "You’ve always made me want, Miyuki Kazuya. At first it was wanting to become part of a battery, and then wanting to be a better pitcher." He laughs. "I really didn’t understand you, back then."

"I understood you," Kazuya says, through the tightness in his chest. "You’re frighteningly simple."

"What’s wrong with being simple?" Sawamura nuzzles Kazuya’s hair. "I didn’t understand you at all, because you aren’t!"

"Sawamura," Kazuya chokes out, and he goes to move Sawamura’s hand, but finds himself holding onto it. "You’re a hundred years too early to understand me."

"Bastard." Sawamura laces their fingers together. "Wanting to be a better pitcher became wanting to prove you wrong, and prove I could be the ace, and then, somewhere along the line, it made me want to prove you right, about the same thing." He makes a frustrated noise. "I thought I was going to explode with all the want I felt connected to you!"

Kazuya knows Sawamura has had a few drinks, and he probably doesn’t know how he sounds, but he can’t seem to convince his racing pulse to calm down about it, or the knots in his belly to loosen. "My, my, Sawamura, you really might read too many manga, if you think this is how you have a heart-to-heart with an upperclassman."

"I came here to play thinking that being your equal, being your partner like you promised me back before I was even a high school first-year…" He exhales, and turns their hands, so his is on the top, Kazuya’s hand trapped between his own thigh and Sawamura’s hand. "Maybe then I would stop thinking about Miyuki Kazuya and baseball as sorta… the same thing. That I would start wanting something else."

"Well," Kazuya says, searching for the flippancy that protected him through years of loneliness and bullying and barely acknowledged fear, "I am the best." He pulls his hand away from Sawamura, and uses his shoulder to push him off. "It makes sense that you’d want to keep playing ball with me."

Now, though, he can see Sawamura’s face, and it might be worse, with those eyes on him, looking into him, than it had been with Sawamura pressing against him, chasing away the room’s chill. Sawamura blinks at him, with a slow, lethargic sense of purpose that he usually saves for his unique windup. "If you think that’s what I mean," Sawamura says, lashes fluttering, "then maybe you’ve overestimated how frighteningly simple I am."

Kazuya’s lips part, but he has no ready response, no insult or quip prepared. All he has is the desire pooling in the center of his gut, and the smell of Sawamura’s soap, and the lingering sensation of those pitching callouses sliding against his catching ones as Sawamura held his hand. But there’s also the memory of Mei, of Kazuya’s first kiss, of casual assumptions in the locker room and in the dugout, and even more casual jokes. There’s the knowledge that he’s probably reading this all wrong, and that Sawamura has become something Kazuya doesn’t think he could afford to lose if he is.

"No," Kazuya says, "I don’t think I’ve overestimated anything at all."

Sawamura’s eyes flash, and Kazuya’s so afraid he can’t get air around it.

"Why do you both look so serious over here?" Takarada asks, and the moment shatters, and Kazuya can breathe again.

"Oh, I was just telling Sawamura I needed to go," Kazuya says, after an unnatural beat of silence. "And he was complaining about my social skills."

"What social skills?" Takarada is looking back and forth between them carefully, her eyes lingering on the firm frown on Sawamura’s face.

"Exactly," Kazuya says, waving a hand. "That’s why no one is going to miss me. I’ve got things to do besides listen to Kuramochi attempt to sing this Perfume song— I get enough of that at home."

Takarada laughs, then, and Kazuya smirks.

"See you next week at health checks," she says, and then she gently grabs Sawamura’s right arm. "Come on, Sawamura, let’s go tease Kuramochi since Miyuki is going to be derelict in his sacred duty."

Sawamura’s brows furrow. "But I…"

"Catch you later, Sawamura," Kazuya says, and then he turns quickly on his heel, grabbing his coat from the hook by the door and walking out of the building and into the cold November evening without saying goodbye to anyone else.

The trip home feels interminable, even though it’s only a short taxi ride. Kazuya wonders if every person he walks past can see everything he’s thinking; if they can see how much he’d wanted to tangle his hand in Sawamura’s messy hair and suck marks into his neck, and find out how Sawamura’s expression changes when he’s been kissed until his body is warmer than it runs regularly. But that’s all tangled up with guilt, because it’s not Sawamura’s fault, that Kazuya is… That Sawamura’s casual affection reads differently for Kazuya. That Kazuya’s attracted to men, and that even if he weren’t, he’d grown into who he is now with peers who’d rather hit him than hug him, and soft touches like the ones Sawamura seems to give so freely are something he’s never taken for granted.

Kazuya doesn’t know what Sawamura was going to say, but it had sounded far too close to something Kazuya has been trying to bury inside himself since September, and he’s not sure he wants to hear it and know it’s not the same.

After he’s paid the taxi driver and ascended up to his apartment, he takes a shower and washes away the smell of cigarettes and beer from his body. He tries to wash away the echo of Sawamura’s touch, but that’s under his skin, just like Sawamura in general is under his skin, and Kazuya’d had the right idea at the beginning of these feelings, after all— that distance would be less scary than letting Sawamura so close that he’s tempted to do stupid things.

He puts on his warmest sleep shirt and a pair of pajama shorts, and towels his wet hair to keep from soaking his shirt. He walks into the kitchen and puts on water for tea just to settle his nerves, but it doesn’t work.

And then there’s a knock at the door. It’s persistent, and loud, and then there’s Sawamura’s voice: "I know you’re there, jackass, so just acknowledge me already!"

Kazuya stares for a few moments, but then Sawamura knocks again, so he gathers himself and walks to the door, bare feet to the cold foyer tile. "Don’t wake up my neighbors," Kazuya says, when he opens the door, and there’s a creeping déjà vu, a stark similarity between this and the last time he’d taken the necessary measures to protect himself from this boy— this man, who talks to Kazuya about wanting but has no idea just how differently Kazuya might want him back.

Sawamura’s flush from the cold and from running, his hair disheveled and mouth as sleepy as his eyes are feverishly awake. “Miyuki Kazuya,” he says, determination and stubbornness incarnate, his wide mouth curled into a frown and his jaw set. “You’re about to lock me out again.”

“You’re right,” Kazuya says, voice catching in his throat. In his pajamas, he’s vulnerable. After months of letting Sawamura wear him down, maybe it’s got nothing to do with the pajamas at all. “That’s my prerogative, since this is my apartment.” He arches a brow, putting everything he has into not letting Sawamura see how much he wants to reach out and wipe the sugar from his lips. “Respect your senpai and go home.”

“I’m not talking about the apartment!” Sawamura’s voice rings down the hall, and Kazuya runs a hand through his wet hair.

“Stop making a scene and go home, Sawamura." He looks over Sawamura’s shoulder, past him. "You should be sleeping. I want to sleep."

“There’s something I have to tell you,” Sawamura says, not much quieter than before, and just as insistent. “I need to tell you. I’ve been thinking about it all week, and I won’t be able to stop thinking about it until I tell you!”

“And it has to be tonight?” Kazuya covers his face with his hand, and then lets it fall as he accepts Sawamura’s presence. "God, Sawamura, you’re so high-maintenance."

Sawamura seems to take that as permission to speak, and Kazuya tries to prepare himself.

"People always tell me I’m oblivious." Sawamura’s fucking earnest eyes make it impossible for Kazuya to look away. "You’re not, though. So you probably already figured out that I… You probably already know what I’m about to say! So please do me the honor of hearing me out, and please don’t run away until I’ve said it all!"

"I thought you liked running—"

"Don’t do that, either!" Sawamura’s shivering, because his coat’s hanging open carelessly and his throat is bare. "That’s not what I’m talking about, and even metaphorically speaking, I don’t run away from things. I run towards them!" He takes a deep breath. "And don’t tell me to go away or to go to sleep, right now! Because I can’t! Not when…"

"That’s a lot of don’ts." Kazuya’s hand drops from the edge of the door. “What?” He licks his lips, and darts a quick glance down the hallway in either direction. "Not when what, Sawamoron?"

“When I close my eyes, I just…” Sawamura’s mouth twists up, his chapped lips bitten red, and the light from behind Kazuya, streaming out into the hall, only emphasizes the dramatic fall of his lashes. His cheeks are still pink, and Kazuya knows there have been a hundred times where Sawamura’s looked lovelier than this, but in the heat of the moment, he can’t summon up a single one of them in the face of this expression on Sawamura’s face now. It’s terrible, Kazuya thinks, that Sawamura always finds some way to push his hand into Kazuya’s chest and cradle his heart in a capable hand. “I just see you.”

It’s almost a whisper, but it rings in Kazuya’s ears like the crack of bat to ball in the bottom of the ninth. Sawamura reaches out and snags a handful of Kazuya’s sleep-shirt, warm knuckles digging into sternum. “Me?” He knows he sounds incredulous, and maybe it’s Sawamura that has overestimated Kazuya, because Kazuya hasn’t figured out anything at all.

Yes,” Sawamura says, and Kazuya can’t rationalize it away this time, can’t snuff the flicker of something scarily like hope in his chest. “Sometimes it’s your glove, waiting for me behind home, and sometimes it’s the look on your face in that picture I took,“ he swallows, harshly, as his voice cracks, “and sometimes it’s just your mouth, smirking at me, calling me—“ He clenches his fingers tighter in the handful of Kazuya’s shirt, right at the center of his chest. "You didn’t let me finish, before, why you matter so much to me. Can I finish now?"

Kazuya’s heart is going to beat right out of his chest. "Can I stop you?"

"You can," Sawamura says, meeting him head on. He’s always meeting him head on. "But I really hope you won’t."

Sawamura, Kazuya thinks, with the small part of his brain that’s still obeying him, is just like that tricky crossfire slider he’s learned to throw, coming right at Kazuya from first base without him ever having seen the actual pitch.

All Kazuya can do is open up his mitt and catch.

"Go ahead," Kazuya manages, certain that the only thing keeping him in place right now, anchored, is Sawamura’s hand. He has enough awareness to step back, though, just enough that Sawamura’s inside the apartment instead of out in the cold hall, where his voice carries. Sawamura easily lets himself be pulled, and in the process gets closer, until the space between them is less than half a meter. "Knock yourself out," he adds, lower, and Sawamura’s eyelids drop lower, his gaze dropping to Kazuya’s mouth briefly before coming back up to meet his eyes.

Then, without letting go of Kazuya’s shirt, he moves in until their foreheads are pressed together. "Miyuki Kazuya!" His breath is hot on Kazuya’s cheeks and nose, and he’s so loud, and Kazuya doesn’t care because he’s stupid in love with him. "I think about you all the time! Whenever I see you, I feel like my heart is going to explode, and like my stomach is doing jumping jacks! Every time you smile at me, it feels like hitting a home run—"

"How would you know what hitting a home run feels like—" Kazuya starts to say, but it comes out wobbly and wrong.

And that’s all right because Sawamura’s barreling on, undaunted, because he’s brave in all the ways that come with the way he looks at the world. "The worst thing is that every time you’re mean to me I can’t decide if I want to throttle you or if I love your voice so much it doesn’t matter if you’re just being a jerk!" Sawamura licks his lips, nervous, and shit, he’s perfect, with his uneven beard and faded freckles and powdered sugar at the corner of his mouth. "I love your fearless calls when we’re a battery and I love your prickly porcupine spikes! I love every time you put down your right arm wall and let me look at you without it, let me see the you that isn’t just the Miyuki Kazuya with a terrible personality, but also the Miyuki Kazuya who inspires me to be the best player I can be!"

Kazuya closes his eyes, breathes, and when he opens them, Sawamura hasn’t disappeared.

"And everyone is always teasing me, about Takarada and Wakana or whatever, but the truth is—" He falters. "The truth is that even if I was interested in girls like that, how in the world, after all this time waiting for your calls, am I supposed to ever look away from you and see someone, anyone, else?!”

Kazuya takes a step back, but instead of creating space between them, he just pulls Sawamura further into the apartment. “What makes you think any of that matters to me?” He tilts his lips mockingly, but it feels false on his face. Transparent. It’s funny, because Kazuya’s not used to being around people that know when he’s lying.

Sawamura studies him, those vibrant eyes looking at him with a single-minded focus he gives to a good batter at the plate. “Miyuki Kazuya,” he says, and his voice sends shivers down Kazuya’s spine. “You’re the worst.” He tangles his other hand in Kazuya’s shirt at his waist. “But I’m pretty sure that there’s no one I’ll ever know that’s anything like you. And I want...” He swallows, and Kazuya watches his Adam’s apple bob. Sawamura’s heart is visible in the curl of his mouth and in the intensity of his eyes. “I want.”

This doesn’t feel real at all, and maybe that’s what gives Kazuya courage. “You want…?”

Asshole,” Sawamura growls. "Can’t you just admit you know what I’m saying?!"

“Pitchers are so demanding.” Kazuya’s heart is beating fast and painfully loud. He’s sure Sawamura must feel it against his knuckles where they press to his sternum. “Sawamura—" he starts, but the words get caught in his throat. He has a list of reasons this is a bad idea, but he wants it so much, and Kazuya is so rarely offered the things he longs for that not reaching out to grab what Sawamura is holding out in two cupped hands for the taking seems impossible. But Kazuya’s a planner, a strategist. “You can’t have thought this all through. We’re both guys, remember? And we both want to be pro-players, and people are always watching us anyway. My dad is a public figure now. Your family surely—"

“You always think so big when it comes to baseball,” Sawamura says, crowding him until Kazuya trips on the foyer step, stumbling backwards and taking Sawamura with him. Sawamura’s over him, releasing Kazuya's shirt at the waist and catching his weight with his right hand, big and muscular and oh so bright, the crumpled fabric of his jeans dragging along the outsides of Kazuya’s bare calves as their legs tangle right there, still half in Kazuya’s entryway, the door blown almost closed but Kuramochi due home at any time. “You’re always looking ahead to the next match, and you’re always so confident that we can win it all!” His nose touches Kazuya’s and all Kazuya can see are those golden eyes, revealing the lion hiding inside this man on top of him, pressing him down into the hard floor. “Even today, you told us to look forward to next season. So how come when it’s something personal, you’re willing to give up so easily?!”

“It’s not giving up.” Kazuya is not his father, and he narrows his eyes at Sawamura, fire igniting in his belly as Sawamura sets him alight. “It’s being realistic. Life isn’t one of your shoujo manga, Sawamura. I’m not the romantic male lead. It doesn’t just all work out like that, just because we’d like it to!”

“But you would like it to? You do want me?” Sawamura’s voice catches, hesitant; hesitant now, this idiot, after he’s said way too much already for either of them to take it back and pretend things haven’t changed. "It’s not… I’m not going to lose you?"

Kazuya takes a gasp of air that tastes like grass and field and autumn, and surrenders. “You’re serious, huh?” He tentatively reaches up with one hand and tangles his hand in Sawamura’s hair. It’s as soft as always, he thinks, unable to process that this is actually happening. That Sawamura wants him. Sawamura leans into the touch, like a puppy wanting Kazuya to scratch behind his ears, and that's… "I thought I was the worst, Sawamura."

“You are!” Sawamura curls into him. "I’m in love with you anyway, Miyuki Kazuya!"

“Oh.” The sound comes out helpless, and bubbling laughter chases behind it with equally little control, and in some ways, helpless is how Kazuya feels. He’s on the edge of a cliff, and he’ll never catch his balance with Sawamura looking at him, into him, like this. There's nothing he can do but tumble. "You’re in love with me, but you’re still calling me by my whole name, with no honorific—"

Sawamura licks his lips, and Kazuya loses words.

“It’s okay, right?" Sawamura mumbles. "If I want to kiss you, bastard?” His tan has faded everywhere but the bridge of his nose, following in warm weather’s footsteps, but Sawamura still feels like summer on top of him, hot and steady and as golden as the sun.

“It’s Bastard-senpai, you damn brat,” Kazuya replies, before tilting his head just a little, and lifting up to slant his mouth against Sawamura’s.

The noise Sawamura makes as their lips press together is small and desperate, and Kazuya’s hand tightens in Sawamura’s hair at it, kissing at the powdered sugar at the corner of his mouth and at the bow of his upper lip as he tests the way they fit together. Sawamura’s lips are shaking, but nothing else even speaks of tentativeness as he kisses Kazuya back, returning each peck with one of his own. They’re catching each other off-center every time, and Kazuya wonders if it’s obvious he’s never seriously kissed anyone before in every unpracticed meeting of lips. His glasses dig into his nose, so he pulls them off, tossing them somewhere amongst the piles of his and Kuramochi’s shoes.

Sawamura doesn’t seem to mind Kazuya’s blatant inexperience as he eases impossibly closer, his left hand carefully dragging up Kazuya’s chest until his warm palm is spread along Kazuya’s collarbone. "If you hurt that pitching shoulder worse tonight, Sawamura," Kazuya gasps out, "I will never kiss you again."

"You’re an ass," Sawamura says, boldly, and Kazuya would laugh if he could spare the air for it. "You can really ruin a moment!"

"Not a shoujo manga, remember?" Kazuya murmurs.

Sawamura huffs, then he clumsily sucks Kazuya’s upper lip into his mouth, his teeth scraping, and Kazuya closes his eyes, bringing his free hand up to curve around Sawamura’s jaw, aligning their mouths back together so he can kiss him again, gradually longer and more intense until Sawamura’s tongue is testing the seam of his lips.

Sawamura tastes like powdered sugar and cola and some liquor Kazuya’s never had, and he smells faintly of Shiba’s cigarettes and of sweat. Kazuya opens more for for him, and Sawamura’s tongue slips in to take the measure of his own, the stubble on his cheeks and chin rubbing Kazuya’s skin raw, and Kazuya can’t bring himself to care that his face will be irritated and red later. A moan slips out as Sawamura’s tongue strokes the roof of his mouth, and Sawamura pulls back, so Kazuya opens hazy eyes to see him looking down on Kazuya like he’s awed, with slick lips and pupils blown.

"Do that again," Sawamura growls, and Kazuya, panting, just blinks up at him.

"What?"

"Make that noise again," Sawamura clarifies, and the register of his voice is one Kazuya’s never heard before.

Kazuya shivers. "Unbelievable how demanding you are—" he starts to say, but Sawamura’s kissing him again, swallowing the words and licking his way back into Kazuya’s mouth, relentless, until Kazuya moans again, the sound dragged out by the way Sawamura’s fingertips brush at his throat.

Of course Sawamura’s giving it his all, inexpert kisses turning progressively more intrepid as he trails away from Kazuya’s mouth and back to where his neck meets his jaw. Of course Sawamura’s burning hot and melting into him, even more than Kazuya’d dreamed he might.

And it’s a consuming heat that makes Kazuya lose track of time, despite the step of the foyer digging into his back, and the draft sneaking in through the cracked door. Sawamura’s heavy weight atop him is reassuring and solid and warm. They kiss and kiss until Kazuya can’t feel his lips, until his jaw is sore and everything else has faded into background noise, like the roar of the crowd in the middle of a high stakes game.

At first, Kazuya doesn’t register the sound of Sawamura’s phone ringing. It’s loud, though, and it cuts through Kazuya’s stupor. He uses the hand in Sawamura’s hair to pull him away, earning a deep groan from Sawamura that he files away, and licks at his lips. Sawamura’s swollen mouth looks like sin, and his eyes, half-lidded, are lost as he stares down at Kazuya, breathless.

"Phone," Kazuya gasps, and Sawamura’s eyes come back into focus. Kazuya swallows, slides his hand free of Sawamura’s curls, and uses his other hand to push. Sawamura rolls to the side, digging into his pocket for his phone.

"Hello?" Sawamura’s voice is a rasp. Kazuya runs a hand through his still damp hair as he sits up, and he casts around with one hand for his glasses as he listens to Sawamura. "Ah, Kuramochi-senpai?"

Kazuya shoves his glasses onto his face, ignoring his own fingerprints, and turns to look at Sawamura. He’s lying on the floor on his back, shirt ridden up to reveal his toned stomach, and his navy blue coat is like a cloud underneath him, in contrast to the pale wood of Kazuya’s apartment floor.

"No," Sawamura says, and his eyes slowly shift, until he’s meeting Kazuya’s gaze. "I’m actually at your place." A loud noise from the phone, and Kazuya snorts as Sawamura grins. "Yeah, yeah, I’ll tell him you’ll be home in a couple of hours." He ends the call, letting his phone clatter out of his hand and onto the floor. "Kuramochi-senpai is going to be late.”

"I gathered," Kazuya says, considering Sawamura for a long moment before gets up and walks to the door, closing it completely and locking it. Then he returns to Sawamura, looking down on him. "You’re so impatient," he says, nudging at Sawamura’s side with his toes. "You couldn’t have waited to kiss me in the living room?"

Sawamura sputters, and he sits up too quickly, wincing as he jars his shoulder. "I didn’t think I’d get to kiss you at all!!"

Kazuya stares at Sawamura, at his honest expression and pink mouth and messy finger-ruined hair, and then he sighs. "Yeah," he says. "I… " He looks away. "Take your shoes off. And your coat, too, then come into the kitchen."

He leaves Sawamura there to follow instructions, and returns to the kitchen. His tea has gone cold, so he plugs the electric kettle back in with fresh water from the tap. He hears Sawamura come in after only a minute, and he looks over his shoulder to see him standing, unsure, in the door. "Sit," he says, then he smirks. "Stay."

"I’m still not a dog!!"

"Oh, you noticed I was calling you one?" Stretching up to get a second mug from the cabinet, Kazuya also grabs the box of lemon tea. "Lemon is okay, right?"

"Yeah," Sawamura replies. "Why are you making tea?"

"I like tea. This brand has no caffeine, and it’s calming, and I need something calming if I’m going to…" He tries to put his thoughts together. "If I’m going to be dealing with an idiot like you for another hour."

"Can I kiss you again?" Sawamura asks, when Kazuya turns to collect his own mug from the table, and Kazuya pauses, his hand centimeters from the handle. He chances a look at Sawamura, who is smiling at him, his cheeks cradled in his open palms, his elbows on the tabletop. "After the tea, I mean!"

"Aren’t you…" Kazuya grabs the mug and sets it next to the clean one, before taking two fresh teabags and dropping them in. "Don’t you want me to…" He takes off his glasses and runs them under the faucet, before drying them with the soft flannel sleeve of his shirt. "Shit, Sawamura, we have to talk."

"Okay," Sawamura says. He’s quiet as Kazuya pours both mugs full of hot water, and he watches carefully as Kazuya sets both mugs down on the table. He speaks up again when Kazuya goes to sit at the end of the table. "Sit next to me, Miyuki Kazuya!"

"Would it kill you to say please?" Kazuya mutters, and Sawamura looks like he’s seriously considering the question, so he just rolls his eyes. "Fine." He sits gingerly next to Sawamura, and only jumps a little when Sawamura grabs his hand and links their fingers together, like he’d done earlier tonight. Earlier tonight, Kazuya thinks, feels like a lifetime ago.

"I meant it, you know," Sawamura says, when Kazuya doesn’t start the conversation. "I’m in love with you."

Kazuya blushes, his heart tripping over itself as it tries to run right out of his chest. He brings his free hand up to push against it, just to make sure it’s not actually trying to break free. "It’s pretty amazing that you can just say things like that, Sawamoron!"

Sawamura narrows his eyes. "Are you insulting me?"

Kazuya scratches at his cheek. "I don’t know," he says. "I don’t know what to make of any of this. I’m not exactly great at this kind of thing, and I didn’t…" He wants to hide his face but he doesn’t. "I didn’t think I’d ever really need to know. But you’re always unpredictable at the weirdest times." He chuckles. "I guess that’s one of your more appealing qualities as a pitcher, too."

Sawamura pulls Kazuya’s hand into his lap. Kazuya lets him. "Too? Does that mean it’s something you like about me that’s not about pitching?!"

"You’re so greedy for compliments!" Kazuya runs his tongue along his teeth, and tastes Sawamura. "You don’t have appealing qualities as a person." He studies his mug, distracted by the way Sawamura plays with his fingers. "Well, except that you’re too dumb to know when you’re doing something really risky. That’s… That’s a pretty good quality."

"You’re shit at praising people, Miyuki Kazuya!"

Kazuya relaxes back into the chair. "Praise doesn’t mean anything if you give it all the time."

Sawamura’s disgruntlement is audible. "You don’t praise me any of the time!"

"You’re a good kisser," Kazuya says, testing, and Sawamura goes so red he puts tomatoes to shame.

"It’s only because I wanted to kiss you so much!" He hides his face in Kazuya’s shoulder. "You don’t know what it’s like, looking at you all the time!"

Kazuya thinks the same thing about Sawamura, but he won’t give him that kind of ammunition. Instead he tries to redirect the conversation. "You said, earlier, 'even if you liked girls'."

"I just don’t," Sawamura says. He’s muffled by the flannel of Kazuya’s shirt. "I never have? I didn’t really think about it much, until…" He shrugs. "I haven’t lied about that! People just assume things all the time, and…" His nose presses against Kazuya’s throat. "And it’s not fair, but I know that being like this, like me, isn’t as…"

"Normal," Kazuya finishes, and Sawamura straightens up enough to knock their foreheads together. "Ow!"

"Common," Sawamura says. "What’s normal mean, anyway?!" He releases Kazuya’s hand, and Kazuya reaches for his mug, picking it up with both hands and taking a sip. "I didn’t really think about it much in high school, because there wasn’t anyone I… well, anyone I liked?" Sawamura frowns. "Or, well, anyone I wanted to do anything about, I guess."

"Ah," Kazuya says. It’s odd, to hear Sawamura speaking so frankly about something Kazuya has kept so close to the chest. "Does that mean you had a crush, Sawamura~?" Kazuya cuts a look over at him, only to find Sawamura staring back at him intently. "Like Chris, for example?"

Sawamura’s brow furrows. "Well, I don’t know… Chris-senpai is important, and really handsome! He’s like an idol." He looks down at his own tea. "Sometimes it feels like he’s really far away, even though we’re friends now." He looks up again, at Kazuya, head tilted slightly to the side. "You’re important too, but it’s different."

"Different how?" Kazuya returns Sawamura’s gaze. "Because you want to kiss me?" He smirks. "Or is it more rated than that, Sawamura? Have you been thinking naughty things about me?" He lets his lashes flutter. "What was it you said? Compromising my virtue?"

He expects a denial, but instead he gets parted lips and a hitched breath, as Sawamura’s expression shifts. "Sometimes," he says. "I tried to ignore those thoughts, but I’m not good at that."

"What are you good at?" Kazuya says, ignoring his curling arousal, and Sawamura pouts. "What do you want from me, Sawamura?"

"Everything," says Sawamura, without an ounce of hesitation, as confident as he is in the bullpen, throwing his best change-up.

Kazuya stares, and then he starts to laugh, loudly. There’s probably some more hysteria in it, but Kazuya can’t help it, because he’s sitting at his kitchen table with Sawamura Eijun, who kissed him in the foyer and seems to want to kiss him again, and it’s… "You’re so greedy," he says, and he leans forward until he can rest his forehead on the cool surface of the table. "That stuff I said before, about baseball, about my father… that’s true, you realize."

"I know," Sawamura says. "But the thing is, I’m never going to want to date Takarada, or any other girl!" He rests a hand on Kazuya’s back, and the warmth of it bleeds through his pajama shirt. "I’m kinda having a hard time imagining wanting to date anyone but you, actually."

Not for the first time tonight, all the air whooshes out of Kazuya’s lungs. "Aren’t you kinda young to be making assessments like that?"

"You’re only a few months older than me, jackass!" Sawamura’s hand travels up his spine, and then back down. It’s a soothing touch, but it makes Kazuya feel hot, like he’s burning under his skin. "How old do I have to be to know I want to give you my heart?!"

"Oh my God," Kazuya replies, curling his hands into his fists in his lap, because he can’t do this. He has no idea how to tell Sawamura that he doesn’t know anything about relationships or love or any of that; that he’ll fuck it up completely and ruin their battery and damage a team that’s finally coming together the way he’d hoped. "What if… what if I don’t want it?"

The hand on Kazuya’s back slides up his neck to tangle in the overgrown hair at the nape. "Do you?" Sawamura twines his fingers in the hair, and Kazuya steels himself before sitting up again and turning his body toward Sawamura, their knees bumping. Sawamura’s fidgety agitation in the dugout is replaced by the slow patience he shows when it comes to Kazuya, like Kazuya is something as much worth waiting for as the perfect opportunity to send a fastball right down the middle.

"Yeah," Kazuya says, and it’s an understatement. He wants it like he wanted to beat Chris out for the catcher position fair and square, he wants it like he wanted to stay on the field at Koushien forever. He wants it like he used to want his mom to come home and make him omurice back when he was eleven, and like he wanted to never visit the Setagaya house again when he was fourteen. "Yes, Sawamoron, for some unfathomable reason, I do—"

Sawamura pulls Kazuya in gently and cuts him off with a short kiss, Sawamura catching Kazuya’s lower lip between both of his and nibbling softly, and Kazuya gasps into it, words lost between them as he kisses Sawamura back. Then Sawamura pulls back, and Kazuya follows, kisses him deeper, his eyes falling closed even though he wants to stare a little longer at the slope of Sawamura’s nose, the dry skin between his eyebrows, the smattering of faded freckles across his cheeks. Kazuya kisses Sawamura slowly, surely, until all the uncertainty has been chased away by powdered sugar and alcohol.

"Hey, Miyuki Kazuya," Sawamura says, against his lips, "I’m really happy."

"This is a terrible idea," Kazuya replies, pulling away. "You know that right? We can’t… we can’t tell anyone, and we can’t get caught, and have you even thought about this at all?"

Sawamura frowns at him. "I just told you, I’ve been thinking about it all week!" He jerks Kazuya’s hair, and Kazuya can’t hide the shiver of pleasure. Sawamura’s whole face lights up, and Kazuya averts his gaze. "I want you. You can decide the rules. You can make the calls. Okay?"

"I need…" Kazuya puts his hand on Sawamura’s forearm, yanking lightly so that Sawamura lets go of him. "I need to think about this, too." Sawamura’s lips curl down. "I’m not— It’s not a no. I just. I need to think about how this can work, okay? I need to figure out… I need to think."

Sawamura licks his lips, and Kazuya just wants to kiss him again. "It’s like studying the batter statistics, right? You want to know everything about them before we start the game."

Kazuya snorts. "You’re an idiot savant."

"Hey!" Sawamura bristles, and then he shakes it off like a wet pup in the rain. He’s so cute. Kazuya’s so doomed. "Okay. I’ll… just call me?" He squints. "I don’t know what to do right now!"

"Me either," Kazuya admits. "But calling sounds good."

"Right," Sawamura says, and then he picks up his tea, and takes a long sip. "It’s cold."

"Whose fault is that?" Kazuya picks up his own tea. It is cold. He drinks it anyway.

Sawamura sets the mug down again and stands up. Kazuya looks up at him, and he smiles back, bending down and kissing Kazuya on the forehead. "Good night."

"So now you leave."

Sawamura laughs, and the sound of it warms Kazuya all the way down to his toes. "You don’t grow a garden overnight," he says, and then he leaves, slipping into his shoes and closing the door behind him as Kazuya sits at the kitchen table with cooling tea and a rapidly thudding heart.

Kuramochi comes home an hour later, drunkenly slamming open the door and rousing Kazuya from his stupor.

"You didn’t lock the door," Kuramochi says. "Trying to get murdered?"

"That would be too convenient for you," Kazuya murmurs, turning to look at his roommate.

Kuramochi’s eyes widen when he sees Kazuya. "Woah," he says. "You look…"

"Sleepy?" Kazuya grins. "Drop dead gorgeous?"

"Like you’re having an allergic reaction," Kuramochi replies, grimacing. "Your cheeks and mouth are all red, dude."

"New shaving cream," Kazuya replies, thinking of Sawamura’s rough stubble as Kuramochi pours himself water.

"Sawamura’s gone?"

"Obviously," Kazuya replies. "You would have heard him down the block if he wasn’t."

"I guess. What did he come here for, anyway?"

Kazuya closes his eyes. "To make a nuisance of himself."

"Ha!" Kuramochi shakes his head. "That guy is so weird!"

"You’re one to talk." Kazuya stands up from the table, ignoring the two mugs. He can take care of them in the morning. "I’m going to bed."

"Yeah, yeah," Kuramochi says. "Let’s go out for breakfast tomorrow."

"No," Kazuya replies.

Kuramochi cackles. "Lunch, then, lazyass," he says. "Just you and me. We can call Sawamura if you want."

"If I want?" Kazuya rubs at his eyes, hiding his face with his arm. "You and me is fine."

He leaves Kuramochi leaning against the kitchen counter, going into their bedroom, putting on his eye-mask, and getting into bed, pulling the covers up over his head even though his world’s already dark. But even though he’s exhausted, he can’t fall asleep, because the happiness tangled up in wanting Sawamura is mixed with the anxiety of everything involved with having him.

Kazuya takes a bite of white bread toast as Kuramochi picks the bits of spam out of his spaghetti salad. "Can’t beat the university’s hundred-yen breakfast," he says. "Why don’t we ever eat this anymore?"

"We had it almost every day last year during off-season, remember?" Kazuya sets down the slice of bread. He hasn’t eaten much; both apple slices sitting on the plate next to the uneaten hotdog halves and rolled egg.

Kuramochi notices. "And now it’s off-season, and we’re here, and you’re not eating." Kuramochi squints at him. "I’m the one who’s hungover, you know."

"It’s not like it’s obvious," Kazuya replies, elongating each syllable in obvious. "You’re always this ugly to look at."

"Look, you asshole, just tell me what’s got you all sleepless so I can stop worrying about it." Kuramochi reaches across his tray to Kazuya’s with his chopsticks, steals his rolled egg, and then shoves the entirety of it into his mouth as he stares at Kazuya expectantly.

"No one told you to worry about me." Kazuya picks up his toast again, aimlessly. "Or to eat my breakfast."

"Not like you were going to eat it," Kuramochi replies, little bits of egg spraying.

"Disgusting. Have you considered eating like a person instead of a wild dog?"

"Why should I try to impress you?" Kuramochi steals a hot dog half next, and shoves that in too.

Kazuya laughs. "Wow, the romance is all gone."

"What romance?! Don’t act like I’d ever deign to date you!" He points at Kazuya with his chopsticks. "Stop being a dick and dodging my questions."

"For someone who’s not dating me, you sure talk a lot about my dick, ‘Mochi~" Kazuya grins slyly as Kuramochi snarls at him.

"Damnit, Miyuki, I oughta show you some of my best wrestling moves—"

"How do you decide if something is too risky?" Kazuya interrupts, before Kuramochi’s violence can get too graphic. He takes a sip of his coffee as Kuramochi blinks at him. He really does look super terrible today, Kazuya thinks, watching Kuramochi try to process the question.

Kuramochi sits up straight in his seat. "Are you really asking me that?"

"You asked me what was bothering me," says Kazuya. He runs a hand through his hair, and thinks of the way Sawamura’s fingers had felt, tightening in the long tangled strands at his nape. "I’m just trying to do what you want, Kuramochi."

"No, I mean…" Kuramochi raises both eyebrows. "Don’t you have two balls the size of an actual fucking tanuki? You call for change-ups from Sawamura when the batter is left-handed because you’re a freak. You’re famous for your absurdly gutsy calls, and you’re asking me when the best time to take a risk is? You gotta be fucking kidding me!" He’s cackling.

Kazuya licks his lips, catching crumbs with his tongue, then smiles wryly as he pointedly doesn’t mention Kuramochi’s reference to his genitalia. "I mean, in real life. With people. You've told me I'm a bit cowardly about that."

Kuramochi’s laughter trails off, and he’s suddenly far more focused, looking at Kazuya like he wants to peel his skin back and see what’s underneath it. "Did something happen?" He sets down his chopsticks. "With your dad, or something?"

"Are you going to answer the question?" Kazuya doesn’t say 'nothing' because he’s an expert at avoiding the truth but the way Sawamura’s mouth had felt on his own is anything but 'nothing'. He hears Sawamura’s voice in his head, straightforwardly asking Kazuya for everything, and tries not to blush under Kuramochi’s scrutiny.

"Do you… do you have a crush on someone?" Kuramochi’s face contorts in unholy glee. "Is the untouchable, unemotional genius catcher Miyuki Kazuya experiencing feelings?"

"Never mind," Kazuya says, bluntly. "No, wait, actually, you acknowledge my genius?"

"You will not distract me from this ammo you have inexplicably handed me," Kuramochi says, leaning forward. "So what, is she tall? Short? Loud? Quiet?"

For a moment, Kazuya’s tempted to tell Kuramochi everything. Not only because Kuramochi, in his head, is still one of his vice-captains, trustworthy as a sounding-board and one of the few people in Kazuya’s life he’s ever considered telling that he’s not into women, but also because he thinks it might make Kuramochi choke on the other half of the hotdog he just stole from Kazuya’s plate, and Kazuya would find that pretty hilarious.

"I’m not talking about girls, Kuramochi." Kazuya reaches for his water and takes a long sip. "Just in general." He sets his water down hard. "If it’s too vague, you don’t have to answer."

Kuramochi hums, looking at Kazuya with a more measured speculation than before. "I think," he says, finally, "that it depends on what you have to gain, right?" He rubs at his chin, reminiscent of a James Bond villain. "Sometimes you want something so bad you have to reach out and take it, right? Even if the cost could be high. Like playing injured in a qualifying final when you know better, for example."

Something you want so bad you have to reach out and take it makes Kazuya think of his own name written across Sawamura’s broad back, of Sawamura telling him he doesn’t have to be alone, and he aches for it, deep down in his gut. "Huh," he says. "That was a surprisingly good reminder, ‘Mochi!" He grins. "Even a broken clock is right twice a day, eh?"

"Who the fuck are you calling a broken clock, bastard?!" Kuramochi snarls, and he snatches the toast Kazuya has just picked up again right out of his hand. "Be hungry and sad, then, see if I care!"

"Ha!" Kazuya’s smile gets a little larger. "Thanks, though!" Then, for a brief moment, he lets his expression be genuine. "Really."

Kuramochi huffs, averting his gaze. "Whatever. It’s like I’ve been saying. Talk to me about stuff instead of bottling it all up. Even if it’s all secretive, like this."

"Pass," Kazuya replies.

Kazuya does his best for the next few days not to dwell on the memory of Sawamura’s warm, wet mouth, but it’s a struggle.

Sunday crawls by in a haze of backlogged work and naps until suddenly it’s Tuesday, and without baseball practice, Kazuya finds himself with too much time to think. He writes an e-mail to Furuya that probably contains at least sixty kanji the pitcher won’t know, and completes two problem sets, one for his second year information systems class and another for his introductory databases course, and doesn’t think about Sawamura’s hand in his hair or his soft eyes.

He knows he will have to think about the shift in their relationship soon. Mostly, he’s scared to do that, because it feels a little like he’s cornered on base, with only a few moves he can make, not a one of them perfect. He doesn’t want to hurt Sawamura, and he doesn’t want to get hurt himself, either, and anything between them would probably, eventually hurt, because they both want to play baseball for the rest of their lives.

It’s enough to make him start to panic, so he forces the thoughts down and wrestles up a memory of where he is in the textbook chapter his professor for info systems assigned as background reading for the next three lectures.

"How much work can we possibly have not done during the season," Kuramochi whines, when he joins Kazuya, Shirasu, and Hirahata at the Izumi Library, at Kazuya’s favorite table. "It seems impossible that there was this much."

"Some of us kept up~" Kazuya sing-songs.

"You sound like Sawamura." Kuramochi shoves his books aside, and then lies down on the table, sprawling enough into Hirahata’s space that Hirahata actually bothers with a long sigh.

"Oh, he kept up?" Kazuya asks lightly, his eyes on his textbook page.

"Hasn’t he talked your ear off about how he’s rereading all the books for his Heian literature class again because he wants to ’really understand their essence’ or some bullshit like that?"

"Why would he have?" Kazuya still doesn’t look up, but the silence he gets in response to that is enough to tempt him.

Shirasu coughs. "Miyuki, Sawamura talks to you all the time."

Kazuya turns the page. "Haven’t talked to him this week."

"Are you… fighting?" Hirahata asks.

"No," Kazuya replies. He finally looks up. "Why would you think that?"

No one answers for a long time, and Kuramochi groans. "Do I really have to explain this?"

Setting down his pencil, Shirasu turns to Kazuya with what passes for disbelief on his face. "You seem worried about something." He pauses, and when Kazuya doesn’t express some miraculous understanding, he continues: "…and it turns out you haven’t been talking to Sawamura. So something’s wrong."

"If we’d fought, you’d probably know about it by now," Kazuya says, with a small grin. "Sawamura’s not shy about airing his grievances, remember?"

"That’s true," Kuramochi says. "Still, you’ll never convince me something’s not weird with you!"

"Good thing I don’t have to convince you of anything, then, isn’t it?" Kazuya smirks and points to Kuramochi’s scattered work. "When was that assignment due, ‘Mochi? Two weeks ago? Three?"

"Yeah, yeah, laugh it up!" He scowls. "And you better not mope if you’re not going to tell anyone why you’re moping!"

"I’m not moping," Kazuya replies. He knows he isn’t, because nothing is wrong exactly, except that in the past two weeks he’s seen less of Sawamura than before Sawamura came to join him at Meiji, and, well, Kazuya hasn’t contacted him because contacting him might imply he’s finished figuring out what he’s going to do about Sawamura in general.

He misses Sawamura, though, in small ways and big ones. It’s too quiet without Sawamura’s hollering, and it just makes Kazuya’s thoughts sound even louder, when Kazuya’s thoughts are so damn scary that he’d prefer to let them be drowned out. He can’t believe, sometimes, that his life has changed this much since August— that now, in early December, he’s already forgotten how it feels to be alone. It’s terrifying, to think Sawamura has the power to make him forget something like that, when Kazuya’s been learning to live with it for the past ten years.

It’s terrifying, because how much worse will it be in a year or two, if Sawamura even sticks around that long? Kazuya knows he’s awfully easy to leave, and he thinks maybe he’s never been less prepared for it.

On Wednesday, Kazuya doesn’t see Takarada or Sawamura when he leaves his journalism class, and so he walks home alone, sipping on a warm Americano and crunching through the last of the leaves.

Kuramochi takes one look at him and rolls his eyes. "Still moping," he says.

"I’m definitely not," Kazuya replies. "It’s just boring, without baseball."

"Does this have anything to do with the conversation we had on Saturday morning?"

Grimacing, Kazuya runs a hand through his shaggy, impossibly messy hair and sighs. "I’m going to the gym before my health check."

"Why do you have so much free time?!" Kuramochi yells, and Kazuya laughs mockingly, grabbing a change of clothes and heading to the team gym so he can exercise until his appointment time, and hopefully he’ll be tired enough to fall right to sleep after.

On Friday, his last class of the day lets out late, but Kazuya’s not ready to go home with all this energy, and takes the long way, walking past the front temple instead of behind the grounds. As he stops in front of the main gate, he sees an elderly couple standing next to each other, hands together as they both look up at the gorgeous Tsukiji Honganji architecture, with its columns and arches guarded by two stone lions. They’re staring at a small sign that says: A quiet place to think.

Kazuya’s thoughts are still as scattered and complicated as they’ve been all week, but, he concludes, with resignation, that he might really need to look at them anyway, so he can make a decision about how this… whatever with Sawamura is going to go.

The thing is, a part of Kazuya thinks he already decided a long time ago, back when he’d tried to lock Sawamura out of his personal life and then let Sawamura barge his way back in after barely putting up a struggle. He thinks he’d already decided the first time he’d let Sawamura fall asleep on his shoulder, or the moment he set a photo of Sawamura as the lockscreen on his phone, or when he let Sawamura meet his father. He thinks he’s decided again and again and again to let Sawamura come in closer than he usually can bear to allow, and he’s only realizing it now.

It’s never been so hard for Kazuya to breathe around his want.

Still, Kazuya can’t quite let go of the way Ichinose sometimes looks at Kazuya like he can see right through his facade, and the way the way he has to tiptoe around questions of why he doesn’t have a girlfriend when so many girls ask him out. Kazuya knows that if the wrong people find out about him and Sawamura, it could spell the end to their baseball ambitions, and he also knows that it would just take one person who didn’t like it or understand it for them to lose it all.

Kazuya had always sort of thought he’d end up alone. He’d planned on it, really, because it would be easier, in the long run, to keep his heart instead of giving it away. Kazuya understands himself well enough to know he’ll never be half-assed about anything. He’s the sort of person who slides for home base with a torn oblique because he’s that committed to the win. He’s never given less than his all to something he’s set on, and he doesn’t think love is going to be any different, considering the way he’s already well on his way to being consumed by it.

"You look like you’re thinking very hard about something," says a voice from behind him, and Kazuya turns to see Uehara, carrying a large notebook and observing him curiously. The lift of Uehara’s brows is familiar. She really does remind him of his mother.

"Ah, maybe," he says, smiling at her faintly. "What are you doing here?"

She jostles her notebook. "I’m working on a drawing of the Amida Nyorai Buddha inside the main hall for my drawing class." She wrinkles her nose. "I have to do it in doses, because I’m sensitive to the smell of incense."

"Oh," Kazuya says, and at her expectant look, he adds: "I’m just… trying to think through a personal problem, and I didn’t want to go back to Kuramochi’s nosiness just yet. This place was just on my way home."

"A personal problem?" She does that nervous thing with her lips she’d done when she’d tried to ask him out, and Kazuya braces himself. "Can I do anything to help?"

He means to say no, but instead he says: "What did Sawamura say to you, that day in the convenience store?"

Uehara starts, like that was the last thing she expected Kazuya to ask. "That day… you mean after I confessed to you?"

"Yes," Kazuya says. "I’ve always wondered what he said to make you laugh that day." He laughs. "Or is it a secret, still?"

"It’s still a secret, probably, but I can tell you part of it…"

"Yeah?"

Uehara’s lips quirk. "He told me I was a brave princess for confessing, and that he hoped that I would never give up on finding true love," she says, and even now, her smile spreads across her face wide as she tries not to laugh again. "He was so serious about it, too! He told me that he was pretty sure love was supposed to be like Koushien, and if it was something I wanted for myself, then I was going to have to be brave." Her fringe blows into disarray at a gust of wind. "Does he read a lot of manga or something?"

"A metric fuckton," Kazuya says, as his chest constricts, anxiety a heavy stone in his stomach. "That and romance movies. He’s addicted."

"That makes sense!" Uehara shivers. "He’s a good guy."

"I suppose," Kazuya agrees. "For an idiot."

Uehara laughs, rubbing her hands up and down her arms. "I think there’s something pretty wonderful about how you never have to wonder where you stand with him, though."

"Yeah. It can be a headache, too, sometimes, because he wants you to be just as honest back."

"Is that hard for you?" Uehara blinks at him. "It must be, huh?"

Uncomfortable, Kazuya looks away. "You should get inside," he says, instead of answering her.

She stares at him for a long moment, before she smiles ruefully. "I need to switch to my heavy coat. I hear we’re supposed to get snow this weekend." She bobs her head in a perfunctory goodbye. "I’m going to head home. See you around when training season starts up again."

"Sure," Kazuya says. He watches her go, thinking about how she’s so much less shy than he’d realized, before walking toward the stairs. There’s a sign asking people not to sit on them during the day, but night is already falling, and the place is already mostly cleared out, so Kazuya figures he won’t be getting in anyone’s way. He leans back, until his elbows can rest on the step behind him, and sighs.

"If it’s something I want for myself," he says aloud, and the words are white, shapeless clouds in the air in front of him.

That’s not a question at all, is it? Of course Kazuya wants Sawamura. He wants his kisses and his pitches and his absolute trust and everything in between. Kuramochi had called him fearless at the plate, last weekend, but that’s not exactly true. Kazuya just thinks baseball is more rewarding when you take every chance and go for every run, instead of playing it staid and safe.

Life has larger stakes than a single baseball game, which is maybe why Kazuya has been hesitating so much. Still, he thinks, you can’t win anything if you’re too scared to steal a base with two outs on the scoreboard.

If it’s something Kazuya wants, he’s just going to have to be as brave as the stupid, reckless other half of his battery. He’s going to have to give the same sort of trust Sawamura gives him right back to him, tit for tat.

Kazuya takes out his phone and opens up his contacts, scrolling down past 'a' and 'ka' until he gets to 'sa'. There aren’t that many numbers saved. Maybe fifteen, because Kazuya’s always kept himself just out of reach.

"Are you actually calling me?!" Sawamura’s voice is loud, and Kazuya holds the phone away from his ear.

"It was a mistake," Kazuya replies. "I forgot how much I like having eardrums."

"Sorry!" Sawamura laughs. "I was just… I’m just really excited that you called!"

Kazuya blushes, and covers his face with his hand. "How can you just say—" He chuckles. "Are you busy right now?"

"I’m just writing an English essay." Sawamura groans. "I think I’ve written the same thing like six different times using varying grammar patterns. At least the topic’s interesting!"

Holding the phone closer to his face again, Kazuya tracks an older woman’s slow path to the exit. "What’s the topic?"

Sawamura’s laugh is victorious. "Manga! My professor thought it would be really fun to read about, and I’ve been forbidden to talk about baseball in one-on-one sessions ever again!"

"Make sure you use Isashiki-senpai as a reference," Kazuya teases.

Laughing again, Sawamura makes an agreeing noise. "Do you think he’d help?!"

"I think it’s worth the laugh I’m going to get if you irritate the crap out of him to find out!"

"Miyuki Kazuya!!"

"Hey, Sawamura," Kazuya says, his throat going tight. "Can you take a break from comics for a little while?"

"Yeah, of course!" He hums. "Sorry to disappoint you but I am not allowed to pitch for six more days, which I am sure is very sad for you since my pitches are obviously the highlight of your day—"

Snorting, Kazuya interrupts him. "Oops, I think we lost connection for a second there!"

"No we didn’t! You’re just being a jerk!"

"Guilty," Kazuya replies, and when Sawamura’s finished sputtering, he says: "I’m at Tsukiji Honganji. Should I come to you, or—"

"No, no, I need to leave my apartment or I’ll start climbing the walls!" He can hear Sawamura grabbing his keys. "I’ll be there in ten minutes."

Ten minutes. Kazuya takes a deep breath. "Okay," he says, and ends the call.

Kazuya watches the sun set from the steps as the straggling last visitors to the temple wander back out onto Shinohashidori Street, the tips of his fingers getting cold enough that he tucks them into the pockets of his coat. Then he closes his eyes, letting the wind ruffle his hair and wishing he’d remembered to bring his hat.

His eyes fly open when a fingernail clicks against the left lens of his glasses.

"I know I volunteered, but did you have to be here?" Sawamura asks. Kazuya looks up to take him in. He’s wearing his coat open, revealing a ratty orange sweatshirt Kazuya’s seen him wear a hundred times and a pair of jeans that definitely won’t survive more than another month before Kazuya will see more skin than denim. His face is scruffy, unshaven, and it highlights the harsher angle of his jaw. Sawamura grew up unfairly well, Kazuya thinks, his stomach still twisted up in knots. "I always avoid this place."

"Oh?" Kazuya’s voice cracks, so he clears it. He curls his toes in his shoes. "It’s a pretty famous historical place, and I thought you liked history since you keep trying to relive it through your speech patterns."

"I just like samurai," Sawamura says, frankly, sitting down next to him on the steps. "And I only know anything about this place because my mom was really excited about the pipe organ inside. Uehara says there’s a monthly lunchtime concert, and I was going to suck it up next time my parents came to visit, but… I don’t like temples very much, I guess. They make me nervous."

"Why?" Kazuya tries to pay more attention to his feet than to Sawamura so warm and close. "Is it because you have to be quiet inside?"

"It would not hurt you to be nice to me," Sawamura complains. "Seriously!"

"It might," Kazuya replies, contemplatively. "I don’t want to take the chance, honestly!"

"I’d throttle you if I thought it might not damage my shoulder."

Kazuya looks up at him through his lashes. "You’ve been taking care of it, right?" He quirks his lips. "It’d be pretty pathetic of you to be sitting on the sidelines or running laps when we go to winter training camp."

"I’ve been careful!" Sawamura rolls his left shoulder slowly, gingerly. "It doesn’t hurt anymore, so I’ve been trying not to favor it."

"Good," Kazuya nods. "So why is Sawamura Eijun nervous around temples?"

"You know the saying