Going home after the U20 felt like a dream, in the most literal sense. He could barely remember the drive back, let alone the closing ceremony. Everything had gone so suddenly from distant and murky to bright and immediate, and he couldn’t keep up with the images in front of his eyes, let alone make sense of everything that had happened the last... month, was it? He wasn’t even sure of that. Days had been blurring together for him long before Shiranui stepped in. It was before the U20, he knew that much, but how long before? There was no way to know. No one else could tell him.
Stepping through the front door, seeing the same walls and faces that he’d been looking at through a smothering haze for weeks... still felt no more real now. But his body kept moving. He greeted everyone. Accepted their condolences. His father had heard about his loss at the tournament, and so everyone knew now. He wanted to speak to Kazumi about it, as soon as he got home. Don’t worry about Miss Fahrenheart, someone assured him with a smile, as they put a hand on his back and steered him down the hall, she had caught an earlier flight. She was already gone. No need to stay now that the tournament was over.
Kazumi remembered, vaguely, her walking away on unsteady legs, and not appearing for the award ceremony. “Did she leave a message-”
“Just that she was sorry to have to leave so soon. Now hurry along, your father is waiting.”
His until-then automatic responses finally hit a jam - only to still be pushed forward regardless. He didn’t argue. Causing a fuss now wouldn’t do any good, if Verno was already sent away.
He knelt down properly. He kept his head and shoulders straight. The man across from him started speaking in short, clipped sentences that steadily grew into a rush of words that required no actual answers. Good. Most of what was being said wasn’t really registering as actual words anyway. Kazumi remembered a time when he would have hung off every word this man said. Now he knew better. Just wait it out. If he asks a question, agree or disagree as simply as possible. And wait.
“Honestly, I thought you were finally starting to take things more seriously recently,” the head of the Onimaru house said, “And now you go and throw a fit out in public. Are you trying to embarrass me? The entire family?”
“At least you managed to not lose to that boy,” he continued, not even blinking in reaction to Kazumi's words, “But for even his teammate to defeat you... it’s bad enough you were in the same tournament to begin with. Did you even think about whether people would ask questions? It’s not going to be easy to smooth over.”
That, at least, stirred some recognition in him. Kazumi covered his right hand with his left, and tried to remember Kazuma holding it.
It had been real, hadn’t it? Of course Kazuma had been at the U20, he wouldn’t be getting this particular lecture right now if he hadn’t. But... the rest. Kazuma wanting to see him. Telling him not to disappear. Touching him. Kazumi didn’t know how to make himself believe it.
“Though he’s always brought out the worst in you. This is just one more example... I suppose it’s my fault for allowing him to come here in the first place.” Finally, he sighed in a way Kazumi recognized as meaning the conversation was reaching its end point. “Well, it’s over now. Tell me if he approaches you like this again. I’ve gone to a lot of trouble to bury that mess, if he’s going to try and dredge it back up I need to know.”
Kazumi squeezed his right hand, just a little.
When he was finally released and allowed to return to his room, Kazumi still couldn’t make himself check what was weighing on him most. He tried to call Verno first instead. No luck, it wouldn’t go through. Was she already on the plane then? The Onimaru family certainly had skill in moving quickly. He settled for sending her a text, asking her to get in touch when she could.
With that done, though, he was left still staring at his screen. His finger hovered over the Contacts button. What exactly had Kazuma said, before he’d gone? The words weren’t coming back at all. The harder he tried to remember, the more details felt like they were slipping away. He couldn’t even remember what Kazuma’s teammates had looked like, and they’d been right there.
Had Kazuma even asked to see him again? Maybe Kazumi had misunderstood. Maybe it was natural for Kazuma to want to help while he was in trouble, but nothing beyond that. Or maybe Kazuma was still mad at him. Maybe he just pretended to put his number in. That would be a fair punishment for leaving him in the first place.
Or maybe- and the thought made the room swim - maybe he was just still dreaming. All of it, from the start, right up to now, maybe all of it was one long dream, because really, what are the odds that after all these years, Kazuma would just happen to appear when he needed him, it just didn’t make sense, it couldn’t be real-
‘Don’t run away!’
He shut his eyes, grit his teeth, and hit the button.
It took a few breaths before he could make himself look. But it was there. ‘Kazuma’, and a number underneath.
He told himself to be satisfied with that for now, but the need ran too deep. His hands kept moving, hitting ‘call’ and bringing the phone to his ears.
It barely rang once before, “Hey, Nii-sama?”
The relief hit like a blow to the head, knocking all the strength out of his legs and forcing him to bite back a sob. Instead, he tightened his grip on his phone, closed his eyes, and let himself slide down to the floor. He had to answer. He had to sound okay. He let out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding and said, “Yes, it’s me. Sorry, I just... wanted to make sure I had the right number here.”
“It’s fine. I was gonna call you if you hadn’t. Did you get back okay?”
“Good...” In the pause, Kazumi could hear noises in the background on the other end. Talking, some laughter. Kazuma was with his friends - well, of course he was. They’d pulled off a wonderful victory, of course they’d want to celebrate that. “To be honest I wasn’t sure about letting you go back by yourself like that. At least you weren’t walking, but-”
Something adjacent to a laugh burst out. “No, trust me, you don’t want to come anywhere near here.”
Almost immediately, he knew that was the wrong thing to say. He could feel it in the silence on the other end, before Kazuma asked, poorly hiding his alarm, “Why, did something happen? Are you okay?”
He pressed the heel of his hand to his forehead. Stupid, stupid , he just said he’d been worried. Don’t make it worse. “No, sorry, I just mean - I’m fine here by myself, really. It’s nothing I don’t know how to handle.”
“...If you say so.” It sounded like Kazuma wanted to say something else, and Kazumi was already trying to come up with a better reassurance to counter it. But then, he heard someone on the other end calling Kazuma’s name.
“Sorry, it sounds like I interrupted something. You should get back to your friends, I don’t want to keep you-”
“Ah, wait!” Kazumi shifted a little against the wall, but did as he was asked. Sounding a little nervous, Kazuma continued, “It’s just... we didn’t really get to talk much earlier, with everything that was going on. So... do you know when you’re free next? I’d like to, y’know, meet up. Soon.”
The light impatience that seeped into the last word made Kazumi smile. “Just tell me when works for you. I’ll make time for it.” It was alright to admit that much of his own eagerness, right? Kazuma already had, after all.
“Okay... then, the day after tomorrow, around noon? We can get lunch or something.”
“Alright. Did you have a place in mind?”
“I only just started thinking... we’ll meet me at the park, okay? I’ll decide by then.”
Kazumi laughed. Just a bit, but the sound surprised him. “Understood. I’ll trust your judgement.” It would be alright to say good-bye and hang up then, he thought, but... what would he do, after that? After everything, all he could imagine was falling asleep. But the thought scared him. He already... he already felt so untethered. Either he wouldn’t dream and he’d just sink back into that darkness that was comfortable enough to frighten him, or he would and he’d have a new line of images to confuse him as he tried to work through the two sets of memories jumbled in his head.
His breathing had grown strained, he realized with a start. Swallowing, Kazumi meant to reassure Kazuma again. But he couldn’t calm down. If he couldn’t steady his breathing, he definitely couldn’t steady his voice. And Kazuma was already wary. Kazumi didn’t... he didn’t want Kazuma to think he couldn’t be honest with him. So finally, he said, “I... Can I ask you something?”
“Yeah, what is it?”
“...This is real, right?” He had to hold on to the phone with both hands. There was no feeling in his fingers, just a static-like buzz under his skin, and he didn’t trust himself not to drop it with just one. “I’ll believe you, if you say it. I will. So. Is this all really happening?”
For one impossibly long second, Kazuma didn’t say anything and Kazumi didn’t breath. And then, “Yeah.” Kazuma’s voice was firm, forceful even, like he was trying to imprint the words onto his listener. “It’s real. Shiranui’s really gone, and you’re really here and safe. And,” a waver entered that word, and Kazuma had to pause before finishing, “We’re really going to see each other again in two days. Got that?”
“Okay...” It came out weak. Watery. Kazumi leaned forward until his forehead was against his knees, and tried again. “Okay. Yes. I’ll see you then.” He wanted to ask for more - if he could call tomorrow too, or at least send a text. But he didn’t quite dare. After all, with any luck he’d get in touch with Verno tomorrow. And he didn’t trust himself not to get confused if he did more than one thing at a time.
When their good-byes were said and the call ended, before going to bed, before he even tried standing, Kazumi put the upcoming meeting in his calendar. He’d need a clear reminder, for when he woke up.