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prelude

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In one branch, maybe, Kogure just watches as Mitsui walks away, curled in on himself like he's lost something irreplaceable. The team is so happy that maybe it just doesn't occur to him to chase the other boy. Mitsui is recovering, he'll be back soon, then they can all celebrate together. They can play basketball together again. They have time, Kogure thinks, and there's nothing to make him doubt that.

In this branch, however, Kogure looks up, recognises hurt, and he runs.

The stadium is bigger than he thought it was. He runs past startled parents, people from other schools, apologies only half-voiced because he can't catch his breath. Even as he trips on his own shoes trying to speed up, he regrets this foolish impulse. Mitsui will be gone by the time he gets out, and then Kogure will have done nothing but inconvenience his teammates and disappoint Coach Anzai. But he has to do something.

Around the next corner, he sees a hunched figure, a dropped bag, a pair of crutches. Mitsui, slumped against the wall. Kogure stumbles, says the first syllable of Mitsui's name before he can stop himself, but Mitsui doesn't look up from the floor. Kogure isn't sure if he's allowed to call out— it had seemed so simple just a minute ago. Now all his words are dried up in his mouth and the few metres between them feel like an abyss. Thankfully, no one is really paying attention to them. Everyone who would recognise Mitsui Hisashi is still inside, watching the match. Kogure takes a big gulping breath of air, lets it out, and goes over to sit gingerly next to Mitsui.

He feels awkward in his strawberry printed t-shirt, the floor tiles seeping cold through his shorts. He and Mitsui haven't had a proper conversation since the hospital. Kogure probably isn't even the best person to be here.

"Mitsui," he says anyway, hesitantly.

"What," says Mitsui. He sounds so tired.

There are so many things Kogure could say. He wants to ask if Mitsui's knee is alright. If he knows when he's going to come back to the club. If he's— if he's been crying, which is so rude Kogure feels himself flush with embarrassment. He says, instead, the first banal thing that comes to mind.

"Do you want to get a coffee?"

Mitsui turns to him as though seeing him for the first time. "Coffee," he repeats.

"I- I mean," Kogure flounders, "if you'd rather have tea? Juice?"

"I'd rather," Mitsui starts, and then lets the sentence hang, pressing his lips together. His hands clench and relax like he can't make up his mind whether to be angry or not. This isn't a Mitsui that Kogure has ever seen before. The boy he knew was always sure of himself, in a way no one else around him could ever be. Kogure watches the boy in front of him struggle with words and thinks, I've been wrong before. He gets to his feet.

"I'll get— Wait here, I'll just get us some drinks."

Kogure walks back to get canned coffee from a vending machine, one black and one white. He watches the cans clatter into the slot, glad he left his IC card in his pocket. When he's walking back something in his gut urges him to run, hurry but when he skids around the corner, panting, Mitsui is still the same as when he left.

"Did you run all the way?" he says, the ghost of a smile tilting the side of his mouth. Kogure nods. He holds out the black coffee.

"I don't, uh," Mitsui looks embarrassed now, "I don't like black coffee."

"It's okay. You can have the white," Kogure replies. He sits down and pops his can open, and they drink in awkward silence. Kogure doesn't like black coffee either, but he can't say it.

It seems like an endless amount of time until Mitsui sighs and puts down his can. "Why aren't you with the team?" he asks, fiddling with the hem of his sweatshirt.

Why aren't you? comes crawling up his throat. Kogure swallows it down with some effort. "Because I saw you," he says instead.

Mitsui opens his mouth, his brow furrowed like he's about to say something angry, but then he doesn't. The match is on its last quarter by now. Maybe they'll come out after it's finished to look for Kogure, and then they will find Mitsui too.

"I don't think I can go back." It's said so quietly that Kogure almost loses it under the soft murmurs of other people in the corridor, the faint squeak of basketball shoes on the indoor courts. He looks at Mitsui, who is worrying at his bottom lip with perfectly straight teeth and refusing to meet Kogure's eyes. There is a question that Kogure should ask, but everything seems so lacking in the face of Mitsui's white knuckles on his knee. He tips the can of black coffee back, and bitterness sweeps his mouth. It tastes like resolution.

"Let's go somewhere else, then," Kogure says. Mitsui goes still. The can of white coffee next to him is sweating condensation onto the clean floor, so Kogure swipes it and drinks that too. His stomach is going to disagree with him later. At least his mouth tastes sweet now.

"Where?" Mitsui's voice wavers, ever so slightly, but when he takes Kogure's hand and lets himself be pulled up, his grip is bruisingly strong.

Kogure smiles. "Anywhere," he says, simply. For a moment, they look at each other, Mitsui's eyes unreadable and Kogure trying not to let responsibility catch up to him.

"Hold this," Mitsui says, passing Kogure one of this crutches and exchanging it for the black coffee can. Then he throws it, one-armed, at the recycling bin in the corner. The arc it makes is as beautiful as any three-pointer Mitsui has ever thrown. But the bin is not a basketball hoop, and the can is not a ball, and so it strikes the rim and drops noisily to the ground.

Kogure doesn't look at Mitsui, retrieving the other boy's bag from the floor and wondering if Akagi will remember to take his own. There is a shuddering gasp of breath from behind him. He turns, slides the crutch back under Mitsui's arm, and helps him out of the building and down the stairs. On the way out, he picks up the fallen can and puts both the black and the white in the bin. Maybe Mitsui is crying, maybe he isn't. It's not Kogure's place to comment.

They don't speak again until they are well away from the gymnasium.

"Not gonna ask me anything?" Mitsui says, a little too loudly. His crutches thump against the sidewalk.

"Would you answer?" Out of the corner of his eye, Kogure sees Mitsui make a face. He doesn't let himself wonder what he's doing. His mouth is still sugary sweet from the white coffee.

They stop at a pedestrian crossing, waiting for the light to change.

"I could go for a cigarette." Mitsui is looking past Kogure, his expression contemplative, and Kogure turns to see a tobacco store on the corner.

"They're really bad for you," he says lightly, as if Mitsui doesn't know. There is a pregnant pause.

And then Mitsui laughs, finally, like sun breaking through the troubled clouds of his face. "Guess so."

The light turns green, and they walk on.