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pas de deux in print

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Winning catcher Miyuki Kazuya, accompanied by rival pitcher Sawamura Eijun, pillar of the next contending team.

A pretty bold caption, all things considered. After all, the photograph’s somewhat discreetly tucked away on the corner of the third page, small and hardly noticeable: a pleasantly tasteful picture on a disquietingly cold canvas.

Technically, it shouldn’t have been a big deal – or at least, it hadn’t started as one. He’d been right next to Sawamura when it’d been snapped, walking side-by-side with the weight of Sawamura’s arm comfortable and warm around his hips, with the faint curve of a toothy smile brightening Sawamura’s face, and with the heated breath of a proudly murmured you did it, Miyuki spilling from Sawamura’s mouth. Sawamura’s expression had been cheerfully vibrant from corner to corner, flooded over with radiant sunlight and the temperate midday air and every shade of quivering delight reflected in a brilliant spectrum of colors. Kazuya had turned inward to answer him with a slanted grin, slowly curling an arm over Sawamura’s shoulders in turn and pulling him close, still intoxicated with renewed victory and the thrill of the recent gameplay; he’d turned a mostly blind eye to the distant flurry of enthusiastic reporters scrambling for any piece of the winning team they can get, and the continuous camera clicks thrumming wildly like the sound of shattering glass.

Wait, were they always such good friends?

Hang on, are they friends, or—?

Whoa, what are they, exactly?

And just like that, he’s suddenly become the center of everyone’s conversation: an instant sensation all over the globe.

Really, it’s not like he can help wondering if this is going to be how it ends. His career, his victories, his baseball, inevitably drowning under all the plastic of mindless gossip and frenzied media attention.

Though at the end of the day, it isn’t exactly too hard for him – considering he’s always played for the simple love of baseball alone – to disregard random white noise in the cracks and corners of his frame of vision. But he gets it well enough, either way. The pro league definitely doesn’t have the same flavor, innocence, or freedom as middle school, high school, and college baseball.

He’s nearly twenty-three and he gets his first taste of what it means to be in the public eye.

 


 

The credits have long since rolled and they still haven’t made any real effort to move, a casually tangled mess of four long legs and lazily tossed arms in the too-small loveseat. A tranquil warmth tends to envelop nights like these, when they’re sitting comfortably together without having to really say or do anything of consequence – an unusual, undefined companionship that even they don’t have any particular way of describing. But then Sawamura reaches over and gently brushes the back of his knuckles against Kazuya’s, catching his attention, before bending forward to retrieve the copy of Monthly Baseball Kingdom from the coffee table in front of them.

‘Have you seen that photo of us that they printed in this?’ he asks with a wrinkled nose and a pout to his lips, purposefully jabbing a single finger at the cover like he’s on a mission.

‘Of course,’ Kazuya retorts flatly. ‘I didn’t just buy that for decoration.’

Sawamura eagerly shakes his head as if to make a point, sweeping wisps of unruly brown hair back and forth over an unexpectedly calm gaze. ‘Somehow … the picture’s – really nice, isn’t it.’

Kazuya stares at him with curious interest, calmly twisting long fingers into the fabric of his sweatpants. He doesn’t want to say yes; not out loud. There’s something about the idea of doing that that has him picturing being laid too bare, being left too exposed. Sawamura doesn’t seem to notice his internal dilemma, though, thumbing with ease through the crisp pages until the actual article that they’re talking about and the photograph attached to it enters both of their lines of sight – a rectangular wash of vivid color, an image of breathtaking familiarity and closeness and security amid a cold black-and-white sea of inked text.

‘Actually, now that you mention it,’ Kazuya finally says, prompting Sawamura to look up at him, ‘it’s no wonder people are all talking.’

A grin slowly unfolds across Sawamura’s face, thinning his lips and creasing the corners of his eyes, and glimmering laughter ripples from his throat like a bubbling spring. ‘Yeah,’ he agrees. ‘I didn’t know we could look like that.’

Like that. As in, all heartfelt smiles and contentedly shared gazes, arms comfortably wound around each other, and bodies tenderly pressed together; which is funny in retrospect, because there’s no solid definition for what they are – it’s not like they’re together, or an item, or whatever term people tend to use for that sort of thing. It may even be a little debatable, in his opinion, as to whether or not they can actually classify themselves as friends. Although Kazuya doesn’t particularly mind hovering between labels without settling on any of them, regardless of whatever their gestures may be in private.

Clearly Sawamura’s thinking along similar lines but from separate angles, because his eyes unexpectedly circle out with his usual boyish enthusiasm and he hooks his dangling foot underneath Kazuya’s, skin warm against skin and toes eagerly curling. ‘Hey, just curious – what if – well, more of this kind of stuff got published out of the blue?’

Kazuya skews his mouth incredulously at that question, because what can they really share with the public when they don’t give it any actual names, and when they never mention it in conversation at any point in time? It’s a thing that’s so strangely unstructured and formless, even to them, that its color and shape and nature of existence are basically already questionable.

‘Moron,’ he monotones while grabbing the magazine out of Sawamura’s lap, deftly rolling it up and giving him a single light smack on the head with it; Sawamura lets out a startled yelp, before throwing Kazuya an impressively fierce scowl in response. ‘Why are you asking such weird questions? Are you seriously not put off at all by how thirsty and nosy people can get? Like, is this what it means to be a public figure, or whatever? I just want to play baseball.’

Sawamura’s breath catches at that, his suddenly wide, gleaming gaze carrying a whole galaxy’s worth of understanding, and his face morphing into an expression of speechless wonder as if he’s just heard the most profound thing in the world. Which is a bit silly in hindsight, because it’s not that inspirational, really. Not when Kazuya’s just being honest about the whole thing, down to every last syllable.

With a resigned sigh, he coolly tosses the magazine back onto Sawamura’s thighs. ‘Fine. I’ll humor you. I’m totally neutral about it,’ he answers, pointed and straightforward. ‘Who on earth has time to take so much stock of people’s opinions of them, anyway. I’d rather spend that time on the field. What you’re saying, though – I mean, would it affect your baseball?’

‘I wouldn’t think so,’ Sawamura answers immediately with a frown; all things considered, the speed of the reply is a pleasant surprise to Kazuya. But then a strange look creeps over his face – a docile hesitation and a strange, barely-there awkwardness, almost as if he wants to say something – before he sighs and shakes his head, settling for a subdued smile instead. ‘But, ah … you’re probably right.’

Typical of him to be all golden heart and soul, made of selflessness and honesty from the inside out, to a degree that’s nearly exasperating. Sawamura’s always true to himself and definitely not the kind of person to be unsettled by what other people think at all, Kazuya knows; he hasn’t exactly changed much from his high school days, still pretty young at heart, loud and brash and embarrassing in almost every way, living day-to-day life with the same loving abandon and positivity that he’s never failed to put into his pitching on the field.

But really, even if things have mostly stayed the same since in that particular respect since their time at Seidō, Kazuya’s well aware that external factors can always sweep in uncontrollably like a windstorm at any point, and the last thing he wants is for someone as stupidly earnest as Sawamura to get caught up in it. And at this rate, he doesn’t even know what to think of the meaningful look that he’s being given right now other than that there’s a good chance that Sawamura feels the same way about him.

God, it may just be a little bit touching, although he’d never admit it, because it’s not like he ever really expects anyone to spend too much time thinking of him or anything. People are always swept up in their own lives and he’s his own person, at the end of the day. All in all, it’s something that he just shrugs off now, something that he lives by like it’s second nature, something that he’s readily accepted for a long time, for years on end.

An obnoxiously loud yawn cuts across his thoughts; Sawamura’s furrowing his brow and getting up from the couch in one fluid movement, still clutching the magazine while stretching his arms. ‘Okay, I’ve gotta go home. It’s getting late.’

‘Sawamura,’ Kazuya replies patiently, ‘you literally live right across the hall from me. It’s not like you won’t get home safely.’

‘I know. You don’t have to say it like that,’ he deadpans, bending over to plant the magazine back onto the coffee table. ‘My team’s practicing really early tomorrow though, so I actually need to get some decent sleep tonight. I do wanna beat you in the upcoming game, y’know! Anyway, thanks for the movie and the food.’

‘Stop thanking me,’ Kazuya flaps his hand at him, casual and airy. ‘It’s weird when we do this like every week.’

Sawamura ignores this completely, and leans in and presses his lips softly to the corner of Kazuya’s mouth. ‘Good night.’

Not together, Kazuya thinks distantly as he watches Sawamura’s back retreating, though it's not really some casual phase of playing around, either. But this is pretty much what they are these days, swirling back and forth like the flow of a current, an odd symbiosis of giving and taking: a kiss readily offered, and a kiss readily accepted, organic and unbothered and automatic as if it’s the most natural thing in the world for both of them. Just an easygoing goodbye kiss with no sweet, sugary sentiments to accompany it – which they’ve done like some ambiguous ritual for nearly a year now, ever since they’d found themselves reunited as neighbors, alongside quiet nights with secretly interlacing fingers and subtle clumsy flirtations and discreet, nonchalant touches behind closed doors, without saying a single word about it afterward.

There’s a hazy stirring sensation in the dark gaps between Kazuya’s ribs now, though, that he can’t particularly ignore for whatever reason.

He lets his gaze slide down to his hands, upturned and open-palmed in his lap. It’s like something in the air’s unexpectedly changed, becoming more pronounced after the abrupt appearance of the magazine photograph and tonight’s unexpected conversation, maybe. It’s as if he and Sawamura have only just parted their lips and started talking, vocal cords rousing and raspy with rebirth, for the very first time.

‘Oi, Miyuki Kazuya.’

Kazuya looks up to see Sawamura standing in his doorway, staring back at him with a touch of interest quirking in the slant of his mouth.

‘… What exactly are we?’

‘More weird questions, huh? We’re Miyuki Kazuya,’ says Kazuya with a raised eyebrow, ‘and Sawamura Eijun, and we’re two baseball nuts who probably love the field a little too much for our own good. But are obviously pretty happy about it, anyway.’

A smile blooms across Sawamura’s face at that, warm and wholehearted and genuine, reaching all the way up to his eyes.

They leave it at that, and the silence hanging between them is pleasant and calm when Sawamura makes his way out of the apartment and closes the door behind him.

 


 

He doesn’t even remember exactly when it’d started, really.

Maybe it’d been that first week that he’d moved into the building, when Sawamura had unexpectedly come knocking at his door – rustling bags of cooking ingredients hanging from bent knuckles, face slightly flushed from having just come out of the brisk evening cold, and bright molten eyes glittering with anticipation: the first of what would end up being a weekly tradition from that point onward. Nowadays, Kazuya can barely even remember what it’s like to spend a Saturday night without Sawamura here with him, lax bodies jumbled together in his inexpensive fabric loveseat, watching movie after movie in tranquil silence.

Maybe it’d been that first time that they’d played catch together in the nearby field after they’d become neighbors, as breathless with vigor and laughter as always, warmed by the enthusiasm of their little game and by the comforting familiarity of just passing the ball to each other like it’s some simple, cherished thing that they know they’ll always share.

Maybe it’d been that time that Sawamura had come to watch Kazuya’s first professional game, when he’d congratulated Kazuya on his win and merrily laced his fingers through Kazuya’s as soon he’d descended from the stands; they’d immediately left the stadium together after that, slipping through the cracks of the gathered crowd like curling smoke before anyone could see them, hands joined discreetly between their bodies and hearts brimming with indescribable thrill the whole way home.

Or maybe it’d been two weeks afterward in Sawamura’s kitchen, when Kazuya had just nonchalantly leaned in out of the blue and kissed the cream frosting from the side of Sawamura’s mouth without thinking, and Sawamura had answered with a disgruntled scowl, squashing moist cake crumbs onto the soft line of Kazuya’s lips with his fingertips so that he could return the favor.

Not a bad outcome at all, as far as Kazuya’s concerned. If he’d been any less rational and logic-oriented in his way of thinking, he’d almost be tempted to say that it’s probably a stroke of miraculous fate that they’ve ended up here – in this unchoreographed, unrehearsed routine that isn’t exactly lacking in the raw sensitivity of whatever people tend to define as real these days, carefully dancing around each other on the diamond-shaped stage like some eloquent pas de deux. They’ve had years of history as partners on the field, after all, merging smoothly in the limelight like two halves of a whole, like a seamless call and response, like whatever it is that’s hovering between them right now. Miyuki Kazuya and Sawamura Eijun, catcher and pitcher, leading experts in not talking about interesting developments in their already strange relationship.

Though their current situation with the magazine photograph seems to have significantly less gravity to it than that, judging by the vaguely entertained reactions of their ex-teammates in the private online group set up for the Seidō baseball club alumni.

Lol what the hell. That spiraled real fast, writes Kuramochi.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t amused by all this. A sentiment that isn’t too surprising, coming from the elder Kominato brother. Sorry to say.

Chris’ wisdom is a welcome sight, always one of the sensible few: Take care, you two. You wouldn’t want tabloids blowing unwanted gossip out of proportion.

It’s alright, though. It’s all fine, even when Kazuya turns up to his next evening practice only for his teammates to throw interested, unsubtle glances at him, tread kind of lightly around him, and be somewhat more quiet and polite with him than usual, with the exception of Mei. A definite sign that they’re all naïvely curious, which Kazuya had honestly expected, and is more than prepared to just shrug off at this point.

When he checks his phone during the practice’s short half-time break, he finds a painfully typical message from Sawamura waiting for him – I hope you’re staying hydrated at practice. Work hard but don’t strain yourself!! – and it’s enough to crinkle his eyes at the corners, just reading it.

Everything definitely feels okay.

 


 

‘We lost,’ Sawamura moans dejectedly, his low-lidded eyes drooping with misery.

‘It was just a practice game,’ Kazuya replies, setting his mitt into place. ‘Come on, pitch already.’

Sawamura complies, throwing to him with that brainlessly dismal expression still somewhat hilariously plastered over his face, and thankfully the pitch is still as boldly steady as ever anyway, the ball’s weight and pressure firm and near-hot, the resounding smack solid inside the curve of Kazuya’s glove.

‘It still sucks,’ he mopes with obvious self-pity, petulantly jutting out his bottom lip. ‘I hate losing.’

Who doesn’t, Kazuya thinks while throwing the ball back – and somehow, Sawamura manages to just narrowly miss it; his hand fumbles, causing the ball to ricochet off his glove and plummet to the ground, its continuing subdued bounce and roll rustling quietly in the dirt.

‘I mean, you’re up next, too.’ Sawamura flails his hands as if to make a point, clearly opting to straight-up ignore the ball now. ‘I just … I wanna give it my best, y’know? Especially since I know you will too! Like, even if you win, I don’t want it to be because I sucked on the day.’

Two separate Tokyo teams set in opposition against each other, head to head, both friendly and fierce in their rivalry: there’s already something kind of weirdly poetic about it as it is, so it’s hardly a surprise to see that Sawamura’s picked up on the full depth of it all, standing there with shallow breaths and curled lips and a barely-there unsteady hesitation tremoring in the long lines of his fingers – so characteristically earnest, so genuinely honest, so Sawamura through and through.

Kazuya doesn’t say anything at all, making Sawamura shift uneasily from foot to foot.

‘… How do you do it?’

The crisp chill of the evening air nips at his ears and at the very tip of his nose, but Kazuya gives an unconcerned sniff. ‘Do what?’

‘Do – that! That thing that you’re doing right now. How you can be so cold but, like, still manage to be so …’

Sawamura trails off, a stupidly lax expression of confusion on his face like he doesn’t particularly know what word to use. And in a hazy illusion, Kazuya thinks he hears it. Human.

In the end, it’s all pretty much tantamount to the blood pumping in rhythm through his veins – his own solid truth living in harmony alongside the Kazuya of the nasty personality and the wide toothy smirks; there’s never been a time that he hasn’t undressed himself, opened himself up and taken himself apart, naked bones and muscle and skin, on the field. Miyuki Kazuya, baseball player, catcher: his true identity. Always. For all time.

He pictures Sawamura actually saying it, saying he’s human, with a childlike wrinkle to his nose and a warm sincerity to his gaze, staying true to his usual tendency to always wear his heart on his sleeve. But it doesn’t come; he still looks naïvely clueless for words, soft lips pursed and round eyes brightly yellow-lit. Kazuya chews down on his tongue – the local football field that they’re standing in is suddenly so much quieter somehow, its wide expanse stark and bare, all wind and shadows and dust and nothing else.

‘… I don’t know. I’m not really good with this kind of stuff. You’re still the worst, just saying! But at the same time … I guess the way you are with this stuff – like, the way you can just take things as they come, or whatever—’ Sawamura pauses then, breathless. ‘For real, it can be kind of amazing sometimes.’

A compliment that Kazuya already knows is fully, earnestly meant. After all, it’s coming from the same lips that often scowl at him and call him twisted, that regularly make an annoying habit of bantering stubbornly with him, that can snap out his full name like it’s a vulgarity; the same lips that never fail to pour out the most heartfelt words with a loud fiery voice, that always crease tenderly at the edges when they curl up into a smile, that have left countless feather-light kisses against Kazuya’s mouth and at the curve of his jawline.

Sawamura’s eyes, fixed on him, are strangely sunny against the evening darkness; and just like that, the field around them isn’t so empty and hollow anymore.

‘You’re so ridiculous, seriously,’ Kazuya says in an exhale. ‘You were all miserable before and for some reason it turned into you encouraging and praising me. Only you would do something like that.’

Because Sawamura’s always had a heart of gold, continuously giving and giving without ever expecting to get anything in return, even when he’s needed it the most. In all honesty, that part of him hasn’t changed one bit from his high school days, and probably never will. And underneath all the random reflection over what’s human or not, that, Kazuya knows, is a pretty breathtaking picture of humanity in its own right.

‘I won’t make it a habit if you’re going to be such a jerk about it, so don’t get too comfortable!’ Sawamura frowns, finally making his way over to where the ball’s rolled and bending down to pick it up from the ground. He stuffs it haphazardly into the wide open slash of his jacket pocket before muttering: ‘Anyway, mind if we call it a night? I kinda want to go for a run.’

‘It’s pretty late,’ Kazuya replies with a twist to his mouth. ‘Need me to come with you?’

‘Nah, I’ll be fine. You should go home and get some sleep.’ Sawamura walks across to him, then, and leisurely passes his mitt over for Kazuya to take. ‘I mean, you have early practice tomorrow, right? You’ll need it.’

‘Alright. Send me a text when you’re back, so I’d know you got home.’

Hands reach forward just slightly alongside both of their bodies at the same time, the backs of their knuckles briefly making contact before their fingers faintly nudge and lace through each other’s, snug and warm. A prolonged touch that’s somehow still managing to feel too fleeting all the same: a goodnight kiss of the fingertips.

Maybe Kazuya’s reading too much into what he’s seeing, but he can almost swear that there’s a hitch in Sawamura’s breathing, that there’s a flush to the hollows of Sawamura’s cheeks. Then again, there’s an unusual stirring in the pit of his own stomach, and his own breaths are suddenly catching in his throat, too.

Sawamura gives his palm a mellow squeeze and slowly pulls back before he turns around and jogs away, and somehow the chilly evening air isn’t biting at Kazuya quite as coldly as before.

 


 

Unusual Catcher-Pitcher Photograph Throws Curveball In Sports Fan Community.

A twitchy, concerned phone call from his agent later, and Kazuya’s early morning vigor is all but deflated, the muscles underneath his eyes loose and wilting. So some of the cheapest low-end tabloids have evidently caught on to the sudden stir of activity in the online forums; how inane, he thinks, dimly eyeing the magazine stand. For a brief moment, he wonders if Sawamura’s seen these headlines, if Sawamura’s received the same kind of call from his own agent – but he supposes it’s okay. Surely someone who’s basically all heart and soul, like Sawamura is, would have enough faith in his own personal truths to be able to take these as they come.

Just like that, he knows that Sawamura’s going to be alright.

Giving a bland and offhand sniff, Kazuya shifts the strap of his sports bag higher on the taut angle of his shoulder and promptly walks away.

Mei doesn’t stop looking across at him as they’re doing batting drills together an hour later, though, large blue eyes too bright and inquisitive and pliant lips thoughtfully pursed like he’s seeing something. Which is a little unsettling to some extent, but not altogether strange; Mei does have a habit of hiding his sharp perception behind his usual pointed smile, after all, and years of mutual respect and keen-eyed scrutiny of each other’s growth and progress has meant that he’s always been able to read Kazuya better than most.

‘… Kazuya,’ he says in a level tone. ‘You’re on fire today.’

‘Oh? Thank you,’ Kazuya answers, mouth stretching outward into a wide, playful grin. In all honesty, the flat, unimpressed face of mild distaste that it instantly coaxes out of Mei is almost comical, and totally worth it.

‘Seriously, your hits are amazing today,’ Mei deadpans, long fingers curling a little tighter around the curve of his own bat. ‘No offence, but I’m trying to say that they’re not usually this outstanding.’

‘Is that so?’

Another sharp gust of wind, another fiery pitch – and Kazuya’s eyes lock onto it for the nth time like they’re being pulled by gravity, his bones and muscles shifting, strong and wiry and bending hotly to his will. Another fluid swing, another resounding metallic crack, another solid hit; Mei coolly glances over and follows the trajectory of the ball as it soars away, slanting his mouth.

‘What absurd concentration and focus levels,’ Mei mumbles under his breath, giving a little shake of his head. ‘Something you’re wanting to push out of mind? The media circus, maybe?’

Kazuya stops in his tracks and immediately raises his hand at that, a signal to pause the upcoming pitches. ‘Look, I can’t stop people from talking,’ he replies outright, ‘so they can print whatever brainless gossip they want. I’m just here to play. In the end, it’s not like their opinions about me are going to hold any real weight over me or anything.’

‘Sure.’ There’s something pointed and purposeful about the way Mei’s eyeballing him, almost as if he’s somehow able to read clearly between the lines. He quickly raises his hand, too, in an echo of the same signal. ‘But that won’t keep you from wanting your partner safe, will it.’

And just like that, their surroundings start to fade away, and Kazuya can barely even hear the raucous chatter of his busy teammates around him anymore.

Because he finds a different image unexpectedly creeping in. A watercolored memory from a time long past: euphoric freedom on Seidō’s diamond, with the afternoon wind in his lungs and sunshine warming his shoulders and familiar faces filling up the space all around him – Chris’ gentle wisdom, Kuramochi’s rowdy vigor, Furuya’s intense aura – everyone, all of them, kindling with life and stirring on the field like fluttering wings. And Sawamura, with starry-eyed dreams as big as mountains and earnest love as deep as oceans, funneling cheer and enthusiasm into everything that his flaming, thunderous voice touches, giving Kazuya that smile and that look of unfaltering belief and faith that radiates like light all the way from the mound. A trusting gaze freely given to him, and the kind of gaze that he’s always done his best to give back.

All in all, there’s never actually been a time when Kazuya hadn’t felt driven to ensure Sawamura’s safety, as weirdly intimate as that sounds.

But what’s intimacy, really, he thinks distantly. His old boyhood home had been colored by empty, dimly lit hallways and the hollow rustling of television static, and all the days of his schooling had been completely filled up with concentrated focus in classes, determined focus in baseball, and silent lunchtimes spent all alone. He’d led and been part of a passionate baseball team that’d had a pretty seamless rapport, though; he wonders if that counts. Is that enough to say that he knows what intimacy tastes like?

Out of the blue, another picture suddenly fades in behind his eyes – a familiar pale afterimage of himself with Sawamura, their arms curled sideways around each other and their bodies closely pressed together, sharing a half-lidded gaze and full-hearted smile that nearly everyone around him has said, in too-loud whispers, isn’t really the kind exchanged between normal friends: that candid magazine photograph.

‘Oh my god,’ Mei blurts out, kneading the space between his eyebrows. ‘Are you pining?’

‘Are you listening to yourself,’ Kazuya monotones, incredulous. ‘Do I look like the kind of person who pines?’

‘Okay, whatever,’ Mei cuts across him, flapping his hand with a dismissive air. ‘Just know this, yeah. For real, I’ve straight-up wanted you as my catcher for literal years. Hell, after you turned me down in middle school I had no choice but to settle with it all through high school and college, and I never would've seriously guessed that the two of us would end up being scouted by the same team to play professionally, but look at that! Here we are now. You can take it as a compliment, since you’re a brat, when I say that I’m pretty much gripping onto this so damn tightly it’s almost like I’m holding on with my life or something. I’m not planning to share you with anyone – except for him. Because I understand. Shut up and go make the most of that.’

Kazuya blinks, caught off-guard. He stares point blank at Mei, lips pressing together into a taut line; after a moment, his shoulders loosen and he can barely help letting out a puff of air through his nose, a delicate sound that’s maybe halfway to a chuckle. Nothing that can be classified as actual laughter by any means, but Mei seems to understand, anyway, throwing him a childishly stony look before giving a signal of his hand and raising his bat again.

Curiously enough, Kazuya’s phone chimes in his pocket on his way home that afternoon – a notification from the Seidō baseball club alumni online group, to which Isashiki’s posted the comment: I’m late to the party, but damn, tone it down, guys – and Kazuya doesn’t understand why, but just reading it has him wanting to see Sawamura all of a sudden, after everything that he’s been through that day. Tone what down, exactly? he thinks later, in the shower; because at the end of the day, no matter how comforting it is that whatever’s between him and Sawamura has no categorizing names or labels to it, it isn’t exactly like it actually has any understandable shape or form at this point, either.

‘Oh—? Miyuki? I wasn’t expecting you,’ Sawamura says through the gap of his doorway barely twenty minutes after that, pupils large and wide, mouth rounded with distinct confusion. The expression quickly fades into a mock-pinched one, though, all narrowed eyes and hollowed cheeks and a flash of teeth, and he jokingly bites out: ‘You’re not invited.’

‘Jerk,’ Kazuya deadpans, although he can’t particularly stop his own lips from twitching upward on one side. ‘I was just in the mood to stop by.’

‘Fine. You want tea or something? I’ll heat up the kettle.’

Sawamura smoothly sweeps him in and closes the door behind them, and somehow, there’s a strange heavy finality to that resounding click; heat radiates all too suddenly from underneath the collar of Kazuya’s shirt, and a restlessness trickles over the tips of his fingers.

‘Oh, by the way, I won’t be able to come over for our usual movie night this Saturday,’ Sawamura continues, eyebrows furrowed with some visible measure of disappointment. ‘My agent wants to come over and sort out some papers or something, I don’t know. Think you can handle one weekend without me?’

‘Sure,’ Kazuya replies, peering at him through his lashes. ‘Two movies the weekend after to make up for it.’

And then, he unclenches his grip on any leftover hesitation and lets go.

Only one step forward, and he manages to catch a glimpse of the mellow surprise leaking into Sawamura’s face; but he keeps moving in anyway, fingers curling over the mild curve of Sawamura’s hips and mouth pressing delicately to the cozy nook just in front of Sawamura’s ear. His eyelids leisurely slide to a close and his touch lingers there for a moment, sighs heated against skin and smooth wisps of hair falling against the tip of his nose, before he gradually pulls back just enough to run his lips over the rise of Sawamura’s cheekbone – feather-light, barely a touch at all.

It’s when he finally opens his eyes and slowly untangles himself from Sawamura that he notices how pleasantly flushed Sawamura’s face is, yellow-lit gaze wide and glimmering, breath spilling through his teeth in shallow pants; long pitcher’s fingers skim upward, coiling around both of Kazuya’s upper arms, a deceptively soft grip with all the telltale gravity of Sawamura’s earnest expression lurking behind it.

‘Miyuki, I—’ he’s pink, colored all the way down to the line of his throat, and he lets out a warm, quivering laugh of easygoing pleasure. ‘What on earth was that?’

The way he’s asking makes it sound like there’s something different compared to usual; Kazuya’s left vaguely wondering if that’s the case.

‘Just felt like it.’ He shakes his head, offers Sawamura a teasingly pointed look. ‘I had a really long day at practice.’

A lean hand leaves his arm and moves up to his jaw, flitting blunt fingernails across his skin and traveling up to his hair, twining lean fingers into the soft strands with gentle appreciation.

‘Idiot. Good job on the hard work,’ is Sawamura’s breathless reply; the temperate smile’s already long slipped away from his face, but Kazuya hears it like tinkling wind chimes in his voice either way.

 


 

Kazuya doesn’t particularly remember a time when his apartment’s been this silent.

Too vast, too wide, too boundless, too much space. Floor and walls and ceiling spread too far apart with nothing but stagnant air in between. Pale shadows splashed over every corner, a single ticking clock muffled by invisible cotton wool. Too unnerving, too quiet.

On any other Saturday, Sawamura would be here. Loud and stupid and boisterous, filling the space with heat. Warm and upbeat and tangible, filling the hollow stretch with the far-reaching edges of a crooked smile. He’s at home today, across the hall. Two walls and a world apart.

It’s a small studio apartment built for one. Kazuya comes home to no one every day. He spends most of his evenings in seclusion, walks from one day to the next mostly without anyone for company, and sleeps alone. Today, though, the place is empty.

But why.

 


 

He knows why. It isn’t like words take form in his head like handwritten scrawls in a book anyway, and he doesn’t need to say it out loud or anything – his body already thrums with it like the trill of a birdsong, like the lifeblood pulsing through his own veins; he just knows. Otherwise, the muscles and sinews of his legs wouldn’t have brought him here in the first place.

Funnily enough, the moment he comes down from the stands almost feels like a scene right out of a theatrical fairy story. Like some danseur noble making his dramatic entrance on the stage.

Because all eyes are immediately pulled to him – wide, perplexed, wary, apprehensive stares tinted with some level of wonder. And it’s no surprise, really, considering he’s the catcher of the rival team set to contend against them next; not to mention the thing with the magazine photograph, which surely most of the professional baseball community in general must be aware of by now.

He doesn’t bother sparing that any further thought, though, because the moment he sees the familiar tousle of dark brown hair and long, wiry frame, Sawamura manages to fill up his whole field of vision through pretty much nothing other than his presence and existence – just like that day, when the photograph had been taken; just like their regular Saturday evenings, warmly nestled against each other on Kazuya’s loveseat; just like every time that Sawamura had stood across from him on the mound, returning his focused gaze with equal fervor. Sawamura turns, pivoting on his heels like he’s joined the dance too, thin eyebrows lifting and lips parting with a sliver of surprise, his gleaming eyes rounding out in unmistakable astonishment.

‘What the hell, Miyuki Kazuya,’ he murmurs, giving Kazuya a clouded glance, the full name dripping off his tongue like it’s both an obscenity and a guilty delicacy; but then the muscles in his face start to loosen in a look of self-awareness, as if he’s regaining his senses, and he quickly turns to his flummoxed teammates and his coach, yelling: ‘Ah – it’s okay, everyone! He’s not here to spy! Uh, he just came to pick me up – we’re actually neighbors!’

It’s clear that the shouted sentiment’s doing nothing to quell their obvious curiosities, though, because there’s no shift whatsoever to their intrigued stares. Kazuya coolly bends his mouth into an easy smirk and collectively gives every single one of them a bold, pointed look right up until Sawamura’s sprinted all the way over to him, mildly flustered, a mixture of reluctant interest and confusion in his expression.

‘How long have you been here?’ he asks under his breath, lowered voice rumbling with uncharacteristic restraint.

‘Probably fifteen minutes,’ Kazuya answers offhandedly, looking at him with barely shrouded amusement. ‘I actually did come to pick you up. But mostly, I just wanted to watch you play.’

Some degree of perverse pleasure trickles down all the bones of his spine when he unexpectedly sees, in his peripheral vision, that Sawamura’s teammates have awkwardly turned their faces away the moment he’d said the words, like they’re only just now becoming fully aware of the fact that they’re standing in the vicinity of something seriously private. Truth be told, for the brief few seconds that he’d given Sawamura his full attention, he’d nearly forgotten that they were all there. Sawamura’s cheekbones instantly flood over with a pale splash of pink – which is kind of an endearing look on him, admittedly – and he clumsily grasps Kazuya around the knuckles and pulls him along by his fingers, dragging him over to a space a little further away, out of earshot.

Stop looking so pleased. For crying out loud, they all know about the photo!’ he splutters in a whisper, the edges of his face pinched taut. ‘Just ‘cause I let them say whatever they want, doesn’t mean that we should just happily give them more gossip!’

Kazuya shrugs at that, nonchalant. ‘It was the truth, though,’ he says evenly. ‘I really did want to watch you. Feels kind of nostalgic, actually. I haven’t caught your pitches in a real game since Seidō.’

Sawamura stills at that, seemingly caught in breathless awe. A myriad of tense emotions darts across his eyes, unguarded and starkly telltale, before he reaches up to knead the space between his eyebrows, sighing. ‘That’s – actually really damn sweet, it’s … for heaven’s sake. I hate you so much. You’re unbelievable.’

A wily grin unrolls across Kazuya’s face, baring all his teeth. ‘Ah? Thank you.’

It’s not a compliment,’ Sawamura bites out with emphasis, pulling his cap away from his head and drearily letting it drop to his feet, dragging his hand tightly down his nose and mouth in near-resignation.

The coach hazily calls out something indistinct, and Sawamura’s teammates gradually start to scatter; they’re all gathering up various equipment with quiet, nimble efficiency and heading toward the exits, liquid streams of white uniforms pouring away through the doors in no time flat. Kazuya’s lips quirk in gratification, just seeing it – he’d somehow managed to time himself just right: they’re all leaving.

‘I, ah, I actually meant it,’ Sawamura says all of a sudden, gracelessly rubbing the back of his head until his hair’s all messily tossed around into bizarre, gravity-defying angles. ‘Some of these guys occasionally have parents coming to visit or, like, girlfriends bringing lunches during break times and stuff, but … with my family being so far away it’s not like I really get anyone visiting me at practice, ever. So … thanks, I guess.’

‘Stop it. You sound like you’re hurting yourself just saying that, good grief. You can thank me by doing your best to beat me into the ground in the upcoming game, yeah?’ Kazuya reaches out, serenely patting the wild disarray of Sawamura’s hair back down in one single, fluid stroke. ‘Putting your all into it, just like you always used to years ago, together with me.’

He has to wonder if he’ll ever relive the thrill of playing a real game as Sawamura’s partner again – of being his pillar of support in the catcher’s box; of receiving those hot, firm pitches in his glove, over and over and over; of being graced by Sawamura’s far-reaching smile, sunny and eager, from sixty-odd feet away at the mound. But that’s a conversation for another day, Kazuya thinks. It’s okay, because for now, that smile’s still being freely given to him day-to-day, painting his thoughts and memories, tangling into his heartstrings, settling itself deep in his belly. There’s silence in the field now, the last of the players having quietly filed out, but the waves surging in Kazuya’s chest rumbles loudly in his ears.

‘Look at that,’ he murmurs, voice hoarse; a tremor sweeps over the base of his throat. The tide rises, swells and expands like an ocean behind the rigid line of his sternum, swallowing his heart whole. It tastes like urgency, like desperation, like terrified hope. ‘We’re finally alone.’

Exasperation presses itself into the lines on Sawamura’s face. ‘Honestly, Miyuki

And in that moment, it’s like the dam breaks, stiff wood splintering at its cracks and slowly shattering apart, bringing that wall that he’s progressively built up over the years down, down, crumbling down to pieces. And it’s obvious that Sawamura can see it clear as day, his pupils dilating and his jaw slackening at the exact moment of revelation, a rosy flush smearing over his ears and across the ridge of his nose – and Kazuya’s in so deep, sinking underneath the surface, going, going, gone. Hands loosely reach forward, fingers winding around Sawamura’s; he steps in, closing the bare breath of distance between them. Cheek presses against cheek, tender and light. A wordless solace.

‘Sawamura,’ he starts in a shallow exhale, and it comes out scratchy, tentative. He tries again: ‘Sawamura. I—’

Throat dry and tongue thick in his mouth, and in the end, his lips can’t form any noise. Countless sentiments flit across his thoughts, but there’s no helping him – nothing fits seamlessly, nothing that he can think of sounds just right. It must be a day worth being written down in history, he thinks, when Miyuki Kazuya, of all people, is left lost for words.

But Sawamura backs away slightly, breaking himself free from their intertwined fingers, and brings his hands up to frame Kazuya’s jawline; the cushions of both of his palms sit soft at the sides of Kazuya’s neck, and bony knuckles graze sensitively against the backs of Kazuya’s earlobes.

‘It’s fine,’ he comes forward again, bringing the tips of their noses together; heated breaths mingle between them, warm and stirring and full of life. ‘It’s okay. I know.’

And just like that, Kazuya suddenly understands everything. He understands why they share little kisses at night and are comfortable enough to never talk about it, why they don’t label themselves with trivial titles like couple or boyfriends regardless of their gestures behind closed doors, why he can’t say anything right now that feels like it has exactly the right ring to it. Because in the end, the depth and intricacy of whatever’s between them can’t be described with words so easily – the same reason why they’ve never exchanged sugary expressions like I like you before; all things considered, the words don’t really feel like enough, and things just aren’t that simple. Not with nearly seven years of complex history, tied together by shared laughter and painful tears as teammates, partners, brothers, kindred spirits, friends, and more. Much, much more.

An ache starts to prickle in Kazuya’s chest; it’s all sitting beyond poetry and prose and full sentences, but either way, he gets it. On top of that, it’s obvious from Sawamura’s answer that he gets it, too, even though neither of them have really said anything.

‘Do you think we're—?’

‘Yeah,’ Sawamura breathes. ‘… Yeah. If you want it.’

Kazuya pointedly pushes out a clipped puff of air through his nose, although there’s no real jab behind it. ‘Stupid. What do you think.’

The unspoken invitation’s laid out for their usual cozy banter – a piece of armor that’s always covered every part of him left vulnerably exposed; a safety blanket that he’s always relied on; a defense mechanism that he knows he’s often taken advantage of throughout the years.

But Sawamura unexpectedly doesn’t rise to the bait at all.

‘Just stop closing yourself off already,’ he says, almost scolding. ‘I’ll show you anything that you wanna see from me, so you can show me everything too! You can show me you. That shouldn’t be too hard, right? I mean, you’re as human as anyone anyway, so what’s there to lose?’

For a moment, Kazuya stops in his tracks, mystified. He swallows hard, blood pumping like a drumbeat in his ears; and then he lets out a quiet laugh that briefly snags on the knot starting to unravel in his throat – a subtle hitch that feels like a relief all the same, as if he’s just learning how to breathe again.

It’s true: in the end, they’re both as human as human can get.

‘Yeah. You’re right.’

Long fingers slowly reach up to encircle and cradle the palm that’s resting against his jawline; he brings it forward, running his lips delicately over the base of Sawamura’s thumb, before skimming down, little by little, to the inside of Sawamura’s wrist. A weightless sigh slips out past his teeth, rippling against the erratic pulse under Sawamura’s skin, proof positive that they’re both here, right now, awake and real and alive.

That’s all it takes, because Sawamura’s breath catches low in his chest; he tugs their joined hands aside, leaning in like he can’t resist the growing pull between them anymore – and Kazuya comes and meets him halfway, in a soft, eager kiss that’s warmer than anything he’s ever felt, that’s kindling heat all the way down to the tips of his toes, that’s steady and sound enough to hold the weight of everything he’s ever left unsaid.

A first kiss, transcending all the easy, casual kisses that’d come before it, breathtaking and sweet and heartfelt.

Not a single sound rings out around them, and they don’t say anything else out loud.

Somehow, they still hear everything.

 


 

Ruler-straight hair and polished square eyeglasses frame a narrow, angular face, but she’s different from someone like Rei. A chilly gaze radiating from faux-warm eyes; a crisp, biting musk of high-end perfume; pressed suit, pressed trousers, and knife-thin stilettos of creaking patent leather. Dusky scrutiny drips like shadows down the curves of her lower lashes, as fiercely focused as any enemy batter that’s stood in front of Kazuya on the field before. All in all, an impeccably detached picture of judgment and politics and intelligence layered underneath narrowed eyelids, frosty and sharp and laced with a wolfish smile that’s maybe too blatant to disguise.

‘You’re a seasoned player now, Miyuki-san,’ she drawls, ballpoint pen tastefully poised between slender fingers. ‘But apparently you really came to be during your high school years, didn’t you.’

Hot, oversized lights burn brightly in the too-small space of his living room, scorching at his cheekbones without mercy, but everything else about this is almost eerily cold. Silence from the faceless man behind the big black camera. Silence from the hollow-eyed boy holding the boom microphone. And then there’s the lady journalist, with intricate, calculating logic behind every saccharine word and every honeyed gaze. For a bizarre moment, he can’t help visualizing enclosing them all inside a giant picture frame: a perfect portrait of the media industry in its true form.

‘I’d probably say so,’ Kazuya answers in a level voice. And it’s funny, really, because he thinks it’s possible that he may have been efficient to a pretty extraordinary degree – moving smoothly from high school, to college, to professional baseball without blinking an eye, while still managing to form somewhat steady bonds with each set of teammates briefly in passing, and still claiming victories along the way – a level of competency and capability that’s basically left him floating from one port to the next without any real anchorage; and even then, in some way, he’s never felt his day-to-day life to be as secure, settled and grounded as it is now, after everything he and Sawamura have been through. ‘My enthusiasm for baseball goes a lot further back than that, though. From my boyhood, essentially.’

‘I’m more interested in your Seidō years than your childhood, truth be told,’ the lady purrs through red-glossed, half-pouted lips, ‘because it seems like a lot of your history stems from there. And you’ve just won a spectacular victory against Hokkaido recently, haven’t you.’

‘That’d be correct,’ Kazuya replies evenly, giving her a bland look. ‘Mentioning this is pretty good timing, actually, because I reckon I’ve recently become better at … appreciating or acknowledging my past, I guess? Like, my life seems full enough right now. I wouldn’t be the person I am now without having first been the player I was back then, and I wouldn’t have won my recent victories without the wins and losses I’ve gotten before. I work incredibly hard for it, although I’m here because of the support of all my teammates, too.’

Although he probably knows himself better than he thinks he does; at this rate, it’s hard to deny that a sliver of strange longing may have always been stitched through his words every time he’d insisted on his total impartiality toward the magazine photograph predicament, and every time he’d made another adamant claim that nothing can make his life richer than just standing on the field. After all, the ties that generally fasten all teammates together can’t always fill whatever spaces are left empty around him – wide yawning gaps that he’s always flicked his eyes away from, that he’s always locked away and smothered over with the delight of playing baseball throughout the years.

He and Sawamura haven’t been on the same team for a long time, though; his eyelids had skimmed open at some point without him actually noticing, and he’d laid a serene gaze on Sawamura from a plane separate to that of every other bond he has with his teammates, and suddenly it’d been easier to see which puzzle pieces fit, somehow. He wonders where those gaping chasms are now – those clefts in his heart that he’s always deliberately buried and tried to hide – because he can’t find them anymore. They’re gone. Completely filled up, maybe.

‘That’s very interesting.’ A half-crooned syrupy sentiment, a purposeful low-lidded look. ‘And pitcher Sawamura Eijun was one of those teammates, wasn’t he.’

He gives her a dull, stony glance; he’d already guessed that this question would pop up even since before she’d stepped into his home. Maybe since the moment her team had called up to arrange the interview in the first place, in all honesty.

So clearly, not even a professional, respected sports reporter can resist a potential headliner, no matter how vague and gossip-based it’d be. ‘Yeah, that’s right.’

‘Is that so. I’m sure you know that there’s been quite a heated debate in the fan community recently regarding your ambiguous connection with him. Is that something you’d like to address?’

I mean, you’re as human as anyone anyway, so what’s there to lose?

He lets himself take a slow breath – a deep inhale, a long exhale, a swell of expanding muscle and spread of rustling wings just before taking flight; he doesn’t even realize that his eyes have fallen closed until he’s leisurely fluttering them open again. ‘Yeah,’ he murmurs, firm and sure. ‘I’m clearing that up right now.’

If anyone ever asks, in the future, whether or not he regrets this moment, he’ll always resolutely answer that he doesn’t. Baseball’s always dotingly chipped at the diamond-hard stone of his skin, pulling the crumbling layers back and peeling it all away to the point where all the flesh and blood that’s left is exactly what he puts out onto the field: the real Miyuki Kazuya, as helplessly uncovered and bare as the day he’d been birthed.

And who knows if, right now, he’s also sliding his eyes closed to any leftover trepidation: throwing caution to the wind and leaving himself in Sawamura’s tender hands, unraveling the pulsing tissue of his own heart, strip by strip, until he’s able to expose the hidden corner where Sawamura’s slipped in unnoticed and become a piece of him, where all his truths and his baseball have always been a part of him, where he is really, truly him – an eloquent, trusting surrender of terrifying proportions. He doesn’t regret anything, not even after he receives his agent’s frantic phone call two hours later. Not even after his coach actually comes all the way to his apartment to give him a long, humorless, exasperated talking-to the next morning. Not even after Mei messages him to tell him he’s a damn fool; but an admirable one with guts.

And he knows he’ll never forget seeing Sawamura on his television screen, casually buying a drink at a street vending machine after his evening practice, relishing in only a brief moment of blissful ignorance and short-lived tranquility before he’s suddenly, unexpectedly inundated by a flurry of tabloid reporters; a nearly comical look of petrified surprise crosses his face when he turns around to find them descending on him in a thunderous stampede, fired-up exclamations of ‘Miyuki Kazuya has confirmed that his relationship with you is—’ and ‘Will you give a statement regarding Miyuki Kazuya’s claims—’ and ‘Can you shed light on these allegations from Miyuki Kazuya—’ all gnarled and scrambled together amid the crowd in a heated, flustered disarray.

Sawamura’s flabbergasted expression, guiltless and childlike, gradually gives way to a glistening peal of laughter, a radiant shower of falling stars tumbling out of his throat, bright and merry and carefree like this is the funniest and most ridiculous thing that’s ever happened to him. A sound that reaches all the way down into the deepest pit of Kazuya’s stomach, even from behind the distantly cold glass wall of live television.

Kazuya knows how the world works. It turns and turns without stopping while they all breathe, walk, live; night rolls over into day, day into night, and time trickles countless grains of sand to a point beyond infinity. And people are the way they are: he knows that there’s always going to be someone out there who’ll disapprove of them. There’s always going to be someone out there who’ll want to knock them down, to hurt them. But right now, his chest is full to bursting, the core of his body thrumming, teeming with every shred of belief that they might very well be able to take anything that’s coming like a ball to a mitt or a bat to a ball – a stupidly naïve degree of confidence, maybe, but the kind that definitely comes from being honest to themselves no matter what.

Miyuki Kazuya and Sawamura Eijun, standing side-by-side as they’d always done on the skirts of the field: partners until the very end.

No regrets.

 


 

‘… So, my coach wasn’t angry. But, uh, he wasn’t exactly glad, either. He lectured me for an hour straight or something. I nearly fell asleep,’ Sawamura complains, lips pushed halfway into a petulant pout; he casually kicks at a stray pebble mid-walk, and shoves his hands into his pockets. ‘But good news! He and my agent and the corporate president all had, like, a super-long talk together and I’m basically not getting kicked off the team. That’s gotta count for something, right?’

‘How sad must your life be when not getting fired is considered a win,’ Kazuya sighs in a resigned tone, reaching up to push his eyeglasses back against his nose. ‘But I’m not getting kicked off my team, either, which I should count my blessings for, I guess. My coach was pretty nice about it, but I got a lecture, too.’

All of a sudden, Sawamura jostles him heatedly, bumping sideways against his hip and knocking into his bones; before Kazuya even knows it, he’s losing his footing from the impact and actually tripping over his next step, although judging by irritable scowl spreading over Sawamura’s face, that’s about to be the least of his concerns.

‘You’re a dick, you know that,’ Sawamura snaps, obviously unimpressed. ‘I can’t believe you just dropped a bomb like that on camera without talking to me first. So inconsiderate! I’m really mad at you, I hope you realize.’

‘I guess I do owe you an apology for that,’ Kazuya chuckles, laid-back and accepting. And he is sorry, but he also isn’t sorry at all – not when he’s piloted himself with logic and rationality all his life, each step measured and each action calculated, peering at every novel and unfamiliar thing with a wary eye. Not when, for once, he’s come to let his own misgivings go and willingly dipped himself into whatever emotion’s kindling behind his ribs instead. Not when he feels like he’s standing on top of the world, like his nerve endings are fire-lit and brimming with exhilaration.

‘… Never mind. You being all nice is actually kind of creepy,’ Sawamura deadpans, throwing him a sidelong look of distaste. ‘It’s always so much easier to be annoyed at you! But … ugh, I can’t help it, I’m gross and soft and, like, I guess I do forgive you. I mean, you basically told everyone what I was to you like there’s no shame in it. How can I stay mad at you forever.’

Kazuya’s mouth quirks upward at the edges; he reaches over and calmly pinches Sawamura’s elbow, prompting a sharp, pained hiss and a ferocious glower from him. All things considered, the brat may be stupidly embarrassing a lot of the time, but by no means a source of shame. Never – not even close.

He wraps an arm securely around Sawamura’s waist, and can’t help being pleased when Sawamura easily returns the gesture without a second thought, his arm crossing comfortably underneath Kazuya’s. Kazuya crinkles his eyes and gives Sawamura’s hip an additional good-natured bump with his own, murmuring: ‘Well, one good thing to come out of this is that after all the commotion dies down, any talk about us will go back to mostly being about our gameplays, instead of things that aren’t people’s business. It’s not like they can speculate any more over something that we’ve both already confirmed on live TV, right?’

The answer he gets is the stretch of a wide grin, accompanied by an agreeable hum. There’s no going back, Kazuya almost says, but he knows that he doesn’t need to. Tender warmth fills his lungs, expands in his chest; it’s clear enough, even from a brief glance, that Sawamura won’t have it any other way.

A cheery tinkle chimes unexpectedly from Sawamura’s pocket, stirring up a mild burst of vibration against Kazuya’s hand; Sawamura’s expression instantly droops and he slowly, reluctantly digs in and fishes his phone out with apprehension etched into every line of his face, as if he can guess what’s coming. ‘Sixty-four new comment notifications from the Seidō alumni group now. Wow, no wonder you turned yours off,’ he says tonelessly, snapping the phone shut and stuffing it back into his pocket with blunt indifference. ‘I’m sure it’ll be funny to watch them all losing it, but I really don’t feel like dealing with this right now. What the hell did you actually say in the interview, anyway? I haven’t been home since yesterday except to sleep. I haven’t watched it yet.’

‘I just said that we do have some degree of a thing. I waggled my eyebrows a little. I didn’t need to say any more than that, and I refused to, anyway. Which is fine, since I got the point across.’

It’s clear that that sounds absurd even to Sawamura, of all people, because his mouth skews and he doesn’t look the least bit impressed. ‘Stop messing around.’

‘I’m not,’ Kazuya frowns, pointedly wrinkling his nose. ‘Go watch it. That’s literally what I said and did. Afterwards I also said all this stuff about your growth as a player, but as usual, it seems like the media just wants to focus on the gossip.’

A temporary silence hangs between them, filled in only by the crunching of their footsteps on the cement path; Sawamura’s brow furrows little by little, his eyes gradually narrowing into thin slits as though he’s trying to roll it all over in his mind.

‘… A thing,’ he repeats flatly.

‘Well, what else could I have said on camera, really,’ Kazuya retorts in a dry tone. ‘I mean, what are we?’

‘I thought you had all the answers? We’re Sawamura Eijun,’ Sawamura coolly points out with a knowing look, ‘and Miyuki Kazuya, and hey, it turns out we might actually like each other a hell of a lot more than we let on! Also – it looks like we’re still a pair of baseball nuts who are pretty much never, ever gonna stop loving being on the field. Right?’

Like’, huh. That word still isn’t particularly enough, and the real thing still stretches a long way beyond just simple liking and isn’t that naïvely simple, Kazuya thinks. Who knows if there’s anything in all the languages of the world that can actually describe exactly whatever this is, priceless and weighty and warm between them; maybe one day they’ll find something that rings just right, but for now, he supposes that the word like sounds okay.

It’s coming from Sawamura’s mouth, anyway. Funnily enough, there’s always some reverberating echo of so much more nestled behind every sentiment when Sawamura’s the one saying it.

In any case, Kazuya can’t argue with that.

‘Oh? That’s new,’ he grins, his tone merry and singsong. ‘I actually do really like you, you know – for some bizarre reason I can’t even hope to explain – but all I ever hear from you are complaints about how annoying you find me or how much you can’t stand me or how unbelievable I am, or whatever. I’m hurt.’

‘Well, for just one day, we can pretend to be normal people and say it,’ Sawamura grumbles, flushing pink over the ridge of his nose and across the jut of his cheekbones. ‘I can’t imagine why, but god, I do really like you too. Oh, jeez, gross. You better memorize that ‘cause who knows if I’m ever gonna say mushy stuff again! Especially to you.’

‘You brat,’ Kazuya laughs, prodding Sawamura’s side sharply with two stiff fingers. Sawamura yelps and twists away from him, lively and clumsy and a chaotic mess of flailing arms; it doesn’t even take a few seconds after that for everything to descend into a jumble of knotted elbows and hearty, rose-tinted faces and both of them tripping stupidly over their own feet. And then, there’s nothing but exasperated grunts and loud gasps trampling over the serene calm of the evening, with Sawamura fighting and failing to escape Kazuya’s relentless grip, with Kazuya clutching Sawamura firmly by the hips until he’s breathlessly begging for mercy, with Sawamura hanging limply off Kazuya’s shoulder while letting a deep-bellied guffaw tumble out through his teeth. Pure, perfect, full-hearted euphoria.

Kazuya’s known euphoria before – a feeling that’s hard to miss whenever he’s on the field, whether he’s got victory in his grasp or not. A sensation that fills him to the brim, nowadays, whenever Sawamura’s face enters his field of vision; whenever Sawamura’s voice brightens the silence; whenever Sawamura’s touch lights up sparks at his nerve endings, vivid and keen.

But it’s strange and curious, how new euphoria still is for him either way. It smells like the lingering fragrance of earthy spiced teas in Sawamura’s kitchen, which they carelessly stumble through later on the way to Sawamura’s room, fingers intertwined and muscles loose with breathless laughter. It feels like the coarse fabric of Sawamura’s jeans underneath Kazuya’s fingertips as he fumbles to unfasten them, and the soft indulgence of Sawamura’s half-wet lips in languid, open-mouthed kisses against his own. It looks like the helpless wanting in Sawamura’s gold-lit gaze – a growing flame that’s mirroring the one flickering in Kazuya’s own chest – and the exquisite picture of trusting abandon in the lines and angles of Sawamura’s face. It tastes like the salt of Sawamura’s sweat-dampened skin, hot from Kazuya’s desperate, clipped breaths, slick and pliant at his tongue. It sounds like Kazuya’s name being heatedly whispered against the base of his throat as Sawamura splays long legs up and around him, bare thighs embracing naked hips, a tangle of fervent warmth in the dip of Sawamura’s bed.

Show me everything, Sawamura leans up and pleads into his mouth, show me you. And Kazuya has no qualms about doing exactly that, opening and unfolding his body against Sawamura’s in devoted surrender, the arabesque at the peak of their pas de deux; he barely even has to pull in another breath before Sawamura’s freely reciprocating, fulfilling his earlier promise of showing him everything too.

Even when the stage curtains close, the dance is still going on. Just like the sun-kissed road ahead of them.

Bravissimo. Encore.

 


 

So, he lost. But it isn’t a loss; not really. Not when he’s been lucky enough to stand on the diamond at all, not when he can tilt his head up to have the sun dotingly touch his eyelids and guide them closed, not when the full breaths that he takes into his lungs leave him with as much freedom as butterflies taking flight. And not when he and Sawamura are both suitably dirt-streaked from a battle hard-fought, not when Sawamura’s face holds more exuberant joy than any one person should be able to carry, not when Kazuya can glance over at him in defeat and only feel satisfaction and pleasure at the sight of that well-earned victory. Sure, Kazuya may have lost the game, but he’s more or less gained everything else.

And Sawamura’s by his side now; their respective teammates have basically already walked away to the point where they’ve nearly reached the outskirts of the field, but they’ve also since been abruptly stopped in their tracks, looking back at the two of them with every shade of curious astonishment coloring their expressions. Then again, it must be seriously rare to see something like this – the pitcher of the victorious team honoring the catcher of the defeated one: Sawamura’s firm fingers are coiled around the base of Kazuya’s palm and he’s thrusting their joined hands into the air, bellowing his signature loud, obnoxious ‘Oooshi!’ deafeningly beside Kazuya’s ear.

And beyond all his wildest expectations, the crowd slides into a thunderous uproar. Nice plays, Miyuki; nice catching, Miyuki; nice pitching, Sawamura, resonating from the stands in heated, devoted chants, the rumbling echoes tremoring at the very tips of Kazuya’s fingers and toes.

Typical. Only Sawamura can inspire that, he muses, finding his own face slackening in surprise and his own heart soaring in his chest. Really, who needs to pay any attention to tedious gossip when the cheers of everyone who can clearly tell how deeply baseball’s carved into his bones, how feverishly it surges through his veins, can fill the space of an entire stadium like this? A gratified, accepting smirk glides over his mouth before he even knows it, and he indulgently clenches his raised hand into a pumped fist. Even in loss, he has every intention of greeting these praises with open arms; admittedly, they’d played some damn good baseball today.

They’re still in a pretty great mood when they reunite on their way out, and that’s when Sawamura drops the bomb on him: ‘Hey, my family’s waiting outside for us! They said they wanna take us out to lunch.’

Kazuya’s brain grinds to a halt at that.

‘… Us,’ he echoes, clipped and curt.

‘Yeah,’ Sawamura answers cheerfully, a too-wide grin expanding sideways to reveal gleaming rows of pale teeth; it reminds Kazuya so eerily of himself that he thinks he can understand why his own toothy smirks often get indignant yells in reply. ‘Not gonna sugarcoat it – I think they might wanna have a good look at you. Wakana’s there, too! She said she’s dying to actually meet you properly, so …’

‘Sawamura,’ Kazuya interrupts in a tremendously patient voice, ‘I’m nowhere near prepared for that. And I just came out of a losing game. Are you seriously springing your parents on me without telling me first?’

‘Aren’t I telling you right now? And well, if we’re gonna talk about surprises, then I seem to remember being swarmed by ten billion reporters without warning when all I’d wanted was to buy a drink, thanks to someone,’ Sawamura retaliates, brow furrowed and tone dripping with sarcasm.

Kazuya’s mouth nearly opens of its own accord, ready to argue, but he stops and bites down on his tongue. Funnily enough, that’s a good point.

‘Anyway, they sprung this lunch thing on me just now, too. I knew that they were coming today, but I didn’t know that they were planning this until they decided to send me a message while I was packing up, so I’m just as unprepared. You’ll be fine!’ Sawamura insists, stubbornly elbowing him in the side. ‘Just be you, the way you are with me. Preferably while toning down your inner jerk, but shockingly enough, you’re a lot more than just that, so it shouldn’t be hard for you, right?’

Smartass. Kazuya eyeballs him momentarily before letting out a long, loud sigh, measured and deliberate, which is admittedly a little melodramatic on his part. ‘Fine. Just for you.’

Sawamura’s answer is an easygoing smile, warm and sunny and bright enough for Kazuya to lose his way in it over the space of a few pulsing heartbeats, like it’s the will of nature. God, he’s so far gone with this boy, he thinks distantly. He’ll never pull himself out – and somehow, that’s more than okay with him.

‘Back in high school, I used to ramble about you a lot to them when I called home. Did a lot of complaining about how twisted you were, mostly.’ A soft, nostalgic chuckle, and Sawamura’s expression shifts into something like fondness. ‘You know, I do miss throwing to you in a real game! Playing against you is, like, an awesome challenge too, but sometimes I can’t help remembering what it used to be like. It’s a shame we’re not still on the same team.’

Kazuya’s blood-beats quicken at his throat all of a sudden, just hearing that. A conversation for another day, he remembers thinking back when he’d visited Sawamura at practice. And here we are now, huh.

‘… Well. If that’s something that we both want,’ he says with impressive calm, belying the muted heat creeping over the tips of his ears, ‘then I’m pretty sure that things can be arranged.’

Although he has an obstinate blond hanger-on who’d kill to not be separated from him; Kazuya can’t help letting out an amused snort when the mental image of Mei’s hilariously unimpressed scowl and flared nostrils fades in behind his eyes. But he knows that everything’s definitely going to work out somehow, if this does end up being written into their future. Sawamura wraps an arm sideways around his shoulders, and leans in close to his ear; the little hairs at the back of Kazuya’s neck slowly lift in sensitivity without him being able to help it, and a cool quiver ripples down the length of his spine.

‘That’d be perfect,’ Sawamura murmurs, leaving an air-light peck on his earlobe, delicate and fleeting. He then pulls back with a somewhat self-satisfied grin and thumps him mercilessly on the side of his ribs with the knuckles of his free hand in a purposeful, mischievous show of gratitude.

Kazuya’s mouth twists, but he snakes his own arm snugly around Sawamura’s waist anyway, leaning back just enough to gently nudge the shell of Sawamura’s ear once with the tip of his nose; he then follows it with a sharp pinch to the pliant skin at the rise of Sawamura’s hip – an appropriate payback. All in all, the cutting, unpleasantly surprised inhale that he hears being immediately sucked in through clamped teeth in reaction is totally worth it.

They step outside together to a heated flood of sunlight and noise, and cameras are instantly drawn to their appearance like it’s a magnetic pull, filling the air with rapid continuous button-clicks and blinding flashes of white. Kazuya doesn’t throw the journalists anything more than a brief smirk before he slides his gaze away and pointedly stops paying them any real mind, while Sawamura noticeably does the same; it’s kind of intriguing, when he thinks about it, that a stunning photograph of the two of them had been snapped on a day almost exactly like this, in a scenario pretty much precisely like this, with their arms wrapped around each other just like this – and scandalous gossip stirred up among faceless strangers aside, he and Sawamura had laid their eyes on an image of themselves as they’d honestly, genuinely been in that moment, and everything around them had subtly begun shifting then, setting surprising parts of their lives into motion, transforming pretty much their whole world.

It’s so nauseatingly perfect and so sickeningly sweet that Kazuya inwardly scoffs, but without any real bite. This is a day worth celebrating, after all, and he scans his eyes idly across the crowd; he manages to spot Chris, Yuki and the Kominato brothers grinning at him, and he winks at them and quickly flashes a gleeful V-sign back.

‘Hey! I found you guys, finally,’ a lively voice calls out. Sawamura’s friend suddenly emerges through a crack in the sea of reporters and spectators, and springs up to them merrily, her face bright with cheery laughter. She's holding her own little Polaroid device – a white cube with a photographic lens attached – and she jiggles it with emphasis, chirping: ‘Photo?’

‘If it’s you, Wakana,’ Sawamura replies with a relieved sigh, ‘then yeah. With pleasure.’

The young woman raises the white box, delighted, while Sawamura pauses momentarily to give a little wave to his approaching family within the crowd; he then glances back at Kazuya with a sunny glimmer in his gaze, which Kazuya can hardly help himself from answering by contentedly creasing the corners of his own eyes. The two of them reflexively turn their bodies inward and curl even closer together, the arms that they’ve already enveloped around each other tightening more securely, cheek lightly pressed against cheek.

He’s nearly twenty-three and he’s here, making memories that matter, together with Sawamura and people who matter.

They smile for the camera.