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Lean into the Pitch

Chapter Text

The ticking of the clock is incessantly annoying. The sound rattles off the walls of the small office and clicks over and over again in his ears. The silence that surrounds him is heavy and thick. By now, he thinks he should be used to it, but each week it becomes nearly impossible to drown out. It’s all he can focus on. The weight on his shoulders and the ticking in his ears.

Sometimes, he talks, though only because the words are dragged out of him. Either by frustration or tiredness. And while they can coax all they want, he knows what he wants to keep to himself and what he feels the need to share.

Of course, the whole point of it is to overshare—to say the things he wouldn’t tell anyone else—but he’s never enjoyed talking about his own feelings. However, that’s probably the reason he was sent in the first place. To give him someone who can look unbiased at him and say the things he could probably discover on the internet if he searches hard enough.

Although, he supposes there’s something better about hearing the words from a person. Maybe it gives people a sense of understanding. To him, though, it makes him want to plug his ears and sing at the top of his lungs and drown it out out out.

“Donghyuck?”

He lifts his eyes from his shoes, from the scuff on the toe he’s going to have to figure out how to fix, and peers at the woman across from him. She’s older, probably in her forties. Her gaze is warm, open. There’s a sense of knowing there, a sense of understanding and, maybe, pity. He doesn’t like it, so he looks away. He doesn’t need pity. He doesn’t need people to feel sorry for him. He just wants to move on.

No one listens to him, though. Of course, they don’t.

Johnny tries, especially after showing up on his doorstep in the middle of the afternoon on a Tuesday with a bag in his hands and claiming he was moving in. Donghyuck’s never told him why, never really explained what happened, but Johnny isn’t stupid. He’s caught on to the comments and the deprecating jokes Donghyuck sometimes slips up on before he realizes that Renjun isn’t the person he’s talking to.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

One piece after another, he’s taken them and slotted them together. He’s never begged Donghyuck to talk to him, but Johnny needed him to talk to someone because, from what Donghyuck’s accidentally let slip, he needs to.  It doesn’t matter if Donghyuck says he’s fine and that he just wants to get away and breathe. No, it doesn’t matter to Johnny, who promptly moved him in and called up a therapist. Donghyuck really didn’t have much say.

He doesn’t blame Johnny’s reaction. Not really. But he does blame him for bringing Donghyuck here every Wednesday after school and forcing him to sit in a room for an hour.

“You’re going to have to talk to me at some point,” Ms. Kwon says, kindly.

He wonders if a sponge and some soap will fix the scuff on his shoe or if it’s too deep for that. Any deeper and it’s going to need more attention, a bigger fix.

“I talk,” he mutters, tilting his foot to the side. It doesn’t look too bad.

“How’s school?”

He shrugs. “Fine.”

“Donghyuck,” she says, a little sigh into his name that he’s fairly used to hearing. Most people use that tone at least once with him. It’s usually his mother whenever she’s around. “I know this isn’t something you want to do, but don’t you think it may help a bit? To talk about it?”

He glances up. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Then, let’s talk about something else. How’s Renjun? Is he doing well? I see he isn’t with you today.”

No, that’s because Renjun is with Lucas. Out on some date. He’s not bitter about it. In fact, he’s quite happy about it. Renjun sacrificed a life in the city to follow him. Maybe, like Donghyuck, he didn’t have many friends and maybe his parents weren’t around a lot, but Renjun could have stayed in the city. He didn’t have to follow Donghyuck, showing up at Johnny’s door a day after Donghyuck did and declaring that he’ll go wherever Donghyuck goes.

Donghyuck thinks, if the roles were reversed, he’d do the exact same thing.

So, Renjun usually comes to these appointments. Occasionally, he comes in. Most of the time he waits in the hall. Today, Donghyuck is alone and that’s fine. That’s okay. He’s a big boy. He can take care of himself.

“He’s fine,” he replies. “He’s hanging out with someone.”

“Another teammate? Lucas, right? You said they grew close?”

Close is an understatement, though Donghyuck isn’t about to say that aloud. This town may have some accepting people, but he’s careful with who he tells certain things to. Like the fact that Renjun and Lucas are dating. Nearly always joined at the hip because Lucas can’t seem to keep his hands off Renjun even if he tries. It’s somewhat disgusting, but mostly embarrassingly cute.

He nods. “Yeah, I guess.”

“How do you feel about that?”

He’s happy for Renjun. He deserves good things in his life and Lucas has been so good for him. But he knows that’s not what she’s asking. To her, Renjun has a new friend and Donghyuck has stated many times that Renjun is his best friend, that they’re two sides of the same coin. She thinks he might be upset about it.

“Happy for him,” he replies, honestly. “Hasn’t changed much.”

“How is your team? Tell me about them. You don’t talk about them much.”

Probably because Donghyuck is worried to. He doesn’t know why. There’s nothing wrong with mentioning his teammates. But part of him likes to keep them to himself. Still, when Ms. Kwon tilts her head, smiling lightly, he sighs and opens his mouth.

“They’re good. Great, I guess.”

“They’re nice?”

“Almost unbelievably so.”

“Next to Renjun, who are you closest to?”

He frowns, the question throwing him off. “I don’t—I don’t know. Jeno, maybe?”

“He was the one that had the accident?”

“Yeah, with the baseball bat,” he says. “It’s hard not to like Jeno. You’d know what I meant if you met him. He’s just…sweet.”

He remembers meeting Jeno and thinking he was too tender, too sensitive. He couldn’t even catch a ball when they started. Now, Donghyuck’s come to realize that Jeno isn’t completely tender or sensitive. He’s strong in so many ways. He has himself grounded, his roots digging deep. No matter what he does, he does it for others. Cares for them, watches over them. He’s still soft, but there’s an edge hidden under all that. An edge only certain people would notice if they got close enough.

“He might be able to play with us in the Nationals if we make it far enough,” he adds.

Ms. Kwon’s smile grows. “That’s right. You made it to Nationals. Congrats.”

“Thanks.”

“How do your other teammates feel about it?”

“Thrilled, I think. I don’t think any of us thought we’d get that far. Jaemin was the most apprehensive, I think. Even he’s starting to think we might have a chance of making it to Championships.”

Placing her pen down, Ms. Kwon gives him her full attention. “Jaemin’s Jeno’s friend?”

“Yeah, best friends.” And more, he thinks. Definitely more.

Jaemin, the boy Donghyuck hadn’t been so sure about. And still isn’t really sure about to this day. He’s an enigma for the most part. Donghyuck is never really sure what Jaemin’s going to pull. Doesn’t know if he’ll be quiet and reserved, impulsive and intimidating, or friendly and sassy. There are combinations Jaemin shows that Donghyuck’s never been able to comprehend.

At first, he hadn’t been sure if he even liked Jaemin. Not that he hated him or anything like that. He just wasn’t sure if they’d click. Their personalities didn’t seem like they could meld. Opposites for the most part. Donghyuck isn’t even sure his old, loud, impulsive, and crazy self would help him out at all. Still, somehow, something happened and they’re even, he notes. There’s something underlining their relationship that tugs tight and Donghyuck knows he’d stand next to Jaemin if he needed it and vice versa.

Quietly. Surely.

He’s not sure why because it doesn’t feel like a perfect friendship, yet, but it feels like something. Some kind of bond. He’s willing to go with it if Jaemin is.

“And what about the boy you were training to pitch? Chenle, right?”

“He might actually make a decent Pitcher.”

“You think?”

At first, Donghyuck hadn’t been sure about teaching Chenle. He’s never had to teach anyone anything and he had been a bit surprised by how worried he was about it. But Chenle was eager and he wanted to learn and that made everything so much easier for Donghyuck than he would have ever imagined.

On top of that, Donghyuck actually enjoys his time with Chenle. They’ve built an understanding between them. Something between savagely playful and completely serious. Chenle’s gotten to the point where his quips come easily and he doesn’t look as nervous about saying them. Donghyuck gives it right back to him, knowing Chenle can handle it. It’s nice, he thinks, to finally have people he can joke around with who won’t look at him oddly or won’t take it badly.

“I know. He’s got the skills for it. The determination. Chenle’s a good kid.”

“And there’s a younger one? Jisung?”

While Jisung may be tall and lanky, he’s small on all other accounts. He’s the baby of the team and it shows, especially lately. The more comfortable he gets around them, the more everyone is comfortable doting on him. Not that they didn’t before, but there had been some kind of line of don’t-make-him-feel-awkward. Now, it’s like they have free reign.

Donghyuck isn’t much of an over-doter, but he finds himself still caring for him and Chenle like they’re his own little brothers.

Nodding, he says, “Yeah, quiet kid for the most part. But I think he’s opening up more. Lots of potential in him.”

“What about the others?”

“There isn’t much to say,” he admits. “They’re all fine. I have no complaints. Lucas and YangYang are loud as can be a lot of the time, but they’re fun. Hendery is kind of the same. A bit of an oddball, but he’s a good laugh. Dejun and I don’t talk much. He’s pretty chill for the most part. And then while Shotaro has a bit of a language barrier, he’s cute. Eager. Sungchan laughs at my jokes. That’s nice.”

Donghyuck thinks that Lucas, YangYang, and Hendery are easily the most likely to handle what Donghyuck used to be like. They’re bold and wild. Kind of like he was before he decided it was more trouble than it was worth. Still, when he’s around them, it’s so easy to slip back into it. Sometimes he actively seeks them out just to get that rush back again. He finds it’s getting harder and harder to hold it back now.

He’s not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

And the others? Well, Donghyuck hasn’t spent a lot of time with them, but he likes them well enough. He thinks they’ll fit in quite nicely as time goes by.

“I’m really glad. They sound like a good group of kids.”

They are. They really are. And after the team Donghyuck got stuck with for two years at JY Prep, all he can think is that he’s so ridiculously lucky. He thinks that, while it’s taken a bit of time, he actually feels like he can be himself again around these boys and it won’t come back to bite him in the ass.

“Tell me about your coach. Or coaches, I should say? You have two now, right?”

Donghyuck looks down at his shoes again. “Jaehyun is the official coach. Taeyong’s my batting coach. Or, I guess, an assistant coach? They’re fine.”

“What’s it like being around them?”

Fishing. She’s fishing. Donghyuck shakes his head because she can’t honestly think he’s that stupid not to notice. He holds her gaze as he says, “They’re fine. I’m fine.”

“Are you?”

His brows furrow slightly. “Yes. Jaehyun isn’t like any coach I’ve ever had. He’s…different. Determined, but not aggressive. He wants to help us. I thought he might be too inexperienced to do much at all, but he’s managed to turn us into a working team and that’s an aye-okay in my books.”

“And Taeyong?”

“He’s like a doting parent. Hovers a little too much, maybe, but it’s good for people like Jisung, or even YangYang, who needs that. He’s a damn good Pitcher from what I’ve heard, as well. I respect that.”

Glancing down at her nots, Ms. Kwon says, “You haven’t mentioned Mark.”

His heart squeezes.

“Actually, I don’t think you’ve ever really mentioned him. Renjun’s brought him up, though, the last time he was here. He’s your Catcher, right? The second half to your Battery? What’s your relationship like with him?”

Complicated.

So stupidly complicated.

“Fine.”

“Donghyuck,” she breathes, her lips fighting at a smile. “‘Fine’ isn’t going to help me. Or you.”

“I don’t know what you want me to say.”

“Don’t say things you think I want you to say. Just be open. Do you get along with him?”

He lifts a shoulder, delicately, trying not to look at her because he’s not sure what his face is going to tell her. “Sometimes. Sometimes I want to punch him.”

“Why?”

“He can be aggravating. A bit of a control freak.”

“How are you two when you aren’t wanting to punch him?”

He picks at the seam of his pants, suddenly restless. “Almost good. Almost comfortable. Or maybe it is good—or comfortable, I mean. I don’t know. We don’t…Things with us are weird. I spent a lot of time trying to wedge us apart that now it feels like I don’t know what to do when he comes closer.”

That’s the most open he’s been with her, he thinks. And it stuns him into looking up. She’s smiling at him, with a look in her eyes that kind of scares him.

“Why did you want to distance yourself from him?”

He tries his best not to sink into the cushions of the couch and not look like he’s retreating from the question. The truth is, Donghyuck has a lot of reasons he tried to distance himself from Mark and they flip-flop every day.

At first, it was because he promised himself not to play baseball again. The last thing he wanted to do was fall into the same trap he did before. But Mark…Well, Donghyuck knew Mark wasn’t going to be easy for him. With his sparkly eyes and his intoxicating determination and wild, big dreams. 

Donghyuck wouldn’t admit to anyone—hardly admits it to himself most days—that one of the reasons he couldn’t stay away, that made him finally join the team, was because he took one look at Mark and thought, ‘This dream seems hopeless, but if anyone can do it, it would be him.” The only thing that completely sold him was the fact that he might be able to play against JY Prep.

Of course, that was before he realized that they would actually make it into Nationals. Now, he’s starting to question it because he’s not sure how well that will go. And he knows Mark can sense something is wrong, can see it. Donghyuck hasn’t been as subtle as he wants to be. Another reason for distancing himself is because he doesn’t want to talk about it or explain it or go anywhere near it. He doesn’t want Mark to know. Or any of them to know.

He hasn’t since the beginning.

Because he doesn’t know how they’ll take it.

He certainly doesn’t know how Mark will take it. And he doesn’t even understand why he would care about how Mark would take it because, sure, they’re kind of friends now, but Mark’s opinion shouldn’t matter to him.

But it does. God, it does so much and Donghyuck doesn’t get it, but then he does all at the same time. Contrary to Renjun’s belief, he isn’t an idiot. He sees it, too. He just pretends not to. He knows how his feelings have changed about Mark and telling him the truth is terrifying.

And it’s certainly terrifying even thinking about telling the rest of the team, all the same.

“Wanted to do that with everyone,” he admits, quietly. “Not just Mark. I didn’t know the team. I didn’t know if I could…” His voice trails off.

“Trust them?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, it seems to me that you have a very good group of boys, who are very welcoming and kind. Definitely not like the team you experienced before, right? Do you trust them more now?”

He thinks of their smiles and laughter, how they’ve accepted him unlike anyone else other than his own brother and Renjun. They stuck around despite his attitude in the beginning—and maybe sometimes still—and Donghyuck truly believes he got something he never deserved.

A group of friends that actually care about him.

“Yeah,” he mutters. “I think I do.”

She smiles so wide he can see all her teeth. “That’s wonderful, Donghyuck. I’m happy for you.”

The praise sinks into his skin and he feels a little lighter. He never thought he’d need validation, but now that he has it, he thinks he likes it.

“Do you think you’ll all be ready for Nationals then? It’ll be a tough time.”

He shifts. “I think so.”

“You’ll have to play JY Prep, right?”

The lightness that came with the praise, sinks deep into his stomach like a rock. Flashes of cruel laughter, vacant stares, menacing sneers and laughter. He sees the distance between himself and his old teammates that he had so desperately tried to close, only to have himself wedge it wider instead. He feels breathing at his ear and a hand on his cheek and—

He crosses his arms over his chest to suppress a shudder, praying it wasn’t noticeable.

Somedays, there are no issues. Others, it’s like he can’t turn his brain of; images flicking through his mind like a kaleidoscope he can’t control until he’s back there and he has to crawl his way back. 

After a moment, he chokes out a, “Yeah.”

“Are you ready for that?”

No.

No, he isn’t.

At least not completely.

Not yet.

But he looks up and meets her gaze once more and nods. “Yeah, I’ll be fine. It’s not like I haven’t dealt with worse, right?”

Chapter Text

Mark can’t stop the giddy feeling that flutters in his chest every time he passes by their Regional trophy, all golden and shiny. First place. They actually won first place. He keeps thinking about it, keeps reminding himself, and, yet, it still feels incredibly surreal. It’s only been six days since they won. And, in those six days, a lot has happened.

For one, Jaehyun has cracked down on them. Not harshly, but strongly. He, like the rest of them, wants to make it to the Championship and they can’t do that with just a few practices a week. Winning is a big deal. It’s going to require hours and hours of work. Mark’s body is already sore from their last game—the bruises still very much in tact—and now it feels like if he stops moving, he may never be able to get going again.

Even still, he doesn’t mind. He’s happy to do it. Because he wants to win. He wants to prove that this whole thing isn’t a sham or something to laugh at. All those people who told them they couldn’t do it, that it wasn’t possible, can go eat their own hat for all he cares. Mark is going to take his team to Championships.

Of course, Taeyong and Johnny have been on board since the beginning, but they’ve stepped up a lot, as well. Johnny has them at the gym at least once a week, sometimes twice. Honestly, it works out because a lot of the machines can do a little more than just their standard drills. Renjun has been working his ass off to better his stamina in such a short period and, despite the complaining, it does seem to be helping.

Taeyong, on the other hand, has moved to being not only their batting coach, but their pitching coach as well. And Mark—Well, Mark thinks Taeyong is a little more intimidating in teacher-mode. There’s no denying that he takes this seriously and that he’s determined to teach them the proper way to do things. In the last few days, he’s been drilling Chenle and Donghyuck at nearly every practice on various skills to get them up to speed. Chenle accepts it all a little too easily, in Mark’s opinion. One day, he’ll work himself into the ground. Donghyuck, however, does as he’s asked, but doesn’t say much about it. Almost as if he mentally isn’t there.

Now, that does worry Mark. He knows that they’re getting closer to facing JY Prep at the Championships and they’ll probably come across them as they continue to fight their way to the end since the National games—besides the Championship game—all take place in the city, inside the same park. It’s obvious, especially now that he’s looking for it, that Donghyuck may have started this whole thing with a need to prove himself to his old team. Now, he’s pretty sure Donghyuck is hesitant at ever meeting them again, period.

And while Donghyuck hasn’t said anything about it, of course, Mark knows. He sees it. He sees the way Donghyuck shuts down at the mere mention of JY Prep, when he forces out smiles and quips as if it doesn’t bother him. Mark has no idea what went down at Donghyuck’s old school, but he knows it was something serious. Something serious enough to have him act like this and even have Renjun on edge.

At least Renjun has Lucas to calm him down. Lucas, who has been nothing but doting to his boyfriend since the moment they met. He spends most of his time spoiling him with surprises, whispering in his ear, and training him at the gym to better his stamina.

No, Mark isn’t envious.

Okay, maybe a little.

But it doesn’t help that not only does he have Renjun and Lucas on one side of him, but Jaemin and Jeno on the other side and Jaehyun and Taeyong right before him. He’s surrounded by couples and, while he knows he shouldn’t complain, he kind of wants that.

He wants that stupidly sweet mushy stuff and the hand holding and everything else that comes with it.

Too bad who he wants to do all that with doesn’t see him that way and probably never will. Not to mention, Mark is still trying to sort out his own brain and convince himself that, yes, liking Donghyuck is not the end of the world. That it’s okay. That a crush isn’t going to ruin anything. There is no harm in liking someone.

God, he can’t wait for his first meeting with his therapist. Is that pathetic? Maybe not, but it feels a little bit like it.

However, if he can come to terms with himself and his anxiety then he’ll take it.

Until then, he’ll just have to focus on what he can do. Which is literally everything else. Because, unfortunately, being the captain of the baseball team, where he has to be at practice nearly every day, has sort of cut into the rest of his extra curriculars. Since Monday, he’s been bombarded by the rest of the student council, demanding his attention—rightly so—and also been talked to by the rest of the karate club. At least basketball season hasn’t started yet. Nevertheless, he has a ton to do in order to stay on top of everything and in the past few days, he’s been feeling a bit burnt out.

But looking at their trophy does give him a sense of joy, so there’s that.

“It really is nice to look at, isn’t it?”

Mark glances over his shoulder as Mr. Moon steps up beside him. He nods. “Feels like a dream.”

“I must admit, I had a moment of disbelief until Jaehyun showed me your trophy. Not that I didn’t have faith. It’s just been so long.”

“That’s understandable,” Mark tells him. “I almost didn’t believe it either.”

Mr. Moon smiles at him, warmly. “You’ve done well, Mr. Lee. You should be very proud of yourself. Taking this all under your wing with everything else…Truly inspiring.”

“I wouldn’t have done it without the rest of the team. They really stepped up when I needed them most. We wouldn’t even have made it to the first game without them.”

“It really shows what people can do when they put their minds to it, doesn’t it? And, you didn’t hear it from me, but even the principal is quite thrilled.”

“We won’t let you down.”

Patting Mark on the shoulder, he says, “I know. I know you’ll try your best.”

“I also know I need to win to keep the team intact. If we lose, we’re just proving everyone right. And baseball is so much more than just a trophy in a case, but I also know how schools work. No wins, no funds, no reason to do it.”

“It’s a harsh reality, unfortunately. Despite all that, though, you have gone and done yourself an amazing service. The team, the sponsorship. You may not see it, but you’ve gathered some fans as well. A lot of students have been buzzing about it.”

Mark hopes it isn’t bad buzzing. Even after their win, he’s caught wind of a few whispers and a lot of them were hardly nice.

“You just keep working hard,” Mr. Moon says. “You have always been a force, Mr. Lee. I know your determination. Just…do me a favor?” Mark raises a brow. “Don’t overwork yourself. Don’t spread yourself too thin. If you do, you will let yourself down and that’s far worse, in my experience.”

“I’ll try my best,” he says. Mr. Moon pats him once more on the shoulder before turning to walk away. It isn’t until he’s taken a step that Mark calls him back. “Mr. Moon? Would you…Would you come to our next game?”

Both of Mr. Moon’s eyebrows raise. Then, he smiles, blindingly bright. “I’ll see what I can do. Even if it isn’t the next one, I’m sure I can slip away for one of them. Although, I must be honest, I don’t know much about baseball.”

“That’s okay. I’m sure one of the guys can teach you,” he promises.

“I look forward to it. Keep your head up, Mr. Lee.”

Mark nods. “Thank you, Mr. Moon. For everything.” Once he’s out of sight, Mark takes one last look at the trophy before glancing at the time on his phone. “Oh, shit!”

Late. He’s going to be so late.

Hurriedly—and totally against the rules—he runs through the hallways, his backpack bouncing against his back. He slides into the boys changeroom to get out of his school uniform and into something a bit more comfortable. There’s no point to being graceful about it at this point because he’s already ten minutes behind and he’s supposed to be the captain.

As he turns, he catches his reflection in the mirror. Groaning, he struggles to sort out his hair—dark strands standing up everywhere—and straighten his t-shirt. He remembers when he used to make sure he was the epitome of put-together. Now, he can’t seem to care. His life is a little too out of control to make sure his hair is perfect and his clothes are finely pressed. But, maybe, he thinks, this is a good thing. Everything can’t be perfect all the time.

He’s slowly coming to learn that.

Sure enough, by the time he makes it out into the diamond, everyone is already practicing. Jeno, who is the only one sitting outside the dugout because he still, technically, isn’t allowed to play because of his injury, raises a brow at him that Mark chooses to ignore. It wasn’t like he was late on purpose. He just got sidetracked.

“Jaehyun was asking about you,” says Jeno, blinking up at him from the ground through his black fringe. He’s changed out of his uniform like the rest of them, even if he isn’t taking part in the practice. A sweater is stretched out on the ground underneath him to keep the dirt away.

Mark peers around the diamond. Renjun is with Jisung, going over some Shortstop drills. YangYang, Lucas, Shotaro, Jaemin, Hendery, and Dejun are running drills with Jaehyun at their side, while Taeyong is at Homeplate with Chenle, Sungchan, and Donghyuck.

The sight of Donghyuck’s blond hair in the sun makes his stomach flip. Honestly, he needs to get a handle on all these feelings before he throws up. He sees Donghyuck every day and even in his math class, which Donghyuck had skipped a grade to get into—No, that doesn’t make Mark more attracted to him. It doesn’t—so, really, he should be used to his presence by now.

But he isn’t. He isn’t sure he ever can be. Donghyuck is a beacon that can never be snuffed. Wonderful, yet a little infuriating.

“Ah, yes. So, I don’t know if you can tell, but there are multiple people on the team besides Donghyuck these days. You may be a little surprised, but it’s true.”

At the sound of Jeno’s sarcasm, Mark gently kicks at him. “Dude, rude.”

“Dude, tunnel vision,” he teases.

“I was just figuring out where people were. Geez. It’s like I can’t use my eyes anymore.”

“Oh, you totally can. You just can’t seem to see past Lee Donghyuck. And, honestly, don’t really blame you. He’s cute.”

Mark frowns. “If you weren’t dating Jaemin, I would be worried.”

“And jealous,” Jeno sings. “Admit it.”

“Jealous would imply that I have him. Which I don’t.”

“Fine, you’d be full of envy then. Better, Mr. Know-it-all?”

“Not really, but I’ll take it. What did Jaehyun say?”

Jeno shrugs. “Not much. Just got them to run drills before splitting people up into groups. You’re supposed to be working with Sungchan.”

Quietly, Mark nods, already eyeing the way Sungchan throws an arm over Donghyuck’s shoulders while they laugh. He clamps his teeth together because he knows that Sungchan has no interest in Donghyuck at all. At least, he thinks so. A few weeks ago, Sungchan has said something about thinking Mark and Donghyuck had a bond and he hasn’t really done anything overly flirty with Donghyuck. In fact, he just seems to always be somewhat flirty with everyone. Like a default setting.

Even still, it makes him tense, despite the fact that he has no right to feel that way.

Donghyuck can flirt with whoever he wants to.

“Hey, um, Jeno?” he calls out, quietly. Jeno hums, glancing up from his phone. “Do you think Sungchan likes Donghyuck?”

Immediately, Jeno’s eyebrows shoot up once more. “Sungchan?” An annoying smirk spreads across his lips that has Mark regretting asking anything. “Really?”

“I just—He seems very…I don’t know. It’s stupid.”

“Mark—”

“No, it is. It’s stupid because why does it matter? Sungchan can like Donghyuck. Donghyuck can like Sungchan. They can like whoever. I have no say about it. It shouldn’t be a bother.”

Jeno’s smirk softens. “Mark, it bothers you because you like him. That’s normal. Just, like, don’t do anything stupid about it. Besides, you can always ask.”

“Fuck, no.”

“Yeah, figured. But still.  I doubt Sungchan likes Donghyuck. They just get along really well. You know, meshing personalities and all that. You would have that, too, I’m sure.”

Mark rolls his eyes as he picks up his glove. “Yeah, right.”

“You would! Look, in the time I’ve spent getting to know Donghyuck, I can confidently say that you guys would really get along if you both just let it happen. And, seeing as you two have finally decided to be friends, you’ll get to see that, too. Don’t stress, okay? I am one hundred percent sure that no one on this team is going to step in between the two of you. Considering most of the newbies thought you two were flirting for ages anyway.”

Choking on air, Mark gasps, “Excuse me?”

“Well, you do have this sort of, um, tension? Kind of makes it intimidating to step into.”

“Wow.”

“Not to mention, no one on this team is stupid. They know something is up.”

Mark whips around, heart skyrocketing into his throat. “Know what’s up?”

Noticing his panic, Jeno raises his hands and hurriedly says, “Nothing concrete, obviously. They just, like, have a feeling. That’s it. I swear, only Jaemin and I know how you feel. Everyone else is just guessing. And, no, Donghyuck doesn’t know. Please, breathe. You’re fine.”

He hates it. Hates the way his heart feels like it’s about to leap out of his body, how his mind starts spinning like a top. He can hear Jeno scrambling to his feet to take his hand. Mark isn’t scared to like boys. He isn’t even really scared to like Donghyuck. But he is scared of things moving faster than he can process. Ever since he was little, he’s liked things a certain way. He likes control, he likes knowing what’s about to come, and he likes being absolutely and completely prepared.

He was absolutely not prepared for Lee Donghyuck. And that’s why it was so difficult to accept the fact that he was attracted to him, and then that he liked him. Now…Well, now, he has to figure out a way to not let his anxiety take over at the mere thought of people finding out.

“I’m okay,” he says to Jeno. “Sorry. Sorry, I’m just a mess lately. I think the upcoming games are starting to get to me.”

“Hey, I think we’re all starting to feel it. Don’t worry about it. But you might want to get out there before Jaehyun comes to drag you out.”

With that, Mark jogs off to where Taeyong is talking to Chenle, Donghyuck, and Sungchan. It’s only when he’s a few feet away that Chenle spots him.

“Ah, there he is. Took you long enough.”

Mark rolls his eyes as he comes to a stop. Despite the smile, Chenle seems tired and maybe a bit paler than usual. His black hair—something his parents forced him to do when they realized he had gone green while they were away—only makes the dark circles under his eyes stand out even more. For weeks, Chenle has been working himself a little too hard and Mark has decided he definitely needs to keep an eye on it.

Taeyong with his auburn hair and kind eyes, nods at him before sending him off with Sungchan toward Homeplate. The only person who doesn’t really pay him any mind is Donghyuck. One quick glance and he’s turning toward the Pitcher’s mound without a word.

Mark tries to not let it bother him too much. They were never a super chatty pair to begin with. Still, he does worry that they may fall into their old ways, even if they promised they were both past it.

“Everything okay?” asks Sungchan as he gets into position. Mark stands behind them in the umpire’s spot. “You aren’t usually late.”

Stupidly, Mark nods as if he can be seen before saying, “Yeah, totally fine. Just got distracted and ran into Mr. Moon. How goes the training?”

On the mound, Donghyuck is going over a pitch with Chenle while Taeyong watches over, commenting when he sees it necessary. It’s always interesting to watch Donghyuck go into mentor mode because he never seems to have much patience until he has to teach someone.

“Taeyong is pretty good. We haven’t done anything exciting, though. Just some Fastballs and Changeups. Chenle and I have been working on our own signs as well.” He glances up at Mark with a furrowed brow. “We’re allowed to do that, right?”

“As long as you don’t get them mixed up with Donghyuck’s and mine since you may end up working with either of us in a game,” he says. “Write down what you come up with, though, so that we can know.”

“Sungchan, all set?” calls Taeyong.

Sungchan nods as he fixes his helmet and holds up his glove. Donghyuck steps away from the mound to give Chenle room. In the time that they’ve had, the two of them have done really well for themselves. Both Sungchan and Chenle have taken to Catcher and Pitcher, respectfully, rather quickly. There are still pitches Chenle struggles with, and ones Sungchan is still learning to read, but considering everything, it’s been smooth sailing. Which, honestly, is good because the games are going to get harder and they’ll need the extra people.

Practice ticks by and Mark spends most of it teaching Sungchan how to watch the ball and to correct his catch so he doesn’t injure his wrist by accident. Donghyuck stays around Chenle with Taeyong. Only a few times has Mark glanced over to see Donghyuck’s gaze flicking away as if he hadn’t been watching. Mark isn’t really sure what to make of it, so he doesn’t comment on it.

“Can you two,” Taeyong says as he points between Donghyuck and Mark, “step to the side and watch them. I’ll take over as umpire. It would be good for you both to get the whole picture before we try something else.”

Hesitantly, Mark steps over to stand next to Donghyuck. Awkward is an understatement. He would have thought, after their win and after everything they’ve talked about, that they’d be a little more at ease around one another. Except, it seems that they just don’t know what to do with each other.

He has this overwhelming urge to both say something, but also to take Donghyuck’s hand. Yeah, that’s a newer development. The idea of holding hands never would have really crossed Mark’s mind for anyone else. Still, he takes one look at Donghyuck and the want is there. Not to mention the hugging. God, he really wants to hug him, especially when he laughs. It’s undeniably adorable and Mark has no idea how to shake it.

“How, um—” He clears his throat when his voice cracks. “How are you?”

Donghyuck raises a pierced brow at him. “How am I?”

“Yeah, like…How’s,” he pauses, unsure, “life?”

That elicits a snort from Donghyuck. One he quickly covers with his hand, which is something Mark has come to notice a lot more. Any time Donghyuck fully smiles or laughs, he blocks it with his hand, almost as if he’s trying to hide it. Mark really wishes he wouldn’t.

“Life is fine, Prez,” Donghyuck replies. His eyes snap to Chenle. “Lift your leg a little more. It’ll feel odd, but it’s the right posture.”

Chenle nods and tries once more. This time, the ball goes much straighter than before.

“Are you, uh, ready? For the game, I mean. And, you know, the rest of the…games?” Mark tries, though he winces at his own words because, oh my god, he’s terrible at this. Why is he so bad? What has happened to him in the last week to make him like this?

“I’m sure I’m as ready as the rest of us.” Frowning slightly, Donghyuck asks, “Are you okay? You seem a little,” he waves a hand, “out of it. And you were late today. You’re never late.”

“Fine. Totally fine. I just ran into Mr. Moon on the way, is all. But you’re, um, all right?”

Donghyuck’s expression is nothing but incredulous. “Are you absolutely sure you’re okay, Prez?”

Nodding a little too hard, he says, “Yeah, totally. I just…Look, I know the pressure is on and with the Nationals looming over us and the fact that we may see JY Prep, I just want to make sure my Pitcher is aye-okay, you know? I’m trying to be a good friend.”

At that, Donghyuck crosses his arms and turns directly toward him, which has Mark peering down at his shoes, ears turning red.

Especially when Donghyuck presses, “Your Pitcher?”

Is it possible to die of embarrassment? He’s pretty sure it is.

Stuttering, he replies, “I—I mean, not, like, my Pitcher. I mean the team’s Pitcher—You know, all of our Pitcher. The—You—We are—It’s not—” At the growing smirk on Donghyuck’s face, Mark groans into his hands. “You’re the absolute worst. You know what I mean.”

“Do I?”

Donghyuck,” he grumbles.

Donghyuck chuckles. “You’re so easy to tease, Prez. You should really work on that. Also, don’t worry about me. Worry about everyone else. At least I’ve played in National games before. This isn’t a whole new ball game for me. Pun totally intended.”

Coughing a laugh, Mark says, “Right. Forgot. But you’re sure—”

“Ask me again and I will sucker punch you in the gut. Try me.”

Mark puts up his hands in mock surrender. “All right, you’re fine. Cool.”

“Donghyuck, Mark, are you paying attention?” Taeyong shouts over to them with raised brows that tell that he knows they most definitely are not paying attention at all. “We don’t have a lot of time to get these guys trained, so a little help would be useful.”

“Sorry, Taeyong,” they call back in unison. Even Donghyuck appears a bit sheepish. However, when he glances back at Mark one last time, he sneaks a smile as if sharing a secret and Mark can’t find it in himself to feel ashamed in the slightest.

*

“All right, boys,” Jaehyun says, scanning the faces of his team, all of whom are strewn across the grass, panting and sweaty. They put a good practice on today. He couldn’t be prouder. “Here’s the deal. Tomorrow, after school, the bus will be here waiting for us. It’ll take about four hours to get to the city, so bring something to do. Once we’re there, it’s straight to bed. I need you all rested for the game Saturday morning. Got it?”

“Do we know who we’re sharing a room with?” Jaemin asks with an impish sort of smile, eyes flickering to Jeno as he flicks his bleached fringe from his face.

Yeah, hell no. Jaehyun is not an idiot.

“I’ll announce your roommates when we get there, but rest assured, little brother, that you will not be staying in the same room as your boyfriend.” He tries not to smile when Jaemin looks affronted, but Jeno merely shrugs, like he expected this turn out. “That all aside, we have Johnny and Ten joining us, which should be…interesting.”

Beside him, Taeyong snorts.

“Your first game is against YG High,” Jaehyun continues. “And last year they made it to the Championships against JY Prep.”

Immediately, Mark twists around to look to Donghyuck. “Which means you’ve played them before.” He glances at Renjun. “Both of you.”

Renjun nods. “Well, Donghyuck did for the first part of the game. I was benched. But, yeah, we’ve played them.”

“How are they?” Lucas asks, almost as if he doesn’t want to know the answer.

“It’s rather unlucky they’re our first team,” is the reply. Renjun places his chin in the palm of his hand, tiredly. “This won’t be easy. YG High was good. Really good. That being said, most of their team, last year, were seniors. Who knows what their team would be like now.”

Jaehyun furrows his brow. “We won’t even get the recordings until after this game. All I have are their notes from last years Championships and their lineup. It’s a start, at least.” He goes about handing the printed notes Taeyong got for him. “Read that over, make your own comments, talk amongst yourselves. From what I’ve heard, they’re pretty offensive.”

“We’ve played offensive teams before,” says Chenle.

“Yeah, will it really be that much different?” YangYang asks.

Worrying his lip, Jaemin looks to Jaehyun with wide eyes. Then, he says, “But none of them were second placers.”

Solemnly, Jaehyun nods. “Exactly. These guys know what they’re doing. Every year, since SM High dropped out, YG High has been the next in line. They won’t be easy. It’ll require a lot of focus. A lot more than before. We’ll probably need to use our reserves, as well, so I hope you boys are ready to get out there.”

He can’t hide the fact that this will be difficult. Nationals is completely different. These are teams from across the country that have won their own Regionals. They’re all there to prove themselves and put their best foot forward. None of this will be easy, especially with a team so new like theirs.

Even so, Jaehyun is prepared to make sure they go as far as they can. His team has determination, and that will help, for sure.

Mark purses his lips as he scans the notes. “Their score.”

“Yeah, it was such a long game,” sighs Renjun. “We were there for a while.”

“This is basically going up against JY Prep without JY Prep,” YangYang whines. “Seriously?”

“Now, now,” Taeyong says, gaining their attention. “Let’s not get down in the dumps too quickly. We all know how well you can do under pressure. Yes, this team will be hard, but so were all the other ones and Nationals shouldn’t be a shock. We go in and we play the best we can. Okay?”

They all nod, though Jaehyun can see some of their spirits deflating. He wishes this was easier, that they weren’t going up against a difficult team so suddenly, but it is what it is and there isn’t much they can do about it, except practice.

“For now, don’t worry about it. Make sure you get a good night’s rest tonight and I’ll see you all tomorrow after school.”

He hates the way they seem entirely too down as they walk away. However, pep talks can only do so much. He’s not really sure there’s much else he can say.

Arms wrap his waist from behind and Taeyong hooks his chin over Jaehyun’s shoulder with a, “Hey, what are you thinking?”

Jaehyun leans back into him, sighing. “I’m thinking that I really want them to win. They deserve this, Tae.”

“I know. You’ve done all you can, for now. Them, too. We just need to wait and see. Right now, though, you and I need to go get dinner and rest up for tomorrow. Just like you told them.”

If someone had told him he would end up here a couple of months ago, coaching a baseball team into the Nationals and back in a relationship with his ex-boyfriend, he would have laughed in their face. Honestly, this was not what he pictured himself doing. Although, a couple of months ago, he didn’t have much of an image of his future to begin with, having dropped out of university just before graduating and then moving back home with no plan. He’s grateful that Jaemin dragged him into this because he hasn’t ever been happier. Despite the worry of their next game.

He has a job at the gym. He has a team, who support him as much as he supports them. He has Taeyong, who he never thought he would see again, let alone let back into his life. After their messy breakup, he was pretty sure he would never let Taeyong near him again. But things have changed and he’s grown even more than he thought he could.

However, he does wonder what will happen when their tournament is over. Taeyong has a job back in the city, even if he’s working on his own manuscript. Jaehyun is working with Johnny. They haven’t really spoken about where they’ll go or what they’ll do. Hell, he isn’t even sure if being at the gym is something he’ll want to do for the rest of his life. Now that he’s had a taste for being a coach, for being near the game he’s loved for so long, Jaehyun doesn’t want to just let that go.

“You okay?” Taeyong asks, running a hand through Jaehyun’s hair.

Nodding, he kisses Taeyong on the cheek. “Yeah, I’m good. Food?”

Fingers link through his. “Food.”

As they walk off the diamond, Jaehyun decides to focus on one thing at a time. Saturday, they go up against YG High and that is where his focus is needed.

The rest can wait.

*

Chenle isn’t expecting anyone he knows to show up in the school workout room. It’s already late—the school is set to close completely in an hour—and everyone has gone home. At least, that’s what he thought until he hears a shuffle of shoes against the floor that sounds a little too familiar to his ears. When he started to recognize the sound of Jisung’s walk, he will never know.

Even still, he doesn’t slow his pace. The treadmill continues to rotate under his feet at a steady pace. His eyes are tired, his head feels foggy, but he pushes onward, staring at the wall before him. There’s too much to do, too much work to be done. If he stops now, he doesn’t think he’ll get much else done tonight.

So, he ignores the way Jisung steps inside the room, quietly, almost shyly. Since their fight at their last game, they haven’t really spoken. Their messages remain empty, they sit at opposite sides of the lunch table, and they don’t go home together either.

Maybe, Chenle is being a little bit of a brat, but he doesn’t need Jisung telling him what to do. He doesn’t need anyone telling him what to do. He knows his limits, and everything he’s been doing is for the good of the team. If he can’t get better, then what good is he?

Everyone already has their strengths. Even Jisung, who is still timid in what he does, is strikingly good when he finally puts his mind to it. But Chenle still struggles. Out of the two of them, it should be him who knows how to play the game the best, considering he used to play when he was younger. He should know how to do all of this and his determination should be giving him a boost. And, yet, it doesn’t matter how hard he tries. He keeps failing.

Which is why he needs to push himself a little farther. He has to focus on his batting and his pitching, even his stamina. It’s all so important, and if he can learn it, then he’ll finally be able to make a difference.

Sweat drips down his temples. Rubbing haphazardly at it, he realizes that Jisung has moved to his side, still not saying a word. He wonders if he will, or if he’s waiting for Chenle to. And, despite his stubbornness, Chenle does want to.

Jisung, in all honesty, was his first real friend. With his parents hardly ever home and his butler and maids as his only companions, Chenle never really understood friendship with people his own age. Even when he went to school back in China, all the kids either wanted to know him because of his money or they just never bothered. It wasn’t until he moved to Korea and ran into a lost kid on his way to his homeroom that Chenle finally saw a chance.

It was in that moment that Chenle decided Jisung was going to be his best friend. And they were. Are. It’s hard to tell given their current circumstance. But it’s all too complicated. Chenle doesn’t want Jisung to constantly tell him to slow down, to control what he’s doing, but he also doesn’t want to lose the only person who really knows him, a person he really likes and wants to keep in his life.

He wonders if Jisung feels the same.

Suddenly, a long-fingered hand comes into view to press the off button. The treadmill slows to a stop. Frowning, Chenle shoots Jisung a glare, annoyed at the interruption.

“What?” he snaps. “I’m working out.”

“Are we ever going to talk about it?” asks Jisung, quietly. His low tone has Chenle’s body on high-alert.

Still, he scoffs, crossing his arms over his chest and saying, “About what? The fact that you keep shoving your nose where it doesn’t belong? Who said you could tell me what to do, huh?”

A flicker of guilt hits his chest when Jisung winces. “I just want you to be safe. Why is that so hard to believe?”

“It isn’t. It’s just annoying. I know what I’m doing, Jisung. I don’t need your help.”

“Well, you need someone’s,” says Jisung. “Because you can’t keep doing this. You’re running yourself ragged. You can’t honestly think this is healthy.”

“What I think,” he presses, “is that this is my problem. Not yours. Go home, Jisung.”

Irritated, he jams his finger against the start button. The treadmill slowly begins to move beneath him. The sound is loud in his ears, but he hears Jisung mumble something before spinning on his heel and marching off. It has his lips downturning and his stomach dropping. He grips the handles until his knuckles turn white.

It isn’t until Jisung has finally left that Chenle slams his hand against the power button, causing the machine below him to stop once more.

He needs to keep going, but Jisung’s voice spins inside his mind.

I just care about you.

Sighing, he glances toward the door. It doesn’t matter if Jisung cares because Chenle knows what he’s doing.

He does.

And he’ll be fine.

He’ll prove it.

*

Jaehyun thinks that he probably should have taken the day off, considering he’s going to be on a bus with a team of teenaged boys later in the evening. Something he should really be awake and aware for. But money is money and Johnny needed the help, so here he is, on Friday, cleaning up after one of the early boxing classes.

“At this point, we’re going to need to hire another person if you and the boss keep going out of town,” says Yuta from the desk as Jaehyun drops towels into the hamper behind him. His feet are kicked up and a purple lollipop sticks out from between his teeth. “Running this place on my own is becoming tiresome.”

“Johnny did say he was looking into it,” Jaehyun says.

“Good.” Yuta blinks at him through thick lashes. “By the way, there were a couple of guys in yesterday, asking for you.”

“Me?”

Nodding, he rolls the lollipop on his tongue before elaborating, “Yeah, they come in sometimes, but I didn’t know they knew you.”

Jaehyun frowns. “Who?”

“Kim Mingyu and Jeon Jungkook. You know them? They haven’t been in a lot recently because, I guess, they’re doing some kind of gig or whatever. But they said they’d come back today when I told them you were in.”

“Oh.”

Yuta raises a brow. “Should I not have?”

Shaking his head, Jaehyun says, “No, it’s fine. I just...Yeah, it’s cool. Don’t worry about it.”

He heads into Johnny’s office before Yuta can ask any more questions. It isn’t that he doesn’t want to see Mingyu or Jungkook. It’s just that he doesn’t really know what to say. Their last conversation, when he first came back to town, was awkward enough and he hasn’t reached out to them since. In fact, he kind of expected them to forget all about him.

Then again, they had been Jaehyun’s best friends in school. Together, they had gone through the highs and lows of teenage-hood. Not to mention, being on the same baseball team. Jaehyun told them pretty much everything, and them to him. Of course, he never told them about Taeyong, but there were reasons for that. He doubts they would hold that against him if they ever did find out. So, maybe, it’s too much to ask for them to simply forget who he is.

It’s just that he isn’t sure what to say to them. Neither of them know why he’s back. They don’t know what he’s doing with his life. Hell, he doesn’t even know what he’s doing with his life. And even if they are kind about it—and they probably will be because they are wonderful people and he doubts that has changed over the years—it’s embarrassing.

Why would they want to find him?

Jaehyun tries not to think too hard about it as he logs into the computer to fill out the rest of his tasks for the day. Earlier into his job, Yuta had been quick to pass off all the documentation to him because he found it boring. Luckily, Jaehyun doesn’t mind too much. Plus, it keeps him hidden from the rest of the gym if he ever needs a moment to himself.

It isn’t until he’s nearing the end of his shift when Yuta knocks at the door. “Hey, Mingyu and Jungkook are here. Want me to send them in?”

Instantly, Jaehyun’s heart clenches. He peers past Yuta’s shoulder, but he can’t see anything or anyone. Judging by the way Yuta has come to him, Jaehyun can be assured that both Mingyu and Jungkook are aware he’s in the building, which means he can’t just brush them off without it being obvious that he’s hiding. So, he sighs and nods, hoping to prepare himself as quickly as he can while Yuta goes to get them.

God, he isn’t ready for this.

“Hey, Jae!”

His head snaps up to meet Mingyu’s smile. His brown hair is fluffy and his eyes twinkle, just like they used to when he was a mischievous teenager, asking for trouble. Behind him, Jungkook offers a wave. His hair is longer than Jaehyun remembers from a couple of months ago, now pulled back into a tiny ponytail. And, now that he’s had a real chance to look at him, he can see the tattoos on his hand and the piercings in his face—an eyebrow and lip ring—and ears. Something he definitely wouldn’t have gotten when he was younger. Jaehyun wonders when that changed.

“Uh, hey,” Jaehyun says, throat constricting slightly.

Mingyu drops into the seat on the other side of the desk before beckoning Jungkook to join him in the chair beside him. “Man, you give a guy your phone number and he doesn’t call, doesn’t text.”

Jaehyun knows he’s teasing, but he still winces. “Ah, yeah. Sorry about that. Things got busy.”

Waving a hand at him, Mingyu says, “It’s cool. Figured that might be the case. Yuta said you started working here. That’s cool. How is it?”

“I really like it. Not exactly where I thought I would end up, but I enjoy it. I’m also, um, coaching.”

It’s Jungkook who leans forward. “Really? What?”

“Baseball.” He coughs, awkwardly. “They, uh, SM team, actually.”

“No way, dude. That’s awesome! I always knew you’d make a good coach,” Mingyu says with a smile. It has Jaehyun fighting his own into something a bit more manageable.

Jungkook tilts his head. “I thought SM didn’t have a team anymore.”

“They don’t. I mean, they didn’t. It just started up this year. My little brother—you remember Jaemin, right?—he’s on it. We’re going to Nationals.”

Mingyu’s smile turns beaming. “That’s incredible! You must be so proud.”

“You don’t think it’s, like, weird?”

Frowning, Jungkook asks, “Why would that be weird? It’s actually a pretty perfect gig for you. You’ve always loved the game, and you were always a good teacher. Makes sense to me.”

“Despite the fact that I completely ruined our Championships.”

At that, Jungkook and Mingyu exchange a glance. Jaehyun’s heart is pounding in his ears. He shouldn’t have said anything. He should have just kept his mouth shut. He should have—

“Dude, you didn’t ruin Championships,” Mingyu tells him, firmly. “It just happened. It isn’t like you actively decided to destroy our chances. Sure, we lost, but teams lose. Not your fault Coach and the rest of the town took it so hard.”

“Bastards, really,” says Jungkook. “A little loss and they flip their shit.”

“Tell me about it. I remember a teacher crying the next day. People can be shitty, but none of that was your fault, Jae. We never blamed you for that.”

Jaehyun stares down at his hands. He supposes he never really asked them after it happened. When he had lost, he gave up baseball almost immediately and then kind of shut himself away from the world.

“Is that why you cut us out?” asks Jungkook. “We kind of wondered why you went MIA all of a sudden.”

Sighing, he directs his gaze to the wall. “It wasn’t an easy time. With the loss and with…Well, it was just a bad time.”

“Taeyong, right?”

He looks to Mingyu with wide eyes. “Sorry?”

“Part of it was because of Taeyong, wasn’t it? I mean, he and you were pretty close and I might have overheard your call. I just didn’t want to say anything at the time because it felt like you didn’t really want us to know.”

Stomach churning a little, he asks, “Heard what?”

“You were just telling him not to leave you and not to hang up. You weren’t happy when you came back. I never tried to assume whether it was platonic or not.”

“It wasn’t,” he mumbles. “Platonic, I mean. We were together. He, um, broke up with me.”

“Over the phone?” Jungkook’s brows are so furrowed that Jaehyun fears they may stick that way. “What an asshole move.”

“Oh, he knows,” he says, chuckling under his breath. “It’s—We’re fine now. We’re actually together again. It’s a long story. Are neither of you shocked by this at all? Because it really doesn’t seem like it.”

Mingyu shrugs. “You were always close with him. And, to us, we kind of had an idea. We were just waiting for you to say something. Like I said, we didn’t want to assume anything. Although, I am curious why you never said anything. It couldn’t have been a fear of being rejected because we all knew Jungkook was bi before he even said anything about it.”

“Hey!”

“What? It’s totally true. Didn’t help that you followed Jimin around like a little puppy for years until he agreed to go out with you.”

Jaehyun put up his hand. “Wait, Jimin? That guy who used to be in all the musicals? Did I know you liked him?”`

“You were a bit preoccupied with your own pretty boy,” Mingyu says. “But I got to watch the whole sorry thing happen. Did you know that Jimin finally agreed to go on a date with Jungkook after we graduated? And now guess what.”

“What?”

“They’re fucking married.”

Jaehyun shoots Jungkook a wide-eyed stare. “What the actual fuck?”

“I tried to invite you, but you changed your number,” offers Jungkook with a sheepish grin. “We went to America to do it. I mean, no one really considers it real here, but we know, at least.”

“I’m really happy for you, man,” he says. “Truly. That’s great. So, you both live here?”

“Yeah, Jimin works at the dance studio across town and I run a tattoo parlor just a few stores down from here.”

“And,” Mingyu puts in, “in our free time, we meet up for a good game of baseball, like the old days. Which is why we’re here, actually. We wanted to ask for a favor.”

Jaehyun narrows his eyes, a little nervously. “What kind of favor?”

“Well, a couple of months ago we were on the diamond and this guy came up to us.”

“Some kind of scout for one of the city teams,” Jungkook fills in.

Nodding, Mingyu says, “Yeah, so he offered his card and told us to check him out if we ever wanted to try out for one of the teams. We thought, for laughs, we’d give it a shot.”

“We honestly didn’t think it would go anywhere. I mean, we played high school baseball. Neither one of us are professional level, at all.”

“But then they decided they liked us. We’re currently reserves.”

Jaehyun blinks. “On a city team? That’s insane.”

“Yeah, well, it’s just a bit of pocket cash, but a lot of fun. We just go for the season and then come back to our other jobs after. All that aside, though, you wouldn’t believe what happened last week.”

“What?”

“Their Catcher broke his ankle,” Mingyu says. “Can’t play for the rest of the season. We have a reserve, but they’re looking for an extra player to fill in the gap.”

Jungkook rubs the nape of his neck. “We may have mentioned that we knew someone.”

“Me?” He points at himself. “You mentioned me?”

“You’re one of the best players we’ve known. Besides Taeyong, but neither of us knew how to get a hold of him. But we figured you might be interested in trying out.”

Leaning back in his chair, he says, “I don’t know, guys. I have so much to do and the Nationals are coming up. I’m not even a professional player.”

“Neither are we, but they’ve been training us. Dude, you would love it. I remember how much you liked playing. And we could all have some fun together. Just think it over, okay? Tryouts are at three o’clock on the ninth.”

“In the city? I might have a game that day.”

“But the game will be in the morning and probably done by then,” reasons Jungkook. “Look, there’s no pressure, but at least think about it?”

At the pout Jungkook’s sporting, Jaehyun rolls his eyes. “Fine, yeah, I’ll think about it.”

“Awesome!” cheers Mingyu. “You have our numbers. Call if you’re interested, all right? Otherwise, I still expect a call for dinner or something because it’s been forever and we seriously need to catch up.”

Jaehyun laughs. “Sounds like a plan.”

“Cool,” he stands, Jungkook following right after. “We’ll talk to you later then. Have a good night.”

After waving them off, Jaehyun collapses back into his chair with a groan. A professional city team? He isn’t even sure he remembers how to play an actual game anymore. Sure, he bats and practices along with the boys, but that’s nothing compared to what he used to do.

Still, it does seem like an interesting opportunity. One that doesn’t come along very often.

Who knows, he thinks as he logs off the computer and grabs the keys to begin locking up, maybe this is what he was looking forward to all along.

Chapter Text

Renjun is antsy.

His foot taps against the floor of the bus with his backpack hugged to his chest because he refused to let Lucas put it on the ceiling rack. Because he needed the weight to keep him grounded. For some reason. Unfortunately, there’s no way to nail exactly why his nerves are acting up.

It could be because they’re driving to their first National game and a lot is riding on them winning. It could be because he’s worried that they haven’t had enough time to prepare. God, they need more than a week to be ready for this kind of thing. JY Prep starts their practices weeks before school even starts. The school even lets them out an hour early for more time. Even if they make it past all these schools to get to the Championships, they will be going up against robots.

Or, you know, it could be because they’re on their way to the hotel and Jaehyun still hasn’t announced who they’re rooming with and Renjun is absolutely terrified he’s going to end up with Lucas.

Of course, Jaehyun has already made it known that Jaemin can’t stay with Jeno, so there’s probably no chance he’ll actually be rooming with Lucas, but it’s a possibility. And while he really, really likes his boyfriend, he isn’t sure he’s ready to be in the same room with him. Overnight.

He thinks, as a pretty average, teenage boy, he should want this. And, in a way, he does. The idea is kind of thrilling and maybe that’s what makes it even scarier. He doesn’t want that pressure. Not that he thinks Lucas would pressure him. That’s…No, he wouldn’t do that. Renjun knows that. But the overall pressure of being in the same room with a bed does put that pressure there whether they want it to be or not.

The worst part about it is that Lucas doesn’t seem worried at all. He hums, smiling, as he turns around to talk to YangYang and Sungchan. He keeps some part of him touching Renjun just to be close and, honestly, it so isn’t helping right now.

“Where are you going?” Lucas asks, brows furrowed, when Renjun suddenly stands up and places his bag down on his seat. “Bus is moving.”

“Donghyuck,” is all he says as he shoves himself past Lucas’ feet and teeters his way up to the front where Donghyuck is sitting next to Mark.

Jaehyun notices almost immediately. “Renjun, you can’t get up while the bus is moving.”

But he just gestures to Donghyuck with a helpless sort of look that has Jaehyun’s expression softening, and squeezes himself onto the edge of the seat, startling Donghyuck, who had his earphones in. Beside him, Mark flinches when Donghyuck ends up more pressed up against him and shoves himself farther into the window. Before Mark can do anything, however, Renjun reaches over to turn the volume up on Mark’s phone.

Mark hisses, ripping his earphones out. “Ow, Renjun.”

“Keep them in, please,” he pleas.

Glancing to Donghyuck, who shrugs, Mark does as he’s told. He puts them back in and turns to look out the window. In all honesty, they probably don’t have to sit together—Donghyuck and Mark, that is—but, for some reason, they still do. Unless they’ve had a particularly hard day and need alone time. Otherwise, they seem to just gravitate toward one another these days. There are times when Donghyuck will actively drop into the seat next to Mark’s at their lunch table, and while he ignores Mark the majority of the time there, it’s still a sign of something.

“What is it?” Donghyuck whispers.

Renjun goes to glance over his shoulder at Lucas and thinks better of it. “I can’t do this.”

Immediately, Donghyuck frowns. “Do what? What’s wrong? Is it the game or—”

“No, no,” he waves off. “The, uh, hotel. I don’t know if I can—What if Jaehyun rooms me with Lucas? I can’t do that Donghyuck. We’ve only been dating, like, a month.”

“Okay, first of all, Jaehyun knows you two are dating, so you won’t be rooming with him, but secondly, is Lucas pressuring you to do something? Because if he is, I will—”

“Donghyuck, no,” he presses. He lays his hands on Donghyuck’s arm, trying to ease off the glare that’s forming on Donghyuck’s face. They both ignore the way he trembles as he relaxes back into the seat. “He isn’t. I just…You know that he would never. It’s just a lot. Being in a room with him. With a bed. Overnight. I don’t know. It feels like a lot.”

“That’s because it is a lot. It’s supposed to be a lot. It’s a pretty big deal. I would be shocked if it didn’t feel like that. But you never have to do anything you don’t want to do. And you have time. Like I said, Jaehyun isn’t going to let you room with Lucas.”

He breathes out a sigh. “I know. No, I know that. I don’t know why I’m worried. It’s stupid.”

“Renjun,” Donghyuck takes his hand. “It isn’t stupid.”

He says it with such force that Renjun bows his head in guilt. He shouldn’t have even mentioned it. But then he thinks that if their situations were reversed, he would want Donghyuck to come to him, no matter how silly he thought his issue was. Like he has before. Like how Renjun has done before, too. Even so, he doesn’t like fearing something he knows isn’t going to happen.

“What you’re feeling isn’t stupid,” whispers Donghyuck. “It’s valid. And if Lucas ever forces himself on you then I'll chop his dick off.”

Renjun snorts.

But then so does Mark.

They both look at him, who purses his lips like he forgot he was supposed to be ignoring them.

“You’re a terrible eavesdropper,” Donghyuck states with a blank face.

Mark frowns. “Your voice is a little hard to ignore. Even with a heavy bass.”

Affronted, Donghyuck demands, “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

Mark opens his mouth like he plans to apologize or backtrack, eyebrows shooting up under his fringe, but he must think better of it because he sits forward to peer around Donghyuck at Renjun. His smile is soft when he says, “You really don’t have anything to worry about, I can tell you that much. You’re, like, Lucas’ first boyfriend and he would sooner hate himself than do anything to ruin his chance with you. Of course, like Donghyuck said, if he ever does anything wrong, I’ll join Hyuck in the castration. But everything will be fine. I’ve known Lucas since I was ten. He’s just a teddy bear, who doesn’t know his own strength sometimes.”

Quietly, Renjun nods. He chances a look over his shoulder at Lucas. Sure enough, Lucas is looking back at him with a furrowed brow of concern. When he tilts his head, questioningly, Renjun offers him a smile. Slowly, Lucas smiles back, a little relief flooding his gaze.

Yeah, Renjun doesn’t think he has much to worry about at all.

Well—he glances back at Donghyuck, whose knuckles are white when he grips at his phone, but his expression stays neutral—he has nothing to worry about when it comes to Lucas, at least.

*

“Gather up!” Jaehyun shouts across the lobby. The wide, open space has his voice booming off the walls a little more than he probably likes, judging by the way he flinches at his own echo. He shoots an apologetic look over his shoulder at the receptionist. “Sorry. Um, so,” he turns to them, “I have your keycards. Keep them with you at all times. We’ll be doing rounds at nine to make sure lights are out. Please, please, I’m begging you, just go to sleep. Make this easier on yourself and be functioning tomorrow. Breakfast is at eight. Which means, yes, wake up is at seven.” They all groan. “Going to want that full night’s sleep, huh?”

He starts passing out the keycards and Jisung takes his before glancing at the room number on it. With a quick scan, he can’t tell if anyone else has one that matches, so he waits for Jaehyun to return to the front and announce the pairings.

“All right, so the rooming goes as followed: Jeno and Mark.” Mark reaches high over Jaemin’s groaning head to give Jeno a high-five. “Jaemin and Lucas. Renjun and Donghyuck.” When Renjun sighs, shoulders deflating, Lucas raises a brow at him, earning a sheepish grin in response. “Dejun and Hendery. Sungchan, Shotaro.”

Oh, god. Jisung’s heart kicks into overdrive with each name. There are only three more of them left and he has a sinking suspicion life doesn’t want to be good to him right now.

“Chenle and Jisung. YangYang, I’m going to get you to share with Ten this time.”

Through the team, Jisung finds Chenle. His stomach sinks. This isn’t going to work. This isn’t going to go well. Chenle won’t even look at him. How the heck are they going to stay in the same room overnight. While it may only be one night, it could turn into two if things go wrong and they have to play again on Sunday.

“I’ll be in the room at the end of the hallway if anyone needs me, which I’m hoping won’t be the case because what will you all be doing?”

“Sleeping,” they respond.

Jaehyun nods. “Good. Let’s go then.”

As the rest of them grab their duffle bags and suitcases, Jisung pushes himself through to Jaehyun’s side, tugging on his sleeve until he turns around.

“Hey, buddy, what’s up?”

Jisung glances toward the elevators. About five of them can fit at a time, which is claustrophobic enough to make him wait until he’s one of the last ones. Besides, he doesn’t want to get stuck in a small space with Chenle right now. Not with how they are.

“Do we…Um, do we have to stick with who you’ve paired us with?” he asks in a mumble.

Eyes flicking to the team, Jaehyun inquires, “Is there something I should know? I know you and Chenle have been having some differences lately, but is it something I should be worried about?”

Almost immediately, Jisung feels like he shouldn’t have said anything at all with the way Jaehyun is looking at him. It feels like he’s maybe gotten Chenle in trouble or maybe himself; he doesn’t know. And while he knows Jaehyun is just trying to watch out for them all, Jisung thinks maybe getting Jaehyun involved is the wrong thing to do.

So, he shakes his head and blinks at his shoes. “No. It’s just awkward, right now. Nothing to worry about.”

Incredulously, Jaehyun nods. “Right, well, if something does happen and you need to talk, you can come to me. You know that, right? I can promise you that telling me the truth won’t get anyone in trouble. I just want to make sure you’re all okay.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I know. I’m going to, uh, head up.”

“Sure. I’ll see you at lights out.”

Jisung hurries to catch the elevator with YangYang, Ten, and Johnny inside. As the doors close, YangYang whines under his breath about staying with his cousin, which only earns him a slap up the head from Ten.

Jisung wishes he was staying with Ten.

When the doors finally open, he begrudgingly drags his suitcase down the hall to his room. With clammy fingers, he manages to get the door open. The room isn’t anything exciting, especially in the dim, yellow light. Just two beds and a small nook with a padded chair and table. A television is set up atop a dresser, and it plays some old variety show that Jisung doesn’t think he’s ever seen.

Chenle is on the bed closest to the door, duffle bag at the very end by his feet. He spares Jisung the smallest of glances as Jisung crosses the room to the vacant bed and sets his things next to it. Kicking off his shoes, he decides to just sit there because, well, what else is he supposed to do? Is he supposed to say something? Is Chenle?

He feels like he should apologize, but Jisung isn’t really sure what he’s supposed to be apologizing for. Nothing he’s done seems in the wrong. All he’s ever done is look out for Chenle. Except, maybe, he stepped over the line. Maybe he was too intense. Maybe he messed something up. He’s never really had a best friend before, always being the last person people hung out with in elementary school, so he thinks it’s totally possible he’s doing it wrong.

His heart sinks.

He doesn’t want to be doing this wrong. He wants to keep Chenle as a friend and he’s so desperate to make this all right. He just doesn’t know how to. He doesn’t know what to say or what to do that won’t set Chenle off again and have him hating him even more.

Jisung doesn’t want to lose Chenle over something like this.

But it feels like he is.

Especially when Chenle gets up from the bed and grabs his bag, heading for the door.

“Where are you going? Lights out are in an hour,” he says.

When Chenle stops at the door, Jisung expects some kind of answer. He doesn’t get one. There’s a pause and then Chenle is swinging the door open and disappearing out into the hall.

Sighing, Jisung falls back into the comforter.

Maybe he should have mentioned something to Jaehyun when he had the chance.

*

Staring at Mingyu’s number is starting to give him a headache, but Jaehyun knows he should call him, or message him. Do something. He just still isn’t sure what to say. He’s not even sure he wants to take the offer of the tryout just yet. It came out of nowhere and he has so many things on his plate already.

Hell, he really should be planning tomorrow’s game instead of thinking about this.

“You’ve been frowning pretty hard at your phone for a while,” says Taeyong as he sits on the bed next to him. “Oh, Mingyu? Did you meet up with him?”

He nods. “Yeah. Him and Jungkook, actually.”

“How are they?”

“They’re, um, really good. Jungkook is married.” At Taeyong’s wide eyes, he laughs. “Yeah, that was my reaction. And they know…about us. It kind of came out that they had an idea about it, and they would never say anything to anyone, you know that, but I almost never asked you and, god, I’m such an idiot—”

“Jaehyun,” Taeyong cuts in, grabbing his hand. “I’m okay with them knowing. Just breathe, all right? They were always sort of around. I’m not shocked they picked up on some things. Especially that Mingyu. He always had some weird way of knowing things.”

Jaehyun’s lips twitch. “Yeah, he really did. Still does, really.”

“But, besides all that, he was a really good friend. Jungkook, too. I’m glad you guys got in touch again.” He looks to Jaehyun’s phone. “So, why do you look so scared to message them?”

Flipping the phone in his hand a few times, Jaehyun ponders. Then, he turns to face Taeyong head-on. “Can I tell you something?”

Taeyong’s eyebrow lifts. “Anything.”

“Okay, well, first off, they told me that it wasn’t my fault for losing the Championships and, I mean, that was nice to hear, but I still feel bad. And, maybe, I shouldn’t, but I do. I can’t help it.” When Taeyong opens his mouth, Jaehyun lifts a hand to stop them. “They also may have offered me an opportunity that I’m not sure I’m cut out for or ready to do.”

“What kind of opportunity.”

“Long story short, they play reserves on a city team now. The Catcher broke his ankle or something and now he can’t play, so they’ve asked me to go to the tryouts and I don’t know.” He puts his head in his hands. “Tae, I don’t know if I should bother. I haven’t played properly in years and I’m not at a professional level, at all. I don’t want to go and make a laughingstock of myself.”

“But this could also be a really good chance for you,” says Taeyong. “A really good chance, Jae. You and I both know that. You’ve been wanting to play professional baseball since I’ve known you. You only stopped because of the Championships. I’m sure if you got back into practicing it would come right back to you. You could go so far.”

“And what if I don’t?”

Taeyong offers him a soft smile. “Then, at least you tried. No more regrets, Jae. You should go for what you want.”

Exhaling deeply, he leans forward until his forehead is on Taeyong’s shoulder, Taeyong’s hand coming up to card his fingers through his hair. He’s missed this. Missed being this close to him and having someone to talk to, who understands him more than he does himself.

“What about the boys?”

“When are the tryouts?”

“The ninth. If we make it past this level, we’ll have a game that day.”

“But we’ll already be in the city. You could slip over and do it, I’m sure. Ten, Johnny, and I can handle the kids for a bit.”

Jaehyun lifts his head. “And if I miraculously get in? What then?”

“We work through it. Together.”

The kiss is brief, but it elevates some of the pressure building in his chest. That is, until his phone buzzes.

“It’s Mingyu,” he mutters as he opens the message. It’s the information for the tryout and the dates for the games. Jaehyun scans it all before passing the phone over to Taeyong with a shake of his head. “There goes that idea.”

“Why?”

“I won’t be going.”

“What is it?” Taeyong asks, running his eyes down the message. When he reaches the spot, he says, “Ah, I see.”

“It isn’t going to work.”

Putting the phone down, Taeyong scoots closer. He wraps his arms around Jaehyun’s shoulders and tucks his face into the crook of Jaehyun’s neck as he says, “You should do it.”

Jaehyun jolts. “Did you not see what I just saw? Taeyong, their first game is the same day as the Championships. Yeah, we may not make it, but if we do, I can’t ditch the kids. I’m not doing that. They worked so hard, and they deserve to have a coach until the end.”

“And you deserve to have one of your own dreams come true.”

“What if me being there for Championships is a dream of mine? I don’t want to miss that.”

Taeyong sighs, running his nose along Jaehyun’s jaw in an attempt to calm him. “I know. I know you do. Just…Don’t give up on this. Go. Do the tryouts. If you make it, we figure it out. If you don’t, then there’s nothing to worry about. But don’t regret not doing it for the rest of your life.”

“But I—”

“Baby, please, just try. That’s all I’m asking for. Go and have fun. Go and meet new people. People who love baseball just as much as you do. Maybe you can network and, if it doesn’t work out this time, maybe they’ll have another opening later. Just try.”

Turning to look him in the eye, he asks, “You really want me to do this, huh?”

“I want to see you explore and enjoy things. That’s all I want.”

With shaky hands, he picks up his phone. Mingyu’s name is bright across the screen. “You swear we’ll figure this out if I somehow manage to get in. Not that I will, but—”

“You will,” Taeyong presses. “We’ll do this together, all right? Now, are you going to message him or not?”

Jaehyun unlocks his phone. “Fine. Here we go.”

*

It's just after eight when Renjun, Jaemin, and Lucas show up at Mark’s room. They shove their way inside with the printed YG High lineup in their hands. Jaemin instantly crashes right on top of Jeno, spattering kisses on his face while Renjun and Lucas take the chairs by the table in the corner.

“We should go over this,” says Renjun.

Moving Jaemin off his lap, Jeno replies, “Did you come up with something?”

“Just a few things, but I’m thinking we can brainstorm until Jaehyun calls lights out.”

A knock comes at the door and Mark goes to open it, only to find the rest of the team hovering at the door. Donghyuck jabs his thumb over his shoulder at the boys and says, “Thought I’d drag them in.”

Mark allows Donghyuck to slip under his arm and into the room before stepping back and allowing the rest of them inside. The only one not there is Chenle. When Mark raises a brow at Jisung, he simply shrugs and shrinks in on himself, knee bouncing.

“So, what do we have?” he asks, sitting on his bed next to Dejun. “Do you know any of these guys?”

Donghyuck scans the sheet over Renjun’s shoulder. “A few. Choi Hyunsuk was there when I played last year. Looks like he’s Captain now.”

“How is he?”

“Decent—Actually, no, he was really good.”

“He plays Shortstop, like me,” Renjun puts in. “I remember watching him before. He’s super quick on his reflexes. And Takata Mashiho is a leftie. That’ll give us some issues because they all love stealing bases.”

“Yoon Jaehyuck is a leftie, too.”

Renjun glances up at Donghyuck. “Really?”

“Yeah, threw Felix off a couple of times.”

Frowning, Jeno asks, “Who’s Felix?”

“The reserve Pitcher on JY’s team,” Donghyuck replies with a flat tone. “Two lefties are going to be an issue. And I don’t know a few of these names, so we’re just going to have to go off the notes.”

“Who?” Mark asks, trying not to ponder too hard on Donghyuck’s sudden drop in his shoulders when mentioning whoever this Felix is.

“Well, I don’t know Kanemoto Yoshinori.”

From beside Sungchan, Shotaro speaks up, “Japanese. They have a lot.”

It's the first time Mark has ever heard him speak aloud like that. It has him gaping a little until Jaemin shoots him a look and he shuts his mouth. Shotaro doesn’t seem to notice he’s said much at all, still scanning the lineup with curious eyes.

“Takata Mashiho, Hamada Asahi,” he says. “Japanese.”

“Takata Mashiho was a transfer from what I can remember,” Donghyuck puts in. “I don’t know Asahi, though. Or Bang Yedam, or Kim Doyoung.”

“But the rest of them were reserves last year. They didn’t play for long, but enough,” adds Renjun.

Sitting back on the bed, Mark asks, “So what do we do then?”

“Well,” Renjun puts his sheet on the table before him, “we know that they’re offensive, which means their batting is their strong suit. Plus, their stealing. Their biggest weapon was always how quick they could be. As long as we focus in on that, we may be able to stop them from getting too many runs that way.”

“And with lefties, we should be able to do more inner pitches,” Donghyuck suggests. “And we should attempt more Sinkers.”

“What about their pitching?” asks Jaemin

Donghyuck’s brows furrow in thought. Even in the ugly, dim lighting of the room, he glows. The silver piercing in his eyebrow glitters and Mark finds himself staring at it before tracing along the curve of Donghyuck’s ear. So many.

Seven. No. Eight.

Apparently.

Mark thinks Donghyuck is just pulling his leg when he says there’s eight because he still hasn’t spotted it, yet.

“I don’t remember them pulling anything particularly difficult, but it looks like Asahi is their Pitcher and I have nothing on him. For all we know, he could be some miracle worker.”

“Worried?” Jaemin teases.

Donghyuck rolls his eyes. “I’m quivering in my boots.”

“It’s nice that you’re finally feeling close enough to share that with us. We’re so honored.”

Instead of glaring—like Mark is used to—Donghyuck smirks before sticking his tongue out at Jaemin, who laughs. Oh, okay. Sure. That’s new.

As Mark’s brain is processing the development, Donghyuck’s eyes slide to meet his gaze. There’s a moment, just a moment, where Donghyuck’s smile doesn’t dip and Mark’s heart thuds against his chest. Then, Donghyuck looks away with a shake of his head, down at the paper again.

“Okay, on a scale from one to ten, how screwed are we?” YangYang inquires, putting his hands out.

Renjun snorts. “We aren’t screwed. Not really. I mean, this will be tough, sure, but we’ve faced some tough teams already.”

“Still not answering my question.”

“I don’t know,” he admits with a sigh. “They’re a good team, but they have new people. Neither of us knows what they could be like at this point and the sheet doesn’t really do much. I guess, like, a five?”

YangYang, blank-faced, blinks at him. “You did not just pick the middle.”

Renjun throws up his hands. “Well, I don’t know, YangYang!”

“Babe,” Lucas says as he reaches across the table for Renjun’s hands. “Breathe.”

Suddenly, there’s a knock at the door and, this time, Jeno gets up to grab it. On the other side, Taeyong says, “Are the others with you?”

When Jeno moves, Taeyong steps inside. His eyes drift over them all and he sighs. “Geez, I thought I would have to go hunting with all the empty rooms I found. What are you all doing in here? You should be getting ready for bed.”

YangYang waves the lineup. “Talking about tomorrow. Planning.”

“Well, I’m very proud of you for doing that, but you seriously need your sleep, so: Up. Get up. Let’s go. Back to your rooms, kids.”

Slowly, they trickle out of the room. On his way past, Lucas pats Mark on the shoulder with a grin that tells him to not worry. He vows to try his hardest. The last thing he needs is not being able to sleep tonight.

After Taeyong follows after YangYang, it leaves Jaemin as the last person out. Except, as he passes, Mark clears his throat.

Jaemin turns, innocent eyes blinking. “Yeah?”

Holding out his hand, he says, “Jeno’s keycard, please.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He wiggles his fingers. “Nana. Now.”

With a groan, Jaemin shoves his hand into his back pocket and pulls out the card. He slams it onto Mark’s open palm with a bit more strength than necessary. “I was only going to come by in the morning.”

“You don’t need his card to do that,” Mark tells him, trying not to grin at the pinched expression Jaemin is giving him. “Just knock.”

“You’re going to regret this when I come knocking at six tomorrow morning.”

“Nana, you’re never awake at six. I’m willing to bet it’ll be Jeno that comes to you. Now, shoo. Go to bed.”

Jaemin throws his head back with a whine and heads for the door. “You’re such a spoilsport.”

By the time the door finally closes, Jeno’s eyes are brimming with tears, trying to keep himself from laughing. He chortles when Mark whips the keycard at him.

“You’re both horrible.”

Jeno picks up the card and drops it onto the bedside table. “Didn’t even know he took it.”

“Doubt you’d even care.”

“No, but I’d get an awful fright in the morning when he got into bed with me.”

“I’m sure you would,” he says, grabbing his things before heading to the bathroom. “And if by some sheer chance he does come by at six, you better keep your ass glued to your bed.”

Laughing, Jeno replies, “Just wait until you have your own boy and you’ll probably be thinking of bending the rules, too.”

Mark’s stomach flips as he shuts himself into the bathroom, Jeno’s laughter drifting through the walls. He desperately tries not to think of Donghyuck curled up next to him in bed as he gets himself ready.

Damn it, Jeno.

*

“Whoa,” Sungchan breathes as he steps up beside Renjun. “This place is massive.”

And it is. Renjun can certainly agree on that. At least, compared to where they’ve played before. Their Regional games had been in much smaller, local diamonds due to their hometown's location. City games and National games tended to be played in one particular spot.

This spot, to be exact.

National baseball games are played in one of two diamonds inside the same park. The one they’re currently standing in and the one right across the main entrance to their left. Each one is well cared for. Certainly better cared for than the ones they’ve played in so far. The grass is green, the lines are crisply painted, and even the bleachers are cleaned and swept, looking almost as new as their first day assembled.

When he played with JY Prep—‘played’ being loosely used—they were always on diamonds like this. Being in a city school had its perks. Except, nothing feels more rewarding than going from a run-down diamond to something like this. Especially if you’re someone like Sungchan, who has never set foot in a place this nice.

“There are so many people,” he mutters.

Renjun smiles. “Welcome to Nationals. City folk like to come and watch.”

“We might actually have more than Ten and Johnny cheering for us,” jokes YangYang from his other side. “Unless they’re all here for YG. In which case, I want earplugs.”

“It’ll be fine,” he tells him. “Trust me, you’ll hardly know they’re there. You’ll be too focused on the actual game.”

Glancing around, he spots Chenle stretching outside the dugout and Jaehyun with Taeyong inside of it. Dejun and Hendery are slipping inside, putting their gloves on the bench. The rest of their team is still changing, it seems.

The only problem is, Donghyuck left before all of them. Which means, he should be here.

He isn’t.

Renjun frowns. “Hey, have you guys seen Donghyuck?”

“No, but his stuff is in the dugout,” Sungchan replies. “Now that you mention it, he should have gotten here before us, right? Maybe he went to get a drink? I can go check by the fountains.”

Stopping him before he can leave, Renjun says, “No, it’s fine. I’ll go check. Let Mark know for me?”

After Sungchan nods, he jogs through the gated entrance to the diamond and into the growing crowd. He knows why they’re all here. And he knows—at least he thinks he knows—why Donghyuck isn’t.

All National games start today. All National games play inside this park. Meaning, somewhere in this crowd, are JY Prep players.

Renjun doesn’t want to think that Donghyuck went out searching for trouble. Not when he’s been doing so well. Besides, Donghyuck doesn’t often search for it. It's more like falls into his lap and then he’s stuck with it. Chances are, he really did go to get a drink like Sungchan said. Probably went for a walk to clear his head, knowing their old team would be playing in the diamond directly across from them at the exact same time.

It isn’t an easy thing to think about after everything that’s happened.

Which is also one of the reasons he knows Donghyuck wouldn’t actively search for them. He has nothing to gain from it and Donghyuck isn’t the kind of person to purposefully put himself into a situation that would make him upset. In fact, he tends to avoid it. Not really healthy, but it’s weirdly almost better.

Slipping in and out of the people gathering inside the main entrance, waiting to get into their seats, Renjun calls out Donghyuck’s name. He gets an ugly glare from a man when he accidentally does it too close to his ear. Mumbling an apology, he squeezes by and stops at the fountains.

He sighs when he spots Donghyuck sitting on the bench. “There you are.”

Donghyuck glances up from his hands, eyes a little disconnected. “Oh, hey. Sorry, I was just trying to…I don’t know.”

“If you were trying to get a breather, you picked the wrong spot. Holy, this is a lot of people.”

“This is what happens when you’re reigning champions,” he says, though it lacks the normal spirit he carries. “I think I saw the JY Prep bus. They still have that gaudy thing, did you know that?”

Renjun sighs, dropping in the seat beside him. “Donghyuck.”

“No, seriously. It’s hideous. Why do they even need their school’s name sprayed on the side of a bus. They’re a high school team.”

“Because they’re Champions, and JY Prep is a school with too much money and not enough sense. Come on, you should be with the rest of us. Why are you all the way out here? I would think you’d want to stay away from them.”

“I’m not scared of them, Renjun.”

Scanning Donghyuck’s face, Renjun can’t help but think that maybe he really thinks he’s telling the truth. Maybe he really does believe he isn’t scared of them. But the small twitch of his eyebrow and the shift of his legs is enough to tell Renjun that it’s a lie. And, honestly, Renjun wouldn’t blame him for it. Even Renjun is scared to run into them, and he never went through what Donghyuck did.

“Even if you aren’t, do you really want to deal with them? What happened to avoiding them?”

He feels like he should take back what he thought about Donghyuck going and searching out for trouble. But this isn’t a normal occurrence. This is something different and maybe it brings up some new unwanted desires inside of him. Things Renjun will never understand.

Donghyuck shakes his head. “Can’t really do that if we have to play them eventually.”

“So why do this now? Why not just wait?”

“I don’t know,” he whispers. “I don’t know. I don’t know why I’m here or what I’m doing or what I’m feeling. I’m just here. I caught sight of the bus and I couldn’t stop myself.” He looks to Renjun with his lower lip between his teeth. “I didn’t see anyone. They’re probably already in there, practicing or whatever.”

He hesitates before asking, “Do you want to see them?”

Donghyuck flinches. “No. No, I really don’t. I thought maybe I could, you know? I mean, it’s been weeks—months—and I should be fucking over it, but sitting here, staring at their ugly bus, has me realizing that maybe this was a really bad mistake.”

“What does that mean?”

“I don’t know.”

Taking Donghyuck’s hand, Renjun desperately tries to think of a way to help him. Except, he doesn’t know how. This isn’t anything either of them knows how to deal with. Hell, this is something they shouldn’t have to deal with. All he knows is that he wants to make it better. He wants to take away all that sadness and hurt and fear and anger and shove it somewhere Donghyuck can never find it ever again.

But he can’t.

“Do you want to go home?” he asks, gently.

Instantly, Donghyuck shakes his head. “No. I want to stay. I want to play. I need to be here for you and everyone. I need to—I can’t leave when we’re finally here. And none of them know, anyway. What the hell am I supposed to say? ‘Hey, guys, I can’t deal with my old team being so close to me, so I’m going to ditch, cool?’”

“You could always say something. To Jaehyun, at least. He might know a way to help.”

“I’m not going to stress him out more. I can’t stress any of them out any more than they already have. I just have to suck it up and move on.”

“Donghyuck,” he sighs. “Duckie, come on. This isn’t just something you have to ‘suck up’. This is a serious thing and you’re allowed to be upset about it. I would be worried if you weren’t. You have to take this all at your own pace. Remember what Ms. Kwon says? It’s a healing process.”

“Fuck the process. I want to get over it.”

“And you will. Eventually. But, for now, you have to take it in stride, whether you want it or not. So, tell me. What do you want to do?”

“Play,” he says, immediately. “I want to play baseball.”

“Then,” he stands up, tugging Donghyuck with him, “let’s go play ball, Duckie. With a team who actually cares about us. With two coaches who actually want to see us succeed. And with a really cute captain, who likes to stare at you when you aren’t looking with hearts in his eyes.”

Donghyuck groans, though the corners of his lips twitch. “Can you not?”

Renjun laughs. “I can, but I don’t want to. Besides, I got you to smile, didn’t I?”

At that, Donghyuck’s smile grows. “Thank, Injunnie. What would I do without you?”

“Let’s never find out, shall we?”

He goes to turn around when a voice speaks up behind him. One that has them both freezing.

“Lee Donghyuck?”

Slowly, he faces the voice. It’s attached to a surprised boy a year older than them with shock-black hair and slender build. Behind him is another boy. Blond sifts through his brown locks and when he sees them, he smiles. Both of them are already dressed in their uniforms with the YG High logo printed across their fronts

“Hyunsuk,” Donghyuck greets. “Jihoon.”

The first boy, Hyunsuk studies their uniforms. “SM High?” he says in a questioning tone. “Aren’t you two supposed to be with JY?”

Renjun squeezes Donghyuck’s hand before replying, “No, we switched schools. We’re with SM now.”

“Seriously? Geez, I thought I was seeing things,” Hyunsuk says, body finally relaxing. “That’s cool. I guess we’re playing you today. Should be fun. I heard your team is doing really well, considering it just started up.”

“Yeah, we’re looking forward to it. And you’re captain.”

When Renjun waves at the ‘C’ attached to his sleeve, Hyunsuck breathes a laugh. “Ah, yeah. Old one graduated. Kind of a bit more pressure than I expected, to be honest.”

“I’m sure you’re pulling it off,” says Donghyuck.

“He is,” Jihoon replies, happily. “Hey, Suk, we should probably go.”

Hyunsuk checks his phone. “Right. Um, well, I guess we’ll see you inside.”

“Yeah, see you.”

They slip into the thinning crowd. Exploding out a sigh, Renjun leans into Donghyuck’s shoulder.

Donghyuck presses right back. “Did you think that was—”

“Someone else for a moment? Yes. Yes, I did. Thank god it wasn’t. Now, let’s go. They have the right idea. We need to get out on the field before the game starts.”

“Right. Yeah.”

Sneaking a peek at him, Renjun realizes just how pale Donghyuck is. It doesn’t look right on him. “Hey, I’m right here with you. We all are. We’ve got this, okay?”

Nodding, he says, “Yeah. Of course. Let’s go.”

Renjun keeps his grip on Donghyuck’s hand the whole way back to the dugout. He doesn’t say anything about the sweaty palm or the way he can feel a hammering heartbeat against his own skin. Instead, he lets Donghyuck cling to him until they finally have to let go.

Chapter Text

The thing is, the game really is going okay until it isn’t.

They really are keeping things even until they aren’t.

And Mark isn’t really sure the exact moment when things go wrong.

Over the course of their very first National game, things go a little like this:

When it’s finally decided, they start on the defense. It has Donghyuck on the pitching mound and Mark at Homeplate. They start with Lucas, Chenle, and Hendery on base and Jaemin, YangYang, and Dejun out in the field. The game starts off like any other; with them gathering as much information as possible.

It starts off fine. YG is good, just like they thought, but without their well-trained seniors, they play fairly evenly with Mark’s team. Where YG is good on the offense, SM succeeds on the defense. It has the score pretty fair right from the beginning.

And, honestly, it eases off some of that stress of being completely wiped out right away. It has Mark forgoing the fear of losing and replacing it with a determination to keep focused, to stay one step ahead. His team works at it alongside him with each of them fighting back with all they have in them.

Everything starts off totally and completely fine.

With each of Donghyuck’s pitches, Mark makes a chart inside his head.

C. Hyunsuk is fast. It’s as if he can sense he’s about to hit the ball before he actually does, which makes his take off toward First all the faster. P. Jihoon is a bit lanky, but he’s a power hitter. Anything he makes contact with goes far and in a blur. Their Catcher, K. Yoshinori, seems to have a pretty strong grip on sneakier pitches, like Curveballs and Sinkers, but he can’t make it past a Screwball. K. Junkyu’s broad shoulders and longer legs gives him an advantage when it comes to batting and stealing bases. He can cover so much more ground that way. And, as Renjun and Donghyuck had said, both T. Mashiho and Y. Jaehyuck are lefties. They give whoever’s on First a way to sneak in a steal, and both of them are pretty strong batters. The final three, H. Asahi, B. Yedam, and K. Doyoung are good, but Mark can tell they’re still fresh to the game. They miss the most out of all of them.

And when they’re all in play, Mark can see just how good they are. They test patience, going for steal after steal. Sometimes, they make it. Sometimes, they don’t. But often, Mark has to snap his fingers to get Donghyuck to ignore them because they can’t keep getting distracted and wasting time.

After switching, it’s clear that defense isn’t their strong suit. H. Asahi, their Pitcher, is a clean thrower, but that’s all they really have. They may be quick, but it doesn’t matter. Lucas and Renjun, even Jaemin and Chenle, have all pulled amazing batting as each inning ticks on. It keeps their score even.

Mark doesn’t mind even.

In fact, he would prefer that over being behind. The only problem is, if they can’t break even, they’ll be staying here a lot longer than they would prefer, and they’ve already swapped Renjun out once during the fourth inning with Jisung. They go any longer and Mark isn’t sure they’ll last. The longer the play, the harder it is for them. It’s too tiring for most of them, who still struggle to play a full game.

But it really isn’t so bad, he thinks as he eyes the scoreboard. They’re a point behind, but they can make that up the next time they’re up to bat since Lucas and Renjun are next in the lineup. Still, there’s a sense of nerves that buzzes in his chest and coats each of them in a thin layer.

There isn’t a lot of talking, though it doesn’t matter much. What they don’t say in words is made up in body language. By now, they can get the basics down in a look, and Mark can tell just how stressed they all are the farther into the game they get. They’re pushing themselves as far as they can go. They’re keeping themselves at a good spot, overall.

That is, until the eighth inning.

Their score is sitting at ten-nine, YG in the lead. It’s fine. They still have two innings to make this their game.

Mark accepts it with ease as he gets into position at Homeplate. Renjun is back on the field between Second and Third, bouncing on his toes with refreshed energy. He salutes to Mark to tell him they’re all set, and Mark lifts his glove, free hand dropping between his thighs to call the first pitch.

Except, as Donghyuck rolls his head from one side to the other, he opens his eyes toward the audience and goes completely rigid. Mark isn’t even sure he’s breathing with his gaze set somewhere on the crowd, shoulders tensed. It has a shiver running down Mark’s spine.

“Donghyuck?” he calls out.

Donghyuck doesn’t respond. He doesn’t even blink. His chest starts to rise and fall a little too quickly.

Mark gets to his feet. “Donghyuck!”

At the echo of his name, he whips his head toward Mark, eyes still blown wide. It’s the first time Mark has ever seen him so caught off guard, so lost.

So vulnerable.

When Mark chances a look at the audience, he sees nothing but a confused, mumbling crowd. Donghyuck is ashen by the time he glances back.

Then—right before Mark’s eyes—his gaze steels over, his expression shutting down. He rolls out his shoulders and gets into position. Mark isn’t quite sure what to do. Neither does Renjun, judging by the perplexed furrow of his eyebrows.

“Let’s go, Prez!” Donghyuck shouts at him.

Without any other choice, Mark sinks down into a squat and makes the first call. It should be all right. At least, it seems that way as Donghyuck pulls back with the same confidence as any of his other pitches. The trouble comes when he releases. It’s off. So off. Mark has to tip out of position to catch it.

“Ball!”

Mark returns the ball with a frown. Donghyuck doesn’t meet his eye as he catches it, digging his toe into the dirt.

The next pitch is just as bad.

Worse even.

Donghyuck nearly loses his balance as the ball rolls off his fingers. The batter only misses it because it’s so poorly done. It shocks them all.

But Donghyuck doesn’t show his surprise. He doesn’t show anything at all.

Mark twists toward the umpire to ask for a minute.

“Timeout!”

As soon as the word is out, Renjun bolts for Donghyuck, muttering quickly under his breath as Donghyuck shakes his head. By the time Mark jogs over, he catches Donghyuck hiss, “They’re here.”

“Who’s here?” Mark asks, but he gets no response. Not from Donghyuck, anyway. He keeps his head turned toward the outfield as Renjun searches the audience with wide eyes. “Donghyuck, what’s going on?”

“Nothing,” he replies, tightly. “I’m fine. Let’s get back—”

“Not until I know you’re okay, which you clearly aren’t. You’ve never thrown that badly.” Donghyuck shoots him a glare. “Don’t give me that look. It’s true. You’re better than that. So, what the hell is going on? Who’s here?”

“JY,” Renjun answers. “Front row.”

Mark twists around to follow Renjun’s gaze. Sure enough, right up against the fence are three boys. The one in the middle grips the metal netting, tilting his head with a half-cocked grin. It looks everything but friendly.

“They must have won their game already,” he mutters. Then, he looks back at Donghyuck. “Do you need to swap out? I can get Chenle—”

“I’m fine,” he presses. “Just…They shocked me, is all. I can do better.”

“But we can also get Chenle.”

“He can barely throw a Changeup, right now, Prez. We can’t have him play. Not for this game.”

Mark frowns. “You’re sure?”

The only answer he gets is a stiff nod. Mark doesn’t really believe him. Not completely. Donghyuck may appear in control to anyone else, but Mark has spent far too long observing him to be tricked. This isn’t just old teammates surprising him. This is something else. Something that goes so much deeper and rattles at his soul.

Mark doesn’t want to fight him, though. He wants to trust that Donghyuck really does have this. Besides, Donghyuck is right. This game is important and they’re so close. If they can just make it through this inning and bat well on the final one, they could pull this through. Having Chenle come out now might not be the best idea.

So, he tells Renjun to go back to position. Before heading back to Homeplate, he forces Donghyuck to meet his gaze and says, “I trust you.”

Donghyuck’s eyes widen slightly. He nods in the most minimalist way and flexes his fingers around the ball.

As he walks back, he sneaks a peek at the JY Prep players. There are still only three of them and all of them are still in uniform. Mark can’t make out their faces that well, but he knows they only have eyes for Donghyuck. They stare at him through the fence like a pack of hyenas ready to pounce. It makes Mark want to turn around and go back, to block Donghyuck from their view.

He tells himself not to be dramatic as he sinks down. He tells himself Donghyuck is fine as he signs the next call. He tells himself they still have this as the ball leaves Donghyuck’s hand.

But they don’t.

They don’t have this and Donghyuck isn’t fine.

His pitches are a little better, but Mark knows when they’re off. He knows when they are less than perfect, and it feels dirty and wrong. This feels so incredibly uncomfortable. It’s even worse when the batter gets to walk to First.

Mark isn’t sure what to think as the next batter lines up.

When the next pitch is too far right, Jaehyun calls out to the umpire to pause the game once more. The umpire doesn’t seem happy about it.  Neither does Donghyuck when Jaehyun has Chenle step up onto the pitching mound to replace him.

Blood cold in his veins, Mark can only watch as Donghyuck hands the ball off to Chenle before marching off the diamond. Off the diamond and straight past the dugout. He ignores the way Jaehyun and Taeyong shout for him and the second he’s through the gate, he bolts out of sight. Mark has half a mind to go after him, nearly lifting to his feet to do so, but Jaehyun shoots out a hand to stop him.

They’re still playing.

Needless to say, it doesn’t go particularly well from there. Chenle is still learning all the pitches, which severely limits them. At least he has the Fastball and Curveball pretty much down. It isn’t much, but it’s something.

Unfortunately, it still doesn’t help because the players keep trying to steal and Chenle isn’t used to it. He doesn’t know what it’s like to be in the middle of a game as a Pitcher. It’s all new and Mark can see how stressful it is. He can see his nerves and panic all over his expression.

YG makes another homerun before they switch up and, from there, they know just how screwed they are.

Mark watches with a sinking heart as they lose their very first National game.

Jaehyun leans on the half-wall with his head in hands. Taeyong’s face is nothing but grim, matching everyone else’s. And from where he stands inside the dugout, Mark notices that the JY Prep players are gone.

They did what they came to do.

Mark’s blood is boiling.

*

Renjun doesn’t care that they lost. The only thing he cares about is finding Donghyuck. So, the moment the game ends, he takes off out of the dugout and out of the diamond to find his best friend. No one tries to stop him. In fact, from the sounds of all the footsteps following him—splitting up at the mouth of the gate—he knows they’re all in this together.

Somewhere inside this park, Donghyuck is alone.

Losing, he thinks, isn’t the end of the world. Not right now. Sure, they lost their first game, but double elimination tournaments gives them a second chance to redeem themselves tomorrow. They’ll play against the team that lost to JY Prep. While Renjun knows that’s the last thing any of them want, he’s willing to accept it.

Besides, it isn’t as if Donghyuck wanted to mess up those pitches. Knowing him, he’s off somewhere beating himself up far worse than he actually deserves. While he understands it—he’s been there before, himself—he also knows that it isn’t productive. This much he’s learned.

“Donghyuck!” he shouts, glancing around the small smattering of people. They don’t pay him any mind as he keeps going, keeps running. At this point, Donghyuck could be anywhere. It doesn’t help his fear when he realizes that the JY Prep team is still around.

God, he hopes Donghyuck isn’t anywhere near them.

They’ve already messed up their game. They can go fuck themselves for all he cares. As long as they stay away from Donghyuck.

Shoving his way inside the change room, Renjun calls out, “Duckie, you in here?”

He waits a beat, listening. Then, he hears it. A sniffle and a shuffle.

Renjun bolts for the shower stalls, hurriedly scanning each one as he goes down the aisle. One at a time, each empty, until he gets to the end. His heart sinks.

Inside, Donghyuck sits pressed into the corner, knees up to his chest. He glances up with his nose red and wet cheeks, “Injunnie—”

Renjun shushes him, dropping into the spot beside him to tug him close. Donghyuck buries his face into the crook of his neck as Renjun rubs at his back. “It’s okay. Everything’s okay.”

“We lost,” he chokes out. “Because of me. Injunnie, we lost.”

The crack of his voice has Renjun’s heart breaking. Donghyuck doesn’t cry. Not usually. Not easily. He tends to hold it in until he explodes, tears coming out in shouts of anger instead. But sometimes, when things get too hard, Donghyuck shuts down. The anger dissipates into this. Broken and battered and tired, Donghyuck cries.

And it hurts. It hurts so badly because Renjun wants to take it all away and he doesn’t know how to.

“You are not to blame, you hear me, Lee Donghyuck? It’s those fuckers. They knew what they were doing. They knew how you would react. And how you reacted is valid.”

“I didn’t expect—They weren’t—They shouldn’t have even been there,” he presses out.

No, they shouldn’t have. They should have left the moment their game had ended, but JY Prep has always been a team a little more snobbish than the rest, a little more vindictive. They tended to enjoy walking around to rub in the fact that they won. They probably found out Renjun and Donghyuck were playing for SM and thought it would be fun to see how it would go if one of them spotted them.

Renjun has never hated them more. No, that’s a lie. He remembers seeing absolute red all those months ago. This time, he hates them, but the rage is subdued by his worry. He isn’t about to leave Donghyuck to go on a manhunt, but when he can…

“How mad is he?”

Renjun hums. “What?”

Slowly, Donghyuck lifts his head, rubbing at his nose and eyes with his hands. “How mad is he?”

“Mark?” A nod. “Not mad at all. At least, not at you. I didn’t stick around long enough to really read his expression, but he was searching for the JY players when I ran out.” 

“Oh, fuck,” Donghyuck breathes. “Fucking hell. You don’t think he’ll go after them, do you?”

Shaking his head, he says, “No. I don’t think he will. He’s probably with Jaehyun and Taeyong. The rest of the team came with me to look for you. Someone has to stay to shake hands with the winning team. But I’m pretty sure he’d be out searching if he could.”

“Yeah, sure.”

“No, I’m serious. Mark cares about you. Even I know that. He isn’t like the others. The last thing he’ll do is blame you.”

Sinking back against the wall, Donghyuck steadies his breathing while blinking up at the ceiling. The tears have stopped, but the wet tracks are still there. Renjun tries to wipe it away, but Donghyuck gently pushes his hands away and does it himself.

“How much of a mess do I look?”

“You look fine. A little red, but fine. Some cold water will help. Should I turn on the shower?”

He smiles when Donghyuck shoots him a look. “Try me, I dare you.” Then, he sighs. “This is a disaster. I’m a disaster. I couldn’t even stay until the end. I just…had to get out. Now, everyone is going to want to talk to me. Jaehyun, Taeyong, Johnny, Mark. I won’t be able to escape it.”

“Maybe now’s a good time to mention it?”

Donghyuck shakes his head. “No. Not yet.”

“Then maybe you should call Ms. Kwon. When we get back to the hotel, I mean. Give yourself some time to calm down first.”

“I don’t want to talk to her.”

“Donghyuck, you don’t want to talk to anyone and that’s the problem. You can’t keep pretending that it never happened.”

“I’m not pretending,” he hisses.

“Yes, you are,” he says, firmly. “You hardly talk to Ms. Kwon when I’m there and I doubt you’re any better when you’re alone. You won’t tell Johnny the whole story. You won’t tell Jaehyun. The only person you’ve ever told was me and that was because we fought and it came out. That isn’t healthy, Donghyuck. Talking will make it better.”

Donghyuck frowns at his hands. “Will it? Will it actually? Because I don’t think it will.”

“Well, it’s better than whatever you’re doing to yourself now. And it’s worth a try, don’t you think? Have you ever said anything to Ms. Kwon? Like, at all?”

“She knows the basics. I, um, keep a journal. She reads it every week before we start. So, she, like, knows a bit about it. Just not the whole story. Kind of a…vague version, I guess.”

“I suppose that’s better than nothing.”

“Renjun,” he whispers, looking up through his lashes. “I don’t want to be like this anymore.”

Slipping closer, he says, “I know.”

“I feel so stupid.”

“Well, I can sort of relate. You know, with the falling flat on my face at the end of a game.” Donghyuck snorts and Renjun adds, “You did nothing wrong. JY did. You never asked for anything that happened to you and so you can’t blame yourself for any of it. With the team, with our coach—None of it. Do you hear me?”

Donghyuck nods. “Yeah. Yeah, I hear you. I’ll call up Ms. Kwon when I get back to the hotel.”

“Good,” he breathes. “I’m proud of you. Now, come on. We should get your face washed before we go back out to the team. I doubt you’ll want them to see you like this.”

“I thought you said it wasn’t bad,” he whines as Renjun tugs him to his feet.

“It isn’t, but I know your standards.”

The moment they step out of the shower stall, they halt. Standing at the end of the aisle is Jaemin. His features twitch as if they can’t decide between too many emotions. They seem to finally rest when he opens his mouth.

“I didn’t want to interrupt.”

Beside him, Donghyuck exhales in a sigh. “How much did you hear?”

“Most of it.”

Donghyuck nods. “Right.”

Rocking from foot to foot, gaze studying Donghyuck’s red nose and eyes, Jaemin furrows his brow. He doesn’t seem angry, nor does he seem terribly surprised. He also makes no move to leave.

“Look, I won’t tell anyone what I heard. That’s for you to decide. And I may not know what happened at JY Prep, but I’m not an idiot. I know someone trying to hide from their past well enough,” Jaemin says, tone calm. “But I will tell you that Mark isn’t angry at you. None of us are. I think we all know that you would never throw this game and you would never be this shaken up without a good reason. And, when you’re ready to tell us what’s going on, we’ll be there for you. We’re a team. We stick together.”

For a moment, Renjun isn’t sure what Donghyuck is thinking. His expression is too blank, too carefully put together, to get anything out of it.

When Donghyuck doesn’t reply, Jaemin shoves his hands into his pockets and says, “I know we aren’t terribly close, but I like to think we have each other’s backs, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Donghyuck mutters.

“Then, just know we’re here for you. We’re ready to crush JY Prep into the dirt for you.”

At that, Donghyuck raises a brow. “We lost. What makes you think we’ll actually make it to a game with them?”

“We lost because some assholes decided to play dirty. They knew they’d throw you off. Next time, we’ll be ready. You’ll be ready. We’ll win the next game and move on. Then, we can decimate them,” he says with a shrug.

The curve of Donghyuck’s lip turns into a smirk. “You know what, Na Jaemin? I like you.”

Jaemin presses a hand to his chest in a mock swoon. “Oh, my! Another suitor? Whatever shall my Jeno say?”

And now you’ve ruined it.” But Donghyuck is smiling and so is Jaemin. It makes Renjun smile, too.

“Come on,” Renjun tells them. “Clean up and then teammates.”

Heading toward the door, Jaemin says, “I’ll tell them you’re fine. Oh, and Donghyuck?”

“Hm?”

“Renjun is right. Talking about it will make it better. And, if you ever decide to tell anyone of us, just know that everyone will listen. Especially Mark.”

He slips through the door before either of them can reply. Tiredly, Donghyuck heads over to the sinks to flip on the water. He blinks into the mirror.

“I want to win,” he says to his reflection.

Renjun smiles. “We will. Just you wait.”

As Donghyuck washes his face, Renjun locks his hands behind his back, chewing at his lower lip. Each day it gets harder. One of these days, something will happen, and no one will be able to stop it. He just hopes they can at least get through it.

*

By the time the team starts arriving back at the dugout, the audience has dispersed and so has YG High. It leaves only the maintenance workers on the diamond and their own team huddling together. Jaemin had arrived back with a few of the team in tow, whispering to Jaehyun that Donghyuck had been found and he’d be coming with Renjun shortly. Slowly, they all trickled in.

Jaehyun tries not to show how disappointed he is because his emotions aren’t directed at them at all. Each of them has worked hard. They did what they could. The game was just too close for comfort. At least, in the grand scheme of things, it hadn’t been as big of a hit as they were expecting. Their defense was pretty on par with YG’s offense, and with YG’s newer players, their level was a little lower than what the notes had been from the years before. He can take pride in the fact that it wasn’t a complete demolish.

However, it still doesn’t stop his heart from flopping when he notices just how sad they all are. They still have a chance to make it up, but that doesn’t change the fact that they lost their very first National game.

But they have no time to wallow in it. They need to prepare for the next game. He’s going to have to get them to snap out of it quickly or they won’t have any fire when tomorrow comes. And he needs that fire.

The team tries not to give Donghyuck too much attention when he arrives with Renjun. They cast him slight, encouraging smiles, but no one bombards him. At the sight of him, Johnny is at his side, fawning over him like a panicked parent. Nose a little red to match his cheeks, Donghyuck shoves him off softly with a tired expression before sinking into his side the very slightest. Johnny throws an arm over his shoulders and keeps him close.

Jaehyun decides that he’ll have to talk to him after, but, for right now, he has other things to get out of the way first. He scans the exhausted expressions before sighing and putting his clipboard down. He turns to them with his hands shoved into his pockets.

“I’m going to be straightforward,” he warns, softly. “If we don’t win our next game, that’s it for us. I blame none of you for what happened today.” Donghyuck ducks his head. “But losing puts us into a tough situation. If we do win the next game, we’ll be up against YG again and now they know us. Luckily, we also know them. This won’t be easy. It never was, but this is another layer of difficulty. I want you all to know that despite what happened today, I know you all did what you could. Thank you, Chenle, for stepping in suddenly. That was definitely not how I wanted to introduce you, but you did it like a champ. And thank you, Sungchan, for taking Chenle’s place. I’m happy to know that you all take this seriously and as a team. I couldn’t be prouder.”

“We still lost,” YangYang mutters into his hand.

“We did,” he agrees. “But we’ve lost before and bounced back. I have no doubt, if we work hard, we can do it again. Don’t let this mess you up. You’re still in the Nationals.”

He dismisses them to the showers after no one else says anything, too in their own thoughts to pretend everything will be fine. Shoulders slumped, they wander off.

“Donghyuck,” he calls. It has Donghyuck halting in his steps, glancing back with uncertainty in his eyes. “Can we chat?”

Taeyong gives his shoulder a squeeze before heading to where Ten and Johnny are collecting the rest of their things.

Being a coach has its perks. He gets to watch them discover their skills, win games, learn new things. He gets to see the pure thrill and joy on their faces when things go well. It fills him with a sense of accomplishment he’s never felt before. However, it also has its difficulties. When they lose, or when someone is having a problem. Jaehyun doesn’t like forcing people to think about difficult things. He knows how hard that can be. But as their coach, it’s his job to sort through those issues and guide them through it.

Donghyuck is one of many to deal with unhappy realities. Except, something tells Jaehyun that his wounds go a little deeper than most. The uncertainty isn’t there when he takes a seat next to Jaehyun on the bench, a good space between them. Instead, he stares down at his hands in his lap with eyes not quite seeing.

“How are you?” he asks. When Donghyuck opens his mouth, he adds, “The truth, please. Don’t just tell me you’re fine.”

Lips pressed into a thin line, he glances over to where Johnny, Ten, and Taeyong chat quietly. They’re too far away to hear what they’re saying, but their presence is comforting in a way. Even Donghyuck seems to relax when Johnny glances up to offer a thumbs up.

“Look,” Jaehyun says after Donghyuck simply shakes his head, “I don’t know what happened at JY Prep. I won’t drag it out of you. If you want to tell me, I’m here to listen. But if you can’t play against them, I need you to tell me.”

Donghyuck’s head whips up, eyes wide. “No, I can play.”

“Can you?” He doesn’t ask to be mean. He asks to be sure. They’ve made it this far, and he knows how badly Donghyuck wants to win—how much they all want to win—but that isn’t even the reason. He won’t have someone play if it’s going to hurt them mentally. Jaehyun can’t do that. He won’t do that. “I know they came to the game. I saw your reaction. We all did. Donghyuck, be honest with me. Can you play against them without having what happened today happen again?”

At that, Donghyuck ducks his head, blond hair shadowing his eyes. He seems so small, so tired. It’s the first time Jaehyun’s really seen him appear rundown without any sort of confidence.

“I want to play,” he whispers. “I just…I wasn’t expecting them to be there. I can—Jaehyun, I can be ready. I know I can. Baseball is my happy place. You can’t take me out of this game.”

“I can’t very well let you play if it’s going to hurt you, either,” he counters, noting the way Donghyuck winces. When Donghyuck doesn’t reply, Jaehyun sighs. “I don’t like doing this. You know that I don’t. But I care too much about you to send you off into a game if it’s going to bring back any bad memories.”

The response he gets is weak. “I can do it.”

“I don’t doubt you. I think you could do it. I think you could push yourself through it until you collapsed, but that isn’t how I want to play this game. It’s supposed to be fun and a good experience. Not your own personal hell.”

“Please,” Donghyuck lifts his head with wet eyes, “don’t take me out.”

Rubbing his hand over his face, Jaehyun exhales a long breath. After a moment, he straightens and looks Donghyuck right in the eye because he needs to make sure that the message gets through as clear as possible. “Here’s the deal: you’re going to go change and sleep tonight. You’re going to play the next game, but Chenle will be switching out with you at some point—”

“But he—”

“Is completely green, I know, but we have very little choice. He’ll have to learn if we make it farther in. So, he’ll be swapped in. And if we win, you are going to take time to rest up before the next game. I want you to talk to Johnny or someone and I want you to come back to me later and we’re going to have another chat. Only then will I decide if you stay on. Got it? Because, Donghyuck, JY Prep is going to be here in this park with us every weekend. You will run into them again. I need you to be completely and totally sure you can do this. Understood?”

Donghyuck gives a short nod before murmuring, “I go to therapy.”

It has Jaehyun pausing. Oh. “I see,” is all he can say.”

“I’m working on things. Things that…Well, I haven’t even really spoken to Johnny about it. I just want you to know that I’m trying.”

“I’m glad you’re seeking that help. Makes me even prouder of you.”

Donghyuck wrinkles his nose. “Don’t know how you could be. We lost.”

“Not because of you. It was an unforeseen circumstance that we’ll make up for. You just rest up and we’ll meet back up again, all right? And Donghyuck? Thank you for telling me. If you ever need another ear, I’m right here.”

Peering up at him, Donghyuck says, “You’re a good coach, Jaehyun. We’re lucky to have you.”

The words hit him a little harder than they probably should. Inside his chest, his heart clenches. “Wouldn’t make it very far without you guys. Now, go shower. We have to get back to the hotel and you all need some rest before tomorrow. Off you go. Get.”

A tiny smile works its way onto his face before he rushes off toward the change room. When he’s gone, Johnny wanders over, wringing his hands.

“What did he say?”

“Honestly, not much. He said you didn’t know what happened at JY Prep, but that he’s going to therapy for it.”

Johnny nods. “Every Wednesday, after school. And, no, I don’t. But what I do know is that they weren’t kind to him. From the little things he’s mentioned, JY’s team wasn’t kind to him. Ignored him a lot, I think. Often made fun of him, possibly. And he’s made a few comments about his old coach.”

“Old coach?”

“Coach Yoon. Never liked him even when I went there. He acts nice, but he makes your skin crawl. Renjun said once he would run the team like a general. You know he starts his practices way before school even starts. Rumor has it he’s also pretty strict on his Pitchers. I have no doubt he pushed Donghyuck way past his limits more than once.” He glances over his shoulder to where Donghyuck disappeared. “Makes me glad he isn’t there anymore. He loves this game. I’m happy he’s been able to find a safe place to play.”

“Although, I still worry. If he freezes up again…I don’t want to force him to do something that could make everything worse.”

Johnny crosses his arms. “I know. I asked him if he wanted out and he told me no.”

“Said the same to me.”

“Sorry about that. Stubbornness runs in the family.”

Coughing a laugh, Jaehyun stands. “I do get where he’s coming from, though. He wants to face it all head-on. I just want to make sure he’s ready when he does.”

“So, what are you going to do?”

“Give him some time to breathe. Told him we would talk more if we win the next game.”

“Do you think we will?”

Jaehyun bites his lip. “I think,” he says, slowly, “that this team has surprised people before and I would not be shocked if they did it again.”

*

Chenle doesn’t waste any time when they finally arrive back at the hotel. He drops his things off at his room—still ignoring Jisung the whole way there—changes into a new set of clothes, and then starts down toward the gym. It’s smaller than Johnny’s, but it still has all the things he needs. A few treadmills, weights, a bowflex. That’s more than enough.

Dropping his water bottle next to the weights, he steps up in front of the wall covered in mirrors to stretch. His reflection is pale, he notes as he runs his eyes over his sweat-dried hair—still that god-awful black he’s come to loathe so much—and then across his sullen cheeks and dark circles. He managed to eat this morning, but even thinking about food, right now, after losing their game has his stomach churning. Besides, he’ll eat once he’s done working out. Maybe. Or maybe he’ll just go to bed.

Either way, he needs to get some kind of exercise in before Jaehyun hunts him down and makes him leave. His body is sore and he feels tired, but there’s so much more he could be doing, should be doing. His pitching was abysmal, his playing wasn’t up to par. He has to make it up so that their next game doesn’t end the same way.

They can’t lose. They can’t end here.

Not when they’ve worked this hard.

And he absolutely refuses to allow them to lose again. If he can’t become a Pitcher, ready to play at all times, then what good is he? Donghyuck and Taeyong have been teaching him for ages and he still struggles. While he knows pitching isn’t something a person can pick up immediately, he still thinks he should be farther than he is.

Sighing, he stretches his arms above his head and twists to the side. His back aches in protest. He briefly wonders where he left his muscle spray before jumping up onto the nearest treadmill. It starts off slow, easing him in, before he ups it a couple of notches. His lungs burn from the excessive use, but he just needs to teach them, push it a little farther. Only then will he get to where he needs to be.

He's on his second lap when the door opens. A brief glance has him spotting Sungchan, who tilts his head at him from across the room.

“Should you be doing that?” he asks over the sound of the machine.

Chenle shrugs, though it comes off as a bit awkward while he runs. “Got to keep up.”

“Let me rephrase,” Sungchan says, stepping beside him. “Is that safe to be doing after you played a game? Aren’t you overusing your muscles?”

“How else am I going to get my stamina up? I need to teach my body,” he gasps out. “What are you doing here?”

“I wanted an extra pillow,” he explains, lifting a fluffy, white pillow into view Chenle hadn’t noticed before. “Shotaro took most of mine. Made himself a cave on the bed and I didn’t have the heart to ask for them back. You really should stop.”

Gritting his teeth, he bites out, “I really wish people would stop telling me that. I know my limits, okay?”

Sungchan lifts his hands in mock surrender. “Just saying. Aren’t you, like, dying, though? I didn’t even play for that long and my legs hurt.”

“I’m fine.”

“People say that a lot around here,” he says, leaning on the arm of the treadmill as he eyes the blinking lights. “Most of them don’t mean it.”

Slamming his fist onto the stop button, Chenle turns to him with arms crossed over his chest. “What do you want, Sungchan? Don’t you have something else to do?”

“Not really. Besides, you’re my Pitcher, right? Can’t do my job if you aren’t in good shape.”

“I can’t do my job if I can’t even pitch properly. And I can’t do that if people don’t leave me alone to practice, so if you’ll excuse me…” He turns back to start up the treadmill, but before he can, Sungchan speaks.

“I didn’t think you did that bad. Don’t think any of us do, to be honest. But if you want to stress yourself out more than necessary, go right ahead.” Stepping back, he adds, “Unless you’re also out here because of Jisung.”

“What the hell does Jisung have to do with any of this?” he grumbles. “I’m just trying to do a better job.”

Sungchan shrugs. “Well, you guys obviously aren’t talking, and aren’t you guys, like, best friends?”

They are, he wants to bite back. Then he realizes that it definitely doesn’t seem that way these days. But it isn’t completely his fault. While he may have been snippy, Jisung was shoving his nose where Chenle didn’t want it. He wasn’t listening. It’s annoying and Chenle has other things to worry about.

“How did you guys meet?”

The question has Chenle snapping out of his thoughts. “What?”

“You and Jisung,” he says, “how did you meet?”

“He was lost on the first day of school and I helped him.”

“This year?”

He nods. “Yeah.”

Sungchan blows out a whistle. “Wow, I would have thought you guys were childhood friends or something. Kind of cool how quick you clicked.”

Chenle isn’t sure what Sungchan is trying to tell him, and he doesn’t really want to think about it. He’s done with people meddling into his life. He can handle it just fine himself.

“What about you and Shotaro?”

“This year, too. He got transferred into my homeroom. He had this whole deer-in-the-headlights thing going on and I realized his Korean was terrible, so I figured I could help. He teaches me Japanese; I teach him Korean, and we communicate through both most of the time. Causes issues sometimes, but what can we do, right?”

“You’re close, huh?”

Sungchan hums. “Yeah, we are. Don’t think I could have asked for a better friend, really. Wouldn’t know what to do without him. Is it like that with you and Jisung?”

Frowning at his runners, Chenle thinks that it should be like that. It was like that. He thinks it still could be, if things weren’t the way they are. Granted, it still doesn’t change the fact that Jisung has always tried so hard, even when Chenle was being an asshole. It’s just hard, he thinks, to get over the stubbornness and the determination. He just wants Jisung to understand why he’s doing what he’s doing.

Except, he doesn’t seem to, and it irks Chenle.

He isn’t just doing this for himself. He’s doing this for the team, to show his parents, to show himself. Everything needs to be perfect because he has to prove why he’s there and why he’s useful. He can’t be useful if he can’t even perform properly.

However, before he can come up with any sort of response, movement outside the room gains his attention. The walls out into the hallway are glass, giving a clear view to Donghyuck, walking by with his phone in his hands.

Sungchan furrows his brow, walking over to the window to try and get a better look. Without much thought, Chenle follows him. Just outside is a bench. One Donghyuck has plopped himself down on with his phone now pressed to his ear. His voice is muffled when he speaks, but Chenle can piece together the words, even though he thinks he should walk away and pretend he never saw anything in the first place.

“Hey, Ms. Kwon, I’m sorry for calling. I…” Donghyuck’s voice faulters, causing him to clear his throat. But when he talks once more, his voice cracks. “We lost.”

Chenle glances at Sungchan, who’s lower lip is caught between his teeth, pillow hugged to his chest. They should step away. They shouldn’t be listening. But the curiosity is too high and so Chenle shifts a bit out of sight and listens.

“Yeah, we have…We have another game tomorrow to try and make it up—Yeah—It’s, um…my fault. I—It just—I don’t really want to talk about it, but I wanted to—Yeah, I still keep the journal. I’ll write in it tonight—No, that’s not—I just…I saw them. They were right there, and I guess I panicked. I just…” He drops his head into his free hand, nodding. “You said it would get better, but it isn’t—I know, but—Fine, yeah. No, I get it—I know—Yeah, I will. Thank you—Okay, bye.”

With one look to Sungchan, it’s clear they both agree. They don’t mention this to anyone. Whoever Donghyuck spoke to isn’t their business. He, however, is.

So, sucking in a breath, Sungchan opens the door. Donghyuck jolts at the noise, twisting around. His gaze is dark when it lands on them.

“What are you two doing here?”

“I’m trying to get Chenle to go rest for a bit,” says Sungchan. “You?”

Donghyuck wiggles his phone. “Making a call.” The way he says it is leaning into suspicion, as if he knows they overheard everything. Nevertheless, he doesn’t ask. Instead, he glances to Chenle and says, “He’s right. You need rest. And food. We all need to be in our best shape tomorrow.”

Chenle holds back the question on whether or not Donghyuck, himself, will be in the best shape for tomorrow. It has him biting at his tongue, swallowing the words down.

“I’m going to head back. See you tomorrow,” Sungchan tells them as he heads backward down the hall. He spins on his heel and disappears around the corner.

Donghyuck stands. “I should, too.”

Chenle stares as Donghyuck slips past him, shoving his phone deep into his pants, and heads toward the elevators. The usual confidence in his stride feels slower, lower. It has guilt slipping into Chenle’s skin.

Before he can get too far, he calls out, “Donghyuck, I’m sorry.”

Brows furrowed, Donghyuck turns. His eyes search Chenle’s face for a moment. Then, he asks, “Why?”

“We didn’t lose because of you. We lost because of me. I—I failed. I can’t pitch like you can. I hardly know how to do it, in general. If I did, maybe we could have won, but I don’t, so we didn’t. I’m sorry I failed you—”

“Chenle.”

“And tomorrow, if I have to play, I’m just going to mess it up—”

“Chenle.”

“I just know it,” he presses. “I’m trying so hard, but nothing seems to work. I’m not learning fast enough. I should know how to be better by now and yet I can’t do a proper pitch to save my life and—”

“Chenle!” Donghyuck snaps, halting the ranting words Chenle can’t seem to stop on his own. Sighing, he closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose like he has a headache. Chenle feels even worse. God, he’s making this so difficult for everyone. If he could just— “You’re too hard on yourself.”

He blinks. “What?”

“You’re too hard on yourself,” he repeats, tiredly. “Way too hard. You’re a great player. You have all the skills. Sure, they could do with a bit of polishing, but you’re one of the best we have. Think of everything you’ve managed to accomplish so far. And pitching? Dude, you just started taking that seriously. It takes years to get any of those down perfectly.”

“You do,” he counters.

“And I’ve been doing it for years,” Donghyuck says. “When I first started, the ball didn’t even make it to the plate. So, I practiced and practiced. I watched videos, I had teachers. You’re looking at the product of a boy who only ever pitches, Chenle. Have you seen my batting? It’s bad and I know it. You can be so much better.” He waves a hand at him. “But you won’t be if you keep doing this to yourself. All you’re going to do is run yourself into the ground, and, trust me, it isn’t pretty.”

“I just want to do better,” he whispers. “What if I have to play tomorrow?”

Donghyuck makes a face that Chenle can’t quite read. “You will. Which is why you need to rest up.”

Sudden panic seeps in. “Donghyuck, I can’t play. I can’t do it. I’ll mess it up.”

“Maybe,” he says. “But this is how you learn. By messing up. However, if you’re really worried, we can maybe do something about it.”

“Like what?”

Jutting a thumb over his shoulder, Donghyuck says, “I can show you some videos. We can go over some things. It won’t make you a master in a night, but every little bit helps.”

“But I—”

“If you think the only way to be a good baseball player is to try and build up your muscles then you’re wrong. It takes strategy and observation. You want to be a good Pitcher? You watch other Pitchers. Now, grab your things. Renjun’s ordering food. We can eat and talk.”

Chenle’s stomach churns. “I’m not really hungry.”

“Yeah, well, you will be in about an hour once your body finally catches up to you. Get your things. Let’s go.”

Feeling like a scolded child, he turns to open the door. He stops just on the threshold to peer back at Donghyuck. “Thank you.”

Donghyuck shrugs. “Yeah, well, I figure if you’re that desperate, I could probably step up the mentoring a little more. Now, hurry up. I’m starving and I want to sit. My thighs are killing me.”

Nodding, he rushes inside to collect his towel and water bottle. He takes one last look at the treadmill before hurrying out the door. For tonight, he can do this Donghyuck’s way.

He just hopes it’s worth it.

Chapter Text

Mark doesn’t allow his nerves to settle into place the next morning. Instead, he marches straight up to the little table Donghyuck, Renjun, and Lucas are sitting at, and asks, “Can I talk to you?”

Maybe he expects a bit of resistance, or maybe even just a witty remark, because he’s a little surprised by how easily Donghyuck pushes himself away from the table—and his barely-touched breakfast—and gestures for Mark to lead the way. He tries to ignore the fact that, despite most of the team still blinking blearily from exhaustion, they watch the two of them leave the hotel meal room into a small hallway where no one can see them. It’s some kind of service hall, so Mark knows they’ll have some quiet for a bit, at least.

Arms crossed over his chest, Donghyuck leans back against the wall, opposite from Mark, and narrows his eyes at the floor. There’s something in the way that he won’t even look at Mark that makes him feel off-kilter. It’s almost as if he’s expecting a scolding and Mark isn’t really sure why.

“How are you?” Mark goes for first because it seems like the safest option at this point.

Yesterday, after the game, Donghyuck won’t look at him, wouldn’t sit with him back on the bus, and definitely wouldn’t speak with him. He stuck to Renjun’s side until they got back to the hotel and from there he disappeared into his room. The only reason Mark didn’t attempt to talk to him was because he knew Donghyuck needed space. But now, they’re going back into the game and Mark can’t have them struggling to communicate again. He has to make sure everything is somewhat fine before they go out there.

At his question, Donghyuck’s eyes flitter up to meet his. It pins him against the wall, palms clammy. Of course, there’s no real reason for it. It isn’t even a glare, but Mark still worries that he may step over their carefully drawn line a little too much. Even if they’ve agreed to be civil and try being friends. Or are friends. Mark isn’t really sure most days, but he sure hopes so.

“Tired,” is all Donghyuck says, but Mark’s just glad it isn’t the standard ‘I’m fine’ that comes out of everyone’s mouths these days.

“Jaehyun told me the plan this morning,” he says. “With you and Chenle switching off.”

Scuffing his shoe against the linoleum, Donghyuck replies, “Yeah, well, I guess that’s what happens when you fuck up.”

“Hyuck—”

“Are you mad?”

The question hits him right in the chest, the air expelling from his lungs. Wide-eyed, he shakes his head. “No, of course not. That wasn’t your fault.”

Donghyuck scoffs. “Right.”

Taking a step forward, Mark presses, “I’m serious. I saw what happened. They knew showing up would egg you on. I don’t put any of the blame on you. You did what you could, though I wish you had told me. I could have…Well, I don’t know what I could have done, but I would have tried to help, somehow. Believe it or not, Donghyuck, but I care about you, just like I care about everyone on this team. I don’t want,” he takes a deep breath, hands shaking, “anyone to suffer alone. We lost, but I don’t blame you. I never did. I blame those fuckers.”

At that, Donghyuck snorts, hand coming up to cover his moth as if he didn’t mean to do it. It makes Mark smile a little.

Sighing, he adds, “You shouldn’t blame yourself, either. I know Renjun’s probably told you. Maybe even Jaehyun and Johnny, but I’m going to tell you again because I think it’s worth hearing. You tried your best and that’s all we could ask for. Don’t pin this on yourself. And, for now, take it easy. Chenle isn’t exactly fully trained, but it’ll give you a little less to worry about on the diamond.”

“You can’t…” His voice trails off, leaving Mark tilting his head in question. With a tiny grumble, Donghyuck brings his hands up to his cheeks to rub at them, like he’s annoyed with himself, like the words won’t come out the way he wants them to. After a shaky breath, he meets Mark’s gaze again. This time, he’s as strong as steel. “You have to treat him right out there. He needs this. And—And you won’t always have me pitching, so you’re going to need a back-up, which means you need to trust him and teach him. You have to be there for him.”

Mark isn’t really sure where all this is coming from. It isn’t as if he thought any other way when it came to Chenle. Of course, he would treat him right. Of course, he would lead him the best he can. Except, Donghyuck’s eyes go from glaring to nearly pleading and Mark nods, instantly.

“I will,” he promises. “He won’t be alone.”

That seems to placate Donghyuck because he leans back, hands pressed to the wall and his eyes downturned as he nods back. It makes him want to reach out to…Well, he isn’t sure what he wants to do, but he keeps himself where he is, nonetheless.

Glancing down the hall, Mark swallows. He doesn’t want to ask his next question, but he needs to. As the captain, he has to.

“I have to know,” he starts, hesitantly, gaining Donghyuck’s attention once more, “can you do this?”

Donghyuck straightens, slightly. “Yes.”

“You’re sure?”

“No lies, Prez.”

And so, he takes it. He gives a short nod and tells him they should head back because they need to get ready to head out. He lets Donghyuck lead them out and, while they’re loading onto the bus, Mark doesn’t even wish they win today.

He just wishes Donghyuck will be okay.

*

The thing about losing is that it either causes a person to be determined to win the next time or it leaves them too down in the dumps to keep trying.

Jaehyun is pretty sure they’re an even mix of both as he watches the team warm up out on the diamond. The long, tired faces are enough to prove that the implications of what may happen are heavy on their shoulders. However, at the sight of the opposing team appearing at their own dugout across the field, some of that competitive determination starts to take over.

Woollim Secondary.

To be honest, Jaehyun doesn’t know much about them. When he was in high school, Woollim wasn’t a school he ever had to face. In fact, he’s pretty sure their first tournament game was a couple of years ago. That being said, their scores over the course of Regionals are fairly decent for a school that clearly hasn’t seen that many tournaments—though definitely more than his own. They aren’t outstanding, or anything, but Woollim does always manage to squeak by and that, in and of itself, can be a bit worrying.

“Ten to four,” he remembers saying as he gazed down at the sheet Taeyong handed him this morning. “JY beat them ten to four?”

Taeyong had nodded solemnly, replying, “That either says something about JY or about Woollim, and I have no idea which wins out.”

The thing is, Jaehyun isn’t sure either. At this point, it could be one or the other. Or maybe both. JY Prep has always been a force of nature and to have them beat out a team ten-four and before the schedule time was up is quite a feat, even if it just so happens their opponent isn’t as good.

Each of the team members had received their own lineup sheet with notes on it last night. Jaehyun knows, despite how heartbroken they all were from the loss, that they all at least looked at it. Renjun, Jaemin, and Mark still hover by Homeplate while Donghyuck and Chenle throw practice pitches with said-sheet in their hands.

It's too bad that there doesn’t seem to be anything substantial on it. No, that’s not right. Each note is worth knowing. It just doesn’t feel like a lot. On paper, Woollim looks average. There are no high scores, no tricks that seem too out in left field. It’s just…normal. Jaehyun can’t say they’re much different. They may have the Knuckleball, but that’s their biggest weapon and, at this point, it probably isn’t much of a secret. Granted, that doesn’t mean Woollim knows how to go against it.

Although, maybe they’ll confuse them by putting Chenle out there for once. None of his pitching notes should be out there, at this point. And maybe, just maybe, this is the best game to have Chenle out there. He even wonders if he should get Sungchan out there as Catcher. And while Sungchan is good, and Chenle and him have formed a good Battery bond, he isn’t sure if he wants to put two new players out there on the first go.

One at a time, he tells himself. If they make it past this point, he can start swapping Sungchan in as well.

When the whistle blows, the teams switch. They come jogging back to the dugout where Jaehyun and Taeyong lean on the half-wall, ready to chat. Once they’re all gathered, it’s easier to take in their expressions. Hard, a little solemn, but ready. They have one chance to make this count.

“We have some changes to make this game. Chenle is going to be swapping with Donghyuck throughout the game.”

At that, Chenle’s eyes widen, panic flittering through his features. “Is that safe?”

“I trust you,” he replies. “Every two innings, all right? Mark will still be your Catcher so pay close attention to what he’s telling you. He can see it all from his point of view, so he’ll let you know if anything is happening. Don’t let your worry boggle you down, got it? This is a team sport. We’re all here to lean on.”

“Right,” he mutters.

Mark pats him on the shoulder with a smile. “You’ll do great. Just one pitch at a time.”

“With this switch, there’s obvious changes to the lineup, so pay attention.” Lifting his clipboard, he reads, “YangYang, you’re back to first batter. I’ll need you to get to First as often as you can. You’re probably the fastest, save for Hendery, so bunt it, ground it, I don’t care, but get there, okay?”

“You got it,” he says with a salute.

“Mark, Lucas, Renjun,” he lists, “you’re all in your usual spots. If YangYang gets to First, I need you to focus on getting him around. Jaemin is next, followed by Donghyuck, Dejun, and Hendery, and Shotaro.”

Standing between Sungchan and Lucas, Shotaro points at himself, eyebrows shooting up behind the bill of his cap. “Me?”

“I think it’s about time you get to play, don’t you? As much as I hate to admit it, it may be our final game and I want to get you out there. You’re taking Second Base. You’ve been through the plays and I’ve seen what you can do. You’ve got this. Hendery, you’re Third. This leaves Chenle, Jisung, and Sungchan in reserve. We’ll swap out where we see necessary. Anyone have any objections?”

They shake their heads and Jaehyun looks to Taeyong, who smiles at them all. “I want you to forget about the last game. It doesn’t define you. What does are the several games you’ve all managed to win. You’ve made it to Nationals. Let’s see what you can do, yeah?”

“Listen to each other,” Jaehyun puts in. “Watch each other. Woollim may not be sparkly on paper, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t a difficult team. They’ve made it this far, same as you. If you want to win, this needs to be a team effort.”

“Got it, Coach,” says Mark. “I think we can handle it.”

“Good.” The whistle blows. “Here we go.”

*

This time, they start off batting. This time, they waste no time. And YangYang is playing no games when he manages a bunt on the second pitch and racing his way to First. Watching it from the dugout is a little more stressful than Chenle thought it would be. He isn’t the one at bat and he won’t be all game. But he will be on the pitching mound and, somehow, that feels far more intimidating, especially after last time.

The last thing he wants is for it to all go downhill because he can’t pitch correctly. He supposes, in all honesty, that at least he feels a bit better about it than he did yesterday. Hanging out in Donghyuck’s room with Renjun, going through videos and practicing his swings, eased a bit of the tension. He still doesn’t know the trickier pitches, but he knows his Fastball is good and he knows he can do a Curveball pretty decently. His Changeup, however? That leaves much to be desired and if Mark wants it, Chenle is going to be flying by the seat of his pants.

“This feels like a really bad mistake,” he mutters, mostly to himself.

But Sungchan hears. “Aren’t you the one wanting to prove himself all the time?”

Glaring, he snaps, “When I’m feeling like I can do it, sure.” He heaves a sigh. “I’m not ready for this. I know it.”

“You and I have been working on this for weeks. You can do just fine out there. Besides, it doesn’t look like Woollim is pulling any major stops. Pretty standard from what I can see.”

And it’s true. Woollim’s pitcher is focusing in on Fastballs and Changeups, with the occasional Sinker just to throw someone off. Of course, it hasn’t been too difficult to get by. Mark’s managed a hit, though he didn’t quite make it, and Lucas at least got to First on his try. Two of the bases are loaded—First and Third— and all Renjun has to do is get at least one of them around.

It's times like these that Chenle wishes he could be more like Lucas or Renjun or Mark. He wishes he had the precision and strength and the ability to predict. He’s watched them so many times that he thinks he could do it, if only his body listened to him. It feels unfair because it looks so easy and yet he still can’t manage any of it.

Now, it feels like he’s back at square one. He thought pitching was going so well until he was forced to go out and actually do it. It isn’t the same, watching. There are too many things to focus on, too many things to think about. He sees Donghyuck up there on the mound and he has no idea how he does it. Despite the hiccup in their last game, Donghyuck never seems to be tense or worried. He takes every call with a firm nod, throws every ball with a graceful ease. He never seems overwhelmed.

But, god, Chenle felt overwhelmed. He felt like he was losing his mind. YG High had tried to steal so much and he couldn’t think when people kept moving and Mark kept calling and everything was everywhere. For a moment, he even forgot how to throw the ball. It was like being back in little league.

It was right in that second of losing that he thought that maybe his parents were right. Maybe this is just too much to handle. Maybe baseball is something he’s trying to force on himself just because he wants to be able to prove them wrong. Maybe he just isn’t good enough.

Except, he still loves it. He still enjoys it. The feeling of running, the rush of getting to Homeplate. The absolute thrill of winning and making it this far. He doesn’t think he can give that up.

It's probably the main reason he’s still here, waiting for his turn out on the diamond. He screwed up the last time. He doesn’t want to do that again.

He doesn’t want to let them all down again.

As YangYang slides into Homeplate, Chenle glances to the side to where Jisung rests on the half-wall. At some point, they’re going to have to talk. He knows that. He just isn’t sure where to start. It doesn’t look like Jisung does either because even sharing a room has been like walking on eggshells and Jisung won’t look at him.

Chenle wouldn’t even know where to start.

All he knows is that the whole thing is a mess.

Well, it doesn’t matter now, anyway. He has far too much to worry about at the present time. One of those things being the actual game. It takes all his concentration to watch it unfold before him. He studies every move Donghyuck and Mark make once they switch to pitching. He needs to make sure that he does this correctly. This whole game is far too important to lose.

All around him people shift and rotate. He stands between Taeyong and Sungchan with his tongue between his teeth, too restless to do much else. His heart is nearly pounding out of his chest when they end the second inning with two-zero in their favor. It also means he has one half of an inning until he’s forced to go out and pitch.

Suddenly, Sungchan tenses up beside him.

Heading out to the diamond is Shotaro. Chenle watches with interest as Shotaro takes his place and raises the bat over his shoulder. Ever since he joined, Chenle hasn’t really seen much of what Shotaro can do. He knows he can keep up with them all. He knows that he’s quick and agile. But inside a game, Chenle has no idea what to expect.

“He’ll be fine,” Chenle tells Sungchan, who chews on the end of his thumb. “What?”

“Nothing. You’re right. He’ll be fine. I just…It’s his first game.”

Chenle smirks. “You look like a nervous mother.”

That earns him a shove. “I just care, okay? He’s wanted to play for so long and now he’s out there. I just hope it goes well, is all.” He glances at Chenle. “He was the one that wanted to join the team.”

Raising a brow, he asks, “Really?”

“He wanted to get involved in something, you know? Immerse himself in something so he could get used to the place and meet more people. When we heard Dejun talking about it, he got really excited, said he wanted to try out. I’m happy that he’s getting a chance to play, but…”

“You’re worried.”

“Who wouldn’t be? First time up to bat? I just want it to go well for him.”

Shotaro hardly seems nervous. At least to Chenle, from where he’s standing. His eyes are glued to the Pitcher, his stance is poised and ready. As the Pitcher reels back, Shotaro rocks forward on his toes. It’s a Fastball. Chenle can see it flying straight in a flash of white, right toward the Catcher, and Shotaro seems to follow it without any issues because he swings the bat and there’s a crack.

The ball pops off in a high arc right over the Pitcher’s head and as the Woollim team scrambles for it, Shotaro is already on his way.

“Whoa, he’s quick,” Chenle murmurs.

He isn’t as fast as YangYang or Hendery, but he’s light on his feet, pushing off on his toes instead of his whole sole. With the speed he’s going, Chenle wonders if he’s been hiding it or if the game has simply brought it out of him.

The ball hits the grass of the field, easily being scooped up by the Center Fielder. Someone shouts and it’s lobbed up and over the diamond toward First. Chenle’s eyes follow it, his heart leaping as the First Baseman stretches himself out to catch the ball. It hits his mitt—but his foot isn’t on the plate for the automatic out—and as he reaches to take Shotaro out, Shotaro twists. He twirls on the tip of his toe, almost as if he’s dancing, and dodges the ball and the Baseman and jumps onto the plate as lightly as if he were made of air.

Chenle turns, gaping, toward Sungchan, who laughs and says, “He dances.”

Well, no fucking duh.

Watching Shotaro play is like watching a dancer on stage. Each movement is calculated and controlled. Chenle is a little embarrassed he never noticed before. Then again, he hasn’t been paying much attention to anyone lately. His mind has been so focused on himself that he’s barely had time to look. With it all laid out before him, he realizes just how much he’s missed.

The nerves are hardly even there as he watches the inning unfold before him. Shotaro moves from one spot to the next with all the help from the others until he slides into place almost too calmly to be natural. When he stands up, brushing off his pants, he sends a beaming smile Sungchan’s way and races toward him.

“You did it!” Sungchan cheers, wrapping his arms around Shotaro’s waist and swinging him around.

Shotaro’s Korean comes out a little broken and a little too quick, but Chenle catches the words, “Did you see?” and he can’t help but smile.

His smile, unfortunately, doesn’t stay for long when Jaehyun comes over to pat him on the back to tell him he’s up. It’s then that his stomach swoops and the nerves come back ten-fold. Donghyuck offers him a slight smile as he passes over the ball.

“Listen to Prez,” he tells him, quietly. “He may be a dork, but he knows what he’s doing.”

Nodding, Chenle walks up to Mark, who grins and leads him out toward the pitching mound. “You’ve got this. Just focus on me. I won’t give you anything you can’t do, so trust me, okay?”

“Okay,” he whispers.

He doesn’t want Mark to leave him standing in the middle of the diamond. It’s intimidating being surrounded by everyone and knowing that the audience is watching him in curiosity. When he looks to the dugout, Donghyuck is there, raising a thumbs up towards him. However, it’s Jisung who catches his attention the most. He stands at the very end of the dugout with his hands tucked up under his armpits. There’s no smile or any indication at all when they look at each other, though Chenle shouldn’t be surprised. It still stings a little when Jisung peers down at his shoes with a furrowed brow.

“Chenle!”

Turning, he finds Mark already in place with the batter at position. He directs his pointer and middle finger toward his eyes. Watch me, he seems to say.

So, he does. He hones in on Mark and his hand and reads the signs sent his way. One and then one. He knows that one. Fastball on the outside.

With each movement, he tries to remember everything Taeyong and Donghyuck taught him. He racks his brain for all the videos he watched and all the things Donghyuck showed him last night. There’s so much information to sort through. It doesn’t help that now he’s standing here before everyone, with the pressure now weighed on his shoulders, his body and mind don’t want to remember anything.

It's no surprise when the first pitch comes off terribly shaky.

“Ball!”

Mark lunges to catch it, Chenle’s heart tumbling. He can’t do this. He thought he could, but he can’t. He’s going to mess this all up for them and then they’ll lose again, and they’ll never see Championships and—

“Chenle!” Mark shouts, snapping him out of his whirling thoughts. “Reel it in!”

Shaking his head, he forces his mind to get itself together. He can’t spiral. There’s too much riding on this game and everyone is counting on him. Besides—he glances toward Jaehyun—they wouldn’t have put him out here if they didn’t think he could do it.

Between his thighs, Mark signs for another outside Fastball. Chenle breathes in deep before letting it out as slow as he can. This is a pitch he’s done dozens of times and he knows he can do it. He just has to do it.

He lifts his leg, pulls back his arm, and snaps forward. The ball rolls from his fingertips just when it should, it flies just as it should, and it zooms right past the bat and into Mark’s glove just as it should. Hearing the thud of it is enough to make Chenle grin.

He did it.

*

Chenle does well for his first true time out on the pitching mound. Granted, Mark never thought he would do badly. For all the time Mark’s known him, Chenle has always been the type of person do his best and even more so. It isn’t surprising that he works as hard as he does to get where he wants to go. He may not be a perfect Pitcher, but Mark would bet that Chenle would get there, eventually, should he choose to.

By now, however, the Woollim team has to know that Chenle isn’t a fully trained Pitcher. Too many Balls, a few fouls, and not enough variety. It’ll come back to bite them in the ass at some point, but Mark isn’t too worried. He thinks that if they’re struggling too much then he can just get Donghyuck to pull some Knuckleballs to even out the score.

Right now, though, they’re sitting at four-four partway through the fifth inning. Lucas has already made it around and Renjun is perched on Third while waiting for Jaemin to make a hit. If he can, there’s a high chance Renjun will get them another point.

As Jaemin misses the first pitch, Donghyuck rounds Mark to tighten the straps on the chest plate. “Think we can stunt them for a bit?”

Mark chews at the inside of his cheek, weighing the options. “What are you thinking?”

“Sinkers, Screwballs, and possibly some Knuckleballs. Especially on their Cleanup because he’s got the best aim.”

“You think we need to use the Knuckleball this early in the game?”

“It’s not like it’s a secret anymore,” he says with a shrug as he steps around to face Mark. “Most of these teams will know by now.”

Grabbing his glove, he replies, “Doesn’t mean we should overuse it. If we do make it past this point, we need to keep your shoulder as good as we can get it.”

“But first, we need to get past this point.”

Mark sighs, rolling his eyes up toward the thin clouds above them. “Hyuck, I don’t know—”

“Do you trust me?”

His gaze snaps to Donghyuck, the answer already rolling off his tongue without any second-guessing. “Yeah, of course.”

The twitch of Donghyuck’s eyebrow is enough to tell Mark that perhaps he wasn’t expecting the response so quickly and honestly. Then, he straightens his face as he grabs his own glove. “Then trust me and do the call.”

Mark knows better than to argue. Besides, it isn’t as if he’s wrong. If they want to get back into the running, they’re going to have to pull as many stops as possible. So, he nods and picks up his helmet. It isn’t until he’s turning back that he realizes Donghyuck is no longer watching him. Instead, his eyes are scanning the audience, his hands twisting at his glove.

“Are they out there?” he finds himself asking before he can step up right at Donghyuck’s side and peer out along with him.

Donghyuck shakes his head. “No. They won their game. They won’t be here.”

“Do you think they would come back, though?” he asks, somewhat incredulously. He doesn’t know anything about these guys, so he has no idea what they may try.

“I don’t know.” He glances to Mark with his lower lip caught between his teeth. “I think they did what they wanted. Now, they’ll wait. It’s usually how it goes.”

“Throw you off and let you sit in it for a bit?”

“And then come back later with something new,” he says.

Mark rubs at his jaw as he admits, “I was going to go after them.” Abruptly, Donghyuck spins on him.  He laughs nervously before adding, “Of course, I didn’t. I didn’t really know what I’d do if I did. I just…They fucked with us and I…Anyway, I didn’t.”

“It’s best that you didn’t.”

“But I would have,” he says, glancing at Donghyuck. “Even if I had no idea what the fuck is going on with you and them, I would have.”

He doesn’t really expect a reply and Donghyuck doesn’t really give him one. All he does is study Mark’s face with an unreadable expression before giving a short nod. It’s more than he thought he would get. He isn’t even sure why he offered up the information.

Mark has always been taught to keep violence until the last possible chance—save for that one time he completely lost it and tackled Donghyuck to the ground. Having learned martial arts for so long, he has that discipline ingrained in his head. Still, he saw that stupid fucking smirk on that JY player’s face, and he remembered how ghostly white Donghyuck had seemed as he ran off the diamond and Mark wanted to punch it inward.

It's one of the main reasons he didn’t go because he had no idea how he’d handle himself. But he also has no idea what’s happening. He doesn’t know what the team did to Donghyuck. He would have no idea what he was getting himself into. Then again, he sees all of Donghyuck’s reactions and hears what he says, and he knows that whatever happened wasn’t good.

Far from it even.

He's snapped from his thoughts when something brushes his hand. Looking down, he spots just when Donghyuck slips his hand back toward himself.

“Come on,” he says, gently nudging his head toward the diamond. “They’re switching out. Let’s see if we can stunt them for a bit longer.”

The tingling on his skin doesn’t go away even when he reaches Homeplate.

*

As the innings tick by, Jaehyun’s muscles seem to unravel themselves. Mark has been calling all the right shots and everyone is working at their best. It’s quite amazing to watch, even when Woollim attempts to steal back a point or two, only for it to not do them much good in the end. Donghyuck’s pitches are fast and hard and keep the score as is, while Chenle has done quite well himself with only a few points scrapping by. It’s expected with his first time at pitching and Jaehyun has no thought to hold it against him. In fact, he’s quite proud, especially when glancing up at the scoreboard come the end of the eighth inning to see their score sitting at eight-seven with them in the lead. No, Chenle is doing quite well.

“How did it feel?” he asks as Chenle steps up beside him. The teams are switching out with Mark heading up to bat first. They have this one chance to get as many points as they can. For once, Jaehyun isn’t worried.

“It was all right,” says Chenle. “I need to know more pitches, though. I can’t keep throwing the same thing.”

Taeyong ruffles his hair. “Don’t worry. We’ll go over some new ones this week. We’ll have you a master Pitcher in no time.”

“Don’t let Donghyuck hear you say that,” teases YangYang from the bench.

“I don’t really want to be a master. Not yet, anyway. I just want to be useful.”

Raising a brow, Jaehyun says, “You are useful? Did you not see the score?”

“I let two of them have a run in the last inning alone.”

“Which isn’t bad, at all,” Taeyong tells him. “My very first game, I let four through in one inning.”

Jaehyun snorts. That’s a little bit of detail he hasn’t ever heard before. “Bet you pouted the whole ride back home.”

That earns him a shove and he isn’t even sorry about it.

Turning to Chenle, Taeyong says, “What I’m saying is that you’re still learning. It’s going to happen. And it’s probably better to know now that you’ll always let people through. You may get a lucky inning where you don’t, but someone is going to hit the ball, someone is going to get a run. You won’t be able to stop them all. So, just enjoy what you’ve accomplished. You’re doing your best, right?” Chenle nods. “Then don’t worry, okay? Soon you’ll be throwing all kind of pitches that you won’t even know what to do with yourself.”

The small smile on Chenle’s face alleviates a bit of the worry Jaehyun’s been holding onto for him. He knows, as Coach, he’s going to have to keep a closer eye on his players. At least while he still can because if he’s going to do this professional tryout—and if he somehow makes it—he needs to know they can continue on without him.

The audience claps as Mark makes it to First.

“Come on, kiddo,” he says, wrapping an arm around Chenle’s shoulders and squishing him between himself and Taeyong. “Sit back and enjoy the rest of the show. You deserve it.”

The corners of Chenle’s lips twitch. “Thanks, Coach.”

Jaehyun gives him a bit of a nudge before glancing over to where Lucas steps up to bat. “Any time. I’m always here.”

He needs to know they’re all right if he has to leave.

*

When both Mark and Renjun make it all the way around, leaving them at ten-seven, Donghyuck actively asks for only Knuckleball calls. So far, no one has been able to land one, which means they’re probably safe enough to end the whole game with that specific pitch with no worries. He doesn’t even pause to think about the ache in his shoulder or the redness of his fingers. All he does is hash them out one by one until he’s struck out one, two, three batters.

The umpire finally calls the game.

Mark rips his helmet off with a glowing grin that has Donghyuck’s heart stuttering with giddiness. The unbidden happiness is infectious. It has him rolling his eyes with his own smile threatening to shine through. Winning takes a load off of his shoulders; makes him feel less like a fuck-up now that he’s helped get them back on track.

Except, the joy of winning also comes with a twist of tension he can’t seem to shake no matter how hard he tries. Ignoring it, going through Ms. Kwon’s exercises, or anything else never seems to work and he hates it. He wants to enjoy this moment, not feel like he’s about to be sick.

Even so, he forces a grin when Mark looks to him with Lucas and Jeno wrapped around his shoulders. And he manages a laugh when YangYang leaps onto Donghyuck’s back with a scream of, “We’re back in it, baby!”

He feels a mix of right and wrong watching his team unfold into laughter while he searches for any familiar faces out in the audience. But the only ones he sees are Ten and Johnny, both of whom are making their way down the stands to meet them at the gate.

JY Prep is nowhere to be seen. They shouldn’t be, anyway. They only had yesterday’s game. They shouldn’t be in the part at all. What he told Mark earlier is true, though. He doubts, even if they could come back, that they would. They only wanted to shake him up, see what he would do.

Of course, he crumbled like a coward.

Froze up right on the spot and couldn’t shake it. It’s frustrating how many emotions he went through within seconds, minutes, even hours. Going from shock to absolute dread. Having that transform to guilt, feeling as if he’s drowning and never being able to come up for air. After that all left, however, he was left with anger. Blood boiling anger that left him hating himself more than his old teammates. Even months after everything he can’t fucking keep himself together long enough to do his only job.

No one blames him. That’s what they tell him, and, in a way, he has no reason not to believe them. They’ve never lied to him, as far as he knows. But that still doesn’t mean he doesn’t think about it, how he should have just taken that moment to show them he was unshakable.

But he is.

He isn’t invincible, no matter how many times he tries to convince himself he is.

And, so, he’s left feeling everything and nothing as Jaehyun congratulates them and their victory into moving on to the next game. One game closer to the people Donghyuck had promised himself to never go near ever again.

He heads to the changeroom with everyone else to gather up his things, listening to the excited chatter around him. All the while, he ignores Renjun’s questioning glances because he doesn’t need another intervention. He needs a moment to breathe and, right now, he feels like none of his breaths are making it to his lungs. Unfortunately, he’s a bit preoccupied with putting on a front that he completely forgets his glove.

“What’s wrong?” Renjun asks, looking back at him as Donghyuck digs through his duffle bag.

“My glove. I must have left it. You go on. I’ll meet you guys back at the bus.”

Renjun frowns, Lucas’ arm slung over his shoulders. The rest of the team is bouncing up ahead of them all. “You sure?”

Rolling his eyes, Donghyuck says, “I think I can go get my own glove. Two minutes. I’ll be quick.”

He leaves before Renjun can stop him, jogging back toward the changerooms. Most of the audience is filtering out into the entrance to the park, leaving only a few stragglers along the walkways. The changeroom is eerily empty when he enters, but he finds his glove right away, still on the bench. Shoving it into his bag, he starts back the way he came. At least, he thinks, he has a moment to not have to worry about what his expressions are doing. His face can relax into the exhaustion he feels as he steps along the concrete ground toward the side entrance where their bus is parked.

The rest of the team is nowhere to be seen and it’s like the world feels calm, he discovers. It makes him think he should go on more walks by himself when he gets home. Get out, be alone, not worry about anything else.

He's fiddling with the zipper on his duffle bag, trying to close it, when a voice speaks up.

“Donghyuck?”

His feet freeze against the ground, his body going into high alert.

“That is you, isn’t it?”

No. No, no, no. He squeezes his eyes shut as his heartbeat begins to race uncomfortably against his chest. Everything in him is screaming to run, but he can’t get his legs to work. He can’t even turn around. Not that he wants to. He wants to disappear more so than anything else.

The sound of heavy steps has him inhaling sharply, eyes snapping open when they get too close, when they start to round him. He manages a step back, but he’s still there, right in front of Donghyuck, and there isn’t anything he can do about it.

Coach Yoon hasn’t changed since Donghyuck last saw him. He’s still tall, broad-shouldered, and carrying around the aura of authority like a badge. There’s still a shock of silver hair at his temple, filtering through his black locks. His eyes are still narrow as if permanently studying everything in front of him. He always liked to study Donghyuck.

A shiver shoots down his spine when Coach Yoon grins, all good-nature and easy-going. “Ah, it is you. I almost didn’t recognize you with the blond hair. New edition?”

Donghyuck’s tongue feels like cotton, stuck to the bottom of his mouth. He has so many things he wants to say and now he can’t even form a sound. All he can do is stare back like an idiot.

“You know, the boys said they saw you yesterday. The SM team, huh? And still pitching.” His dark eyes roam Donghyuck’s form before peering right into Donghyuck’s gaze, pinning him where he stands. “I’m glad you didn’t give it up. You were always so good.” When Donghyuck fails to respond, he raises a brow. “No ‘hello’? Come on, Donghyuck. I know we had our issues, but we can’t even talk anymore?”

Issues.

Issues.

Donghyuck bites at his tongue to keep himself calm. It’s a struggle. “I have nothing to say to you,” he finally manages, shocked that he can keep his voice as calm as it is when he feels like he’s trembling all over.

“Nothing at all? To your favorite coach?”

At that, he frowns. “You aren’t my favorite coach.”

Coach Yoon presses a hand to his chest. “Ouch.”

Then, with a smile, he steps closer. Donghyuck wants to move away, but he stands his ground. Despite the resounding fear sifting through his body, he refuses to be scared off. So, he lets Coach Yoon come near, to scan his face as if he’s searching for something.

“It’s only been a few months, but you grew up,” he comments, lips curling into a smile. One that appears sharper the longer Donghyuck looks at it. “Still pretty, though.”

Donghyuck winces.

“Don’t think you’ll ever get rid of that. Although, count that as a blessing. You’ll enjoy it when you’re older.” He furrows his brow a little. “You still pitching that Knuckleball I showed you? Watching out for that shoulder of yours? You know how sore it can get after too much use.”

When he lifts a hand, Donghyuck stumbles back, hands clinging to the strap of his duffle bag.

Coach Yoon tilts his head. “Dear me, why are you so scared? I wouldn’t hurt you, Donghyuck. You know that.”

Donghyuck can’t shake the panic rising inside him. His breathing speeds up, shallows out. He doesn’t know what to do. His body won’t respond to any coherent thought he manages—not that there are many with the way it spins like a top.

He doesn’t have to worry about it for long, however, because someone shouts, “Hey, asshole!” and Coach Yoon turns around just as Renjun throws a punch. Renjun is a foot shorter than Coach Yoon, so his fist connects at an odd angle, but Donghyuck still hears a satisfying crack. Coach Yoon stumbles back as Renjun holds his hand to his chest, profanities falling from his mouth from the pain.

“Renjun!” Mark shouts, appearing right behind him at a run. “What are you—What is—”

The whole thing springs Donghyuck into action. He shoves Coach Yoon out of the way to get to Renjun. “What the fuck,” he says. “What are you doing?”

“Doing what I’ve been wanting to do for ages,” he grits out. “Motherfucker, that hurts.”

“No fucking duh,” Donghyuck snaps before glancing to where Coach Yoon is rubbing at his jaw.

Then, deciding nothing is broken, Coach Yoon looks back at them. However, there seems to be no anger as he says, “Ah, Renjun. Lovely to see you.”

“Fuck you,” Renjun spits.

Coach Yoon chuckles. “Now, I don’t think you truly mean that, considering I have quite a bit of sway with the members of the tournament council. I doubt they’d want to know one of their winning coaches got assaulted, effectively losing your team’s place here. Especially right after you got it back.”

Renjun grits his teeth, hand still clutched to his chest, but he doesn’t reply. Still, Donghyuck clings to his arm, just in case.

“Yes, see, I thought so,” says Coach Yoon. “You really should control that temper of yours, Renjun. Punching people for no reason is going to come back to bite you.”

When Renjun jolts forward, Donghyuck and Mark drag him back.

“I suppose I’ll see you boys,” he continues. “If you make it to Championships, that is.” Looking to Donghyuck, he adds, “Keep good care of yourself.”

Then, he walks off. He just walks off and Donghyuck is stunned in watching him go.

“Ow, fucking fuck,” mutters Renjun, gaining his attention.

Mark gingerly takes his hand to look at it. Already it’s red and a bit swollen. Donghyuck fears for the worst, but Mark just clicks his tongue. “I don’t think anything is broken, but we should get it checked. And then someone needs to tell me what the fuck is going on.”

Flinching, Donghyuck stares down at his fingers, still twisted into the sleeve of Renjun’s jacket. “Renjun first.”

Mark heaves a sigh. “Let’s get Jaehyun.”

*

Needless to say, Jaehyun isn’t happy when Renjun comes back with a hand too swollen to even move his fingers. Renjun says he fell and Donghyuck’s face tells Mark to keep his mouth shut. He just hopes he gets some kind of explanation out of all of this. Watching Renjun punch a fully-grown coach—their opponent’s coach—in the face deserves at least that much.

So, they drop the rest of the team, along with Taeyong, Johnny, and Ten, at the hotel before Jaehyun, Mark, Renjun, and Donghyuck take a taxi to the nearest hospital. All the while, Renjun fiddles with the icepack Taeyong found among his supplies and Donghyuck refuses to say anything at all. Or look at them. The color in his face is gone, just like it had been when he was standing before his old coach, and it has Mark’s stomach turning, uncomfortably.

“Can you guys wait out here while we go in?” Jaehyun asks when they stand outside the entrance.

Mark nods. “We’ll sit on the bench.”

As Jaehyun and Renjun disappear inside, Donghyuck walks over to the nearest bench and drops onto it before his head falls into his hands with a shuttering sigh. The utter defeat shakes Mark to the bone. Hesitantly, he wanders over to take the spot next to him.

He wants to ask. He has so many questions. But he also knows Donghyuck clearly needs a moment to sit and breathe. And so, he sits there, watching the people drift in and out the doors as the warm breeze blows past them. The sun is hot, though they aren’t directly in it. The little roof over the bench keeps them as protected as it can.

After a few minutes, Donghyuck sits up. His fingers are linked together so tightly they’re white. Mark has half a mind to reach out and hold them, but he refuses to cause any more inner turmoil for either of them.

“Aren’t you going to ask?” Donghyuck whispers.

Mark tilts his head, slightly. “Are you going to answer?”

Exhaling deeply, Donghyuck rubs at his mouth. He glances at Mark with his lips pursed. “Yes.”

Well.

“Why did Renjun punch that guy?”

Donghyuck’s gaze drops to his shoes. “Coach Yoon.”

“He’s the JY Prep coach, isn’t he? He was wearing their emblem.”

“Yeah. Yeah, that’s him. Renjun doesn’t like him. Loathes him, really.”

Mark can’t stop the snort that falls from his lips. “I could tell. But why? What did he do to Renjun?”

“It isn’t what he did to Renjun,” he says, weakly. “It’s what he did to me.”

The words fall like rocks to the pit of his stomach. An uncomfortable air fills around them. Mark feels like he just stumbled into a minefield because he knew that something happened to Donghyuck, but he could never guess what. He supposes he never really thought it was bad enough for Renjun to punch his coach for him, or to have Donghyuck staring at Coach Yoon in absolute horror—an expression he would rather not see on his face ever again, if he can help it.

Except, maybe he should have.

“He used to call me pretty,” Donghyuck mutters. “It wasn’t something I was used to. It’s not something guys expect to be called, I think. And I never really thought much of it. Figured it was one of those passing comments, you know? But he’d do it and I’d laugh it off. Then, one day, he offered to coach me one on one. I didn’t think much of it because why would I? He was my coach.”

Sensing the tension, Mark whispers, “You don’t have to tell me this.”

“No, I want to. I have to,” he insists, “because I need you to know why I fucked up our game yesterday. Why Renjun punched Coach Yoon. You need to understand.”

Mark takes in Donghyuck’s wide eyes, so dark, pleading. So, he nods and keeps quiet.

“He asked to coach me one on one,” Donghyuck repeats, taking in a shaky breath. “He’d compliment me. Told me I had great potential and that I was so pretty. It was just—I never really cared, you know? It never felt weird or wrong.” He lets out a humorless laugh, so bitter and cold that Mark gets a chill. “God, I was a fucking idiot. He’d put his hand on my shoulder and tell me he expected great things from me. He taught me the Knuckleball the first year I joined, did you know that?” He shakes his head. “I didn’t really start to think about any of it until one day he touched my face.”

Mark watches Donghyuck absentmindedly lift his hand to his jaw, careful and hesitant, gaze somewhere in the past where Mark can’t bring him back. A sickening feeling curls in his stomach, knowing where this is going.

“After practice one day, after everyone was gone, I stayed behind with him to get some extra throws in. I was changing, in the locker room, and he came to see me. I should have seen it coming. I always see things coming. Always have. I don’t know why I didn’t this time because it was so fucking obvious. He tried to touch me, and I shoved him away and then, suddenly, he was on me.”

Mark fists at his pants, anger rising in him, because no one should go through something like this. Especially with someone they trust. Donghyuck’s lowers his head, hands twisting in his lap. The urge to reach out is back, but he knows right now isn’t the best time.

So, he lets Donghyuck talk.

“I said before that I had an incident with my coach and my teammates were jerks, so I left. It’s partly true. One of my teammates came back for something, I guess, and saw us. He interpreted it wrong, or maybe he didn’t care. My team already didn’t like me, thought I got too much attention. It was…a whole thing. After seeing Coach Yoon kissing me against a locker—Well, it fueled a lot of fire that was already there. I ended up getting away. Kneed him in the balls. And I tried to keep a distance from then on, but the team was somewhat unrelenting. They thought I was sleeping with the coach to get ahead. After about a week I left. Transferred here.”

“Last year?” Mark asks because, surely, he’d remember someone like Donghyuck wandering his school halls.

“No, this year. Our team starts training over break. This happened in March. The day you met me was my third day at SM, a few weeks after everything went down.”

Mark shakes his head. “No wonder you didn't want to play.”

“I did want to play,” he says. “Baseball is my life. I just wasn’t sure if I wanted to go up against them after everything that happened. But when the opportunity came to play, I thought ‘why not?’. I thought about playing against them and what it might be like, and I tried to convince myself I could do it, that all I needed was a chance to show them that I was fine. I guess, in the end, I never really thought we’d get this far.”

“When he cornered you, before we got there…did he,” Mark licks his lips, shifting uncomfortably, “touch you?”

Donghyuck smiles, one that doesn’t quite reach his eyes, and says, “No. He just called me pretty.”

Chapter Text

The wind whistles in his ears. It’s the only thing he can hear; the only sound his mind can focus on, anyway, because the rest of it is still trying to process everything Donghyuck just told him. He isn’t really sure what to feel, to be honest. There’s shock and uneasiness. He feels a little sick when he goes over each of the words over and over again in his head, but more so, he wishes he had been the one to deck Coach Yoon.

His fingers fist at the hem of his hoodie as he sits there next to Donghyuck outside the hospital. His legs are telling him to stand up and find the bastard. Except, he doesn’t want to leave Donghyuck. He wants to sit here with him until everything is okay. If it ever will be. He can’t even imagine what Donghyuck went through, but he saw a snippet of it on his face when he was facing Coach Yoon, stumbling away from him.

He opens his mouth, attempting to say something, but nothing comes out. He’s not even sure what he’s trying to say, considering his mind is blank.

Everything makes sense and Mark hates it. He hates it so much. No wonder Donghyuck was always so on edge when they first met. It’s no wonder he tried to ignore all of Mark’s efforts to make sure he was okay. Because he wasn’t. Mark doesn’t know how he could be after that. Of course, he will be, eventually. But this has happened for too long, escalated into something no teenage boy should be forced to deal with.

Sixteen, he reminds him. Donghyuck is only sixteen and this man has been creeping on him since he was—what?—fourteen?

Mark very much wishes he had taken the chance to punch Coach Yoon now. Or let Renjun have at him.

Then, something sinks in and Mark frowns slightly, tilting his head. He pins his vision on the parking lot as he thinks. This isn’t just the coach. It can’t be. The team clearly had a hand in all this as well. He knows that much, and he knows it isn’t just them holding something so sickening against him.

So, he tears his gaze from the parking lot to look to Donghyuck, whose own eyes are focused on the way he picks at his nails. His knee bounces, restlessly. Mark doesn’t blame him after everything he’s just unloaded.

Mark doesn’t think he’s ever met anyone braver.

“You’ve…” His voice trails off as he shifts on the bench to face Donghyuck better. “This isn’t just the coach, though. When you first arrived, you didn’t want anything to do with any of us, least of all me. Why?”

Breathing in deeply, Donghyuck sits up and asks, “Have you ever felt isolated?”

He pauses. “Isolated?”

“Like, when you walk into a room, and everyone goes silent. Or when they talk about going somewhere and never invite you. Or maybe you go to the bathroom and come back, and everyone is gone. Have you ever been surrounded by people and felt completely alone?”

One by one the pieces fell into place. “They did that?”

“When I first joined the team,” he starts, “it was fine. Well, as fine as it could be when you’re a first-year and everything is a little weird, right? Renjun and I joined together, we stuck together, and people found us a bit odd. I was kind of used to it because in elementary school I had too much energy. So much I didn’t know what to do with it, so I would just be,” he waves a hand, “everywhere. It annoyed a lot of people, but I knew kids could be mean. I didn’t think much of it. Until high school.”

“It got worse?”

Donghyuck shrugs. “It was weird. Like, most of the kids that transferred along with me already knew what I was like, but a lot of the newer ones didn’t. But little mean things here and there weren’t enough to shake me. I wasn’t going to apologize for being myself. And when I joined the team, they seemed to like my energy, at first. They were eager to teach all the newbies what to do because JY Prep was the team. You couldn’t slack off. No one allowed it. Coach didn’t and his team didn’t. JY Prep trains outside tournament times. It goes all year, right? So, Renjun and I worked our asses off to prove we were worth it. Midway through first-year, Coach came to me and asked if I wanted to pitch.”

“He coached you that long?”

“It started off once a week we would have one-on-ones,” he says with a nod. “Maybe that’s why I never really thought much about what he was saying because it was so sporadic, you know? And then, slowly, he started asking for more time together. My second year was when things started to go downhill. I was getting good, and they weren’t pleased. They were even less pleased when they realized I was getting personal training time.”

Mark bites his lip. “So, they isolated you.”

Straightening, Donghyuck looks at him with a slight frown. “I didn’t really notice at first. They didn’t all do it at once. It was one after another. They stopped talking to me, stopped hanging out. They would purposefully leave me off to the side during meetings and no one would practice with me, except Renjun. I tried not to think too much about it because I was there to play baseball. So what if the rest of the team wanted nothing to do with me? But when I got named reserve pitcher it just got so much worse. There’s a player, Felix, and he’s my age, but he became such fast friends with the older members so much easier than I did. He was their Pitcher. The captain didn’t like that I was encroaching on his place.”

“Did they ever…”

“Get physical? God, no. No, they would much rather slip in insults and isolate me, I guess. Near the end, I kind of wished they’d just hit me and get it over with. It was,” he sighs, “a mess. Renjun told me to ignore it and I did, for the most part. But it just always felt like I wasn’t enough. I’d work harder and they would think I was overachieving. I would try to show them what I could do, and I was showing off. After what happened with Coach Yoon, it all suddenly clicked how awful they were. It hit me so much harder than I thought. Especially afterward. The things they said were…I couldn’t take it anymore, so I left. Packed my bags and came here.”

And then Mark tried to hound him into joining the SM team. Guilt curls inside his gut. “I’m so sorry.”

Donghyuck’s eyes are dark when he meets Mark’s gaze. “You have nothing to be sorry for. In fact, I think I owe you the apology. I was…I was going through things, but I lashed out at you when you never deserved it.”

“You had too many emotions to filter through.”

“Doesn’t mean I should have been an asshole to you. I guess, after everything, I lost a sense of who I was supposed to be versus who I was,” he admits, quietly. This is the most open he has ever been to Mark and Mark isn’t about to stop him. Clearly, he’s been holding it all in until now. “I was such a happy kid. Sometimes…Sometimes I still feel like that and then I remember everything, and it comes crashing down. When I came to SM, I figured that evidently my way of being was too much for people, annoyed them and made them hate me, so I tried to stop it. I let myself shut down. Partly because I didn’t want to deal with anything else, but also because I knew it didn’t work last time and I didn’t want to go through the same thing again.”

It makes sense, but that doesn’t mean Mark likes it. He wishes he had known the Donghyuck from before. The one that smiled without warning, the one with too much energy to handle. Maybe it would have annoyed him too, but maybe he would have learned to like it. Whenever he sees Donghyuck manage a smile, all he wants is for Donghyuck to do it again and again and again.

“Plus, your reactions were fun,” he adds, causing Mark to snort. He remembers Donghyuck mentioning that ages ago, when they were forced to clean baseballs at the cabin. “But then it came back to bite me in the ass. I ended up in the same place I was in before. You hated me—”

“I didn’t hate you.”

Donghyuck narrows his eyes. “Don’t lie to me. You hated me, even just for a moment. But then, for some reason, it never lasted. I kept slipping and you kept being there and I couldn’t keep up with the act.”

“That’s why you always got so angry with me?”

“It was never at you. It was always at myself. You kept telling me to trust you and I kept wanting to, but then I also trusted my old teammates and coach and look where that landed me.”

“With us,” Mark says. He doesn’t say anything about the way Donghyuck’s gaze goes glassy before he looks away. “You ended up with us, and we’re here for you. The team will always be here for you. No matter how you feel about the world or yourself. I’ve seen you play with Lucas and YangYang and Hendery. I’ve seen you laugh with Jeno. I can see how badly you want to stop being on alert all the damn time. No one—and I really mean no one—would ever do what JY did to you. Not on my watch.”

It's subtle, but Mark catches the way Donghyuck lifts a sleeve to his face, like patting down tears. It makes his chest ache. Just how much has Donghyuck been shoving deeper and deeper into himself with no release?

“You’re an SM player now,” he whispers. “You’re with us. And with us, you don’t have to be anything but yourself. Even if it’s annoying.”

Donghyuck coughs a laugh. Sniffing, he shakes his head and says, “I bet you would have hated the energetic me.”

“Probably, but I doubt you’d leave me be, so I’d probably get used to it pretty quickly,” he says with a shrug.

A small smile curves along Donghyuck’s mouth. “You think I’d have nothing better to do than to bug you?”

“I mean, you did say I have good reactions. You think you could leave me be?” he teases. “Besides, I’d have to get used to you. You’re my Pitcher.”

“Your Pitcher,” points out Donghyuck and, once again, the slip as Mark’s ears warming.

He meets Donghyuck’s gaze, despite the flutter in his stomach, and says, “Yeah, my Pitcher.”

There’s nothing more entertaining than watching pink flood through Donghyuck’s cheeks, causing him to look away with a roll of his eyes. Mark smiles to himself and scuffs the heel of his shoe against the stone.

Then, quietly, he says, “Thank you. For telling me. I know that probably wasn’t easy and, well, I appreciate it. I’m glad you trusted me enough to tell me.”

Donghyuck doesn’t reply, but that’s okay. Mark lets him sit in silence with the wind whistling in their ears. He thinks that this is what they needed. It clears a lot of space for them to start again. Mark is ready for it.

After a few more quiet minutes, Jaehyun and Renjun emerge from the hospital. Renjun is still cradling his hand, which is now swapped in bandage.

“It isn’t broken,” Jaehyun says. “Luckily.”

Renjun picks at the edge of the bandage. “Just bruised.”

“What does that mean?” Mark asks, looking to Jaehyun. What does that mean for the team?

“He won’t be playing the next game, that’s for sure. We’ll have to make sure Jisung is as best prepared as he can get by next Saturday.”

“You’re an idiot,” Donghyuck says to Renjun, though there’s no heat.

Renjun lifts his nose into the air, no regret anywhere on his face.

“We should head back to the hotel. We have a long trip back home tonight.” Jaehyun takes out his phone and starts jabbing his thumb into the numbers on the screen. “Honestly, you’re all the worst for injuries. Can we not have one moment of peace?”

“Welcome to baseball,” Mark says, earning an unimpressed expression from Jaehyun before he puts the phone up to his ear and starts ordering them another taxi.

Well, it isn’t going to do them much good to dwell on it, Mark thinks as he glances toward where Donghyuck and Renjun are pressed side-to-side. They quietly murmur to themselves, and Mark is pretty sure Donghyuck is berating him as softly as he can.

No, they’ll just have deal with it. Come Saturday, they’ll have an interesting game on their hands. Donghyuck looks up and Mark offers a smile. He gets a small one in return. But at least they’re in this together.

*

One of the things Donghyuck can be thankful for is the fact that Johnny doesn’t pry. He does ask questions, of course, but he never pushes for answers.

Why are you here?

What happened?

What do you mean?

Donghyuck has always given him vague replies. Never the details, if only just to spare him. Besides, Johnny’s temper when it comes to protecting his family is fierce and Donghyuck isn’t about to tempt it.

After losing their game, Johnny hadn’t pressured him into talking. Donghyuck knows he wants to. He sees it every time he catches Johnny watching him from the side. He thinks that if he were with his parents, it would be a different story. They may not always be attentive, but they would have tried to wiggle their way in the moment they knew something was up. It makes him glad he came here, instead.

And SM, as a whole, hasn’t been all that bad. If anything, it was one of the best decisions he’s ever made. Even if he wanted to keep his past in the past, even if he held it all out for Mark to see, Donghyuck doesn’t regret it. He thinks, out of all of them, Mark was the best option to start with.

Of course, there had been a minute there when he hesitated, a little unsure because Mark’s reactions aren’t always predictable. However, he’s seen the way Mark is with his friends, how he handles the heavy and difficult things, and he knew, if anything, Mark would never judge him. 

It's not shocking that he didn’t.

He took it with a calmness Donghyuck was struggling to gain, himself. In fact, Donghyuck doesn’t really know what Mark thinks about the whole thing other than the fact that he promised only good things from now on. Donghyuck hopes that’s true.

But the whole thing puts him in a quiet mood all the way home. The radio plays in the silence between him, Johnny, and Renjun. Stupid Renjun and his ridiculous actions. Although he can’t say he didn’t enjoy the idea of it. Johnny glances at him from time to time, but he never asks, never pries.

When they finally arrive back at the house, it’s late. The moon is rising, and they gather their things in the dim light of the streetlamps. His suitcase hits every step on his way up to the bedroom with Johnny taking Renjun’s for him.

“Keep that out of harm’s way,” Johnny reminds Renjun as he places the suitcase at the end of Renjun’s bed. “We don’t want it to get worse. Both of you should get ready for bed. Tomorrow will be an early morning.”

Donghyuck isn’t looking forward to school. He would rather sleep for the next ten years. Deciding to unpack later, he kicks his suitcase closer to the wall and collapses onto his bed. On the other side of the room, Renjun unzips his own and starts pulling things out. He keeps his hand to his chest the whole time.

“I can’t believe you punched him,” he whispers into the air after Johnny closes the door behind him.

Renjun continues to unpack. “I can’t believe you didn’t.”

“I was a little preoccupied.” With not falling into a panic attack, he thinks.

Humming, Renjun stands and sits on the edge of his bed. His eyes are piercing as they study Donghyuck from a distance. “How are you feeling?”

“Exhausted,” he admits.

“That it?”

He stares up at the ceiling. “Pathetic. Hopeless. Guilty. Embarrassed. Relieved.”

“Relieved?”

Hesitantly, he sits up. Renjun doesn’t say anything as he contemplates on what to say. Then, he looks over and tells him, “I spoke with Mark. Told him everything.”

At that, Renjun’s eyebrows rise. “Everything? The team? Coach Yoon?”

Donghyuck nods, glancing at the wall. “Everything.”

“What did he say?”

“He mainly listened, to be honest. I think he spent more time processing it all than anything else. Which is understandable.”

“It is,” agrees Renjun. “He didn’t make you feel like you had to tell him, did he?”

“No,” he says with a shake of his head. “You know him.”

“I’m happy you felt comfortable telling him. I’m glad you told someone else, actually. I’m sure Ms. Kwon would be pleased, too.”

Donghyuck nearly smiles as he says, “Do you think? I think she’ll be annoyed I told him first over her.”

“I’m not surprised you did, to be honest.” He walks over to Donghyuck’s bed and sits down next to him. “It was kind of a matter of time. You’re both so stubborn, but even the blindest person can see how much trust you two have built over the last few months. Mark is definitely not like anyone else you’ve ever met, I think.”

“Not even you?”

Renjun shakes his head. “You trust me, sure, but what you have with Mark is different. I don’t think even I could explain it. It just feels…unlimited. I think he’s starting to realize it, too.”

“It’s just because we’re a Battery. Trust is kind of needed.”

“You know that isn’t true. This is something else. And it’s okay if you don’t want to think about it, right now. But you can’t belittle it because it’s special, Donghyuck. Not many people meet someone who can understand and listen like Mark does with you. He may not have always had the patience, but he does now because he knows. He’s taken the time to learn about you like no one ever has. You can’t pretend he hasn’t.”

Pulling his knees to his chest, he says, “I’m not pretending. I just—I guess it feels strange.”

“To have someone care about you? It isn’t just me and Johnny, you know. The whole team cares about us. It’s so different from JY.”

“I know,” he mutters. “No, I know that.”

“So, what is it?”

Donghyuck lifts his eyes, finding Renjun’s, before he whispers, “I’m scared.”

Shifting closer, Renjun asks, “Of what?”

“Everything. Of them all finding out and hating. Of losing because I can’t hold myself together. Of facing them. Of losing…” He sighs, heavily. “Of messing things up with Mark again.”

“Oh, Duckie—”

“Because I will. I always will. I always do.”

“No, you don’t,” Renjun states, firmly.

“They’re going to change their mind about me. I know they will. Just like everyone else.”

Renjun frowns. “That isn’t true. I haven’t. And they wouldn’t either. They’re completely different people, who want you to be able to open up to them the way they open up to you. This is what having real friends is like, having a team who care about you. I can say, without worry, that they would never judge you for what happened because none of it is even your fault. What Coach Yoon did was all on him. You never asked for it.”

“I didn’t,” he says, weakly, voice cracking.

Wrapping an arm around him, Renjun drags him closer so that he can bury his face into the crook of Renjun’s neck. “You didn’t. You did nothing wrong. Nothing. And if you can believe anything, you believe me, you hear me? I would never lie to you. Ever.”

“I know.”

“Then, trust me on this. You deserve so much good, Donghyuck. So much more than you think. It’s time you allow yourself to have that. Don’t let some creepy bastard and his team of assholes make you think any different. You aren’t wrong. They are.”

It makes sense. It always does, but Donghyuck can’t help but convince himself it’s the other way around sometimes. He’s watched the way kids make fun of him, turn their noses up at him, shove him away with words that cut so deep. They could never handle him. They could never understand. And maybe they never wanted to and that isn’t his fault, but it feels like it is. It feels like he should have tried harder, backed off a little more. He should have just bent to their will and taken it. Maybe then it would have been easier.

Renjun hugs him tight and Donghyuck refuses to let go. Out of everything, it’s Renjun who has been his anchor from the beginning. It feels strange to think that there may be more than one, that maybe Mark has slowly started to become one as well. His presence is calming, especially lately. He has no fear to put Donghyuck in his place, to communicate with him fully, but he’s also been so straight forward about Donghyuck coming to him if he needs it. Without even realizing it, Mark became another rock that he can’t imagine not having in his life. And maybe even the rest of the team, too. They’ve all wiggled their way inside, so calmly and subtly.

And that’s as terrifying as it is relieving.

*

When practice comes Monday after school, they’re all buzzing. No one wastes a second to get back to the grind and Mark can’t help but smile as he peers out over the field at them all. The next game will arrive before they know it, which means they need to be ready.

“I have the recordings for our next opponent,” Jaehyun says as he passes over a USB. Mark takes it from him. “I’m going to email it out, but I figured you might want a hard copy?”

“Yeah, this is great. Which school?”

“DSP Media. It’s a private school for the arts.” When Mark raises a brow, Jaehyun says, “Don’t let them fool you. Baseball must be their stress reliever. They’re quick from what I can see. And if we get past them, we’re up against YG again.”

Frowning, Mark says, “That’ll be thrilling.”

“It should be fine as long we don’t have any hiccups.”

He can’t stop his eyes from seeking out Donghyuck, who stands next to Taeyong while they coach Chenle how to pitch a Changeup. He hasn’t really spoken to Mark since everything he said yesterday at the hospital, but he hasn’t seemed as on-edge either. At lunch, he had taken the spot next to Mark, like he usually does these days, and even spared him a few glances, so Mark knows he isn’t completely regretting his choice in unloading everything.

Now that he’s had a night to think about it, Mark is pretty sure that the next time he sees Coach Yoon he may take a leaf out of Renjun’s book. The sheer thought of someone preying on a teenager—a child—makes him sick to his stomach. The fact that Donghyuck is doing as well as he is, shows great strength that Mark isn’t sure he could ever possess. To go through not only bullying but what happened with his old coach? It’s sort of incredible he made it through the story without any sort of strong emotion. Mark, on the other hand, is livid whenever he thinks about it. He doesn’t want Coach Yoon anywhere near Donghyuck. In fact, he doesn’t want Donghyuck out of his sight.

Not that Donghyuck can’t take care of himself. Mark knows as well as anyone that he can. But it still doesn’t stop this protectiveness inside of him from rearing its ugly head. He just wants Donghyuck safe and happy and not looking over his shoulder every time he plays his favorite sport.

Mark bites the inside of his cheek. Well, he might be a little bit lost on Donghyuck. That’s embarrassing.

“How is he doing?”

Mark snaps his head toward Jaehyun, blinking owlishly. “Sorry?”

“Donghyuck. How is he? You had a chance to talk to him, right?”

“Oh, yeah. Um, he’s okay. I think he’s still processing everything,” he says as vaguely as possible because he has no idea what Jaehyun does and doesn’t know.

“Think he’ll be ready for the next game?”

“I think he’ll try his best to be. Having Chenle as a reserve is good, though. Probably helps more than he thinks.”

Jaehyun hums. “Yeah. I’m glad Chenle is getting more time out there, but he’s worrying me. Has he spoken to you at all? Or Jisung even?”

“Jisung?” he asks. “Why would he?”

“When I put them together at the hotel, Jisung has asked about switching roommates. I know they’re having some issues right now, but I didn’t think it was that bad. Have you noticed anything lately?”

Looking over to Chenle, who is working through another pitch, Mark says, “Not really. But Chenle doesn’t speak to a lot of us. He usually talks to Jisung, which, obviously, has been a bit of a struggle lately. He looks tired, though.”

“Definitely. It’s worrisome. I think he may be working himself a little too hard. Keep an eye out for him, yeah?”

Mark nods. “Yeah, of course. Also, I forgot to mention, I won’t be here for practice on Wednesday. I have an appointment.”

“Guess we’ll be down you and Donghyuck, then. It’s fine. We’ll make it work.” Grabbing his clipboard, he asks, “Can you call them in?”

He does just that, clapping his hands and shouting out over the field for them to collect. They come without a second thought. Most of them collapse onto the grass, sweaty and panting. If anything, the team works hard.

“Hey, everyone. Just thought I would touch base quickly,” says Jaehyun. “I don’t think I need to tell you all how proud I am of you. You guys played that last game so well and we’re going to continue going strong, I’m sure of it. As of right now, with Renjun out of the next game, at least, Jisung will need to cover Shortstop. I know it’s a big job, but we need it.”

Renjun shoots Jisung a bashful grin of apology, though it doesn’t seem to destress Jisung from the idea at all. Even when he smiles back a little too forced to be natural. Over the last little while, Jisung has proven how good he is inside the game, but the nerves still hover, and Mark can’t blame him for that.

“I’ve given Mark a hard copy, but I’m going to be sending out the recording for our next opponent’s last two games. Make sure you take a look at it this week. Other than that, we just have to keep doing what we’re doing. It’s working so far. All right, we can get back. Hendery and Shotaro, I’d like—Oh, Donghyuck. What’s up?”

It’s only then that Mark realizes that Donghyuck has risen his hand up, an unreadable expression on his face. “Can I say something?”

Jaehyun blinks. So does Mark because when has Donghyuck ever asked for permission. “Yeah, of course. Floor’s yours.”

Donghyuck gives a little nod, moving to stand next to Jaehyun and in front of everyone. Then, rather abruptly, he bows—a fully ninety degrees with his hands on his knees and his blond hair shadowing his face. Everyone stills. Everyone goes silent.

“I’m sorry,” Donghyuck says as he straightens up, eyes cast to the grass. “For what happened against YG. I let you all down and you deserve an apology for it.”

“Duckie—” Renjun starts, only for Donghyuck to cut in.

“I acted immaturely for leaving. I promise to do better in the next game.”

Mark feels sick all over again because no. Just no. Donghyuck shouldn’t be apologizing.

“That’s ridiculous,” Lucas says. “None of us blame you, Hyuck. We may not know what’s going on inside that head of yours, but we know you wouldn’t do what you did without a good reason.”

YangYang nods. “Yeah, you’re, like, one of the most professional players on the team. You don’t have to apologize at all.”

“But we accept it,” Dejun adds, softly, drawing Mark’s attention. “If that’s what you need. Or acceptance, that is.”

Still refusing to look up, Donghyuck says, “Yeah, kind of.”

“Then,” Hendery speaks up, “we forgive you. For not doing anything wrong.”

Donghyuck exhales, the corners of his lips twitching. He peeks up at them all through his fringe. “Thank you.”

Jaehyun says, “Believe it or not, but we won’t ever hold that kind of thing against you. You’ve proven what you can do on this team. You’ve proven how reliable you are. And we know how much you love this game. None of us would believe you would do what you did intentionally. But coming up here to apologize takes guts. You should be proud of yourself.”

“Thank you,” he repeats, digging his toe into the dirt. His cheeks are flushed, and Mark really wants to hold his hand. “Can we go practice now?”

Jaehyun laughs. “Yeah, we can go practice now. Hendery and Shotaro, I’d like to work on some plays with you two. The rest of you know what to do. Renjun, you can coach Jisung, but if I see you touching that ball—”

Renjun raises his hands, smiling. “I’ll be good.”

They all disperse from there. Even Jeno, who has spent most of his time sitting out, gets up to join Jaemin, YangYang, and Dejun out in the field for some warmups. Before Donghyuck can slip away, however, Mark jogs up and around him to stop him in his tracks.

“What?” Donghyuck asks, raising a brow. He’s still a bit red, still seemingly a little embarrassed about everything that just happened. It’s far more endearing than it should be.

“Be honest with me,” he says. “You’re still okay with me knowing, right? Everything you told me yesterday?”

Donghyuck rocks back on his heels. “It isn’t as if I can change it now.”

“No, I know, but you know what I mean.”

“Yeah, I do.” He purses his lips, glancing to the side. “Yeah, I’m still okay with you knowing. I don’t regret telling you, if that’s what you’re getting at. I just don’t want this to cause you to pity me or something. I don’t want your pity.”

Mark shakes his head a little too hard. “No pity, I promise. Just support. I just want to support you where you need it. I’m glad you trusted me enough to tell me and I don’t want you to hesitate to come to me with anything else.”

“Yeah, well…” He clears his throat before meeting Mark’s eye. “What about you?”

That stuns him. “What about me?”

“I know I’m not the only one struggling with something. You must think I’m blind to not notice. Anything you want to get off your chest?”

Right. Well. Mark swallows, suddenly feeling very put on the spot. “I, um…Maybe later?”

When Donghyuck nods, his eyes are soft, understanding. “Sure. Whenever you want to.”

“Thanks,” he breathes. “I just—”

“It’s okay, Prez. I get it. Sometimes things take time. I know that better than most people.”

Mark winces. “Right. Sorry.”

“Don’t be. Just…Just know that I can be here for you, too. That’s what this friendship is, right?”

“Friendship?” he squeaks, causing Donghyuck to grin. How anyone could limit him to just the word ‘pretty’ is beyond Mark because, grinning like that, he’s almost ethereal.

“That’s what this is, right? Don’t tell me we went through all that shit only to still struggle to use the word ‘friend’.”

“I wasn’t the one having an issue with it!” he blurts, a little defensive.

Donghyuck covers his mouth when he coughs a laugh. He skirts around Mark, singing, “Sure, Prez. Whatever you say.”

“It wasn’t me! It was you! I was totally fine with it!”

“I believe you.”

“I—You—Urgh! Donghyuck!”

When Donghyuck laughs, boisterous and happy, Mark is stunned. When he starts running toward Homeplate, Mark can’t help but chase him, laughing along with him. For once, he truly believes things may just work out fine.

This is just the beginning. 

Chapter Text

Jaemin is a little earlier to school than he’d care to admit. Then again, it wasn’t entirely his fault. Jaehyun had work to get to and he was Jaemin’s only ride. Hence, wandering the school hallways a half-hour before Mark or Jeno would show up.

And he’s bored.

There’s quite literally nothing to do. Well, there is probably something to do. Like, he should probably work on his Math homework before class, but that’s not exciting and Jaemin doesn’t want to bore his brain any more than it already is. So, instead, he wanders the halls in the hopes to find anything or anyone to keep himself busy.

Jeno said he would try to come early, but it’s a little last minute. Jaemin isn’t expecting it to happen as much as he hopes for it to. And he kind of wishes it would because he wouldn’t mind some alone time with his boyfriend. That feels like a dream these past few weeks. They walk home together and, sometimes, they get about an hour or so of hangout time until one of them has to go home. It isn’t exactly ideal.

Because, well, Jaemin likes Jeno. A lot. And he’s wasted too much time not realizing that to waste anymore. He already feels guilty enough for being completely blind. Jeno may say it isn’t a big deal, but it feels like one sometimes. It took almost losing him for Jaemin to click into the fact that he wanted something more and that just…It feels weird. It makes him wonder what would have happened if Eunji hadn’t picked up that bat.

But Jaemin also doesn’t like dwelling too much on that because it makes him feel bad, so he shoves it away and tries to focus on the now. The now where he can kiss Jeno whenever he wants, cuddle him whenever he wants, even sneak in a hand-holding session. They’re together and that’s that.

God, he just wants Jeno, right now.

He wouldn’t mind making out in the hallway if it wouldn’t cause such an outroar because their small town is too conservative to have a brain most days.

Mulling over his thoughts, he walks past a set of lockers where a boy stands unloading his bag. Jaemin almost walks past him.

Almost.

Then, he backtracks, eyebrows furrowing. “Donghyuck?”

Blinking, the boy turns. Sure enough, it is Donghyuck. Except, he isn’t blond anymore. Jaemin stares—perhaps a little too hard at the fluffy orange locks—and it has Donghyuck shifting slightly, fingers running through his hair as if trying to hide it subtly.

“Your hair,” Jaemin states.

“Yeah,” replies Donghyuck, turning back to his locker to put the remaining book away.

He steps up to lean against the lockers. “It looks really good.”

Because it does. It really does. Not that the blond looked bad, of course. Jaemin is pretty sure Donghyuck could pull off any color if he gave it a go. But the orange adds a different kind of glow to his skin and makes his eyes stand out a little more. It’s bold, yet not bold enough to get himself in trouble with the school.

“What brought about that change?”

Donghyuck shrugs. “The roots got annoying to keep up.”

“Tell me about it,” he sighs, waving at his own darkened roots. He’s going to have to do something about it. His ends are fried as well. Not a good look. Although, Donghyuck’s don’t look too bad. “How long were you blond?”

“A couple of months?”

Tilting his head, he says, “So, you weren’t blond at JY?”

Donghyuck side-eyes him, warily. “No. I wasn’t.”

Jaemin hums. As Donghyuck fiddles with the insides of his locker, Jaemin keeps his tongue in his cheek, brain working in overdrive. After a moment, he attempts, “You know, people often make changes to their appearance when something significant happens in their life and they need an outlet.”

The words cause Donghyuck’s hand to freeze—if only just for a second—on his textbook. Then, slowly, he glances over. “Do they now?”

“Do you think I’m stupid?”

Donghyuck blinks, eyebrows falling into a frown. “I’m sorry?”

“Look, I get it if you don’t trust me. Honestly, that’s cool. We don’t really hang out or whatever, but I saw those JY players at our game against YG. I saw the way you reacted, and I may have heard a little when I found you in the changeroom with Renjun. And I may not know exactly what happened, but just know that if you want help beating their asses for whatever the hell they did, I’m right there with you. Or, if you want to just beat them at Championships, we can do that, too. Though it seems a little less exciting.”

Donghyuck snorts. “I thought you weren’t the fighting type. Or the competitive type, for that matter.”

“Let’s just say I’ve learned some things. One,” he holds up a finger, “I care about winning for my team and, two,” another finger goes up, “I care about my team, period. If I have to fight it out, I will. Rather not, but, you know, things happen.”

Closing his locker, Donghyuck turns to him completely, still frowning slightly. “Why are you being so nice to me?”

“Because, believe it or not, I consider us friends. Maybe not best friends. We still have a bit of ways to go before we get there,” he says, “but you’re not a bad guy, Donghyuck. You’re a really good one, who’s had to deal with a lot of shit. If you can be friends with Mark and Jeno, then why not me? I think we have a lot in common. Although, I’ll leave the gaming until three AM for you and Jeno.”

Donghyuck coughs a laugh. “You know about that?”

“I know everything about my boyfriend. I also know he roped you into most of those nights because I said ‘no’, so…” He waves a dismissive hand, smiling. “I meant what I said. We’re a team. We stick together. We protect each other. I have no doubt you’d do the same for each and every one of us.”

“You’re more perceptive than I thought.”

Jaemin gasps. “How rude! You should know that by now.”

“I guess so.” A little smile curls on his lips. “So, friends, then?”

“Friends,” he agrees. “Which means, you can’t get rid of me now. We’re stuck, sorry to tell you.”

“What a nightmare.” But he’s teasing and his eyes are sparkling and Jaemin knows this is a good thing.

He gives Donghyuck a playful shove on the shoulder before catching movement out of the corner of his eye. He beams, throwing out his hands. “Junie! Come join us and our bonding time.”

Incredulously, Renjun glances at Donghyuck as he steps up beside him. His hand is bandaged and carried carefully against his stomach. “Everything good?”

Donghyuck nods. He meets Jaemin’s grin with his own. “Totally fine. Jaemin was just about to tell me his plans for beating JY Prep’s asses.”

“Oh,” Renjun seems to perk. “Count me in.”

Throwing his arm around Renjun’s shoulders, he leans in and says, “So, you see, I thought it could start off with luring them into the woods and—”

“We aren’t murdering them,” Donghyuck says with a roll of his eyes.

“I’m not talking murder. I’m thinking psychological torture. Maybe a bit of maiming.”

“You’re a madman.”

Jaemin winks at him. “Oh, honey, you don’t know the half of it.”

*

Johnny doesn’t say anything as he scans over the information Mingyu sent Jaehyun. His thumb scrolls the screen with Ten reading over his shoulder. It’s an awkward silence. One that has Jaehyun reaching for Taeyong’s hand, just to ground him.

There isn’t really a reason to be nervous. Overall, this is a good thing. Well, it should be. An opportunity to play on a professional team is something he used to dream about. Now, with his coaching and with working at the gym, he’s more conflicted than thrilled.

“Wow,” Johnny breathes when he finally finishes. He passes over the phone and Jaehyun takes it with shaky hands. “That’s incredible.”

“What are you going to do?” asks Ten, finally taking a seat beside Johnny.

The office feels slightly suffocating with four grown men squished into it. It’s only worse when Johnny leans forward on the desk, studying Jaehyun’s face as if he can read his mind.

The thing is, Jaehyun still doesn’t know what to do about it. He’s still struggling to realize it’s real. It’s a real opportunity right in his lap and he’s hesitating. For good reason, he thinks. Leaving the kids at their highest point feels cruel. Not to mention, he wants to be there with them. He wants to experience everything with them. This makes it near impossible to.

And he’s spent so many sleepless nights trying to make it work in his head. He can’t move either of those dates. There’s no way to. Which leaves him trying to figure out which one to choose. Of course, it shouldn’t matter until his team actually makes it to Championships, but it’s still a worry, there in his mind.

“I don’t…” He rubs at his jaw, staring down at the black screen of his phone, knowing that if he turned it on Mingyu’s message would be right there, waiting. “This isn’t exactly easy.”

Johnny shakes his head. “Don’t think about it. Just answer. What do you want to do.”

“I want to go to Championships. There’s never been a doubt in my mind, but…”

“This is your career,” Ten finishes, softly. “It’s not every day an opportunity you love comes knocking at your door.”

“Exactly.”

This is one of the best opportunities he’s ever been handed and he’s hesitating. But he’s hesitating because of his team. A group of boys he’s come to care about like they’re his own, a group of boys who look up to him. Leaving them isn’t something he wants to do, at all.

“I can’t imagine leaving them,” he whispers. “I don’t ever want to leave them, but this is a job. If I can get on this team, it pays good money and amazing coverage. With the team, I pay for everything or with a sponsor.” He gestures to Johnny. “If this team makes it, if they win, do I stay on? Does this become a paying job? And what if I don’t even get on the team and I’m worrying for nothing.”

Ten offers him a tiny smile. “I think you have your answer. You can’t decide anything until you do the tryout. And you can’t decide anything if you don’t know where the team will end up.”

“But what if I get on the team and my team gets to Championships? Then what?” He sighs. “That’s my biggest fear. I can’t give up this chance, but I also can’t leave the boys.”

“They would understand,” says Taeyong, squeezing his arm.

“I know they would. No, I know that. They wouldn’t like it, though. It would break their hearts. I can’t do that to them. What about you?”

Taeyong frowns. “What about me?”

“We don’t even know what we’re doing. I’m working here, at the gym. The games in the city are only for a certain amount of time and then I come back here. You’re going to have to leave and—”

“Hey, if I get this book deal, I can be anywhere. I’m the least of your worries. But I really do think you should do this tryout.”

“I do, too,” adds Johnny while Ten nods in agreement. “It’s worth trying. We’re going to help you the best we can. If you get in and you can’t be there for the Championships, we’ll try to fill in your shoes. They won’t be alone, Jae.”

Hanging his head in his hands, he takes a shaky breath. This shouldn’t be so hard, but he also never thought he would have this choice. He wishes there were an easier way to pick.

“I worry about them. All the time,” he admits. “They’re all so strong, so determined, but they’re just children. They’ve gone through so much. They still are. Mark is still learning what it’s like to be a captain. Donghyuck is going through something. Chenle is also…Well, I don’t know what’s going on with him, but it needs to be dealt with. Jisung doesn’t talk to anyone, anymore. And then, of course, there’s the fact that they’re still new, still learning, and there’s so much for them to accomplish. This is also the last year with the senior members. Mark, Lucas, Dejun, Hendery,” he shakes his head, “I can’t miss their final game. I can’t miss any of their games.”

“You’re right, they are children,” Taeyong says, “but they aren’t just yours. They have us, too. And if you can’t be there, you can’t be there. You can’t just put away your dream, Jae. You deserve to have a chance, too.”

“What if they’re my dream?”

“Looks like you have to figure that out yourself,” says Johnny.

“But we’re here whenever you do,” adds Taeyong.

Ten nods. “Until then, do the tryout.”

Yeah. Yeah, he thinks he should. He will. He’s already told Mingyu he’d be there, so he really can’t back out now. He just hopes this all works out for the best. The last thing he wants is to let someone down. He can’t do that again.

*

Chenle checks his watch, face flushed and sweat dripping down his temples, uncomfortably. Heart thundering against his chest, lungs searching for air, he realizes he still has about twenty minutes before lunch is over. That’s enough time to shower and race to class. Not enough to eat anything, but he can sort that out later, when he actually feels like he needs food.

For now, shower.

Still panting, he jogs off in the direction of the school’s side entrance. No one pays him any mind as he winds through the wanderers. It’s nice, for once, to get a run in and not have someone tell him to stop, to take it easy. Chenle is fine. He feels fine. That run made his blood pump and now he’s more awake than he was this morning. Granted, he’ll probably crash, eventually, but he thinks he can make it through school without too much of an issue.

He catches the door before it closes, stepping just over the threshold, only to bump right into another body. The yellow uniform is just like everyone else’s. The face is not.

Jisung blinks down at him with his phone clutched to his chest. For a second, Chenle wonders if he was trying to get a hold of him. Before he went out, he left his phone with his things in the changeroom, buried under his own uniform. He probably has a few messages from the others, wondering where he is, but from Jisung? The two of them haven’t spoken much in weeks. Chenle doubts Jisung would reach out, especially first.

Not again, anyway.

Brushing off his shirt, Chenle straightens up to look Jisung dead in the eye. He isn’t sure what’s going to come of this, so he prepares himself for another annoyance. He doesn’t want to fight with Jisung again, but he will if Jisung refuses to just leave him be. All he wants is a chance to do things his way. He knows his body. He can make the right decisions even if no one thinks he can.

“What?” he snaps when Jisung doesn’t look away like he expects. He also doesn’t expect Jisung to shakes his head, sigh, and turn away. Annoyed, he reaches out to snatch Jisung’s arm and pull him around. “What’s with the attitude?”

“My attitude?” Jisung asks, almost in disbelief. “I don’t have one. You do, though.”

“Me?”

“Yeah, you. You’re the one biting my head off. I’m just trying to walk away before you shout at me again for caring.”

Chenle rolls his eyes. “Right. Caring. That’s what you call sticking your nose into my business.”

“You know why I was trying to help. This whole running-yourself-into-the-ground thing is getting old. Can’t you see it’s hurting you? Who knows what’s going to happen when you push yourself too far.”

“I know my limits,” he argues.

“No, you don’t. None of us do.” Shaking his head once more, Jisung backs off. “Do whatever you want, Chenle, but I’m not going to watch you hurt yourself.”

He opens his mouth, ready to snap back, but Jisung is turning and walking away before he can get another word out. His defenses are high around him, his muscles tense. He isn’t going to hurt himself. He wishes people would stop saying that. He feels fine. Everything is fine. In fact, he’s doing amazing.

Gritting his teeth, he spins on his heel and stomps into the change room. He scrubs angrily at his hair inside the shower and shoves on his uniform with a huff.

It’s fine. He doesn’t need Jisung. He can do this on his own.

He’s about to head to his locker when his phone rings out, the sound echoing off the walls. With a sigh, he tugs it out of his pocket. The caller ID has him freezing. With a trembling thumb, he hits the button and holds it up to his ear.

“Hello?”

Baby! Is it still lunch there?

It’s strange, in a sense, to hear his mother’s voice. She doesn’t call often. Neither does his father, to be honest. However, sometimes they would in sparing moments just to see what he’s doing, where he is. Of course, Chenle has never felt more guilty than now, and he feels like he shouldn’t be, at all.

“I wouldn’t have picked up if it wasn’t,” he mumbles.

You’re a good boy, Chenle. Are you doing all right? Eating fine? You know you need to eat, Chenle. Make sure Youngmin is giving you what you need, yes?

Swallowing, he nods, the lie slipping from his lips a little too easily. So much easier than it should because lying to his parents has never been easy. Until now, he supposes. “I’m eating well. Don’t worry.”

Good. And your classes? We didn’t get an update last week. Your grades better not be dropping. You know you need to keep them up to get into a good school. And now that you aren’t doing baseball,” he can practically hear her rolling her eyes, “you should have full focus, right?

“Yeah. Yeah, total focus. I’m doing my best.”

Just make it noticeable, all right?

“I promise that I will. You’ll see it on the next update. I did really well on my history test last week.”

That’s wonderful. Make sure you take some extra time for English and Korean. You’ll need those skills once you get into the business.”

Sighing, he says, “I know. You told me.”

Just keep up the good work. I know you won’t let us down. Oh, got to go, baby. Take care of yourself, okay? We won’t be gone for too much longer now.”

At that, Chenle tenses. “Wait, when are you coming home?”

I’m sorry, your dad needs me. I’ll call again.”

“Mom, wait! How soon are you coming home?”

Love you, baby!

“Mom!”

The phone goes dead.

Expelling the air from his lungs, he fights the urge to toss his phone. There are times when he loves the fact that his parents don’t always follow their schedule. Sometimes they’ll come home unannounced and it’s the most wonderful thing in the world because they miss out on so much and Chenle just wants his parents. Sometimes it feels like he needs them.

Now, though, he isn’t so sure. If his parents come home early, it doesn’t make anything easier. In fact, it makes it ten-times harder. They have a game on Saturday. They can’t come home now. They just can’t. He has to still play, and he needs to get on that bus. If he can just make it to Championships, maybe then they’ll finally listen to him and realize what he wants. And what he wants is to play baseball.

But they don’t see it that way. He doesn’t think they ever will. It’s a distraction from his classes. It’ll cause issues with his grades and then he won’t go to business school, and he won’t learn the family business, and then he’ll just let everyone down. Except, Chenle knows he can do both. It’s possible. People before him have managed it, so why can’t he?

He can prove himself.

He can.

He’ll show everyone that he can.

*

Mark has no idea why Jaemin sends him off to class with a little wave, a manic smile, and a cringe-worthy wink. It has all his nerves on high alert because nothing good comes with a grin like that paired to a face like Jaemin’s. No, usually that means trouble and Mark would love to not deal with trouble for a very long time.

In fact, he would like to keep his life a trouble-free zone until…Well, he supposes if they make it to Championships then there will be some trouble. JY Prep seems to come with a lot of that. Except, he tries not to think about it because it just makes him angry. It makes him want to barge into their school and demand answers. Not only from the coach, but from the team, who let Donghyuck down so hard that it broke his spirit.

He can’t even fathom what went on in their heads while cutting Donghyuck out. They must have seen what it did to him. They must have watched him break until the smiles and laughs were shoved under a rock-hard layer. A layer Mark and everyone else is still trying to chip away at. He can’t even imagine trying to damage a person and be okay with it.

It makes him wonder. It makes him livid.

Donghyuck and him may not have started off on the right foot, it may have taken a long time for either of them to find a common ground, but Mark knows how much he cares for Donghyuck now. All he wants is to see him happy, smiling. Mark doesn’t even want that because he likes Donghyuck—as weird as that still is to think—he wants it because Donghyuck is a person, who deserves it.

No one deserves to be bullied.

So, no. Mark doesn’t want trouble until he actually needs to. Of course, he sort of forgets that Donghyuck’s middle name is ‘trouble’ because he stumbles to a stop outside his Math class and forgets how to breathe.

He thought, once, that there was nothing Donghyuck could do to make him completely lose all function. Stun him into silence? Sure. Make him pause mid-action? Possible. Completely throw all thoughts and freeze him to the floor because he literally has no idea what to do? Now, that just seemed like a silly thought.

Except, it’s happening. Right now. On the threshold to Math. His mouth goes dry, and his heart does a skip he didn’t even know it could do, and he can’t even look away. It feels impossible to do because wow.

Mark was never stupid. He always knew that Donghyuck was good looking. Pretty much all his friends are. It’s just a thing he’s discovered over the last few months. But Donghyuck has always caught his attention a little bit more, and it wasn’t until Donghyuck truly smiled at him that he realized just by how much.

It was just…He was always so golden. Everything about him shines. From his skin to his eyes to his hair. Hair, which is now orange and looking a little too good for Mark’s poor soul. He never even once thought that orange hair could look good on a person until now. All it does is add so much more warmth into Donghyuck face and skin.

Mark is suddenly feeling a strange new appreciation for orange that he never had before.

It doesn’t help that it also looks good with those silver piercings he can’t seem to stop noticing, no matter how hard he tries. They glitter silver and reflected-orange in the light as he moves to write down his notes, running along the curve of his ear. There’s three on the side Mark can see. One stud rests lower on his cartilage, leading to the conch and straight to the tiny hoop through his lobe. Mark already knows the other side has his helix pierced through and another larger hoop—Mark may have searched while trying to sleep at night—forming his sixth piercing known as the orbital. That leaves the seventh one right through his eyebrow.

Donghyuck says there’s an eighth one, but Mark’s never seen it. He’s thought about all the other places it could be. Those thoughts don’t tend to last long, however, because they often get him running a little hotter than he wants, so he shakes them away before it becomes too big of a problem.

And Mark also knows that the teachers have probably asked him to remove at least the one in his eyebrow. Apparently, to no avail. Mark doesn’t think he’d ever take it out.

Overall, Donghyuck really is just a sight, and it hits Mark more and more each day. It’s not good. It’s trouble.

“Boo.”

Mark leaps into the air at the voice in his ear, slamming into the door, only for it to thud like thunder against the wall. It has everyone looking up, including Donghyuck, whose brows furrow slightly in question. Heart racing and embarrassment eating away at his stomach, he raises a hand in greeting. Donghyuck frowns even more, but he does raise a hand back before shaking his head and returning to his work.

Lucas, chuckling, dances in front of him and wiggles his brows. Great. Wonderful. He has now subjected himself to all the questions surrounding him checking Donghyuck out before the entire class. Lucas may not press, but he’s still going to ask. Mark hopes he can dance around it without too much of a problem.

It isn’t that he doesn’t trust Lucas. He does. He trusts all his friends. It’s just that he’s still coming to terms with it and everything else. Taking things one step at a time will require a slow process.

Gathering himself, he hurries to grab his seat in front of Donghyuck and busies himself with all his things. He thinks he’s shaking. He can’t tell. Maybe the world just doesn’t seem center right now. All he wants to do is turn around and stare at Donghyuck. Good god, he can’t be that far gone, can he? Is this what Jeno felt like all those years with Jaemin? This is awful.

“Uh, Prez?”

His whips around, voice a little too high when he asks, “Yes?”

Donghyuck studies his face, which Mark is pretty sure is an unflattering red. “You okay?”

Nodding, he clears his throat and says, “Yep. Fine. Totally good. You good? You look good. I mean, you look, um—Your hair is different.”

Almost subconsciously, Donghyuck reaches up to touch a strand. If Mark didn’t know any better, he would think there’s pink in Donghyuck’s cheeks. He thinks it might just be the added effect of the orange hair, though.

“Oh, yeah,” he mumbles. “Last night.”

Mark wants to say something cool, completely casual. All that comes out, however, is, “I like it.” Which wouldn’t be so bad if his voice didn’t crack halfway through.

Donghyuck blinks, dark eyes a little wide. Ah, no, those are definitely pink cheeks. “Thank you.”

No one, Mark thinks, should look this beautiful. It’s entirely unfair to the world. Everything about Donghyuck is distracting. The piercings, the hair, the freckles along his cheeks, the curve of his lips—

Okay, he needs to look away.

Now.

“All right, everyone,” their teacher calls out, clapping her hands and startling Mark in his chair. She wanders toward the door. “Eyes forward. Let’s start off where we left off.”

Mark is turning back around when he hears someone shout his name.

“Mark!”

Jeno comes barreling through the door just before their teacher can close it.

“Mr. Lee, I would appreciate it if you would go back to your own classroom.”

But Jeno pays the teacher no mind as he slams into the front of Mark’s desk and shoves his phone into his face. “Look!”

“I don’t—I can’t see it, Jeno.” He takes the phone away to peer at it from a proper distance. A distance where he can actually read the screen. Although, he isn’t sure what exactly he’s looking at. It looks like a form with a lot of words he doesn’t really understand and a signature at the bottom. “What is this?”

“Mr. Lee,” presses Mark’s teacher.

“Just a second, please,” Jeno replies, not looking anywhere but Mark with a grin that turns his eyes into crescents.

“What is this?” Mark repeats.

Jeno glows as he points at the phone. “That is a note from my doctor. Mark, I get to play again.”

Chapter Text

Sungchan worries at his bottom lip while watching the way Chenle’s head droops again. At first, he hadn’t noticed, but as the time ticked by, it was hard to miss the bobbing out of the corner of his eye. Chenle’s eyelids seem to weigh a ton because they keep slipping closed, eyelashes batting desperately to stay open. Then, slowly, his head drops. Well, until he shook himself out of it. It’s been nearly twenty minutes and Chenle still can’t seem to keep himself awake, which is troubling since he had been fine this morning. A little quiet, but otherwise fine. Now, it’s like he can’t seem to chase the tiredness away no matter how hard he fights.

Sungchan figured it was only a matter of time. Chenle’s been working himself to the bone for who-knows-why and his body is finally telling him it needs to stop. Honestly, he’s shocked it didn’t happen sooner. With the amount of effort Chenle puts into his training and his school, it’s enough to crush a person into exhaustion. Or worse.

Of course, there’s only so much he can do. There’s really only so much they can do as a team. Short of tying him to a chair until he gets some kind of rest, they just have to let Chenle run himself ragged, which feels all kinds of wrong. Sungchan hates it, but if Chenle isn’t going to listen to him or Donghyuck or even his best friend, then who is he going to listen to? The only thing they can do is keep an eye out and wait to catch him when he falls.

Not exactly something he enjoys doing. Watching anyone suffer—from their own hand, as well—is no walk in the park. It’s like watching your own heart shatter. Chenle, regardless of the times he’s snapped because of his own tiredness, is kind. He welcomed Sungchan and Shotaro into their group with absolutely no second thoughts.

It isn’t like Sungchan has had trouble making friends before. It’s more like he had trouble making friends that stuck. Often times they wanted something from him, or they had closer relationships with someone else. Or, worst of all, they just didn’t want to deal with Shotaro, as if he’s a problem or a pain just because his Korean isn’t the greatest yet. Slowly, his friends started to trickle away and, well, Sungchan isn’t particularly mad about it because Shotaro is one of the best friends he could have. Joining the baseball team, though, unlocked a whole new understanding of friendship. Those boys would go to battle for each other, he’s sure of it. It’s a nice feeling and Chenle had been one of the first ones to show him that.

Now, though, he has to watch Chenle flounder and Sungchan can’t help him the way Chenle helped him in the beginning. This is a delicate situation. Any wrong move could set Chenle off in the worst of ways. And the last thing he wants to do is make it worse when it’s already this bad.

Chenle’s head drops and, this time, it stays. This time, his eyes remain closed. The deep, slow breaths cause his shoulders to rise and fall, calmly. Sungchan wonders when was the last time he had an actual good night’s sleep. Because it seriously looks like he hasn’t slept in a

day, judging by the dark circles beneath his eyes.

“If everyone could please tur—”

Sungchan tenses as their teacher turns around, his eyes dropping right onto Chenle. With a heavy sigh, their teacher snatches up a ruler and marches down the aisle. The smack of the ruler against the surface of Chenle’s desk is enough to make them all jump, including Chenle, who nearly falls from his chair at the noise.

Blinking blearily, he searches the room before glancing up at their teacher. Almost instantly, his expression becomes embarrassed, head ducking once he realizes how many people are looking at him.

“Having trouble paying attention, Mr. Zhong?”

Chenle shakes his head, rubbing at his eyes. “No, Mr. Kim.”

“You seem to be having trouble lately and falling asleep in my class isn’t going to help. Ten minutes in the hall.”

He snaps up. “But, Mr. Kim—”

“Hallway, Mr. Zhong.”

Grumbling a little under his breath, Chenle stands and heads for the door of the classroom. Through the window to the hall, Sungchan sees the way Chenle takes a spot and lifts his hands above his head. Mr. Kim continues on with the class as if nothing happened, but Sungchan can’t stop looking. By three minutes, Chenle is shaking out his arms before straightening them up again.

When Mr. Kim turns back toward the class, Sungchan raises his hands. “Excuse me, Mr. Kim. Could I go to the bathroom?”

“Take the pass.”

Scrambling out of his seat, Sungchan rushes to the teacher’s desk to pick up the pass and head out into the hall. Chenle doesn’t spare him a glance. All he does is keep his eyes glued to the floor and his hands above his head. Quietly, he slips down the hallway, leaving Chenle where he is, to go straight to his locker. He takes a water bottle and power bar from his bag before heading back to class.

“Hey,” he says, softly, gaining Chenle’s attention. He sets the water bottle and power bar behind the garbage a few paces from Chenle so that their teacher can’t see it. “For you.”

“I don’t need it.”

Sungchan raises a brow. “You’re falling asleep in class and as pale as a ghost. Eat the bar. Bring me my bottle back after, though.”

“I don’t need it.”

Sighing, Sungchan steps to the side, away from the window viewing into the classroom and away from their teacher’s prying eyes. “Don’t be stupid. You do need it.”

The muscle in Chenle’s jaw tightens. “Why can’t people mind their own business?”

“Because all you’re doing is hurting yourself,” he hisses. “You may not see it, but we do. All of us. Why do you think Jisung cared so much, huh? And now look at you. You’ve chased away your best friend and for what? To injure yourself? Eat the damn bar, Chenle.”

“I don’t have to listen to you,” he mutters, hands still above his head, but now curled into fists.

“Maybe not, but I will tell you this.” He steps closer. “If you don’t start listening to people, you will hurt yourself. And I’m not afraid to step in. I’m not afraid to tell Jaehyun.”

Chenle’s gaze snaps to his. “This isn’t Jaehyun’s problem.”

“As our coach, this is exactly his problem. If I think you need it, I’ll tell him. And you can hate me all you want, but I refuse to watch you wither.” He studies the way Chenle frowns, the way his teeth clench together. “You know why Jisung won’t do it, right? Because he’s terrified you’ll hate him. Despite what you say to him and the fights you two have, he still wants your friendship. See you at practice.”

With that, he slips back inside the classroom. Sungchan doesn’t like making threats. He doesn’t enjoy making someone upset. But he also knows that Chenle is getting dangerously close to the edge. Teetering. It’s scary. If telling Jaehyun makes Chenle furious at him for the rest of his life, he doesn’t care. At least it would be worth it.

He doesn’t know if Chenle ends up eating the bar, but after returning to the class, Chenle drops the empty water bottle onto Sungchan’s desk, refusing to look at him the rest of the lesson. Sungchan will take it.

*

Chenle hates the way they stare at him. It’s annoying and frustrating. No matter what he does, no matter what he says, the whole team eyes him like they’re ready for him to explode. If they don’t stop, he just might.

Today has been the absolute worst. Not only did he not complete his homework, but he also fell asleep in class. He doesn’t even know how it happened. One minute, he was fine. The next, he was being snapped awake by his teacher. And don’t even get him started on whatever the fuck Sungchan is trying to achieve because all it does is make him bitter and angry. It isn’t Sungchan’s right to tell anyone what’s going on. Not that there’s anything going on, period. Chenle has this. He’s had this since he started. If only people would just leave him be.

And that isn’t even the worst part. No, the worst part is that his parents are definitely coming home early, which means he’s going to have to come up with a way to trick them into believing he’ll be somewhere else for the weekend. Jisung may not want anything to do with him, but he’s still a possible alibi. It isn’t like they’ll check, anyway.

It’s just a hassle, really. He has too much going on in his head. At first, things were fine. Now, it feels like he’s constantly trying to pull himself back up. Too many people trying to get in his way and all it does is distract him from the things he’s trying to do. What he needs, what he desperately needs, is for everyone to fucking back off and leave him alone. Just like he’s been begging for all week, for weeks. It isn’t that hard. He doesn’t understand why they won’t listen.

Honestly, it’s one of the reasons he stays in the changeroom, long after everyone is gone, just to have a moment to breathe. He sits on the bench, head in his hands, just inhaling and exhaling as slowly as he can. His brain has been foggy all day, his muscles ache from his toes to his neck. He feels like he’s one step away from a raging headache, but he needs to keep going. There’s too much to take care of.

School. Baseball. Even Jisung.

Jisung, who Chenle can’t seem to have a decent conversation with anymore because it all comes back to them biting each other’s heads off because Jisung won’t just let him do what he wants. But Chenle also misses him. He misses having his best friend. Never has he felt so close to someone and now Jisung isn’t around.

And it’s Chenle’s fault, he supposes. He shouldn’t have snapped the way he did. But then, Jisung shouldn’t have continued to poke when Chenle told him to back off. It’s just a mess and he has no idea how to fix it.

“Chenle?”

His head snaps up. YangYang hovers by the doorway, a frown marring his features. Great, he thinks. This is exactly what he needs. Another person to tell him to take it easy. He doesn’t need this, right now.

With a huff, he stands up, grabbing his glove on the way.

YangYang asks, “You okay?”

“I’m fine,” he grumbles. He moves a little too quickly and his arm knocks into his bag, tipping it off the bench and onto the floor. Swearing under his breath, he reaches down to snatch it up.

“Are you—”

“Yes! I’m fucking sure! Now, can you leave me the fuck alone?” he snaps, whirling on YangYang. He catches a glimpse of YangYang’s wide, startled eyes before his vision blurs. A wave of dizziness hits him like a truck, legs almost giving out underneath him. He shoots a hand out to steady himself against the wall as he waits for the dizziness to subside. Maybe he should have eaten at lunch.

He hears YangYang rushing to his side. “Whoa, you okay? You got insanely pale there.”

“Headrush,” he mumbles, shaking his head in an attempt to clear it. “I’ll be fine. Sorry for yelling at you.”

“Hey, I can handle some snapping. That’s not going to kill me. But you really don’t look good. Maybe you should go home.”

Chenle brushes off YangYang’s hands. “I told you. I’m fine. I just want to practice.”

He almost makes it out the door, but YangYang’s voice has him stopping. “It’s funny how you seem to think we’re all blind.”

“Are you going to tell me to go rest, too? Because, believe it or not, I’ve had enough of people telling me that.”

“Maybe you should wonder why so many people are saying it,” YangYang states. “If we’re all worried, don’t you think that’s cause for some kind of realization? Come on, Chenle, you aren’t stupid. All you’re doing is working yourself into the ground and for what?”

“I’m practicing,” he shoots back. “Practicing and preparing and doing exactly what I should be doing.”

YangYang scoffs. “What you’re doing is overworking yourself. By the time you actually get to a game, you’re going to be exhausted. This isn’t how you work out and you know it. Johnny’s told us more times than I can count that we can’t overdo these kinds of things. It’ll do more harm than good.”

“I know what I’m doing.”

“I don’t think you do. None of us do. And each day, more people start seeing it. They see the way you have no energy, how you don’t eat at lunch, how you stay late after practice. Chenle, you look like a fucking ghost, right now. How do you not see it?”

“Because I’m—”

“Say you’re fine, I dare you,” he snaps. Never in Chenle’s life has he seen the heat behind YangYang’s eyes. YangYang has always been happy, bubbly. Never angry. “Maybe you’re more stupid than I thought if you can’t see it.”

Chenle steps forward, hands curling into fists. “I’m not stupid.”

“And I’m not Jisung, so don’t try to intimidate me.”

That has him halting, though his brows remain knitted on his forehead, glaring at YangYang and hoping he’ll give up and leave.

“When you finally hit rock bottom,” YangYang says, moving closer, “I want you to remember all the times we told you to slow down, to stop, to rest. And I want you to remember what you put Jisung through because none of this is fair to him. He cares for you, Chenle. You’re his best friend and he adores you. You can treat him like shit and he’ll still worry for you and wish you all the happiness in the world. You found a good boy and you’re throwing it away for what? Your pride? That’s how you want to go about it?”

“This isn’t—”

“Whatever it is, get the fuck over it before you destroy your friendship for good. Jisung doesn’t deserve that. He doesn’t deserve any of this. And I don’t think even you deserve what you’re putting yourself through.” He softens his tone, his eyes. Chenle doesn’t like it, so he looks away. “You put so much pressure on yourself for no reason. All it does is hurt you. It isn’t worth it. None of it is. Just think about it.”

Chenle’s jaw clicks together as YangYang steps around him and leaves. It doesn’t matter what anyone says, he knows what he’s doing. Sure, he’s tired, but that’s to be expected. That’s how it should be. Working out is never easy. They’re worrying for no reason.

Gripping his glove tightly, he marches out of the changeroom and toward the diamond. Everyone is already there. Well, everyone but Mark and Donghyuck, both of whom are absent, though he has no idea why. He doesn’t think most of them do, but no one questions it because Mark and Donghyuck can afford to skip. They know what they’re doing. Unlike Chenle, who needs the extra work put in.

It does somewhat suck, though, because he was hoping for some more time with Donghyuck on his pitching. Luckily, he has Taeyong to lead him through it. Even after all these years, Taeyong manages to be one of the best Pitchers Chenle has ever seen. Chenle may still be a work-in-progress, but he’s learned a lot from Taeyong, and he’s sure there’s even more.

He takes a spot on the outskirts of the group as Jaehyun gives them a basic rundown on what’ll happen during practice. He sort of tunes it all out, knowing he’ll end up with Sungchan and Taeyong, anyway. Fighting back a groan, he peeks toward Sungchan, who sits near the front of the group with Shotaro. Sungchan has only made him more irritated. The last thing he wants is more time with him. But there isn’t much he can do about it because they’re meant to be a Battery. Can’t be much of a Battery if there’s tension, though.

Granted, Mark and Donghyuck seemed to manage it—minus a few fights—so maybe it’ll work. Except, Chenle has this bitter taste on his tongue that this isn’t going to go well. It’s one thing for them to constantly get in his way. It’s a whole other thing to threaten to tell Jaehyun. It isn’t their place.

“And Chenle?” Jaehyun’s voice gains his attention. “Can I speak with you?”

His stomach sinks. No. No, they wouldn’t have. It’s silly to think they’d even attempt to mention anything to Jaehyun because he’s fine.

Even so, as the rest of them disperse, Chenle climbs to his feet and heads over to where Jaehyun is waiting. It’s hard to tell what he’s thinking, what he’ll say. Jaehyun’s always had a pretty decent poker face. All he can get out of it is that Jaehyun isn’t playing any games.

“I was told today,” he starts, “that you fell asleep in class?”

Immediately, his eyes snap to Sungchan. They narrow, glare.

Jaehyun clicks his fingers at him. “Don’t look at them. They didn’t say anything.”

Oh.

“Actually, your teacher—Mr. Kim?—stopped me in the hall because, apparently, he thinks baseball is interfering with your studies. You’ve missed homework assignments and now you’re falling asleep in class?” Chenle bites his tongue and Jaehyun sighs. “Talk to me. What’s going on?”

“Nothing,” he mutters.

Jaehyun sucks in his cheeks, inhaling deeply. “No, I don’t think it’s nothing. In fact, I think it’s very much something. You’re exhausted lately. Working yourself too much, maybe?”

“I’m just practicing,” he says. “I want to prepare for the next game, is all.”

“Well, there are limits, Chenle. You can only push your body so far before it breaks. I’m not going to have you wearing yourself thin. So, here’s the deal.” He raises his chin and Chenle already knows there’s no way to fight whatever is coming his way. “You’re not practicing today.”

“What? But I—”

“No. No arguments. You’re going to sit in the dugout and you’re going to watch. You obviously need a break. Physically and mentally. And I’m not stupid enough to send you home because I know you’re stubborn enough to practice even if you aren’t here. Tomorrow, we’ll see where you’re at.”

“Jaehyun, I need—”

“A break,” he states. “Humans need breaks, Chenle. So, go sit. Enjoy the weather. Laugh at everyone sweating their asses off, but you aren’t getting up from that bench until I call time. Got it?”

Gritting his teeth, he grumbles, “Got it.” Spinning on his heel, he stomps toward the dugout and drops onto the bench.

Whatever. It’s fine. He can make up the time when everyone leaves for the day. He’ll make it work. As long as he can get everyone else off his tail.

*

Mark can’t stop his knee from bouncing as he sits in one of the chairs outside his supposed-therapist’s office. The door is closed, meaning she’s still in there with a client, and so he waits. The clock on the wall ticks. Soft voices filter through the door, but Mark can’t make anything out. Not that he would want to. It’s someone else’s business, their own time. He doesn’t want to eavesdrop on anyone.

He doesn’t understand why he’s so nervous. He asked to be here. He wants to be here. Figuring out a way to sort out his head and calm his anxiety would do wonders for his life, so he knows being here is a good thing. Except, it also means meeting someone new, telling them everything going on inside his head, knowing everything is real and he can’t just live in denial. While he knows he doesn’t need to tell them everything—especially right away—he still knows he’s going to have to say something to them to explain why he’s there.

His mother hadn’t gone into too much detail when she made the appointment, which means Mark is going to have to fill in a lot of the blanks. It’s a lot to think about when he tries to come up with some kind of system on what to say. And the worst part is if he’s asked when he noticed how bad it was getting.

How exactly is he supposed to say, ‘Oh, I just met this boy, who completely threw me for a loop and now I want to hold his hand and possibly kiss him, and it fucking terrifies me’? Yeah, that sounds completely sane.

Sighing, he rubs at his temples. He didn’t come here to talk about Donghyuck. Well, not exclusively. He knows at some point he probably should because Donghyuck is definitely a reason he’s here. At least the ‘liking him’ part is the reason he’s here. Not that Donghyuck drove him here and—

Okay, now he’s getting defensive in his own head to himself.

See, he thinks, this is why he’s here.

He also knows that this whole thing is going to be extremely messy. He can prepare all he wants, but there’s only so much he can do in the long run.

But before he can think about it any longer, the voices get a little louder and there are footsteps, and the doorknob turns. Mark sits up, swallowing nervously. When the door finally opens, he’s left stunned in his seat, eyes blown wide.

Donghyuck, with his orange hair and dark eyes, blinks back at him, frozen on the threshold. For a moment, they simply stare at each other.

Oh, fuck. This is not what Mark had planned. At all.

“You all right, Donghyuck?” A woman appears behind Donghyuck, peering over his shoulder to find Mark there. She smiles and gives a bit of a wave. “Ah, Mark, right?”

“Um.” He clears his throat. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m Mark. I’m—Donghyuck, hey.”

Donghyuck seems to realize he’s blocking the way because he quickly steps out of the office and to the side. “Hey.” His gaze flicks to the woman. “Thanks, Ms. Kwon.”

“You’re welcome. I’ll see you next week. Mark, why don’t you come on in.”

But Mark doesn’t rush. Instead, he slowly lifts himself from the seat, still eyeing Donghyuck, and steps around him. He wants to ask. The curious part of him is peaking. But he doesn’t. He offers Donghyuck a tiny smile—for which he gets one in return—and steps inside.

Ms. Kwon closes the door before Mark can catch another glance. With a welcoming grin, she gestures to the couch and Mark takes a seat, albeit a little hesitantly. It’s still warm, probably because Donghyuck had just previously been sitting there. It’s stupid the way he leans into it.

“It’s nice to meet you. I’m Ms. Kwon,” she greets, taking a seat across from him. “How are you?”

Mark’s eyes flick to the door, though only for a second. “I’m okay. How are you?”

“I’m doing well, thank you. Don’t worry too much about today’s session. We’re just going to keep it simple, chill. No pressure, okay? Your mother made the appointment, right? Any particular reason that brought you here?”

Right. Right, he has a session. Tearing his attention away from Donghyuck, he nods. “Uh, yeah. I’ve been, um, dealing with some anxiety, I guess?”

“Okay, so tell me about that. What kind of anxiety are you feeling?” she prompts. Her tone is soft, no judgement. It makes Mark ease a bit farther into the cushions.

“Just…I don’t know. I guess I’ve always kind of had some, but it’s gotten worse lately.”

“Are you stressed?”

“I have a lot on my plate, yeah.”

Ms. Kwon nods as she reaches behind her to slip a clipboard from the desk. She hands it over to Mark with a pen. “I want you to answer some of these questions, all right? It’ll gauge what we’re working with. Answer as honestly as you can. Anything you’re not sure about, just circle the number and we can chat about it once you’re done. But I want you to know, Mark, that you’re very brave for being here. I know seeking help isn’t always the easiest. I’m going to do everything I can to help you out. Whether that be more sessions or some exercises or anything like that. We’ll find something that works for you, okay?”

“Yeah. Yeah, that sounds good.”

“Great. I’ll give you a few minutes to go through that. Let me know if you need anything in the time being. And we’ll just keep things calm.”

Mark exhales. That he can handle. Juggling the clipboard onto his lap, he blinks down at the page. He’s here to make things work, to find a way to make his life easier.

To be honest, it’s a little exciting.

*

Severe Anxiety.

That’s what he finds out. It isn’t surprising, but the label has Mark realizing just how bad things have gotten. It only gets more overwhelming the more he speaks, the more he unfolds for Ms. Kwon to see. He talks about his dad—and maybe tears up a bit—and he mentions his clubs and his role as Student Body President, and the baseball team and his friends. He maybe doesn’t go into details about his sexuality, but he does mention meeting someone who may or may not have thrown him for a loop and confused his way of thinking, which possibly made him sick a few times. It’s a lot. He never thought it was this much.

But Ms. Kwon sits there with her notepad and pen, listening intently while he riddles everything off. She never interrupts him, never asks any questions until the very end. It’s strangely freeing the more he unloads, even though he knows he may look back at this later and wonder why he even mentioned these things in the first place.

Except, that’s why he’s here. He’s here to get an unbiased perspective on his life and anxiety. Ms. Kwon is here to help him, and she can’t do that if he doesn’t talk. So, he does.

“This is a great start,” she says when he finally stops to take a sip of the water she gave him earlier. “You have a lot going on and that can wear on a person. Have you ever thought about lightening the load?”

“You mean, quitting things?”

“Maybe not quitting, but just slowing down. Obviously, you have things going on that are very important to you. I wouldn’t ask you to give them up. However, if you think it could help you lessen the stress, it’s definitely something to think about.”

Mark bites at his lip. “I don’t really want to give anything up. I like what I do.”

“Then we find another way to cope,” she offers, smoothly. “I have some pamphlets on anxiety meditation techniques. Some for everyday practice, some for when you start to feel like there’s a little too much going on and it’s getting overwhelming. I want you to give a few of them a try, okay? The next time we meet, we can chat a bit more about what worked and what didn’t.”

“So, I just need to do these?”

A small smile, curve along Ms. Kwon’s lips. “Anxiety isn’t something that can be cured, Mark. It’s a process and, with severe cases, it can take a while to figure out what works and what doesn’t. I don’t want to start you on medication just yet. It’s highly potent and can be rough to get off of. So, yes, we start with the exercises and go from there.”

Taking the pamphlets, Mark nods. “Yeah, okay.”

“And if you ever need to talk before our appointment, you can always call me. My patients are always allowed to do that. I want to make sure you feel comfortable and safe. Never hesitate to reach out if you need someone to talk to.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re very welcome. I’m glad we got to meet today. We’ll set up an appointment for next week, if that works?”

“Same time?”

“Does this time work?”

It isn’t ideal because of practice, but he knows this needs to be done. For his own self. So, he says, “Yeah, now is fine.”

Ms. Kwon sets him into her computer and Mark leaves the room with pamphlets and feeling lighter than he has in days. It hasn’t solved everything, but at least it’s a start. That’s more than enough, he thinks as he makes his way out of the building.

He’s a little shocked, upon exiting, that Donghyuck is sitting on a bench in the sun, almost as if he’s waiting for Mark. He glances up with a startled gaze.

“Donghyuck,” he breathes. “What are you still doing here?”

“I, um…I didn’t know you came here.”

Mark shoves the pamphlets into his hoodie pocket. “I just started today. I didn’t know you came here, either. Is Johnny picking you up?”

“I told him I wanted to walk,” he replies. “I,” he kicks at the ground, “wanted to see if you were okay?”

He squishes his nose, voice lifting up in the end in a question, as if he isn’t sure that’s what he wants to say, or what he meant to come out. Still, it has Mark fighting a smile because it’s cute, the way his nose wrinkles and the way he tries to hide himself behind his orange fringe as he curls in on himself.

“I’m okay,” he tells him. “Well, as okay as you can be when you’re coming to see a therapist, I guess.”

Donghyuck nods. “True.”

“Hey, my mom’s coming to get me in a few minutes. Did you want a ride?”

“Oh, I—”

“I know where you live, and it isn’t an easy walk. Say yes to the ride.”

That nearly has Donghyuck smiling. Nearly. “As long as your mom’s cool with it.”

“Nah, she won’t mind.”

He walks over to the bench to sit next to Donghyuck. The pamphlets crinkle inside his pocket. He knows he doesn’t need to hide it. Donghyuck has already mentioned his own past and it would be fair, technically, for him to know what brings Mark here, to this building. Still, he isn’t quite ready. There’s this tiny fear inside him that it’ll bring up too many questions. Ones he’s not ready to answer just yet. Especially to Donghyuck.

“Hey, Prez?”

He hums.

“You won’t tell the others I was here, will you?”

At that, Mark’s eyes snap toward him. “No. I wouldn’t do that. Not unless you wanted me to.”

“Oh.” He exhales. “Okay.”

“What you do here is your business, Hyuck. I’m not going to interfere with it. If you want the team to know you’re here, then you can tell them yourself. I won’t ever take that from you.”

For a moment, Donghyuck is quiet. Then, he whispers, “I won’t tell them about you, either.”

Mark’s heart flutters. “Thank you.”

When his mother finally pulls up, Mark is quick to usher Donghyuck into the backseat. He does an introduction—cheeks and ears going red when his mother raises a brow at him, a smirk threatening to show—and hops into the front in an attempt to hide his expression. If he’s learned anything about himself, it’s that he’s a fucking open book about his emotions, whether he likes it or not.

He tries not to feel deeply pleased when Donghyuck smiles so openly at one of the jokes his mom tells. Or at the way she speaks so easily to him that Donghyuck relaxes into the seat, willing to talk back without a filter. And he definitely tries not to blush when they finally drop him off and his mother whispers, “I like him.”

Mark presses his tongue to the roof of his mouth in a desperate attempt to not reply, “I like him, too.”

Not that it matters. His mother knows all too well, and he thinks that’s okay. Especially when Donghyuck glances back before entering his house to send him a wave.

Mark waves back, hoping Donghyuck can’t tell just how done for he is.

Chapter Text

Jisung fights back a groan when he’s paired up—again—with Chenle for the night. Hotels, it turns out, are not becoming his favorite place to be. In all honestly, he could say something. He could tell Jaehyun that he wants to switch, but it feels petty, childish. Even if Chenle and him have been clashing a little too much recently, he doesn’t want to be the one to bow out. Besides, they haven’t really spoken since the last time Jisung snapped back, and the last time they roomed together, they kept to themselves. So, really, this might be fine.

Except, there’s this heavy feeling in the pit of his stomach when their names are called out and Chenle shoots him a narrow-eyed glare. All he can do is hope for the best.

“And I’m going to have Jaemin with Renjun and Donghyuck with Mark,” says Jaehyun, finishing off the list.

Renjun, almost immediately, straightens. Eyes blown wide, he glances at Donghyuck and then at Jaehyun. “I—I think maybe I should stick with Donghyuck.”

“Is there a reason you can’t room with Jaemin?” Jaehyun asks. It isn’t unkind, simply curious.

Still, Renjun sputters over his words like Jisung has never seen him do before. “No, um, it’s not—It doesn’t have anything to do with Jaemin. I just think—It might be—I should room with Donghyuck.”

At that, Jaehyun frowns. So does Mark. The furrow of his brow is soft, but he shoots Renjun a look of confusion and maybe a bit of offense. It has Renjun waving a hand at him, expression a mix between frustration and guilty, like nothing is coming out right.

Donghyuck, however, doesn’t bat an eye. Instead, he says, “It’ll be fine.”

“Donghyuck,” hisses Renjun.

But Donghyuck only shrugs. “It isn’t like we’re about to kill each other, this time. Should be all right. Right, Prez?”

Mark’s eyes snap to him. “Uh, um, yeah. Fine with me.”

“Then, it’s settled,” Jaehyun says with a nod. “Renjun with Jaemin, Mark with Donghyuck. If anyone has any issues, please come find me. I also want you all to stay in your rooms. No wandering tonight. Stay out of each other’s rooms, stay out of the gym and the halls. Tomorrow is a really big game and I want you all to be rested. Which means, go up there and get into bed. I’ll check on you all in about an hour or so. Get it? Good, let’s go then.”

Jisung hovers at the back of the group as they swarm their way toward the elevators. The longer he waits, the longer it’ll take to get back to his room. The longer it’ll take to be stuck in the same place as Chenle. It’s kind of sad how much he dislikes the idea when he used to only want to spend time with Chenle.

Chenle was his first real friend. He still is, despite it all. Jisung can’t just let him go, even if he’s trying to put in distance. It’s a weird place to be mentally, but there isn’t much he can do about it. Chenle doesn’t want the help and Jisung doesn’t want to constantly be yelled at, which means the only way to solve it is to just stay away. Except, that isn’t really happening. Life just keeps causing them to collide.

It doesn’t help that more and more people are starting to notice. He doubts Chenle is enjoying that. Sungchan keeps studying them from the side while YangYang has made a few comments in the hallways about their lack of communication. Even Jaehyun and Taeyong are beginning to watch even closer than before. It has him on edge. It has them all on edge.

Even still, he steps into the elevator and tries to ignore it. He keeps his gaze locked on his duffle bag, listening to the way Donghyuck and Renjun whisper to each other, too quiet to really hear anything. When the door finally opens, Renjun is throwing up his hands and marching off after Jaemin while Donghyuck gestures of the rest of them to get off first.

But before Jisung can fully step off, a hand catches his wrist. Donghyuck’s dark eyes wander about his face before he asks, “Is Chenle okay?”

Jisung’s heart clenches. He should say something. He should spill it all to someone who could actually make sense of it all. But he can’t find it in himself. Maybe it still feels like betraying his best friend. Even if telling would help. It’s confusing and frustrating and Jisung wants it all to end, but no words fall from his tongue when he tries to speak. Instead, he shakes his head. 

Donghyuck’s eyebrows knit together, hand slipping from Jisung’s wrist. With a short nod, he says, “Got it.”

There are no more questions asked. Jisung isn’t really sure what Donghyuck is trying to gain by asking and he isn’t really sure what information he offered up without a single word, but it seems to be enough because Donghyuck starts down the hallway with Mark and that’s that.

Jisung wonders if Donghyuck will say something to Jaehyun. He’d much rather it be anyone but him. Although, he knows that he should just put on his big boy pants and do it himself. Unfortunately, he’s always such a coward.

He can’t believe he’s holding back when his best friend is suffering. Telling someone would fix it. Or, at least, it would do something. Something better than watching him suffer over and over again. Jisung may not speak much to Chenle these days, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t see what Chenle is doing to himself.

Gripping his bag tighter, he wanders off. The key Jaehyun gave him is slippery in his fingers when he tries to use it. The door beeps red at him a few times before finally flashing green and allowing him inside. The hotel looks exactly the same as the last one they were in, but he isn’t surprised.

What he is surprised about is Chenle in joggers and a t-shirt, shoving his phone into his pocket and reaching over to grab at his water bottle. He’s going out. When Jaehyun said not to.

“Where are you going?” he asks as Chenle starts right toward him. Toward the door. He steps in front of it, heart pounding. “We aren’t meant to leave.”

“Get out of my way, Jisung.”

“You aren’t—”

Chenle hip-checks him out of the way, going for the doorknob. Jisung’s beg falls from his hands as he tries to straighten up. Gaining his balance, he throws himself at the door. It slams shut. The pictures on the walls rattle. Chenle’s glare could set him on fire.

“Get the fuck out of my way,” he hisses, slapping at Jisung’s hands, but Jisung refuses to lose. They may be having issues, but he doesn’t want Chenle in trouble. “Jisung!”

“Jaehyun said to stay here!”

“And he also kept me from practice the last few days and I need to get back into shape before tomorrow.”

“He’s doing it to help you!”

Chenle whips on him. “I don’t need help!”

A gasp escapes his mouth as Chenle shoves him right out of the way. He slams into the wall, the door swinging open before he can stop it. Impulse rises. He doesn’t know what makes him do it, but he watches Chenle try to leave the room and Jisung has to stop him. So, he launches himself over the threshold and tackles Chenle into the opposite wall. The sound of their bodies colliding echoes through the hallway.

“Jisung! You bastard!” shouts Chenle as he tries to fight him off.

All it does, however, is knock them both to the carpeted floor. Jisung’s lanky limbs lock around Chenle’s shoulders. He drops all his weight as Chenle wiggles beneath him, nails digging into his arms. He screams and Jisung is suddenly on his back with Chenle trying to hit him. He manages to smack his fist—flimsily, but it still hurts—into Jisung’s jaw. It sparks more of a fight in Jisung than expected. He snatches Chenle’s wrists, wraps his legs around Chenle’s back, and flips them both back over.

“Get off me! Let go of me! Fucking—”

“Stop,” Jisung grunts, “fighting me and listen!”

“I don’t want to fucking listen to you! I don’t fucking need you!”

Jisung tries not to let those words sting as he slams Chenle into the ground. “You do!”

Suddenly, voices fill the hallway.

“What the—”

“Jisung!”

“Stop it! Get off each other!”

Hands grip at Jisung’s arms and rip him free from Chenle. Chenle, red in the face, shoots toward him, but Renjun and Donghyuck catch him by the waist and yank him back. Mark parks himself between them, hands out, and Jisung has never seen him so dark in the eyes.

“What the fuck do you think you two are doing?” he snaps, glowing at each of them. “Chenle, fucking calm down.”

Chenle tears himself away from Renjun and Donghyuck. His shaking hands brush at his clothes, but he doesn’t look up. Especially when Jaehyun and Taeyong come rushing down the hallway toward them. Jisung feels the hands on him loosen, knowing he isn’t fighting back. Sungchan and Lucas step to stand beside him.

“What is this?” demands Jaehyun as he comes to stand beside Mark with his arms crossed over his chest. “Someone want to tell me what’s going on?”

“He was trying to leave the room,” Jisung mumbles, only after Jaehyun narrows his eyes at him and feels like the words are squeezed right out of him. “I told him not to—”

“I don’t need you in my business!” shouts Chenle.

Jaehyun twists on him. “And I told you to stay in your room. What part of that didn’t you get? You know what, we’ll talk about this alone. Chenle, go to my room and stay there. Sungchan, can you grab Chenle’s things? He’ll be staying with Shotaro tonight. You’ll be with Jisung.”

Sungchan nods. “Yeah, sure.”

“Everybody, back to your rooms. I’ll come check on you in a bit. Chenle, my room. Now.” Jaehyun points down the hallway and that’s all Chenle needs to shoot Jisung one last glare and leave. Taeyong trails after him.

Jaw a little sore and skin a bit carpet-burned, Jisung allows Sungchan to usher him back into his room. Jaehyun follows closely. When the door is shut, he turns on Jisung with a sigh.

“Talk to me.”

Jisung feels nauseous. He feels the bile in his throat, and he swallows, heavily, trying to calm himself. Oh, god. He just tackled Chenle to the ground. He just attacked his best friend. Chenle is never going to speak to him again. Burying his face in his hands, he inhales, deeply.

“Jisung,” Sungchan says, resting a hand on Jisung’s shoulder. “I think you should tell him.”

“Tell me what?” asks Jaehyun. “Jisung, if this is something serious, I need to know and I need to know now.”

Peering up through his eyelashes, he mutters, “I think Chenle needs help and I don’t know what to do.”

Sungchan squeezes.

There’s no going back now.

*

Renjun collapses onto his bed, mind reeling. Seeing Jisung and Chenle fighting is something he never thought he’d have to experience. Everyone may have noticed how troubling things have been between them, but it’s fairly safe to say that they never thought it would get like this.

Unfortunately, something like this could ruin a lot. Not just Jisung and Chenle’s friendship, but the team itself. If Jaehyun can’t get a handle on Chenle, there’s a possibility he won’t be playing tomorrow. They truly don’t need that, right now. They need everyone ready.

“That was something,” says Jaemin as he drops onto the end of his own bed, running his fingers through his hair. The darkness of his roots is striking against the blond, but it doesn’t diminish his handsome face. Renjun is sort of envious of it all. “Wonder what Jaehyun’s going to do.”

“You’d know better than any of us. Him being your brother and all,” Renjun replies. “I doubt it’ll be good, though. Chenle’s been going downhill for ages. It shouldn’t have happened for this long.”

Jaemin shakes his head. “I noticed it. I just never thought it was this bad. But to fight Jisung? For Jisung to fight back? God, this went a lot farther than I thought.”

“Then any of us thought.”

“I should have told Jaehyun earlier that I thought something was up.”

Leaning back on his hands, Renjun says, “Most of us should. I guess we kind of expected him to figure it out on his own. Besides, it wasn’t like there weren’t people telling him to slow down.”

“Well, now he’s waiting his trial, so that’s fun,” he says with a sarcastic lilt to his tone. “Tomorrow’s game will be interesting. And you can’t even play because of your hand.”

“I wouldn’t worry too much about the game tomorrow.” He purses his lips. “We never played DSP when I was on the JY Prep team, but I know they weren’t so bad. I think we’ll get through it just fine. As long as we don’t get screwed over by Chenle not being able to play.”

“At least we still have Donghyuck.”

“Yeah, but I would rather him not play full games anymore,” he says with a shrug.

“Because of his shoulder?”

Renjun goes still. Slowly, he turns his head to look at Jaemin, who stares back at him. The simple expression on his face has him asking, “What do you mean?”

“It’s acting up, isn’t it? I saw you massaging it a while back. And, believe it or not, I actually do research baseball. I know how bad the Knuckleball can be on a Pitcher and he does it a lot.”

“Donghyuck was right. You are perceptive.”

Jaemin shoots him a full grin, white teeth showing and all. “Well, duh. How do you think I handle Mark? But Donghyuck will be fine, right? Especially if we make it any farther? I mean, if we win this game, we’re up against YG again and that’s two games in a row. And then if we make it past YG then it’s best-two-out-of-three. At least two games, at most three. Heaven forbid we go any longer than that.”

“I don’t know,” he admits. Licking his lips, he thinks of how Donghyuck is always brushing it off. He asks for the massages, every now and again, but otherwise doesn’t say anything about it. Having Chenle there makes things easier. It alleviates a lot of that stress and gives Donghyuck’s shoulder a chance to relax. “I like to think he wouldn’t ruin his chances to play. Donghyuck loves baseball. He takes it incredibly seriously. Destroying his shoulder means he can’t play any longer. But if he thinks there’s no other way, he might push it. Right now, he’s fine. It becomes a bit stiff, which is expected, but it isn’t like he’s about to totally ruin it.”

Nodding, Jaemin says, “That’s good. I like to think he has brains.”

“Oh, he has brains. He just sometimes chooses not to use it.”

That brings another smile. “Happens to the best of us. I mean, look at Mark. One of the brightest kids in his grade and he’s an absolutely awkward idiot sometimes. Makes the weirdest choices that have me questioning life.”

“At least he’s a kind, awkward idiot.”

“To a fault sometimes, I think. But if it weren’t for him, we wouldn’t all be here. So, there’s that.”

“You know,” he says, slowly, “when I joined the team, I didn’t really expect much. I just wanted to play. But after being on JY Prep’s team and knowing what they’re like…I’m glad I’m here. I’m glad you’re all here, too. I can’t imagine not playing for this team.”

Jaemin makes a cooing noise at the back of his throat, jumping up on his bed to lean a little over the gap that separates their mattresses. “Aw, Injunnie, you really like us, don’t you?”

“Shut up,” he groans, rolling his eyes.

“I knew it wasn’t just because of Lucas. I mean, it’s part of it, but you really adore us. You love us.”

Renjun reaches behind him to grab a pillow and whip it at Jaemin’s face. Unfortunately, Jaemin catches it smoothly and drops back onto the comforter with a laugh. It pulls a smile to Renjun’s face. He never really had a chance to hang out with Jaemin, who tends to rotate around Mark and Jeno a lot more than the others, but he finds he likes it. Jaemin has this way of being an absolute menace while also being one of the warmest people Renjun’s ever met. In his own, small way, Jaemin welcomes people. He cares in a playful way. It’s nice.

“We’re glad you’re here, too,” Jaemin says, underthrowing the pillow back. “You and Donghyuck. I’m glad you got out of JY, but I’m also glad you made it here. We have your back.”

Something swells in Renjun’s chest. “I know. We have your back, too.”

“Good because this is a mutual transaction and I expect nothing less,” he says.

A knock comes to their door and Jaemin hops off the bed to get it. Taeyong peeks his head in with a wary smile. “Hey, I’m just doing final checks.”

“Where’s Jaehyun?” Jaemin asks.

“Still talking with Chenle.”

Standing, Renjun inquires, “He’s okay, right? Will he still be able to play tomorrow?”

Taeyong leans against the doorframe. “He’s all right. Well, as all right as he can get after whatever that was. Jaehyun and he are in a really deep chat, so I don’t know what the plans are tomorrow. I think he’s still playing, though. Maybe not as much as he originally hoped, but…Anyway, you two get ready. Big game and everything.”

“Yeah, night, Tae,” Jaemin says. When Taeyong leaves, he closes the door. Almost instantly, Jaemin rushes for his suitcase.

Renjun watches as he unzips it and flips open the lid. “Are you getting ready for bed?”

This time, the grin he gets is a lot more mischievous. His eyes are alit with something Renjun can’t quite place. That doesn’t seem good.

“Nope! I’m going to see Jeno.”

Frowning, he says, “Um, we aren’t supposed to leave our rooms.”

“Taeyong’s done the checks, so now I’m free to skip over for a bit.” Noticing Renjun’s wide eyes, he laughs. “Not all night. Just for, like, an hour. Dude, don’t look so scandalized.”

“You’re going to go there while Lucas is in the room?”

Jaemin shakes his head. “Not at all. I’m sending Lucas your way.”

“What?” His voice rockets up an octave. It only gets worse when Jaemin tosses something small at him. He fumbles to catch it, and then he wishes he never had. He throws it onto the bed. “What the hell, Jaemin!”

Jaemin snorts. “Best to keep that just in case.”

Eyeing the condom like it’s about to explode, he demands, “Why the hell would I want a condom? We aren’t even…” His voice trails off as his hands flail about. “You know!”

“It’s a precaution.”

“I’m not going to have sex!” he squeaks.

Jaemin raises a brow, asking, “Those aren’t just for penetration. You know that, right?”

His fingers find his ears. He doesn’t want to hear this. He doesn’t need to hear this. The last thing he needs to think about is having sex with Lucas because that’s the one thing he worried about. He hears Jaemin’s muffled laughter as he walks closer to pull Renjun’s hands down.

“Are you and Jeno…you know?” he questions, nervously. It isn’t that he wants the details—because, no, definitely not—but Jaemin is the only one who has a relationship like his and he has no one else to talk to about it. He thinks if anyone can understand, it’s Jaemin.

Relief floods him when Jaemin shakes his head. “No, not yet. We’ve talked about it, but it’s never felt right, yet.”

“So, why the condoms?”

“Because, like I said, it’s best to be ready for anything. Who knows what will happen? Jeno and I know we don’t want to do it in a hotel, surrounded by our friends, but things happen. And they aren’t just for penetration. They’re handy for other things. Better safe than sorry, right?”

Renjun looks at the condom on the bed. “Lucas and I haven’t talked about it. At all.”

“Maybe you should. It’s always good to be on the same page,” Jaemin says. “And if you’re ever worried about Lucas pressuring you, you don’t have to be. He’s wouldn’t do that. Of course, you won’t stop worrying until you hear it from him, right?”

“But won’t that just, like, put pressure on us?”

“It shouldn’t. If it does, something is wrong. Knowing about your partner, what they want and what they like, should be a standard in any relationship. Talking about sex doesn’t mean doing it, Renjun. It just means you’re having a healthy conversation with your very hot boyfriend.”

Cheeks warm, he rubs at his ears. Everything about this is embarrassing, but it’s comforting at the same time. Jaemin is far more open about these things, it seems, and it leaves Renjun sort of glad. He wouldn’t bring any of this up unless he needed to.

“Anyway, I should go now. I’ll send Lucas over, okay?”

Renjun mutters out an, “Okay,” as Jaemin closes the door behind him. There isn’t a lot of time to sort himself out. He barely has enough time to race to the bathroom, hands scrambling to make himself look presentable before a knock comes at the door. Sliding into the tiny foyer, he rips it open, snatches the collar of Lucas’ t-shirt, and yanks him inside. He slams the door closed before anyone can notice.

Bright-eyed and beaming, Lucas greets, “Hey, handsome.”

And, oh, if that doesn’t do things to his heart. Renjun welcomes the soft kiss Lucas offers him. Then, stepping back, he turns to lead Lucas toward the bed and sees it. The condom. God-fucking-dammit. Without much thought, he rushes at the bed, jumping onto the mattress. His fingers close around the condom, which he shoves under the pillow as quickly as he can. When he flips over, Lucas is watching him with a raised brow.

“You okay?” he asks.

Renjun nods. “Good. Totally fine. Just, um, loving these mattresses. So bouncy, am I right?”

His cheeks go boiling hot at the way Lucas doesn’t even attempt to hide his smile, his amusement. He shuffles over to allow Lucas to sit beside him on the bed. Nothing seems to help his nerves. The room is quiet, the hotel lights a little too dim. They’re alone. Totally alone and anything can happen.

Oh, no. Anything can happen.

Palms sweating, he shifts a little so he can have some space to breathe. Lucas doesn’t really seem to notice because he’s taking in the room as a whole, like he’s slowly realizing they’re alone, too.

Alone isn’t always bad, of course. Lucas has been alone in Renjun’s room before—when Donghyuck finally gives them a moment—but it’s never felt like this. All those times when they’ve been by themselves, it’s felt like nothing can happen, save for a few kisses here and there. Johnny is usually downstairs. Donghyuck is always in the vicinity. There’s always been some kind of safety net.

Now, they’re alone and no one is going to come in and check on them. No one really knows they’re in the room except Jaemin and Jeno, who most likely are in their own world.

And it isn’t like Renjun thinks Lucas will pressure him. He likes to think he knows his boyfriend pretty well, and everyone else keeps saying the same thing—people who have known him for ages—but there’s still this underlining worry that maybe Lucas will want to level up their relationship and then what? Then what does he do?

He’ll say ‘no’, of course, because he definitely isn’t the kind of boy to get peer pressured into doing something he isn’t comfortable with, but then that’s the issue, isn’t it? He’ll say ‘no’ and then Lucas will be upset? Or maybe he’ll accept it? He’ll probably be at least disappointed. And Renjun doesn’t want Lucas to be disappointed. He wants him to be happy.

Why is it all so complicated?

“Hey,” Lucas whispers, scooting closer so that his knee presses against Renjun’s thigh. They’ve been this close before. Hands have wandered before—above the belt, anyway—but this feels so different. So much more intimate. It has his heart rocketing up to his throat, pounding uncontrollably. “You sure you’re all right?”

Renjun nods. He wishes he was better at words; wishes he could unload it all onto Lucas and actually communicate. But words have always been a tough thing for him. He casts a soft smile, hands reaching up to fix Lucas’ fringe. Round, dark eyes follow his every movement and when he spots the way Lucas opens his mouth, probably to ask another question, he leans in to kiss him.

Over the last couple of months, he’s come to discover that he likes kissing. Kissing Lucas, especially. Not that he has anything to go off of. Lucas was his first kiss and he’d kind of like to never kiss anyone else if he can help it. He’s never asked Lucas if he’s kissed anyone other than Renjun and, to be honest, he doesn’t really care all that much. It’s never been something he’s worried about.

All he cares about is how Lucas is with him, with his soft kisses and careful hands. He breathes in Lucas’ shampoo as he digs his fingers into his hair to draw him closer. Kissing is something Renjun can do without a thought in the world. He enjoys the drag of their lips and the way Lucas feels against him. Warm fingers brush along the hem of his shirt, sneaking up to press against the skin of his hips. Part of him yearns to climb Lucas like a tree. The other part keeps him rooted to the bed.

This is about as far as they get. Wandering hands on skin is less lewd to think about. It doesn’t require much to worry about because this is safe.

Lucas leans back a little so he can shift up onto his knees and nudge Renjun until he’s falling back onto the mattress. He ends up with Lucas covering him like a very warm, very human blanket. Renjun inhales sharply as Lucas drops back down on him, slotting their lips together over and over again. The pressure increases, but it never slips past uncontrolled and Renjun likes that. The slide of Lucas’ tongue against his has his toes curling.

If Donghyuck knew what he was doing, right now, he would never hear the end of it. But Lucas is so good to him, so gentle, so willing to wait for Renjun to make the moves. It makes his heart swell in his chest.

But then Lucas lifts himself up, slightly, with his brow furrowed and his attention set to the side of Renjun’s head. “Um, babe, why do you have a condom?”

The sound that escapes him is practically inhuman and a lot higher than he means for it to come out. In between Lucas’ fingers is that stupid, little, square packet Renjun really wishes would disappear. At least, for the most part, Lucas doesn’t seem particularly mad. Just confused. And maybe a little amused.

Renjun groans, hands covering his face to protect him from the embarrassment. It doesn’t work. “Jaemin gave it to me.”

Why is Jaemin giving you condoms?” Lucas breathes out a laugh and he works to free Renjun’s face so he can look him in the eye. “Hey, what’s going on?”

“He gave it to me,” he says, “because he said we should be prepared.”

Lucas eyes the packet. “Is this even my size?”

He sucks in air a little too quickly and coughs. “I don’t know, is it?”

The hum Lucas makes is enough to have him groaning again, trying to roll away. That doesn’t help anything because Renjun knows the size on that packet. He just doesn’t want to think about it.

“No, baby, don’t hide on me. It’s okay. I mean, at least Jaemin is being smart. I respect that. But, like,” he pauses, “do you want that? This?”

This is the kind of moment Renjun was hoping would never come up. He doesn’t want to say ‘no’ in fear of disappointing him, but he also doesn’t want to lie and say ‘yes’. He isn’t ready. He knows that for sure. Maybe in a few months or a couple of years, but definitely not right now.

At the lack of reply, Lucas sits up, pulling Renjun up with him. The redness of his ears must match the color of Renjun’s face because he can feel just how hot he is, especially when Lucas sets the condom beside them with a thoughtful expression.

“Can I tell you something?” Lucas asks, causing Renjun to look up at him. “I don’t want to.”

Renjun’s eyes widen.

“It isn’t that I don’t ever want to. I mean, you know what you look like, and I’m very much attracted to you. I won’t lie about that, like, ever. But I’m not ready. I…” He swallows, fingers twisting together on his lap. “I want it to be special? Even though that’s probably a bit stupid. It’ll be special no matter what. But…yeah.”

“I’m not ready, either,” he admits, quietly. “I was worried you wanted it.”

“Even if I did, I wouldn’t pressure you to be ready. Whenever it happens, we do it because we both want to. I don’t want you to feel conflicted about telling me the truth. We’re boyfriends. We should be equal, no matter what,” says Lucas. It has Renjun falling for him even more. “I want to be able to enjoy it and I want you to enjoy it, as well. I want you to be able to tell me what you want when you want it.”

Renjun’s never been good with words. His actions have always screamed so much louder. So, he leans in to kiss Lucas with far more pressure than he ever has before. Maybe a bit of desperation, as well. To prove that he hears him, believes him, trusts him. Lucas’ hands find his waist, pulling Renjun up into his lap. They won’t go far, that much Renjun knows, and he’s okay with that.

So okay with that.

That is, until his door swings open and voices filter in and Renjun throws himself off of Lucas and tumbles to the floor between the beds. Oh, his tailbone is so going to be bruised in the morning.

“What am I going to do with you all?” Jaehyun asks, his words coming out in a sigh. “Bloody hell, this is making me never want children. Lucas, get to your actual room and stay there.”

Renjun shoots onto his feet. “We weren’t doing anything!”

While Jaemin raises a brow, lips twitching, Jaehyun slowly nods, saying, “Good. I’m glad. Now, separate. And Jaemin, stay in your room. Learn to breathe without Jeno in your space, why don’t you.”

“Don’t be mad at me because I enjoy being in my boyfriend’s company. Besides, you’re staying with Taeyong.”

“We’re adults.”

“Still a bit hypocritical.”

“Do you honestly believe we would do anything while watching after a bunch of teenagers? Not only is that poor taste, but I don’t even have the energy to think about it. I want to sleep, Jaemin! Let me fucking sleep! Go to bed!”

Jaemin rolls his eyes, but he doesn’t fight it. Lucas slips from the room with one last smile Renjun’s way before Jaehyun closes the door on them.

Locking the door, Jaemin asks, “So? How did it go?”

“You’re right,” he says. Despite the absolute humiliation, he’s still feeling giddy. “He’s pretty wonderful.”

“Not as good as Jeno, but he’s all right,” teases Jaemin as he walks over to grab his pajamas. He stops just before he can disappear into the bathroom. “It really went okay then?”

Renjun nods. “Yeah, it did. Thank you.”

“Anytime, Junnie,” he chirps with a wink.

The second he’s alone, Renjun flops back on his bed with a sigh. He can’t help but think he’s managed to get lucky. The thought draws a giggle out of him. So damn lucky.

*

Mark isn’t sure how he got here. Nearly all the lights are off, except the one attached to his headboard. It casts a faint glow across the room, which he thought would be a bit of a pain for Donghyuck. Yet, somehow, Donghyuck falls asleep with his back turned to him without any sort of issue. It leaves Mark on his bed with notes sprawled around him and his phone playing DSP Media’s last game on a loop. His eyes are sore, strained to read in such terrible lighting and just a little bit tired, but there’s so much to go through.

Tomorrow, Renjun won’t be playing. Jeno just got cleared, so it’s possible Jaehyun could put him in, but they’ll also have to ease him into everything without going overboard. And now Chenle. Chenle, who has been slowly falling into chaos and who might not play if Jaehyun feels like it will hinder everything.

The worst part is, DSP doesn’t even seem that bad. Mark isn’t really sure how they’ve made it this far, though he’s pretty sure luck had something to do with it. Of course, he doesn’t think they’re bad. They clearly play well enough to get into Nationals, but their scores are pretty lackluster compared to their other opponents. Mark thinks, with a full team, they could easily crush them. Now, he’s worried DSP’s luck will win out.

And all the while, Mark has to keep himself focused on the task at hand and not at the fact that Donghyuck is in the bed right next to him. Arriving together had been awkward, to say the least. Donghyuck claimed the bathroom first and so Mark spent time wandering throughout their room trying to calm himself down. Spending the night with Donghyuck isn’t meant to be a difficult thing to do. They’re friends. He just has to treat this like sharing with Jaemin or Jeno. Hell, he’s shared beds with them, so this should be a walk in the park.

Except, it isn’t because Mark doesn’t like Jaemin or Jeno. He doesn’t feel urges with them like he does with Donghyuck. And being in close proximity really isn’t helping all that much. Then, of course, the fight with Jisung and Chenle happened, which gave him a moment to think about something other than Donghyuck. Even so, coming back to their room, right after, just left them in silence. Mark isn’t sure Donghyuck does it on purpose or not, but it feels weird. It makes him want to rattle out the stupidest things just to fill in the quiet spaces between them.

He doesn’t, though. He just let Donghyuck get ready for bed before he does so himself and that’s that. He ends up in his bed with his notes, and his eyes occasionally slipping to where Donghyuck breathes calmly under the fluffy comforter. Only his orange hair peeks out.

But it’s fine.

Everything is fine.

Because it isn’t like this is something scandalous. Mark can handle this.

Rubbing at his eyes, he thinks he should sleep. It’s way past midnight and they have only a few more hours to go before Jaehyun calls the room to wake them up. He should at least be partly awake for the game. So, he starts to collect the papers before him.

That’s when he hears it.

Mark stops, listening. Donghyuck is breathing so quietly, but it’s the only sound in the room. When he starts for another sheet, he hears it again.

A whimper.

Attention darting toward Donghyuck, he waits for it. Sure enough, it happens again and Mark tenses. It’s a pitiful noise, restless. It’s paired with some kind of sound, like Donghyuck is trying to say something, but the sleepiness of his mouth keeps it unintelligible. Another whimper and a shuffle of the comforter and Mark knows this isn’t a good dream, whatever’s happening beside him.

Donghyuck curls in on himself, orange locks nearly disappear under white. The sounds don’t stop. It has Mark standing from his bed to step closer. Donghyuck is saying something, his fingers flexing as if he’s trying to grab something—or keep something away. When he peers over to get a look at Donghyuck’s face, he notices the way Donghyuck’s eyebrows have meshed together. Painful. Scared.

Mark doesn’t want to reach out and touch him. He doesn’t know what that’ll do, and he doesn’t want either of them to get hurt, so he says, “Donghyuck. Hyuck? You okay?”

A mumble of words and then Donghyuck is rolling over, tossing his head to the side. This isn’t a good dream. Mark can tell by the twist of his features and the rapid rise and fall of his chest. Inching forward, he calls out Donghyuck’s name against, but it doesn’t break through.

“Donghyuck,” he says, a little louder, before sitting on the edge of the bed. “Donghyuck, wake up.” He takes a chance to jolt Donghyuck’s arm with one final, “Donghyuck!”

His heart jumps when Donghyuck shoots upward, eyes shooting open. Their heads nearly collide, but Mark’s reflexes are quick. He catches Donghyuck’s face in his hands, skin hot beneath his fingertips. Panting, gasping for air, bleary eyes struggle to focus. Mark watches as Donghyuck’s eyelashes flutter, as his lips try to form words that only come out as air. The only thing Mark can hear is the beating of his own heart in his ears and Donghyuck’s breathing.

“Hey, Hyuck,” he whispers, thumbs brushing under Donghyuck’s eyes. It’s subconscious and by the time he realizes he’s doing it, Donghyuck has finally realized he’s there. Right in front of him. “You’re awake. It’s okay.”

Donghyuck’s tongue darts out to wet his lips. “Mark?”

This isn’t the time for it, but he can’t help but smile at the sound of his name on Donghyuck’s lips. It’s the first time he’s ever called him that. It’s always been ‘Prez’, and that used to annoy him at first. Now, he kind of enjoys it. Hearing his name, however…Well, he could get used to that sound.

Regardless, none of that really matters because Donghyuck seems disoriented and exhausted, and Mark still has his face cupped in his hands, even though he really should remove them.

“I…” Donghyuck frowns through the haze, taking in the situation. Then, he leans back, and Mark takes his hands back, dropping them onto his lap because he doesn’t know where else to put them. Sighing heavily, Donghyuck rubs at his face a little too hard. It takes everything in Mark’s power to not reach up and stop him. “Sorry. I didn’t think that would happen tonight.”

“Nightmare,” Mark says, earning a tiny nod. “Don’t worry about it. We all get them, and I don’t mind. You can’t help what you dream.” When Donghyuck doesn’t look back up at him, he inquires, “Was it…Was it him?”

“Yeah. It is what it is.”

It makes Mark hate Coach Yoon even more. He didn’t think that was possible. This isn’t fair. Donghyuck doesn’t deserve to live with this fear, or to dream about it at night. He definitely shouldn’t be brushing it off as if it’s normal because it isn’t. None of it is and Mark hates it all for him.

“Were you still working?” asks Donghyuck, quietly.

Mark follows his gaze to the mess on the mattress next to them. “Ah, yeah. I was going to bed when…Well, I was going to bed. You should try to go back to sleep. We have to be up in a few hours. I’ll try and be quiet.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll probably be up for a bit longer now. Usually am.”

He notices the way Donghyuck licks at his lips, swallows every now and again. It has him starting to get off the bed, another task coming to mind. He barely makes it off before Donghyuck’s hand is around his wrist, warmth searing into his skin. Mark kind of wants to curl into it.

It’s funny because Mark can count on one hand the number of times Donghyuck has reached out to him. All of them very intentional. This, though, doesn’t seem intentional. It seems like a reflex. One that has Donghyuck blinking down at his own hand as if it’s betrayed him and he can’t seem to take it back. But Mark gets the message, even if Donghyuck’s calling out for it subconsciously.

“I’m coming back,” he whispers, gently releasing Donghyuck’s hold. “I’m just going to get you some water, okay?”

Donghyuck doesn’t say anything past that point. He simply allows Mark to get up and wander into the bathroom for one of the glasses that sits off to the side. Once it’s filled, he brings it back, taking his spot on the bed before Donghyuck to watch him sip at it.

“Thank you.”

The corner of Mark’s mouth twitches. “Anytime. Is there, like,” he waves a hand, “a way I can help? What does Renjun do when this happens? I’m assuming he knows. It would explain why he didn’t want us to room together.”

“He knows I don’t like people having to deal with this,” Donghyuck mutters. “It just ruins people’s nights.”

“Makes you feel like you’re burdening them.”

Donghyuck peers up through his lashes. “Yeah.”

“I get that feeling really well.”

“Ms. Kwon told me that my real friends won’t see anything as a burden,” he says. “But it’s just more stress on them. Another thing to worry about. People have their own lives to deal with.”

“Doesn’t make yours any less valid, though. And if they’re true friends, they’ll want to know so that they can help you.”

“Do you,” he furrows his brow, slightly, staring at the half-empty glass in his hand, “talk to other people? About why you go to Ms. Kwon, I mean.”

Mark nods. “Yeah. Jeno and Jaemin. Mentioned it to my mom, too. There’s still a lot I’m sorting through, honestly, but they know a bit.”

“Good. That’s good,” he breathes.

“One day, I want to tell you,” Mark admits, gaining Donghyuck’s attention. His eyes are so round, the glow of the light reflected in his eyes. “I’m sorry I can’t tell you now. I just—”

“Don’t apologize for taking your time. Hell, it took me months to tell anyone but Renjun what happened to me. Ms. Kwon doesn’t know. Johnny doesn’t know. Just you and Renjun. Although, apparently, Jaemin has an idea because he confronted me about it.”

Wincing, he says, “Sorry about that. He’s pretty perceptive.”

“It’s cool. It’s nice to not have to tell someone for once, you know? He may not know the details, but it’s something. It works for me. And you don’t even have to tell me what’s going on. I don’t really expect you to feel the need to. After everything.”

Donghyuck’s right. Mark doesn’t have to tell him. He doesn’t have to explain his anxiety; how he takes too much on, but can’t let any of it go. He certainly doesn’t have to tell Donghyuck about his sexual crisis and how much it unravelled him and left him struggling to put himself back together. Nevertheless, he wants to. He wants to tell Donghyuck these things because it feels like now they’re unbalanced. He knows one of Donghyuck’s most buried secrets and he wants to do the same, to show him that he’s in this friendship for all it’s worth.

Of course, he isn’t sure he’ll ever mention the fact that he really likes him, but that may come. One day. Possibly.

“No,” he says, “I want to. I just…have to find a way to. It’s not easy to talk about. It’s sort of complicated.”

Donghyuck searches his face, dark eyes scanning every minute detail. There’s something about the action and how close they’re sitting and how dim the lights really are that makes Mark’s heart do a flip. Never in his life did he think he’d get this kind of opportunity and now that it’s here, he doesn’t really know what to do with it. All he can think about is taking Donghyuck’s hand, or brushing the hair from his eyes, or maybe shifting just a little closer to absorb some of the cozy heat rolling off Donghyuck’s body.

“I’ll wait,” Donghyuck tells him. It makes him smile. That makes Donghyuck smile. 

Clearing his throat, Mark asks, “Is there a way to help you sleep again? Something you and Renjun do to help?”

Even in the dim light, he can see the way Donghyuck’s cheeks go red. He ducks his head, fingers wrapped tightly around the glass of water. “He, um…We usually, like…” He sticks his tongue between his teeth, maybe a little frustrated. Definitely a lot flustered. “He stays with me.”

“Stays with you?”

“When I can’t sleep, he’ll stay with me.”

Oh. Mark studies the double bed. “It helps?”

Donghyuck gives a jerky nod. Wow, Mark’s never seen him so embarrassed, so lost for words. He bites back a smile because now isn’t the time to be endeared, damn it.

“Did you—Do you want—Would it help if I…” His voice trails off when Donghyuck’s eyes snap up to meet his, pinning him where he sits. It’s then that Mark realizes that Donghyuck isn’t staring at him to get him to stop. He’s almost pleading. So, Mark carefully takes the water from him to put on the bedside table and says, “Scoot over.”

Donghyuck hesitates, for just a moment. It’s enough to make Mark wonder if this is a good idea. Except, a second later, he does what’s asked. He shifts himself to the side, leaving Mark enough room to slip under the covers after turning off the light. It plunges them into darkness until their eyes can adjust to the tiny sliver of moonlight squeezing its way through the curtains.

The bed is warm. Mark snuggles down until they’re face to face. There’s nearly a foot of space between them, but it feels so tight, though not uncomfortable.

“This okay?” he whispers.

Donghyuck nods.

“You don’t kick in your sleep, do you?”

At that, Donghyuck lets out a soft snort. It’s a tired sound. “No. You?”

“No,” he replies, eyelids slipping closed. A wave of exhaustion hits him as soon as he relaxes into the fluffy pillows. “Don’t even snore. I think you’re safe.”

He isn’t sure, because he’s fading, but he thinks he hears, “Yeah, I think I am, too.”

The only clarity he gets before sleep finally wins is the feeling of something brushing his hand. He manages to open his eyes, just for a second, to see Donghyuck—eyes closed and expression serene—linking their pinkies together.

Mark falls asleep with a smile on his face.

Chapter Text

Jaehyun sits at the end of the bed with his face buried in his hands as he listens to Taeyong bustle about the room to collect everything they’ll need for the game. The exhaustion is getting to him, settling right into his bones. He doesn’t want to move, but he knows he’s going to need to. Too bad his spinning thoughts are keeping him pinned to the mattress, still rearing from the night before. It just never seems to stop. It just keeps going and going.

He knows, at some point, he’s going to have to break it all down into more manageable parts because, right now, everything can’t be solved all at once. But each piece is connected to another and he’s worried that if he tries to touch one it’ll just knock the rest of them over. Dominos, each and every one of them.

The tryouts are today. He kind of forgot because, amidst everything, it was the last thing he was thinking about. It wasn’t until the alarm went off this morning and several messages from Mingyu that it finally hit him. The only thing he can find solace in is that it’s later in the evening. Just after dinner. He can slip out and leave the team with Taeyong, Johnny, and Ten for a couple of hours before arriving back in time for evening checks.

But the more he thinks about it, the more he doesn’t want to go. Or, well, he wants to go. He just doesn’t think he can. It wouldn’t matter anyway. He’s far too out of shape to be decent on the diamond. And he’s needed here. With his mess of a team that he so desperately needs to sort out. If he doesn’t, this could be the end of them, and they’ve worked far too hard for it to fall through their fingers now.

He has to spend less time thinking about professional tryouts and more about Renjun and the fact that he can’t play. About Chenle and how everything is unravelling around him. About Donghyuck and his inner struggles. About each and every one of them because someone needs to and they’re his boys. They’re his.

He wants to fix all their problems.

“Oh, Jae,” comes the sigh from across the room. He hears the shuffling of Taeyong’s feet against the carpet until the mattress dips down beside him and a hand finds its way to his back, rubbing circles against his spine.

“This is a mess,” he mumbles into his palms. “I don’t know what to do.”

“Is this about Chenle?”

“About everything,” he admits, straightening up. He glances to Taeyong, bottom lip caught between his teeth. “I don’t even know where to start with any of it, especially Chenle.”

Taeyong’s brows furrowed. “We never really got to talk about it. How did it go last night?”

“He nodded. Took my lecture. Grumpily agreed. And I know it was all for show. He doesn’t believe anything coming out of my mouth and he isn’t about to slow down.” Rubbing at his temples, he asks, “Did you know he’s been doing this for weeks? Sungchan says he’s been completely out of it, doesn’t show up to lunch, and is falling asleep in class. He keeps snapping at Jisung, apparently, and they haven’t been on good terms for a while. This is serious, Tae. This is like—”

“Jungkook all over again.”

Jaehyun nods solemnly. “And here I thought I’d never have to deal with this again.”

“People who want to prove themselves can go overboard. And if he isn’t sleeping or eating, it would explain the short temper and the lack of thought when it comes to impulses. We all know that if he was actually handling himself well, he would never have touched Jisung the way he did. Or said those things, either.”

“It just doesn’t make sense. Who exactly is he proving himself to? Us? Because I didn’t think I put that kind of pressure on him.”

“Baby, this isn’t your fault,” Taeyong whispers. “I don’t think you could have prevented this. One way or another, Chenle was going to get into this position.”

“Well, now I have to get him out of it.”

Taeyong reaches over to take his hands. His fingertips are cold, but his palms are warm. Jaehyun tugs them closer. “Are you letting him play?”

“I have to. I don’t have a choice. Jeno can’t play a full game. He’s technically still on watch for the next week or so. Renjun is out. And I still think Donghyuck shouldn’t be pitching a whole game anymore. He needs breaks. I need all the players I can get at this point. Except, I don’t know what to do because they’re all over the place. Chenle has pissed a lot of them off.”

“They still care, though.”

“Of course, they do. They’re the best. Chenle is their friend, but he’s not giving them any reason to trust him anymore. Having that on the diamond is asking for problems”

“Doesn’t sound like there’s much of a choice.”

Heaving a sigh, Jaehyun says, “No, there isn’t. But this can’t go on. Chenle needs to snap out of it. He needs help. If he continues on like this, it could get so much worse.”

“Then we do what we need to do,” says Taeyong as he gets up to pick up his phone from the table.

“What are you doing?”

Pressing his cell to his ear, he tells him, “What we should have done from the start. Now, get your things together and start working out a lineup. We need to get this show on the road.”

“But—”

Taeyong leans down to press a kiss to his forehead. “Let’s go, Jae.”

Jaehyun watches Taeyong swing his bag over his shoulder and leave the room, his voice turning into muffled sound as he disappears. Right. Well.

“I guess we’re doing this,” he mutters to himself as he stands and marches over to where his own bag sits.

There’s still a lot to go through and not a lot of time to do it in, but he doesn’t have a choice. He’s just going to have to work with what he’s got.

*

It’s warm and cozy and Mark doesn’t want to move. God, he wants to stay inside whatever warm cloud is surrounding him because this is wonderful. Waking up is so difficult when he knows he just had the best sleep he’s had in weeks, where he managed to stay asleep the whole night without any issues at all. It had been strangely perfect.

Groaning, he buries himself farther beneath the comforter. He knows the alarm is probably about to go off. There are birds outside and too much traffic—a sure sign of morning—except he wants to stay trapped into this fluffy cloud.

It isn’t until he stretches out, touching a colder spot on the mattress that the drowsiness starts to slip away. Blinking, he forces his eyes to open. All that comes into sight is wrinkled sheets and an empty space. Everything from last night comes crashing to the forefront of his mind.

Right.

So.

That happened.

Mark closes his hand against the space Donghyuck was originally laying in, his pinkie tingling. Oh, dear god. He didn’t do all that. There’s no way he actually crawled into bed with Donghyuck. He fights back another groan, heart stuttering in his chest. It’s too early for his anxiety to start replaying it all like an embarrassing memory he just can’t shake. A cringe works its way up his spine.

Not only had he touched Donghyuck a bit more intimately than he should have, not only had he nearly swooned at the sound of his name on tired lips, but he actively told Donghyuck to move over so he could sleep next to him. Sure, there was a good reason, but—Shit. Shit. Oh, shit.

He sinks completely under the comforter this time, hands to his face. Donghyuck didn’t even stay in the bed and now that Mark is listening, he knows he’s in the bathroom, but that doesn’t give him any time. There’s no time to figure out what to say or do. He doesn’t want this to come back to bite him in the ass. He also doesn’t want it to fall into awkwardness right before a major game. And he most definitely doesn’t want Donghyuck to just ignore it happened because Mark isn’t sure how his heart would take that.

Liking Donghyuck is far too complicated. Why does he get himself into these situations?

“Oh, you’re up.”

At the sound of Donghyuck’s voice, Mark snaps up. The comforter drops to his lap, his eyes blown wide at the way Donghyuck stands at the end of the bed with a toothbrush in his hand.

When his lips twitch, Mark croaks out, “What?”

“Hair,” is all he says before shoving the toothbrush in his mouth. He grins around it as Mark scrambles to fix his bedhead, ears scolding hot.

When Donghyuck disappears back into the bathroom, Mark falls forward. Embarrassing himself seems to be the new development. He wishes it would stop.

“Are you getting up?” asks Donghyuck as he shuffles back into the room and heads over to his bag. “Or were you planning on staying here all day?”

Mark kind of wishes he could. “Did I miss the call?”

“No, I’m just an early riser. It should come in about five minutes. I didn’t want to wake you.”

It’s hard to tell because Donghyuck isn’t looking at him, but the back of his neck is pink and so Mark is pretty sure he isn’t the only one feeling a little bit shy about what happened. He just wonders who’s going to break first.

“How, um—How did you sleep?” he ventures. His voice is drier, a little deeper, than he’d like and so he clears his throat, almost tempted to grab the water still sitting on the bedside. Except, that was the one he gave Donghyuck. He really shouldn’t drink that one.

Hands pausing, Donghyuck mutters, “Okay.” A pause. Mark watches as his shoulders rise and fall, almost in a sigh, before he turns. His dark eyes are trained on the hotel’s carpet as he swallows and says, “Thank you.”

Mark licks his lips, unsure of what to say. “Oh, uh—”

“You didn’t have to do that,” Donghyuck cuts in a little too quickly. He spins back around to his bag and rifles through it. “But it helped and so…thanks. I guess.”

Raising a brow at Donghyuck’s back, Mark manages, “You’re welcome. Anytime.”

The word comes out before he can stop it. It has him clinking his jaw shut as quickly as he can as Donghyuck glances over his shoulder, eyes round and cheeks pink. There’s a moment. Just a moment.

And then the phone rings.

With fumbling hands, Mark jumps at it. “H-Hello?”

Hey, morning, sleepyhead. Time to get moving,” Taeyong says from the other end. “Meet us down there in twenty, okay?

“Y-Yeah.” His voice cracks, so he clears his throat again. “Yeah, sorry. We’ll be down soon.”

Are you okay?

Glancing at Donghyuck has their gazes meeting and all the words in his brain seeping out of his ears. But when Taeyong calls his name, he snaps out of it. “Sorry! Sorry. I’m just a little,” he rubs at his eyes, “out of it. We’ll be there soon.”

All right. See you soon.”

Mark hangs up louder than intended. “I should, um, get ready then.”

Donghyuck nods.

“I’ll just,” he points toward the bathroom, slipping out from under the warmth, “go. Then. Yeah.”

He grabs his whole bag on his way past and races to the bathroom. Once the door is closed, he leans against it, pressing his fingers into his hair. He’s a mess. This is a mess.

But the fact that Donghyuck is still out there, red in the face and looking all kinds of adorable, is just enough to maybe, possibly, overtake the anxiety that’s trying to build up inside his chest. He bites back a smile.

No matter how impulsive the decision was, he thinks he’d do it again in a heartbeat.

*

Sitting out, Renjun decides, is the worst thing in the world. And here he thought he would never have to do it again. Stupid bruised hand. Fucking Coach Yoon. Narrowing his eyes at his bandaged hand, he decides that at least the injury was worth it. It would have been far worse if he had just been reckless, he thinks as he digs his fingers under the bandage to let in some cooler air. Jaehyun catches him doing it and narrows his eyes. Renjun drops his hands in his lap.

It’s like reliving those years over again. All that time he spent trying to prove himself, only to never be able to show it because Coach Yoon liked the other boys better. Or maybe the other boys just knew how to make Renjun look worse than he was because he doesn’t really remember Coach Yoon ever paying attention to him at practice and, most of the time, Renjun wasn’t picked to be with the others. He spent a lot of time off by himself or practicing with Donghyuck.

Being on this team is so much different. It finally gives him a chance to show off what he can do. No matter how small he is or how weak he seems, he can pull some of the biggest hits. Jaehyun sees that. They all do. Not to be a narcissist, but he likes to think he’s a pretty major piece in their team. Just like the rest of them. So, not being able to play is worrisome.

The line up isn’t awful. Things most definitely have had to switch up. It puts a lot of them in newer spots, shakes up their positions ever so slightly. Jisung is no longer in the dugout, waiting to be swapped out. He’s going to be out there on the field, playing Renjun for the day. It’s a lot of pressure. It’s also the first time he’s had to play Shortstop a whole game. And then there’s Chenle and Sungchan, both of which are still reserves, despite what Chenle pulled. Renjun thinks they don’t have much of a choice, however. They need the people. Jeno is also reserve, only because he can’t overwork himself. He’ll have to slowly integrate himself back into how things work.

It’s a little different and Renjun can tell they’re all on edge. DSP Media isn’t particularly difficult, but they’re lucky and, right now, they sort of have the upper hand. It makes it hard to watch as his team starts up to bat.

YangYang is their starting batter. Unlike the first time he had to do it, he’s much more at ease. All these games have certainly done him well. The nerves are average, at best. The smaller worries. Nothing that should shake him too hard.

“What was their last score?” he hears Jaemin ask.

Taeyong replies, “Four to three.”

“That’s it?”

“It was enough for them to win.”

Renjun frowns, eyeing the diamond. Four to three. He wonders if they’ll up the scale of that or if DSP will somehow manage to keep the score to a minimum as much as possible. This game really relies on them getting the runs in. They’re going to need everyone to bat their best. Otherwise, they may not make it.

A crack echoes through the diamond when YangYang finally makes contact. The ball skirts the dirt in a grounder. It moves quickly right toward the Shortstop, but YangYang has always been quick. One of the quickest on their team. So, he charges for First and when he slides, he meets the plate just as the ball hits the Baseman’s glove.

“Safe!”

“Good luck,” Jeno says to Jaemin, squeezing his hand before Jaemin can wander off to the batting mound to wait for his turn. Glancing to Renjun, he asks, “How screwed are we?”

“It could be worse,” he admits. “Don’t worry, though. I have a good feeling.”

Jeno shoots him a smile. “Well, that gives me hope, then.”

As Mark strikes out, Renjun turns to Donghyuck. He eyes the way Donghyuck chews on the side of his thumb, leaning on the half-wall with his attention completely taken by Mark. Renjun might find it cute if he didn’t realize the nervous buzz in Donghyuck’s body.

“Hey, you okay?” he asks, quietly.

Donghyuck nods a little jerkily. “Yeah. Fine. Totally fine.”

Mark strikes out a second time.

“How,” he glances to Mark and then back to Donghyuck, “did last night go?”

“I had a nightmare,” comes the quiet reply.

The ball connects with the bat, sending it flying upward in a high arch. Renjun watches it ascend and then drop just as quickly as Mark races for First. Holding his breath, he leans into Donghyuck just when Mark throws himself into a slide. Dirt kicks up and the ball goes flying over his body, smacking into the palm of a glove.

“Safe!”

Renjun exhales. Too many close calls aren’t good for his health.

Lowing his voice, he asks, “What happened?”

Donghyuck hums.

“Hyuck,” he hisses. “What happened when you had the nightmare? Was Mark awake? Did he say anything? Are you okay?”

“Chill, please,” says Donghyuck as he leans back from the half-wall. “And I’m fine, okay? He was awake, we talked, and then we went to sleep.”

Renjun crosses his arms, eyebrows lifting slightly. “Really? Just like that? Don’t lie to me, Lee Donghyuck.”

Sighing, Donghyuck looks to him and says, “We sort of, like, slept together.” When Renjun gasps, he hurriedly adds, “Not like that, you pervert! Like, literally slept. As in beside each other. It was fine. We slept. That’s it.”

“God,” he presses a hand to his beating heart, “can you not phrase it like that? Also, what the hell? Since when are you two comfortable to do that?”

“I don’t know,” Donghyuck mutters. “It just happened. He was really…sweet.”

“Is that fondness I’m hearing?”

“No, it’s contempt, nosy,” he quips. “Now, leave me alone. I have to go get ready to bat.”

“Fine, but we’re talking about this later.”

“Not likely.”

“Try me.”

Donghyuck sticks his tongue out at him as he skirts past to pick up a bat. Jaemin lands a bunt, though he never makes it to the base. However, YangYang is now on Third and Mark is hovering on Second. With Lucas up to bat next, they just might get a run in the very first inning.

And while he does believe they’ll do well, he has to wonder. There’s a tiny niggling feeling in the back of his mind he can’t seem to shake, no matter how much he ignores it. Too many things are strange, right now. Too many things aren’t like they’re used to. The line up is different, the players are swapped, and Renjun can’t even be out there to manage things the way he normally would through the bases. All he can do is watch on the sidelines and hope for the best.

They’re getting so close to the end now. Everything matters. If they don’t make it through, they aren’t going to be continuing any farther. It shouldn’t feel like such a big deal. Teams lose every day. But Renjun has been with this team since the start and he’s seen the way they’ve grown. He knows how much this tournament means to them all in varying ways.

He wants to win just as much as the next person.

Lucas makes a hit, solid and strong, that has the ball flying out into the field. YangYang bolts for Homeplate with the DSP team screaming and shouting at each other to hurry hurry hurry. But as the ball jumps from one glove to the next, YangYang pushes himself to go as fast as he can.

His shoe hits the plate with a thud.

Yeah, he thinks, they have this in the bag.

*

“Popcorn?”

Ten glances up from the diamond where Donghyuck’s managed a bunt. He just misses First when the ball comes back to beat him, but Mark does land another Homerun thanks to it. With Jisung up to bat next, anything is possible. He could bring home Lucas, or he could strike out. Either way, they’re two ahead on the first inning, which is more than they ever could ask for.

“Where did you even get that?” Ten asks, narrowing his eyes at the container Johnny sets in his lap.

“The food stands. Apparently, when you make it to Nationals, they feed the audience,” Johnny whispers as if it’s some kind of secret. It has Ten biting back a smile. “Popcorn?”

He reaches for some. “Two-zero so far. What do you think?”

“I think we’re doing well, but it’s also the first inning. Who knows what’ll happen.”

“What’s DSP like, anyway?”

Shoving a handful of popcorn into his mouth, Johnny replies, ‘Lucky and quick. Apparently, they have a lot of track runners on their team.”

“Do they know that?”

“Jaehyun? Oh, yeah. Definitely. It’s one of the reasons he’s spread out the faster runners on the team. At least, that way, they can have some kind of upper hand no matter where they end up batting from. YangYang in the front. Followed by Lucas and Jisung, both cover more ground because of their long legs. And then Hendery. They’ve got a really good chance. We just have to keep it up throughout the whole game.”

“Hopefully, we’ll do fine even with Renjun out.”

Jisung gains his first strike.

Johnny nods. “It’s going to make it harder, for sure, but I think we’ll manage. The others have really stepped it up.”

“Enough to beat YG and JY Prep?”

At that, Johnny chews slowly, considering his words. “I think we have a good chance. YG’s game had some moments that weren’t so good, but I do think they can make it through. JY, though? We’ll only know when we get there.”

“Yeah, I—” The vibration from his phone cuts him off. Brows furrowed, he digs out his cell to answer it. “Hello?”

Ah, Ten! I’m glad to get a hold of someone, finally.”

When Johnny raises a brow at him, Ten waves him off. “Auntie Liu, how are you?”

I’m fine, but I was wondering if YangYang was there with you.”

Ten scans the diamond until he spots YangYang at the dugout, surrounded by Jeno, Jaemin, and Renjun. At Homeplate, Jisung strikes out for the second time.

“Um, he’s currently in the middle of a game. Is everything okay?”

There’s a pause. “Oh. Yes, of course. I forgot when the whole thing started. Of course, he’s in the middle of a game.”

“Auntie, are you all right?” Because she sounds distracted and a little put-out and Ten starts to worry that something is seriously wrong.

Everything is fine.”

“Did you need me to get him? Or call you after?”

No, no. Don’t bother him. We’ll chat with him when he’s home. Tomorrow, right?”

Ten nods. “Yeah, tomorrow. We leave right in the morning. Should be home by early afternoon.”

Good,” she breathes. “That’s good. Well, I’ll let you get back to it then.”

“Okay.” He hesitates, wondering if he should dig a little deeper, but she doesn’t seem willing to talk and, if it were super important, he thinks she would definitely say something about it. So, he says, “I’ll talk to you later then.”

Yes, later—Actually, Ten?”

“Yes?”

How are they doing?”

He smiles. “Two to zero. In the lead. But it’s still the first inning.”

Oh, I’m glad. Text me the results.”

“Of course, Auntie. Bye.”

When he hands up, Johnny asks, “Everything okay?”

“I think so? That was…odd. Anyway, what did I miss?”

“Jisung struck out. We’re switching.”

Ten slips his phone back into his pocket and grabs a handful of popcorn. Something about that call sets him on edge. It isn’t like YangYang’s mother to call him out of the blue like that. Still, she didn’t demand YangYang and she hung up without raising any more concerns, so he settles back into his seat and tries to focus on the game. Whatever it is, he’s sure they can handle it later.

*

While Jisung is up to bat, it leaves Donghyuck and Mark to work together on putting his Catcher’s gear on. Four hands make light, quick work. But it also brings a lot of awkwardness. Or maybe that’s just Mark.

They haven’t really spoken since this morning, since things got a little humiliating. They aren’t avoiding each other, but Donghyuck rarely makes eye contact and Mark keeps biting his tongue to keep himself from saying something stupid and fully embarrassing himself even more. Which is ridiculous because he doesn’t think he can get much worse than he already is.

Even so, up this close to Donghyuck is bringing back a lot of memories and Mark had to keep shaking his head to stop them from taking over his whole mind. But Donghyuck is there, under the sun, with his bright orange hair and golden skin and nimble fingers. He sucks in his lower lip between his teeth while he works to clip Mark’s chest plate in place. God, it’s distracting because Mark keeps thinking about how close those lips were to his last night and how he touched Donghyuck’s cheeks and held his hand. He doesn’t have to imagine the warmth anymore because he felt it.

Yeah, he’s gone. So gone.

And he doesn’t even care.

Okay, well, he does care. He cares enough to not want Donghyuck to know what’s rotating through his head right now. And there may be a little bit of panic that keeps nudging him in the stomach whenever he thinks about it a little too long. Regardless of all that, though, he thinks he’s getting used to it. At least, getting used to the idea of it all.

There are worse people to like, he thinks. Donghyuck is definitely one of the better ones.

“Shake your head any harder and your brain will bruise.”

Mark chews at the inside of his cheek, ears warm from being caught. “Sorry.”

“Worried or tired?” asks Donghyuck as he comes around to the front and tucks on the chest plate to make sure it’s secure.

“Can’t it be both?”

Eyes flicking up to meet Mark’s, he says, “Of course, it can, but being tired would suggest you didn’t sleep well. Which would make it my fault.”

Mark’s lips pop open as Donghyuck turns to grab his cap and place it atop his head. “It’s not your fault at all. In fact, I’m pretty sure that part of my night was the best I’ve had in a long time.” He tracks the pink that floods Donghyuck’s cheeks before adding, “It’s just the fact I was up later than I should have been.”

“Maybe you should have listened to me when I told you to sleep then.”

“Maybe I should have.”

Donghyuck doesn’t look at him, but the corner of his lips are twitching and Mark has half a mind to reach out and touch them.

To distract himself, Mark grabs his helmet and turns it between his hands, inspecting it a lot closer than he needs to. Jisung strikes out for the second time.

“Hey, can I ask a question?” At Mark’s voice, Donghyuck turns to him with a tilt of his head, waiting. “Did you use to—I mean, when you were on the JY team—Of course, you don’t have to tell me, but I just—Did you ever—”

“Words, Prez,” Donghyuck cuts in, though it isn’t harsh. Mirth glitters his eyes.

Mark gestures to his gear. “This. Your old Catcher.”

“I helped him,” Donghyuck replies, finally understanding. “Or, well, I did it for him. ‘Help’ seems like too nice of a word, to be honest.” Shrugging, he says, “He…I didn’t realize at first how he made me do it. Now, I look back and I know.”

“Made you?”

Donghyuck nods. “He never asked anyone else. Not even Felix. He made me do it because he knew how desperate I was to fit in. Thought it was funny. I guess, it’s habit now.”

The whole thing makes Mark feel sick to his stomach. His fingers graze at his chest plate. The one Donghyuck put on. The one Donghyuck always insists on putting on. Now, he wishes he had asked earlier or stopped him.

“Hyuck—”

“You aren’t forcing me,” Donghyuck says. “You never were and you still don’t. Maybe I did it in the beginning because I thought it was what I was supposed to do, but now I do it because I want to. I like doing it.” He pulls down on the bill of his cap to hide his eyes. “Makes me feel useful.”

Stepping a little closer, Mark replies, “You are useful. I just want you to know that you don’t have to keep doing it—No, wait—I know you just said you liked doing it, but I’m just saying,” he smiles, “you don’t need to. But I still appreciate it.”

Donghyuck purses his lips, peering up through his eyelashes. Mark kind of wants to kiss him. Oh, dear.

“Not like you could do it by yourself,” Donghyuck says, a playful snark lilting his tone. “Heaven knows you’d struggle if I left you on your own.”

Mark coughs a laugh. “No lie there.”

And Donghyuck smiles at him.

And Mark wants to kiss him all over again.

But Jisung strikes out behind them and the umpire is calling for a switch. Mark tears his gaze away, watching as everyone starts to move with practiced ease. He doesn’t have time to think about all that. Right now, he has a game to play. A game he plans on winning.

“Ready?” he asks.

Donghyuck straightens his cap and picks up the ball, twirling it in his fingers. “Was born ready.”

*

It isn’t a surprise that DSP has skill to go with their luck. They have to in order to get to this level, to keep up with all the other teams they’ve defeated so far. Chenle doesn’t have much to do inside the dugout but observe their every move.

Their Pitcher is good. He has a strong arm and good aim. Any call the Catcher gives him, he does smoothly and confidently. Almost as if he isn’t worried about losing. In fact, none of them seem all that worried and that irks Chenle to the bone. Because, if anything, they’re still a threat. Well, at least, a slight threat. They have to know the things they’ve pulled off so far and the fact that Donghyuck can probably out pitch their Pitcher any day of the week. Even so, it’s almost as if they’ve settled into the idea that their luck will win out.

And maybe it will. It’s possible, of course, especially with Chenle’s own team being a little mismatched at the moment. Even still, he knows luck is always fifty-fifty and there’s no way his team will go down without a fight. They’re willing to pull out all the stops, no matter what.

Even if it means having to pull harder pitches from the start, or throwing themselves into slides so hard it’ll bruise in the morning. No one slows down, no one takes a moment to breathe, because they just don’t have time to.

Mark and Jaehyun are constantly slipping notes to one another whenever they get the chance, especially once the second inning hits and they’ve had a good look at DSP from both sides of the fence. Dejun and Jeno keep switching off. For every batting opportunity, Dejun takes the chance because they have to slow Jeno down somehow. To put him in a full game right after getting an okay from his doctor isn’t ideal. Of course, that doesn’t stop Jeno from being reckless.

They’re in the third inning, still at two-zero, when a DSP batter hits the ball far into Right Field. It’s Jeno’s ball. It’s his and, yet, YangYang rushes for it all the same because they have to be careful. There needs to be a safety net in case something goes wrong. But Jeno, too hyped up on adrenaline, sees it as a race—or maybe he just gets too into it—and he throws himself at the ball. Then, he tumbles. He hits the ground in a summersault. Luckily, he comes back onto his feet at the last moment, but Chenle can see the way he sways on the spot.

It’s YangYang who snatches the ball from him and launches it toward Hendery before the runner can make it to the base.

“What the fuck!” Chenle hears Jaemin shout from the left side of the field. He doesn’t move because he knows he needs to stay, but he’s screaming at Jeno from the top of his lungs. “What were you thinking?”

“I’m fine!” Jeno shouts back. “I’m fine!”

“You won’t be fine when I get my hands on you, Lee Jeno!”

Needless to say, when Jeno gets back to the dugout, Jaehyun isn’t as happy. No one wants to be mad at Jeno, especially when he stands there like a kicked puppy, grumbling out apologies. They all want him to be at one hundred percent. It’s just that he isn’t. At one hundred percent, that is. They all know that. Jeno knows that.

But the lecture is a little too much for Chenle because he’s been through enough of them himself lately. Last night had been no exception. Jaehyun hadn’t been particularly calm when they spoke and all that did was raise up all his defenses. He isn’t like Jeno, who had a serious head injury. Sure, he should never have gotten into a fight with Jisung, but he was different. He wasn’t injured and he still isn’t injured. All he wants is to be better.

Which is hard to do when Jaehyun essentially benches him for most of the game until Donghyuck needs a break. And while he doesn’t like it, part of him is sort of glad for it. His sleep hadn’t come easily, so now all he feels is exhaustion. Still, he forces his eyes to stay open.

He follows every pitch, every hit, every run. Not playing has the innings blending together rather horribly despite all the things that occur. He groans with everyone else when DSP manages a run, but cheers when Shotaro and Hendery play off a steal in such a way that has Renjun smiling with pride. And Jisung…

While he doesn’t want to admit he’s been watching, it would be a lie. He finds himself biting his lip whenever Jisung is on the field, trying to track the flow of the game and keep quick on his feet the whole time. It’s rather lucky that he’s had time on the diamond to practice because Chenle doesn’t think he’d be able to do it at all if there hadn’t been some kind of lead in.

Even still, he’s nervous. That much Chenle can tell. He keeps hesitating and his throws are a little off. He can’t call the steals like Renjun does and, often enough, he doesn’t really know how to observe the game like Renjun, either. That isn’t entirely his fault, though. Renjun has more experience. He has the eye for it. Training that part of him will be slow.

Chenle chews on his cheek when Jisung does a bit of a stumble partway through the fourth inning. At this point, they’re sitting at three-one, which is a pretty average score this far into the game. But things are starting to rear their ugly heads. The lack of Renjun is showing. Jisung’s slightly unpolished skills are there and on full display. And Jeno and Dejun swapping in and out are throwing off the flow. None of this is working and the only thing they have to hold onto is Donghyuck’s pitching, which Taeyong has pulled back the reins on in order to make sure Donghyuck can stick through as long as possible without any sort of injury.

Even if Chenle is right here. Waiting. Restless.

He needs to move. He needs to get out there. Any longer standing here and he’ll lose his mind. Getting up and moving would help fight the way his body keeps wanting to crash every other minute. He wonders if eating something this morning would have helped. Then again, he spent most of the morning trying to work in some extra exercise in the bathroom just because he knew he’d be found out anywhere else.

And the last thing he wants is another lecture.

So, when Jaehyun wanders over during the fifth inning—Lucas making it to Homeplate and adding yet another run to their score—and drops a ball into his hand, Chenle is thrilled.

“Here’s the deal,” Jaehyun says before Chenle can run off and get his glove. “You listen to Mark. Every move. Every call. You do what you’re told. I’m still peeved at you, but someone needs to cover Donghyuck for an inning or two. This isn’t a reward, Chenle. This is a job. You understand?”

Stomach dropping ever so slightly, Chenle nods. “Yeah, I get it.”

He isn’t sure what to feel when Donghyuck walks past him, patting him on the shoulder along the way. He certainly doesn’t know how to feel when Mark gives him a sharp nod and Jaehyun studies him with a furrowed brow, all while Jisung refuses to look at him.

All for wanting to prove himself, he’s backed himself into a corner and now he’s starting to see it. He still doesn’t think he’s done any particular wrong. Well, other than fighting Jisung. That was definitely a miscalculation no matter how angry he was at the time. But everything else was meant well. His body may ache more than anyone else’s, but that’s because he does double the amount of work. Because he has to.

This isn’t something he thinks he should feel bad about. All his life his parents have told him nothing is worth it if he isn’t going to put a hundred and ten percent into it. They keep note of every little thing he accomplishes, even when they aren’t there. He can always do better, be better. And with them not wanting him to play baseball, he only wants to show them that he can be just as great in this as everything else.

It shouldn’t be this hard. There shouldn’t be so many people fighting him on this. He does know what he’s doing. He knows he does. It’s not any different to how he handles everything else. Sure, things may have started to slip as of late, but is that really his fault? The stress of everyone else coming down on him hasn’t made it any easier.

And now he’s here, on the pitching mound with Mark right across from him and a DSP batter at the plate, and he knows he has to prove to everyone that he was right. Otherwise, all of this has been useless. He doesn’t want to look like an idiot. He doesn’t want to be wrong.

He casts Jaehyun one last glance before turning to Mark. Jaehyun isn’t happy with him and Chenle doubts that’ll be fixed anytime soon. Maybe he had been reckless, but at least he had been trying. Isn’t that good enough?

Between his thighs, Mark flashes his pointer fingers once, twice. Fastball. Outside.

The eyes on him never leave. They only drill into his skin, uncomfortably. By now, he thinks, he should feel more at ease on the diamond, but something doesn’t feel right. Especially right now. Maybe it’s the pressure, maybe it’s the fact that everyone is upset with him, but either way, it has him wavering when he should be as steady as an arrow.

He’s done this before, so why does it feel wrong?

The ball leaves his hand, but the sweat of his palm has it flying a little too prematurely. The pitch is off. It has Mark leaping to the side to grab it out of the air and Chenle swallowing around the lump forming in his throat.

“Ball!”

When Mark tosses the ball back, Chenle nearly misses it. His movements are sluggish, like his body is delayed in every order he gives it. Perhaps, standing still for so long is starting to affect him. He shakes his head, trying to clear it. His fingers are cold, his palms are sweaty, and it doesn’t help whenever he tries to shake them out and rub them along his pant leg.

“Chenle!” Mark shouts.

His head snaps up and black blooms across his vision so fast he stumbles.

No.

No.

The noise turns muffled in his ears. He blinks hurriedly, trying to gain some kind of clarity, but the more his eyes fight him, the more his mind starts to swim and dive.

He was fine. Everything was fine.

Except, now, it isn’t.

He can feel the weight of his own limbs. The backs of his eyes hurt and the pounding of his heart is slow, yet hard against his chest. Someone shouts from behind him, something he can’t quite track, but he knows when he stumbles again that this is serious and they all know it, too.

As his vision swims, he drops the ball and his glove to bring his hands to his head. He tries to keep it steady, keep it from spinning. It doesn’t stop. Through half-closed eyes, he searches through the blurred edges of his vision. He sees Mark standing up. He sees the dirt beneath his shoes kicked up and dispersed as he tries to find footing. And when he glances up haphazardly toward the audience, horror dawning on him that everyone is watching him crumble, he spots them.

Two faces he hasn’t seen in weeks. Two faces he thought he wouldn’t see for a little while longer.

His mother is at the fence, color drained from her cheeks as she opens her mouth. But Chenle hears none of it. He doesn’t even want to know the expression on his father’s face.

He fumbles once more. Black dots start to meld and conjoin.

“CHENLE!”

There’s no way to prepare himself when he finally drops.

*

“CHENLE!” Jisung screams, sliding on his feet to catch Chenle, whose legs give out from underneath him in a blink. Chenle’s body hits his arms and they both fall. “Chenle? Chenle, can you hear me? Mark, what’s wrong with him? Chenle!”

Mark, having ditched his helmet and glove, kneels down. He presses his fingers to Chenle’s neck before lifting an eyelid to take a look at Chenle’s eye. He turns back to the dugout and shouts for Jaehyun. The audience is humming in confusion and worry. There’s no doubt that everyone is seeking out answers on what happened.

But it doesn’t matter. What matters is that Chenle isn’t responding. He lays limply in Jisung’s arms, chest rising and falling in the barest of ways.

Chenle. His best friend. As pale as a ghost.

“Jisung, breathe,” says Mark. “He’s passed out. The medics will take care of him. He’ll wake up.” He lifts a hand, running his fingers beneath Jisung’s eyes. “He’ll be okay.”

It’s only then that Jisung realizes he’s crying. Tears cling to his eyelashes as he tugs Chenle closer. He’s cold. He shouldn’t be this cold in this weather. With his cheeks pale, his body unmoving, Jisung fears the worst.

“What if he won’t be?” he hiccups.

“Trust the medics,” is all Mark says as he shuffles out of the way.

A woman arrives first. She goes to take Chenle, but Jisung draws him in. Casting him a slight smile, she says, “It’s okay. I’m going to take care of him.”

But Jisung doesn’t want to let Chenle go. This is his fault. He should have said something earlier. He should have stopped this sooner. Now, Chenle is on the ground, unresponsive, and there isn’t anything he can do but watch the medics take him from Jisung’s trembling arms. 

With the help of another medic, they manage to get Chenle onto a gurney. Jaehyun is there, talking fast, talking low. He looks just as pale as Chenle does as the medic speaks back. Words that are mumbled and jumbled and nothing Jisung wants to hear. All he wants is for someone to tell him Chenle is completely fine and this is all a mistake.

He wants Chenle to sit up and laugh.

He’ll take the prank, even if it isn’t funny and it feels like he’s about to vomit or pass out, himself.

God, he’ll take anything right now.

“Chenle! Get out of my way, that’s my son!”

Jisung’s stomach churns as Chenle’s parents come rushing through the team. The medics try to keep them calm and back, but Chenle’s mother is shouting at them before she turns on Jaehyun and shouts at him, too. Taeyong is in the mix in seconds.

“How dare you! He isn’t even supposed to be here!”

“Mrs. Zhong, please, we can talk about this after Chenle is taken care of.”

The teams stand there, watching the whole thing unfold, and Jisung has no idea where to look. Everything has exploded around him in sounds he can’t track and Chenle is on a gurney being rolled away. He stumbles to his feet, ready to chase it, but Renjun and Jaemin take his wrist to tug him back.

“Tae, I—” Jaehyun starts.

Taeyong shakes his head. “Finish the game, Jaehyun. Just finish the game. I’ll go with them. I’ll text you. I promise. But finish the game.”

“But Chenle—”

“I’ll look after him.” He gives Jaehyun a quick hug. “I’ve got him.”

When he turns to leave, Jisung rips himself out of Jaemin and Renjun’s hold to go after him. “Taeyong! Taeyong, I want to come!”

“You have to stay here, Jisung. They need you.”

“That’s my best friend,” he whimpers, throat closing up and dry. His voice cracks. “Taeyong, he’s my best friend. I can’t leave him.”

Taeyong takes his shoulders. “Honey, you aren’t leaving him. Your team needs you, right now. Chenle won’t forgive you or himself if we lose this game. You know that as well as I do. You aren’t leaving him. You can come see him after. I promise. But I have to go now, okay?”

As much as he knows Taeyong’s right, he doesn’t like it. He rubs at his nose, eyes still wet, as Taeyong jogs off the diamond.

And Chenle is rolled out of his sight.

He may hate everything about having to stay, but he knows Taeyong has one thing correct. Chenle would never forgive them for losing.

So, he takes in a shaky breath and readies himself for a win.

Chapter Text

“Donghyuck, I’m sorry,” Jaehyun sighs.

Shrugging, Donghyuck slips his cap back onto his head and picks up his glove. “No big deal.”

Except it is. The games are getting longer, the opponents harder, and Donghyuck can’t just play a whole game without repercussions. Unfortunately, it isn’t like they can do anything about it. No one else has trained to be a Pitcher. No one can stand on that mound and pull off anything useful. Not to sound rude, but it’s the truth.

All they have is Donghyuck, which means he’s going to have to carry on through the remaining innings without any choice in the matter at all. And he won’t complain. Of course, he won’t. Jaehyun knows that as much as the next person. Especially because of what happened to Chenle. Still, he hopes Donghyuck can pace himself well enough to keep going.

“We can maybe have Sungchan bat for you,” he offers, but Donghyuck waves a hand. “You sure?”

“I’ve played full games before. It’ll be fine. Besides, we have little choice, don’t we?”

Jaehyun purses his lips. The truth tastes bitter on his tongue. They have to keep going. The game doesn’t stop for an injury or a player passing out. If there are enough people to fill the spots, everything keeps moving. They don’t have any other choice.

However, even if they try to the best of their ability, there’s no way their heads are a hundred percent in this game anymore. It isn’t like he expects them to be, of course. Chenle is one of them and watching him go down had not been easier for any of them, especially with him being taken away.

Still, they put on a brave face and Jaehyun couldn’t be prouder—even if he’s freaking out, himself.

“Jisung—”

“On it,” Jisung cuts in, turning away from Renjun and starting out into the diamond. Jaehyun studies his posture, straight and calm, and decides not to question it. If this is what Jisung needs as a distraction, Jaehyun isn’t going to argue.

Then, he turns to Sungchan, passing over his phone. “I need you to monitor this. I can’t watch the game and talk to Taeyong. So, anything he says, just let me know, okay?”

Sungchan takes it with a nod. “Yeah, sure.”

Despite the fact that he wants to call Taeyong and find out what’s going on, he knows someone needs to focus on the game. A game they’re currently halfway through. Ideal or not, this is what he has to work with.

Out on the diamond, Donghyuck settles back atop the pitching mound and Mark at Homeplate. They glance at one another, hands flexing in signs even Jaehyun doesn’t know—the only ones he’s been taught are their pitching calls—before rocking back into position. Jaehyun tracks along the bases; Lucas at First, Shotaro on Second, and Hendery at Third. Jisung’s parked himself directly between Shotaro and Hendery, looking far more focused than Jaehyun’s ever seen him. The jitteriness he usually carries doesn’t seem to be showing. And out in the field, Jaemin, YangYang, and Jeno watch on, waiting.

It leaves Renjun, Sungchan, and Dejun to keep him company inside the dugout. None of them complain about it. All they do is observe and learn and plan. Jaehyun hopes, one day, he can have a full team of uninjured players so he can get everyone out on the diamond.

It looks like that may take longer than he would like.

Now, if Mark and Donghyuck know what’s good for them, they’ll go with pitches that won’t be so hard on Donghyuck. That way he can withstand all the following innings. It isn’t as if he has a reason to worry. Neither of them has been terribly reckless. Maybe once or twice, but they generally know what they have to do in order to stay in the game. And this time, they really have no choice. Sungchan is still learning and there are no other Pitchers. They mess up now and they’re all but royally fucked.

But Mark isn’t stupid, and he cares for Donghyuck’s shoulder, so they pull out a Fastball and a Curveball before leaning into another outside Fastball. Even if DSP manages a hit, they aren’t going to be struggling terribly with the score still sitting at four-one.

As the second batter strikes out on the first pitch, Sungchan says, “Taeyong made it to the hospital.”

Renjun glances around his arm. “And Chenle?”

“He’s typing.” A pause. “Chenle is being wheeled to a room. He isn’t awake yet, but he says he’ll let you know when he finds out more.”

Swallowing around the lump in his throat, Jaehyun replies, “Tell him ‘thank you’.”

They strike out the second batter. Jaehyun holds on. Only four and a half innings to go.

*

Jeno is restless. He has been since he stepped out onto the field, but he feels it even more now, knowing that they’re all still here and Chenle isn’t. While they may not be exactly the closest in the group, Jeno cares about him, like he does with the rest of them. Even he can’t deny the fact that their bond is special even after only a couple of months together. It makes it harder when someone gets hurt or isn’t able to participate, like Renjun and now Chenle.

Even for Jeno, it’s been too long since he’s been allowed on the field, honestly, he didn’t think he’d miss it this much. Baseball had never been an interest of his, especially with his catching track record. But then it became something to look forward to. Being benched for weeks on end definitely peaked his need to play, to join his friends. Now, he’s back and he has even more to do because he wants to make sure they make it through this game.

He wants to win, just like the rest of them.

He may have been a little impulsive when he started—Jaemin is still being sulky about it—but now he knows what this means. They’re going to have to be careful and quick. They need to do this for Chenle.

Chenle, who clearly suffered for longer than appropriate. Jeno knows, along with everyone else’s, his heart stopped when Chenle suddenly collapsed on the pitching mound. Even the other team had no idea what to do, stunning them where they stood. It isn’t every day that a player passes out like that.

But Jeno had an inkling something was going on. In fact, he’s pretty sure most of them did. Of course, It wouldn’t matter what anyone said because Chenle, from the very beginning, has always been one of the stubbornest out of the team. He wouldn’t have listened. And now it’s come back to bite him in the ass. They’re taking him to the hospital and the team has no idea what’s going on with him, and they won’t until they’re done this game.

And, sure, they’re winning, but distractions are a major downfall in sports. Anyone knows that. What happened could have made this harder for them and given DSP a leg up. DSP’s luck may not be showing in points, but now the SM team is down a member. Perhaps, it’s working in a different sort of way.

Jeno grits his teeth. He can’t believe this is what they have to deal with. Not that he blames Chenle. He just doesn’t like the fact that it’s come to this, in general. It’s already a miracle they’ve made it this far. They can’t have it all fall apart now. Not after all this time and hard work.

He knows just how much effort they’ve put into this. More practices, time at the gym, and strategy meetings. They talk about baseball before, during, and after school. This is what it’s come to. And, yeah, he knows they’re still the underdogs of the whole tournament, but they aren’t skill-less. They’re so desperate to finally show what they’re made of.

And, even if not everyone has said it aloud, Jeno knows they all want to face JY Prep.

That would be a game.

The crack of a bat snaps him out of his thoughts and his attention shoots to the ball, climbing up and up. He tracks it as it heads his way. On the diamond, the batter has bolted for First, so Jeno jumps into action.

Tracing the trajectory, he steps back with his glove out. The ball comes down on him and there’s no hesitation as he reaches out to catch it. It slams heavily against his palm. Without a second thought, he launches it toward Lucas.

Long arms outstretched, Lucas catches it just as the batter slides over the plate.

“Safe!”

“It’s okay!” YangYang shouts as Lucas passes the ball back to Donghyuck, who tosses it to Mark. He shoots Jeno a smile. “Good catch.”

Jeno can’t stop the way he beams. “Thanks!”

It may seem silly to be so pleased for himself because he caught a ball. However, considering he couldn’t even look at a baseball when he first started, he thinks it’s pretty warranted. Hesitation just isn’t going to work anymore with them standing on a National level diamond.

He wishes there was more he could do. It doesn’t feel like enough, hovering out in the field while Donghyuck makes pitches and the Basemen having to be on the front lines. He can’t even bat because Jaehyun refuses to have him overwork himself. Luckily, they have Dejun to do the job for him, but it still makes him feel like he’s half-assing everything.

None of them hold it against him, he’s sure. It isn’t like he’s purposefully choosing to play this way, and they’ve all told him to take it easy, come back slowly. They all understand, and he knows that. They’re his friends for a reason. Still, he yearns for the day he can do it all again. Next year—because there will be a next year—he’s going to do just that.

Jisung’s voice rings out across the field. “Steal!”

Before the word can even be finished, Donghyuck is whipping around, ball flying from his fingertips toward Lucas. The runner, just a little too far from the plate, tries to slide, but Lucas catches it just in time and the watcher on the side calls, “Out!”

Three outs. They can switch.

Hendery shoots off his plate to throw an arm around Jisung’s shoulder—tugging him down to his height—and ruffles his hair.

It’s interesting because Jeno remembers how Jisung didn’t even speak to anyone other than Chenle when he first joined the team. Now, he’s owning up. He’s calling out on the diamond, his posture straight. Whatever he decided as they were rolling Chenle away, did something to him.

“Jeno?”

Glancing over, he finds Jaemin at his side. His fingers twitch, aching to hold Jaemin’s hand, but he keeps his hands to himself. Just for now.

“How are you feeling?” Jaemin asks as they head toward the dugout.

Jeno tries not to smile. It doesn’t matter how often he tells Jaemin he’s fine, the question will still find its way back to him one way or another.

“Fine, Nana,” he insists.

Crossing his arms and puffing out his cheeks in a way that makes Jeno really want to kiss him, Jaemin says, “I’m allowed to worry.”

“I know you are,” he says, moving in close so that their arms brush. “And I adore you for that, but I really am fine. Well, as fine as I can be after what happened with Chenle.”

“Yeah, I’m not sure what’s going to happen there. I didn’t even know Chenle’s parents were here. He never said anything about it. But if he didn’t, then who told them, you know?”

“Sounds like they were really upset he was even here.”

Jaemin nods, solemnly. “I still can’t believe that happened.”

“We’re just going to have to do our best.” Because that’s really all they can do, at this point.

They come to a stop at the dugout and Jeno immediately pulls his glove free from his hand as he shuffles inside to take a seat on the bench.

Hovering at the wall, the team surrounds Jaehyun as he speaks. “Good job at catching that steal, Jisung.” Jisung, despite his spark of confidence, still flushes pink. “Mark, Donghyuck, thoughts?”

“I think they were just as shaken as us after what happened, to be completely honest,” Mark says.

Donghyuck glances over his shoulder to the other team. “They hesitated a lot. But I doubt it’ll last. They’re going to try and play this against us. Probably more breaker pitches to try and keep us at our score.”

“And once we’re back up to bat?” asks Jaehyun. “The last thing we need is for them to suddenly gain the upper hand. How do you feel about tossing some Knuckleballs?”

“I could probably finish up with a few,” Donghyuck admits. “But I wouldn’t go heavy on them.”

“Sliders seem to throw them off a bit, so we can add more of those,” adds Mark, and Donghyuck points at him with a nod.

Tapping his fingers on the half-wall, Jaehyun says, “All right. That sounds like a plan. Shotaro, you’re up. Remember to lean into the pitch. You’ll be fine.”

Sungchan pats Shotaro on the shoulder with a smile before letting Shotaro jog off to Homeplate. The scoreboard looks so pretty when the numbers are in their favor, but none of them knows how long that will last. Baseball is always so finicky.

Like DSP, all they have to work with now is luck.

It’s always luck.

*

“Safe!”

Jisung groans low in his throat as another batter makes it to yet another base. It’s the seventh inning that has the tide turning on them. Whatever confusion or hesitancy or bad luck—whatever it was—that had DSP Media behind them at the beginning, has now finally been shaken free because they’ve managed to get another run and, now, they have two people on bases.

For a while, things were somewhat at a standstill. Chenle’s incident was enough to stun the game at the same score for a little while, but that’s over now, it seems. And Jisung doesn’t like it.

He tries not to think about it, though. Thinking about anything other than his position is just bound to make him spiral, and the team doesn’t need that. He hones in on what he needs to do, focuses on the people he has to watch. People, who, unfortunately, are getting braver.

Any chance they have, they inch off the bases. Jisung knows he can’t call for each steal because then it would never end, but he keeps an eye out in his peripheral, waiting for one of them to get just a little bit too far away.

Mark is watching, too. Even under the helmet, Jisung knows Mark’s eyes are everywhere. They always are. From his point, he can see the whole field. He can see all the holes, all the mistakes, all the future moves. It isn’t a job Jisung thinks he could handle. Shortstop is already pretty stressful. He admires Renjun for what he does. But then he thinks that Shortstop isn’t all that bad, either. At least, it doesn’t really feel like it anymore.

When he started doing it, he had been trembling in his runners. Why Jaehyun chose him for such an important position was beyond him, but now Jisung thinks he might get it. With a bit more comfort, he thinks he can handle this. Well, maybe not completely, yet. But at least enough. His long limbs are helpful and he’s begun to discover he can be pretty quick if he controls them well enough.

He decides that, one day, he might be okay with everything that comes with being a Shortstop. He hopes, anyway.

Glancing at Donghyuck, who winds back his arm for a pitch, Jisung readies himself. Except, when the batter makes a connection, the ball doesn’t go for Jisung, it shoots straight back at Donghyuck. There’s a split second of panic and then Donghyuck drops, letting the ball fly right through where his head was, and Shotaro doesn’t have much of a better response. He’s already flinching out of the way and the ball goes directly into YangYang’s territory, hitting the grass and rolling toward his outstretched glove.

Jisung whips around. The runner on Third is already on his way to Homeplate, a head-start given by inching off while waiting. YangYang wastes no time. He whips the ball toward Shotaro, which then travels to Donghyuck and lobbed directly at Mark. At the same time, the runner throws himself into a slide, kicking up dirt. The dust cloud covers his feet as the ball slams into the palm of Mark’s glove.

“Safe!”

Jisung clenches his jaw. Damn it. Now, it’s four-three.

Mark calls out to Donghyuck to make sure he’s okay and Donghyuck waves him off, gesturing for him to pass the ball. Everything resets around Jisung. Donghyuck readies himself. Lucas on First keeps an eye out on his runner while Hendery does the same. If they let DSP get another hit, if they let them get another run, they’ll be tied. And it may seem like they have a lot of time—two innings—to make up for it, but it all happens so quickly.

There are times where Jisung wishes he understood baseball like Mark and Donghyuck do. Like Renjun or Jaehyun or Taeyong do. He knows enough, of course. He knows his job, he’s learned the plays, he gets the gist of it, but there’s a certain way they all look at the field and their opponents that Jisung just doesn’t get yet. Watching Mark make the calls is always interesting. Jisung has no way of knowing what’ll come his way and sometimes he wishes he could read Mark’s thought process just to get it a little bit more.

Jisung certainly doesn’t expect Mark to call a Knuckleball. Then again, they had agreed to use it if they felt like it was needed. With DSP coming closer and closer to their score, it makes sense to pull out a few harder pitches. And while DSP may rely on luck, everyone knows there’s a good chance they’ve never come face to face with a pitch like that.

Each time the ball leaves Donghyuck’s hand, Jisung tenses. His nerves are still there, still pulling tight when anticipation becomes too much. Even so, he doesn’t have to worry this time. The Knuckleball strikes out the batter once, twice, three times, and it’s finally the end of the inning.

“Jaemin, I need you to bunt. Just get the ball out there and run as fast as you can,” Jaehyun says as they swap over. “If you do make it to First, you keep an eye on Renjun. He’ll tell you if it’s safe to steal, got it?”

Jaemin nods before grabbing his bat and heading out. Up on the board, the score taunts them. Jisung doesn’t want to get negative, but Nationals aren’t exactly easy. They’re playing against a team that has made it here before, even if it’s by the skin of their teeth.

“Don’t worry,” says Renjun as he steps up beside him. “You did well out there. And we still have two more innings to go.”

“Exactly. We only have two more innings.”

Nudging his shoulder against Jisung’s bicep, Renjun replies, “We’ve done so much more with so much less.”

At least there, Jisung can’t argue.

*

It’s the beeping that has Chenle waking up all groggy and confused. At first, he doesn’t notice much else. Just that he’s exhausted and his eyelids would much rather stay closed. Slowly, however, everything starts to seep into reality. Bright lights keep trying to penetrate his vision as he shifts on something soft, yet creaky. Then it’s the soreness of his body. It starts at his toes and fingers before slowly drifting up his limbs to the very center of his chest. Achy, but somehow a little numb. Like he feels weightless, but can’t quite make anything function.

And then, it’s the headache. It hits so suddenly that he winces. Curled around his eyes and around the back of his head, it hammers against his skull. All he feels is pain and the need to take a ten year long nap.

Even so, the confusion wins out and Chenle tries to peel his eyelids open enough to see where he is. A white ceiling appears before him. He doesn’t remember being in a room. In fact, he doesn’t remember much.

Well, for a moment that is. It comes crashing back on him in milliseconds. He remembers the game, the team. He remembers seeing his parents faces and the black spots that danced mockingly in his eyes. And then he—

Shit.

He passed out.

On the pitching mound.

The urge to cover his face comes, except his hands don’t want to leave his sides, so he settles with squeezing his eyes shut once again.

He fucking passed out and his parents saw it happen. Oh, he’s in so much trouble. They’ll probably kill him, bury him, resurrect him, and then ground him.

“Chenle? Honey?”

His mother’s voice filters into his ears, tinged with worry. He hates that he’s the cause of it. Inhaling slowly, he peers through his eyelashes. The lights are jarring, but soon enough a figure is blocking it.

Right away, Chenle can see the worry etched into his mother’s face. The darkness bruises under her eyes and her lower lip, caught between perfect, pearly teeth, is red. As she checks him over, she says, “Dear, go get the nurse.”

There’s a shuffle and Chenle briefly catches his father’s figure before it disappears through the door. Chenle doesn’t even want to know what his father thinks of him. He doesn’t want to know what his mother is yearning to lecture him about. All he wants to do is go back to sleep.

“How are you feeling?” his mother asks as she perches on the side of his bed.

He takes a moment to swallow against his dry throat. Clearly, his parents paid for one of the better rooms. It’s still blank-walled with a white ceiling, but it’s bigger and his bed is a little wider than he thinks it should be. The chairs in the corner are padded and soft looking. Even the curtains are nice.

“Do you remember what happened?”

Chenle nods, eyes darting to the bedside table to where a glass of water sits. His mother spots the motion, hurrying to grab it for him and hold it to his lips. While he would like to think he can drink on his own, his hands still don’t want to move, so he lets her help him sip before wiping his mouth with the tips of her fingers like she used to do when he was a tiny child. Before she left constantly.

He can’t really remember the last time he sat in a room with his mother with her attention on only him. Months. Years. He doesn’t want to seem that harsh about it, but there’s always something that distracts her or calls her away. Running a business is never easy, he knows that. He just also misses her. He didn’t really know how much until now, with her watching his every move.

“I passed out,” he manages, voice scrapping against his throat. He frowns. “That game. What happened?”

At that, she clicks her tongue. “No idea, and you don’t need to worry about that. You’ve been out for a couple of hours, at least.”

Which means the game will be done, or at least close to being done. He wants his phone to text someone and find out. He needs to know what happened, if they’re all mad at him, if he has a chance to make this up to them.

“Honestly, what were you thinking?” she hisses, though not all anger. The worry is still there. Chenle doesn’t think it’ll go away any time soon while he’s still in this bed. “Playing when we told you not to. I knew something like this would happen. We told—”

But before she can say anything, the door opens with a soft click. His father comes in, followed by a nurse and an older man, who Chenle can only assume is his doctor. He thinks it ends there, and then Taeyong steps through with his phone flipping in his hand. He offers Chenle the briefest of smiles before the doctor moves up to Chenle’s side.

“And how are you, Mr. Zhong?”

Chenle blinks. “Um, okay? I think?”

“Good. Looks like you had a bit of a spell,” he says.

His mother crosses her arms. “He’ll be fine, though?”

“Oh, he’ll be just fine. As long as he starts taking better care of himself. Exhaustion, malnutrition,” he lists, peering down at the clipboard he plucked off the end of the bed. “Your vitamin levels are down. Have you been eating well?”

When he hesitates, his mother clears her throat. “Dinner,” he replies.

“Dinner? That’s it?”

“I’m not hungry a lot these days.”

Obviously, that isn’t the best answer because his doctor’s brow furrows and he makes a note. “Young boys like you need to eat. Not just for your body, but for your mind. You’re still growing, and healthy eating is important. Of course, I don’t think I need to tell you any of that, right?”

Chenle nods when the doctor lifts a brow.

“Proper sleep and proper meals from now on. You have to take care of yourself, Mr. Zhong. Otherwise, these types of things can keep happening. And they’ll only get worse.” He clips the board back onto the end of the bed. “I would suggest talking to a Nutritionist,” he glances at Chenle’s parents, “if possible. To make sure he’s getting what he needs until he’s back on track. You don’t need to if you think you can handle it, but it’s worth looking into.” Then, he’s looking to Chenle again. “You’re putting a lot of strain on your body at your age. It isn’t healthy and it will wear on you, whether you like it or not. Pushing past your limits can cause considerable damage.”

“I know,” he mutters.

“You’re set to go. I’ll just need someone to sign the papers. Whenever you’re ready.”

“Thank you,” his mother says. When he and the nurse finally slip out, she glares at Taeyong. “Exhaustion. Malnutrition? Just what are you doing to these kids? My child.”

Chenle helplessly tries to sit up. “Mom.”

“We specifically told him not to play and what do you do? You have him on the team, running himself into the ground and—”

“Mom!” His voice echoes in the room and it hurts. “Mom, it isn’t his fault. He didn’t know what you thought about the whole thing. For all he knew I had what I needed to be on the team.”

His mother’s lips twist. “Forged signatures, Chenle?”

“I’m sorry,” Chenle mumbles. “I wanted to play. So bad. And you never would have let me, so I signed your name and told them I had permission. None of them knew.”

“Clearly,” she says, peering over at Taeyong. “Clearly, you didn’t know anything. You supposedly spend all this time with my son and you didn’t even know he was doing this to himself?”

To Taeyong’s credit, he doesn’t seem intimidated, which is saying a lot, considering Chenle’s mother is not one to mess around with. Even his own father tends to back down around her whenever she gets going. But Taeyong doesn’t flinch, doesn’t look away.

He simply replies, “I knew something was going on. Most of the team did. He didn’t want to listen.”

It’s Chenle who winces. “How did you even know I was at the game?”

“I called them,” Taeyong answers. “Nothing seemed to be getting through to you, and after your fight with Jisung, I knew something needed to be done.”

“He’s lucky he called us because if something happened to you and we weren’t here,” his mother says, “the story would be going very differently.”

For the first time since the conversation started, his father finally speaks up. “Why would you go against our wishes, Chenle? You know we said ‘no’. You knew we didn’t want you out there and now look where you are.”

Hanging his head, Chenle says, “I wanted to play. All I’ve wanted to do since the team started was to play and you wouldn’t let me.”

“Because you have more important things to focus on,” his father states.

His mother shakes her head. “Your grades are falling.”

“I pushed myself more than I should have because I wanted to show you I could do it all, but then everything started to get harder and I felt like I needed to be even better. It just got…difficult.”

“Why didn’t you say anything?” asks Taeyong. “We would have helped you.”

“I needed to do it on my own. Otherwise, my parents wouldn’t have accepted it. I had to prove myself.”

His father sighs. “By putting your health at risk?”

“Would you have listened to me any other way?” His tone come out harsher than he plans. “You never would have let me play if I couldn’t do it all perfectly. Believe it or not, I am good at baseball. I’m going to be a Pitcher. Do you know how difficult that is? And if we win? Putting that on a university resume would be something different.”

“It has nothing to do with business.”

“Maybe not, but I love it. And while I don’t love business, I’m still trying. For you. Why can’t you let me have this one thing? When have I ever asked for something like this?” Fisting the sheets, he says, “You leave me. All the time. And you expect me to have my shit together.” His mother opens her mouth, probably to tell him off for swearing, but he barrels on. “Whenever I scrape my knee or have a bad day, I have to go to our butler. I can’t call you because you’re always busy and whenever we do call, you have to suddenly leave. I keep my grades up, I do my best, I do what you ask of me, and I want one thing and you won’t even let me do it?”

“Chenle—”

“Baseball is fun,” he presses. “It’s fun and I love it. I have more friends than I ever thought I would have and they all care about me. And, yeah, they’re probably severely pissed at me, but they care. They’re there for me when you aren’t. I love it. I want to play. So, yes, I forged your signature, and, yes, I played even though you told me not to. But I’m not going to apologize for it. I’m not.”

The room falls silent. Chenle keeps his eyes on where the sheet pulls tight across his knees. There’s nothing soft about the fabric. It feels stiff and clinical under his gripping fingertips. Right now, he wants to be alone. Except, he knows that isn’t really going to happen. After everything that’s happened, his parents are going to be all over him for the next little while, making sure he brings up his grades and stays away from the diamond.

It hurts, the ache in his chest. Same way the backs of his eyes sting as he tries to keep his tears back. He doesn’t want to cry. It makes him feel like a pouting child. And maybe that’s what he is, but it doesn’t make it feel any better.

All he wants is to play baseball. He wants to do something he loves for a change. He knows he was an idiot. He knows he shouldn’t have done what he did. God, he’s going to have to apologize to the whole team, but especially to Sungchan, YangYang, and Jisung. Definitely Jisung. He had been harsh to them. So rude and unrelenting. It hadn’t been right. They were just trying to take care of him and what did he do? Treat them like shit.

He fought Jisung. He’ll be lucky is Jisung even wants to speak to him ever again. Chenle wouldn’t blame him if he didn’t. His best friend and he’s probably ruined it forever.

“Jaehyun is here,” Taeyong says, breaking the quiet.

Chenle lifts his head. So, the game was finished then. His heart clenches. Did they win? Did they lose? How screwed did he leave them?

“That’s the coach, right?” asks his mother, tentatively.

Taeyong nods. “Yeah. Can I let him in?”

When his mother and father don’t argue, Taeyong leans over to grab the door. He mutters a quiet, ‘Hey,’ before stepping aside and letting Jaehyun in. Followed very closely by someone that has Chenle stiff in the bed, blinking wide-eyed.

“Chenle,” Jisung breathes as he comes rushing to the side of the bed. He doesn’t hesitate to put his long-fingered hand over Chenle’s. Chenle wonders when the game really ended because Jisung is still wearing his uniform, all dirty at the knees. Before he says anything to Chenle, he looks to Chenle’s parents first. “You can’t stop him from playing. Chenle is one of the best players on the team. Yeah, he messed up, but he knows that now and he won’t do it again.” He whips his head to Chenle. “Right? You’re done now, right? This…This isn’t going to happen again. Because we need you on the team. You can’t do that again. You can’t scare me like that again. R-Right?”

Chenle’s lips part, a little startled, when he spots the first tear trailing from Jisung’s eye. Followed by another. He doesn’t hesitate to lift his free hand and brush them away. “I’m sorry, Sungie. I’m so fucking sorry.”

His mother clears his throat at his choice of words, but Jisung speaks over her. “You better be. Never again. Do you hear me?”

“Why do we always end up at the hospital?” asks Jaehyun, tiredly. “Can we be done with it now?” As Taeyong pats him on the shoulder, he says, “I hope you’re doing well, Chenle.”

“I’m getting there,” he admits. “I’m sorry. For everything. I was a pain. You didn’t deserve any of that.”

“You’re a kid, learning how life works. We all make mistakes. As long as you learn from it, that’s the best outcome. And I apologize,” he says to Chenle’s parents, “for having him play when you told him not to. Had I been aware, I would have done something. I had no idea he forged the signature. I should have been more careful.”

Jisung’s hand tightens. “But he’s still gets to play, right? He loves it, you know? Loves it enough to try and do all this to prove to you what he can do. You have to let him play. Please.”

“Jisung,” Chenle sighs. “It’s okay.”

“It’s not okay. You want to play baseball. It isn’t fair that you can’t and—”

Chenle’s father cuts in, “Nothing has been decided.”

“What?” Chenle asks, stilling.

Exchanging a look with his father, his mother sighs. “We will have to talk about this at home. Seriously talk about it. We aren’t saying we agree just yet, but we also see how much this team means to you. We have a lot to discuss. With this and the forgery and…We’ll talk at home. You can say your goodbye while we sign you out.”

“I’m going home with you?”

“Oh, you’re coming home with us. And then you’re grounded for the next month.”

Fair, he thinks.

“Rest well, my little cabbage,” Jaehyun says with a soft smile as he and Taeyong follow his parents out of the room.

It leaves Jisung and Chenle by themselves. Awkwardly, Jisung shuffles up onto the side of the bed, hand still holding Chenle’s. They don’t hold hands. At least, not usually. Chenle can probably count on one hand the number of times they have. Each time, it’s something to note. Jisung’s hands is bigger, his fingers longer. His palm is warm and a little sweaty, but Chenle doesn’t mind. He’s just happy Jisung doesn’t seem to totally hate him.

“I really am sorry,” he whispers. “I was an asshole to you. To everyone. You’re my best friend and I can’t believe I was so nasty to you. I just thought I was doing the right thing. But the more tired I got, the more irritable I became and the worse I was, and you never deserved that. You’re my best friend, Sungie.”

“You’re a pain in my ass,” Jisung states. “But you’re my best friend, too. You owe me ice cream for the next year.”

Chenle chokes out a laugh. “Deal. Um, hey, did we win?”

Slowly, Jisung smiles. “We did.”

Relief washes over him. “Good. That’s good.”

“And you?” Jisung asks, quietly. He shifts, fingers flexing against Chenle’s hand. “How are you feeling? Actually feeling.”

Licking his lips, he contemplates his words. “Tired. Really, really tired. But also better? I just can’t believe that happened. I’m so embarrassed.”

“I’m kind of glad it happened.” When Chenle raises a brow, he hurriedly adds, “Well, if it hadn’t, you wouldn’t have stopped. And you needed to stop. It was hurting you. I don’t think you know how worried we all were.”

“I know…No, I know. I wasn’t being fair to you all.”

“You weren’t being fair to yourself,” he huffs. “That’s the worst of it.”

Chenle brushes his free hand through his hair. “I’ll be better. I promise.”

“For you,” Jisung presses. “Be better for you. It doesn’t matter to us if you’re perfect. We don’t expect you to be. Just like you don’t expect us to be. We just want you to be healthy and happy, Lele. That’s it. That’s all we want.” Sighing, he peers down at their fingers, interlocking them. “That’s all I want.”

“It won’t be easy,” says Chenle.

The corners of Jisung’s lips twitch. “You don’t have to do it alone, you know? You have me.”

“We have each other.”

“Yeah,” he flashes a tiny smile, “we do. You can’t get rid of me now.”

Coughing a laugh, Chenle says, “Wouldn’t have it any other way.”

A soft knock comes from the door and the two of them glance over to see Chenle’s father peeking his head in. “Papers are signed. You can come home now. The nurse will be over in a minute to get you all set.”

“Thanks.”

His father pauses, almost like he’s about to add something else, but then he gives a short nod and leaves the room, letting the door click behind him.

“Going home is going to be so awkward,” Chenle says.

Jisung frowns. “Do you think they’ll actually let you keep playing?”

“I hope so. But I don’t think it’ll be an easy fight. Guess I’ll see when I finally talk to them about everything.”

“Text me after?”

Chenle snorts. “As if I wouldn’t.”

It happens so quickly that it takes a moment for Chenle to realize what happened. In a blink, Jisung ducks in to touch his lips to the apple of Chenle’s cheek. It leaves them both flushed faced and not exactly looking eye to eye. But then Jisung glances at him through his eyelashes and offers the tiniest of smiles and Chenle can’t help but smile back.

“All right,” a voice says as the door swings open. Hastily, Jisung hops off the bed and moves so the nurse can come in closer. “Are we ready to go home?”

Meeting Jisung’s gaze, Chenle says, “Yeah, I’m ready.”

“Then, lets get you all sorted.”

Jisung waits by the door the whole time. Not once does he make a motion to leave, and Chenle is glad for it. No matter how embarrassed he is, no matter how silly he may seem, he wouldn’t have it any other way. At least he can go home knowing that they’re okay.

And they will be for as long as they can.