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stages of trompe-l'oeil

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He’s sitting up, coolly swinging his legs over the edge of the bed, when he feels the callused fingertips fluttering across the bare stretch of skin over his hipbone.

‘Hey, do you know that you run a little colder than normal people?’ Sawamura asks under his breath, an intrigued quirk pulling at the corner of his mouth, his honeyed eyes round and wide with earnest attention.

Kazuya lets out an unconcerned sniff at that before turning his gaze away, reaching for the boxers that he’d carelessly tossed onto the floor and nonchalantly sliding them on. ‘What are you talking about?'

‘Your skin, basically! Your body in general. You,’ Sawamura says in answer, and there’s a light rustling of fabric as he shifts in the sheets behind Kazuya, as he leisurely hoists himself up, as he moves to curiously run the roughened pads of his fingers over the rigid lines of Kazuya’s ribs: a sweeping touch as light as feathered wings. ‘It’s always like that. I just – hadn’t really said anything about it until now, y’know? But yeah, you’re always, like, cool to the touch. It’s kind of unusual, that’s all.’

Even then, Sawamura’s own touch is as warm and kindling with life as it’s always been, muted blood-pulses stirring from the wrist that’s hovering steadily over Kazuya’s hip, delicately hot without even being pressed against him. Kazuya lowers his lashes, reaches over and skims the back of his knuckles against Sawamura’s like it’s a wordless comfort; but he doesn’t linger at all, promptly coiling lean fingers around the base of Sawamura’s palm with a mild squeeze to gently lift it away from his waist, then releasing his grip on it and slowly letting go. And the loss of that contact is startlingly immediate – slivers of cold move in to swirl at Kazuya’s fingertips in no time at all, trickling into the length of his arms, pooling and blooming in the caverns of his chest.

‘… Huh. Is that so?’

He doesn’t look back at Sawamura as he says this, opting to stand up instead, and moving to slip on his pants and his t-shirt without another word.

A pointed click of a tongue rings out behind him, followed by an inquisitive murmur: ‘Leaving so soon again?’

The sentiment comes out thrumming with guiltless interest and not a single shred of hesitant uncertainty – almost as if Sawamura had already fully known the answer before he’d even asked the question.

The nerves of Kazuya’s fingers quiver as he makes his way out of the dorm room; he nearly gives in to a hidden impulse to spare Sawamura one last glance as he closes the door behind him, but he doesn’t.

 


 

There’s an obscure painting suspended on the wall outside Kazuya’s shared dorm room, displaying a crimson-feathered bird taking flight from a crooked bough of pale peach blossoms. And it’s somehow baring itself in three dimensions while hung at eye level – a stationary scene that’s almost graced by some kind of divine breath, almost magically springing to life, almost turning solid and tangible: a trick of the eye, an optical illusion, a masterpiece of trompe-l’œil.

Sometimes, when he’s walking by, he can’t help but slow down and stare, strangely drawn to look at it for a passing moment or two; and then, for some reason that he still hasn’t fully grasped, leave while dimly wondering exactly how much of himself is real.

He knows that the answer to that should be simple. His memories are still soaked with the nostalgic pastel watercolors of a daydream – of his years spent on the wide fields of Seidō, with the cool wind caressing the tips of his hair and the sunlight’s warm, lingering kiss on his face and all of his teammates stirring with tremulous momentum all around him: a childlike vivacity and cheer and innocence like they’re gazing at the vast rolling sky for the very first time. He can flutter his eyes closed and take deep, full breaths into his lungs and let himself go; he can relish in every groaning, expanding movement of bone and sinew and muscle in his legs and arms as if they’re unfolding wings, and move to unfurl and soar over the diamond – becoming a little boy again, that young boy who’d harbored so much thrill in him every time he’d slid on the creaking leather of his catcher’s mitt. Becoming that young man who, to this day, still feels that way.

Nothing but the pleasure of the game, intelligent trick plays, and the burning drive for victory. No ulterior motives, no secret motivations: at the end of the day, Miyuki Kazuya is baseball, and baseball is Miyuki Kazuya. Pure and simple and sincere.

But then there’s also Sawamura, who’d tumbled into their lives with as much enthusiastic gusto as he always throws himself into his gameplay and anything else he puts his mind to, who’d suddenly filled Kazuya’s fairly mundane world with the perverse thrill of unconventional breaking pitches and heartfelt words yelled in a thunderously loud voice, who’d unknowingly slid all the way into the core of Kazuya’s being with that intense yellow-lit gaze that has as much sunshine in it as a burning summer can hold, brimming with as much trust and belief and faith for Kazuya as that tender, overflowing heart can possibly carry.

There’s now years of history lying between them: an exhilarating partnership on the diamond throughout high school, and now university – even though the fact that they’ve ended up attending the same one is a complete coincidence – and Sawamura hasn’t exactly changed from the day Kazuya had met him. Always so pure and honest and true, as if every layer of his naked skin is translucent, sliding, shifting, revealing all the vulnerable pulsating organs and veins and nerves underneath for everyone to see. There’s never any doubt as to how much of Sawamura Eijun is real: all of him.

And maybe, Kazuya knows, that’s part of the reason why he never stays the night.

He’ll always leave Sawamura’s room, but even then, Sawamura hardly ever seems to be discouraged by it. True to form, he’s even been bold enough to ask twice: ‘Hey, do you ever want me to come by your dorm instead, sometime? Wherever it is,’ with a hot breath and a press of semi-pursed lips against the rise of Kazuya’s shoulder, while flitting warm fingertips along the bare skin of Kazuya’s lower belly.

A clear test of boundaries, eager but uncertain. Kazuya can easily hear the question behind the question, the unsaid queries simmering behind that smile and the live, beating heart tucked behind that gaze – and he doesn’t take the bait.

‘I’m in a shared room. Can’t get up to any nonsense in front of a roommate, can we,’ he’d answered twice in turn, one corner of his half-smile quirking lopsidedly. ‘I wasn’t as privileged as you to get a room to myself, you know.’

Sawamura had grinned at him in reply both times, soft creases etched around his eyes and lips, full of acceptance in his level expression, because that’s really just the kind of person he is. Even though there’s obviously a part of him that instinctively feels that there’s more to it, given that he’d asked a second time after getting a clear answer the first time.

At any rate, Kazuya’s reply hadn’t been a lie. Not when it’s a truth, so to speak, that sits in front of the crumbling wall that he knows he’s slowly built for himself throughout all of his twenty years, tall enough that it’s able to obscure his vision of all the empty, unfilled seats surrounding him – yawning gaps of not-really-friendships and half-presences that have generally been that way since his boyhood: he’d grown to maturity in a home with hallways so endless and hollow that his footfalls had nearly echoed between their walls, and with lights flickering so dimly during the too-quiet evenings that it’d blackened the faint shadows splashed in the corners. All in all, an unsettling silence that at least, to his immense relief, he’s always been able to smother with the enjoyment and indulgence of his baseball alone.

Besides, there’s no sense in possibly tempting something that he’s never failed to look away from so far, anyway.

So he’ll always get dressed and get out. He’ll always avert his gaze from Sawamura and leave without any syrupy sentiments, without any goodbyes and without any promises of returning. He’ll always pass by that unusual deep red bird and find himself vaguely wondering, in a distant thought, if he’s giving only an illusion of himself. He’ll always come back to his shared dorm room to find Sanada curled up in bed reading, looking up to give him a disquietingly cheery grin, commenting: ‘I hope you didn’t break him this time,’ in a light-hearted tone – way too chirpy for Kazuya’s taste, as if the fact that he’s sleeping with Sawamura should be a lot simpler and more straightforward than it actually is.

Truth be told, the statement’s actually genuine and friendly and concerned, with no actual venomous sting to it, when Sanada’s the one saying it; but the words on their own still bite like a warning anyway, sharp as fang-tips and somewhat provocative.

‘You know that painting outside our room,’ Kazuya says out of the blue one night, jerking his thumb backward over his shoulder to indicate the door behind him. ‘Have you ever wondered about how random it is? There are literally no paintings in any of the other hallways.’

‘Somehow I’m not surprised that you have that reaction,’ Sanada chuckles in reply, thumbing over to the next page of his homework and shifting back on his bed to a more comfortable position. ‘For some weird reason, it kind of reminds me of you, y’know – there’s just something about it. The bird’s the same shade of red as your favorite shirt and everything. Except it looks a lot more relaxed than you do, don’t you think?’

Kazuya mindfully presses his lips together into a thin line, and answers nothing.

 


 

He finds it intriguing, how differently Sanada’s and Sawamura’s pitches resonate with him.

Back in high school, he hadn’t ever entertained the possibility of ending up attending the same university as Yakushi’s Sanada and then going on to become his catcher within the same team. It’s turned out to be pretty gratifying so far, though, thanks in no small part to the impressive consistency in Sanada’s skill, along with that orthodox quality he has to his pitching that literally any partnering catcher would find pleasing – strong, uninhibited throws; an on-point form shaped by firm angles in a solid body and sturdy limbs; and meticulously precise control built up from years and years of devoted training and organic instinct. He’d been the ace pitcher during his high school years with good reason, and he’s still the ace pitcher now with good reason.

And Kazuya remembers the way Sawamura had unknowingly craved Sanada’s style of pitching back in his first year at Seidō, but had then grown so much on his own and developed himself into the exact opposite of orthodox, with his erratic throws, stunningly atypical form, and energetic mood-making within the team. A whirlwind who’s always full of his own unique brand of presence, thoroughly made of genuine spirit and soul and the heart that he wears on his sleeve, reflected in a glittering smile and sparkling, merry laughter and round, earnest eyes. As different from Sanada as it gets, but definitely equally captivating in his own right: he’s always been striking in the flexibility of his joints, the fire in his gaze, and the wholehearted honesty in his plays.

Kazuya barely even knows what to do with himself when even after all these years, Sawamura’s pitches – and Sawamura himself – still surprise him, still thrill him, still have the ability to leave him breathless.

So he indulges Sawamura, sometimes, whenever they’re practicing together and Sawamura happens to plead with him at the end of it, noisily begging for him to stay and catch a little longer. He’ll jokingly let out a little noise of mock-exasperation and proceed to let Sawamura throw to him until the air turns chilly, until the sun’s already made its descent in brilliant shades of purple-red, until Sawamura’s whole face is loose with easygoing joy and his whole body’s lax with carefree satisfaction. And that’s how they end their practice session one particular late afternoon, long after all the other players have already left for the day; they’ve just finished changing out of their uniforms and are the only ones left in the silent locker room when Sawamura asks with his usual boyish, starry-eyed vigor, ‘Yosh! How did I do today? Were my throws good?’

Four years Kazuya’s known him, three of them spent as a battery and as partners on the field, and Sawamura’s wild innocence hasn’t changed at all: even now, his motivations for playing seem to be as straightforward, uncomplicated and pure as always.

‘You did just fine,’ says Kazuya coolly.

Sawamura doesn’t seem satisfied by that answer at all, the edges of his mouth drooping in an unimpressed frown and a discontented wisp of air puffing out through his nose. ‘That’s all?’

Of course not, Kazuya thinks, but he knows that Sawamura doesn’t tend to realize just how incredible he actually is. Not when he’s the type, through and through, to believe in others without really looking twice at his own vivid brilliance – a selfless quality that often gets Kazuya’s pulse speeding up more than he’d like to admit.

‘Your form was solid today,’ Kazuya tries again, his tone even. Your presence was as eye-catching as usual. ‘Your control’s still steady, so right now you don’t have anything to worry about.’ Your general air and aura really had my blood pumping. ‘Anyway, it’s good that you’re maintaining an optimistic attitude to your pitching; that’s important.’ You looked bright, happy – pretty breathtaking. ‘… I think you did well. Nice work.’ … You moved me.

Sawamura stares at him speechlessly for a moment, fluid gold eyes wide and glistening, a pink flush trickling over the tips of his ears; for a heart-pounding second, Kazuya actually has to wonder whether or not he’d just said the right thoughts aloud.

In all seriousness, of course he had, given his habit of carefully measuring every single one of his own words and actions in advance before he says or does them. But something must’ve slipped through the cracks and leaked into his face, because Sawamura’s expression shifts unexpectedly, the tension of his mouth slackening like there’s just been some kind of meaningful revelation.

He doesn’t say a single word regarding whatever epiphany he may have just had, though, taking an easygoing step toward Kazuya instead – close enough to run coarse fingertips over the line of Kazuya’s wrist, before leaning in to press a soft, damp kiss to the angle of Kazuya’s jaw.

‘Yeah … you too,’ he murmurs into Kazuya’s skin, and Kazuya can’t see his face at this point, considering there’s basically no space or distance between them anymore. But Kazuya can hear a whisper of a half-smile rippling in his voice anyway, affectionate and appreciative.

Truth be told, the knowledge that they can stop right here is straight-up prickling at Kazuya’s nerve endings, and trembling in Kazuya’s gut like a brittle plea for mercy. They can end this conversation with a casual, mellow grin and a sincere thanks and you’re welcome and it’ll be just fine.

But Sawamura’s within reach, so close that Kazuya can easily imagine just gripping him by the shoulders and pulling him right into himself, right through the gaps of his own bones and into the cradle of his own ribcage; in all honesty, he has no idea when he’d started to become so helplessly greedy but this alone, right now, doesn’t feel like nearly enough – maybe nothing’s ever really enough, not when he’s still distantly wondering what it’d be like to have that heart beating against his, together, in time.

And it’s possible that he lives up to all those offhand comments that numerous people have made over the years about him being emotionally impaired, because he knows that there are plenty of situations where he doesn’t express things the way normal people do. At any rate, he opts to answer in the only way he knows how to without having to open himself up and take himself apart these days: slowly moving in with a graze of his parted lips against the nook right underneath Sawamura’s ear, with a caress of his tongue to the side of Sawamura’s throat, and with a lean hand reaching down to palm the front of Sawamura’s pants.

‘Miyuki—’ Sawamura starts, and then stops, his breath suddenly catching. Something inside of Kazuya chips and fractures just a little, maybe, just hearing it.

He strokes through coarse fabric, slow and heady, and even though Sawamura’s all loud and upbeat and brash every minute of every day, there’s always something a little quieter, heavier, sultrier to the way that he reacts to something this private. He’s helplessly leaning in to the steady movement of Kazuya’s hand, full of unmistakable yearning, while also pulling away just slightly from Kazuya’s mouth to soften the strain on Kazuya’s angled wrist, which gets Kazuya quickly missing the salt of his skin; soon enough, tensed fingers are tightly curling themselves into the material of Kazuya’s shirt and pliant lips are fluttering along the hollow of Kazuya’s cheek – a petal-light touch accompanied by a shuddering sigh, faint and half-restrained and hot against Kazuya’s cheekbone.

Sawamura’s other hand skims sedately down Kazuya’s hip, to Kazuya’s fly, and then he’s fumbling to undo the brass button and zipper with an unexpected degree of self-control that makes Kazuya’s chest constrict, as if Sawamura’s trying to be careful with unwrapping him, as if Sawamura thinks he’s worth appreciating, worth savoring, worth it. And Sawamura barely even has to slide firm fingers down the front of Kazuya’s underwear before they’re both hard, worked up and alive and halfway to human, just from simple, unabashed wanting and literally nothing else.

Sawamura pulls back just a touch, sucking in a small, quiet breath through his teeth.

‘God, you’re like – one of those birds, or something,’ he murmurs heatedly, both ridiculous and admiring all at once, and even then, Kazuya still can’t help shifting forward to kiss him with a stifled impatience that’s really only leaving him wanting more. There’s a hint of something sweet in Sawamura’s mouth – a residual aftertaste of heartfelt sentiments and sunlit smiles, maybe – and his lips are tantalizingly wet beneath Kazuya’s own; his uneven exhale glides thinly past Kazuya’s teeth, subtle but fire-warm, curling over Kazuya’s tongue and coaxing him into being. He pins Sawamura to the smooth wall with his hips and his fingers move from their placid rubbing caresses to unfasten Sawamura’s pants, dulled nails scraping underneath the hem of Sawamura’s shirt and darting over rough skin, which suddenly spurs a muffled hiss of surprise to slither against Kazuya’s mouth.

‘Thought I told you, Miyuki Kazuya,’ Sawamura rasps out between languid kisses, low and guttural. ‘You run cold.’

In another universe, Kazuya may have given him some kind of lackadaisical apology, with a raised eyebrow and one of his signature toothy smirks. But he’s already a little too far gone – and it seems like Sawamura is too, because the fabric around their hips quickly ends up feeling too restrictive and they’re impatiently grasping at and tugging down each other’s pants and underwear in no time, until both sets of creased cotton are left bunched halfway down their thighs, carelessly and gladly abandoned.

Ignoring Sawamura’s last sentiment in favor of the previous one, Kazuya then appreciatively trails the pads of his fingers down the rigid line of Sawamura’s stomach, relishing in the way the firm muscles tense underneath the touch, before hoarsely sighing: ‘Mmm. Which birds,’ against Sawamura’s mouth.

Sawamura, as much of a soft bleeding heart as he’s always been, makes sure to leave one last lingering, almost-heavyhearted kiss before reluctantly breaking away; he doesn’t hesitate to reach around after that, splaying a sturdy hand over the shallow slant at the base of Kazuya’s spine and drawing their lower bodies together, before unashamedly rolling his hips against Kazuya’s.

‘Those – ngh – those homing doves, or whatever,’ he answers, voice trembling with the strain of keeping himself together, and Kazuya would be lying if he’d claimed that it isn’t a thrill to see Sawamura craving this so urgently. The sight of it and the delectable friction of their contact alone are enough to spark adrenaline, and it’s not long before Kazuya finds himself indulgently grinding counter to Sawamura’s movement in response, while letting the wall behind Sawamura support them; there’s no question that it has an immediate effect on Sawamura, who doesn’t waste time in slipping his hand between them, tracing bold fingertips up the underside of Kazuya’s cock with such a peculiar air of devotion even when his own is still mostly sorely deprived of Kazuya’s focused attention – an inviting, waiting dark throb between his hips. ‘‘Cause for some reason, you … ah … you keep coming back, right?’

The corners of Kazuya’s lips nearly quirk upward, because Sawamura’s basically never this poetic unless he’s just read another one of those period pieces that he’s so fond of, and there’s an unexpected vulnerability to what he’s just said that makes Kazuya’s chest prickle a little more, for whatever reason. Sawamura’s long pitcher’s fingers feel warm flitting against him and even warmer as they shift up and curl securely around his shaft, as a delicate thumb sweeps enticingly over the slit of his cock: a barely-there caress that’s already so good that Kazuya’s thighs start to quake beyond his control, and he can barely help sliding his face into the junction where Sawamura’s neck and shoulder meets, shakily breathing Sawamura’s name into his skin.

Even though he wishes that they’re currently someplace more comfortable instead of here – not to mention doing this dry; they don’t exactly bring much more than a change of clothing to practices – it’s still somehow sweet, sensual, sensitive. Which is pretty strange in some ways, because they’re only friends with benefits, and even that term is questionable, given that Kazuya isn’t sure if they’re actually properly friends or if he technically has any proper friends at all.

But he’s already coming undone by Sawamura’s hot breath in his hair and the scrape of Sawamura’s teeth over the shell of his ear and Sawamura’s fingers snugly wrapped around his cock; the hairs on the nape of his neck lift irrepressibly at the sensation of the thickened calluses dusted across Sawamura’s palm, like battle scars painting a picture of devotedly hard work and like every sign in the world that this is imperfectly perfect, deliciously real.

At the rate they’re going, Kazuya can’t even begin to decide whether he wants to pilot himself with or without control.

‘Stupid. What if I wander off? You gonna keep up the chase?’ he says breathlessly, without any real bite sharpening his words. He doesn’t get more than that out, though, before he finds himself being guided backward just a little to create more room; and then Sawamura’s keenly stroking down the length of his shaft, steadily fucking the head of his cock through a snug fist, pumping with a stable rhythm and a slight twist that’s maybe still a little clumsy but as full of heart and zeal as Sawamura always is: a simple earnestness pronounced even more by a half-lidded gaze and colored cheekbones and carelessly wrinkled clothes. So absurdly, guiltlessly young and sincere, and Kazuya’s already in so deep, and excitement’s quickly pooling low in his belly and he’s only sinking deeper.

Kazuya reaches out to Sawamura and wraps fingers around his cock in return, closes around that blood-hot hardness with his own fist, and he supposes his hand mustn’t be as cold as before because no further complaint spills from Sawamura’s lips – only unapologetic, unashamed gasps.

It’s maybe peculiar, Kazuya thinks, to be stripped back layer by layer like this, how foreign it generally feels on a day-to-day basis unless he’s on the field – and when he’s with Sawamura, like he is now. He jerks Sawamura evenly in firm, slow drags, which gets a rosy flush dripping all the way down the taut angle of Sawamura’s throat; Sawamura lowers his head and his eyes smoothly slide to a close, like he’s losing himself in this, and it’s oddly charming in so many ways that Kazuya finds himself aching to drink it all in, to inhale it all until it melds into some part of him, merges with him, becomes his own.

The swelling heat between his thighs is getting way too irresistible to ignore now and he rocks shallowly into the warm circle of Sawamura’s palm, tight and enthralling in its grip around him: a brazen impulse that Sawamura almost instantly mirrors with a desperate whine, bucking his hips into Kazuya’s grasp to the point where so much pre-come is leaking from his cock onto Kazuya’s fingers, and it hazily crosses Kazuya’s mind that contrary to his last words, he’s not sure he can really picture giving this up. It’ll mean giving up Sawamura’s cheer, his presence, his smile: everything that Kazuya doesn’t always have in himself, that Sawamura’s easily slotted into the open spaces of so completely, like separate puzzle pieces coming together and connecting – as if they’re two halves forming one whole.

‘Mmm – you’re free to do what you want,’ Sawamura pants, voice teetering at the back of his throat and coming apart at the seams. ‘And you’d stay free. Besides, who knows if you come back, right? Ah … god, Miyuki.’

That, Kazuya muses, sounds dangerously like a set of choices that he’s more than welcome to decide between. Sawamura’s eyelids flutter open halfway and he gazes point-blank at Kazuya through dark lashes, with naked abandon tinting gold-lit irises, with eager hisses pouring from parted lips.

Seriously, though, he’s thinking too much. Sawamura’s skin is slick on his, summer-warm and gratifying; shaking his head free of those thoughts, he gives in to the sensuous contact, and lays all unnecessary doubts aside.

The air swirls all too coolly even in the relatively close expanse, and literally anyone might walk in on them at any moment, but they make do with it, this decadent little secret that they’re sharing in the belly of the locker room. They lean into each other, and in all honesty, Kazuya wants to draw out the sensation of Sawamura’s hand on him by concentrating his focus on anything else – on Sawamura’s earthy scent, the amber flare of his eyes, the unsteady tempo of his breaths, anything; but it proves completely futile, because it’s all still Sawamura, who always fills up his whole field of vision just by existing.

‘… Sawamura, ngh, yes—’

There’s only this, the coiling tension between his legs, the furling pressure in Sawamura’s body. And before he knows it, the fever in his nerve endings and in his blood and in his cock is blooming, mounting, skyrocketing, and just like that, Kazuya finds himself already hopelessly lost, already gone.

Heat pours over him in rivulets and his entire world narrows to Sawamura’s touch on him and his touch on Sawamura when he comes, warm and wet in Sawamura’s hand, with a long, jagged exhale through his teeth, with burning ecstasy rippling as deep down as the marrow of his bones. Unseen wings rouse; plumes rustle through air.

And Sawamura follows not long after that with a fiercer rasp of his name, spilling shamelessly over Kazuya’s palm within the next few hot, measured pulls of Kazuya’s fingers, and he’s striking, picturesque. Laid bare and honest, the way he always is on and off the diamond, right down to his very core: the way every lasting wave of euphoria is unabashedly chased in the final rolls of his hips, the way his jaw sets in a hard line, the way he latches a trembling, tight-knuckled grasp onto the back of Kazuya’s thigh as though he’ll otherwise be swept away. And then he’s left simply messy, wholly flushed and somewhat quivering, like he’s just ridden the intensity of throwing an outstanding pitch; loose-limbed, unwound and sated, like he’s just come out of a victorious game.

The locker room’s silent as dust settles in the aftermath, as their inhales and exhales tangle into each other’s, calmly filling the quiet of the empty space around them. And hardly even a moment’s gone by before hard rationality resets in the length of Kazuya’s spine, and he’s snapping back into place – practical, methodical, logical, tugging himself away so abruptly from Sawamura that cold tendrils of air are already twisting over his skin before his touch has even fully left Sawamura’s; but he pointedly ignores it, wasting no time in moving to retrieve a crumpled towel from his sports bag to wipe himself clean and quickly pulling his pants back into place.

Sawamura’s still propped against the wall, wrinkled fabric pooled midway down his thighs and lungs heaving deep, full breaths while he stares at Kazuya with obvious knowing.

‘You’re leaving pretty quickly, huh.’

‘What are you talking about,’ Kazuya answers in a level voice, buttoning himself up and raising an eyebrow. ‘We’re not even in your room right now.’

But he pauses for a single hesitating moment, and suddenly, he can’t help thinking about walking back to twine his fingers into Sawamura’s, to touch the tip of his nose to Sawamura’s, to serenely press his lips to Sawamura’s mouth. A soft, slow, tranquil kiss goodnight with no uncertainties behind it, that he doesn’t have to make reasons for, that he can pour his entire self into – everything that he’s locked up inside throughout all of his life, everything that he really shouldn’t say, everything that’s straining outward against his ribcage and is leaking through the cracks in the cool, crystal-hard stone of his skin.

But he chews down on his tongue, gathers his belongings and leaves the way he always does: without any sentimentalities, without any goodbyes, and without looking back.

His mind carries that faint kiss in nothing but a fleeting daydream all the way back to his dorm.

 


 

It’s when he’s trying and failing to fall asleep two nights later, tossing and turning restlessly amid the dim rumble of Sanada’s snores from across the room, that the mental image of a familiar molten gold gaze gleaming at him from sixty-odd feet away while he’s crouched in the catcher’s box pops into his head and doesn’t make any move to leave.

Really, he must be as much of a baseball idiot as Sawamura is, because with him, baseball seems to be all it ever takes. His body quickly abandons all pretense of wanting sleep and he quietly climbs out of bed; before he knows it, his legs are already moving of their own accord, leading him out of his dorm with his mitt clutched firmly in hand.

Sawamura’s still awake when Kazuya comes knocking, immediately greeting Kazuya with a once-over the moment he’s opened the door, all circular mouth and furrowed eyebrows and an inquisitive wrinkle to his nose. He steals a curious glance at the mitt and bluntly says, ‘And how do you plan on working that in?’

‘Mind out of the gutter, Sawamura. Believe it or not, that’s not why I’m here tonight,’ Kazuya monotones, but he can’t help the twitch at the corners of his lips, threatening to curve upward. ‘Are you tired? Feel like a casual session of catch?’

Sawamura’s already-large, glossy eyes visibly widen at that, and Kazuya knows that he doesn’t even need to ask twice.

You’d stay free. Kazuya’s known freedom: he’s felt it more times than he can count in the exhilaration of standing on the field, the thrilling adrenaline of the gameplay, the wind across his skin, the thunderous cheers from the stands. And this is no less free – stumbling onto the campus’ baseball field at a quarter to eleven with a spring in his step and too-loud conversations with Sawamura echoing into the late evening air, merriment thrumming underneath both of their collars and radiating from the tips of their fingers. It’s fine, maybe, to strip back the statistical numbers and the backbreaking training and the pressures of securing a place within the finals of some tournament for one night, just to enjoy the creak of the ball at their fingertips, the speedy gushes of air, the sturdy, reverberating smacks inside their mitts: simply playing like small kids would play.

‘No need to go overboard,’ Kazuya deadpans, with a gentle toss of the ball back at Sawamura. ‘You’re almost pitching seriously. Don’t strain your shoulder. We’re just throwing to catch.’

‘Ah? It must be in my bones then!’ Sawamura crinkles his eyes, grinning widely enough for all his teeth to flash pale white in the nighttime dark. He flexes his pitching arm with obnoxious enthusiasm, noisily declaring: ‘Maybe I’m a natural!’

Kazuya gives him a blunt stare, completely unmoved. And then, without even a second thought, he walks over and nonchalantly digs straight, stiff fingers right into Sawamura’s ribs.

The indignant squawk that scratches out of Sawamura’s throat is totally worth it. Sawamura springs away instantly, wearing a downright offended expression made up of the most poisonous glare, deep lines carving into his brow and lips tightly pressed together. But Kazuya lifts his hand and waves his fingers, giving Sawamura a blank, pointed look, and the tension on Sawamura’s face quickly sags in dreading realization; within seconds, the bones and muscles in Sawamura’s legs gradually start to heave – and then he’s running for his life, nearly smoke-footed in his hurry, bolting off as if he’s gunning for home. The edges of Kazuya’s mouth crease into a smirk, and he takes a deep breath before sprinting after him.

Around them, there’s nothing but a soft veil of shadows; in front of them, there’s nothing but the rolling field; above them, there’s nothing but the open, boundless sky. The cool air’s clear and exhilarating in their lungs, and even in the dead of night, it almost feels like they’re shining.

Like dawn and its beginnings. Like they’re little boys again, playing wild and carefree.

Go away, Miyuki Kazuya.’

‘Not happening,’ Kazuya drawls, gaining on him.

His legs are a little longer than Sawamura’s and it doesn’t take long for him to catch up. Soon enough, Sawamura quickly comes within easy reach and Kazuya stretches out both of his arms, grabbing at the other boy’s hips with claw-tight hands. Sawamura lets out a strangled yelp before they’re both plummeting forward from the momentum and tumbling onto the ground, arms and legs tangled into each other’s, bodies jumbled together in a dirt-streaked, flustered, panting mess: a triumphant victory.

‘… Caught you,’ Kazuya breathes into the folds of Sawamura’s sweater. His glasses are askew and he’s a little sore, but he’s grinning from ear to ear with hot gratification.

Sawamura glowers at him, but even then, there’s mild acceptance wrinkling itself into his pursed lips. ‘Yeah, you did.’

Deep red feathers flicker momentarily across the forefront of Kazuya’s imagination, and he has to wonder when it’d been, exactly, that the calculated brushstrokes of those plumes had started appearing more like real gossamer-light threads in his mind’s eye – almost tangible. He and Sawamura straighten themselves out, unraveling themselves from each other and putting their mitts down, and for a brief moment, they’re content to just lie wordlessly next to each other and savor the peaceful silence. But then Sawamura rolls over onto his side, elbow on the ground, propping his head up on one hand and watching Kazuya openly, unashamed; it looks comfortable, and Kazuya’s already shifting himself to mirror the position before he knows it, facing Sawamura with his free hand laid on the dirt between them.

‘This is fun,’ Sawamura says, reaching out and idly rapping Kazuya’s knuckles twice with his own. ‘Can we do more of these catching sessions?’

Kazuya turns his hand upward beneath Sawamura’s, so that they’re palm to palm, and patiently replies: ‘We basically did about ten minutes of catching before we got sidetracked.’

‘That’s okay.’ Sawamura’s mouth slants in an unimpressed way like he’s pointing out the most obvious thing in the world. ‘You’re here catching my throws. I’ll always take ten minutes of that over nothing.’

Sawamura’s fingers nudge through Kazuya’s, resting in the gaps between them without fully interweaving with them, and in the wake of that warmth, Kazuya’s somehow even more aware of the biting cold under his own skin.

‘But after the end of next week. I haven’t handed in this major paper thing that was due yesterday, yuck,’ Sawamura suddenly adds, pouting and petulant. ‘I’m a little screwed … I’m already late and they said I’m pretty much gonna fail the subject if I don’t hand it over in a week. There’s like, a couple of months’ worth of work that you need to put into it, but uh – I haven’t started.’

My god, that’s so typical,’ Kazuya says dryly, crumpling an eyebrow. ‘Need any help?’

‘Nah, I’ll manage! I’m sure you’ve got your hands full with your own schedule anyway. But after this, more casual catch, yeah? And maybe we could also do more of those late-night chats and stuff. As much as I really like – well, you-know-what – we haven’t actually done that in a while.’

Well, Kazuya can’t exactly deny that. Nearly all of his visits to Sawamura’s dorm these days end with Sawamura digging fingernails into his bare back and panting his name into his collarbone, but before all that, months ago, they’d buy soda from one of the hallway vending machines and bundle themselves into Sawamura’s room and just talk into the late hours of the night, relaxed and easygoing. The frequency of doing the latter’s somewhat dwindled nowadays, but something about their casual catch session tonight sure as hell feels a lot like those late-night chats as far as Kazuya’s concerned; everything considered, they’re both here, right now, where Kazuya’s chosen to be. And where Sawamura’s evidently also made the choice to be, too.

Out of the blue, Kazuya’s unexpectedly reminded of that choice offered back in the locker room – maybe a hidden, deep-rooted part of him has always known that it’s not just his choice to stay or leave, considering Sawamura basically also has the same choices laid out in front of him. Choices that he can easily make or refuse; at the end of the day, Kazuya’s not the only one with the freedom to walk away.

And suddenly, in some kind of bizarre fantasy, it’s as if Sawamura fades from his field of vision, and Kazuya's out here on his own, enveloped by shadows and wind and nothing but silence, and huh … how curious. The world seems a little stranger, the night sky a little darker, without the presence of that cheerful gaze and sun-kissed smile: a hallucination that rings with the same unsettling timbre as the deafening, empty quiet of his earlier years.

Sawamura’s absentmindedly tracing his thumb down the length of Kazuya’s, warm and serene, but a muddled knot of uncertainty twists itself inside Kazuya’s chest; his mouth curls, and he shakes off the strange sensation and slowly gets up onto his feet in one smooth movement.

‘It’s really late. We should probably start a little earlier next time,’ he says coolly, bending over to pick up his mitt.

Even without meeting Sawamura’s stare, the knowing, gold-tinted scrutiny runs hot at the nape of his neck.

‘… Yeah, okay. God, you sure like leaving quickly.’

‘Come on,’ Kazuya continues with a lowered gaze, his tone softening. ‘Otherwise you’ll catch a cold.’

He doesn’t wait, and doesn’t look back. He calmly turns on his heel and starts to walk off, and for a brief moment, he can’t stop the hesitation from simmering in his gut when he hears nothing in response. But then there’s a light rustling of movement and a set of quick-footed treads following him, almost wholeheartedly faithful and loyal in their synchronized timing with Kazuya’s own steps; whatever temperate relief he might feel at hearing that, though, is immediately flooded over by the frosty air nipping at his ears, the nighttime murk clouding his vision, the self-doubt leaking from his pores.

Which is why his face is still turned away once they get back to Sawamura’s dorm. The door of Sawamura’s room creaks open out of his line of view, accompanied a tentative mumble of: ‘Good night, Miyuki-senpai.’

And that’s when he stops in his tracks. No goodbyes, no looking back, no saccharine gestures – that’s been his chainmail, his safety blanket, his dark red bird. But for whatever reason, something gives way; a single block of ice in that wall steadily chips apart with a grinding crackle, and for once, he swallows over that reservation in his throat and murmurs, ‘Yeah. Good night, Sawamura.’

The words are almost like warm spun sugar in his mouth, subtle and light. There’s a long, stunned pause, but Kazuya makes sure not to leave until he hears the door eventually click shut behind him.

 


 

When Sawamura had arrived on campus for the very first time nine months back, Kazuya had cheekily welcomed him to university life by turning up at his dorm with two bottles of soda.

And Sawamura had glared at him with easygoing mock-distaste as if no time had passed at all, as if they hadn’t been separated for an entire year; it’d been easy for one late-night chat to become two, and then three, and then four, until they were indulging in several late-night chats a week even though they’d never really done anything like it back at Seidō.

Funnily enough, they’d never run out of things to talk about – numerous conversations veered toward the team that Kazuya had left behind at Seidō and Sawamura’s final year of high school; the team that Sawamura was entering here and Kazuya’s first year of university, including his battery with Sanada; victories, losses, gameplays, everyone’s general wellbeing, story after story for hours upon hours. A brief chat about Miyuki’s home life and a detailed description of Sawamura’s; the newest chart-topping songs they’d liked; the manga series they’d been following; the drama shows they’d been watching; even laid-back anecdotes about their respective university classmates and professors. Sometimes they’d play light, easy video games on Sawamura’s small television set while they’d rambled away into the evening, or they’d put on a movie for the simple wordless company. All in all, they’d always part ways at the end of the night in a relatively cheery mood.

Kazuya’s mild pats on the back and casual touches had always been the norm, but somewhere along the way, Sawamura had started returning them during those nights – each time nonchalantly, spontaneously, as though it’d always been that way. And it hadn’t been strange for Kazuya to also start slinging an arm over Sawamura’s shoulders as they’d sat together, with Sawamura comfortably leaning into him for hours as they’d talked. It still hadn’t felt strange when their chatter had eventually become littered with cozily interlaced fingers and half-shy, tentative, experimental kisses slipped in between murmured sentiments.

Then they’d crossed a line that they could never come back from, becoming whatever-they-are with benefits, and they’d never stopped since.

The week that Sawamura’s busy working on his paper is almost jarring – the first time in a long time that Kazuya doesn’t get to see him outside of practices. Frankly, he’s grown used to detachment throughout all the years, in self-imposed isolation, in half-hearted connections that aren’t really friendships, and in empty hallways that feel too wide; but somehow, the noisy corridors teeming with students seem even more silent and the close, narrow walls look even further apart than every instance of his usual seclusion. He can almost hear the ghosts of conversations that aren’t taking place, and feel the illusory touch of skin that isn’t pressed against his.

But Sawamura’s working hard, Kazuya knows. So it’s fine, even if he surprisingly finds himself helplessly impatient.

He doesn’t try to stop himself from visiting Sawamura immediately after the paper’s due, though, which Sawamura seems to pick up on, judging by the lopsided and knowing smile he gives the moment he opens the door. With somewhat gleeful teasing, his only greeting is, ‘Missed me, did you?’

Kazuya doesn’t dare answer that question, soaked to the bone with countless mental images of lying on the bed next to Sawamura until the afternoon grows dark around them, pressed close enough to count each of Sawamura’s eyelashes, and breathing warmth into the tips of Sawamura’s hair: a tranquil, delicate daydream.

Instead, he’s got Sawamura bent over the study desk in front of him twenty minutes later, with his fingers digging tightly into Sawamura’s sweat-dampened hips and both of their pants carelessly crumpled around their knees – and Kazuya can only think, it’s okay, right, because even when the time spent apart had only been so brief, their reunion sex has always been incredible and Sawamura is obviously as into this just as much as Kazuya himself is. This is just the way he prefers it, too, because taking Sawamura from behind means that Sawamura doesn’t see his face, which is likely for the best considering the way things are right now; Kazuya’s not too sure he can keep himself from completely unraveling otherwise.

And there’s always something so pure-hearted and guiltless about Sawamura, even like this. Sawamura can be obscenely bent over like he is now, spread-eagled and lewd and exposed, and still be so faultless in his vulnerable abandon, his honest wanting, his breathy pleas – an earnest openness that Kazuya’s seen in no one else, least of all himself. Kazuya can almost take hold of Sawamura’s ribs and pry them apart and run soft lips and a hot breath over that beating heart and he knows that Sawamura would readily let him. Sawamura’s as marvelously tight around him as his own constricting chest; as wantonly slick as every inch of skin where they’re touching; as full of undeniable aching as the wet heat that sometimes threatens to rise behind Kazuya’s eyes, but never does.

Kazuya can nearly argue that it’s no less beautiful than the serene conversations and sweet laughter that they’ve been sorely lacking in recent months, although in a totally different way.

‘… You alright?’ asks Kazuya later, as he’s sedately zipping himself up.

Sawamura’s still hunched over the table, palms laid flat on its wooden surface, but he looks up at Kazuya with mild reassurance, his expression hollow and unsmiling. ‘Yeah, that was great.’

Amber eyes slowly slip away and Sawamura doesn’t say anything else, seemingly fine with staying right where he is, panting and catching his breath. Leaving quickly again? he’ll usually say; he’s made similar comments so often that Kazuya, out of habit, actually pauses right where he’s standing to wait for them.

But this time, they don’t come.

Cool stray air glides over his collarbones, raising the fine hairs across his skin; it’s strange, how the room can feel so chilly and vacant even when Sawamura’s only a few feet away.

The cold pouring into his gut is already too much and he steps away and makes to leave, but all of a sudden, there’s a kindling spark somewhere in his bones – the subtle heat of that familiar innate urge, that irresistible temptation to at least glance at Sawamura one more time. Quickening heartbeats race in his throat and he lets go of that breath that’s sitting too tensely in his chest, of every firm muscle that’s pulled itself too taut, of every vague and muddy thought that’s probably clouding his judgment right now.

No goodbyes, no looking back, no sweet gestures, right?

So it’s even more peculiar for his hips to be unexpectedly pivoting of their own accord, turning him around until he’s already looking straight back at Sawamura before he knows it.

‘Bye, Sawamura. I’m off,’ he says with mellow ease. ‘Don’t sleep too late, yeah?’

Sawamura looks up with unabashed surprise and meets his stare, wide-eyed. An intriguing look suddenly stretches over his face, as if a multitude of indescribable emotions are skimming quickly across its lines and angles; and then, after a brief pause, he lets out a disbelieving, awed exhale, and mumbles, ‘Yeah … you too.’

Kazuya offers him a single nod, and allows himself to drink in just a little more of that liquid gold. He only breaks their gaze as he’s striding out and closing the door behind him.

 


 

‘… Gotta hand it to that guy,’ Sanada says without warning a few days later, somewhat too casually, while he and Kazuya are hard at work in the bullpen. ‘He’s pretty good at keeping his chin up, huh. Still running with his head held high and everything.’

Kazuya’s already lurching forward from the halfway momentum of throwing the ball back to Sanada, but he suddenly stops in his tracks and the ball doesn’t end up leaving his fingers at all. ‘Pardon?’

Sanada pointedly tips his head in the general direction of where Sawamura’s doing laps on the field, and flashes Kazuya a meaningful smirk. ‘He must be incredibly patient, having to put up with your fast thinking all the time.’

The playful dig at him is harmless, but he recognizes the comment for what it is – after all, it’s not like he can deny that even amid the slick heat and gratifying friction and desperate wanting of that indulgent afternoon that he’d spent with Sawamura in the locker room, his brain had been running a million miles a minute from start to finish.

Then again, there’s never particularly been a moment when he isn’t steering himself like a machine, calculating every one of his own steps and letting logic take priority over sentimental feelings, whether it’s on or off the field.

‘Things aren’t always straightforward and simple,’ he replies tonelessly, raising his arm again and tossing the ball back at last.

‘Is that so?’ Sanada counters with upbeat cheer, plucking the incoming ball right out of the air like it’s no sweat. He adjusts his cap, and rests his hand on a cocked hip. ‘Because it looks like he sees things in a pretty simple and straightforward way. If he likes you, he’ll let you in. That’s all there is to it, I’ve noticed.’

Well, Sawamura likes everyone, Kazuya thinks; but either way, Sanada’s right about that. And maybe whatever sixth sense is currently pulling at Sawamura’s attention has got some perfect timing, because Sawamura’s eyes flick over to them as he jogs past the bullpen – there’s a quick upward twitch to the corners of his mouth, fleeting and subtle but summer-bright all the same, before the moment slips by and he’s going, going, gone.

‘Yeah,’ answers Kazuya evenly. A mellow calm rolls inside his chest; he lets out a voiceless sigh, and says, ‘That stupid honesty’s always been who he is.’

Sanada pauses abruptly for a moment, as if he’s seen something unpredictable in Kazuya’s expression. Then, out of the blue, his face unexpectedly loosens, and he gives a gentle laugh.

‘You know, I might’ve made that jab about the painted bird looking more chill than you, but something’s different now,’ he teases. ‘Did he do that? There may be some hope for you yet.’

Kazuya frowns in reply, and even as he’s setting his mitt into place and curtly instructing, ‘Again,’ Sanada’s all easy grins and happy compliance.

It’s a little disconcerting, in a way, that Kazuya’s the one who shares a history with Sawamura in Seidō, and yet it’s obvious that Sawamura shares the same space as Sanada instead of him – standing in that simple world of primary colors, that foreign plane of naturally seeing things without numbers and rationalities and mechanisms, that colorful expanse that’s totally separated from Kazuya’s own black and white and grey.

Not for the first time, there’s an odd pang in his chest at the thought.

Somehow, Sawamura still seems unusually drained when Kazuya drops by for a visit later that evening, even though it’s been days since he’s completed his paper; Kazuya doesn’t even have to take a second look at the dark circles flowering under Sawamura’s eyes for his own stomach to prickle with something like regret. It’s too late, though, because Sawamura’s already meekly rubbing the back of his head and mumbling: ‘Hi. Sorry, I kinda – I don’t know if I have the energy for that tonight. Seriously, it’s been a long day.’

Obviously, Kazuya fully understands. Guilt had churned in his gut from the moment Sawamura had opened the door, looking more tired than Kazuya’s seen him in a long time; who knows if that’s some residual captain’s instinct from Kazuya’s Seidō days kicking in, or if it’s something more. In any case, he can hardly help the curious awe that trickles down his spine when he hears the rejection put into words, because until now, Sawamura’s never turned him down.

‘Of course,’ he answers in a level voice. The statement falls out of his mouth like it’s automatic, like it’s programmed into him, like some invisible wall’s just discreetly slid up; he’s lived his whole life with a rational, level head as it is, and he’s not about to stop by letting his emotions get too delicate now.

But Sawamura clearly isn’t having any of it. He throws Kazuya a blatantly unimpressed look, lips skewing at one edge and the space between his eyebrows scrunching up.

‘Idiot. Why do you look like that. I want to,’ he says with emphasis, sounding almost scolding. ‘Can’t believe I’m saying this, but it’s you – of course I’d want to. I mean like, always. I’m just really tired today and that’s probably not gonna feel good for you. It doesn’t mean that you can’t stick around.’

How typical, really, for Sawamura to be this painfully selfless by thinking of Kazuya’s comfort first and foremost. And on top of everything, that’s definitely no throwaway, offhand comment that he’s just made; Kazuya knows an honest and genuine offer perfectly well when he hears it.

‘… Alright. Just until you fall asleep.’

‘Sure,’ Sawamura answers, sounding pleasantly surprised. He takes a step back to let Kazuya in, and Kazuya excuses himself under his breath as he shuffles into the room; Sawamura then closes the door behind them and switches off the light, and even in the leaden darkness, Kazuya can see the soft curve of Sawamura’s barely-there smile as he gestures toward the bed.

He must be incredibly patient, Sanada had said. That’s what it really comes down to, Kazuya knows – in Sawamura’s laid-back comments about Kazuya’s quick departures even when he knows they’re inevitable, in the fact that he never seems frustrated or resentful over it, in still wanting Kazuya even when Kazuya’s given him plenty of reasons not to, in small half-smiles like the one he’s showing now. Honest, heartfelt, accepting smiles, like he’s well aware of what he’s gotten himself into. Like he’s more than ready to take it all as it comes, in the same way that he always trusts Kazuya whenever he’s standing opposite him on the mound.

Sawamura crawls into the blankets, and Kazuya follows, clambering in after him; it’s somewhat lovely, a first time, which Kazuya reckons is kind of amazing considering they’ve indulged in nearly every indecent thing in this bed, but they’ve never done this – a scene worthy of being painted and framed, along with all the other meaningful everyday moments that they’ve collected together. Sawamura soon settles enough for to Kazuya to fully wriggle in, chest closely pressing against Sawamura’s back and arm snaking around Sawamura’s waist, and Kazuya can only marvel at how unconcerned and comfortable Sawamura is with threading their fingers together.

‘… Is this okay? Isn’t my skin cold?’

‘Not as much as usual. God, this is weird, I didn’t think I’d actually be falling asleep with you here for once,’ Sawamura snuffles, his voice already stumbling with a drowsy weight. ‘You’d better watch out! At this rate, I’m gonna get to wake up with you here one day, too. Hey – maybe we can do this in your dorm as well sometime? You still haven’t told me where it is.’

‘Didn’t I tell you that it’d be awkward with a roommate watching,’ Kazuya deadpans. But then he raises a single eyebrow, drawling: ‘Unless you’re into that.’

Sawamura lets out a tiny wisp of gentle, amused laughter, the sound knitting itself into Kazuya’s gut with a peculiar sensation that’s maybe something close to fondness; he strokes small whorls onto the back of Sawamura’s palm, and for a moment, everything tapers to just this – in no time flat, whatever misgivings or insecurities may have been itching under his skin start to fade, waning until all that’s left is the two of them and the tiny, secret touches that they’re sharing in the darkness of the room.

‘Hey, not to be weird but … it’s funny how you’re always, like, far away and really not far away at the same time?’ Sawamura blurts out all of a sudden. ‘And even with your usual stinky attitude, you’re actually kinda incredible.’

Kazuya reflexively furrows his brow, even though Sawamura can’t see it. ‘Not sure whether to be offended or pleased.’

‘It’s a compliment – for once,’ Sawamura mutters, giving a loud, unrestrained yawn that rounds out his words, delicately plumps them up, makes them sweet and whole. ‘You’re always so … steadfast and stuff, I guess? I mean like, taking everything in stride and basically inspiring everybody, or whatever. The team really looks up to you, y’know? It was like that back at Seidō too … it’s like you’re on a different plane or something. Sometimes it makes me wonder why you’re into me.’

Kazuya’s world grinds to halt at that, freezing in place. His stomach plummets like it’s folding in on itself, stirs as if wings are suddenly unfurling inside his belly, stings as though sensitive feathers are leaving burning imprints all the way up to his thumping heart. His toes curl; he swallows, immediately sliding his eyes closed to stop any unruly emotion from bleeding through, and forces himself to heave in a slow, unsteady breath. His jawline sets firm, and he sorely nestles his face into Sawamura’s hair.

‘Moron. All of that …’ he whispers, rickety resolve cracking apart behind a deceptively clear voice, his hot exhale faltering at the back of Sawamura’s neck. ‘That’s my line.’

He hears a wordless understanding in the silence – an unspoken realization that both of them have their answers; Sawamura squeezes Kazuya's fingers, and Kazuya gently reciprocates, heart full and tender and heavy. They don’t say anything else, and lie there still, curled snugly against each other until Sawamura’s breathing slows, deepens, and he gradually slips into sleep.

It’s a long while before Kazuya can bring himself to pull back from Sawamura, tentative and hesitant and every bit reluctant to actually go. Biting his lip, he pointedly averts his gaze as soon as the natural heat of Sawamura’s skin starts to bleed away from his own: a gradual separation that’s hardly different at all from any other night that they’ve spent together recently, but for some reason he can’t explain, something about this is more pronounced than he’s used to, like bulkier weights dangling from his wrists.

He tiptoes out of the bed anyway, and is padding discreetly toward the door when he hears a languid rustling of sheets and a warm, smothered mumble drift over from behind him.

So he looks back.

Sawamura's still fast asleep, but he’s turned around in the bed to face Kazuya’s direction now, all lax muscles and sweeping lashes and sloppy, half-open mouth. And maybe it’s wrong, how Kazuya can fling up every wall in the world to shield himself whenever Sawamura’s awake, and now that Sawamura’s out cold it’s somehow easier to push them down a little, to strip away any lingering reservations until there’s barely any illusion left.

For months, he’d walked the road of no spoken goodbyes, no looking back … and no sentimental gestures.

But his feet are already taking him back to the edge of the bed before he can stop himself; he leans over, intertwining loose fingers into Sawamura’s and brushing his lips softly against the slant of Sawamura’s cheek.

‘See you tomorrow,’ he murmurs in a quiet breath, before he pulls back.

With that, he finally leaves. The small splash of garnet red in the hallway only just manages to touch his peripheral vision when he gets to his room; his eyelids lower halfway, and he idly chews on his tongue.

For once, Sanada doesn’t say a single word when Kazuya opens the door. A pleasant smile tugs at one side of his mouth, as though he knows something, but he doesn’t offer Kazuya anything more than that.

 


 

In the end, it’s a totally random phone call that does it. Kazuya thinks it’s funny, how events can sometimes just play out like this, to the point where he may actually be a little tempted to believe in fate despite the sharp-minded, ice-cool wall of rationality that he’s usually known for.

At any rate, he doesn’t really mean to be there at that exact time, when practice has finished and he’s already meant to have long left; he doesn’t mean to listen in, either. But he catches his own name spilling out of Sawamura’s mouth while Sawamura’s casually zipping up his fleece jacket, phone messily squeezed between his ear and his shoulder, and before Kazuya knows it, his body’s already frozen in place outside the doorway of the locker room.

‘… Well, Miyuki-senpai seemed to think so? He said my pitches were pretty impressive today! I’ll have to keep that up next practice. Huh? Oh … yeah, he’s – been doing pretty well. He’s always good.’ Sawamura’s voice unexpectedly softens at those last few words and a strange tranquility creeps over his face, despite the lack of a visible smile: a strikingly clear shift in tone, like a blustering whirlwind to a calm breeze in one fell swoop. It’s immediately followed, however, by a scandalized expression with such intense pinched-looking eyes and furrowed brows that it’s nearly comical. ‘Haaah, Harucchi, what are you asking. C’mon, stop saying embarrassing things! So gross and cheesy. If Miyuki-senpai heard you … we’re – no, maybe I’ll tell you if you come out for lunch with me sometime. Actually, I’m thinking of doing a random picnic tonight, yosh! Dunno, just feel like it. Wish you could join me!’

He supposes that all living, breathing things that move must have some built-in nature where they basically understand an imminent start or finish – in fights for survival, in self-preservation, in courtship rituals, in learning to fly. And there’s more to Kazuya’s honed instinct than whatever he puts into play on the field, because he can hear its approach, louder than any sound that his ears can catch: his own end, or maybe beginning, braided together like death and rebirth, like a fire-red phoenix rising from its own ashes, and it’s becoming pretty hard to tell the two apart.

Either way, it’s there. Resonating in Sawamura’s merry rambling like birdsong, simmering underneath his voice when Kazuya had turned into the main topic of conversation, trickling into his face in a way that almost rivals the expression he often wears when he’s playing the baseball he loves so much. Ghosting over the back of Kazuya’s neck in airy trills, shivering like an omen across the stretch of his skin.

He knows what’s coming.

Curiously enough, when he strolls back out to the field later that evening, Sawamura’s actually there, just as he’d said he’d be. Although it’s a pretty meager picnic that he’s set up: an old, tatty sweater used in place of a blanket; a small shoulder bag used in place of a basket; and judging by the array of chocolate and candy spread out at Sawamura’s feet, there’s no real picnic food to speak of. Kazuya clamps his teeth tightly together, a cutting sliver of breath escaping from the gaps between them, and he nearly laughs at the sight.

‘Shut up,’ Sawamura glowers, turning slightly to face him without really looking at him. ‘I just felt like doing something for myself, okay. And I actually haven’t eaten any of it. Turns out I’m not that hungry.’

There’s an unusual seriousness to the remark that turns Kazuya’s amusement into quiet respect; he wonders if Sawamura’s saying that he’d felt like giving himself a little extra cheer, that he’d wanted to indulge in some kind of happy recreation to help keep himself fixed and anchored. The surrounding air stills, unexpectedly filling with a swelling gravity that’s not completely Kazuya’s own, thick and undeniable.

He chooses not to answer at all, but it turns out he doesn’t have to: to his surprise, Sawamura suddenly stirs to life as if there’d been no pause in their conversation at all, enthusiastically scooping up the sweet snacks by the handful and dropping them into the open bag with blunt nonchalance. ‘Okay, I think I’m good. Come on! Let’s go.’

Kazuya nods, calmly watching Sawamura until he’s finished and all the food’s disappeared from sight; only then does he bend over to sweep up the bag by the handles, before extending his free hand to Sawamura without a second thought. Sawamura blinks at him in surprise as if there’s something in the action that Kazuya’s not aware of, as if the gesture’s somehow more intimate now than it’s ever been, and seeing Sawamura’s reaction, Kazuya’s caught by surprise too.

But he’s given no additional time to mull it over, because Sawamura reaches out and takes Kazuya’s hand in a firm-fingered grasp, palm hot against palm; Kazuya then hoists him up, and Sawamura rises in a single fluid movement, taking the dirt-streaked sweater with him on the way. And that’s that – they let go of each other and leave, serenely walking off side-by-side, letting themselves be enveloped by the off-black evening darkness and the cool nighttime air.

‘… How did you know I was out here, anyway?’ Sawamura asks, nose crinkling with equal parts laid-back curiosity and squinting suspicion.

‘I was walking past while you were on the phone,’ Kazuya says flatly, shrugging. ‘I actually overheard you mentioning it.’

‘So you specifically came all the way out here just to find me.’

Kazuya offers a dim smile at that, blowing a little puff of air through his lips while slinging an arm good-naturedly around Sawamura’s shoulders. ‘Am I the type to do something I don’t want to do?’

One of those homing doves indeed, just like Sawamura had told him a while back. All this time, he’s had the free will to go wherever he wants, but he’s somehow always found himself gravitating back to Sawamura no matter how persistent he is in leaving – it’s true what people say, maybe, that reaching a hand out to a wild bird long enough will get it accustomed to being there, unafraid and tame.

Sawamura’s mouth skews and he doesn’t answer, but he wraps an arm around Kazuya’s waist and gently nudges his head sideways against Kazuya’s ear. There’s something about the gesture that’s teeming with subtle affection and trust, so readily given like it’s second nature, soft and perilous all at once, and all Kazuya can think is how patient Sawamura is to be able to just sit and wait while he’s been struggling to figure himself out. While he’s been taking his own time getting comfortable with the hand that’s he’s continuously come back to. While he’s had shameless daydreams of staying there.

The thought rides on Kazuya’s back, clings to him all the way to Sawamura’s dorm. Neither of them really move to say anything as they enter the room and close the door behind them, half-reluctantly letting go and stepping back from each other; Sawamura gracelessly dumps his sweater onto his study chair, and Kazuya sets the bag down onto the desk, and that’s that – only a weighted silence follows, stifling and heavy and final. Out of nowhere, the collar of Kazuya’s t-shirt is suddenly tight around his neck, and the air in the room’s too thin to inhale.

He can feel it, the sharp pinch of every corner of himself being stretched open, unmasked and exposed, vulnerable and defenseless. Gradual submission bleeds from the cracks between his ribcage, and he releases a scrap of a breathy chuckle through his teeth.

‘I give in, Sawamura,’ he blurts out.

Sawamura stares at him, eyes wide. ‘What do you mean,’ he mumbles, low and rough, but there’s a concentrated intensity to his expression that makes it more than clear that he knows exactly what Kazuya means, and that he needs to hear it again just to make sure that he hadn’t heard wrong.

Kazuya reaches out to Sawamura’s elbow, sweeps over that toil-rough skin with the pads of his fingers, and slowly traces down the pendulous line of Sawamura’s forearm; then even further down, past the slender wrist where he can just about sense the blood coursing through in a quickening pulse, and all the way to the base of Sawamura’s thumb – which he closely curls long fingers around, nestling their palms together. Sawamura’s hand in his is consolingly warm, almost a reminder of the way they’re both here right now, breathing and alive and real.

‘It means exactly that,’ he murmurs, because he’s not sure that there’s any other way to say it. A laughably dull answer, especially coming from the usually analytical and quick-thinking Miyuki Kazuya, but sensible logic’s so far behind him at this point, leaving nothing but raw feelings in its wake. And for once, he welcomes it with arms as wide open as outspread wings. ‘It’s pretty obvious that you don’t have to chase anything. Because I’m not going anywhere.’

Sawamura’s breath snags with awe as if the entire universe has just moved in a different direction; he pulls out of Kazuya’s grip and both of his hands skim up over Kazuya’s shoulders, settling on each side of his throat and jaw, and that’s it, at last. Kazuya’s eyes calmly slide to a close and he doesn’t even have to wait a second longer before any ice that’s left in his gut is chipping apart in glistening shards, thawing and crumbling, dissolving and melting away – down and gone, until all that’s left behind is space for his lungs to actually breathe.

It’s almost surreal that he’s managed to get to this point, that he’s letting it all go, that he’s letting everything just be.

‘Oi, Miyuki Kazuya.’

He opens his eyes again only to be met with Sawamura’s purposeful and certain gaze, nearly a mirror image of that usual expression of resolve that he’s always wearing when he’s on the mound. Just Sawamura Eijun in the flesh, through and through, with never any ulterior motives or clouded intentions at any point in time. Sawamura leans in, dusky lashes lowering, and he carefully grazes his lips against Kazuya’s cheekbone.

‘… What the heck do I even do with you,’ he sighs, mouth pliant and breath hot against Kazuya’s skin. ‘Totally unbelievable. But hey, I sure as hell am not going anywhere either.’

It’s the most absurd exchange of love confessions ever, and Kazuya laughs incredulously, a short tangle of a sound shaking itself free at the peak of his throat. He can’t help recalling that strange fantasy of Sawamura gradually fading from his view, leaving him alone in the evening-cloaked field: a needless uncertainty that now seems like a translucent mirage, as far away as a forgotten dream. Sawamura’s always been the constant, really, as unswerving in everything as whenever he’s standing center stage on the diamond – the ball can stray and fly anywhere like an untamed bird, and yet, it’ll still always come back to the pitcher and his steady hand when everything resets. A homecoming.

God, all of him is so full to overflowing that he seriously just wants to kiss Sawamura right now, so he shifts forward, brushing the tips of their noses together in a feather-light, serene caress, before closing the gap between them. In all honesty, he’ll never be able to get enough of how incredible it always feels for Sawamura to kiss him back and to see every bit of proof that Sawamura wants this just as much as he does; Kazuya’s hand comes up, securely closing over the one that’s laid on his shoulder, and he twines his fingers with Sawamura’s, lax and honey-sweet and heartfelt.

Everything considered, it’s such a seamless fit that Kazuya doesn’t even have the words for it. A kiss that’s exactly right in more ways than one, because this, he realizes, is the very same kiss that he’d imagined but turned away from that day in the locker room – the kiss that has no reservations behind it, that he doesn’t need to make excuses for, that he’s able to funnel all of himself into when he’d tried to push everything down and tried to dismiss it before. A thousandth kiss, but also a first, new and terrifying and beyond perfect.

‘Good,’ he whispers against Sawamura’s mouth. And he can feel the easy bend of Sawamura’s grin against his own lips in response, a full smile that’s no longer mostly half-there to help keep things grounded: content, complete, like he’s altogether whole, like he’s slotted himself into Kazuya’s gaps until they’ve both taken the shape of their truth.

Then again, even when Kazuya’s clothed himself in a pelt of illusion, he’s never actually been an illusion, and he knows that now. It’s more than clear when he’s currently molting and shedding it all away, shrugging off the sliding, cracking skin of the trompe-l’œil and breaking out of his self-painted portrait in a whirlwind of ruby feathers, as red as his pulsating lifeblood: a flight of freedom with Sawamura at his side, as boundless as the open sky above them, as real as what they have between them.

Sawamura eventually breaks the kiss and moves to Kazuya’s cheek with a pleased hum that tremors against its hollow like a lush song, before he starts to fiddle with the hem of Kazuya’s t-shirt in clear suggestion, and then drops his hand down to Kazuya’s fly – playful fingers unashamedly imploring, coyly flirting with his pants, and discreetly, deftly unclasping them. ‘How long have you wanted to say it?’

‘Don’t know,’ says Kazuya hoarsely. Except he does know. ‘Maybe always.’

‘What a jerk,’ Sawamura deadpans, his tone dry, although Kazuya can see forgiveness and understanding written across his face. He calmly hooks bent forefingers into the belt loops of Kazuya’s waistband and pulls him along, guiding him over to the bed. ‘Sure took your time.’

‘Guess I did.’ The admittance is a little wistful; Kazuya wrinkles his nose as he sinks onto the mattress. ‘I’m here, though.’ Pretty much wherever you are, believe it or not, he nearly says, but he doesn’t, because he’s sure that Sawamura can tell well enough.

‘Yeah,’ Sawamura breathes. He climbs onto the bed with Kazuya, bracing a sturdy hand on Kazuya’s ribs and gently pushing him back with his fingertips. And Kazuya readily complies, letting himself be pressed down until he’s supine; the air spilling from Sawamura’s lips wavers, as frayed as though there’s an ache squeezing his lungs, as hefty as though his whole chest cavity is flooding over. ‘Yeah.’

Kazuya pulls Sawamura down to him, and maybe he’s being generously spoiled with a lot firsts tonight, because this is more or less the same while simultaneously being so different from almost every angle. There’s still a familiarity to the tantalizing glide of lips over the shell Kazuya’s ear, and to Sawamura’s heady scent and taste as Kazuya tongues fever into the underside of his jaw; to Sawamura’s touch all over him, around him, above him, like a swelling wave; to Sawamura’s knuckles flitting across his waist, and Sawamura’s hands joining Kazuya’s, together, in messily tugging Kazuya’s pants and underwear away from lean hips and wiry legs; to Sawamura moving his way in and nestling himself between Kazuya’s naked thighs – everything that he’s used to, but is definitely new and novel now, without any doubt.

And it’s almost an overwhelming relief, too, to be given a single teasing open-mouthed kiss with Sawamura’s teeth catching on his lower lip, to have purposeful fingertips drift over his lower belly while Sawamura slides himself down, down, and to relish in the sensitive press of lips on the curve of his hipbone right before Sawamura takes his cock into his mouth, which has Kazuya gasping and twisting rigid fingers into Sawamura’s hair in no time flat. He’s already slipping, dark vignette at the edges of his eyes and spine pulling taut while Sawamura holds his quaking hips steady and slowly licks him to hardness, hot and indulgent and easily coaxing him to life. Truth be told, even though there’s nothing but this, it’s also so much, smoldering at all his nerve endings and trembling to the lowest layers of his skin with oversensitivity.

God, Sawamura—’

No lie, he can probably come just from this.

But he’s already helplessly rolling his hips up into that tight, wet heat, chasing that decadent gratification even when he wants to pace himself enough for this to last, because damn if he isn’t going to savor every moment of this like he’s always meant to. Sawamura’s hand then withdraws from the apex of his thigh, and even without looking, Kazuya can tell by the way Sawamura’s shifting and his mouth is stumbling in its movement that he’s quickly working his own pants free and wrapping firm fingers around himself, and that he’s indulgently stroking his own cock in time to the languid tempo measured by his tongue.

At the end of the day, it seems like Sawamura’s somehow worked his way right into that crux where Kazuya’s baseball lives, too; after all, baseball has always stitched itself into his bones and muscles and taken root in the deepest nooks of his heart, and now, without necessarily being conscious of it, Sawamura’s also sinuously melded into him there – that core of his whole being where his true self always sits unshakable, where he still has the soul of a little boy with constellations sparkling in his eyes and in his dreams. Where the sweat-dampened touches and delicious friction accompanying what they’re doing now can pour across his entire worldview, to the point where everything else around him is already receding from his field of vision, gladly forgotten.

He only vaguely registers, amid that haze, that Sawamura’s shifted back up and is leaning over him to dig through his bedside drawer without him having really noticed, which sparks a bubble of laughter in his throat that he physically has to bite back. Because he’s finally gotten distracted enough to step over the threshold to that far-off world of primary colors that Sawamura inhabits – and Sanada and nearly everyone else too – where there are no complex calculations or computer-fast analyses or too much thinking.

And hell, right now, he doesn’t want to think of anything. Not when he can relinquish it all and just feel.

So he lets every last leftover thought go, as surprisingly easily as he’s losing any residual grip on himself, until there’s only this. There’s only Sawamura, an exquisite portrait of pink-flushed ears and eager impatience and Kazuya’s downfall, a picturesque work of art that Kazuya’s badly craving to hang up on every wall in existence; thrill lights up Sawamura’s eyes as his slicked-up fingers stick Kazuya deep, an expression that’s so unfairly stunning that Kazuya’s already keyed up with almost no effort at all. There’s only Sawamura graciously bending down to give Kazuya’s nose a sentimental rub with his own, and Kazuya licking wetly, softly into Sawamura’s mouth, their hot, damp breaths intermingling between them, hanging in that slip of space like a curtain of stars. There’s only the two of them walking this very thin tightrope together: Sawamura keenly, reverently grinding into him with a broken whisper of Miyuki, Miyuki spilling from his lips like a prayer for mercy, and kindling a building heat between Kazuya’s thighs; he sucks in a wisp of air through his teeth and leisurely folds his legs up and around Sawamura’s hips, warmly rocking against him in answer without having to think twice. There’s only Kazuya’s guttural moans of ‘Come on, come on, Sawamura,’ – and Sawamura lining himself up and carefully pushing into Kazuya’s body not long later, finally, and the tense, tight pressure that comes with it is maybe the best thing that he’s ever felt, generously washing away any other soreness that he might’ve carried in his chest.

Although whatever emotion’s replaced it is probably nakedly visible in his face right now, because Sawamura suddenly leans in, delicately laying his forehead against Kazuya’s, before pressing his lips once to each of the barely-there, unexpected pinpricks of moisture beading at the corners of Kazuya’s eyes.

‘You okay?’ Sawamura pants, cheeks flushed with shameless wanting, voice raspy and uneven and submerged in small, shallow hisses. His gleaming yellow-gold gaze fixes straight onto Kazuya in considerate attention, and Kazuya reckons that maybe it isn’t so bad to always be openly looked at like this, especially when he knows that somewhere along the way, he’s become the apple of that eye.

He leans up to Sawamura, unraveled and breathless, and appreciatively kisses the edge of his mouth with a heartfelt grin. ‘Of course.’

Blunt nails trace along Sawamura’s waist and Kazuya brings his arms around him, exhaling all kinds of pleading surrender into the summit of his throat; he coils long fingers into the bare skin at the base of Sawamura’s spine and holds Sawamura tight against him while they move together, until he can all but sense their racing heartbeats blending like melody and harmony, because Sawamura will feel like he’s a world away if they’re not this closely pressed together, and settling for that is completely out of the question. But then again, he knows he’ll always be right where Sawamura is, just as Sawamura will always be right where he is, too.

Yeah, he’s more than okay.

A glimmering spectrum of pigments paints across his vision, flawless brushwork filling his sight with every color in existence and with the slow burn of white, and he’s never been better.

 


 

… Miyuki-senpai?

The mellow murmur’s all it takes to pull him out of his star-kissed dreams – misty mental flashes of a familiar and entrancing silhouette throwing him a scorching pitch; the ball breaking into color right before his eyes; and the creaking leather rupturing into a vivid shower of blood-red plumes. Crimson smudges fall like rain, drifting onto his shoulders and gliding against his cheekbones, and he blearily stirs awake, gradually opening his eyes to warm fingers sweeping stray locks of hair away from his forehead and to a serene, amber-dappled stare.

‘—Ah … my bad. I must’ve dozed off,’ Kazuya mumbles, rasping voice still rough with sleep and hazy thoughts as airy and fluffy as cotton wool; the smears of dark red ripple behind his eyes and dissolve in stretched, thinning threads before fading out of sight, melting away and leaving nothing but a pale afterimage.

Sawamura lets out a light, affirmative hum, and moves to pull his hand away. ‘No biggie. But wow, I’ve never seen you like that – like you have your guard down, or something. Not gonna lie, it’s kinda refreshing.’

Even though the sentiment vaguely echoes Sanada’s offhand comments about how relaxed he may or may not look, Kazuya doesn’t have it in him to find it tiresome or annoying at all; funnily enough, maybe it is just as refreshing as Sawamura says it is. Sawamura’s just barely pressed against him, his body heat rolling in the narrow crack of space between them while he watches Kazuya with tranquil patience, a slow bloom of sunflowers in his eyes and a peppering of pastel-soft stars from the overhead light shining on the curve of his lips. Kazuya casually shifts in the sheets onto his side, turning so that the two of them are fully facing each other, and he reaches out to lightly skate his knuckles down the jut of Sawamura’s hip.

‘… I’m in dorm twelve,’ he says.

Sawamura’s entire face suddenly goes slack with obvious surprise.

‘It’s in the next building. There’s a painting right outside the room … some fancy-looking red bird flying off a branch.’ Just an artwork, he muses. An exquisite masterpiece worthy of being beheld, admired and appreciated – but only that. It’s funny to think that he’ll walk past it from now on and it won’t set off any more weird thoughts; not when every optical illusion’s now been peeled away, not when only the raw truth’s been left behind, not when he’s opened his doors to let another heart in and Sawamura’s effortlessly managed to fill that stark, vacant space that he’s always stayed quiet about and locked away. ‘Come over tomorrow. Or whenever you like. We can chat all night, or we can do this again … or both.’

Both sounds pretty great. I’ll have to remember to bring some soda,’ Sawamura replies, eyelids sinking low with subdued cheer, pupils dilating to full and dark and charming. He shuffles in a little closer and idly skims his fingertips across Kazuya’s collarbone, adding: ‘What about your roommate, though?’

‘Sanada’s pretty laid-back. I don’t think he’ll make a fuss about clearing out for the night if I tell him you’re coming. Or we can just come back here if we want to be considerate. I’m good with anything, really.’

Sawamura lets out a single incredulous chuckle, clipped short but altogether rich with amusement. ‘All this time, your roommate was Sanada-san.’

The sunny merriment on his face is so bright that it gets Kazuya’s stomach inadvertently fluttering with unexpected affection, like they’ve always been this comfortable and cozy with each other – like they’ve never been just friends with benefits. Then again, Kazuya’s aware that that goes without saying, given that they still have all their years of staunch partnership; their victories and milestones worth celebrating; their losses and tears of pain; their relaxed conversations and stubborn banter and easy laughter; their leisurely evenings spent together without putting any labels on themselves. And they’ve always held everything between them, in an unspoken kind of understanding. In any length of time that they’ve shared with each other. In moments like these.

‘… So, anyway. I woke you up ‘cause I know you’d wanna hurry back as usual, right?’ Sawamura boyishly rubs the back of his head until his hair’s all mussed, and visibly swallows past the pink flush smearing down his throat. ‘If you feel like heading off, then … uh. Don’t let me keep you or anything.’

Kazuya stills at that, heartbeats pulsing up to the roof of his mouth, and he looks back at Sawamura with a single spark of muted hope in his chest.

‘Actually, if it’s alright with you, I—’ he starts, and then has to pause; something close to trepidation drips down all of his ribs, but he twists tense fingers into Sawamura’s blanket and pushes on anyway. ‘Can I stay?’

Anyone will think he’s just parted the seas, the way Sawamura’s breathing instantly slows in reaction, the way his eyebrows slant and his lips helplessly part in unfamiliar wonder, the way every corner of his face unrolls as if he’s soaring. Though it’s strange, to think that such a simple request can mean as much to Sawamura as it does to him, considering he’s spent all of his twenty years not really expecting anyone to actively keep him in their thoughts or anything – a state of mind that he’s long accepted as reality, that he’s simply gotten by with all this time without a second thought.

‘Are you dumb or something. Why do you make it sound like you don’t belong,’ Sawamura answers, the words crystal-clear and full of conviction, but slightly tremulous. He’s pointedly patting the thin gap between them on the bed in an obvious gesture, but his other hand’s automatically moving as if it’s a natural reflex, as if he’s not aware of it, and he firmly presses at his own chest with the back of his knuckles. ‘The space here’s pretty much always been reserved for you. How stupid. You should already know that.’

Maybe a part of him has always known, deep in his gut and along all the ridges of his spine – just as he’s also always known, without question, that the feeling's definitely mutual; Kazuya nearly gives in to an unexpected urge to push at his own sternum, too, and that silent throb behind it.

Huh, look at that. Seems like Sawamura’s going to wake up with Kazuya next to him tomorrow morning after all, and likely many mornings afterward. Just as he’d predicted.

Kazuya tips forward, tracing his thumb over the rise of Sawamura’s shoulder, and gently nudges his nose to the back of Sawamura’s ear; he then lightly trails his mouth down its shell, heating the earlobe with a voiceless sigh and letting the softness of it collect in the gap between his lips. Sawamura closes around the wrist of Kazuya’s other hand with sturdy fingers, breath catching with unmistakable gratification, before extracting himself just marginally and letting out a small, thrumming laugh against Kazuya’s cheek.

It’s somewhat infectious, and Kazuya pulls back, the edges of his mouth quirking a little. ‘What?’

‘Nothing. It’s just—’ Sawamura beams, as radiant as a summer’s day and as vibrantly alive as a curling, licking flame. ‘… So warm. You feel really warm.’

Unexpectedly, it’s true, he realizes; it’s as if his body’s never held a memory or trace of cold at all. There’s only a solid warmth, tightly meshed into the breath issuing from his lips, radiating from his nerve endings and the tips of his fingers and toes, seeping out through all the pores of his skin. And honestly, it feels pretty good. He reaches up and slides a knuckle over Sawamura’s jawline, tender and admittedly more than fond; with a smile, he leans in again, this time to kiss Sawamura, and Sawamura doesn’t even hesitate to come meet him halfway.

It’s said that if a bird continually comes back to the person who’d set it free, then they’re the place that it considers home. They're the one that it’s given its heart to. They're the one who’s allowed to take that heart and keep it.

Yeah, sounds about right, Kazuya thinks, serenely creasing the corners of his eyes.

He can most definitely live with that.