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San Francisco feels so much better with Sawamura next to him, a richer and more vibrant city in every way that matters. Since the off-season had begun, Kazuya had wandered from task to task, trying to make himself a home in a city where he’d felt consistently a visitor, waiting and waiting for the season to resume.

But with Sawamura, whose magic had torn down Kazuya’s walls through the sunshine of his smile, new pieces of home appear everywhere they go, and suddenly Kazuya remembers how much this city had called to him. It’s because, he thinks, Sawamura had written his name all over the San Francisco they’d discovered together, and maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that Kazuya falls so in deeply in love with something Sawamura’s claimed.

Sawamura, let loose on Kazuya’s life, makes too much noise in the Japanese grocery stores. He draws the wide-eyed stares of several of the shopkeepers, who recognize him on sight and go out of their way to pretend like they don’t. He drags Kazuya to Japantown so he can energetically explore the Japan Center, and makes him take purikura photos in almost all the booths until they have about two-dozen stickers, decorated with cat ears and sparkles and Hello Kitty frames.

Sawamura sticks them all over his mobile phone case, and later that night, picks a particularly rainbow-colored one to slap on the front of the informal gym record book Kazuya keeps for the both of them with their weights and reps, glaring on the black pleather binding. “You look handsome in this one!” he declares, when Kazuya gives him a look. “And smiley!”

“You drew tanuki ears on me,” replies Kazuya, snatching the book away before Sawamura can add any more purikura adornments. He doesn’t peel it off, though, instead smoothing a piece of packing tape over it so it won’t come unstuck.

Sawamura cajoles him out to movie theaters, and then bickers with him about how much butter belongs on American style popcorn, or which Marvel superhero is the best one, even though neither of them have ever seen any of the other movies because they’ve always been too busy doing something baseball related instead. Kazuya, who hasn’t been to the movies since he was a first-year in university, shoves popcorn with too much butter into his face and watches the special effects with squinted, skeptical eyes until he catches a glimpse of the wonder on Sawamura’s face. Ignoring the butter on his fingers, he laces their hands together there in the dark, and when Sawamura rests his head on Kazuya’s shoulder, he doesn’t even flinch.

On the first full weekend of his visit, Sawamura makes Kazuya go to every Asian bakery in a ten kilometer radius, including the ones in Chinatown, and try all the meat buns until he finds one that he thinks tastes like Japan. Then he licks that taste out of Kazuya’s mouth later that afternoon in the shower, kissing Kazuya with his back against the tiles as Kazuya opens him up with four slippery fingers to take the girth of his cock.

And when Sawamura sits on Kazuya’s kitchen counter, heels slapping against the lower cabinets, and nibbles at side-dishes, making a nuisance of himself as Kazuya cooks, or angles himself into Kazuya’s space, chin digging into Kazuya’s shoulder while Kazuya replies to his e-mails, Kazuya doesn’t need to make space for him. There has been space there from the start, in Kazuya’s house and in Kazuya’s bed and in Kazuya’s life, only waiting for Sawamura to fill it.

Kazuya doesn’t want him to ever leave.

And because it’s them, and there has always been baseball at their core, they also spend long hours at the Giants’ private training facilities or the stadium itself. The staff is happy to see Kazuya dragging Sawamura into the batting cages to show him the equipment, or setting up in the indoor pitching gym to work on the vulcan grip. It’s all a part of wooing Sawamura, in their eyes, and Kazuya takes shameless advantage, unable to get enough of being this close to Sawamura on the field again. He calls for pitch after pitch, and looks forward to next season with a passion he hadn’t even acknowledged had been missing, wanting more than anything to challenge the entire major league with Sawamura’s best balls slamming into his mitt.

After Kazuya and Uematsu put the minor league prospect, a potential early addition to their 40-man roster, through his paces the second week of Sawamura’s visit, Sawamura teaches the kid a new core exercise with the medicine ball to improve his velocity. The prospect looks at him with the same wide, glistening eyes Sawamura turns on Chris, and Kazuya doesn’t bother hiding his snicker as the two gleefully exchange e-mail addresses. Sawamura is pleased and overwhelmed by the kid’s blatant adoration, and Álavarez and Bochy’s blatant approval makes Kazuya feel warm with pride at how far Sawamura’s come from that middle school kid who hollered his way into Kazuya’s life.

“So are we keeping Sawamura?” Álvarez asks, slyly, when he catches Kazuya in front of the men’s restroom, taking slow sips of water as he waits for Sawamura to come back out so they can head back to the weight room. “He’ll sign with us, right?”

“Yeah.” Kazuya grins at Álvarez, bringing his hand up to his neck, where the bites Sawamura has left there over the past week are covered by the high neck of his compression shirt, and thinks about Sawamura promising to stay as close to him as he can. “It would be completely safe if you held your breath,” he replies, with a confident tilt to his hip.

Sawamura walks out to Álvarez laughingly giving Kazuya a high-five as he walks away, and he tugs on the belt of Kazuya’s practice uniform insistently, demanding to know what’s so funny.

“Your face,” Kazuya tells him, and then lets a sputtering Sawamura drag him back to the weight room, where the prospect is trying out his new exercise.“He’s your student, Mr. Ace. You don’t need me~!”

“I always need you,” Sawamura says, knuckles digging into Kazuya’s waist as he tries to hurry him along by the hold he has on his belt. “We’re a team, aren’t we?!”

With a sigh to release the rush of happiness that bubbles up from the center of his chest, Kazuya concedes to the inevitable. Concession is something he reserves for Sawamura’s particular brand of attack. “Yeah, we are,” he says with a sigh, picking up his pace and falling into step with Sawamura right before they get to the double-doors.

Another concession comes a few days later, when Sawamura decides that the townhouse needs furniture, and that it can’t possibly wait. He wakes Kazuya up at a godless time of morning, hours before Kazuya would get up of his own volition, with his mouth around Kazuya’s cock, mumbling ”you need rugs for your bathrooms, Miyuki Kazuya,” into Kazuya’s ballsack, saliva dripping down his chin and onto Kazuya’s inner thighs.

Kazuya just laughs at him, gasping, muscles in his stomach trembling with the effort of not fucking up into Sawamura’s mouth, and replies “not until after lunch, idiot,” with a smile that shows all his teeth.

Kazuya’s not sure he’s ever been into a furniture store before, but Sawamura has already looked up four on his phone and pinned them in his ‘Citymapper’ app by the time they start eating lunch side by side at Kazuya’s kitchen island.

Grains of rice stick to Sawamura’s lips as he snags Kazuya’s phone to download it for him. “Regular GPS apps don’t tell you the best way to walk or bike places safely,” he tells him, as Kazuya rolls his eyes. “It’s efficient, efficient!”

“You think all sorts of apps are efficient.” Kazuya takes Sawamura’s phone and types in the passcode he remembers from Sawamura’s old phone. It works, and he scrolls through three pages of unorganized applications with his thumb instead of thinking about how much that represents how little Sawamura has ever tried to lock him out. “You have five-hundred of these damn things.”

“They’re fun!” Sawamura sets Kazuya’s phone back down, but doesn’t ask for his own back, picking up his chopsticks to continue eating his lunch.

“So you have time for all these apps, but you still won’t answer your texts?” Kazuya grins at the red badge notifying Sawamura of fifteen unread messages in his inbox. “How many of them are from your new pitcher boyfriend, hmm?”

“I don’t have an international phone plan, so he can’t text me!” Sawamura spits rice onto the counter. “And the only boyfriend I have is you!”

Being called Sawamura’s boyfriend again for the first time in so long is a flutter in his belly, a trickling excitement down his spine that has him shivering slightly as he locks Sawamura’s phone again. “I suppose you’d prefer if people hand-wrote you letters and mailed them every couple of days, wouldn’t you?” Kazuya slides Sawamura’s phone back across the table.

“Or plants,” says Sawamura, quietly, and when Kazuya’s gaze darts over at him in surprise, Sawamura smiles at him. “I thought my ribs were going to crack from how fast my heart was beating when I got that shiso in the mail, even if there wasn’t a letter at all!”

“How violent, Sawamura!” Kazuya picks up his soup spoon and mixes the chicken stew he’d unfrozen from last week in his bowl to disperse the fat that’s floated to the top. “You really do have a flair for the macabre, don’t you?”

Sawamura taps his feet impatiently against the metal rung of the island stool. “I have a flair for lots of things!”

“Like being noisy,” Kazuya agrees, stuffing a piece of chicken into Sawamura’s mouth with his fingers and laughing at him, at least until Sawamura flicks his tongue out to lick them clean and laughing quickly drops down Kazuya’s list of priorities.

An hour later, despite having mapped out three different walks they can take to every single one of the nearest furniture stores, they still end up taking Kazuya’s car, and he wishes they hadn’t when Sawamura insists on buying every San Francisco Giants related blanket, throw pillow, or home decor item he can find along the way. He’s content to fill up the back seat with far too much detritus for a house with no shelves and only one chair.

“Your house looks like you’re renting it!” Sawamura says, when Kazuya gives him an exasperated look over a pennant flag meant to be hung on the wall.

Kazuya takes the flag and puts it back on the shelf. “It’s our house,” he says, pitching his voice lower, making Sawamura stop his perusal of oddly shaped tea-lights. “And it doesn’t need to look like a sports bar to look like we live there, okay? We can do it bit by bit. We have time, remember?”

Sawamura, gripping a candle that smells like pumpkins, a leftover from early fall, gives Kazuya an open, vulnerable look. “I remember!” He sets the candle down. “Only, the Giants, they’re our team now, and it’s what I dreamed of! I can’t help it! I want to be reminded of the fact that we both ended up here every single time I open my eyes, and I want you to be reminded, too!”

“I don’t need the reminders,” Kazuya says, firmly. “All I have to do is look at you.” Sawamura’s resulting smile is so bright he wants to shield his eyes.

When they actually start looking at furniture nearly forty minutes after they arrive, Sawamura’s still smiling. He hauls Kazuya into the section for sofas and insists on trying each and every one of them, and Kazuya’s too amused at his careful deliberation to actually mind the process.

“Furniture should be comfortable, Miyuki Kazuya!” he declares authoritatively, patting the seat next to him on a long, navy sofa with high arms. “This sofa is much better than the last three! Sit down and try it!”

“Aren’t you taking this a little too seriously?” Kazuya asks, but he sits down next to Sawamura on the sofa anyway. “There are a million other things to choose, too. Are you going to be this picky about everything?”

“Sofas are very important!” Sawamura runs his palm along the sofa cushion between them, his mouth in a pout of concentration as he tests the navy fabric. “The only thing more important is the bed!”

Kazuya smirks at him, and slides his hand over until his pinky bumps Sawamura’s. “Oh really? Why’s that?”

Sawamura looks at him out of the corner of his eye, and his neck flushes. “For sleeping! This Sawamura Eijun is a professional athlete, and it’s necessary to take care of my physical condition!”

“I see, I see,” replies Kazuya, discreetly curling his pinky around Sawamura’s, watching as Sawamura’s pout turns into a small grin, crinkles appearing at the corners of his eyes. “So how is this one, Mr. Professional Athlete?”

“It’s soft!” Sawamura nods, and tightens the link between their pinkies. “But not too soft! So it’ll be good for lying on the couch and watching movies together!”

“I’m not watching vapid rom-coms with you,” Kazuya lies, as Sawamura turns to look at him, outraged.

“Romantic comedies are not vapid!” His nose is wrinkled, and his eyebrows are pulled together. “They’re cheerful and enjoyable and have happy endings! There’s nothing wrong with happy endings!”

Snickering, Kazuya separates their hands, and leans in the opposite direction to examine the tag with the sofa’s purchase details that hangs from the arm. “It comes in beige, navy blue, and black, if the color matters too.”

“Of course the color matters!” Sawamura stands up and then spins around, squatting into a crouch in front of Kazuya so he can examine the sofa’s wooden legs. “What if we want to get a dog?! Dark colors show shedded hair easily!”

“So would light colors.” Kazuya blows a piece of hair that has escaped his hair-tie out of his face. “And we’re not getting a dog.”

Sawamura’s jaw juts out stubbornly. “Well, not now,” he says. “We’re going to have away games and stuff like that! But what if one day we want a dog?!”

“I’ll pass.” Kazuya pokes him with the toe of his Converse. “That pretty foxglove is poisonous to actual animals, and besides, I already have a dog~!”

“I’m not a dog!” Sawamura grabs his ankle and pulls, and Kazuya laughs, letting himself be dragged until he’s slumping, back curled in the bend of the sofa where the back cushions meet the seat. “Miyuki Kazuya, don’t you care about what kind of sofa we buy for… for our house?!” He says the our defiantly this time, as if there was some possible universe where Kazuya might take that back.

“I really, really don’t,” says Kazuya, and when Sawamura’s eyes narrow, he offers up a lopsided grin, more sincere than he’d normally want to be. “I already have the thing I care about most inside that house.”

Sawamura beams at him, eyes sparkling brilliant gold. “Miyuki Kazuya! You’re being so nice to me today!”

“Oh?” Kazuya flexes his ankle, prompting Sawamura to let him go. “Am I not always nice to you?”

“Usually only your eyes and hands are nice to me! Your mouth is very rude!!”

“Remind me of that the next time I’m kissing you,” teases Kazuya. “Besides, I was definitely talking about the kitchen.” He looks away from Sawamura, who is gaping with surprised indignation, toward where a sales associate is eyeing them curiously. He nods at her, and she starts making her way over.

“Asshole!” Sawamura says, but when Kazuya looks back at him, he’s still grinning, still laughing. Sawamura still looks boyish when he laughs, Kazuya thinks, the swell of his emotions leaving him a little dizzy in their wake. “I know you were talking about me!”

“I don’t know,” Kazuya muses, to cover his embarrassing reaction to just how cute Sawamura is, “I did pay a lot for that kitchen.” He sets a hand on top of Sawamura’s hair and ruffles it, curls soft between his fingers. “I like this sofa, Sawamura. It’ll be great for watching game replays.”

“We should get the black, then,” Sawamura says, “to match the all the new pillows.”

“I’m completely serious about not living in an entirely orange and black house, idiot.”

Sawamura looks up at Kazuya through his lashes, and heat flashes through Kazuya all the way down to his toes. “Even if I’m there?”

Kazuya’s all too aware of the sales associate’s continued approach, and so takes the hand in Sawamura’s hair and moves it to briefly cup his cheek. “If you’re there, the bright color should be yellow,” he says, before pulling back. “Like a bumblebee~!”

“Totally awful,” Sawamura mutters, before he stands up to greet the sales associate he’s just now noticed, wiping dust from his knees, his private smile for Kazuya switching to something broader and more polite.

“Can I help you gentlemen with anything?” the sales associate asks, coming to a stop by the arm of the sofa.

Kazuya sighs, and stands up, too. He shoots a resigned look in Sawamura’s direction. “How soon could we get this sofa in black?”

“If we have it in stock, you can have it delivered tomorrow,” she replies, and she’s about to say something else when Kazuya’s phone rings. He pulls it out of his pocket, and, seeing Kuramochi’s name on the screen, quickly calculates the time in Japan. It’s before six in the morning in Miyagi, and way too early for Kuramochi to be awake on a normal day, even if it were baseball season.

“Excuse me, I have to take this,” he says, when both the sales associate and Sawamura look at him. “It might be important.” He turns the screen towards Sawamura so he can read Kuramochi’s name on the caller ID. “Can you handle this?”

“I’m not the one who lived in a place without furniture for months!” Sawamura replies, in Japanese. “Obviously I can handle it!”

Instead of replying, Kazuya winks at Sawamura before walking away, out toward the front door of the store, answering the call as he weaves his way through display living rooms. “Is someone dying?”

“You don’t have to say that every time I call you in the morning, dick,” complains Kuramochi. “It’s not me that can’t wake up before noon without an alarm as loud as a fire truck out on an emergency call.”

Kazuya hums skeptically. “I was up at eight this morning, for the record.”

“Was someone dying,” Kuramochi immediately replies, in a terrible, high-pitched impersonation of Kazuya’s drawl. “I was just calling to check in on you. No one has heard from you in like, ten days, which is a surprisingly long time for you despite your mediocre communication skills. Takarada says she hasn’t seen you lurking on Skype to chat with anyone else, either.”

“Oh. Is that all?” Kazuya steps outside, leaning back against a windowless section of the black and white store front, and tugs lightly at the neck of his shirt. “I’ve been busy.”

“It’s the off-season.” Kuramochi snorts. “You don’t have any hobbies except cooking, and you do that shit while you’re on the phone with me. What could you possibly have to do?”

Kazuya swallows, and wonders how to respond. He debates several answers, vacillating back and forth. He’s been keeping Sawamura’s presence in San Francisco to himself, needing, for some reason, to preserve the bubble they’ve created. Afraid, maybe, that talking about it to anyone back home will pop it, and Sawamura will have to leave, gone as quickly as he’d come.

This is Kuramochi, though, and Kazuya doesn’t lie to him anymore, especially not about Sawamura. “My boyfriend, actually,” he says, airily. “Many times, in many positions—”

“Stop! Too graphic!” Kuramochi shouts, and then he processes what Kazuya’s actually said and his tone goes sharp. “Hold up, what do you mean, your boyfriend? Since when do you have a boyfriend, fucker?”

“Since…” Kazuya bites his lip. “About ten days ago, I think.”

Kuramochi’s heavy sigh is like white noise in Kazuya’s ear. “I thought,” he says, deliberately, “that you were still in love with Sawamura.”

Kazuya takes a deep breath. “Yeah,” he says, hooking his thumb on one of his belt loops as his shoulders tense, “I am.”

“Miyuki, stop fucking around,” Kuramochi says, and there’s a thread of anger in his voice. “Why are you dating someone else if that’s how it is?!” His voice rises, and Kazuya swallows. “Weren’t all of the past few years with Sawamura so terrible because you didn’t wanna be—”

“Kuramochi,” Kazuya says, cutting him off and curling his fingers tighter around his phone as his palms get sweaty. People walk by, and they give him casual looks, but none of them seem to speak Japanese, even though it’s not rare to find people who do in this city. “I’m not dating anyone else. I wouldn’t… I couldn’t date anyone else, okay? You know that.”

“Then were you joking? Can’t you be straightforward for once in your life?” Kuramochi exhales with evident annoyance. “If you don’t want to tell me what you were up to this week, just say that!”

Sawamura chooses that moment to come charging out of the store, shoving his wallet into his back pocket as he scans for and then spots Kazuya immediately. He mimics Kazuya’s leaning position against the storefront, bumping his hip against Kazuya’s as he settles, careful not to hit the arm holding the phone. Kazuya switches his phone to his other ear so Sawamura can rest against him completely.

“I ordered the sofa to come tomorrow night after we scheduled batting practice,” Sawamura informs him, his shoulder warm against Kazuya’s, and Kuramochi’s breath hitches in recognition on the other end of the line. “Is everything okay with Kuramochi-senpai?”

“Is that Sawamura?!” Kuramochi follows the question with a swear, loud enough that Sawamura hears him, and Sawamura stares at the phone curiously as Kazuya’s lips curl up on either side, relieved he hadn’t had to actually say it. “What the fuck is Sawamura doing in San Francisco, Miyuki?!”

Sawamura gives Kazuya a questioning look, holding out his hand, and Kazuya nods, offering it. Plucking the phone from Kazuya’s hand, Sawamura mashes the touch screen against his cheek like it’s one of the older phones from when they were kids, the kind where your mouth had to be really close to the speaker for your voice to be heard. “Kuramochi-senpai! It’s been months!”

Kazuya laughs, tucking his hands into the pockets of his jeans as Kuramochi replies. While Kazuya only catches the mention of Takarada’s name, he notes the way Sawamura frowns, disgruntled, at whatever Kuramochi’s said, scuffing the toe of his yellow and black sneakers on the sidewalk.

“Obviously I’m here to play baseball with Miyuki Kazuya!” Sawamura says, after a few more moments. “What else would I be here for?!” He looks like he’s winding up to say more, but a few people have turned to look at them at Sawamura’s raised voice, so Kazuya reclaims his phone.

He brings it back to his own ear, only to hear the end of Kuramochi’s rant. “—And you’d better not think you’re off the hook for not telling anyone you were just going to up and fly to America, you little punk!”

“He’s taller than you,” Kazuya says, when Kuramochi stops to take a breath. “Calling him ‘little’ is blatant overcompensation. Tell me, Kuramochi, are you jealous?”

“God, you’re such a dick,” Kuramochi says. “Listen, what’s going on? Is Sawamura there just to visit you, Miyuki? Fuck, you called him your boyfriend, didn’t you? Is he your boyfriend? Are you two finally gonna figure this shit out?”

“We’re…” Kazuya wets his dry lips, and he looks at Sawamura, still leaning into him, typing frantically on his own phone, probably to Takarada. The shiny pink purikura stickers stuck to his phone case make Kazuya’s chest ache. “We’re out buying furniture for the house. I didn’t… want to choose it alone.” Kazuya knows Kuramochi will understand what it means, for him to admit that.

“Holy shit,” Kuramochi whispers, and then he says it again, loudly, and Kazuya’s smile grows so wide it hurts. “He’s staying? Like, ‘playing for the same team as you’, staying?”

“Well,” Kazuya says, prevaricating, “if we didn’t play for the same team the past ten days would have been very different—”

“That’s not what I mean and you know it! Is he going to be playing for the fucking San Francisco Giants or not?!”

Kazuya’s palms are so slippery. “Well, he isn’t eligible to sign until the beginning of February for any team in the MLB, so—”

“Contract regulations are really weird, Kuramochi-senpai!” Sawamura interjects, not even looking up from his phone, his thumbs still tirelessly pecking at his phone keyboard. “Also it’s a secret, so you can’t tell anyone!”

“Let that idiot know I’m not telling anyone a damn thing,” Kuramochi says, and then, after a few seconds: “He’s really moving into that townhouse you bought? Is that honestly why you hadn’t—?” He stops, then starts to continue several times, before he sighs again, breath hissing between his teeth, whistling through the speaker. “Miyuki, was this your plan?”

“Honestly,” Kazuya says, and he watches the way Sawamura sucks on his lower lip as he types, and the freckles that dot the skin in front of his ear and along his cheekbone, right where Kazuya likes to kiss him before they go to sleep, “I wasn’t sure he would come.” Sawamura stops typing, and looks up, those lion eyes looking directly at Kazuya, seeing Kazuya the way they have from the beginning. “But he’s here now, so…” He taps Sawamura’s ankle with the toe of his shoe, and Sawamura’s brows furrow. “I’m not going to let him go again, no matter what anyone has to say about it.”

“Now that,” Kuramochi says, and Kazuya can hear his grin, “is the kind of shit I expect from you, Miyuki!”

Sawamura licks his lips, and Kazuya knows, with complete clarity, that Sawamura wants to kiss him. Kazuya lets his own desire to be kissed simmer low in his belly, water over a warm and steady flame.

“Well, you know how I love pissing people off,” he says, his throat going dry as Sawamura’s gaze flickers dark and promising. “Might as well do it on the grandest scale there is.”

Sawamura’s cheeks flush, and his own conversation is clearly a distant memory for him, phone loose in his hand as he focuses every bit of his concentration on Kazuya instead. Kazuya’s heart speeds up, tripping and stumbling over itself as Sawamura shifts to lean into him more fully, their arms hot against each other.

“Hyahaha!” Kuramochi’s cackle is so loud Kazuya flinches, allowing him to glance away from Sawamura’s mouth, and he takes in the street they’re standing on, reminded suddenly of all of the people still walking by. “That’s totally your style, isn’t it?” Kuramochi coughs. “Listen, I have to go. Seira has a doctor’s appointment—it’s nothing serious so don’t worry about it—but I’m going to drive her. That’s why I’m up so early, by the way.”

“Tell Takarada I said hi,” Kazuya replies, pushing himself off the wall with his free hand. “And I’ll see you soon.”

“You’ll be back for your birthday, right? If you’re in Tokyo, we should do something. We can come down.”

“I don’t know yet. It might be afterwards, and we haven’t figured out some of Sawamura’s stuff so…” Kazuya pulls his keys out of his pocket, nudging Sawamura and gesturing with his chin in the direction they’d parked the car. Sawamura, still watching him, pushes up off the wall in response. “I’ll let you know, though. Promise.”

Kuramochi grunts and hangs up, and Kazuya puts it away, sliding it into his pocket.

“Is he the first person you told?” Sawamura walks too close to Kazuya as they head sedately toward the car, their arms brushing with every step. “About me moving here, I mean.”

“It’s Kuramochi.” Kazuya sneaks a glance at Sawamura, whose face has gone strangely pensive. “Was I not supposed to, or something?”

“It’s…” Sawamura comes to a stop next to the car, and before Kazuya can cross around the back to come up on the driver’s side, Sawamura grabs at his jacket, pulling him back. Kazuya looks over his shoulder, arching an eyebrow.

“I don’t know why, but I keep expecting everything to still be a secret,” Sawamura says. “Me and you, and boyfriends, I mean. I didn’t tell anyone but Wakana and Haruichi that I was even coming here. That I was even going to try, with you, and see if I had the right idea about all those signs! So you telling Kuramochi so easily, that’s… I didn’t expect it! I know you said, before, that you’d told your dad, and that you’d thought about what would happen, but I still…”

Kazuya studies him for a long moment, his stomach twisting. “Get in the car first, okay?”

Sawamura nods, letting him go, and Kazuya strides quickly to the other side of the car, opening his door and dropping into his seat as Sawamura does the same, both doors closing in tandem.

Sawamura is slumped in the passenger seat, his broad shoulders curled forward. “It’s really okay. For our friends to know about this.” He sounds like he’s telling himself, not asking Kazuya for another confirmation. “You actually meant it. Things really are going to be different this time.”

“It’s not just my father, you know. My grandfather and mother know, too. And Chris, obviously, and Uehara. Takarada, and Little Kominato and your friend Wakana and your parents.” Kazuya turns in his seat and grabs Sawamura’s pitching hand, pulling it across the divider and into his lap so he can hold onto it between both of his own. “Chris said,” Kazuya runs his fingertips over the thick skin at the top of Sawamura’s palm, “that it might have been easier, before, if we’d told the people closest to us. That I wouldn’t have had to constantly overthink things or be so afraid if there were more places it was fine, for us to be…”

“Partners.” Sawamura’s lips are still tight, but the rest of him relaxes slightly, leaning back further in his seat. “You want to make it safe for us. Even if it means other people, people we didn’t tell, could find out.” He exhales, and then adds: “Even if it could make things difficult.” He says the word ‘difficult’ like Kazuya had said it, before, only slightly sour at the edges.

“Even then,” Kazuya says. “I don’t just want to make the same mistakes again, Sawamura. You… You’re so important that even the fear of losing baseball is—” Steadying himself, he strokes his thumb up to the vein in Sawamura’s wrist, then traces it along the inside of his forearm. “But we’re going to be so good that it won’t matter. We’re going to be so fucking good that they can’t take baseball from us, and we’ll do it as partners whether anyone else likes it or not.”

Sawamura lets out a rattling sigh, but he doesn’t interrupt.

Kazuya fumbles for the right words, and settles on the most honest ones he can manage. “What you’re most afraid of is constantly having to worry about the worst thing that could happen. I’m always going to worry about that. What’s changed for me is that”—Kazuya drags his thumb back down, pausing right at Sawamura’s pulse point so he can feel the rapid beat—“it’s what the worst thing that could happen is, for me.” He closes his eyes, breathes. “I have so many gardens now, and they’re all… I hadn’t realized, until you yelled me into noticing, how many people were already offering me seeds. But Sawamura…”

Sawamura’s pulse jumps under his thumb as he recalls the moment he’d seen the first true hint of Sawamura’s potential, back when he was a scrawny fifteen-year-old standing out on the mound waiting for Kazuya’s sign. The memory is quickly overridden with the Sawamura that won an Emperor’s Cup, victorious and brilliant and looking directly at Kazuya like nothing else in the world mattered at all as he grinned.

“You have to realize,” Kazuya says, Sawamura’s most triumphant grin fixed in his mind, “that in every single garden I grow, you’re the brightest, most eye-catching flower, with the deepest roots.” It spills out of him before his brain can convince him to hold this last bit back, behind his metaphorical right arm wall. “The worst thing that could happen to me isn’t losing baseball, it’s losing the baseball we play together. It’s me losing baseball with you.”

The world hasn’t changed; things are just as precarious for someone like him now as they were three years ago. But Kazuya’s viewpoint has changed, inexorably.

“You’re so—” Sawamura chokes out, and Kazuya finally looks at him again, but Sawamura is looking down at his hand in between Kazuya’s two.

Sawamura’s eyes are wet with the beginnings of tears, and his chin is wobbling dangerously, but he’s smiling, too, and Kazuya’s given his whole heart to this absurd human being who feels too much and is somehow never embarrassed to show it. “Oi, Sawamura, if you actually start crying, I’ll—”

“I’m so happy,” Sawamura shouts, and his voice is hoarse. “Sometimes people cry when they’re happy, Miyuki Kazuya!”

“Use your inside voice,” Kazuya replies, but he wipes away the single tear that’s escaped the corner of Sawamura’s eye. “No need to shout. I’m your catcher. I can already feel your conviction.”

“You haven’t even begun to experience the extent of this Sawamura Eijun’s conviction!” He takes his hand back, and uses it to pointedly fasten his seatbelt. “Let’s go home!”

Kazuya puts his keys in the ignition, and turns on the car. The radio station Sawamura’d selected earlier blasts an obnoxious pop song that’s probably going to be stuck in Kazuya’s head for the rest of the afternoon and evening. “Yeah,” he agrees, “home.”

Sawamura has draped himself across Kazuya like a throw blanket, and the two of them take up one person’s space on their new sofa as Kazuya looks for available seats on direct flights to Osaka. Sawamura’s legs are curled up under him, his toes digging into the fabric of the couch as his knees prod Kazuya’s thigh. He has an English novel open in his lap that he’s already devoured half of, and though the cover art is only a bunch of creepy trees and a horse or something like that, Kazuya’s willing to make a bet it involves at least one princess with how avidly Sawamura keeps turning the pages.

Kazuya clicks through options, eliminating flights with layovers in strange places or anything involving over eighteen hours of travel without respite. “Do you have an opinion on if we fly in the afternoon or evening?” he asks, into the silence, filtering results by availability instead of price.

Sawamura puts his index finger in his book as a makeshift page-marker, and looks up with distracted eyes, his thoughts still clearly on his novel. “What?”

“I’m trying to figure out if it’s better to get into Japan in the afternoon on the fifteenth or the evening on the fourteenth.” Kazuya flicks Sawamura’s forehead, earning a bonus scowl along with the focusing of Sawamura’s eyes.

“Let’s just wait the extra day.” Sawamura’s knees shift to poke at a lower spot on Kazuya’s thigh. “If we get off the plane in the middle of the night my body is going to be so confused!”

“Then it’ll match the rest of you!” Kazuya takes the concern into account, though, and selects the flight that leaves at eleven in the morning, with a planned arrival at Kansai International a little after two in the afternoon the following day. “Are you sure it’s fine? You have that advertisement photoshoot on the morning of the nineteenth, and so we’ll have to be in Tokyo by then. It doesn’t leave a lot of time.”

“That’s forever after we get there, so don’t consider it for this!” Sawamura wriggles in a little closer, so he can see the laptop screen as Kazuya inputs both their names in the passenger fields. Now his elbows are digging in, too, and it has to be a sign of how doomed Kazuya is that he only finds it endearing, that there are still moments when Sawamura doesn’t realize how much larger he’s grown.

Kazuya rolls his eyes. “Four days is not forever, but I guess it’s your apartment we’re packing up.”

“It only took me a day to move last time!” Sawamura looks up at him innocently. “And I didn’t have you to help me, Miyuki-senpai!”

“Oh? I’m senpai tonight, suddenly?” Smirking, Kazuya leans left to spare his ribs Sawamura’s continued elbow jabs.

Sawamura, his entire weight having been resting against Kazuya, flops into the negative space, huffing in displeasure at the unexpected shift in his balance. “Helping me pack is a good senpai activity,” he replies, squirming into a new position. “Also, don’t forget to select business class seats, okay?”

“Helping you pack is a boyfriend activity, not a senpai activity.” Kazuya shakes his head, pulling up the password-locked Excel spreadsheet on his laptop with all of his important travel information. “Why business class? Are we flying for business purposes, now? This is my vacation, even if you have work to do~!”

“Leg room, leg room,” Sawamura says, stretching out one leg and wiggling his toes for emphasis. “It’s a long flight! Don’t make yourself uncomfortable for no reason!”

“We’re not that tall.” Kazuya adjusts slightly so that his arm has room to wrap around Sawamura’s waist, pulling him in closer. Sawamura’s book finally drops to the floor, thud softened by the soft gray rug, his page number lost.

“We’re tall enough that our knees are going to hit the seat in front of us, though! I hate that!” Sawamura, not seeming to mind about the book, takes advantage of his new placement to kiss Kazuya’s neck, his lips brushing the hickey he’d left there yesterday that still stings every time Kazuya touches it with his fingertips. “Besides, we’re famous now, in Japan. You’ve been overseas, but you’re popular, too! Here, not that many people seem to notice you, but in Japan it’s not going to be like that!”

Kazuya sighs, scrolling down and selecting the option for business class underneath their names before returning back up the page to continue entering their information. “And you think business class will keep us from being watched?” Kazuya types in his passport number as Sawamura licks at the spot under the current bruise, like he’s planning to leave another. “Planning on being naughty, Sawamura? Do you have wicked intentions for our flight?”

“I don’t want to do that kind of thing in public!” Sawamura bites down on the new skin, and Kazuya shudders, flights and prices and passport numbers now secondary to the feel of Sawamura’s hand rubbing in large, intent circles on his lower belly. “I’m selfish, remember?!”

“How could I forget?” Kazuya murmurs, and he closes his laptop without a second thought, setting it aside and pushing Sawamura into the couch to kiss him with intent until Sawamura huffily demands Kazuya take him to bed.

They do end up getting those tickets, though, returning to Japan together a few days before Kazuya’s birthday.

The airport in Osaka is as bustling as ever when they emerge lethargic and sleep-deprived from the plane, and it’s a pleasant shock to hear the majority of people speaking in Japanese again, and see his own native language headlining the signs. They wait together at the baggage claim for their mostly-empty suitcases as Sawamura, antsy, shifts his weight from foot to foot, the backpack he’s carrying in his hand slapping against his calf with every twitch.

Kazuya doesn’t really second-guess putting a hand between Sawamura’s shoulder blades, even if he probably should. The wool of the coat Sawamura had carried with him on the plane, in preparation for Japan’s more seasonally distinct late fall chill, is scratchy under his palm. “Calm down, Sawamura, they have to unload it.”

“I know, I know!” He does relax, though, pushing back just slightly into Kazuya’s touch, muscles untensing. “I’m just… I don’t like airports!”

“Does anyone?” Kazuya lets his hand fall, now that Sawamura’s not about to vibrate right out of his skin.

“Onii-san said he liked people-watching at airports once,” Sawamura says, scrunching his face up as he tries to remember. “But he’s a very mysterious man.”

Kazuya laughs. “Speaking of Kominatos,” he says, “I think the little one might still be angry at me. He tried to talk to me about you, a few months ago, and I never really replied to him.” He drops his gaze to his shoes, where his laces are sloppily knotted from his hasty job as the plane landed, loose enough that he’ll be able to slip them off again quickly without untying them. “He’s probably not going to be happy about all this.”

Sawamura snorts, and Kazuya looks up at him, shoelaces secondary to the abruptness of the sound. “None of it is up to him,” Sawamura says, seriously, his face unusually stern. He’s quiet, too, speaking only loudly enough for Kazuya alone to hear. “Nothing that happens between you and me is up to anyone besides us.”

“Make sure you tell him that,” Kazuya says, glancing away again. “Preferably before Shirasu’s wedding.”

“Haruichi doesn’t dislike you.” Sawamura takes the backpack he’s been carrying and puts it onto his shoulders to free up his hands. “He just doesn’t understand you the way I do, so his opinion is going to be biased!”

“Well, he’s not actually friends with me, he’s friends with you, so maybe he should be biased,” Kazuya points out, adjusting his own backpack, his laptop case thumping against his shoulders.

Sawamura pouts at him. “He’ll come around eventually! Then he’ll be friends with both of us!”

“I’m fine with him just being your friend, Sawamura.” The baggage from their flight starts to appear on the active conveyor belt, a collection of brightly colored children’s bags and boxes, followed by the more austere suitcases of the older passengers on the flight. “You always have such a positive outlook. Doesn’t it get exhausting?”

“Well with you being so negative, how else are we supposed to be a battery?!” Sawamura’s so smugly delighted with his own wordplay that Kazuya can’t help but laugh at him.

“You were wasted on the baseball team with puns like that, truly.” Kazuya spots Sawamura’s suitcase, and steps up between the two men in front of him to snag the light suitcase with one hand, rolling it back to sit by Sawamura’s feet. “How far is it from here to your apartment?”

“That’s going to depend on the traffic!” Sawamura stands up on the balls of his feet to add another couple of centimeters to his height as he attempts to see over the slowly increasing swarm of equally impatient passengers. “Miyuki Kazuya, yours is there too!”

“You’re awfully loud for someone who didn’t want to be noticed,” Kazuya chides, swatting Sawamura’s arm. Sure enough, a few people have turned to look at them, and there’s a hint of recognition in some of those gazes. Kazuya smiles thinly and squeezes in between the men still blocking the conveyor belt in wait, and wrangles his own less-empty suitcase off the belt. “Let’s go before we end up with a crowd of people hoping you’ll sparkle in their direction.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?!” Sawamura grabs his suitcase, popping out the handle to roll it along behind him as Kazuya does the same. “I don’t sparkle!”

Kazuya chuckles, and Sawamura grabs the sleeve of his coat to tow him along like Kazuya is a suitcase, too. “Are you sure about that~?”

“I can’t tell if you’re complimenting or insulting me!”

“So business as usual, then.” They exit outside through sliding glass doors to the pick-ups, rolling their suitcases down the walkway to join the queue for a cab. It’s Kazuya’s first taste of a genuine winter chill in almost two years, and he immediately starts to shiver. “Isn’t Osaka supposed to be warmer than Tokyo?”

“You’re cold?” Sawamura asks, but he’s already twisting his torso to unzip his backpack, pulling out a soft blue scarf with a thick, loosely knit yarn with the hand that isn’t tugging his suitcase. “You’ve gotten weak!”

Kazuya hunches his shoulders against the brisk wind, buttoning up his navy coat as they reach the end of the queue. “I’ve adapted to my new environment.”

Sawamura scoffs, and instead of putting the scarf on himself, he wraps it around Kazuya’s neck instead, his fingers tickling the underside of Kazuya’s jaw. “You’re going to be freezing in Tokyo next month if you don’t buck up!”

“January is when it’s the coldest.” Kazuya tilts his head back so Sawamura can finish tucking the ends into his coat, up against his chest. Then, satisfied with his handiwork, Sawamura runs one hand down the front of Kazuya’s chest, smoothing imaginary wrinkles. “I’ll be safely back in San Francisco by then, while you deal with winter.”

“Why would I be here when you’re there?!” Sawamura frowns at him. “I’ll be with you! Don’t think you’re getting time off from catching my pitches just because it’s the off-season!”

The line shifts forward, more people in front of them filing into cabs, and Kazuya shuffles forward with them. “I thought you’d want to spend more time here in Japan. You won’t have to report to Giants camp until spring, if you sign.”

“I’m definitely signing! That’s already decided, so enough with your ‘if’s! Don’t get wishy-washy now, Miyuki Kazuya!” Sawamura narrows his eyes at him. “Besides, we have to finish buying furniture! Clearly you can’t be trusted to take care of that by yourself!”

“I can’t?” Kazuya’s not used to smiling this much, all the time. It feels like the muscles in his cheeks are constantly sore, now. “Shouldn’t you trust your partner?!”

“I trust that you need this Sawamura Eijun to encourage you in all furniture-buying endeavors!”

Kazuya could easily explain that he hadn’t wanted to buy furniture until he was sure that Sawamura wanted to stay; that he hadn’t wanted to decorate a home for the two of them on his own, when of the both of them, he’s the one who can barely remember what a real home is supposed to be like. He suspects, though, that Sawamura already knows all that. “I have to be back in San Francisco by January 5th.”

“Then we’ll fly in together on the fourth,” Sawamura says, matter-of-factly, as they arrive at the front of the queue, the driver of the next waiting car getting out to put their bags in the trunk. “Stop trying to make things hard!”

“Yes, sir,” Kazuya murmurs, smiling at Sawamura’s irritated glare as he opens the door to get into the back seat. He hears Sawamura telling the driver where they’re headed, and watches through the tinted window as Sawamura walks around the back of the car to get in on the other side instead of making Kazuya slide over.

Before the driver gets behind the wheel, Sawamura turns to him, pouting, a little of his irritation lingering at the corner of his eyes. “I know, sometimes, we’re going to have to do things separately! One of us could get traded someday, or we might end up having to travel by ourselves for advertisements or something! Right now, though, I’ve been apart from you for so long that I’m not going to do it if I don’t have to! So no complaints!”

Before Kazuya can answer, the driver slides into his seat, the click of his seatbelt loud in the quiet car. Kazuya takes a few seconds to just look at Sawamura; at this boyishly charming man who loves Kazuya with an intensity that had scared him, once. “You act like I’m supposed to hate that,” he says, softly, as the car turns on, immediately vacating a space for the next cab to pull in. “I don’t, okay?” Hidden by the folds of their coats, he grabs Sawamura’s hand. “Follow me wherever you want, Noisymura.”

Sawamura’s mouth trembles, but in the end, he just smiles, and turns to look out the window as Kazuya leans back against the seat, not letting go of Sawamura’s hand.

The building Sawamura lives in is nondescript at first sight, with long white exterior walls, glass-fenced balconies, and simple exterior landscaping. Inside though, at the far end of the lobby, Kazuya notes the multitude of CCTV cameras, and a guard office filled with monitors, currently manned by two men in matching uniforms who spare Kazuya the briefest of curious glances as he and Sawamura walk over to the elevators.

“Oh? What’s this? An elevator?” Kazuya asks, as Sawamura presses the button to go up. “We’re not taking the stairs? What about our cardiovascular health?”

“Don’t slander my old place! It was full of positive features! Like my amazing roof access!”

“You had to climb yet another flight of stairs to get to it.”

Sawamura puffs his cheeks out in annoyance as he drags his empty suitcase into the elevator, pressing the button for the fifth floor as Kazuya enters behind him. “The elevator at yours and Kuramochi’s apartment wasn’t much better than not having an elevator at all!”

“That’s true,” Kazuya says, blowing his hair out of his face again. It’s getting to the annoying length where it’s too long to leave to its own devices but too short to effectively tie back. “This seems like a nice place.”

“Wakana picked it,” Sawamura admits, with a sheepish grin. “She said I needed somewhere with good security and a guest bedroom for when she or my parents come to visit. It’s only a 2LDK, but it has a lot of space!”

Kazuya hums, staring at their reflections in the shiny elevator doors, his eyes drawn to the casual way they stand so close together, and then to the striking slope of Sawamura’s nose in profile. “Kuramochi tells me you’re a hoarder these days. Any truth to that?”

“I’m not!” Sawamura says, as the elevator doors open to a long hallway without many doors, littered with fake plants to combat the austerity of the walls. “I just haven’t gone through my stuff in a while!”

Kazuya steps out first, but lets Sawamura pass by him to lead the way to his door. “Sounds like something a hoarder would say~!”

Sawamura slams open his door. “There’s nothing wrong with hanging on to a few things you might need!”

“A few things is not ’all the clothes my mom picked out for me in middle school’, Sawamura.” The apartment isn’t as cluttered as Kazuya’d expected, though, once they’re inside, shoes, coats and suitcases left at the door. Everything is put away where it probably belongs, and there aren’t any dishes in the sink or clothes on the floor.

The main room is startlingly sparse and traditional, too—the floors are covered in Tokyo-sized tatami mats stretching all the way from the sliding doors separating it from the hall to the glass walls leading out to the balcony, and the only furniture is a kotatsu with cushions on every side, a few display tables, and a small television. The camellias that Kazuya’d had sent sit just on the low cabinet by the window. They’re slightly wilted, from Sawamura’s time away, but they’re clearly healthy, growing to fill the moderately sized pot. He had taken care of them.

“Are you sure it was Wakana that picked this place?” Kazuya asks, with a hand on the papered sliding door. “This looks a lot like you’ve been recreating a Sei Shonagon story every time you come home from practice.”

“It’s relaxing!” Sawamura tells him, walking down the hall and leaving Kazuya to explore.

Upon closer inspection of other spaces, Sawamura really does have a lot of things, though, even if his apartment isn’t a mess. Kazuya skims his fingertips across the bindings of hundreds of comic books lining the shelves that extend down the length of the central hallway with a grin, as Sawamura walks through the apartment humming something pop-sounding off-tune and turning on all the lights.

“Do you want something to eat?” Sawamura asks, from somewhere to Kazuya’s right. Kazuya wanders a little further down the hall and finds him in the kitchen, reading something set on the small countertop underneath a landline phone. He’s pushed up the sleeves of the soft burgundy shirt he’d put on before they left for the airport to reveal his tanned forearms. “It’s been a few hours.”

Kazuya leans against the frame of the open entryway, crossing his arms. “Are you going to cook for me?”

Sawamura picks up the stack of papers he’d been looking at, fanning them out in both hands. “These are the menus for every takeout place within five kilometers, so tell me what I should order!”

Kazuya smirks, scanning the stack without making a move toward taking any one of them in particular. “How much salt have you been ingesting these past few years living by yourself?”

“I don’t eat takeout all the time!” He looks at the menus himself again, sorting through them before plucking three out of the vast selection. “I’ve learned how to cook a few things since I moved here, but it’s not worth it to go shopping for food and stuff when we’re only going to be here a few days before we go to Tokyo.” He hands Kazuya the three menus, and their fingertips brush as Kazuya takes them. “My mom comes down a lot, too, and she always prepares side dishes and leaves me meals.”

“The last part’s the real answer to your survival, right?” Kazuya had done the same for his grandfather and mother, too, before he’d moved to another country and had to arrange for someone else to deliver cooked and frozen food twice a month out to the farm without asking, knowing his grandfather would try to protest. “You won’t see her as often, when you move.”

“Well, yeah,” Sawamura says. “San Francisco is a lot further from Nagano than Nishinomiya, after all!”

“You’ll be far away from everyone you know but me.” He runs his fingers along the edges of the worn paper of the menus. “Is that really going to be okay with you?”

“You’re already there, and you’re doing just fine!” Sawamura’s chin juts out stubbornly. “Besides, it’s not like I see people all the time as it is. Being an adult is…” He musses his hair, turning the already messy curls into an absolute disaster. “It’s a lot of talking to your friends and family about how much you want to see them, and then hardly ever actually doing it!”

Kazuya laughs, and looks down at his dinner choices. He assesses them quickly, and keeps the udon menu, handing the other two back. “This one seems the least horrible for us.”

“None of them are that bad!” Sawamura protests, but he he doesn’t seem to mind Kazuya’s choice, already pulling out his phone and turning it on, shuffling closer to Kazuya in his socked feet to read the number from the top of the menu.

They eat their noodles with their legs tangled together under the kotatsu, a sumo match that Sawamura is completely riveted by playing on the television. Kazuya watches Sawamura instead of the TV, chuckling whenever Sawamura gets so excited that he forgets to keep chewing, long noodles hanging down from his mouth, wet and greasy on his chin.

“You’re a mess,” Kazuya fishes out a piece of julienned carrot and eats it. “You’ve gotten more on your mouth than in it.”

Sawamura looks over at him, blinking owlishly. “What?” Noodles fall back into his bowl, and he looks down in surprise.

Kazuya sets down his chopsticks, and then uses that hand to extend out and curl around Sawamura’s neck. “You eat like a little kid, same as always,” he says, before pulling Sawamura into a soft kiss that tastes of chicken stock and soy sauce. Sawamura sighs into it, and Kazuya hums, licking at the corners of Sawamura’s mouth before he pulls away. Sawamura makes a short, sharp sound of disapproval. Kazuya laughs. “Aren’t I interrupting your match?”

Sawamura’s lips are shiny under the warm lamplight, and he’s gone gorgeously pink. “I’d rather kiss you than watch sumo.”

Still laughing, Kazuya picks up his chopsticks again. “Let’s finish dinner, and then you can kiss me all you want.”

“I’m finished,” Sawamura says, setting his own chopsticks aside immediately, sumo match forgotten as he devotes his entire attention to Kazuya.

Kazuya selects a smaller piece of chicken from his bowl, and pops it into his mouth. “I’m not.” Sawamura’s legs fidget under the table, and Kazuya places a hand on his thigh to steady him. “We have time.”

“I have to start packing,” Sawamura replies, balefully starting to eat his noodles again. “Packing is hard work! And time-consuming!”

“I thought it only took you one day last time~!” Kazuya raises his eyebrow. “Exactly how long were you planning on spending kissing me?”

“You said I could kiss you all that I want!” Sawamura slurps a long noodle, and licks at his lips, and Kazuya’s heart thumps noisily against his ribcage. Then Sawamura meets his eyes again, and swallows. “That’s going to take a while!”

“Oh.” Kazuya looks down at his half-finished meal. “I guess it’ll keep if we put it in the fridge.”

It must read as permission, because suddenly Sawamura is tackling him, pushing him back into the tatami, and Kazuya’s chopsticks fall out his hand, clattering on the edge of the table before falling to the floor. Kazuya laughs, and scrambles out from under Sawamura before Sawamura can actually kiss him, his shin banging against the table leg in the midst of the chaos.

Breathless, still laughing, and his shin stinging, Kazuya looks down at Sawamura, who is still half under the kotatsu, his shirt riding up to reveal his navel and his mouth pulled open wide with surprised outrage. “Hey,” Kazuya says, as Sawamura flounders, “that wasn’t an invitation!” He sets a hand flat on Sawamura’s belly, dragging it down along Sawamura’s cut abs, stopping just above the fly of his jeans.

“Liar!” Sawamura’s squirming abates under the gentle pressure of Kazuya’s palm. “As much as I want, you said!”

“Greedy.” Kazuya bends down over Sawamura’s face, his hair falling like a curtain around them both. Sawamura’s eyes shine even brighter like this, without as much of the room’s competing light. “But maybe,” he murmurs, “I want to kiss you instead.”

Snagging a handful of Kazuya’s shirt, Sawamura prevents Kazuya from moving away from him. “You should! I love it when you kiss me!”

“You’re yelling indoors again,” teases Kazuya in reply, but then he brings their mouths together, biting lightly at Sawamura’s thin upper lip, letting it roll between his teeth as Sawamura opens eagerly for him. There’s a mild discomfort in Kazuya’s back, a remnant from their long flight and his awkward position, but he ignores it in favor of slipping his tongue between Sawamura’s lips, drawing Sawamura’s tongue into his own mouth.

Kazuya’s hand dips a little lower as the televised sumo tournament crowd starts to cheer, slipping under the waistband of Sawamura’s underwear. “And maybe,” he adds, as his fingers brush the base of Sawamura’s cock, which starts to stiffen at his glancing touches, “you should help me put the food away first.”

In the seconds it takes Sawamura to process that, Kazuya sits up, breaking Sawamura’s hold on his shirt, and scoots back before getting quickly to his feet. He snickers at the shocked expression on Sawamura’s face.

“Miyuki Kazuya! Come back here!”

“The sooner we get the dishes done, the sooner we can do something else,” Kazuya tells him, lifting his foot from the tatami and resting it carefully on the crotch of Sawamura’s jeans. The feeling of Sawamura, half-hard under his toes as he presses down, has heat flooding Kazuya’s belly, but it’s just fun too, to tease him. Playing like this feels like something that neither of them will ever get tired of. “You still haven’t shown me your bedroom. Are the floors in there tatami, too?”

“You can just sleep on the floor out here if you care so much about tatami!” Sawamura says, but he’s flushed, and his lifts his hips to roll into the pressure of Kazuya’s foot.

“Now, now; I’m a professional athlete, Sawamura, I have to take care of my body!”

He moves his foot back to the tatami, and swoops over Sawamura’s prone form to grab both their bowls, heading into the kitchen. Kazuya hears Sawamura whine petulantly, but get up anyway, and Kazuya knows he’ll be right behind him with their takeaway containers and chopsticks, ready to help with the rest of the cleanup.

“I hope you’re prepared!” Sawamura says, running their water glasses under the tap to rinse them for later.

Kazuya combines their two takeaway containers into one for easy reheating later. “Prepared for what?”

“I have a promise to collect on!” Sawamura splashes him as he shakes his hands dry emphatically. “As many kisses as I want!”

Kazuya hides his smile by opening the refrigerator door, noting the empty shelves and meager collection of condiments. “Looking forward to it.”

Sawamura’s phone is ringing incessantly when Kazuya starts to wake up the next morning; a constant, endless, agonizing noise. “Make it stop,” he mumbles into Sawamura’s neck, curling his arm around Sawamura’s hip as he attempts to bury his face deeper into the pillows under their heads in order to block the sound. “Sawamoron, your phone.” When Sawamura doesn’t reply, Kazuya bites what he thinks is Sawamura’s shoulder. “Eijun, phone.”

“Kazuya, what are you—Oh!“ Sawamura starts to wriggle free of Kazuya’s hold.

Kazuya sighs and lets him go, and without the heat of Sawamura next to him, the chilly air in the bedroom is enough to wake him up more than he’d like. Sighing, he peels back his eye-mask, and blindly reaches out for his glasses. He puts them on, gaze automatically seeking Sawamura as the world comes into focus.

Sawamura is standing at the edge of the bed, naked, squinting blearily at his phone as he scratches absently at the trail of hair that leads down his stomach to the base of his cock. The phone starts ringing again in Sawamura’s hand as he’s trying to read his messages, and he frowns.

“So who is it?” Kazuya asks, his voice an early morning croak as he rolls onto his side to watch, covers slipping to hang around his hips.

“It’s Chris-senpai.” Sawamura scrolls through his notifications. “And Kuramochi-senpai. And Harucchi.” He keeps scrolling. “And Koyasu, too.” Bringing his phone with him, he crawls back into bed, slipping in close so that he can sit back against the headboard and show Kazuya the stacked line of missed calls and voicemails on his screen. “We slept through so many!”

“Jetlag is a valid excuse.” Kazuya scoots up the bed to sit next to him. He teeters drowsily into Sawamura’s side, letting his cheek mash into Sawamura’s shoulder. “And we were up late.”

“You sleep through your alarms all the time anyway!” Sawamura taps on the lurid green icon for his LINE chat, and Kazuya watches messages speed by too quickly to read. Sawamura seems to catch the gist of it, though, far more alert than Kazuya is, and he makes a surprised sound at whatever he’s read.

“What does that noise mean?” Kazuya’s leg presses against Sawamura’s as he wiggles in even closer, wanting to steal more heat.

Sawamura taps what seems to be a link, popping open a new browser window. It loads a link to the online version of a ’Shukan Bunshin’ article. Kazuya watches as the lead image loads, revealing a captured photo of Sawamura and Kazuya at the airport, waiting in the queue for a cab. In the photograph, Sawamura is adjusting his scarf around Kazuya’s neck, the blue knit vivid against the dull backdrop of Kansai International’s gray and glass walls, and the dark colors of their coats.

From the angle, it looks startlingly intimate. Kazuya stares at it for a few seconds, heart in his throat, before he makes himself relax. “What’s the headline? On the article.”

“They’re just speculating about why I was in America with you,” Sawamura replies, subdued as he scrolls down. “About whether I’m planning to make the switch to the MLB, or if I was just visiting a friend.” He shrugs, and Kazuya moves with the motion, most of his weight still supported by Sawamura instead of the headboard. “Everyone in the chat just wanted to know when I went off to America in the first place, and why I hadn’t mentioned anything while I was there, except Kuramochi-senpai and Takarada-senpai, I guess.”

“You didn’t tell Chris you were coming to see me, either?” Kazuya’s eyes are dry, and the screen of Sawamura’s phone goes blurrier the longer he stares at it.

“No,” Sawamura replies. His mouth is a tight line. “He says he tried to call you this morning, too, by the way.”

“I haven’t turned my phone on since we got off the plane.” Kazuya lifts his head up, and kisses Sawamura just in front of his ear, on one of the small freckles there. “Are you okay? With people asking?”

“I don’t know what to say!” Sawamura’s mouth trembles. “It was supposed to be just you and me for a little longer than this.”

“Sawamura, the world was bound to figure out you were switching leagues sooner or later,” Kazuya says, wishing he could sound more reassuring. “And our old teammates—” He corrects himself. “Our friends were bound to find out you’re moving in with me. There’s nothing we can do about either of those things.”

“Right,” Sawamura says. He scrolls back up to the picture. Kazuya tries to take a better look at it this time, and he notices the casual way they’re leaning into each other’s space, and how comfortable Kazuya looks with Sawamura’s fingers nearly cradling his face. “Is it bad that I like it?”

“Like what? The picture?” Kazuya thinks he’s seen better photos of both of them, but it’s not bad for a voyeur shot. Sawamura’s eyes glow bright with happiness as he smiles at Kazuya, and it’s clear even from the distance the photo was taken.

“No, that people can see how close you let me get to you. That even if they don’t know how it really is between us, it’s obvious to anyone that we’re connected to each other. That we’re important to each other, and that you’re—”

Kazuya considers all the times he has thought his name looked perfect scrawled across Sawamura’s back when he’s wearing Kazuya’s windbreaker, or all the times he’d looked out at Sawamura from home plate over the years and thought, viciously, mine. Sawamura has always seemed just as possessive of Kazuya, in his own way, marking him up anywhere he can put his mouth and telling Kazuya just how much he never wanted to share.

“It’s not bad,” Kazuya admits, and he kisses that spot by Sawamura’s ear again. “It’s…”

“It’s not something I need,” Sawamura says, and he isn’t looking at Kazuya. Instead, he’s still looking at the picture from the article. “Other people knowing. The people that matter the most know, or will. It’s only… last year, they ran a whole entertainment news segment on how you were one of Japan’s most eligible bachelors, because you were talented and handsome and responsible and all that kind of stuff. And I think, if I saw that segment now, I’d want more than anything to say ’you can’t have him! He’s mine!’ or something like that.”

Kazuya sighs, picking up Sawamura’s free hand. Sawamura’s nails have grown out too long, and the clear polish needs a new coat, just like Kazuya’s colored polish does. “That’s how I felt, after we started dating. When Takarada still used to like you.”

“But I didn’t like Takarada!” Sawamura says, and he turns his head so that he can glare at Kazuya. “I liked you! I’m your pitcher!”

“Sawamura, that’s the point, isn’t it? I don’t… It doesn’t matter if anyone else wants me.” Kazuya smirks, but it’s small. “I…” He picks at the nail polish on Sawamura's ring finger, aware of the heat of his gaze. “I’m yours, just like you’re mine. Partners, remember?”

Sawamura exhales heavily, and shuts the article on his phone, bringing the LINE chat back up. It’s slowed down a bit, in the interim, and now Kazuya can read them. Sawamura types Hi! Hello! This Sawamura Eijun and one Miyuki Kazuya are currently in Nishinomiya! one handed, the other still captured by Kazuya. He sends the message, and then attaches a selfie that Sawamura had insisted on taking yesterday during their flight that Kazuya had forbidden Sawamura from putting on his Instagram. Now that anyone who might care about it knows Kazuya’s back in Japan again, though, maybe Kazuya will let him upload the shot, especially since Sawamura had dutifully kept from updating his social media stuff the entire time he was in San Francisco.

The chat explodes again immediately, and Kazuya closes his eyes, annoyed. “It’s giving me a headache. Tell them it’s the off-season and I can go where I want.”

“I’ll—” Sawamura’s interrupted by his phone starting to ring again. It’s Chris, calling for the third time, and Sawamura hastily answers the phone and puts it on speaker, thankfully freeing Kazuya’s eyes from the rapidly shifting white speech bubbles of the LINE interface. “Chris-senpai!”

“Sawamura,” Chris says, “I saw that you were in the tabloids with Miyuki.”

“I’m sorry to have worried you, Chris-senpai!” Sawamura bows at nothing, the sheets pooling at his hips, and Kazuya snorts. “I didn’t realize anyone would be taking photos of us at the airport! And I’m sorry that I didn’t tell you I was going to see him!”

Kazuya’s snort is loud enough that Chris, who had clearly been about to offer Sawamura some kind of reassurance, aborts his reply, and takes an extra couple of seconds before he says. “Miyuki, you’re there too?”

“I thought you saw the photo, Chris,” Kazuya drawls. “Where else would I be?”

“I meant…” Chris pauses. “It’s good to know you’re both in the same place, now.” Kazuya is pretty sure Chris isn’t referring to Kazuya’s current location in Sawamura’s bed, or even his presence in Nishinomiya or Japan at all. Chris is referring, Kazuya thinks, to Kazuya being with Sawamura at all, and at Sawamura and Kazuya finally being together again, after so long moving in separate directions, the ocean separating them as much metaphorical as it was literal.

Sawamura looks between the phone and Kazuya, a question on his lips that remains unvoiced.

“Yeah.” Kazuya looks at Sawamura and grins, squeezing Sawamura’s hand. “It was about time, wasn’t it?”

Sawamura’s expression settles, his unresolved question disappearing at Kazuya’s easy answer. “Chris-senpai, Miyuki Kazuya has finally consented to catching for me forever!”

“That’s quite a commitment,” Chris replies, after a pause.

“Well!” Sawamura flexes the hand in Kazuya’s hold, as though he’s palming an imaginary baseball. “I do have a lot of different pitches already, and we have pitches we haven’t even figured out yet! It’s going to take a long time to finish the numbers!” The glint in his eyes is defiant, and Kazuya’s heart beats wildly. “We might never finish all of them! So we’ll just keep going until we run out of time!”

“He’s spartan,” Kazuya adds. “He’s going to have me playing catch at all hours, Chris. There won’t be a moment’s rest.”

“I’m so glad,” Chris says, and Kazuya can feel the warmth in his voice. “I’m looking forward to seeing you both play together again. I’ve been hoping, since I talked to Miyuki after you injured your shoulder, Sawamura…” He stops, breathes out. “I have to go, but we should have dinner while you’re here in Japan. I’ll be in Tokyo next week, if that coincides with any of your plans.”

Sawamura beams at his phone, wagging an invisible tail. Kazuya refrains, barely, from saying so aloud. “Of course, Chris-senpai! Whenever!”

“Not ‘whenever’, you have responsibilities in Tokyo, idiot. That advertisement shoot, remember?” Kazuya chips away another piece of nail polish. “Chris, we’ll text you to pick a time when we figure out our schedule.”

’We’ and ’our’, huh?” Chris asks, amused, and Kazuya blushes, biting his lip. “That’s going to take getting used to.”

LINE surges back to life when Chris ends the call. Sawamura picks his phone back up and resumes his one-handed typing. “Everyone is still asking where I’m going to be playing next season!”

“Tell them,” Kazuya says, his fingers abandoning Sawamura’s chipped polish to rub at the calluses on his ring finger, left behind from the way he holds the bat when he bunts, “that you’re going to be playing where you belong.” He brings Sawamura’s hand up to his mouth, kissing the tips of each of his fingers, enjoying the uptick in Sawamura’s breathing. “Or, you could tell them the truth; that you’re still in the middle of contract negotiations, and you’re not allowed to say anything yet.”

Sawamura types quickly, and then tosses his phone aside, to the foot of the bed where one of them will indubitably kick it off if they go back to sleep. “I wrote both,” he says, before he kisses Kazuya, morning breath and all. He clutches at Kazuya’s bare shoulder, and his nails dig into the skin.

“You need to cut your nails,” Kazuya tells him, their noses bumping as he tilts his head for better access.

Sawamura laughs into their next kiss. “For pitching, or so that it doesn’t hurt when my fingers are inside you?”

Letting go of Sawamura’s left hand, Kazuya holds Sawamura’s waist instead, shifting sideways so he can fit his teeth right at the curve of Sawamura’s neck. “So that I still have skin left after we make out.” He scrapes at Sawamura’s lower lip with his teeth. “There’s a reason the guys on Meiji’s team thought I was screwing a jungle cat.”

“That’s not my fault! Your eyes are always begging me to touch you more, mark you more!” Sawamura lets Kazuya push him down sideways, and easily takes Kazuya’s bulk on top of him. His dark hair is a halo around his face on the pale gray sheets.

“The only begging there’s going to be this morning,” Kazuya says, curling his fingers so his own hands are like claws and lightly dragging his nails down Sawamura’s chest, “is you begging me to fuck you harder.”

“We have to pack,” Sawamura replies, but it’s a feeble protest, and he’s already instinctively spreading his legs, making room for Kazuya between them. “There’s so much to do, and what about the—”

Kazuya kisses him to shut him up, and it devolves into a rushed, too wet mess at Sawamura’s immediate eagerness. As he slides his lips down, away from Sawamura’s to nuzzle at the underside of his jaw, Kazuya pinches one of Sawamura’s nipples. “Isn’t planning supposed to be my job? Let me worry about it.”

The photograph in the weekly paper, figuring out how they’re going to avoid media speculation while they’re in Japan, dinner with Chris… Kazuya can, will, figure all of that out as they go.

“I don’t want either of us to worry anymore!” Sawamura declares, and those too-long nails of his bite into Kazuya’s thighs, just below the curve of his ass. “About anything at all!”

“That’s a fairytale wish,” Kazuya replies, rutting his slowly hardening cock into the dip of Sawamura’s hip.

“For me,” Sawamura replies, and Kazuya spares a look back up at Sawamura’s face, only to get caught by the intensity of his eyes, “you’re already a fairytale, Miyuki Kazuya!”

Kazuya’s stomach tightens, and he can feel his blood rushing to his face. “It’s always going to be like this, isn’t it?” He grinds down.

Sawamura gasps at the unexpected friction. “Like what?!”

Kazuya can only twist his lips wryly. “Are you ever going to let me keep the upper hand, Eijun?”

The rare use of his first name makes Sawamura’s gaze flicker, and his hands on Kazuya’s thighs become less insistent, gentling into a softer grip. “It’s like baseball, Miyuki Kazuya! It wouldn’t be any fun if you didn’t have to work for it!”

Kazuya rests his forehead against Sawamura’s sternum, where he can feel the powerful beat of his heart. “You’re too much for me,” he whispers, not for the first time, and probably not for the last.

Sawamura must hear the truth in Kazuya’s tone—that Sawamura is more than Kazuya could ever have asked for, more than he was meant to have— because he fists a hand in Kazuya’s hair and pulls. “No, I’m exactly the right amount!” His eyes narrow. “I’ll tell you that as many times as I have to!”

“Okay,” Kazuya says, and he kisses Sawamura’s chest, his thrumming heart against Kazuya’s lips a wondrous thing.

They spend the majority of Kazuya’s birthday putting the last of Sawamura’s belongings into boxes. “We should go out to eat or something!” Sawamura protests, wiping the sweat from his face with the hem of his T-shirt, and Kazuya gives him an unimpressed look.

“We’ve eaten takeout for every meal for the past three days. We do not need to go out to eat. Besides, it’s my twenty-fourth birthday. That’s not anything special.”

“You never think your birthday is special!” Sawamura accuses, as he takes the last of the unused boxes in the apartment and manhandles it into shape, taping the edges together with a furious intensity that Kazuya’s not sure the poor box deserves. “And I—!” He starts throwing his previously neatly folded sweaters into the box, and Kazuya stops in his messy labeling to walk over to Sawamura and squat down next to him.

“And you what?” He grabs a hold of the rust colored sweater in Sawamura’s hand. It’s as soft as ever, and Kazuya can’t wait to steal it from him and wear it again, when they get back to San Francisco. “Hmm?”

“I haven’t gotten to celebrate your birthday in years, Miyuki Kazuya!” Sawamura glares up at him balefully. “But I’m very happy you were born in this time and place, and that I got to meet you!”

Kazuya’s heart clenches. “Are you wanting to celebrate my birthday for your sake or mine?” He refolds the sweater. “It’s really no big deal, Sawamura. This has to get done now, so we have to work. Last year, I was at an impromptu batting workshop working on my swing, and the year before that, I had two comprehensive exams for my communications classes.”

There’s a stubborn jump in the muscle of Sawamura’s jaw, but he sighs, reaching into the box and smoothing his hand along his sweater. “I’m going to make Chris-senpai sing the birthday song really loud with me when we get dinner together in Tokyo!”

“First of all, you’ve got to know by now how much I’d hate that,” Kazuya replies, setting the sweater down on top of the pile in the box. “Second of all, good luck convincing Chris!” He flicks Sawamura on the forehead, between his furrowed brows. “I’m going out to pick up more boxes and packing tape. Do you want me to drop off anything at the post office?”

“Not yet, but…” Sawamura gets up from the floor using the box as leverage, and walks into the kitchen, emerging again three seconds later with a set of keys. He underhand-tosses them to Kazuya, who catches them reflexively. “Take my car,” he says. “Parking space number fifteen. Get more bubble wrap?”

“You’re just going to let me drive your car, after seeing how I drive?” Kazuya smirks. “You didn’t even ask if my California license is valid here~!”

“You still have a Japanese license!” Sawamura scowls at him. “I saw it in your wallet!”

“You went through my wallet?” Kazuya laughs. “How nosy!”

Flustered, Sawamura puts his hands on his hips, arms akimbo. “You told me to get cash out of it when we were at that bakery in Mission Bay!” He taps his foot. “You totally remember that!”

“Right, right, when you ordered an Americano for me even though I wanted an—”

“You don’t even like plain espresso!” Sawamura gestures to the door. “The one time you tasted Takarada’s you looked like you wanted to spit it out onto the table!”

“Better than you,” Kazuya says. “Every time you eat you spit it all over the table~!” Sawamura’s ears are red, his fists curling and uncurling. Kazuya crosses the space between them, and drops a kiss at the corner of Sawamura’s mouth, feeling Sawamura deflate against him. “This is fine, for my birthday present. Let me tease you all day, and it’s enough.”

“You tease me every day,” Sawamura replies, his face nuzzling into the material of Kazuya’s sweatshirt hood. “How is that special?”

Every day I get to spend with you is special, Kazuya thinks, but that’s another statement worthy of one of Sawamura’s manga, so he just clicks his tongue. “I’ll be back in a half-hour or so, Sawamura. Try not to get too many paper-cuts while I’m gone, okay?”

“I’m only allowing you to get away with saying that because it’s your birthday, do you hear me?!” As a counterpoint to Sawamura’s words, he hooks both hands in the center pocket of Kazuya’s sweatshirt, like he wants to hang onto him just a little bit longer. “See you in a little while.”

“I’m not going off to war,” Kazuya replies, peeling himself away so he can head down to the parking lot, already mentally running through Japanese road laws in the back of his mind.

He’s just getting into Sawamura’s white Suzuki when his Japanese phone, reactivated with a temporary plan, starts to ring. It’s his father, who Kazuya’d e-mailed the new number to along with everyone else, and so he answers.

“Kazuya,” his father says, “are you still planning to get in to Tokyo tomorrow night?”

“Yeah.” Kazuya fastens his seatbelt, and then adjusts the seat to sit a little closer to the wheel, so he doesn’t have to stretch so far to reach the brake. “We’ll be there around seven, I think, assuming everything goes well with the shipping company and we make our train reservations.”

“Great,” his father says. “I’ll pick you both up at the train station, then.” He coughs. “About where Sawamura is going to sleep…”

Kazuya pauses, the keys swinging from his hand where it hovers by the ignition. “What about it?” he asks, and he braces himself for the answer, wondering if this is where the other shoe is going to drop.

“I hope I haven’t misunderstood,” his father says, delicately, “but I thought your bed might be too small, so I replaced it with a larger one. It was delivered to the house yesterday, but I haven’t had a chance to buy sheets yet for a double-size mattress. Do you have a preference? I know your old sheets were flannel, but I can’t remember if your mother chose that or you did.”

The keys clink against each other in his hand, and that’s what clues Kazuya in to the fact that he’s trembling. This, Kazuya thinks, isn’t tolerance. This is genuine acceptance, permanent acceptance, and for some reason, he’d thought that even though his father knew about him and Sawamura, there would still be an element of pretense. That they’d put a futon on the floor and all pretend Sawamura would sleep on it, instead of climbing into Kazuya’s narrow single bed every night.

This is another thing that doesn’t feel real, like waking up to Sawamura every day or playing for the San Francisco Giants or having more friends than he can count with the fingers on a single hand.

“I chose the flannel.” Kazuya rests his head against the back of the seat. “It doesn’t matter though.”

“I might as well get something you like,” his father replies. “Does Sawamura have any food allergies? I’m going shopping.”

“He eats everything.” Staring out of the front windshield, Kazuya watches a woman guide her small child by the hand towards the doors that lead to the apartment lobby. “I don’t even know what his favorite food is, since he’s so enthusiastic about literally everything he eats.”

“All right,” is his father’s easy reply. “That’s all I had to ask. I’ll see you tomorrow, Kazuya. And happy birthday.”

“Hey, Dad,” Kazuya says, before his father can hang up. “Thank you. For…” He presses the tip of his tongue against the back of his teeth. “For Sawamura.”

His father sighs. “Kazuya,” he says, “you shouldn’t have to thank me for that. I’m sorry we live in a world where you think you do.”

Surprised, Kazuya grips his phone tighter to keep it from slipping out of his hand. “Yeah, me too.”

His father hangs up, and Kazuya sits there for another minute or so, just breathing in and out, and then he turns on the car, and types ‘Daiso’ into the car’s navigation system, selecting the closest one as Sawamura’s bubbly pop music starts to play from the speakers.

When he gets back to Sawamura’s apartment forty-five minutes later, it smells like vanilla cake as Kazuya opens the door to let himself back in.

Kazuya drops his armful of deconstructed packing boxes next to the messy pile of markers and tape and wanders down the hall, dodging boxes and unsorted piles of books until he gets to the kitchen entryway.

Sawamura is at the counter next to the sink, using the back of a spoon to spread white icing on yellow cupcakes that are still too hot. The icing is melting, running down his hand and arm and pooling at his rubber watchband. As Kazuya stands there, watching him, Sawamura licks up the icing on his arm with a frustrated sigh, the icing sliding off the top of the cupcake tilted sideways between his fingers.

“You have to wait until they’re cool before you ice them,” Kazuya says, and Sawamura’s head jerks up in surprise. “Where were you even hiding cake mix?”

“I bought it this morning while you were still asleep!” Sawamura pouts at him, icing sticky on his lips. He’s adorable. “I wanted to finish them before you got home! It was only supposed to take twenty minutes for them to bake but it took twenty-five!”

“Too bad,” Kazuya says. “There was no line at the store, even though it’s a Saturday, so I was in and out.” He takes the cupcake from Sawamura’s hand, and peels the wrapper down to take a bite. “Sorry about your car, by the way. You didn’t really need the right-side mirror, right?”

“Miyuki Kazuya, I know you didn’t crash my car, so stop that!” Sawamura sticks the spoon he was using to ice the cupcakes into his mouth to suck off the icing, and then says something around it, garbled and unintelligible.

Kazuya pulls the spoon out of his mouth and drops it into the sink. “Try again, idiot.”

Sawamura licks the icing from his mouth. “Still not too sweet?”

Kazuya nibbles off another piece of the cupcake. The flavor reminds him of sitting on the cold roof of Sawamura’s old college apartment building, wanting more than anything to hold on to Sawamura’s hand tighter, and not knowing what he was supposed to do with all of his feelings, too big and pointless. “They taste like they did the last time you made them for me, Sawamura.”

“It’s the same recipe!” Sawamura picks up the empty pouch of icing mix and holds it up between two fingers. “And the icing you picked.” He throws the pouch into the bag of general trash, and then turns on the sink to rinse his hand under the water, getting it all over his watch. The back of his neck is pink. “I was so worried, that day you found me at the store. That I would choose an icing you wouldn’t like, or… I knew you were weird about sweet stuff! It was a huge relief that you showed up to help me choose!”

Kazuya studies Sawamura’s flustered expression as he washes the spoon. “It wouldn’t have been a big deal, if I didn’t like the cupcakes. There were plenty of people there to eat them.”

“It would have been a big deal to me! They were for you! And then you told me it had been a long time since someone had given you a birthday cake.” Sawamura selects another cupcake, and dips the wet but clean spoon back into the bowl he’d transferred the icing into, scooping out a large dollop. The cupcake has cooled enough that the icing stays on neatly as he spreads it. “I’ve been practicing since then! I’ve baked them plenty of times now, so that they’d be prettier, the next time I gave them to you!”

Looking down at the cupcake’s even finish as Sawamura holds it between them for examination, Kazuya recalls the misshapen, uneven appearance of those first ones, and then drops his gaze back at the one in his hand, half eaten. “Is this part of your ‘making new happy memories’ thing? Being so concerned with my birthday?”

“Of course it is!” Sawamura drops the spoon in the bowl, and sets the near-perfect cupcake down on the counter with the others that have yet to be iced. “I made a promise! About Christmas, and then every other special day after it!”

Kazuya holds his cupcake up to Sawamura’s mouth, waiting for him to open for a bite before he roughly shoves the rest of it in. Sawamura makes a muffled sound of protest, but accepts it all anyway, his cheeks bulging out as he chews. While Sawamura’s mouth is full, Kazuya throws away the cupcake wrapper and licks his fingers clean. “My father bought me a new bed,” he says, after a few moments. “One that’s big enough for two people.”

Sawamura’s lashes flutter as he continues to chew on the massive bite of cupcake, his lips curling down on his distended cheeks. He tilts his head sideways in askance.

Kazuya smiles at him, knowing it’s a wobbling thing. He still isn’t used to being happy, and it’s too much all at once. “I have the sort of relationship with my father, now, where he buys me a bigger bed so my boyfriend can sleep in it with me.”

Sawamura squints, and makes a questioning sound, muffled by cake.

Kazuya’s smile gains a little strength. “It’s… Sawamura, since you came back into my life as a first-year at Meiji, I’ve made so many new happy memories I don’t have space for all of them.” He gestures to the cupcakes. “My birthday is just a single day, out of all the days we’re going to have together. I don’t mind spending today to pack up your apartment so that you can come stay with me, okay? That’s… don’t be an idiot.”

Sawamura finally swallows the cupcake, and when he grins there are tiny crumbs of cupcake on his teeth. “You’re getting better at being romantic!”

“I think you’re corrupting me,” complains Kazuya. “Am I going to start reading ’Kimi ni Todoke’ next?”

“You should be honored that I’m even considering lending you my collection of one of the greatest manga of all time, Miyuki Kazuya!” Sawamura runs his tongue over his teeth, but only catches half the crumbs.

“It must be love,” Kazuya says, and he means for it to be sarcastic, but it comes out far too affectionate to pass for that. He turns away from Sawamura and his cupcakes, but Sawamura just takes the opportunity to hug him from behind, a warm bulk against Kazuya’s back, his arms wrapping around Kazuya’s torso in a secure hold.

“It is,” he says, muffled by Kazuya’s hair. “It is love! So happy birthday, jackass!”

“Yeah, yeah,” Kazuya replies, winded like he’s just sprinted a kilometer. “Let’s get back to packing.”

In the end, they consume the entire tray of cupcakes as they stack the last of the belongings Sawamura’s taking with him overseas in the living room, both of them slightly sick and too giddy from the sugar. When Sawamura pulls the bumblebee patterned tie from his closet, they abandon the final box as Kazuya slips the tie around Sawamura’s neck and uses it to pull him in. They kiss for hours, sprawled out on the tatami mats in Sawamura’s now-empty living room, until Kazuya is certain he can’t feel his lips and that he’ll never taste anything but vanilla icing ever again.

Sawamura dozes off next to him, sometime a little after nine, with tiny balls of dust in his hair, cupcake crumbs all over his shirt, and the askew mess of the tie, crumpled from Kazuya’s grip. Kazuya files away the memory of Sawamura’s serene little half-smile, another new memory he wants to keep as long as he can.

“Today was special,” he murmurs to no one at all, looking at Sawamura’s sleeping face, eyelashes dark against his freckled cheeks. Sawamura doesn’t reply, but even in sleep he reaches for Kazuya, extending an arm to curl around his waist and pull him in closer.

It’s not a bad way, Kazuya thinks, to start being twenty-four.

“Sawamura’s not here?” Kazuya’s father asks, coming slowly down the stairs. He’s still wearing his nightclothes as he walks into the kitchen, past the kitchen table and directly toward the counter where Kazuya has left a mug out for him. His elsewhere thick robe is paper-thin at the elbows, worn away from years of use.

Kazuya, already dressed for the day, scribbles in one more item on his to-do list for the week. “How could you tell?”

“The noise,” his father replies, smile audible. “It feels like he’s loud just breathing.”

“He had to leave at some unholy hour this morning.” Kazuya sets down his pen and shakes his hair out of his eyes. “He’s shooting a new advertisement for Uniqlo today. It’s one of his commercial contracts.”

His father pours himself some coffee, and then goes over to the refrigerator and pulls out the bag of flavored milk. “He has another one with that shoe company, doesn’t he? There’s a billboard with his face on it near the Takashimaya department store downtown.”

“He’s got a contract with SLP, yeah.” Kazuya closes his notebook, pushing it aside, and opens up the newest issue of Monthly Baseball Kingdom to the index page. It’s the first one he’s read in months, since Kuramochi had brought April’s issue along with him when he visited Sacramento. Kazuya had picked it up at the subway station this morning, where he’d left Sawamura. “They show more of his face than the shoes in the magazine ads.”

“He’s popular.” As if to underscore his father’s words, Sawamura’s face, shielded by a Hanshin Tigers baseball cap, stares back at him from his magazine when he turns absently to the next page. Kazuya frowns, because they’ve edited away some of Sawamura’s freckles. “Especially with girls.” His father sits back down at the table, setting his mug in front of him. “So are you.”

Kazuya chuckles. “Kuramochi used to say it was a waste.” He turns the page, flipping past a few more advertisements so he can see the article on this year’s up-and-coming high school players. Sawamura had mentioned there was a Seidou player that had made the cut. “Before he knew about…” Kazuya shrugs awkwardly, not looking up. “I mostly think it’s a hassle, honestly. It was worse in high school, though, when people could approach me directly and seemed to think it was normal to give me confession letters, or tell me how much they liked me, even though they didn’t know anything about me. Now it mostly doesn’t matter.”

“I was popular in high school too,” his father tells him. “It was different then, though. Less common, in the ‘70s, for girls to be that forward, and if they were, I was usually pretty bad about being polite turning them down.” Kazuya does look up from his magazine, then, a cluster of pages held between his index finger and thumb, to find his father staring down at his own coffee mug. “Your mother, though…”

“What about her?” Kazuya creases the magazine open to the article he’d been searching for, and folds down the upper corner, knowing Sawamura will want to look at it later too. “You didn’t turn her down rudely, too, did you?”

His father chuckles. “She terrified me.” At that, Kazuya blinks, mouth going dry at the way his father’s tone reminds him so much of his own, when he’s talking about Sawamura. “She was so brash, and didn’t seem to notice or care about how bad I was at people. I didn’t even realize we were dating until she kissed me for the first time.” He runs a hand through his thick hair, and smiles wryly. “Ah, you don’t want to hear about this, do you? It was a long time ago.”

“Sawamura terrified me too,” Kazuya says, the words tumbling out. “He’s so honest, all the time, and it was like everything he said was a bludgeon trying to break my self-preservation into pieces.” The pages are wrinkling in his grip, and he forces himself to let go. “He looked at me and saw me, even when I didn’t want him to. That’s why I…” He trails off, his brain finally catching up with his mouth, the rest of his confession caught behind his teeth.

His father takes a thoughtful sip of his coffee, and then exhales. “It’s as wonderful as it is scary, though, isn’t it? To be seen like that.”

Kazuya looks back down at his magazine, but he’s not reading it, really, lost in memory. “I felt like before him, no one else had ever really seen me before.” He presses his heels down into the floor, stretching his calf muscle. “I wasn’t… I didn’t know what to do with it.”

“You do know now, though?” His father looks out the window, where children are passing by on their way to school, loud laughter ringing out on the street that runs in front of the Tamagawa house all the way to the elementary school at the top of the hill.

“It’s still terrifying, sometimes.” Kazuya sighs, and runs his fingertips along the headline at the top of the magazine page. “Especially because I’m… the way I am.” It’s not, he thinks, like his father is unaware of what Kazuya is like. The child of a frog is a frog. “It’s worth it, though. It’s. Sawamura’s important.”

“The first time I saw you smile genuinely in years was when you brought Sawamura along to the gala with you, letting him tow you around like there was nothing you wanted more than just to watch him,” his father says, surprising Kazuya. “And the first time I’d ever seen you so close to crying since your mother left was when you had to take care of me, after my surgery.” With a frown, his father turns back to him. “When your Sawamura went pro.”

“Yeah,” Kazuya says. “I thought it’d be better for both of us, if we weren’t, you know. One of our friends had just found out about us, and it was— I was…” He laughs, bitterly. “Just more of that terror, making my decisions for me.”

There’s a long stretch of quiet as the kids get out of hearing range, their cheerful chattering disappearing as they top the hill, and Kazuya’s pulse quickens, unsure what to say to fill it.

“Kazuya, it wasn’t my place to be, but I was so relieved,” his father says, then, and Kazuya’s head jerks up so he can stare at him, “when you talked about Sawamura on the phone like he was going to be a part of your life again.”

“You were…”

“Or that you found each other. He’s the same type of bright your mother used to be, and he makes you brighter, too. You shouldn’t…” Curling his hands around the mug like the warmth comforts him, his father hunches his shoulders. “Don’t let him go if you don’t have to. Keep that brightness close to you as long as you can. You’ll miss it, if it’s gone.”

‘Regret’, in all its implications, has haunted Kazuya’s father, a ghost he finds lurking in the darkest corners of his mind whenever he lets his thoughts wander, and notices at the edges of his vision when the lights are out late at night. Kazuya isn’t going to let that be his own future. Regret, for him, won’t be a ghost in the shape of Sawamura.

“I did,” Kazuya replies, finally. “I missed it so much.” He squares his shoulders. “I’m going to keep him, Dad. I’m going to…” He curls and uncurls his toes, and it’s gardens, and bees, and a future so gloriously bright that he’s afraid looking forward to it might blind him. “There’s not anything that could make me let him go, now.”

“Good.” His father gets up from the table, returning a few minutes later with the day’s newspaper. Kazuya returns to his magazine, and they read together in silence for the next few minutes.

There’s a strange tension in the air, though, palpable, like his father wants to say something and isn’t sure how to broach it. Kazuya waits him out.

After a while, his father clears his throat. “Setagaya recognizes same-sex marriages. I looked it up.”

“You did?” Kazuya freezes, his thought processes screeching to a halt. “Why did you do that?”

“You wouldn’t have bothered to risk telling me about him at all if it weren’t serious,” his father replies. “When you asked me if I liked him… I knew you’d bring him home eventually.” He shakes out a rumple in his newspaper. “I was honored that you cared about my opinion of him, Kazuya.”

“Stop saying stuff like that,” Kazuya snaps. “You’re trying and… It’s enough. You can’t change the shit you’ve already done, but I’m here and you’re— You really looked it up?”

His father nods. “It’s been official policy to allow and recognize those kinds of marriages since 2015. It’s not legally binding, outside our ward, but there are ways around that.”

“It doesn’t matter if it’s legal or not, it’s still impossible.” Kazuya’s heartbeat thunders in his ears. “That’s… It would be public record, if—” He backs up, cutting himself off. “I haven’t even said anything about marriage.”

“All right,” his father says. His gaze is fixed on his newspaper, but Kazuya knows his father hadn’t missed the way his voice had quavered. “That’s fine, Kazuya.”

Kazuya forces himself to exhale. “Even if it’s something I wanted, we wanted, it’d be impossible to…” He rubs at his temples. “It’s not something we can afford to think about.”

“It sounds like you’ve thought about it a lot,” is his father’s mild reply, and Kazuya misses his next breath at the way it slams into him like a train.

He wants to laugh or scream; he’s not sure which. Of course Kazuya’s thoughts have wandered there, sometimes, before he can stop himself. He’s the same as Sawamura, isn’t he? Wanting to mark Sawamura in every way he can? Sawamura had asked if it was bad, that he liked the photograph in the ’Shukan Bunshin’ article, and underneath the last clutching vestiges of Kazuya’s fear and anxiety had been an equal longing.

“We’ll probably have to be long retired before we were in a position to consider something like that,” he chokes out. “If we ever…”

“I see,” his father says. “I was under the impression that you were planning to be more… public.”

“I don’t know.” Kazuya taps his fingers on the edge of the table, all nervous energy, acid sloshing in his gut. “If people find out, then we’ll deal with it. I just decided that I wasn’t going to let that possibility take him from me.”

His father’s mouth curves into an understated frown, but he drops the topic, letting the quiet fill the empty kitchen again until Kazuya, his heart refusing to slow down, excuses himself to go upstairs, wanting the distraction of replying to e-mails to escape the after-effects of their conversation.

When he’s cleared out his inbox, and responded to two older messages from Jackson and Ichinose, he lies back on the new warm flannel sheets his father had bought for the double bed that takes up most of the room, and stares up at the poster that’s still on his ceiling. Nomo Hideo stares back, and the kid inside of Kazuya who’d stood at his sports locker as his teammates taunted him with slurs he pretended not to care about can’t believe that this is his life.

Setagaya is only one of Tokyo’s twenty-three wards. It’s an even lower percentage than Sawamura’s batting average in his first year of high school.

It’s more than zero, though, and Kazuya’s heart doesn’t know what to make of that. He thinks about Shirasu’s wedding invitation, with its delicate trifold design and traditional calligraphy. A traitorous part of Kazuya’s brain whispers to him that Sawamura would probably like something similar, maybe even more old-fashioned, and he strangles the idea before it can fully form, folding his hands together on his stomach and closing his eyes.

He doesn’t even realize he’s been dozing until he startles awake to Sawamura sitting down on the edge of the bed, making it dip, and pokes him repeatedly in the side. “Wake up, sleepyhead!”

“There are nice ways to wake people up, Noisymura,” Kazuya croaks, rubbing at his eyes before straightening his glasses. The world swims into focus.

“Sure there are, but dinner is ready and this was faster!”

“Dinner? Already? It’s that late?” Kazuya sits up, stretching his arms over his head, and then checks his watch. It’s half-past seven in the evening, and he’s slept for hours. It’ll be impossible for him to go to bed tonight when Sawamura does. “Did you just get back?”

Laughing, Sawamura shakes his head, gently knocking Kazuya’s arms aside so he can comb his fingers through his hair. “No, no, this Sawamura Eijun returned to the Miyuki residence about two hours ago!”

“Really? You should have woken me up, then.” Kazuya tilts his head toward Sawamura, giving him a better angle for his wrist, but Sawamura’s pulling back already, standing up again. “You definitely shouldn’t have let me sleep.”

“You got up as early as I did this morning,” Sawamura replies, sliding his fingers into his pocket and pulling out a crumpled paper bag, “and you went to sleep later than I did last night, like you always do! Naturally it’s better to let you sleep!” He grins. “Besides, I got to talk to your dad!”

He holds the bag out, and Kazuya takes it, arching an eyebrow, his chest tight at the idea of Kazuya’s father broaching any of the topics that they’d talked about this morning. “About what?”

“About baseball!” Sawamura tugs at the neck of his red sweater. “He’s learning a lot! He was trying to figure out how pitching stats work, and stuff like that, so I showed him the same way you showed me! And he asked me for one of my Hanshin baseball cards!”

Startled, Kazuya, who’d been in the process of unfolding the paper bag to see what’s inside, pauses, and looks back up. “He did?”

Sawamura nods, his hair flopping. “Yup! Then he asked me if I’d sign it, so he could keep it for his collection!”

“That’s…” Kazuya licks his dry lips, and Sawamura’s gaze sharpens, some of his effusiveness giving way to his instinctual read of Kazuya’s mood. “The only other cards he collects are mine, Sawamura.”

“Oh!” Sawamura’s lips part, comprehension flashing in his eyes, and then he starts to… to glow, the corners of his eyes crinkling up as his lips stretch into his broadest, happiest grin. Kazuya’s heart pounds at the sight of it. “Does that mean that he considers me…”

Kazuya hears his father’s voice saying ”It sounds like you’ve thought about it a lot.”

“Yeah,” Kazuya manages, and he finally opens the small brown bag. Inside are two packages made of stiff plastic and cardboard. One of them contains a handful of thick elastic hair-ties, and the other has two headbands. All of them are an increasingly familiar lurid orange. “Really?”

“It’s our new color!” He snags Kazuya’s hand, snapping the purple elastic against the inside of Kazuya’s wrist. “This one’s fraying, Kazuya, and I told you I’d get you more of them!”

“And these?” Kazuya holds up the package of headbands, waving them back and forth.

Sawamura releases his hand, and then, bracing himself with one arm, leans forward just enough to run his hand through Kazuya’s hair again, pushing it back and off his forehead. “Your hair falls out of the tie sometimes, and you hate when it gets in your face when you’re trying to work, so I thought the headbands might help!”

Silently, Kazuya rips open the package of hair-ties, pulling out two of them. He slides one onto his own wrist, next to the purple one, and then takes the second one and offers it to Sawamura.

“I don’t have long hair!” Sawamura takes it, anyway, slipping it onto his right wrist so that it’s half-hidden by his watch band. It’s another mark, Kazuya things. Another windbreaker. Another sign of their mutual possessiveness. “Why do you want me to keep it?!”

“You’re the one always tying my hair up for me,” Kazuya replies. “It makes sense for you to hang onto one.” He takes a third tie from the package, and hands that one to Sawamura, too. “You said something about dinner?” He turns on the bed, so that Sawamura is presented with his back.

Sawamura gently gathers Kazuya’s hair with one hand, smoothing the sides with the other, and he twists the band twice so that it holds Kazuya’s hair nice and tight in a knot at the top of his head. It’s exactly as he’d tied it that time on the train, probably, when he’d given Kazuya that first package of hair-ties. It feels the same, neat and careful and loving in the execution.

“You’ll probably tease me or make a joke to brush this off if you have to talk about it,” Sawamura says when he’s finished, his voice rough, “so just listen, okay?”

Kazuya’s breath catches, and he nods.

“It means a lot to me, that your dad is okay with us!” Sawamura rests his warm palms on Kazuya’s shoulders. “That he wants to collect my baseball cards along with yours!” He squeezes his hands, thumbs pressing into the muscles in Kazuya’s neck that are tight from sleep. “I want… Can I take you home with me, too? To stay at my parents’ house? I know you’ve met my family before, but…” He sighs, sliding his hands down along the outsides of Kazuya’s arms. “It’s different now, right? Because I’m leaving them behind more seriously now, to go be with you, so I want them to know you more! I want them to understand why you mean this much to me!”

Kazuya’s tongue is thick in his mouth, and he doesn’t dare to speak, knowing his voice will give away so much more than he wants it to. So he nods again, and brings one of his hands up to rest on one of Sawamura’s.

Neither of them move for several heartbeats, until Kazuya’s dad calls up the stairs. “Eijun, Kazuya, aren’t you coming down for dinner?”

It breaks the spell, and Kazuya takes a deep breath to make up for the several he’d skipped. “Eijun?” he asks, flippantly, getting off the bed and onto his feet as Sawamura moves back to give him room, lingering by the door as Kazuya tears open his headbands and pulls the elastic over his hair, letting it settle behind his ears as he pushes it back from his forehead to restrain the strands of hair that are too short to be tied.

“I told him to call me that!” Sawamura grumbles, but his hands are gentle as he plucks at the headband to adjust it. His fingertips tickle behind Kazuya’s ears, and Kazuya shivers. “I’ve told you to call me that!”

“Maybe I’ll call you that later,” Kazuya replies, breezily passing Sawamura out into the hallway once his hands have fallen from Kazuya’s hair. “If you’re a very, very good boy.”

Sawamura puffs out an exasperated breath. “I’m still not a dog!”

“Mmm, if you say so,” Kazuya agrees, pecking Sawamura on the lips before quickly descending the stairs, Sawamura hot at his heels.

“Miyuki Kazuya!” Sawamura shouts, and Kazuya laughs, setting aside his more complicated thoughts for later, for when Sawamura isn’t shining so bright right in front of him, convincing him that nothing he’d thought was impossible before has actually ended up out of reach.

They plan to meet Chris for dinner on the twenty-second of November at ‘Arizuki’, a motsunabe restaurant in Ikebukuro that Sawamura had looked up online yesterday night after commandeering Kazuya’s laptop while Kazuya was in the shower.

It’s about a forty-minute subway ride to the station in Ikebukuro from the Tamagawa house, and they spend the entire trip there watching the baseball videos Shirasu and Kanemaru’d sent to Sawamura over LINE. They all feature a new hard hitter that SoftBank had recently drafted right out of high school to play on their main roster, bolstering their comparatively weaker offense.

Kazuya’s interested, sure, but mostly he’s entertained by just how worked up Sawamura is over him. “He’s like Raichi!” Sawamura declares, after the third video, glaring down at his phone like he wants to crawl into it and pitch to the kid himself.

“It’s not too late to resign with Hanshin,” Kazuya murmurs, aware of how the tired-looking woman across from them keeps giving them annoyed stares. He’s tempted to stare right back at her, but he doesn’t want to be recognized right now. Sawamura seems completely unaware of the attention he’s drawing with his outbursts, but that’s all right. The train isn’t all that crowded. “Then you could challenge him head on.”

“It’s definitely too late!” Sawamura says, grinding his elbow into Kazuya’s ribs. Wincing, Kazuya sways away from Sawamura. The subway slows to a stop a few moments later, though, and Kazuya’s jolted right back into him. Sawamura gives him a smug grin, like he thinks the universe is on his side. It might be; Kazuya’s seen no recent evidence to the contrary. “Even if it weren’t, I wouldn’t trade you for it, Miyuki Kazuya!”

Fighting a blush, Kazuya grins back. “Are you sure? You were looking at him like you might just be considering it~!” He laughs as Sawamura, with the hand not holding on to his phone, pulls on the front of Kazuya’s beanie, sliding it down until it knocks into his glasses. “Or were you just jealous that he can clearly make contact with a ball when he’s at bat—”

“There’s nothing wrong with a pitcher only being able to bunt!” Sawamura huffs exasperatedly, as Kazuya readjusts his beanie, fitting it back into place and making sure it covers his cold ears again. “Besides, if he’s that good, I’ll get the chance to pitch to him eventually!”

Kazuya rolls his eyes. “How do you figure? Not every great player comes to play for the MLB, you realize.”

“The MLB isn’t the only way we’ll get to play baseball!” He lets his phone fall into the cradle of his thighs, and plays with the top button of his coat. “There’s the Olympics next year, and the Japan-Korea exhibition series… We’ll have plenty of chances to play on more teams, and to play for Japan even if we’re on an American professional team!”

“And you think they’re going to select both of us just like that?” Kazuya teases. “There’s that ‘confidence’ of yours.”

“You said we have to be the best, because of everything else.” Sawamura’s eyes shine. He’s magnetic, like this, when he’s so sure of himself that even Kazuya starts to think of obstacles as meaningless. “This is another good reason to make that true!”

Laughing, Kazuya hides his face in his hands. “You’re really something else,” he says.

Sawamura pinches his thigh. “I’m pretty sure that one was a compliment, Miyuki Kazuya!”

Kazuya looks up at him through his now smudged lenses, taking in Sawamura’s obvious satisfaction. “Mostly,” he admits, picking up Sawamura’s phone to start the next video.

Chris is waiting for them a couple of meters from the busy restaurant entrance, on the 14th floor of Tobu Ikebukuro department store. He’s dressed in a pair of dark slacks and a long, tan colored dress coat, his black shoes so shiny they gleam like polished metal instead of leather.

“What’s the occasion?” Kazuya looks Chris up and down curiously as he takes off his hat and shoves it into the pocket of his winter coat. Fluffing his hair to get rid of the matted feeling, he smirks as Chris adjusts his cranberry-colored necktie. “You’re not this fancy for us, I’m assuming.”

“I had a television interview today,” Chris replies, amused. His hair is slicked back as usual, the two curls in the front carefully gelled into place, and Kazuya can see the faint traces of TV makeup under his eyes, where his dark circles are usually more prominent. “It was inconvenient to go home and change before meeting up with you two, since it would have doubled my travel time.”

“You look very handsome, Chris-senpai!”

Sawamura unbuttons his coat as he speaks, revealing the forest green Henley he’d pulled on after his shower that had made Kazuya immediately want to drag him down and pull it back off. It stretches across his chest, and Kazuya’s fingers twitch from wanting to smooth out the fabric and feel the muscle underneath.

“Thanks,” Chris replies, reminding Kazuya they aren’t alone. He gives Kazuya an embarrassingly knowing look before he gestures toward the entranceway, where a small cluster of patrons with buzzers waiting for tables stand half-blocking the doors. “I called and made a reservation for eight o’clock after Sawamura sent me the link to the website last night, so we should be able to be seated right away.”

They slip past the crowd and go inside, past the sleek potted plants and the standing menu promising delicious broth flavors, Chris leading them right to the host station. He’s so tall and obviously interesting looking that heads turn as he walks by, and Kazuya has to hide a smile behind the collar of his coat to keep Sawamura from noticing and elbowing him again.

The hostess, a young woman who looks about the same age as them, at first looks awed at their general height as Chris inquires about their reservation. When Sawamura tears off his hat to reveal the flattened mess of his curls, though, it’s recognition that has her going flustered and pink. “You’re Hanshin’s Sawamura!” She covers her mouth right after her outburst, looking around the restaurant to make sure no one’s overheard, and wilts in relief when no one is staring at them. Then she recognizes Chris and Kazuya in turn, and only goes more red. “Oh! I’ll… I’ll take you to your table!”

Kazuya snorts as Sawamura brightens to maximum wattage. “Are you a baseball fan, Miss?!”

“Yes, since I was a kid,” she replies, her blush growing deeper. She’s clearly dazzled, and Kazuya can’t completely blame her. The full force of that smile is overwhelming even after years of time to get used to it.

She collects a three copies of the thick, black-fabric bound menus from her station with unsteady hands and leads them back through the restaurant, past a wooden-slat partition to a series of pale-wood tables separated from the main body of the restaurant. “Is this all right?”

“It’s perfect,” Chris says, smiling at her, and she looks moments from fainting in her nervousness. She sets the menus down on the table, and wrings her hands as Kazuya sits, Sawamura taking the seat next to him and leaving Chris to sit across from them. “If we could have some water…?”

She nods fervently, “Yes, right, well, your server will be with you in a few moments!” Then she scurries away, and Sawamura watches her, flattered and bemused, as Chris nonchalantly opens and starts to peruse the menu.

“It’s still weird,” Sawamura says, taking off his coat and immediately putting an elbow on the table so that he can catch his chin on his open hand, fingers curling up to cup his cheek. “To be recognized.”

“You like it, though,” Kazuya says, tapping Sawamura lightly on the calf with the toe of his shoe, shrugging off his own coat. “Being noticed.”

“So what if I do?!” He scowls at Kazuya. “Sometimes it felt like no one paid attention to my pitching at all when we were in high school except for Chris-senpai! Now there are people who watch every game I start, just to see me!”

“I paid attention,” Kazuya protests. “I had more pitchers than you to wrangle, and Furuya was as high-maintenance as you were!” As soon as Kazuya opens his own menu, Sawamura scoots his chair a little closer, his thigh pressing into Kazuya’s as he leans in to share it. Leaning back slightly to accommodate him, Kazuya puts his arm across the back of Sawamura’s chair. “And don’t get me started on when Tanba was still with the team—”

Sawamura’s chin digs into Kazuya’s shoulder, his hand now resting on Kazuya’s knee for balance. “Maybe if you’d spent less time trying to make me mad, you bastard-senpai—”

Lifting his chin slightly to keep from getting tickled by Sawamura’s hair, Kazuya makes sure his smirk is audible. “You focused really well when you were mad! We got through a lot of the first numbers because you were too busy yelling at me to realize that it should have been impossible to learn some of those grips so quickly—”

Chris’s chuckle makes both of them look up, and Kazuya, vaguely horrified at being caught with his guard so far down, straightens up a little, dislodging Sawamura’s chin.

“This is very cute,” Chris says. “I don’t know why I’m surprised, but I am. I guess it’s because I assumed…” He shrugs. “It doesn’t matter, I suppose.”

“Ah.” It strikes Kazuya, then, that this is the first time Chris has been with both of them at the same time as a couple, and he’s not sure if he wants to smile or throw up. He tries to tell himself that it’s only Chris, and it’s fine if Chris sees Kazuya like this, because he has known for so long what Sawamura actually means to Kazuya.

But despite his best efforts, Kazuya’s heartbeat only grows more frantic, pumping blood that’s as cold as ice through his veins, and he looks down at the tabletop, needing to focus on the weight of Sawamura’s hand on his knee to keep himself centered. He breathes in, and out, and then in again.

“Kazuya?” Sawamura asks quietly, and Kazuya swallows before he looks up again.

“I’m not used to it,” Kazuya says, avoiding both of their eyes by watching serving staff carry plates of food past their table toward the other side of the restaurant. He feels Sawamura’s hand slide a little further up his thigh, thumb rubbing in soothing circles on the inner seam of his jeans. Warmth spiders out from the points of contact. “I mean, we’ve been with my dad, but that’s…” He takes another deep breath. “I forgot that it wasn’t—” He grits his teeth on the word ‘normal’, because he refuses to feel that way anymore.

“Isn’t that fine?” Sawamura asks, quietly, and Kazuya’s eyes dart to him, taking in his pensive expression and feeling his stomach lurch again. “It’s only Chris-senpai, right? You said…”

“No, no, it’s fine,” Kazuya says, and then he finally returns his attention to Chris, whose easy, pleased smile has morphed into a concerned grimace. “It’s not bad. It’s… We’ve been alone so much that I…” He places a hand on Sawamura’s, and breathes out again. Sawamura immediately eases at the firmness of Kazuya’s grip, the tension melting away at the simple touch. “It’s nice, not to need to worry,” Kazuya adds, looking directly into Chris’s eyes, curling his hand more firmly around Sawamura’s, the grasp hidden completely by the table, slotted between their thighs. “To know that you’re not going to care, or judge. I’m just… not used to it. That’s all. I sort of…”

They all know the word he’s left off is ’panicked’, and Kazuya’s profoundly grateful that it’s left unsaid.

Chris’s long fingers splay out across his open menu, nails tapping lightly on the laminated pages. “I was only going to say,” he starts, words slow as he considers each one’s merits, “that I thought it’d be different, seeing you both and knowing you’re together, but it isn’t. The teasing and the yelling and all that, it’s really the same, isn’t it? It’s so good to see you’re so comfortable with each other again.” He gives them that smile that Kazuya used to find enigmatic, but now understands is Chris at his most content. “As much as I wanted Sawamura to come play for Chunichi, this is better.”

“You’re only saying that because you won’t be playing us~!” Kazuya replies, and his pulse is still too fast, his heart at double-speed, but he won’t cave to it, leaning back into Sawamura and letting Sawamura’s natural heat chase away the last of the icy chill inside him. “We’re going to toast the National League West next season.”

“I’ll definitely enjoy the luxury of watching you both play together without it cutting in to my own team’s win-loss record.” Chris’s lips quirk as their server, a harried looking guy around their age, sets down water glasses on the table, along with a pot of a sweet, floral-scented tea, and Sawamura is freeing his hand from Kazuya’s to pick it up before Chris can even make a fraction of a move to do it himself.

“Chris-senpai, let this Sawamura Eijun pour your tea!”

“That’s really unnecessary,” Chris says, but he pushes his teacup in Sawamura’s direction so he doesn’t have to reach so far, sharing a smile with Kazuya over Sawamura’s familiar antics.

“Are you going to pour tea for me too?” Kazuya asks, when Sawamura’s finished filling Chris’s cup.

Sawamura scowls at him, but his eyes are laughing. “I only pour tea for people who haven’t referred to me as a dog in the past twenty-four hours!”

“Wow, what arbitrary standards,” Kazuya replies, and he gives into impulse, smoothing the green fabric of Sawamura’s Henley where it’s bunched up at his bicep, the fabric too tight. “Is that any way to treat your senpai? I’m your senpai for the third time, now, Sawamura!”

Sawamura’s gaze flits down to Kazuya’s hand on his arm, and he swallows. “I think I’ll keep treating you as my partner Kazuya instead.” His gaze, when it returns to Kazuya’s, flickers with promise, and Kazuya jerks his gaze away, grabbing his cold water and taking a sip to subdue the heat crawling up his spine.

“Definitely cute,” Chris says, lightly grasping his teacup.

Sawamura sputters, and Kazuya taps his calf with his shoe again, a reminder not to yell.

“I don’t understand your definition of that word,” Kazuya says, licking his lips.

They order a white miso broth for their table’s motsunabe pot, and it arrives quickly, already bubbling as it’s placed onto the table’s center grill. Sawamura coos over the fragrance, spouting overly poetic lines about how nothing can beat a traditional Japanese meal to Chris, and Kazuya takes charge of adding the offal cuts into the nabe pot so they can start to cook, adding half the vegetables to start and all of the green onions, because he likes them best.

“I think food is what I’ll miss most when I move,” Sawamura says, staring at the pot. “I mean, besides people! Obviously I’ll miss my family and friends the most, but I’ve lived apart from them for a long time already, so it’s easier now!”

“There’s plenty of Japanese food in San Francisco,” Kazuya says. “You made me try all of the Asian bakeries within a fifty kilometer radius, remember? And at least six ramen shops. There’s sushi, too.”

“It wasn’t that many bakeries!” Sawamura protests, poking at the tripe with his chopsticks to see if it’s done enough to eat. Kazuya sighs, and pulls out a piece himself to check it, dropping it back in when he sees a few parts are still too pink. “Anyway, I meant the variety of Japanese food, the variety, Miyuki Kazuya!”

“My cooking isn’t good enough for you?” Kazuya adds the blocks of tofu now, pushing them down into the broth with the tongs.

Motsunabe isn’t a dish for two!” Sawamura says, munching on a piece of pickled radish.

“You’ll be able to come back like this in the off-season,” Chris says. “And aren’t you both going to Shirasu’s wedding? That’s in mid-February. That’s not so long from now.”

Sawamura perks up, and Kazuya grabs his free hand, lacing their fingers back together under the table to calm Sawamura down. “I sent my response card the week I got the invitation!”

Chris studies the meat, and nods, picking up his chopsticks and taking a few pieces to put on his saucer to cool. He keeps his eyes pointedly on the nabe pot as he asks: “Are you going to the wedding together?”

Kazuya pauses, his own piece of meat hanging from his chopsticks while he looks at Chris, the loaded question heavy in the air.

“What do you mean, Chris-senpai?” Sawamura asks, his spoon hovering above the pot, the bite of soft tofu he’d scooped up wobbling on the end. “We’re going to the same place at the same time, why wouldn’t we travel together?”

Kazuya continues his previous motion, bringing his chopsticks to hover over his plate, letting broth drip down from his piece of pork tripe. “That’s not what he’s asking, Sawamura.” He blows on the meat to cool it, watching Sawamura shove the whole piece of tofu into his mouth. “He wants to know if we’re going together like Kuramochi and Takarada are going together.”

Sawamura makes a thoughtful noise around his massive bite, then licks sloppily at the corner of his lips. “Does that mean we’d wear matching ties or something?” He turns to Kazuya. “Oh, or matching suits! Kazuya, let’s—”

“No way,” Kazuya says, smirking around his discomfort at the question. “We’re not primary school students on a class trip.” He eats the slice of meat. It’s still too hot, but it doesn’t burn his tongue.

“Then what’s the difference between what I said and what Chris-senpai said?!” He narrows his eyes. “I’m going to fly to Narita from San Francisco with you, stay in a hotel room with you, and then go to the wedding with you in the same car, aren’t I?!”

“He’s asking,” Kazuya says, swallowing his own bite, miso broth leaving behind a salty aftertaste, “if we’re going to give a joint gift. If we’re going to make sure we’re seated next to each other during the reception. If the people sitting around us are going to know we’re…” He stumbles over the next bit, stealing a furtive look at Chris to gauge his expression, finding only a neutral one. “That we’re a couple. Stuff like that.”

Sawamura looks confused, his lips tightening. “Won’t Shirasu-senpai seat us with people like Chris-senpai, or Kuramochi-senpai?” He sets his spoon down to pick up his chopsticks. “In that case, there won’t be anything to even think about!”

Chris nods thoughtfully. “That’s mostly true,” he says, slowly. “I was only curious about what you would say, if someone asked.”

“No one ever asks,” replies Sawamura, tone frank. “That’s the way it is, Chris-senpai.”

“It’s more likely that people are going to be wondering about where Sawamura’s playing next year.” Kazuya fishes out the head of a scallion, folding it to push it into his mouth, the bitterness a relief from the saccharine creep of anxiety that Kazuya can’t quite suppress. “They won’t have the energy to care about why we’re living together.”

Chris raises both eyebrows. “Not,” he says, and he’s so careful, Kazuya thinks, to modulate his tone of voice, “if you’re holding hands.”

Kazuya is suddenly aware that he never unlaced their fingers, Sawamura’s hand tangled with his and hanging down between their chairs, the both of them eating with opposite hands. It’s something they did all the time sitting side by side at the island in the San Francisco townhouse’s kitchen to eat, and with the partition directly behind them to block the view, Kazuya had become too complacent for the second time tonight, despite the fact that they’d been recognized. He knows better than that. “Yeah,” he says, uncurling his hand from Sawamura’s. “You’re right.”

Sawamura’s staring at him, and Kazuya doesn’t look back, unsure about what his eyes might say and not wanting Sawamura to read anything in them.

“It wasn’t a criticism,” Chris says, quickly, snagging a slice of radish. “You know I don’t…” He smiles, chagrined. “My apologies if I’ve made you uncomfortable.”

“It’s not your fault.” Kazuya’s hand is cold, so he rubs it on his thigh to warm it up. “It’s something to think about.”

“Not yet,” Sawamura says. “We don’t… We have to play, first, right?” He grips Kazuya’s sleeve, and Kazuya finally turns to look at him. Sawamura’s eyes are steady, lacking any sort of disappointment or judgment, and something unfurls inside Kazuya, spreading out to fill his entire chest. “We have to be the best, first. We have to win, first. That’s your plan, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Kazuya says, with a lopsided smile. “That’s my plan. So simple even you can follow it, right~?”

Sawamura puffs his cheeks out. “I can follow any plan, if it’s you leading me!”

Kazuya’s heart attempts to climb up into his throat, and he swallows it back down. “You should eat the meat before it overcooks,” he says. “Unless you want Chris to eat it all while you sit there and holler at me.”

“No, but that’s—” Sawamura turns back to the motsunabe, eyes wide as he surveys the mostly full pot.

Chris waits for Kazuya to catch his eye, and winks, his tiny smile saying it all. Kazuya flushes, but sits up straighter, defiant, and dips his chopsticks into the pot for a piece of vegetable.

The rest of dinner is easier, and consists of Sawamura gushing excitedly over San Francisco’s stadium, with Kazuya interjecting every time Sawamura’s anecdotes veer into outlandish territory and Chris doing his best to steer them both back on track with questions about the coaching staff and the weight rooms. Sawamura is only too happy to brag about the baby pitcher he’d half-adopted, and Kazuya finds himself talking about the work he’s been doing on his swing, too, in more detail than he normally would, in order to counteract Sawamura’s embellishments.

Their pot empty of meat and vegetables, their server brings out a bowl of thin, clear rice noodles and dumps them into the still simmering pot.

“I changed my mind,” Sawamura says, a couple minutes later, lifting a huge, slimy mouthful of them out of the miso broth. “We need a nabe pot for the house.”

Kazuya laughs. “I thought it wasn’t a meal for two.”

“It’s not!” Sawamura purses his lips to blow on the noodles. “You’ll have to come visit sometime, Chris-senpai!” He shoves the noodles all into his mouth at once.

“I will,” Chris promises. “I’d like to see it.”

Sawamura lights up, pulling his phone out of his pocket as he chews. “I took a lot of pictures!” His mouth is full, but he’s intelligible. “I mean, I can’t share them on Instagram because too many people follow me and we don’t want strangers to find the house, but look!” He holds his phone out to Chris, who takes it from him curiously. “There are more if you swipe right!”

“There are a lot of empty rooms in these photos,” Chris says, and he looks through them carefully, his hands too big around Sawamura’s phone as he swipes from picture to picture. “Didn’t you buy it months ago, Miyuki?”

Sawamura smiles softly. “Miyuki Kazuya waited for me to start furnishing it!” he says, and the disbelieving note in his voice, like he still can’t fathom that it’s true, makes Kazuya want to grab his hand again, regardless of who might be paying attention.

Instead, he focuses on Chris, who is now staring at the phone screen with twitching lips, and Kazuya can hear the ”cute” waiting behind his teeth even if Chris doesn’t say it. He decides there’s nothing he can do about it, and leans into Sawamura, letting his chatter about the backyard and Kazuya’s half-hearted beginnings to their garden wash over him as he eats.

When they finish their meal, Sawamura excuses himself to the restroom. Chris refills his own teacup and waits for Kazuya to take a sip of his water before he speaks. “I had a feeling he’d end up your pitcher again, Miyuki.”

“That makes one of us,” Kazuya says in reply. He runs his thumb down the outside of the glass, leaving a streaky fingerprint. “I really thought he was going to go play for the Dragons, Chris. Then he was there, standing on AT&T field, wearing those stupid yellow shoes and smiling at me all hopefully, and I…”

“You’ve constantly underestimated how much you really mean to him from the beginning. From the moment you told me you were dating, you always assumed he’d get tired of you, or he’d find someone else he wanted more.” Chris studies his tea like there’s a fortune waiting for him at the bottom of his cup. “It’s no surprise you couldn’t see that he’d wait for you as long as he had to, but Miyuki, the only person who knew about you two that didn’t expect he’d reach out and grab you the moment you held out a hand was you.”

“I don’t understand it,” Kazuya says, the glass warming in his hand. “I don’t know why it’s me, when he’s so—”

“He loves you, and he undoubtedly has just as many reasons for that as you do for the way you feel about him,” Chris replies. “Sawamura doesn’t overthink things, but for all his brashness, he always leaps with his eyes wide open. He knew who you were when he decided on you, and he knows who you are now.”

“That’s what he tells me.” Kazuya chuckles. “I’ll take it, whether I think he’s made a good choice or not. Me. He’s moving across the world to play baseball with me. He waited three years for me.”

“Yes, you. Might as well accept that none of us are going anywhere, least of all Sawamura.” Chris takes a long sip of his tea. “You understand that much, right, first-string catcher?”

“I think I do,” Kazuya says, quietly, his eyes turning to look at where Sawamura is headed back toward their table, a look of concentration on his face, typing something on his phone. He’s sticking his tongue out of the corner of his mouth. “I’m getting there.”

“There is one thing you need to do, though,” Chris says, right as Sawamura comes into earshot.

“And that is?” Kazuya asks, tilting his head slightly. He doesn’t think it’ll be anything too bad, with the way Chris is smiling at him.

“Sawamura’s batting,” Chris says, pointedly, and Sawamura’s head snaps up, his mouth already opening into an ‘o’ of outrage. “You haven’t been working on it.”

Kazuya laughs. “He’s an MLB pitcher now,” he says. “It’s par for the course that they can’t bat, unless they’re a rare double-threat.” He smirks. “Besides, it’s not my job to babysit this guy in the batting cages anymore. We have coaches for that!”

“Miyuki Kazuya! I’m a bunt master! Acknowledge my prowess!”

“Oh, I acknowledge it,” Kazuya replies, still laughing. He lunges across the table and grabs Sawamura by the wrist, pulling him back to his seat. Sawamura flops down next to him dramatically. “Clearly, Chris-san does too~!”

“You’re ganging up on me! I—”

“Excuse me,” comes a voice from Kazuya’s other side, and he turns back to find it’s the hostess from earlier. “Could I have your autographs? For the wall up front? If it’s not too much trouble.”

She’s carrying an unlaminated copy of the ‘Arizuki’ menu and a permanent marker, and she barely has to hold it out before Sawamura is taking both from her, scrawling his name boldly across the broth options at the top of the page. He shoves the marker into Kazuya’s hand when he’s finished, and Kazuya shakes his head, scribbling his own name right next to Sawamura’s, his own kanji like narrow chicken scratch in comparison to Sawamura’s square, primary school tracing book shaped characters.

After Chris has signed his name too, she brings out her smartphone. “And a picture? To go with it.”

“Sure,” Chris says, leaning on his elbows so he’s closer to Kazuya and Sawamura.

Sawamura throws his arm around Kazuya’s shoulders, and presses their cheeks together. “Don’t forget to smile, Miyuki Kazuya!”

“You’ll smile enough for the both of us,” Kazuya replies, curling his lips up at the edges anyway, Sawamura’s miso-scented breath blowing right into his face.

The hostess takes three photos before she offers them a shaking “thank you” with a small but earnest smile.

“Wait, wait!” Sawamura says, when she starts to leave. He holds out his own phone. “Could you take one on mine, too? For my Instagram?”

“Of course!” She takes his phone and bites her lip, snapping another couple of photos. Finished, she hands Sawamura’s phone back to him and takes the signed menu. “Thank you again!”

Sawamura’s arm is still around Kazuya’s shoulders as he starts to fiddle with the new photos, choosing one of them and cropping it, adding it to a post along with another photo of their untouched motsunabe taken while the meat cooked.

“People are going to make a big deal about it,” Kazuya says, “the three of us out to eat.” He watches Sawamura fuss with the caption. Sawamura’s closeness to Kazuya in the photo is more of that casual intimacy from the scarf photo in the the tabloids, an ease with Kazuya’s space that speaks volumes.

“Does that bother you?” Sawamura looks up at Kazuya through his eyelashes. “I don’t have to put it up, if it will.”

Kazuya makes a point of exaggerating his sigh. “I already know how much you like Instagram. I’m not really worried about it.”

“I don’t mind either,” Chris says. “You should text me a copy of it, too.”

They leave quickly after Sawamura’s uploaded the photo, not wanting to linger in case some of Sawamura’s fans are close by.

Before they part outside the department store, Chris takes one of his large hands and settles it on top of Sawamura’s messy hair. “See you next time, ace.” Sawamura gapes at Chris, and Kazuya’s going to laugh at him, really, but then Chris puts his other hand on Kazuya’s shoulder. “You too, Miyuki.”

Then he leaves them there, heading out toward the cab lanes, and Kazuya herds a beaming Sawamura in the direction of the subway, his lips twitching slightly even as the wind that rushes in through the tunneled subway exit stings at his cheeks. Sawamura pulls his hat lower over his ears to protect them from the chill.

It’s far more crowded than it had been on their way here, long lines already forming at the train entry points. They won’t be watching videos like they had on the way here when they’re crammed in like sardines.

They claim a spot together at the rear of the subway train car, both of them grabbing hold of a swinging handle and alternating their feet so they’ll sway into each other instead of strangers. Sawamura lets the movement of the train bring them together when it jolts into motion, casually setting a hand on Kazuya’s hip for balance. “You smell like motsunabe,” Sawamura mumbles, his fingers curling in a little tighter, touch obscured by the press of people on the train. “And tea.”

“That’s—” If it were someone else, Kazuya’d think that was a bad thing, but Sawamura’s voice is soft and pleased. Kazuya tightens his grip around the motion handle.

Sawamura’s phone vibrates against both their thighs from the pocket of his jeans, saving Kazuya the need to formulate the rest of a reply; he lets go of Kazuya’s hip to pull it out, and then gasps at his screen. Kazuya tilts himself forward to look as Sawamura unlocks his phone to stare at his Instagram app. “Eight-thousand likes on the photo of the three of us already?!” He laughs. “Everyone wants to know if I can convince Miyuki Kazuya to get an Instagram, too.”

Kazuya’s instinct is to say no. He’s gotten into the habit of taking photos for friends, but there’s a large gap between that and taking photos so strangers can look in on his life. Kazuya has zero interest in that, the same way he has zero interest in interviews or magazine spreads beyond what doors they might open in terms of advertisement deals. “Only if I can lock it,” he finds himself saying. “For just a few people.”

Sawamura’s eyes tear away from his phone to look at Kazuya in complete surprise. “Am I hearing correctly? Has Miyuki Kazuya consented to being dragged, kicking and screaming, into doing something age-appropriate with his phone?!”

“I’ll think about it,” Kazuya replies, and when the train lurches this time, he’s the one reaching out to grab Sawamura for balance. Push and pull, he thinks. Equal ground. “If you ask me really nicely.” He flutters his eyelashes.

“Unlike you, I can be very nice!” Sawamura puts his phone away, and hooks his now empty hand on the pocket of Kazuya’s coat. “Take notes!”

“But you like me just the way I am~!” Kazuya grins up at at Sawamura. “Remember?”

Sawamura’s answering grin is full of promises. “I do,” he says. “I’ll just be nice enough for the both of us, then.”

Kazuya rests his forehead on Sawamura’s shoulder to hide his subsequent laugh as more people push onto the train, filling in the space around them. “I know,” he says, and the words get lost in the noise. Sawamura’s finger hooks in his belt loop, anyway, a sure sign of understanding.

Kuramochi is waiting for them at the train station wearing plastic sunglasses and a backwards baseball cap, and he’s sporting a puffy coat so overly large that his head looks the size of a bagel.

“Why do you look like you’re about to rob a bank in the 1990s?” Kazuya asks, before Sawamura can rattle off a cheerful greeting at the top of his lungs in the sleepy early-morning buzz of Sendai Station. Caught off-guard at the interruption, Sawamura chokes on his shout before it mutates into a gurgling laugh. “The sun is barely up.”

“I hate the glare.” Kuramochi peers at them both over the rims of his sunglasses. “You’re just jealous of the superior warmth of my coat, you dick.” He points at Sawamura with a grumpy downward curl of his lips. “You too, Sawamura. Jealous, the both of you.”

Sawamura, as chipper as he always is at times of morning that make Kazuya irrationally angry, straightens up to his full height, shifting his lime green backpack on his shoulders. “I’m used to the cold!”

“And I’m used to having a vaguely human shape to my body as I walk around,” Kazuya adds. “Are you hungover?”

“No!” Kuramochi makes a rude gesture at both of them, but he begrudgingly removes the sunglasses. “I should leave you both here.”

“But we came all this way to see you, Kuramochi-senpai!” Sawamura turns a winning grin on Kuramochi, and Kuramochi winces. Kazuya notes the prominent circles under his eyes. They’re darker than they’d looked the last time they’d talked on Skype, and the uncolored roots of his hair, a stark black in contrast to the fading dark green of the tips, only exaggerate how tired he looks.

Kazuya swallows down a twinge of concern, and smirks. “Yeah, Kuramochi, we came all this way to see you.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Kuramochi grumbles. “I’m surprised Sawamura didn’t drive like he did the last time, though. I could have gotten an extra few hours of sleep.”

“I sold my car before we left Nishinomiya.” Sawamura shrugs. “It’s not like I wanted take it with me to San Francisco! If we need another car, I’ll just buy a new one then!”

“We only have one street parking space anyway,” Kazuya says, adjusting the strap of his bag. “Is Takarada in the car or something?”

“No, she’s back at home,” replies Kuramochi. “She’s under the weather this morning. She’ll probably feel better by the afternoon.” Kazuya narrows his eyes as Kuramochi looks away from him, up at the travel board. “We should get going, actually. There’s plenty in the fridge for breakfast, but I have to put on fresh rice.”

“Oh ho, a recently mastered skill?” Kazuya jokes, and Kuramochi elbows him in the gut before he picks up his pace, leading them out of the station.

Kuramochi and Takarada’s apartment is tucked away in a quiet neighborhood within walking distance to the stadium. “We were going to buy a house,” Kuramochi tells Kazuya, as he unlocks the door, “but we never know if I’m going to get traded, and it’s a lot to furnish when turnover is so high.” He cocks a thumb at Sawamura as he pushes it open. “We did put your boyfriend to work helping me set up the bookshelves last time he visited. Figured he’d had enough practice putting them together at his own place.”

“It took an eternity to pack up his books,” Kazuya agrees, even as his heart twinges at how casually Kuramochi says ‘boyfriend’, with that same fragile awe he’d felt hearing Chris say it. “Maybe I should have looked for a place with two spare rooms.”

“It’s not that many books!” Sawamura protests. “I only keep the ones I really like!”

“Don’t you have an entire upper floor?” Kuramochi asks, hanging his coat up and stepping up into the narrow hallway, leaving his shoes behind. “I thought you had three spare bedrooms in the townhouse?”

“Maybe I’m planning on taking in tenants.” Kazuya arches an eyebrow. “After all, it’s not like baseball pays well—”

“Are you bragging about your signing bonus? I usually reserve my Grand Octopus for idiots like Sawamura but don’t think I won’t make an exception!”

Kazuya laughs as Sawamura puts a hand on his shoulder for balance as he unties his sneakers. Kazuya curls his palm around Sawamura’s waist to offer additional support when he wobbles, thinking nothing of it. Kuramochi’s eyes flicker down, catching the action, his lips tilting into a crooked smile that leaves Kazuya feeling slightly warm, like he’s just drunk a cup of lemon tea. He smiles back, remembering with crystal clarity listening to Kuramochi on the other end of the phone line two years ago as he cried over how much he wanted this, sitting on the stone floor of the bathing room at his grandparents’ house, his glasses hanging from his fingers and his throat choked up.

“You made it!” Takarada’s voice comes from down the hall, and when she steps into view, Kazuya’s eyes widen. She’s as pale and gray as the winter sky, her face thin and mouth pinched. Her hair is pulled back in a loose and sloppy ponytail, and she’s wearing one of Kuramochi’s old T-shirts over a pair of Meiji University track pants that drag on the floor.

She shuffles down the hall towards them, pulling Sawamura into a soft hug that he immediately returns, but without the crushing strength Kazuya associates with Sawamura’s embraces. He nuzzles at her hair, his eyes meeting Kazuya’s with an alarm that Kazuya shares. “Takarada-senpai!”

“Did you get even taller?” She pulls back to level Sawamura with a suspicious glare, a teasing spark in her eye.

“No,” Kazuya says. “I think he’s finally topped out. You’ve just gotten adjusted to Kuramochi’s shockingly tiny 178cm—”

“I’m taller than the national average! You act like I’m small! I’m taller than Altuve!”

Kazuya slips a finger underneath the orange elastic hairband that’s holding back the still too-short pieces of hair in the front from his face, adjusting its position so it stops catching on the earpieces of his glasses. “Comparing yourself to Altuve now? How bold.”

“You live to get on my nerves, don’t you, Miyuki?”

“Wow, you’ve discovered my secret purpose in life!” Kazuya winks at him. “What’s next for you, Kuramochi Youichi? Outer space? The cure for cancer?”

“You’ll both be a hundred years old and giving each other shit, won’t you?” Takarada asks, and when Kazuya looks down at her, she gives him a tiny grin and pulls out of Sawamura’s arms to wrap around him. “Can I get away with this twice?”

“You seem to like your chances,” Kazuya says, returning the gesture. He’s still at a loss how easily she offers it to him, resting her cheek against his sternum. It’s a strange bit of skinship he’d thought reserved for family, and Kazuya chokes up a little thinking he’s included under that umbrella for Takarada.

“It’s because I know about your gooey marshmallow center now,” she mumbles into his shoulder.

Kazuya snorts, stirring her hair. “You must be mistaking me for someone else.”

“I know what I’m talking about.” Takarada pulls back, grinning up at him. Her cheeks are sallow, and her lips are dry. “I’m an intermediate student in speaking Miyuki Kazuya. It’s a little easier than English and I’m great at that.”

“I’m an advanced student in speaking Miyuki Kazuya!” Sawamura boasts, hooking his index finger in Kazuya’s belt loop to hang, not pulling Kazuya in closer but maybe keeping him from moving away.

“Well,” Takarada says, shifting her gaze, “I haven’t had all the hands-on learning time—”

“Nope!” Kuramochi interrupts, glaring at Kazuya like he knows Kazuya’s dying to add to his suffering. “I know them both too well for that joke to be anything but uncomfortable!”

“Coward,” replies Takarada, reaching out to rest a hand against the hall wall. “Come on inside and put your stuff in the guest room. I can get started on breakfast.”

“Sawamura had to sleep on the couch last time he was here because we were still getting settled, but we have guest futons now,” Kuramochi says, leading them toward the rear of the apartment. Sawamura immediately follows, picking up Kazuya’s bag and tugging on his belt loop to tow him along.

Amused, Kazuya easily follows, wrapping his hand around Sawamura’s forearm to gently pull his hand free and then twining their fingers together. “It’d probably be a tough fit getting both of us on the couch.”

“We sleep on our couch all the time!” Sawamura protests, looking back at Kazuya with a pout. “It’s fine!”

“If you don’t mind half your limbs falling asleep, sure.” Kazuya squeezes Sawamura’s hand to soften the words. “You’re heavy, idiot.”

“I thought you liked that!” Sawamura’s offended tone doesn’t match the glimmer of heat Kazuya catches in his eyes. “You can sleep on the floor, then!”

Kazuya quickly looks away to examine the painting that hangs at the end of the hall. “Maybe you can sleep on the couch.”

“We have three futons for when family comes to stay,” Kuramochi says dryly, coming to a stop. “You can pretend to unroll them on opposite sides of the room if it’ll make you happy.” He scratches at the back of his head as he opens the door to what must be the guest room, futons and bedding folded and stacked next to the empty closet. Turning toward them, he flits his gaze between them, pointedly looking at their linked hands. “Although something tells me these are empty threats.”

“Miyuki Kazuya is always cold,” Sawamura replies, nodding authoritatively, dropping Kazuya’s bag just inside the door before releasing Kazuya’s hand to set his backpack with both their laptops gently down next to it. “It’s easier if we can put all the blankets on one futon!”

“I’m with him for his body,” Kazuya agrees.

Kuramochi rolls his eyes. “You know, with all those years of pining, I somehow thought things would be different, but it’s exactly the same as it was in college only now you’re not pretending you don’t want to hold hands all the time.”

Kazuya arches a brow. “My hands get cold, too!” He throws a hand around Sawamura’s broad, strong shoulders, and smells the gentle detergent from the Tamagawa house that Sawamura’d washed both their clothes with last week, their shirts and underwear and socks all mixed together and packed into Kazuya’s bag knowing it didn’t matter which clothes belonged to each of them, since they were going to the same place.

Sawamura snickers at Kuramochi’s completely nonplussed expression, leaning into Kazuya’s hold. “Reptiles don’t make their own body heat,” he mumbles, his lips brushing Kazuya’s throat.

“I’ve always thought you looked a bit like a lizard,” Kuramochi says, but in contrast to his words, his expression is so gentle. Kazuya’s lungs burn at that look, at the gentle joy in it, and he can feel warmth in his cheeks from rushing blood. “Seira should be—”

As though summoned by Takarada’s name, there’s a loud crash from the front of the house. Kuramochi, with the same quick reaction time that has saved many a pitcher, pushes off the wall, disappearing from the doorway with heavy footfalls, calling out Takarada’s name.

Stomach plummeting, Kazuya trails Sawamura in the direction of the kitchen. When he gets there, Kuramochi is squatting down next to Takarada, who has her arms wrapped around her knees, her hair pooling on the floor amongst the shattered remains of what appears to be several bowls. Kuramochi’s rubbing her back in slow circles, murmuring something to her under his breath.

“Let’s get her out of the kitchen,” Kazuya says to Sawamura, clenching and unclenching his fist. “Kuramochi, do you have a broom?”

“In that far cupboard,” Kuramochi says. “I’ll get it, just give me—”

Sawamura, with the sort of recklessness that comes naturally to him, walks right into the kitchen in his socked feet before Kazuya can stop him.

“Be careful,” Kazuya snaps.

Kuramochi throws a hand out to stop Sawamura’s approach. “Don’t be stupid,” he says. “At least I have on slippers.” He stands, helping Takarada up from the floor. “Can you pour her a glass of water from the pitcher, Sawamura?” He points at the half-empty pitcher on the far edge of the counter, out of the sunlight.

“Sorry,” Takarada says miserably, as Sawamura skirts the porcelain shards and reaches a long arm out to grab a glass from the drying rack with his fingertips, brushing past two garish matching coffee mugs. “I just got dizzy all of a sudden.”

Kuramochi brushes the porcelain out of the way on his side of the floor, and walks with Takarada over to Kazuya. “Can you take her into the living room while I clean up?”

“I can take myself into the living room!” Despite her words, Takarada grips Kazuya’s arm in a grip so tight he thinks it might bruise. “I’m fine now, really. I should get back to—”

“Just relax, Takarada.” Kazuya guides her across the hall and into the living room, and then to sit down on the couch.

Sawamura hurriedly pushes a half-full glass of lukewarm water into her hand as she curls up into the pillows, tucking her legs underneath her and crossing her free arm across her abdomen. Kuramochi quickly joins them, the shards presumably all cleaned up. He’s carrying a throw blanket, and he drapes it over her.

“I’ll save us all the headache and put breakfast together, okay? Sawamura can keep you company.” Kazuya kicks Kuramochi’s ankle. “Show me where you keep stuff in your kitchen.”

“You’re not my captain or my coach! No bossing me around!” Kuramochi replies, but he goes along with it anyway, leaving Sawamura to cluck over Takarada as she pulls the throw blanket higher up around her shoulders.

The rice pot, that Takarada had apparently put on before they’d even arrived, starts to play a merry tune to tell them it’s finished cooking as soon as Kazuya yanks opens the fridge, shaking the Polaroid photographs of family and friends and Kuramochi and Takarada on dates. He takes out a half-consumed loaf of fat-sliced white bread, butter, and a carton of eggs, setting them down a little too hard on the counter as Kuramochi reaches up into the cabinet above him and pulls down a glass bowl, slamming it down next to it.

“Trying to make sure we don’t have any bowls left in the whole place?”

Kuramochi opens the drawer just to the left of the sink, revealing chopsticks and silverware. “I don’t know what else you need.”

“Seasoning,” Kazuya says, shortly, and then surveys the stovetop, where the omelette pan is already too hot for the eggs, oil popping. He crosses behind Kuramochi to turn the gas down, and pulls out the grilling drawer to check on the meat. “Another skillet. Onion.”

“Seasonings are in there.” Kuramochi raps his knuckles on the cabinet above him, right next to where he’d acquired the bowl. “I’ll get you an onion from the pantry.”

“Fine.” Kazuya’s voice sounds too sharp, but he doesn’t bother trying to modulate it.

Kuramochi kicks the cabinet lightly. “Look, I don’t get why you’re so mad right now.”

“You said it was nothing serious, when you were taking her to the doctor before.” Kazuya’s chest aches, ice forming around his lungs as he looks over his shoulder to watch Sawamura hover over Takarada’s curled up figure on the couch, adjusting her blanket and being generally too noisy to take care of an invalid. He wants to press his hand to it, to try to ease the discomfort beneath his sternum, but instead he cracks eight eggs one by one into the glass bowl, remembering every single time he’d done the same thing standing on a step-stool as his father or grandmother had lied to him about where his mother had gone. Betrayal is sharp and bitter at the back of his throat.

“I did?” Kuramochi sighs, leaning back against the counter after setting an oblong onion on the countertop, along with a cutting board. Running a hand through his hair, he takes out a knife from the open silverware drawer, and starts to slice it. “It’s not serious. At least, not in the way you’re thinking. There’s nothing wrong with her.”

Kazuya tosses the egg shells into the trash under the sink and quickly rinses his hands. “Clearly something’s going on.” He feels a muscle clenching in his jaw as he steals a look at Kuramochi out of the corner of his eye. “You look like you haven’t slept in a while, and look at her.” He jerks the grill drawer open again, and uses the chopsticks he’d beaten the eggs with to flip the meat. “So.”

Kuramochi tilts his face away, hiding his expression. “So?”

Kazuya scoffs. “Does it only go one way, Kuramochi? Only I’m supposed to talk about my problems, so you can feel better for helping me?” He glares at Kuramochi, completely focused on him, crossing his arms and ignoring the wet handprints he leaves on both arms of his shirt. “We’re…” He swallows the bile at the back of his throat. “We’re best friends, and friends support each other. Or don’t you practice what you preach?”

“Low blow, Miyuki,” Kuramochi replies, looking back at Kazuya with a wince. “You would weaponize one of the few times you’ve willingly said aloud that I’m your best friend. I don’t know what I was expecting.” He deflates anyway, slumping back against the kitchen counter as he turns his head to look at Takarada over Kazuya’s shoulder, his face softening. “Well, uh, we planned on telling you guys at some point this week, so it might as well be now. Surprise, we’re going to have a baby, I guess.”

“A—” Kazuya feels his mouth drop open in an ugly gape, and he quickly closes it, biting down on his lower lip to prevent it from happening again as he processes the new information. “Oh,” he says finally, knowing it’s woefully inadequate.

Kuramochi rolls his eyes. “I’d make fun of you for that reaction, but that’s sort of how I still feel about the situation.” He rubs at his face. “I don’t know how it happened.”

“Well,” Kazuya says, finding his footing enough to layer on the teasing, “when a boy and a girl have penetrative sex without protection—”

“We used—” Kuramochi cuts himself off as Sawamura looks chidingly over his shoulder at their raised voices, which Kazuya thinks is hypocrisy at its finest. “That’s not what I meant, you colossal douche-canoe.”

Kazuya snickers, but it’s half-hearted. He rests a hand on Kuramochi’s shoulder and squeezes. “I know,” he admits, and then, hesitantly: “Still, uh… Congratulations?” He’s not sure what the right words are at the moment, still reeling. “I didn’t mean for that to be a question. Congratulations.”

“Yeah,” Kuramochi says. “Yeah, it’s… I mean it’s not the worst thing that could have happened? We’re financially stable, and it’s not like we weren’t considering getting married soon and all that, after all of Shirasu and Kumai’s shit was over with, but…” He laughs under his breath. “Shit, Miyuki, you know I can barely make rice, and Seira’s only half a step above me on that kinda stuff. Plus, baseball is… I spend so much time on the road, and Seira usually goes with me when she can but now… It’ll be all on her sometimes.” He hangs his hand on his opposite shoulder, arm crossing his chest. “It’s just not what we expected, yet. Not what I expected. I’m not…” He makes a sharp inhale. “Shit, I’m not going to be any good at it.”

Kuramochi’s back curls forward, and Kazuya stares at him, uncertain. He thinks about weekly road trips, and how he’d told Sawamura they couldn’t even consider getting a dog with their schedules, and it’s… He breathes out. “Neither of you can cook, it’s true.” He taps the counter. “And you’re both terrible at cleaning up after yourselves. You both have careers that take a lot of your time, and you still wear your baseball caps backwards even though you’re a grown man.”

“Wow,” Kuramochi says, lips twitching in an almost smile, “you’re really hitting it out of the park on this encouragement thing, Miyuki.”

“But,” Kazuya says, and he snaps the hair band on his wrist again for emphasis, “you’re one of the people that helped me become…” He runs his tongue over his teeth. “You and Takarada are both really mature in the ways that count—you’re both loyal and you have a lot—”

“Don’t hurt yourself trying to be sweet,” Kuramochi tries to joke, but his expression is open, and vulnerable.

Kazuya’s throat feels tight, but he pushes on. “You have a lot of love to give. And it’s not like your concerns about your schedule and all that aren’t valid, but…” He gestures vaguely at the photos all over the refrigerator, and the stupidly cute matching mugs. “Your kid might eat a lot of take-out because you’ve burned the vegetables, but they’ll never doubt that they have awesome parents, you know? They’ll never feel alone, or….” He trails off, thinking of his own childhood. “You’ll be good at it. Being a dad. Takarada’s going to be a kickass mom, too, because I’ve never seen her be mediocre at anything and I doubt she’s going to start with motherhood.” He punches Kuramochi in the shoulder. “That’s one thing you two don’t have to worry about.”

Kuramochi stares at Kazuya in total disbelief for a few long, painful seconds, and Kazuya can feel the redness of embarrassment slowly creeping up his neck to settle in his cheeks. “Holy shit,” Kuramochi chokes out, and he takes his free hand and presses the back to Kazuya’s forehead. His hand is shaking. “No fever. Are you okay? Did you break something, with all that emoting?” He gives Kazuya a tremulous smile, though, belying his words.

Kazuya bats his hand away, and averts his eyes from Kuramochi’s face, pouring the eggs into the warm rectangular skillet, finally cooled enough not to burn them. “That tapped me out until March,” he replies, grabbing the spatula sticking up out of the metal cylinder just beyond the stove. “Don’t have any emotional crises until then, okay?”

“Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but I’m pretty sure I’m going to be one long emotional crisis for the next six months.” Kuramochi gives Kazuya a shallow laugh, and then opens the grill drawer to take out the cooked meat. “Hope you can bear with it until then.”

Kazuya flips the massive omelette, and then tosses the onions into the second skillet. “What about when you actually have the kid? You think that won’t be a whole new emotional crisis?” He throws a smirk over his shoulder. “I think you’re overestimating yourself.”

“You’re right.” Kuramochi groans, and buries his face in his hands. “I hate you so fucking much for being right.”

“Oi, oi,” Kazuya replies, the ice in his chest melting to slush in the pit of his stomach. “Are you going to use that kind of language around your child, Kuramochi Youichi? Your middle school delinquent phase was just a phase. You’re an upstanding member of society.”

“Fuck off and die. My language. Do babies even understand bad words? I don’t know anything about babies!” Kuramochi punches him in the shoulder. “I hate you.”

“You don’t.” Kazuya licks his lips. “I’ll be in San Francisco, but… I’m here, okay?” He smiles. “Metaphorically, at least.”

“Thanks.” Kuramochi’s expression fluctuates between irritated and pleased, and settles somewhere between the two, making him look a little constipated. “Why is it that even when you’re being supportive, you’re a bag of dicks?”

Kazuya’s smirk gentles into a grin. “My natural charm.” He folds the egg into a roll with the edge of the spatula, and then turns off the heat, turning his attention to the meat. “You should know what kind of best friend you picked by now.” He nudges Kuramochi out of the way with his elbow to make room to slice it into thin strips. “Let’s finish breakfast. Can you make the toast?”

“If Takarada and I have a wedding,” Kuramochi says, already untwisting the metal tie sealing the bread, “you gonna fly your ass back here and be in my wedding party?”

In it?” Kazuya looks over to where Kuramochi is fiddling with the toaster oven, already knowing Kazuya’s timer preferences. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Seira’s Christian and all that. She’s gonna want to do that Western style maid-of-honor stuff instead of the Shinto ceremony, probably, and I can’t choose one of my brothers to be my best man. There’ll be bloodshed.” Kuramochi shrugs, taking out four thick pieces of bread from the plastic. “That leaves you.”

“So you’ll choose none of them?” Kazuya dips a butter knife into the plastic container of butter spread, and smooths it over the first slice. He turns on the stovetop, as an afterthought, so that the skillet can start to heat up and melt the butter. “Won’t that just piss all of them off instead? Takarada has a brother. You could chose him.”

“Are you saying no?” Kuramochi puts the toast on as Kazuya walks over to the rice cooker to open it, having given it more than five minutes to rest.

“I would never miss the opportunity to piss off a Kuramochi, even if it’s not you,” Kazuya replies. “You’ll have to give me your mom’s phone number, of course, so that I can coordinate—”

“You’ll look so pretty in my wedding photos without any teeth!”

“Probably,” Kazuya breezily replies. “I can’t help that I was born with superior cheekbones and a superior—”

“I don’t want to ever hear about your dick ever again. Especially,” Kuramochi aggressively pulls serving plates from the cabinet above them, “now that I know where it’s been—” He cuts himself off, looking horrified at his own statement. “Couldn’t you have dated someone I don’t know?! Did it have to be Sawamura?! It hurts my brain!”

“Says the guy dating one of my only friends.” Kazuya takes the plates, dumping the egg omelette onto one of them and then tossing the sliced meat into the cooking onion slices. “Says the guy who impregnated one of my only friends—”

“Don’t say it so loudly!” Kuramochi says, wrapping an arm around his neck.

“Do you think Takarada’s father is going to hear me all the way up here in Miyagi?” Kazuya pours the onion and meat mixture onto a second plate right as the toast pops up. “Do you have any rice bowls left or are they all in that dustpan by the trash over there?”

“Yeah, yeah, we have the ones we got as a housewarming gift from my oldest brother’s wife when we moved in that we’ve never had a reason to use.” He wrinkles his nose as he reaches deep into the cabinet, rising onto his towes. “Listen, do you think you could keep this…”

“A secret?” Kazuya asks, quietly, turning on the sink to rinse his hands. “Of course. I’m good at that.” He looks at Kuramochi out of the corner of his eye. “Sawamura’s not stupid, though, as much as I tease him about it. He’ll figure it out.”

Kuramochi’s brow furrows. “You don’t have to…” He shakes his head. “I wouldn’t ask you to keep it a secret from Sawamura.” He gestures out toward the living room, where Sawamura’s now sitting down next to Takarada on the sofa, playing with the fringe on the throw blanket as he listens to her avidly. “Seira’s probably telling him, anyway, and that wouldn’t be fair of me to ask. I meant at Shirasu’s wedding.”

“It would be,” Kazuya corrects. “It would be fair of you to ask. Your secrets are not mine to tell. We’re not… We’re not one person now, and you don’t need to assume anything you say to me, I’m automatically going to share it with him. You’re… I can be both. I can be your friend, and his boyfriend, and keep them separate.”

“I wasn’t worried about that.” Kuramochi purses his lips. “I guess it’s more that I wouldn’t feel comfortable asking you to do that, at least not for something like this. I want…” Kuramochi taps his foot impatiently on the ground. “It’s like… he’s your Seira, and I don’t like not telling her things that are important. So I thought you might not like it either. That’s all.” He squints. “It wasn’t a comment on trust or anything like that. It’s a no-brainer to trust you, at this point. For some reason, even when you were all shitty and closed off, I trusted you.”

“Yeah, your self-preservation is almost as garbage as Sawamura’s.” Kazuya picks up the two filled serving plates, sparing a brief glance at the kitchen table before walking toward the door. “Let’s eat in the living room like we’re still college kids.”

“Hah, Seira’s going to murder you if the floors get messed up,” Kuramochi warns, but he starts scooping rice into the bowls as soon as he’s stacked the toast on the last serving plate, lightly golden and ready for jam and butter.

“I said college kids, not toddlers.”

Sawamura perks up as soon as Kazuya comes into the living room with the plates. “Can I help?”

“You should go grab the toast before Kuramochi tries to carry that and the rice,” Kazuya replies, setting the plates down on the coffee table.

Takarada pokes him in the thigh with her toes. “Hey, we have a table for eating, you know.”

Swatting her away gently, Kazuya grins at her. “Relax, Takarada. It’ll be fine.”

“Getting laid regularly always improves your optimism, I’ll give you that,” Takarada says dryly, and Kazuya’s grin stretches a little wider.

Still, he’s tentative as he rests a hand on the arm of the sofa. “You sure you should be making jokes about getting laid with me, Takarada?”

She huffs a laugh. “You’re lucky I’m too tired to argue with you, Miyuki Kazuya.” She squints at the table. “I’m not sure how much of that I’m going to eat. Food doesn’t stay down well, these days.”

“I can make you some rice porridge, if you think that’ll be easier on your stomach. My mom…” He licks his lips. “My mom used to make it for me, when I was sick as a really little kid, and by the time I was in high school, I’d gotten pretty close to the recipe.”

“That’s okay,” Takarada says, smiling up at him, still pale and unsteady as she straightens up. “I’ve been managing the toast, as long as it has some of your jam on it. The apricot one you sent a few months ago.”

“It’s apricots and shiso,” Kazuya says. “I’ll make you more, when I go to visit my grandfather’s house, if that’s all you can eat.”

“See? Marshmallow.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Kuramochi laughs at Kazuya as he comes into the living room, two bowl rims pinched between each index finger and thumb. After his hands are free, he pulls a handful of chopsticks from his pocket and drops them down onto the center of the table. “Sure you don’t.”

“Miyuki Kazuya has always been caring.” Sawamura sets the toast on the table, along with the glass jar of jam, nearly empty, and a metal spoon. He plops down next to Kazuya on the floor, hip to hip. “When I think back on it, even as a high school student, he always kept an eye on everyone, even if he never knew how to deal with being worried!”

“It was my job as captain to be responsible for every idiot on that team,” Kazuya says, flicking Sawamura’s nose before opening the jam. He spreads a thick layer on a piece of toast, and passes it to Takarada, who takes it with both hands. “And you and Furuya were idiots number one and two until we got new first-years. Always over-practicing and running in the rain and—” He cuts himself off by taking a bite of sliced omelette.

Sawamura just laughs, and kisses Kazuya’s cheek with a noisy smacking sound. Kuramochi, who has taken a seat across the coffee table, snickers at whatever look is on Kazuya’s face. “It’s okay, Miyuki Kazuya! You don’t have to make excuses for not being heartless!”

“That’s not—” Kazuya sighs, and leans into Sawamura. “Think whatever you’d like.”

“I will,” Sawamura replies cheerfully, working his right hand into Kazuya’s hair even as he grabs a pair of chopsticks with his left, snagging a piece of meat.

It’s good like this, Kazuya thinks, as Sawamura’s nails lightly scratch at his scalp. Kuramochi looks a little less tired as he takes a massive bite of rice, and Takarada, sitting behind them, is laughing. He knows this is the sort of thing they’d all grown up with, but for Kazuya it still feels new and fragile.

Takarada is feeling better a few hours later, and they play board games for a while until Takarada tells them she has to write lesson plans for the next week of English classes. Sawamura immediately volunteers to help her, which Takarada seems to take, along with the fact that she’s going to be completely distracted the entire time, in her stride, the two of them sitting down at the kitchen table with high school English textbooks and cups of coffee.

Kazuya and Kuramochi end up watching the second half of an old Korean action film from the 1990s until it ends in a gorey bloodbath, fighting over a bag of shrimp chips that neither of them should really be eating on their nutrition plans. When Kuramochi goes down to the lobby of his building to check the mail, Kazuya walks into the kitchen to get himself a glass of water.

Glass in hand, he leans against the wall to watch Sawamura and Takarada nitpick at some grammar concept, the two of them curled into each other in a way that might have made him jealous, years ago, but now only leaves him calm and settled. On impulse, he pulls his phone out of his pocket and snaps a picture.

At the sound of the camera, Sawamura looks up at him, instantly meeting his gaze. Kazuya winks at him, and Sawamura’s eyes narrow suspiciously until Kazuya points back down at the sheet of paper on the table in front of him, where Takarada has started to furiously cross things out while Sawamura’s been looking away.

He slips back out of the kitchen, crossing the hall and the living room until he gets to the long sliding door that leads out to the balcony of Kuramochi and Takarada’s apartment. There’s an amazing view of the stadium, and though Miyagi’s sky has turned the muted gray of early-winter, Kazuya likes the soft warmth on his cheeks from the hidden sun as he opens up his photos app to look at the pictures he’s just taken.

They aren’t bad. Takarada’s irritated expression and Sawamura’s puffed out cheeks make for an interesting contrast, and Kazuya laughs at how the slant of Sawamura’s eyebrows matches the tilt of the textbook he’s holding open with one hand. It reminds Kazuya so much of when they were younger that he wants to send it to Chris and Shirasu, who’d both probably get a kick out of it.

Kazuya should make Sawamura post it on his Instagram, so that all of his followers can see something other than his handsome smiley face. That thought, though, gives Kazuya pause, reminding him that he’d told Sawamura he wouldn’t completely hate having an Instagram of his own, as long as he could determine exactly who was seeing it.

He goes to the app store and downloads it without thinking too hard about it, typing in his store password as he leans his forearms against the balcony railing. He frowns down at his phone screen when the app opens on its own, wanting him to sign in with his login information from another app that he doesn’t have.

“If you drop your phone to the ground several stories below us I’m definitely going to laugh,” Kuramochi says. He rests his elbows against the balcony railing right next to Kazuya’s, and peers at Kazuya’s screen. “What are you doing out here? Bored without me already?”

“No, I just wanted some fresh air.” Kazuya shrugs, then looks back down at his phone. “I’ve been considering making an Instagram. It’ll be easier than sending pictures individually to everyone, and you all have the damn app except my grandfather, and he prefers that I print out photos for him, anyway. But it wants me to log in with a Facebook account.”

“Which you don’t have, I get it.” Kuramochi holds out his hand, wiggling his fingers, and Kazuya gives him his phone without comment. “An Instagram, wow. You can claim all the logical reasons you want, but the deciding blow was Sawamura, right? Did he beg you to get one or what?”

“He’d rather I got LINE account, probably.” Kazuya scowls at Kuramochi. “Don’t make it sound like I’m—”

“Totally whipped?” Kuramochi laughs as he starts typing on Kazuya’s phone. “It’s funny, because if I didn’t know you so well, I’d have no idea you were so completely wrapped around his little finger.” He smiles. “It’s not a bad thing, since he’s just as eager to make you happy. It’s nice.” He glances up at Kazuya briefly, before his eyes flit back down to the screen. “It should have always been this way. It pisses me off that it took so long to get here.”

Kazuya licks his lips, and then winces as the wind stings them. “I’m okay with how things have turned out.” He looks back inside, to where Sawamura and Takarada are undoubtedly still hunched over the English lesson books she uses for her oldest students, just on the other side of the hall. “Make my name or something close to it the username. I don’t need anything cute or weird like ‘Sawamurai’.”

“Damn,” Kuramochi says. “There go my plans of setting you up as ‘BigTanukiBaller1711’.”

“Give me back my phone,” is Kazuya’s dry response, but he doesn’t take it, or even hold out his hand for it, letting Kuramochi continue to do whatever he’s doing to set up Kazuya’s account. Kazuya would have figured it out eventually. “Also, if I can’t make jokes about my dick, you can’t make jokes about my dick.”

Kuramochi makes a choked noise, half laugh and half groan, as he backspaces on Kazuya’s phone. “You have a lot of fan accounts dedicated to posting pictures of your face on Instagram.” He squints at Kazuya. “I don’t know what to name your account. Every possible name I could have written is taken.”

“Add ‘ace’ in front of it,” Kazuya says, turning his eyes out to the skyline. “Or 01.”

“That’s…” Kuramochi’s typing stills. “Is that an inside joke, or something?”

“Something like that.” Kazuya can feel the cold metal of the railing warming under his forearms, but the goosebumps from the winter air are rising on the backs of his arms and neck anyway. His lips sting. “Did it work?”

“Yeah,” Kuramochi says. “‘01MiyukiK’ was available, despite all the odds. Congratulations on your new account. It’s private, which I assumed you wanted.” Kuramochi returns Kazuya’s phone, and then pulls out his phone. “I’m going to be your first friend.”

You already were, Kazuya thinks, but he smiles as the ‘Follow Request’ appears. He accepts it, and then closes the Instagram app. Going back to his photos app, he looks again at the picture of Sawamura and Takarada.

It’s funny, he thinks, as he stares at it. He’d wanted to share it, before, but now he sort of wants to keep the moment to himself, a treasure that means more to him than it would to anyone else.

“Are you going to update with a picture or something? A profile image?” Kuramochi is looking over his shoulder now. “Oh man, look at Seira’s face.”

Kazuya laughs. “Maybe later,” he replies. “I need to decide what I want my first post to be.”

Kuramochi’s voice turns accusing. “You only wanted an account so you could leave snarky comments on everyone else’s pictures, didn’t you? And I just enabled you.”

“I guess we’ll see,” Kazuya says, and then Sawamura is poking his head out the door, demanding they come back inside so they can all watch a movie, and Kazuya slides his phone into his pocket, forgetting all about the app in the wake of Sawamura’s enthusiasm.

Sawamura insists on curling around Kazuya to watch the movie, Kazuya’s back against his chest, chin digging into Kazuya’s shoulder. “You’re cold, you’re cold,” he tuts, when Kazuya gives him an arch look for it.

Kazuya hums, playfully leaning back into Sawamura, trying to unbalance him. Sawamura takes his weight easily, though, tightening his hold around Kazuya’s waist. “You can’t keep your hands off me.”

“Look who’s talking!” Sawamura says, and Kazuya chuckles, his eyes wandering over to find Takarada staring at them instead of the television screen, her eyes shimmering.

Kazuya tilts his head at her in askance, and she shakes her head back at him, gesturing toward the comedy Kuramochi had put on until he looks away again, focusing on the way Sawamura’s fingers pluck at the hair band around his wrist while he simultaneously nuzzles his cheek into Kazuya’s unbound hair.

After the movie, Kazuya helps Takarada carry the snack dishes into the kitchen. “You okay? You looked like you were going to cry.”

“Everything makes me cry lately,” she says, cradling her lukewarm mug of tea with both hands, “but I think it’s because it’s so amazing to see you both like this after everything, you know? The last time Sawamura was here, he was so…” She blinks, and a tear makes its way down her cheek. “Ugh, sorry. I meant it when I said everything makes me cry.”

Kazuya sets the dishes in his hands down in the sink. “Sawamura was so what?”

“It doesn’t matter now.” She smiles at him, and takes a small, careful sip of her tea. “Everything’s good now, right?”

“Yeah,” Kazuya says. “It’s… It’s really good.” He pulls his hair back from his face. “So good it’s scary.”

Takarada puts one hand on her abdomen. “The two aren’t mutually exclusive,” she says, wistfully, and Kazuya grins at her, turning on the sink as Kuramochi and Sawamura start shouting about something back in the other room, Sawamura making the familiar squawk of being caught in a headlock.

That night, curled up on a single futon in the guest room, Kazuya takes off his glasses and pulls Sawamura down on top of him. He’s heavier and warmer than any blanket, his every breath hot on the curve of Kazuya’s shoulder. “You love it when I crush you,” Sawamura says, and Kazuya shivers at the gentle scrape of teeth as Sawamura mouths at the vein in his neck.

“You can’t prove anything,” Kazuya replies, hips lifting slightly off the bed to press into Sawamura’s until Sawamura gives Kazuya his entire weight. “I could just be cold.”

“Liar, liar, liar,” Sawamura says into his throat, and Kazuya laughs.

“Only sometimes,” he admits, running a hand up Sawamura’s thermal sleep shirt, to feel the flexing muscles of his back. “You see right through me no matter what I say.”

“Because I’ve been practicing reading you since I was fourteen.” Sawamura sucks the lobe of Kazuya’s ear between his lips, and Kazuya stifles a groan, unsure how thin the walls are. Releasing Kazuya’s ear, he blows on the wet skin until Kazuya’s nails dig into his shoulders. “It’s habit, to look underneath every single word!”

“Ah,” Kazuya says, tongue thick. He’s so hard, and the heat of Sawamura’s dick through the thick fleece of both their sleep pants is more of a taunt than satisfying friction. “You need to—” This time, the thin whine escapes as Sawamura nibbles lightly on the underside of his jaw. “Fuck.” He closes his eyes, hoping that Takarada and Kuramochi are long asleep.

“So,” Sawamura whispers, “are you cold now, Miyuki Kazuya?”

The thing is, Kazuya isn’t. He knows it’s the coldest night of nascent winter so far outside, and that this apartment building is old, a little drafty. But with Sawamura so close, in Kazuya’s grip, heart beating erratically against Kazuya’s sternum, Kazuya’s insides are molten. More than that, it’s being here, in Kuramochi and Takarada’s home, with nothing to hide and nothing to be afraid of that’s keeping him so warm.

“I’m not used to being happy,” Kazuya says, words coming out before he even thinks about whether or not he should say them, and Sawamura stills, lifting off Kazuya enough to look him in the eyes. Sawamura’s face is blurry, but the golden color of his irises is bright in the dark, the clearest thing in Kazuya’s field of vision.

“I know,” Sawamura says, “but I really want you to get used to it. I want…” He sighs, and then swoops down to to kiss Kazuya, opening immediately when Kazuya licks at the seam of his lips. Kazuya runs his tongue along the backs of Sawamura’s teeth, the roof of his mouth, the slick of the insides of his cheeks. Then Sawamura pulls away, panting, eyes half-lidded and face so close Kazuya could count his eyelashes. “I want you to be certain that I’m going to love you, even when you can’t be certain of anything else.”

“God, shut up,” Kazuya says. He gets a hand in the back of Sawamura’s curls, gripping tight, and reminds himself that he hadn’t been suffering alone. That Sawamura had probably ached just as much. “Me too, okay? I want you to be certain about me.” Sawamura beams at him, a pleased cat in the dark, and grinds down, drawing an unexpected moan from Kazuya that makes him flush hot with embarrassment. “We have to be quiet!”

“You’re the one being loud,” Sawamura tells him, and his expression switches to something a tiny bit wicked. “Can you keep quiet?”

“Are you making it a challenge?” Kazuya gasps, as Sawamura puts all his weight on one arm, the other working its way between them to dip under the waist of Kazuya’s sleep pants. “Fuck.”

“Miyuki Kazuya, that’s not your indoor voice!” Sawamura’s hand wraps around Kazuya’s cock in a firm grip, dry fingers familiar as they drag up the shaft. “Takarada-senpai is a very heavy sleeper, so we won’t bother her at all, but Kuramochi-senpai is easy to wake up, don’t you think?” He’s so smug, but it only makes Kazuya want to kiss him more.

“I’m a bad influence on you,” Kazuya says, spreading his legs a little wider instinctively as Sawamura’s pinky brushes the sensitive skin between his balls. “What happened to the man who wouldn’t even make out with me in my grandparents’ house?”

“Kuramochi is not your grandparents.” Sawamura’s teeth are white as he grins. “Besides, I’ve always been a little naughtier with you, Miyuki Kazuya,” he says, and then he kisses Kazuya again, filthy and wet. “Keep quiet if you can, partner.”

Kazuya tries, he really does, but in the morning, the dirty look Kuramochi gives him over toast is absolutely disgusted, and Kazuya tugs on the neck of his sweater just enough to bare some of the marks Sawamura left, his own gaze defiant.

“I’m burning that futon,” Kuramochi mutters to Kazuya after breakfast, when Sawamura leaves with Takarada to walk with her to work, just to burn off some of his restless energy. “I know things now that I can never un-know.”

“Hey, ‘Mochi,” Kazuya leans closer like he has a secret, “maybe I’m pregnant now,” he whispers.

Kuramochi slaps him on the arm. “Asshole,” he says, and Kazuya throws his head back, laughing, completely content.

“Thanks,” he says, once his laughter is under control. “Seriously.”

“For letting you traumatize me in my own home?” Kuramochi asks. “Or for setting up your Instagram?”

“No,” Kazuya offers Kuramochi the most honest grin in his arsenal. “For a lot more than that.” He pushes up his glasses where they’ve slid down his nose. “I’m always my most normal, with you.”

Kuramochi rubs at his stubble thoughtfully. “You’ve never been normal a day in your life, Miyuki.”

“I mean with me and Sawamura. It was normal in San Francisco, when we were buying furniture for the house and just living our lives, and it was normal when it was just the two of us at Sawamura’s apartment in Nishinomiya, too, but whenever there’s anyone else, I’ve felt…” Kazuya looks away. “Like I’m about to misstep. Like the next thing I do will be the part that’s too much.” He closes his eyes and breathes. “But not here, with you two. It’s comfortable.” He opens his eyes again. “Thanks for being that, for me.”

“That’s a stupid thing to thank me for,” Kuramochi replies, gruffly. “Thank me for not walking into the guest room last night with pepper spray, instead.”

“Oh, I didn’t know you were a voyeur,” Kazuya drawls, relieved Kuramochi isn’t making a big deal out of it. Kazuya is grateful to have so many people that understand him, even when he tried so hard to be unknowable. “It’s not my kink, but maybe Sawamura’s into it. I’d be willing to consider—”

“Finish that sentence and they’ll never find the body,” Kuramochi tells him, but there’s a smile pulling at the corners of his lips. “Then who’ll be my kid’s least favorite uncle?”

“My ghost,” says Kazuya, after a long pause. His chest is so heavy, like his heart is too full for it right now. It’s a weird feeling, but Kazuya would like to get used to this, too. “I’ll come up out of the well like Sadako and teach the kid exactly how to piss you off.”

“You’re terrible,” Kuramochi replies, but there’s no weight to the words at all.

The Harbs is crowded for mid-afternoon on a weekday, plenty of twenty-somethings lined up to order sandwiches and drinks to go in disheveled workwear, with weary looks on their faces and dragging steps on their way out.

Kazuya, seated for dining in instead of waiting in the long takeaway line, feels strangely young in his flannel and jeans, like he's still in school while the rest of his age group has shifted into the working world. He taps his fingertips absently on the lacquer-wood table as Uehara, sitting across from him, checks her own work e-mails with a harried look on her face.

"Sorry, I know you came all the way out here to meet me," she says. "I'm not trying to ignore you, it's just there's a project deadline." She shakes her head, and her fluffy, curled bangs bounce. Her hair is pulled back from her face with a big clip and her usual fluttery pink skirts have been replaced by a black suit that makes her look far too severe, but the bangs are the same, at least, playful and girlishly youthful.

"It's not a big deal," replies Kazuya. "At least we’re at a coffee shop and not out at Tsukiji Honganji.”

“You’ve heard they closed the wholesale fish market, right? It moved to Toyosu.”

“Yeah, Sawamura and I stopped by campus a few days ago to greet Coach Maeda and Coach Numamoto, and we walked up that way.” He shifts in his seat. “A lot of the street vendors and food stalls are still there. It’s still busy.” He and Sawamura had avoided the temple, in silent agreement that there was no need to visit. Kazuya has both good memories and bad ones of sitting on those stairs, and he’d wanted to preserve the simple happiness of walking an old path with Sawamura, with so much less weight on his shoulders. “It’s different, though. The aura is strange. Sawamura thought the whole place felt hollow. I kind of agree with him.”

“You sound like one of those old men on the morning news complaining about train station renovations.” Uehara squints at her phone, frowning. “It doesn’t feel like real life, yet, that we aren’t in school anymore, even though it’s been more than a year.”

“University already feels like a decade ago.” Kazuya shakes his head, and she sneaks a peek up at him, catching the motion. “I’m sure it’ll be a lifetime when when I come back to Tokyo for Shirasu’s wedding. Just the flight is a lifetime.”

“Oh, that’s right, you’re leaving Tokyo tomorrow. You’re headed back to San Francisco? They're working you hard."

Kazuya arches a brow. "Not as hard as your company is working you, apparently."

"I never thought I'd miss managing the high school part-timers at the convenience store, but..." She laughs, a dimple appearing in her round cheek. "At least they acknowledged I was right every once in a while. Now it's forty-year old men whining and trying to make me get them coffee even though it's not my job to get them coffee."

"Cute, I'm sure," Kazuya says. "Find a husband yet?"

"Don't mention the H-word," she replies, dropping her gaze back down to her phone. "My mother won't relent. It's just constant haranguing on the subject."

A server stops by their table with a tray, his hair slicked back neatly from his face. He sets two freshly brewed cups of coffee, bitter and strong, onto the table, along with their dessert orders. Uehara had ordered a slice of the Mille Crepe advertised as the most famous dessert available, and Kazuya had been advised to try the tiramisu.

Kazuya wrinkles his nose at the bitter scent of the coffee as he pulls it closer, and the barista notices, immediately setting two tiny pitchers of creamer onto the table with a small smile pulling at the corner of his mouth. "Enjoy," he says, with a smirk. "Do you need anything else?"

"No, thank you,” Uehara says, fiddling nervously with the top button of her white blouse, jostling the 'Uehara Yukimi' name tag pinned to the lapel of her suit jacket. When the server is gone, she ignores her coffee and goes straight for her cake, pulling it closer to stab at a creme covered kiwi and bring it to her lips for a bite. "Oh my gosh, this is amazing," she moans.

Kazuya laughs. "What happened to the shy girl I knew?"

"I was only shy because you're intimidatingly handsome," Uehara replies, taking her fingertip and dipping it into more of the creme. "I haven't been shy around you in years, Miyuki."

“That's true. I've lost my intimidation factor, I guess.” Kazuya grips the saucer of his coffee and tugs it toward himself, coffee slopping over the sides of the cup. He immediately picks up one of the tiny accoutrement pitchers to pour in over half of the dairy creamer, and watches as the coffee turns from a deep brown to a murky tan as the cream swirls, not bothering to stir it. "Can't say I miss it. It was much harder not to want to avoid you when you were all shy."

Uehara smiles at him, and it makes the dark circles under her eyes almost disappear. "You were nice about it all, even though you were uncomfortable. Seira-chan says you weren't that nice to everyone that asked you out."

Shrugging, Kazuya takes a cautious sip of his coffee. He's surprised to find it's not as bitter as he'd anticipated. "I can't be rude all the time."

She takes full bite of the cake this time, and closes her eyes in bliss. "Do you want to taste this?"

"That looks like pure sugar," he tells her. "I'm not the biggest fan of super-sweet things."

"Oh, I didn't know—" She stops as her phone dings, and sighs. Shooting him an apologetic glance, she looks down at her phone. “Oh, it's my mother."

"Tell her you're meeting a man you absolutely won't marry for lunch," Kazuya replies, but Uehara isn't paying attention. She's reading something on her phone intently, and Kazuya wonders what her mother could possibly have sent to put that expression on Uehara's face.

"My mom's at home watching the news," she says absently, starting to tap away at something on her phone. Her eyebrows are high. "Miyuki, did you hear about this?”

“I’m not sure,” Kazuya replies, tasting his tiramisu. It's not too sweet, and it leaves a nice aftertaste on his tongue. He should take another serving home for Sawamura to try. "Seeing as I don't know what 'this' is."

"Tokyo just passed an anti-discrimination law," she says. "It's for the Olympics."

Kazuya runs his tongue along his teeth. "An anti-discrimination law?"

"Discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation is legally prohibited by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government," she reads out, and then she looks up at him, setting her phone down to pick up her fork again. "There's a public education initiative, too."

"What are they going to teach?" Kazuya asks, resting the prongs of his fork against the plate, scraping until it squeaks. "Are they going to go ’hey, honest citizens, stop calling other people slurs for “gay” because it's hurtful!’ or are they just going to pass out pamphlets about what to do if your kid's a lesbian or what?"

"Maybe," Uehara says, "they can give some advice about what to say when you accidentally find out a friend is gay right in front of them.” She looks down at her Mille Crepe slice, already half decimated, and stabs another kiwi. "That might have been helpful."

"You can't possibly still feel guilty about that." Kazuya stares at her. "It was years ago."

“Aren’t there things that happened a long time ago that still haunt you, Miyuki?” She aggressively jams her fork into a strawberry. "Maybe if I'd known what to say, you wouldn't have broken up with Sawamura," she continues. "I think about that a lot. I thought about it when I saw that photo of you two at the airport, too. That not knowing what to say might have ruined something.“

"You don't..." He sighs, and drops his fork so that he can rub both his sweaty palms on his denim-clad thighs. "It would have happened anyway, the way I was back then. That's not on you, Uehara." He presses his lips together. "I'm not going back to San Francisco yet." He narrows his eyes at her. “That last time we talked at the temple before we graduated. Do you remember that?”

“I do. ” Uehara’s mouth is pursed, and her eyes are wide. She has never reminded him more of his mother than she does now. “You were trying to decide if you were going to sign with Yomiuri.”

“It was more than that,” Kazuya tells her. “I was trying to decide if I was going to give up on Sawamura once and for all.” He sits back against the plush booth as he lifts his coffee to his lips and takes a slow sip, knowing Uehara is gaping at him slightly. “I'm going to Nagano with Sawamura tomorrow. We’re going to stay with his family. Then we’re going back to San Francisco together, to live in the townhouse I sent you pictures of.”

“The one with no furniture,” Uehara says, with a wobbling, sincere smile that lights up her whole face.

“Sawamura insisted on buying a sofa and a huge television, so there’s some furniture.” He sets the cup back down, and the clink against the saucer is noisy in the silence between them. “You didn’t ruin anything, okay, Uehara? So stop thinking that. Some people are just destined to take the long way around.” A fat tear rolls down her cheek, and alarmed, Kazuya makes an aborted movement to touch her shoulder. “Uehara?”

“I’m really relieved,” she says, “that you’ll finally get to be the brave princess Sawamura talked about.” She laughs, watery and bright, and scoops up a huge bite of cake. “Congratulations, Miyuki. Does it feel like Koushien?”

Kazuya thinks back to his third year of high school, to the way he had longed to stand on Koushien’s sacred ground. Then he thinks about Sawamura waiting right there on the mound at AT&T stadium for his signs, wearing a Hanshin hat and smiling at him hopefully after flying halfway around the world to pitch to him. “It’s better,” he says, with certainty, and he takes another bite of his tiramisu.

December in Nagano is freezing cold.

Kazuya starts shivering the moment they get off the train, wrapping Sawamura’s big blue scarf tighter around his neck with his free hand as they step out onto the platform, the curved glass roof above them adding to the tunnel effect of the wind whistling through. “I hate it already.”

“This is fresh air!” Sawamura grins at him, before plucking at the wool of Kazuya’s coat and tugging him in the direction of the platform exit. “We have to catch the bus to get outside the city to where my family lives.”

“No train?” Kazuya asks. His glasses fog up with his words as his breath chills in the air.

“My family’s land is just outside the city, so it’s easier to just take the bus,” Sawamura replies, walking down the moving escalator, expecting Kazuya to follow him. “It’s not the complete countryside! Wakana’s family lives on an actual farm, and that’s a little further out from Nagano City.” He looks over his shoulder and grins. “She has her own room at my house so if it’s too late she doesn’t bike home alone in the dark.”

“Your parents were probably planning on you marrying her someday,” Kazuya jokes, as Sawamura grabs his wrist to lead him through the station, his lime green backpack a guiding beacon in a surprisingly thick early afternoon crowd.

“Wakana?” Sawamura comes to a stop by a green and yellow sign along the bus concourse. There’s no one else waiting by it, despite a long queue forming a few meters away behind a green and pink sign. “No, I don’t think so.” He drops his travel bag at his feet, and then fusses with the straps of his backpack. “I told you before, they knew I didn’t like girls pretty soon after I figured it out, and it’s never been a big deal.” He laughs. “I mean, you’ve met them. My mom likes you a lot.”

“She liked me before,” Kazuya says, shifting his grip on his own bag. “Things might be different now.” He smiles crookedly. There’s an echo of the anxiety he’d felt the first time he’d met Sawamura’s parents, and he ruthlessly squashes it down, refusing to panic. “I did mess everything up, after all.”

Sawamura’s mouth goes pinched for a moment, and his eyes flash. “I love you,” he says, as a red and white bus comes around the corner of the concourse and slows as it shifts into the curbside lane. “That’s always been enough for my family. They’ve always trusted me to make the right decisions for myself.” He picks up his bag again as the bus comes to a stop just next to their sign, the door opening to let current passengers disembark. “And,” he adds, right before he gets onto the bus, “I think they’re used to me choosing you, after I’ve done it so many times.”

Sawamura insists that Kazuya sit in the seat closer to the window, their bags under their seats as the bus navigates through the Nagano City streets. The city has a different atmosphere from Tokyo, all of the buildings a little older and more industrial. It’s still undeniably a bustling city, though, and Kazuya watches the streets go by with a similar fascination to the first time he rode through Sacramento in a cab from the airport to his apartment.

Sawamura’s busy on his phone, his arm pressed flushed to Kazuya’s as he types away. “Wakana’s waiting at the house already,” he says, as the bus starts to head out of the city proper and into the suburbs. “She works in the city but she took off today since we were coming.” He scrunches his nose. “She says it’s to help my mom cook, but Wakana doesn’t even like cooking.”

“She’s looking forward to seeing you. That’s not weird.” Kazuya rests his hand on Sawamura’s thigh, just above the knee. “Someone has to like spending time with you, I suppose—”

“Miyuki Kazuya!” Sawamura rests the hand not holding his phone on top of Kazuya’s briefly, long enough to leave it feeling warm, and then returns to typing on his phone as another text comes in.

It starts to snow as they get off the bus twenty minutes later. Sawamura looks delighted, dropping his bag carelessly and holding his arms out beside him like he wants to hug the sky.

“I’m not going to make a snow angel if it accumulates,” Kazuya warns him, when he turns that beaming grin on Kazuya, eyes sparkling with excitement. “It’s cold. I hate being cold.”

“Then let me take you home,” Sawamura says, snagging his bag again and holding out his other hand for Kazuya to take.

Kazuya flexes his fingers. “We’re outside, and a little too old to get caught holding hands like elementary schoolers.”

“No one’s here.” Sawamura drops his hand, though, and Kazuya searches his face but finds no sign of Sawamura being upset at his refusal.

Somehow, it’s that easy acceptance that has Kazuya taking two large steps until he’s next to Sawamura, and grabbing his hand. “All right, then, Sawamura. Take me home.”

The suburban spread of houses get further apart from each other as they walk down the road. “I used to walk this way every day with Wakana and Nobu to catch the bus to Akagi,” Sawamura says. “It was only bad on the days it rained. Gramps would drive us sometimes, but he’s a terrible driver!”

The Sawamura house stands alone on a large plot of land, but it’s close to the road and there are two neighbors’ houses in view from the gravel walkway leading up to it. It’s an old, traditional build like his grandparents’ Ichinomiya home, with a wooden veranda that stretches above the engawa porch. Sawamura doesn’t hesitate to stomp up the wooden steps, dragging Kazuya along, only dropping his hand to push open the door. “Mom, I’m home!”

There’s a shoe cabinet just inside the door, but it’s thrown open, and all the shoes are in a pile in front of it save for a pair of women’s loafers and a pair of soft pink high heels on the top shelf. Kazuya slips out of his shoes, and out of habit sets them with heels to the step up out of the foyer as Sawamura leaves his in the pile.

Sawamura’s mother comes softly down the hall, and Sawamura hurries deeper into the entry hall to pick her up off the ground in a hug.

“Ei-chan, put me down!” He does, laughing, and she smiles at him brightly as she straightens her apron. “And Kazuya, welcome. It feels like after all these years, we should have had you out here before now.”

“Thank you for having me,” Kazuya says, awkwardly. He feels like a kid visiting his friends’ houses after school, only Kazuya’s not just friends with Sawamura, and he’d never done that kind of thing, anyway. “It’s nice to see you again.”

Her smile is soothing, and his shoulders relax at the lack of anything negative in her expression. “It’s nice to see you too, Kazuya.” She looks at Sawamura again. “Take yours and Kazuya’s things upstairs, Eijun. Wakana and your father are in the back room with your grandfather. I’ll bring out some snacks to hold you over until lunch.”

“Thanks, Mom!” Sawamura strips off his coat, hanging it from the hook just beyond the foyer, and heads immediately for the stairs.

His mother shakes her head fondly before shooing Kazuya up after him, taking his coat before he takes a more sedate pace up the stairs.

Sawamura’s room, door ajar as Kazuya walks down the second-story hall, looks exactly like he’d thought it would, from various pictures over the years. His bed is a twin-size, but there’s an extra air-mattress on the floor with blankets folded up at the foot of it on the floor between the bedframe and desk.

Kazuya sets his bag down beside it, and moves to sit on Sawamura’s flannel-sheeted bed to get a better look at the collage on his wall, full of peeling, faded photos and newspaper articles. This room clearly belonged to junior high school Sawamura, not having seen much updating since he’d left for Seidou, and it’s reflected in the pictures. They’re mostly photos of his middle school friends, Polaroids and peliculas, and cutouts from the local newspaper about the Akagi Junior High baseball team. Kazuya smiles as he studies a photo of Sawamura with an arm around two other boys’ necks, cheesing for the camera.

His eyes skate left, and land on a magazine cutout in color that Kazuya recognizes. “This is me.”

Sawamura sits down next to him on the bed, draping himself along Kazuya’s side. “Found that article on you the day I came back from Tokyo with Takashima-sensei,” he says, cold nose pressing into the crook of Kazuya’s neck. “I don’t know why, but I had to keep it! So I cut it out and put it on the wall before I even decided I was going to Seidou!”

“That’s…” Kazuya turns to face Sawamura, coming face to face with a sea of fading freckles and eyes that reflect the sun leaking in through the window above the desk. “Cute.” Sawamura scowls at him, but Kazuya can’t resist kissing the expression off his face, first at each corner of his lips and then right at the center. “Was I your Nomo Hideo?”

“I didn’t… It wasn’t like that, back then!” Sawamura says, but his cheeks are pink, and his scowl has turned into a smile. “It was about pitching, and my goals!”

“You could get a bigger poster, if you wanted,” Kazuya says, curling a hand around Sawamura’s jaw, resting his thumb at the edge of Sawamura’s mouth. “Apparently I have an official Giants poster now.”

“I don’t need a poster,” Sawamura murmurs in reply. “I wake up to you every day. It’s better.”

“Your family were waiting for us downstairs,” Kazuya says, hoping Sawamura will pull away. Sawamura doesn’t, of course, coming in for another kiss instead, and Kazuya fists both hands in Sawamura’s soft sweater to keep him close.

A clearing throat has Kazuya tearing away, and Sawamura makes a keening noise of disappointment as Kazuya licks his lips and looks to the door, hoping it’s not Sawamura’s mother.

It isn’t; Aotsuki stands there, knuckles poised on the edge of the door and a neutral expression on her face. “I volunteered to come get you,” she says, and Sawamura’s bounding up to give her a hug, bringing her in close like he had with Takarada, enveloping her with his strong arms. Her fingernails are painted a soft purple when she brings her arms around his waist to return the hug. “Ei-chan, you don’t want your grandfather to get impatient.”

Sawamura shudders at the implied threat, and Kazuya remembers both Sawamura’s father and grandfather being loud and boisterous, like Sawamura Eijun with the volume and energy turned up to the maximum setting.

“Let’s go, let’s go!” Sawamura says, suddenly all business, and Kazuya laughs at the way he hustles out the door.

“That guy,” Kazuya says, standing up from the bed. “Nice to see you again, Aotsuki.”

The smile Aotsuki gives him in return is perfectly polite, but Kazuya doesn’t see any welcome in it. “Miyuki. It’s been a while.”

“Years,” Kazuya replies. He goes to brush his hair out of his face, but he only catches a few strands, the rest of it still secure where Sawamura had pulled it into a simple twisted knot this morning before they’d left his father’s house to catch the train. “Did you—”

She stretches her smile a little wider. “We really should get downstairs. Ei-chan’s mom cut fruits.”

“Right,” Kazuya says. She turns to go, and Kazuya squats down next to his bag and unzips it to pull out a small wrapped package.

“You brought a gift?” Aotsuki asks.

“That’s what the internet told me I should do,” Kazuya replies. The way Aotsuki is looking at him makes him feel self-conscious. “Granted, the tips were all for people meeting a girlfriend’s family, but I figured the same general etiquette would apply.”

She appraises him, then, the tilt of her eyebrows considering. “No previous experience?”

“Sawamura’s the only person I’ve ever dated,” Kazuya says quietly, looking down at the package in his hands. The wrapping paper is pale blue and green. “The only person I’ve ever thought was worth the risk.”

“I see,” Aotsuki says, and she turns and walks ahead of him down the hall to the stairs, Kazuya following her at a slower pace, wary of any further questions.

When Kazuya enters the back room, full of old 20th century glass windows, Sawamura ushers him to a seat on the far side of the kotatsu table across from his father. It’s still snowing outside, the growing layer on the ground visibly getting deeper, and the resulting draft in the old room is pretty strong. Sawamura’s anticipated Kazuya’s chilliness, though, wrapping a thick and warm knitted blanket across his shoulders. Kazuya sets the gift down on the floor so he can grasp the edges of the blanket to keep it from slipping.

Sawamura, satisfied, sits down next to Kazuya on one of the scattered floor cushions in the Sawamura family living room, and immediately throws an arm around Kazuya’s shoulders like it’s nothing. Maybe it is nothing, since no one else in the room reacts to the action at all. “We might have enough snow to play the fort game!” he says excitedly.

Kazuya jostles him with an elbow. “This is why you made fun of Tokyo winters,” he says, gratefully accepting a cup of hot tea from Sawamura’s mother, who sits down next to her husband, behind the low kotatsu. “You were too used to going outside and playing in the Arctic tundra!”

“It’s not that cold,” Sawamura defends himself, tucking the ends of the blanket around his own feet. “It is a little colder than usual this year, though.”

“It’s slightly cool outside!” Sawamura’s father’s inside robe gapes open, like he’s never heard of wind-chill in his life. “Brisk!”

Kazuya laughs, tightening the blanket around himself.

“My parents’ fall harvest ended early this year,” Aotsuki says, from the other side of the room. She’s setting up the shogi board at the end of the sun table beside the window as Sawamura’s grandfather sorts the pieces into two mono-colored piles. “It got too cold to grow anything way before the usual end of season, apparently.”

“I think the same happened out at my grandparents’ farm in Ichinomiya,” Kazuya says, swallowing when she doesn’t look up to meet his eyes. “He mentioned that the season had ended early.”

Aotsuki’s gaze does dart over to him briefly then, before she dismissively looks away again. The casual warmth of their last meeting in Sawamura’s old university apartment is completely gone, Kazuya thinks, like it had frozen away along with the entirety of the Nagano prefecture. It’s in stark contrast to the way Sawamura’s mother had greeted him with smiles and laughter and the pretense that it had only been a few months since they’d last spoken, and not more than a few years.

“Ahhh, Mother Nature is so angry at us!” Sawamura knocks into him, and a little of Kazuya’s tea sloshes over his fingers. “We should be kinder to the Earth!”

Kazuya chuckles. “Is that the Sawamura Eijun treatise on global warming?”

“It’s plain common sense that if we keep on like now things are going to get worse, Miyuki Kazuya!” Sawamura jostles him again, but he’s prepared for it, this time, letting his entire body move with the push, his tea staying inside his mug. “Even I know that!”

“Even you? Are you acknowledging that you’re an idiot?” Kazuya raises both eyebrows in feigned surprise. “Wow, Sawamura, I never thought I’d see the day!”

Sawamura squawks, an outlandish noise that has Kazuya wanting to kiss him. He refrains, tucking the urge away for later, and instead leans into Sawamura to leech a little more of his natural warmth. “Praise me instead of insulting me!”

“Hmmm, not today,” Kazuya replies, taking a sip of his tea. “Try me again tomorrow, and my answer might be different!” To soften his words, he pats Sawamura’s knee under the cover of the blanket.

Sawamura’s grandfather laughs hard enough that he shakes the shogi board. “You picked a tough nut, Eijun!”

“I already cracked him!” Sawamura replies, and then, to Kazuya’s shock, Sawamura kisses him sloppily on the cheek, just missing the corner of his mouth, right there in front of everyone.

Kazuya’s heart-rate picks up, blood immediately rushing toward his face, leaving his cheeks hot as he clutches more tightly at his mug of tea. “Sawamura!” he hisses, but Sawamura’s grin is proud and unrepentant.

“See?!” he says, looking across the room, and Sawamura’s grandfather cackles.

“I do see!” Sawamura’s grandfather replies, a twinkle in his eye as he gives Kazuya a knowing look.

Sawamura’s mother just smiles as Kazuya brings a tea-warmed hand up to his cheek to cover the spot Sawamura just kissed. “I’ll bring out a couple of extra blankets if Kazuya gets cold so easily,” she says, looking between them like she’s pleased.

Kazuya doesn’t know what he thought this visit would be like, when Sawamura’s family had been so kind before. Maybe more like Aotsuki is being, though Sawamura seems not to have noticed.

He exhales, then sets his tea down between his feet and picks up the wrapped gift in its stead. “This is for you,” he says, sliding it across the kotatsu to Sawamura’s father. “As thanks for having me.”

“Oh!” Sawamura’s mother claps her hands. “What pretty wrapping!” She takes it from her husband, who’d looked primed to tear the paper off sloppily, and delicately opens the candied fruits. “Thank you, Kazuya!”

“Ah, it’s nothing, Sawamura-san,” Kazuya replies, pressing his lips together until Sawamura snorts. “What?”

“It’s always weird to hear you say my family name so politely,” he says, when he catches Kazuya’s frown. “Usually the only time you say it like that is when you’re on television and someone asks you about me.”

“No one’s asked me about you in an interview in a long time.” Kazuya picks up his tea again. “Although that’ll probably change, what with the pictures from the airport and the one you posted with Chris-san.”

“His Instagram is filled with pictures of you again,” Aotsuki says. “Just like when he was still in college.”

“It is?” Kazuya reaches into his pocket and pulls out his phone, opening the Instagram app for the first time since Kuramochi had set up his account. He types Sawamura’s silly username into the search bar.

“You have an Instagram account?!” Sawamura eagerly falls into him, dislodging the blanket in his enthusiasm. “Let me see!”

“There’s nothing on it,” Kazuya replies, chuckling. “No need to get too excited, Noisymura.” He navigates to Sawamura’s page, and sure enough, there are a lot of photos of Kazuya posted in the last couple of weeks since they’d finished packing up Sawamura’s apartment in Nishinomiya, of Kazuya doing the dishes or reading things on his laptop. Nothing too intimate, really, to an outsider, but for Kazuya it’s more that he’d never even noticed Sawamura taking these photos that shows the intimacy—he never bothers to keep his guard up with Sawamura anymore.

“Still! I didn’t think you’d actually ever get one!”

Each picture has hundreds of comments asking where they are, or why they’re still together, along with token comments from their friends that have floated to the top of the slush pile saying “tell that bastard I said hi,” or similar sentiments.

Kazuya hits the follow button. “I said I would, didn’t I?”

“You need a profile picture!” Sawamura shouts. “Wakana, can you take a picture of Kazuya and I making snow angels?!”

Why are you so fixated on this?” Kazuya says, as Sawamura tugs on his arm. “It’s so cold, and it’ll be even colder if we get wet.”

“Because it’s one of my favorite memories!” Sawamura gets up onto his knees, his hands resting on his thighs as he smiles at Kazuya. “We made snow angels on our first date, Miyuki Kazuya!”

“Our first—” Kazuya gapes at him, remembering the fresh smell of the bakery, and the lingering sweetness of pastry. The way Sawamura had offered Kazuya some of his clothes and his favorite tea and asked Kazuya to sit on his lap as he shaved away the stubble he’d missed with his dominant arm in a sling. “That’s the part of that time that sticks out to you?”

“Yes,” Sawamura says frankly, “because it was something you did with me that you’d never want to do on your own, just because it would make me happy.” Sawamura smiles at him, but it’s a tiny thing, accompanied by shadows creeping into his normally bright eyes. “And because it’s another winter, and you’re with me again. I haven’t made a snow angel at all since then.”

“Oh,” Kazuya says, and if they weren’t in front of Sawamura’s whole family, Kazuya would kiss him, as a reminder of certainty. “All right.”

Sawamura’s smile grows, taking over his whole face. “I have snow pants you can borrow!” He’s up and racing through the house again, and Kazuya covers his face with both hands as Sawamura’s grandfather starts to laugh. Sawamura’s father joins in the laughing.

“Oh dear,” Sawamura’s mother says, and she starts to get up from the kotatsu. “I’ll go prepare the bath so that you can get warm again when you come back inside.”

“He cracked you good, Miyuki,” Sawamura’s grandfather says, when his laughter finally peters off. He crows gleefully at whatever move Aotsuki has made on the shogi board. “Don’t give up your silvers like that, Wakana-chan!”

“My mind was elsewhere,” Aotsuki admits, and when Kazuya drops his hands from his face to look at her, she’s staring at him. Her expression is a little softer than it had been before.

It’s still snowing when they get outside, and Sawamura wastes no time shoving Kazuya down into a snowdrift just along the edge of the road they’d walked along to get to his house from the bus stop. Kazuya gasps at the cold, and picks up a handful of powdery snow from underneath himself and shoves it right into Sawamura’s face.

Sawamura shakes the snow off like a puppy coming in from the rain, but little flecks of white cling to his eyebrows and eyelashes, and melt in the dip above the bow of his thin upper lip. The pink of his face makes his pale freckles look stark, and Kazuya’s heart quickens at the charming look of utter surprise gracing Sawamura’s face.

“It’s too cold for this!”

“But look how pretty it is!”

Sawamura offers him a hand up, and Kazuya takes it, letting Sawamura pull him back up to his feet. Kazuya starts to dust the snow off himself, but the plastic material of the snow pants has kept him mostly dry.

“It’s definitely cold, but that’s a bad thing. I’d rather focus on the good things, like how the snow makes the whole town look like a painting!”

Kazuya looks at Sawamura, abandoning his mission to get rid of all the snow caught in the folds of his pants. “Focus on the good things, huh?” He reaches up with a gloved hand to adjust Sawamura’s winter hat, the thick knit having ridden up on one side to reveal half of a now-pink ear. “That’s you in a nutshell, isn’t it?”

“Of course it is!” Sawamura grabs at Kazuya’s jacket and pulls him in a little closer. “I always want to see the world around me as more good than bad! It’s how I can enjoy every single day to the fullest!”

“That,” Kazuya says, casting a quick look around and finding that they’re completely alone out here, in an afternoon scene that looks right out of a snow globe, “is one of my favorite things about you.” He kisses Sawamura on the tip of his cold nose, then presses their foreheads together until his glasses fog up again. “That’s a compliment.”

“Oh,” Sawamura says, crumpling the material of Kazuya’s coat in his hands. “Don’t say that when I can’t kiss you for real, Miyuki Kazuya!”

“So demanding,” Kazuya replies, pulling away as he hears a car start to make its way slowly up the road, driving at the careful pace of someone used to dealing with inclement weather.

Aotsuki comes outside a few minutes later, bundled up in a puffy coat and a pink hat, wearing a clearly borrowed pair of shoes that are too big for her feet, her hands tucked safely in her pockets. She stands on the edge of the engawa as Sawamura perks up at the sight of her, leaving footprints in the fresh snow as he crosses the front yard back toward the house, Kazuya sedately following suit.

“Wakana, Wakana, take a picture of me and Miyuki Kazuya making snow angels!”

“Sure,” she says, taking Sawamura’s phone from him when he offers it to her. Kazuya pulls out his own, too, unlocks it, and hands her his as well. “I’ll take one on Miyuki’s phone first, before it locks again.”

“Aren’t you worried about unlocking mine?!” Sawamura asks. “I changed all my passwords when my phone got hacked last year!”

Aotsuki raises both her eyebrows so high they disappear under the folded edge of her winter hat. “You think I don’t know you well enough to guess what your password is going to be?” She flits her eyes at Kazuya.

“Hey! It’s just— Anyone who’d know that is someone I wouldn’t mind getting into my phone!”

“Idealistic,” Kazuya says, tugging on the back of Sawamura’s coat.

“So what?!” Sawamura’s flushed so pretty from the cold, and Kazuya grins at him.

“I already said I liked it,” Kazuya tells him. “Let’s get this over with so I can go back inside.”

“Enjoy the moment!” Sawamura shouts, and then Kazuya finds himself shoved back into the snow, laughing as he moves his arms and legs to leave an angel behind.

He’s chilled to the bone when he reclaims his phone from Aotsuki. She’s smirking at his disheveled state as he takes off his hat to shake the snow off it, unlocking his screen again so he can look at the photos.

Aotsuki'd taken more than ten, but only the last one gives the impression of snow angels at all. Kazuya scrolls through them, all the way back to the first one, snapped right after Sawamura had thrown him down. In it, Kazuya’s eyes are round with surprise, but his mouth is open in a wide grin, his glasses askew and his hair slipping free of his hat as Sawamura sits next to him, legs akimbo, laughing wildly.

Kazuya stares at the picture, unsure if he’s ever seen himself look like this before; he can’t recall any photos of himself where he’s laughing this freely after his seventh birthday, or looks so at peace.

“Are they okay?” Aotsuki asks him, as Sawamura hums and haws over his own photos. “I can make Ei-chan toss you back into a snow drift if we need to do a second take.”

The wind blows sharply, and Kazuya shakes from the cold, but he can’t take his eyes off the photo. “No, it’s perfect,” he says, his voice cracking a little. It’s enough to get Sawamura’s attention, and Kazuya is quickly ushered back inside and up to the bath, where he gratefully showers off in hot water and then slumps into the scalding tub.

Sawamura comes in a little while after Kazuya has relaxed, carrying his own shower bag. “Mind if I join you?”

“No,” Kazuya says, looking at Sawamura with a squint. His glasses are on the edge of the bathroom sink, but there’s enough steam in the room that it wouldn’t have made a difference. “Your parents might.” He turns sideways in the deep square tub, crossing his arms on the rim to pillow his head. “It’s a little inappropriate.”

“My mom asked me if I was going to take a bath with you, and reminded me to tell you that we have bath salts if you wanted them,” Sawamura says, already stripping down, revealing a broad expanse of blurry back to Kazuya’s hungry eyes. “No, I don’t think they mind.”

“They might if they knew how horny you always are.”

Sawamura huffs, turning on the shower-head as he quickly soaps himself up, rinsing perfunctorily and not bothering with his hair at all. His skin turns slowly pink from the heat of the water, and Kazuya closes his eyes to listen instead of watch.

“They wouldn’t care even then.” His voice is suddenly closer. Kazuya’s eyes fly open as Sawamura climbs into the tub next to him, their legs knocking together as Sawamura fits himself into the free space around Kazuya. The water had been cooling off, but Sawamura’s skin is hot enough to compensate as it slides against his own. “I used to masturbate in this house every day when I was a third-year in junior high.” Sawamura’s blunt tone contrasts with his gentle touch as he starts to finger-comb Kazuya’s wet hair. “The only difference is that you are so noisy, Miyuki Kazuya!”

Kazuya laughs, water sloshing out of the tub and onto the floor. It’s not made for two, especially when they’re as bulky as Sawamura and Kazuya are, so Sawamura’s knee digs into his back. “Yeah, yeah,” he says, tilting his neck to give Sawamura better access. “Whatever you say, Noisymura.”

Sawamura’s fingers twist around a piece of Kazuya’s hair, tugging gently. “I’m so glad you’re here.”

Where else would I be? Kazuya thinks, but he keeps those words to himself, instead looking up at Sawamura through the fall of his eyelashes, taking in Sawamura’s small, private smile. “I am stealing you away to another country—the least I could do was visit your parents.”

“It’s kind of like we’re getting married, isn’t it?” Sawamura says thoughtfully, and Kazuya stills, every muscle in his body going tense. “Wait, what’s wrong? I was just kidding, Kazuya!”

“It’s nothing.” Kazuya quirks his lips into a smirk. “I was just thinking about Shirasu’s wedding.” It’s a lie, and he thinks Sawamura knows that, judging by the way his eyes scan Kazuya’s face.

But Sawamura lets it go, the wisp of conversation drifting up and getting lost in the steam. “No one will say anything if we show up together,” Sawamura says, instead. “People see what they want to see, remember?”

“I haven’t even thought about that since Chris-san mentioned it. But… I should e-mail Shirasu about it. I don’t want to be on a separate table from you at the reception.”

“We can just trade with someone,” Sawamura says. “It doesn’t have to be a thing. I told you before, as long as…” Sawamura’s hand slips free of Kazuya’s hair and glides down his spine, a gentle stroke. “As long as I can have you, it doesn’t matter how anyone else sees it. I’m glad that I can talk to my parents and some of our friends about it, but it was never… It was never a requirement, and neither is you, I don’t know, holding my hand at Shirasu’s wedding, okay?”

“Yeah.” It’s nothing Sawamura hasn’t said before. “It’s harder for me, if no one knows. I didn’t realize what a big difference it would make, having my father know. Having Kuramochi know. We have all these places we don’t have to hide, now, and it makes it… It’s more bearable, now, when we do have to hide.” Kazuya sighs. “It’s easier to just…”

“Be happy?” Sawamura’s hand stops at the small of his back, an anchor as Kazuya’s thoughts race. “When everyone around us understands what we mean to each other, it’s easier to just be happy, right?” His hand slides around Kazuya’s waist, pulling him in. “Are you getting used to it, yet?”

“I need a little more practice,” Kazuya admits, curling a hand around Sawamura’s neck to kiss him, more water sloshing out of the tub and splattering onto the floor.

The Sawamura family sleeps early, Sawamura’s parents heading up to bed only an hour after they eat dinner, around nine in the evening. Aotsuki looks out the window and decides to stay the night too, but she has work to do, and excuses herself, leaving Sawamura and Kazuya to turn out all the lights and check all the doors and windows before heading upstairs to Sawamura’s room.

They lie side by side on Sawamura’s tiny twin bed under the covers, the air mattress more of a resting place for their discarded clothes and toiletries, and talk until Sawamura starts to drift off, his speech slurring more and more until his eyes flutter shut, words trailing off into nothingness. Kazuya brushes Sawamura’s fringe from his brow once he’s certain Sawamura’s fallen asleep, and then takes out his phone. It’s still open to the photo app, to the picture of them both laughing.

Kazuya still barely recognizes himself in the laughing man, but he wants to, he thinks. He opens his Instagram app and uploads it as his profile picture, letting the app crop it down to half of his face automatically, the only part left whole the wide stretch of his grin.

He lightly dozes after that, plenty warm wrapped up in Sawamura’s heat and yet still unable to truly sleep at the early hour. Sawamura, in contrast, is dead to the world, snuggled up under his flannel baseball-patterned blankets, his mouth slack in slumber, breathing through his mouth instead of his nose. Kazuya squints at him in the dark for a while, content to watch as Sawamura’s chest rises and falls under his hand. Eventually, though, he needs to pee, so he slips out of bed, snagging one of Sawamura’s numerous fleece-lined zip-up sweatshirts from the hook on the back of his closet door and pulling it on before he quietly creeps out into the hall.

He decides to use the restroom on the main floor, because he’s noticed the plumbing in the Sawamura family home is old and loud, and he doesn’t want to wake anyone up. He takes each of the creaking wooden stairs slowly, aiming for the edges of the steps instead of the centers, where it’s sturdier.

The hallway leading to the downstairs bathroom, past the sliding doors blocking off the main room, is filled with family photos. Kazuya takes his time to look at all of them, now that Sawamura isn’t ushering him up and down the stairs in a hurry. There are lots and lots of photos of Sawamura as a small child, with scabs on his knees and dirt under his nails, his round face turned toward the camera with a smile in every shot. Aotsuki is in most of the photos with him, at first with long hair, and then with shorter hair and a matching elementary school baseball uniform on, the two of them with matching gloves, black leather and brand new.

As Sawamura gets older, his expressions start to vary more, scowls and wide laughs added into the mix as more and more friends appear, squashed around the Sawamura family’s center table. He still looks happy, and like his friends spent a lot of time in this house with him. Kazuya smiles a little, touching one that’s clearly from Sawamura’s last year of junior high, when Kazuya had met him for the first time. He’s wearing his class uniform, and there are dirt stains on the elbow that are clearly related to the baseball glove still on his right hand. His grin in that photo is sheepish, and Aotsuki looks reluctantly amused next to him, like she isn’t sure whether to chastise him or not for ruining his uniform playing baseball in it.

After that photo, though, there are fewer and fewer snapshots, and more photos clearly printed from grainier quality mobile phone pictures Sawamura had sent, with Furuya and Kanemaru and Toujou and Kominato Haruichi, and then Asada and Okumura and Seto, too, as well as that cute manager girl who’d been in their year that Kanemaru had dated at one point. There are a couple of photos of Sawamura with his father and grandfather, too, from school vacations, probably, and one of Sawamura and his mother rolling dough, but Kazuya can see the difference in the atmosphere even through these sparse photographs.

When Sawamura had come to Tokyo, Kazuya thinks, staring at a framed newspaper article about Seidou’s first Koushien, Sawamura’s image emblazoned in black and white, this lively house had become a lot quieter. In exchange, Kazuya’s life had taken on a new brightness, and he wonders why the Sawamura family welcomes him when he’s leading that light even farther away.

Kazuya uses the restroom quickly, rinsing his hands and then coming back out into the hall, trying to decide if he wants to get a glass of water, too, while he’s down here. He shuts the sliding doors of the main room behind him, leaving them as they were before, and takes another few steps forward before he realizes he’s not alone.

Aotsuki is standing at the foot of the stairs, arms crossed, and she’s leveling him with an impassive look that makes him feel like he’s been caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

“You’re up late,” Kazuya says. “Sorry if I woke you.”

“I was still working,” she replies. Her hair is pushed back from her forehead with a much thicker headband than the ones Kazuya sometimes wears now. “I heard you and came downstairs.”

Kazuya clenches his jaw. “Because you wanted to talk to me.”

Her mouth thins. “It’s more that I have to.”

Kazuya observes her for a few long moments, and then he moves to sit down on the bottom step of the staircase. He tries to get comfortable without making it creak, but it’s a lost cause, the noise echoing through the house. “You’re mad about it. Me and Sawamura.”

Aotsuki shrugs. “Not really. He loves you so much, and I know that.” She sits down next to him on the bottom step, unconcerned when it creaks again. Her posture is stiff and tight, and when their knees bump, she swiftly jerks away from him. It’s a far cry from the woman who didn’t mind the bumping of elbows as he peeled potatoes at Sawamura’s kitchen sink, open amusement on her face. “It’s only that I think you have too much power over him.”

“What do you mean?” The next step up is digging into his back, but he leans back against it, catching his elbows on the edge so he can look more casual.

“I mean that when you dumped him a few years ago, you broke something in him. Ei-chan is strong, and I’ve never seen him so crushed. He put himself back together, because he always does, piece by piece with sheer determination, and he kept on playing the baseball he loves.” Her soft whisper is sharp as a knife in the quiet, piercing right through Kazuya’s feigned nonchalance. “Seeing you two together now, though, I know that if you do it again, he’ll—” She stops, and rubs her hands on the soft cotton of her pajama pants, staring down at them instead of looking at Kazuya. “It’s not my place to tell you or Ei-chan what to do, but it scares me.”

“I was…” Kazuya curls his toes as his heart tries to climb up his throat. “I was crushed too,” he says, hating the crack in his voice. “I didn’t know how to… Nothing between Sawamura and I is one-sided. I… Without him, I was…”

Lifting her gaze to him, Aotsuki frowns. “The last time you dated, you had all the agency. Ei-chan trusted you to make all the decisions about your relationship, right? He deferred to you the same way he does when he’s pitching.” Her eyes narrow. “I don’t like that.”

Kazuya stiffens, fisting his hands into the fleece lining of his borrowed sweatshirt. “That’s not how it actually is,” he snaps, a thread of anger weaving right through the thick blanket of his guilt. “Eijun never… Pitchers don’t ever really defer to catchers, in a game. You know that. You know baseball.” He swallows, and lowers his voice. “Catchers are the player that can see the entire field, while the pitcher’s view is limited. But any great pitch isn’t an act of deference. It’s an act of teamwork.” The signs, Kazuya think, are about communication. About consent. About how Sawamura can read all the things Kazuya can’t bring himself to say in any other way. “The pitcher and the catcher each play a role in creating a perfect strike. My job is to make him shine as long as I’m sitting in front of him, but it’s not… It’s not something the catcher can do alone.”

We’re partners! Kazuya hears, in Sawamura’s voice, and it’s something between them that’s only become more true, after all these years.

Aotsuki stares at Kazuya, and he flushes under the scrutiny, but doesn’t back down. “It isn’t.” She suddenly relaxes, but Kazuya’s muscles remain tight as he bears her examination. “Ei-chan is loyal, and he’s stubborn, and he’s stupid sometimes, when he loves something. You can’t take advantage of that just because he’ll let you.”

Kazuya nods. “I won’t,” he promises, solemnly.

“You won’t be pulling anything like you did before ever again, either, or I swear I’ll castrate you, Miyuki Kazuya,” she continues. She glares at him, and he accepts it. “You won’t make him feel that powerless ever again.”

“I won’t,” he repeats, wrapping Sawamura’s sweatshirt tighter around himself. It smells like Sawamura’s detergent, and like this house, old and loved. “I couldn’t.”

Finally, Aotsuki smiles, small and crooked. “Then we’ll be good,” she tells him. “Take care of him if you can. More than anyone, I know he’s a handful.” She shakes her head. “Your work is cut out for you.”

“I think he takes care of me just as much,” Kazuya says, and surprised, Aotsuki blinks at him. “Sawamura isn’t… He’s not a responsibility, or difficult. He’s a…” Kazuya’s eyes dart away, embarrassed. “He’s more like a gift.”

“I think,” Aotsuki says, and her eyes drop down to where the kanji for Sawamura are scrawled across the breast of the sweatshirt, right above Kazuya’s heart, “that if you feel like that, we’ll be more than good, Miyuki Kazuya.”

Kazuya shifts, and the stair creaks ominously. He waits, listening, but there’s no noise from the bedrooms upstairs. “Sawamura’d like that.”

Aotsuki grins. “He would.” She holds her hand out to him, a Western handshake. “You can call me Wakana, if we’re going to be friends.”

He takes her offered hand, and she pauses when she notices his hair-ties, the bright orange one a noticeable match to the one around Sawamura’s wrist, the purple one old and frayed. She studies them for only a fraction of a second, and the corner of her lips quirks up.

“I suppose,” Kazuya says, “you’re going to just keep calling me by my full name, then?”

“That seems like the right thing to do,” she says. Her hand is warm. “After all, it’s the only way I’d ever heard you referred to for almost ten years of my life.”

Kazuya laughs silently, his shoulders shaking with what feels mostly like relief. “That’s all right. I’m more than resigned to it.”

Aotsuki goes up first, disappearing into the guest room, and Kazuya sits there on the steps for a few more minutes replaying the conversation in his mind before he heads back upstairs.

Reentering Sawamura’s room, he takes off his glasses and then crawls back into bed, pressing his cold feet against Sawamura’s warm calves. Sawamura just groans and pulls him into a hug, his lips finding Kazuya’s forehead and brushing a kiss there even in almost-sleep. “Don’t you need your eye-mask, Kazuya?”

Kazuya closes his eyes, and buries his nose in the dip of Sawamura’s collarbone, his loose hair a thick curtain over his face and blocking out most of the small traces of moonlight. “It’s okay like this,” he says, already starting to fall asleep as Sawamura’s warmth seeps into him, the quilts on top of them blocking out the cold.

“And everything’s okay with Wakana?” A tingling radiates out across Kazuya’s forehead where Sawamura’s lips brush. “I heard her voice, and she was staring at you earlier.”

Kazuya huffs a tiny laugh, because he should know better than to underestimate Sawamura’s perceptiveness after all these years of being caught out by him. “She’s the entirety of your self-preservation, isn’t she?”

“Wakana’s the best like that,” Sawamura agrees, his voice a drowsy murmur, like he’s already falling back asleep, and Kazuya laughs again, the sound trapped between them as he shifts a little closer, his thigh riding up between Sawamura’s. “I’m lucky to have a friend like her.”

“Mmm,” Kazuya hums, kissing Sawamura’s collarbone as he finally starts to drift off himself, content exactly where he is.

Breakfast the next morning is another rowdy affair, the Sawamura men doing their best to out-shout each other as everyone else tries to keep plates from leaving the table any more than necessary. Kazuya laughs every single time Sawamura knocks their knees together, gripping handfuls of Sawamura’s T-shirt to keep him from injuring himself in his excited fervor, and by the end of the meal, his abs ache from the sheer constant force of his mirth.

“Are you sure you’re all right with coming into our family?” Sawamura’s mother asks him, as they stack up the plates and carry them from the main room to the kitchen. Sawamura is screaming about youth and vitality as his grandfather holds him easily in a headlock, his father egging them on as Aotsuki takes a video of it on her phone with what he thinks is the Instagram app. “I know we’re a lot.”

“As a kid,” Kazuya says, setting the dirty plates down next to the sink, “my home was too quiet. I hated it.”

She turns on the sink and adds soap to the left basin, looking up at him. “It’s been hard for you, hasn’t it, Miyuki-kun?” She doesn’t wait for him to reply, taking a pair of rubber gloves out from under the sink and pulling them on. “Eijun never told us what happened, you know. He only told us you two were no longer dating, and that he didn’t want to talk about it.”

“It seemed impossible to me, back then, that you could know about us, and that it wasn’t the end of the world.” Kazuya scrapes the dregs of breakfast into the disposable garbage. “Anyone knowing about it and it not being the end of the world was a concept that was completely new to me. I didn’t…” He pauses, tapping the chopsticks against the last plate to shake the onions off them. “Sawamura was—Eijun, I mean, he’s better at emotions than I am.”

“He’s always been an open book.” She turns off the water, and accepts the first plate from Kazuya, dipping it into the hot water. “He cries when he’s sad and laughs when he’s happy, just like his father.”

“It’s because he grew up in this noisy house, with people who told him it was fine to be that way.” Kazuya hands her another plate as Sawamura shouts victoriously from the living room, his grandfather’s cackle almost drowning it out. “I was jealous, maybe. I don’t know.” He gestures to the photos pinned to the refrigerator, and the little things littering the kitchen that indicate that a family lives here. “I wasn’t… I didn’t grow up like this. For a long time, there was only me.”

“Eijun told me last night that he’s intending to stay with you as long as you’ll let him,” Sawamura’s mother says, and Kazuya’s grip on the next plate slackens before he grips it tightly again. “It seems it won’t be only you again for a while, don’t you think?” She smiles at him, and straightens the dishes in the rack to make space for more. “And I hope you realize that whenever you two are in Japan, you’ll always be welcome here in this noisy house.”

“I couldn’t deal with your acceptance, the first time we met, but I appreciate it. I know I can’t be who you hoped Eijun would bring home.”

“My only hope for Eijun was that he’d find someone he loved as much as he loved to play baseball,” Sawamura’s mother replies. “I should have known Eijun wouldn’t settle for just that. Now I know I should have hoped he would find someone who loved him as much as he loves baseball, too.” She grins at him, and for all that Sawamura is his father’s son, his smile is so much his mother’s, capable of instantly summoning the sun. “I’m thankful he’ll have you, Miyuki-kun.”

Kazuya blushes, and his chest collapses in on itself. “I’m…” he starts, but words fail him. He can only look at her, and her grin gentles into a softer, kinder smile.

“And,” she says then, “I hope you’re prepared for visitors at that house of yours in San Francisco. Eijun is my only child, after all.”

“You’ll always be welcome in our noisy house, too,” Kazuya replies, and he hands her the last plate with shaking hands. “I hope you like orange and black.”

“Miyuki Kazuya!” Sawamura, rumpled and pink-faced, stands in the doorway to the kitchen, Aotsuki just behind him carrying her overnight bag with a long-suffering look on her face. “Let’s go!”

“Go where?” Kazuya asks.

“Running!” Sawamura says. “Wakana has to go to work, and we have to exercise! The snow’s mostly melted, and country air is good for you!”

“The constant supply of energy you have really is impressive.” Kazuya wipes his hands on his jeans. “I have to change.” He looks down at himself. “Put on at least three more layers or something before I let you drag me out into the wilderness.”

“Then hurry up!” Sawamura tears up the stairs, and Kazuya sedately follows in his wake, waving a bemused goodbye to Aotsuki as she bids her farewell to Sawamura’s mother, her smile in return a welcome thing.

Sawamura’s anxious to get out of the house, and it has been a few days since Kazuya’s done any kind of workout, so he has enough extra energy that he’s looking forward to moving, too. He can’t let himself get out of shape in the off-season, knowing the consequences of that now that he’s pro will make Kataoka and Maeda’s winter training camps look like play-time.

The run Sawamura leads them on, when Kazuya’s bundled up to his own satisfaction and he’s badgered Sawamura into pulling on an extra layer as well, takes them out of the neighborhood into a deep wood, along a dirt trail with winter brambles encroaching onto the path.

They’re surrounded on either side by imposingly tall beech trees with pale gray bark, and as they get further and further into the forest, there is more and more creeping moss and tangled vines along the path, enough that Kazuya keeps looking down to make sure he won’t trip, falling a bit behind Sawamura.

“It feels like we’re about to run straight into a Miyazaki movie,” Kazuya says, his breath coming out in puffs of white heat in the chilly air. “Aren’t you afraid you’ll fall with all this stuff on the path?”

“Nah,” Sawamura dismisses, barely winded, his bright pink cheeks the only sign he’s exerting himself at all. “I know this path like the back of my hand! I used to hunt beetles out here, with Wakana and Nobu!”

“Even in the winter?” Kazuya asks. Despite the heat in his muscles from running, it’s still cold, and he feels it most at the back of his neck and ankles, where there’s a thin gap between his socks and the elastic bottom of his sweatpants, and he fights the urge to shiver as he matches Sawamura’s tough pace.

“Most beetles only come out when it’s warm, but it can be interesting to see them in their hibernating state!” Sawamura lectures, grinning back at Kazuya as he slows his pace a bit, his eyes wide with excitement. “A true beetle-hunter has to be prepared to look in every season in order to find rare species!”

“Very scientific.” Kazuya takes a double step so he can up to run alongside Sawamura instead of a half-step behind him. “Your dedication is admirable~!” Sawamura’s eyes go cat-like in suspicion that Kazuya’s teasing him, but then his entire expression changes, suddenly pensive, and Kazuya wonders what’s prompted the quick change of mood. “Something wrong?”

Sawamura’s nose wrinkles up. “Was it okay? Talking to my mom this morning?”

“Why wouldn’t it be?” Kazuya looks back ahead of them, where the path opens up into a clearing.

“I talked about you to her last night,” Sawamura says. “Before I joined you in the bath. I just… wasn’t sure what kinds of things she wanted to talk with you about.”

“Oh, were you gossiping about me, Sawamura?” Kazuya lets a smile pull at the corners of his lips as Sawamura huffs in annoyance.

“No! I just— I wanted to tell her about the house, and about the garden, and—” Sawamura starts to speed up again. “I just know you’re not used to talking about your feelings, and you had to talk to Wakana last night, too!”

It’s Sawamura’s thoughtfulness, that inherent understanding that Kazuya won’t ever take for granted, that finally cuts through the late morning chill and warms him up enough for a real smile to stretch across his face.

“We talked about the fact that you’re planning to stay with me as long as I’ll let you,” he says, allowing a heavy note of teasing to slip into his tone. “And that you’ve already made plans for our guest room!” They emerge out of the trees and into the clearing that’s probably a beautiful green when it’s warm but is mostly browned out as winter sets in. Without the trees, there’s nothing to block the wind, and it blows into Kazuya’s face, stinging at his cheeks and lips. “Any truth to any of that?”

“So what if there is?!” Sawamura brings them to a stop, and both of them curl forward to catch their breath, hands on their knees. “You said you’d be my catcher for eternity! There’s no backing out of a promise like that!”

“I never said I wanted to, idiot,” pants Kazuya. “Your mom is great. She welcomed me to the family. Offered me a complimentary pair of earplugs and everything!”

“I’m not that loud!” Sawamura shouts, and when a few birds fly out of the trees, scared away by the volume, Kazuya throws his head back and laughs, shallowly, already breathless from running. “Stop laughing, Miyuki Kazuya!”

Wiping at his eyes, Kazuya looks at Sawamura standing in front of him, cheeks flushed from both exertion and the cold, eyes wide and shimmering gold, and he doesn’t feel the weather at all anymore, only the hot swell of affection that floods him from his fingertips to his toes. He imagines Sawamura as an old man, like his grandfather, yelling and laughing and wrestling some kid into submission, and the feeling only grows, threatening to choke him.

“I’m so stupidly in love with you,” he says, without thinking it through, and Sawamura gapes at him for a few mortifying seconds before he tackles Kazuya to the ground. It’s only partially frozen, and the rest is mud, seeping through Kazuya’s clothes and chilling his back as Sawamura lies hot as fire atop him. Kazuya’s fingers dig into the ground, wet dirt and grass getting underneath his short fingernails as he adjusts to Sawamura’s familiar weight.

“There’s nothing stupid about being in love with me!” Sawamura says, his whole face overtaken by a smile that makes the overcast morning seem bright as a summer afternoon.

Kazuya wants this. He wants it so much eternity doesn’t feel long enough, and all he has to do is hang onto it.

”It sounds like you’ve thought about it a lot,” Kazuya hears again, in his father’s voice, and he wonders, not for the first time, what kind of wedding invitations Sawamura would insist on.

“I’m going to be so fucking selfish about you,” Kazuya breathes out, helplessly smiling back. His heart is one of those birds flying from the trees, soaring above them. “Sorry in advance.”

“You’re not even remotely sorry!” Sawamura replies, not seeming to mind a bit. “Your personality is terrible!”

Then Sawamura kisses the ”thank you!” right off of Kazuya’s lips, crushing their mouths together again and again to steal away anything else he might have to say, as he drags cold muddy hands down Sawamura’s back to pull him closer.

Sawamura Eijun officially signs with the San Francisco Giants on February 3rd. Kazuya watches the news go viral in Japan from their townhouse that night after the short press conference, sitting on the black sofa they picked out together. Sawamura’s head is on his lap, and Kazuya’s fingers card through his curly mop of hair as he reads select headlines from the sports news aloud, Sawamura returning the favor with his outrageously active LINE chat.

“Hah! Spitz-senpai just sent me an article from the MBK site!” Sawamura holds his phone up long enough for Kazuya to glimpse the headline: ’A reunion of the powerhouse Meiji University Sawamura-Miyuki battery in American baseball!’ before he’s navigating back to his chat window.

“You used to hate texting.”

“I still do,” Sawamura says. “It’s more important now, though. I have to grasp every way I can to keep in touch with people, now that we’re so far away.” He looks up at Kazuya. “I still prefer the pictures, though.”

“Clearly,” Kazuya says, navigating to his Instagram app. He still hasn’t uploaded anything beyond a profile picture, the profile line still empty, but he’s added most of his friends, and leaves likes on their pictures occasionally. Takarada and Sawamura are the most prolific uploaders, and it flusters Kazuya sometimes how often he appears in Sawamura’s updates, doing mundane things. His most recent photo, from yesterday morning, of Kazuya doing pull-ups in the training gym, is filling up with new comments now, ranging from ’omg’ to long Japanese-language posts about how it had been obvious Sawamura was going to be playing with Miyuki again based on all his posts since the end of November. “You have too many pictures of me.”

“I spend the most time with you,” is Sawamura’s matter-of-fact reply. “Naturally I’m going to have the most pictures of you, too. And we live together.”

“Really? I hadn’t noticed. I thought I had picked out all these extremely tacky San Francisco Giants throw pillows and festooned them around my beautiful home—”

“They’re not tacky!” Sawamura scrambles up to straddle Kazuya. “You don’t actually care at all about home decorations! You only want to give me a hard time!”

“I care a little,” Kazuya replies. “I care enough to know that orange isn’t a very soothing color—”

“It’s soothing to me!” Sawamura fists his hand in the neck of Kazuya’s T-shirt, shaking him lightly. “Every time I look around I remember that I’m here, playing for the team of my dreams, with the man I love!”

“You don’t have to always make it sound like a romance novel,” Kazuya replies, but he nips at Sawamura’s chin with his teeth, prompting Sawamura to tilt his face down for a kiss. “You can just say you’re overly sentimental about objects and move along.”

The words are soft between their wet lips, but Sawamura’s hackles raise anyhow, his knuckles bearing down between Kazuya’s collarbones. “You’re such a bastard,” he says, his eyes narrowed, “but you’re my bastard officially now.” He waves his phone. “It’s on the news! I signed all the paperwork!”

“I thought I was already yours officially,” Kazuya says. “I thought we decided that all the way back in the beginning of November.”

“That was different! Now it’s baseball official!”

Kazuya laughs, and curls his hands around Sawamura’s hips, palms pressing against his pelvic bones as he drags Sawamura in a little closer. “I don’t know,” he says. “Is it really? Do you have a jersey number?”

Sawamura blinks down at him, surprised. “Of course I do!” He loosens his grip on Kazuya’s shirt and brings it up to tug the elastic from Kazuya’s hair. “It’s ‘2’! What else was I supposed to choose, huh?! You’re already wearing my number, so there’s nothing to do but for me to wear yours—”

Kazuya cuts him off with another kiss, deeper, tugging Sawamura down and into him until Sawamura melts against him, letting Kazuya take him in every single way he can, until Kazuya can’t tell whose heartbeat is pounding so loudly in his ears.

He gets an e-mail from Kuramochi at five in the morning. can’t believe it’s finally official! it says. it’s been killing me not to kill the speculation in the group chat.

your first mistake was joining a group chat, Kazuya replies, when he opens it the next morning a little after eleven, his eye-mask still on his forehead and the fuzz of plaque a distracting sour taste in his mouth as he scrolls through his e-mails, checking for important ones. He can hear Sawamura singing from the bathroom in their ensuite, the warbling noise made worse by the muffling of a toothbrush.

Kazuya rolls out of bed, grabs his glasses, and pads his way into the bathroom. “Worst alarm ever,” he says, as he puts paste on his toothbrush, hip-checking Sawamura to the side to use the sink even though their vanity has two of them there in front of the mirror. “You going for a run?”

“You going to join me?” Sawamura asks. He’s already wearing a pair of running shorts that hang too low on his hips, the tight spandex shorts underneath them flashing as he bends over to spit his toothpaste into the sink.

“No, I’ve got a workout with the trainer later this afternoon. I thought you were going with me?” Kazuya wets the toothbrush with a quick pulse of water from the tap, and then starts to brush his teeth.

“I am,” Sawamura says, “but Veradomo wants to work with me in the batting cages.” He grins, toothpaste still clinging to his lips. His face is still damp from being washed, along with the very tips of his hair. “He was very impressed with my bunting!”

“It truly is your best offensive skill,” agrees Kazuya. “It’s not a bad idea to throw the opponent’s defense off with a solid regular at-bat every once in a while, though. Chris has been reminding me to encourage you to work on it.”

“I am working on it!” Sawamura turns on the water in the second sink, which has loosely become Kazuya’s, all his contact and skincare products lining the back of the counter, along with his extra glasses case. “Just you watch, Miyuki Kazuya! I’m going to be an amazing batter!” He wipes his mouth with the back of his arm, and grins.

Kazuya doesn’t doubt him. Nothing ever seems truly impossible when Sawamura Eijun puts his mind to it. “I’m looking forward to a solid RBI,” Kazuya tells him, around his toothbrush.

Sawamura kisses him right between his eyebrows on his way out of the bathroom. “See you in an hour, Miyuki Kazuya!”

Kazuya has barely finished eating his simple breakfast, composed of a motley collection of the week’s leftovers, when his doorbell rings.

Setting down his plate in the sink, Kazuya goes to answer it. He’s surprised to see it’s a neighbor he recognizes. It’s the dad of the little boy who had recognized him on Halloween. He’s wearing his San Francisco Giants sweatshirt again, and carrying a fruit basket.

“Hi,” Kazuya says, confused, but he opens the door a little wider. “Can I help you?”

He gives Kazuya a sheepish smile. “My wife sent me over with a fruit basket to welcome your…” The man hesitates, and Kazuya’s breath catches. “Housemate? To the neighborhood. We met him yesterday when he was out on a run, and he said he was living here. We meant to welcome you, too, but it felt like you were never home until I saw you answering the door for kids last October.”

“Eijun’s out on a run, now, too, actually.” Kazuya reaches out to take the basket. “I’m only shocked he wasn’t jogging at the crack of dawn.”

The man laughs. “I’m Dan Mitchell, by the way. My son’s—”

“I remember,” Kazuya says. “He had that cartoon costume. I gave him extra candy.”

“That’s right,” Dan says, looking pleasantly surprised. “You won yourself a lifetime fan for that. Anyway, happy belated welcome to the neighborhood to you and, uh, Eijun?” He chuckles. “I hope I’m saying it right.”

“You are,” Kazuya says, and shifts his weight nervously. “Did you want…”

“No, no,” says Dan, waving both hands. “I’m not trying to be weird. I’m just running my errand and introducing myself more formally, since it seemed like you were gone the last couple of months? I noticed someone else coming by to water your plants.”

“Yes, I hired someone to take care of them. We travelled to Japan for the holidays.”

“Right, right.” Dan laughs. “Well, enjoy the fruit, and if you ever need someone to take care of your plants, my kid is old enough to do it. His mom’ll keep an eye on the property for you.”

“Thank you,” Kazuya says. “I’ll tell Eijun you stopped by.”

“Great!” The man takes the stairs two by two, leaving Kazuya standing in the doorway, fruit basket in his arms, to watch him depart. He stops, though, on the last step, and looks up at Kazuya over his shoulder. “If I’m wrong, no big deal,” he says, pitched just loudly enough for Kazuya to hear. The street is empty, anyway, kids still in school and the majority of the cars that line the street in the early morning and evening at work with their owners. “But just so you know, no one in this neighborhood is likely to say anything to the press about you and Eijun living together, or that you live here at all, okay? I told you last Halloween that no one in the neighborhood was going to bother you, and I meant it. My wife runs the neighborhood association, and we had a meeting about it a while back. You and Eijun should try to come, if you get the chance.” Dan grins. “At least during the off-season.”

“Okay,” Kazuya says, and the basket is heavy in his arms. “I… appreciate the invitation.”

Dan gives him one last friendly wave, and then he’s crossing the street and walking a few houses down before climbing the steps to his own house.

Kazuya closes the front door, resting his back against it for a few moments, replaying the conversation through his head. He’s not completely sure if Dan had been implying all that Kazuya had thought he’d been; Kazuya’s perfectly aware that his own view of the conversation might have been influenced by the fact that he knows he and Eijun are more than housemates.

Taking the fruit basket into the kitchen, he unwraps the cellophane. There are pineapples, cantaloupes, kiwis, and strawberries arranged artfully on wooden skewers. Kazuya stares at it all for a long moment, wondering if he should leave it like this until Sawamura can see it, before he shrugs and takes down his two largest Pyrex containers and starts to dismantle the arrangement skewer by skewer into a more manageable way of eating fruit.

He sets aside a bowl full of strawberries to eat now, and seals the two containers closed, stacking them on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator for the next week. Closing the refrigerator door, he rests his forehead against it, breathing slowly in and out.

Kazuya had known it was a risk, to have Sawamura move in with him. He’d even told Sawamura he was prepared to deal with the fallout of that decision, should it come to pass. He meant it, still means it, but having made the decision doesn’t make it less frightening every time he looks it in the eyes.

His phone vibrates in his pocket, shaking him from thoughts he doesn’t want, anyway. u should come up for jackson’s birthday next week, dude! we’re throwing him a party and he’d love to see u!

It’s Dutchy, who Kazuya hasn’t exchanged texts with in a couple of months. As he prepares a reply, the front door opens, and Kazuya grabs the bowl of strawberries from the counter and takes them out of the kitchen, making his way to the living room.

Sawamura, standing in the front foyer, is drenched in sweat despite the chill outside, his face pink and his hair wet where it peeks out from under his cap. He unzips Kazuya’s windbreaker at the door, hanging on the first of the new row of hooks Kazuya had just installed last night, and stretches his arms up above his head. Kazuya watches his damp shirt move with his stomach and chest muscles, and licks his lips before continuing on his way to the couch, sitting down to continue his text conversation with Dutchy, bowl of strawberries in his lap.

Sawamura trails after him, leaning over the back of the couch to reach into the bowl of strawberries and grab one before popping it between his lips. “When did we get these?”

“Neighbor dropped by with them.” Kazuya shifts his arm out of the way so that Sawamura can more easily reach for a second one, and types a reply to Dutchy. maybe, he writes. “The one you apparently met yesterday and told you live here.”

“Was I not supposed to? They’re our neighbors! It’s not like he wasn’t going to notice!” Sawamura puffs his cheeks out. “The kid is a big fan of yours! It was cute!”

“The husband’s name is Dan, apparently. He told me his wife is the head of the neighborhood association, and there’s some neighborhood-wide no-gossip pact about us.”

Sawamura’s breath whistles out at that. “Do they…”

“I don’t know,” Kazuya replies. “I don’t… At this point, we can’t do anything if they do.”

“And you’re okay with that?” Sawamura asks him. A drop of sweat is rolling down his temple, and then makes a path down the curve of his cheek.

“I said I would be, didn’t I?” Kazuya spins the bowl in his hands. “Don’t worry about it.”

“You worry about everything, though. And I don’t want you to do it alone, because…”

“I’m not…” Kazuya stares down at his lap. “It’s not that kind of worry. It won’t change anything. I’m certain, remember?”

Sawamura’s exhale is loud in the silence. “Okay,” he says, and Kazuya hopes one day, Sawamura will completely believe him.

Kazuya’s phone vibrates in his hand again, and he looks down to see another text from Dutchy. its only a 2 hr drive dude! or are you too good for us now that u made the show?! Its jacksons birthday! party! It’s followed by a plethora of emoji, and he laughs.

Sawamura, curious, comes in even closer, warmth and sweat consuming Kazuya’s senses as he reads over Kazuya’s shoulder. “What’s so funny?”

“Nosy,” Kazuya teases, but he tilts his phone in Sawamura’s direction so he can see. Sawamura’s damp hair brushes his cheek.

“I thought it was from Kuramochi-senpai!” Sawamura’s brow furrows as he straightens back up. “You never laugh when you’re texting anyone else!”

“I laugh when I’m texting you,” Kazuya replies, turning more at Sawamura full-on. “What if it was a private conversation with Kuramochi, huh?” He picks up a strawberry and nibbles at the narrower end.

“Then you would have told me not to look!” Sawamura sticks his tongue out at Kazuya, hooking a finger in the neck of his sweaty T-shirt to unstick it from his chest. “Who’s Jackson, anyway?”

“One of the starting pitchers for the Sacramento River Cats.” Kazuya scrolls back a little, so Sawamura can see the beginning of the conversation. “I worked with him a lot while I was there.”

“And you’re invited to his birthday party?” Sawamura grins. “You should go, Kazuya!”

Kazuya gestures to all the boxes that had recently arrived from Japan, full to the brim with Sawamura’s books and clothes. “We have a lot left to do here, and we’re going back to Japan for Shirasu’s wedding a few days afterwards, so we’ll have to pack…”

“Your friend says it’s only a two-hour drive to Sacramento!” Sawamura wipes at his face. He doesn’t catch the pearled drop of sweat that makes its way down the left side of his neck, along the curve of the tendon there. “You’re making excuses! Do you not want to see them?!”

“No,” Kazuya admits. “I do.” He runs a hand through his only slightly tangled hair, tracking the fall of the drop of sweat until it pools in the cradle of Sawamura’s collarbone.

Sawamura hums thoughtfully. “Is there some other reason you don’t want to go?”

Kazuya has twenty reasons. Half of them can be boiled down to the fact that he feels like his life has changed so much since he played for Sacramento that it’s unquantifiable. He might be unrecognizable to those guys, without Sawamura’s presence to explain the difference. The other half is Sawamura himself, and it’s stupid but there’s a part of Kazuya that’s afraid if he leaves him here at the house, he’ll come back and find it empty, all of Sawamura’s boxes and dubious decorating choices gone, and the entire past three months having been nothing more than a dream.

“If I go,” Kazuya says, casually, “you wanna come with me?”

Sawamura blinks at him a couple of times, puzzling something out, and then shrugs, snagging another strawberry from the bowl. Kazuya eats another, too. It’s crisp and sweet on his tongue.

“Are you going to show me the stadium where the River Cats played?” Sawamura asks. “And your old apartment?”

“Sure.” Kazuya twists his torso, pulling his feet up onto the sofa, his back against the armrest as Sawamura leans forward again, resting his forearms along the back so that he’s looking directly down at Kazuya. “It’s not anywhere the size of this place or AT&T, though.”

“It’s a part of your life I didn’t get to see!” Sawamura’s eyes fall to half-lidded. “I don’t know Jackson or Dutchy or any of the people you spent those months with.” His lips are stained with strawberry juice, now. “There are things about you I missed, and it makes me…!” He flushes. “I’m greedy about you, Miyuki Kazuya! You already know that!”

“You already have more of me than anyone else. The time I spent in Sacramento… Was me figuring out how to live in the United States by myself, without… Without home.” He scoots down the couch slightly, to fix the curl of his back. “It was getting used to the differences between college ball and professional ball, and learning enough English to make my life easier when I moved up. That’s it. There’s nothing to be greedy about.”

“You made friends, too.” Sawamura wrinkles his nose. “Friends that want you to go to birthday parties, and make you laugh when they text you. You had a life there, and I want to see it!”

“I didn’t hang out all that much in Sacramento with anyone that wasn’t on the team. We went out to bars sometimes, and they teased me about not going out with any of the girls that slipped me phone numbers or flirted with me, so I didn’t join them all that often.” He runs his tongue along his teeth, collecting a few tiny strawberry seeds with the tip. “They’re nice guys. You’ll probably get along with them better than I did, because you’re, you know, a people-person in your own weird way.”

“You get along with people just fine when you’re not pretending you don’t care whether they like you or not!” Sawamura opens his mouth, and Kazuya, catching the hint, pushes another strawberry between his lips.

“I’m not pretending,” Kazuya replies, as Sawamura’s tongue peeks out to lick his fingertips. “I genuinely don’t care what strangers think about me, as long as it doesn’t affect my career.” He taps his first two fingers on Sawamura’s lower lip before pulling away, watching Sawamura chew the strawberry. “I care what you think about me.”

“I think,” Sawamura says, “that you’ve always been afraid that if you cared about other people’s opinions too much, it would hurt if they didn’t like you.” He hunches downward until he can knock their foreheads together.

“Ow,” Kazuya says, without much energy, too distracted by the hand Sawamura has resting on his belly for balance. “What was that for?”

“I’m trying to tell you that after all these years, you should have figured out there’s nothing unlikeable about you!” His fingers flex against Kazuya’s abs in emphasis.

Kazuya attempts a smirk, and it feels small and tepid. “Except my personality,” he jokes.

“No one’s perfect,” Sawamura replies, in a spot-on impersonation of Takarada, and Kazuya’s thrown off enough by the answer that he loses his grip on his phone when it vibrates in his hand again, and it falls to the floor with a dull thud, landing on the rug instead of the old hardwood. “Let’s go to Sacramento and meet your friends, Kazuya!”

“Okay, okay,” Kazuya says. “It’s a nice city. We can go up in the morning and stay until the next day, maybe?”

“Road trip, road trip!” Sawamura tumbles over the back of the couch, landing roughly atop Kazuya, all knees and elbows and sweaty bulk.

“Gross,” Kazuya says, using his quick reflexes to move the berries out of the way as he laughs. “I was clean, idiot.”

“We have three hours before we have to be at the training center,” Sawamura replies, taking one more berry from the bowl held in Kazuya’s outstretched hand and pressing it to Kazuya’s lips. “You can take a shower with me!”

Kazuya parts his lips, allowing Sawamura to push the strawberry between them. He chews it slowly, licking at the corners of his lips when he’s finished. “Even when I was in Sacramento,” he says, his heart skipping a beat at the way Sawamura’s eyes flicker up from where they’d been trained on his mouth, “I was thinking about here. About this. About you, moron. You, and all the baseball we might play someday, if you hadn’t already given up on me.”

Sawamura takes the bowl and sets it down on the floor, and then wiggles up Kazuya’s body until they’re lying face to face. Sawamura’s sticky and sweaty and absolutely a mess, but Kazuya is hard-pressed to want anything more than pulling him in even closer and licking a line up his jaw.

“Every time I pitched from Hanshin’s mound, I tried not to think about how you might have pushed me,” Sawamura says. “Or how you would have called the same game. I was always, always, hoping I’d have another chance to pitch to you, Miyuki Kazuya.” He smiles. “That one day we’d be partners again.” He slips a hand up Kazuya’s tank shirt, running his fingers up until his thumb brushes Kazuya’s nipple. “Partners who take long showers.”

“If you insist,” Kazuya replies, and he bucks his hips sharply, sending Sawamura tumbling to the floor with a loud ”oomph”, the empty bowl tipping over and the floor creaking.

“I changed my mind,” Sawamura whines. “I’ll take a shower by myself! You’re too mean!”

“Oh yeah?” Kazuya gets up from the couch, steps over Sawamura, and then saunters toward the back hallway. “Sure about that?”

He makes it all the way into their bathroom before Sawamura comes up behind him and shoves him into the vanity counter, his strawberry-stained lips finding Kazuya’s unerringly before Kazuya even manages to hit the light switch. “Really making a case for your willpower,” Kazuya teases, sliding both hands down the back of Sawamura’s running shorts to cup his firm ass, pulling him in even closer.

“You’re still mean,” Sawamura tells him. He sucks Kazuya’s upper lip into his mouth. “I just love you anyway.”

“Yeah,” Kazuya says, smugly, all his gray thoughts of Sacramento and neighborhood associations feeling distant from the way the world is so colorful whenever Sawamura is with him. “For some reason, you do.”

“There are a hundred reasons.” Sawamura sinks his hands into Kazuya’s hair. “We don’t have time for me to list them!”

“We have three hours,” Kazuya points out, and Sawamura laughs, at the lowest part of his range, and stares into Kazuya’s eyes with his most predatory expression, golden eyes glinting.

“We’re going to be busy,” he says and drags Kazuya in for another kiss.

Sawamura pouts his way into driving on their trip up to Sacramento. Kazuya hadn’t actually cared one way or the other, but he’d put up a token protest until Sawamura had wrestled him into submission, both of them collapsing on the floor of their bedroom in a catastrophic jumble of the clean laundry they’d never put away and the contents of Kazuya’s overnight bag spilled out around them.

They listen to a baseball sportscast for most of the trip, and Kazuya leans back in his seat and laughs as Sawamura argues with the main broadcaster about Furuya’s pitching stats, as though the man were in the car with them instead of all the way on the other side of the state.

“You should call into the station,” Kazuya says, pulling out his phone. “Tell them it’s Sawamura Eijun and you have opinions.”

“It’s dangerous to talk on the phone and drive, Miyuki Kazuya!” Sawamura slaps his hands on the steering wheel. “You call in! Tell him Furuya’s fastballs are nearly unhittable in the ninth inning when he pitches a close!”

“I don’t think I could match your enthusiasm,” Kazuya replies, snickering, before he catches sight of the upcoming freeway sign. “You need to get off at the next exit.”

Sawamura easily switches lanes, a casual grace to his driving that used to only be found in his pitching form. “We’re almost there?” The muscles in his arms shift, and Kazuya’s struck for the thousandth time by how much Sawamura has changed, physically, over the years, even as his heart has remained steadfastly the same.

“Yeah. The hotel we’re staying at is close to the stadium. We can walk around for a little while before we have to be at the party.” Kazuya pulls out his phone, opening up his map app. “We could even grab lunch at that Mexican place where I took Kuramochi and Takarada, if you wanted.”

“They both took pictures, while they were in Sacramento with you,” Sawamura says, turning off the freeway. “It was the first time I saw your new glasses.” He huffs. “And those shorts! They were super unfair, Miyuki Kazuya!”

Kazuya looks up from his phone. “What shorts?”

“The tiny denim ones Kuramochi-senpai took a picture of you wearing!” Sawamura is scowling. “They were very short!”

“You mean my old jeans?” Kazuya smirks. “Is that something that gets you off, Sawamura? You have weird taste.”

“You know how I feel about your thighs!” Sawamura furrows his brow. “Do you know where I should turn from here?”

Filing the conversation away for later examination, Kazuya guides Sawamura through the streets of West Sacramento, feeling oddly like it’s been a lifetime since he was last here even if the roads are still familiar.

After they check into their hotel, leaving their overnight bags in the room and heading back down to the car. They do end up getting lunch at the Mexican restaurant, and Sawamura takes a picture of his food and uploads it to Instagram, tagging Kuramochi in a clear gloat. Kazuya opens his own app and comments a winking face under the picture, the first comment, laughing when Sawamura looks up at him with a conspiratorial grin.

They walk down to Raley Field across the Tower Bridge Gateway to work off their too-filling lunch. There’s an afternoon Little League game just about to start, so they pay two dollars apiece for the tickets to gain access to the stadium, and feed another dollar to the vending machine to buy a pack of candy. “I thought you didn’t like watching baseball,” Kazuya says, hands in his pockets as they choose seats in the third base section, two rows behind the nearest other patrons. They both put their feet up on the backs of the seats in front of them, leaning back to watch the game, passing the bag of peanut M&Ms back and forth between them.

“I remember when it was like that for me,” Sawamura says, his gaze on the pitcher. There’s a smear of chocolate on his lower lip. “Throwing the ball as hard as I could and hoping it ended up somewhere near whichever of my teammates was playing catcher that day. It’s weird, that I’m old enough to feel nostalgic.”

“You shouldn’t feel nostalgic over the sorry state of your fastball when we first got our hands on you.” Kazuya snags the bag of M&Ms, tilting it to pour three of them into his hand before offering it back to Sawamura. “’Fastballs for life!’ is what you said, when I asked what you could pitch.”

“I didn’t know any better yet!” Sawamura points at the pitcher, who grinds her foot into the dirt for balance every time she sets up. “She’s the same. Pitching as fast as she can, holding the ball wherever her fingers feel good.” He leans forward, showing off his flexibility as he keeps his feet exactly where they were. “It’s exciting, to pitch like that.” He flexes the toes of his sneakers forward and back, and flops back in his seat, satisfied with his stretch. “Not as exciting as it’ll be to pitch to you from the mound at AT&T stadium, though!”

“You know what would be even more exciting?” Kazuya turns his baseball cap sideways as Sawamura tilts his head inquisitively. “Throwing your first pitch for the San Francisco Giants at the World Series.”

Sawamura grins at him, like he does when Kazuya’s just sent him the sign for one of his nastier pitches, a backbrush against an already skittish righty batter at the plate. “I like the sound of that!”

They don’t stay for the entire game, leaving during the seventh-inning stretch to make their way back to their hotel to change their clothes. Sawamura sits Kazuya down on the edge of one of the room’s twin beds, and combs his hair back neatly after barely running a comb through his own fluffy mop, securing the bulk of Kazuya’s hair into the usual simple knot. The orange hair-tie is bright amongst the various shades of browns that make up Kazuya’s hair.

“You know, all the people online think you look cool like this.” Sawamura smooths Kazuya’s sideburns down with the tips of his thumbs.

“Am I not cool?” Kazuya spreads his hands out on the duvet to catch himself as he lists back.

Sawamura, who is doing up the last few buttons of his shirt now, only a peek of the T-shirt he’s wearing underneath visible at the neck, gives him a considering look. “You’re cool when you’re catching,” he offers, like he’s being generous. “And when you’re at-bat!”

Kazuya chuckles. “That’s what I’m doing most of the time, March to October.” He looks at Sawamura over the rims of his glasses. “So when are you cool?”

“I dunno,” Sawamura says. “Maybe I’m coolest when I’m being the ace!” He puts his hands on his hips and beams. “That’s when I feel the coolest!”

Kazuya hums, pushing himself up and off the bed. “If you say so!”

“Anyway, it doesn’t matter, does it?” Sawamura fusses with the collar of his shirt, and Kazuya steps forward, into his space, and fixes it himself, lingering there with his hand on Sawamura’s shoulder as Sawamura’s eyes gleam down at him. “I’m cool to you, and to our friends—”

“I’ve seen you singing AKB48 songs in your underwear while you read manga hanging upside down off of the sofa. You’re not cool to me—”

“And Kevin thinks I’m cool, too!” Sawamura barrels on, unconcerned with Kazuya’s interruption. “So maybe I’m the coolest when I’m with the people I like best!”

“Who is Kevin?” Kazuya slides his hand down Sawamura’s chest, muscle firm beneath his hand. “Should I be jealous?”

“He’s our neighbor’s kid!” Sawamura squawks. “I see him almost every morning on my run!” He pushes Kazuya back. “You’ll never need to be jealous, when it comes to me! Haven’t I proven I can’t see anyone else but you?!”

Sawamura’s face is pink with irritation, and his eyebrows are furrowed together, so Kazuya pokes him with his index finger right where the biggest wrinkle is, smiling. “The fact that you say such mushy shit so easily is the least cool thing about you.”

“There’s nothing uncool about being honest about how I feel,” Sawamura replies, but his expression softens, and it takes them another twenty minutes to actually leave the hotel, because they make out like teenagers until their mouths are red and Sawamura has to fix Kazuya’s hair all over again.

The River Cats’ current lineup have set up camp for Jackson’s birthday at a club Kazuya’d been roped into visiting once or twice back when he’d still played for the team. Dutchy had told Kazuya, via a casual text this morning right before they’d left San Francisco, that they’d reserved a VIP table at the back of the club, so they’d have a designated space amidst the chaos of a nightclub on a Saturday night.

Kazuya flashes his ID at the bouncer easily, but Sawamura fumbles with his, a new addition to his wallet that he hasn’t gotten used to taking out to prove his age.

“I’ve never been anywhere like this!” Sawamura shouts, wanting to be heard over the music, and Kazuya hooks a finger in Sawamura’s leather belt to keep them from getting separated as they push through the crowd.

They find the table easily enough, once they get past the dance floor, Dutchy’s loud voice audible even above the noise of the base, and Kazuya hadn’t thought through introducing him and Sawamura to each other at all. He raps his knuckles on the table as he slides onto the booth-style octagonal bench, Sawamura smushing himself in after him with a ready smile, even as his eyes still flit around the nightclub, taking in the neon strobe lights and the thin haze from the running fog machine.

“You made it!” Dutchy crows, yanking on the back of Jackson’s shirt to get his attention. “If it isn’t Miyuki, back from the big city!”

“Sacramento is a big city too,” Kazuya replies, but he returns Dutchy’s offered fist-bump, and hands the gift bag with the bottle of bourbon Sawamura’s dad had recommended via phone-call two nights ago across the table to Jackson. “Happy birthday.”

“Thanks, dude!” Jackson’s eyes crinkle at the corners, and Kazuya can see that he’s long past tipsy already as he holds a hand out to Sawamura. “And hey, it’s the man, Eijun Sawamura, in the flesh! Glad you could make it!”

“It’s nice to meet you!” Sawamura shouts, maintaining that crispness to his American English that Kazuya can’t manage yet. “Happy birthday!”

Jackson laughs, taking the gift bag and adding it to his pile, before he offers Sawamura a shot glass. “Do you drink, or are the designated driver for the massive lush you brought with you?”

Sawamura accepts the glass with a grin, and Dutchy cheers as Jameson, with a bottle of tequila in hand, introduces himself to Sawamura as he fills the shot glass to the brim.

Sawamura shoots Kazuya a tiny questioning look as Jameson pours fresh shots for Dutchy and everyone else at the table, too, half of them guys Kazuya hasn’t met yet who must’ve joined the team in the last year or so. Kazuya arches a brow, and Sawamura spins the shot glass in his dextrous fingers pointedly, the tequila inside barely moving thanks to the steadiness of his hands.

“If you do anything too funny while you’re drunk,” Kazuya says, leaning over to whisper into Sawamura’s ear, “I’m going to record it and send it to Chris-san.”

“Miyuki Kazuya!” Sawamura starts, but then Jackson is raising his shot glass, and Sawamura’s drawn into the toast.

Kazuya goes to get a cup of water from the bar, and when he comes back, Sawamura has slid further into the booth, usurping Kazuya’s seat as he talks to Jameson, Dutchy looking back and forth, trapped between them as he tries to extricate himself from whatever they’re talking about.

Sitting back down, he sets his hand on Sawamura’s thigh, playing with the seam of his fitted jeans as people get up and join the dance floor one by one. Eventually, everyone but Jameson, Sawamura and Kazuya have left the table, Sawamura and Jameson still caught up in their conversation and Kazuya content to watch his former teammates make spectacles of themselves as they dance off-beat, swaying drunkenly to the music.

Jameson excuses himself to go to the restroom, and Sawamura, bereft of his conversation partner and now three or four shots deep, rests his head on Kazuya’s shoulder. His feet are tapping consistently to the beat of the music though, and his eyes are alert as he scans the dance floor. “Your friends are nice,” he says, the slightest slur to his speech.

“Yeah,” Kazuya agrees, and then points to Dutchy, who is flirting outrageously with two girls by the bar, holding a cocktail in each hand as he probably tries to get both of their phone numbers at once. “Except Dutchy. He’s not nice at all.”

“I can’t tell if you’re lying or not,” Sawamura says, blinking slowly as he lifts his head from Kazuya’s shoulder, and Kazuya chuckles. “This is better.”

“Better than what?”

“The last time. At the karaoke bar.”

Kazuya wants to question that, but as if some sixth sense has alerted Dutchy that they were just talking about him, he turns to look at Kazuya, and seeing both him and Sawamura still sitting at the table, he gestures wildly for them to get out onto the dance floor.

Sawamura notices, and his lips twist as he steals Kazuya’s half-empty water cup and drains the rest of it. “I don’t know how to dance,” he says.

“Me either,” Kazuya says, shaking his head at Dutchy, which only causes Dutchy to abandon his failing pickup artistry and bounce over to the reserved table.

“Don’t be boring,” he says, grabbing one of each of their hands and pulling them up. “You don’t have to drink to party, K!”

He drags them out onto the dance floor, Kazuya protesting and Sawamura half-laughing and half-stumbling, and then abandons them as the two girls from earlier snag him by the hem of his shirt and pull him in between them. He shoots Kazuya a mischievous ’what can I say?’ look, and Kazuya rolls his eyes as he instinctively brings Sawamura in closer, more people pressing in on them as the song changes to something a little slower.

“Still don’t know how to dance,” Sawamura says into Kazuya’s ear. His breath smells like tequila and the mint of his toothpaste, and the hand he rests lightly on Kazuya’s hip is as hot as a brand. “Wanna try, though?” There’s something eager in the way Sawamura asks, carefully hidden in the slow drip of his tipsy voice, and the part of Kazuya that wants to make Sawamura as happy as Sawamura makes him is large enough that it shouts down the part of him urging caution.

“Sure,” Kazuya says, after glancing around the dance floor. No one is looking at them. They’re no one, here, and it doesn’t matter if he takes a step in closer to Sawamura, letting their hips rock against each other as they sway in the midst of the writhing crowd.

It’s hot, the smell of sweat and perfume dizzying. A little hazy, Kazuya wonders if this is what being drunk feels like for other people, the whole world softer around the edges and his heart pounding as fast as it can in tandem with the music. He’s boiling in his thin sweater, and Sawamura’s face has a thin sheen of perspiration when Kazuya tilts his head back to look at him. Sawamura is looking back, and he tiptoes his fingers up along Kazuya’s ribs before moving to his shoulder and sliding down the outside of his arm to take hold of his hand. The crowd presses in on them, eliminating even the smallest space between their bodies, and Kazuya gasps as Sawamura’s thigh slides against the crotch of his jeans.

“This is easy,” Sawamura murmurs, pitched low, and Kazuya closes his eyes instead of answering, too overwhelmed by how nice Sawamura feels against him, and the simple pleasure of this moment, the constant fear he usually feels about being demonstrative in public drowned out by the sheer volume of the music on the dance floor.

One song turns into two, and plastered against Sawamura, he can feel his thundering heart. “You okay?” Kazuya teases, unsure if Sawamura will hear him, the words swallowed as he releases them to the column of Sawamura’s throat. He can see Sawamura’s Adam’s apple bobbing, the sweat making his skin glisten in the pulsing lights. “Your heart is racing.”

“Of course it is!” Sawamura shouts right into Kazuya’s ear, and stops his insistent sway, curling one hand around the back of Kazuya’s neck and waiting to speak until Kazuya meets his gaze. “I’m dancing with you, and I’ve never gotten to do that before!” “I never thought you’d let me,” is left unsaid as he clutches Kazuya a bit tighter, even though Kazuya hadn’t thought it was possible to be closer than they’d been before.

“I’m not much of a dancer,” Kazuya says, sidestepping what’s unspoken. He’s already thought of ten ways to explain this away to the guys, if he has to, but they’re all so drunk Kazuya doubts they’ll remember who they danced with, let alone what Kazuya was doing. “I’m better at other things.”

Sawamura’s eyes flash, and it has Kazuya’s gut tightening in on itself with desire. “Kazuya, I want…” He bites his lip. “I wish I could kiss you now.”

“Not in the middle of the dance floor,” Kazuya teases, making sure Sawamura hears him, but his voice is raspy, giving away too much.

“Then let’s be somewhere else,” Sawamura says, and the sound gets swallowed up as the song changes again, but they’re a battery, and Kazuya’s been reading Sawamura’s lips for years.

“I thought you wanted to dance,” Kazuya replies, but he lets Sawamura lead him toward the back of the club, where the shadows are the thickest, and press Kazuya into the wall to kiss him, his back blocking Kazuya’s view of the rest of the dance floor. He slips his tongue into Kazuya’s mouth, alcohol-bitter, and Kazuya gasps at the electricity in the contact, shooting down his spine and settling frenetic at the small of his back.

“This is such a bad idea,” Kazuya mumbles, against Sawamura’s chin, but he brings his hands up to grab at Sawamura’s soft button-down, the fabric creasing in his grip.

“Probably,” Sawamura agrees. “Do you want me to stop?” He goes completely still again, mouth quivering, waiting for Kazuya’s okay, and… The way Sawamura is so careful to make sure of his boundaries, with Kazuya, always makes Kazuya fall more and more in love with him.

Kazuya looks around again, and spots a door that leads outside, to the side patio where he’d sat with Jameson once while he smoked. He yanks on Sawamura’s hand, hustling him outside, and once Sawamura realizes where they’re going he pushes through the door first, knocking Kazuya back into the exterior brick with just as much fervor as he had before.

“Is that permission?” Sawamura asks, pausing right before he kisses Kazuya again, breath hot on Kazuya’s wet lips.

“Yeah,” Kazuya says, “knock yourself out, idiot.” Then he’s rocking up onto the balls of his feet to crush their mouths back together.

Kazuya loses himself for a few minutes, only drawing away from Sawamura’s increasingly frantic kisses when he hears the side door open, Dutchy calling out his name.

Sawamura is panting, most of his weight on one arm as he traps Kazuya against the wall, and his lips are red and bitten, swollen from the nips of Kazuya’s teeth.

Kazuya’s certain his own are the same. “We’re out here,” he gasps out, trying to catch his breath, and Sawamura groans, dropping his head to Kazuya’s shoulder again as he grinds up against him to underscore the sound, both of them half-hard in their jeans.

Kazuya pulls Sawamura to the side a bit, and shivers, suddenly noticing the cool evening air. He waits for Dutchy to come out the door completely, searching for them in the dark.

He spots them, finally, and squints, coming closer until he notices Sawamura, giving his slumped form a look of concern. “He doing all right?”

“Just a little too much to drink,” Kazuya replies, steadier this time, his voice almost normal. He’s grateful for the darkness obscuring what would have been obvious in the light. “He’ll be fine in a second. The strobe lights and tequila are a bad mix.”

“Yeah, it took Curtis out about ten minutes ago. He’s out front with Jameson.” Dutchy laughs. “He’ll be okay, too, after we get some food in him.” He drops a couple of friendly pats on Sawamura’s back. “We’re thinking about heading out and hitting up a diner for some grease.”

“Sounds like a plan.” Kazuya swallows. “Give us a couple of minutes and we’ll meet you out front.”

“Sure, sure,” Dutchy says. “It’ll take at least that long for Jameson and I to herd Jackson, so take your time.”

When he’s gone, Kazuya curves his hand around Sawamura’s waist. “You’re not really too drunk to get off me, are you?”

“No,” Sawamura says, sounding small. “I didn’t have that much.”

“Four shots would have Kuramochi passed out in the bathroom,” Kazuya says, lightly. “And we didn’t have dinner.”

Sawamura shudders as Kazuya’s fingers knead at the whipcord thin muscle of his side. “I’m sorry,” he says, and Kazuya is so unprepared for the words that his hand falters, stilling on Sawamura’s hip.

“For what?” Kazuya asks. He cups Sawamura’s cheek with his other hand, guiding his head up so he can search his expression.

“Last time I kissed you in a place like this,” Sawamura says, a little more slurred than earlier, “you broke up with me.”

Kazuya’s heart stops, and he thinks about what Aotsuki had said, about Sawamura having to piece himself back together. Sawamura is so good at smiling, at looking forward, that Kazuya has been allowed to overlook all the cracks running through him now, left behind by Kazuya’s fears. They’ve been filled in with gold like a kintsugi pot, but he can’t make them disappear entirely just by what he can offer Sawamura now. “Sawamura, that was—”

“I wanted to overwrite it.” Sawamura’s lips are trembling. “I wanted to replace that memory with a new one, where I didn’t lose you at the end of it—”

Kazuya seals the words away with his mouth, kissing Sawamura harshly, and so thoroughly that he can’t possibly think Kazuya has any intention of giving him up.

“We’ve both signed professional contracts now,” Kazuya says, hoarsely, when they break away from each other, breathless and desperate for air. The noise from the club is muffled by the metal door, and it helps him feel like he and Sawamura are the only people around for kilometers, the club and all the people inside it far away. “Neither of us are going anywhere. Baseball official, right?” He braces himself against the wall, his knees weak. “You’re not going to lose me. Not like before. I’ve seen where that road leads.” Smiling up at Sawamura, he adds: “You’re not… you’re not alone, either. I…” He breathes out. “Fuck, Sawamura, I moved to another country and turned down three amazing contracts with rebuilder teams on the off-chance it was still your dream to play with me in San Francisco, okay?”

“I know!” Sawamura says, miserably, and Kazuya’s eyes sting as Sawamura’s go watery. “My head knows that, but sometimes my heart still hurts!”

“Yeah,” Kazuya says, and he remembers how he hadn’t wanted to come up to Sacramento without Sawamura, the irrational fear that he’d come back to an empty townhouse looming large in the back of his mind. “I get it.” He curls his fingers into the hair at the nape of Sawamura’s neck. “I’ll remind you, Eijun. Whenever you want me to, I’ll remind you.”

Kazuya’s phone starts to ring, and he fumbles to answer it. “Hello?”

“We’re all outside,” Jackson shouts, and Kazuya moves the phone away from his ear at the sheer volume. Sawamura’s eyes are still damp, but he’s suddenly grinning, and Kazuya’s chest loosens at the sight. “Where you at, dude? Dutchy said you were coming with us!”

“We’ll be right there,” Kazuya replies, and he hangs up before Jackson can yell again, birthday boy or not. He looks at Sawamura. “Unless you wanted me to call back and say you’re too sick to go, or something.”

“No,” Sawamura says, still smiling. “I’m great. He grabs Kazuya’s hand, and squeezes it. “Really great, now, actually.”

Kazuya smirks back. “That’s good. It might have been embarrassing for you, if you couldn’t hold your alcohol after insisting on matching Dutchy shot for shot.” He starts to walk toward the metal door.

“Kazuya!”

Kazuya stops, and looks over his shoulder. “Hmm?”

Sawamura is standing there, the collar of his shirt askew, his hair a mess, and grinning so wide Kazuya can see all of his teeth. “Any time I want?”

Kazuya stares at him, startled, and then lifts a brow. “That’s what I said.”

“Good,” Sawamura says, firmly, and then runs a hand through his hair. “Then we can go.”

“Let’s get our jackets,” Kazuya says, and he pulls open the door, the music from the club blasting out to meet them.

Everyone except Kazuya orders way too much to eat at the diner. Jameson gets a plate of fries meant for a family of four, and jealously hoards them, fighting off the hands of anyone who tries to take one with a hiss as he applies an entire bottle of ketchup to the pile.

“They’re just fries,” Jackson complains, around a bite of his fried steak. It’s smothered in some kind of white gravy, and Kazuya’s mildly terrified about the sodium content of the dish. “Share!”

“No way,” Jameson says, “I’ve been totally deprived!”

“You look like you’re seeing God every time you eat one!” Jackson replies.

Dutchy sneakily steals a few fries for himself as Jameson turns to Jackson, winking at Kazuya as he licks the ketchup from his fingertips to hide the evidence.

“My wife is on a low carb diet,” Jameson says, before shoveling another handful into his mouth. “I gave up eating junk food in solidarity. It’s the worst!”

“That’s love,” Jackson says, listing to the side as he attempts to cut another slice of his steak monstrosity. “I have never seen a French fry that didn’t belong in my stomach.”

“I think it’s awesome!” Sawamura says, slurping at his soda. “It’s very romantic that she doesn’t have to do it by herself!”

Dutchy snorts, and one of the new guys, the one Kazuya thinks is named Curtis, points at Sawamura with his fork. “You’re totally the type of guy that makes the rest of us look bad, aren’t you?” he accuses.

Kazuya hides a chuckle behind his hand as Sawamura protests.

“Don’t worry, there’s nothing wrong with being a stand-up guy,” Jackson says, patting Jameson and Sawamura both on the shoulders, his sage nod over-exaggerated thanks to his drunkenness. Then he turns to Kazuya. “How long you guys staying in Sacramento? Just tonight?”

“We were planning to take the long way home tomorrow,” Kazuya replies. “There were a few touristy kind of things Sawamura wanted to check out, I think.”

“You guys should take a ton of photos on the way back to San Fran to break in K’s Instagram,” Jameson says. “It’s so unsettling that his zero-picture account keeps liking random photos. Feels like I’m being stalked by a cryptid.” Dutchy cackles as Kazuya smirks. “We’re not too far from the gold mines, if either of you is into California history stuff? It’s a little out of the way, heading in the wrong direction, but…”

Sawamura, who’s just taken a massive bite of a grilled cheese sandwich, perks up immediately.

Kazuya chuckles, giving Jameson a conspiratory look. “He’s definitely into ‘history stuff’.” He turns to look at Sawamura, who has turned his puppy-dog eyes up to maximum power. “Sounds pretty boring though, doesn’t it?”

“No!” Sawamura grabs at Kazuya’s elbow. “Miyuki Kazuya, can we go on a gold mine tour?!”

“Do you even know anything about gold mines?” Kazuya asks plaintively.

Bristling, Sawamura shakes Kazuya. “No, but that’s why I wanna go! I live in California now, and I plan on staying a long time!”

Holding his hands up placatingly, Kazuya smiles at how sincere Sawamura looks, as passionate about this as he is about everything. In Kazuya’s opinion, it only adds to his charm. “All right, all right, whatever you want,” he says. “No need to tell the whole restaurant about your residency plans.” He watches Sawamura physically bite back a comment about which of them is really the loudest when it counts, and he turns away to hide his blush as Sawamura’s expression transforms into a radiant grin at his easy capitulation.

“Yikes,” Dutchy says to Kazuya, with an amused grin, when Jackson has dragged Sawamura into yet another pitching debate. “I’ve never seen a guy cave that quickly to anyone that wasn’t their wife.” He gestures at Jameson, who is still casually stuffing his face with ketchup-covered fries like he hasn’t eaten for days. “Like Jameson and the carbs.” He makes a move to steal another fry, but he’s blocked this time by Jameson’s guarding arm.

Kazuya’s hands clench under the table, the comfortable happiness that’s been sitting in his belly for the past hour evaporating all at once, replaced by the dread of discovery that he’d easily suppressed back at the nightclub with Sawamura pressed close to him. He offers up a half smirk in Dutchy’s direction that feels a bit wan.

“Really?” Kazuya looks down at the ice-cubes in his water glass. He’d forgotten to tell the server that he preferred it room temperature, so it’s still mostly full, the ice-cubes slow to melt in the air-conditioned restaurant. “Now you have, then. Congratulations.”

Dutchy searches Kazuya’s face, scratching his beard at Kazuya’s mild response, and then darts a furtive glance at Sawamura before returning his gaze to Kazuya. He seems to mull something over it for a long moment before he speaks again. “So, that wouldn’t be why no girl ever successfully managed to pick you up the entire time you played with us, would it?”

Kazuya is perfectly aware of where he is, and who he’s with. Jameson and Jackson are occupied by Sawamura, and the guys Kazuya’d met earlier are all absorbed in their own conversations. It’s an opportunity to be honest, and Kazuya’s always sucked at that.

He’d made the decision that he didn’t want to live the rest of his life without Sawamura slowly, incrementally. Once he’d arrived there, though, he’d planned for ‘eventually’: a future where his and Sawamura’s relationship could hopefully be a footnote to the baseball they played together.

Stupidly, in order to give himself the courage to reach, Kazuya had, against his better instincts, avoided thinking too much about all the intermediate steps. He’d avoided thinking about all the individual times he’d have to decide how much to say, over and over again, aware that one wrong move might rip the diamond out from under both his and Sawamura’s feet. That he’d have to come out, over and over again, and that it would be just as hard each and every time.

“And if it were?” he asks, lightly. His heart is a field-side pep band in his ears, playing the opposing team’s fight song.

“Then I’d probably reconsider my plan to try and set you up with my sister,” Dutchy replies, bluntly. He dips one of his chicken fingers in the congealing barbecue sauce, and savagely takes a bite. “You’re totally her type. Good looking, foreign, good at sports, emotionally unavailable.”

The acid at the back of Kazuya’s throat recedes a little, but his heart doesn’t quiet, still so loud he can barely hear Dutchy over it. The volume of it puts the music at the nightclub to shame. “I don’t know what that means,” he says faintly.

“Emotionally unavailable? Well, it meant I thought you were the type to do one-night stands and avoid things like feelings and relationships—” He stops, dropping the other half of his chicken wing, and pushes Kazuya’s water a little closer to him. “Take a drink, K, you look…”

Kazuya stares down at his cup again, instead of Dutchy. “No, that’s not…” Then there’s a warmth against his thigh. It’s Sawamura, pushing his leg against Kazuya’s, comforting him the only way he can here in the middle of a busy diner. “About me. Are you…”

“Oh,” Dutchy says, smacking his lips, “it’s cool, man. You do you, you know?”

“That’s it?” Kazuya breathes out a shaky laugh, and clutches at Sawamura’s leg under the table, hard enough he’ll probably leave a mark.

Gaze sharpening, Dutchy considers Kazuya again. “Yep,” he says, finally, “that’s it.” He pushes at Kazuya’s water again, and this time, Kazuya brings his lips to the straw and sucks in an icy sip. “I’m sorry, dude, I shouldn’t have put you on the spot like that.” He picks up his chicken strip again, lazily dragging it through the honey mustard this time. “I wasn’t thinking. My bad.”

“It’s…” Kazuya shrugs. “I should probably get used to it.”

“Used to what?” Jameson asks, as the conversation between him, Sawamura, and Jackson lulls.

Kazuya leans back in his seat, pretending he’s relaxed, releasing Sawamura’s leg to bring both hands up behind his head. “Going to whichever historical places Sawamura drags me up and down the coast of California,” he says.

“You’re just complaining to get on my nerves!” Sawamura bumps him with his shoulder.

“Only fair I get on your nerves, considering how often—” He breaks off into a laugh as Sawamura goes cat-eyed and irritated, and it’s a wilder sound than it should be, infused with relief at yet another hurdle crossed.

The bulk of them don’t leave the diner until a little before three in the morning, pouring out onto the streets after settling the enormous tab. “I probably shouldn’t have had that last milkshake,” Jameson moans, rubbing his stomach.

“The real problem was probably that second family-sized order of fries,” Kazuya says.

“Don’t harsh his victory,” Dutchy chides, throwing an arm across Kazuya’s shoulder. There’s no hesitation in it, Kazuya notes, and he smiles.

“Totally worth it,” Jameson says, and they all laugh.

Jackson sidles up next to him as they walk back toward the club where half their cars are waiting. “Thanks for driving out to be here,” Jackson says. “It was really great to see you again, even if I can’t con you into working on my pitches anymore.”

“Trust me, I wasn’t conned,” Kazuya replies. “I wanted to win games, so I had to make your pitches into something useable.” He softens the words with a small grin, but his English has improved enough that Jackson reads his tone.

“I hear ya, K.” Jackson shoves his hands into the pockets of his fleece-lined jacket. “Don’t be a stranger! I wanna hear what you’re up to every once in a while.”

“Probably baseball.” Kazuya shrugs, eyes on Jameson’s back as Jameson talks to his wife on the phone, apologizing for not having called her earlier to tell her he’d be out this late. “What else is there?”

“Sawamura tells me you guys are gonna start a garden in the spring,” Jackson says. “I’d like to see that. My mom’s hella into gardening.” Jackson cuts his eyes over to Sawamura, who is talking loudly about the samurai movie he and Kazuya’d watched at the cinema the last night they were in Japan to Dutchy and Curtis, who has recovered thanks to the slumped nap he took in front of his Oreo milkshake. “You guys live together.”

“Yeah,” Kazuya says, and because he’s already done it once tonight, he’s numb enough that he thinks it’s better to just rip off the band-aid. “He’s my…” Boyfriend doesn’t sound strong enough, Kazuya thinks, all of a sudden. It’s not enough to encompass what Sawamura is to him. “He’s not my housemate.” He licks his lips. “Not only my housemate.”

Jackson nods, like Kazuya is only confirming something he’d already figured out. “I know we’ve only known each other for a little while, but I’ve never seen you look at anyone the way you look at him.” He turns around, walking backward so he can look at Kazuya face to face. “You’re both really, really good at playing ball. You’re not players that a team would want to lose.”

Kazuya looks up at the night sky. It’s a clear evening, and though it’s chilly, it’s nowhere near as cold as it surely is in Tokyo. “That’s what I’m counting on,” he admits. “Not right away, but…”

“You never do anything by halves,” Jackson says, sounding impressed, and Kazuya lowers his gaze from the quarter-moon to find Jackson’s gaze again. “It’s a lot of pressure, to be the first.”

“It’s a lot of pressure to be nothing, too,” replies Kazuya. “It’s all pressure, all the time.” He’s so tired, in more ways than one, and he wants nothing more than to curl up with Sawamura in whichever of the twin beds they fall into and sleep until hotel checkout.

He’s had enough, tonight, of making dangerous calls.

“I’ll be rooting for you,” Jackson says, still walking backwards. He barely seems tipsy anymore. “Pitcher-catcher solidarity and all that.”

Kazuya has no response for that, but he twitches his lips, barely curling up one side, and it seems to be enough for Jackson, who spins around and takes a running jump onto Dutchy’s back, almost sending them both tumbling to the sidewalk.

“What happened earlier? At the restaurant?” Sawamura asks, after they’ve said their goodbyes and climbed into Kazuya’s car to drive back to the hotel. He’s sitting in the passenger seat, seatbelt already buckled like the driving safety spokesperson he is, and skimming through the selfies he’d taken at the club before everyone had wandered out to the dancefloor, along with the photos he’d probably taken of their various plates at the diner. “You got all tense! But I couldn’t pay attention to your conversation and mine!”

“Dutchy asked about us,” Kazuya says, as he turns on the car. The radio surges to life, and he’s not in the mood, turning it off before whatever singer is on the radio gets out more than two lines. “About me, maybe.” At that, Sawamura looks up from his phone screen. “He was fine with it.” Kazuya takes off his glasses so he can rub at his eyes. “So was Jackson. Everyone I’ve told so far has been fine with it. I don’t… What do I do with that?” He stares blearily out at the road in front of them, and it’s only a ten minute drive to the hotel but he wishes they were already there.

“What do you want to do?” Sawamura asks. He reaches out for Kazuya’s hand, and Kazuya doesn’t stop himself from clinging to it, slipping his fingers between Sawamura’s seam-callused ones. “It’s… Aren’t you glad?”

“I am,” Kazuya says. He pulls his hand away and takes off the parking break, putting the car into drive and pulling out of the street-side space out onto the empty early morning road. “Of course I am, it’s just…”

“Not what you expected,” Sawamura finishes, quietly.

“It’s like the happiness thing. Or like you being here with me at all. It’s like your head and heart telling you two different things. My head is always telling me things are going to go wrong, and my heart is telling me that as long as I have you it’s okay if they do.” He clutches the steering wheel tightly as they stop at a red light. “Every time something goes smoothly, I think about all the ways it might backfire later.”

The only sound in the car, as Kazuya starts to drive again at the change of the light to green, is the hum of the engine. He counts his own breaths until Sawamura speaks again.

“Maybe we’ve earned it,” he says. “Maybe it’s okay if a few things are easy, after everything has been so hard!” Kazuya wishes he could look at Sawamura, but he keeps his eyes on the road. “There is going to be more hard stuff, someday. Scary stuff, too, and we’re going to have to accept it!” Sawamura’s voice cracks. “It’s all right to accept the good stuff when it happens!”

“Not my best skill.”

“I’m an expert,” Sawamura replies. “Let me help!”

“An expert, huh?” Kazuya turns into the hotel parking lot, taking the first available space he sees.

“It’s just like my bunting!” Sawamura unfastens his seatbelt as soon as Kazuya’s turned off the ignition, his hand already on the door handle. “Learn from the master!”

Kazuya turns to look at him, at last, and finds Sawamura looking back at him, a hopeful smile lighting up his whole face, shining from his eyes.

And Sawamura’s followed him, across the country and then across the ocean, willing to take his signs in any form he offered them. Maybe Kazuya should be the one who follows now, because Sawamura’s heart has never once led either of them astray. “Go with me to Shirasu’s wedding,” he says.

“We already bought plane tickets,” Sawamura replies, his grip loosening on the door handle. “Why are you asking now?”

“No, I mean… be my date to Shirasu’s wedding.” Kazuya sees the moment Sawamura understands, his lips parting just enough to show a glimpse of teeth. “I don’t know how it would work, but—”

“Remind me,” Sawamura says, and when Kazuya blinks at him, he raises his voice and says it again. “Remind me!”

Kazuya’s grasps for Sawamura’s hand, the left one, and brings the palm up to his mouth, pressing a kiss to it, and then to the skin just above the orange hair-tie around Sawamura’s wrist. “I’m right here,” he says, and to his surprise, Sawamura breaks out into his largest, happiest grin.

“This Sawamura Eijun will deign to be your date, Miyuki Kazuya!” He yanks his hand free and then surges forward, kissing Kazuya sloppy and off-center on the mouth. “With matching ties! We have to have matching ties!”

“I think you should wear the yellow and black one,” Kazuya says, with a wide grin of his own. “It’ll give people fair warning about your personality if they’ve never met you!”

He laughs as Sawamura pulls a face at him, getting out of the car quickly before Sawamura can get his hands on the neck of Kazuya’s sweater. He’s still laughing as Sawamura chases him all the way to the front doors of the hotel, the two of them falling into the nearly silent lobby with muffled giggles.

Kazuya shrugs off the dirty look from the woman manning the main desk, making his last decision for the night: the decision to enjoy how right it feels, to have Sawamura’s smile blossoming under his gaze.

Sawamura, predictably, falls in love with California mining history in a matter of hours. By the time they leave, he’s charmed the man running the souvenir shop counter and collected four pamphlets and recommendations for more books than Kazuya thinks even Sawamura can devour in the time they have left before the wedding and the start of spring training.

Sawamura’s behind the wheel on the drive home, hands at ten-and-two as usual, the poster-boy for safe driving, and he’s humming along off-key to a Katy Perry song. Kazuya’s looking out at the passing scenery, his elbow hanging out the open window as the wind rushing by blows his hair into his face.

Coloma, where the Marshall National Park is, had been an hour in the opposite direction of San Francisco, and so they’re only halfway home when Sawamura starts to wriggle with the need to use the restroom. Kazuya doesn’t think Sawamura even notices that he does it, and he stifles a laugh.

“I need to stop,” Sawamura says.

“I can tell,” Kazuya replies, checking his phone map. “If you take the turn-off up ahead, there’s apparently a few shops. The next rest stop isn’t for another twenty minutes.”

Sawamura switches lanes, answering Kazuya’s curiosity about the urgency of the situation. His lips twitch at Sawamura’s adorable continuing wriggle.

At the end of the increasingly narrowing road, there’s a small shopping center, looking more like a cluster of homes than shops. Only one of them, when they park and get out of the car, has their shop sign flipped to ‘open’. It’s called ‘The Smile Herb Shop’, and it’s a quaint old house-build with peeling paint on the siding and a bright green door. When they push their way inside, it smells like honey and lavender and burning temple incense, strong enough that Sawamura’s nose instinctively wrinkles up like a child at their first funeral service.

A bell rings above them, and an older woman looks up from her magazine to smile at them, deep wrinkles forming at the corners of her eyes. “Welcome,” she says, straightening up. “What brings you here?”

“Just a pit stop!” Sawamura smiles sunnily at her in return, his hands tucked easily in his pockets as he rocks back and forth from heel to toe. “Do you have a restroom?”

“I do,” she replies. “It’s upstairs, third door on the right, sweetheart.”

Sawamura blurts out a quick “thank you!” before he’s heading toward the stairs, leaving Kazuya to wait for him down on the bottom floor of the knick-knack shop.

The stairs creak ominously as Sawamura stomps up them, and Kazuya shakes his head, chuckling softly as he walks into the main room. In a normal house, it would probably be the living room, but it’s been turned into an almost museum-like room of display, shelves and shelves of tea and crystals lining the walls.

He cranes his neck back to read the labels on the topmost shelves. “Healing crystals,” he says aloud. “What does that mean?”

“Some people think crystals can correct the energy in the body,” the shopkeeper says, setting her magazine down on the glass counter in front of her.

It’s a case, Kazuya realizes, with large stone necklaces and chains on display. He picks up one of the small pieces of agate from a lower basket in front of him, turning it over in his hands. It warms at his touch. “What do you think?”

“I think,” she says, seemingly unbothered by his skepticism, “that if it helps them to think so, then whether they’re right or wrong, there’s no harm in it.”

Kazuya chuckles, setting the agate back down. “Fair enough.” He wanders over closer to her, stopping in front of the selection of teas. There are hundreds of blends, it seems, and empty bags in case Kazuya wants to mix his own.

He rarely makes loose-leaf tea. His grandmother had preferred powdered tea, and Kazuya’s perfectly satisfied with the lemon tea in a bag he grew up with. One tea, though, a lemon-ginger, smells so good when he lifts the lid that he scoops some of it into one of the small paper bags and folds it over, making a mental note to dig out his tea strainer when they get back home.

“That’s one of our more popular blends,” she says, when he sets it on the counter. “The ginger helps to stimulate the senses, and keep you awake. It’s a good tea to drink when you need to focus.”

“I like lemon,” he says. He scans the jewelry in the case absently as he digs his wallet out of his back pocket, not really paying attention to what he’s looking at. The minute his hands touch the leather of his billfold, though, his eyes land on golden vines, every part of him going still as his gaze comes into sharp focus. “Could I… Could you show me that ring?” He leans over the glass to point at it, and she hums her acquiescence, pulling out a ring of keys from the pocket of her loose skirt, looking through them until she finds the one that will unlock the display case.

“There are two of these,” she says, taking out the one Kazuya had pointed to and then lifting the display pedestal it’s on to pull a second one from the depths. “They’re fourteen-carat gold.” She holds them out to him in her bare hand. “They’re made by a local craftswoman. Isabelle does a lot of one-of-a-kind jewelry for the shop. We don’t sell a lot men’s rings, so these are the two we have left.”

Kazuya picks one up, holding it between his index finger and thumb. The tree limbs look like they’re growing out of each other, weaving irregularly around the circumference of the ring on either outer edge, vines and flowers and shoots filling the center of the band with more delicate lines. It looks, he thinks, like a tiny garden. “They’re beautiful,” he says. “Do you know… Does she do resizing?” He slips the ring onto his finger, his heart clenching when it fits, the right size. He likes the way it looks on his hand, too, but it would look even better, he thinks, against the golden tan Sawamura gets in the summer.

“She can do work with stones, too, if that’s something you’re interested in.”

“No, that’s not… I don’t want them to be any fancier than this. They just need to be strong.” Kazuya feels the weight of the ring on his hand before he slides it off his finger again, handing it back to pick up the other. It’s slightly thicker, with its own unusual pattern of vines and tree branches. “We play sports, and if we don’t take it off, I don’t want it to be damaged.”

She makes a thoughtful noise. “She does make rings in platinum, but they’re usually a little less intricate.“

“No,” Kazuya says, and the truth that’s been sitting nebulously in his thoughts solidifies as he holds the second ring in between his fingers. He slides it on to his left ring finger, where it doesn’t go past his first knuckle. Sawamura’s fingers, he thinks, are slightly thinner than his. It feels impossibly like the fate that Sawamura’s so eager to believe in, and Kazuya won’t look away from that ever again. “It has to be these.”

“I see,” she says, as Kazuya takes the ring off, hesitantly handing it back to her. “Well, in that case, why don’t I give you Isabelle’s card, in case you ever need them repaired, and wrap these up for you while we wait for your friend to finish up.”

“Okay,” he says. He opens his wallet, and takes out his debit card, holding it out to her. Upstairs, the plumbing starts up, and Kazuya’s heart starts to beat like a trapped rabbit’s. “And the tea, too.”

“You’re not going to ask how much they cost before you hand me your card?”

“It doesn’t matter,” he replies. “Could you… hurry?” He looks back toward the stairs, and the woman’s eyes widen before she smiles in sudden understanding.

“I see,” she says again, and she puts both rings into a velvet jewelry bag before dropping that into a small paper one similar to the one holding the tea. “There we go. Now it looks just like you bought two different flavors!”

“Thank you,” he says, as she sets it next to the one he’d filled with lemon-ginger tea.

She smiles as she runs his card through her ancient credit card reader, using the strip instead of the chip at the end of the card. “Just let me print the receipt and we’re all done.”

It finishes printing right as Sawamura comes pounding back down the stairs, and Kazuya tucks it into his wallet and slides them both into his back pocket. He pinches the tops of the two paper bags and picks them up from the counter as Sawamura, wiping his clean wet hands on the legs of his jeans, looks around in awe at the room of crystals.

“You ready to go?” Kazuya asks. The bags, though they weigh nothing, feel heavy in his hand.

“I am prepared to drive us safely home!” Sawamura replies, and he calls a cheerful ‘thank you’ to the woman at the counter before bounding out the door, ringing the chime again.

“Good luck, dear,” the woman says, as Kazuya catches the door before it closes all the way.

He nods at her, acknowledging her words, and then steps out of the shop and its heavily perfumed air for the freshness of the outside.

“What did you get?” Sawamura asks, curiously, as they get back into the car. Kazuya leans around the center console and zips both paper bags into his duffel, wishing he were alone for another minute, if only to look at the rings again.

“Tea,” Kazuya says, dismissively, but his stomach is tied up in knots. Rings, he thinks, aren’t any different than shared jackets, or a tie Sawamura wears whenever he’s nervous. It’s the same as a hair-tie Kazuya couldn’t bear to throw away, or a new orange one he uses despite the garishness of the color, happy to see a match around Sawamura’s wrist. They aren’t any different, but rings are more. Another, even bigger promise, and a reminder they can both have every time they look down at their hands. “It’s lemony.”

Sawamura pulls out of the parking space and back onto the narrow road. “I didn’t even know you had a tea strainer at the house!”

“Do you even know what a tea strainer looks like?”

“Jerk,” Sawamura says, laughing anyway as he turns up the radio, singing along loudly to every song that plays, without regard for his own limited vocal range.

Kazuya loves him.

He looks down at where Sawamura grasps the steering wheel, and imagines a branch curled around his finger.

Kazuya had booked two modest rooms for himself and Sawamura at the same hotel as Shirasu’s wedding reception would be held weeks ago, before they’d even returned to San Francisco from their previous trip to Japan. It had felt like a waste at the time, when they’d only need one, but in Japan especially it was important to keep up appearances.

When they arrive at the hotel, though, Kazuya finds that both of their rooms have been upgraded to larger suites on the top floor. He stares at the concierge after he tells him about the change, nonplussed, for a good thirty seconds until Sawamura takes over the interaction, happily thanking the man before accepting their card keys and ushering Kazuya toward the elevator.

“It happens sometimes,” Sawamura says, once they’re in the elevator. “The room upgrade thing.” He shrugs. “It used to bother me, because it felt like I was stealing from them.”

“I saw your face on at least three advertisement billboards during the drive here,” Kazuya replies, watching the elevator’s floor number climb higher and higher. “You’re famous, ace pitcher.”

“So are you!” Sawamura frowns at him. “Do you think anyone took photos of us at the airport this time?”

“Who knows?” Kazuya steps out of the elevator first, rolling his suitcase down the carpeted hallway, noting the numbers on the door. He stops at the second to last room in the hall, Sawamura’s room, and Sawamura reaches over to tap his keycard against it.

Beyond the door, the suite is huge, the massive king-sized bed managing to look small in the expanse of the suite. “We probably could have stayed at your father’s house,” Sawamura says, pushing Kazuya into the room and letting go of his suitcase just inside the door. He kicks off his sneakers, and then flops down onto the bed, spreading out the same we he does to make snow angels across the white duvet. “I know he’s away for that conference thing in Yokohama but you still have a key, right?”

“I don’t like being in the Tamagawa house when he’s not there,” Kazuya replies, slipping out of his own shoes and crossing the room to join Sawamura on the bed. It’s bigger than the one they have at home, with enough room for him to spread out in a mimicry of Sawamura’s position. “Reminds me of being a kid.”

“But I’d be there,” Sawamura says, getting up onto his side, propping his head up on a cupped hand, bent elbow sinking into the soft mattress. “It wouldn’t be like that at all!”

“You’re here, too. It’s only three days, and then we’re headed to Ichinomiya, anyway.” Kazuya looks over at the door, where he’d left his backpack. There’s a file-folder in the back pocket, filled with all the paperwork the immigration lawyer Michaelson had found for him had partially filled out, even though Kazuya has yet to broach its contents with anyone but Sawamura.

Also in his backpack, tucked away in an inside pocket, is the velvet bag with the rings from The Smile Herb Shop. When Sawamura had fallen asleep in his seat, about five hours into the trip, his earbuds falling out on one side and drool running down his chin, Kazuya had taken them out to look at them for the thousandth time since he’d bought them, running his thumb over the engraved branches and flowers in the one meant for Sawamura.

He doubts he’ll give it to Sawamura any time soon, but for some reason he couldn’t leave them at home in his lockbox, and when he’d collected his passport he’d taken them out too, the crushed velvet of their bag soft against his leather-rough palm.

“We have to stop by a branch of my bank when we go out to pick out a new suit for me,” Sawamura says, interrupting his thoughts. “I have to make a few changes to my account, and we have to pick up new bills for the wedding envelope.”

“Why did you have to grow so much?” Kazuya asks, and Sawamura grins down at him. Light from the vast windows along the far side of the room streams into the room behind him, casting Sawamura partially in shadow but outlining him in gold. Kazuya swallows despite his dry throat. “Some of us still fit our old suits.”

They’d realized they would have to buy Sawamura a new black suit a few days ago, when he’d tried on the one he’d worn for his interviews and public appearances all of the previous year. The jacket arms and trouser legs had both been too short, in the wrists and at the ankles, and snug at the shoulders.

“Catchers don’t need to be as tall as pitchers!” Sawamura curls forward, his hair hanging messily around his face like a frizzy halo. “All that growing proves that this Sawamura Eijun was meant to be a great pitcher!”

In Kazuya’s opinion, so many things about Sawamura prove that. It sounds too soft for him to say that without prompting, though, so instead he twists himself onto his side and rolls until Sawamura is under him. Sawamura’s brought the gold from the sunlight with him, and it glints in his eyes as he grins up at Kazuya, hands automatically falling to rest along the curve of Kazuya’s lower back.

“Nap time,” Kazuya says. “Then suits, and the bank.”

“Okay,” Sawamura replies, and takes off Kazuya’s glasses for him, folding them up and reaching out to set them on the very edge of the bedside table. Then he pulls the tie from Kazuya’s hair, letting it cascade down in a travel-tangled mess to cover the back of his neck, tickling his cheeks.

Sawamura picks gently at the knots, and Kazuya starts to doze despite the bright sunlight hot on his closed eyelids. He barely notices when Sawamura’s hand slows.

“Should we give one envelope or two?” Sawamura asks, softly.

“Hmm?” Kazuya opens bleary eyes, vision filling with the soft skin of Sawamura’s throat, and the faint stubble on his chin that had grown in the short time between catching the cab from their house to arriving in Japan, scratchy enough that Kazuya won’t kiss him until he shaves it, not wanting his face too red from beard-burn in the middle of the day.

“For the wedding envelope,” Sawamura says, and the blurred pink of his lips is right there at the corner of Kazuya’s gaze. “Should we give one or two?”

Kazuya closes his eyes again. A joint envelope would be a definitive statement that they considered themselves a single household. He exhales, heavily, and Sawamura shivers beneath him.

Literally and figuratively, Kazuya thinks, isn’t that what they are? They live in the same house, and eat all the same meals. They travel together, and live together, and have all the things Kazuya at fifteen had thought were an impossibility. Kazuya’d asked Shirasu, a week ago, to seat them together at the reception, and he’d received an e-mail back from Kumai instead: two lines of smiley faces, and an ’okay’.

He thinks again about the rings, before he forces himself to focus on Sawamura’s slow and steady breathing.

“One is fine,” he says, sleep clinging to the edges of his voice, and he’s rewarded by Sawamura’s hand resuming its gentle detangling, helping him fall the rest of the way to sleep.

Later that afternoon, when Sawamura stands on the pedestal at the menswear shop, Kazuya recalls the time he’d brought Sawamura to be fitted for his first suit. Back then, Kazuya’d been so afraid to let himself want this, and not even sure Sawamura would want it too. Now, though, when the tailor turns his back, Kazuya smooths down the lapels of the jacket, admiring the stark contrast between the cool black of the jacket and the warm brown of Sawamura’s hair, and winks at Sawamura when he flushes at the touch.

“I always forget you clean up so well,” he says, innocently, and Sawamura sucks his lower lip into his mouth, eyes hot on Kazuya’s back as he walks away to peruse the ties, because neither of them have the white that’s appropriate for a formal wedding.

Shirasu and Kumai have their traditional Shinto ceremony in the early afternoon two days later, at a mock shine located on one end of the hotel’s first floor, opposite the hall where the reception will take place. Kazuya and Sawamura stand near the back of the room, nearly the last to arrive for the ceremony despite staying in the same hotel because Sawamura had insisted on braiding the shorter pieces of hair at either side of Kazuya’s temples to make sure they didn’t fall out of his hair-tie, and then been unsatisfied with the quality of his first three attempts.

Kuramochi, who’d clearly been watching the door for them, breaks out into a grin when he spots them, nudging Takarada next to him, and she looks over her shoulder and gives them a tiny, inconspicuous wave.

Kazuya spots Chris, too, half a head taller than most of the other guests and wavy dark blond hair distinct amongst a sea of darker colors, Tetsu beside him with his arms crossed, a neutral expression on his face.

Kumai wears a white kimono for the first part, lined in red, her face made up simply and her hair pulled back from her face in a modern style, but when they cross over to the reception hall, she changes into a Western style wedding dress, long and sleek, as she and Shirasu stand at the door to great the long line of guests. Shirasu’s hair has been freshly buzzed back to a short length, and he’s smiling more openly than Kazuya’s ever seen before.

Sawamura leaves their envelope, filled with crisp, fresh bills, at the table manned by Kumai’s younger sister, a carbon copy down to the dismissive frown on her face, and then joins Kazuya to wait. “There are a lot of people here,” he says, speculatively. “Shirasu-senpai and Kumai-senpai were kinda popular!”

“You didn’t know that?” Kazuya asks, toying with the cuffs of his dress-shirt.

“I don’t think about popularity!” Sawamura slaps his fist into his hand. “Shirasu-senpai is a great baseball player, and a nice person, and that’s all that matters!”

“You’re a pretty simple guy!” Kazuya sees a piece of lint on the lapel of Sawamura’s jacket, and picks it off.

“Happy to see you made it,” Ichinose says from behind them, startling Kazuya and Sawamura both as he sets a hand on each of their shoulders. Kazuya jerks his hand away from Sawamura’s jacket. “Isn’t it almost spring training for you two?”

“We’d never miss Shirasu-senpai’s wedding, Captain!” Sawamura says, aghast. “We watched their romance start to blossom! It’s our duty to see it in full bloom!”

“For some reason, I thought you’d age out of talking like that,” Ichinose says, “but I’m relieved I was wrong.”

“Talking like what?” Sawamura asks, blinking, and Kazuya snickers under his breath until Sawamura kicks at his calf with the hard toe of his dress shoe.

“We’re supposed to be in Scottsdale in ten days,” Kazuya replies, resisting the urge to rub at his leg. “That’s in Arizona. The San Francisco Giants are part of the Cactus league, so that’s where we play our warm-up games.”

“We’re gonna be away from the house for a long time,” Sawamura says, wistfully. “It’s a good thing we’ve got Kevin and his dad to watch our plants!” He purses his lips contemplatively, and it draws Kazuya to the smattering of new freckles he’d picked up yesterday when they’d spent the day outdoors, playing catch near the university in an open park until they’d been recognized by a group of primary school students and been forced to retreat after taking a few selfies. “I bet Kevin would be good at watching dogs, too!”

“We’re not getting a dog, Sawamoron,” Kazuya replies, exasperated, feeling utterly conned when Sawamura gives him a sly grin to show he’d been joking.

“You live together?” Ichinose asks, and there it is, that familiar flash of fear, but Kazuya shakes it away, taking in Ichinose’s actual expression. He looks surprised, but he also looks glad, and Kazuya’s glove still has the yellow laces Ichinose’d helped him select the last time they’d spoken in person.

“Since November,” Kazuya says, adjusting his glasses. “It’s a nice neighborhood.” He steps forward as the reception line moves, and smiles at Chris, who is looking for them from his spot at the front of the line, his greetings to the bride and groom completed. Chris gestures inside the hall, and Kazuya makes a circle with his index finger and thumb until Chris nods and heads in, presumably to find his table for dinner. “We have a guest room, if you’re ever in the area.” He licks his lips, and adds, carefully: “I mean, if your wife would be okay with staying at our house.”

Ichinose lets his hands fall from their shoulders. “I think she would be,” he replies, just as careful. “I should actually get back to her. I just wanted to say hi, in case you pulled the same tricks you played at Meiji and left before the party was half-way over.”

“I will personally ensure that Miyuki Kazuya stays the whole time, Captain!” Sawamura clenches his fist. “It was an honor to see you again!”

“It’s always interesting,” Ichinose says, which isn’t quite agreement, and Kazuya tugs at the neck of his tie and smothers a laugh.

Shirasu and Kumai both bow at Kazuya and Sawamura in turn when they get to the front of the reception line. “Thank you for coming all this way,” Shirasu says, by rote, but then he looks between them. “Getting your e-mail… It was good.” His smile spreads. “You look good. America’s suiting you both?”

“Shirasu-senpai, it’s really fun! You should see the training facilities! We have three gyms, and Miyuki Kazuya says that’s to allow for specialized work with the personal trainers, but I think you could probably—”

Kazuya puts a hand over Sawamura’s mouth. “Inside voice.”

Sawamura says something else, muffled by Kazuya’s palm, before pulling his hand down with a scowl. “Any voice I use inside is an inside voice!”

“Debatable,” Kazuya replies, and Kumai laughs.

“You two are the same,” she says, and then, when Sawamura turns questioning bright eyes on her, she shakes her head. “Miyuki has more fun when you’re around.”

Kazuya starts to blush, and looks away. “We should let you get to greeting your other guests.”

“Probably.” Shirasu clears his throat. “And thanks for being here, really.” When Kazuya raises an eyebrow, he elaborates. “Since you got us together and all.”

“Even the worst people get lucky sometimes,” Kazuya replies. He glances at Sawamura before he realizes what that will look like, and feels his blush get darker. “Congratulations again.” He gives them a shallow bow and then heads into the reception hall, Sawamura offering them a bow of his own before trailing Kazuya inside.

They find their name cards at one of the longer tables, where most of their former teammates, from Meiji and from Seidou, are seated in clusters of friends. Directly across from them are Kuramochi and Takarada, and Maezono is on Kuramochi’s opposite side, next to Kanemaru and a woman who is clearly besotted with him, looking disgruntled by the whole affair. Kuramochi is occupied telling all three of them about his pre-season workouts, only sparing Kazuya a quick grin before diving back in to what seems like a truly grueling preparation for the pre-season.

Takarada’s hair is held back from her face with small clips, and she looks a lot better than the last time Kazuya had seen her. Her face is a little fuller, but Kazuya wouldn’t be able to tell, from looking at her, that anything had changed from college besides the length of her hair.

“I like the braids,” she says, knowingly, after Kazuya has cursorily greeted everyone at the table. Sawamura is still down at the far end, talking to each and every one of his former teammates on his way to his seat next to Kazuya. “And the matching ties.”

“Neither of us had a white one, so we had to buy them after we flew in,” Kazuya says. It doesn’t address the way Sawamura had held the tie up to Kazuya’s throat to see how it looked, and then unabashedly grabbed a second one for himself without even a glance in the direction of the mirror. “How are you feeling?”

“Same as I felt when you texted me yesterday,” Takarada replies. “And the day before that.” The words are annoyed, but her eyes are smiling.

“You really did look like an angry well-spirit the whole time we were visiting.” A server comes by, filling the water glasses of newly seated guests, and Kazuya makes a point of having him fill Sawamura’s too, though Sawamura is still standing up by Sanjo and Uchida, holding an imaginary baseball in one hand and pantomiming what Kazuya thinks is his old Cutter Kai. “I’m too young to be haunted by a vengeful ghost.”

“Haha, very funny.” She sips her water. “Things have finally calmed down, thankfully. Some of my students are graduating in mid-March, so end of the semester exams are coming up really soon.”

“We’re going to be busy too. After Scottsdale, we’ve got—”

“I already have!” Sawamura says, loud enough to be heard down at their end of the table. His tone is defensive, and it puts Kazuya on alert.

“Sanjo’s not talking about signing on with an MLB team,” Kazuya hears Hirahata say. “He’s talking about settling down with a girl! You got an American girlfriend over there, yet, Sawamura? The newspaper never did get any dirt on you while you were playing with Hanshin.”

“I didn’t date anyone while I was playing for Hanshin,” replies Sawamura.

“Woah, that’s years,” Sanjo says. “You were really popular with girls! How did you not date?”

“I couldn’t date the person I wanted to, so what’s the point in dating?!” He puts his hands on his hips. “You should be honest with your heart, Sanjo-senpai!”

“Like you?” Uchida chuckles. “I still think you were holding out for Tokyo University’s Umemiya!”

Everyone around them laughs except Sawamura, whose mouth is in a tight line, his eyes dark. Kazuya’s stomach sinks, and he looks down at the expensive tablecloth.

The rings that Kazuya has in his pocket, that he’d tucked away like a safety charm before they left their suite, are suddenly so heavy against his thigh.

“Cut it out,” Kuramochi says, harshly, and Kazuya’s head snaps back up. Kuramochi looks embarrassed, to have everyone’s eyes suddenly on him, but Takarada puts a hand on his shoulder to bolster him. “You’re upsetting him. Read the mood, assholes.”

Affection for his friend swells in Kazuya’s throat.

“Sorry, Sawamura,” Sanjo says, and then he punches Sawamura lightly in the bicep. “It’s cool if you’re like, waiting for true love to date, or whatever you prince-types are into.”

Sawamura’s too quiet, when he finally sits down next to Kazuya for dinner. He picks at his food, and it’s not until Furuya picks up his plate and chair and squeezes himself between Sawamura and a late-arriving Toujou that his mood picks up.

“Is Sawamura all right?” Chris asks, when Kazuya goes to the dessert table to pick up fruit. They hadn’t spoken much during dinner, Chris caught up in talking to his yearmates from Seidou, clustered together in a similar formation to how they’d sat in the cafeteria back when Kazuya had been a second-year in high school. “He seems down.”

“It’s hard for him not to be completely straightforward,” Kazuya says, after a moment of thought. “Maybe harder because we’ve been able to tell so many more people, lately. We’ve been going and staying places where people just know, and going backwards…”

“Sounds like it’s hard for you, too,” Chris observes. “Nice matching ties, by the way.”

“I asked him to be my date tonight, but…” Kazuya laughs. “In the end, it doesn’t mean anything, huh? I still can’t say or do the things I really want to.”

“There’s a small balcony off that door at the far end of the hall,” Chris says. “Jun and I went out there earlier so he could have a smoke. No one else seems to be too interested in going out there.”

“Because it’s so cold outside. The best thing about California has got to be the weather.” Kazuya tugs at his tie. “Are you telling me to take my boyfriend outside and cheer him up?”

“If that’s what it takes.”

Kazuya leaves without any desserts, circling back to their dinner table where Sawamura and Kuramochi appear to be two seconds from instating an arm wrestling contest. Kazuya’s not actually sure who’d win, and he’s interested, but Takarada is covering her face with her hands and Ichinose and Kumai’s mother have matching looks of patented disappointment in their eyes.

“I hate to interrupt this display of manliness,” Kazuya says, “but can I borrow Sawamura for a few minutes?”

Sawamura, though clearly confused, pushes back from the table anyway, and allows Kazuya to take him outside. “Is something wrong?”

The balcony doors are glass, but Kazuya closes them anyway, so that they aren’t so easily overheard.

“Doesn’t feel much like we’re here as a couple, does it?” Kazuya asks, after a few moments of considering what he wants to say.

Sawamura flinches, and stares at Kazuya, uncertain. Then takes a few steps toward the railing, turning his back to it and lounging against it, crossing his feet at the ankles. He’s like something out of a magazine, long legs, perfect angles and a high nose in profile. “Well, it’s not as though it could be any different than this, yet,” Sawamura says, eventually, pasting a smile on his face. “It’s nice to be here with you, anyway, and to see everyone! Furuya is still taller than me!”

“I haven’t rubbed that in your face, lately?” Kazuya puts his hands in his pockets, and suddenly remembers the rings when his fingers touch velvet. “You’re lifting more than he is, if it’s any consolation.”

“We should visit him more,” Sawamura says. “Haruichi thinks he’s lonely in San Diego.”

“I thought I was special,” Kazuya says. He walks over to Sawamura, leaning back against the railing next to him. Inside, people mill around the hall, in groups of conversation, a world apart from them out on the balcony. “Do you adopt any lonely baseball player you can find?”

“You are special!” Sawamura faces him with a grin. “We’re a battery! Partners! You’re the only partner I need!” He taps his finger to his chin. “Unless you don’t catch for me enough. Then I might have to get Uematsu to be my battery-mate, since he’s always willing to catch my pitches!”

Snorting incredulously, Kazuya grabs Sawamura’s hand away from his face. He hesitates, and then twines their fingers together, purposefully not looking at the glass balcony doors to see if anyone will see them. It’s dangerous, and terrifying, but it’s worth it for Sawamura’s gobsmacked expression. “Liar,” Kazuya says, gently, letting their hands fall together to swing between them.

“You’re holding my hand,” Sawamura says, incredulously. His voice wobbles, and his eyes are wet with unshed tears. “Kazuya, we know most of these people, and…”

Kazuya’s shaking, but he just grips Sawamura’s hand tighter. “I asked you to be my date,” he says, with a calmness he doesn’t feel. “I hate it when you’re sad because of this. That sounds pathetic, but…” He takes a deep breath. “I love you. I’m in love with you. It’s been five years, Sawamura, of waking up and thinking that your stupid face is the one I want to see the most. There’s nothing I can do about it. I don’t even…” He laughs, shaking his head to clear it, and catches Shirasu kissing Kumai on the cheek at the wedding table through the glass of the balcony doors. “I don’t even want to do anything about it, because I can’t imagine finding anyone else I’ll ever love as much as I love you.” He tightens his hold on Sawamura’s hand. “So if it’s okay, I want to hold your hand out here, even if I’m not quite ready to do it in there. A reminder.”

Sawamura kisses him, right on the mouth, pulling Kazuya in front of him to obscure it from anyone who might look through the transparent balcony doors. Kazuya hiccups on his own breath, slides his hand into Sawamura’s hair, and kisses him back until they hear the doors sliding open.

“Hey, hey, hey, what’s with all this PDA?” Kuramochi asks, rapping his knuckles on the glass doors. “You guys are acting like you’re the ones that just got married!” His expression doesn’t convey anything but feigned annoyance, when Kazuya breaks away from Sawamura to look at him, but his tone conveys nothing but amusement. “Gross.”

“Hah!” Kazuya says, his heart surprisingly light. In his pocket, the rings are warm. “Jealous? Do you feel personally unloved? Should I talk to Takarada about increasing the level of affection she demonstrates—”

“Ugh!” Kuramochi replies, shifting his shoulders in his slightly too-big suit. “I liked it better when you were miserable!”

“How could you say such an untrue thing, Kuramochi-senpai!” Sawamura yells, pointing at him. He’s beaming, too, and Kazuya hasn’t ever seen anything so bright.

“Everyone’s starting to look for you two. We’re going to take a group picture with the guys.” Kuramochi looks between them, and squirms uncomfortably. “About earlier…”

Sawamura straightens up to his full height. “Kuramochi-senpai! You were so dashing!”

“Shut the hell up,” Kuramochi growls in response, eyebrows snapping together. “It just pisses me off when either of you make that face.”

“Such dad material,” Kazuya sing-songs, and Sawamura sincerely pipes up his agreement.

As they go back into the hall, Kazuya doesn’t miss how loath they both are to release their grip on each other’s hands.

It’s still bitter winter in the countryside of Ichinomiya when he and Sawamura arrive, more fresh snow on the ground, and the natural year-round green of his grandparents’ farm hidden beneath a blanket of white.

Sawamura and his grandfather talk about baseball outside on the engawa like it’s spring, though, coats unzipped and shoes untied, while Kazuya pushes up the sleeves of Sawamura’s rust-colored sweater to his elbows and slices vegetables at the center counter, overhearing snippets of their conversation through the thin glass of the closed kitchen window.

Kazuya’s mother is seated at the kitchen table, still dressed in her nightgown, a thick cardigan over it to protect her from the house’s natural chill, and she sucks the flesh from the peel of the oranges Kazuya had cut for her.

“Your hair is getting long,” she says, her eyes focusing on him, and Kazuya has a sense of deja vu. “You’re letting it grow.” She smiles at him, licking orange juice from her fingers. “You’re happy again.”

Kazuya sets down the knife next to a now huge pile of diced scallions. “Yeah.” He wets a cloth at the sink, and crosses the kitchen to hand it to her, sitting down in the seat next to her. Outside, he can hear Sawamura’s muffled voice, shouting in excitement as he talks about how excited he is for next season. “I’m keeping him this time.”

She wipes her fingers with the cloth, taking the time to dip it under her fingernails. “How old are you, Kazuya?” Her voice trembles, and it takes Kazuya a few seconds to realize that she hasn’t drifted off into her own world, her eyes still lucid when he meets her gaze.

“Twenty-four,” he says. “I play for the San Francisco Giants, in California.”

“I have your jersey,” she says, playing with the dishcloth, tugging at a loose string at the hemmed edge. “I thought I’d made it up, for a while.” She folds the cloth in half, and then again into quarters, and wipes at the table where some of the juice had left it tacky, in the same circular motions his grandmother used to clean with. “You like it, don’t you? You told me you were going to be a pro baseball player before you could really even regularly hit one with a children’s bat.”

“I love it,” Kazuya says, choked up and trying to blink away the sting in his eyes. “Sawamura’s on my team again. He’s my pitcher.”

“He’s been yours the whole time,” she says. “I’m so… You deserve it. To be happy.” Her mouth curves up almost imperceptibly, her fingers clenching in the folded cloth. “I don’t know when I’ll remember to say it to you again.”

Kazuya takes a shuddering breath. “Are you happy here?”

She lifts her chin, her dark eyes staring out the largest kitchen window. From where they sit, they can see the brim of Kazuya’s grandfather’s beaten-down Dodger’s cap. “I don’t know,” she says. “My father tries his best.”

“Yeah,” Kazuya says, and he pushes her hair out of her face, before taking the cloth and returning to the counter to resume cutting vegetables.

He takes the folder of paperwork from the immigration lawyer out of his backpack while Sawamura is in the bathroom, taking it into the main room. Grandpa Shinoda sits in his favorite spot, right next to the household shrine, one leg stretched out in front of him and a newspaper in his hand. He has on his bifocals, but he’s squinting to read it anyway, and in his old faded flannel and loose jeans, Kazuya thinks he looks so very old.

He takes a seat next to him, sweatpants scraping against the worn tatami, and sets the folder between them.

“What’s in that folder, Kazuya?” Grandpa Shinoda asks, eventually, setting down the newspaper on his other side.

“It’s pretty untraditional for a player to bring anyone but a spouse or children as a ride-along on an athlete visa,” Kazuya says, “but it turns out it’s not unprecedented.”

His grandfather exhales, heavily, and looks at the shrine, where a portrait of Kazuya’s grandmother sits, smiling out at them. “You want to take your mother back with you to San Francisco.”

“Not exactly,” Kazuya replies. Grandpa Shinoda’s eyes wrinkle at the corners in confusion, as he moves to pick up the paperwork. “I want to take you both with me.”

Unprepared, his grandfather’s hand freezes over the paperwork. “What?”

“The thing is,” Kazuya hurries to add, “Mom can’t get the medication she needs here with the laws as they are. But if you…” He swallows, and his short, blunt nails cut into the meat of his palms. “If you’re both willing to come live with me, as an addition on my visa, then she could.” He nudges the paperwork closer. “You’d… there would be your own space, if you didn’t want to… The townhouse was meant to be rented out on the top floor, and has its own access from the outside, and two bedrooms, and a kitchen— not that you’d need the kitchen, but I—”

“Kazuya, you’re rambling,” his grandfather interrupts him sharply. “You want your mother and I to move to the United States to live with you.”

When Kazuya had bought the townhouse, with that extra apartment upstairs, there had always been the idea, small and fledgling in the back of his mind, that it would be perfect for his mother and grandfather. He’d cautiously tucked the idea away, letting it grow and fester, until he’d heard back from Michaelson about the immigration law parameters.

“Yes,” Kazuya says. “Because… Those months we had, where she was good… Don’t you think it should be like that, if it can be? I want…” He smirks self-deprecatingly. “It might be selfish, but it felt like I had my mother back.” Grandpa Shinoda is looking at the paperwork like it’s poisonous now, and Kazuya takes another deep breath. “Would you consider it?”

He gets up again when Grandpa Shinoda doesn’t answer, heading back to his room.

Sawamura is fresh from the shower, toweling off his hair with his bare back to Kazuya, water dripping down between his shoulder blades.

Kazuya walks up behind him and hugs him, arms wrapping around the outside of Sawamura’s arms and pulling him in closer to his chest. Sawamura’s skin is warm under his cheek as he rests it against Sawamura’s shoulder.

“Hey,” Sawamura says, “you’re going to get all wet!”

“Don’t care,” Kazuya replies, closing his eyes. Sawamura smells like Kazuya’s favorite shower gel, and like the well-water that runs through all the plumbing in the Ichinomiya house. He smells like home. “I asked Grandpa about moving.”

“What did he say?” Sawamura asks. He drops his towel to the floor but makes no motion to pull away. Kazuya holds him tighter anyway, just in case, and one of Sawamura’s hands comes up to rest atop Kazuya’s linked ones. “Is he going to think about it?”

“I don’t know,” Kazuya says, and Sawamura lets out a low hum, letting Kazuya lean on him for a few minutes longer, even as goosebumps rise on the backs of his arms.

The next morning, Kazuya wakes up late. The other side of the futon has long gone cold, and when he looks outside, it’s snowing again. Knowing exactly what Sawamura is probably doing, Kazuya lazily gets ready for the day, brushing his teeth and running a brush through his hair two or three times before tying it in a low ponytail at the nape of his neck, the shorter hair in the front already slipping loose before he’s even gotten all the way dressed in Sawamura’s big sweater again.

His mother is reading a book in the main room, her legs curled up under her and a blanket around her shoulders. Kazuya studies her for a minute before heading toward the front of the house, grabbing his coat before heading outside.

Sawamura’s already knee-deep in the snow, holding his phone with both hands as he takes pictures for his Instagram. His nose is bright red, and Kazuya can tell he’d gotten dressed to go on a run before he realized the snow was this thick on the ground. “Idiot,” he says, with feeling, and there’s a sharp laugh beside him.

Kazuya’s grandfather is out on the engawa, too, staring out at the wintery landscape, a scarf wrapped around his neck and his long coat buttoned up. “Your Eijun tells me there’s no snow in San Francisco,” he says.

“You lived in LA,” Kazuya says, hiding his hands in the long sleeves of his coat. “It’s not quite as warm as that.”

“If we go with you,” Grandpa Shinoda says, “I’m not selling your grandmother’s land.” He cups his hand over his eyes to protect them from the sun as he stares out at the fields. “We can afford to have it continue to be worked even if we’re not here.”

“Mom won’t be able to come back here alone, if…” Kazuya curls his cold toes in his shoes. “Why are you keeping it?”

“Because it was always meant to be yours,” his grandfather replies. “And you won’t play baseball forever. Eventually, when you’re finished playing, you might want to come back to Japan.” He shoots Kazuya a speculative look. “That boy of yours is a country boy, and he could like it here, someday.”

“Yeah,” Kazuya says, slipping his hands into the pockets of his sweatpants. “If there are enough beetles.” The wooden porch is cold under his sock-clad feet. “And if we’re able to be here together without any issues.”

“A lot can change in five years, or ten. In my seven decades, I’ve seen a lot of change, Kazuya. Don’t underestimate your home country like that. It’s not like there’s never been anyone like you and Sawamura before, or like there never will be again. And when it’s all said and done, people here, in this town, will leave you alone. You can come back, if that's what you want.”

Anti-discrimination laws. Marriage recognized in Setagaya ward. Tiny steps that will eventually lead, Kazuya thinks, all the way back home.

“I never thought…” Kazuya leans into the door, and stares out at the countryside, peaceful and covered in a thick layer of white. Sawamura is walking toward them, wading through the high snow. “It feels impossible, to have all this. From the moment I realized I was… That I only liked men, I thought I’d be alone. I was already alone, without that, and I figured it would be the last nail in the coffin. Everywhere I look, though, I keep finding…” Kazuya breathes out, slowly, and his breath is a cloud of heat made visible by winter’s chill. “I keep finding more people that care about me, and more places to feel safe.”

“That,” his grandfather says, “is the best part of life, isn’t it?”

“That’s a very Eijun sentiment,” Kazuya replies, exasperated with how easily they come to others, these concepts that he struggles with the most.

Grandpa Shinoda laughs. “I do like that boy,” he says. “Your grandmother liked him too. He’s good for you.” He raps his knuckles against the old timber panelling. “You’re good for him, too. People are going to realize that more and more as the years go by.” He offers Kazuya a small smile. “It’ll be quiet out here, for those times you get tired of waiting for the world to catch up.”

“Miyuki Kazuya!” Sawamura calls, waving both his arms. He looks like a kindergartener. “Come out and play!”

“I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of quiet no matter where we end up,” Kazuya says, with a grin, slowly pushing off the door before he cups his hands around either side of his mouth to magnify his voice. “I’m not dressed to play in the snow, Sawamura!”

“Let’s go for a walk, then!” Sawamura yells back.

“I’m not even wearing shoes!”

“Then put some on!” Sawamura’s grin stretches across his flushed cheeks as he kicks at a drift of fresh snow. It’s still a pristine white, the only footprints marring the fresh surface Sawamura’s.

“Here,” his grandfather says, and Kazuya hadn’t noticed Grandpa Shinoda had even moved until he sets down a pair of high boots at the edge of the porch, close enough in size to most of his own shoes. “You can borrow a pair of mine.”

“You act like I’m going to agree to his ridiculousness,” replies Kazuya, looking down at the shoes.

“Well,” his grandfather says, with a glint in his eyes, “aren’t you?”

Sighing, resigned, Kazuya sits down next to the boots and then pulls them on.

Kazuya thinks the months that follow the start of the new season are full of the best baseball he’s ever played.

The Giants dominate the early season, win after win after win, and the papers start talking about how they’re the team to beat in the National League West. The stadium, only partially full the previous season, disillusioned fans still hurting from the fall of a powerhouse, starts filling up for home games again, a sea of orange and black and an oppressive crushing wave of sound with every score. On the nights that Sawamura starts for them, and he and Kazuya get to work their own special brand of magic, the seats start selling out.

They charge through April and May with a record of three times as many wins as losses, momentum building and building, and Kazuya knows it’s the entire team rising up to meet them, finally meshing on the field as Álvarez and Bochy’s carefully selected lineup falls into place.

But Sawamura… Sawamura is everything Kazuya remembered him to be on the mound. He’s every thrill Kazuya’s missed and every sly pitch he’s wanted to call and every reckless powerplay he makes, shutting down base stealers and ground-ball hitters alike with their perfect synchronization and Kazuya’s deft eye for the entire diamond. All the baseball he’s played since his second year at Meiji has been in preparation to play with Sawamura again, sharper and cleaner and stronger than even their managers had anticipated.

’I’m going to keep him’, he thinks desperately, every time Sawamura closes out the seventh-inning with no runs on the board.

The rings, still in their velvet bag, are in the bottom of his gear duffel now, so he has them everywhere he goes, but it never seems like the right time. He takes them out and looks at them every other day, but then he looks around the locker room and remembers that he’d had to go out on the balcony to hold Sawamura’s hand, still on the outside looking in on all the things other people take for granted. It’s all right, though, because Kazuya’s no stranger to persistence, and no stranger to patience, either.

Sawamura is with him, after all. He can afford to be patient again, when he’s got a lifetime ahead of him, and a garden full of rapidly growing sunflowers and foxglove to tend in the meantime. Their backyard is beginning to resemble a jungle, their plants thriving despite their travel schedule and Sawamura’s inability to help Kazuya tend the weeds for the entirety of March and April, when bumblebees overrun the back corner of the garden, attracted to the foxglove.

“Only you would buy a plant that brings things I’m allergic to into my own backyard!” Sawamura complains, but he paints a sign that says ‘BEWARE OF BEES’ on a piece of wood he picks up at the home renovation store when they go to buy topsoil, and doodles a tiny little bee inside the ‘O’. He sticks it into the ground beside the bright purple plant with satisfaction, and Kazuya laughs so much every time he sees it that he doesn’t mind tending it alone.

Kazuya accepts his first advertisement deal in June. Kuramochi calls him about it a week later, so obscenely early in the morning that Sawamura is still in bed with him. Kazuya pushes up his eye-mask and grapples for his glasses, answering in a haze. “Why?” he complains, half muffled by his pillow. His voice is a dry croak, and Sawamura, nearly awake, rolls to face Kazuya at the sound, golden eyes dreamy as they adjust to the morning light.

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” Kuramochi says. “You’re the new spokesperson for LINE? Fuck off, you damn asshole!”

“That’s what Sawamura calls me in bed when we’re fucking,” Kazuya says, enjoying the way it makes Kuramochi sputter. “I’ll have you know that sales of my personal LINE stickers are through the roof.”

“They probably paid you a bajillion yen to shill an app you don’t even use,” Kuramochi says, and he sounds so disgusted that Kazuya can’t help but burst into laughter. “Stop laughing, this is an abomination! You still haven’t posted a picture on your fucking Instagram!”

“It’s got to be the right picture,” Kazuya replies, eyeing Sawamura with interest as he stretches his arms above his head, his abs flexing with the motion. His forearms and neck are dark, in contrast with the rest of his skin, a baseball tan that Kazuya shares, but that doesn’t stop the freckles from his sometimes shirtless runs through the neighborhood from dotting down his chest. There’s a cluster of three of them just below his left nipple that Kazuya had covered with a hickey, dark and purple, unable to stop himself from licking and sucking at them last night. “I’m an artist.”

“You’re a fraud. Join the LINE chat, you absolute disaster!”

“Never,” Kazuya replies, as Sawamura pushes the covers off himself, having decided to get up for the day even though they have a night game today, and call-time is two hours beforehand. “Listen, I have to go.”

He ends the call, tossing his phone into the soft pile of their duvet that they’d never put back on the bed, and reaches out, snagging Sawamura around the waist and hauling him back into bed. Sawamura squawks, flailing, but he settles soon enough, wriggling around until he’s comfortable in Kazuya’s embrace. “It’s too early for you to go around flashing our neighbors with your nipples.”

“It’s never too early for a good run!” Sawamura protests, and Kazuya rolls his eyes.

“It can wait an hour,” he says, and Sawamura grumbles something indignant even as he slips a thigh between Kazuya’s to get a little closer, closing his eyes against the sun.

They pick up his grandfather and mother from SFO two days before the Giants-Dodgers series starts, the airport as bustling as usual. They have only one suitcase each, the majority of their belongings still on a ship from Japan.

His grandfather is carrying his Dodgers’ cap in his hands instead of wearing it, the faded blue almost gray now, perhaps his only saving grace in a San Francisco airport this close to a showdown.

Sawamura insists on taking both their bags, wheeling them behind him as he coaxes Kazuya’s sleepy mother into conversation, smile unfaltering. Kazuya and his grandfather trail behind them, Kazuya spinning his car keys around his middle finger as he watches his mother laugh tiredly.

“Was the trip okay?” he asks. “With Mom, I mean?”

“There was an issue with customs, with her medications, but all the paperwork was in order,” Grandpa Shinoda replies. “My English is rusty. I’ll be getting a lot of practice, though.”

“There’s a small group of older people in the neighborhood who get together to play board games once a week, if you want an easy place to practice. Janice, one of our neighbors, keeps pushing the flier under the door like Sawamura and I are magically going to be over sixty in the span of a week since she gave us the last one.” Kazuya grabs the keys in his hand, stopping the spinning motion. “Sawamura pinned it to the refrigerator. I’ll give it to you when we get home. We didn’t stock the fridge upstairs. I figured you wouldn’t mind coming down for dinner. We’re not home every night, because we have a lot of games, but there are always leftovers.”

“Kazuya,” his grandfather says, resting a soothing hand on the back of his neck, “we’re both glad to be here. You don’t have to worry.”

“I’m not worried,” he lies, even as he leans, ever so slightly, into the touch.

Despite all his concerns, though, his grandfather fits right in, going out for walks every afternoon. He takes over picking up the groceries and other household tasks, a saving grace as the season continues to heat up, exhaustion from the constant road trips leaving Kazuya and Sawamura both spending every free minute they have at home, doing absolutely nothing or as close as they can get to it, long hours spent out in the backyard drinking barley tea and tossing a ball back and forth as his mother reads in one of the patio-chairs Sawamura had insisted were a backyard necessity.

His mother slowly improves as the weeks pass. She cuts her hair to her shoulders and buys new clothes at the end of July, and starts going with Grandpa Shinoda when he goes out to the store when she feels like it, lacing up new sneakers and walking out the front door like there had never been a time she wouldn’t. She comes to Kazuya one afternoon, as he’s in the kitchen preparing chicken breasts for dinner, and stands next to him at the counter. She picks up a sweet potato and a small knife and starts to peel it with steady hands. Kazuya remembers, all of a sudden, being small and watching her do the same thing, and he feels a burning in his chest, for a moment forgetting to breathe.

“I’ve been thinking,” she says, flicking a long coil of peel into the sink, “of taking an English course.”

“Yeah?” Kazuya asks. “I took one when I moved to Sacramento.”

“I’m probably too old to start a new language,” she says. “I barely remember the English I learned in school.” She smiles at him, a little sly. “Well, except the baseball words. I remember all of those.”

“They’re the same in both languages,” Kazuya replies, but he smiles back anyway. The burn in his chest is getting worse, and he sets down his knife and goes over to the water pitcher to pour himself a glass, taking the chance to collect himself as his eyes start to burn too. “You’re not that old, Mom.”

“I know,” she says. “I feel really young. Like I’m still thirty. In a lot of ways, I think I still am. I stopped living for more than ten years. Do those count?”

They counted for Kazuya, but that isn’t what she means. “So it’s okay, that we brought you here? Me and Grandpa?”

“Kazuya,” she says, and she sets her knife down too, “thank you.” She walks over to him and hugs him, and she’s… She’s as warm as she is in his oldest memories, but he’s so much bigger now that he can wrap her up in his arms the way he’d always thought he never would. “I’m so… I missed so much of your life, and you…” She presses her face into his neck, and he feels her tears, hot, as they wet the neck of his T-shirt. “I’m so grateful I’m going to see the rest of it.” She sniffles, pulling away from him, and Kazuya has to blink rapidly to clear his own eyes.

Two weeks later, his grandfather brings her to a Giants home game when Sawamura is pitching. When he and Sawamura find them after the game, both of them coming down to the lowest seats behind the home team dugout, Kazuya gapes to see his grandfather in a brand new cap, a bright, vivid orange, with a large, interlocking SF emblazoned where the LA had been on his old cap. “The hole in my Dodgers’ cap was getting big,” he says, and Kazuya nods, grabbing his mother’s hand so he and Sawamura can bring her down to meet their teammates.

That night, after Sawamura has fallen asleep on the couch, snoring as the NPB game he’d attempted to pay attention to streams on their television, Kazuya makes himself some of the lemon-ginger tea he’d gotten at The Smile Herb Shop, preparing for a long night reviewing score cards in preparation for their upcoming series in DC against the Washington Nationals. They’d lost their two star power hitters to trades at the end of last season, but the teams’ rookies have been hitting strong.

“That smells good,” Grandpa Shinoda says. He’s carrying a laundry basket. “I heard the television upstairs so I thought it wouldn’t keep you up to run a load of laundry.”

“Sawamura isn’t that light a sleeper,” Kazuya says. “He’d wake up to an alarm in his ear, but ambient house noises?” He waves his hand dismissively. “Not a chance.”

“Ah,” his grandfather says, shifting the basket in his arms. At the top of the unwashed load is the old Dodgers’ hat.

“I can fix that for you, if you want,” Kazuya says, pointing to the hat with his free hand.

His grandfather shakes his head. “No, I think it was time for a new one, anyway.”

“We can order you a new one online if you want. With the Dodgers’ logo.”

“I’ll stick with my San Francisco orange. How can my favorite team not be the one both my grandsons play for?”

With that, he disappears into the laundry room, leaving Kazuya feeling the same way he’d felt when his father had slid one of Sawamura’s baseball cards into a sleeve protector beside Kazuya’s own.

The day the Giants clinch their playoff berth, Kazuya texts Chris. im going to ask Sawamura to marry me, he types, and then sends it before he can take it back.

Chris doesn’t text back. He calls, three times, until Kazuya, panic eating him from the inside out, answers the phone. “Seriously?” Chris asks, not waiting for Kazuya to say anything at all.

“Yeah,” he says, and then laughs, anxiously, his throat closing up. “We already have a house together and shared legal custody of my mother.”

“And you want to spend the rest of your life with him,” Chris says, dryly.

“I’m going to do that either way,” Kazuya replies. “But I want him… I want him to believe it, and I want to believe it too.”

It feels good to say it aloud, cementing his resolve. The rings are still where he left them, in the bottom of his bag, sitting in the palm of his catcher’s mitt. “Those sound like good reasons to me,” Chris says, and Kazuya thinks it’s the warmest he’s ever heard Chris sound.

Three days before their first game against the Kansas City Royals, Sawamura comes running into their bedroom, his phone clutched in one hand and an empty juice glass in the other. He has the LINE app open, when he bounces onto the bed next to where Kazuya sits with his laptop in his lap. “Kuramochi-senpai and Takarada-senpai are getting married!”

He shows his phone to Kazuya like Kazuya’s going to be able to read anything with the chat zooming by so fast. “About time he got his shit together, I guess,” Kazuya says. "Now that they have a kid." Kazuya'd seen the first pictures of their daughter three nights ago. He's going to spoil the shit out of that little girl. Kuramochi's going to hate it.

Kuramochi had called him two weeks ago to tell him he’d picked out an engagement ring, and it had been on the tip of his tongue to tell Kuramochi about the ones he’d picked up months ago, but something had held him back, in spite of having told Chris. He thinks it’s the fact that Kuramochi wouldn’t let him procrastinate the way Chris has, carrying the rings in his pocket and his heart in his throat.

“You didn’t know already?”

“I mean, I knew he was planning to ask her,” Kazuya says. “But he hadn’t let me know he’d done it.” As soon as he says that, his phone vibrates on the bedside table. Grabbing the edge of his laptop to keep it from sliding off his lap, he reaches for his phone, grasping it with the tips of his fingers.

It’s a text from Kuramochi. you get to know last, because you don’t have the LINE app and I fucking know everyone’s gonna respond to my announcement with stickers of your stupid face, fucker

He shows it to Sawamura, who pointedly pastes three stickers of a winking Kazuya into the chat. Kazuya loves him.

“Would you ever want to get married?” Kazuya asks, impulsively, his heart so full it might burst.

“I always thought I would someday.” Sawamura laughs. “But the only person I’d want to marry is you, and management would never let us, right?” Wistfully, he smiles, looking down at his phone. “Maybe after we retire, if I can convince you!”

“Why would I need to be convinced?”

“I don’t know,” Sawamura says, and then he hesitates before adding: “We talked about marriage once, a long time ago. Not to each other. I mean, in general, back when your dad tried to set you up at that gala. I guess I keep thinking about that.”

“Yeah but…” Kazuya sighs. “That was a long time ago, Sawamura. Before I agreed to stick with you even after you’re too old to pitch.”

“You’ll be too old to catch, first!”

Sawamura sets his empty juice glass on Kazuya’s bedside table, where it will languish until Kazuya takes it upon himself to return it to the kitchen. He never rinses anything, either, an annoying habit Kazuya can’t seem to break him out of, even though it leaves a sticky film inside the glass that takes much more effort to get out later than it would have otherwise.

He flops stomach first onto the bed, and Kazuya sets his laptop aside, giving up on pretending Sawamura doesn’t have his full attention.

“Either way, we’ll both be old,” Kazuya says. “That’s a long time from now.”

“It would be nice, if we could get married,” Sawamura admits, heaving himself over to lie on his back. “But you’ve said it before. We don’t live in that world yet. And I’m not…” He exhales. “I have you. I can keep you. We’re going to the World Series!! It’s enough, for me. I’m… I’m so happy I could die of it!”

“It’s the same for me, idiot,” Kazuya says. “You make me really fucking happy.”

“So marriage is…” Sawamura looks up at him. “It would be amazing but…” He trails off. “It’s enough, like this,” he reiterates. “We don’t have to push that far.” He sounds like he’s trying to convince himself and Kazuya at the same time.

Kazuya hates it. “Stop pushing? Have you even met me?” He pins Sawamura to the bed by his wrists. “Should I push you instead?”

“Kazuya!”

“Eijun,” Kazuya says, mimicking Sawamura’s outraged tone, and he licks at Sawamura’s pulse, heartbeat quick beneath his tongue. “If we could though, would you want to?”

Sawamura’s eyes have gone dark with lust, but his smile is achingly sweet. “Of course I would! You’re the one who’s always talking about how sappy I am!”

“You’ve turned me into a sap, too,” Kazuya murmurs, laying a soft kiss on the swell of Sawamura’s cheekbone. “It’s the worst.”

“My very own prince,” Sawamura agrees. “You told me love wasn’t like fairytales.”

“What kind of fairytales have you been reading? I call you idiot when I’m sucking your cock.” Kazuya nuzzles his nose into Sawamura’s soft hair. “Besides, if it were a fairytale, I wouldn’t trip over your dirty clothes so often.” He kisses Sawamura’s other cheek. “But I think the world has a way of falling into place for you, Sawamura Eijun.”

“No,” Sawamura replies. “I make the world fall into place for me.” He stops squirming, realizing that Kazuya’s thumbs have started to stroke steadily along the insides of his wrists. “And so do you.”

Kazuya gapes down at him, surprised. “That’s true,” he says, and it makes him think.

His father calls the night before the third game of the World Series, the first one in San Francisco, to tell Kazuya he’s coming to see Game 4. Kazuya has just finished rewatching the footage from the game three days ago, trying to get a read on a couple of the batters who’d managed to get a hit off of Sawamura, even if they hadn’t gotten a run. They’d lost yesterday’s game, tying things up one-to-one, and Kazuya’s anxious not to lose another.

“You’re staying here, right?” Kazuya asks.

His father hesitates. “I’m not sure that’s such a good idea,” he says. “Your mother…”

“I’ll talk to them about it,” Kazuya says. “If it’s a problem, I’ll book you a place nearby, okay?”

“That’s fine, Kazuya.”

His mother agrees easily, though Kazuya notices the way she picks at her skirt as she does, an anxious tell that she shares with Uehara. It’s his grandfather that looks displeased at the idea, his eyebrows set heavy over his eyes and his usual neutral frown tightened into something more angry.

But his mother just shakes her head when he goes to speak. “We’re the parents and you’re the child, for all that we messed that up,” she says, softly. “We can coexist for a couple of days to see our son win a World Series ring.”

Once his father is actually there, though, Kazuya hardly has time to see anyone, caught up in practices and frantic team meetings and hours spent at the stadium with the team, meals ordered in for them. They play Game 3 and lose spectacularly thanks to a grand slam in the bottom of the eighth, and both he and Sawamura, who had spent the entirety of the game in his Giants hoodie yelling from the bench at every at-bat, are silent as they let themselves into the house as quietly as possible, opening the door slowly so it doesn’t creak.

At first, Kazuya thinks everyone has already gone to sleep. It’s a little after one in the morning, so it makes sense for all the house’s occupants besides them to be in bed,. But as Sawamura takes off his shoes, Kazuya hears a low murmured conversation from the kitchen. Looking at Sawamura and pressing his finger to his lips, Kazuya tiptoes toward the kitchen. Only one of the lights is on, and Kazuya stops just outside the doorway when he sees his mother sitting at the island counter, his father standing by the electric kettle. Both of them have a mug with the lemon tea bag label hanging over the side, and Kazuya’s breath catches.

They’re talking softly to each other, Kazuya’s father’s eyes trained on his mother as she speaks, looking at her like he’s trying to memorize the planes of her face. Kazuya recognizes that expression, having seen it countless times on his own in the mirror, and something inside him cracks, a dozen unknown emotions spilling out as he tears his eyes away from the sight, leaning back against the wall that divides the kitchen and the hall and sinking down to the floor, stretching his legs out in front of him. Sawamura sits next to him, just as carefully, a mere whisper of a creak as he stretches his legs out alongside Kazuya’s. He doesn’t say a word, but he clutches Kazuya’s hand, his blunt painted nails digging in when he tightens his grip.

That could have been me, Kazuya thinks, because the kind of sadness written on his father’s face is a familiar book he wishes he’d never read. He looks at Sawamura, who is watching him with careful eyes, shadowed and brilliant in turns as light from a car passing outside illuminates them. It would have been me, if…

If Sawamura hadn’t waited, even though he’d been unsure if that wait would be rewarded.

Kazuya leans his head on Sawamura’s shoulder, listening to the murmur of his parents’ quiet conversation, and starts to consider all the games he has to win.

Michaelson looks like he'd had several drinks at the staff meeting in preparation for tonight's game when Kazuya knocks on the door of his office. “Come in!”

Kazuya steps into the room, both of his hands in his pockets. One of his hands is grasping the crushed velvet bag, pulled out of his gear bag this morning. The other is empty, sweaty, as he opens and closes it in the hidden shelter of his pocket.

“You look nervous.” Michaelson shoots him a faux-outraged look even as he pulls out a second shot-glass. “You’re not here to spring an early retirement on me, are you? You have a World Series to win. One game behind is nothing.”

“No, I’ve got no personal plans of retiring any time soon.” Kazuya takes the velvet bag out of his pocket. “I don’t drink.”

Casting a cursory glance at the bag, Michaelson pours a shot of vodka into both shot-glasses, and keeps both of them on his side of the desk as Kazuya takes a seat. “Then what brings you here?”

“You told me that…” Kazuya runs his tongue along his teeth. “You told me I should come to you if I had something I needed the front office to spin.” He opens the bag, and empties it into his open palm. His hands are shaking horribly, but he can’t do anything about it. “So here I am.”

Michaelson’s eyes drop to the rings, then come back up to meet Kazuya’s in surprise. “Oh, are you getting married? I know we’re strict about image, but you don’t have to ask permission or get spin for something like that.”

“I think this might be a special case,” Kazuya replies. His voice cracks, and Michaelson, concerned, sits down in his large leather chair. Kazuya’s heart is like a rabbit’s in his chest. He closes his eyes, and thinks about Sawamura’s smile, and about the ‘1’ on his jersey, and about the way his world has become a place full of a thousand beautiful and wonderful things. “Really special.”

“Why? Are you marrying someone famous?” Michaelson takes one of the shots, and then looks at him more seriously. “I didn’t even know you were dating anyone! You didn’t bring anyone to the ‘Wives and Girlfriends’ luncheon last month.”

“Yeah,” Kazuya says, “about that.” He hesitates, and then he takes that hesitation and crushes it with the memory of Sawamura’s smile. “It’s a bit… unconventional, since I don’t have a wife or a girlfriend.”

Michaelson leans forward. “Then what’s with the rings?”

Kazuya swallows. The rings are hot in his hand. He thinks, strangely, even as the room closes in on him, that he’s never been more sure that he’s doing the right thing in his life.

“I want to get married,” he says, and then he glances up at the wall. There’s a picture of Sawamura there, throwing his signature crossfired slider, the one Kazuya had helped hone, and had won them a game that had gone into extra innings to secure them a berth in the world series. “But I figured I’d better come see you first, since I’m not sure a catcher has ever proposed to his own pitcher during the World Series before in the entire history of baseball.”

Michaelson, who’d been about to take another shot, drops the glass, the contents spilling out all over his desk. “What?” He starts scrambling to move his papers out of the way. “Kazuya, Jesus Christ, are you talking about Sawamura?”

He looks flustered, and confused, and annoyed about the all the papers he's just ruined, but he doesn’t look angry. Kazuya takes a shaky inhale, breathing for the first time in an entire minute. Then, suddenly feeling freer than he’s ever felt before in his entire life, he throws back his head and laughs.

“I think I’ll talk to Kevin’s mom and the homeowners’ association about the shared lot next week, after we win the World Series!” Sawamura shouts from the sitting room, when Kazuya unlocks the front door to let himself into their home. “I’d like to plant a community vegetable garden!”

“We have our own backyard,” Kazuya replies, setting his keys on the table and slipping out of his shoes. “You can plant whatever you’d like in it.” He’s shaky and shuddery after the two hours he’d spent in Michaelson’s office, talking to almost every person in the front office as they were briefed on the situation one by one. He feels stripped of all his outer layers, emptied out. But being home, with Sawamura wearing Kazuya’s Meiji windbreaker over an undershirt and his boxer-briefs, a half-empty box of books for donation in front of him between his spread thighs as he contemplates two different volumes that are most likely both about princesses, starts to fill him up again. “And it’s not a definite thing that we’ll win the World Series, you know. We’ve got three more games to crush before that’s a reality.”

“But then it wouldn’t be a community vegetable garden.” Sawamura looks up. There’s a smudge of dust on his nose. “And you should have confidence,” he says. “I’m starting tonight, don’t forget. That’s one win down.”

“You’re so cocky,” Kazuya says, sitting down next to Sawamura on the floor. “Where are my parents?”

“They went out with your grandfather to get lunch!” Sawamura hums, dumping both books in his hands into the box. “Nobody looked like they wanted to stab anyone else so I think it’s fine?”

“There’s that charming optimism of yours.” Kazuya leans into Sawamura, letting him take all of his weight.

Looking at him in concern, Sawamura dusts off his hands and cups Kazuya’s cheek. “You look exhausted,” he says. “What’s wrong with you?” He peers into Kazuya’s eyes, leaning so close Kazuya can smell the Pop-Tarts on his breath.

“Pop-Tarts aren’t real food,” Kazuya says, instead of answering the question.

“How’d you even—?!” Kazuya seals his mouth over Sawamura’s, cutting off the words. Sawamura kisses him back for a long moment before he jerks back, pink and panting. “You can’t just kiss me every time I want to say something!”

“But it’s so effective!” Kazuya kisses Sawamura’s cheeks, then his chin. “Don’t worry, weapons are best when they aren’t overused~!”

Sawamura grins at him. “You’re a real bastard, Miyuki Kazuya!”

“You love me, though,” replies Kazuya. He runs a hand through Sawamura’s hair, letting it rest on the nape of his neck. With his other, he reaches into his pocket, fingering the velvet bag where it hangs loose inside. “Hey, Sawamura, let’s get married.”

Their faces are so close that Sawamura has to cross his eyes to look at him. “Stop teasing me with this! Didn’t we already decide that we can’t? There aren’t any out players in the league yet, and—”

“Let’s be the first ones.” Kazuya pulls out the bag, and reaches in for the smaller ring. He presses its cool edge to Sawamura’s lower lip. “Should I ask it like we’re in an historical novel to get an answer? Sawamura Eijun, please prepare miso soup for me every day.”

“You hate my miso soup! You told me just last week that you’d rather eat the pot I cooked it in—” Sawamura’s eyes drop to the ring, and his words sputter to a stop as he finally realizes Kazuya is serious. “Kazuya?”

“Oh? Should I try it like a samurai? Sawamura-sama, will you lie in the same grave with me one day—”

“Shut up!” Sawamura’s eyes are wide, gold gone bright with shimmering tears. “That’s morbid! It’s a hundred years too early to talk about death!”

“Then…” Kazuya licks his lips. “Do you want me to get down on one knee, or something, like in a Western movie? We’re living in America, now, and I wouldn’t want to disappoint you if you’d dreamed of some American man sweeping you off your feet—”

“Kazuya, you know it’ll be really hard. If we do this, everyone’s going to look at us, and it won’t be just because of our baseball. There won’t be any turning back.”

“I know,” Kazuya says. “But I’m greedy.” He drops his hand from Sawamura’s neck and grabs his wrist instead. “You told me once that you wanted it all. Do you still?” Sawamura just stares at him. He’s beautiful like this, too, Kazuya thinks, with a tiny, secretive smile. He likes that he can still surprise Sawamura. “Because I do. I want everything. I want my career, and I want my mom to laugh the way she used to, and I want friends, and I want my dad to fly to the States again and see more of my games live, when they really matter. Most of all though, I want to wake up every day and know that everyone else in the entire world knows you’re mine.” Sawamura’s hand is trembling in his. “I guess you could look at this ring as a collar, in that case. We could get an engraving that says ‘if lost, please return to—‘

“I’m not a dog, Miyuki Kazuya!” Sawamura flexes his wrist in Kazuya’s grip. “Well?”

“Well, what?”

“Aren’t you going to put that ring on me?” Sawamura’s eyes are the brightest of gold.

“You didn’t say yes,” Kazuya teases him. He wonders if he’s ever felt happier than he feels right now. Then, he thinks: I’m going to be this happy for the rest of my life. He’d never, as a kid, imagined a world like that. A house this full. A heart this full.

“As if I would say no!” Tears finally spill down Sawamura’s cheeks, and Kazuya snickers, slipping the ring onto Sawamura’s finger. Sawamura curls his fingers, examining the way the light hits the gold, revealing the intricate shape. “It’s a branch?”

“I’ve been waiting,” Kazuya says, slipping the second ring onto his own finger, “since you were fourteen and you showed up yelling at a guy twice your size and throwing that idiosyncratic fastball of yours, to see what kind of flower you’d bloom into.” He laces their fingers together. “Instead you surprised me. You grew into the strongest tree, Sawamura Eijun, with the deepest roots.”

Sawamura wipes aggressively at his eyes, “I’m strong because I’ve known you!” He curls his fingers into Kazuya’s sweater, and pulls him close. Their noses brush. The ring Sawamura wears grows warm from the skin of their linked fingers. “The way that I pitch, and the person I am now, too— It’s a garden you helped me grow, Miyuki Kazuya!”

“You and your gardens,” Kazuya whispers, and he can’t resist leaning in and capturing Sawamura’s lips. The Pop-Tart taste has been replaced with the saltiness of his tears and the impossible heat of his mouth. “Life isn’t a shoujo manga, moron.”

“But, Kazuya,” Sawamura whispers back, their lips still brushing, “doesn’t it feel a little like one right now?”

“It does,” Kazuya admits, and then he kisses Sawamura again.

A few hours after, only thirty minutes before Kazuya will have to wake up Sawamura to make it on time to the stadium for their game call, he opens up the Instagram app, and stares at the camera icon for a few moments before he taps it. Sawamura pops immediately into view, and it’s a nice shot, of Sawamura’s sleeping form, curled around the space where Kazuya had been, but that’s not the picture he wants to take.

He pulls out Sawamura’s hand until it’s splayed across one of their pale blue pillows. The tangled flowers and branches of the ring Kazuya’d picked out from The Smile Herb Shop fit perfectly around his finger, as bright a gold as his lion eyes, and Kazuya zooms in, making it the entire shot.

He takes the photo three times, until the light hits the ring just right, and then, when prompted for a caption, he types secured his pitching services for eternity.

He takes a deep breath, and makes his first post.

WHAT THE FUCK says the first comment on it, seconds later, from Kuramochi’s account, and Kazuya grins, perfectly content.

They’re back in San Francisco for Game 7. It’s the bottom of the eleventh inning, and the game is tied three-three, the same as the series itself. Sawamura had come in, on zero rest from yesterday’s victory, to pitch the extra innings, and so even though the Giants only have one out, it might as well be two with Sawamura up to bat. They’ve used up their pinch hits, and Sawamura’s bunt isn’t enough to bring their man on second base all the way home. After Sawamura, though, it’ll return to the front of the lineup. They only need one run to win the game.

“Come on, Sawamura!” one of their other pitchers yells. Sawamura’s baby pitcher is shouting encouragement with both hands cupped around his mouth to magnify the sound. “Represent us! Pitchers can hit too!”

Sawamura doesn’t seem to hear them. He has his concentrating face on as he squares up at the plate. Kazuya can see the chain he’s wearing his ring on for now swing back and forth around his neck as he sinks into his hips, adjusting his grip on the bat.

Sawamura, to the surprise of both teams, hits the ball long and hard. It soars across the field, past the right fielder, hitting the wall and bouncing before it rolls toward center field. He takes off running, and so does their teammate on second base.

The moment Kazuya sees that lurid orange jersey cross home plate, he’s up out of the dugout. The crowd is screaming, shouting, and confetti is pouring down on them from the huge buckets kept behind the baseside seats. Kazuya, though, only has eyes for Sawamura, who is gaping up at the scoreboard with a big, stupid smile, all the freckles on his face shining with sweat under the glare of the floodlights.

“Hey, stop just standing there, idiot!” Kazuya yells out, jogging to the center of the diamond. Sawamura meets him halfway.

Sawamura meets him at the mound.

“Kazuya!” Sawamura shouts, running over to him and jumping into his arms. “I won a game with my batting!”

“Well,” Kazuya says, breathless, “I think our defense might have played a role.” But he’s grinning unrepentantly, unable to hide anything at all when he feels so damn happy.

“Now I’m going to have two new rings!” Sawamura replies smugly, and he beams down at Kazuya, wrapping his legs around him as other players crowd around them, slapping their backs and cheering.

Kazuya is on pins and needles all through the trophy ceremony. Sawamura gets the MVP award, accepting it wearing a jersey with a number 2 on his back and Kazuya’s ring around his neck and…

Kazuya grabs him the moment he lets go of the microphone after a burbling nonsensical thank you speech, and pulls him in close by the neck of his jersey, crushing the ‘i’ and the ‘a’ in his trembling hand. “Sawamura,” he says, pitching it low to be heard above the screaming, triumphant crowd, “can I kiss you?”

Sawamura’s eyes go round, but then he bites his lip. “I dunno,” he says, only his teeth digging into his lower lip keeping his mouth from splitting into a wide grin. “Should this Sawamura Eijun deign to let a tanuki-bastard kiss him?”

Kazuya laughs, breathless, spilling out, joyous and wanting and ready to take. “I’m waiting,” he says.

Sawamura cackles, and then kisses him first.

A hush goes over the entire stadium, and Kazuya doesn’t know what happens next because his world has shrunk to only the two of them, the trophy digging into his gut and Sawamura pulling away with eyes like a lion and a hunger for victory that’s nowhere near sated.

“The fallout of that stunt is gonna be a doozy,” Alvarez says to him, a few minutes later. He’s grinning, though, his ‘World Series Champions’ hat at a jaunty angle. “You ready for that, kid?”

He scans the lineup. Only half of the players on their team look even remotely surprised, and Kazuya tries not to think about that as he catches Sawamura’s eyes. Sawamura’s almost fifteen meters away from him, on the other end of the team, and it’s the same distance as there is between home plate and the mound. Kazuya touches his own branch ring, hanging from a yellow glove lace, and it’s warm despite the chill air of October baseball.

There’s so much left to do. So many games left to win.

“You know what?” Kazuya replies, as Sawamura echoes the motion, and then grins, as bright as the sun. “I think I’m ready for anything.”