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*

“Did you hear? They selected Sawamura,” Mei says, turning his Swallows cap sideways as he drops down next to Kazuya on the long steel bleacher seat. The field stretches out before both of them, lines freshly chalked and new spring grass so very green already. The pollen is thick in the air, and it tickles the back of Kazuya's throat. “The American team, I mean. Coach says they’re sending Sawamura as their primary starting pitcher for the Friendship Series next week.”

“This is supposedly a warm-up for the Olympics.” Kazuya plucks at the collar of his compression shirt, watching their outfielders spread out for more pepper drills. Practice is essentially over for Kazuya today, but the outfielders still have another hour. He pities them, in this unexpectedly excruciating heat. “You can’t possibly be surprised. The media’s been speculating that Sawamura’s the obvious choice since those two no-hitters last month. Not to mention that long write-up in 'Baseball Unlimited' on what Sawamura would offer the United States Olympic Team, as an anchoring ace.”

“Well, yeah,” agrees Mei reluctantly. “But you know that all the baseball sportscasters are in a constant state of jerking off to Sawamura's pitch repertoire-- Half the time it feels like they think if they write about it enough, it'll actually happen! Even when he wallowed in the minor leagues in Arizona for a year with the damn yips, our baseball news media did nothing but talk about how long we'd have to wait for his eventual comeback! As if!”

"To be fair, he did come back despite incredible odds." Kazuya smirks, and pushes his glasses back into place where they’ve slid down. The metal of the nose-piece is hot against his fingertip. "It's a career-ending condition, and he came back with increased velocity and a new breaking ball to the out and low!”

“Yeah, yeah, it was great." Pouting, Mei picks at a stray thread at the hem of his jersey. “Still, they need to stop talking about him like he's our national pride! He’s American! Japanese parents or not, he can barely speak Japanese! It’s like he learned slang entirely from watching anime!” The thread snaps between his thin fingers. “It's bad enough when everyone jabbers on about Hongou Masamune, but at least he's a citizen!”

"Sawamura's grandfather was a famous Japanese pitcher back in the 1950s," Kazuya says. "So in a way, isn't it nice to think one of the best MLB pitchers of our generation is descended from one of the Japanese greats? It's a fun narrative." He nudges Mei. "Granddaddy Sawamura even played for the Swallows! He had an ERA of 1.78. Pretty amazing, right?"

"Who cares?" With a grimace, Mei digs into his pocket and pulls out a package of gum. "Behind that pretty face of yours lies a true nerd, Kazuya. Where do you find the time to study crap like that, huh? Don't we attend all the same practices?" Huffing exasperatedly, he rips the gum packet open with too much force and then pops four pieces out of the foil and into his hand.

"Ha! It's probably just my lack of other tangible interests." Shrugging, Kazuya turns his focus back out to the field. Kuramochi's got his hands on his knees, bent over in half and panting as Kominato Ryousuke laughs at him. "Anyway," Kazuya adds, "media hype aside, the Americans have the right idea, don't you think? Bring their best southpaw ace to face Japan’s best southpaw ace.” Smirk still pulling at the corners of his mouth, Kazuya rubs his hands on the dirty material at the thighs of his uniform slacks. “If you keep sounding so pissed off about Sawamura, I'm going to think you're jealous!”

“I'll never be jealous of a cheap copy of me!” Mei wrinkles his nose. “I'm his senpai as a professional pitcher, you know?! Who does he think he is, being more famous!” He aggressively shoves all four pieces of gum into his mouth at once and bites down fiercely, his feet kicking the dirt floor of the dugout. He looks like an angry lap dog, and Kazuya’d find it adorable in someone a quarter of Mei’s age. As it is, though, it's just funny, and Kazuya's tempted to suck his teeth in chastisement like the disapproving aunties who run the vegetable market he visits every Thursday. "Hey, Kazuya, shouldn’t we kick his ass for that?!"

Kazuya arches an eyebrow. “Not for our Japan’s pride? What a terrible national representative you make.” He stretches his arms above his head, and a bead of sweat drips down his spine. With such a hot and humid April. Kazuya dreads May. Tokyo summers are terrible enough without an unprecedented heatwave. He can already feel the inevitable sunburn on the backs of his neck and arms, and he makes a quick mental note to pick up another bottle of suncream for himself on the way home. "Maybe we should pitch Hongou in the opening game?"

“The Olympics are for national pride,” says Mei. “This is the Friendship Series! It's my duty to hand Sawamura a big loss in the lead up to it. We've got to crush the Americans early, out of international comraderie, obviously.”

Throwing an arm around Mei’s shoulders, Kazuya leans into him. “Well, with lovely motives like that, I can’t say we’re a bad match for a battery!” He hums. “If you pitch your best, and the bats stay as hot as they've been in our internal practice games, our team can win. Plus, this is a good chance to look at Sawamura’s full pitch repertoire up-close before the summer Olympics.”

Mei blows a massive bubble, and it pops, pink gum sticking to his lips and sun-flushed cheeks, exaggerating the childishness of his scowl. “That’s true,” he says. “The Olympics is where it really counts, especially since I’m missing NPB team starts. Sanada is going to pull ahead of me in stats.” He elbows Kazuya in the gut to push him off. “At least I’ve finally got the catcher I wanted, after years of you being a dick about it. So let's snag a gold for Japan on our our own turf.”

“As long as you can pay all the bills your ego is constantly racking up, we’ll be just fine!” Kazuya pulls away from Mei, more because of the heat than the hit. He glances at Mei sidelong. “I’ve got my own reasons to beat the American team, after all.”

Mei’s gaze sharpens, suddenly vicious, and it’s a stark contrast to the ludicrous picture the rest of his face makes, little bits of gum still caught in the fine hairs on his chin and upper lip. “It’s the catcher, right? You went to high school with him. Why does he play for the American team?”

“Because he’s half American,” says Kazuya. “Chris Takigawa. He’s… really talented.” Kazuya licks his dry lips again. “I’ve always wanted to face him as an equal.“

"Oh, right, didn't you get the starting spot instead of him, on your high school's team? I don't remember facing Takigawa at all during the lead-up to Koushien."

"I was only the starter because he had a bad shoulder injury," Kazuya replies. "Not sure I'd have gotten the chance until my third year, otherwise. I've always wanted to see if I measured up--" He’s interrupted by the loud triple-beep of his phone’s text alert. He pulls his mobile out of his pocket, only to find a message from Tomomi. 'SOS' it reads, followed by two baseball emoji and a skull. He blinks twice at it, then notices that he has two new voicemail alerts, as well. He scrolls to his phone app, and opens it, realizing their both from Akiyama, Tomomi's often starstruck baseball coach. "Oh no."

“A summons from your ball and chain?” Mei asks, leaning over to peek at Kazuya’s phone. “Isn’t the skull a bit dramatic?”

“Don’t call her that,” Kazuya says sharply, shoving his phone back into his pocket. At Mei’s smug little grin, Kazuya forces his tone back into something airy. “And are you really in a position to call anyone else dramatic?”

“I don't know what you're trying to imply,” is Mei's lofty reply. “Are you heading out, then?”

“Yeah, I'd better see what's up.” Kazuya sighs again, and stands. His legs complain with the usual tinges of soreness from a long practice, ache lancing up his thighs. “Ice your shoulder, southpaw. I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”

“Naturally.” Mei waves him off like a prince dismissing a courtier, already blowing a new bubble. With a mischievous grin, Kazuya stealthily darts a hand up and pokes the bubble with the tip of his index finger. Mei’s clearly unprepared for it to pop so prematurely, and the pale pink gum splatters across his face, some of it clearly going up into his nose. “Kazuya!”

“Just reminding you that I’m not your minion,” Kazuya tells him, picking up his bag and half-empty water thermos. “Good luck getting the gum off your eyelashes~!”

“Ugh! Why did I even want you to catch for me?! The Americans can take you with them when they go home as a gesture of goodwill!”

Kazuya cackles, already a few meters away, bag heavy on his shoulder and the strap sticking to the bare slice of skin at the edge of the collar of his practice jersey. “Sorry to disappoint, but I’m a Tokyo guy! You’re stuck with me!”

Mei swears profusely, nothing about the words coming out of his mouth childish or cute at all, and Kazuya, thoroughly pleased with the tiny victory, laughs all the way to the parking lot.

*

Tomomi is clearly annoyed as she stomps her way out of the practice field gates to the car, dropping like a sack of rice into the passenger seat of Kazuya's aging Miata. Her curly dark hair is falling out of the sloppy, lopsided pigtails she'd clearly tried to tie herself that morning, and the sullen expression on her face is something she absolutely learned from Kazuya.

So,” Kazuya says, tapping his hands on the steering wheel for emphasis, “What's all this I heard from Coach Akiyama about needing to pick you up early because you body slammed your catcher to the ground in a non-contact sport?” She glares up at him balefully through her eyelashes, crossing her arms defensively, and Kazuya struggles not to laugh at her. “How many times have I told you to cut it out with the wrestling, kid? You're supposed to be more like me, not Kuramochi!” He lifts his left hand from the wheel to poke her in the temple. "Miyukis use their words to cut down morons, remember?"

“It’s not my fault!” Her nostrils flare as she shifts in her seat to look at him directly, swatting his hand away like it's a buzzing house-fly. There’s dirt smeared across her cheek, and her little league jersey is filthy. She looks… well, she looks like she body slammed her catcher to the ground, and that almost sets Kazuya off laughing again.

"Okay," Kazuya says, slowly, resting his hand back on the wheel. "That doesn't mean--"

“He kept saying stuff about my mom! He wouldn't stop--“ Tomomi presses her lips together stubbornly, cutting off the rest of whatever she'd been about to say, and then glances away out the passenger window back toward the field. Her arms fall loose from their cross and down to her sides. Her blue nail polish is chipped as she spreads her hands out on the dirt-caked thighs of her uniform bottoms. Kazuya will re-do it for her later. She’s a pitcher, and he doesn’t want her nails to crack. “Can you just take me home, please, Kazuya?”

Kazuya studies her for a long moment, his amusement fading. Instead, Kazuya feels worry start to slosh around in his belly. “Kept saying what about your mom? What wouldn't he stop, Tomomi?”

“It doesn’t matter, does it?” She reaches for her seatbelt and pulls it across her chest, closing the buckle with an angry snick. “Not like you can do anything about anything Idiot-Daisuke says." Her lower lip juts out. "Whatever! I want breaded pork for dinner!”

“Hmmm,” Kazuya says, forcing himself not to keep pushing, “that sounds like it would be a reward for bad behavior!” Casually, he leans forward slightly to turn on the radio. The Nippon-Ham versus Chiba Lotte game is playing, and it's a pleasant background buzz as Kazuya shifts the car into drive, pulling away from the practice field where Tomomi spends almost every afternoon after school. Kazuya'd attended hundreds of practices here himself, back when he was in primary school. He'd been even smaller than Tomomi is, whose ankles had stuck out of Kazuya's old uniform trousers by two-and-a-half centimeters when Kazuya'd dragged them out of his mother's old cedar storage chest for her last summer when she joined the team. “Shouldn’t I be punishing you for starting a fight?”

“You’re my brother! Brothers don't punish!” Tomomi replies. She’s only eight, but she’s already mastered the nuances of Kazuya’s patented 'I'm-smarter-than-you' delivery. He's so impressed with her, some days. “Anyway, you only told me not to start fights if I couldn’t finish them!”

Kazuya raises both eyebrows as he pulls the car out onto the main road, flashing his turn signal briefly, and then stealing a look at Tomomi after he's safely merged. "I did not say that," Kazuya lies, watching her pull her legs up into the seat. He doesn't normally pick her up in the Miata, because it's a convertible and doesn't have a back seat, but it’s only a short drive to his father’s house from here, so hopefully it's safe enough. “Did you win?"

She screws her face up. “I always win. That’s not the problem!” She scrunches her whole face. "I don't know why everyone's always bothering me! I never bother anyone else!"

“And it’s never your fault,” teases Kazuya, even as his stomach clenches, more concern pooling there in the pit of it. Kazuya knows things aren't easy for her at school, but there’s nothing he can do about her situation in either the classroom or in her after-school clubs. Despite it being years and years ago, Kazuya can remember all too well the cruelty of children from his own adolescence, all the way up until he got to Seidou High School, far away enough from home that no one knew him or his family. “Just… try not to let anyone get to you. You’re gonna be a famous pitcher someday, right? Then you’ll have the last laugh.”

“I’m going to pitch awesome fastballs no one can see coming, like Eijun Sawamura!” She worries at the hole just below the stripe on her left baseball sock, determination written all over her face. “And I’m also gonna be on Japan’s Olympic team, just like you!”

“That’s my girl!” Kazuya says with a tiny laugh. “Since you’ve clearly repented for emulating Kuramochi this afternoon, I guess I can pick up some tonkatsu for you~” Tomomi’s little fist-pump of victory eases some of the tension in his shoulders, allowing him to relax back into the black leather seat and enjoy the drive. “In exchange, though, I want to hear at least one good thing that happened today at school.” Kazuya figures Tomomi probably did well in English class again, since she speaks it pretty well, and it'll remind her that it isn't always bad things that come from her being a little different than her peers.

“There is something that happened today.” Tomomi kicks her short legs out, and hedges: "I don't know if it's good, though, Kazuya. Can I tell you that one, anyway?"

"That's fine," Kazuya says. "Go ahead and spill it, kiddo."

Tomomi is oddly silent, the only noise in the car the quiet purr of the engine and the repeated crack of Nippon-Ham's at-bat slugger hitting foul-tips to stay alive at the plate. It's only when Kazuya sneaks another glance at Tomomi out of the corner of his eye that she start speaking. "You remember Kenji, right?"

Kazuya hums thoughtfully. "The one whose mom brought you to my quarter-finals playoff game last year?"

"Yup," Tomomi agrees. "Anyway, we were in Art class today, and a third-year girl came in with a message from Vice-Principal Kaneshirou, and Kenji just started screaming."

Kazuya's jolts up straighter in alarm, and only his lightning-fast reflexes allow him to adjust his grip on the steering wheel and correct before the car swerves off the road. “What?”

“I said,” Tomomi replies, dragging out the vowels, “Kenji started screaming, and the girl, her name is Airi, she was screaming too! And then everyone in class was yelling, because we were scared something was wrong with them, but Nishizawa-sensei says they just Bonded." She curls her fingers into her thighs, digging in roughly enough that even with her blunt, carefully trimmed nails, she's probably leaving tiny crescents in the skin. "I didn't know that it hurt to Bond, only that it hurt to break it."

Bonding, Kazuya thinks, with a mounting dread. Rare and horrifying and something both he and Tomomi are far too familiar with. "It doesn't always," Kazuya replies, voice sounding distant to his own ears. "I think it has to do with the strength of the Bond. That's why--" He grinds his molars together, even as he schools his face into an expression as neutral as he can make it. "You're not supposed to need to know about this stuff yet."

"Why not?" Tomomi's hands start to uncurl, and Kazuya barely suppresses a sigh of relief. He's not built for these kinds of conversations, even if he's the only person around to have them with her. "I want to know everything I can about it!"

"Because…" He drags the word out teasingly, "you're still a baby!” As he grins out the front window, eyes on the road, he grips the steering wheel too tightly. The leather rubs against his batting calluses.

“I’m not a baby!” Flexing her feet back and forth, smearing dry dirt from her cleats onto Kazuya’s dash, she adds: “Teacher looked really upset when Kenji said he could hear that girl in his head.”

“That’s because it’s a big deal.” Kazuya sucks his lower lip into his mouth. “That kind of thing… Hearing them in your head? That's a deep Bond. It means Kenji and that girl have something inside of them that connects them, and they probably will forever.”

Tomomi goes still. “Not always forever,” she says, sounding terribly small.

“No,” Kazuya agrees, slowly, swallowing the saliva that pools in his mouth, “I guess not.”

Tomomi hums thoughtfully. “Does that mean Kenji’s gonna marry that Airi girl?”

“No.” Kazuya licks his lips. “It’s not always about falling in love. Don't think of it like that. If you ever Bond, you don't have to listen to it, okay? And don't let anyone convince you that you have to keep it, either.”

Okay, okay.” The radio bursts into abrupt, loud static as the audience roars at a Chiba Lotte double-play, ending the fifth inning. Reaching forward with one of her small hands, Tomomi turns the radio down. “Can I stay with you tonight, Kazuya? I don’t want to go home.”

Kazuya has early practice tomorrow, an hour before Tomomi even has to leave for school. He hasn't gone to the market to pick up any fresh vegetables, and he's low on rice. Tomomi's pajamas are still in the laundry.

“Yeah, you can,” Kazuya says, eyes fixing on the rear of the car in front of him, instead of looking directly at Tomomi's eager expression. “That's fine with me. Just call Dad and leave him a message." I never wanted to be there much, either, kiddo, he thinks, and despite the inconvenience, there's a part of him that's so very glad he can be the reason she doesn't have to be.

“And we can still have breaded pork like you said we could?” Tomomi is looking out the window again, watching other cars out on the road, her sweaty forehead leaving streaks against the passenger-side glass. “And play catch!”

"I did not agree to either of those things." Kazuya’s thighs still ache from practice, and he’s been out in the sun all day. He smiles. “But I can't say I really mind." He shifts lanes so he can take the exit toward his place instead of his father’s, a tiny smile pulling at the corners of his lips. "We can work on your spots."

"My spots are good!" Tomomi protests, but without any real fight in the words. "Kazuya, teach me something new!"

"Not until you can pitch the ball to where I'm asking for it~" Kazuya replies, as Tomomi pulls out her tiny blue flip-phone to call their father.

*

“Oi, oi, Miyuki, you’re blocking the vending machine!" Kuramochi says, coming up behind Kazuya and leaning over his shoulder, chin digging in roughly as he squints at Kazuya’s mobile phone. “What are you looking at so seriously? Bonds? Why?”

“A kid in my sister’s class spontaneously Bonded yesterday,” Kazuya replies, flicking Kuramochi in the forehead. “Mind connection and all, I think. The whole shebang.”

“Seriously?” Kuramochi backs off, rubbing at his forehead absently as Kazuya turns around to face him. “Isn't Little Miyuki an elementary school second year?” He offers Kazuya a skeptical expression Kazuya's gotten used to seeing on his face over the past three years since Kuramochi'd been traded to Kazuya's NPB team, the Seibu Lions. "I wouldn’t even choose to make that kind of emotional commitment even now, and I’m twenty-nine!"

“Well," Kazuya replies easily, "you do have the maturity of a kindergartener!”

“I don’t want to hear that kind of shit from you of all people!” Kuramochi pushes a hand through his sweaty, dye-damaged hair, and then, with his other hand, digs into his pocket and pulls out a small Pororo change-purse. “Anyway, that's what's got you looking up Bonds?"

"Tomomi has a lot of questions about them."

"Eh, just tell her the truth: They spontaneous ones are pretty rare these days. Almost every Bonded person I know chose it after they got married, or something."

"Kids are curious. Better she ask me than go looking on her own. She spends enough time alone at my old man's house that I have no doubt she'd go poking around on the internet and find uncensored Bonding fetish porn."

"Wow, you really are basically her dad, aren't you?" Kuramochi opens the purse and fishes around with two fingers for the right coins. "Still, I think just a few basic facts should be enough for an elementary school student. Hell, it's enough for me now!" Triumphantly, he pulls out a hundred-yen coin and two ten-yen coins. "I’ve only ever known one person that had a spontaneous Bond, and it didn’t work out. He and his Bondmate didn’t get along at all, so they broke it. They’re both fine now, since it wasn’t a deep thing. It totally faded away after a few months, and they still live kinda near each other.”

"That's nice for them, I guess," Kazuya says. "It doesn't always work that way, though. When you break a Bond, I mean."

"Yeah, dude, obviously, but don't tell your little sister depressing shit like that!" Kuramochi taps Kazuya's shin with the toe of his cleat. "Move outta my way."

"I don't have to tell her that. That's the part she already knows." Kazuya tells him, moving out of the way of the vending machine option selection. “My dad Bonded twice. You could also say that those didn’t... work out.”

It's an understatement, all things considered. Kazuya’s mother has been dead for almost twenty years, and the sundering of that Bond had left half a man behind instead of a whole one.

As for Tomomi’s mother… She currently lives somewhere in Sweden for work, Kazuya thinks, and she calls Tomomi once every other week, but only actually visits once or twice a year, always bringing piles of souvenirs as though they sheer amount can make up for the constant absence. She never calls Kazuya’s father, who spends most of his time at either at work or at the bottom of a bottle.

Kazuya remembers a night when he was sixteen, home from his boarding school for Golden Week, and he'd come downstairs in the middle of the night to get a glass of water, only to find his father halfway to wasted at one of the kitchen counters, a bottle of Scotch whisky equally halfway to empty. He stood over a heating skillet with the gas turned on low, and Kazuya had watched him tap the egg with surprising coordination on the edge of the countertop to break the shell. "It feels like I'm an egg that's been cracked open," his dad had slurred as he let the egg slip out of the shell into the heated skillet. "All the inside parts are gone, fried." He'd turned to Kazuya and held out the shell, his fingers shiny with leaked egg-white. "This is the only part of me that's left."

Pushing the memory away, Kazuya watches as Kuramochi feeds his coins into the slot, pondering his options.

“Your mom, and then Tomomi’s mom, right?” Kuramochi asks, as he selects an apple soda, squatting down to collect it after it's rattled its way down from the refrigerator to the dispenser. “Still, it’s like a one and a million chance, even if your dad apparently got struck by lightning twice. It’s not like you’ve got to worry about it happening to your sister now, or something.” Kuramochi stands up again, wiggling his eyebrows. “Unless you think it runs in the family, or something." He stands, careful not to shake the can. "You know, now that I'm thinking about it, it's true that the only way someone would saddle themselves with you is if they had to! Hyaha!”

Kazuya snorts. “Not interested in the the universe taking an active role in my interpersonal relationships, so thanks but no thanks,” he says, striking as quickly as a cobra to snatch Kuramochi’s change-purse back out of his pocket, and then grinning as Kuramochi almost drops his soda in his efforts to swipe it back. “Besides, aren't you projecting? I'm not the person in this conversation who has to worry about no one wanting to date me!” He opens the purse and takes out a couple of coins. “Thanks for the loan~!”

“Stop stealing my pocket change, you rich bastard! Your regular season contract was twice the size of mine!"

"Does that mean I do twice as much for the team?" Kazuya jokes, and Kuramochi pokes at Kazuya's chest aggressively.

"I hope you Bond to a baseball, you asshole!” Kazuya laughs, elbowing past him to feed the coins into the machine. “Or a street lamp, or some other inanimate object that your twisted sense of humor is wasted on! Nothing would bring me more pleasure!”

“Oh, you’re into that kind of thing? How kinky! Maybe I should be monitoring your internet usage, too? What kind of uncensored fetish porn are you downloading?” Kazuya collects his own soda from the vending machine dispenser. The carbonation tickles at the back of his throat when he takes the first sip. “Better keep that out of the press, Kuramochi. Olympics season’s coming up, and you wouldn’t want to miss out on the product endorsement deals!”

“You’re such a shithead, oh my God.” He holds out his hand demandingly, and Kazuya drops the change purse into his palm. “Are you really the best choice for vice-captain? Pickings must have been slim.”

“Better me than Kominato Ryousuke,” Kazuya replies, smiling like a shark and showing all of his teeth when Kuramochi shudders, probably at the thought of the devious punishments Kominato would come up with to inflict on a team under his partial command. “But since I'm such an admirable vice-captain, I'll remind you that we should get back to practice.” He takes another sip of his drink. “Ahh, it's been like ten minutes! You’re such a slacker, Kuramochi!”

“What?! Me?” Kuramochi presses his cold drink can to Kazuya’s neck, and Kazuya jumps from the shock of cold against his hot skin, splashing soda out onto his hand and cursing as it spills down the front of his practice jersey. “I’m not the one who was late this morning, and I'm also not the one standing out by the vending machines searching up Bonds on my phone like a high school girl with her first boyfriend!” He slyly grins. “I’m going to tell Narumiya!”

Miyuki narrows his eyes. “Oh? Should I tell Azuma-san that you think his girlfriend’s hot, in exchange?” He downs the rest of his soda in one long chug as Kuramochi sputters on nothing.

“I never said that!” Kuramochi yells, and Kazuya snickers as he tosses his can into the recycle bin. “Hey, you can’t just make things up to cause trouble! Even if it’s true that his girlfriend is way too hot for him, he’ll still kill me--"

"Way too hot for him? Wow, Kuramochi, that's blunt."

"Hey, don't you dare tell Azuma-- Miyuki!”

“Hurry up, Kuramochi~!” Kazuya singsongs, already walking away, “the Friendship Series is only eight days away, and you need all the batting practice you can get!”

“Shut the hell up!” Kuramochi’s can dings loudly on the edge of the recycle bin, and then he’s hurrying to catch up, slinging an arm around Kazuya’s shoulder as they walk back through the tunnel, toward the open field where the rest of the team continues to practice for the rapidly approaching games against the American team.

*

"A mixer?" Asou complains, as Kazuya climbs out of the front passenger seat of the taxi and into the brightly lit Roppongi streets. It's a hot night, and summer insects buzz loudly enough that Kazuya can hear them above the rousing, off-tune rendition of the 'Matsuken Samba' pouring out of the open window of the second floor sports bar across the street. "What is this, salaryman speed dating?'

"Now, now," Kazuya says, pulling out his wallet to pay the driver, "it is a Friendship Series. We're just drinking the Americans under the table tonight to prepare them for losing in a few days, and teach them a little about Japan in the process."

"You've got the nastiest personality," Kuramochi says, pushing Asou out of the taxi and clamoring out behind him. "Mima just messaged me to ask where we were. I'm guessing that we're the last group to arrive."

"If Kuramochi hadn't taken so long to fix his hair…"

"Not all of us have somehow mind-controlled all of Japan into thinking our mullet is acceptable."

"If I had mind-control powers," Kazuya replies, "the last thing I'd use it for is to control the narrative about my haircut." His phone beeps with a message as well, and he pulls it out to find he has his own update from Okumura, exact address included. "We should get going, before Yuuki sends out a search party."

The bar located at the address they'd been sent is up high, in a tenth floor skyroom, dimly lit but wide inside, with walls of windows and plenty of sleek modern tables, mostly occupied with what looks to Kazuya like most of two teams' worth of forty-man rosters as well as a few scattered older men who are clearly staff. "Clearly not salaryman speed-dating," Kuramochi says to Asou as they push open the glass doors. "Since there aren't any women."

"I'm married anyway," Asou punches Kuramochi in the shoulder. "And isn't this the ideal sort of speed dating for Miyuki? Hundreds of eligible men in his age-range, instead of older corporate execs!"

"Hah! That was the weirdest scandal!" Kuramochi says. "It didn't even make any sense. You were just photographed with him a few times.”

"Oh, when everyone thought Miyuki had Bonded to that guy from upper-management, and that's why he took the Lions renewal deal even after the Swallows offered him that huge trade contract?" Asou asks.

Kuramochi nods. "It was so bizarre. Bonds are a matter of public record, aren't they?"

"Only if you register them to get Bond rights." Kazuya shoves his hands in his pockets. "But it was still insulting. Inagaki is married, and it also implied that I couldn't have any other reason for choosing the Lions," he adds bitterly. "Not like I could just be happy with my current team." Kazuya'd always liked the idea of being part of a team he helped build up, just like he'd been with Seidou, a team referred to as a fallen powerhouse before his generation of players had chosen it.

"Now that sounds like fake news," Kuramochi says. "I've never seen you happy unless you're being sneaky about something. You're not even happy when we win games, just satisfied like a cat that finally caught a particularly wily mouse." Kuramochi sucks his teeth. "Except when you're with your sister. You have a real-boy smile and everything when she's around. I almost had a heart attack."

'Your heart is that weak?" Kazuya asks. "Anyway, that whole mess happened four years ago. Time to let it go."

"You mean, the way you let go of the embarrassing things that happen to everyone else?" Asou jokingly replies.

"I only mock the misfortunes people cause themselves," says Kazuya, with a cheeky grin. "It's a totally different situation!"

"Kazuya!" Mei calls out, from the other side of the room. "Come meet these batters we're going to crush next week!"

"Maybe that's the real reason why you didn't sign with the Swallows," Kuramochi murmurs, and Kazuya rolls his eyes.

"I like Mei just fine as a pitcher," Kazuya replies. "He has the right kind of attitude, at least. Anyway, that's my cue to leave you two losers to your own devices. Enjoy the mixer! Hope you both find pseudo-dates~!" He winks at Kuramochi.

Kuramochi scowls back at him. "Go away!" He shoos Kazuya off, and Kazuya snickers as he makes his way over to Mei, who is already speaking in broken English to a group of batters who dwarf him in size.

He talks with them for a bit, facilitating with his only slightly better English, before excusing himself to get a drink from the bar. He orders a pint of the Asahi on draft, and then, holding the chilled glass in his hand, leans back to survey the room.

Chris, when Kazuya finally picks him out of the crowd, looks almost exactly the same as he'd looked in high school, tall and far too handsome. He doesn't have any of his signature gel in his hair, leaving it in gentle waves that remind Kazuya so much of his sister's, and the top two buttons of his relaxed, comfortable looking henley are undone.

He waits for Chris to spot him, gratified when Chris' lips twitch in recognition when their eyes meet. Chris murmurs something to the short, dark-haired man standing next to him before he starts to weave his way through the crowd toward Kazuya.

"Long time no see," Kazuya says, clinking his fresh glass against Chris's nearly empty one. "Welcome home."

"Thanks, Miyuki." Chris takes a long sip, killing his beer, and then sets his empty glass on the edge of the nearest table. "The last time I saw you was…"

"Just over eleven years ago," Kazuya says. "I can't believe you made me wait eleven years to play you catcher-to-catcher, Chris-san."

"I made you wait?" Chris exhales loudly through his nose. "You're the one who won't come over and play in the Big Leagues."

"The NPB is the Big Leagues too." Kazuya takes another sip of his beer. "Don't be elitist, Chris. We play good baseball over here. I'll be kind enough to show you on Monday."

"It's not the same level of play and you know it," Chris replies. "Almost everyone I know that follows Japanese baseball has been waiting for you to make the move."

Kazuya shrugs, licking his teeth and tasting the familiar sourness of Asahi hops. "They shouldn't hold their breath."

"You don't want to try it?" Chris asks. "Sawamura's going to be disappointed when I tell him that."

"I've got reasons to stay in Japan," say Kazuya. He scans the room again, but he doesn't spot the man pictured in so many of his sister's baseball posters no matter which direction he looks. "And where is Sawamura, anyway?"

"Sawamura is currently passed out on the floor of his hotel room, mouth open and drooling as he sleeps off his jet lag." Chris laughs fondly, and Kazuya's surprised at the open emotion. The Chris he remembers had gone cold, when he'd hurt his shoulder, and even when he'd recovered there'd been something closed off in him, all the way up until he'd left Japan to join the American minor leagues after a final year of rehab. "He's going to be mad I didn't try harder to wake him up. He's really been looking forward to meeting the Japanese team." Chris pulls a tiny secretive grin. "Especially you, Miyuki."

Kazuya narrows his eyes slightly, a prickle of something crawling down his spine at the thought, but he brushes it off. "He'll have plenty of chances. You guys are staying for a couple of weeks, and he speaks some Japanese, right?"

"Well…" Chris prevaricates, "it's gotten better over the past few years. He's understandable. You shouldn't have any trouble holding a conversation with him, even if he has a limited vocabulary." He tilts his chin back toward the bar. "I'm going to get another drink. Walk with me?"

"Sure," Kazuya says.

Kazuya tags along with Chris until after he's gotten a fresh glass of the on-tap draft, and once they've worked their way back out of the cluster of players at the bar, he leads Chris toward the more dimly lit tables toward the edge of the room, Chris slides up onto one of the high-backed stools, gesturing for Kazuya to join him.

"So," he says, "tell me what's stopped you from moving to play overseas." He leans forward on his elbows, and Kazuya had been wrong to say Chris looked the same as he looked in high school He hasn't aged, but there's a smile in his eyes that Kazuya doesn't recognize at all. "It can't be the language barrier. That wouldn't stop you. And it's definitely not the money. Carlos…" He taps his glass. "He's a defensive specialist who plays with me on the Brewers."

"I know who Carlos Kamiya is," Kazuya says. "Are you kidding?"

"I don't know how much you follow a baseball league you don't play in." Chris shrugs. "Carlos told me the rumor-mill had possible starting salary offers for you listed way above what a Japanese NPB team could afford to pay you."

"What if I just don't want to?" Kazuya says lightly. "Some of us are quite content where we are."

"Even if I don't know that much about you anymore, Miyuki, I know one thing for certain: You're greedy, especially about baseball. You've never been content in your life."

Never happy, never content. Kazuya sure has an image. It's too bad he's earned it fair and square.

"Heh," he says, "that's true enough." He closes his eyes for a long moment, then opens them again. "It's…" Kazuya swirls his beer, watching the foam slosh white on the insides of the glass. "Personal."

Chris's lips thin out as he presses them together. "Fair enough."

"And," Kazuya says, "I'm looking forward to reminding you that Japanese baseball isn't anything to look down on." He takes a long sip of his drink, ignoring the way the sourness lingers on the back of his tongue.

"I'm not looking down on it," Chris says. "Japanese baseball culture made me, for better or for worse. It's just a fact that the best players move over to the MLB. The NPB is playing at the level of the top AAA minor league teams right now."

Kazuya pushes his glasses back up his nose. "I hope you remember that our national team includes players that play in the MLB, and they still chose me, and they still chose Mei." He drops his hands back to his glass, and starts spinning it in his fingers, just to give them something to do. "We might not play on those top teams, but people seem to think we can compete with people who do, meaning the level of play is high enough."

Chris stares at him for a long moment, and then he says. "Honestly, it's strange that I won't be playing for Japan."

"Ah, it's been ten years, though. You're an American citizen now."

"I've always been an American citizen." Chris smiles at him thinly. "When I turned twenty I got the official notification from the Japanese government that I had to choose to be, nationally speaking, Japanese or a foreigner, since Japan doesn't allow adults to have dual citizenship. Since I was already making the move to the MLB and I don't have any family left living here, I chose to keep my American passport." He shrugs. "It's easier to handle my finances, at least."

"It wasn't because it was easier to live over there?"

Chris purses his lips. "Why would it be easier? I grew up here in Japan. I'm Japanese, too, you know, even if I'm playing for Team USA."

"I meant…" Kazuya looks at the high bridge of Chris's nose, his coloring, the folds of his eyelids. "Never mind."

"You mean because im a half?" Chris stares down at his beer. "You never asked stuff like that before."

"I'm older and wiser now, or something like that." Kazuya slips a hand into his pocket and fingers the edge of his phone in thought. Then he pulls it out, opening his photo app to select one of the handful of photos he's taken since he bought it last year. "This is my sister," he says, holding it out to Chris, who takes it with curiosity.

"How old is she?" Chris asks, after studying the photo, expression turning considering.

"Eight." He drags his thumb along the lip of his near-empty glass, and it sings, a low hollow note. "She's a Little League pitcher. Only girl on the team."

"Really?" Chris scratches at his stubbled jaw, handing Kazuya back his phone. "You sound really smug about it."

"Of course I am," says Kazuya. "I'm the one that taught her." He offers Chris a crooked grin. "Maybe she'll be ready to go pro by the time I'm thinking about retiring. Keep the Miyuki jersey alive for a couple-dozen more years."

"Twenty to your forty-two? Are you going to hang on like Suzuki Ichirou?" Chris hooks a finger into the parted neck of his henley and stretches it away from his collarbones, clearly alcohol-hot since the aircon is on full blast. "That's the reason you don't want to leave. Your sister."

"Confidential~" Kazuya says, and he finishes off his beer. "Tell me about your bullpen, instead. Who’s most likely to throw a meatball in the eighth inning?”

“Only if you tell me how you finally drilled some control into that ridiculously high-velocity fastball Furuya Satoru throws,” Chris replies, letting the subject change without a fuss. “I’m trying to up Sawamura’s velocity on his straight fastball.”

“As if I’m going to help you improve that fucking unfair idiosyncratic ball so close to the Olympics!”

“Then I guess my bullpen’s going to remain mostly a mystery to you too!” Chris picks up his glass again, leans across the table and clinks it against Kazuya’s empty one. “To a good series,” he says.

Kazuya grins in return. “It’ll be good for Japan, at least,” he says, as he turns to watch Azuma and Isashiki attempt to teach the youngest members of the American team how to play the Yamanote Sen drinking game through the formidable language barrier.

Four hours later, a little after one in the morning, Kazuya is tipsily letting himself into his apartment, pressing the wrong numbers on the keypad twice before successfully inputting his passcode to unlock the door.

He slips out of his shoes, not bothering to untie them or put them up on the shoe rack, and pulls his wallet out of his pocket to set on the small shelf by the door next to his different sets of car keys.

"Kazuya?"

Startled at the sound, Kazuya trips on the step up from the recessed foyer into his open living room. “Tomomi?” He turns on the overhead light, and sees her blinking up at him blearily from where she lies curled up on his low sofa, her feet tucked under the fleece Seibu Lions throw blanket. A crinkled up, empty bag of shrimp crackers is on the floor next to the pillows that usually sit in the stretch where Tomomi has taken over. “What are you doing here?”

“I talked to my mom today,” Tomomi says. “She’s not coming to visit again until November.”

Kazuya walks past Tomomi, and into the kitchen. He hears her getting up from the sofa to follow him, and he turns on the electric kettle, pulling the tin of Swiss hot chocolate that had arrived at Kazuya’s doorstep last fall around his birthday down from the long open shelves above the counter. His reflexes are dulled by the alcohol, so he almost drops it, but he manages to catch it with his hip, trapping the tin between himself and the edge of the counter before it can clatter to the floor.

After Tomomi’s climbed up onto one of the stools at the kitchen island, he says: “We could go visit her instead, if you want. After the Olympics in August.” He adds three heaping spoonfuls of the chocolate cocoa powder to two plain white mugs. “If Dad’ll sign off on it, I mean. You’d have to miss school, so he’d have to call and inform them you’ll be gone for a week or two.”

“We can go to Sweden?”

“Yeah,” Kazuya says. “Or wherever she’s gonna be, in August. I’ll call her and ask about it. See if we can figure something out.” The kettle beeps twice, and Kazuya pours water into both cups. He slides one across the island counter to Tomomi, keeping the second cup for himself. It’s not too sweet, and that’s why he likes it. It also eases a little of his haziness, allowing him to take a better look at Tomomi. "You know she doesn't stay away from Japan because she doesn't love you, right?"

"I know. It's because of her and Dad's broken Bond." She’s wearing a pair of the thin Pororo pajamas she keeps in the room Kazuya’s set aside for her to stay in when he bought this place six years ago with his first big contract money, back when she’d still been a toddler and her mother had still lived in Japan. There are impressions from the couch cushion on her cheek, and her hair is a mess of tangles, like she’d taken a bath and then hadn’t bothered to comb it. "It's only half-broken."

"Partially broken," Kazuya corrects. "They had a really deep Bond, so when they get close to each other, it hurts because it's trying to fix itself."

"But they don't want to fix it," she replies.

"No," he says, "they don't." Kazuya waits until she’s taken a sip of her chocolate and let out a pleased little sigh before he speaks again. “Did you take the bus here by yourself?”

“I didn't,” she says, hands not quite big enough to wrap all the way around the mug. They're barely big enough to hold a regulation baseball. “I asked Kenji’s mom to drop me off here after practice.” Her calves bang rhythmically against the metal bar connecting the front two stool legs. “Tomorrow’s Sunday and there’s no school, so I figured it would be okay.”

“You can always come here,” Kazuya says. “That's why I gave you the passcode, and introduced you to the door-guards. Next time call me, though, okay? I’d have come home earlier.” He circles the island to take the seat on the stool next to hers, and reaches over to muss her tangled hair. “Someone has to make sure you brush this mop!” She squawks, knocking his hand away in playful outrage, and Kazuya laughs.

“I can take care of myself!” She says, and it twinges painfully in his chest how familiar the sentiment is. He'd said it to himself enough, growing up, whenever he'd burned his fingers on the stove or climbed up on top of chairs to reach the detergent for the laundry from the high shelf in the hall closet because his father wasn't awake to help.

Tomomi will never have to deal with things like that, at least. Tomomi's mother had left her in Japan instead of taking her with her to offer Tomomi stability, and Kazuya will do his best to make sure she gets it.

“You probably could," he replies, "but you shouldn’t have to.” She makes a face, and he elbows her gently. “That’s what I’m here for, remember?”

“To do everything I say?” She flutters her eyelashes at him, and he chuckles into the lip of his cup, making bubbles in the warm chocolate.

“Yes, Your Majesty,” he agrees. Then, with a tiny bit of hesitation, he sets his mug back down. “How is Kenji doing? With his Bond, I mean.”

Tomomi’s cheerful expression fades into something more withdrawn. “I think he’s okay,” she says. “Airi’s nice. She comes to our classroom and sits with us at lunch sometimes.” She draws aimlessly with her finger on the metal countertop. “Sometimes it feels like they’re leaving me out, even though Kenji is my best friend.” She looks up at him. “And he gets sad or happy for no reason now, too. It’s weird. I don't like it.”

“Yeah, it probably is pretty weird for you to watch.” He nudges her cocoa, to remind her to drink it before it gets cold. “It’s nice that it’s not bad for Kenji, though, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, for now,” Tomomi says. "But what happens if they like each other too much, and I stop mattering?"

"Tomomi…"

"Or," she says, "what if they end up not liking each other at all, and the Bond get broken? Is Kenji going to be like Dad?" In a sudden burst of anger, she kicks at the underside of the kitchen island. “I just wish people didn’t Bond at all! All it does is ruin things!”

Kazuya sets his cup down on the table. “Yeah,” Kazuya says, leaning forward to rest his elbows on the table, “I know, kiddo. You've just got to remember that not everyone who breaks a Bond ends up like Dad, too, okay? Plenty of people live happy lives with a broken Bond. Your mom's pretty happy, right? Traveling all over the world for her research?"

"Yeah," Tomomi says, and Kazuya knows she's thinking about the fact that her mother might be happy, but it's Tomomi who pays the heaviest price for that broken Bond, the enforced oceans between her parents taking its toll on her as time goes by. "You won't go away, too, right?"

"Of course I won't," Kazuya replies. "You're stuck with me, no Bond required."

She grins up at him, chocolate mustache on her upper lip, and then leans her head against his arm happily, taking another sip.

He puts her to bed when she’s finished her drink, in her room covered in posters of Eijun Sawamura and Kuramochi and Kazuya’s Seibu Lions team photos from the last three years. “We can play catch tomorrow, right?” She asks sleepily. "And paint our nails. 'Cause it's Sunday."

Kazuya brushes her hair back from her forehead. “Of course, Your Majesty,” he teases, before he gets up, and turns off the lights, heading straight to the bathroom to wash the lingering smell of smoke and beer from the bar from his skin.

*

It's a bright clear afternoon, the Monday of the first Friendship Series game. The Americans are wearing uniform jerseys in a dark Navy, with USA scrawled in a vibrant red the same color as Japan's jerseys across the chest and down the right arm.

Mei is vibrating with excitement, leaning out into the field from the front of the dugout, his eyes fixed on the opposing team's bullpen warmup. There's already a thin sheen of sweat on his round face, and Kazuya's going to have to keep a close eye on him, and an even closer one on Furuya, who's on deck to relieve today if necessary.

"Are you that excited to see Sawamura pitch?" Kazuya asks, checking the grip tape around his bat handle. He'd redone it last week, but it's habit, and it's not the worst habit to have so he doesn't bother to curb it. “I’d almost think that all your complaining was a cover-up for the truth that you're a secret Eijun Sawamura fanboy!”

Aghast, Mei rocks back on his heels and turns to glare at Kazuya. “I’m not his fan! We’re rivals! Rivals, Kazuya!”

“I see, I see,” Kazuya says, unfolding his sports sunglasses and settling them over his eyes. The sun's so bright that he's contemplating eye-black. “Do you think he knows you guys are rivals, or is it all in your head, Ace-sama?”

Crossing his arms with a sharp exhale, Mei puffs his displeasure out in a noisy exhale. “He definitely watches Japanese baseball! Didn’t you see him talking about how excited he was that Todoroki Raichi was joining the Chicago Cubs next year, since he’s been following his career?”

“No,” Kazuya says, getting up from the bleacher seat to stand next to Mei, leaning casually on the metal surface framing their view of the diamond. “But I’m not a big, huge secret fanboy like you that apparently follows all his interviews!”

The noise Mei makes in the back of his throat is inhuman. “Not a fan, a rival!”

“Sure, sure, I totally believe you,” Kazuya says, tugging on the brim of his baseball cap to pull it off, tossing it over to rest on his gear bag. He wonders if Okumura or Harada is going to help Mei warm up, considering Kazuya’s batting third in the rotation today, right ahead of their captain, Yuuki Tetsuya. “I wonder if Hongou also watches all of his interviews, since they pitch in the same league and are often referred to as rivals. Should we go ask?”

"You’re being awfully blasé for a guy that memorizes pitcher stats in his free time. Sawamura’s won two Cy Young awards. Aren't you curious to see what all the fuss is about?" Mei cuts a quick glance back at the field, before returning his gaze to Kazuya. "You know you've watched his tape hundreds of times. You're excited, too."

"Tomomi definitely loves him," Kazuya admits. "I think it's mostly how many grips he has for his fastball. Chris is probably great at calling for him, too, showing him off in just the right ways." He sucks his teeth. “They’ll be a real challenge to get hits off of. How troublesome.”

"Kazuya, that sounded almost like an honest compliment! From you, of all people!" Mei pouts, kicking at the dirt, scuffing his cleats. "It's boring when you're not petty. What happened to the trash-talking and the vow to help me to kick his ass?"

"I didn't say we weren't going to win," replies Kazuya. "If you don't throw any tantrums, we're also very strong. Just stop shaking my signs and we'll handle their batters just fine. Let the offense handle Sawamura's rude, idiosyncratic balls."

Puffing his cheeks out, every inch a petulant toddler even at thirty years old, Mei turns his back on Kazuya completely, squinting once again over at the American team's bullpen warm-ups. “Make sure you hit today,” he says. “It’ll be no fair if I pitch well and we don’t even score.”

“Ha! Don’t let Captain Yuuki hear that kind of negativity! He definitely won’t like it!”

“I don’t care,” Mei whines, and Kazuya laughs, walking back to the bench to take a long pull from his water thermos. "Captains aren't necessary, anyway! We don't have them in the pros at all!"

"You're just saying that because I've got more authority than you~!" Kazuya says, resting his bat against the bench and bending over to dig out his batting gloves, knocking his cap onto the dirt floor.

Fifteen minutes later, after the field lines have been touched up and the refs have scattered into position across the field, The American team’s defense finally streams out from the dugout to the cheers of the stadium, led by Sawamura and Chris, and followed by what looks like a collection of players that had been chosen by the handful from a special collection display of elite player baseball cards. A totally stacked deck, Kazuya thinks, recognizing each individual player as an international celebrity in their own right. Sawamura and Chris are the only Japanese-American players currently on the field, but Kazuya had met a third at the mixer, several drinks after the first he'd shared with Chris. The team is a total cheat, but Kazuya thinks, hopes, that Japan might be able to eke out a few victories anyway.

The first thing Sawamura does when he gets out to the mound is turn around and wave at all the fielders behind him, and, at a truly astounding volume, yell: “Balls are going to come flying, so thank you for your hard work!” His voice is rough, and the English sounds harsh to Kazuya’s ears, nothing like Tomomi's, which has sharper vowels like her mother's.

Sawamura's fielders all laugh, the short-stop punching the inside of his glove and grinning back at him, and Sawamura turns back around, smiling broadly, adjusting his cap until it sits perfectly straight on the wild curls underneath it.

As Chris calls for a few soft targeting pitches, Kominato Ryousuke heads to the plate, bat loosely in hand and eyes narrow with anticipation. Kuramochi’s already in the on-deck circle, ready to see what he can pick up from Kominato's AB, and Kazuya leans further out too, craning his neck out in a mimicry Mei’s earlier position, because he’s admittedly curious to see Sawamura in action, too.

The moment Kominato steps into the box, Sawamura’s aura changes. Gone is the friendly, laughing man with the loud voice that was waving his arms like a moron at his teammates, replaced with a predator whose lion-eyes Kazuya is sure are terrifying when they’re pinned right on you at the plate.

Kazuya can see Kominato smirk with genuine interest at the shift in the atmosphere, and Kazuya finds himself grinning, too, some strange tension thrumming inside of him, ratcheting up his excitement as Sawamura spins the ball in his dexterous fingers.

“Well, well, well,” he says, and Zaizen, a batter in a clean-up spot who has come up to stand at the front a couple meters down from Kazuya, grunts in grim agreement.

“This might even be interesting,” he replies, but his eyes are on Chris, not Sawamura, waiting to see what kind of pitch Chris frames up for. “Looks like he’ll be going to the outside.”

Kazuya bites his lip as Sawamura's leg lifts, high up into the air and drawing across his body as his left arm winds back, hidden behind his right arm wall. Then, like a whip, he throws his left arm forward in a smooth motion, releasing a fastball that seems to wobble in the air until it jerks sharply at the plate, just underneath and to the left of Kominato’s robust swing.

"Shit," Kazuya says to himself, blinking twice to clear his eyes. "The speed on that is definitely above one-fifty kilometers per second." He chuckles, anticipation suddenly hot in his veins. “Chris wanted to increase the velocity of that moving thing? Bullshit!” Kazuya can’t wait for that ball to be coming right him, a puzzle for him to figure out. He wonders what it’s like to catch it; if it would sting the meat of his palm like Furuya’s deadly closing fastballs, or if it would be just soft enough that Kazuya’d be able to control the impact to his hand with the right angle on his mitt.

Sawamura is relentless, following up his first pitch with a change-up, then a cutter. Kominato gets a strike for not swinging on the second pitch, his jaw clenched in concentration as it slams into Chris's glove right across the center of the plate, and goes out swinging on the third.

Kuramochi is already adjusting his new elbow guard as he walks out to the box, and Kominato stops Kazuya on his way out to the circle. “You can’t see the grip at all,” he says, “and all three of those pitches looked the same at release. No tells thanks that right arm wall.”

“How scary~!” Kazuya says cheerfully, as he fits his batting helmet over his hair, and then he’s stopping in Japan’s on-deck circle with a useless view of Sawamura’s pitches from the right foul territory, his pitching arm completely blocked.

As Kazuya waits, his calf-muscles tensing and untensing, there's an odd burbling in his stomach, like he's waiting for something beyond his turn at-bat. He watches one gloved hand pressed to his churning belly and the other tight around his back as Sawamura strikes Kuramochi out in a rapid one-two-three.

Kuramochi’s clear chagrin is obvious even from a distance as he jogs back toward the dugout, bat in hand. He shakes his head at Kazuya, nothing to impart, and then passes him to go down into the dugout.

The announcer introduces Kazuya as he starts to walk toward the plate, his at-bat song drowned out by the crowd that already knows it by heart and sings along. Sawamura looks delighted at the tradition, and he's still grinning triumphantly from his second strike-out, too, tossing his rosin bag up and down in his hand.

Sawamura drops the rosin after a couple of seconds, accepting the ball Chris sends his way with an easy return. With every step closer to the plate Kazuya gets, the higher the tension in him soars. His stomach aches, now, and for some reason, saliva is collecting in his mouth like he's about to throw up. The bat feels like lead in his hand, heavier than it is even after a full afternoon of batting practice, and his heart is beating so fast that Kazuya's shocked you can't see it through the front of his jersey.

Then, Sawamura's head swings in Kazuya's direction, the ball up in midair in the middle of a playful toss-up. Their eyes meet, and the world just… stops, Kazuya trapped in Sawamura's fiery lion's gaze as the the game, and everything else, falls away from him.

The bottom drops out of his stomach, and at first, Kazuya thinks he's stopped breathing. But when he grasps for something, anything from the world around him, he finds that he can hear himself loudly exhaling even if he can't feel it, and it's the only thing louder than the sound of two heartbeats, his own and someone else's, pounding in his ears. The throbbing heartbeats start out erratic, two separate sounds, but then they settle in to the same rhythm, beating in unison with all the volume of high-summer thunder as Kazuya stands there, bat loose in his numb fingers and Sawamura the only thing he can see.

Then comes the rush, like water breaking over a dam, of someone else's emotions, Sawamura's emotions, and they mix with the shallow pools of Kazuya's own, making it impossible, for a long, painful moment, for him to tell apart which ones belong to him and which ones are the invaders.

Oh, Kazuya thinks, deliriously, as his stomach heaves, and he's struck with a splitting headache, his head and his gut both overfilled to bursting as Sawamura winces in tandem, ball falling from his slack fingertips,so that's why people scream.

Kazuya closes his eyes, breaking their gazes, and the headache fades enough for him to collect himself, bit by bit. His awareness of the stadium around him returns slowly, everything fading back in incrementally, allowing him to hear the continued roar of the crowd, the clanging of stamping feet in the seats, and the shouts from behind him in Japan's dugout asking what the hold up is. He gulps, swallowing the saliva still pooling in his mouth, and takes another gasping breath that burns his lungs.

When he opens his eyes, it's to Chris in profile, still upright and looking at Sawamura with serious concern, and it takes all of Kazuya's force of will not to turn and look back at the mound. He doesn't have to look, really. Not when he can feel a Bond, unwanted and unexpected, surging to life between them. It's terrifyingly deep water he's not prepared to navigate. That he doesn't want, has never wanted, to even attempt to swim in.

Not this, Kazuya thinks, trying to regain his grip on his bat as it threatens to slip from his fingers. Not me.

Panic swells inside of him, making it hard for him to think anything beyond the no, no no that beats in time with their synchronized hearts. Don't say anything, he thinks, even though he knows Sawamura won't, can't, hear his actual thoughts. Please don't say anything to anyone.

Chris stands up, still not looking at Kazuya, lifting his face mask. He motions to the ump that he's going to approach the mound. "Eijun," he calls out, as he jogs away from Kazuya and the plate. "Are you okay?" He says something else as he gets closer to the mound, but the English is too fast, and the volume too low, and Kazuya doesn't catch it. The American coach and the pitching coach both have come out of the dugout, like they want to approach too, but Chris waves them off.

Kazuya takes the last two steps to the plate before he stops again, hit with another wave of panic, this time not his own, and with no idea how far it extends or what's causing it, it's harder to claw his way to the surface so he can breathe around it.

"Ah! Chris! I'm sorry!" Sawamura yells, loud enough that Kazuya can hear it from where he stands. "It's nothing! I'm fine!"

"Miyuki!" Kazuya looks back toward the batting coach, whose eyebrows are drawn together in concern. "Everything good?"

He makes the 'okay' sign with his left hand, managing a grin that he hopes looks normal from a distance. Chris comes at a brisk walk back toward home plate, and Kazuya tries to imagine a giant wall between himself and Sawamura, to dull the connection enough for him to wrap his hands more tightly around the handle of the bat.

"Sorry about that," Chris says, squatting back down into position. "Looks like he had a cramp."

Relieved that Sawamura hadn't revealed anything, Kazuya nods. It makes him dizzy, and he wants nothing more than to be alone somewhere right now, just until his heart stops racing and his breakfast stops threatening to come back up. "No big deal," he says, his voice rasping. "It's been a hot spring. We're all a little dehydrated."

Chris's face is set in serious lines, his eyes narrowed as he studies Sawamura. "Hmm," he says. "It's unusual for anything to affect Sawamura at the mound, these days. It's one of his greatest strengths as a pitcher."

Kazuya sets up to bat, tapping the tip to the dirt and then the plate as he finally faces Sawamura again. "I'm sure he's fine."

Sawamura, when Kazuya raises his gaze up to face him, is staring back, those bright, sunlit eyes of his gleaming, and Kazuya's heart, previously pounding, falls out of time, skipping a beat. He licks his dry lips, and adjusts the position of his hips as Sawamura tilts his body, pitching arm drawing back.

Leg lift, throw, and Sawamura's exhilaration at the release comes tumbling like a waterfall over Kazuya's imaginary wall, keeping him from swinging.

"Ball!" the umpire calls out as Chris leans left to easily catch the outside pitch that's gone wide. The aftershocks of Sawamura's irrepressible joy linger, though, and Kazuya's hands start to tremble.

Kazuya breathes out, taps his bat again, sets-up.

The next three balls come with the same fierce exuberance, like the sheer act of pitching thrills Sawamura all the way down to his bones, and they all cross home plate right at center of the strike zone.

"Out!" the umpire yells, and just like that, the top of the inning is over, and Kazuya's trudging back to the dugout to change into his catching gear. His teammates slap his back in consolation as he descends the stairs, but Kazuya can barely feel it. He can't feel anything that's happening to himself with any real strength, his consciousness overpowered completely by Sawamura and the boundless stretch of his energy. Sawamura's heartbeat is still a steady beat in Kazuya's ears.

Kazuya wants, needs, to sit down and take another few breaths, but there's no time. The clock is ticking in the side-shift, and Kazuya feels drugged as he unzips his gear bag, pulling out his shin guards. Sawamura's emotions continue to pour into him, as thick as mud, and Kazuya is wading through them waist deep as he tries to get ready to call Mei's first inning.

"What was with that AB, dude?" Kuramochi says, leaning over him, infielder's glove in hand. Kazuya shrugs, and then stands, forcing Kuramochi to step back so Kazuya can pull on his chest protector. "It was like you were frozen at the plate!"

Kazuya pulls his face guard into place. "Those fastballs were something else," Kazuya replies, once his face was covered. His voice is still rasping, but it's steadier than he feels. Reflexively, he turns to look out across the field to the other dugout. Sawamura's gaze is waiting for him, and when their eyes meet again, Kazuya's chest feels like it might shatter from the pressure, because his ribcage is too small to hold the entirety of an ocean.

"Kazuya, let's go!" Mei says, impatiently, tapping his foot against the steel top step. Kazuya shakes his head to clear it as much as he can, then slips his hand into his catcher's mitt and heads back out onto the field.

"You're acting super weird," Mei informs him, stopping to speak to Kazuya before he continues out to the mound. "Get it together. Sawamura closed out the top of the first in ten pitches even after that bizarre little episode during your AB, and I can't let him out-pitch me."

"You're such a brat," Kazuya says, aiming for his usual snark and coming up short. "Give me your usual perfectly controlled pitches, Mei." He taps the back of his mitt into his open bare hand. "We'll make some art."

"Good," replies Mei, peering at him intensely through the face guard. "That, at least, sounds more like the Kazuya I know! I've wanted you to catch for me since high school, and this is our first official game! Let's make it count!"

From the catcher's box, Kazuya discovers that it's easier to ignore the unstable Bond when he and Sawamura aren't sharing the field. Sawamura's emotions are still in constant tumult, but it’s possible to think around them when they push into him after a play instead of during it, giving Kazuya room to concentrate and make the play-calls he needs to in order to keep Mei's pitch count low.

Mei, more than likely motivated by pure spite, throws a little faster and a lot meaner than usual, as though watching Sawamura pitch had made him more eager to show off. The American team is out in fourteen pitches, the second batter, a leftie, wising up to the trick of Mei's out-and-high and pushing him into a full-count. Mei grumbles about it all the way back to the dugout, but Kazuya can’t bring himself to tease Mei like he normally would, the world slipping out of his grasp again as Sawamura surges back out onto the field.

The whole universe feels distant even when Kazuya breaks the surface, and the only things that are real and close are the weight of his rawhide glove and the crests of Sawamura’s every vivid emotion.

Kazuya hates it, all of it. The lack of power frightens him, and that makes him angry. He doesn't want this, least of all right now, in the lead up to some of the most important games of his life.

"That's an ugly face," Kominato says, sitting next to him on the bench. His bubblegum pink does nothing to disguise the sharpness of his eyes. "If you're going to throw up, take it to the bathroom, please."

"I'm not," replies Kazuya, as his stomach swoops. He doesn't have to look to know Sawamura's just thrown a pitch.

The next two innings pass in a blur, as Kazuya and Mei and the infielders hold the American team as scoreless as Chris and Sawamura are holding Japan. Each strike-out is one closer to Kazuya's next at-bat, though, and Kazuya's not sure if he should even take it, especially when no one else has gotten close to getting a base hit. They need runs, not Kazuya at the plate failing to even swing that bat.

“As things stand,” Azuma says grimly, after another low-count top of the third, "we’re not going to score until that guy gets relieved. Narumiya’s pitching as well as always, but it’s all for nothing if we can’t put any runs on the board.”

“Pitcher’s duels usually fizzle out in the eighth,” Kazuya replies, pulling his face guard back down. Sawamura's riding high on adrenaline as he runs with his fielders back to the dugout. As one of the American outfielders slaps Sawamura's back, Kazuya's entire body goes warm with happiness.

Azuma grunts unhappily. "Let's hope Sanada can hold them after we pull Narumiya." He scowls. "And that they pull Sawamura, too, even with that low pitch count. They might try to leave him in for the no-hitter."

Kazuya bites his lower lip hard, leaving painful indents with his teeth. "I'm hoping they pull him out before the end of the game, anyway, in order to avoid stressing his arm. This isn't the 1990s."

"Sucks to be wishing they'd take him out, doesn't it? He should theoretically be a contact pitcher, with all those wily fastballs. We should at least be hitting, even if we don't get bags."

"It's the speed," Kazuya says, mentally clawing through a syrupy sweet drip of something that feels a lot like joy that's clogging up his thoughts. He doesn't understand this kind of joy, or what it means that pitching makes Sawamura feel like this every single time he does it. "Each ball is a different speed, and you don't know what you're going to get until it's already at the plate."

"I want to hit one out of the park on this kid," Azuma replies, and Kazuya barks out a laugh as he prepares to go back on defense.

"I hope you do," he says, sliding his hand into his mitt.

The last batter of the third inning is Sawamura.

“Hey,” Sawamura says softly, when he steps up to the plate. His voice is loud, and obviously not meant for whispers. “Is this… Is this really happening?”

As if, Kazuya thinks bitterly, there's any doubt that his whole life has just been ripped out of his control in one chance encounter. As if either of them could have possibly imagined the way the Bond seems to ripple between them at every slightest thought or change in separating distance. A flicker of rage lights itself in his gut, and Kazuya ruthlessly smothers it, because it won't help anything.

Kazuya takes another moment to makes sure he's calm, and then finally looks up at Sawamura. "Yeah," he says, coldly, "it's really happening." This is the first time they’re standing this close, and now he can see the shaving cut at the dimple of Sawamura’s chin, and how each of his freckles is haloed by smaller, fainter freckles, smattered across his nose and cheeks on a canvas of slightly sunburned skin. His fingertips are white with rosin, and the clear polish on his nails has been sloppily applied. “Set-up, you’re at bat.”

“But—“ Sawamura’s mouth is wide, and almost as expressive as his eyes. His confusion is batters at Kazuya, impossible to ignore, and Kazuya almost falls back onto his ass at the magnitude.

“Calm down," he snaps, and when the high waves gentle, he exhales heavily. "We’re in the middle of a game, and my pitcher is waiting for my call. It's not the time.”

“Right,” Sawamura says, lips pursing in determination, and then again, quietly to himself: “Focus, Eijun.”

It's unexpectedly cute, as uncharitable as Kazuya is feeling right now. Sawamura’d looked so unperturbed on the mound, but now, up close, Kazuya can see, with a vindictive sort of satisfaction, that Sawamura's not quite as steady as he looked, his posture too tight and his hips too closed to get any power behind a swing. His hands are insecure on the handle of the bat, constantly sliding to find a new sweet-spot, and the muscle in his jaw twitches every time Kazuya shifts his weight behind him.

Kazuya briefly wonders which of his emotions are bleeding out to Sawamura, to make him so anxious, but only for a moment, ruthlessly quashing the curiosity in favor of getting the out so he can restore the space between them. Kazuya calls for an inside pitch, high, and Sawamura reads it fine, choking off his swing and adding a ball to his count.

Sawamura does swing at the next pitch, one Kazuya asks for to the outside, right at the letters for a strike.

“You feel,” Sawamura says, as Mei adds more rosin to his hand, “like the rain in the fall.”

It takes Kazuya a moment to process the words, but then he looks up at Sawamura in surprise. “What?”

“Your heartbeat, and your…” He clearly struggles to find the word he wants, his face screwing up in misplaced concentration. “presence?” He pulls on the brim of his cap before adjusting his grip on the bat. "It's cold rain, just constantly coming down. I can't think."

Kazuya stills, unsure how to react, and not so sure he wants to. “Just bat,” he says sternly, and calls for a ball he knows will bend just right for a strike.

When Sawamura walks away, back to his dugout, the emotions that Kazuya picks up are cloudy and undefined, salty on the tip of his tongue.

The American coach does pull Sawamura out after the seventh, at a hundred and six pitches, with Japan not managing to get a single base hit from him.

“It’s definitely not good,” Yuuki says, during the seventh inning stretch. “We need to see more of him before the Olympics, where they'll definitely try to play him an entire game with a pitch count like that.”

“We’ll get another chance to take a few more looks in a few days, but I’ve counted at least nine different grips on just that fastball, causing nine different breaks.” Disappointment is heavy at the back of his throat. It's Sawamura's, possibly at being taken out of the game. "No pitcher is unbeatable."

“You were talking to him, earlier. At the bottom of the third.” Yuuki glances quickly at Kazuya, then picks up his water and takes a long gulp. “It looked intense.”

“His batting is a disaster,” is Kazuya’s glib reply. “I thought he needed to be told. Don’t worry, I didn’t give him any tips.”

Wiping his mouth with the back of his arm, Yuuki gives him a longer look this time. “Something’s wrong with your batting today, too. You're not usually so hesitant at the plate, even against pitchers just as formidable.”

Kazuya curls and then uncurls his fingers. “It's nothing. No need to go captain on me.”

"If it's a cold, take care." Yuuki crosses his arms, and it draws out the aura of authority that even Azuma respects. “We need you at a hundred percent, especially against a team like this.”

Kazuya's mouth is so dry. It's amazing, considering how much the rest of him is waterlogged. “I know.” He tugs on the Velcro strap of his left batting glove to tighten it, then uses his thumb to push it back down. "I'll get good sleep tonight. Seriously, it's nothing to worry about."

"Fine." Yuuki starts to walk away, but then he pauses, looking back over his shoulder. "You keep staring at him, you know that, right?"

"At Sawamura, you mean." Kazuya looks out at the diamond, where a couple of fans are playing a Team Japan trivia game for prizes. "I'd like to try catching his pitches."

"Think about hitting them, first," replies Yuuki, and then he walks away, headed right toward Isashiki and Kominato. Kazuya watches him go, his own disappointment as heavy as Sawamura's, and now he can barely tell the two apart.

Ultimately, Sanada gives up a single run in the bottom of the eighth, and it's enough to give USA the win. As the American team celebrates, Sawamura's pride washes over Kazuya in continuous waves, leaving him nauseated and off-balance like he'd been during most of the first inning.

"Woah, man, are you okay?" Kuramochi asks, as Kazuya stumbles, his face guard falling from his hands to hit the dirt floor at his feet. Kuramochi grabs a handful of his jersey. "You look a little green."

"I have to throw up," Kazuya says, faintly, and then he stumbles over to the trash bin, dry-heaving over it as Kuramochi continues to stabilize him with the back of his jersey.

"Not the bathroom, Miyuki!" Kominato calls, but he sounds a little concerned.

Kuramochi's knuckles dig into Kazuya's back as Kazuya shivers, clutching the edge of the trash bin. "Fuck, were you feeling bad all game?"

"Not really," Kazuya replies, when his stomach stops rebelling. A little of his awareness of Sawamura has eased, but in its stead is a strange, uncomfortable emptiness where all of Sawamura's emotions have stretched him out. Several of Kazuya's teammates look over curiously, but he doesn't react to the attention, focusing instead on regaining his equilibrium. "I'm fine," he says, letting go of the bin and straightening up. His mouth tastes sour. He can feel his own heartbeat in the pit of his empty stomach.

"Uh huh, sure you are," Kuramochi replies, obviously annoyed.

Kuramochi drags Kazuya into the locker rooms, and makes him sit down on the bench closest to the restrooms.

Kazuya feels people watching him all throughout their brief wrap-up meeting in the locker room as they all change back into street clothes, and he keeps his face impassive as he leans against a high wall of lockers and listens, only offering occasional insights. Sawamura's a constant thrum in the back of his mind, still gushing glee at his team's victory and happiness at being one of the main causes of it.

Now that the game is over, Kazuya can no longer avoid thinking about what it means, that Sawamura's connected to him now. What it means that Kazuya has forged a Bond so deep he'd lost pieces of himself to it, right there on the baseball field in the middle of a game. There's no question about what he has to do about it, at least; even if Kazuya were the slightest bit inclined to keep it, the Bond will need to be broken, especially considering all the implications of the fact that they play on opposing teams, and live in different countries.

"Kazuya?" Kazuya hears, followed by an angrier: "Kazuya!" Kazuya blinks, back in the locker room again, with Mei staring up at him, clearly unimpressed. "The meeting's over. Go home."

"Yeah," he says. "Sounds like a plan."

Mei glowers at him. "You'd better not still be sick on Thursday when I'm back up in the starting rotation!"

"I'm not sick," replies Kazuya. "I just…" He presses his tongue to the back of his teeth. "Sometimes it's an off-day. If I were sick I wouldn't play."

"Liar," Mei says immediately, as Kuramochi simultaneously chimes in with the much longer: "Says the asshole who played injured for two weeks last year to make sure his team made it into the postseason because he was a control freak!"

"I guess on that note, I'm leaving." He grabs his bag and exits the locker room, headed down the restricted stadium hallway toward the smaller team parking lots. It's mostly empty, a lot of the team having stayed behind to shower or talk. Kazuya's footsteps echo loudly as he heads toward his car, wanting nothing more than to go home and sink down onto his sofa and watch a replay of last night's Seibu Lions' game and see how their baby catcher fared against Orix.

A throbbing in his chest is his only warning before he's swamped in a wave of desperation, and suddenly there's another set of pounding footsteps approaching from behind him, accompanied by a waterfall of something borderline triumphant.

"Miyuki Kazuya!" Sawamura yells, and Kazuya stops, hand on the driver's side of his door. He looks behind him with a slow dread. "Wait!" Sawamura's still shower-damp and flushed, fresh sunburn from today's bright afternoon all down his neck until it meets the stark pale skin that had been covered by his compression shirt. His bag slaps against his hip as he runs, and he drops it to his feet when he stops by Kazuya's car, right in front of him. He's a little taller than Kazuya, Kazuya notes vaguely. Just a few centimeters, but it's enough that he has to tilt back to meet Sawamura's gaze.

"Wait for what?" Kazuya arches an eyebrow, battling back at the encroach of Sawamura's frustration and confusion with his own careful indifference. "I've got things to do tonight."

"You can't just leave!" Sawamura's eyes are such a pretty, brilliant gold, Kazuya thinks, and it's totally unfair how disarming Kazuya finds them. "We Bonded--"

"Don't say that aloud," Kazuya snaps, darting a quick look around. "Don't you have any self-preservation?"

"Of course I do!" His eyes flash, and his tongue slips out to wet his thin lips. "I mean, I think I do?" He scrunches his nose. "Self-preservation." He repeats the phrase quietly to himself, testing the Japanese words on his tongue, like they're unfamiliar. "Is that the same as common sense?"

"They're related, at least." Kazuya watches a drop of water from Sawamura's hair roll down the column of his neck. "Tell me what you want, Sawamura."

"What I want?" Sawamura looks suddenly thoughtful. "I don't know! But we can't just…" He gestures between them with an exaggerated wave of his right hand. "I can feel you!"

"I know," Kazuya says. "Trust me, it goes both ways."

"Then why were you going to leave without talking to me?!"

Kazuya looks down at where his hand rests on the car handle. "Because there's nothing to talk about."

"That's a lie!" shouts Sawamura, voice echoing much more loudly than their footsteps had. "Either talk to me or play catch with me!"

"Play catch…?" Incredulously, Kazuya slides his hand into his pocket, to pull out his keys. "Does it have to be now?"

"Yes, please!," Sawamura ends a lotus seed of excitement across the Bond that blooms in Kazuya's chest, petals pressing roughly against the insides of his ribs as it floats on Sawamura's warm hope. "Play catch-ball with me!"

"You just pitched seven innings of a regulation game," Kazuya replies, slowly. "Shouldn't you still be icing that arm?"

"I need…" Sawamura's face twists with determination, and Kazuya suddenly adrift again in that great big ocean of Sawamura's overwhelming emotions. Kazuya steadies himself with a hand to the roof of his car, the other still fingering his keys. "Even if you don't want to, this Sawamura Eijun needs to understand what we are to each other!"

All of this is ludicrous. Kazuya can feel hysteria starting to creep up on him. "And the way to do that is by playing catch with me?" Kazuya tries to sound amused, but mostly he's just lost, unequipped for the strength of Sawamura's sheer presence when he's this close.

"You're a catcher and I'm a pitcher," says Sawamura. "We're two halves of a battery!" He tilts his head to the side, and pats his chest, right above his heart. "There's more than one way to talk to someone, right?"

"You're going to be stubborn about this, aren't you," Kazuya states, not asks. His contacts are dry, and that's why he closes his eyes; not, he consoles himself, to avoid the desperate earnestness of Sawamura's expression, or that quivering lower lip. "Listen, I'm not going to hurt your arm, and I'm tired, too." He sighs. "Get in the car. I'll drive you to your hotel."

Sawamura grins at him, brilliant, bright, and Kazuya can taste his happiness, saltwater taffy against his soft palate.

They put both of their gear bags in the trunk, and when they climb into the car, Sawamura tells him where they're headed. As Kazuya taps it into the GPS, Sawamura examines the roof. "Can we make it open?"

"You like driving with the top down?" Kazuya asks, but he doesn't mind, easily opening the roof. "Me too."

"When I graduated high school, my friends and I drove down most of Route 66 as our graduation trip in an old convertible. Nothing nice like this one, or anything. It was really old. The…" he stops, and then makes a rumbling noise that sounds like a revving vehicle. "The thing that makes the car move."

"The engine?" Kazuya asks, small smile pulling at his lips as the wind blows through both of their hair. He doesn't know what Route 66 is, but he's familiar with the Grand Canyon. He assumes it was long, and lots of open road.

"Yeah, the engine, it was crap, but we got to stop at all sorts of cool places, like the Grand Canyon." He takes a deep breath, and Tokyo city air is nothing to praise but Sawamura is bubbling over with enjoyment anyway. "Every time I get to ride in a car like this, I remember when we got all the way to California, and arrived at the Santa Monica Pier. It's a happy memory."

"You could buy one," Kazuya tells him, slowing as they approach a red light. "It's not like you can't afford it."

"I never thought about it," Sawamura says. "Having money is too weird when you never had it before."

"So you're going to let it just sit in your account?" Kazuya keeps his eyes straight forward.

"The first thing I did when I signed my contract with the Pirates was pay off my parents' farm. They needed…" He frowns. "They had to borrow a lot money to keep it open, when I was younger. What else was there to spend it on?"

"A convertible, clearly," Kazuya replies. How predictable, that Sawamura's a farm boy, with those broad shoulders and lack of concern for the burns on his neck and cheeks and forearms. "A farm with animals?" Kazuya asks. "Is that why you're so loud? Were you competing with cows?"

"I'm not loud!" Sawamura shouts, and Kazuya laughs at the indignation in his tone, wishing he could ignore the way he feels it across the Bond, too, complicating his simple amusement.

"Sure you aren't," Kazuya replies, and then he sneaks a look at Sawamura from the corner of his eye. "You sure your team's not going to wonder where you've gone?"

A ripple of confusion. "I told Chris I was going to go find you," Sawamura says. "And we're not staying at the same hotel, anyway."

"Why not?"

"I'm staying in Japan an extra couple of days to do some advertisement work," Sawamura says. He says the word advertisement in clear American English, the harshness of the consonants jarring in the middle of the sentence. "So my agent picked my hotel."

"I wondered why a farm boy who isn't used to having money was staying at such a fancy place," Kazuya says, a little bit of teasing leaking into his tone.

"Oh!" Sawamura says, and something Kazuya can't pinpoint trickles along the Bond.

"Oh, what?" He shifts gears and then flicks his turn signal to switch lanes as they approach the entrance ramp for the above-ground motorway, where the streetlights are already lit.

"I think the rain's a little warmer when you think something's funny," Sawamura says, and Kazuya's hand tightens on the gear shift. "During the game, it was like ice."

Kazuya's back is tight, the tension gathering at the small of it as the light turns blue and traffic starts to move again. "Rain, huh?"

His awareness of Sawamura grows again, as Sawamura's emotions rise again, this time with a frothy curiosity. "What do I feel like to you?"

"Like a problem I need to solve," Kazuya tells him, and Sawamura doesn't reply, leaning an elbow on the edge of the door and turning to watch the streets pass by in the slow purpling evening light.

It's quiet between them for a while as they travel down the single-lane motorway, and Kazuya knows, by the gentle wash of worry, that Sawamura's going to break the silence moments before he actually does.

"Do you have… Are you dating someone?" Sawamura asks. The question surprises Kazuya enough that he steals another glance at Sawamura, who's now staring at his knees.

"No." Kazuya decelerates as the GPS warns him of his upcoming exit.

"So that's not it…" Sawamura mumbles, before leaning back in his seat.

"What are you talking about?"

"The reason I'm a problem."

"That's-- You get that I don't want this, right? It doesn't matter that it's you. It could be anyone, and I wouldn't want it." Kazuya drives down the exit ramp, emerging out into the center of Tokyo, not far from the Diet Building. "It doesn't help that you play, though. It makes it a bigger issue."

"Bonds are a gift," Sawamura replies, like an after school special, and he's turned to look directly at Kazuya again for the first time in a while. "How can you not want it?"

Kazuya smirks, but there isn't any humor in it. "Sometimes in life, we get gifts we have no use for." He pulls up to the hotel's side parking lot, where a valet waits. "Hold on, we can't sit here in the car."

"Come up to my room, then," Sawamura says. "It's private, and we can…" He curls into himself, and it's the first time Kazuya has seen Sawamura look small. "Finish this conversation."

"Fine," Kazuya says, popping the trunk so Sawamura can grab his bag before handing his keys to the valet.

Sawamura leads him into the building, straight past the main reception desk to a series of six elevators, all with the same elaborate modern doors. They take one of them up to the thirty-second floor of the skyscraper in silence, and Sawamura leads him down a hallway with white and gold walls and dark wooden floors to room 306. He swipes his key card, opening up to a large suite.

He immediately drops his gear by the door, next to a pile of souvenir bags that clearly haven't been sorted and two colorful pairs of sneakers. "Do you want water?"

"No thanks," Kazuya says, watching as Sawamura, shoes left at the door, opens the small bar refrigerator to grab a bottle for himself, before he leans back against the window. It strikes Kazuya that they're truly alone now, with nothing to hide from and no distractions.

Sawamura takes a long drink from the bottle. Some of the water slips out of his mouth and rolls down his chin to soak the neck of his thin shirt. When he's finished, he wipes at his face with the hem, revealing a stretch of his defined belly, and the sparse trail of hair that disappears into the waist of his jeans.

"I never thought I would Bond," Sawamura says, abruptly, startling Kazuya into looking back up at his face. Sawamura doesn't seem to have noticed where his gaze had wandered, or doesn't care, and Kazuya feels a brief flush of embarrassment at having let himself look. "It's the sort of thing that happens to people in movies."

"Well," Kazuya replies, easing his hands out of his pockets, and using one to push his hair back from his face. It's trembling. "Here we are."

"I didn't think it was possible..." Sawamura presses his forehead to the wide window, and his still-damp hair leaves a smear on the perfect polish.

"To Bond?" Kazuya squats down to untie his shoes, just for something to do with his hands.

"That the person I Bonded to would hate it," Sawamura says, and this time, Kazuya's swamped in a strange, empty kind of melancholy. He looks up at Sawamura through his hair, fingers still tangled in his shoelaces. Sawamura is just staring down at the city below, but Kazuya gets the impression he isn't really seeing it.

"Even if I wanted a Bond, we can't," Kazuya says, fighting against the way Sawamura's mood threatens to swallow his own. "That's…" He stands again, and in socked feet, steps up onto the expensive wood floors. He forgoes the couch, too close to where Sawamura's poised against the window, and crosses the room to sit on the edge of Sawamura's hotel bed. He notes, with a grim amusement, that like this, Sawamura looks almost as far away as he does from home plate. "It's against Olympic regulations." At Sawamura's blank expression, he pulls out his phone, dismissing two messages from Kuramochi, and opens up his phone's built-in English dictionary app. He reads out the English carefully. "'Regulations'."

Sawamura twirls the water bottle by its neck between his nimble fingers. The muscles in his forearms tighten and release with each movement. "To be Bonded?"

"To be Bonded, and then play against each other in a competitive sport." Sawamura's lips part in shock, and they're pink and slick in the room's creamy ambient light.

"I didn't know that," Sawamura says, and he sets the mostly empty bottle on top of the refrigerator. Then he takes a deep breath, and starts to approach the bed, sitting down gingerly on the other side of it, a wide enough space between them for another person to fit. It doesn't feel like nearly enough, with the way Sawamura's body is hot like a furnace, bleeding off a warmth that heats Kazuya's entire left side in the chill of the air-conditioned room. He curls his toes in his socks, as Sawamura speaks again, this time buoyed by smaller, more unpinnable emotions that seem to float in the deep ocean of Sawamura's worry. "I could just… I could feel that you didn't want me to say anything, somehow."

"You could?" Kazuya can smell the faint strawberry of his body wash even at half a meter. "Have you ever met someone who's Bonded?" Plenty of people haven't, Kazuya knows. It's so rare, these days, and sometimes even people who do Bond keep it quiet. It figures, Kazuya thinks, that someone like him, so deeply against it, would be one of the lucky few. Sawamura probably deserved someone who would have been more open to the idea. Not Kazuya, who'd been soured on it since he was nine.

"My best friend is Bonded." Under the synthetic light, the color of his eyes is even more luminous, and the dark brown at the inner edges of his irises glitters. A powerful affection swells up from Kazuya's belly, and it's disorienting until Kazuya realizes It's Sawamura's affection, for his friend. "She's really happy."

"That's nice for her," Kazuya says.

"My parents are Bonded, too," Sawamura adds. "Since they were fourteen. They're happy, too!"

Kazuya clenches his molars together in the back of his mouth, tearing his gaze away from Sawamura's to stare down at the rug under their feet instead. Kazuya doesn't remember if his Dad was ever happy, even before his mother had died. He's always heard they weren't well-matched, too similar to get along the way they should even if Kazuya thinks they might have loved each other. But after his mother was gone, well-matched or not, it was like his father had lost a piece of himself anyway, and he'd tried and tried to fill in that intangible space with work and liquor and indifference and all he'd succeeded in doing was making a bigger space. "So were mine."

"Were?"

Kazuya narrows his eyes at nothing. "I don't want to talk about that."

"The rain is cold again," says Sawamura quietly. "It really is amazing! I can feel when you're laughing, and when you're angry. I can hear your heartbeat sometimes, if I listen for it." He shifts his weight on the bed, moving a little closer. "I always thought it would be… wonderful? To have a connection like that with someone. Like a battery but more.”

"Wonderful? To feel everything a stranger feels, and to know they can feel you, too?" Kazuya scoffs, lifting his gaze from the rug to the night skyline, darkness having fully fallen since they'd come inside.

"If it's the right person," says Sawamura, and Kazuya supposes he's probably stubborn to a fault.

"I don't know you, Sawamura, and this is my life, not some children's tale." Kazuya thinks of his gear bag, with the bright red Japanese national team logo emblazoned along the side in raised vinyl, and how proud he'd been when he'd gotten it, along with the signature jersey of the Japanese national team. "I'm not giving up the Olympics for you."

"I'm not asking you to!" Sawamura's emotions crash, and when Kazuya flinches at them, they swiftly soften. "Sorry, it's just…" He trails off, and Kazuya once again looks at him. Sawamura's studying him, looking for something in Kazuya's face that Kazuya's not sure is there to find. "We are strangers right now, but we don't have to stay strangers."

"What difference does it make? You live in America, and I live in Japan. I'm not willing to move for any reason, and there's no way you're giving up your amazing MLB career to come play in the NPB—“

"I could!" Sawamura sounds so sure of it that Kazuya gives up on the rest of the sentence. "Isn't meeting you like... " He searches for a word. "I dunno, destiny? Maybe I'm meant to be here!"

"But maybe you aren't," Kazuya replies. "You can't know, and you don't have the luxury of finding out. I'm still not interested in being Bonded." He swallows. "And what about your team? They're counting on you, right? You're not playing baseball by yourself, idiot. You can't make a decision like that alone."

"I know that!" Sawamura leans closer, and now his face only centimeters from Kazuya's own. Kazuya can feel Sawamura's breath stirring his eyelashes, and he's not sure if he's hearing one heartbeat or two. "Can you tell me why Bonding is a gift you don't want?"

"I don't owe you my life story, you dork." The panic, entwined with the sharp pulse of arousal, that rises at Sawamura's nearness makes Kazuya shudder as he jerks back. "Stop that!"

"What happened just now?" Sawamura asks, his nose wrinkling. "That feeling…I don't understand what just made you upset!"

"You don't understand because you don't know me," Kazuya says bluntly, involuntarily tracing the shape of Sawamura's upper lip with his eyes.

"Yet," Sawamura stresses, leaning further into Kazuya's space. "This Sawamura Eijun vows to get to know Miyuki Kazuya as quickly as possible!" He shimmer with optimism, and despite himself, Kazuya's stomach twists at the picture Sawamura makes, golden and freckled and pretty as he smiles hopefully at Kazuya. It's an appealing image, even if Kazuya doesn't it to be.

"Why do you care this much?" Trying to regain his balance, Kazuya focuses on the odd turn of phrase he's heard Sawamura use a few times tonight. "Mei was right," he muses, his heart still pounding a little too fast. "You do have weird Japanese~!”

"You're my Bondmate!" Sawamura says, and then almost Immediately after, the rest of it registers, Sawamura's face transforming into a mask of genuine irritation. Kazuya almost doesn't need the direct link to Sawamura's rollercoaster of emotions when they're written so clearly on his face all the time. It's oddly endearing to Kazuya, who wears his own expressions like armor. "My Japanese is not weird!"

"It definitely is." Kazuya says, grabbing the change of subjects and holding onto it tightly. "Like a Kurosawa film."

"Samurai are really cool, though!" With a wide grin, Sawamura flops back onto the bed.

His T-shirt stretches tight across his abdomen, and his curly hair spreads around his face on the fluffy white bedding in stark contrast. That, too, is an appealing image. It's much different from the posters Tomomi collects, or watching game footage on the sports news, where Sawamura is all blazing focus and concentration. Now, Kazuya knows that Sawamura smells like strawberries, and that his underwear are a dark navy, and that the skin on his stomach is covered fine little hairs. "Is that the kind of movie you like?"

Sawamura hums, pondering an answer. "I prefer magical girl anime. Like Cardcaptor Sakura!" There's no embarrassment or guile in his expression.

“Of course you do," Kazuya says, gingerly inspecting the edges of bubbling enthusiasm that Sawamura's giving off now.

Sawamura curves up in half-meant outrage, his stomach muscles tightening to hold him in place. "What's that supposed to mean, huh?!"

"Just that I've known you for four hours and it doesn't surprise me at all that you like shoujo anime." Sawamura's cheeks puff out, and Kazuya wants to poke them but he knows Bonds are affected by physical touch. "That's my little sister’s favorite show, so it's good to know you share tastes with an elementary schooler!”

“If something's good, it's good! It doesn't matter how old you are!" He slaps the bed for emphasis. "It's boring if I just watch adult shows!" He squinting at Kazuya, a different kind of thoughtful.

"What is it now?"

"Your sister…" He visibly hesitates, and it's like that moment they first Bonded all over again, Sawamura's heart thrumming in his ears with all the ebullience of a brass pep band. "Is that something I can ask about?"

Kazuya takes a deep breath to steady himself. "What do you want to know, exactly?"

"Anything," replies Sawamura. "Everything." He laughs, raw-edged, but his face is still earnest as he looks up at Kazuya through his thick eyelashes. "It's hard to ask you questions, you know!"

"Oh?" Kazuya curls his hand more tightly around his phone. "Is it?"

"Whenever you think I'm going to ask you something, there's… it's like I want to hide, suddenly." He taps his chest and adds quietly: "Like you're scared. It's a monsoon.” His lips are rough and chapped, but somehow, Kazuya imagines they might be soft under his. " I don't want to make you feel that way. I'm supposed to make you happy, right?"

"No, you're not," Kazuya tells him. "Shit like that is why it's not surprising that you like shoujo anime. You probably think real life works out like that; the main girl rides off into the sunset on the back of the cute boy's bike." Kazuya frowns, plucking at the soft comforter folded under his thighs. “I’m not the cute girl you’re looking for.”

“I wasn’t looking for anything,” replies Sawamura solemnly. “If I had been, it would have been..” He shakes his head. “It doesn’t matter, does it?”

“I can feel that it matters to you.” Kazuya narrows his eyes. “You probably don’t realize that you broadcast every single one of your emotions like you're an emergency megaphone.”

“What’s the point in feeling something half-heartedly?!” Sawamura pouts. “Your feelings are all choked off! Doesn’t it hurt?”

“Am I supposed to be a walking, talking version of a cheap festival mood ring like you?” He sighs, exasperated. “We’re too different. It’s just another reason I won't be happy until we break the Bond.”

"If we're going to…" Sawamura gulps, his Adam's apple bobbing, "break the Bond, then it's going to take both of us, and an… an expert, right?" He claws his pitching hand in the material of his shirt, tangling it between his fingers. “Isn’t it supposed to feel bad, too?"

Kazuya thinks about his father, who’d been broken himself since the shattering of his first Bond, and hadn’t improved much when he’d spontaneously formed another one to an English woman he'd met on the train, who was in Japan temporarily for work. Kazuya wonders if breaking the Bond to Sawamura might leave them both a little like that. It's obvious, to Kazuya at least, that their Bond had formed strong enough that when it's broken, it'll leave behind a wound inside of them deep enough to scar.

"It's supposed to be difficult," Kazuya admits. "And we'll need recovery time."

"We have to…" Sawamura reaches out and takes Kazuya's phone, their fingers almost brushing, and Kazuya lets him just to avoid the touch. He searches something on the open dictionary application, tongue poking out of the corner of his mouth. "We have to register the Bond to get it broken, right?"

"Yeah, and we can't do that until after the Friendship series, unless we both want to get taken immediately out of rotation." Kazuya watches the minute shift in Sawamura's expression, subtler than previous ones had been. "We'll have to notify our coaches when we register, but we'll hopefully be able to keep it out of the news." Sawamura's still typing into Kazuya's phone. "What are you doing?"

"If I agree to do this," Sawamura says, slowly, handing Kazuya back his phone, "I want an exchange." The word for 'exchange' is on the screen of Kazuya's phone, when he looks down at it.

There's something wavering, along their Bond. Something that feels darker and murkier than anything else Sawamura's felt so far. Kazuya stares at Sawamura, whose lips have tilted into their stubborn set again. "And what exchange is that?"

"Bonds form because people were meant to know each other," Sawamura says. "I don't know why we were meant to meet, yet, Miyuki Kazuya. If we're supposed to fall in love or if it's about baseball or if it's something else. I want to find out."

"You really have your head in the clouds." He holds his phone tightly. "So what? Are you trying to convince me to date you? Are we going to be best friends, because we have a Bond that neither of us chose?"

"I don't know what we'll be to each other," replies Sawamura, "but I want to learn more about you, just like I promised." He has a scar just below his eye. Kazuya hadn't noticed it earlier, and he wonders what if would feel like under his thumb. "Will you let me?"

Kazuya shouldn't say yes. He already knows that he'll regret it, and that nothing good can come from letting Sawamura get any closer than the Bond has forced them to be.

But Sawamura's teeth are digging into his lower lip, his eyes a kaleidoscope comprised of a thousand golds, and even with the ability to feel so many of Sawamura's emotions, Kazuya doesn't know this one.

There's something about Sawamura that pulls at him, and Kazuya wishes he could be certain it was the Bond, so he could dismiss it as easily as he’s willing to dismiss their emotional link.

He takes a deep, shuddering breath. "Fine," he says. "I'll think about it." He stands up from the bed, to put space between them as Sawamura's heartbeat starts pounding in his ears. "I've got to go."

“Please don’t—“

Kazuya slips his feet half into his shoes, and leaves in a hurry, laces untied in his haste.

Sawamura doesn't attempt to stop him, letting Kazuya navigate his way back down alone, out to the parking lot to pick up his car. Kazuya’s phone rings as the valet arrives with the convertible, and he answers as he accepts the keys.

"Kazuya," Tomomi says, not bothering with more of a greeting, "you lost the game!"

"We did," Kazuya replies. "By one run."

"I watched the end of it on TV. Sawamura was so cool!" She laughs into the phone, and Kazuya presses it closer to his ear, letting the sound soothe him. "Narumiya was pretty cool too, but he doesn't have a Cutter Kai!"

"He’s really mad about it, too," Kazuya says. "Did you have a good day?” When she hums a yes, Kazuya adds: “Did you eat yet?"

"Nooooo," she whines. "Are you going to pick me up?"

"I have an early meeting tomorrow." He gets into the driver's seat, and restarts the engine. The air still smells a bit like Sawamura's strawberry body wash when he breathes in. "If you come over, I'll have to take you to your baseball practice about forty minutes early. That means getting up around five," he warns her.

Tomomi makes an annoyed sound in the back of her throat, like she already knew that but didn't care. "Can you make curry with apples?"

"Yeah," Kazuya says, fastening his seatbelt. Sawamura's emotions aren't as immediate as they were when they were right next to each other. "I'll be there in…" He looks at the dash clock, and the numbers are fuzzy until he blinks a few times. His contacts are really dry. "Thirty minutes or so."

"Kazuya?"

"Hmm?"

"Are you okay?" Kazuya rests his hand on the gear shift and closes his eyes. "You sound sad."

"I'm not sad," he says. "Everything's great, Tomomi. I'll see you soon, okay?"

"Don't forget to buy apples," she says, ending the call. Kazuya tosses his phone into the passenger seat, and then shifts into drive.

The thumping of Sawamura’s heart haunts him halfway down the motorway, like a constant reminder of all the things that had changed in a single moment of today’s game.

*

"You said you were going to sleep last night," Kuramochi says, when Kazuya walks into their morning team meeting at eight. He shoves his way into Kazuya space, knocking his glasses askew to poke at the dark circles under Kazuya's eyes. "You look like death, you bastard!"

"Thank you~!" Kazuya jokes, jostling past Kuramochi to take a seat on one of the long benches in the back half of the locker room. Coach is inside his window-walled office, with the batting coach. They've got yesterday's footage of Sawamura playing on the projector, and both of them look concerned. "I did sleep a little."

He'd stayed up until ten with Tomomi, painting her nails with thick clear polish over the pretty pink to keep them from cracking at pitching practice, and then letting her messily use the pink again to color the first three signaling fingers of his right hand. Then he'd put her to bed before preparing to go to sleep himself.

When he'd gotten into his own bed, though, he'd been unable to sleep, and even more unable to ignore the constant tug at the center of his gut, demanding him to get up and drive all the way back to Chiyoda, where he'd left Sawamura staring after him from the foot of a bed too large for one person. The emptiness inside of him felt as vast as the ocean of emotion he'd had before, and as the night got longer and longer, Kazuya'd let himself wonder again, without shying away from the fear it conjured, if he'd still feel that empty when the Bond with Sawamura was gone. He’d finally dozed off a little after four, still half-listening for the phantom beat of Sawamura’s heart.

It wasn’t until he'd driven to the stadium today that he'd felt Sawamura start to seep back into his consciousness, first as a sleepy, sedate presence and then as an eager, anticipating one. Now, in the locker room, he can feel Sawamura approaching the stadium, closer and closer every second.

"You slept a little?" Kuramochi frowns at him. "We have a doubleheader today! Are you really cocky enough to think you can do it all when you're exhausted?"

Kazuya grins crookedly, and shrugs. "I'm sure I'll manage," he replies. "I think Coach is going to put in Okumura for the second game, anyway. He's hitting well, and while he struggles to get along with Hongou, he's better at handling Asada than I am."

"That's because Asada's so listless," Kuramochi says. "It takes a guy like Okumura to respond to him. That weird curveball of Asada's is damned tricky, though!"

"Asada's not listless, you just make him nervous." Kazuya gives him a taunting grin. "He referred to you as demonic the other day!"

"You're just trying to distract me from the fact that you clearly pulled an all-nighter. You're lucky as hell Narumiya's not pitching today. He'd ream you an entirely new asshole for that."

Kazuya pulls out the graphics boards as more and more of the team wanders in, gear bags over their shoulders and half-dressed for a game. Azuma's already got his black on in thick stripes under his eyes, and Asada's pale, bespeckled face is slathered in a half-centimeter thick layer of sunscreen. "I didn't stay awake on purpose, you know. I just couldn't sleep."

"Anything to do with yesterday's weird stomach bug?"

"No." Kazuya raps his his knuckles on the glass wall, gaining both coaches' attention. He gestures to the quickly filling room, and their head coach nods. "Stop nagging me, Kuramochi."

"Then stop needing to be nagged." With an easy smile, Kuramochi claps his shoulder. "I'll go collect everyone lingering out in the parking lot so we can get started."

"Oh ho, maybe you should be vice-captain!"

"Maybe you should shut the fuck up," Kuramochi replies. "Do me a favor and pass out while I'm gone."

"How long are you going to take? Are you planning to get lost or something?"

"Consider it a power-nap!" Kuramochi's cackling hyena laugh fills the locker room even as he's leaving it.

Kuramochi does come back quickly, though, with Furuya and Nori in tow, as well as Kominato Ryousuke, who brings with him the scents of cigarette ash and coffee as he skulks into the corner, finding space between Isashiki and Yuuki to survey the meeting.

Their pre-game brief is blessedly short-- A succinct summary of the rotation for the first game today, and who's going to be pulled first from the bullpen if they need to take Hongou out, and a few fielding strategies that might be useful against the American batting lineup if it stays mostly unchanged.

Furuya falls asleep halfway through the meeting, head clanging against a locker as he falls into it, and Kazuya doesn't bother to wake him up until everything's over. "Get changed," he tells Furuya, when he looks at Kazuya blearily after being shaken lightly back into consciousness, his hair falling into his face.

"You need a nap, too, Miyuki," Furuya tells him, unfolding his lanky frame and getting up from the bench. "Naps are the best."

Kazuya laughs. "Some of us need to be awake during meetings."

Furuya shrugs. "More important to be awake during the game." He strips off his thin sweatshirt, revealing the compression shirt underneath. "Yesterday… Your first at-bat… Something happened, and it threw you off. Whatever that was… It's still happening, right? That's why you look so tired?"

"It's really not anything other people need to concern themselves with." Kazuya pulls on his jersey, doing up the buttons one by one. His hands are unsteady, and Kazuya figures Sawamura's arrived at the stadium, since he's wading thigh-deep in overzealous enthusiasm. Still, it's better than the gaping nothingness, and the yearning for a second heartbeat that had kept him up all night. "It won't affect me catching for you. I don't know why everyone's making such a big deal about it."

"It's because you're usually so unflappable," Kanemaru says, butting in to their conversation and opening the locker next to Furuya's to get his cleats. Kazuya remembers their first week of practice as the national team, when Kanemaru had still been intimidated by him. "It was super-weird to see you sick yesterday."

"It's gone now," Kazuya replies mildly, as Kanemaru shrugs, grabs his cleats, and leaves again. Then, as though to make him look like a liar, his stomach lurches at another intense wave of excitement from Sawamura. Kazuya doesn't understand how one person can constantly feel so much. It must be exhausting. Kazuya's already worn out, and it's only been less than a day.

Furuya stares at him contemplatively. "It's super- weird," he says, repeating Kanemaru, and then he closes his locker lethargically, abandoning Kazuya there by the bench alone, just staring down at the tiles as he tries to get a grip on the return of Sawamura's presence inside of him.

When he's calmed, Kazuya pulls his own cleats out of his locker, and notices that his hands still aren't quite steady. "I don't want this," he says aloud, to no one, and he can feel Sawamura's mood drop in response to words he definitely hadn't heard, joy ebbing out like the evening tide.

*

It's easier to play with Sawamura on the sidelines than it is with him in the game. He's still a riot of overblown reactions to most plays, and the most prevalent emotion Kazuya is bombarded with is some kind of constant anxious desire to be playing, but it's all in the timing. Without the distraction of his chest flooding with glee at every pitch, he's able to focus on the pitching patterns, managing a single and a triple in the first half of the game, and then a home run off the eighth inning relief pitcher.

"Better," their batting coach says, at the end of the eighth. "You're looking more like yourself out there, this morning."

Kazuya takes the compliment without much pleasure, since he knows it's only because Sawamura's not pitching. It makes him bitter, that he'd never gotten to face the Americans on equal terms, the same way it has bothered him for years about taking the first string position from Chris when he was a high school second year. The Bond, he thinks, is like an injury, preventing him from playing to his full capacity in a face-off where it counts.

Japan wins the first game, three runs to two, closing out the ninth with Furuya, who manages a double play for the second and third out after loading the bases with walks. The crowd is on their feet for a home team victory, but Kazuya's satisfaction is marred by the soft, gentle waves of disappointment flowing across the Bond from Sawamura.

"You don't look like a guy that just won," Chris says, as the teams line up to shake hands. "What happened to all the smirking I was treated to at the mixer?"

"We only evened up the score," Kazuya replies. "When we're winning in earnest, I'll smirk more than you'd ever want."

Chris gives him a thoughtful look. "You really look burned out," he says. "Coincidentally, so does Sawamura. By the way, did he manage to find you, yesterday? He didn't mention you at all when he texted me last night, and he was too much of a zombie to talk to this morning."

Kazuya's chest tightens. "He found me," Kazuya says lightly. "I took him back to his hotel so he wouldn't wander around the city like a lost puppy."

"When, at four AM or something? He didn't answer his hotel phone at all yesterday, and then showed up at my hotel this morning more subdued than usual, looking like he hadn't slept at all."

"No, I had him back there around seven." Turning his cap sideways, Kazuya looks past Chris to the dugout, where he knows Sawamura is just by the feel of him. "This morning was subdued? Could have fooled me."

"When did you see him this morning?" Chris asks, confused. "I had breakfast with him and we came to the stadium together."

"Oh," Kazuya says, wetting his lips, "I meant that I saw him in the dugout, and he seemed… enthusiastic."

Chris nods. "It takes getting used to, but…" He smiles fondly. "He really changes the atmosphere."

Kazuya might not know Sawamura well, but that much is definitely true. He has an energy about him that Kazuya's convinced he'd notice with or without the Bond, like a sunlight so bright the clouds can't contain it. He'd seen it the first moment Sawamura walked out to the mound, before the Bond had skewed his perceptions and made it feel like Sawamura was the only person in the world he could truly focus on. "That's... easy to imagine."

Chris, who'd been about to move on, visibly pauses. "Did something... happen yesterday?"

"No," Kazuya says, and when it comes out too sharp, he follows it up with a small grin that he hopes looks normal with his eyes still partially hidden by his sports sunglasses. "It's the humidity. Makes it hard to sleep." The slow drip of concern, as irritating as a leaking faucet, makes Kazuya think the emotions he's spilling into Sawamura are probably unpleasant.

It reminds Kazuya all over again that the Bond isn't just Kazuya being inundated with Sawamura's constant mood swings, it's also Kazuya's emotions being shared with someone else without his say-so, no matter how much he's always preferred to be able to keep things to himself.

"First dehydration, and now the humidity, huh?" Chris looks up to the sky for a long moment, before returning his gaze to Kazuya. "If you say so, Miyuki." He holds out his hand, and Kazuya shakes it. "Good game today. I'm looking forward to the rest of the series."

"You should be looking forward to the next one we get to play against each other even more."

Chris chuckles. "The competitive part of me always wanted to know how we'd match up," Chris admits, as Kazuya drops his hand.

"It's the same for me," Kazuya admits. "This is only the practice round."

"The Olympics is where it counts, huh?" Chris slips his hands into his pockets. "I think we're all looking forward to competing on a stage that big."

"I'll be ready to play my best when--" replies Kazuya. There's a soft inquisitive push at his mind that feels purposeful, intentional, and Kazuya's words get stuck at the back of his throat. It… shouldn't be possible, for Sawamura to reach out to Kazuya like that on purpose. It's something Kazuya'd seen in a television drama, once, back when he was little and hadn't avoided fiction about Bonds with the kind of dedication he usually reserved only for baseball. But that kind of intentional communication had been between two old friends who'd been Bonded for years. Kazuya and Sawamura had only met yesterday, and have never even touched. Kazuya's heart trembles at the implications, and he feels himself go pale.

Chris squints at him, concerned. "Maybe you should get out of the sun," he says. "Take care of yourself, Miyuki. It'll be no fun inviting you out after we win if I know the opposing team's catcher was in a lurch."

"Hah," Kazuya says, looking past Chris to find Sawamura staring intently at him from the dugout. From this distance, Kazuya can't make out the expression on Sawamura's face, but those piercing eyes of his are inescapable. He licks his lips again, and tears his gaze away. "I'm sure my health will perfect at the Olympics."

He can feel Sawamura's eyes on him as he walks away, back to join the rest of his team, and there's a small wave of interest that washes into Kazuya's gut.

Kazuya ignores it.

He knows he probably doesn't look happy enough about their win to escape scrutiny from his teammates, so he doesn't linger in the locker room after their debrief, not quite sneaking out as Kominato and Isashiki ruthlessly tease Kuramochi about his failed steal in the fifth. He walks along the inner loop of the stadium corridor, along the staff passageways, where he's only forced to occasionally nod at people carrying out stadium tasks in preparation for the late afternoon game.

He finally stops when he gets to a corridor that dead ends, and leans back against the wall. He's about to take out his phone and check on today's Lions game when he feels it again: Sawamura reaching out for him on purpose. Kazuya concentrates on the feeling, isolating it has then pushing back against it firmly. "No," he says, his voice too loud in the empty hall, and he hopes Sawamura gets the message even if he doesn't manage to break all known logic of Bonding and send it right to him.

But Sawamura either doesn't get it or chooses not to understand it, continuing to search for him like a child playing Marco-Polo, using the Bond to narrow in on his location. Whenever Sawamura gets closer, the tide of his emotions rises higher, and so Kazuya's expecting it this time when Sawamura comes careening around the corner.

"Miyuki Kazuya!"

Kazuya looks up from his phone, and Sawamura's panting in front of him again, in his perfectly clean uniform pants and an oversized Team USA T-shirt. He has his baseball cap on perfectly straight even though they aren't in a game, his hair curling around his ears and forehead where it sticks out. He looks absolutely exhausted, now that Kazuya can see the dry skin at the corners of his lips and the purple skin under his eyes.

"You don't have to shout my name every time you see me, you know."

"Then you should stop making me find you!" Sawamura replies. "I always want to yell when I play hide and seek!"

Kazuya stares at him. "Aren't you twenty-eight? Aren't you a little old to play hide and seek often enough to have habits about it?"

Sawamura bristles. "That's not the point!"

Kazuya runs his tongue along the backs of his teeth. "What is the point, then? Why are you hunting me down in the first place?"

Sawamura leans on the wall next to Kazuya, only a handful of centimeters between their shoulders. "You got upset earlier, talking to Chris."

"You're so nosy," Kazuya says, exasperated. "Isn't it enough that you can feel things I don't want you to?"

"You said you'd let me get to know you!"

"I said I'd think about it." He squeezes his eyes shut. "That's not permission to push your way into my head, okay?"

"I didn't even know I could!" Sawamura tilts his head back to rest against the wall, too, knocking his cap askew. "I just wanted--"

"Wanted what? To get my attention?" Kazuya shakes his head, and his glasses slide down his nose. He pushes them back up. "You have it literally all the time now." He laughs, a little helplessly. "It's really hard to think about much else, thanks to this fucking Bond, even when I need to."

"You always sound so… Don't you want to know, too, Miyuki Kazuya?" Sawamura's fingers tap against the cement wall, and it takes Kazuya only a couple of seconds to realize it's the rhythm of Kazuya's heartbeat. "What it is that made the Bond between us so strong? Last night, I couldn't sleep at all! I just wanted to be closer to you!"

"And that doesn't scare you?" Kazuya starts to turn away. "I shouldn't be anyone to you, and you shouldn't be anyone to me." He glances down the hall, and listens, but there aren't any footsteps. "We don't have time to talk about this right now. There's only an hour and a half until the next game, and I want some time alone." He grins sardonically, taking a step away. "Or as alone as I can get."

"Please wait!" Sawamura lightly grabs Kazuya's wrist, and Kazuya gasps, the touch surging up his arm and out to the rest of his body, every nerve alight at the simple touch. He can feel every millimeter of Sawamura's rough fingertips on the inside of his wrist, and Sawamura's heartbeat is so, so loud.

"Sawamura," Kazuya says, and he needs to pull away but he can't. Sawamura's pupils are blown wide, his face gone pale. "Sawamura, let go." Sawamura does, immediately, and Kazuya takes a gasping breath. His wrist tingles, Sawamura's touch still lingering. "Fuck."

"I'm sorry, it was reflex! I didn't know it would feel like that," Sawamura says. "That it would be like--" He flexes his hand, and Kazuya thinks Sawamura must feel it too-- the way that the connection between them that had blown wide at the skin to skin contact. "It's so... big, Miyuki Kazuya. Honestly, it felt like my world got bigger the moment we Bonded!"

Kazuya'd thought he'd felt the opposite; like his world had narrowed to this stranger with a magnetic personality and too many emotions and a lacking understanding of boundaries. But in some ways, the wide seas of Sawamura's seemingly fathomless emotions, deeper than Kazuya's ever let himself feel and stretching out further than he can begin to imagine, have expanded something inside of him, too, haven't they?

Kazuya stares at Sawamura, at his open astonishment, and his chapped lips, and the undiluted vivacity of his eyes, and it's Kazuya who reaches out for Sawamura's hand this time, slipping his own fingers in between Sawamura's thinner, longer ones, letting the connection rush back into them both. He allows himself to dip into Sawamura's emotions, and the awe Sawamura feels is like the summer ocean, cool and salty and refreshing in direct contrast to the feverish heat of Sawamura's sun-warmed skin. "This is…"

"Amazing," Sawamura says, his voice shattered, his simple words a stiff and ill-fitting suit on the complexity of what Kazuya feels. "It's amazing."

"Maybe a little," Kazuya says, quietly, amidst the heady flow into his own chest of Sawamura's more uncomplicated joy. In the pit of his stomach though, Kazuya's own dread remains. He knows that Bonds are dangerous, and nothing good can come for either of them from making their already strong Bond any stronger when they have no choice but to break it.

As if sensing his doubt, Sawamura tightens his grip on Kazuya's hand. "If we can only have this for a short while, please stop trying to walk away from me, Miyuki Kazuya!"

"You're a total moron," Kazuya says. "You really don't have any self-preservation at all."

"I looked that up!" Sawamura replies. "And I do! It's just…" His mouth quivers. "I understand that baseball comes first. But a Bond… I dreamt of having one. Most people never get the chance. So… even if it hurts more later, I want to find out why the universe cared enough to put us together. And I think..." His face screws up, and Kazuya feels a gentle tug at the center of his sternum, like fingers have reached inside of him and wrapped around the bone. "I think you're curious too, even if it's only a little!"

Destiny is stupid, Kazuya thinks, still staring at Sawamura's mouth, and romanticising the idea of it is even stupider. Kazuya makes his own choices, deliberately, and makes his own path, regardless of what anyone else says or thinks. But he also knows that there's something about Sawamura that intrigues him, and a small part of him does want to know why his heart had reached out to Sawamura's, when Kazuya's never wanted anything to do with Bonds at all.

"Yeah," Kazuya says. "All right. Just…" Kazuya briefly sucks his lower lip into his mouth, sliding his thumb up along the outside of Sawamura's.

"Just?"

"Just don't get used to it." He presses his mouth into a thin line. "It's worse, if you get used to it. You can trust me on that."

Sawamura tilts his head to the side, and Kazuya waits for an inevitable question, but instead, Sawamura flexes his fingers, and Kazuya remembers they're still holding hands. "We should play catch." He pulls, bringing Kazuya closer, and Kazuya lets that happen, too. He can give Sawamura this, he thinks. It's part of their exchange.

"That's the second time you've asked."

"If you don't ask for the things you want, how can you get them?" Sawamura turns Kazuya's hand palm up, unlacing their fingers.

"Huh," Kazuya says. "Are you shameless, too?"

"Shameless…" Sawamura runs his fingertips across the center of Kazuya's palm. It sends a shiver up Kazuya's spine, and he doesn't know the cause of it. Then Sawamura grins, and the water Kazuya's in is ink-deep and dark. "Maybe a little."

"There's only a night game tomorrow," Kazuya says, around the tightness in his throat. "I'll come get you in the morning."

"Do you mean it?!"

"Sure," Kazuya says, and the water goes clear, a hundred emotions sloshing up into his eyes and nose and mouth, and he's no longer in danger of drowning as Sawamura's happiness buoys him up.

Sawamura himself is just as dangerous as the Bond between them, Kazuya thinks, and the more time they spend together the worse it will be.

Kazuya's phone buzzes, and he reclaims his hand to take it out. There's a message from Kuramochi that just says 'lunch, no skipping.' "I'm being summoned." His nerves are all still alight from Sawamura's touch, and the Bond between them is spilling over as if Kazuya's never let go at all. "And yesterday…" He sighs. "Yesterday you asked me to tell you something about my sister." He shifts his weight. "...She plays baseball. How's that?"

"You should bring her with you," Sawamura says, and Kazuya stares at the screen of his phone to spare himself Sawamura's eyes. "To play catch."

"Why?"

"When you mentioned her the first time, you felt so gentle." Sawamura's eyelashes flutter. "She matters a lot, right? So I think knowing her is a big part of knowing you." Kazuya's stomach swoops. "Oh, the rain is… Did I upset you again?!"

"You're really, really, really nosy," Kazuya says again, glancing up with a tiny smile.

Sawamura gapes at him. "I can't help it!"

"You didn't upset me." Kazuya reaches up and, after a brief hesitation, taps the tip of Sawamura's nose. The surprise that surges through him is worth the tingling that encompasses his hand and shoots up his arm at the simple touch. "See you later, idiot."

"I'm definitely not an idiot!" Sawamura calls after him, and Kazuya laughs as he turns the corner, walking down the hallway back toward the locker room with a bounce in his step.

"You look a lot better than earlier," Kuramochi says, over the packed lunches that had arrived while Kazuya was on his walk. "Did you take that nap you needed?"

Startled, Kazuya looks up from his fish to face Kuramochi. "What?"

"You were moments from death when you sauntered in before the game, but now you somehow look like you've had a full night's sleep."

Kazuya remembers the longing he'd felt all night, and then his thoughts drift to the sear of Sawamura's fingers wrapping around his wrist. "Huh," he says. "I guess my natural good looks have won out."

"I hate you," Kuramochi replies casually, taking Kazuya's napkin without asking, and wiping the soy sauce from his lips.

Japan loses the second game of the double-header, but Kazuya, sitting in the dugout watching grimly as the American team takes the lead in the eighth with a grand slam, is filled with Sawamura's constant, unfaltering giddiness.

*

"Who are we visiting?" Tomomi asks, when she finally wakes up enough for conversation. They're already halfway to Sawamura's hotel. "Kuramochi?"

"No," Kazuya says, his knees bumping her much smaller ones as he stands between her seat and the center train aisle, watching her play some barbaric game with a frog on her old blue flip phone. It's low-resolution and pixelated as she uses the tiny arrow keys to navigate the frog character into oncoming traffic. "Someone new. They wanted to meet you."

"Why?"

Kazuya gently taps the toe of his sneaker against the toe of Tomomi's hot pink one. "Because they know you're important to me."

"It's really early. And you never let me miss morning practice." Tomomi peers up at him suspiciously through her frizzy bangs, her frog character meeting an ignoble death on screen, complete with an unsettling squelching noise, at the hands of the oncoming cars. "Kazuya, do you have a boyfriend?"

His stomach clenches, and Kazuya wonders if even with the distance still between them, Sawamura will feel it and worry that Kazuya is upset again. Sawamura's emotions, unlike the night before, hadn't disappeared when Kazuya had gotten back to his apartment. Instead, they had felt muted, far less intense than they'd been when they'd sat side by side on his hotel bed, or facing each other in that hallway.

"No," he says, shifting his grip on the hanging balance handle. "I don't."

With suspicion still lingering in her pout, Tomomi narrows her eyes. "Are you sure?"

"When would I have time to go on dates?" Kazuya asks her, lightly, making a joke of it. "I spend most of my free time with you. How would I pick you up and play catch every day if I had a boyfriend?"

Tomomi frowns thoughtfully, then flicks a glance down at the bag over Kazuya's shoulder, filled with some of his soft, practice protective gear and both of their baseball gloves. "We could all play together," she says, and satisfied, she returns her attention to her phone, beginning a new game with a new, uncrushed frog at her fingertips.

They get off the train at Akasaka-Mitsuke Station in Chiyoda, and head out of Exit D toward Kioicho, Tomomi's hand in his as they navigate the early Wednesday morning crowds and make their way to Sawamura's hotel. They take the elevator up to the thirty-second floor, and Tomomi looks as surprised at the opulence of it as Kazuya had been. It's not a secret that Kazuya's moderately wealthy in his own right, but he hadn't grown up that way, and though his own apartment is in an exclusive, expensive area but it's still relatively simply decorated. "Everything's lit up," she says, as they make their way down to Sawamura's suite.

"Yeah, it's pretty fancy," replies Kazuya, and when they get to room 306, he puts his hand on the top of her head and ruffles her hair. "Why don't you knock on the door?"

"Me?" When he nods, she gets up on her tippy-toes and raps her knuckles loudly at the noisiest spot right at the center of the door.

Moments later, it swings open to a beaming Sawamura, dressed in a pair of jeans worn so thin across his thighs that Kazuya can see the white connecting threads in the give of the denim, and a comfortable looking soft shirt in a vivid blue that sets off the gold in his eyes. Kazuya has to look away, because as usual, there's something too bright about him. Through the Bond, the swell of excitement, nervousness and acute pleasure is the relentless crash of waves against a cliff.

"Hello, good morning!" Sawamura says cheerfully in English, and Tomomi stares up at him blankly for a long moment before she breaks into a grin of her own.

"You're Eijun Sawamura!" she replies in her crisp, unaccented English, and Sawamura's eyes go wide as he looks down at her. Kazuya can see him taking note of her features; the grey of her eyes and the texture of her hair, but then the brief contemplation is gone, a flash of realization along the Bond that quickly disappears. "I'm Tomomi!"

"I am!" He squats down, so he's closer to eye-level with her, and holds out his hand for a handshake. "It's nice to meet you, Tomomi."

Her eyes still wide with delight, Tomomi grins at him. "You're my favorite player! I have five posters of you!"

"Me?" Sawamura, if it's possible, looks even more delighted at that fact than Tomomi is, and Kazuya's heart makes a tiny skip of happiness. Sawamura's head jerks up to stare at him, lips parting in an 'O' of surprise, and Kazuya swallows harshly at rising tide of Sawamura's happiness that he gets in response.

"Well, maybe my second favorite," Tomomi says, and Sawamura breaks their gazes to looks back at her, allowing Kazuya to breathe. "Kazuya's my favorite."

"He's one of my favorites, too," says Sawamura. "I wanted to meet him for a long time!"

Kazuya's taken aback at that, but then he remembers something Chris said, at that mixer last weekend, about how Sawamura would be disappointed that he'd missed meeting Kazuya in particular. It had struck him as odd then, and now, it has new meaning. "Wow," Kazuya drawls, not wanting to consider how much he likes the idea of Sawamura having been interested in him before they'd spontaneously Bonded across the fifteen meters that separate home plate and the mound. "How flattering."

"I watched an interview with Miyuki Kazuya while I was still in college," Sawamura says to Tomomi seriously, but it's clear that he's speaking English slowly so that Kazuya will understand him, too. "He described a pitch as a work of art between a catcher and a pitcher, and I knew I'd picked a good favorite!"

Kazuya curls his hands into fists, the bag on his shoulder feeling heavy. "That was years ago," he says, switching back to Japanese. "When the Lions won the Championship with two no-hitter games, the year after I signed."

"I said I wanted to meet you for a long time!" Sawamura replies, also in Japanese. "I wanted to play catch with you!"

"Well," Kazuya says, keeping his tone light and easy, "it looks like you'll get your wish~!"

Tomomi bounces back and forth, weight shifting from the ball of her foot to the heel and then back again. "Kazuya, we're going to play catch with Eijun Sawamura from the Pittsburgh Pirates?!"

"If that's all right with you, Your Majesty," he replies, sarcastically, but he loves the sparkle in her eyes.

And there it is again, the swell of Sawamura's emotions, tangible enough that Kazuya feels momentarily like he's actually swallowed up in the warm rush of affection Sawamura's giving off. Kazuya wonders how Sawamura lives his life constantly feeling so very much.

"Let me just grab my glove," Sawamura says, straightening up from his crouch. He leaves the door ajar, returning only a few seconds later with a beat up backpack in one hand and a brown leather wallet in the other. He pushes the wallet into his back pocket and then pulls the door shut behind him with his free hand. "I'm ready!"

"Will you show me your Cutter Kai?" Tomomi asks, as they head down the hallway, back to the elevators. "I'm a pitcher too, you know!"

"Oho? A fellow pitcher? This Sawamura Eijun will show you all his coolest pitches!" Sawamura tells her, with an irrepressible grin that makes Kazuya want to grin back at him, even without the added push from the Bond.

As Tomomi launches into a complicated question about how the Cutter Kai works, with Sawamura listening seriously and nodding as they board the elevator, his attention firmly fixed on her like he's talking to an equal instead of a child, some affection of Kazuya's own spills out from his rapidly beating heart.

Oh no, he thinks, stepping into the elevator behind them. Not this.

Sawamura looks up at him, sharply, eyes narrowed, and Kazuya looks away, at the closing doors, refusing to respond.

They take the train to the old baseball field a couple of blocks from Tomomi's school. Sawamura can't read much Japanese at all, but he laughingly lets Tomomi buy his ticket instead of attempting to select any English options. "I never had to learn to read in Japanese," he tells her, when she's unimpressed by his inability to navigate the menus. "It's pretty cool that you know both."

"My mom's Japanese is bad," Tomomi replies. "When she calls, I want to talk to her as much as I can, so I practice a lot."

"When she calls?" Sawamura watches her, another question visibly on his lips, but then he must sense something from Kazuya, because he shoots a quick glance in Kazuya's direction and then just smiles instead, question disappearing unasked. "You should teach me more Japanese. We can be pen pals. I know some hiragana, but you can correct all my mistakes."

Tomomi looks up at him like he's hung the moon. "You'd write back to me?"

"Of course I would," Sawamura replies. "If I show you my Cutter Kai up close, we'll have to be friends." He wiggles his little finger, holding it out to her, and excited, she links it with his, shaking twice before letting go.

"I only have one other friend," she says, collecting Sawamura's ticket from the receptacle. "Or maybe one and a half."

Sawamura accepts the ticket from her, staring down at her. "How do you have half of a friend?”

She pulls a face. "Kenji Bonded. To Airi. I don't know her, but Kenji's my best friend and she's his Bondmate so I'm stuck with her I guess." She blows her bangs out of her face. "She's nice, though, even if it might mean soon I’ll have no friends."

Sawamura's eyes drop to half-mast, and there's a faint ripple of alarm. "Why do you think that?”

She shrugs, looking down, and Kazuya sidles up next to her and takes her hand. "If you want to play with us before you have to go to school, we'd better get moving, kiddo."

Kazuya shifts the weight of his bag, and shakes his head at Sawamura. Sawamura purses his lips in response, but he lets Kazuya lead them to the right platform to catch their train.

Dawn has long broken by the time they arrive, at nearly six in the morning, to the old field. Kazuya, with the ease of familiarity, slides the rusted safety-fence lock loose, letting them inside. "Lots of kids play here in the afternoon," he says, at Sawamura's thoughtful glance around at the overgrown grass, "but no one from the neighborhood's ever around in the this early."

"Not even you?" He asks Tomomi, and Tomomi shakes her head.

"I play on Kazuya's old Little League team," she says. "We practice on the other side of Edogawa, at the new field."

"I see," Sawamura, and the emotion that Kazuya picks up is a soft, lulling amusement. “When did you start playing?”

“When I was five.” She reaches up to Kazuya’s bag, unzipping it and rooting around for her glove. That used to be Kazuya’s too, and it’s nicely worn in. She probably won’t ever need his catcher's mitts, but his infielder's gloves suit her just fine. “When I’m twelve, I’m going to play for Kazuya’s Senior League team, too.”

"You like baseball that much, huh?" Sawamura pulls his backpack across his torso and pulls out a different glove than he’s used in Monday’s game. This one is a dark brown, worn out in several places, with laces in need of changing. “Is it fun to play for the same teams your brother used to play for?”

“Sometimes.” Tomomi pulls out a baseball and tosses it toward Sawamura, and he dips a bare hand low to catch it. “I want a different catcher.”

“Then who would you teach wrestling to?” Kazuya teases, pulling on one of her pigtails as she slips her hand into the glove. She sticks her tongue out at him, making him laugh.

“I guess you don’t like him,” Sawamura says, spinning the ball in his hand, fingers gliding along the red seams. Kazuya watches them settle on a four-seam grip, textbook pretty, and Kazuya realizes that for all of Sawamura’s talk of playing catch, he hadn’t considered it would mean getting to see his pitch release up close.

“It's him that doesn’t like me,” Tomomi says, handing Kazuya his mitt. “Sawamura, can you show me the Cutter Kai now, please?”

“Oh, you’re polite for Sawamura, huh?” Kazuya tugs her pigtail again, then accepts the mitt, dropping the bag to the ground and pulling down his beanie.

Across the Bond, there’s nothing but rolling waves of fondness.

“You can call me Eijun,” Sawamura says, and both he and Tomomi turn to look at him.

“Which ‘you’?” she asks, in English.

“Both of you,” he replies, backing up without checking behind him. Not a lick of self-preservation, Kazuya thinks, but it makes him want to smile. “So Tomomi, come on over here, so I can show you how it works!”

“Yes!” Tomomi yells, running to catch up with him, her laugh filling the field.

A little over an hour later, after Tomomi’s been dropped off at school, already disheveled and incandescent with joy, Kazuya sits across from Sawamura in a small coffee shop, both of them sipping on ice coffees, though Sawamura’s is at least fifty percent whipping cheam.

Sawamura’s hair is an untamed mess, and he has grass stains on the knees of his jeans from where he'd spent more than fifty minutes on them, watching and correcting Tomomi's pitching mechanics as Kazuya held out his mitt in wait for her efforts.

Sawamura feels so peaceful, when the overflow of his emotions pour into Kazuya through the Bond, and he looks it, too, eyes half-closed as he watches customers enter and exit the shop, his rosin-costed hands wrapped around the glass as he sips his confectionary drink through an oversized straw. His lips are pink and soft.

“What’s wrong?” Sawamura asks, looking up from his drink to stare at Kazuya with those gold lion eyes, and Kazuya darts his gaze quickly out the window.

“You don’t need to ice your shoulder, right?”

“Not for that,” Sawamura replies. “Only a few of my pitches were at full-strength.”

“Fifteen of them.” It had been fun, showing off for his sister, calling out a pitch name across the distance in lieu of signs. Sawamura had delivered, every single one of them slamming into Kazuya’s glove right where he'd asked for it, like they’d playing together for years instead of for the first time.

Sawamura is the kind of pitcher Kazuya likes best, with so much versatility and a control that can't be beaten. A real ace, like Mei and Hongou, but built, somehow, despite never crossing paths with each other before, exactly to Kazuya's taste.

“Like I said! Only a few!”

Kazuya stirs his ice coffee. It’s black, no sugar or milk, and it’s cold and bitter when he licks his lips. "Why was it so important to you?" He asks. “That we play catch?"

Sawamura straightens, and the peaceful slosh of water turns into a gush of something else: Kazuya can’t identify the emotion, but it’s not a bad one.

"Because it was you," Sawamura says.

"Because we're…" He gestures between them, not wanting to say it aloud here, even if no one seems to be paying them any attention.

Sawamura shakes his head in the negative, and Kazuya notices a few new freckles, a product of the already high and bright morning sun, dot the tip of his nose. "I went to high school in the countryside."

"A farm boy. I remember."

Sawamura laughs, showing all his teeth, and his easy happiness laps at Kazuya this time, like the calm waves of a falling tide. "We could barely make a team. The catcher couldn't catch half of my pitches. The summer before my second year of school…" He looks back into Kazuya's eyes, "my Grandpa was watching a Koushien stream, and I saw you play."

Kazuya studies the way Sawamura's eyelashes dip. "Seriously?"

"You were catching for this sidearm pitcher, he was small but fast. You caught every single pitch. The bad pitches, too. And you made him better." Sawamura‘s smile turns into something slow, sweet. "It made me... " He trails off, searching for a word. "Want more. From baseball. I wanted to play with a catcher like that. Who could catch anything I threw. Make me better, too."

"You've worked with a lot of great catchers in the MLB.” Kazuya’s glass is cold, condensation wet against his palm. "You have that now."

Sawamura hums. "I do," he replies. "Even Chris! Chris is the best, and I admire him very much. He helped me get through a really tough time in my life."

"The yips, right?" Kazuya asks, and Sawamura nods.

Then he wiggles his straw in his whipping cream monstrosity, and ice clinks against the insides of the glass. "But there's always been… I've wanted to meet the catcher that made me transfer schools and live away from home in a dormitory and take classes that were too difficult, just so that I could play baseball for the first time at a higher level…” He takes a long sip of his drink, and Kazuya tracks the bobbing of his throat as he swallows. “I wanted to make a battery with him."

"You mean with me," Kazuya clarifies. "You held onto something like that for so many years?"

"I had a cutout photo of you on my wall." He thoughtfully wrinkles his nose. "It was from an issue of 'Monthly Baseball Kingdom', when you were a high school first year." Kazuya remembers the article. It had been flattering, and he'd shown the only copy of it he'd saved to Tomomi, last year, when she'd helped him finally clean out his bedroom at his Dad's house over New Year's. "It was like you were a dream."

Eijun Sawamura is one of the top pitchers in the MLB, chosen out of hundreds of other fastball pitchers at the top of their leagues to represent the American team in an international sporting competition. He's a star descended from a famous legacy who will more than likely become a legend in his own right.

The idea that Kazuya had been part of what motivated him to pursue more advanced pitching, to find the high school team that had led to him being scouted by Vanderbilt… It's a lot to process, especially when Sawamura is sitting across from him, wearing an honest smile, his nervous glee forming puddles deep enough to soak Kazuya to the knees with any time he accidentally allows his consciousness to wander.

"Was it a disappointment?" Kazuya asks. "To just throw a few balls in a park with grass too high?" Sawamura hadn't seemed disappointed. Perhaps Kazuya's perception of Sawamura's emotions is off, and always has been.

"It was good. The way things are, we'll probably never play with each other in an official game." Sawamura smiles down at his drink. "But this… this was good. I want to do it more, Miyuki Kazuya. It felt like we could reach each other’s minds."

"We kind of can," Kazuya replies. “That’s the reason behind the regulations that prevent us from playing on opposing teams.”

“Yeah,” Sawamura says, and under the table, his legs move, stretching out from his space and into Kazuya's, brushing their ankles together. “I have a personal question.”

“I may or may not give a personal answer, depending.” Kazuya doesn't move his ankle away. He lets the sting of the touch, an electric current in running water, carry up his calf to this thigh.

"It's about Tomomi." When Kazuya just raises an eyebrow, his stomach still folding in on itself at the surge in their level of connection from the touch, Sawamura continues. "She's your half-sister, right?"

"Obviously." With a sigh, Kazuya leans back in his seat. "Are you going to ask about her mother?"

"Can I?"

"She's in Sweden," Kazuya says. "I think. She moves a lot, for work. She does some really important medical research."

"And she doesn't… come back here a lot, right?" Sawamura sounds like he's confirming suspicions more than asking questions he doesn't know the answer to.

"No," Kazuya says. "She loves Tomomi, but Tomomi needed a lot of things that required living in one place instead of traveling around all the time, especially for school and baseball. And unfortunately, it's hard for Tomomi's mother to be in Japan." He runs his condensation damp hand up his chest. Sawamura's eyes follow the motion, before returning looking right into Kazuya's. "She and my father have a partially broken Bond. It was a deeper Bond, so whenever she gets too close to him, it tries to heal itself."

"Partially broken?" Sawamura tests out the phrase, and Kazuya can tell it's unfamiliarity with the concept not the words by the way his eyes flicker in contemplation instead of darting left and right, like he might find a handy dictionary at either end of his peripheral vision.

"They never got it fully broken by a professional." Kazuya's gut is twisting, but he keeps himself from looking away. "They didn't know what it would do to my father, to have a second broken Bond."

"A second…" Sawamura's eyes are round, his eyebrows high. There's a tiny bit of whipping cream at the corner of his mouth. "He Bonded twice?"

"Yes," Kazuya says. "Enough for the rest of the family, don't you think?" He says it lightly, but he can feel both of them sinking in unison into murkier water. "That's why Tomomi is worried about losing Kenji." And, Kazuya thinks, why she clings so tightly to Kazuya, as if something might rip him away as well, even though Kazuya can't think of any reason he would let that happen. "Tomomi's only seen what Bonding can cost."

"Aren't you the same?" Sawamura asks. "Have you ever seen a Bond be something good?" Sawamura's gaze traps him, and Kazuya feels his heart skip a beat at the intensity of it.

He swallows. "Have you ever seen a Bond be something bad?" he retorts. "Or is it all rainbows and happy endings, in your world?"

"We live in the same world!"

Kazuya feels the full measure of Sawamura's optimism, and his exuberance, and all the little things he takes joy in every minute, and it's enough to know that Sawamura's perceptions and his own will never match up. "We really don't," he says, and the words feel poisonous as they fall into the air between them.

Sawamura's lips curl down at the edges, emphasising the small dimple in his chin. "I keep upsetting you."

"It's because we're still strangers, Sawamura, no matter how close your heart keeps trying to convince you that we are."

"We're definitely not strangers anymore," replies Sawamura, lips lifting back into a smile. "We played catch, and I showed you my special cutter, and remember, that makes us friends!" Kazuya doesn't know if he's ever met someone this damnably hopeful. He has no clue how to deal with it, or the way it makes him feel so hopeful himself. "And didn't I say you could call me Eijun?"

"Yeah, but you didn't tell me I had to." Kazuya drinks the last of his coffee. "About Tomomi. The pen pal thing."

Sawamura grins, lopsidedly. It makes him look even more boyishly handsome, with his floppy hair and half-assed shaving job. "I'm sorry. I didn't ask if it was okay."

"I don't mind," Kazuya says. "You can send letters or whatever to my apartment, if you want." He sets his empty glass down. "But you have to do it, since you said you would. Don't…" He licks his lips. "You're her favorite player. Don't get her hopes up if you're not going to do it."

"I'm going to do it," Sawamura replies bluntly. "This Sawamura does everything he says he will!"

"Is that the kind of guy you are?" Kazuya asks. "The kind that speaks in really old-fashioned Japanese, and keeps his promises?"

"Yes." Sawamura juts out his chin. "And definitely any promises I make to you." That stubborn tilt of his mouth. "I know we met yesterday, so I haven't had the chance to prove it yet, but even if we break our Bond, I'm always going to know who you are to me." He taps his fingers on the table, leaving marks on the wood surface with rosin. "Even after such a short time, it's obvious that Tomomi is part of that, because she's part of you."

Sawamura says it with such sincerity, in his voice and echoing in Kazuya's chest, that Kazuya can't doubt him.

"You can't possibly be real," Kazuya says, his ribs caving in on him, and Sawamura reaches across the table and covers Kazuya's hand with his own. The touch is another anchor as Kazuya breathes around the water that fills his lungs.

"Of course I'm real! What's that supposed to mean?!" Sawamura's voice is loud and blustery, but his hand, resting over Kazuya's, is the calm sea after a storm.

"That you're an idiot," Kazuya says, and he turns his hand up, so he can link their fingers together again. "Don't you know you're supposed to save that kind of thing for people who earn it?"

"My favorite rain is the rain in the spring," says Sawamura, squeezing Kazuya's hand. "It's gentle and warm and afterwards, everything starts to bloom and grow." He rests his cheek in the curve of his other hand, elbow digging into the table. "That's what it feels like, when you think about Tomomi." He beams, half of it covered by the edge of his hand. "Miyuki Kazuya! I guess that means when you love something, it feels like a spring rain!"

"Shut up," Kazuya murmurs, but Sawamura's so joyous that Sawamura can't put any bite into the command.

"I'm only being honest!" Sawamura replies sunnily, and resigned, Kazuya uses his free hand to wipe the lingering bit of cream from the corner of that grinning mouth.

Sawamura drags him on a tour of his dad's neighborhood after they'd taken their empty coffee glasses back to the counter, dipping down every side street and prodding Kazuya into posing for mobile phone pictures in the park, at the narrow street leading up to the house, and at the foot of the shallow river that leads out to the man-made lake a few kilometers west if you follow it.

"Why are you taking so many?" Kazuya asks, as Sawamura captures another photograph when he's least expecting it.

"They're for my parents."

"Did you tell them about me?" Kazuya asks. "About…"

"No," says Sawamura, "because they won't understand why…" He squints down at the just captured image on his screen, and his heartbeat is so loud in Kazuya's ears that Kazuya reaches up and brushes his fingers against the back of Sawamura's bare neck. "They just know you're a player I like. And I want to show them that I didn't spend my time here alone."

"Were you in danger of that?" Kazuya spots the dilapidated, tucked out of the way convenience store that's been around since before Kazuya was born, and when Sawamura looks up at him, he points to it. "Water," he says. "I'm playing tonight, at least."

"It's not like I know anyone here besides my team, and Chris is the player I'm closest to." He hands Kazuya back his phone. "Don't even have mobile service here, unless I'm on the hotel wifi."

"I figured that's why you kept taking mine." They cross the street, ducking into the store. There's air-con, now, and Kazuya hadn't realized how hot he had gotten until he was hit with the cool air. "I can't believe the weather is like this in May."

"Is it usually colder or hotter?"

"It doesn't usually get this hot until July." He grabs two bottles of water from one of the narrow refrigerators as Sawamura examines several bags of cookies as if they hold the secret to the universe. "It means when we play in August, the weather's going to be tough."

"The Tokyo Olympics…" Sawamura picks up two of the packages, looking between them. "My parents might come. Neither of them have been back to Japan since the 1980s. Both their families are from Nagoya, though."

Kazuya walks over to stand next to him, reading the labels over Sawamura's shoulder, chest bumping into Sawamura's old backpack. Sawamura smells like grass, and a little like that strawberry body-wash, too, under the faint, clean sweat. "One's milk chocolate, and the other's dark," he says, pointing to the one in Sawamura's left hand and then the one in his right. "You should at least learn katakana."

"Never needed it," Sawamura replies. "Speaking it… I did that all the time at home, because Grandpa can't speak much English that isn't about baseball or cars, and my mom's more comfortable talking in Japanese. Even then, if I don't know a word, I just say the English one, and they usually understand." He sets the dark chocolate package back down, keeping the milky one. The sweeter one, Kazuya thinks. Another way in which they are opposites. "Writing… there was always something else to do. I barely liked doing my homework."

There's a tinge of melancholy rippling out from their Bond, and Kazuya's own emotions easily make room for it.

"I'll buy it for you," he says, uncomfortable, taking the package out of Sawamura's hands, and setting it onto the register counter along with the two water bottles in his right hand. He pulls out his wallet, and puts a single bill into the plastic register basket. "Were you playing baseball outside, instead of diligently completing your assignments?"

"Sometimes," Sawamura says, "but mostly I helped on the farm, once I was old enough not to make more work than I could do." He watches the cashier ring up their purchase, counting the coins that she places back into the basket. "A lot of my classmates were the same."

"How filial," Kazuya murmurs, passing Sawamura one of the water bottles and the cookies, and keeping the second water bottle for himself.

"How… what?" Sawamura asks, as they step out of the air conditioning into the oppressive early afternoon heat.

"I mean, that's loyal to your parents," Kazuya explains, leading Sawamura to an empty bench that faces the line of shops and vegetable stalls. After he sits down, dropping his bag between his feet, he opens his water bottle, watching Sawamura struggle with the cellophane of the cookie package in amusement. "Working on the farm instead of playing."

"There were only like, ten kids my age for miles and miles." Sawamura pops a cookie into his mouth. "Lots of kilometers, I guess. And it was…" He smiles, and there are cookie crumbs on his lower lip. "Maybe I was like Tomomi, and I only had one and a half friends back then, too, before I made it to junior high school."

"How did you have half a friend?" Kazuya makes his voice rough and nasal, like Sawamura's, with a teasing lilt bolstered by the soft splash of Sawamura's contentment as it pours slowly into him.

"The half was baseball," Sawamura says, licking the crumbs with a slick, chocolatey tongue. "Maybe baseball was a whole, actually. The friend that always understood me."

And that, Kazuya thinks, is something they have in common, despite all the ways he's catalogued that they're opposites. "Baseball felt like a way for me to be a part of something, when I was little," Kazuya says, looking away from Sawamura, in the direction of the nearest train station. "And being catcher was the way to make sure I wasn't replaceable."

"People are never replaceable," says Sawamura, firmly. He rests a hand on Kazuya's thigh, sliding up from his knee to his hip, and Kazuya's breath catches, his head snapping back to look at Sawamura in surprise.

"What are you…?"

Sawamura's hand goes into Kazuya's pocket, pulling out his phone. "We should take a picture together," he says, unlocking it with the four-digit code he'd clearly memorized and then opening up Kazuya's photo application.

"We should take it on your phone, if it's for your parents."

Sawamura's thumb stops moving, the current of his emotion turning shockingly cool in contrast to the sticky hot of Kazuya's skin. "No," he says, "this one's for you." He throws an arm around Kazuya's shoulder and pulls him in.

*

"You barely made call-time," Kuramochi says, when Kazuya slips into the locker room at fifteen minutes to five. "You're never this late."

"Had a busy day," replies Kazuya. "Lots to do."

"Okay…" Kuramochi says. "At least it looks like some of that involved sleeping."

Kazuya pushes his hair out of his face. He'd ridden the train with Sawamura all the way back to his hotel, for some reason, and then Sawamura had treated him to lunch. It had led to Kazuya playing tour-guide for Sawamura at the Imperial Palace, even though Sawamura had known more about the historical stuff than Kazuya'd ever bothered to learn. The conversations had been fraught with frantic use of both of their phone dictionaries as they struggled to communicate more complex concepts, but somehow, it had never been stilted, Sawamura managing to fill the gaps with easy laughter and unwavering interest.

The hours had disappeared, and Kazuya hadn't realized the time until he'd looked down at his phone to see it blinking up at him from the upper left side of the photo-capture screen.

"You sure seem cheerful," Kuramochi says. "It's kind of gross."

"Cheerful?" Kazuya shrugs, a smile pulling at his lips. "I don't know about that."

"Definitely cheerful," Kominato Ryousuke chimes in. "Did something good happen?"

"Not particularly," Kazuya replies, wanting to pull out his phone and look at all the photos from today, of Sawamura's bright eyes and smile. Of his own surprised face from that streetside park bench, Sawamura's cookie-crumbed cheek pressed to his own.

*

They win the game that night, on the back of two of Kazuya's RBIs and a commanding performance from Akashi, the fourth pitcher in their starting rotation. In the back of Kazuya's mind, Sawamura is a constant, swelling ocean.

"Let's hope your bat stays this hot for the next four days," Yuuki says, after they shut the American team down at the top of the ninth. "And then through to the Olympics."

"The Lions are hoping that, too," he replies.

"I'm glad to see you're feeling better," Yuuki says. "You're an important part of this team."

"Of course I am." Kazuya grins as Kuramochi throws his sweaty jersey across the room, just missing his head.

Inside of him, there's the oddest rushing tide of happiness, and it's both of them, two heartbeats pounding in time.

*

The fifth game goes again to America, Sawamura on the mound again and his pitches just as devastating.

At the plate, Kazuya still can't hit if Sawamura's the one who's pitching, even if the thrill that accompanies every single pitch no longer leaves him feeling dizzy or sick. He strikes out against Sawamura three times, and every time he returns to the dugout, his teammates stare at him as though he's someone they've never seen before.

It's Chris who finds him long after the game has ended, when he's sitting with Kuramochi up in the empty stadium stands, their only other company the cleaning crew.

"Chris Takigawa," he says, introducing himself to Kuramochi as he stands across from them, his back to the metal guard rail. He's already changed out of his uniform and into comfortable looking street clothes, a soft button up shirt and a pair of dark denim jeans. "I was just about to invite Miyuki out for drinks with me and Sawamura. Did you want to come?"

"I can't," Kazuya says. "I've got plans."

"Little Miyuki has a game tonight," Kuramochi adds. "Kazuya always attends her games."

"Your sister?" Chris asks. "She's a pitcher, right? Sawamura said she'd asked him to show her how to do his special brand of cutter."

Kuramochi, startled, looks between them. "When did Sawamura meet your little sister?"

"Yesterday," replies Kazuya. "In the morning before school. She's a big fan of Sawamura's."

"In the morning, huh?" Kuramochi nudges Kazuya in the side. "I thought I'd figured out why were you almost late yesterday to a night game!"

"Sawamura was almost late, too," Chris says. "Something about taking tourist photos?"

Kazuya squints out at the electronic sign-board, still lit up with advertisements and this afternoon's score, and kneads at his sore thighs with his knuckles. They've been aching more lately, and Kazuya should probably take a hot bath and rub out the tension knots. "He wanted a tourism buddy, I guess," Kazuya replies. "We lost track of time after we took Tomomi to school."

"You willingly spent the day playing tourist?" Kuramochi squints at Kazuya, and then pokes at his cheek. "Is this the real Miyuki, or an extremely lifelike robotic reproduction?"

Kazuya swats his hand away. "Wouldn't you like to know?"

Cackling, Kuramochi pulls his hand back. "Seriously, though, you must have a soft spot for the guy, or something. It took five months after I joined the Lions before you let me anywhere near your sister!"

"Clearly I was right to be hesitant, considering the first thing you taught her was the wrestling moves she uses against her Little League teammates," replies Kazuya.

"She wins, though, right?" Kuramochi jokes, and Kazuya shakes his head and rolls his eyes. "So you should be thanking me for giving her important life skills."

"You picked a lot of fights in high school, Miyuki," Chris adds. "Your weapon of choice was just words instead of actions."

I don't want her to be like me, Kazuya thinks, remember how lonely he'd been in high school, even as one of the team's star players, popular with girls and even more popular with baseball scouts. Tomomi can have more than that. "Sawamura can meet my sister because he teaches her child-safe versions of his pitching grips," Kazuya says, pushing the thought aside, and then cranes his head back to look at Chris without getting up. "I'm going to pass on the drinks. Sorry. I know you're only in Japan until Sunday, but we have a post-game tradition."

Chris looks back at him thoughtfully. "It's been a long time since I've seen kids seriously play," he says. "Would it be terrible if Sawamura and I tagged along to your sister's game, instead?"

"Would it be terrible?" Kazuya chuckles. "She'll never be satisfied with just me coming to a game ever again." He rubs at his face, jostling his sports glasses out of place. "But yeah, sure, come along. Her team could only use more support in the stands."

"I think I will tag along for this," Kuramochi says, and Kazuya raises both eyebrows.

"Why the sudden interest?" Kazuya asks.

"I want to know how Sawamura got you to perform normal human interactions for no apparent gain," replies Kuramochi. "I'm honestly baffled."

Chris clicks his nails against the metal rail. "Sawamura has a real way with people," he says, with that warm smile that Kazuya had seen for the first time at the mixer last week. Chris had credited Sawamura with it, and even after the brief amount of time Kazuya's spent with Sawamura, he's started to see how someone like Sawamura would have been just the right type of person to touch someone like Chris, who had been cold and closed off and in need of a little sun.

*

They meet down by the main entrance to the back parking lot once Kazuya and Kuramochi have showered and changed. Sawamura is wearing a bright red T-shirt that makes his skin look even more burned, with "Best Beef In Japan" written across the chest in Japanese writing that Sawamura probably can't read, since it's mostly kanji. In comparison to Chris's sleek outfit, Sawamura's a total mess, but Kazuya finds himself looking at him anyway, admiring the way his jeans cling to his thighs and the way the neck of the T-shirt has been stretched out enough that whenever he moves it reveals a swath of collarbone.

Sawamura's looking back at him, too, and there's a faint ripple of embarrassment across the Bond before it's smothered with a wave of excitement.

Kazuya's planned to pick up Tomomi today, as opposed to picking her up on a whim, so he's driving his safer car, a black Toyota Lexus he'd gotten last year when he'd realized he needed a car with more space inside.

"It's not the convertible," Sawamura says sadly, when Kazuya leads them to it, and Kuramochi laughs.

"Oh, you like that one?" He eyes Sawamura speculatively. "When did you take a ride in the convertible?"

"Monday night," Sawamura says distractedly, as he tries and fails to open the backseat door. "Why…?"

"Child safety locks," Kazuya replies, opening the driver's side door and releasing all the internal locks. "To keep children inside the car."

"And Eijuns out," Sawamura mumbles, as Kuramochi takes shotgun with no remorse, leaving Chris to get into the back with Sawamura.

"So you took Sawamura out for a spin the convertible on Monday, and on a baseball date on Wednesday?" Kuramochi asks.

"I took him to his hotel on Monday," Kazuya says. His gut twists into knots. "Are you jealous because I never let you ride in it?" He chuckles weakly, and Kuramochi gives him a weird look before shrugging and starting to mess with the radio.

Sawamura sends him a tentative, soothing emotion across the Bond this time, and Kazuya doesn't rebuff it, instead allowing it to loosen the tension in his belly as he turns on the car and starts to drive.

Chris is full of questions about Tomomi's Little League team, asking questions about how long she's been playing and what kind of reputation they have.

"You played Little League, too, right Chris?" Kazuya asks, and Chris nods.

"Yeah, on the other side of Tokyo," he replies. "I don't remember playing you until Senior League, though."

"Same for me," Kazuya replies.

"They didn't have Little League in my neighborhood," Kuramochi says. "And even if they had, I woulda skipped too many practices not to get kicked out back then. I was kinda wild."

"Kominato said you used to be a delinquent." Kazuya smirks. "I don't know if kinda wild really fits the situation--"

"Anyway," Kuramochi interrupts, "what about you, Sawamura?"

"He played baseball with the cows," Kazuya answers for him, and irritated amusement splish-splashes down the sides of Kazuya's ribcage. "A farm boy."

"Hey!" Sawamura replies, and Kuramochi laughs loudly enough to drown out the news anchor playing through the overhead speaker.

By the time they get to the field in Edogawa, Sawamura's regaled them with at least ten stories about playing baseball with his grandfather while his Dad watched longingly from the porch with a guitar in hand, wishing Sawamura had shown a little interest in music as well.

"But it was all baseball for me," Sawamura says, and Kazuya lets everyone out of the car. "I could barely find any interest in anything else. I'm still like that now!"

"Sounds like Miyuki," Kuramochi says thoughtfully. "You two baseball nerds were probably meant to meet each other."

Kazuya's heart plummets, and he feels the deep well of Sawamura's emotions rushing out to catch it. As the water fills him up again, with bright, sweet consolation, Kazuya ponders if Sawamura ever runs low, or if that ocean of his is always full.

"I'd like to think so!" Sawamura says brightly, resting a hand on Kazuya's shoulder lightly, for one second, two, and then it's gone again, Sawamura moving ahead of them toward the front gates, where several of the kids are already staring at him open-mouthed in awe.

"That guy," Kuramochi says, "is a lot."

"Hello pot, I see you've decided to call the kettle some descriptive names today."

"Shut up and buy me a soda," Kuramochi says, kicking Kazuya lightly in the butt and urging him forward. "You owe me! You're constantly stealing change from me!"

"I just don't carry change," Kazuya says, pressing a hand to his chest. "Stealing? Is that what we call a loan between friends?"

Chris laughs at them both and walks ahead of them across the parking lot toward the gates. They trail behind him, bickering playfully, and when they get to the entrance, Sawamura is talking to a few kids with their parents, scribbling on a couple of caps with a Sharpie.

"I watched you pitch today!" One of the little girls says. She's wearing the uniform of the team that's playing Tomomi's today, and it looks like she's the only girl on her team, too.

Sawamura smiles at her, and hands her back her cap. "Wasn't I good?!"

"The best!" She gives him two thumbs up and scurries away. After Sawamura and Chris sign a couple more autographs, Kazuya leads them to the back row of the creaking steel bleachers, where he always sits to watch the game, out from under the eyes of most of the parents. It's not that they're rude, but Kazuya still remembers when he first started bringing her, and they'd said it was sweet he brought her to all her practices to his face and whispered about his father being the neighborhood drunk when they thought he was out of hearing range. Kazuya doesn't disagree, but the choices of their father don't have anything to do with Kazuya or Tomomi, and he'd rather Tomomi didn't have to hear things like that.

Sawamura claims the seat next to him, and Chris and Kuramochi sit down in front of him

Tomomi starts warming up with her catcher under the watchful eye of the assistant coach. When she sees Kazuya has brought more people, and that one of them is Sawamura, she smiles so widely that Kazuya can see all of her teeth.

"Ah, Tomomi looks so cute in her uniform!" He leans into Kazuya, his breath hot on Kazuya's neck. "Was yours the same?"

"Almost exactly," Kazuya replies, keeping his eyes straight ahead. "We tried to let her use mine, since she wanted to, but in the end it was too short."

"You must have been really small, then." Their arms brush, and affection rushes into Kazuya at the point of connection. "I bet that was adorable."

"I was not one time in my life called adorable," Kazuya replies. His voice is unsteady, and it's not helped by the way Sawamura casually rests his hand on Kazuya's knee for balance so he can lean even closer.

"We should video-tape this," he says, right into Kazuya's ear this time, and Kazuya knows he's blushing, heat suffusing his cheeks and his heart beating so fast it's fallen out of sync with Sawamura's, an uneven drum in the back of his thoughts.

"What?"

"Tomomi's pitching," Sawamura clarifies. "It would be good to have some early footage, so we can watch it."

"We, huh?" Kazuya peeks at Sawamura, and Sawamura's eyes dart away, back out to the field.

"If she wants to write me about her pitching," Sawamura says, and there's uncertainty in it, slicking the edges of the words enough that Kazuya almost misses the meaning behind them.

"I'm only teasing, Sawamura," Kazuya says. "Here, use my phone, the camera quality isn't too bad."

Sawamura tapes most of Tomomi's pitches for the first five innings, and yells encouragement at the top of his lungs until Tomomi's glowing with so much pride she might burst. Chris is more subdued, but Kuramochi gets into the act, as well, chanting Tomomi's team name every time they make a nice play on defense, and whistling for every run. Lots of other parents seem to think it's funny instead of rude, and it's the loudest game of Tomomi's that Kazuya's ever been to.

The last person who'd made this much noise at a Little League game had been Kazuya's mother, who'd never cared much about what other people thought of her.

After her team wins the game, Tomomi runs over to them and gives Kazuya a big hug, and then turns and does the same to Kuramochi. She looks up at Sawamura hopefully, and he beams at her, picking her up and spinning her around, his biceps flexing in a battle against the material of his shirtsleeves.

Giggling, Tomomi wraps her arms around his neck. "Thank you for coming!"

Sawamura sets her back down, and she immediately grabs his hand. "I wanted to!" He points at Chris with his thumb. "This is Chris, he came with us from the game today."

"You're a catcher," she says, recognizing Chris's name, "with the Nats."

"I am," he replies. "I used to be with Sawamura at the Pirates."

"I remember," Tomomi says. "Eijun's my favorite pitcher!"

Chris winks at her. "He's one of mine too," he replies, and Tomomi smiles up at him, but she still doesn't relinquish Sawamura's hand until they split up to go the restroom.

"You know, you could have just said you wanted to bang him and Chris and I could have let you go on your endearingly-domestic date alone," Kuramochi says, when he walks out of the bathroom first, his hands still wet from washing them. "I'd have understood."

"What are you even talking about," Kazuya says, trying to reign in his discomfort before Sawamura gets wind of it and comes bounding out to see what's wrong.

"Sawamura," Kuramochi pronounces the name slowly, emphasizing every syllable. "You one-hundred percent want to bang him."

"That would be unprofessional," Kazuya replies, pulling out his phone to look at the picture Sawamura had insisted he take of Kazuya and Tomomi. They don't have many of them. Kazuya looks old enough to be her father in this picture. He is old enough to be her father. He sets it as his phone background. "And also, that's not true."

"Wow, and you're in denial about it!" Kuramochi slaps his shoulder. "I think this little piece of information is worth… hmmm, you forgetting about that time I said Azuma's girlfriend was too hot for him."

Scoffing, Kazuya turns his baseball cap sideways and glares at Kuramochi out of the corner of his eye. "You actually said that, whereas the dirt you have on me is nothing more than conjecture."

"It's not conjecture," Kuramochi says. "He was practically sitting on your lap as he took videos of your kid-sister pitching, and you just smiled."

"It's…" Kazuya's mouth is dry. "It's cute, that he gets along so well with her."

"Yeah, sure," Kuramochi says. "For the record, I think he seems like a pretty cool dude. A little noisy, but it didn't seem to bother you."

"It doesn't matter," Kazuya says. "I'm not going to--" He sighs, watching Tomomi come out of the ladies' restroom and look around for them. He raises an arm and waves to get her attention, and she quickly heads toward him, her bag flopping loudly as it bounces against her thigh.

"He's loads better than the Seibu management exec, too," Kuramochi gets in before Tomomi reaches them. Kazuya casually gives him the finger, the motion completely blocked by the angle of his body from Tomomi's young eyes.

Sawamura and Chris come out of the restroom, then, and all five of them walk down to the pizza place fifteen minutes away from the new Little League field.

Kazuya and Tomomi know the guy who works at the counter, and he gives them a surprised look at their company; first at the fact that they have any, and then, more incredulously, at who that company is.

Tomomi grabs Sawamura by the hand to drag him back toward their usual table. He'd chastise her if it weren't for the pure delight radiating off of Sawamura at the action, or the way he continues to talk to her like a friend.

Kuramochi goes to fill up their water cups, leaving Chris and Kazuya waiting up front to make their order. "Sawamura likes you," Chris says, sotto voce, as they wait for the mother with a toddler and a baby in front of them to complete their order. "I didn't realize."

"Realize what?" He surveys the menu, and calculates how much four grown men and the world's hungriest eight-year-old might eat. He ignores the trepidation that's trying to rise up inside of him from Chris's statement, focusing instead on counting slices in his head.

"That it was like that," Chris replies. "Don't…" He sighs, scrubbing at the back of his neck, but still careful not to mess up his gelled hair. "Try to remember that he means the things he says. He's not playing with you, so don't play with him."

Kazuya curls his fingers, and his knuckles crack. "I thought we were all here to play baseball," he says.

"Is that your way of telling me to mind my own business?"

"Maybe," Kazuya says, as the woman in front of them takes a number and leads her toddler to a table, her baby nestled against her chest. "I don't know. I have no intentions, okay?"

Chris snorts. "Sawamura has intentions of his own, I think." When Kazuya looks at him curiously, Chris smirks. "I know he acts like a big overgrown puppy, but he's almost the same age as you are. He knows what he's doing when he crawls all over you like that."

Kazuya flushes, like he had back on the bleachers, and Chris laughs. "I should be warning him not to mess with you, it looks like."

"It's fine," Kazuya says, stepping up to the counter to make their order.

He ends up seated between Tomomi and Kuramochi while they eat their pizza, Chris and Sawamura across from them. Sawamura eats his food like it's an obstacle he has to overcome, shoving large bites in his mouth and talking even if he hasn't chewed all of it yet. It's disgusting, but Kazuya just wants to reach over the table and pull the strings of cheese off of his chin. Sawamura's ankle finds his under the table again, when Kazuya turns to cut Tomomi's second slice in half down the middle again so the toppings don't end up on her lap or the floor.

He knows what he's doing Kazuya repeats to himself as he snags another napkin to wipe his greasy fingers.

Sawamura had said he wanted to be close to Kazuya, to get to know him before they broke the bond between them irrevocably, but how far does Sawamura intend that to go?

When they finish their pizza, Kuramochi gets up first. "I guess we should head home," he says. "If you drop me back off at the stadium, I'll take Chris and Sawamura back to their hotel."

"We're not at the same hotel," Chris says. "But we can just take a taxi."

"I don't mind dropping you both off," Kuramochi replies. "I don't even have child safety locks."

"I'll take Sawamura back to his place," Kazuya finds himself saying, taking the wet-wipe packet Tomomi is struggling to open from her and tearing the plastic before handing it back.

"I'm sure you will," Kuramochi mutters, and Kazuya shoots him a sharp glare, flicking his gaze down to Tomomi as a reminder.

Sawamura looks between them, and is surprised when he gets a trickle of amusement through the Bond. He bites his lip, and wonders again how much of what Sawamura's doing is intentional, and how much is the force of his personality.

Tomomi looks up after successfully cleaning her hands. "Can Sawamura come back to your place with us, Kazuya? I want to show him my school project!"

"The one about him?" Kazuya teases, and Tomomi nods as Sawamura's eyes sparkle.

"I want to see it!" he says, and the thrill that goes through Kazuya reminds him of Sawamura at the mound. Kazuya thinks, maybe, if it weren't for the Bond, that would be one of the Sawamuras that Kazuya liked best.

He drives back to the stadium down far emptier streets. Sawamura sits in the front with Kazuya this time, as Kuramochi talks to Tomomi about some movie she watched for school in the backseat. Chris is quiet, attention out the window on the passing skyline, and Sawamura is quiet too, but he's mostly watching Kazuya.

"Do you like to drive?" Sawamura asks Kazuya, when the song changes on the radio from one sedate slow rock song to another.

"Yeah." Kazuya changes lanes as the motorway expands to multiple lanes. "I've liked it from the moment I was allowed to go out driving on my own. I liked…" He narrows his eyes as the car in front of him shifts lanes without a signal. "I liked that I could just get in the car and go, without depending on anyone or anything else to get me there."

Sawamura continues to stare at him, and through the Bond, Kazuya senses a gentle whirlpool of sadness and understanding.

"When I learned to drive," Sawamura says, "I was sixteen, and I just wanted to be able to visit home."

"We're such opposites," Kazuya says, and he turns the radio up louder, letting the song bring the conversation to a stop.

He lets Kuramochi and Chris out of the backseat of the car without even putting the Toyota into park. Tomomi yells bye to them both out of the window before settling back into her seat, adjusting her seatbelt on her own until it's in the right place.

She falls asleep on the drive back, head lolling onto the door. Sawamura turns around in his seat and takes a picture. "For my parents again," he says. "I told them about how cute Tomomi was when they mentioned you were very handsome." He spins back around, playing with the lighting on the photo in his photo editor. "You are, though. Very handsome, I mean."

"So I've been told," replies Kazuya. "I look like my mother, and she was pretty." He checks the rearview mirror. Tomomi is still dead-asleep. "Tomomi's mother's pretty, too." He checks his palms on the edge of the steering wheel as he waits for the light. "She's the one who first taught me how to drive."

"Yeah?" Sawamura bites his lip. "How old were you, when your father Bonded the second time?"

"Nineteen," Kazuya says. "And then two years later, Tomomi was born."

"How old were you when they had their Bond..." Kazuya can't see Sawamura's face with his eyes on the road, but he can feel something sloshing into him, solemnity and curiosity in one. "Partially… broken?"

"I was twenty-four," Kazuya says. "Tomomi was barely three. I didn't try to explain it to her until she was six. She understood."

"She's smart," Sawamura says.

"In more ways than one," replies Kazuya, pulling off the exit to get to his apartment.

It doesn't strike Kazuya that he's inviting Sawamura into his home until they're already in the elevator, Tomomi sleepy and sweaty in Kazuya's arms, and Sawamura carrying Kazuya's bag despite several protests.

He wakes her up when they get into the apartment, urging her to go take a bath. She grumbles something about her project, and then obeys, disappearing into the bathroom as Kazuya takes Sawamura with him into the living room.

"I think the project will have to wait until she's more awake," Kazuya says. "So since she dragged you over here for nothing, can I get you a drink?"

Sawamura agrees, and as Kazuya pours out two glasses of a nice smooth rum Tomomi's mother had sent from Puerto Rico last year, Sawamura wanders around his living room, squinting at picture frames and moving the books on his shelves. "You don't have any comic books," Sawamura accuses him, as he takes the drink Kazuya offers him. "How do you not have any comic books?"

"I only usually read cookbooks or books about baseball," Kazuya replies. "Look."

Sawamura turns back to the collection, and squints at it some more, and Kazuya remembers that he can't read kanji again. "Here, I'll show you my other collection instead," Kazuya tells him, leading him to the kitchen.

He opens up the high cabinets to show off all of his kitchenware, and Sawamura looks up at it with a bright smile. "You like to cook!" He sounds thrilled, and he feels thrilled, too, like this tiny fact about Kazuya has made his entire evening.

"Do you really only like baseball?"

Sawamura hems and haws, and Kazuya closes his cabinets and rests his elbows on the island counter. "There has to be something."

"Hmm, I keep… books? Of the different types of bugs that live on my parents' land," Sawamura says. "When I was little it was a notebooks, but then when I got older, I started using my mobile phone to take photos." He pulls out his phone and types something quickly. "Logs," he says, in careful Japanese. "Logbooks."

"On insects?" Kazuya laughs. "That's really cute. How many types did you find?"

"More than three-hundred." He shrugs at Kazuya's surprise. "I spent a lot of time by myself." The bathroom door opens, and a yawning Tomomi stumbles out. "Never had any siblings."

"Yeah," Kazuya says, and whatever passes between them goes both ways as Kazuya pushes Tomomi by her shoulders to her bedroom and tucks her in.

When he returns to the kitchen, Sawamura's almost finished his drink as he scrolls through photos on his phone. "I'll make this into a footage reel for Tomomi, once I get back to America. I don't have my laptop."

"When are you leaving, again?" Kazuya asks. It seems impossible that Sawamura will leave, just like it feels impossible that the next game of the Friendship series could be the last one, if the Americans can take the win from Mei.

"Next Friday." He sets his phone down. "I have some work stuff to do on Monday and Wednesday, so…"

"So Tuesday, we'll go register the Bond, and then we can meet with the specialist the same day."

Sawamura winces. "Specialist is… an expert?"

"Someone who specifically works with Bonds," replies Kazuya.

Sawamura's eyes are pinning Kazuya in place. "So… less than a week, before this is gone?"

"I don't know." Kazuya takes a gulp of his drink, and it burns, joining the sloshing waters of unhappiness in his belly. "It's not like I've been Bonded before."

"I've looked things up," Sawamura says, "but I think all the…" He wrinkles his nose, "rules are unique in different countries."

"That's possible." Kazuya sets his drink on the counter. "How people think about Bonds is different, so of course how they control them would be different, too."

"Is that why I think it's a gift, and you think it's a burden?" Sawamura asks.

"That's just circumstance." He drags his thumb along the lip of his glass, and Sawamura's eyes darken, the slight melancholy replaced with something far hotter, and far more interesting. He knows what he's doing, Kazuya hears again in Chris's voice, and his breath catches in his throat. "Look, thanks again for coming to the game," he says, as Sawamura finishes the last of his drink, his lips wet from the touch of the ice cubes. His tongue flicks out to lick the beading moisture at the dip of his top lip, and Kazuya watches him, the ocean inside of him wild and sloshing against his ribs, pushing up his esophagus, salty in his ears and nose and mouth. "You didn't have to, just because we're… I know Tomomi already thanked you, but I'm glad, too."

Their hearts are synchronized. "I had fun," Sawamura says, roughly, his eyes darkening. "I'd better go back to my hotel. You don't need to drive me."

"You should take a taxi," Kazuya says, his own voice just as rough, his own eyes probably just as dark. "It'll be faster, and it's late."

"Right." Sawamura swallows, his hands curling on the edge of the island counter. "Miyuki Kazuya," he says, and then hesitates, but it's enough for Kazuya to circle halfway around the island, slip a hand into Sawamura's thick, messy curls, and pull himself up onto his toes to kiss him.

Sawamura unfolds under Kazuya's mouth, hands coming to rest on Kazuya's hips as he tilts his head sideways, easing closer. With Sawamura, Kazuya thinks hazily, everything is constantly closer or more, and the way Sawamura sucks on Kazuya's lower lip, rolling it between his teeth, Kazuya forgets why he should be wary of that.

Kazuya slides his other hand up Sawamura's shirt, gliding up his abs, and Sawamura whines, high in the back of his throat.

When they break apart, even through his foggy glasses, he can see that Sawamura's lips are swollen, and his eyes are hazy in a face flushed a dark, attractive pink. "I should go," he reiterates, thumbs rubbing small circles on Kazuya's hip bones. "But…" He kisses the corner of Kazuya's mouth, then his nose, then the center of his lips again, and it's like the pleasure is on a feedback loop, anything either of them does reverberating between them. "After the series, I want to kiss you again, Miyuki Kazuya."

"I might allow it," Kazuya says, gravely, as he pulls his hand free of Sawamura's hair, giving him space to step back. "If you're lucky."

"If I'm lucky, huh?" Sawamura muses, and there's the tiniest little stream of sadness that drips down into the back of Kazuya's mind, hidden but potent. "I'll see you tomorrow."

Then Sawamura is slipping into his shoes and slipping out the door, and it's almost like the first night all over again, Kazuya's heart and gut both demanding in unison that Kazuya run out the door and catch him before he leaves.

"It's impossible to care this much about someone you barely know," Kazuya tells himself, as he takes the glasses to the sink. "It's only the Bond that makes you want him this much."

He tells himself that again as he get in bed, and a third time as he wraps a hand around his still-hard cock and fucks his hand until he spills all over his aching stomach, finally exhausted enough to fall asleep.

It's only the Bond.

*

They lose the sixth game despite Mei as the starting pitcher, and with the sixth game, the series.

"We know what we need to focus on," Yuuki says. "And we weren't even close to being swept."

"No one got any runs off of Sawamura," Asou says, as he scrubs at his hair with a clean towel. "We can't beat them at the Olympics like that!"

That leads to an argument that Kazuya sees no point in participating in, and he shuffles past them and out into the hall, where he slides down the wall to sit with his back to the cool plaster, the conversations inside muted by the thick door. He closes his eyes and examines the emotions swirling in his chest, and tries to pick out the ones that actually belong to him.

This disappointment is his, and the annoyance. The burn of challenge is his too, lying in wait for his next crack at the American team. There's also the nagging anger at the bottom of the well, that maybe they might have won had Kazuya not had this Bond that kept him from really giving his ABs against Sawamura his all.

The rest of it, the pride, the happiness, the rush of something that's a bit like feeling needed… That's all Sawamura, stronger than the pull of the ocean tides.

"So this is where you've been hiding," Mei says, staring down at him with crossed arms. He has a towel draped around his neck. "I've been looking for you."

"You found me," Kazuya replies. "Did you want something?"

"Yes, so listen up!" He points at Kazuya threateningly, like a tiny dictator, and Kazuya watches his face contort into a pissed off expression from behind the shadow of his sports sunglasses. "I don't want to see you playing so half-heartedly the next time we're on the field together!"

Kazuya's stomach lurches, and he twists his face into a sly smirk he doesn't mean. "Oh, you think you can tell me how to play?"

"If you play like that during the Olympics," Mei replies furiously, "you didn't deserve the chance to play!"

"Ouch," Kazuya says, his hands balling up at his sides as he refuses to stand up to Mei's chastisement. "I thought I called well for you."

"You were phoning it in," Mei snaps. "Making simple, boring calls. I could have called that game myself! It was like you were so focused on Sawamura you forgot I was the one standing right in front of you!"

"I'm sorry," Kazuya says. "I really haven't been myself this week. I'm working on it."

"An honest apology?" Mei puts his hands on his hips and takes advantage of the fact that Kazuya's sitting to loom over him. "Are you dying, Kazuya?"

Snorting, Kazuya lifts one of his tired legs and lightly pushes Mei away with the ball of his bare foot to Mei's stomach. "No," he says. "Just… I should have been able to hit." He closes his eyes again, and the resentment is stronger than it had been before.

Sawamura had been able to pitch, and Kazuya hadn't been able to bat, and that's all there is to consider. "I'm going to be able to hit one of those balls during the Olympics. That's what I want to do."

"And keep anyone else from hitting my balls," Mei corrects. "Well, at least you seem normal again. I'm going back inside."

"Mei," Kazuya asks, and this time the smirk is real. “Were you worried about me?"

"Over my dead body I was!" Mei replies, the locker door slamming behind him.

"More like myself, huh?" Kazuya holds his hands out in front of them, palms up. "The shitty thing is, I know what he means."

He groans as he pushes himself up to his feet, going back into the locker room to collect the rest of his gear.

"You're coming tonight, right?" Kuramochi asks, as he tosses Kominato his phone to show him a meme on the screen.

Kazuya shrugs, packing up his bag. "It would be pretty bad sportsmanship if I didn't," he replies.

"That's true," Kuramochi says. "You should also set a good example as Vice-Captain and buy everyone a round of drinks!"

"That would be very expensive," Furuya mumbles, still trying to find his shirt so he can change out of his uniform. He's already searched five lockers beyond his own, in the hopes that someone else had picked it up.

"Just borrow one of mine," Kazuya says, tossing an extra button-up to him.

"Thanks, Miyuki," he says, and then he looks up, clutching the shirt. "I hope you feel better soon."

Kazuya zips the bag. It's heavier than usual, but he's got to take at least some of this gear to Lions practice next week. "I'm counting on it," he says, his stomach rolling as the height of Sawamura's emotions continue to rise.

*

The closing mixer is a lot more lively than the opening one. For one thing, no one's afraid to get drunk.

Kazuya ends up playing a drinking game with Chris, Okumura, and Kominato that results in everyone but Kominato drinking far too many shots of a weak shouchu that still burns on the way down.

Kazuya's mood would be lower, but Sawamura's keeps him afloat. He can feel Sawamura watching him sometimes, too, but he chooses not to acknowledge it as he spends this last time with Chris before he has to head back to the U.S.

"I think," Chris says, clearly tipsy after Kominato's reign of terror over the games tables, "if we'd been like this when we were younger, we would have been better friends."

"We all have to grow up eventually," Kazuya says, clinking his shot glass against Chris's empty one. "For one reason or another."

"That's true enough." He smiles. "Sawamura's watching you again." He rubs at the back of his neck. "The series is over…"

"Wow," Kazuya says. "You're really invested in this."

"To be honest, in the seven years I've known Sawamura, I've never seen him look at someone the way he looks at you."

That's the Bond, Kazuya thinks. Neither of us have a choice but to pay attention to each other.

"You probably just haven't noticed," Kazuya replies flippantly, but he looks over his shoulder in the direction he knows, instinctively, that Sawamura is in, and their gazes catch. Desire pools in the pit of Kazuya's belly, and he sets down the shot glass, leaving the liquor in it untouched.

"I think it might be mutual," Chris says, and Kazuya swallows. "I'm going to go find Yuuki," he says. "We haven't had the chance to talk much."

"Sure," Kazuya says, and then, bowing to the inevitable, he starts moving through the crowd toward Sawamura. Sawamura does the same, leaving the cluster of his teammates behind to meet Kazuya in the middle.

"Congratulations," he says, when he's close enough to Sawamura to smell that strawberry body wash of his, and feel the warmth of him as their hands brush. "Don't think it'll be the same at the Olympics, though."

"It won't be," Sawamura says, and his lips curl down. "Something about the…" He looks around, and hesitates. "Something changed your batting. You batted differently against me than you did against any of the other starting pitchers."

"Yeah," Kazuya says. "Do you always enjoy pitching that much?"

"I do," Sawamura replies earnestly, and then his eyes go half-lidded. "Despite all the reasons I want to keep this…" He stops himself again. "Despite that, I look forward to challenging you at your best, Miyuki Kazuya!"

Kazuya studies him, feels how much he means it, and it's unexpectedly comforting, how genuine it is.

Kazuya takes Sawamura's hand in his, not even caring if anyone here, on their teams, sees him. "Let me take you home, Sawamura," he says, and Sawamura's eyes flash.

They get into the back of a cab, sitting together in the middle of the backseat with their thighs mashed together. They don't speak much as they ride, or as they make their way up to the thirty-second floor.

When they emerge out into the hallway, though, it's empty, and Kazuya waits until they get to Sawamura's door before he releases the iron grip he's kept on his desire and lets it pour out of him and into Sawamura.

"Oh," Sawamura says, and then, before Kazuya can blink, he's being pushed gently into the doorframe with one hand while Sawamura's other fumbles in his back pocket for his keycard. "So am I lucky?"

"Hmm?" Kazuya asks, looking up at Sawamura through his eyelashes and the finger smears on his glasses. "What was that?"

Sawamura grins at him, and his eyes are the brightest they've ever been to Kazuya, lighting up every part of him from his toes to his fingertips. "You said if I was lucky, I could kiss you again."

"I did say that." Kazuya slides a hand up Sawamura's back, hitching up his shirt as Sawamura's door finally swings open. Sawamura catches him when he trips over the Team USA gear bag Sawamura'd left just inside the door, yanking Kazuya in closer. Kazuya steadies himself with a hand on Sawamura's broad shoulders as desire laps at his ankles, his calves, his knees, rising to quickly inside of him he can barely keep up with it. "Guess you are."

Sawamura laughs, happily, and kisses him there at the door, licking immediately into Kazuya's mouth as Kazuya moans, curling his fingers until his nails of his left hand dig into Sawamura's skin.

Sawamura's lips are hot and soft, and taste vaguely of beer and fried chicken. Kazuya chases the taste, licking at the roof of Sawamura's mouth and behind his teeth. Sawamura gasps at the sensation, and it makes Kazuya gasp, too, as the want it inspires courses through both of them, a feeling shared along their Bond.

"I wanted you," Sawamura says, against his lips, pushing Kazuya back further into the room. "I wanted you all week. I never wanted anyone so fast."

"That's the Bond," Kazuya replies, even as he kisses Sawamura's chin, and then the underside of his jaw. "It's the Bond making everything--"

Sawamura shakes his head, his curly hair flopping back and forth across his forehead. "So what if it is?" Sawamura pulls at Kazuya's shirt, and Kazuya steps back just long enough to pull it off, dropping it to the floor and then tugging at Sawamura's as well.

"Then it's just another thing I'm letting you get out of your system," replies Kazuya.

Sawamura stops, then, his hands tight around his balled up shirt. The freckles go all the way down his chest, Kazuya notes, and he wants to licks the spaces between them, chain them together with the marks of his teeth. "And yours?" He asks.

"And definitely mine." Kazuya thinks of all the times he hasn't been able to stop himself from staring at Sawamura's mouth or hands or those damn eyes of his, and he opens himself up, letting the arousal that's been simmering there spread out into the space between them.

Sawamura's eyes glow, and even as their shared reservoir fills higher and higher, Sawamura's gaze seems to burn.

"Fuck," Kazuya says, and he steps back into Sawamura's space, and then splays his hands out along the smooth skin of Sawamura's ribs, feeling the heartbeat the lingers in his head mirrored under his touch.

Sawamura releases a soft puff of air and then he works both of his hands into Kazuya's hair, tilting his head back so he can reclaim Kazuya's mouth.

"Right now, you feel…" Sawamura says, in between deep, lasting kisses that leave Kazuya breathless, "like a monsoon."

"Oh yeah?" Kazuya slides his hands down, around, his palms running along the soft trail of hair leading down to the waist of Sawamura's jeans, before he hooks his fingers just behind the zip of them. "Is it warm?"

"It's hot," Sawamura replies. "Everything is hot."

"Good," Kazuya says, and then he unbuttons Sawamura's jeans.

Temporary, Kazuya thinks later, as he memorizes the weight of Sawamura's cock on his tongue, his hands gripping muscular thighs as Sawamura moans a thousand things Kazuya can't understand in English.

Exchange, he thinks, as Sawamura maneuvers him onto his hands and knees and eats him out, his tongue hot even through the cut-open condom Sawamura'd spread across his hole after he'd worked him open with two fingers and made him come untouched across the sweat soaked white hotel bed-sheets.

Perfect, he doesn't think, as Sawamura kisses him deep and slow, their hearts still beating in time as they lie there on top of the covers, so intertwined as Sawamura falls asleep that Kazuya almost can't tell where one of them ends and the other begins, the ocean between them a single vast body of water stretching as far as the eye can see.

When Kazuya's sure Sawamura won't wake, nothing but a slow sloshing about inside Kazuya and his heart gone slow, he gets dressed in the dark, pulling his clothes on hastily and ignoring the stickiness on his thighs, and the sweat dried on his skin.

He sneaks out of the room, as silently as he can, and he rests his forehead against the steel elevator doors as the close. "You're so stupid," he whispers to himself, as the Bond, wider and brighter than it's ever felt before, presses out from the inside of his sternum, like a firm reminder that Kazuya has forged their connection even deeper in selfishness, and later, it will only be more painful for them both.

As he sits in the backseat of the taxi headed toward his apartment, he feels Sawamura wake up. Through the foggy haze of Sawamura's sleepiness, he feels the trickling outreach of Sawamura in his chest, looking for him. He knows the moment Sawamura realizes he's left, because a sense of bereft confusion floods Kazuya's senses, replaced shortly later by understanding.

Kazuya swallows, and the now almost familiar longing to go back, to stay close, is just another sensation Kazuya doesn't need to follow.

His phone vibrates. There's a text from an unknown, foreign number on the screen. you could have stayed, it reads, in English.

not really, Kazuya replies, and he tugs gently on their Bond, terrified at how deeply the Bond tugs back at him. He adds, in a second text, before he can think about it too carefully: come over tomorrow. tomomi's project. The English is simple, and Kazuya doesn't even check his spelling before he hits send.

Yes! Sawamura replies, only moments later, and Kazuya has to remind himself that it's only the Bond that causes the sudden rush of affection.

*

Sawamura sits, legs crossed, on the floor of Kazuya's living room across from Tomomi, the two of them speaking in English too rapid for Kazuya to keep up with as he cuts fruit up into bite sized pieces on a tray. They're both looking at Tomomi's English class project, where cut-out printer pictures of Sawamura are among the many that decorate the large poster. He occasionally picks up baseball words, or Sawamura's bright exclamations of interest, but he isn't really trying to, content to let them talk to each other alone.

It's odd, Kazuya knows, that he trusts Sawamura so easily with his sister, but it's harder to mistrust him when he feels all the things Sawamura does, and knows how happy he is to be around Tomomi. That, combined with the way he speaks to her, almost makes this Bond worth it. Not many people, Kazuya thinks, get to meet their idols and have it turns out like this.

"And after school tomorrow," Tomomi is saying, as Kazuya returns to the living room, "I have practice, but can we play catch-ball after that?"

"You can't just take all his time," Kazuya says, setting the platter on the low coffee table. "He has things to do!"

"How can they be more important than playing catch?!" Tomomi looks at Kazuya like he's being silly, and Kazuya grins at her.

"I have work most of the day tomorrow," Sawamura says. "Taking pictures for Nike." He rubs at a red spot on his neck, and Kazuya's gut clenches as he remembers making it last night. In the light of day, he thought it would be easier to compartmentalize his want, but it's still there, as potent as it had been last night, even with Tomomi's presence to cool the desire that travels like a hot current between them. "I won't be able to come with Miyuki Kazuya to pick you up after your practice. Maybe on Tuesday?"

Tomomi nods. "Tuesday," she says, before she starts babbling on again about this other pitcher she likes from the Astros, and Sawamura listens, only occasionally looking up to glance into Kazuya's eyes, emotions traveling easily back and forth along the Bond.

*

They go to get the Bond officially registered on Tuesday morning at the municipal office closest to Kazuya's apartment, right after the rest of the American team leaves Japan.

Sawamura keeps shifting back and forth in the uncomfortable blue chair, and tapping his feet on the ugly linoleum floors. He's fastened and unfastened his expensive watch at least four times as they've waited for their number to be called, and he's setting Kazuya on edge with the tumultuous feelings Kazuya keeps picking up from him every time he lets his guard down.

"Can you hold still?" Kazuya whispers, resting three fingers on Sawamura's pulse. As expected, it matches loud heartbeat pounding in his ears. "What's wrong with you?"

"There are two couples here waiting to get married," Sawamura says, and then he looks down at their paperwork in his lap, hastily filled out in Kazuya's handwriting. The only thing Sawamura had been able to write was his name in sloppy, uneven kanji at the top of the form, next to Kazuya's boyish chicken-scratch.

"And?" Kazuya asks, before prodding, delicately, at the burgeoning discomfort sloshing around in the part of him that's aware of Sawamura.

"It feels like we're getting married, too," Sawamura says, as he undoes his watch band again. "Getting married just so we can get divorced."

"This is not like getting married at all," Kazuya says, pulling his hand away. "People choose to get married. We're just doing what we have to do."

"Yeah," Sawamura agrees. "But sitting here with all these people who chose each other, it makes me think about whether someday, I'd have chosen you."

The bottom drops out of Kazuya's stomach, and he stares down at his own hand. The pink polish is chipping. He needs to take it off. Both Mei and Hongou had complained that he should have chosen red for Japan, anyway. "I guess we'll never know," Kazuya says bluntly. "Once we break the Bond, it's going to be painful to be near each other for a while. We should be good to play but..."

"I know," Sawamura says, and then he starts to tap his feet again. "That's why we're doing this now. Why I'm learning about you now, before it's too late and we're…" He trails off. "Back where we're supposed to be, on opposite sides of the world, pretending we never met at all."

Kazuya nibbles on his lower lip. "Sawamura, that's not--" what I want, he starts to say, but then the overhead display blinks, announcing their number, and Sawamura's picking up his watch and their paperwork and heading resolutely toward the open booth in the back.

He doesn't realize until the official is handing it back stamped that tomorrow is Sawamura's birthday.

*

Dr. Hiragi is a short, stout man with a friendly face and a mustache that wiggles every time he speaks. Sawamura likes him immediately, endlessly amused amidst the melancholy that's been lingering since they left the municipal office for the clinic, sitting silently side-by-side in the convertible with the top down, Sawamura looking out the window and Kazuya's heart in his throat.

"I can see why you need to break the Bond," the doctor says, looking up from their registration form and opening a new chart on his computer, tilted so that they can see what he writes. Sawamura's eyes cross at it, and Kazuya laughs weakly at it even as he tries to slow down his pulse.

"How soon can we have it done?" Kazuya asks. "Sawamura has to return to the U.S. on Friday."

Dr. Hiragi's head jerks away from his screen in alarm. "To the U.S.?" He looks at Sawamura again, shocked. "And there's no way your itinerary can be rearranged or set aside until your Bond has settled?"

Sawamura glances at Kazuya, uncertain. "He wants to know if you have to leave now, or if you can put it off," Kazuya says, in easier Japanese, and Dr. Hiragi winces.

"Yes, sorry," he says. "But is there a way?"

"No," Sawamura replies, shaking his head. "I have practice with the Pirates on Sunday, and then games on Monday and Friday. I have to be back."

Kazuya has games with the Lions coming up, as well, and a return to his regular practice schedule until the three weeks before the Tokyo Olympic games."

"You're both athletes," Dr. Hiragi reminds himself, typing notes more rapidly into the chart on his laptop now. "Unfortunately, there's a six week policy on breaking new Bonds."

"What does that mean?" Kazuya asks, his hands tight on the arm of the chair. Sawamura absently reaches over and strokes the back of his hand, pushing curiosity across the Bond, and some of the tension in Kazuya's arms and back lightens.

Dr. Hiragi watches the interaction with interest, and it makes Kazuya self-consciously jerk his hand away, feeling vulnerable and exposed. "It means," Dr. Hiragi says, "that the first six weeks of a Bond are the most unpredictable. It's dangerous to break the Bond when Bondmates are unaware of the extent of it, and we can't know how strong a Bond we're attempting to break."

Kazuya chews on his lower lip as a little gush of frustration escapes Sawamura. He turns to look at Sawamura, and he has his hands tangled together in his lap, his foot tapping again on the hard floors, a repetitive sound that makes Kazuya want to return the favor from earlier and rest his own hand on Sawamura's knee.

"So we have to wait," Sawamura asks, carefully. "Six weeks, even though I'll go back to America?"

"It's going to be tough," Dr. Hiragi says, "but you should be able to handle it, especially if your intention is to break the Bond."

"Intention?"

"Bonds significantly function on intent." Dr. Hiragi saves his chart, and lowers the screen of his laptop so that he can concentrate on them both. "What you want from it, and each other… That's taken into account in how the Bond works."

"So the intention to break it means that the separation won't be as bad?" Sawamura speaks slowly, like he isn't sure of his own words.

"Something like that," Dr. Hiragi says. "I'm noting myself down as your primary specialist for now, if that's all right? Just in case of emergencies."

"That's fine," Kazuya says, "but what about Sawamura?"

"I'll see if I can find a suitable colleague in the Pittsburgh area to take on the other half of your case. If you want to break the Bond here in Japan though, you'll have to come back in about six weeks."

"Five," Kazuya says, and both Sawamura and Dr. Hiragi blink in surprise as Kazuya studies the chipped polish on his fingernails again. "We Bonded last week. We only registered today."

"It's only because time is of the essence that I'll allow the discrepancy," Dr. Hiragi says, finally. Sawamura's a sea of anxiety next to him, and Kazuya can't say he's doing much better. "I'll make you an appointment in early to mid July."

"And the recovery time?" Kazuya asks.

"That depends on you. Physically, you'll be fine in days."

"And emotionally?" Sawamura's eyes are closed, and it makes the whole room seem darker.

"That might take a little longer," admits Dr. Hiragi. "But remember, intent is important. Bonds aren't an exact science, and they aren't the same for everyone. They're a little bit of magic in our mundane lives."

Bonds are a gift, Sawamura had said. Kazuya wonders if he still believes that, after having been Bonded to Kazuya.

"I still don't regret it," Sawamura says, as they walk back out to the car.

"What?"

"You had this feeling, like you felt guilty, or angry, and all I could think was that you felt bad for me." He opens the passenger door, and leans back into the leather seat, eyes focused up on the cloudless afternoon sky. "But I still don't regret it. Our exchange."

"Yeah?" Kazuya starts the car, backing out of the parking space and driving out onto the roadway, in the direction of his apartment.

"I still sort of believe in destiny." He hums along briefly with the melody of the song playing on the radio as Kazuya waits for him to finish. "It might be childish or silly, but..."

"The kind of thing you'd find in an episode of Cardcaptor Sakura?" Kazuya smiles. "You're not so bad, you know."

"Is that supposed to be a compliment or an insult?" Sawamura asks, but before Kazuya can answer, his phone vibrates where it sits in the cupholder between them. "Should I check it for you?"

"Is it from Tomomi?"

"It says SOS," Sawamura replies. "And then there are a few skull emoticons."

"Oh," Kazuya says, and there's a soft swell of resignation that he knows Sawamura must feel, "I'm going to have to drop you off at your hotel. It looks like we might not be able to play today."

"Why?" Sawamura asks. "Is it something bad?"

"Messages like that mean Tomomi's gotten in trouble at practice," Kazuya replies. "That's all. I'll…" He thinks back to the overseas number on his phone he hasn't saved. "I'll message you later."

"In English again?" Sawamura asks, with a small tight smile, and Kazuya just smirks, slightly accelerating as he passes through a blue light.

*

Tomomi is waiting beside the assistant coach outside the gate when Kazuya arrives. Tomomi is glaring down at her baseball cleats, her glove clutched tightly in both hands.

"It wasn't her fault," the assistant coach says, when Kazuya looks at him in askance. "She just looked like she needed some space to cool down, so I told her to text you."

"Okay," Kazuya says, and he carefully puts his hand on the nape of Tomomi's neck and nudges her gently out toward the parking lot. "What happened?"

"I didn't wrestle anyone," she says immediately, looking up at him balefully. "You can't be mad!"

'I'm not mad," Kazuya answers honestly. "I'd rather figure out how we can work together to fix it."

"We can't fix it," she says, kicking at a stray stone as they stop next to the cat. "I hate him. He's mean, and all the other kids just go along with him unless I'm pitching in a game, 'cause I'm good at that."

"Do you want to switch teams?"

Tomomi shrugs. "It won't change anything," she says, "the only other team around here has kids I already know, too."

Kazuya sighs. "I'll take you home," he says. "When's Dad supposed to get back from work today? Did he leave a note--"

"No!" Tomomi shouts, and it's loud enough to scare a couple birds from the tree that overhangs this end of the parking lot. "I don't want to go home!"

"You haven't been there in days, Tomomi. Shouldn't you at least--"

"I don't want to!" Her stubborn expression melts into something awfully close to crying, and Kazuya bites his lip. "Kenji barely notices me since he Bonded with Airi, so now I'm alone at school! And I'm alone at practice, and if I go back home to Dad's house, I'll be alone there too!" She chokes back a sob. "I just want to stay with you!"

"Shhh," Kazuya says, pulling her into his arms right there next to the car. He can sense Sawamura reacting across the Bond, emotions unsure, and Kazuya doesn't know much better himself what he feels right now. "Of course you can stay with me," he says. "And if you want, you can quit baseball. And if you do that, we can--" It aches, and he hates it, but he wants what's best for her, even if that turns out not to be him or this life the two of them have carved out, "we can talk to your mom. Maybe after we visit her in the fall, you can try out living with her--"

"No!" Tomomi pulls back, glaring up at him with wet eyes. "Aren't you listening? I want to stay with you! I love baseball! I just…" She wipes her face. "Everyone here knows about Dad, and about all the Bonding stuff, and sometimes I wish--" She shakes her head, like she's shaking the rest of the thought away. "But you can't leave me, Kazuya, and I won't leave you!"

Kazuya's emotions still mix with Sawamura's, but whatever Sawamura picks up from him is nice, good, because the ocean inside of him runs clear, bright and brilliant enough for him to open his eyes and see, even though he's underwater.

"You got it, kiddo," Kazuya says, pulling her into another hug, and she wraps her arms around his neck and hangs on tight until they hear the sounds of practice wrapping up.

"Wasn't Eijun coming to play with us today?" She asks, when they're in the car driving back towards Kazuya's apartment. She's playing that horrible frog-in-traffic game again on her little blue phone, and she has the sound effects turned up too high.

"Oh, I took him back to his hotel. I wasn't sure if you had gotten into a fight, and I didn't want to reward you if you had."

She gasps. "Bring him back, Kazuya!"

"I'm not enough for you?" Kazuya teases, and Tomomi wipes at her still tear-ruddy face and grins.

"You are," she says. "It would be nice if Eijun could stay, though. It's easy, with him."

"What do you mean, easy?"

"He speaks English and Japanese, and he likes pitching, and he likes you." She presses the arrow key on her flip phone aggressively, and there's a disgusting squelching sound as her frog dies. "I would be okay if you had a boyfriend, if it was Eijun."

Kazuya's throat is dry, and nervousness makes the bile slosh around in his stomach. "I don't have a boyfriend," he says. "I told you that already."

"Yeah," Tomomi says. "I guess Eijun can be my boyfriend instead."

Kazuya laughs, his hands tight on the steering wheel. "He's definitely too old for you! He's the same age as me!" He remembers the Bond registration form, then, and Sawamura's birthday, May 15th. "It's his birthday tomorrow, you know. Do you want to take him somewhere?"

"You mean skip school?" She asks suspiciously, and Kazuya nods. "Will Dad let me?"

"If we ask," Kazuya says. "When you call him tonight to tell him you're staying, let me speak to him, okay?"

She nods. "Okay," she agrees. "But Eijun should come over for dinner, too! Make nikujaga!"

"Maybe we should ask Sawamura what he wants to eat, hmm?"

"If he doesn't like nikujaga," she replies, as the traffic-frog's death theme continues to play from her phone in the background, "he can't be anyone's boyfriend."

"How true," Kazuya says, and he takes a deep breath, and forces his hands to loosen their grip on the wheel as they head back toward the apartment.

*

That night, while Tomomi and Sawamura watch the Nippon-Ham game in the living room, sitting next to each other on the couch like it's habit and not something entirely new, Kazuya steps out onto his balcony and calls his father.

"Kazuya?"

"Hey," Kazuya says. "I know Tomomi already mentioned it, but I need you to call her out of school tomorrow."

"That's fine," his father says. His speech is slightly slurred, but he sounds lucid enough that Kazuya thinks he'll remember. "Her grades are okay, right?"

"The reports come to your house," Kazuya replies. "Shouldn't you know?"

"I probably should," he says. "I've been busy at work."

"Tomomi is eight," Kazuya says. "You can't just ignore her. She needs--" He stops himself, because it's a little too much like he's speaking for his own memories of growing up after his mother died, instead of for his sister. "You have to sign those reports when they come."

"I do sign them," his dad says. "And I know she needs more than I can really…" He sighs. "I should switch you to be her primary contact for school, since you handle everything anyway."

"You're not allowed to do that, since we don't share a residence and I'm not her primary caretaker." Kazuya rubs at his temple with his free hand. "We discussed it before, remember?"

"Oh, right," his father says. "That's right."

"I've got to go," Kazuya says, and ends the call, leaning against his balcony railing and letting the anger from the conversation flow out of his mind.

"Everything okay?" Sawamura's suddenly there, next to him, leaning into him gently, eyes peering into Kazuya's with concern.

"Where's Tomomi?"

"In the bathroom," Sawamura says. "You feel…"

"What are you doing tomorrow?" Kazuya asks, avoiding the question. "You mentioned having to work."

"Yeah, I'm going to call my parents in the morning, and then I have a breakfast meeting with some guy from 'dropship'? About a Japanese ad campaign."

"I have a contract with them, too," Kazuya says. "I know Chris used to work with Mizuno."

Sawamura nods. "Yes," he says. "I saw Chris's face on a billboard when we were driving her from the airport." Sawamura fiddles with the sleeve of his T-shirt. "It makes sense, because Chris is Japanese. He grew up here."

"You think you don't make sense here?" Kazuya asks, and Sawamura shrugs.

"It's just different," he says, considering his words carefully. Sawamura's Japanese sounds almost native sometimes, but then there are moments like this, when he lets each word fall like it's made of glass. "I could make sense here, maybe. It took me a long time to think I made sense where I grew up, too." He smiles, then, and there's a waterfall of something surprised and pleased that tips into Kazuya with the sudden snap of a shishi odoshi bamboo fountain. "It's strange, Miyuki Kazuya, but the first time I felt like I belonged somewhere from the start is when I Bonded to you."

Kazuya stares at him, then, and even with only a sliver of light from the moon and the glow of the interior lamps that leak out on the balcony, Sawamura seems to glow enough from within to light him up in Kazuya's eyes.

"I see," Kazuya says, licking his lips. Sawamura's eyes drop to his mouth. "That still doesn't finish answering my question." Sawamura's eyes flit back up. "What are you doing tomorrow?"

"After eleven, nothing," Sawamura says. "A free day."

"Tomomi and I are claiming it," Kazuya tells him. "Since it's your birthday."

Sawamura's lips make a perfect circle of surprise. Kazuya wants to kiss him, and the emotion slips out before he can catch it. Sawamura makes a hiccuping sound, and starts to lean in, but then the sliding glass door out to the balcony squeaks, and Tomomi is staring up at them accusingly.

"Why are you out here? The game's still on!"

"We're coming," Kazuya says, heading back into his apartment and leaving a little of his want out there on the balcony.

*

Tomomi demands they go to Tokyo Disney for Sawamura's birthday, and Kazuya buys both of them matching Mickey Mouse ears.

Sawamura insists on eating ice cream instead of real food, and then riding every rollercoaster that Tomomi is tall enough to get on, which is more than Kazuya'd really expected. In the end, though, Tomomi likes the teacups best, and she makes Sawamura and Kazuya sit on either side of her as they spin around in circles.

It inspires the same kind of dizziness as the Bond, and he knows Sawamura has the same thought as they share a secretive smile over Tomomi's head, Kazuya only a little distracted wondering what the macha flavored ice-cream might taste like if Kazuya kissed the flavor from Sawamura's lips.

They pick up a four sofa throw cushions with lions all over them on their way out of the park when Sawamura and Tomomi both fall in love with them. "Like your baseball team, Kazuya!" Tomomi says, as Sawamura happily drags his fingers along the embroidery.

"They're an eyesore," Kazuya complains as he buys them anyway, adding them to the heavy shopping bags full of all the junk Sawamura wants to take back with him to America in an extra checked bag.

They take the train back home, Tomomi sitting on Kazuya's lap and Sawamura standing in front of them.

"Was it a good birthday?" Tomomi asks. "Since you couldn't spend it with your parents or your grandpa or your friends."

"I did spend it with my friends," replies Sawamura. "Remember what I said about the Cutter Kai?"

Tomomi nods vigorously at him, sparkles in her eyes. "Do you really have to leave soon, Eijun? Can't you stay a little longer?"

"I have to go pitch!" He flexes his arm, and when she giggles, he grins. "But I'll write you letters in bad hiragana and you can write back to me, okay?" He looks at Kazuya, sending a tiny little wave of a question, and Kazuya clears his throat.

"Sawamura's going to come back in a month or so to visit again," he says, when Tomomi's turned to look at him. "We might be able to con him into some catch-ball."

Sawamura's grin stretches wide as Tomomi cheers up visibly, and Kazuya looks between them, marveling at how it almost feels like Sawamura had Bonded with more than just Kazuya alone.

When Tomomi's gone to sleep, taking one of the ugly Lion pillows with her, Sawamura presses Kazuya back into his own bed and takes him apart, both of them hushed so as not to be overheard.

Sawamura undresses him slowly, like he's memorizing every bit of him as he traces it with his hands and then his lips and tongue. Kazuya returns the gesture, mapping the smooth striations of muscle with his fingertips, digging his short nails in when Sawamura seems to like it.

"I used to feel trapped," Sawamura admits, panting, as he rocks his hips down into Kazuya's, sweat and lube making things slick as they frot against each other. The room is sweltering, and for Kazuya it's as if the world outside of the two of them, greedy and desperate, had ceased to exist. "Or like I was… waiting for something, anything, to happen."

"Don't you think you should be kissing me instead of talking?" Kazuya jokes, running his hands down Sawamura's back, cupping his ass to pull him in closer. He hisses at the increased pressure, closing his eyes on the fuzzy image of Sawamura above him, open mouthed and pretty, and focusing instead on the way all his pleasure is coming back into him magnified, the Bond making every touch twice a good, twice as powerful as it hits them both twofold.

Sawamura bites down on his lip to fight back a moan, and it's the shared pain that makes Kazuya hips buck up, his balls drawing tighter. "Now," Sawamura manages, dragging his own hands up Kazuya's thighs, holding them on either side of his hips, "I'm just afraid that this is what I was waiting for." He does kiss Kazuya then, off center, wet, and Kazuya opens his mouth and licks at the corner of Sawamura's lips, tasting salt.

When Kazuya comes, head thrown back into the pillows, Sawamura's teeth digging into the skin right above his collarbone, Sawamura quickly follows him over the edge.

They don't bother to clean up, both of them lazy and spent, and Sawamura is already dozing when Kazuya's even ready to consider getting up to get a washcloth to wipe down their stomachs. He doesn't want to wake Sawamura up, though; not when he looks so peaceful, curled around Kazuya warmer than any blanket. One of his hands is tangled with Kazuya's, and to Kazuya, their Bond seems the most vivid where their palms touch.

A simple pleasure from the contact comes in high waves in his chest, an entire ocean's worth of potential as Kazuya realizes, with a mounting horror, that even after only two weeks, he knows that Sawamura is someone he could see himself wanting to keep. Maybe that's his fear too-- That somehow, he'd unconsciously been waiting for this, too, and the clock is ticking on his time to have it.

But then he looks down at Sawamura, with his wide, thin mouth and eyes moving behind closed lids as he dreams, and something inside of him goes softer, gentler, like the slowest, calmest river he can imagine.

Sawamura moves, pressing his nose into the skin of his throat. "Miyuki Kazuya," he mumbles, into the curve between Kazuya's shoulder and neck, "the rain is so warm."

When you love something," Sawamura had said, it feels like the spring rain!

Fuck, Kazuya thinks, and the hand curled in Sawamura's hand tightens, the Bond between them blown wide open, something magical and alive.

*

Sawamura's still asleep when Kazuya wakes Tomomi up to take her to baseball practice on Thursday morning. By the time he gets back to his apartment, Sawamura's up and showered, wearing only his jeans, barefoot in Kazuya's kitchen as he tries to puzzle out the labels on the coffee machine.

He fits there, Kazuya thinks; Sawamura looks good like this, shirtless and barefoot in his kitchen, hair wet and tangled with Kazuya's teeth marks in his skin.

The thought is alarming enough that Kazuya panics again, and it gets Sawamura's attention. "What's wrong?" Sawamura asks, head jolting up.

"I was worried you were going to break it," lies Kazuya, and he knows Sawamura can tell it isn't the truth, but Sawamura just moves aside, making space for Kazuya to stand beside him and set a pot to brew.

They end up going back to the old field in Edogawa, where they'd played catch with Tomomi a little under two weeks ago. The grass has been mowed since then, by the neighborhood upkeep, and Sawamura borrows Kazuya's infielders' glove, approximating the distance between the mound and home plate with large steps away from Kazuya, showing him his back. The bags are gone, thrown away years ago, but Kazuya remembers the diamond, and Sawamura's positioning is close enough to right.

"What should I give you, catcher?!" Sawamura asks, after a short warm up.

Kazuya holds out his mitt, and holds out the kids' baseball sign for an out and low four-seam. Sawamura nods, understanding, and winds up.

And like this, when Kazuya's not at the plate with the bat, trying to hit it, the thrill that courses through Sawamura is not a distraction. Instead, it's like the anticipation Kazuya used to always feel, when he prepared to catch, only magnified, like all of Sawamura's joy is in that ball, ready to be delivered right to the center of Kazuya's mitt.

It smacks into the leather, and the connection between them floods to their waists, at perfect wading height. "Nice ball!"

Sawamura's smile is, as ever, brighter than the sun.

They have a small farewell party that night at Tomomi's insistence, and she cries and smiles at the same time as Sawamura hugs her goodbye at the door.

"You won't forget to write me," she tells him, holding out her pinky.

"Never," he replies, linking them easily and shaking. "A promise is a promise." He looks up at Kazuya, and for a moment, they're back on the field, a battery and a Bond that had felt too right to be real in the short time they've known each other. "I left you a note on your laptop."

"A note?"

"Yeah," Sawamura says, and then, in English, "a Post-It." He runs a hand through his hair, then picks up his baseball cap from the top of the show cabinet, fitting it over his hair. "See you later."

Then Sawamura is gone, and both Tomomi and Kazuya stand at the door for a little while, the both of them maybe wishing he hadn't left.

The Post-It, when he finds it, has an e-mail address and a Skype ID, and Kazuya sticks it on the wall next to his game calendar, unsure what he wants to do with the information.

*

Kazuya feels the moment Sawamura's plane takes off. His chest caves in, and the world around him fades, the color bleeding out and leaving behind only shades of ash. He drops his coffee cup, and it falls to the edge of the sink, cracking into pieces that fall noisily to the floor.

There's the patter of Tomomi's bare feet coming toward the kitchen, and Kazuya braces himself against the counter as his knees go weak. It reminds of him the way the Bond had felt when it formed, like there wasn't anything he could touch.

"Kazuya?" Tomomi asks, staring at him with wide, terrified eyes from . "Kazuya, what's wrong?"

"Don't come in," Kazuya rasps, and he doesn't sound like himself. Bile is rising in the back of his throat, and his heart, lonely, loud, is thrumming impossibly fast, like it's trying to beat its way right out of his chest so it can follow Sawamura all the way to America. "There's shattered porcelain on the floor. I don't want you to cut yourself."

His hands, when he can focus on them, are white-knuckled, gripping the edge of the counter, but he can't actually feel his fingers. "Kazuya, I'm scared."

"It's fine, seriously," he says, forcing himself to stand back up. "Let me just clean up." He takes a deep breath, and then leans over the sink, throwing up into it as the Bond rips wide inside of him, emptier than it should be as Sawamura gets further and further away. "Can you go and get me a towel from the closet?"

He turns on the faucet as she scrambles down the hall, and runs water to clear out the sink, cupping his hands under it catch some, in order to rinse out his mouth. His hands are trembling, and most of it sloshes over his numb fingers.

Eventually though, they steady, and Kazuya rinses and spits until he can't taste the bile anymore. He's still dizzy, aching, but it's manageable, and when Tomomi comes back, he's standing up straight, indubitably wan but attempting a smile. "Just toss it here," he says, and catches it out of the air. "Don't worry, kid, I just got dizzy and I wasn't expecting it."

Her eyes are wet, and her face is crumpled up like she's about to cry. "Dizzy?"

"You know how I'm always telling you what happens when you don't drink enough water," he replies.

She nods, her expression easing. "That's it?"

He doesn't want to lie to her, so instead, he shoos her off. His hand is still shaking a little, but it's probably not noticeable from the other side of the kitchen. "Let me just clean up in here, and then we can have dinner, okay? Go do your homework so you don't have to worry about it over the weekend."

"Okay," she says, voice small, and she doesn't leave for a few long moments, keeping her eyes trained on him as he might disappear if she turns her back.

*

"You look," Kuramochi says, when he returns to Lions practice three days later, "like someone put you into a blender and turned it on."

"Descriptive," Kazuya replies dryly, pulling his practice jersey over his head. "Sounds messy."

"The blender is still on, by the way. You're an overmixed asshole smoothie."

"You do look a little ill," says Kominato Haruichi, who plays the same position as his brother, and hits just as hard. "It's nice to have you back, of course, but it you weren't feeling well…"

"Really, I'm fine," Kazuya says. His physical fitness is okay. He'd run a few kilometers yesterday to check, and sometime yesterday his hands had stopped shaking, too, meaning he can catch and bat. "I've felt better, but I've also, definitely, felt worse."

"If you say so," Kominato Haruichi says, gripping the handle of his signature bat.

"Prove it," Kuramochi replies. "Bet I get significantly longer hits off the machines in practice today."

"You're on," Kazuya says, and he grabs his batting gloves and his bat and follows Kuramochi out of the locker rooms for warm-ups.

*

He makes it through two weeks, and eight games, and two letters and a package passed between Sawamura and Tomomi, before the distance and the pain catches up with him. One minute, he's warming up with one of his pitchers at the MetLife Dome, and the next he's waking up in a clinic, a needle in his arm and the heart monitor beeping so fast that it sounds like it belongs to a hummingbird, not a person.

"Where…?"

"Oh, you're awake!" A nurse shuffles over to him, adjusting his blankets and handing him his eyeglasses. "You're at a clinic a few kilometers from your stadium. You were brought in via ambulance about six hours ago."

"Six hours?!" Kazuya sits up straight, and it pulls at the IV in his arm. "My sister had a game--"

"Is right here," the nurse says. "Your teammate, Kuramochi I think? Brought her here a few hours ago."

Tomomi sleeps curled up in one of the hospital chairs, a blanket similar to Kazuya's under her head and trailing down to wrap around her shoulders. She looks completely wrung out, and her eyes are puffy from crying. Kazuya feels guilty, and there's a tiny tingle of awareness across the Bond, like a an almost empty well during a drought.

Looking at her, here, Kazuya's hummingbird heartbeat slows on the monitor, and the nurse looks relieved as she takes a look at it.

"What's this for?" He asks, point to the IV.

"We've got you hooked up to combat your severe dehydration," says the nurse, "but there's nothing else we can really do." She's staring down at his chart, her mouth stern. "It says on your chart that you're Bonded. Are you sure your Bondmate--"

"Yes," Kazuya says, voice crackling. "I'm sure." He grips the blankets, and looks over at Tomomi again. "Don't say it aloud. She doesn't know."

"That you're Bonded?" She follows his gaze, and her mouth softens. "When you wouldn't wake up, she was inconsolable," the nurse says. "Your friend Kuramochi was here with her until about an hour ago. He made sure she ate something."

"Okay," he says. "Thanks."

"This is one of the most severe cases of early Bond separation I've ever seen," she says. "How long have you and your partner been Bonded?"

"Almost four weeks," replies Kazuya. The weave of the blanket parts under the pressure of his fingertips. "He left for the US about two weeks ago. That's why..." He makes a sweeping gesture to encompass all the hospital equipment.

The nurse brings a hand up to cover her mouth. "That's awful," she says. "Usually jobs will make allowances for the newly Bonded--" She looks at him, then, more carefully, and Kazuya sees the exact moment she considers what kind of person he might be Bonded to. "The US, you said?" When he just stares back at her, she nods, setting the clipboard with his admission information back down into the metal holder at the foot of his bed. "We called Dr. Hiragi as per your database information once we realized what was happening, and he should be here shortly. The traffic from his office to this part of Saitama might hold him up."

"Thanks," Kazuya says, and then the nurse leaves him alone in the room.

Dr. Hiragi shows up a mere fifteen minutes later. Tomomi is still fast asleep, so Kazuya doesn't worry about answering Hiragi's oblique questions about his health.

"Well," he surveys the clipboard, "you were diagnosed correctly. Your physical sickness is definitely being caused by early Bond separation."

"I thought you said…" He trails off, relaxing back into his pillows. "You said it probably wouldn't be that bad."

Dr. Hiragi hums. "When I said that, I was under the impression that you and Sawamura wanted to break your Bond as soon as possible," he says. "Was that not the case?"

"It is," Kazuya says bluntly. "Before the Olympics, with enough time to recover."

"There's no reason your reaction would have been this severe if you haven't--" He stops, and then he looks up from the clipboard to stare at Kazuya. "Are you and Sawamura intimately involved?"

Kazuya reflexively jerks his head to look at Tomomi again, but she's still dead asleep, tiny snores sneaking out with every exhale. "How could we not be," he says, through gritted teeth, "with a Bond like this?"

Dr Hiragi shakes his head. "There's no correlation between Bonds and physical attraction," he says. "There's actually very little to suggest that Bonds inherently encourage romantic attraction, either. All a Bond is, is an emotional connection turned physical sensation between one human and another, and the ability to get more of an insight into how that person feels than you would any other person you'd met on the street. It allows for the more rapid formation of relationships, but only about a quarter of the Bonded people I've worked with have a romantic or sexual relationship. Most of those kinds of Bonds are chosen ones, not spontaneous."

Kazuya stares at Dr. Hiragi in shock. "That's…"

"We developed the Bond breaking procedure," Dr. Hiragi continues, "for people that, for one reason or another, couldn't continue to have that kind of connection. Sometimes people can even break Bonds themselves, if the connection is weak enough."

"But our connection isn't weak," Kazuya says, and he presses his hand to his chest, where even the pain drip hasn't dulled the gaping hole in his chest. "Is it just going to feel like this until he comes back?"

"It would help if you talked to him," Dr. Hiragi says. "Video-chat, or anything like that. With a Bond as strong as yours, it might serve as enough of a substitute to keep your bodies from protesting the separation."

Kazuya stares down at his blanket. "Can other people who keep their Bonds just not separate, then?"

Dr. Hiragi scribbles one last thing down onto Kazuya's chart before setting it down. "Bonds settle, Miyuki. They don't stay as volatile as they are at formation. This sort of thing only happens at the beginning of a Bond. You'll get used to--"

"I won't," Kazuya interrupts. "In five weeks, it'll be gone, so there's nothing to get used to." It'll be gone, and looking at Sawamura will hurt instead of heal, and Kazuya will grin and bear it because he'd made this choice before he'd ever really thought he'd need to.

"And that's definitely what you want?" Dr. Hiragi asks. "You won't be able to be… whatever you are now, with a broken Bond. It'll try too hard to repair itself."

Kazuya thinks about the Olympics looming ever closer, and the way he'd vowed to Mei that he would give it his all.

What he doesn't think about is the way the sunlight catches in Sawamura's eyes in the morning, or the joy Sawamura feels every time he pitches the ball, or the way Tomomi reaches out and takes Sawamura's hand like she's done it all her life.

"Yes," Kazuya says. "I'm sure."

When Tomomi wakes up a few hours later, she blinks three times and then jumps up on the bed. "You said you weren't sick!"

"I'm sorry," he says, kissing the side of her head. "Did you win your game?"

"Of course we won!" She smiles at him tearily. "I always win, Kazuya!"

"That's my girl," he says. "Sorry I missed it."

"It doesn't matter," she says. "You can't leave me."

"I'm not going anywhere," Kazuya reminds her, not making her move until another nurse comes in and ushers her back into her chair.

Kuramochi comes back a few hours later, with two huge bottles of the blue flavor of Powerade Kazuya likes that doesn't taste like any sort of real fruit.

"Dude," he says, handing Kazuya one of them and setting the other on the table beside his bed, "I thought you'd gotten clocked with a ball you went down so hard."

"Yeah," Kazuya says, watching the door, "about that. Turns out I have a temporary bug."

"Everyone knew that but you, because you were too stubborn to admit it." He looks down at Tomomi, who is asleep in her chair. "You want me to take her to your Dad's place? I've never been there, so you'd have to give me the address."

"No, he's coming to get her," Kazuya says. "Thank you, by the way, for picking her up."

"I only did it because I didn't want you to have a heart attack when you woke up and she wasn't here," Kuramochi replies. "You can't check out yet. Do you know how much pocket change you've stolen from me? You owe me about fifty sodas, give or take."

"How sweet," Kazuya jokes, but the smile he offers Kuramochi is as real as he can manages as the pain starts to return.

"Feel better," Kuramochi says. "It's nice of you to give the backup catcher so many practice starts but we're still going to make the championship playoffs, Olympics or no Olympics."

"Naturally," Kazuya replies. "I'll be right as rain in a few days." His stomach swoops at the thought of rain, and Kazuya tries to reach out for his awareness of Sawamura only to find more desert dry empty space.

Kuramochi leaves a few minutes later, abandoning Kazuya to the throbbing, relentless pain in his chest and his thoughts. He ends up playing the frog game on Tomomi's phone for a while to distract himself, until there's a knock on the door of his room.

His father stands there, dressed in his uniform from work, oil under his nails and a tired look on his face that Kazuya thinks looks, frighteningly, a little like his own has looked in the mirror the past few days.

His father studies him, and the recognition clearly goes both ways. "You've Bonded," his father says.

Kazuya nods. "Spontaneous. Unwanted." He pushes his glasses up on his nose. "Don't tell Tomomi."

"She's going to find out eventually. It's difficult to hide that sort of thing."

"It's just a few more weeks until we can break it," Kazuya says. "It's only like this because he's from the U.S. and he had to go back there."

"He's foreign?" He looks down at Tomomi. "Like Alessa."

"Yeah," Kazuya says. "He plays for the U.S. Olympic team, so. Even if I had any interest, we'd have to break it."

"That's too bad," his father says, and he comes closer to Kazuya's bedside. "I'd have liked for you to experience…" He looks down at his hands. "The Bond I had with your mother… I wouldn't have traded that for anything."

"And Tomomi's mom?" Kazuya asks, quietly.

"I wanted it to be my first Bond so much that I ruined it," he replies. "I was so empty for so long that I thought filling that space up would help." He shakes his head. "People aren't replaceable."

"I already know that," Kazuya says, and then he bites his lip. "Tomomi hasn't eaten. You'll have to make sure she does, tonight, since I have to stay here until tomorrow morning. And you have to wake her up for practice, tomorrow, even if she whines about it--"

"I'll make sure she gets there," his father says. "I can do that much."

"You never did it for me," Kazuya replies, and his father cringes, but then he just sighs, resigned, and picks Tomomi up from the chair, resting her over his shoulder, and carries her out the door.

*

When he gets home from the clinic the next day, taking a taxi to the stadium and driving his car home after a short but excruciating conversation with the main team physician, he calls the the coach of the national team.

He explains the situation in bare-bones facts, leaving out the part where he and Sawamura had spontaneously Bonded during the first game instead of at some nebulous point after, but he gives their official registration date as well as their separation date.

The coach takes it fine, with just quiet murmurs in all the right places, but afterwards, Kazuya still feels stretched out, empty. He wants...

Kazuya goes into his bedroom and pulls the sticky-note off of his wall. Sawamura's Skype ID is there, glaring at him, but he doesn't even know if Sawamura's awake.

He pulls out his phone, instead, and looks down at the number that Sawamura had texted him from.

After a long hesitation, he dials it. It rings, three times, four, and then the call picks up. "Hello?" It's a woman, and though she's speaking English, it sound narrow-voweled and familiar.

"This is Miyuki Kazuya," he says, in Japanese, and the woman on the other end of the line sighs in relief. "This is Sawamura's phone, right?"

"Yes, I'm his mother," she says. "I thought it looked like a Japanese number calling. The country code."

"Yes," Kazuya says. "I thought you lived far away."

"Oh, you haven't heard? Eijun was in the hospital for a few days, so I flew out here to look after him now that he's back home."

Kazuya's hand grips his phone more tightly. "Do you know, then?" He asks.

There's a long silence on the other end of the call, and Kazuya waits, acid in his stomach and his gaze still fixed on the stupid neon yellow Post-It. Finally, she says: "Is it you, then?"

Kazuya swallows. "It's me," he says. "I didn't know--"

"I doubt Ei-chan did either," she replies. "It's okay, Miyuki. He said he's flying back over there in a week or so to figure the rest of this out."

"We have an appointment," Kazuya says. "To get it…" He swallows again. Bile is still rising in his throat. "Can I talk to Sawamura?" He corrects himself. "To Eijun?"

"Of course," she says. "Just hold on."

Kazuya closes his eyes. Breathes.

"Miyuki Kazuya?" Sawamura's voice is hoarse, without any of his usual enthusiasm.

"Hey," Kazuya replies, his own voice matching, and somehow, the walled off pressure inside of him eases. "Dr. Hiragi told me it would help. If we talked."

"Oh," Sawamura says, and his voice is bit stronger. "I thought I was just so happy to hear your voice I started feeling better."

"You're ridiculous."

"You've told me that before." Sawamura pauses. "Did you lose my Post-It?"

"No," Kazuya says. "I just didn't want to call it when I wasn't sure if you were awake."

Sawamura hums, and a ripple of contentment comes so strongly across the Bond that Kazuya nearly drops his phone. "It's only nine in the evening."

"Then do you want to?" Kazuya asks. "Video-chat?"

"Yes please!" Sawamura says, and amazingly, it's almost like his old self. Kazuya can hear Sawamura's mother laughing in the background at his exuberance.

It takes them fifteen minutes to get it working. Kazuya's only used his Skype for long distance meetings before, but Sawamura's application explodes with notifications when he opens it, all of the beeps and chirps sounding as he tries to adjust his screen.

He's in bed, Kazuya notes, and the dark circles under his eyes and the pallor of his normally sun-golden or sun-burned skin is obvious despite only a single lamplight on to illuminate his bedroom.

The wall behind Sawamura is plastered with photographs, of people and places, all of them seemingly baseball related.

"Lots of photos," Kazuya says, and Sawamura nods, slowly. Kazuya wonders if he's been struggling with the dizziness too, and feels a little bit of guilt.

"It's not your fault," Sawamura says to him bluntly, and before Kazuya can reply, he says: "Do you want to see the one of you?"

"The one of me?"

Sawamura rolls over in bed, taking his laptop with him. He turns the computer around once he's settled on his belly, holding it up to the wall.

There, at the left side of the camera screen, is a picture of Kazuya from years and years and years ago, wearing his middle school uniform and half of his catcher's gear, in a crouch with his mitt extended. "That's from…"

"Monthly Baseball Kingdom," Sawamura says. "I told you. I waited a long time."

"Was it worth it?"

Suddenly the screen is full of Sawamura's face, large and off center, his left eye taking up most of the frame. “I want to play catch with you again, Miyuki Kazuya!”

Kazuya laughs, and not only is Sawamura's eye it's usual vivid goal, but the rest of the world around Kazuya is brighter than it's looked in weeks. His heart is beating slower, and there's a second, fainter heartbeat almost in sync with it. “Wow!” Kazuya says. "I really must be an amazing catcher, huh?"

Laptop back on his lap, his face returned to a normal size on the screen, Sawamura nods emphatically. “I want to play baseball with you again,” he says. "That's what I want to do when I get back to Japan. I want to play catch with you, Miyuki Kazuya." It sounds like he's saying a hundred other things, too, and Kazuya hears every single one of them.

"And hang out with my sister," Kazuya adds. Inside of him, the water is flooding back in, like the key to the gates was Sawamura's smile all along, even through a grainy Skype image.

*

The moment Sawamura returns to Japan, Kazuya's world lights up.

He's lying next to a sleepy Tomomi in his bed, helping her hold up his tablet as they watch footage of her last Little League game. Sawamura had sent it to him yesterday after they'd video-chatted, and since he'd been the one to film half of it, it's his yelling voice that's louder than all of the other kids' parents in the background. Tomomi grins every time she hears Sawamura yell something congratulatory in English.

"You really do like him, don't you?" he asks her, and she nods at him, her eyelids obviously heavy.

"He's a nice boyfriend for you," she replies.

"He's not my boyfriend," Kazuya reminds her, and she frowns at him.

"Are you sure?" She runs her short fingertips along the side of the tablet case. "He acts like a boyfriend acts on TV."

"What kind of TV do you watch when I'm not with you?" Kazuya complains. "I'm serious, do I have to install some kind of parental controls on the internet?"

"You're acting like an old person again," she says, blowing some of her longer fringe out of her face. "Boring!"

"I am an old person, compared to you--" He starts to say, but then it's there; the connection between them flooding back to full life, Sawamura's immediate emotions spilling into him with more forces since he'd left Japan nearly a month ago. The headache Kazuya's been nursing for hours and hours, since the last time he and Sawamura had video-chatted, abates, and in his ears, Sawamura's faint heartbeat grows louder and louder by the second.

He bites back a swear as he lets his head fall back, and Tomomi shakes him, throwing her covers back as she says his names over and over again.

 

"I'm fine," he gasps, and peels his eyes open and squints up at her concerned face. "Did you drop my tablet, kiddo?"

"What's wrong with you?!" She says.

"There's nothing--"

"I'm not stupid, Kazuya! There's something wrong with you! When you were at the clinic, and now, it was like--" She stops, her small hands gripping his shoulders, and she looks down at him with a frightened expression on his face. "It's like Kenji, when Airi came back from Hokkaido," she says. "Like you were…"

Kazuya's tongue sticks to the roof of his mouth.

"Did you…" She's glaring at him, betrayed. "Kazuya, did you Bond?!"

He stares at her, unsure what to say, and even more unsure what to do. Finally, he exhales heavily. "Yeah," he admits, reaching up to push her hair back out of her eyes. "I did."

She slaps his hand away. "When?"

He looks between her and his hand, and his heart aches. "During the Japan and America Friendship Series."

"That was at the beginning of May," she says to him, and then she gathers handfuls of his shirt with both hands. "Now it's July, Kazuya!"

"I know," he says, and Sawamura's a brackish mix of confusion and eagerness and concern, all crashing up against the cliffs of Kazuya's growing fear. "I just didn't want to--"

"You lied to me," she tells him. "You never lied to me before, but this time you did." She clenches her handfuls of his shirt, her knuckles digging in to Kazuya's chest.

"Tomomi," he tries again, and she lets go of him, climbing out of Kazuya bed.

"No," she says. "No, you lied to me, and you're Bonded--" Her eyes go wide. "To Eijun, right? You're Bonded to Eijun!"

"Yeah," he says, "but we're not going to--"

"Are you going to lie to me more, now?!" She spins around and runs out of his room. Down the hall, he hears her door slam shut.

He waits a few minutes, and then walks down there, too, knocking gently on the door. "Tomomi," he says, and he can hear her crying. He wants to open the door even without her permission, but he's always thought she should have a place that was truly hers, and so he just knocks again. "Tomomi."

"Go away," she says, in English, and Kazuya sighs, resting his forehead against the door.

There's a surge of urgency, and then the sound of Kazuya's security system beeping.

He walks over to it, only to find the night shift front desk security guard's face on his intercom. "Yes?"

"Sawamura is here to see you," he says. "Is it all right to send him up?"

"Sure," Kazuya says faintly, and he unlocks his front door and waits.

The elevator chimes, and Sawamura emerges, still wheeling his large suitcase, and wearing that same weathered backpack he carted around Tokyo the last time he was here.

Kazuya greedily drinks in his face; The new freckles that look so much more vivid in person. The stubble he hasn't has the chance to shave off after a fourteen hour flight. The dark circles under his eyes and the whiteness of his perfectly straight teeth when he smiles at Kazuya, sending him a gut-full's worth of welcome and pleasure and joy.

"Hi," Sawamura says.

Kazuya opens his front door wider. "Did you come here straight from the airport?"

"You were really upset," Sawamura says. "I couldn't just go to my hotel when you feel like that in my chest!"

"You're so…" He scrubs at his eyes, knocking his glasses askew. They're terribly dry, and they sting, and he can't even blame his contact lenses.

"So…?" Kazuya doesn't answer. He turns around, and walks back into his apartment. Sawamura follows him, the wheels of his suitcase loud as they go over the door-jam. "Miyuki Kazuya, I'm so what?"

"So…" Kazuya listens to Sawamura take off his shoes, listens to him abandon his backpack next to them. He listens as Sawamura pads in socked feet up to stand behind him, and rest his hands on Kazuya's shoulders, his forehead lowering to bump against the nape of Kazuya's neck. "I know you don't have any self-preservation," Kazuya says, "but I didn't think I lacked so much of it, too."

Sawamura laughs, lightly, and with it, Sawamura's directly under the waterfall of him, Sawamura spilling over him, into him, surety and excitement and comfort all at once. "You're a spring rain again," he says. "What are you thinking about?"

How much I like you, Kazuya thinks, spinning around in Sawamura's arms to face him, Sawamura's hands easily dropping to rest on Kazuya's triceps to accommodate. "How you might be lucky again," Kazuya says.

Sawamura's pupils dilate as he stares down at Kazuya, the gold reduced to thin rings around the black. One of his hands glides up to Kazuya's neck, and continues up until he's cradling the curve of Kazuya's jaw. "I wanted to touch you again," Sawamura says. "I thought about it every single day, even when I was pitching."

Kazuya can feel the calluses on the pads of each of his fingertips, the mark of a pitcher, and also the swift current of desire that travels into them from every point of physical connection, their shared want manifest in the way Kazuya immediately, instinctively, presses back into the touch. "Every single day?" Kazuya tries to tease, but it comes out all wrong for teasing, like his voice won't let him get away with the implication that for him it hadn't been the same.

"Yes," Sawamura says, and then he tilts Kazuya's head slightly back and kisses him, slow, soft, just a brush of their lips against each other until Kazuya pushes in for more, angling his nose so that he can deepen it, tongue swiping at the seam of Sawamura's lips until Sawamura opens up to let him in.

He takes a step back, grabbing hold of Sawamura's shirt to keep him close, and guides him back to Kazuya's bedroom, one step at a time, refusing to part to even take a breath.

Sawamura's kisses get sloppier once their in Kazuya's room, almost frantic as they strip each other naked, desperate to get closer after the weeks apart. Kazuya feels almost too full as Sawamura covers him with his body, like together they're so heavy they'll sink to the bottom of this and they'll be no way back up.

With slow and methodical precision, Sawamura opens Kazuya up, Kazuya's legs on either side of his broad shoulders. "I want to be inside you," Sawamura pants into Kazuya's neck, right at the spot where he'd sucked a mark that will probably go purple.

You already are, Kazuya thinks, hysterically, even as he spreads his legs wider, giving Eijun more room to slide another slick finger into him, curling them up and pressing until Kazuya wants to scream.

*

"Are you going somewhere?" Sawamura asks, sleepily, when Kazuya gets out of bed and looks around for his underwear, finding them half under the bed and pulling them back on.

Then he looks over at Sawamura, who lies on his stomach, revealing a long stretch of golden back, shoulders freckled under the light that streams in through the wide window overlooking the city. His hair is tangled and wild from Kazuya's fingers, and there are red marks from Kazuya's mouth that descend down the column of his throat.

Sawamura, inside Kazuya's consciousness, is a wash of gently rolling contentment, hazy around the edges and so deeply present that Kazuya just wants to crawl back under the covers and mark him up all over again.

"I want to get dressed before Tomomi wakes up," Kazuya tells him, and Sawamura groans, rolling onto his back. The sheets dip lower, revealing his toned stomach and the curves of hip bones Kazuya's mapped with his tongue. "She's mad at me, but she still doesn't like to wake up to a quiet apartment, and I don't like to let her."

"You're a good brother," Sawamura say. "She always told me so, you know. Half of her letters to me were about how great you are." He scrubs at his eyes. "Why is she mad at you?"

"She found out we were Bonded," Kazuya says. "Or she guessed, and when I wouldn't lie to her to gloss it over she got angry."

"Oh," Sawamura says, and he sits up in bed. He runs a vigorous hand through his hair. "Have you told her…" Sawamura looks out the window instead of at Kazuya. "Have you told her we're going to break it?"

"Not yet," Kazuya says. "I'll have to talk to her about it today."

"That's why you felt so upset last night," Sawamura mumbles to himself.

"What did you think I was worried about?" Kazuya asks, pulling up his jeans.

"Me being back," Sawamura says. "I don't know. When the Bond got stronger, all I could feel was worry. Usually your heart is pretty quiet, and I use it to calm myself, but last night… it was so loud."

I use it to calm myself. Kazuya's own heart skips a beat.

"Who are you to call anyone loud?" Kazuya searches for his shirt, and finds it on the other side of the bed. When he walks around to get it, Sawamura slides a hand up his forearm, coming to a rest at his elbow, holding lightly enough that it wouldn't take any effort fo Kazuya to pull away from him. "What?"

"Do you want me to wait with you?"

"Out in the living room?" Kazuya doesn't know if he can take Sawamura casually walking around his apartment again, navigating his kitchen and looking every centimeter like he belongs in there. "Why?"

"To talk to Tomomi." Sawamura's staring at him, but Kazuya's eyes are still on Sawamura's hand, his pitching hand, around his elbow, and the touch that somehow is just as intimate as any they shared last night. "I didn't tell her either."

"You weren't supposed to." Kazuya closes his eyes. "You're not… It's not your job."

"I know," replies Sawamura. "But... " He hums, and Kazuya looks up at him. Sawamura's eyes are as lion-bright as as Kazuya knew they would be. Last night, they'd resembled lanterns, but today, they're so bright they outshine the burgeoning daylight. "You're my Bondmate."

"Even if we don't keep the Bond," Kazuya says.

"Do you remember? I told you before. The Bond between us was a sign that we were meant to meet."

Kazuya tries to laugh, but it comes out weak. Sawamura's contentment has lost its haziness, and gone sharp and focused, wrapping around Kazuya like the deepest lake in the summer. "Yeah I remember. Cute girls on bikes. Destiny." He picks up his shirt, holding it in his hands.

Sawamura grins. "Something like that," he says. "We've met now!" His eyes rove Kazuya's face, and drop down to Kazuya's torso, where he'd left a few marks of his own.

"And?" Kazuya asks. "Destiny still not out of your system?"

"No," Sawamura says, and he gently tugs Kazuya closer, "not even a little!"

"You feel this way because of the Bond," Kazuya tells him.

"That's not true at all," he says, looking right up at Kazuya, certainty a lighthouse in the waves. "All the Bond did was help me know you faster. I think…" His eyes shutter, eyelids falling to obscure some of the intensity of his gaze, "in a world without Bonds, I still would have chased after you. I still would have wanted to make you catch for me, at least once."

Kazuya wants to kiss him, so he does. He cups Sawamura's cheek in his hand and brings their mouths together, off-center once, mashing his glasses into both of their cheekbones, and then again in the right place, only deepening the kiss once Sawamura sighs into it, their tongues sliding against each other as the Bond between them floods Kazuya with an absolutely perfect kind of happiness. "Okay," he says, "but you have to get dressed."

Sawamura grins against Kazuya's mouth.

They creep around quietly, Sawamura carefully retrieving his suitcase and backpack, setting his shoes neatly in the shoe rack instead of next to Kazuya's own on the floor with Tomomi's, leaving just the two pairs of matching sneakers in dramatically different sizes.

Kazuya turns on the foreign sports channel at a low volume as Sawamura changes. A Kansas City Royals- Orioles game is playing by the time Sawamura emerges clean and in a fresh shirt, and Sawamura sits down in front of it, arms around one of the squishy Lion throw pillows they'd picked out on their way home from Tokyo Disney.

"I need to brush my teeth," Kazuya tells him, and Sawamura looks nervously toward Tomomi's room.

"Do you think she's wake up soon?" he whispers.

Kazuya arches an eyebrow. "Are you afraid of an eight year old?"

Sawamura pouts at him. "Aren't you?"

Kazuya smiles, pushing up his glasses, and then makes a small pinching motion with his index finger and thumb. "Only a bit," he says.

He leaves Sawamura sitting on the sofa as he goes to his ensuite bathroom. He's spitting out the toothpaste foam when he hears Tomomi's door open, and he quickly rinses his mouth and wipes the water aways with the back of his hand, circling his bed to get back to the door.

When he opens it, it's to Tomomi, in the oversized Pittsburgh Pirates jersey Sawamura had sent her in the mail, crossing the living room to sit down next to Sawamura on the sofa. She pulls her knees up to her chest, and then rests her chin on them as she stares blankly at the television.

Sawamura doesn't move closer or further away. Kazuya can feel his conflict, and the way he wants to smile at her, but remains unsure if he should. The rising waters threaten to choke Kazuya, and he brings a hand up to his neck, resting it there where the pressure is the highest.

"You're Bonded with my brother," Tomomi says, not looking away from the screen.

"Yeah," Sawamura says. "We Bonded the first time we saw each other. I looked up, getting ready to pitch to the third batter, and Miyuki Kazuya was standing there, waiting." Sawamura's emotions are murky, but then, suddenly, there's a burst of sunlight, and the water turns a clear, iridescent blue. "He was the only thing I could see, and the rest of the world just went 'poof'!"

"Kazuya was supposed to be honest, and he didn't tell me," she says, and it punches Kazuya in the gut. Sawamura winces, too, turning on the sofa and putting one leg up onto the cushion so that he can face Tomomi completely, even as she staunchly refuses to look back. "You didn't tell me either."

"Because we have to break it," Sawamura says. "I don't know for sure why Kazuya didn't want to tell you that we'd Bonded, but my guess is that he didn't want you to worry because of the way things happened with your parents."

Tomomi's chin juts out, and that's… Kazuya's hands curl into loose fists at his side, and the emotions inside of him that are too full, overflowing, are a mixture of Sawamura's and his own, inextricable from each other in the wake of Tomomi's disappointment.

"You have to break it?"

"Yeah," says Sawamura. "We do."

"Is it because you don't want Kazuya?" Tomomi asks, and she does turn to look at Sawamura then. Sawamura is looking back at her, his eyes wide, shimmering gold, and his lips parted. Then Kazuya has to grip the wall at the crashing wave of misery that hits him. He can't react to it, his gaze still fixed on the tableau in front of him. He thinks, as he takes a quick, quiet breath, that Sawamura can't possibly know just how much he shares with Kazuya, or the depth of his own capacity to feel.

"Of course I want Kazuya," Sawamura replies, in English, and Tomomi's nails are digging into the skin on her arms as she hugs her knees closer. "I wanted Kazuya before I even knew I wanted him. I think my heart knew I was meant to meet him even when I was still a kid back in high school, when I cut a picture of him out of my grandfather's magazine just because I'd seen him by chance."

Kazuya's heart is racing, and at Sawamura's confession, he thinks it might burst. It reminds him of all the times, before Sawamura had crashed into his life and turned it upside down, that he'd paid unnatural amounts of attention to news about Sawamura, or encouraged his sister's idolization by buying her posters and watching tapes. Maybe, Kazuya thinks, his heart had already known, too, that Sawamura was going to matter, even before Kazuya was ready for it.

Tomomi's mouth trembles. "Then why…?" She shakes her head, refusing to finish the question.

"We play for different teams," Sawamura says, still in English. "And neither of us can switch right now." He looks down. "Besides, your brother never wanted…" Sawamura swallows, and his eyes go briefly dark, echoing the way his emotions dim, washing out like he's purposely holding them away from Kazuya, for only the second time since they'd bonded.

Kazuya wants to reach out and pull them back, because without them, he's half-hollow, like a rainwater collection pot with only a thin layer of water at the bottom.

It scares him, that he's almost gotten used to it. That he's taken that deep reservoir for granted. And it's true that Kazuya never wanted this, and that he'd resented it when he and Sawamura had Bonded almost two and a half months ago, but he's starting to think that someday, he might--

Tomomi unfurls, crawling onto her knees so that she can look Sawamura right in the eyes. "When you break the Bond, is Kazuya going to get sick again?"

"We're going to break it completely," Sawamura says, "so that we can play in the Olympics. We'll both be…" He takes a deep breath, and it wavers, and more misery leaks out past the dam Sawamura's attempted to construct between them. "We'll both be sick, for a little while, but Bonds are... " He smiles at her, and it lacks it's usual brilliance. "Bonds are about intent. And I want Kazuya to be happy, so I think he'll be fine."

Tomomi nods slowly. "So Kazuya's not going to end up like my Dad."

Sawamura hesitantly reaches out, holding his left pinky aloft between them so she can take it if she wants to. It's the same waiting he had done for Kazuya, when Kazuya had shown up at his hotel the night he got back to Japan. "No," Sawamura says. "Our Bond… it's not going to take him away from you, Tomomi. He won't let it."

After a few long moments of consideration, Tomomi asks: "What about you?"

Sawamura licks his lips. "What do you mean?"

"If you break the Bond with Kazuya, are you going to leave? Will you still write me letters, and teach me new baseball grips, and…" She trails off, and the dam protecting Kazuya from Sawamura's emotions crumbles, filling Kazuya flush with a horrible sense of loss that has Kazuya moving into the living room before he even makes the conscious decision to.

Kazuya knows it isn't fair, that he always aware of where he stands with Sawamura, and Sawamura's never aware of the same. He knows that he can be hard to read, and as much as the Bond has given them in help finding understanding across a language barrier and distance and the ways they don't quite match up, it's not a replacement for all the things Kazuya has yet to say about what's in his heart.

He doesn't think he's ready to articulate it yet, to admit it to himself let alone anyone else, but he also can't stand to let Sawamura sit there across from his little sister and not know if he'll be welcome in Kazuya's life in some capacity or another, when he's gone along with everything Kazuya's asked for and only asked to know Kazuya in exchange.

"I don't if Kazuya will want--" Sawamura starts to say, his offered hand still there, trembling, as he waits, and then Kazuya is next to him, resting a hand between his shoulder blades and looking Tomomi right in the eyes as Sawamura leans back into the touch.

"He promised me he would," Kazuya says, firmly, running his thumb up and down a small section of Sawamura's spine. "Because even if we won't be able to be around each other for awhile, after we break our Bond, we're always…" he tastes salt, the ocean, "going to remember what we meant to each other." He exhales heavily, closing his eyes for just a moment to push aside Sawamura's bubbling, frothing euphoria. "Tomomi, I'm sorry I didn't tell you. I didn't want…" He runs his tongue along clean teeth. "I didn't want you to know because Bonds have always been…"

"Scary," she says, and Kazuya looks at her, and her serious eyes, and the way she's looking back at him, her eyes wet with unshed tears. "They're scary and you're…"

"I know," he says, "I know."

Tomomi presses her lips together, eyebrows bunched together, and then she breathes out, loud, in a sigh. "Okay," she says, and she takes Sawamura's pinky with hers, and shaking it. "You both owe me a game of catch-ball."

"It's a deal," Kazuya replies, and through Sawamura, he can somehow feel the pressure of Tomomi's small little finger linked with his.

*

The night before their separation procedure, they lie down together in Kazuya's bed, their hands laced together as they kiss and kiss and kiss, breathing in time with their synchronized heartbeats.

"I'll never kiss you again," Sawamura says to Kazuya, when Kazuya's fallen into that place between awake and dreaming. He's speaking softly, in English, and Kazuya vaguely thinks that Sawamura must think that Kazuya's already all the way asleep. "And I won't feel you in my head, or hear your heart." He brushes Kazuya's hair back from his forehead. "I'll miss you so much."

I'll miss you too, Kazuya lets himself think, in the refuge of sleep where nothing is concrete and he might be able to forget. I'll miss you more than I imagined I ever could.

*

They get the Bond broken on a Tuesday, five weeks to the day from the registering of their Bond, and six weeks and one day after their eyes met for the first time.

"Are you sure about this?" Dr. Hiragi asks. "You have to be sure."

Sawamura is quiet, sitting on one of the two hospital beds with his arm held out for one of the nurses as she cleans the skin above the vein, where their IVs will go. It's shaking, and the nurse's face is pinched as she tightens her grip.

"We signed all the paperwork already," Kazuya says. "You know our situation."

"This is one of the deepest Bonds I've ever intentionally broken," Dr. Hiragi says. "I don't know how clean the break will be."

"You said before that intent matters," Kazuya says. "That what we wanted would affect how the Bond broke."

"It will," Dr. Hiragi says. "I hope for both of your sakes that this is what you actually want."

Minutes later, they lie down on their separate beds, less than a meter between them. The world is fuzzy, his glasses folded up with his clothes, and he stares at the blank white of the ceiling as Dr. Hiragi counts down to the anesthesia. There's a shift inside of him, like Sawamura is reaching out, and impulsively, Kazuya stretches his arm out to his side in reply. He feels Sawamura's fingers clumsily catch his own, then lace their fingers together.

The ocean that courses through him feels like its saying goodbye, and Kazuya's eyes grow blurrier, wet as a single tear rolls down his cheek before he closes his eyes to catch the rest of them.

Then everything fades out, seconds and then minutes passing as Sawamura clings to Kazuya's hand.

"You have to let go," Dr. Hiragi says to Sawamura, somewhere in the distance, in the waking world Kazuya is rapidly approaching. "Sawamura, let go."

Sawamura's hand slips from Kazuya's, and the moment the last of their fingers part, in Kazuya's chest, something tears, ripping him wide open.

Kazuya screams, and he can hear Sawamura screaming too. He can feel the reservoir of Sawamura's emotions that Kazuya had been able to at least glimpse even when Sawamura was all the way in America pouring out of him faster than it ever has, leaving behind a huge, dark chasm that aches viciously, the edges of it raw and gaping.

Something reflexive inside of him grasps desperately to hold on to it, to keep some small part of Sawamura with him, but just like water it slips through those imaginary fingers, leaving only the faintest trace of wetness behind.

"His heart," says one nurse, frantically, and she's right above Kazuya, but he can't see her, can barely feel his hands on his chest, but he can't stop screaming long enough to tell her so. "Both of their hearts--"

Kazuya loses his grip on reality, then, and everything returns to black again. His last gasping thought, as his consciousness fades, is that it really is quiet in his head, without the pounding of Sawamura's heartbeat.

*

He wakes up on fire.

"Kazuya," Tomomi whispers, and Kazuya looks up at her blearily. "You promised you wouldn't leave me."

"I'm still here," he croaks, and he reaches a hand up to his chest. It feels open, seared, a burned out husk where his heart used to be. "Where is--?"

"Eijun's somewhere else," Tomomi replies. "Dr. Hiragi says you can't see him."

Kazuya curls his fingers into the hospital gown, unable to believe that underneath it, his sternum is still in one piece. "But I need--" He tries to swallow but his throat is too dry. "When did you get here, Tomomi?"

"Dad brought me," she says.

"I thought it might help you to see her," his father says, and Kazuya tilts his head just enough to see his father sitting there, in the chair furthest from the bed. He's fixedly reading the newspaper. There's ink on his fingertips, but no oil under his fingernails.

"I does," Kazuya says, and he smiles at her as best as he can, closing his eyes and wishing he could fall back asleep. "Will you visit Sawamura for me? He's alone here."

"I will!" He imagines Tomomi must be squaring her shoulders, stretching her neck out to make herself look taller. "I'll take care of Eijun for you, Kazuya."

"Her majesty dotes on all her subjects," Kazuya replies, and she laughs, then kisses his cheek.

"I'll be back," she says, and Kazuya listens to her pounding footsteps running away from his room until she's out of the range of his hearing.

"Is this how you feel all the time?" Kazuya asks, and his father's newspapers crinkles.

"Yes," he says, "but it's different for me. When your mother died, I didn't want to move on, and she wasn't there to make me." He sighs. "The wound got bigger and bigger, and by the time I was prepared to fix it, it was too late. It won't be like that for you. You're too stubborn, and you have too much you want."

"Okay," Kazuya says. He feels his chest again. Still whole. It's too quiet. Sawamura's heartbeat is a haunting absence after months of the lull of it in the back of his mind. "Thanks for bringing Tomomi."

"Kazuya, we both know that I'm not…" He hesitates. "I'm not capable of being what you've become to her anymore, and she was so worried she actually demanded I bring her here. How could I not? She hasn't asked me for anything at all since she was four, because she had you."

"Still," Kazuya says, "I'm glad she's here." He breathes. It burns and burns and burns. "And it's okay that you're here, too."

"I know what it feels like," he father says, and his newspaper wrinkles again. "Try to sleep."

Kazuya grits his teeth, and tries.

*

Narita airport is busy even at four in the morning. They stand a few meters from the security point, out of the way of hurrying passengers. Sawamura's hands in his pockets, his worn backpack hanging loosely from both shoulders and his wan face hidden from view by a nondescript baseball cap.

This is the closest he and Sawamura have stood to each other in almost a week, and they shouldn't be close now but Tomomi had wanted to see him off.

Tomomi has her arms around Kazuya's shoulders, his arms hooked under her thighs as she rests against his back, her chin digging into the curve of Kazuya's neck. "You'll come visit when you come back for the Olympics, right?" Her breath tickles at Kazuya's ear, but he hardly notices, he's so caught up in trying to decipher the look on Sawamura's face. He finds himself reaching out in search of Sawamura's presence again, and finding nothingness, and it chills him to the bone. He stops himself from doing it again, knowing that right now there's a risk that the open wound that is their open Bond will tear wider if he really tries.

"Three weeks," Sawamura replies, smiling slightly at her. "It's not too long, right?"

Tomomi holds out the pinky finger of her left hand and wiggles it. "You promise?"

Sawamura hooks his finger with hers. "Sure I do," he says. "If I'm not playing at the same, I'll take you to see the Team Japan games with me."

That'll be good, Kazuya thinks, distantly. It's a way she can see him without Kazuya being there.

"Yes!" Tomomi lets Sawamura's hand fall, and it takes Sawamura moment to realize she's done it. Both he and Kazuya are better than they'd been the day after the Bond had been broken, but both of them, Kazuya thinks, are still suffering the aftershocks. "And we can take more pictures for your parents and your grandpa!"

"Absolutely," Sawamura says. "There's nothing I'd rather do."

The departure boards update, and Sawamura's flight rolls up higher on the list. "You should head through security," Kazuya says.

"I should," Sawamura says, sucking on his lower lip. "Miyuki Kazuya…"

Kazuya can't blame it on the Bond, now, how much he's looking at Sawamura and wanting to kiss him.

"Have a safe flight," Kazuya says.

"See you at the Olympics," Sawamura replies. "We'll face off fair and square."

And then he's gone, through the clear doors leading to security, and Kazuya shifts Tomomi's weight on his back, and starts walking back to the parking lot.

*

As soon as Kazuya's well enough, he returns to a regular practice schedule, going through the motions as everything around him becomes more and more tangible again.

It's a week after Sawamura's left Japan again that Kuramochi finds him before practice, as Kazuya's getting ready for a day of working with Mei.

He comes bounding into the locker room with enthusiasm, his earbuds in and wearing a sideways Seibu Lions cap. "Oh, Miyuki, you're here!"

"Where else would I be?" Kazuya replies, looking up at his friend over the rim of his glasses.

"I don't know," Kuramochi says. "You've been ill so often lately." He takes out his earbuds. "Have you heard the latest rumor?" He sits down next to Kazuya on the slatted bench and tilts his phone toward Kazuya's face. "Apparently you and Sawamura are star-crossed lovers~!" He wiggles the phone in Kazuya's face. Kazuya shoves it away, continuing to put on his practice catching gear.

"Get that out of my face," he says, even as his stomach lurches.

"The media has made timelines and everything. How you and Sawamura both got sick around the sametime in July, everything!" He laughs. "Media-Bonded again, Miyuki! After they got it so wrong with that last scandal, you'd think they'd just stop the speculation, but I guess how much you and Sawamura wanted to screw each other was visible from space!"

Kazuya goes still as a statue, his shin guards slipping from his fingers. "Shut up," he says, and his throat aches, the emptiness inside of him never more obvious than it is now. It's faded to where he doesn't think about it every minute of every day, but in moments like this, where he reaches for it to comfort him and finds it gone, he wonders if he'll ever truly forget what it felt like. "You know I hate that kind of thing."

"Miyuki," Kuramochi says, after a hesitant pause, "you don't look so good."

Kazuya stares down at his cleats, and the red Team Japan socks pulled up over his calves. "They're not wrong," he says flatly.

"What the fuck?" Kuramochi sets his phone down next to him and turns so he's straddling the bench. "What do you mean, they're not wrong."

"We were Bonded." He's too aware of the desert in his chest, the burning that lingers on the insides of his ribs. "The coach knows, but after we had the Bond broken, we had the registration sealed, so they won't be able to dig it up." His tone is wooden, and he needs to pick up his shin guards.

"So that time when-- That was because Sawamura went back to the United States? And, shit, your batting against him? Was that--?"

"Yeah," Kazuya says.

"Does Tomomi know?" Kuramochi picks up his shin guard for him, and sets it into Kazuya's trembling hands. "That you have a broken Bond, now?"

"She's always watching me," Kazuya says. "Waiting to see if I'm going to go back to normal." He presses his lips together. "I will, eventually."

"That's totally messed up," Kuramochi tells him. "Are you okay?"

"I'm totally fine," replies Kazuya. "More importantly, I'll be able to bat against Sawamura at the Olympics, which is what we need to have a chance against the American team if we make it to the gold medal round."

Kuramochi studies him. "I won't mention this article to Narumiya or Kominato," he says, with exaggerated generosity, letting Kazuya know in their own code that he'll keep it to himself and keep everyone else off his back.

Kazuya offers him a small grin. "Then I guess I'll buy your soda during break time," he says, and Kuramochi slaps him on the back as he fits his shin guard into place.

Mei gives him a long look when he gets outside. "Are you ready to get serious, Kazuya?"

"Absolutely," Kazuya replies, looking up and taking in the cloudless sky. The day is unbearably hot, thirty-two degrees celcius and so humid Kazuya's skin has already gained a thin sheen of sweat. "We've got asses to kick, remember?"

"I'm not the one who got distracted!" He's chewing a huge wad of gum again today, and there are still streaks from his sunscreen all over his nose and cheeks.

"I'm not distracted by anything anymore," Kazuya replies, fitting his hand into his mitt. "Let's see what we can do."

*

Tomomi makes it until two days before the Olympic Opening Ceremonies before she says anything to him. He knows it's coming; she always has a look about her when she's sitting on something she's not sure how to say. Kazuya thinks it reminds him of her mother in the weirdest way; Tomomi doesn't act much like her most days.

"I miss Eijun," she says, finally, standing in the door to his bedroom. In her hand, she has a letter from him, with an express airmail mark that covers half the envelope and her name in sloppy hiragana on the front.

"He'll be in Japan soon," Kazuya says. "We'll figure out how you can see him."

"And what about you?" It's the same way she'd said it to Sawamura, the day she'd confronted him about the Bond.

"I can't see him," Kazuya reminds her. "Not yet. It's too soon."

"But you miss him even more than I do," she says. "And he misses you too." She runs her finger along the return address on the envelope, where it reads EIJUN SAWAMURA in blocky all caps romaji.

"That's because of the broken Bond," Kazuya says, and Tomomi shakes her head, coming further into the room and setting the envelope on the edge of Kazuya's desk. "I keep feeling him missing here." He touches his chest.

"No," she says, with the kind of certainty that only comes from their particular shared brand of stubborness. "That's not it."

"You know how Bonds are, Tomomi," Kazuya continues. "That's all. Sawamura and I are both going to be fine, and you can have me and have him too, okay?"

"You should have each other!" Tomomi shouts.

Shuddering on the exhale, Kazuya spins his desk chair so he's facing her. "I explained to you why we couldn't keep the Bond," he says.

"But it's stupid that because you don't want the Bond you can't be happy together!" She rubs her hands on the front of her jeans. "I want… I want you to be as happy as you were when Eijun was around!"

"You make me happy, too," Kazuya says, honestly. "And playing baseball makes me happy. There is a lot of happiness in my life, Tomomi. And even without the Olympics around the corner, Sawamura and I still live two completely separate lives on separate continents."

"You don't have to!" Her hands are curled into fists. "Eijun could just--"

He smiles at her, reaching out to play her hair. "Do you think he wants to stop pitching for the Pirates when they're such a good team now?" When she reluctantly shakes her head again, he sighs. "And what would happen if I left the Lions to go to him, huh? I'd have to leave Japan. I'd have to leave you."

"I could go with you!" She grabs the leg of his sweatpants and tugs. "I could move with you! I can speak English, so I could go to American school and play on an American Little League team! And mom could visit whenever she wanted, and you could be with Eijun and smile at him all the time!"

Kazuya stares at her, speechless. "Tomomi?"

"You could keep me," she says, "and I'd live with you all the time, and you could call into school when I have to miss and--"

"What about Dad?" Kazuya manages, around the lump in his throat.

"You're my dad!" She glares at him. "All the things that dads do, the person that does those things for me is you!" Her face is red. "You're my big brother but ever since I was in first year, I've known that you're my dad, too! Don't you know that?!"

Wide eyed, Kazuya watches as Tomomi takes a step back, and then another, until she's back in the doorway of the room.

"My mail is a secret," she says, sniffling, tears running down her face. Kazuya's always making her cry lately. He'll do better than that. He has to. "Just this once, though, you can read it."

Kazuya looks down at the letter she'd left on the edge of his desk, and when he looks back up at the doorway, she's gone.

*

He runs into Chris after the Opening Ceremonies, on the way back to Tokyo's dorms.

Chris, who's carrying a bat-bag over his shoulder, looks startled to see him, and then his face turns more serious. "Miyuki," he says.

Kazuya unzips his Japan jacket halfway, then zips it back up again. "How've you been?"

"Could have been better," Chris replies. "One of my best friends had a broken Bond with a guy I was teammates with in high school, and it took him awhile to recover, so I've been busy."

Kazuya casts his gaze aside. "Yeah, I wasn't doing too great either," he admits. "It's better now, though."

"Sawamura's doing better, too." Chris frowns. "I understand why neither of you said anything, but I could have helped."

"If felt too…" Kazuya bites his lip. "I don't know. Too..."

"Confidential?" Chris asks, and Kazuya laughs.

"Something like that," he says.

Chris nods. "I look forward to playing you for real," Chris says. "No excuses this time, Miyuki."

Kazuya smiles. "Yeah," he says. "It'll be fun. We'll play Team USA third in the prelims, so you'd better make win all your other games so you can make the final four."

"We will," Chris says. He starts to continue on his way, but then he stops. "Hey, Miyuki."

"Hmm?"

"Remember when I told you that I'd never seen Sawamura look at anyone the way he looked at you?"

"I do," Kazuya says. "I wanted to tell you then that it was just the Bond."

"I want to tell you now that watching the fallout of all this, I think you're wrong."

Kazuya unzips his jacket again, and rezips it much more slowly, so that the sound fills the odd silence in the air while Kazuya processes what Chris has just said. "How so?"

“He might have Bonded to you," Chris replies, "but Sawamura’s a romantic. In my opinion, I think he just fell for you anyway.” Chris just grins when Kazuya can't come up with anything to say in response. "Good luck tomorrow against Cuba!"

Kazuya watches him go, and then walks back to the Tokyo dorms in silence, Chris's words ringing in his ears.

*

Tomomi calls him from Kenji's house, where she's staying along with Airi for most of the next two weeks after Kazuya had hashed it out with Kenji's mom, paying for tickets to four different weekend games, including the gold medal match, for all of them, so Tomomi can hopefully see him play with her friends.

She calls him after they win Cuba game to babble at him about the seventh inning, and he smiles as he listens to her.

"And then we had dinner with Eijun," she says, at the end of it, and Kazuya holds the phone closer to his ear. "Yeah?"

"Team USA won today too," she says. "But Eijun didn't pitch. He's pitching tomorrow. We say part of the game on the jumbotron in the Olympic park, though, and Chris was really good at batting!"

"That's great," Kazuya says, as Kuramochi enters their dorm room, fresh from the shower. "I haven't watched it yet."

"I have to go now," Tomomi says. "I love you!" Then, instead of hanging up, she says: "Did you read Eijun's letter to me yet?"

He'd packed it in his bag, underneath all of his clothes and underwear. The truth is Kazuya hasn't wanted to read it. He doesn't want to know what Sawamura said that made Tomomi think that Kazuya deserved to read her mail.

"No," Kazuya confesses, closing his eyes. "I…"

"Please?"

"I will," he says, and satisfied, she tells him she loves him again and hangs up the phone with the satisfying flip-phone click Kazuya just can't replicate with his smartphone.

"Tomomi?" Kuramochi asks.

Kazuya nods. "She wants me to do something that I don't want to do."

"You'll do it because she asked, eventually. That's the kind of brother-dad you are."

Kazuya looks over at him surreptitiously out of the corner of his eye. "Tomomi told me that she sees me as her dad the other day," Kazuya says.

"Does that really surprise you?" Kuramochi asks. He's gelling his hair up into it's usual high style, looking into the mirror on the back of the door. "All you're missing is the paperwork, dude."

At that, Kazuya looks down at the phone in his hands. "Yeah," he says, slowly, and then he gets up out of bed, grabbing his keys. "I'll be back in a little while."

"I won't be here," Kuramochi says. "The Chinese Taipei team is having a blacklight party. I'll be hanging out with cool people not homebody nerds."

Kazuya shrugs. "Have a good time," he tells Kuramochi.

He wanders for a while through the Olympic Village until he finds a relatively deserted area near a row of closed souvenir stores, covered with the Tokyo Olympics mascot on every available surface.

He opens his contacts in his phone and clicks on the first contact. The phone rings and rings and rings, and Kazuya thinks maybe she won't answer, but then, finally, just before the phone would have gone to voicemail, Tomomi's mom answers the phone.

"Hello?" He says, in careful English. "Alessa?"

"Kazuya?" She sounds surprised to hear from him. "Is something wrong? Tomomi said she was staying with a friend tonight when I talked with her, because you were at the Olympic Village."

"That's true," Kazuya says. "Nothing is wrong. I want to talk to you. About Tomomi." He wishes he were better at English for this conversation.

"Sure," she says. "I always have time for you, Kazuya." Kazuya curls his toes in his shoes. The thirty-three celsius day had turned into a twenty-two celsius night, and Kazuya should have brought his team jacket.

"I want…" He stops, considers. If he says this aloud, he doesn't think he'll be able to take it back. "One moment."

"Take your time," she tells him. "I'm not busy right now at all. It's still early afternoon for me."

"Okay," Kazuya says. He navigates to his dictionary application, looking up the English word he needs. Then he puts the phone back up to his ear, repeating it in his head a couple of times before he says it. "I'm thinking of asking for… custody? Of Tomomi."

Tomomi's mother is quiet on the other end of the line, and then she says. "Why?"

"Because…" Because Kazuya wants to be able to take Tomomi to the doctor's office without getting his father to sign a release. Because he wants to get her report cards in the mail and sign them so she can take them back on time. Because he wants her to come back to his apartment every day and know she won't have to be alone, and Kazuya won't have to call and ask for permission for her to do it. "Because it's what Tomomi wants," he says, finally, because that's the most important reason of all.

"Kazuya," she says, and Kazuya can hear the smile in her voice. "When I agreed to let Tomomi stay in Japan, so that she could spend childhood in one place, with friends and a team and a home that stayed the same, it was only because I knew you would take care of her. I knew, after the four years I watched you with her, that you would make sure she was well. She spends five nights out of seven with you anyway."

Kazuya's grips the phone more tightly in his hand. "You trusted me?"

"Yes," she says. "You. Tomomi talks about you to me almost every day. She sends me photos of you with her at all her games. She said you wanted to take her to Sweden to come see me in November."

"That's true," Kazuya says. "I was going to talk to you about it soon."

"Kazuya, If you're wondering if I will protest it if you file for custody, I definitely won't," she says. "Especially if it's what Tomomi wants. I believe that it is. Have you talked to Toku about it?"

"Not yet," Kazuya says, and he remembers the conversation in the clinic room, where his father admitted that who Kazuya was to Tomomi was something he wasn't equipped to be himself. "I don't think he will mind."

"Neither do I," she says. "Is that all?"

"That's all," Kazuya agrees. After they've hung up, he looks up for a while at the stars. They're hard to make out, here in the center of the Tokyo Olympic park, all lit up even in the middle of the night.

He feels strangely at peace for the first time since the Bond had been broken, and even though there's still a chasm inside him that longs for the ocean, he thinks he's coming closer and closer to content.

He looks back down at his phone, and opens an e-mail draft, and starts to compose a letter to his lawyer.

*

Japan steamrollers South Korea with Hongou on the mound, at the same time as America crushes Australia under Sawamura's no-hitter tyranny.

Kazuya catches a bit of the USA-Australia game while he and Asou eat sandwiches on the benches in the off-limits baseball stadium waiting room.

"Sawamura lost weight," Asou says offhandedly, as they watch him jog up to the mound at the bottom of the eighth, still in with no hits. "But he's still pitching as deviously as ever. I have nightmares about facing that upgraded cutter he throws after the change-up sometimes."

Sawamura does look thin, Kazuya decides, setting his sandwich back down in its box and watching Sawamura's beautiful windup, remembering the few times he'd gotten the opportunity to catch it. The camera zooms in on his face after a clean, three pitch strikeout for his first out of the inning, and Kazuya has to looks down, look away, because all he can think about is the way those eyes of his glow in person.

The worst part about it, Kazuya thinks, is that it's an ordinary ache. Tomomi was right, as Kazuya had known she was the moment she said it. Kazuya just misses him. Dr Hiragi had tried to tell him, too, that the Bond couldn't create romantic attachment, and couldn't make Kazuya want Sawamura. Kazuya's heartbreak has nothing to do with the Bond at all except that the Bond had given him the opportunity to get so close, and then necessitated staying so far away in the aftermath.

"He fell for you on his own," Chris had said, and hadn't Kazuya done the same?

When he gets back to his room, Kazuya digs the Tomomi's letter out of his bag. It's wrinkled now, from being buried under all his stuff, and Tomomi's probably going to yell at him about it.

He takes it out of the envelope with unsteady hands and unfolds it.

Sawamura's hiragana really is abysmal, he thinks, as he scans the mundane parts of the letter, where Sawamura talks about his mother's cooking and a player on the Pirates that he has a pretzel-eating rivalry with. It's not until the end that he mentions Kazuya at all.

I think about Kazuya all the time, it says. Are you watching over him? There's something scribbled out, and then: I miss you both very much, and maybe someday I can be with both of you again. You asked me how I feel about Kazuya, and the truth is, I love him. He'd drawn a little heart next to it.

Kazuya stares at it for a long time, looking at how Sawamura had used, instead of the hiragana for like, the kanji for love. He probably learned it, Kazuya thinks, from some anime or something. No one confesses with with that way of saying love anymore.

Then again, Kazuya thinks, slightly panicking, Sawamura hadn't been confessing to Kazuya. He'd been talking to Tomomi, and Tomomi had passed the letter along. There's also the possibility that Sawamura had meant this in some way other than it sounds, and Kazuya's heart shouldn't be beating so fast, rattling at the cage of his ribs and reaching out to find a Bond that's no longer there.

He's not going to do anything about this, he decides. He's not going to think about it. It's fine. He's fine.

*

Sawamura, as the Ace, is the American pitcher for the gold medal match. Mei is on the mound with Kazuya in the box for Japan.

Kazuya bats third in the first inning again. While he's in the on-deck circle, he keeps his eyes on the dirt, flexing his fingers to keep them loose as he prepares. When he finally steps into the box, doing his customary tap at the plate, he looks up to face the pitcher with determination etched on his face.

Sawamura looks just as determined. His eyebrows are drawn together over his gleaming eyes, and Kazuya looks right into them. Kazuya's thought it might be easier, to stare right at Sawamura, without the Bond. It isn't. Sawamura is still the only person Kazuya can see, and he drinks in the slight downturn of Sawamura's lips and the perfect arch of his back when he winds up.

Kazuya isn't fine. Kazuya can't not think about it.

His heart is racing and he's too stiff, but when Sawamura releases the first pitch, there's no accompanying rush of emotion, or thrill as the ball releases from Sawamura's fingertips, and Kazuya can see the trajectory of it. He knows, from the way it starts to spin, that it's going to veer left, so he steps in and swings.

The ball cracks off the edge of the bat and flies into the foul territory. "Strike one," the ump calls out, and Japan's dugout goes wild, calling his name. The crowd gets into it as well, rooting for the home team even if Sawamura's a media darling.

He misjudges the second pitch, the change-up, and he swings and misses, the crowd hissing at the bad swing.

Squaring up again, Kazuya squints, watching that right arm wall come up for a third pitch. It's the Cutter Kai, Kazuya realizes as it approaches, and he could let it go out, off the plate, but he wants to hit it, and so he adjusts his hips, extending his elbows, and leans in to swing.

He connects, loudly, and the bat cracks, splitting in two in his hands. The ball flies right down center field and it's going, going, gone, a homerun. Kazuya drops what's left of his bat and takes off, running the bases as the crowd roars.

When he crosses home plate, he looks back at the mound. Instead of looking angry or upset, Sawamura is grinning at him, an ocean in his eyes even if Kazuya can't touch it, and Kazuya grins back. He thinks his whole heart must be in his eyes, but from this distance, Sawamura won't be able to see it.

He's broken from his stare by a drop of water, and then another, sliding down his cheek, and then a third hitting right on the visor lens of his sports sunglasses, smearing as it rolls down.

He looks up. Gray clouds that have suddenly moved in and created an overcast sky, and it starts to pour.

The water is warm, and when he returns his gaze to Sawamura, his eyes are closed, and his arms are spread open wide, letting the rain soak his face and cling to his eyelashes.

The image stays with him even as the game continues, his teammates patting him on the back as he makes his way into the dugout to change back into his catcher's gear.

*

In the end, Sawamura holds them to a single run for the rest of the game, striking most of their rotation out over and over again and stranding Kominato and Kuramochi twice each on the bases toward the end of the game.

His performance secures the gold for Team USA, giving Japan the silver.

Disappointment is a crushing weight on Kazuya's shoulders, but they played well, and when the players all shake hands, Kazuya runs to where he can see the front seats of the section behind third base, where Tomomi and her friends Kenji and Airi are waiting with Kenji's mother for him to see them. They hold a homemade sign, covered in glitter and slightly odd-shaped baseballs and their family name in crooked kanji, and Kazuya laughs, waving at them for a long minute.

"Your kid is kinda cute," Hongou tells him, as they stand in a group, posing with the Japanese flag for hundreds of photographers.

The medal ceremony is a couple of hours later. Kazuya holds his silver medal with both hands, running his thumb along the outside ridges and enjoying the weight of it.

"It's not a gold," Mei says, and he doesn't look nearly as disappointed as Kazuya'd thought he would. "Silver doesn't look as good with my hair."

"I guess that's one way to look at it," Kominato replies.

Kazuya's about to add his own two cents when Sawamura catches his eyes. They stare at each other, and without baseball to distract him, all Kazuya can think about is the character for love, etched in those sloppy ballpoint pen stroked write into the flesh of his heart.

"So the Olympics are over," Kuramochi says, throwing an arm over his shoulders. "And you were the only person to get a hit off of Sawamura the whole game. A homerun, even."

"What's your point?" Kazuya asks. "If this is an invitation to go out drinking, I'll have to pass. I'm taking Tomomi sightseeing tonight, since Closing Ceremonies are tomorrow.

"My point is," Kuramochi says, "when you looked at Sawamura after you hit that home run, you looked like you'd snatched the sun right out of the sky, and it didn't have a thing to do with the game."

"And?"

"And," Kuramochi says, as Sawamura breaks their gazes, turning away and leaving his team as he walks down the corridor that leads to the bathrooms, "your pining is pathetic."

"We're not supposed to--" Kazuya drops his medal, and it smacks his chest with thud. Sawamura has disappeared from sight now, and all Kazuya wants is…

Love, he thinks, and he's moving before he can stop himself, jogging quickly to the corridor and breaking into a run as he rounds the corner and enters the long narrow hall.

Sawamura's not that far ahead of him, and his broad shoulders are hunched forward, and his hair has grown out sloppy at the nape of his neck and Kazuya just--

"Sawamura," he calls out, "wait!"

Sawamura stops, turning around slowly like he can't quite believe he has to. "Miyuki Kazuya?"

Panting, Kazuya puts his hands on his knees, breathing deeply. "Thought I'd chase after you for once," he says, with a lopsided smile, and Sawamura's eyes are so fucking bright.

"We're still not supposed to--"

"I saw the letter you wrote to Tomomi," Kazuya says. "She gave it to me, and basically told me I was an idiot."

Sawamura gapes at him. "But that was…" He rubs at his hair. "I meant it but, it was the answer to a question she asked me! And my Japanese isn't very good when I'm writing, so maybe I said the wrong thing--"

"It said you loved me," Kazuya says, bluntly, in English, before switching back to Japanese. "Do you? Now? Without a Bond or anything at all to connect us anymore?"

Sawamura's hands fall to his side, and his gaze goes sharp, the same way it does when he steps onto the mound with a batter at the plate. His aura changes, in the way that had caught Kazuya's attention from the moment he first saw it in person.

"Does it matter?" Sawamura asks, slowly. His lips are chapped, and he looks tired but not broken. He also, Kazuya thinks, looks a little hopeful, like whatever Kazuya says next is the most important thing in the world to him.

"I think…" Kazuya steels himself, and then sighs, handing himself over to destiny, after all. "I think it does."

Sawamura closes the gap, walking back toward Kazuya until they're standing toe to toe. Sawamura's close enough that he can reach out and touch him, and he does. “From across the ocean between us, with no Bond at all, my heart’s still been reaching out to yours!” Sawamura’s fingers splay out on his chest, right above his heart. “Can’t you feel it too, Miyuki Kazuya?”

"I never told you," Kazuya says, and fuck, his eyes are wet. He doesn't want to cry. He hasn't cried in earnest since he was nine. "I never told you what you felt like to me, so how could you know--" Kazuya had called him a problem he had to solve when he'd asked, and he'd never asked again.

"Will you tell me now?" Sawamura's heart is so loud in Kazuya's ears, but he's only imagining it now, because the Bond between them is gone. The connection, though, authentic and made of affection won from late night conversations and gentle touches in the dark, is still there and strong and enough to make Kazuya tell the truth.

"You felt like the ocean," Kazuya says, and Sawamura gasps. "Big, and powerful and full of life, and deeper than anyone will ever know."

Sawamura's mouth trembles, and Kazuya remembers the taste of it. "I'm so grateful," he says, "that I got to know you, even when it hurt, and the rain felt like it would never stop being cold!"

“Your Japanese still sucks sometimes,” Kazuya replies, but he reaches out and cups Sawamura’s cheek. It’s warm in his palm, and Kazuya’s pulse is racing. “So in simpler words, what are you trying to tell me?”

“I'm trying to tell you that I do love you!” Sawamura says, too loudly, in English this time, it reverberates through the corridor. He rests his own free hand on Kazuya’s, holding it in place. “I’m still learning things about you, but I know enough that I can say 'I love you' and know it's the truth!”

“Yeah,” Kazuya says, the English heavy on his tongue. “Me too, Sawamura. My feelings…” He laughs, breathlessly, then grins. “They’re the same.”

“You can say it in English?” The tears falling out of Sawamura's eyes are fat, and could probably fill a new ocean of their own.

"I don't know a lot," Kazuya says. "I'll learn."

Sawamura's grin is luminous. “Don’t worry,” he says, “this Sawamura Eijun will teach you!”

Kazuya laughs. “I think I’ll just buy some tapes instead,” Kazuya says, and then, before Sawamura can get too fussy, he rolls up onto the balls of his feet and leans forward to kiss him quiet, catching that wide mouth that hasn't let him go for months in a kiss he feels like he’s been waiting a lifetime for. "I hear immersion helps," he adds, muffled against Sawamura's chin.

Kazuya hears Sawamura's heart again, thrumming, pounding, and then his own joins it, the two of them beating in sync as the world fades away.

Then Kazuya's drowning, going weak in the knees in a way that's familiar and exhilarating and just as terrifying as it was the first time, only now, Kazuya's ready to face it.

And inside of him, a new Bond surges to life, as irrepressible as Sawamura is, forged by intent and twining their hearts back together just like Dr. Hiragi had warned him it would.

Kazuya, like his father, has been struck by lightning twice, but Kazuya's determined not to waste his second chance at one of Sawamura's fairytale endings.

“Immersion,” Sawamura mumbles, against Kazuya’s mouth. His hands are shaking where they grip Kazuya’s shirt. He's as breathless as Kazuya, and his lion eyes are fixed on Kazuya, keeping him at the center of his sights. “Sorry, I don’t know that word. Do you know it in English?”

Kazuya’s laughter bubbles out of him, euphoria from the Bond amplifying between them. Kazuya’d been right to give it up, maybe, but he'd be stupid to look away from it now, when he feels so very alive. He’ll never take the wonder of it for granted, even knowing what it might cost him someday. “It means,” Kazuya says, leaving one last kiss on the corner of Sawamura’s mouth, “with you around to talk to Tomomi, I’ll be hearing plenty of English.”

“With me…” Sawamura gasps, pulling back. His eyes shine like stars as he beams. “Miyuki Kazuya! What about baseball?! What about our teams?! Should I--”

Kazuya presses his lips back to Sawamura's briefly to quiet him. "Shh," he says. "One thing at a time." He thinks about the custody papers he's had drawn up by his lawyer, and the fact that his contract will end in a year. He thinks about how, with Sawamura on one side and Kazuya on the other, they'd been able to lift Tomomi up between them so she could swing, laughing, both her feet in the air. “Tomomi seems to think you'll make us happier. So… we'll figure something out. We have options.”

Sawamura lets go of his shirt, only to pull him into a hug. Their medals clink against each other, one silver, one gold, and Kazuya thinks maybe he's willing to reach higher, to take more, if it doesn't mean leaving his sister behind.

“I was going to leave home and come to Tokyo for you!" Sawamura says, into his hair. He smells faintly of rawhide, and even more faintly of strawberry body wash. "In another life, maybe I did!”

“Another life?” Kazuya laughs, and kisses Sawamura's jawline, and the spot under his ear. “Let’s just live this one, first, all right?”

Sawamura pulls back, and his face is flushed pink beneath his scattered freckles with delight that Kazuya can feel inside of him again, the cavern replaced with the endless ocean Kazuya's fallen in love with, somehow.

Then Sawamura holds out his pinky, wiggling it. "Promise?"

"I'm the kind of guy that keeps my promises," replies Kazuya, holding up his own pinky and linking them together. They shake on it.

"You have to meet my parents now," Sawamura tells him. "As my Bondmate."

"Let's go get Tomomi, so we can introduce her, too," Kazuya says, and he thinks, a little biased and a lot infatuated, that the way Sawamura's eyes light up at the suggestion could illuminate the universe.

*