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 Mei hunches over the small bathroom sink when the first petal appears and coughs, coughs, coughs until the whole flower emerges. It is stark maroon against the white porcelain. He spends a long time shuddering in the pale morning light, at last scraping the soft lining of his throat with the back of a toothbrush, because maybe it’s a little too early for whole flowers. But he knew the whole thing was down there, and he doesn’t do anything by half-measures, not even this. He’d just had that recurring dream about some little league game, one of the many where he and Kazuya had ended up on different teams. He curls his toes against the cool tile and runs through it again, the scenes paint against his eyelids. 

They’d gone to the nearby park to wait for their parents to pick them up, the two of them staying until well past the blue sky had donned her sunset colors. In this particular memory, he had turned as his mother led him away and demanded, “We’ve gotta play baseball together for a long time, because nobody’s better than us. You know that right? We’ve gotta be like, a forever battery!” He had then stuck his pinky out, basically a contract when you’re little, but Kazuya had just laughed. His mouth  was big, goofy and bright in the dripping sun, and at that point Mei always wakes up. 

Then he’d gone into the bathroom with a tickle in his throat, and the rest is history. Rather pathetic if anybody asks, which they won’t, because he certainly isn’t going to mention it to anybody, and even if he were it wouldn’t be any of their business. Besides, they’re smack dab in the middle of a tournament. A week or so later, they’re all heading to the locker room after practice and Mei follows, glad that he had two cough drops before leaving this morning. It’s been getting harder to keep from coughing at all.

“What do you think of that, Mei?” Carlos asks, draping a sweaty arm over his shoulders at the end of practice.

“Of what?” He roughly pushes him off and dabs the area with a towel.

“Shirakawa said it’s his aunt’s fault she got Hanahaki over her boss.”

“It is her fault,” Shirakawa cuts in, ever hostile, “She always wants people she can’t have, and he was just messing with her anyway. Besides, she’s a huge bitch.”

“Well it’s based on perception anyway,” Mei starts, lazily slamming the locker shut, “So who knows, if he strings her on a little more, she might think it’s reciprocal again and get cured.” He glares at their surprised looks. “What?”

“We’re just impressed our prince has been an expert on Hanahaki all along.” Carlos’ mirth is understated, like practically all of his emotions. It’s annoying. “ What other surprises have you got up those scrawny sleeves?”

A tight feeling sprouts in his throat, which he forces into a short growl before pushing past him to get out. It isn’t as effortless as he’d like because Carlos is a damn tree trunk, but he eventually succeeds and stalks out of the locker room with a “hmph”. So what if he did a little googling? Kazuya is so hopeless; he needs to be prepared for anything. 

A first year asks if he’d like to go for popsicles with some of the team and he straightens his shoulders subconsciously. “Can’t, got to have some solo Ace Time,” he says, lips curled in satisfaction. It’s only natural that he be popular among the newbies. But the team has got to bond without him, too, and Mei does value his solo time. It’s easier to reflect on practice and how to motivate those sorry souls that aren’t him when he isn’t surrounded by his grateful subjects.

Once he gets to the dorm he changes quickly, tossing on a hoodie despite the sun’s unwavering attention above, and opts to walk towards town. He downs another cough drop, already bored of the sad approximation of honey and lemon coating his throat, and saunters out the door. His feet follow the route automatically. Other than the occasional daytime cough, he’s still mostly able to last until night. A new sensation like he’s swallowing around something has appeared since this morning, but that’s easy enough to ignore so he moves onto other matters. 

Unfortunately for their next opponent, the new pitcher they’d gotten was bound to flounder under their main catcher, who seemed to have reached the peak of his potential in his current, second year. Pity. If he was half the catcher Kazuya was, the team might have some interesting growth to look forward to.

At the thought of him, the tickle from earlier reappears, lodging itself between the ridges of his throat and burning until he’s forced to open his mouth for a hope of cool air to soothe it. He coughs just a few times, dry and ugly, and hunches in on himself to help get the burn out. People on the sidewalk give him a wide berth. He frowns deeply, soon quiet in his little cocoon in the crowd. Lying calmly on the concrete are three deep maroon petals, one more floating leisurely down to meet them. Mei straightens to his full height, looks forward, and continues his walk as though nothing had happened. He deliberately steps on the pile.

Big fumbling clouds have since crowded around the sun, forcing it to give up some territory, but the heat persistently clings between the clustered buildings. Mei shoves up the sleeves of his hoodie, peeking into the storefront on his right to make sure he still looks as good as he thinks (he does). He wants to get somewhere and strategize against the batters they’ll soon face before the sky decides to rip open, so he quickly glances around and looks for a cafe or bakery with empty tables.

Instead, he sees Miyuki Fucking Kazuya of all people, slinking out of a nondescript office building like he has any business being on this side of the city

Mei can’t help the ghost of a smile that touches his lips. What a disgusting outfit, all but erasing his relatively good looks. He’s wearing a bright striped shirt and these personally offensive pink chinos. They’re absolutely, insanely hideous, the way they ride up over his ankles in that trendy way all pants do these days. His shirt isn’t tucked, because even Kazuya is better than that, and it sits on his lean muscles flatteringly. The pink even looks pretty good against his skin. Or at least it would if, you know, Kazuya weren’t a total wreck in every way. Which he is. Honestly, Mei deserves an award just for associating with him.

“Oh my, look what rolled out of the dumpster,” he calls, taking pleasure in the way Kazuya jolts, clearly not expecting to hear his voice.

Mei waltzes into the street, only paying the oncoming traffic a peripheral glance, and loops his arm through Kazuya’s where it lies slack at his side. “What brings you all the way over here Ka-zu-ya~?”

“You would be the expert on trash, I mean birds of a feather and all that.” His smirk tilts high on his cheeks, sliding into Mei like a sunbeam. “I’m trying to leave so if you could get off me that’d be great.”

Instead he pulls him towards one of the cafes. “Hang out with me? It’s been a while. I want to hear about that sloppy showing you guys pulled in your last game.” Kazuya follows without protest, always down to humor him despite his protests, and Mei orders a rum raisin parfait for himself and an iced coffee for him. He takes it black, which barely qualifies as edible, but Mei in his glorious generosity orders it without so much as gagging. They grab a round table near the back, where the soda cooler hums beneath the noise around them, and discuss the game and their teams’ progress. They also talk school, last night's home game, and a little bit of Mei’s family but not Kazuya’s. It really has been a while.

“You know,” Kazuya starts after a moment of quiet, “You never did ask if I had time to babysit you. I’m a very busy man.”

“Dressed like that? I hope you were on your way somewhere; I’m saving whoever it was from having to see this disaster.” He’s leaning forward over the tiny table, mirroring the little smirk on Kazuya’s face. This is what he likes, the back and forth, the frivolous arguments that have layered into a solid foundation between them over the years.

“Wow, you’ve sacrificed so much to save the general public. Too bad for all the people that come around when you aren’t there, huh?”

Mei lifts the parfait and takes a big spoonful. He knows that Kazuya has many fans, and doesn’t doubt he’s taken advantage of it on the occasional lonely night. But he would rather muse about something else, say the nonexistent nature of Kazuya’s fashion “sense”. He snorts and suddenly stills at a pressure on his chest and the tickle of dark hair against his nose.

Kazuya has inched forward and pressed a napkin to his chest, breath brushing feather-light against his chin. The stain feels cold within the fabric, too cold to truly feel Kazuya's fingers. “Spilling ice cream at this age? Whatever would you do without me?” He settles back into his chair, a hint of softness like a stowaway in his smirk. Mei would write it off as wishful thinking, if he didn’t trust his ability to read Kazuya after so much time.

A large raisin pushes up against something at the back of his tongue and he wheezes. The second attempt to swallow is successful, and he tries to clear his throat. Instead he chokes and turns to cough into the crook of his elbow, glaring as best he can across the table. Meanwhile Kazuya is watching with his damn cutting and curious eyes. The light tug of petals along his throat is exacerbated by the frozen dessert and the lingering buzz of Kazuya’s touch, making his throat rebel more violently than ever. When a wet clump lands on the fabric of his arm, he quickly crosses the other over it in hopes of hiding the evidence.

“Bathroom,” he croaks, jumping up.

Once inside, he chucks the fully-bloomed flower into the trash and wrenches on the faucet, rinsing and spitting until his saliva lacks any hint of the floral taste that he might’ve imagined. He stares at his face in the mirror, the way the overhead light skips across the valleys beneath his eyes and brings out the pale veins against his easily-burned skin. His throat is scratchy and dry from the constant spitting. Irritation spent, he takes his time rinsing away the long petals that dot the sink basin, willing them gone the same way he wills every batter to cower before him at the plate. He's stalling. There hasn’t been a full flower since that first morning when he forced one out.

When he returns, Kazuya is leaning back against the flimsy support of his chair, looking out the window with pursed lips.

“Is it Masa?” he blurts, never one for tact.

“Oh, absolutely, Kazuya,” Mei croons over the squeak of his chair along the floor. “What on Earth gave you that stupid idea?”

His laughter is knives on an empty plate. “I don’t know, maybe you’d kept in touch or something. You complained as much as you do with everybody, but you always looked at him like he shits gold or something. He takes a sip of his drink and rearranges the seasonings on the table with sudden, urgent focus. “Just...you need to take care of yourself.”

When they aren’t choking the life out of him, the petals in his belly are comfortable, the soft embrace of several pillows after a long day. This is, of course, the furthest from how he feels under the rare spotlight of Kazuya’s concern, considering the circumstances. “Yeah, yeah, I know, Mom.” His obliviousness is at once sincere and dismissive, and were it anyone else Mei would consider it deliberate. An old ache throbs in his chest. “Well, enough about me. For now. I heard you got scouted by another team.”

“Oh yeah, from Kyushu. They’ve got some really interesting stuff in the works.”

He stirs the melting ice cream. “Yeah, but they’re not the Swallows, and they’re not going to have me. Don’t you think you’ve had enough time messing with pitchers lesser than I?” He’s only half joking, and Kazuya knows it.

His face shifts, one eyebrow rising into the peak of a glacier while his mouth flattens out like a beached whale. “It’s good to explore all your options. I won’t be in the pros for long, you know.”

Still stirring, he watches the bubbles disappear with each swipe of his spoon, casually obliterated. He knows, the inevitable future of Kazuya going to college and eventually inheriting Miyuki Steel like a maw over what Mei wants, has always wanted. The table is small between them, barely high enough to clear the cross of his legs. He smiles harshly at the nicked plywood and knows better by now than to feel desperate at the way Kazuya can always create space between them, effortlessly feel miles away when he’s physically close enough to touch. He probably wouldn’t go all the way to Kyushu, but the infuriating truth is that he doesn’t know, because sometimes Kazuya does things specifically to be difficult.

Mei supposes it was always going to end up this way, that he should have known from the beginning. But it takes a bit of stubbornness to make it as far as he has, a bit of believing you’re invincible.

 

 

Kazuya studies Mei study the table in thoughtful silence. Joining any other team but The Swallows isn’t really in his plans, their goals as similar as they’ve always been. And he had a hunch Mei wasn’t choking over Masa. But he gets so greedy with his desires sometimes that Kazuya can’t help but get greedy too. He can see it now, despite the way Mei’s pride wires his jaw shut like a trap on the limbs of some fleeing animal. That insatiable hunger works for Mei, but it isn’t meant for him. He’s bound to understand that eventually.

He watches the two of them, parted by a little table and a seemingly growing amount of space, and feels not for the first time like he’s pushing up against the walls of something just out of sight. “Here,” he nudges Mei’s glass towards him. “You made me pay for it, so you’d better eat it all.” 

Things will settle down soon, he’s sure. “Regarding the other thing, I think it’ll work itself out if you just relax,” he suggests, catching sight of his nails with a frown. He’ll have to cut them later. “Everything has turned out just fine until now, right?”

“Shut up, Kazuya.”

He twists his mouth into a smile rather than saying anything else. Closed off doesn’t suit Mei the way confident displays of passion do, but everybody’s got things they want to protect. He swirls the glass in his hand, the ice clinking innocently over their silence.

“So how long has this…” he asks later while they’re leaving the cafe, waving a hand to finish his question.

Mei snorts. “A couple days, maybe. Nothing serious.” He clears his throat roughly, shaving off the believability of his claim. “I got it covered.”

Kazuya sinks into a jog with a noncommittal hum, dropping off the curb and heading straight for a bus that is currently pulling up to the opposite side of the street.

“See you later rather than sooner, I hope.”

“Screw you. Hey, Kazuya!”

He pauses, fully in the blind spot behind the bus the way all the signs tell you not to be, and cranes his head over his shoulder.

Mei stands defiant with his hands in his pockets and opens his mouth to speak but doesn’t, for a beat.

“Find a new dentist and stay off my turf!”

He shakes his head and steps onto the bus. It pulls him away, a puff of smog erasing Mei as he knows him, all his familiar lines smudging gray and uncertain.

Thinking about Mei and his ill-chosen love is not on his list of concerns to ponder over the next couple of days, not like who he recommends for captaincy and how to challenge the first and second years and trying to manage the time-bomb of rage that seems to be Okumura. But like the entirety of his team it wriggles into the corners of his mind, casually claiming space like it belongs there. Everything is very normal, until it isn’t.

Until one night he reaches a hand out towards the door of his room only to be solidly kicked away by Kuramochi, who says, “Let's get a drink,” and practically herds him towards the vending machines.

When they enter the alleyway, Kuramochi approaches the machine first, inserting a few coins and cursing at an out of stock button. He picks Pocari Sweat and orders a second bottle, which he then holds out towards Kazuya.

He frowns. Pocari isn't on his list of favorite things.

Kuramochi ignores him, pressing the cool bottle into his shoulder with an unnecessary amount of force until he takes the damn thing. “Ah, okay, I got it! Jeez.” He rubs the biting cold out with a pout.

“What’s eating you?”

In lieu of answering right away he cracks open the bottle and takes a sip. Grimaces. Contemplates the fascinating advancement of society as illustrated by sports drinks delivered to you from a giant metal box. “Not a thing. You checking on me? I’m touched. Ow!”

Kuramochi lowers his leg. “All right then, what crawled up your ass and died recently?”

“I told you--”

“The sooner you answer me the sooner we can both go to bed. You’re all tense. It’s weird as shit.”

He chuckles and takes a big swig of liquid. It’s aggressively cold wherever it touches, and spreads through his mouth quickly. “Someone I know fell in love with someone they shouldn’t, and now I have to make sure they don’t die because of it.” It’s not quite about him, so the words easily slip from between his lips.

Kuramochi leans against the machine like it was made for his express comfort. “Well, the only person you might care about who isn’t on the team is that Narumiya brat.” He whistles. “Just date him, then?”

He shows his teeth in distaste. “Realistic suggestions, thanks.”

“That’s plenty realistic.” He licks the rim of his now-empty bottle and crushes it. “You’re like, hyper-focused on him. I always kinda thought...”

“Don’t think. It doesn’t suit you.”

“And yet I distinctly remember helping you study for that exam last week. Why aren’t you at least considering it? Annoyingly, thinking through all the options is usually your thing.”

Kazuya eyes him, cloaked in shadow like a predator. “What do you care what I do?”

His arms are crossed but his tone remains casual. “Believe it or not, friends usually want their friends to be happy. Though I can introduce you to my neighbor who went to one of those communes when she got the sickness, if you’d rather?”

“Happy. Is Ryou-san happy?” Miyuki asks instead, “You guys still chat from time to time, don’t you?”

 The night air is taut. Don’t pry , it whispers between them, cool and solid against his cheek.

With a grunt Kuramochi stands up and tosses his bottle into the recycling. “Well, you know how it is. Not everybody needs to talk through their issues, I guess.” With his whole body now visible he is infinitely familiar and harmless, the same Kuramochi who has tolerated him all three years. “But some people do. Eventually.”

The moment hangs. 

Kazuya taps his drink. “Thanks, for this.” Then he watches him go, slowly sipping until he’s swallowed the last drop.

Afterward, he sticks his hands in his pockets and takes the long way back to his dorm, enjoying the nighttime cool settling over his shoulders like sleep itself. What he’s feeling isn’t fear, because it’s Mei and Mei is too stubborn to die. But he also has a habit of forcing reality into giving him what he wants. And if he wants more of Kazuya, somehow...

Mei is a benevolent tyrant, really, dumping his attention on whatever he deems worthy— regardless of the desires of what he has chosen. Like a shadow that attention has latched onto him and even stretched thin at points of their history, but Kazuya has never had any intention of breaking it. Partly because he suspects it can’t be done.

But Kazuya can’t give everything the way Mei does, when he’s already given so much more than he ever thought he could. He opens the door to his dorm quietly and stands outside the threshold for a moment longer, reaching into his pocket for his phone. He can’t lose Mei, plain and simple. Not after he’s had the nerve to burrow so thoroughly into Kazuya’s life. But if it’s gotten so bad that he’s barfing up flowers, what the hell else can Mei want? He hesitates, sends a quick text, and then finally steps inside.

He’d asked what Mei was going to do (and got left on read). That’s about as much prying as he can be expected to do, so Kazuya doesn’t bring it up again, and Mei is equally silent. Time passes in a cycle of games, practices, ice baths, classes, and exams. Until suddenly and finally, it is graduation. 

“Miyuki Kazuya! You’re going to be fresh meat in your next team, so don’t go bullying your seniors with your bad personality!” Sawamura is yelling, of course, inserting himself into the group before he’s halfway across the dugout. He’ll be like this until he dies, Kazuya assumes, annoying and just obnoxious enough to endear himself to everyone around him. Nori shakes his head and moves back to give him a spot. “Remember now, what a catcher and a pitcher make together is A-R-T art. Don’t forget!” He’s waving something around in his hand, but Kazuya can’t see what it is until he steps around Furuya and into the space Nori created.

The bouquet that Sawamura shoves into his chest is laughably delicate, a generally unassuming thing wrapped in casual white paper. It doesn’t suit either of them. Sawamura’s got this constipated look on his face like he swallowed eight chilis and a raging bull, and Kazuya chuckles. Poor kid still has a bit of a crush on him, huh? But his brain stalls for just a moment at the flowers, tiny and vibrantly blue forget-me-nots that make sense for a graduation gift but suddenly— mortifyingly— remind him of Mei. 

After a whirlwind of jovial goodbyes and exactly two tears from Rei-chan, the day ends in baseball. He wouldn’t have it any other way. Before he goes to shower later that night the flowers judge him silently from their perch on his desk, and their gaze is no less chilly when he returns. He eyes them, expectant from their new territory. The moonlight curls over them sweetly, spilling light onto the scuffed wood and then the floor behind the desk in two wide swaths. He steps around the illuminated patches to grab his sleep shorts from the closet, and around them again to shut off the light. Even in the dark, the flowers are kind of pretty. Exactly the color of someone’s eyes.

He drops the whole bouquet in a little plastic box and shoves it behind the bed frame, unable to toss it outright. The flowers promptly slip out of his mind, and at the end of the week he tells himself that he’s just been too busy to dump them.

Time passes, and he sees Mei even less often than before outside of practice with their new team, and assumes his diet has to be at least 40% cough drops at this point. It’s always been a little odd, how they fit together, a structure made of rough cuts of wood and polished brass that seems too mismatched to support anything. Yet they’ve made it this long, and he’s almost sure trying to mess with the equation will cause the entirety of them to collapse. Mei got them into this mess, and he believes that his stubbornness will end and he’ll get them out.

Even being on the same team, practicing with a bunch of other benchwarmers, is almost easy. Mei, ever greedy, doesn’t see it this way, of course, though he will. 

That’s what he’s banking on, at least, until a curt voicemail from Shirakawa of all people orders him to call Mei. Shirakawa never tells Kazuya anything if he can help it.

So, one day when the B team doesn’t have practice, he hangs around his shoebox apartment uselessly until his neighbor’s gaming brings such an intense stream of expletives through the wall that he feels pushed into the humidity outside. He takes a long walk to the river before finally pulling out his phone. 

It rings once...twice...three times. Longer than it ever does, with him. Enough time for him to regret calling at all, to feel the sun’s heat on the back of his neck like a brand of shame, and then Mei picks up.

“What do you want?” he asks, voice straining in poorly-concealed curiosity. “You never call me.”

He’d be terrible at poker. “I can’t call a friend just to see how they’re doing?”

“Nope!” Mei chuckles to himself on the line, but it quickly mutates into sputtering, wet coughs. He takes a breath. “Sorry.”

His voice is hoarse. Kazuya inhales deeply, counting the leaves on a nearby tree. “It’s getting worse,” he doesn’t ask.

The rustle of a sleeve in what might be a shrug. “As many diseases do.”

“But that’s--” Absurd. “Why? It’s all based on mutual feelings, right? I mean,” he hesitates, glances at the searing white strip of sun behind a thick grey cloud, “we’re fine.” 

He’s never told Mei that he knew who it was, which suddenly feels like lying to his mom when he was eight, or someone equally important.

Silence.

“What’s the problem?” His hand has snaked to the bridge of his nose, and he pinches hard. “You know how I feel, right?” 

“Does anyone?” Mei hums, voice quiet like he’s leaning away from the phone to do something more deserving of his attention. But there can’t be anything more deserving, when this is his life for fuck’s sake. “I used to think I did, but…anyway, if that’s all you’ve got to say I have to go.”

“Wait— ” 

The click is so abrupt that for a moment it doesn’t register. Kazuya glares at the screen until his breathing has slowed and the numbers shine from the darkness when he closes his eyes. 

Fucking Mei. Always so goddamn dramatic. The clouds huddle towards each other overhead like stones collecting in the bottom of a bowl. He pushes his glasses off his face and scrubs at his eyes, as though the restlessness is sleep sand that needs only to be wiped away. A rumble of thunder warns him against staying outside. Then he turns on his heel and heads towards town, calculating the quickest way to get to Mei’s apartment. 

This has gone on long enough.

His frustration has cooled into a simple exhaustion by the time he gets off the train, and in the first twenty seconds after leaving the station, he’s soaked to the bone. The rain has taken a bite out of the earlier heat, and his wet shirt sticks close to his skin like the walls of that unseen something.

The lock releases without the jimmying he has to do at his own place, because Mei doesn’t mind spending a fortune on his apartment. He doesn’t look sick when he sweeps the door open, other than a general pallor that can’t cut into his good looks. Though Kazuya notices, he does droop under the weight of the cardigan hanging off his shoulders.

“Kazuya,” he begins, voice low and rough like a beaten-gravel road, “what a nice surprise.” He turns away from the door and walks inside, which Kazuya takes as an invitation. 

“We should talk,” he hedges, looking around the sparsely decorated main room.

“I guess,” Mei says from what sounds like the kitchen. “Have a seat, I’ll be out in a minute.”

Kazuya grabs the computer chair and listens to the storm rage outside. He doesn’t know how to start this conversation, so instead he watches the water fall from his hair and drip onto the floor like an acid corroding the boards. It takes a while for Mei to come out, and in the meantime he hears coughing from deeper inside the apartment. Finally, he emerges with a steaming cup of tea, leaning against the table as he looks at Kazuya with his delicate eyebrows raised.

He ignores the tea. The right words don’t magically come to him, because they never do, but he’s tired. Nervous about how much he’s progressed. “Mei. You’re being ridiculous. If…”

If Mei challenged him to catch the moon, he would do it. No one else would dare ask.“What the hell is still feeding this thing?”

For once, Mei is quiet. The silence is so long that Kazuya swallows his tongue and has time to grow a new one. Then he uncrosses his arms and pads to Kazuya’s feet until he’s standing over him, not quite sitting on his lap so much as straddling him a held breath away, and simply looks.

Kazuya’s breath is shallow, and this is new for him, for them, but he’s not about to back down from a challenge. He stares right back. 

“What do you want, Mei?” His voice is low, still shallow. Breathless in wait for— something.

In response, Mei raises his arms and sets them lazily on Kazuya’s shoulders, hovering over the hollow in his collarbone with a thumb and a cool stare. “Kazuya,” he drawls in a deep rasp that tugs at his abdomen, “You already know, don’t you?”

The wind howls outside and he thinks about the once beautiful flowers crushing each other in their bin behind the bed, the bin he put them in. Mei too is beautiful, with a body heat that he suddenly finds suffocating. He takes a deep breath, holding some of that heat in his chest. “I don’t think I can give you that.”

Of course, Mei has that habit of forcing reality into giving him what he wants. When he pushes his lips against Kazuya's they are rough and chilly. It’s uncomfortable, like the rain dripping down his back, and just as unexpectedly refreshing. There is none of the electric haughtiness of usual Mei, no subtle quirk to the lips to betray his pleasure at shutting Kazuya up or whatever he always finds so damn funny. 

That invisible wall cracks, and Kazuya rocks into the kiss like he's settling into familiar gear. He’s never kissed Mei, aside from a peck during a childhood sleepover that might have been a dream. He does not allow his hands to grip into heavenly light hair that he knows will be sweet to touch, he does not sigh like he’s been away a long time and finally come home. But he does kiss back with a deliberateness that the quiet is keen to expose. The exploration of a tongue, the gentle greeting of teeth, the insistent heat...he gives as much as he gets. It’s a bad idea, and the bad idea tastes like cinnamon.

But even Mei can't change everything. All too quick, the kiss ends. Mei's hands slide from his shoulders and he comments, “Idiot. You could stop thinking for once and listen to me.” Yet he backs away, retreating to the center of the room. When he looks toward the window the light washes him in a lost monochrome. “Rain’s stopped. I’ve got an appointment, so just let yourself out.” The room is cold.

Kazuya finds himself leaning forward, anchoring his body to the spot with the grounding discomfort of his elbows digging into his knees. He wants to speak but nothing comes to mind. Nothing but the ballooning suggestion of all Mei might want and the undeniable truth that he cannot have it. His mother asked for more than his father could give, once, and Kazuya is very much like his father. But in quiet, unassuming moments, he wants too. His back shudders, the shadow of his huddled form like a gargoyle in the pale light.

Then the door latches, the last word whispered in an otherwise silent room. 

Sometime later, he leaves. He returns to his place on autopilot, mind whirring like a computer struggling to run beyond its capabilities. When he opens the fridge, he gazes past the scallions, eggs, defrosted chicken, and other ingredients he had planned to use for dinner, unseeing. He closes his eyes for a long moment and quietly shuts the door, turning toward the cabinet. Instant ramen will be quicker. 

His mind is clogged with thoughts of sleep and chapped lips.

Practice is fine for a few days, though his eyes pull toward Mei more than he’d like. Their gazes don’t meet even once, other than when they absolutely have to for pitches, and then it’s back to the irritating view of the side of Mei’s face. His sideburns need a trim. Kazuya’s got a bad taste in his mouth.

They’re over in the bullpen after practice when the ball sinks into his mitt with a pathetic thwump . He rips off his mask. “Enough with the half-assed pitches, Mei.”

“Maybe if you stop calling for boring balls.”

“Maybe if you stopped shaking off everything I call for . What’s up with you? If you’ve got a problem with me then say it.”

“If I— !” He takes a shaky breath and spits into the dirt. “Never mind. I don’t have anything to say to you.”

“I don’t know what you expect, then.” 

“No idea? You're a lot dumber than I thought.”

His smile is the serrated edge on a thin pane of glass. “Oh, we’re resorting to childish insults now, very productive,” Kazuya sighs boredly. “You never think things through.”

Mei makes a strangled, inhuman sound. “Life isn’t all about thinking , Kazuya. You have to live it , it’s not something you can just opt out of!” 

The words ricochet off the chain link fence, cutting into the silence. His laugh is mirthless. "’Living’ isn’t always getting what you want, Mei.”

Heat evaporates the minutes between them, collecting in Mei's eyes. He's got his full attention now, and his skin is sizzling from it. Mei's complexion is blotchy red with rage, and the pout of his lips would feel good between someone's teeth, he thinks. He runs his tongue over his own. 

When Coach Araki barks for them to run laps, they both startle. He forces himself to look at the dirt when he removes his gear, and doesn't check to see if Mei is looking for the rest of practice.

He texts Kuramochi. Then he takes the long way home, and doesn’t feel bad about it even when he sees him idly kicking the rail on the stoop. Kuramochi says nothing when he goes in for a shower and a change of clothes, quietly sitting on the couch and playing a phone game. He doesn’t open his mouth until they leave the apartment again, walking towards a nearby izakaya, and for that Kazuya is grateful. 

“Must be pretty bad if you’re calling me out for drinks,” is all he says, and Kazuya snorts.

When they grab a table Kuramochi’s slouch is a pop fly, easily curving into the slope of his seat, unlike the stiff bracket Kazuya’s body makes on the opposite bench. “So?” he asks, selecting a few items on the booth screen and leaning back once the chime confirms his order. “Got some issues to talk through?”

Kazuya grimaces, punching in his own selections. “Don’t make it weird.”

“It’s always weird, with you.”

They laugh. Kazuya avoids the topic at hand, them swapping stories about what they’ve been up to since they graduated until their first round of drinks come. He doesn’t actually like alcohol that much, so he sticks with a chuhai while Kuramochi cracks into his first beer. 

The booths around them have filled with other groups when he finally comes to the main topic, glossing over that afternoon of the storm and ending with the breakdown at practice. He taps his fingers against the table and recrosses his legs, slowly recounting the story.

Kuramochi crumples a straw wrapper and drops it to the table without so much as a grunt to confirm he’s heard him speak.

Kazuya frowns while he watches him take the straw from his water glass and drop a bit of water onto the wrapper, which unfurls in thanks. “You made that big stink about talking and won’t even listen to me. I’m truly touched,” he wipes away a fake tear.

“I’m hearing you.” Another drop, another languid stretch of paper. “I just don’t have much advice for cowards.”

A waitress walks by to drop off some mapo tofu, the spicy scent catching on the glint of Kazuya’s grin. “It’s not cowardice, it’s pragmatism. This is his life we’re talking about, in case you didn’t get the memo.”

“I am serious, you fuck. You like him, don’t you?”

“That’s not the issue here.”

“Sure it is! You’ve been walking around like the stick up your ass splintered into a billion pieces, but haven’t you and Narumiya been like peas in a damn pod since you were kids?” He takes a packet of sugar and flicks it at Kazuya, beaning him right between the eyes. “Some people would kill for that kind of closeness.”

He frowns. “‘Peas in a pod’ is a bit much, don’t you think? We didn’t even go to the same school.”

“Even more reason to have grown apart already.” He flicks another sugar packet. “If pulling away is so fucking difficult for you, just don’t do it. Can you not handle him or something?”

Kazuya ignores the urge to rub his head. A thoughtful quiet purses his lips, softening his grin into a placeholder expression. The straw he takes and rolls between his hands can be found in any restaurant in the country, clasped in a painfully plain paper sleeve. So straightforward as to be unworthy of thought. Absolutely nothing like the mental agility required for calling a game, or anticipating the many ways he and Mei could break down, should have broken down several times over. And yet…

 “I’m the only one who can stand him, let alone handle him.” He drops the straw and its wrapper back onto the table, right into a ring of liquid that leaches into the paper, soaking through. Has it really been that simple?

“Then act like it. You’re thinking too much.” Kuramochi flicks another packet, sighing in boredom when he dodges it. “And you’re getting the bill, by the way— emotional labor fee.” He puts in for another beer. 

They move back to simpler topics after that, college for Kuramochi and how deferring enrollment to play pro for a year is going to go for Kazuya. He and Ryou-san seem to meet up pretty often.

Much later, Kazuya realizes he’s conscious when the darkness before his eyes pulsates in time with his heartbeat. A train rattles by with a loud screech, and he sighs his eyes open. He’s got the day off, he thinks, settling his glasses on his face and grabbing his phone. 

Frowning when it doesn’t turn on, he realizes he’d forgotten to plug it in somewhere in the middle of yesterday’s drama. With a loud yawn he sets it to charge, then stretches the stiffness from his arms and pads into the hallway towards the kitchen. He shoves a recent sports magazine out from in front of a cabinet and reaches behind a jar of fancy Norwegian salt for his tin of instant coffee. 

He takes his time filling the mug with hot water, gazing into the steam as he thinks over his and Kuramochi’s conversation from last night. He’d left the izakaya with no idea what to say to Mei, and when the last clumps of powder disintegrate into the liquid shivering against the top edge, he’s no closer to an answer. But a little coffee should help, so he swipes the magazine with one hand and cradles his breakfast with the other, saving the first drink for when he gets back to his room.

Or for after he listens to his voicemail. He sees the blinking light from the doorway and sets his coffee on the desk with a sigh. His eyebrows buoy up to his hairline when he sees that it’s from Mei, and from about 1 in the morning. There’s a text too, also from Mei, but it’s nothing but a link to his maps app for some shrine a little way away, so he returns to the voicemail.

“Kazuya, hey!” it begins, Mei’s bright voice like sharp sunlight. “I’ve been doing some thinking and I’ve got some news, so meet me at Kiyanura Shrine at, say, ten tomorrow morning!” He glances at the time and frowns, 9:37 staring back at him. “Anyway, you owe me, so. Don’t be late.”

His voicemail box’s request for him to delete or save the message is jarringly bland in comparison. As if Kazuya doesn’t have less than a half hour to figure out how to apologize to Mei and keep him in his life, without giving into the whisper at the back of his mind that still views him as a wildfire, teetering between simply setting his nerves alight and singeing them into nothing.

He dresses in record time, but the minutes have relentlessly ticked away, so he offers his untouched coffee a resigned smile and rushes out the door. Thankfully, he’d chosen an apartment closer to the train, despite some of the unbearable neighbors. 

The neighborhood the map leads to is one he’s never visited before, though it’s full of the same cramped houses and occasional boutique restaurants one can find anywhere. Two minutes to the hour, he reaches the top of the hill where the street ends, aside from a faded torii gate and a staircase that leads steeply down the slope he’d just ascended. The staircase is long, extending to another torii gate at the bottom, beyond which Kazuya can see a little clearing and a tell-tale blond mop of hair. 

His hands find his pockets, and a lopsided smirk finds his face. If he squints, he can see Mei perched on the edge of the purifying basin, and he can imagine his impatience. The steps are narrow, preventing him from descending too quickly, but after every five or so he feels the grip of apprehension lessen from around his torso. It’s just Mei. 

They make eye contact just before he reaches the bottom, and for a second he’s reminded of all the times they’ve been on opposite sides of the diamond, but somehow, always on the same team. Just a couple of kids playing an elaborate game.

“Kind of a weird place for a love confession, but I support your creativity,” he says, stopping just outside the second gate.

Mei reddens, but doesn’t look away. “What confession? Isn’t this where you prostrate yourself before me and apologize for losing your mind?” It’s cooler down here in the cement pit of the shrine, and Mei is framed nicely against the backdrop of stones painted with moss, weeds, and time. 

“I think we’re both a little guilty of that.” He reminds himself of why he came, finally steps fully into the clearing. “Actually, I wanted— ”

“I’m getting the surgery,” Mei interrupts, jumping off the basin with easy agility. He turns his back to Kazuya and approaches the shrine itself, looking up at it with his arms crossed. His voice is rough the way it always is these days, as if every breath is wrenched from a pit of dirt. “This shrine is best for medical prayers, did you know that? Itsuki found it on Reddit.”

He doesn’t say anything else for a moment and Kazuya studies him, the rage of passion, greed, and blinding charm that he has always embodied. If he stares for long enough, he thinks he can see the way Mei has burned himself out and into something newer, more dangerous and enticing, over time. “About that...I’ve been doing some thinking too. Maybe,” he scratches the side of his nose, moving to compensate for the way that Mei hasn’t, “maybe it doesn’t have to come to that.”

Mei’s eyes are molten blue when he looks over his shoulder. “‘Doesn’t have to come to that’? I don’t think you understand the,” he fights for his voice, clearing his throat violently, “stakes here, but I’m dying.” He turns to him fully, hands moving to his hips. There is no anger in the scorch of his gaze. “I’m an all-or-nothing kind of guy, Kazuya, you know that. So, do you really think you can give me all?”

Kazuya doesn’t mean to, but he hesitates. Mei has never looked at him like this off the field, and for a second it’s all he can do to relish in it. Every hair on his body is a pinprick of flame.

Mei shrugs his shoulders and finally drops his arms. “Exactly. It’s too much! Don’t even worry about it.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a coin, which he then tosses into the box before the shrine. His shoulders sink when he claps his hands, and they don’t come back up. “I just wanted you to pray for the procedure to go well. They say I won’t remember you, but I won’t have any feelings either. The success rate is pretty high.” When he turns back around, his smile is classic Mei preening before his fans, mostly sincere and a tiny bit smug. “Oh yeah, and you’ve got to befriend me again, okay? That’s all I ask. This is basically your fault, so it’s the least you could do. I’m sure we’ll be better friends this time.”

Kazuya is silent for just long enough to inhale and exhale. Like getting involved with Mei again wouldn’t result in the exact same situation, them kindling in each other’s paths. It’s a foregone conclusion. He feels like a hot coal in a large fireplace, burning and exposed in a sea of ash when he says, "I can't."

Mei freezes and his smile seems to splinter, as though the concrete they stand on and Earth's crust beneath it have dropped out from his stomach.

"Ha ha," he starts darkly, ignoring the tears pooling in his eyes, "you really are cruel, Kazuya.” He hunches over and gags into his hands, but nothing comes out. “Leave, then."

"Wait, Mei, hear me out."

"Fuck off!"

"I won't." He isn't yelling, but he hisses violently through his teeth and pushes a hand through his hair. "God, I am shit at this. I can't be friends with you again."

Mei is hardly listening, enraptured by the pattern of veins snaking over his hands. He’s a million miles away, perhaps hearing only the rush of blood in his body. It’s painful to watch and know he’s the cause, and his hands feel terribly empty. He closes his eyes.

"I’ve always known how life was going to go. I’d play baseball for a while, go to college, and take over the company. That’s right. And you...you’re supposed to go pro and live some kind of ideal life. That’s why you’re so…

“But you’ve always stuck with me, for whatever reason. And I’m not right for you, Mei. But I guess you didn’t care about that; you've always known what you wanted.” He looks back at him head on, straightening up. Without thinking about it, he’d been walking towards him, and he stops when he can see the water collected on his lashes. “You’re irritating as all get-out. And I’m really not right for you, but damn it, I don’t want to let go of you either. Not for a moment." Even if they eventually burn each other out. It’s statistically possible that they won’t, after all.

Mei blinks. Stares at him, eyes hollow and suspicious.

Kazuya holds a pinky out, hand shaking ever so slightly but he can’t help but smile, wide and inappropriate. "You said we’re a forever battery, or something like that, right?"

Mei only looks stunned for a few more seconds, before his entire form puffs up like bread in the oven, hot and lightly sweet. 

“Oh, Kazuya, you really thought it’d be that easy? You could just cause me all that trouble with no consequences? You’re going to have to give me something for all the emotional turmoil— actually many somethings! But I’ll make my first request super easy.”

He drops his hand and sighs dramatically. Nothing is ever easy with him. “And what will it be, Your Grace?”

“You’ve got to kiss me again.”

He blinks. That’s it? No parading around spouting demands, no “I told you so”? A simper rises to his lips. “Modest requests are weird, coming from you.”

Knowing Mei, he’ll be asking for freebies for years to come. Well, not that Kazuya minds.

 He takes another step closer, following the dried tear tracks down to Mei’s lips and brushing his fingers lightly through the hair on the back of his head, which moves easily to make space for them. Mei’s eyes spark like the edge of a whetstone, hopeful and suspicious, and he frowns at Miyuki’s grin. 

“But I guess I can do that. I mean, who can say no to you, in the end?”

Mei pouts, unimpressed. Not that Kazuya intends to wait around for him to whine. He loosely tightens the hand at the back of Mei’s neck and gathers him in, nipping his plump bottom lip with his teeth. When Mei pulls back to complain he chases, pressing their mouths together but smiling too much for it to be as apologetic as he’d hoped. Mei switches gears immediately, wasting no time in deepening the kiss. The chill of the shrine’s pit is nowhere to be found between them, and Kazuya grips the jut of Mei’s hip with his other hand, finally allowing himself to match Mei’s greed.

Maybe they’ll burn each other out. He’s willing to take that chance.