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Being able to read people is important, as a catcher.

Okumura isn’t a people-person, Taku will say sometimes, apologizing for something thoughtless Okumura has said. It’s true, in a sense: Okumura knows people don’t tend to like him, but it’s because he chooses not to soften his words, not because he’s oblivious to the effect they have. He’s been studying people long enough to tell what they’re thinking, a lot of the time. He can see it in their posture, their movements, small changes in their expressions. When it’s a batter at the plate, he can see whether they’re nervous or cocky; whether a too-close ball rattles them or deepens their resolve.

When it’s his teammates, he can see other things.

This morning at breakfast he was watching out of the corner of his eye as Sawamura and Kuramochi bickered, apparently because Kuramochi had tried to show Haruichi something in one of the vaguely racy magazines he flips through when he thinks no one is watching.

“Don’t sully Haruichi with your dirty habits!” Sawamura was yelling, at full volume. “He’s only sixteen; his eyes are too tender for this mature content!”

“He’s in the same grade as you!” Kuramochi yelled back. “And he’s related to Ryou-san, I bet he’s seen some things—”

“Don’t try to change the subject!” Sawamura exclaimed. “I’m trying to protect our young Harucchi’s virtue!”

Haruichi was blushing and letting this happen, for some reason. Maybe he was hoping to get a peek at the magazine while they were fighting over it. Okumura huffed and looked away.

Look, alright? Is that really so bad?! It’s—you know, artistic!!”

Okumura’s eyes slid back over to see Kuramochi holding the open magazine up to Sawamura’s face. Sawamura was the one blushing now, but he held his resolve. “Well, it’s not that bad for me, Sawamura Eijun, a mature, worldly seventeen-year-old—”

Kuramochi cackled. “Worldly? What about you is worldly? I bet you’ve never even held hands with anyone.”

“I have, too!” Sawamura protested. He reached down and grabbed Haruichi’s hand. “See?” Then he grabbed Kuramochi’s, too. “Look,” he said, happily, “we’re all holding hands!”

“Not like that, dumbass!” Kuramochi yelled, and pulled his hand away. “Like romantically, jeez!”

“Well, I’ve done that, too! I’ve done way more than that!”

“Yeah, right,” Kuramochi said, cackling again.

“I believe Eijun-kun,” Haruichi said, carefully extracting his hand, too.

“Huh? Why?”

Haruichi knew something, it was clear, but he clammed up quickly. Kuramochi turned back to Sawamura, outraged. “Did someone actually let you kiss them?”

“Yes,” said Sawamura, puffing out his chest. “A lot of times. And—other stuff. Well, almost.”

Other—wait, what the fuck, Sawamura—” Kuramochi was the one turning red now. Really, the whole thing was incredibly childish, all three of them. “Did you—was it—Wakana-chan?

“Huh?! No, no way! She wouldn’t do anything like that!”

“Okay, then what the hell, who?” Kuramochi said, and grabbed the front of Sawamura’s shirt.

Sawamura barked a laugh. “Nice try, Kuramochi, like I’d tell you something like that! A gentleman would never—”

“Yeah, jeez, alright, you liar,” Kuramochi said, and let him go.

It was a normal breakfast, honestly. Okumura was used to this dumb squabbling. But after it died down, something made him look back over at Sawamura. His cheeks were still pink, Okumura noticed, even though the other two had lost interest in the argument. Then Okumura watched, a dark hole spinning open in his chest, as Sawamura’s gaze slid clearly over to the seat across from Okumura, where… Miyuki was sitting. Miyuki, who was gripping his chopsticks tightly and shoveling rice into his mouth, his expression tightly controlled.

The fact of it entered Okumura’s brain in a flash. Sawamura had kissed Miyuki. Probably more than once. Maybe they were still doing it.

He didn’t know why, but the thought made him want to stand up and knock the rice bowl out of Miyuki’s hands. He restrained himself, though, and just clenched his fingers around his own chopsticks. He spent the rest of breakfast glaring down at his tray.

That was twelve hours ago, and the knot in his stomach hasn’t come any closer to unwinding. He stares up at the ceiling of his room and tries to think it through rationally. He thought Sawamura was being ridiculous at breakfast, trying to defend Haruichi’s honor—as if that’s something any guy their age would want. And yet…

...and yet, is it really any different from the urge twisting in his own chest? The thought of Miyuki, with his smug, evil schemes, stealing a kiss from someone as simple and earnest as Sawamura is—

God, it makes him want to die. He thinks he’s right about it, but of course he doesn’t know the context, how it happened, and his brain starts to offer up worst-case scenarios to fill in the gaps. Miyuki sliding up to Sawamura during a practice session, telling him he had a technique to help him relax when he pitched. Miyuki cornering Sawamura by the vending machines late at night, pressuring him into it when no one was around. Miyuki—blackmailing him, or something, making it a condition of keeping some secret—

He gulps in a breath of air and turns his head to look at Miyuki, who’s hunched over the desk on his side of the room they share. Miyuki is biting the end of his pencil, tapping his heel on the ground as he frowns at a math problem. After a second, he seems to catch the eraser on his tongue. He spits it out and makes a face at it.

Okay, Okumura is being unfair, he decides, calming down. Miyuki isn’t actually completely evil. He knows Miyuki respects Sawamura; he was the one who told Okumura not to underestimate him. Miyuki wouldn’t do anything that bad to Sawamura.

So in that case… maybe… it was Sawamura’s idea? He rolls over, his heart starting to pound again. What if it was Sawamura who approached Miyuki, who asked to kiss him? He’s sure Sawamura would have asked first; he’d be chivalrous about it, direct. Miyuki might have been surprised, or maybe he’d have expected it. Either way, he must have given Sawamura permission, then watched as Sawamura approached, blushing but determined, leaning in…

Okumura’s stomach churns. The thought of it being Sawamura’s idea doesn’t dull his urge to punch Miyuki over it, and he doesn’t know why.

He hugs his pillow to his chest and thinks it over some more. Okay, he thinks finally, maybe there’s one obvious explanation. Maybe he wants to tear his imagined Miyuki away from Sawamura because… well. He grits his teeth. Because he wishes it were him.

It floods him all at once, as soon as he lets the thought out. He wishes it were him kissing Sawamura, instead of Miyuki. Of course he does. He envies everything Miyuki has with Sawamura—the way Sawamura treats pitching for Miyuki as a special prize, the way they laugh together on the mound. Of course he’d be envious of this.

“Miyuki-senpai,” he says, and sits up.

“Hm?” says Miyuki.

“I need to ask you something.”

Miyuki turns, half-grinning. “You always sound really ominous, you know that? What?”

“Are things serious between you and Sawamura-senpai?”

Miyuki coughs and chokes. “Excuse me?”

“Are you dating? Or just fooling around?”

“What—the,” Miyuki says, and then stops, gets up, checks that Kimura’s not in his bunk, and goes to lock the door—“hell, Okumura?” He laughs, but he looks alarmed, too. “What did he tell you?”

Okumura shakes his head. “He didn’t tell me. I overheard him at breakfast. You did, too.”

“…And you thought he was talking about me because…?”

“He was staring at you.”

Miyuki hesitates, then laughs again. “Sawamura doesn’t exactly have a focused mind, you know,” he says. “He was probably thinking about pitching already.”

“I could tell from how you reacted, too, Miyuki-senpai,” Okumura says, annoyed. “Not to mention how you’re reacting now. Please don’t waste my time playing dumb.”

Miyuki leans back against the wall and folds his arms over his stomach, crosses one ankle over the other. His face seems caught in an off-kilter smile. “Really showing off your observational skills, huh?” he asks, a little forced. “Alright. Yeah.”

“Yeah, you’re dating, or—?”

Miyuki rolls his eyes. “Yeah, we’ve done some stuff, okay? Is that going to be a problem for you?”

It is, but probably not for the reasons Miyuki’s thinking. “Are you still doing it?”

“Seriously, Okumura, this isn’t any of your busi—”

“I’m his catcher, too!” Okumura interrupts, more forcefully than he means to. “Of course it’s my business.”

His face is hot, he realizes, as Miyuki’s eyes lift to sweep across it. Miyuki’s expression, which until now has been oddly vulnerable, sharpens into something familiar.

“So that’s what this is about,” Miyuki says, softly.

Of course, when it comes to reading people, he can’t hope to compare to Miyuki. Miyuki probably knows every thought in his head right now, even the ones he hasn’t thought yet. Thoughts like the image of Sawamura tugging him in close, pressing that loud, brash mouth to his lips… He shivers and stares down at his knees.

“I just want to know,” he gets out.

“Uh-huh.” Miyuki unfolds his limbs. “Well, you don’t need my permission.”

“...Permission?”

“To ask him,” Miyuki says. “If that’s what you were going to do.” He goes to unlock the door. “Or confess to him, or whatever.”

Confess—?!” His voice stops in his throat. His thoughts feel tangled.

“Yeah. You know, he’s not the easiest guy to get through to. If you’re going to say something, you should probably just tell him straight out.”

Okumura stares at him. Is Miyuki—giving him advice? About how to… He swallows; his whole body feels hot. Miyuki is miles ahead of him. Okumura wasn’t even considering telling Sawamura that he liked him. Of course, it hadn’t occurred to him until just now that he might. That’s… probably what this is called, isn’t it? This feeling that’s eating a hole through his gut; this unbearable, sudden urge to go grab Sawamura and hide him somewhere while he’s figuring out his own thoughts, so no one can get to him first, so no one can see him pitch or hear him laugh or touch him or kiss him…

“Oh,” he says, quietly, as the weight of it lands.

Miyuki raises an eyebrow at him but doesn’t say anything else, just goes back to the math homework on his desk. Okumura sits in silence and stares at Miyuki’s back as three months of feelings, maybe more, unfold and unfold further in his chest. He’s never had a real crush before, he realizes now. Vague ideas about which girls in his class were the coolest or the prettiest don’t compare to this at all. This feels—awful.

He sits with the awfulness of it for the rest of the evening, as he finally gets up to struggle through his own homework; as he takes a bath and gets ready to sleep. Kimura’s back in their room by the time Miyuki goes to turn off the light, but Miyuki stops him anyhow as he’s getting in bed.

“I don’t know how to say this,” Miyuki says, “but I should probably… I mean, you know, do what you want.” He looks astonishingly uncomfortable, Okumura thinks. “But, like. Don’t mess around with him if you’re not ready for it.”

Okumura stares at him. Then his eyes narrow. “I won’t,” he says.

“Okay.” Miyuki smiles awkwardly. “Well. Good.” He goes over to the light switch, and Okumura crawls under his covers and buries his face in his pillow.

Don’t mess around with him, Miyuki said. He thinks he should probably be more concerned about that warning. As he’s falling asleep, though, all he can think about is the possibility that he actually could.

Miyuki’s words do hit him, though, the next day. He runs into Sawamura in the locker room when there’s no one else there, and for a second all he can think about is blurting something out. He has a chance, he thinks, he could lay his claim, ask Sawamura right now not to kiss anyone else—

But he bites his tongue. Miyuki is right. He’s not even entirely sure if he’d like it, kissing Sawamura, or if he’s prepared to commit to a thing like that. He can’t be so selfish as to try to keep Sawamura away from anyone else when his feelings are this fresh. And more importantly… even if his feelings are real, what reason would Sawamura have to accept them? Okumura hasn’t even proven his worth on the first string yet; he hasn’t convinced Sawamura to fully trust on him on the field. No, he can’t say anything yet. He’ll have to prove his devotion first.

His cheeks burn at the thought of devotion, and he steals a glance in the mirror at Sawamura, who’s buttoning up his jersey and frowning.

“What’s wrong, wolf-boy?” Sawamura asks. “You look all worried.”

“It’s nothing,” Okumura says. “Will you let me help you warm up today?”

“Sure,” Sawamura says, and then grins at him. “Guess I have no choice, huh? Cap just said he wasn’t going to catch for me at all this week, the bastard.”

“...Oh.”

Sawamura laughs. “I’m just kidding, wolf-boy. I mean, about having no choice. Well—no, okay, I guess that’s actually true. Unless I pitched for Yui-kun!” He laughs again, loudly, and Okumura has to drop his gaze to the floor. When he looks up, Sawamura is standing next to him. “I mean, I like it,” he says, his voice suddenly at a normal indoor volume. “Working with you.”

Okumura meets his eyes in the mirror and nods. “Okay,” he says. “Good. I’ll see you out there, then.” He turns and walks away before Sawamura can say anything else.

Practice that week is torture. He doesn’t know what Miyuki was trying to do, making Sawamura work with him this closely, but he can’t make himself feel any gratitude for it. He knows logically that it would probably be worse if he had to watch Sawamura pitch to Miyuki right now, but in his heart he can’t imagine anything worse than this—looking at Sawamura straight-on for hours, having no choice but to stare at him, trying to focus on catching when Sawamura is winding up in front of him again and again, sweat-sheened and gleeful and fierce.

By the end of the week, he knows one thing: he’s sure about how he feels. He wants Sawamura; he wants to hold his hand, kiss him, date him, wants to take every single member of the team aside and tell them to back off, to stop making Sawamura laugh and smile because only he wants to do that, at least for a while, at least until he can tell Sawamura how he feels and let him decide.

Except… He still hasn’t proven himself. He won’t have a chance to play in a game for another few weeks. He doesn’t know if he can last that long, but—he has to, doesn’t he? He’s not ready; he hasn’t earned the right to confess.

He’s sitting on his bed, stewing it over, when Miyuki comes in.

“Oh,” Miyuki says, “there you are. Sawamura was looking for you.”

Okumura’s head snaps up. “He was?”

“Yeah,” Miyuki says, and grins crookedly. “He said he wanted to give you more practice catching his splitter.” He goes to his desk and starts picking up some things—notebook, pencil, a stack of scorebooks. “I’ll be over in the lounge,” he says. “I’ll keep Kimura busy if you want to use the room.”

“The—room? For what?”

“You know,” Miyuki says. “Practice.”

Okumura stares at him, and Miyuki finally pauses as he finishes collecting his things.

“With Sawamura,” Miyuki says, like he’s clarifying it. It clarifies nothing.

“I can’t catch for him in here.”

Miyuki stares back at him. Then he laughs. “You haven’t confessed to him?”

Okumura flushes as he realizes what Miyuki meant. “No! Why would you think that?”

“Oh,” Miyuki says and looks down, smiling. “Sorry. He just seemed, uh. Really eager about practicing with you.”

“He’s—like that,” Okumura points out. “About pitching.”

“True,” Miyuki says, and laughs softly. “Sometimes I think he doesn’t know the difference.”

Okumura frowns. “The difference?”

“Yeah, you know.” Miyuki rubs the back of his neck. “Like, between being a battery, and…” He trails off. “Anyhow.”

Okumura goes still. “Miyuki-senpai,” he says. He hasn’t wanted to think about it, at all, but suddenly he needs to know. “What happened between you?”

Miyuki looks up at him, his gaze sharp. He’s not going to give anything away, Okumura thinks; he’ll make Okumura figure it out, or tell him he needs to ask Sawamura himself.

But after a few seconds, something in Miyuki’s eyes changes. “We were… kind of together, I guess,” he says, quietly.

“...Kind of?”

Miyuki hesitates. Then he sits down on the edge of his bed. “Yeah,” he says, and looks at the floor. “I don’t know. When it started it was just me messing with him. Saying he must like me because he was so over the top, stuff like that. Finally I told him he could do whatever he wanted to me if he managed to pitch to the inside during a game, back when he was getting over his yips.” His face breaks into a rueful smile. “And, well. He did.”

Okumura swallows. “Oh,” he says, numbly.

“I didn’t realize until then that I wanted it, too,” Miyuki says. “I didn’t tell him, but… it affected me a lot. I started letting him do it more, as an incentive for anything I wanted him to learn.” His smile widens into a grin. “He really picked up a lot of pitches.”

Okumura huffs out a breath and tries not to count all the pitches he’s caught for Sawamura, their subtle variations. He doesn’t want to think about what Sawamura might have done with Miyuki for each one.

“But of course he wasn’t satisfied just with that,” Miyuki says. “I mean, I wasn’t, either. I was… really impressed with him, you know? I had to start taking him seriously. So, like.” He curls in on himself a little, his legs stretching out ahead. “It kinda became more than that.”

Okumura gets the feeling Sawamura isn’t the only one without a clear distinction in his mind between baseball and relationships, but he doesn’t say that. “What happened?” he asks. Miyuki still isn’t meeting his eyes.

“He just wanted more and more,” Miyuki says. “Like… emotionally. He didn’t get how I could do that stuff and not—” He breaks off, exhaling harshly. “I mean, I did. Just… not the same way he did.”

Okumura feels sick to his stomach. “So you broke up with him?”

Miyuki laughs and presses his forearms to his knees. “He kinda broke up with me,” he says. “Or at least… Well, he gave me a chance to tell him he was wrong. But I said I didn’t think he was.”

For some horrible reason, Okumura feels tears prickle behind his eyes. “You—let him do that? Be the one to decide that, when…” His throat feels swollen.

“Yeah,” Miyuki says. “I fucked up, I know. I was too much of a coward to do it myself, and I thought…” He runs a hand through his hair. “I don’t know what I thought. I didn’t want to hurt him, either.”

“Yeah,” Okumura says, hoarsely.

Miyuki is quiet for a few seconds. “Sorry if I scared you off,” he says, finally. He smiles, crooked. “I didn’t mean to. I think you’d be good for him.”

“...Yeah?”

“I mean, you’re like, the two most intense people I’ve ever met. You could probably keep up with him.”

Okumura swallows, his chest tightening as he thinks about what Miyuki means. About Sawamura’s emotions burning like that—for him— He takes in a quick breath. “You don’t even know if he’s interested,” he says, trying to bring himself back into reality. He hesitates. “He hasn’t said anything like that. Has he?”

Miyuki laughs. “I think I’d be about the last person he’d tell,” he says. “But, um.” He lifts a shoulder. “I dunno. I’ve seen him with you. I wouldn’t be surprised.”

Okumura feels his face grow warm. He knows what Miyuki means, if he lets himself think about it. He’s noticed it all this week—the way Sawamura’s eyes sparkle at him when he’s caught a difficult pitch, the way Sawamura leans in too close when they sit side by side, the grin Sawmura gave him just today, when they were leaving practice, dazzling and furtive all at once, a gift for him alone.

“Just… be ready for him, alright?”

“Oh.” His heart beats loudly in his chest. He gets it now, he thinks. Maybe he doesn’t have to prove his devotion on the field. Maybe just being sure of it himself is enough. He nods. “I will,” he says, and this time he means it.

Miyuki nods and goes to the door. Then he pauses, his hand on the knob. “You want me to tell him you’re in here?”

Maybe it’s asking too much of him, but Okumura doesn’t know if he trusts his own legs to get him all the way to the lounge. He nods.

“Okay,” Miyuki says, and opens the door.

“—Miyuki-senpai,” Okumura says, when Miyuki is halfway out of the room. Miyuki pulls back to look at him, and Okumura looks down at his hands. He means to say thank you, but for some reason what comes out is, “Sorry for thinking you were evil.”

“Thinking I was—” Miyuki stops. Then he laughs. “Huh??”

“I mean, you’re. Not.”

“Uh-huh.”

“You’re—not a terrible senpai, I mean,” Okumura mumbles.

“‘Not terrible,’ huh?” Miyuki grins, shakes his head. “Alright,” he says, and winks. “I’ll take it, wolf-boy.”

It doesn’t take as long as he expected, after Miyuki leaves, for the door to open again. Okumura’s glad; he’s been trying to use the time to prepare himself, but… well, there’s nothing really to prepare. He already knows what he wants to say.

“—Okumura!” Sawamura says, throwing the door open with a bang.

Okumura’s mouth quirks. “You’re actually using my name?”

Ookami Koushuu,” Sawamura sings, and sits down across from him. “Is that better?”

All of Okumura’s muscles go tense. He’s not sure if it’s at Sawamura saying his first name, or at Sawamura making himself comfortable on Miyuki’s bed. Either way, the solution is the same.

“Sawamura-senpai,” he says. “Can you sit over here, please?”

Sawamura blinks. “Okay,” he says, and stands up, hops over to sit at the end of Okumura’s bed. Okumura is sitting upright with both his feet on the ground, but Sawamura sits facing him, curling one of his knees up onto the bed. “What’s up?”

You should probably just tell him straight out, echoes Miyuki’s voice in his head. He takes a deep breath. “I like you,” he says. “Romantically. Will you go out with me?” There, he can’t get more straightforward than that.

When he dares to glance over, Sawamura is staring at him with the most delighted expression Okumura’s ever seen. “...Go out with you? Where?”

...Okay, Okumura thinks, Miyuki was right. Maybe Sawamura is too hopelessly thick to get through to. “No, I mean—” he says, and then stops. “I did say romantically, didn’t I?”

Sawamura is grinning. “No, I got that!” he says. “But like. You want to go—on a date? Romantically? We’re going to be pretty busy, aren’t we?”

Okumura grinds the heel of his palm into his forehead. “I meant go out, like—” His voice catches. He didn’t plan to say it like this, but… well, he’s thought about it. He’s sure. “Like—be my boyfriend.”

“—Oh!” Sawamura blinks at him. His cheeks were pink before, but now they’re turning bright red. His mouth opens, but nothing comes out.

“You don’t have to decide now,” Okumura says, which he realizes he should have said to begin with. “You can take your time. I just wanted you to know how I feel.”

Sawamura blinks again, a few times, his eyelashes fluttering. He has really, really pretty eyes, Okumura thinks, and feels his stomach bottom out at the thought of Sawamura rejecting him now.

“No,” Sawamura says, “I like you, too. I was really hoping you liked me.” Okumura’s heart starts to pound so hard he thinks he might die before Sawamura gets to the end of whatever he’s opening his mouth to say next. “I kind of thought that you might,” Sawamura continues, and grins shyly. “But I was gonna ask you after the tournament, just, um. In case you didn’t.”

“Oh,” Okumura says. He didn’t think of that. “Well, I do.”

“Okay,” Sawamura says, “cool!” His grin widens. Then he hesitates. “Do you—really want me to be your boyfriend?”

Okumura frowns. “I said I like you,” he says. “Why wouldn’t I want that?”

Sawamura’s blush, which was fading a little, blooms back into full force. “I mean… you haven’t even kissed me,” he says. Then his eyes flick over, just for a fraction of a second, to the rumpled spot on Miyuki’s bed.

Something surges in Okumura’s chest. He turns and leans in so close that Sawamura has no choice but to look at him. “I want to,” he says. “Can I?”

Sawamura’s eyes are open wide, startled. Then he nods, and he leans in too. Their lips bump together in the middle. It’s strange, at first, but then Sawamura reaches up and touches his cheek, tilts his head a little, and… it’s nice. It’s really, really nice. He exhales shakily onto Sawamura’s mouth, and Sawamura smiles, pulls back a little so he can take a breath, then kisses him again.

He seems good at this, Okumura thinks, and feels a tiny pulse of despair when he thinks about why. But when he puts his hand on Sawamura’s knee and feels the way Sawamura inhales sharply, the way he softens his posture, leans forward… well, he doesn’t care. Anyhow, maybe Miyuki got to do this first, but there’s still one thing he can do. He pulls back a few centimeters and looks Sawamura in his eyes. “Now will you go out with me?”

Sawamura blinks, then laughs happily. “Okay,” he says. “Yeah.”

“Good,” Okumura says, and leans into kiss him again. Sawamura sighs and relaxes against him, and he shivers. He’ll have to thank Miyuki later for the privacy, he thinks. Actually, there’s probably a lot he has to thank Miyuki for. He presses forward and kisses Sawamura more firmly, then pulls away to look at the blissful expression on his face.

“Hm?” Sawamura asks, after a second.

“Nothing,” Okumura says. He puts an arm around Sawamura’s waist and presses his face into Sawamura’s neck. He’ll do whatever it takes to keep up with this guy, he thinks, in silent devotion. He smiles as Sawamura reaches down and squeezes his hand. No matter what happens, he’ll be ready for it.