It took Abe a while to notice.
He didn't touch Mihashi that much in the normal course of events. He'd mostly trained himself out of giving Mihashi noogies, even when the frustration of trying to talk to him was causing Abe almost physical anguish. So it was really just the occasional pat on the shoulder during practice, or hands brushing as he passed Mihashi a ball. And Mihashi was such a nervy kid anyway, most of the time Abe had no idea what would set him off.
So it took him longer than it should have to realise that when he touched Mihashi now, Mihashi shivered and stuttered and just about fell apart.
It wasn't every time. In the third game of their second summer tournament, Mihashi came near to having a panic attack on the mound. Abe called a time-out and ran up to take both his hands, made Mihashi look at him instead of letting his gaze skitter about like a trapped animal. Mihashi let out a shuddering breath and tightened his grip in return, slowly steadying, coming down one exhale at a time.
Abe thought he must have been imagining Mihashi flinching away from him, after that. Only the next day at practice, when Abe thoughtlessly grabbed Mihashi's arm to ask him something, Mihashi jerked and pulled away, shooting a wide-eyed glance at Abe and then staring at the ground.
Abe suddenly couldn't remember what he'd been going to say.
"Abe-kun?" Mihashi asked at last, looking up. He sounded cautious.
"... make sure to stay hydrated today, all right?" Abe said, which definitely wasn't what he'd stopped him for.
Mihashi nodded several times and made towards the line of water bottles Shinooka had set out. Probably to attempt to drink all of them.
Abe scrubbed his hand over the back of his head and tried to will away the cold feeling in his stomach.
After a particularly gruelling practice Abe saw Mizutani, who Abe hadn't even thought was especially close to Mihashi, lean sideways and flop onto his shoulder. Mihashi only blinked tiredly at him and flapped his hand a bit, then yawned and leaned on him in return.
"Have you noticed Mihashi being ... weirder than usual?"
Hanai turned to look at Abe over his shoulder. He had that awkward, half-guilty expression on his face that he often got when he talked about Mihashi. It reassured Abe a bit that somebody else found Mihashi as impossible as he did.
"Weirder than what?" Hanai asked under his breath.
Abe shrugged, adjusting the position of his hands so he was applying even downward pressure. "Jumpier. More self-conscious."
Hanai stretched the last inch to touch his toes. "Nope," he said on the exhale. "I'm pretty sure he's ... been the same degree of jumpy?" Abe let him up, and he leaned his head back, giving Abe a curious look. "Did something happen?"
Abe shrugged again, frowning. "I don't know."
He noticed Izumi slanting a look across at them, gaze sharp and bright. But whatever he was thinking, he didn't say anything, so that was no use to Abe at all.
It couldn't be fear. It couldn't, Abe couldn't let that be it. They were better now.
Sure, Mihashi still blanched and quivered when Abe forgot himself and yelled at him, but that was just Mihashi; that was anyone yelling at him. Mihashi trusted Abe; he'd said so, Abe believed him. And anyway, Abe was almost sure that this was new. Mihashi hadn't been responding like this last year. So it wasn't that he was afraid of Abe.
But he was clearly uncomfortable. And Abe didn't understand why. Why did he have barriers with Abe that he didn't have with other people?
Maybe, he thought moodily, it would be simplest if he just remembered not to touch Mihashi unless he had to. There was no point doing something he knew destroyed Mihashi's equilibrium.
The thought was immediately chased by a deep feeling of wrongness. That wasn't it; that wasn't the answer.
He rolled onto his back, staring at his ceiling. The relationship between pitcher and catcher was essentially a physical one. There were other kinds of communication and cooperation involved, but the heart of it was that the pitcher threw the ball and the catcher caught it. They had to be comfortable physically with each other. If they weren't, the trajectory of ball to mitt lost all its certainty. Everything was undercut.
Abe had to make Mihashi comfortable with touching him again.
He rolled over again, punching his pillow.
Maybe it was simple. Maybe whatever Mihashi's mental block was, it could be defeated by inuring him to the effects through repeated exposure.
Abe just had to find reasons to touch Mihashi.
"Abe-kun," Momokan called.
She was watching him over crossed arms.
"Coach," he said, stopping in front of her.
"Is there something wrong between you and Mihashi-kun lately?"
Abe let his mouth tug down on one side. "Yeah," he said. "I think so. I'm working on a way to fix it, though."
She frowned at him for a long moment. "All right," she said finally. "I'll leave it with you for now. Let me know if you need me to step in."
Mihashi jumped and started stuttering when Abe took his hand, scooted nervously sideways in the team meeting until Sakaeguchi, concerned, asked if Mihashi was squashed and needed him to shift over, and froze up so badly in the warm up that Abe had to switch out with Tajima or risk Mihashi injuring himself.
Abe felt as though the cold was creeping further and further inside him.
He'd sworn he wouldn't fuck this up. He didn't even know what he'd done.
Mihashi glanced at Abe and away, nervously. Then he knelt down in a rush to tip his armful of balls into their box.
Abe looked down at the top of his head. His heart twisted in his chest; it felt awful.
"Hey," he said hoarsely, resting a hand in Mihashi's hair. "You did well today." He carded his fingers through the ends of the cornsilk-fine locks.
Mihashi stilled. Abe's blunt fingernails scraped Mihashi's scalp, and Mihashi made a sound in his throat.
With a shock, Abe felt something rearrange itself. That had sounded like ... something else.
Abe didn't know when his heart had started beating so loudly. He was looking at Mihashi, suddenly, in the way Abe never let himself look. At the curve of his cheek, the shiver of his eyelashes over his downcast eyes, the trembling line of his lower back.
Mihashi raised his eyes. They were beginning to swim with tears. But they were also fixed on Abe with that desperate strength that was at the core of Mihashi. The tenacious stillness that enabled him to keep going in the centre of his countless hurricanes.
Abe shifted his hold to Mihashi's hands. His pulse was hammering.
Abe leaned forward instead of trying to find words, his forehead pressed against Mihashi's. They were sharing breaths – he could feel the puffs of Mihashi's quickened breathing, in and out.
Mihashi threaded his fingers in between Abe's, returning his grasp.
Abe pulled back, just a little. Mihashi had squeezed his eyes shut.
Abe, light-headedly certain that this was either exactly the right or exactly the wrong thing to do, leaned down and pressed a clumsy, feather-light kiss against his wet eyelashes.
Mihashi trembled all over and opened his eyes. They fixed on Abe with gale-force intensity.
It hit Abe that he was the slow one here. Mihashi had known, all along, exactly why he shivered and crashed when Abe touched him.
It felt suddenly urgent to make it up to him.
Mihashi leaned up, his face tilted, the slightest and least demanding movement imaginable. Abe tried to take in a deep breath, but his chest only seemed to be allowing him shallow ones. He leaned down anyway and kissed Mihashi on the mouth.
It was a chaste press, their mouths just barely open, but it whited out Abe's thoughts like sheet lightning.
Mihashi shuddered, his mouth shivering under Abe's. His hands tightened on Abe's, and when Abe drew back Mihashi's eyes were wide and wondering.
"A-Abe-kun is amazing," Mihashi whispered.
Abe nearly died of embarrassment. His cheeks flamed and he looked away.
Abe looked back; met his too-bright eyes. He cleared his throat. "Do you want to ride part of the way home together?"
Mihashi straightened like someone had grabbed his strings. "Yeah!"
They had to talk on the way home. Abe had learned his lesson over and over about what happened when they didn't talk about important things, and this – they could go really wrong if they didn't talk about this.
But it felt possible.
Right now he was feeling so light that anything felt possible.