The impact knocks the bucket out of Abe's hand, sending balls rolling in every direction, and the rage that has been building up inside him since April overflows.
This is a bad day for that, because Momokan hasn't managed to secure any training space for most of the day so they’re all stuck doing maintenance work. And it's a bad week, because what he has to call his team lost in the first game of the summer tournament two days ago. And it's a bad year, because his gamble failed and he took his independance from Haruna only to fall on a watered down knock-off of Haruna, with some speed but no control, and little to no pitching experience besides.
Not, all in all, the time to start messing with him. "Watch where you're going, idiot!" he snarls venomously at the moron who just bumped into him.
Who cringes, kneeling on the ground where she apparently fell from the impact. "I'm sorry!" she blurts out, and starts picking the balls closest to her instead of getting up. "I'll help," she stammers, then looks helplessly to the upturned bucket, which she can't reach for with her arms full of baseballs.
Abe feels himself deflate. None of his problems are this girl's fault. It's not right to take it out on her.
He brings the bucket to her. "Thanks," he says, not even entirely reluctantly. But that doesn't seem to be enough for her, because she crawls a couple of meters and grabs another ball and Abe has a sudden flash of what this looks like. "You don't have to do this," he says awkwardly, but she shakes her head quickly and keeps picking up balls at a speed most of Abe's teammates can't reach even on their best days.
So he crouches and starts helping; with two of them doing it, it's over in a couple of minutes. The moment the last ball is in the bucket, she grabs her bag and essentially runs away.
If Abe had given half a thought to it, he would have assumed he’d have been unable to recognize the girl from that ridiculous encounter if he met her again, what with not really seeing her face and not caring very much in the first place.
But when, the next day, Mizutani points out that there’s a girl at the door who seems to be looking at him, and Abe looks up to see nothing but a flash of light brown hair as she disappears, he realizes he remembers at least one defining characteristic about her.
Not that it matters all that much.
Except she comes back. Abe sees her (or the disappearing shadow of her) hovering around the classroom door during the afternoon break, then standing behind the fence throughout afternoon practice, then again the next morning.
“You have a fan,” Mizutani says, grinning way too wide, when Momokan calls for a break.
“Shut up,” Abe snaps, and turns his attention back to Hanai, who still seems more invested in the ridiculous, one-sided rivalry he has going with Tajima than in being the pitcher for this team. Whatever is going on in this girl’s head, Abe has more important problems. But of course, that’s never enough for Mizutani. “Did something happen?” he presses, annoyingly cheerful. “Do you know who she is? Did she confess?”
If there was even a tenth player on this team, Abe is pretty sure he would have murdered Mizutani already. But he doesn’t have that kind of luck.
“I don’t know her, and I don’t care. How about you start working on your batting instead of—”
He’s interrupted by Tajima barelling in, only stopping himself from running right past them by hooking an arm around Mizutani’s neck. “Hmm? What are you guys talking about?”
Abe tries to shut Mizutani up before this escalates, but not fast enough. “Abe has an admirer!”
Tajima glances in the direction Mizutani is pointing at, where… the girl isn’t there anymore, having vanished the moment she noticed someone was paying attention to her. “Oh, Mihashi?”
“You know her?”
“Sure! She’s in our class, right, Izumi?”
Right. Because what this conversation needed was more people in it. Though at least Izumi is as likely to shrug and walk away as he is to partake in this stupidity. “Who is?”
“Mihashi! Mizutani says she’s into Abe.”
Izumi raises an eyebrow, and steps into the circle of gossip. The odds are really not in Abe’s favour today. “Is she?”
Abe feels the beginning of a headache coming. “No, she’s not.” Except that seems the most likely reason why she would be stalking him like this. “I don’t care if she is.”
Which makes Mizutani and Tajima grin at each other, and Izumi show the barest hints of a smirk. “If you say so,” he concedes, doubt dripping from his words like honey. “Come on, guys, break’s almost over.” And Abe would have been grateful for that, for how easily Izumi got rid of the annoying duo, if his own parting words hadn’t been “Hamada knows her, in case you end up caring a little”. Jackass.
But at least they’re gone now, and he can enjoy the two minutes of the break he has left in blissful soli— “Abe-kun?”
“What now?” he snarls, and immediately feels guilty for it. But Shinooka doesn’t cower before him like the Mihashi girl, just takes a step back.
“Uhm, it’s about the balls you brought me for repair yesterday? I found one that wasn’t the same brand as the others, and that looks really old… I don’t think it’s one of ours, so I thought it might be yours?” She hands it to him for inspection, and Abe can see she’s right, but what does it matter? A ball is a ball, and this one is old and worn and not even worth the repairs anymore.
“This is useless,” he says. “Just throw it away.”
“Seriously, why don’t you go talk to her?”
“I have nothing to say to her,” Abe responds without even looking up. It’s lunch on the second day of Mihashi Ayame (first name kindly provided by one Izumi Kousuke, whose reputation for lack of interest in meddling in other people’s affairs is a complete and utter sham) following him around, and he’s beginning to understand why stalking is considered such a huge problem. “What makes you even think she’s here for me?”
“She has been mostly looking at you,” Izumi points out, taking advantage of Mizutani’s distraction to deftly steal a piece of chicken from his bento. Which isn’t something Abe can confirm, because every time he so much as glances her way, she vanishes. It’s unnerving, the way she acts, and Abe wants this whole thing to blow over so he can go back to thinking about nothing but baseball and how he wishes he had a better pitcher to work with.
He’s not above humiliating himself for it. “Fine, so what do you suggest I do?”
Izumi raises both hands in the air. “I think Hamada has a thing for her,” he says flatly, which makes Mizutani grin like all he’s ever wanted in his life was to witness the kind of love triangle that only ever shows up in daytime soap operas. When, exactly, did Abe become responsible for these guys’ entertainment? “I’m not taking sides in this.”
“There are no sides!” Abe bellows, which only serves to make every one in the room stare at him like he’s the crazy person. Mizutani grins and waves at everyone, which is apparently enough incentive for Izumi to steal more food from him. Only Mizutani notices this time, and attempts to foil the pilfering by attacking Izumi’s chopsticks with his own, which obviously ends up with the disputed piece of meat falling to the ground.
“Now look what you’ve done,” Mizutani mourns, pouting piteously.
Izumi rolls his eyes. “You’ll live.”
“You stole my food!” Mizutani protests. “You have to make it up to me.”
Abe hates them both, and not just a little. But at least when they’re trying to stare each other down, locked in a heated battle of wills over a piece of chicken, they’re not bothering him about his inexplicable stalker. Or attacking his food.
Surprisingly, it’s Izumi who relents first. “Fine,” he says, breaking eye contact as he leans back in his chair. Then he turns to Abe. “If she comes to talk to you, will you at least hear her out without biting her head off?”
Abe just looks at him.
Izumi, who just lost a staring contest to Mizutani, looks back, his face set in stone, until Abe gives. “Good luck making that happen,” he mutters.
“But you will?” Mizutani prompts, sounding way too enthusiastic for something that doesn’t concern him. This is ridiculous. The guy needs a life of his own, for real.
“Sure. Whatever.” Anything to get these two off his back (and he should be thankful, really, that Tajima found something else to do than bother him over lunch). It’s not like it’ll ever happen. As far as he knows, the girl is barely even capable of normal speech.
So apparently, Izumi is a miracle worker. Or extremely good at talking to scared animals, because five minutes later he’s back to the classroom door, beckoning him out.
Abe doesn’t even want to look at the stupid grin that must be spreading over Mizutani’s face.
“Be nice,” Izumi hisses as Abe passes him, and is faced with Mihashi, who is looking down, fidgeting, and overall not looking any more eager to talk to him than he is to talk to her. Still, if this can make the whole thing blow over, he will go through this, no matter how awkward or embarrassing.
But not here.
“Come with me,” he says, because it seems like too much trouble asking her where she wants to go. There’s a patch of flowers behind the main building that should be private enough for what is looking increasingly like the first confession Abe is to receive. Mihashi follows him there, remaining five paces behind him no matter how many times he tries to slow down so she can catch up.
When they get there Abe takes a deep breath, and turns to face her.
She’s still looking down, shuffling her feet.
He waits, vaguely wondering whether the two meddlers are watching this.
Something seems to be coming from her, some sort of sound, but he has no idea what it means, if it’s even supposed to be words.
He can’t wait like this forever. His afternoon classes are starting soon. “Did you want to say something to me?”
She jumps back, as though his words physically burned her. But it makes her look up, too, and Abe makes eye contact with this strange, shy, skittish girl for the first time, and she doesn’t look captivated or enamored at all, unlike what Mizutani would have him believe. Really, she just looks terrified.
“Uhm,” she says, which is the first thing approaching a word he’s heard from her since their first encounter. He stands his ground and waits some more as her mouth moves without making a sound. “Baseball,” she manages to stutter out after what feels like hours of this.
“Yeah, I play baseball,” he says, because nothing else comes to mind.
“No, uhm. The baseballs. That time.” Those six words take about fifty seconds to come out. It makes Abe want to grab her by the shoulders and shake the words out.
“What about them?” he asks instead, as patiently as he can.
“I had. I brought.”
It shouldn’t be this easy, but Abe is straining so hard to understand her that it clicks. “Oh! That old one, that was yours?” She looks at him again, then, fear replaced with something like wonder, and okay, it could be that this girl is not uncute. “So you want it back.”
She nods fervently, her wariness of him apparently forgotten.
To his own horror, Abe notices that at some point in this semblance of a conversation he’s hooked a hand behind his neck. He swallows. “I think I know where it is. I’ll get it back to you.”
Unless, he realizes when he gets back to class. Unless Shinooka did what he told her to, and threw it away.
“No, I took it home,” she says. “I left in my bag and forgot about it. Do you need me to bring it back?”
Abe thinks of Mihashi’s wide eyes, and how he’s never met a girl, not even Shinooka herself, who reacted this strongly to baseball paraphernalia. “Yes. Please.”
But this is unlikely to be about baseball, he tells himself later that night, when his thoughts unwillingly drift back to the day’s strange events. She’s attached to the object, but it’s probably because a boy gave it to her or something. It could have been a tennis ball, just the same. But that doesn’t matter. The ball is hers, and she should get it back, no matter how useless it is for playing with.
Shinooka delivers the ball the next morning, not that Abe had had any doubt that she would. The girl is more reliable than half their team combined. Abe takes it, stuffs it in his back, and doesn’t quite forget about it, but doesn’t quite remember that he’d planned on giving it to Izumi to pass on to Mihashi, either. So when he finds it under his fingers while digging blindly for his physics textbook, it makes sense to decide to deliver it himself.
He almost bumps into her again, this time at the midway point between his classroom and hers.
She looks up at him, murmurs something that might be a greeting of some sort.
Abe tries to find something to say, and ends up just proffering the ball, holding it up on his open palm as though he’s giving food to a wounded animal.
She reaches out, hesitantly, to take it from him with the utmost care, without her hand ever touching his again. Abe can’t help a surge of relief, because that’s the end of this weird adventure. The moment she takes it, he’s not involved anymore, and it’s just as well. This girl is strange and wimpy and frustrating.
And then, when she has it, when she is clutching her precious baseball in her hands, Mihashi Ayame looks up to Abe, says thank you without tripping over her own words, and smiles the brightest smile Abe has ever seen before heading back to her classroom.
Twenty seconds later, Abe is still standing there, stunned, when Izumi walks past him on his way to the 1-7 classroom, where he seems to have taken residence lately. “I saw that,” he says, smirking, as he passes Abe.
He saw it, and probably will be telling Mizutani first thing, which means.
This isn’t over.