Abe Takaya listens to the sounds of bats hitting hard balls and he thinks about how it’s probably his favorite sound on this earth.
Regret hits him again, at this point familiar to him as breathing.
So close, he thinks, like he’s been thinking for weeks now. They had been so close to reaching the numbers they needed for a full baseball team. They were just one person away.
Who was he kidding? They might have just needed one more body, but it took more than nine people to make a successful team.
They needed a pitcher. An Ace pitcher. Oki was making do, but it was clear he didn’t really want to be on the mound (and Abe had his fill of pitchers who didn’t want to be on the mound). And in an ideal world, they’d also have an awesome fourth batter. (Hanai was good, but too cocky. Too assured of his own talents without much to challenge him).
Abe sighs and kicks at the dirt. He knew when he came to Nishiura that it was a gamble. It was probably time to admit that he’d gambled and lost.
“That kid is back,” Sakaeguchi remarks, holding his hands above his eyes to protect against the glare from the sun.
“What kid?” Mizutani asks, following Sakaeguchi’s gaze.
“You know, that one that always watches our practice.”
“Oh, yeah. Him. I wonder what school he goes to?”
Abe is only dimly paying attention. He’s noticed the kid before, but since he wasn’t a Nishiura student, Abe immediately dismissed him from thought.
“He must really like baseball,” Mizutani says. “If he’s so desperate he likes watching us play.”
“Hey—isn’t—isn’t he wearing a Nishiura uniform today?” Sakaeguchi asks.
Abe whips his head in the direction of the fence where the kid always stands. He is wearing a Nishiura uniform.
Part of him wants to run over there, grab the kid, drag him to the field and ask him to join the team right then and there. If they only had nine people…
He shakes his head, once again reminding himself that even if they had nine people, it wouldn’t matter if they didn’t have an Ace pitcher.
The kid seems to notice everyone watching. He looks poised to flee.
Momoe catches him. Literally. She comes up from behind the boy and grabs him by the shoulders. They exchange only a few words before she forcibly drags him in field.
“We have a pitcher!” she exclaims.
This causes an instant flurry of excitement. Even Abe’s heart starts beating faster in anticipation but he tries to squash that down. Don’t get your hopes up, he tells himself. You don’t have a pitcher yet.
The kid is tugging out Momoe’s grasp in futile movements, like a butterfly caught in a spider’s web. There’s a frantic look on his face that moves beyond desperation and into genuine fear. Abe has never seen someone more terrified to be on a baseball field.
Disappointment finally replaces hope. Damn. I really want a pitcher.
The boy stops struggling against Momoe’s hold. “…No…good…”
“What was that?” Momoe prompts.
“I’m … not good. My... pitch is…slow.” He keeps his gaze down, very decidedly not looking at anyone. And yet somehow Abe gets the feeling the boy was talking to him, so he takes the chance—any pitcher would be better than no pitcher at all.
“How about we just do some practice pitches?” he suggests. “Just so we can gauge what you need to work on.”
The boy still doesn’t look at Abe. Instead, he looks at the mound. The mound Abe had spent a summer making with his own two hands, wondering what kind of pitcher would play on it (only to have his hopes dashed, no pitcher, no one at all). The boy looks at the mound the same way some guys might gaze wistfully at a movie star.
That decides it. Abe tosses the kid a ball. “No hurt in trying. Show us what you can do.”
The ball hits his glove square in the middle—Abe didn’t have to move at all. It surprises him so much that he moves from an outside shoot to an inside one just on instinct. The ball hits his glove in the middle again.
And again. And again. And again.
Abe gets up and runs, his heart thumping fast again. It doesn’t feel real—he wonders if he’s dreaming. The kid is amazing.
“Why kind of pitches do you have?” he demands.
As the kid slowly motions four breaking pitches, Abe’s heart skips a beat entirely. This guy. I could do anything with a guy like this. We could win it all.
Abe is pretty sure he’s never wanted something so badly in his life as much as he wants this guy for a pitcher.
“You’re a Nishiura student, right? What class are you in? Why didn’t you join the club at the start of the school year?”
The kid nods his head, then shakes it vigorously.
“What does that even mean?” Abe demands.
“I’m… enrolled. But I don’t…come.”
“What?!” Abe yells, causing the boy to crouch down and cover his head. “You have to come! And join our club! And be our pitcher!” Just his luck—the best pitcher he’s ever seen is apparently some hikikkomori.
The kid looks up at “pitcher” and Abe catches sight of golden eyes. Then the kid ducks his head again, making Abe think that maybe he hallucinated them.
“Uh, guys?” Izumi starts.
“Your control is amazing,” Abe bursts out. “With me as your catcher, you could be the best pitcher in the league!”
The kid shakes his head again and starts crying.
Abe takes a step back. “Did I say something mean?”
“Abe,” Izumi says, his voice a little strangled. “I’m pretty sure this is Mihashi Ren.”
“So?” Abe says. The name means nothing to him. When Momoe stiffens Abe looks back at her and realizes the name does mean something to her. The Nishiura team seems split between those who recognize the name and those who, like Abe, are left in the dark.
“Oh,” Momoe says, her voice hitching. It’s like the wind has been knocked out of her. The normally confident, grinning coach is awash with something akin to guilt and tenderness.
“Is he some sort of TV star or something?” Hanai says impatiently. He grabs the boy by the shoulders and forcibly picks him up from the ground. “Do you want to play or don’t you? You come watch our practice all the time! You’re obviously not a complete shut-in! If you’re a Nishiura student, come be our pitcher!”
The boy looks increasingly terrified at each one of Hanai’s shouted words.
Suddenly, Hanai goes lurching forward, as something kicks him in the back. This new force grabs Mihashi by the hand and pulls him out of the group in a whirlwind of movement. A new boy stands protectively in front of Mihashi, glaring death at everyone.
“Don’t bully Mihashi! Anyone who picks on Mihashi has to deal with me!”
The new boy growls in emphasis. The sound sends shivers down Abe’s spine. It’s not a human sound.
The new boy is short—shorter even than Mihashi. With short-cut hair and freckles across his face, he looks like the kid next door, not a threat.
Except he also has pointed wolf-like ears and an angry cat-like tail whipping around, with claws extended from his hands.
Chiyo shrieks, dropping her clip board. Momoe’s dog barks, then shrinks back when the boy growls back.
Abe stares and stares and stares.
They’re at some sort of standstill, no one wanting to make any sudden movements when the dog-cat-boy still looks poised to attack.
Mihashi makes the first movement, tugging on the animal boy’s arm and shaking his head. “Not…bullying.”
The boy’s claws detract and he cocks his head to the side as he looks at Mihashi. “Oh! They weren’t bullying you?” he turns back to the team and addresses Hanai, “I’m sorry for jumping to conclusions.”
“…Pitcher…” Mihashi chirps quietly, eyes fixed to the ground.
“They want you for a pitcher? That’s great, Mihashi!” The boy slaps his friend on the back. “You should play! You deserve to practice somewhere besides your backyard.”
Mihashi shakes his head vigorously.
The dog-cat-boy approaches Momoe (a few of the closest take an involuntary step back, but Momoe holds her ground), “Hey, hey, can I practice with you? I’m really, really good, I promise!”
Momoe strikes a considering pose with a gleam in her eye that anyone who knows her would recognize and instantly back away. “If you’re as good as all that, you can join the team.”
“Really?” the boy says, dog ears pricking forward.
“But you have to come to class. Both of you.”
“Awww,” the boy whines. “I don’t want to.”
“Who are you?” Hanai blurts out. He’s still rubbing his back from where the boy hit him earlier.
“Tajima,” he says. “Tajima Yuuichirou.”
Abe jerks at the name—Tajima Yuuichirou had played in the senior leagues. He was really good, if Abe was remembering correctly. But then he’d disappeared from the leagues for some reason…
It couldn’t be the same Tajima. Abe’s pretty sure he would remember rumors of a dog-cat-boy playing in the league. Also, was anyone going to ask about the dog ears? Abe was tempted to think it was some bizarre cosplay fetish, except the animal appendages are too realistic.
“Why don’t you practice with us for today?” Momoe wheedles. “Then we’ll see about joining the team.”
Abe hones in on Mihashi again. Yes. Practice with us. Be our pitcher. We need you. I need you.
Mihashi lifts his gaze again, meeting Abe’s eyes. Gold eyes stare mutely at him. A moment passes with just them staring at each other. Abe feels like he’s on the brink of some communication other than words.
“No,” Tajima says abruptly, interrupting the moment. He grabs Mihashi’s hand. “It couldn’t ever work.”
He pivots, kicking up dirt as he does so, and pulls Mihashi with him. They exit before anyone even has the chance to process how to stop.
“Dude, is anyone going to mention the tail? I wasn’t the only who saw that, right?” Sakaeguchi asks.
Suyama hits him on the back of the head. “Idiot. That was Mihashi Ren. You know. The boy who was kidnapped two years ago.”
It all comes crashing down on Abe.
Mihashi Ren went missing in Gunma, but his parents had lived in Saitama, so there was a lot of coverage in the local newspapers.
Abe’s father had sat both his sons down and explained to them what happened and he’d warned them about strangers. At the time, Abe didn’t think too much about it. It hadn’t seemed real. Kidnapping was something that happened on the television, not to anyone he knew.
There had been some resurgence in the news a couple months ago about the rescue of some abducted children. There’d been some really crazy rumors, too outlandish to give any credence to so Abe hadn’t.
Now he thinks about gold eyes and the animal boy, and he thinks maybe he should have paid more attention.
Abe’s not an idiot. He knows the lines between “impossible” and “possible” are no longer clear in the world he lives in. The world shifted four years ago when superpowered children escaped the lab they were created in.
But all of that seems so far removed from the world he lives in that it still seems like the stuff of science fiction. Teiko started featuring in the news not that long ago with even crazier information. Now they were saying actual human children had been abducted and experimented on; but even with actual news footage supporting this as fact, it still seemed like something very far away from Abe’s lived experience. Of course he’d heard about it—but it wasn’t something he ever actively tried to learn more about.
“Mihashi Ren is in my class,” Izumi admits. “So is Tajima Yuuichirou. The teacher always calls out their names, but they’re never there. That’s how I knew who they were.”
“I’m surprised they’re even enrolled in high school,” Suyama says. “I mean, if I’d been through all that? I’d probably never leave my house again.”
“Well, clearly they don’t,” Sakaeguchi points out. “Except to watch our practice. Poor kid. I wouldn’t have stared so much if I knew who he was. I hope he comes back tomorrow.”
Not good enough, Abe thinks. It’s not good enough to just have him come back and watch. They need a pitcher. They need that pitcher. And he’s a Nishiura student. Abe would be the worst kind of idiot if he let this chance slip away.
No matter what, he needs to convince Mihashi Ren to come pitch for them.
“You want Mihashi,” Momoe says, calling him after practice to talk to him in private.
“Of course I do!” Abe blurts out. “His control is amazing! If we had him—”
“I agree,” Momoe interrupts. “I think it would be good for everyone if he joined our club. Both of them. But Abe-kun, this isn’t the normal situation, you understand? Those kids—if even half of what they say on the news is true about what was going on in the Teiko labs, then they’ve both been through unimaginable horror.”
Abe thinks he probably should do some research about what they say about Teiko.
All of the sudden, Momoe grabs his hand in hers. “Do you want a pitcher?”
“Yes, I do!” Abe says, flustered into honesty by this woman grabbing his hand.
“Then go to him! Go do to him what I’m doing right now and convince him that he belongs with us.”
She wanted him to… hold Mihashi’s hand?
“Do you understand?” she demands.
“Yes!” Abe says, again responding automatically.
“Good. Take care of him, Abe-kun. He needs you.” She stares at him directly in the eyes just long enough for it to be uncomfortable before releasing him.
Abe goes home after practice and looks up Teiko.
It is quite possibly the worst thing he’s ever read in his life.
If even half of what they say on the news is true…then they’ve both been through unimaginable horror.
No, Momokan. Abe thinks. Half is too much. If even a tenth of this is true, it’s already too much.
Abe feels older just having read about Teiko online. He feels like it’s already too much for him. He spends a fitful night wracked with dreams about the horrors he read about and when he wakes up all he can think about is how much worse it must have been to live it.
The task Momoe put in front of him—go to Mihashi—seems too much for him. It would be easier to pretend he’d never met the boy.
But when he thinks about the ball hitting the center of his glove, over and over again, without him ever moving an inch, he positively aches for how much he wants this boy to pitch for him.
He heaves a giant sigh and gets ready for school.
“He didn’t come back,” Sakaeguchi says during practice, his shoulders slumping.
Abe looks over to the fence where the boy usually stands. It looks incredibly empty with no one there watching.
Momoe stares at Abe.
I know, he thinks. I know.
He gets Mihashi’s address from Shiga-sensei. Abe thinks teachers probably shouldn’t be handing out student addresses so easily, but he suspects Momoe must have talked to him. Shiga was a little too enthusiastic about giving Abe the address.
“I’m glad you’re going over there,” Shiga had praised. “You must convince Mihashi-kun to come to school.”
Abe is a little resentful of all the adults pushing this task on him. “I don’t think I’m the best one for this. Sakaeguchi, maybe—or Izumi.” Someone more friendly, Abe thinks.
“Nonsense. A catcher and a pitcher are supposed to be one body and one mind, isn’t that right? It has to be you.”
So Abe bikes to Mihashi’s house and thinks about how he’s probably the absolute worst person to approach a traumatized boy.
One body, one mind, huh? When has that ever been true?
A gentle but tired looking woman answers the door. She’s visibly taken aback at the sight of Abe—whoever it was she expected at her door it clearly wasn’t him. “Hello? Can I help you?”
Abe swallows. “My name is Abe Takaya. I’m a student at Nishiura. I’m here to see Mihashi?”
“Oh!” She says, looking excited for a split second, but then her face falls. “Are you—a friend of Ren’s?”
“We met at baseball practice,” Abe hedges. It is technically true, even if it’s deliberately misleading.
“Oh, baseball, of course! Please, come in,” she opens the door wider for him. “Would you like some tea? Water?”
“No, thank you. I was hoping to talk to Mihashi for a few minutes.”
A guarded look crosses her face and Abe reminds himself that almost three years ago she lost her son. Just because she got him back again doesn’t mean she’s ready to trust so easily.
“Ren is—Ren isn’t like other boys,” she says apologetically (and Jesus fuck, Abe feels like the worst person in the world, making this woman apologize for her traumatized son). “He doesn’t… do too well, around other people. You probably heard about it…”
“Yeah,” Abe says, feeling like a jerk and really wishing he could back out of this. (Pitcher, he reminds himself. Pitcher with perfect ball control.) “I just thought, maybe—”
he has no idea what he’s even saying, “Maybe he’d like to play baseball with us?”
Are you an idiot? He curses himself. How lame can you get? ‘I just thought your son who was abducted and experimented on by mad scientists might want to play baseball?’ That’s the best you could come up with?
But Mihashi’s mom breaks out into a smile like the sun just came out. “How kind! I bet he would like that! He’s out back practicing by himself. You can try to talk to him, but please don’t take it personally if he doesn’t talk back to you. He’s really not good around people anymore.”
Abe finds Mihashi out back, doing exactly what his mom said he’d be doing—practicing his pitches.
Someone made Mihashi a pitching grid—a three by three grid, confirming Abe’s suspicions about Mihashi after their brief pitch exchange the other day. Mihashi has a nine-square strike area. That’s something very few professional pitchers can manage.
He watches Mihashi pitch, entranced. The ball hits the upper left corner. Then the upper middle. Then the upper right. Abe watches as Mihashi systematically hits every square in order. Abe’s throat goes dry. He can barely believe what he’s seeing.
That’s incredible, he thinks.
Mihashi drops the ball and whirls to where Abe is standing. He flaps around like a startled bird—Abe wouldn’t be surprised if he actually took off flying.
“I’m Abe Takaya,” he introduces himself quickly. “We met yesterday? I’m just here—”
The kid ducks down again, holding his hands to his ears.
Great Takaya, he yells at himself some more. You made things worse. What was Momokan and Shiga thinking? Izumi should be here, or Sakaeguchi or Oki or anyone but you. This will never work.
Mihashi looks like he’s trying to hide himself in his shirt, like a turtle or snail.
Abe says the first thing that comes to mind.
“Can you hit the left middle corner?”
Mihashi blinks at him, gold eyes fixed on Abe. The smaller boy unfurls and stands up again, fixed on his practice board. He throws the ball and hits the left middle corner.
“Now the bottom right,” Abe orders.
Mihashi hits the bottom right. Abe barks out a few more directions and Mihashi hits every one.
I want this pitcher! Abe howls to himself. Mihashi jumps like someone just put ice cubes down his back and then stares at Abe, head titled.
“You’re amazing,” Abe says, because what pitcher doesn’t like praise? He walks forward and grabs Mihashi’s hand, like Momoe instructed. “Come be our pitcher! As long as you do as I tell you, I can make you into a true Ace!”
Mihashi’s eyes widen but then he shakes his head. “…Impossible…”
“Why is it impossible?” Abe demands, making the boy cringe some more. Abe curses himself and says, “You want to pitch, don’t you?”
He can feel Mihashi’s hand—it’s calloused all over. He must have practiced endlessly for his hands to get like this. Abe grips the hand tighter.
“I love… pitching,” Mihashi says. “But I’m… no good. You’ll… hate me… like... Mihoshi…”
Mihashi’s middle school? What did they have to do with this?
“And…school…” Mihashi continues. But he doesn’t say anything after that, so Abe has no idea what he means.
“Look, I’m not a mind-reader,” Abe says, fed up. This pronouncement sends a flinch down Mihashi’s entire body and the other boy tugs away like he’s trying to escape. Abe holds on tighter. “I can’t understand you if you don’t talk to me. You have the best control of any pitcher I’ve seen! I like you. Not just as a pitcher, but as a person! I want to form a battery with you!”
Mihashi’s hand finally warms and he grips onto Abe. “I like Abe-kun, too!”
Abe looks away, feeling embarrassed. “So you’ll come to school? And join our club?”
Mihashi glances away, looking like he wants to run.
He was abducted, Abe reminds himself. He was missing for almost two years and who knows what happened to him. It’s hardly surprising the kid wouldn’t want to go out in public.
“I’ll keep you safe,” Abe promises suddenly. “No matter what, I won’t let anything happen to you.”
Mihashi meets his gaze. The two stare at each other for a very long time. It really should be more awkward, considering they’re still holding hands. But all Abe can think about is, I will makes this guy the best pitcher in Japan, I’ll keep him safe, we’ll win everything, I’ll make sure he never regrets it, I’ll protect him, he’ll be our pitcher.
“OK,” Mihashi says. “I’ll…come.”
“You will? You promise? That’s great!” Pitcher, Abe thinks. We have a pitcher. Finally. A good pitcher.
On the way home, Abe feels successful and excited but also apprehensive.
He hadn’t just looked up Teiko last night, he’d read up on Mihashi’s abduction from Gunma over two years ago.
Abe’s not sure what to think about the fact that in all of Mihashi’s pictures from that time, the boy’s eyes had been hazel.