Chapter 1: Irritation
Koushuu took a scorebook from the stack that Ono-senpai pointed for him earlier, and stared at it, lost in thought. His performance in the practice match against Seiho has impressed the head coach, apparently, and he was told to prepare for playing in the summer tournament. He should have been glad, happy even; but all he could think of was Ono's screwed face as the older catcher tried to hold back tears of frustration. Koushuu happened to like Ono: he was calm, reserved and yet easy to approach. He wasn't stingy for advice and Koushuu thought he made an excellent reserve catcher for the team. He didn't like the way he had to replace him.
"You have to get acquainted with all the data we have on other teams. We always end up facing Ichidai-san, Inashiro or Yakushi in the end, but we don't know the exact tournament grid yet, so start with last year scorebooks: it will help you get an idea of their game style," Ono suggested. He took tutoring him and Yui seriously, eager to compensate for his trauma in any possible way.
Shuffling sound behind his back distracted Koushuu from his thoughts. He glanced over his shoulder to find Yui reading the tags on the collection of match videotapes.
"It's strange," the smaller boy mused aloud, "I can't find last summer's final match, the one against Inashiro. Some of the later practice matches are missing, too."
Koushuu pursed his lips, displeased. He didn't like Yui at all: being forced to study together left a sour taste in his mouth. The shorty was entitled and arrogant from the start, and while Seidou gave him something of a reality check, he still carried himself like he was better than the rest of the first years.
"Maybe one of senpais took them to study," Yui added, looking at Koushuu with that annoying little smile of his, "let's ask Ono-san about it when he's back from the clinic"
Koushuu nodded silently, keeping his face impassive. He tucked the scorebook he chose under his arm and went to his room.
Miyuki was there when he entered, and so was Sawamura. The pitcher gravitated to the captain even more these days, spending almost all his free time around him. Koushuu didn't understand their friendship. In fact, he haven't even caught on at first that these two were close off the diamond, and only Seto's observations allowed him to make sense of that weird relationship. That and living with Miyuki-senpai, as the pitcher was becoming a frequent visitor.
He quietly settled on his bed, twisting the reading lamp to illuminate the pages of last summer's chronicle. Sawamura paid him no mind; he was engrossed in yet another of his shoujo mangas, sprawled on the floor with Miyuki's pillow and sniffing occasionally. The latter seemed busy with his homework, humming under his nose as he did maths problems. Koushuu shook his head and dove into the scorebook.
He didn't notice the time pass, fascinated by statistics. It was peculiar how Sawamura tended to be subbed in at the toughest moments even a year ago, while having little control over his fastballs and no breaking balls to speak of at all. More peculiar was the fact that it worked, confusing the enemy batters and bringing the team back on the track. He chewed on his lip, glancing up. Sawamura has finished the manga, apparently, and was chatting with Miyuki now, perched on his desk and fiddling with a baseball. At some point the catcher scowled at his textbook and closed it with a snap, leaning back and flexing his muscles. He almost overbalanced the chair, but Sawamura caught his shirt, cackling merrily.
"Oi, Okumura!" Miyuki called, ignoring the mocking, "we're going for the vending machines. Need something?"
He wordlessly shook his head. Miyuki was pleased with him lately, either for his improved treatment of Sawamura or for his performance as a reserve catcher since Ono's trauma; he showed it by offhand gestures of care like this, and Koushuu wasn't sure how to deal with it. From the very first meeting, annoyance and respect for Miyuki clashed inside him; since Seto has given him a lecture on respecting senpai after the Mess Hall Incident, and considering that Miyuki never abused his status - on the contrary, even - Koushuu was grudgingly beginning to admit he might have been unfair to antagonize him so much. He didn't want to look unreasonable when Furuya and Sawamura juggled their friendship and rivalry just fine. That was another thing he hadn't expected; Seidou kept upturning his world every day.
Senpais left, and Koushuu rubbed his eyes before returning to the page before him. He has just finished deciphering the Yakushi match and was about to start on Inashiro game, when Yui's words from earlier floated up in his mind. He'd have to ask Miyuki about the tapes when he comes back.
Once again, as he focused on the data before him, he tried to visualize the game in his head, trying to imagine what made the battery choose this or that call.
Something was off with the team on that day, he could feel it in his bones.
He frowned. Furuya was doing great until the fourth inning, where he let a runner on base and started straining. In the fifth, the mound was given to the third year ace, Tanba, who soon started struggling as well. A home-run left him shaken and he surrendered four walks in two innings. Notes on the margin indicated medical timeout, and once again, among no doubt somber mood, Sawamura was summoned to the field.
Koushuu tried to imagine how it must have felt, and shivered uncomfortably. What would he call for from an inexperienced pitcher with limited repertoire? He looked at the notes.
A strikeout on three consecutive fastballs to the inside.
He had to watch the video.
A shadow of Sawamura's current aura of an ace was clearly visible in the rows of digits on the paper. In the top of the eighth inning Seidou's batter lineup exploded, overturning the scales. In the bottom, Sawamura held off Inashiro's batters, not allowing any runners. And yet... He scanned the notes. Bottom of the ninth, two outs... A deadball. A change in pitchers. Loss.
Koushuu gave a long exhale and put the scorebook away. It wasn't enough. He definitely needed to ask Miyuki for that tape.
However, by the time Miyuki returned to the room, alone, Koushuu was already in bed and drifting off.
The next morning, as has become almost a routine, they were woken up at dawn by an overenthusiastic Sawamura. He climbed into Miyuki's bunk and tried to convince him to run laps together, only to end up rolled in a blanket and squashed under the sleepy catcher's weight. Koushuu carefully tuned out the protests, which sounded suspiciously pleased, and tried to go back to sleep.
The sound of his alarm clock made him growl under his breath; it felt like barely any time has passed since Sawamura's intrusion. Koushuu turned the thing off, violently, and gathered his bathroom necessities. Senpais made no motion to follow; he shrugged and left the room. Miyuki was scheduled to work with reserve pitchers today, while Sawamura had a no-throwing day because of the last practice game slotted in just before summer camp. Must be the reason he ruined our sleep today, Koushuu thought grumpily, spitting the toothpaste into the sink. He mentally checked over his own plans for the day. Yui was working with Furuya, and he had to catch for Kawakami-san. Maybe instead of talking to Miyuki, he could ask the sidearm about last year game - he seemed like a pleasant person to work with, mature, yet easily approachable - like Ono-senpai. His pitches were interesting, especially that sinker, and he had a solid presence on the mound, safely closing game after game. Koushuu let his mind drift on the possible pitch sequences he could use with him, and went to breakfast.
They were wrapping up the bullpen practice when Koushuu finally had a chance to ask Kawakami-san that one particular question. Miyuki was busy talking to Toujou-san and paid no attention to their corner, while Furuya was helping Yui to get off the gear.
"Kawakami-senpai," he called, "do you know where I can find the videotape for the final game of last summer tournament?"
He scrambled after the ball when the third year pitcher startled and fumbled the throw.
Everyone in the bullpen was staring at him when he retrieved it and stood up, lifting his helmet.
"Sorry," Kawakami-san said, embarrassment coloring his cheeks. He looked distinctly uncomfortable as Koushuu wandered close and handed the ball to him, so he decided to elaborate.
"I was studying the scorebooks to get a feel for other schools' tactics. That game looked... strange, so I wanted to look at the video, but it wasn't with the others."
"It was a close game," the pitcher said softly, a shadow falling over his gentle face, "But in the end, it wasn't enough. We failed the senpai, and the kouhai, too. Please don't ask Sawamura about it. Miyuki will tell you everything you need."
He glanced to the side, where said catcher was already standing, clearly listening.
"Thank you, Nori," he said, and caught Koushuu's eye with a calculating expression. "I will report to the coach now. We'll talk after dinner. Toujou, mind distracting Sawamura for an evening? I don't want him around for this explanation."
"Of course, Captain." The blonde replied, looking worried. "I'll tell Kominato, too."
Miyuki nodded at them, his eye lingering on Koushuu's face. Somehow, he felt like he overstepped some kind of a line, and the mystery around it irritated him to no end. Why was everyone so goddamn vague about it?
Miyuki beckoned him after dinner, as promised. They went to the club room, where all the other tapes were stored. He wanted to remark that he already looked there, but stilled his tongue. Miyuki had to know what he was doing, right? They entered and went straight to the bookcase. Nothing changed since the last time he and Yui had been there. In the neat rows of labeled tapes, the summer ones were missing. He opened his mouth to point it out when Miyuki rose on tiptoes and reached up.
There was a nondescript cardboard box on the top shelf, with no tag visible. Miyuki took it and passed it over to Koushuu, almost reluctantly.
"I suppose it will be better if you know how it looks like, in case -" he stopped, looking down, and sighed heavily, "Just in case."
Koushuu blinked at him, mind blank, and studied the box. It was actually labeled on the top, in thick black marker: Sawamura's yips.
He stared at the letters, uncomprehending. Sawamura's what?
Miyuki's lips were pressed in a grim line.
"It started after that deadball in Inashiro game. He couldn't pitch to the inside with the batter in the box. We haven't realized for too long. It was... bad, after we did. I think it was my biggest failure, as a catcher, that I wasn't able to either prevent it or recognize timely." He paused, lost in the reminiscence. "I don't mind if you surpass me in this aspect. I want to leave my pitchers in your care with confidence when the summer ends. Look through this, and then we can discuss it."
Koushuu stood shell-shocked, as Miyuki clapped his shoulder and left. Finally, he looked at the box in his hands. He opened the lid and peeked inside. The missing match tapes were all there, along with photocopies of corresponding score-sheets and a report of some kind. There also was a tape labeled 'form deviation'. He closed the lid again. Miyuki's parting words left him dazed. He couldn't make sense of the mess of feelings inside of him. Moreover he didn't even know where to start when it came down to this new piece of knowledge about Sawamura.
It probably wasn't surprising that in minutes, he ended up in Seto's room, trying to explain to his friend what incident left him this rattled. Taku always was his emotional anchor.
Chapter 2: Hindsight
1) I made minor edits to the first chapter. It doesn't hinder the understanding of this one, but you might want to re-read it^.^
2) I assume Kuki lives with Kanemaru and Seto. I think it was mentioned somewhere in the manga but I can't remember where. If i remembered this little not-really-plot-significant fact wrong, please tell me)
Seto brought him chocolate milk and patiently waited for him to collect his thoughts in a semblance of order. Koushuu sat, staring at the box in his lap, dreading the secrets that lied within. He was quite content knowing that Sawamura was a moron, if an effective and somewhat sly one, so he didn't want to discover he was actually some kind of tragic hero. He seethed at the thought. And Miyuki! How dare he say all that! It's like he didn't feel threatened by him at all, like he expected him to humbly follow in his steps like a dutiful little minion!
He squeezed the empty milk carton and launched it at the bin. Seto eyed him, the corners of his mouth curling upwards. Koushuu glared back. It did nothing but widen his friend's smirk, and Koushuu morosely thought that it was foolish to expect otherwise. They have been friends since kindergarten: it was hard to get intimidated by someone if said someone used to be afraid of the dark and climbed into your cot to hold your hand in the sleep.
They still shared the bed occasionally when Seto came over. For some reason, it was just... comfortable.
"Well..." Seto raised a brow expectantly, "What Sawamura did this time?"
They ended up watching the tapes right there in Seto's room.
Koushuu thought he was prepared, having read the scorebook, but no notes could convey the atmosphere of tension between two powerhouse schools, the drama of an ace crumbling on the mound due to a leg cramp and trying to keep the stoic image for the sake of his teammates.
Koushuu watched the grim faces of Inashiro batters as they focused on sweating Sawamura, and the pitcher looked so small, his face tight-lipped and eyes wide, as he striked out his last batters before that awful deadball. Seto gasped when the ball hit Inashiro's shortstop in the head, knocking him off his feet. Koushuu felt his hands go cold as the red-head laughed viciously and pumped his fist in the air. On the screen, Sawamura stood frozen, staring down with unseeing eyes, muttering apologies and not responding to anyone.
"Fuck," murmured Seto, and Koushuu couldn't think of a better word to describe this. They finished watching the game in silence, an image of the team members crying openly lingering in their minds.
"I can't believe you asked Kawakami-senpai about this game," Seto said finally. "That's like outright saying 'I'm an asshole and I don't care 'bout people's feelings', y'know?"
Koushuu shrugged. He didn't think it was that bad, but maybe Seto had a point. Senpai likely blamed himself for the enemy's winning hit.
"In my defense, even Sawamura has gotten over that disaster by now, and he's supposed to have suffered an actual yips"
"Don't even get me started on you and Sawamura-senpai, man. He's a weirdo, but he's nice. You'd know that if you actually talked to people."
Koushuu huffed. He didn't think Sawamura was mean, per se, but the idiot had to be told when his antics were inappropriate. Even if the rest of the team was lenient in that matter and sometimes encouraged it.
"I want to see how the yips affected his form. Give me that tape," he said, ignoring the jibe.They didn't have much time before Kanemaru-san and Kuki's return. They won't be able to watch all the other related games this evening anyway, so he might as well have a look at the most relevant recording.
Seto pressed play and the screen lit up again. Field A bullpen appeared, light rain blurring the image a little. Coaches stood on one side, Miyuki sitting at the home plate in the crouch. "Capture his form properly, Kariba," coach Kataoka said, and the camera shifted, focusing on Sawamura, who was waiting for a command on the other side. The pitcher looked worn, dark circles prominent under his dim eyes.
Somehow, Koushuu didn't think that goofball of a person could ever be depressed, but this quiet pale doppelganger who tried and failed to imitate Sawamura's usual cheeky grin was proving him wrong. He watched as the pitcher threw a shaky inside pitch while the batter's box was empty, and then, as coach Kataoka stepped onto the plate, his form wavered, face twisting in a grimace of desperation, and the ball flew wild, missing the zone entirely. Koushuu glanced at Sawamura's bowed head and closed fist and turned the video off.
They sat in silence for a few minutes.
"Damn." Said Seto finally.
"Yeah," Koushuu agreed. Suddenly a memory struck him: the fall tournament, and the stands exaggeratedly cheering the pitcher for a strikeout on an inside pitch. He grimaced.
Before that game, Sawamura pitched fully knowing he had no options but low outside. He stood on the mound, half-crippled by yips, and he got those outs against the strongest schools of the block. Koushuu felt the overwhelming need to hit something. Why he couldn't help but admire the guy more and more?! It was driving him insane.
He started putting everything back in the box with jerky movements. Everything was fucking unfair. He came to this school basically on a whim--
Lies, his mind supplied, you wanted to see what it's like playing baseball with the people who find it fun even on the highest level.
He pursed his lips, gripping the lid of the box and staring into nothing. He still didn't understand why Miyuki Kazuya often laughed on the field, especially when partnered with Sawamura. But he remembered the thrill of calling for those crazy pitches and having them land safely in his mitt, enemy batter after enemy batter returning to the dugout confused and frustrated; it made a grim satisfaction bloom in his stomach. Every successful out brought him closer to Miyuki's pedestal.
Maybe one day, when he finally snatches it from under the captain's feet, he'll be able to smile, too.
He blinked, turning to Seto, and paused. His friend looked to the floor in melancholy, picking the carpet with his index finger.
"We don't know anything about our senpai, do we?" He said, glancing at Koushuu absently. "We're wandering blindly in the dark and it's a miracle nobody from our year stepped on some old wound yet."
"Stop talking poetry, you're creeping me out," Koushuu grumbled. "What are you being so dramatic for?"
"Oi! You calling me dramatic is not allowed, man. I mean haven't you been curious about our senpai? What were they like last year an' stuff? I wonder how this team changed them, you know? How it will change us."
I wonder, too, Koushuu didn't say, gathering his things and leaving. Tomorrow afternoon was free; he'd watch the rest of the tapes and read the report. Right now he needed to swing his bat a little and let off the steam.
"I still think that hit was an accident", Miyuki said, rubbing his nose and pushing the glasses up. "I'm pretty sure he was waiting for some other pitch. Ball almost crossed the foul line, it stopped only because the ground was wet."
Sawamura huffed and crossed his arms.
"There was a tiny hole there and he totally targeted it! That was a bunt-hit!"
"Well, even you have been surprisingly good with your batting lately, Bunt Guru-sama," Miyuki smirked. "Makes sense that other people get lucky now and then~"
"Argh! Miyuki Kazuya! Can't you ever compliment someone without mocking them at the same time?!"
"Last time I did, you didn't even believe me. Why should I even try?" the catcher asked, sounding genuinely curios.
Sawamura froze, mouth agape, and stared at him.
"Why should you try?!" he wailed, grabbing a fistful of Miyuki's shirt and shaking him up. "What you should is actually do it more, you stupid tanuki! Then maybe one day people will start taking you seriously!"
"Oho?" Miyuki chuckled, "Are you a compliment guru as well?~"
He leaned into Sawamura while saying it, and the pitcher blushed furiously and snatched his hand away, as if burned. Miyuki's grin widened and he placed an arm over his shoulders, pulling Sawamura into his side.
"Now, why don't we go and have a nice long soak in the bath? And later we can watch today's match together, hmm?"
They stalked away in the general direction of showers, Sawamura's face steadily growing red and cat-eyed. He didn't attempt to break free, though, even when Miyuki practically draped over him.
Seto watched their retreat with a calculating look.
"Do you think they... y'know..." he hesitated, and startled when Kuramochi-san clapped him on the back.
"Let the morons be, Seto. Great for the team when the battery's close, ne?"
Seto gulped and nodded vigorously, as Kuramochi grinned evilly and waved a goodbye with his usual stupid laugh.
Koushuu finished putting away the gear and sat on the bench. He didn't get a chance to play today, but that was, unfortunately, to the best. He couldn't concentrate at all. All he could do was stare at Sawamura and think. Words other people said about the pitcher kept coming back to him, new meaning suddenly evident in omissions and offhand remarks.
Eijun gave even me plenty of encouragement, Furuya had said, watching Sawamura pitch with Koushuu at his side. And I've been watching him trying his hardest all this time... So the words I said to him after the game against Hakuryuu, 'nice pitching', came out naturally. Koushuu didn't miss his rueful gaze and thought it was an admission of defeat; but maybe he meant something else entirely? How did their rivalry get affected by Sawamura's yips? That was the time Furuya was given the ace number - did he say something he now regretted?
"Damn Taku and his stupid bout of melodrama," Koushuu muttered under his breath, stomping to his room to get a change of clothes.
"Okumura-kun!" A disgustingly bright voice called. "Okumura-kun, wait!" Yui Kaoru caught up with him, saccharine smile on his baby face.
Koushuu stopped and looked at him silently.
"Did you get those missing tapes from Miyuki-san last night? Can I watch them too?"
"You can have them when I'm done. Just ask Miyuki yourself." He started walking again, but Yui kept following.
"Why don't we watch them together? I'd like to hear your opinion on the plays, it will be interesting to discuss, don't you think? And we can occupy my room, Ono-Senpai and Furuya-senpai wouldn't mind,"
Koushuu gritted his teeth. "I prefer to watch those tapes alone. I'm halfway through them, anyways. Just wait until tomorrow and you can have them all for yourself." He picked up the pace, leaving a peeved Yui behind. He felt a petty satisfaction when the brat didn't try to follow him again.
"Sheesh, Koushuu, next time you wanna hide, just send me a text so i'd know you are alive, at least. I only found you here by accident, you oblivious prick, and I was worried!"
Seto punched his shoulder and sat next to him with a heavy sigh. A warm gust of wind picked up the strands of his fringe and blew them back. Koushuu glanced at the crease on his forehead and sighed, too.
"What could possibly happen to me on the school grounds?"
"I don't know, man, yourself maybe?" Seto retorted, voice dripping with sarcasm. "So, are you mad, or depressed, or what? Why'd you go and disappear on me suddenly?"
Koushuu shook the hot chocolate can in his hands to see if there was anything left. No such luck. He put it on the seat next to him and leaned back, looking at the moon.
"I don't know," he said. Seto looked at him, waiting patiently.
He'd missed dinner and was probably going to have an earful for it later, but he just couldn't face Sawamura in that room today. He remembered their clash when the older boy pestered Asada, and the words he said seemed theatrical and fake, just like his old traitor of a coach's usual ramblings; now, though, with the context of yips and triumphant recovery from it, they rang with the deep personal meaning.
When you're at your limit and about to give up, instead of saying 'I can't take this anymore' try saying to yourself 'I still can take more'!
That's just what kind of person Sawamura was, holding on to his dream and working hard to break his limitations. That's why he inspired everybody so much, a living example of the results of the attitude he preached.
He realized, with sudden clarity, that he didn't want to try and change Sawamura's antics anymore. It wasn't what the team needed. Furuya's words came to him once again. He brightens up the team's mood, and he's always eager to prove himself. I guess it's the pitcher like him that the team sought.
"I have a lot to work on to make a successful battery with Sawamura-senpai," he added after what felt like a couple minutes of silence. Seto's glasses glinted in the dark when he shifted to look at him closer.
"Are you sure you're okay? That was awful lot like respect I heard in your voice, to Sawamura-senpai no less"
Koushuu elbowed him with a hiss. "Shut up."
"Whatever, man. And you're no stranger to hard work, Koushuu. You'll be fine. Maybe not immediately, but you know what to do now, don't you?"
He nodded in response, then grunted when Seto clapped him on the back.
"Now let's return to the dorms. I asked them to pack your meal and put it in the fridge. No skipping food on my watch, ha-ha!"
"I hate you," Koushuu groaned, but his stomach growled in appreciation.
Tomorrow was the first day of the summer camp. From what he heard, it was brutal. Just what he needed to clear his head and catch up to senpais.