His shoulders heaving, a bead of sweat slowly made its way down the tip of his nose. The heat had solidified and was so overwhelming, he could almost touch it. The crowd was screaming incomprehensibly; the cheering squad was blowing their horns; the band's trumpets were raised toward the sky as the brass sound clearly rang down to the mound.
His eyes glanced at the scoreboard. Bottom of the 9th, Seidō High leading 4-3. Two outs, but the bases were loaded with a full count. Inashiro wasn't a national-level team for nothing, as shown by how far they'd pushed Seidō's pitchers. While Furuya had done his best, he'd started getting hit the second time around through the lineup, and after giving up two hits and then two walks in a row in the bottom of the 6th inning, Furuya had been switched out.
Since taking over, he'd managed to shut out their lineup up until now, but due to a fielding error, a batter had managed to get on base. The next batter had bunted, advancing the runner, and then the lineup had come back around to the leadoff batters who'd lived up to their name by hitting grounders and getting on base. If he could shutout the current batter—their cleanup, who was currently glaring daggers at him from the batter's box—Seidō would win and advance to the nationals at Kōshien. If he walked the batter—or worse, got hit—Inashiro would tie the score and even if they didn't score again, they would go into extra innings.
It was almost like his first year all over again. Back then, he'd faced off against Shirakawa and lost to the pressure. With a hit-by-pitch, he had allowed Inashiro a runner on base and helped kickstart their momentum which would ultimately lead to Seidō's turnaround loss.
But he was different now from who he'd been two years ago. He could feel the acute stares of his teammates on his back, could feel the weight of the number 1 on his back, could feel the piercing gaze of a certain person who he knew must be watching from the stands...
He breathed in deeply, and then locked gazes with Okumura, who held the mitt out from the catcher's box.
"Give me your best pitch," Okumura signaled.
He nodded and raised his glove to his face, concentrating on the batter standing before him. If anything, at least the loaded bases meant he didn't have to worry about anyone stealing a base. It was just him and the batter. This one batter who stood in the way between him and Kōshien. Between him and...
He coiled his body, raising his front foot.
As if I'd let him.
Slamming his foot down on the mound, he released the ball. The batter swung. And...
"STRIKE! BATTER OUT!"
The crowd leapt to their feet and exploded into applause and cheers. His teammates were screaming, running towards him with wild, gloriously happy looks on their faces. Back in the dugout, to his surprise, tears were streaming down the assistant director's face.
"THE GAME ENDS WITH A GREAT PITCH BY SEIDŌ'S ACE! AS THE WINNER OF THE 120TH WEST TOKYO TOURNAMENT FINALS, SEIDŌ ADVANCES TO KŌSHIEN FOR THE FIRST TIME IN 8 YEARS!"
Even as he was swarmed by his teammates, his eyes swept the cheering stands, looking for the one face that mattered to him the most: The person he'd thrown that ball for—the person who should have been there to catch it.
But before he could find him, his teammates had buried him, blocking his view. With a shrug, taking comfort in the thought that they could celebrate together later, he let himself revel in the sheer sweet exhilaration of victory.
After lining up and shaking hands with the despondent Inashiro team and then standing through a fancy closing ceremony, they raced back to the dugout to collect their equipment. Laughing and clamoring loudly amongst each other, he was about to leave with the others when the assistant coach called out to him to stay behind. Waving off Haruichi to go ahead of him, he turned towards her.
She had stopped crying, but her eyes were still red.
"Hey hey, why were you crying?" he asked, grinning. "We won!"
"Sawamura..." said Rei seriously.
The grin slid off his face. "What's wrong?"
"I'm sorry. I don't want to ruin this moment for you, but I know you'd want to know."
She told him, and for a long minute that seemed to stretch for an eternity, he didn't respond. And then –
"You must be joking," he said in a flat voice.
"I'm sorry," she repeated helplessly.
It was silent except for the distant ongoing roaring of the crowd, which was beginning to sound like a sick joke. Then there was a clanking sound as the bat he'd been carrying on his back slid off his shoulder and clattered on to the ground. With a thump, his baseball cap followed, slipping from his hand. The last to go was the winning baseball he'd been tightly clutching in his other hand. That too, fell to the ground.
Turning on his heel, Eijun left the dugout without looking back.
Haruichi was starting to feel rather light-headed from the rising fumes of the incense, but he didn't move from his seiza position.
If he looked around, everyone including him was wearing black. Except for the occasional hushed murmuring and suppressed sobbing, it was quiet. And if he looked up at the centerpiece of the arranged flowers...
It was unreal looking up at the face in the portrait and realizing that this was it. Haruichi almost expected the older boy to suddenly appear around the corner with a sly smile on his face and reveal that it was some elaborate trick. It just didn't seem possible that someone as—well, talented and intelligent as him could be gone forever.
But then again, it hadn’t seemed possible at the time either for Miyuki-senpai to not be able to play baseball anymore...
On his right, Kuramochi shifted and got to his feet. With reddened eyes, he bowed once in the direction of Miyuki's portrait and then left the room.
Among the Seidō baseball team, Kuramochi had been one of the ones hit hardest with the news. He'd been vice captain while Miyuki was captain, and following Miyuki's accident in the fall tournament, had taken over as captain. And before that, they'd always been the closest to each other in personality and often hung out together in their classroom.
However, if Haruichi had to say, the one who'd been hit hardest had to be Eijun.
Their ace pitcher had been sitting on Kuramochi's other side, and with Kuramochi having left, Haruichi could now see him. He was in the exact same position as he'd been two hours ago when the wake began: His hands were on his lap, his back was straight, and his eyes bored directly in front of him—the perfect textbook seiza, which was in and of itself unusual for Eijun.
His face was blank and motionless, and if Haruichi hadn't known better, he'd have thought that it was Eijun's death they were mourning that day. But no—ever so imperceptibly, his chest was slowly rising up and down with every breath he took.
To be honest, Haruichi did not completely understand Eijun and Miyuki's relationship with each other.
Sure, Eijun had once said in passing that he had initially come to Seidō in hopes of forming a battery with Miyuki. The ex-catcher had also acknowledged Eijun's potential every now and then, giving him tips and helping him practice pitching. For the most part however, Miyuki had been Furuya's catcher because Furuya had been the team's ace the fall of their first year. Following that, because of Miyuki's accident, they hadn't had the chance to form a battery.
And yet, Eijun had been one of Miyuki's most frequent visitors while he was in the hospital. When Miyuki came back to school, he'd occasionally come by to the baseball field to give pointers to Eijun. Perhaps as a consequence, Haruichi had often seen Eijun practicing his pitches late into the night, driven to improve even more than before. Clearly, some sort of bond had formed between the two at some point—a bond strong enough to push Eijun beyond his limits.
To everyone's amazement, Eijun's growth surpassed even their wildest expectations, significantly increasing in both speed and control while retaining their natural erratically moving motion. By the end of the fall tournaments, everyone in the West Tokyo region knew his name. They'd started calling him the best southpaw in the region and the second Narumiya, the latter of which annoyed the pitcher to no end.
And finally, just a few days ago, Seidō had defeated their long-time rival Inashiro in the West Tokyo finals, to advance to Kōshien...
But judging by the cold, emotionless expression that looked so out of place on Eijun's face, Haruichi wasn't sure if their ace pitcher was ready to step foot on the baseball diamond anytime soon.
It was only after he'd gotten inside the shower and turned on the hot water, that Eijun let himself go. As soon as the water began pounding down on him, his shoulders began to heave and a loud sob tore itself from his lips, echoing through the stall. The tears streaming down his face mixed with the heavy water pouring down from the showerhead. Raising a hand, he wiped away some of the snot and slime coming out of his nose, not caring about how he must look like at the moment.
If Miyuki had been there, he'd probably have laughed in that snarky way of his and told him he looked absolutely pitiful.
But even thinking about what could've been—what should've been—made it worse, and he cried and cried until there was nothing left to come out, and then it was just the water, which had turned cold a long time ago.
All the strength in his legs had gone, and he let himself fall to the floor of the shower stall. Naked and cold, he curled up into fetal position, shivering, feeling the water poking down sharply on his back.
"You're coming to see us play, right?"
He'd called Miyuki the night before the final game against Inashiro. There'd been a brief pause. And then –
Eijun had let out a breath he hadn't even realized he'd been holding. Despite how easygoing and relaxed Miyuki had seemed every time he came over to the field to coach him, he knew how hard it had been for the ex-catcher. It must have been agonizing to see everyone else working hard to achieve their dream of Kōshien, knowing that he could never be a part of the team again.
"Can you do it?" Miyuki's voice had interrupted him in the middle of his reverie. "Can you lead Seidō to Kōshien?"
"Yes," Eijun replied without hesitation.
"I... I wish you were catching for me." He knew it wasn't fair of him to say it, but he couldn't help feeling the way he did. And he wanted Miyuki to understand.
A long pause.
"Okumura is a good catcher."
Another long pause.
"I'll be watching tomorrow. Throw your best pitches."
"I will." Eijun hesitated, and then added in a halting voice, "I'll be throwing them to you in my mind."
Miyuki had laughed then, and then hung up. And that had been the last time they'd talked—would be the last time they ever talked.
It haunted him—the memory of Miyuki's last laugh. No matter how hard he tried, Eijun couldn't tell if it had been Miyuki's usual laugh, or if there had been something else in it.
He was starting to grow light-headed. His body was cold as ice, but at some point he had stopped shivering.
If you exist, this is the first and last time I'll ever ask you for anything.
Dazed, he watched the stream of water continue to pound down on the water around his face. The light was starting to fade.
I can't deal with this. I don't need anything else. I don't care what happens. I don't care about Kōshien. I just want to hear it one more time –
Eijun's eyes snapped open.
It was dark, and for a second he wondered if he was lying down on the bench in the dugout, before he realized that he was far too comfortable for that to be true.
He rose up, and his bedcovers fell down in front of him. Faint rays of light were streaming through the curtains on his left. As his eyes adjusted to the dimness, he realized that he was in his dorm room.
Confused, he got up—and immediately stumbled over a controller on the floor. Letting out a hiss of pain, he dropped to the ground. Why was there a game controller in the room? Okumura didn't play video games, and he didn't own any consoles. Had Seto come by again and forgotten it here?
Getting back up, Eijun vindictively kicked it aside. How had he gotten back in his room anyways? Had he passed out during a practice match and been brought back to his room? True, he had been working himself rather hard lately, but passing out on the field would be a first for him.
That was bad. He was the ace after all, and with the summer Kōshien tournament coming up, he had to make sure to stay in good condition. It was up to him to lead Seidō to Kōshien after all. He'd made a promise after all.
That's right. A promise with... who was it again?
He shook his head, trying to clear it of the dull ache he'd felt since waking up. It wouldn't do to trouble himself with unnecessary details—it'd only affect his pitching negatively. Quickly getting dressed into his baseball uniform, he left the room, slamming the door behind him with a great yawn.
It must have rained overnight, for the mist was thick, making it hard to see the grounds. The sun was only just beginning to rise, leaving most of the field in grey shadow.
Shivering, Eijun hurried through the fog. He was late, but hopefully the coach would understand. When he finally spotted a large body of figures standing in formation in the distance, he perked up and picked up his pace.
"...Hiroshi from Miyagawa Senior League!"
Eijun raised an eyebrow. Wasn't that… Ōshima's voice? What was he yelling about?
"I hope to play shortstop! I have confidence in my defense!"
As soon as his mind processed the words, he stopped cold. Instinctively, he ducked behind the shed. What was going on? Wasn't Ōshima already on the first string? Why was he talking like some newly recruited first-year vying for a spot on the lineup? Was the coach scrambling the team or something?
He felt himself sweat. He wasn’t about to be replaced, was he?
Something hard suddenly bumped into his back.
Annoyed, he looked behind him, a withering retort at the tip of his tongue—and froze, as a boy with black glasses and a side-turned baseball cap looked back at him, rubbing his head.
Eijun's hands fell to his sides. The events of the past few days that he'd somehow managed to block flashed through his mind's eye, ending with the memory of strong incense fumes that made his eyes water...
Recognition flickered in the other boy's eyes and he pointed a finger at him.
Eijun continued staring at the boy, his heart starting to pound in his chest. His mouth had fallen open, and a sound not unlike that of a drowning goldfish escaped him.
What was going on? Why did he look shorter? And so much younger? And more importantly –
How is he...?
"What's the matter with you?"
"...Miyuki?" he asked weakly.
The boy kneeling before him cocked his head in response, and then all of a sudden, understanding filled his expression.
"Oh so you decided to join the school in the end?"
Please, God. I just want to hear it one more time... his –
Miyuki's face twisted gleefully, and he let loose an unpleasant braying laugh that rattled his nerves.
"Late on your first day, huh? Treating the important stuff the same way as always, aren't you?"
"I don't want to hear that from you!"
- Glossary -
Full count = The count is at three balls and two strikes. This means that the next pitch will either result in a walk or a strikeout. If they want to avoid a walk, the pitcher typically wants to throw in the strike zone at a full count, which limits his pitches and makes it easier for the batter to predict what it will be.
Hit-by-pitch = The pitcher (accidentally) hits the batter with the pitch, which gives the batter a free pass to go on base. Also called a "dead ball" in Japanese baseball.
Kōshien = In Japanese high school baseball, the biggest tournaments are the Spring Kōshien and the Summer Kōshien, named after the famous stadium that the championship games take place in. The Spring Kōshien is by invitation, and is usually determined by results of regional fall tournaments. The Summer Kōshien is similar but is not invitational; the right to join is determined by results of the regional summer tournaments.
*These are nine-inning games that only go into extra innings if the score is tied
*Games can be called after seven innings if the weather is bad enough, except for the championship game which must go all the way to nine innings
*In regional tournaments (so not championship games), games can be called if a team is leading by at least ten runs after five innings, or seven runs after seven innings
Loaded bases = There is a runner at every single base, meaning a hit or a walk will allow the opposing team to score a point. Runners cannot steal a base when the bases are loaded though.
- Note of Interest -
* Sawamura Eijun is most likely named after Sawamura Eiji, a pro Japanese baseball player in the early 20th century who is regarded as the first great Japanese pitcher. There is even an award named for him called the Sawamura Award that is bestowed upon the top starting pitcher in Japanese professional baseball every year. Famous winners of this award include Yu Darvish (Texas Rangers) and Masahiro Tanaka (New York Yankees). *