It was so frustrating, this inability Abe had to communicate with Mihashi.
He'd finally found a pitcher who listened to him. One who had promised never to shake off his signs as though he was nothing but a mute wall to pitch at. A boy who stared at Abe as if he held the truth of the goddamn universe in his glove.
And yet Abe failed at talking to Mihashi, every time.
Mihashi twisted his cap in his hands, now, his eyes fixed on his fingers. His cheeks were flushed bright pink. He almost vibrated with nerves.
"W-when," he managed. "I-if ... I ..." He darted a look at Abe's face, then back down again. "W-when ..."
Abe counted from ten in his head. Don't get mad, he reminded himself. If you get mad he stops talking completely.
"What is it?" Abe asked. That sounded a bit strained, but at least he'd kept his voice level.
Mihashi looked up again, his eyes huge in his face. His fingers fidgeted on the cap. "W-when," he tried again.
Abe's toes curled with the effort it took not to reach out and shake him.
"Did," Mihashi said. "W-was it about – about me?"
"What?" Abe said. He blinked. "No, wait. What?"
Mihashi looked even more nervous. His eyes widened and went shiny, as though he was on the verge of breaking down and crying. Abe looked away, rubbing the back of his neck. He really hoped Mihashi didn't actually do that.
"W-when Coach s-said that – if – and w-we had to work on – when she said th-that about endurance t-training." Mihashi twisted the cap harder in his hands. His shoulders were almost completely hunched now, as he sneaked another look at Abe. "W-was that because of me? Am I letting the team – down? Because I'm not strong enough?"
Abe let his breath out explosively. "Why would you even think that! If she meant just you she would have said just you!"
Damn, that was yelling. Mihashi was leaning away. He looked as though he was hyperventilating.
"I meant ..." Abe rubbed the back of his neck again. "You're not some kind of drain on the team, you know. You train harder than anybody." Mihashi was still staring at him like a rabbit under headlights. Abe leaned forward and laced their fingers together.
The tips of Mihashi's fingers were freezing. Abe winced.
"I just mean, don't automatically think you're letting the rest of us down," he said. "You've never let us down."
Mihashi looked up at him, his eyes wondering. "Abe-kun really thinks that?" he breathed.
Abe wished, despairingly, that Mihashi wouldn't look so achingly vulnerable or so pathetic. Or quite so amazed that Abe thought he wasn't a bad pitcher. Abe might be calling the pitches, but he wasn't throwing them. Mihashi was winning their games for them, and still thought he was worthless.
Abe also kind of wished that Mihashi wouldn't look so thin or so tussle-haired or so trusting or so wide-eyed and happy, either. Abe had to struggle to look away.
"Just don't think that kind of thing, all right?" he said.
Mihashi nodded, very fast several times. "If I think something like that in the future, I won't say anything," he promised.
"No!" Abe seized the sides of Mihashi's head, shaking him. "You have to talk more! We've had this conversation already, you need to stop not telling me things!"
Mihashi broke away from his hold and fled. Abe watched the soles of his shoes flash as he ran. He groaned.
It was deeply irritating that Tajima could understand him so effortlessly. Especially given that Tajima was so completely Mihashi's opposite in every way. Abe didn't think Tajima even knew what 'nervy and neurotic' meant. Plus Tajima had actually tried to look for porn under Mihashi's bed, which ... well. Abe really doubted there was any there, but if there was then dragging it out in front of everybody would be the surest way Abe could think of to send Mihashi catatonic.
The club room door opened and Mihashi came in with Hanai. Tajima and Izumi were behind them, talking about something that involved energetic hand movements on Tajima's side. Mihashi was trying to tell Hanai something.
"The – the test," he said, peering at Hanai from under the brim of his cap. "The qu-questions about – helium."
Hanai gave him a very lost look.
"Did you fail that chemistry test too?" Tajima asked, breaking off his conversation with Izumi to sling an arm over Mihashi's shoulder.
Mihashi jumped. He nodded, shooting a shame-faced look at Abe.
Abe crossed his arms in front of his chest.
"I – I thought – my birthday," Mihashi said in a tiny voice.
"Right, yeah, we could study at your place again like we did on your birthday," Tajima agreed. He grinned at Hanai, wide and sunny. "I could do with some extra study time, probably."
Mihashi sagged with the relief of having got out what he wanted to say.
Abe narrowed his eyes at Tajima.
Izumi glanced between Abe, Mihashi and Tajima, his bright, inquisitive face acquiring a speculative expression. He didn't say anything, though. Abe was grateful.
A fastball, low on the inside, Abe signalled.
Mihashi gripped his cap in acknowledgement, his expression intent as he drew back his arm.
The punch of the ball against Abe's glove was deeply satisfying.
Mihashi gave him a small smile, his eyes dancing.
It was only words that got in the way, Abe thought as he tapped out the next signal. If he could talk to Mihashi purely via baseball, there wouldn't be any problem at all.
Except that the thought of only ever properly connecting with Mihashi during games made Abe's chest hurt.
Abe growled wordlessly at Hanai when he went to wake him up.
Hanai backed off. "But –" he said.
"You or Oki can pitch," Abe said, turning away.
Nishiura was three points ahead. During the last inning Hanai let the other team take two.
Mihashi was still fast asleep when Mihashi-san took him home at the end of the game.
Abe supposed, his stomach knotting, that Mihashi must be blaming him for not waking him up for the end of the game.
Mihashi hated giving up the mound more than anything else.
Abe cornered him in the club room after practice, before Mihashi could escape to the showers.
"What's wrong?" Abe demanded.
Mihashi started shivering. "Nnn," he said. His eyes darted about. "N-nothing." He looked like a puppet on bad strings.
"Is it about the game yesterday?" Abe asked. He kept his voice quiet and casual, granting himself a special Abe Takaya Patience Award.
Mihashi fidgeted. He glanced at Abe and then away. "It," he said. "Uh. Uh. I." He glanced at Abe again. "I w-was weak," he said eventually. "I fell – fell asleep."
His wide eyes were anguished. He looked down again as they began to swim with tears.
Abe watched him, horrified.
"Abe-kun hates me because I was weak," Mihashi whispered.
"What are you even – how stupid can you get?" Abe gasped.
Mihashi looked up at him, woebegone and tragic. "I'm sorry I'm no good," he said. "I'm s-sorry Abe-kun has to do everything. I won't – I won't hang around you so much anymore."
Abe reached out and took hold of his shoulders, shaking him. "I don't hate you!" he shouted. "I don't blame you for falling asleep yesterday!"
Mihashi's head lolled as he stared at Abe, too nervous to even take in a word Abe was saying.
"Isn't there any way to get through to you?" Abe asked, staring at Mihashi. His voice came out hoarse and frustrated.
Mihashi stared back. "Are – you – angry?" he stuttered.
"I'm not angry!" Abe shouted. Mihashi was still staring at him, still terrified and not taking anything in and Abe couldn't think of any way to make him get it.
He slid his hands from Mihashi's shoulders up to his head and dragged him forward.
Mihashi gasped into Abe's mouth, losing all his air.
Abe's brain had short-circuited somehow. Mihashi's mouth was soft against his, his hair scrappy and tangled under Abe's fingers. Mihashi was holding himself very still. His breath hitched, his mouth moving against Abe's, and Abe felt the tiny movement all the way through him.
Abe moved his hand, questioningly, fingers sliding over Mihashi's hair. He shifted his mouth, making the movement a bit more demanding, and Mihashi opened his own mouth. Abe swiped his tongue over Mihashi's lower lip, over his teeth, trembling.
Mihashi made a tiny noise. Then he dragged away, gasping.
Abe was breathing hard. He was still trembling. He didn't know what he was doing.
Mihashi hugged his arms around himself, a happy, jittery laugh escaping him. He looked everywhere but at Abe, a wobbly smile coming and going on his mouth.
Abe groaned and turned to the wall, knocking his forehead against it so that he didn't have to look at anything.
The door connecting to the showers opened. Abe looked sideways to see Tajima and Izumi come out, Izumi still towelling his hair.
Mihashi spun towards them, fidgeting. His smile was silly and self-conscious. "I –" he said. "Abe-kun – he – and –"
Tajima's eyes widened. "Damn, seriously?" He looked at Abe. "Abe, you dog."
Abe knocked his forehead harder against the wall.