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Her Hardest Hue to Hold

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Seidou’s bigger than Youichi expected, at least in terms of baseball facilities. He's pretty certain that at least half of the school plays baseball, or wants to, and he’s also pretty certain that he’s going to be the one who gets to.

He wasn’t too sure about this school before, when the scout lady had shown up at his house and regaled his Ma and Grandpa with promises of a well-rounded program sure to push Youichi to be the best player he could be, because the way he saw it he could make the best of himself on any team. But now, standing in wait at the edge of the field as the rest of his future team rotates between stations, it's becoming increasingly clear that the sport he’d entertained as his own back home doesn't belong to just him anymore.

He’s at the batting station first, at the back of the line with the other first years, slowly making his way up as each person ahead of him swings. He wonders idly if there are any other switch-hitters, which sparks into excitement at the idea of impressing others, which diffuses when he reminds himself they’ve probably seen it all here already.

He bats left first, because the pitcher’s right-handed and he wants to do his best early on. The pitcher’s not too difficult and Youichi manages a hit on the second pitch, but just barely. The ball makes awkward contact with his bat and shoots off towards the pitcher, who scoops it up quickly and throws it to first. Youichi almost makes it, foot falling onto the base just a moment too late despite the considerable distance he had to cover, and if that’s not enough to leave at least some sort of impression on the coach then he’ll just have to run faster next time.

He goes through the line a couple more times, does his best but only makes it to base once, then it’s time to switch over to fielding practice, and Youichi watches the first rotation of first years and upperclassmen go through the motions at a rickety pace. It’s clear that only a few of these people have played together before, and not everyone is quick enough when it comes to adapting to a new playing style. There’s nervousness tingling under his skin right up alongside his determination, and he eyes the shortstop position hungrily. Soon enough, they’re rotating players, and it’s his turn to field.

Standing on the field now, his legs are tense with adrenaline, and he hasn’t felt this good in a long time, hasn’t felt the dopamine-high that comes when he’s really pushing himself. It’s anticipation, maybe, or something less concrete, the almost surreal feeling of being in a foreign place he’s certain he’ll become familiar with and the absolute surety that he’s going to be on the field the day this powerhouse of a school makes it to koshien.

They put him in shortstop like he’d wanted, for the time being. It feels weird to be on a field with new faces, when the strings on the instrument of a team sit slack and loose instead of finely-tuned like he’s used to. But it’s a fresh start more than a restart, and Youichi is determined to make something better here.

He’s pretty sure he’s doing okay so far. Every now and then he’ll trip over his feet out of nervousness more than any true lack of skill, and he’s sure he’s not the only one. He passes a ball to first and watches it make impact with the baseman’s glove, pride tucking itself up under his ribcage where he hopes no one else will see it. The next ball goes to the second baseman, a kid with pink hair and refined movements, so despite his size Youichi’s sure he must be an upperclassman. He’s ready when the kid shoots the ball his way, but it happens so fast he can barely blink before the ball’s knocking against his glove and falling to the ground.

“Sorry!” Youichi panics, chasing the ball down and throwing it to the next guy before embarrassment can tint his ears red. He’s shaking it off, ready to move on with the same nervous energy jittering in his bones, when the pink haired second baseman speaks up.

“That was an easy ball,” he drawls, voice lilting over the words smoothly like he’s speculating and not actually playing himself. The sound of it sends a shiver down Youichi’s spine and he looks up to find the kid’s gaze narrowed in on him like a predator. “I threw it right at your chest, you should have been able to catch that.” His smile stretches minutely wider, unspeakably more grating than any pleasant smile has the right to be, and then, “You suck.” spoken simply, like an indisputable fact, so easy and open that it shoots through Youichi like an electric shock.

Youichi gapes, floored by the absolute conviction and sincerity in the upperclassman’s smile. His feet freeze on the dirt and he stares, feeling a little like he’s been body-slammed at the way this kid so easily dislodged the pride in his chest. There's an old part of him, sealed away with blonde hair and a spitfire personality that urges him to bark back a biting retort, but months of careful reform stop him from acting out. He’s not sure how to respond, not sure he could manage anything more than the choked “Yes, sorry,” he offers up in the end, but he’s shaken to his core for the rest of practice, and even if he does do better he’s not sure the contemptuous smile on the upperclassman’s face has changed at all.

He’s switched out soon after, thankfully or not he’s not sure. Youichi feels like he can suddenly breathe easier off of the field, which is new for him–he used to think it was his element back in junior high, but this field is proving itself to be far different than he’d thought.

He watches the second baseman after that, tracks him almost unconsciously throughout the rest of practice if only to find some evidence of a chink in his unbelievable self-assurance, but it's hard to find. He hardly ever misses any balls on the machines, fouling anything he can't (or doesn't want to) immediately turn into a solid hit. It sets Youichi’s teeth on a bitter edge, grinding over each other in hopes that he’ll slip up just once, but even when he does miss it's not enough to distract from the constant fouling count he’s building. He's got stamina too, despite the recent break–Youichi watches as the second baseman goes out with a different fielding group and plays just as sharply, diving for any ball he might be able to reach and shooting it with laser-like precision to first or third or even home on the rare occasion a runner has made it that far beyond this impenetrable defense. The shortstop looks like an upperclassman too, but even he seems to be having trouble keeping up. Youichi finds himself drifting into a dazed awe as he watches the kid, but the sight of his smile and the too-ready memory of You suck lights the fire in his bones again, and it's bitterly that he accepts that this guy might know what he's talking about.

He tries to reign in his focus for the rest of practice and manages to concentrate on his own playing for the majority of it. It's not until practice is over and the weight of judgement has slipped from his shoulders that he's able to think freely again, and he capitulates easily to the memory of his mistake earlier and the upperclassman’s words. He asks Masuko about him when they're back in the dorms.

“That's Ryousuke,” his roommate offers easily when Youichi describes the pink-haired second baseman with a pleasant smile hiding knives for teeth. Masuko’s lounging in the desk chair, his massive hand clutching the tiny wooden spoon for his pudding cup. They’ve finished their showers, and fortunately, the heavy odor of baseball-teen-angst hasn't had time to permeate the room. “He can be harsh, but he's not really a bad guy.”

Youichi makes a noncommittal sound in the back of his throat. He gets it: the second baseman–Ryousuke, then–is probably just another second year all too ready to exercise his authority after a year spent buying drinks from the vending machines and taking shit from his own senpai. “He doesn't have to be an ass about it though,” Youichi replies, almost in response to his own thoughts as much as Masuko’s statement.

Masuko chuckles, scooping out the last of the pudding in his cup and sucking on the spoon contentedly. “Don't worry about him, he's always like that.” He sets the plastic cup in the trash and folds his arms. “Ryousuke likes to get a rise out of people. Even last year, he was always getting on the senpais' nerves for being insubordinate. It's just his way of encouraging people.”

“Oh yeah, I can totally see the logic in that.” Youichi drawls sarcastically. He's unpacking his homework on his bed now, not looking at Masuko and not noticing when Masuko shrugs.

“You'll get it in time.” Masuko says, swiveling the chair around to face his own unfinished work. He sighs at the stretch of papers in front of him. “You're shortstop, right?” Youichi makes a sound of affirmation. “Then you'll be around him enough to pick up on it, probably. He can be hard to get along with at first, but have faith, Kuramochi-kun.”

Youichi groans, his attention already shifting to the work in front of him. “Great, I'll look forward to it.”

When he goes to bed that night, it's easy to push the image of that taunting smirk out of his mind as exhaustion washes over him like a wave. He's determined to keep his distance from Ryousuke for his time at Seidou–he definitely doesn't need an asshole senpai that’s just going to beat him down, no matter what kind of twisted sense of encouragement Masuko declares he's practicing. He feels a vague dread for the future, when he’ll inevitably come into contact with Ryousuke again, but for now he's content to push the guy from his mind and let sleep take him over.