The first punch is a surprise.
It lands on a dry autumn day in his first year of middle school and Kazuya is completely unprepared.
‘You don’t hit girls’ and ‘you don’t hit people who are smaller than yourself’.
Those are the rules.
But apparently not every father has sat down and spoken this truth to his sons.
The two boys above him, second years, now in charge, grin at him like he’s easy pray, excited that they finally got to shut him up now that there are no senpai around to admonish them for their misconduct.
And for the first time Kazuya realises that outside baseball his small size creates a weakness his mind cannot overcome.
He grins anyway.
He loses count quickly.
He’s stubborn like a mule (“like your mother,” his father says when he isn’t drinking or working), and he refuses to back down.
He starts saying mantras when it happens, little truths that will hurt a pride more than a punch can ever hurt a body.
“Baseball has no hierarchy outside skill.”
“Everyone are equal in the diamond.”
“Maybe you just suck so much you have to resort to violence.”
After a while his own voice drowns out and he can’t even hear himself speak anymore. It all becomes a buzz in his ears.
He still smiles through it.
The third time he’s kicked he almost breaks a rib.
He’s become used to hiding injuries, has figured out the nurse’s routine (she needs to smoke every forty-five minutes) so he can get what he needs without her ever finding out.
His father never notices.
His mother isn’t there.
This time it’s a little more serious, however, and he grimaces for several days, as he holds himself stiffly. The book in the library describes how he’s supposed to treat it, but it’s difficult.
It’s the first time he cries in years.
On the practice field, however, in front of his baffled teammates, in front of clueless coaches, he grins and bears it.
Nobody needs to know.
The second punch is a surprise.
There hasn’t been a beating in months that Kazuya hasn’t been able to anticipate. He knows which buttons to press, knows how to get a reaction out of people.
It has become a shield. A defense.
It doesn’t hurt anymore. He has been disillusioned to the idea that loyalty exists amongst teammates. Betrayal is a feeling he doesn’t experience.
People leave. People hurt each other.
“WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE, PUNCHING A TEAMMATE?!”
There is a back facing him, shoulders tight, black hair standing on ends. As if the new first year pitcher is so angry his entire body needs to express it.
This, Kazuya has never experienced before. Somebody standing up for him. A punch for his sake. Violence, not to hurt, but to protect.
It’s a foreign concept.
“Eijun,” another first year, somebody who is more nervous, “don’t get in the senpai’s way.”
The first year lets out a yell of outrage and turns halfway to face the boy who is most likely his classmate. “How could you say that?!” He exclaims. “Miyuki-senpai is also a Senpai. And he’s the only regular catcher. How are we supposed to survive as a team without him?”
“You should listen to your fellow first year, Sawamura,” somebody says. “He isn’t worth it. And he loves baseball too much to simply abandon it.”
“Then he has more sense than you people!” Sawamura yells. “This is supposed to be a team, isn’t it?!”
“Shut up, Sawamura.”
“Don’t be a fool and side with the psycho.”
“You don’t know him like we do!”
Somebody tries to grab the first year by his left arm, and Kazuya, having been paying attention earlier, curious about the new pitcher, knows it’s his pitching arm. He isn’t sure what pushes him to move, move for the first time, show agency where he doesn’t need to, but he quickly grabs Sawamura’s right hand and pulls him out of the other boy’s reach.
Sawamura yells and flails, almost face planting in the dirt, but he regains his balance in time.
And Kazuya somehow can’t help it. He’s still holding on to Sawamura’s hand, his right hand, the hand that would receive a baseball, and he uses it now, holding on for dear life, as his body trembles from laughter he can’t contain.
“Say, how about a bet?” Kazuya says, when he’s calmed down. He’s looking past Sawamura, past this potential ally. “If Sawamura and I can out every single one of you, you never hit any of us again.”
He almost expects protests from the boy at his side, a boy that’s taller than him, but less sturdy. Built like a real pitcher, even as a scrawny brat. A brat that grins mischievously at the idea. “Oh, yes. Let’s do that!” He says enthusiastically.
The others share nervous looks, but before they can protest Sawamura adds. “We’re all baseball players, aren’t we?”
And Kazuya knows exactly how to finish that statement. “So we should be dealing with our problems through baseball.”
When he glances up at the boy at his side, he notices for the first time that Sawamura’s eyes are golden. They dance like real sunshine. Like life and mischief and fun in the diamond.
And Kazuya thinks he might have just gotten the ally he’s been needing.