"I can't believe it," He mumbled for what was probably the millionth time since he'd woken up bright-eyed, his heart hammering. They'd come all this way to the finals, and now they were just one match away from being known nation-wide as the best high school baseball team in Japan. 'And I'm only a second year!' Hibiya thought to himself, still disbelieving of the incredible situation he was in.
But yes, Hibiya supposed, they'd practiced an insane amount, so much he'd seen baseballs in his sleep and his hands were heavily callused from the number of baseballs he'd been throwing. Every member's gloves were worn from practice, no longer the glossy leather that had Hibiya's heart skipping beats the first time he'd come to high school. But somehow, seeing the baseball glove at his side covered with grazes and rubbed worn gave the second-year a soaring sense of satisfaction.
He'd never been so excited; he could hardly sit still. But the third-years were far more grave, as it was their last chance at winning the nationals, and their faces were like stone. Hibiya didn't think it'd be wildly appropriate for him to start his usual excited prattle, but he couldn't stop twitching in his seat and gazing out at the blue, blue sky.
"Why does it feel like a funeral in here? Everybody, eat something!"
He didn't have to look to know it'd be his senpai, the baseball team manager. Her hands on her hips, her short hair framing her face endearingly today, she peered down at them all with narrowed eyes.
"If you guys don't eat something, you're not going to have any energy to play today," She chided, and as she continued to encourage everyone to eat, some of the senior members finally lifted their spoons and chopsticks and began to attempt eating. Hibiya felt a warm wave of gratitude sweep through him; it was really mostly the efforts of their manager that the team had practiced so hard.
So matter what, they could always count on the strong-willed and cheerful girl to be there at every practice, scrubbing hard at their uniforms and polishing their gloves and always, relentlessly, cheering them on. As the coach and captain pep-talked, she was always there to hand them a cold towel and a bottle of ice water, and at the end of every game - they'd won all of them - she was always there to congratulate them from her heart.
Perhaps she lacked the feminine touch and softness that the basketball team manager, Konno-senpai, had. But baseball team manager was always genuinely bright, and though she wasn't nearly as girly as Konno-senpai she was sweet in her own way, looking out for the underclassmen. Hibiya knew that every member adored the manager, but he wasn't sure how many of them felt exactly the way he did when he thought about her.
He was the only one who regularly met with her outside of the baseball club activities as well; they shopped together, had talks together over tea, went out and had ice-cream, and so on and so forth. Ever since he'd glimpsed more than her friendly face at the baseball club, he wanted to see her all the time. At first, he had approached her because of his obsession with Hazuki-senpai. But now...
She suddenly grasped at one of his wrists, startling him out of his thoughts as he let out a yelp, his cheeks colouring; she pressed a bottle of cold orange juice into his hand. "Hibiya-kun," She said, looking straight into his eyes, (God, she had such clear eyes!) "How're you feeling?"
"Fantastic!" He blurted out, his eyes shining, but then his heart felt fit to burst so he admitted, shrinking back a little, "And really really nervous, senpai."
"I'm nervous too," She admitted quietly, and she brushed her fingertips lightly against his hair, distracting him just slightly as she continued, "But I've been watching all this time, and I know how hard you've worked for this. Give it your all, Hibiya-kun." Her eyes were burning into his so intensely, for a moment he couldn't speak.
"Y-yes, senpai!" He exclaimed, flushing crimson as she smiled prettily at him. Then she bustled off to give drinks to the other members of the team. Hibiya couldn't help noticing that she'd gotten only him his favourite orange juice, and everyone else she gave apple tea or milk.
Smiling confidently, Hibiya picked his baseball cap up from his side and fit it onto his head securely. The blue sky had never looked more promising.
"Yosha," He said happily, "Let's do it!"
Oh God. The atmosphere was swelling in ancitipation and tension, pressing in on all sides; the sky, so innocent and promising through the canteen window, now felt like a huge, unfathomable expanse without its frame. Hibiya felt his legs shaking even as he sat on the bench; his seniors were all sitting like stiff pokers, their mouths tightly shut as though they were afraid of being sick.
The crowds were murmuring, cheering and calling out, but Hibiya heard them as one loud drone of voices. Still, none of the noises the watching crowd was making could drown out the sound of his own heart.
When the next pitcher was out, he was next. Hibiya Wataru, second year, would be next on the mound. He could still remember telling senpai about his dream to stand there one day. Now, that moment was about to come true. And what was even more mind-boggling was that he was going to pitch last at a score that was at a standstill. Their winning would depend entirely on him, and that terrifying pressure tingled right through to his fingertips and toes.
He was so caught up in his own nervousness and mantra to keep calm that he didn't hear the coach at first. Then a sharp clap to his back brought him plunging back to earth as the coach yelled, "Hibiya, you're up next!!"
"Y-yes!" Hibiya gasped, standing up so quickly he nearly dropped his glove. Trying desperately to compose himself, he stepped out from the shadows of the benches and onto the pitch.
Oh God, oh God. The sun poured down on him, hot and glaring, and he got a good look from under his cap just how many people were seated around the stadium. His madly thudding heart could no longer be heard, though he could feel it painfully; the crowd's cheers and exclamations were now surrounding him, enveloping him. He willed himself not to tremble as he walked towards the mound, sweat trickling down the back of his neck, his hands aching from tension...
"Here," said someone - Hibiya had no idea who as he was so wrapped up in his thoughts - and a baseball was pushed into his sweaty palm. He stared at it dumbfoundedly for a second, and then bit his lip hard. Everything rested on this one ball. Bringing it up into his glove and willing himself to calm down, Hibiya looked at the batter across him.
The batter, a burly, confident looking senior, looked at Hibiya and actually smirked at him. He swung his powerful arms back and gave a few, unnecessary practice swings; Hibiya could hear the impressive sounds they were making, cutting through the air.
'That's an incredible swing,' Hibiya thought, unable to keep himself from staring, and the batter looked at him with an obnoxious grin. But Hibiya didn't have room in his mind to be goaded by the batter's attitude. Because he already knew with every fibre in his body that he could not, absolutely not, let the batter hit that ball he threw. That was all that mattered; and the fact that the batter was being a git was something Hibiya didn't even properly register.
'I dont know if I have it in me to do this,' Hibiya realised suddenly, his thoughts crashing through his head in a blur, 'But...! This is all I have to do. If I can throw this, that's all we need. This is something I can't let myself falter over.'
He tried to take a deep, calming breath, trying desperately to convince himself. 'I can do this. I can definitely do this...'
Suddenly, one voice cut through the roar of noise around him, jolting him from his deep thoughts. "Hibiya-kun!! Go for it!!"
His eyes shot over to the source of the cheer, and sure enough his favourite senpai was on her feet at the benches, her eyes trained on him and her hands cupped around her mouth.
"Senpai..." Hibiya said out loud involuntarily, and a surge of adrenaline tided through his veins.
"Hibiya-kun!! Go for it!!" She was screaming it over and over, and Hibiya was suddenly hit with the realisation that she was watching him. Not just as his manager, Hibiya knew now. She was really watching him, but as what? As a friend, as a younger brother? As a man?
A montage of memories crashed through Hibiya's mind; not just the times when she, as a manager, would panic trying to patch up holes in their uniforms, or sit for hours at end just watching them, or go out of her way just to cheer them up after a bad practice. The moments that shone most brightly in Hibiya's mind were the personal little details about her he got to know on their precious few dates together.
Like the way her laughter bubbled when he deliberately pointed out the most gruesome clothes on sale at the flea market, or the way her eyes seemed to shine with mirth when she teased him whenever he was late to dates, or the way she bit her lower lip sometimes when she was feeling insecure, or how small her hand felt when he held onto it sometimes while walking her home... The senpai he treasured so closely to him was standing there, screaming his name and cheering him on.
Hibiya felt an incredible rush as he realised he wasn't going to throw this ball for himself, for his dreams or for his glory. He was going to throw this next one for her. All her efforts as a manager and what she meant to him, he'd pay her back and more. And the first thing to do was to throw this damn thing with everything he had. He'd show her that everything she'd done had been worth it.
"Yoooshi!" Hibiya fixed a piercing gaze onto the batter across him now, who looked startled at his sudden change in demeanor. "Hibiya Wataru, this is your ultimate challenge!"
He swung his arm back, narrowing his eyes as he muttered, "Everything I've got, I'm putting it into this next straight!"
With a roar of adrenaline pumping through his veins, Hibiya pitched the baseball with all the skill he had. It happened in a blink of an eye; one second, the batter was blinking stupidly as the ball shot forward in a beautifully straight and fast line. Hibiya felt his throat constrict painfully as the batter gave a wild, powerful swing of the bat-- Then the next moment--
"Strike out!" The words reverberated across the pitch. "Game set!"
Screams and cheers erupted from the stadium; every member of his baseball team shot up from the benches with hoarse yells and cries, and the next thing Hibiya knew was that he was being mobbed by his seniors, one or two of whom were sobbing - the one thumping his back was probably his captain - and the coach was yelling with his fists pumping the air, "Yes!! Yesss!!"
But what really got Hibiya's attention was his manager, standing at the edge of mob, smiling at him radiantly with tears in her eyes. "You did it, Hibiya-kun!" He could barely hear her over the noise his seniors were making, but they were the only words he registered from around him, and the most incredible feeling began to rapidly inflate him from inside.
"I...! I did it!" Hibiya felt a grin far too big for his face begin to spread across his lips, but he couldn't stop it; tilting his head back to look into the skies, he yelled at the top of his lungs, "I DID IT!!!!"
It wasn't until much, much later that Hibiya was able to get his manager alone. As everyone chatting excitedly trooped into the locker rooms to shower, Hibiya hung back.
Then it was just him and her in the hallway.
"Hibiya-kun, congratulations!" She exclaimed, her eyes shining, and though the euphoria of winning was already flushing his skin Hibiya turned a deeper shade of pink.
"I couldn't have done it without everyone's efforts," He admitted, "I was really nervous."
She reached out and lightly traced her fingers over his own without saying anything. That was one of the things Hibiya found wonderful about senpai; she didn't have to say anything out loud to communicate how she was feeling, and in that one movement Hibiya could tell she was just exceedingly glad and happy for him. He looked at her shyly in the eyes.
"Senpai." She did that little thing where she blinked and raised an eyebrow, and that little quirk of hers somehow stoked him to say with great feeling, "Because you were watching me the entire time, senpai... that's why I gave it my all."
To his pleasure, she blushed, her eyes widening in surprise before softening. Though all she said was, "Hibiya-kun..." it somehow spoke volumes about how touched she was.
He wanted to say so much to her, but there was too much to say, and he knew that this was hardly the time to say it. He needed a shower desperately and the team was going out tonight in celebration so he'd never get a chance to talk to her properly like this until much later. Instead, he smiled at her sincerely to thank her for the one thing he felt was owed to her especially. "The Habataki High School Baseball Club is now the best in Japan! Thank you so much for all your hard work!"
She blinked a couple of times, and then smiled so warmly at him he had to suppress the urge to hug her. In fact, though she seemed about to say something, he was quite seriously considering just glomping her. But they were interrupted by a holler.
"Hey, where's our winning pitcher?!" The team captain came tearing out of the locker room half-dressed, and seeing Hibiya he grabbed him and proceeded to drag him into the locker room, yelling, "I've got him, the little rascal!"
"Uhm... see you later, senpai!" Hibiya managed to call out, and she gave a little wave, a smile and a nod.
Just before the door swung shut he caught a glimpse of her clear eyes once more, gazing at him with indescribable pride.