Abe's eyes snapped open, ripped suddenly from a bright swirl of dreams. The room was dark, the ceiling painted in unfamiliar shadows, and for one panic-filled moment, Abe forgot where he was. However, a quick glance to the four-post bed to his left brought an onslaught of memories from the day before. He was in Mihashi's house. In Mihashi's room. Sleeping on Mihashi's futon. Sighing heavily with sleep and relief, Abe rolled over and grabbed his phone. A bright 3AM screamed out in the darkness, causing his eyes to squint. There were still a couple hours of sleep to be had before that morning's practice. Taking full advantage, Abe stretched into a comfortable position and once again gently started to drift to sleep.
Abe sat up quickly in bed, heart racing, the sound loud in the small bedroom. "What the hell…?" Abe looked around for a source, glancing to see if Mihashi had also woken up. But instead of seeing his pitcher sprawled out asleep, he only saw crumpled up sheets and an empty space. "What the..? Where is he?" Sweeping the room provided no other clues and the bathroom to his right remained dark and empty, door swung open. "Did he go downstairs? Is he hungry or thirsty? He hardly ate anything at dinner... Does he need more ibuprofen? I need to find him." Panic was quickly replacing the sleepy fog muffling his thoughts.
Abe started to get up out of bed in search of his injured friend when he heard it again.
And that's when his heart stopped. Because he knew exactly where Mihashi was and what he was doing. How many times had Abe heard the sound of a baseball hitting a catching net? Anger coursed through his veins as he leapt out of bed, flying down the stairs and into the backyard. Mihashi jumped and gave a small cry, clearly not expecting to see his enraged catcher. Mihashi stood exactly where Abe had expected him. He looked small and frail, with his shirt off, and forehead and chest dripping with sweat in the humid night air. He was breathing in short pants as if he couldn't quiet catch his breath. Abe saw a baseball was clutched to his chest, knuckles white as if nothing could stop him from pitching. He looked miserable and damaged and bruised. Yet at the same time, his eyes were focused and determined. Abe wanted to yell and scream. Hit him and hug him all in the same overwhelming moment.
"What the HELL do you think you're doing?!" Abe marched across the grass, patience and reason flying out the door.
But Mihashi stood his ground. Instead of cowering, Mihashi locked eyes, looking nervous and scared but also unwavering and stubborn. He was clearly not giving up his pseudo-pitcher mound, even if he was about to fall over. But the longer Abe stared back, he could tell Mihashi was overly exhausted. The small breathy pants continued even though Mihashi was no longer pitching, dark circles stained his pale face, and his arm twitched with fatigue. It fueled Abe's rage. He wanted nothing more than to shake him, strap him to his bed, and force him to recover and rest in peace. How was Abe supposed to take care of his pitcher, to ensure he recovered, if Mihashi kept sneaking off and pulling shit like this? What was he trying to prove here?
For a moment, only the orchestra of crickets chirped around them. Mihashi continued to stare at Abe, hardly blinking. Unnerved, Abe finally closed his eyes, breaking contact.
"Mihashi, it's three in the morning. What are you even doing out here right now?! This is crazy. You're hurt and you're only going to hurt yourself more. You need sleep and rest and-"
"…m-must practice." Abe barely heard Mihashi's quiet voice over his own rant.
"What? Why? You're hurt. You need to rest! Don't you get that?"
Mihashi's lips formed into a tight line, stubbornly unwilling to explain further. Abe was about to pull his hair out in frustration.
"Why are you practicing right now? TELL ME!" Panic, sheer frustration, and helplessness were threatening to consume him. He felt his chest tighten. He didn't know what to do. How he was supposed to make this better, how to make Mihashi trust him enough to help him. "I don't understand your need to hurt yourself by pitching! Get inside! Now!"
"HE'LL MAKE ME LEAVE!" Mihashi burst out, stunning Abe into silence. He watched as his pitcher's stoic face quickly crumbled into a scared, hurt boy. Tears started to well up in his eyes as Mihashi's body continued to tremble.
"What? Who? No one is making you leave, Mihashi."
"I t-tried to tell A-abe-kun. I c-can't be A-abe-kun's pitcher." Tears freely streamed down Mihashi's face and Abe felt his anger shatter as his heart broke. "I c-can't. I can't. I can't. I c-can't." Sobs wrecked his body as he shook his head from side to side, eyes clenched shut. He couldn't seem to stop the flow of words from his mouth, as if caught in a perpetual nightmare.
Not wanting to scare Mihashi further, Abe forced himself to stay still instead of rushing to comfort him. It was difficult. "Mihashi…I told you I want you as my ace. I want to be your catcher. Whoever is telling you to leave is wrong. You belong with Nishura, with me. Please tell me, who is saying this to you?"
Glancing at the deep purple bruising and bandages littering the pitcher's body, an obscenely obvious realization dawned. "Did they do this to you?" Abe whispered. How could he not have made the connection earlier? Mihashi arrives broken and battered, wanting to quit the team, terrified of every corner and shadow. Of course something was wrong. How could Abe not have realized that Mihashi could have been threatened into leaving them? Who would even do that?
"I w-want to stay with A-abe-kun. With Nishura. I WANT TO STAY!" Mihashi's body swayed with the force of his words. "B-but…but…" Mihashi drew his injured arm closer to his body, shoulders curling forward in an effort to shield his bandaged abdomen. He looked like a frightened, injured animal that knew a predator was around every corner.
No longer able to stop himself, Abe stepped slowly forward, arms out and palms up. He placed a gentle hand on Mihashi's cold, thin shoulders before wrapping him up in his arms, trying to use himself as a personal shield. Abe could feel the cool sweat coating the pitcher's back, the hard press of the baseball still clenched in the pitchers hand against his chest, and Mihashi's tears through his shirt.
"Whoever this was, whoever is trying to make you leave me and the team, I won't let them get to you! Not now, not ever," Abe spoke softly yet resolutely into Mihashi's ear. "Do you understand me? They can't have you! You're mine!"
Abe leaned back slightly, lightly tilting Mihashi's tear tracked face up to look him in the eyes. "Do you understand? You are my pitcher, my ace. No one else can have you. We are a battery. That means we're in this together, ok?"
Mihashi's eyes were large, hardly blinking, but he didn't turn his face away. "A-abe-kun's….ace."
Abe smirked. "That's right. My ace. And I don't let anyone hurt what's mine. Do you hear me? I will protect you."
A crease of concern formed on Mihashi's forehead as he glanced around nervously as if there was something, or someone, lurking just off in the shadows "B-b-but…"
"Hey! Look at me!" Both of Abe's hands moved to cup Mihashi's face, forcing the pitcher once again to lock eyes, shocking him to stillness. "Do you trust me?"
Barely a moment passed before he felt Mihashi nod. A relaxed smile formed on Abe's lips. The thought of holding Mihashi's trust so deeply and completely caused a warm burst to erupt in his chest.
"Then trust me to protect you."
Abe held his breath; their faces were so close together that he could feel the puff of Mihashi's exhale against his cheeks. Only seconds passed before he both felt and saw Mihashi give a small nod back, his face flushing red and relaxing for the first time in what seems like days. Abe felt Mihashi's face warm under his hands; his breath coming out in short shallow breaths from his slightly parted lips. Mihashi's hands reached up to grip Abe's elbows, as if to anchor him. A moment of deep connection surged through Abe. The acceptance and overwhelming trust of his ace, his partner…he would protect Mihashi, no matter what.
Abe felt the space between them slowly decreasing. He needed in that moment to physically seal this trust, these feelings that were jumbled inside of him. Abe leaned in, pausing over Mihashi's lips.
"Is this…ok?" His voice seemed too loud in the dark night.
Mihashi's eyes fluttered shut as his hands tightened around his forearms, pulling Abe slightly forward. A whispery breath, barely audible responded. "…ok"
Abe leaned in the rest of the way, capturing Mihashi's lips with his own. The kiss was simple, almost innocent. It was one of those moments, like on the baseball field, where time slowed down and all sense were shifted to focus on his pitcher. Abe could feel it all in that one, chaste moment. His heart was beating loud and strong in his chest, the feel of Mihashi's soft lips under his own, and the cooling sweat under his hands. It only lasted a moment but Abe tried to pour the trust and promise Mihashi displayed back into the kiss. The promise to protect, to become the best battery, and the awe and respect Abe felt whenever he watched Mihashi pitch.
Abe broke the kiss and rested his forehead against Mihashi's, taking in a deep breath. Both of their faces were flushed deep red and Abe couldn't help but smile.
"Abe-kun?" Mihashi asked, hesitantly smiling back.
Not really wanting to sort out his feelings or discuss his actions in the damp night air at three in the morning, Abe silently took Mihashi's hand, leading him back inside. He could see Mihashi frown but was thankful he didn't probe further, exhaustion clearly getting the better of the pitcher. Abe wasn't quite sure what he would say back if asked…
Once inside the bedroom, Abe turned to face Mihashi. "I know you want to stay and prove yourself to the team. That's good. Practicing by yourself while severely injured? In the middle of the night? Idiotic! What if you had hurt yourself further? If you don't let your body rest, it will take longer for you to heal properly."
It was then that Abe noticed some of the bandages were displaced from the practice pitches. He dragged Mihashi back towards the bathroom. While changing the dressings, he noticed some of the cuts had split back open. Abe flinched.
"Promise me you won't practice again without me there? I need you to get better."
Silently, Mihashi nodded. Under the fluorescent lights of the bathroom, the dark circles under his eyes were even more pronounced, and his movements were once again lethargic now that the adrenaline was wearing off.
Finished, Abe grabbed Mihashi's hand, sweeping his callused thumb over the soft tendons. "Bed. Now."
With no protest, Abe lead the injured pitcher over to his bed, and Mihashi fell asleep before Abe could finish tucking him in.