his former ace

"You've got to be kidding me."

These words were Abe's opening salvo in what would surely soon become all-out war.

Having cut ties with the Nishiura baseball team, Abe was no longer obligated to attend team workouts or any other related club activities, and thus was getting used to leaving school right after classes were over. He was still keeping in shape, but no longer had access to the school's facilities, and so his new routine involved going to a gym near his house instead, where he would work out for a couple hours before returning home to immerse himself in his studies until it was time for bed.

It wasn't so bad, all things considered, but it did mean that Abe wanted to leave quickly. Without fuss or bother.

And- he thought to himself, caustically- most importantly, without spectacle.

"Takayaaaa!"

As Abe knew all too well, you can't always get what you want.

Approaching the racks where he'd parked his bike, the first thing Abe had noticed was the small crowd of girls gathered about, all admiring some idiot riding around in circles on one of the bikes. First Abe had slowed, then stopped, repositioning his bag's shoulder strap as he took it all in. The idiot was a tall guy, wearing some outside school's uniform, and he'd been shouting loudly, obnox- crap. It was Haruna.

Following Abe's incredulous "you've got to be kidding me," some of the girls near the back turned to glance at him.

"Oi! Oi! Takaya! Takayaaaa~~~!"

Rooted in place, Abe stood with his mouth slightly agape, but with his right fist already clenched and raised. It was obvious that Haruna had spotted him, what with the way he was shouting Abe's name like a happy lunatic, waving at him cheerfully while continuing to make his circles and figure-eights.

Un-freakin-believable.

The best part?

That bastard was goofing around on Abe's bike.

"There you are! Takaya!"

The crowd parted and the girls began to scatter when Abe took a step forward, walking slowly but with obvious menace. "What the fuck." Abe pointed. "Get the fuck off my bike." He felt the corner of his mouth begin to twitch. "Now!" His voice was becoming progressively louder with each word, and by the time he got to "now" Abe was in full bellow.

"Hello to you too!"

The worst part was probably the delighted grin that broke across Haruna's face.

"HARUNA." Abe's shout was a warning shot across the metaphorical bow of his moral event horizon.

As the one person who could be reliably counted on to never take Abe seriously, let alone fear him, it wasn't surprising that Haruna simply laughed, making a swift about face and suddenly biking furiously in an away direction, out towards the main gate. "Follow me!" Haruna turned to give Abe one of his most smug, arrogant little smiles. "If you can!"

Abe broke into a sprint. Like hell he'd let that bastard get away with his bike.

Keeping up proved to be impossible, but in the end this turned out not to matter, since Haruna was found loitering just outside the gate, waiting for Abe with crossed arms and smirking to high heaven. By the time Abe spotted him, Haruna had already stepped off the bike and was now standing next to it, kickstand down. Abe slowed to a jog and then a walk.

Assuming that Haruna had been looking to deflect Abe's anger, it seemed that the burst of exertion was having its intended effect: as his breathing slowed, Abe's rage was already on the wane, replaced with spite and annoyance instead. "What the fuck are you doing?" Abe asked testily, no longer shouting.

"Collecting you." Haruna pointed to a car parked a bit down the street. Abe recognized it; the car belonged to Haruna's father, a silver Miata. He'd been in it before.

"And my bike?"

"Yep!"

Abe sighed. It didn't take a genius to figure out what all this was about, either.

Goddamn meddlesome Mihashi. He just didn't know when to give up, did he?

"Still using the same combination lock, I see," Haruna said, as he disengaged the kickstand and began walking Abe's bike towards the car.

So what? Haruna always had enjoyed bragging about the stupidest, most insignificant things, hadn't he? Such as, in this case, his ability to jimmy a lock when he already knew the combination. "Still an asshole, I see," Abe said, following along.

How annoying was it, that Abe knew already that he was going to go along with this asinine scheme, just because it had the unmistakable taint of Mihashi meddling?

Pretty goddamn annoying.

This just proved Abe's thesis, that all pitchers were secretly bastards at heart.

And, apparently, joined at the hip in some secret fraternity of self-absorption and utter shamelessness.

There was a hitch-mounted bike rack hooked up to the back of the Miata, which severely undercut the awesomeness of the car in Abe's opinion. Haruna immediately went to work attaching Abe's bike, so Abe sullenly walked over to the passenger's side door and stood there, impatient to get this over with.

By no means was this the first harebrained scheme Mihashi had concocted, in the weeks since Abe had quit the team.

There had been the Inept Stalking scheme, wherein Mihashi proved, without a shadow of a doubt, to deserve the title Worst Stalker Ever, a title Abe had spontaneously christened him with while shouting at Mihashi in one memorable exchange where Mihashi was attempting to hide behind a lamppost. Mihashi had really gotten to him that time, because before he knew it Abe's aggravated rant devolved into a lecture, with him offering up improved stalking tips while Mihashi nodded along thoughtfully. He couldn't help it... when you did something, how hard was it to try do it right?

Next, there had been the Secret Snacks scheme, where Mihashi had started dropping off little healthy goodies in Abe's shoe locker, protein bars and oranges and shit, as if to prove that he knew a thing or two about nutrition. Abe had eaten them all, but under protest.

Most recently, and worst in Abe's opinion, was Mihashi's Suck Up To Family scheme, exploiting one of the weakest points in Abe's defense by coming over to play video games with Shun (and since when was Mihashi friends with Shun?) or to be adorable at his mother, providing updates on the team's progress as well as his own personal pitching progress, updates Abe's mother had no problems passing on to her firstborn child, with all the relish of a turncoat. Mihashi even helped her make dinner sometimes. It was unbearable.

But this had to top all, this Haruna Abduction scheme.

"Where are we going?" Abe asked, still sullen as he buckled himself in, once Haruna got into the car.

"You'll see." Haruna turned over the ignition, and the car roared to life.

Haruna Motoki hadn't yet been driving when Abe had known him, back in the Senior league. Since this was a two-seater sports car, Abe's familiarity with the car was based largely on exterior assessments, looking out for the car while waiting for Haruna's arrival at practice, or watching as his (former) ace left after practice was over. Haruna's father had been the driver back then, and had proven himself to be an unexpectedly good sport in terms of supporting his bratty son, faithfully providing transport so that Haruna didn't have waste time biking to and from home.

Haruna's dad had seemed to be a pretty okay guy. Abe had no beef with him.

But one time, Abe had been inside the Miata. That day, Haruna's dad had been invited to a meeting with the coach, and so Haruna was outside waiting. "Wait with me," Haruna Motoki had demanded, and when Abe agreed, thinking this meant that he'd be standing outside with him, Haruna ended up pulling Abe into the car after settling in himself, making Abe sit in his lap. "Keep me company," he'd said. What could Abe do? He'd already agreed. He'd practically promised.

So, despite making many protests, and a fair degree of struggling, all of which Haruna blissfully ignored, Abe remained in Haruna's lap for the entire wait, teased by a laughing Haruna until it was time for the damned pitcher to leave already.

To this day, the memory remained vivid. Annoyingly so. Just thinking about it made Abe's mood darken.

As Haruna wended his way into local traffic, Abe was mildly diverted to note that Haruna drove like an old man, going at least five kilometers-per-hour under the speed limit, often more like ten or twenty under. Considering Haruna's safety fetish and pathological fear of injuries, this wasn't at all surprising, but experiencing it in action gave Abe a brief but enjoyable sensation of ironic schadenfreude, or something.

It didn't take them very long to get to their mystery destination; about thirty minutes or so, tops. Along the way, neither he nor Haruna said much. Haruna drove with the radio set quietly to NHK news, the driver's side window cracked open. Since it was still very early in spring, the hard top was still up, despite the fact that it was a clear, sunny day.

The destination proved to be something of a diversion in its own right.

"Musashino?" Abe asked, with a bit of wryness. Haruna couldn't be any more creative than to bring Abe to his own school?

"A little bird told me that you normally work out around this time. I wouldn't want to deprive you."

"You brought me to do weights?"

"Actually, I was thinking catch-ball."

This whole plan had the finesse and grace of a sledgehammer. Still, it had been a bit of a while since Abe had done anything truly baseball related. "Just regular catch-ball?"

"Yeah... I don't have catcher's gear for you to borrow, and we can't use the team's since it's already currently in use."

"You're skipping practice for this?"

"Yep." Haruna found a parking space, and pulled in. Once parked, he turned to Abe, refreshing his earlier smirk. "Being the ace has privileges, you know."

"Only you would think that slacking is a privilege." Mihashi would never do or say anything so lame.

"Mm-hmm," was Haruna's noncommittal response.

Together they got out of the car, Abe leaving his bag on the seat. Haruna went to pop the trunk after folding down the bike rack, and so Abe met him behind the car. Abe's eyes widened as Haruna bent over, digging through the stuff in the trunk.

It was a scene of baseball carnage. There were bats and gloves and balls all tossed in together, several of each, with some piles of clothes Abe assumed were dirty, as well as some random exercise equipment. Abe couldn't imagine why anyone would need two bats, let alone six or seven, and all those gloves...! Several different sizes and colors of regular gloves, a couple catcher's gloves, all in such pathetic, woebegone, used up state. Obviously this was the graveyard for all of Haruna's historical equipment, but even if a glove had been retired or a bat set aside, there was no excuse for this level of disorganization and carelessness. None.

"That is the worst thing I have ever seen," Abe breathed.

"What, besides me?" Haruna asked, obnoxiously cheerful. "Here, use this." Haruna handed over a halfway decent right-hander's glove.

Abe held the glove, stroking it sadly. "I'm sorry you had to find yourself with such a sorry excuse for an owner," he told the glove.

"Come off it," Haruna said, picking out a lefty glove for himself. "It lived a long life of honorable service. Would it be better if I just threw all this shit out?"

"No, but you could organize better." Abe sighed. "Bring your dad's car over to my house some time and I will build you a systemized storage space." It wasn't like Abe wanted to do anything nice for Haruna. But all his poor stuff...

"I will never cease to be fascinated by your priorities," Haruna said, picking out a baseball, from all the ones just rolling around loose. "Alright, let's go." Haruna closed the trunk, and started walking towards the practice fields.

Abe could see the Musashino team, but Haruna veered off in a separate direction, leading Abe instead to the soccer fields, which currently were vacant.

Catch-ball was a nice, easy way to warm up... for the most part it didn't constitute real practice, since it was such a basic activity, but it was one of the activities baseball players engaged in the most. It was mindless and comforting, so when Haruna made his first throw while they were still walking over, Abe caught it instinctively, and returned it just as fast.

This was all Mihashi's doing.

That damn Mihashi.

"So... you heard from Mihashi?" Abe asked, not able to help himself.

"Oh, but did I." Haruna waved for Abe to stop where he was, and then continued to walk further down the field, but not going too far since they were just starting out. "That squirt is getting pretty cheeky now that he's about to become a second year."

Mihashi, cheeky? That seemed to imply that even Haruna was having better luck than Abe ever had in getting Mihashi to speak normally. "I see," Abe said. He didn't really know what else to say.

Haruna tossed the ball up into the air, and then threw normally. "Would you like to know what we talked about?"

The glove Haruna was lending him turned out to be pretty comfortable and good for light catching. Maybe when Haruna brought the car over for Abe to measure the trunk space, he'd get Haruna to leave all the equipment behind, too, for some much needed rehab. "Yes," Abe said, returning the ball.

Normally, that wasn't the kind of question Abe would say "yes" to. But maybe he'd make an exception, just this once.

"Too bad!" Haruna started laughing, cracking up.

Abe froze, and Haruna giggled for a little bit, before amending his statement. "No... sorry, just kidding. I'll tell you." He laughed some more.

"I am aware that I have no right to know the details," Abe said, unappeased, and standing stiffly.

"Sorry, sorry... but you're just so hilarious, Takaya. So goddamn serious. It's just too much fun to tease you."

Fun. Abe was pretty goddamn sure that wasn't the world he'd use.

Haruna was still holding the ball, and wiped at his eyes with the back of his hand, as if removing tears. Yeah, this was "fun" alright. Another brilliant Mihashi scheme. "He's not trying to get you back on the team, you know," Haruna said, finally settling down, taking a few steps back.

Abe looked down.

"He thinks it's wrong to force you. His thoughts are, and I quote, Abe-kun must be happy, no matter what."

Oh. Oh, Mihashi.

Abe could just imagine how he would have said that, too.

"He's such an idiot," Abe said, quietly.

"No more than some other idiots I could name," Haruna said. "Look sharp, I'm going to throw."

Another toss, caught easily. Abe held the ball. "Mihashi should spend more time looking out for his own happiness."

"That's rich," Haruna said. "How is it that you think he's not?" He held up his glove and waved it.

"Ball back," Abe said, returning the ball as directed. "Because he's an idiot."

"He's an idiot because he cares what happens to you? What?" Haruna laughed. "Oh, Takaya."

There were so many different ways Abe could respond to that, since he was in the right and he knew it, but it bothered him that Haruna had a point. Mihashi did care, which was the whole problem. "I'm not the only catcher in the world," Abe said, as patiently as he could considering that he was internally seething. "Did he tell you he wants to go pro too?" This was a secret that Abe was sure no-one besides himself knew, and he wasn't entirely sure why he was trotting it out now. "He's got to learn to stand on his own."

Just like you did, Abe thought to himself.

"No, but I figured," Haruna said, loudly. The distance between them was growing with each toss, and so now they both needed to speak up some. "I've been meeting up with him lately, so he and I can swap tips."

"Huh?"

"Yeah. There's only so far a pitcher can go, taking advice from catchers, you know."

The way Haruna said that, pointing it out matter-of-factly, as a fundamental truth and not as any kind of special jab, was very, very trying.

"Why are you even helping him?" Abe asked, gritting his teeth and going for a calm, measured tone.

They continued to pass the ball back and forth.

"We're helping each other," Haruna said, seemingly unsurprised by Abe's question. "Hey, did you know that he's got a pitching target at home he's divided nine ways? And that he's got five different kinds of pitches?"

Did he...? Was Haruna serious? "I... can't believe you even just asked me that."

Anyone else might have heeded the note of warning embedded in Abe's tightly worded statement. Haruna simply grinned. "To answer your question, I'm helping him because I can. And because I want to. And because I can get something out of it. Does that annoy you?"

Very. "Not at all."

For a moment, a slight breeze kicked up, a short blast of extra cool air. Once it ended, the air seemed comparatively stuffy and close, and Abe felt strangely stifled. Haruna had plucked Abe's latest toss from the air using his glove, and instead of returning it, he looked Abe over thoughtfully, a top-to-bottom evaluation.

"Mihashi told me everything, you know." There was no longer any note of amusement in Haruna's voice.

Yeah, well, duh. "So?"

"So, don't think I'm here just because he asked me to be here. Or that I'm only doing what he wants me to do."

All-out war. Abe ground his teeth. He'd almost forgotten. This was all-out, total war.

"I wouldn't dream of it."

Crossing his arms, Haruna leaned back a bit. Again with the annoyingly speculative once-over. "Okay." He then looked to the side, and then pointed over to the home-team bleachers. "Let's sit."

"Tch. Fine." Reluctantly, Abe followed Haruna's lead. He didn't like that Haruna was dictating this whole encounter, but Haruna had been dictating each and every one of their encounters since the first day they'd met, so it was hardly a new experience.

If he were simply at war with Haruna, Abe would surely lose, but then Abe wouldn't care, because he'd stopped caring about that a long time ago.

But this war was a proxy war. It was really a battle against Mihashi. A battle to get Mihashi to let go, and admit that he could do better without Abe in his life.

It was a war Abe fully intended to win.

And really. What the hell was Mihashi doing, anyway, revealing all of his secrets to the enemy? Did Mihashi not remember that Haruna was from a rival school? That was total tactical idiocy.

Perhaps Mihashi was under the impression that he needed to use bait to get Haruna on board with his abduction scheme, or worse, maybe he'd been hoping that Abe would be so aggravated upon hearing about this lapse of judgement, that Abe would go running back to take over where he'd left off, managing Mihashi's life the way Mihashi so obviously enjoyed having it managed.

The idiot. He was such an idiot. Why couldn't Mihashi have as much faith in himself as he had in Abe?

At the very least, Mihashi deserved that faith a lot more than Abe ever did, or could.

As was Haruna's common practice, he went all the way to the highest bleacher and sat right now in the middle. As was Abe's, when dealing with Haruna, he took a seat one step down and a little to the side, so that he wouldn't have to look at Haruna's face. It was always best not to have to look at Haruna's face.

Abe set the borrowed glove down beside him.

Once he sat down, Haruna kicked him lightly in the back. "Not there," Haruna complained. "Don't sit there."

Abe didn't turn around. He leaned forward, putting his forearms on his knees. "Deal."

As in, "deal with it." He knew where Haruna wanted him to sit. No way would Abe even consider it.

Haruna kicked him a couple more times, light taps to the middle of Abe's back, in that area where he happened to be somewhat ticklish. Abe had never revealed this secret to Haruna, but sometimes he suspected that Haruna had figured it out anyway, considering how he always knew to aim right for that one spot. Abe closed his eyes, and gritted his teeth, waiting for the assault to end.

"Stingy," Haruna murmured at last.

Damn right, he was stingy. What did Haruna care, really? Haruna liked teasing him, that was all. He had no interest in anything besides that.

As if to underscore this point, Haruna reached forward to ruffle Abe's hair from behind, with that deceptive fondness of his. Abe did his best not to flinch.

"I can't believe you're not going to be there when I cream your pitcher," Haruna said. "You might not care, and he might not care, but I'm kind of pissed off. Don't you have any idea how much I had to go through with your manager, to get her to agree to letting us have the first practice match of the season?"

"Oh?" Shinooka had never mentioned that she'd fought the idea. Abe felt a warm flush of gratitude towards her. Surely she must have known it was a losing battle, since all Haruna had to do would be to go above her directly to Momokan. The fact that she'd tried anyway was a testament to her loyalty, and Abe couldn't help but appreciate it.

"You're such a dick sometimes, Takaya. I hope you know that. That girl hates me, I can totally tell, and was really stubborn and reluctant even to talk to me. I could tell you've totally prejudiced her against me, which is a shame because she's actually pretty cute."

"Is she?" Abe asked, is his best dickishly bored fashion.

"She is!" Haruna sounded outraged. "Don't make cute girls hate me, it's very unfair!"

"Why is it unfair?"

"I'm tired of losing out to other baseball players when it comes to girls, that's why!"

Huh, whatever. Abe was sure there was some story behind this but he couldn't really care less. "I guess you're right. Chiyo-san is pretty cute, isn't she?" he said, returning to that bored tone.

Sounding bored was about the only defense he had against Haruna, and usually it worked, if only for a little while.

"Don't tell me you-!" Haruna inflicted Abe with the kind of noogie action that Abe preferred using on Mihashi. "Arrgh, Takaya, you...!"

"No, we're not dating," Abe admitted, but only after Haruna was done messing around with his head. It was kind of amazing that Haruna had never figured out how little interest Abe had in girls. "She's not my type."

"I'd love to know what your type actually is," Haruna said, proving Abe's point. "Didn't you say she's cute?"

Yeah, in the way kittens were cute. "You want to ask her out? Go ahead. But is that what you brought me here to talk about?"

"No, it isn't!" Haruna seemed to suddenly remember his purpose. "I was really looking forward to playing you and your team! How dare you deprive me just because you've got some bug up your ass about Mihashi?"

"It's not about Mihashi. It's about ethical principles."

"Ethical principles my ass! All I can see is that you're being a dick to Mihashi, just like you're sometimes a dick to me and everyone else, and there's no good reason why. So what if you got beat up? Worse has happened to you during games... hell, worse has happened to you when you were learning to catch my pitches. You've always been ridiculously stoic, so what gives?" Haruna sounded annoyed. "I thought he was different to you, somehow."

Different to him. Yes, Mihashi was certainly "different to him." Abe felt his chest tighten, and for a moment it was difficult to breathe, and his nose itched. "What I'm doing is for his own good. You don't know. You have no idea."

As probably was to be expected, Haruna slipped down to Abe's level, sitting himself down on the bleacher right next to him, wrapping an arm around Abe's shoulders and getting uncomfortably close. Abe hated that Haruna was able to get into his space so easily, and he hated that Abe always felt constrained not to fight back, because the last thing he'd want to do would be to hurt Haruna's pitching arm. Even if Haruna was no longer his ace, Abe felt an obligation to protect him, if only to this small degree. It was okay to squirm, and to struggle a little, but Haruna knew that unless he pushed all of Abe's buttons at once, he was safe. Haruna had only ever gone that far that once, and Abe knew he'd never go that far ever again.

"I don't believe Mihashi knows the whole story," Haruna said, speaking right into Abe's ear. "He doesn't think you've told him anything, really, and I'm inclined to agree, since I know you."

"It doesn't matter. What's done is done." Abe closed his eyes, and tried not to feel the warmth of Haruna's arm as it seeped into his back. Haruna was not Mihashi.

Haruna was not Mihashi.

"So? Maybe you're right. Maybe you're done with baseball, and Mihashi, and me, and everyone... for good. But tell me the truth, at least. And tell me all of it. Otherwise I'll never forgive you, and I'll start by stealing your bike." Haruna's voice was still jocular, but Abe could sense the cold, threatening Haruna Motoki underneath... the Motoki-san he first knew, and who existed within Haruna still.

The Haruna Motoki that Abe once had deeply, deeply admired. "Okay," Abe said, swallowing, giving up. "Although if you steal my bike you can forget about the systemized storage space..."

"Shut up about the systemize storage space. Only you care about that." But Haruna sounded pleased, as well he should, since he'd won yet another round.

Haruna stopped crowding Abe, removing his arm from Abe's shoulders and moved to now sit one bleacher below him, looking up expectantly. Abe swallowed once more. He was being forced to look at Haruna's face. And worse, even though Haruna was no longer touching him, the scent of his cologne still lingered, the same cologne Haruna had used back in Seniors, a spicy, wooden scent that was actually quite pleasant despite being undoubtedly crass.

Abe began directly, telling the full story much as he had to the principal and Momokan, but without the attendant rage and cruelty. Haruna listened, intent, the smirk wiped from his face early on, but maintaining an otherwise neutral expression. He nodded a few times, and frowned once, but that was all. Abe appreciated the lack of emotional response, it made it easier to talk... and somehow, it wasn't difficult to talk to Haruna, despite everything.

"And that's all of it," Abe concluded, with a small sigh.

"Hmm." Haruna crossed his arms. "You know-" He stopped, closed his mouth, then opened it. "You know, so, yesterday... you'll find this hilarious… it took me and my dad over two hours to get that bike rack attached to his car."

Tilting his head to the side, Abe leaned back. Of all the potential reactions he could have anticipated, a completely unrelated story was not one of them. And yet, it did make a kind of logical sort of sense. At least where Haruna Motoki was concerned. "Yeah?"

"Yeah." Haruna held up the index finger of his pitching hand, arms still crossed. "Normally we don't use it."

So, Haruna had prepared ahead of time, knowing he was going to commander Abe's bike. And he'd invested a fair amount of effort in the task. That was nice of him. "Two hours?" Abe asked, raising an eyebrow. "Seriously?"

Involuntarily, Abe began to stand, feeling a sudden urge to look out towards the parking lot, or maybe to walk over there and check out the apparatus, just to confirm that two hours indicated a ridiculous level of ineptness. Haruna's dad was some kind of hotshot corporate lawyer, and Haruna… was Haruna. Of course it would take them forever to do something basic but mechanical.

Of course. Unfortunately, Haruna had apparently anticipated this response, since he suddenly grinned and grabbed fistful of Abe's shirttail with his non-pitching right hand, pulling him down while half off-balance. "What the-" Abe began, as he tumbled unceremoniously against Haruna's crooked arm.

Haruna was strong, very strong. With whip speed, Haruna spun around, and for a scary moment Abe felt like he was going to fly face-first down the bleachers. But Haruna had him, and with a decisively solid and confident move, turned with the direction of his fall and used the leverage and momentum to pull Abe into his lap, into a highly undignified hug from behind. "The hell?" Abe sputtered, when he could find his voice once more. "The fucking hell?"

"Now I've got you!"

Abe looked down. Haruna's arms were tight around his waist, and Haruna was already rubbing his face in Abe's back, in that way he had been wont to do, back in Seniors. As he had before their final falling out, before they stopped being friends. Both of them were breathing rapidly, but that shit Haruna was laughing! Laughing! Again! Abe looked back over his shoulder, displeased and growling slightly. "Let go of me, you fuck!"

"Not a chance."

Haruna had tricked him. He'd totally tricked him. Abe struggled some, trying to get out of it, but knowing that he couldn't try too hard, not with Haruna's pitching arm at stake. It wasn't like he owed Haruna Motoki anything, but still, he couldn't go all the way and use an appropriate level of force. He couldn't follow through, because… to hurt Motoki-san… he couldn't.

This was Haruna's terminal advantage. It caught Abe up, every time.

"I hate you," Abe said, in a tight simmer.

"Yeah, I know," Haruna said, not seeming to care one whit.

Slowly, Abe stopped struggling, knowing that it just made him look worse when he failed to escape. What kind of plan was this? Had Mihashi really signed on- no, yes, he had to have signed on. Abe made a face. "I'm too big for this," he grumbled. "We look absolutely ridiculous. Do you have any idea of how ridiculous we both must look?"

"I have every idea," Haruna retorted, still laughing, still rubbing his face in Abe's back, like a moron.

"I hate you," Abe said again. He wanted his objections, at least, to be fully noted.

"Yeah, you said that." Haruna squeezed Abe even tighter, and it made Abe shiver and take a deep breath. "But... it's too much fun to tease you, Takaya." Haruna's voice became quiet.

It wasn't fair. Haruna acting like this, it just wasn't fair. He was so selfish, and self-centered, and gave no consideration to what Abe wanted, and never had. Abe closed his eyes. Being held like this, it made him think about Mihashi. Well, not a shock, since almost everything made him think about Mihashi. But being held like this, it reminded Abe of how much he missed his friend. His pitcher. His... his...

"I can't promise anything anymore, Motoki-san." Abe closed his eyes. "I can't. I'm done. I can't."

"Shh." Haruna stopped moving his face against Abe's back, apparently preferring just to rest his cheek there, pressing firmly. "No one is asking you to."

"But..."

"You always made too many promises, to begin with."

What the hell did that even mean? Abe sighed. For a while they just sat there, the warmth of Haruna's larger body enticing him into silence. For early spring, it was a very nice day. The breeze rose and fell, with all the inconsistency of a haggard breath. Eventually Abe opened his eyes once more, looking out at the empty field, over towards Haruna's school, off to where the baseball team was practicing, a little of which he could even see. It was a nice day. A good day.

A lonely day, because there was no Mihashi in it.

"Hey, look at that," Abe said, presently.

"Mm?"

"It's an elf invasion." A cadre of approximately two dozen elementary aged girls were skipping and running onto the field. They all looked like wood nymphs or something, dressed up like the forest.

"Oh. Oh!" Haruna peered around Abe's back, perking up instantly. "It's the Kappas!"

"The... what the fuck?"

But already Haruna was calling out, waving happily, as if he didn't have a guy in his lap. Shameless. Just like he's always been. "Hey! Kappas! Hi!"

There was an adult with the little girls, a female teacher, and she looked up and smiled, waving back. The girls all unilaterally shrieked and a handful of them came running over.

"Kappas?" Abe turned his head, asking quietly. "You know them?"

"Sort of." Haruna was leaning forward a bit, craning to get a better view of the girls climbing up the bleachers, but apparently had no intention of letting Abe go. "They're with the elementary school. Sometimes they bring snacks to practice, and for Valentines they gave the entire baseball team chocolates." Haruna was smiling. "They're big fans."

"They don't look anything like kappas." For one thing, kappas were a lot uglier.

"Shh, don't let them hear you say that!" Haruna was laughing quietly. "I dunno, they're some kind of all-around girl's club, and they do performances and go camping and help out with various clubs. You know, at the level that kids that age can help."

"Pitcher-san! Pitcher-san!" The girls were calling out, all apparently thrilled to see their high school's ace. Abe felt acutely embarrassed, not knowing how he ended up surrounded by six or seven small children, all giving Haruna adoring looks (and him, suspicious ones).

"Hello," Haruna said gravely.

"Who's that?"

One of the little girls was pointing at Abe, accusingly.

"This is my old friend, Takaya. He's a famous baseball player."

"Famous?" Abe hissed.

But already the looks of suspicion were fading. "Hello, Takaya-san!" they all called out, politely, bowing.

"Uh... hi." Abe rubbed at the back of his neck, returning the greeting. Well, it would be rude not to, right?

"So what are you guys up to?" Haruna asked.

"We're not guys!" "Practicing!" "Why is a boy in your lap?" "Did you like the chocolates?"

It was a barrage. "Practicing for what?" Haruna asked, patiently, but with a low giggle. The shit. What a total shit. Haruna seriously couldn't not be amused by things he found cute and adorable, could he?

"For the spring play!" Obviously, they felt this was self-explanatory, since the answer came with a heavy dose of exasperation.

"The famous spring play?" Abe asked, finally, after a pause. This was probably the kind of answer they were angling for.

"Yes!" They all shouted, very pleased. All suspicion vanished; anyone who thought they were famous had to be alright with them, it seemed.

"Girls!" The teacher was down at the bottom of the bleachers, clapping her hands twice for attention. "Girls!"

Now that the teacher was close, she was giving Abe and Haruna a speculative glance. But Haruna, not caring, simply waved back. "Thanks for all your hard work," he shouted out.

And with that, the teacher smiled, and bowed. It seemed that if you were shameless enough, you could get away with anything. The girls had all tumbled back down the bleachers, and were now running back to the middle of the field to rejoin their comrades. Soon the teacher turned back to her charges, getting them all lined up, and they started doing some kind of dance drills.

"Do you know everyone?" Abe asked, aggrieved, once they were all safely away.

"Almost." Haruna was still leaning to the side, enough so that he could catch Abe's eye. "I don't know your club's manager, though... technically..." he said, with a wheedling, leading tone.

"Do you honestly like her?" Abe asked, narrowing his eyes.

"I could!" Haruna's eyes had become wide, earnest. He probably meant it, too. "She's as cute as our old manager!"

Abe put two and two together. "The one who likes someone else?"

"You!" Haruna grimaced, and it was clear he wanted to attack Abe with another noogie, but this was at war with his desire to hold Abe securely, unable to escape.

The later desire won out.

Abe looked down with a sideways, evil grin, feeling somewhat smug. This kind of small victory was worth savoring, since it was so rare.

Before Abe could come up with something satisfying to say, something to expand upon his small triumph, he was diverted by another person jogging crossways through the field, directly towards them. It was that boy, that friend of Haruna's. The other catcher.

What was his name again?

"Oi! Kyohe!" Abe flinched a bit, as Haruna basically bellowed right next to his ear.

Kyohe. Was that it? The name wasn't consistent with the idea of a name nagging at Abe's brain, the name he could almost but not quite recall, but he had to presume that Haruna knew best since he was shouting with such conviction. Kyohe it was, then.

It was weird- back in Seniors, it had seemed to Abe that Haruna had no friends at all, and that he'd had a personality not unlike his own. But now it was clear that the Haruna he'd known back then had been an aberration, was not the "true" Haruna, and that thought made Abe a little sad whenever he dwelled on it for too long. He tried not to dwell on it now.

The catcher, Kyohe, looked up and waved, but instead of coming directly over he stopped to chat with the Kappas. They surrounded him eagerly, their teacher looking on with what was clearly fading patience.

"Kyohe's bringing us drinks," Haruna said to Abe, explaining in a more normal tone.

"He's skipping practice too?"

"Nope. He's just on break. I told him we'd be here."

Kyohe. Kyohe... ah right. Akimaru Kyohe. Abe knew he had the full name in his brain somewhere.

Akimaru Kyohe. Back in Seniors, Abe had not known of his existence. But now, in the present, he knew Akimaru Kyohe to be Haruna's oldest, dearest friend.

Another thing Abe tried not to dwell on.

After finishing up with the Kappas (or, as an alternative explanation, after having been shooed off at last by the much put-upon teacher), Akimaru Kyohe climbed the bleachers. He was wearing standard practice gear- thankfully, no catcher's gear- and was carrying a bag casually over one shoulder. "Hi there, Takaya. How are you doing?"

As with every previous time Abe had met this person, he found Akimaru Kyohe to be friendly, polite, and bland.

"Well, thanks," Abe answered, indifferently.

"No hellos for me?" Haruna said, crying his stupid Haruna version of crocodile tears. To Abe's eternal aggravation, Haruna hugged his arms around Abe's body even tighter. "Kyohe, are we breaking up?"

"If you ever were wondering why you have zero luck with girls, Motoki, this is why," Akimaru Kyohe said, now standing before them with one hand on his hips. He was looking down at the both of them and shaking his head in disbelief.

"But Kyohe? Isn't he cute?" Haruna was rubbing his face in Abe's back- again. Abe felt his own face go red.

It was really too much.

Not seeming at all surprised by Haruna's outlandishly bad behavior, Akimaru Kyohe bowed to Abe. "Takaya, I apologize on behalf of all of Musashino High." When Akimaru Kyohe straightened, he fixed Haruna with a judgmental glare. "And Motoki? Let the poor guy go already, you're going to traumatize him with your 'affections.'"

Something that Abe always found difficult to understand about Akimaru Kyohe was his casual, instinctive familiarity. Haruna's catcher seemed to accept as an article of faith that because Abe had once been Haruna's friend, it meant that he and Abe were acquainted, even close, despite never having exchanged a single word without Haruna on hand to serve as some kind of social lubricant and connecting touch-point.

Without Haruna, there was no doubt that he and Akimaru Kyohe would be complete strangers- but with Haruna, they were somehow friends? It was difficult for Abe to wrap his mind around the logistics of this situation, and worse, he had no idea how he was supposed to address this person, since he really didn't want to call him 'Kyohe' but felt that calling him 'Akimaru' or even 'Kyohe-san' would be rude.

At Akimaru Kyohe's prompting, Haruna finally loosened his grip on Abe. With great dignity, Abe stood, dusting himself off, and then sat down right next to Haruna.

"Takaya, true or false: does Motoki give off weirdness cooties that would cause most normal girls to run far, far away from him?" Akimaru Kyohe unzipped his bag, and started pulling out the rumored beverages, holding out a bottle of milk tea and a bottle of jasmine tea. "Also, take your pick."

With a little smirk, Abe took the jasmine, because he knew it was Haruna's favorite. "True," Abe answered, even though to be honest it had always perplexed him why Haruna wasn't more successful with women. He wasn't at all bad looking. Plus, he was a pitcher. Surely that had to count for something.

As Abe started to twist off the cap of his drink, Haruna grabbed it from him and took a swig, giving Abe the most sour, betrayed look.

"I am so not bad with women. You two are both nuts."

Abe and Akimaru Kyohe sighed, simultaneously, and then they both started after realizing they were having the same reaction.

But Akimaru Kyohe appeared to shake off his startlement quickly, replacing it with a smooth, slow smile. Handing over the milk tea to Abe, who took it without a word, Akimaru Kyohe leaned in towards Haruna, who scooted back a little. Was Haruna looking a bit disturbed? Intimidated? Surely not. "If you stopped treating girls like they were made of glass, and treated them more like you do Takaya, I think you'd have a lot more luck."

It occurred to Abe that maybe Akimaru Kyohe wasn't so bland after all.

Creepy, maybe, but not bland.

"Takaya, is that true?" Haruna looked at Abe, with wide eyes.

Abe looked down for a moment at the milk tea he was holding.

How, by the sake of all that was sacred in baseball, had they come to this? What the hell was Mihashi thinking, sending Abe off to be subjected to this?

"It wouldn't hurt," he managed, with a bit of a mumble.

Really, what else could he say?

"So, I should tease girls?" Haruna also looked down, digesting his catcher's advice. He almost seemed like Mihashi for a moment, the way he was seriously thinking it over, ticking his thoughts off with one hand. "Steal their bikes? Make them play catch-ball with me?"

"That's right," Akimaru Kyohe said, taking a seat on the other side of Abe, effectively flanking him. From his magical bag of drinks, Akimaru Kyohe pulled out a canned coffee. "If you prefer coffee, Takaya, you can have this," he said, holding it out in front of Abe.

"... milk tea is fine." To prove it, Abe opened his bottle, and took a small sip. He actually hated milk tea, but he hated coffee worse, and so it was a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils.

And... what was Abe doing here, anyway? What was the point? Stolen away so that Haruna could pester him about girls and molest him, just like old times?

Abe missed Mihashi. He wanted to be with Mihashi. Nothing could help with that feeling, nothing.

Not when Abe had a war to win.

Giving Abe a long, considered look, Haruna placed an arm around Abe's shoulders, and then leaned his head down against him. Akimaru Kyohe looked ahead, saying nothing as he popped open his can of coffee.

Eventually, Abe spoke. "Shinooka... Shinooka likes to rollerblade," he said, quietly.

Haruna just squeezed Abe's shoulders a bit more.

They sat in silence like that, for a while, watching the famous Kappas at work, until it was time for Haruna's catcher to return to practice.