"You... loved Haruna, didn't you, Abe-kun?"
The question was enough to make Abe jump no matter whose mouth it came out of.
But what made it more terrifying was that it came out of Mihashi's.
That late summer afternoon was hot and humid, but a gentle breeze found its way into Mihashi's room through the window periodically. At this moment, the air was stagnant. Abe finally felt what it as like to be like Mihashi- speechless and scared. Why had he asked this? Why now, in the middle of the study session?
"I'm...I'm sorry I said..." Mihashi began to stammer, regretting he had said anything at all.
"Don't worry about him," Abe grumbled, shaking his head and pretending to refocus on his math homework.
"I'm not," Mihashi said quietly.
"What?" Abe said.
"I'm not worried about him." Mihashi repeated, obediently.
The topic brought up great pain in Takaya's heart. He wanted to let the conversation die, but another part of him wanted to know why it had come up. Furthermore...
"...how...did you know, Mihashi?"
"Ah, ah..." he began to stammer in reply, "I'm..s...sor-"
Abe bit his lip in an attempt to be patient. Even now, after a year of working with him, it was hard to resist the urge to yell and smack him around.
"...sorry, I...know it must...be...hard to..."
"...be like that... and not... be able to tell that... you're..."
Eventually, he would get to answering the question. He just had to wait.
"...but we're friends, Abe-kun, so... I thought..."
Unfortunately, Mihashi was overloading. He wasn't usually able to say more than two serious sentences to Abe at a time for fear of being yelled at. His was constantly convinced that Abe was mad at him or upset with him all the time.
"Mihashi, relax, I'm not mad at you. Just take your time."
Mihashi exhaled. "You worked really hard, Abe-kun. To be good enough... for his pitches. And. You admired him. He was so good. You call him the worst but... when you look at him, I can tell..."
Mihashi lapsed into silent, stammering, fear again. Apparently the assurance that he wasn't going to get yelled at only lasted so long.
It wasn't a surprise that Mihashi could see through him. They had become close over the year, an inseparable team- it made their battery even stronger. He was sure Mihashi was referring to the fall tournament, when they had to play Musashino in round two. Abe was, admittedly, more than a little obsessed with beating Haruna, but then, Haruna was more than a little obsessed with showing off to Abe. He had regrettably forgotten that it was Mihashi who was being scrutinized in comparison to Haruna, not Abe, in that game. He had hurt Mihashi badly that day. The whole team was disappointed in him, and let him know it for days after.
"I'm sorry, Mihashi, for that time..." Abe said.
"N- n- no! Abe kun! Don't... you don't have to!" Mihashi babbled. "You already...that was...that's over."
During that game, Abe became so preoccupied with showing Haruna what a great pitcher Mihashi was that he forgot to consider Mihashi at all. He grossly overworked his pitcher,and in then end, they lost the game. The one place that Mihashi felt safe, felt real- the mound- was the one place Abe didn't see him that day. Mihashi became invisible again, and all Abe saw was Haruna.
"I'll never stop feeling sorry about it," Abe went on. He had really, royally screwed up, after all.
"Please..." Mihashi said, "please let... it go. I... understand."
What did Mihashi understand? Moreover, why would he? Abe had worked through blood and tears and countless bruises for the sole purpose of impressing Haruna. For the sake of becoming one- one battery. But in the end, Haruna wouldn't do his part. Abe was a tool, and Haruna never wanted to be his pitcher. He wanted to be a pitcher. It was convenient that Abe could catch his pitches, but in the end, it didn't need to be him. And that's what hurt the most.
"He hurt you, Abe-kun. If you don't... let it go..."
Abe looked up at the stammering Mihashi.
Why was he doing this? Was it for his sake? To comfort him?
"I...I need to say something selfish, Abe-kun!" Mihashi suddenly shouted.
Abe blinked the surprise out of his eyes. "I... I told you you could say selfish things, Mihashi. I won't yell."
Mihashi sat seiza in front of Abe, and bowed with his face in the floor ungracefully.
"I don't want Abe-kun to go back to Haruna!"
Was that it? Mihashi wanted Abe to forget Haruna so that he wouldn't be tempted to go back?
"Mihashi, you... don't have to worry. I'll never go back."
"But you... you l...lo..."
"No, Mihashi. You don't understand."
Mihashi choked on tiny sobs.
"I don't love the Haruna that stands on the mound today. I loved the Haruna I made up when I was in middle school."
Mihashi looked up. He was very confused. Abe scratched the back of his head. He knew he had to be careful about how he explained it, or else Mihashi would end up on another planet.
"Mihashi, I..." he began, pausing to grab his pitcher's hand. "When I joined Haruna, I thought we would become a team. I thought the two of us could... become a unit, that stuck together, that cared about one another, so that we would make the best battery. I had an idea... a naive idea... that if I proved myself worthy, Haruna would love me back. But..."
Abe became a little teary, remembering how painful it was. Mihashi sensed this and squeezed his hand.
"...but the Haruna that would love me back and be my partner...didn't exist. He was a Haruna that I made up in my head."
"Mihashi, I would never join Haruna! That Haruna that would never do his part for me, or for the team. He's the worst..." He hiccuped, "The worst kind of pitcher..."
Abe gave in to the pain and leaned forward, resting his face on Mihashi's shoulder as tears came out. Mihashi lifted his hand, awkwardly, to pat Abe on the back.
Somehow, he had managed to follow what Abe had said. He understood that there was no Haruna for Abe to go back to.
Abe sniffed, and, lifting his head, rubbed his eyes dry with the back of his fist.
"Mihashi, you don't mind...having someone like me...on the team?"
Mihashi shook his head furiously. "Abe-kun is Abe-kun, no matter what he likes! Cause I like... nurses, and...Hanai-kun likes... teachers...so..."
Abe suddenly realized that Mihashi was talking about the night at camp when they had all spilled their pornographic preferences. For once, Abe was thankful that Mihashi was so simple that he could group Abe's sexual preference in with kinks like English teachers.
"Thank you, Mihashi," he said.
I'm being thanked! Mihashi thought, gleefully.
After that day, Abe did slowly begin to let go of his attachment to the imaginary Haruna. It would always have a place in his heart, but only the good part of it. Not the pain. And now that the process was underway, maybe, one day... there would be room for someone else to fill that space left from the pain with good feelings again.
Maybe, one day, it would even be the new pitcher that helped him clear out that space in the first place.