for aflyingteapot, sparklespiff, and narwhaltorte

.+.

A year back, if someone had told Haruna that his best friend's best baseball skill would turn out to be batting, he would have told them that they were nuts.

But that was back then.

At the summer Koshien quarterfinals, bottom of the ninth with a score tied 2-2, Haruna watched from third base as Akimaru fouled off yet another pitch. As with the last pitch, the crowd went a little crazy, a loud roar of approval as another hit was added to this at-bat, and Akimaru barely paused to wipe the sweat from his face before setting up yet once more, staring down the opposing team's pitcher with an eerily calm, eerily absorbed presence.

The crowd's sympathies were turning. Earlier in this at-bat, the generalized responses had been more along the line of sighs and groans with every foul. At this stage in the game, with one out and the bases loaded, and with the prospect of a tenth inning looming large, jacking up the pitcher's count just wasn't kosher. Priority went to winning... to putting the ball in play and ending it. If dragging things out had been Akimaru's goal here Haruna would have been pissed too, since he wanted to end this just as bad as anyone. Worse, maybe. His own pitch count for this game was already over 130. His arm was getting weaker, his control weaker. He wanted to end this.

Thing was, though, that Akimaru was trying. Waiting on a pitch he could actually hit with this particular pitcher was going to be tricky, and so fouling off all the ones that were a bit outside of his skill level was just about all he could do at this point. A year's worth of time had not been sufficient to turn Akimaru into any kind of batting superstar, but he could usually at least make contact. As a hitter within this tournament Akimaru was nowhere near the top in level of skill, but he did have one good skill set for batting. An amazing one, actually, and it was something he'd had all along.

One more hit. The eleventh pitch, fouled.

Another roar. Yes, the crowd was now with them, with him, with Akimaru, because now he was poised to surpass eleven pitches for this at-bat alone. Haruna swallowed, his heart in his throat. This was difficult to watch. It could all still go very, very badly, especially if Akimaru batted into a double play.

But now, Haruna's own feelings were turning. No matter what happened, this was already everything he'd wanted from his friend. It was everything he'd asked for- no, demanded- and it was everything he'd known deep down in his heart that had been there all along.

Another foul. Twelfth pitch.

Maybe Akimaru would get the ball into play. Probably not. He had to be tiring out even faster than the pitcher was. But as Akimaru set up yet again, not sparing a moment to look at Haruna still stranded just one base from home, he was already accomplishing something remarkable. Something Haruna had not expected to see before, at least not from his best friend.

Plate discipline. Pitch recognition. Strike zone judgment.

These were Akimaru's skills. And he'd had them all along.

.+.

"Come on. Are you serious? What the hell was that?"

Haruna was infuriated. And as usual when he was infuriated, everyone knew it.

Sheepishly, Akimaru shrugged, as if that were an acceptable response in this or any universe. Akimaru was practicing catching with the freshman reserve pitcher, Tsuji, and as usual Akimaru just sucked. It was a mean thing for Haruna to think, but true: Akimaru was simply terrible with strategy, even as a catcher, and it really showed when he was catching for anyone other than Haruna.

He was more than terrible when it came to strategy, actually. A better way to phrase it would be absolutely useless, and already the backup pitcher had twigged onto the fact that if he'd wanted to get outs with Akimaru he'd need to be the one taking over the lead, even though that was technically Akimaru's job and was therefore something he should have some kind of informed opinion on.

It was already nearing the end of autumn, and as expected Musashino's team had fallen out of this tournament early, since all they had now were second- and first- year students at a school that would normally be ranked quite low. The fact that they'd fallen out of competition couldn't be helped, and Haruna had never been the sort to waste time wangsting over what couldn't be helped.

Already he was looking forward to the spring, and now that he'd been made the captain it was his job to make sure everyone was on board with the training, a brutal level of training that most of his teammates were all too happy to participate in.

"Again." Haruna crossed his arms. He was turning into a humorless grouch, he knew it, but goddammit, this was important to him.

For some reason, for some goddamn stupid and idealistic reason, Haruna had thought that maybe, maybe Akimaru had started to get with the program after the end of the summer tournament. It had truly seemed like Akimaru was starting to understand that his participation mattered, and Haruna had felt it to be a stroke of genius, of generous, amazing genius when he'd decided magnanimously to allow Akimaru to start using signs, reasoning that maybe Akimaru simply was hurt that he'd never been allowed to participate in the battery's decision making before.

But now he remembered exactly why he'd taken that decision out of Akimaru's hands in the first place, long ago when they'd just been kids playing baseball just for the hell of it.

Was Akimaru even thinking? That poor Tsuji usually had to shake off at least two signs each time before some halfway acceptable pitch crossed Akimaru's mind. Haruna had tried recently, once, to do the signs thing with Akimaru, wanting to test out where his level of thinking even was, but that had been so aggravating that he'd cut the exercise short before he could come to any useful conclusion. Haruna couldn't take it; Akimaru just seriously didn't care.

Haruna would have loved, loved for Akimaru to show at least a little spark of motivation here, even if he had to give fifty signs to do so. But that jackass just sat there, casual-like as if he were out to tea and not in the middle of an important training session, and by the time he got to whatever sign Tsuji liked, the pitcher looked frazzled, momentum clearly shot, nerves frayed. The pitch turned out to be a ball.

Natsume, the second-year shortstop who was currently standing in at bat, turned to give Haruna an agonized look. Yeah, Haruna could totally sympathize with that. He wanted to commiserate, since Akimaru's annoyingness at baseball was legendary, but instead he just pointed back at the pitcher. "Again."

What was clear to Haruna was that this experiment with Tsuji couldn't be allowed to go on much longer. Tsuji wasn't nearly as good as Haruna, of course, but for a freshman pitcher he was pretty decent, and most importantly he was into it. He wanted to win. Tsuji deserved a catcher who felt the same damn way.

Eventually Natsume's at-bat ended, with three strikes, no thanks to Akimaru.

The next batter stepped up to the plate.

So. Haruna was already moving on mentally, deciding to kill off any expectation or hope that he might have had that Akimaru would be able to catch for anyone other than himself. If that wasn't going to happen then Haruna would seriously have to consider switching up the freshman backup catcher to the regular slot instead. Someone other than Akimaru needed to work with Tsuji, and Haruna needed someone more reliable that he himself could work with, too. Akimaru would probably be offended and hurt, but at this point that was not Haruna's problem.

Haruna called time, and walked over to Akimaru, who was already giving him that wary look that Haruna had learned to loathe. How dare he react as if Haruna was bullying him here?

"Problems?" He asked, all sarcastic.

"Ah..." Akimaru rubbed at the back of his catcher's helmet, smiling self-effacingly. "This is harder than I thought."

No shit. Baseball was hard. That was kind of the point.

Having committed himself to bringing out Akimaru's seemingly non-existent motivation, for the sake of his seniors who had worked so hard for their team, who were still at Musashino even though they'd retired from playing... for their sake, Haruna swallowed down some of his rage, and made a stab at smiling, even though he knew he was starting to take on that scary aura he'd had back in middle school. He was sure that his smile, which felt so brittle and twitchy even to him, probably wasn't especially helpful here. But it was the best he could do. "Is there anything you think you can do to improve?"

Anything. Seriously. Anything. Haruna didn't expect miracles.

Akimaru sighed. "It would be easier without signs," he admitted. "I know I'm slowing things down, otherwise."

Easier without the signs? He'd actually said it, out-loud and everything? Haruna took a deep breath, bristled. "But that's not going to happen now, is it?"

"Well..." Akimaru paused. He looked a bit nervous, for some reason. "I think I could..."

"It only works with me!" Haruna said, making a fist, just on the edge of shouting. "Be realistic. What are you going to do with him?" Haruna pointed off towards the mound, where Tsuji was still standing, looking kind of like he didn't want to take any part in this quarrel between Haruna and his stupid-ass catcher. His stupid-ass best friend.

"No, I mean..." Akimaru's voice trailed off. He still sounded nervous, but thoughtful, as he looked off to where Haruna was pointing. "I think it might work with him too."

What was he, a moron? "It took you years and millions of pitches, my pitches, to get to that point. You've been catching with Tsuji for what... a week? How the hell...?"

"I can do it," Akimaru said, a bit more quietly, but also with some kind of quiet, gathering resolve. "At least, I think I can..."

"What?" Haruna didn't make any pretense to not be shouting, now.

"I feel like I can tell. Where Tsuji's going, I mean. What he wants to throw..."

"If you feel that way, sign it."

"No." Akimaru closed his eyes, shutting out Haruna even while talking to him. "What I mean is that I can read his stance. I didn't think it worked with anyone but you, either... but."

"Huh!" Oh great. Now Haruna felt just like Takaya, that nag.

Remembering how Takaya had always used to scold him, Haruna took a deep breath, and rubbed at his forehead as if soothing away a headache. He really, really didn't want to be like that. Before Akimaru could respond to Haruna's 'huh,' Haruna continued. "Okay. Fine, whatever." He took another deep breath. "Show me."

This was almost certainly fated to end in miserable and embarrassing failure. But it was Akimaru's funeral. If he wanted to humiliate himself that way, he could go right ahead.

Haruna stepped away, and signaled for the other batter, Hyata, who was next up, to follow him away from the batter's box. He called out to Tsuji. "Throw what you want, without signs." Haruna followed that up with a glare to Tsuji, one with the unspoken subtext that Tsuji had better make it as tough as hell. Tsuji appeared to gulp, and nodded. He got it.

The first pitch was a fastball, outside lower corner. Akimaru caught it.

The next was a fork, with a rapid terminal drop off.

Akimaru caught it.

Next was a changeup, right at the edge. Akimaru... caught it.

Tsuji threw pitch after pitch, and somehow... somehow... Akimaru caught them all.

Everyone on the team was staring, wide-eyed, having stopped whatever they were doing to watch. The creepiness of Akimaru's no-sign catching had been pretty much accepted by everyone as an article of faith, and it had annoyed Haruna to no end to be teased about how this meant that he and Akimaru had some kind of mental mindlink, a special spiritual bond. But if Akimaru could do that with someone who wasn't Haruna?

It stopped being creepy, and started being...

Haruna wouldn't let himself think it.

In fact, Haruna didn't feel his anger dropping off at all. Instead, he felt increasingly tense. His chest was tight, his stomach was flipping unpleasantly, his hands tingled, numb.

"Wow!" Tsuji shouted, with the hugest grin, after Akimaru caught yet another one of his tougher pitches, all without signs. "That's so... wow! Senpai, that's so cool!" And before Haruna could tell him not to, Tsuji ran off the mound in order to conference with his catcher, a completely ridiculous move that only worked because they were in practice... but was ridiculous, even then. The other teammates also broke rank to go circle around Akimaru. They seemed happy, probably relieved that they had something legitimate to praise him for, for a change.

Legs feeling heavy, like lead, Haruna also walked over to home plate, slowly.

He should be happy too, right? He should be relieved? Even if it probably didn't matter much in terms of improving their team, shouldn't Haruna be glad that Akimaru had one portable skill, one that didn't depend on Haruna in order to work? At least one? It was a trick, nothing more, only a throwaway talent, one that didn't seem to buy Akimaru very much on its own. Haruna couldn't see what everyone was making such a big fuss over.

Although... he grudgingly had to admit that if he'd come across any catcher who wasn't Akimaru who could do that no-signs thing with him... well. He'd be pretty happy too.

Akimaru was still crouching, but upon Haruna's approach he stood up, and the smile on his face was very genuine. "I can't believe it, but I did it!"

"That you did." Haruna said, quiet and a bit wry.

Akimaru blinked. "Isn't it good? I know it's not as useful as strategizing, but if I can keep that up, at least I wouldn't be a drain..."

"I know," Haruna said, cutting him off. Why did he feel so irritable? With effort, Haruna smoothed over his prickly mood. "It's good," he said, nodding decisively. "Yes, it's good."

"Oh." Akimaru's smile dropped, but instead of becoming downcast he followed up with a slight smirk, seemingly becoming bored with this line of talk. "Well. I'm still going to work on strategy, of course... and blocking... and batting... and running... and sliding..." Akimaru looked around at everyone, ticking off his failings in that self-disparaging way of his that made him seem so gregarious and laid back. Everyone laughed. Everyone other than Haruna, anyway.

"Yeah, you do that," Haruna said, aiming for the same kind of friendly, laid-back tone that made Akimaru such a hit in school.

No one laughed.

"Don't worry, I will," Akimaru said, shrugging. Again with the shrugging. He really didn't care about this at all, did he?

Before this could turn into a fight, the freshmen stepped in, with their trademarked naive silliness. Haruna usually found them very adorable, but right now he would probably prefer it if they'd kept their big mouths shut.

For instance Hyata was sighing, sounding wistful. "I wish I could read pitchers like that. I'd have it made. That'd be totally bank."

Another first year, Watanabe, was in agreement. "Yeah... no more stressing out. Easy street all the way. Although," he frowned at Akimaru. "Senpai? Can you only do that as a catcher? You can't read pitchers while at bat?"

That caught everyone up, and the commentary ceased as all became curious to hear the answer.

Yeah right. Of course he couldn't. There was no way. Just no way. Just- "Um," Akimaru put his hands behind his head, back to that stupid sheepishness of his. "It never even occurred to me to try."

It never-

For a moment, Haruna saw black. Literally, his vision darkened, the world went dark.

He'd never even tried? It had never even occurred to him to try?

When the light returned to his eyes, Haruna was surprised to note that everyone had backed away from him, giving him a very large amount of space. Akimaru for his part was looking at him worriedly, with concern but completely lacking in the appropriate level of terror he ought to be feeling after dropping that kind of bomb.

"You never tried?" Haruna asked, and the other players backed off even more.

It had been such a long, long time since he'd felt this level of anger. Such a long time.

Akimaru was leaning back, giving Haruna an up-and-down glance. "Um. Let's go somewhere else to discuss this."

How dare- what? Haruna was spluttering. "Here is fine." Did Akimaru seriously think he was in any position to set terms?

"No it isn't. I'm not going to let you yell at me in front of all of our teammates. Come on." Akimaru made a little 'after-you' gesture. "You can yell at me just as well in private."

The nerve of him. The freakin' nerve. How dare he say that? Even if it was true, to admit it point-blank, with zero remorse... where did he find the nerve? Especially after all the hard work Kaguyama and Ookawa and Machida... damn it. Damn him. Haruna was seriously angry now. Didn't Akimaru even understand the implications of what he was saying...? That if it had only occurred to him to study the pitchers, maybe his batting would have been better, and maybe they wouldn't have had to lose against ARC, or do so poorly this fall... or.. or...

"Come on," Akimaru said even more softly, taking Haruna's arm. "You can yell at me as much as you want, let's just go somewhere else first."

Haruna felt it was to his credit that he didn't just belt Akimaru right in the face, right then. Instead all he did was brush off Akimaru's touch, flicking away his hand as if removing a pest. He... Haruna let his gaze stray over his teammates, who were all giving him that terrified let-down Takaya look, so he took a deep breath. He needed to be calm, somewhat, for their sakes. "Here, or not at all," Haruna said, becoming cold as an antidote to being furiously hot. "We'll talk here, or not at all."

Akimaru stopped, became utterly still. He was giving Haruna a searching look, and Haruna just glared right back until Akimaru finally looked away. "Fine," he said, and Haruna started to relax some, but then... bending down, Akimaru started removing his leg guards. "I'm going home."

The twisting, oppressive, very tight sensation in Haruna's chest returned, full force.

Silently, oh so very silently, Haruna stood there as Akimaru took off his catcher's gear, piece by piece, dropping it all carelessly on the ground. Haruna said nothing as Akimaru turned off and walked away, leaving behind all his gear. He watched but did not follow as Akimaru left the grounds, and the rest of the Musashino team stayed quiet too, quiet until Akimaru was completely gone.

"Here, I'll get those," said Tsuji, bending down to pick up the catcher gear. "I'll, um, just take these back to the dugout. Right?" He looked up at Haruna, but Haruna was still glaring off into the distance and barely noticed. "Right."

As Tsuji scurried off to take care of Akimaru's abandoned gear, the rest of the team all came in close once more, offering reassurances and pats on the shoulder and other encouraging words. It took a little bit, but eventually Haruna was able to gather himself, and put on the cheerful smile that usually was so natural to him. Soon he was back to normal, more or less, cracking jokes and teasing the freshmen mercilessly, and soon everyone was happy, back to being a team.

A team that didn't really require Akimaru's presence to function. A team that didn't really need Akimaru at all.

.+.

The thirteenth pitch brought the second strike.

With only one ball under Akimaru's belt, this was very much becoming a pitcher's count, but to the crowd that didn't matter at all. The cheers for Akimaru were resounding.

After all, even one ball meant that there was a chance for the pitcher to crack. This pitcher wasn't throwing purposeful balls to Akimaru. No-one did, anymore, except on those rare times when they thought it might be good to test him out and see if his strike zone judgment was really as good as everyone said. Invariably, it was.

With very rare exceptions, Akimaru practically never swung at balls. Presuming he was up against a pitcher he'd researched, of course.

To prepare, all winter Akimaru had spent hours every day holed up in his room, watching game video on his computer. Haruna had visited him sometimes to watch along with him, and a few times he'd tried to get Akimaru to explain what he was seeing, but it never made any sense to him... how was it that for one pitcher, an "angry look" meant a curveball, probably high, whereas a "smug and somewhat less angry" look meant a slider inside, and a "very angry but also kind of happy" look meant a fastball straight down the middle?

Akimaru had even tried to explain it using video that he had of Haruna, but as far as Haruna could tell his own scowl was pretty much always the same no matter what he was pitching.

It all had sounded like a load of nonsense to Haruna, but after bitching about it to Takaya he'd ended up subjected to a very long and stultifyingly boring lecture on "unconscious competence," which Takaya had claimed was some psychological concept he'd learned from his team's advisor but which Haruna actually knew was because Takaya was just that much of a giant dork.

About all that Haruna understood was that Akimaru had probably honed these skills while catching for him, without signs.

Under the punishing August sun Haruna felt like he was wilting. How long had this at-bat been going on now? It had to have been for at least ten minutes. Haruna was so thirsty. So incredibly, terribly thirsty. He licked his lips; they were dry. His mouth felt so parched.

And all he was doing was just standing around, watching and waiting for a ball to fall fair.

On the fourteenth pitch, Haruna almost gasped along with the entire audience when Akimaru let the ball go by without swinging. After a tense pause, the umpire shouted "ball!" and the crowd erupted into cheers yet once more.

Two balls. That had to have been a pitcher's error.

The pitcher was wilting just as much as Haruna was. And he was working a lot, lot harder.

Haruna was ready. He was ready to run. No, he was ready to sprint. The sweat might be pouring down his back and he might be almost dizzy from standing for so long in full uniform in the early afternoon sunshine, near the end of a brutally tough match... but if the ball fell fair, Haruna would run. He would definitely, definitely not let Akimaru's efforts go to waste.

.+.

"Oi! Is it milk-plus-protein day again?"

Haruna looked up from where he was sitting, on a bench under a tree shedding the last of its leaves. The sun had just set, so the sky was a darkening dusk, but he was sitting near the front of the school inside a circle of warm sodium lamplight that had recently flickered to life. Team practice was now over so he was just hanging out, brooding and drinking a protein shake he'd dreamed up over the summer. It was getting cold, the wind picking up.

He should go home, but didn't want to.

But now Kaguyama was walking towards him, waving and smiling, still in his school uniform although he was probably returning from cram school.

"Hey." Haruna waved back, trying to sound pleasant even though he was still technically massively pissed off. "To what do I owe the honor?"

"Just wanted to see what you were up to. I figured you'd still be around." Kaguyama sat down on the bench next to Haruna. "So what's up?"

For a moment Haruna just looked at him, sidelong from the corner of his eyes. "Did someone from the team call you?"

"Hah. Yes, guilty as charged."

Musashino was full of some of the most determined busy-bodies, but Haruna couldn't fault his senpai for his curiosity or concern- in fact, it was mostly touching and he appreciated it, really, although he really wasn't much in the mood to discuss stupid Kyohe- no, stupid Akimaru, who used to never piss him off but now somehow always did. "Ah." Haruna looked off back into the distance, sipping his homemade protein drink slowly.

Well, if someone had called, then someone had explained, and so Haruna didn't feel any special need to elaborate on what had happened.

"Hey..." Kaguyama ran the knuckle of his index finger over Haruna's cheek, causing Haruna to look back at his senpai. "Yeah, that's better. Stay with me, okay?" When Haruna didn't look away Kaguyama smiled, pleased, and dropped his hand. "Don't tell me you're jealous."

"Jealous of what?" Haruna asked, honestly surprised. He was a lot of thing, but he couldn't remember a time in his life he'd ever been jealous of anyone. Let alone... "You think I'm jealous of Akimaru?"

"No... not jealous of him..."

"Then what?"

"Jealous for him, maybe? Doesn't this destroy your speciaaaal bond?" Kaguyama broke into a grin, and Haruna had to hold back a sigh. Well, at least he didn't think that Haruna was actually jealous.

"Oh come on, don't tease me. I'm not really in the mood."

"Yeah?" Kaguyama lifted his eyebrows and tilted his face up and back slightly, giving Haruna a fatuous look of total curiosity. Damn him and his wide-eyed disingenuousness.

Setting down the protein shake down in the grass under the bench, Haruna ran his fingers through his hair and then clenched his fists. "He said that it never even occurred to him to look at other pitchers like that before." Haruna shot Kaguyama a test glare, wanting to see if his senpai truly understood the outrageousness of that declaration.

Apparently he didn't. "Well, why would it?" Kaguyama asked, sounding reasonable, which Haruna really wished he wouldn't do.

"For his batting! You and I both know he's totally hopeless when it comes to batting. But if he wasn't even looking...!" Haruna was shaking, an unrealizable desire to teleport back home and strangle Akimaru personally coming over him. "How can he possibly be such a moron?"

"Well, did it occur to you?"

"I always look at the pitcher when I'm batting! I always try to figure out what he's thinking." Wasn't that obvious? Haruna wondered if this were another one of Kaguyama's private little amusements. "Don't tell me you don't do it either."

"Oh, I do." Kaguyama shrugged, sitting back with his hands at the back of the bench, stretching his legs out straight with heels on the ground. "What I mean is that it never occurred to me to tell him something like that. I bet it never occurred to you, either."

"Because it's so basic!"

The way Kaguyama was looking at him, cautiously out of the corner of his eyes, suggested that he was about to say something really annoying. "For most people, yeah. If you're like me, you probably just assumed he knew. But you don't even let him bat against you, do you?"

"Well, no. Because he's my catcher. I need him for that, there's no time to play around with batting..." Haruna paused, the annoyingness hitting him belatedly. "I don't forbid it. Jeez." What kind of tyrannical pitcher did Kaguyama take him for? "Plus, there's no point. He's already got me completely figured out. Where's the challenge in that?"

"Oh ho! That's a hell of a lot of defensiveness, right there!" Kaguyama seemed impressed. "So when was the last time he batted against you, anyway? Middle school?"

"No, earlier." Haruna frowned, thinking back. It actually had been a while, hadn't it? "We couldn't have been more than ten."

Kaguyama barked out some incredulous laughter, and Haruna entertained the notion of expanding his list of potential strangling victims to include Musashino's former ace. "You haven't let him bat against you since you were ten? My god, why?"

Haruna took a deep breath. Kaguyama was misunderstanding things completely. "Look, it was his decision, okay? He told me he didn't want to bat against me anymore."

"Why not?"

Ugh. Haruna really didn't want to think back on that time. It was so stupid! Both he and Akimaru had been so stupid, just stupid little kids. It had no bearing on where they were today. "I guess it was just no fun hitting doubles and triples, and the occasional homer, all the time."

"Whoa. He had you that good?"

"Pretty much."

"So, he was afraid of hurting your feelings or something? I guess I can see that."

Haruna thought about that one. Hurt his feelings? "What do you mean?"

"Don't tell me you don't understand." Kaguyama was still looking at him incredulously, and for a moment it looked like he was going to laugh again, but then he narrowed his eyes and stilled his features. "You... don't understand, do you?"

What was to understand? Akimaru used to gloat so much, doing all those stupid victory dances and everything whenever he got a hit off Haruna, and after a while Haruna just wouldn't put up with it anymore, and so had told Akimaru to stop being such a jerk, and to his credit, Akimaru had stopped. It had never been a problem after that. "None of that has anything to do with where we are today," Haruna said, frowning at Kaguyama. "Don't act like you know all of everything."

"All of everything- hah! I know all of nothing, according to my cram school teachers."

Kaguyama sighed, and then gave Haruna a sweet, somehow bashful kind of grin. Haruna looked away, not wanting to deal with the resurrection of Takaya-level cuteness feelings that Kaguyama sometimes inspired. It was bad to think his senpai was cute, wasn't it?

Kaguyama continued while Haruna was sorting out the cuteness crisis in his head. "All I'm saying it that it's not normal for catchers never to practice hitting with their pitchers. Whatever the reason- and trust me, I don't especially care to delve that much into your past dramas with him- whatever, all I'm saying is that if he never uses the knowledge that he has about you against you, why would you think he'd be in any position to extrapolate that out to other pitchers?"

"That's an awfully convoluted idea," Haruna said, dryly, once the cuteness crisis was over. "Maybe. Maybe you're right." He was far from convinced, but as a theory it sounded workable enough. At least it gave Haruna a reason to dial down his fury. "I'll think about it."

"Let him bat against you. Then you'll see." Kaguyama was sounding smug, now, obviously feeling like his little visit had saved the day or something.

"Hmmm." Maybe.

It was worth a try, right?

.+.

When the fifteenth pitch also turned out to be a ball, Haruna paused for a moment from his obsessive evaluation of Akimaru, to look at the pitcher Akimaru was up against.

From Osaka, Ukiyo Yuu was a formidable match. Akimaru hadn't had much opportunity to study video on him, which already made it tougher than it had been for him in the pre-Koshien tournament. His "read" had been extremely crude before the game and hadn't had much of a chance to become all that much better during it. And Ukiyo was one of those types who lived or died based on his control, and so had a very difficult habit of shooting extremely borderline pitches, ones just on the very edges of the strike zone, ones you had to go after somehow in order not to get jammed with an unexpected strike.

But Akimaru hadn't spent his winter only laying out watching games. He'd thrown himself into batting practice too, like someone obsessed, and so his read wasn't just about generating walks or jacking up pitch counts. In his own unassuming, quiet way, he was becoming pretty damn good in his own right. Not great, not yet, but then he didn't need to be all that great when he had the ability to see what was coming at him without getting tripped up in strategy or expectations.

Akimaru simply checked his brain at the door, and batted.

Haruna felt himself smirking, looking at this pitcher. Wasn't Akimaru the most irritating thing he'd ever seen? Haruna thought so too. As a pitcher himself, he could sympathize.

Ukiyo was bent over, hands on his knees, just trying to catch his breath, trying to stabilize himself before throwing another pitch with his already compromised control.

Here this guy was, dying on the mound, tired and spent, but still giving it his all because this was Koshien which was obviously the most important thing there ever was... and yet there Akimaru was, all calm and controlled even though he was obviously tired too, looking as if this didn't even matter to him- looking like he'd rather be off home, playing video games.

And the best part was that it wasn't even an act. Akimaru honestly would prefer to be at home playing video games!

And yet here he was. Destroying this pitcher, just because he could.

Haruna's smirk grew.

It was delightful seeing Akimaru's previously untapped prickishness finally put to good use.

.+.

"Hey, it's me," Haruna called out as he opened the door to Akimaru's family's apartment, walking in without knocking as per usual.

The strange wound-up sensation inside his gut was returning, so he wanted to go directly to Akimaru and get things sorted out... but after he kicked off his shoes and as he was walking through the main living room towards Akimaru's bedroom, one of Akimaru's sisters called out to him from the kitchen. "Hi... Motoki? Is that you?"

"Yeah," he said, looking over that way without stopping. He wasn't especially in the mood to talk to either of Akimaru's sisters right now, since both of them tended to look at him like their perfect teasing victim, and as he'd told Kaguyama earlier, he was in no mood to be teased.

Akimaru's oldest sister Natsuki stepped out of the kitchen, wiping off her hands on a dish towel, and smiled when she saw him. "Ahhh, I thought you'd be over," she said. "Want some ice cream?"

"What kind?" Now he stopped. Haruna knew enough not to rise to the bait implied in Natsuki's smug 'I thought you'd be over,' but was not above falling for the bait of delicious ice cream.

"Vanilla, with strawberries if you want them. I have some fresh strawberries I can cut up for you."

How could he say no? Haruna turned around and went directly into the kitchen, where Akimaru's other sister Hotaru was playing peekaboo with Natsuki's kid, Kei. It had been a while since he'd seen Natsuki, who hadn't been around as much over the past year. Haruna supposed that having kids did that to people. "Where's my ice cream?" he asked, sitting down at a stool next to the kitchen counter.

"Wait just a sec. I need to get it ready." Natsuki was as good as her word, already plopping several big scoops of ice cream into a bowl. Akimaru's sisters knew him well; Haruna wouldn't be satisfied unless his bowl was practically toppling over with dessert. "So, whose fault is it this time?"

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Haruna said, rolling his eyes up at the ceiling in feigned ignorance.

"It's been ages since you've fought with Kyohe! And don't bother denying it since he's been sulking in his room all evening." Natsuki grinned as she set down the scoop and picked up a knife. "Strawberries?"

Yeah right. Like Haruna would ever turn down strawberries. He nodded, trying not to look too eager about it since that would just make the inevitable teasing worse.

"So what happened?" asked Hotaru, looking up from her game with Kei. "We've been speculating ever since Kyohe got home."

And so it began. "It's just a baseball thing. You wouldn't care."

"Hmm. You've got that right. But it's not the baseball part we're wondering about." A suggestive leer followed.

Haruna closed his eyes briefly, feeling bitterness in his soul. The things he endured, in order to get his ice cream. "You'll never let that go, will you?"

Both sisters looked at each other and then shook their heads. "No, I don't think so," said Hotaru, with Natsuki following that up with a falsely solemn "no, we never will."

Fortunately, the ice cream was ready now, and Natsuki gave it up without any further prodding. Haruna attacked it with gusto, while Natsuki took out another bowl to pile the ice cream in.

So he'd been an affectionate child. So what? Haruna didn't think there was any problem with the fact that he used to kiss Akimaru all the time when they were just kids, because hello... they'd just been kids. Haruna had been like that with everyone, too: his parents, his sister, his cousins, the neighborhood cat... it had all been very indiscriminate. And it had always just been kisses on the cheek or whatever; kid kisses. He and Akimaru used to hold hands all the time too. It had been all no big deal until Natsuki and Hotaru had witnessed it, and it was only because of the fact that they'd collapsed into fits of helpless laughter and had teased the both of them so mercilessly ever since that it never had happened again. At least, not anywhere they could possibly see- Haruna had made damn sure of that.

It wasn't Haruna's fault that Akimaru's family was so borderline evil. He couldn't accept the blame for their dark, dark ways.

"It's so strange to think the two of you will be graduating soon," Hotaru said, but Kei made some little baby noises which distracted her from saying anything more. "Aaaah, Motoki, isn't he the cutest thing?"

As a connoisseur of cuteness, Haruna gave Kei a cool look. Smallness definitely gave him an edge but there was such a thing as too small. "He can't possibly be cute until he can talk, or better yet, talk back. I withhold judgment."

Haruna didn't like to think about the fact of graduation. Actually, wasn't that a part of what was fueling his recent irritation with Akimaru? They only had one more year together to play baseball. Only one year, and after that they'd go their separate ways. Sure, they could still be friends, and probably would, but it wasn't going to be the same. This was their last chance- their last chance to really play the way it felt they were always meant to- with each other.

He felt it, even if Akimaru didn't, and it bothered him more than he preferred to admit.

"Here," Natsuki said, just as Haruna finished shoveling down his ice cream. She was giving him another bowl, prepared exactly the way that his had been. "Take this to Kyohe, will you?"

Haruna picked up the bowl after swiping a strawberry from it, just on the principle of the thing, and stood. "Sure," he said, a little relieved. He'd eaten fast specifically to cut his time with Akimaru's sisters short, but they hadn't hazed him nearly as bad as he'd expected. Maybe they were becoming less evil in their old age. "Nice seeing you," he said, and moved promptly to leave.

"Oh, definitely... that was very educational, Motoki, so thank you."

What the hell was so educational about all that? Haruna had been extra careful not to let himself get baited and he'd hardly said anything at all!

"Have a nice visit," Natsuki added, and even though the words were all polite there was that tone... that tone! Akimaru could do that sarcastic tone too but his sisters were truly the masters.

"Don't forget to lock the door after you!" Hotaru called out as he left, sounding extremely cheerful. "You know, so you... oh nevermind..."

Okay, he was taking it back. They'd only gotten worse in their highly uncute old age.

"Your sisters," Haruna said, after walking down the hall and opening the door to Akimaru's room. As they'd said, Akimaru was totally sulking, sitting on his bed playing with his PSP. Akimaru didn't look up as Haruna shut the door forcefully behind him. Pausing, Haruna turned to lock the door viciously, and then went to sit on the bed next to Akimaru. "Look, ice cream," he said holding it out.

"What about my sisters?" Akimaru asked, still not making any motion to look up from his game. "Also, why did you lock the door?"

"They told me to! Because..." Haruna paused. He wasn't actually here to complain about Akimaru's sisters. Best not to get sidetracked. "Here," Haruna said, pushing the bowl up in Akimaru's face. "You're supposed to eat this."

"Don't want to," Akimaru said.

Were Haruna in a good mood he'd probably take that as an invitation to take over the ice cream for himself, but since he wasn't in a good mood he felt it was more appropriate to take a spoonful of ice cream and shove it in Akimaru's face. "No isn't an option," Haruna said, pressing the spoon against Akimaru's cheek after Akimaru turned away a little bit. A bit of the ice cream melted in a line right down Akimaru's face. "Eat."

When Akimaru simply continued to play his game, Haruna just shrugged (oh, was it nice to be the one shrugging for a change!) and pressed the spoon more firmly against his cheek. "I can hold it here all day. Do you really want this ice cream to melt all over your face?"

"Can't you see I'm busy here?"

About that- Haruna put the spoon back into the bowl, freeing up a hand so that he could grab the PSP. Adroitly he tossed it off to the corner of the bed. "Not anymore!" Haruna announced, becoming a bit more cheerful, since being an annoyance was his most favorite thing in life (after being a pitcher, of course). Finally, Akimaru looked at him. Haruna picked up the spoon again, and scooped up some more ice cream to press against Akimaru's closed mouth. "Open up," he said, with an obnoxious grin.

With much resentment, Akimaru finally complied, opening his mouth and letting Haruna deliver his ice cream pitch. He then swallowed, and Haruna took this opportunity to grab a bite-sized spoonful of ice cream for himself.

"By the way. Tomorrow, you're going to bat against me," Haruna added, his mouth full.

Akimaru went to retrieve his PSP, which was still beeping and making noises. He gave Haruna a long look, and then turned off the handheld console, setting it down neatly next to him. "Why?"

"Why not?" Haruna felt like he was being extra nice here, considering that he was the aggrieved party in all this. He loaded the spoon again and pushed it Akimaru's way. This time, Akimaru just took the mouthful without protest.

"I won't do it unless you have a good reason," Akimaru said, after swallowing that bit of ice cream. "You know I'd rather not."

"Yeah, because it's so boring and so easy. I know." Haruna scooped up another bite of ice cream, this time for himself. "Still, I'd like to see it."

Akimaru frowned. "That's not why I stopped batting against you. What are you talking about?"

"It isn't?" Haruna sucked on the spoon a little, becoming thoughtful. "Kaguyan thinks it's because you're afraid of hurting my feelings, but you and I both know that isn't possible. So, why?"

"What do you mean, not possible?" Akimaru was wrinkling his forehead, looking confused now. "How does Kaguyama figure into this, anyway?"

"I spoke to him earlier. He talked me down from coming over here and ripping your heart out. I think it's absolutely idiotic and moronic that you never thought about paying attention to other pitcher's habits while you're batting, but he thinks it's related to the fact that you don't bat against me." Haruna served up another bite of ice cream for Akimaru, but this time Akimaru didn't open up. "Hey," Haruna said, becoming annoyed. "This is for you!"

"I told you, I don't really want it," Akimaru said, turning his head just as Haruna was about to push the ice cream in once he started speaking. Even more ice cream smeared on his cheek, but he didn't make any move to wipe it off. "And the reason I haven't paid more attention to other pitchers is because I've been focused on you. It's not more complicated than that."

"See, that's what I thought!" For a moment Haruna was smug, but then the implications of what Akimaru was saying sunk in. "I don't like it that you're only focused on me, though."

He poked the spoon again and again at Akimaru's lips, until Akimaru finally gave up and ate his ice cream like a good boy and not like the terribly annoying person he actually was.

"Yeah, I know," Akimaru said, sullen. "That's why I tried the thing with Tsuji you know. But that didn't make you happy either, so... I don't know what else to do."

"Bat against me," Haruna replied promptly. He wasn't especially sure that this was going to be a helpful strategy in terms of Akimaru's motivation, but he had to admit that ever since Kaguyama had brought it up he was curious. It was true that Akimaru used to be so good against him- too good, as a matter of fact. Annoyingly good. But since Akimaru had given up batting against him, he soon seemed to have given up on batting in general, and turned to focusing on only his catching instead. It would be interesting to see if Akimaru's ability to predict Haruna's pitches could translate into any kind of effectiveness these days.

"Who's going to catch?"

Haruna knew that Akimaru was going to try to find excuses as a way to get out of this, and furthermore that was the number one excuse he'd anticipated. "Machida," Haruna answered, getting some more ice cream ready and then flying the spoon around like a plane at Akimaru's face. "I called him up before coming over, and he's willing to come to practice tomorrow to help me out with this."

"How's batting against you going to help, anyway? I'm sure you'll just be disappointed. Even more disappointed than you already are. I don't see the point."

"Let's just see. If you give it your best effort, I can't complain." And, considering that Akimaru was giving him that wary, bullied look again, Haruna decided to be explicitly clear. He set down the bowl of ice cream on a chair next to the bed, dropping the loaded spoon in before setting it down. Haruna was giving up on forcing Akimaru to take any more ice cream, and put a hand on Akimaru's shoulder instead. "No, if you give it your best effort, I won't complain. Promise."

He couldn't be more fair than that. Hopefully Akimaru could trust Haruna's sincerity in this, because honestly Haruna was at the end of his rope. It was so tempting to just give up on Akimaru for good in regards to baseball. To just cut out all of his lingering hopes altogether, and take Akimaru for what he was: simply a friend.

A friend who used to enjoy playing baseball with him, but who didn't anymore.

"You... you mean that?" Akimaru looked down, and to Haruna's surprise seemed to be blinking back tears. "It's okay?"

What? He was crying now? What?

"Heeeey..." Haruna said softly, and instinctively reached up to cup Akimaru's face with his hand. Akimaru used to be such a crybaby when they were growing up, and had always needed consoling for this or that accidental slight or insult, so Haruna had a built-in response system for taking care of this, but still. It had been a long, long time since he'd needed to call on it.

After all, it had been a long time since Akimaru had cared enough to cry. About anything.

"I have been trying, you know," Akimaru said, making the kind of face that suggested that he was going to swallow all of those tears by force. "It's just... it's really hard. You have no idea, since you never... it's just hard. I know I'm no good. It's been a long time since you were no good... I don't think you remember, how hard..."

The fact that Akimaru even remembered that Haruna had once been no good was something worth noting. No one else would believe it- everyone else refused to believe it, actually.

But Akimaru... if he remembered, that meant he understood all the effort Haruna had made. Maybe Akimaru was starting to get it after all. "It's good to feel bad," Haruna said, leaning in to press his lips to Akimaru's cheek, kissing him the way he always used to when they were kids. "That means you want it. All I want is for you to want it, you know... you don't have to be awesome. Just..." Haruna kissed Akimaru again. He tasted like the ice cream Haruna had smeared all over face. "Want it."

"I'm so bad at strategy," Akimaru said, a slight hitch in his voice, taking deep gulping breaths. "Everytime I think I am starting to get it, you say I'm wrong... and I probably am wrong. But I'll never be like... like Takaya, who's been studying that his whole life. You know I'll never... I can't even begin to come close. I can't fit a lifetime's worth of work into one year, it's not possible. It's impossible."

Yeah. It probably had been cruel to push Akimaru into doing signs, after keeping the decisions to himself this whole time. "I'm sorry," Haruna said, a bit repentant but not really- maybe it had been cruel, but sometimes a strong sense of futility was necessary, in order to push people in the direction they needed to go. "Let's forget about the signs for now." Gently Haruna pressed Akimaru back, until he was lying down properly. Haruna grabbed Akimaru's wrists, pinning him in place. He then kissed him again, on the lips this time.

"I don't even know what I want anymore," Akimaru continued, clearly feeling some kind of need to unburden himself. "All I ever wanted was to play with you- for you- to help you, to make you better. But you don't need me for that anymore." Haruna continued to kiss Akimaru, light kisses, one here and one there, which remained the only natural way he knew to deal with Akimaru when he was upset. It was the easiest way to calm him down, and it seemed to be working... the self-pitying complaints ceased, and Akimaru became quiet.

But then Akimaru heaved himself upwards, pressing his chest and thighs against Haruna's body.

Haruna froze. And then he swallowed, and pulled back, looking down on Akimaru with a sudden realization. What was he doing, here? Akimaru was staring up at him with wide eyes, breathing heavily, raggedly.

It wasn't like Haruna had forgotten, after all. He'd always, always know that Akimaru desired him, from as far back as it was possible for a child's innocent admiration to have turned in that direction. Haruna pretended never to notice, but of course he'd always noticed. He just had never done anything about it, since Akimaru seemed like he'd never get enough courage to act on it, and more importantly because Haruna couldn't bear the thought of having to give up on administering his rough-and-tumble affections to his oldest friend just to avoid... complications.

With some distant dull thudding sensation in his chest, Haruna realized that he also was breathing heavily. So he simply continued to look down, while Akimaru stared back up at him, and didn't pull away any further.

This was... very difficult. Akimaru was just one of many, many people who desired Haruna after all, and it had never been easy for him to decide if he just enjoyed the attention or if he could possibly ever reciprocate in kind. For the longest time Haruna had been meticulously careful in how he doled out his famous charm when it came to Akimaru, because he didn't want to deal with it, and because he resented the fact that he might ever be forced to deal with it, whether he wanted to or not.

And mostly, because... well, because he never wanted to cross that line. A line that once crossed, could never be uncrossed.

It was impossible for Haruna to know if he returned Akimaru's feelings. Haruna couldn't even tell where affection ended and desire began. But he had to decide now, fast, because the longer he hesitated the more he could see Akimaru's... Kyohe's... desire ebbing, some essential vitality fleeing from his eyes as he turned his head to look off to the side, replaced with something eerily reminiscent of the casualness and indifference with which he now played baseball, all the time.

That horrible, horrible, horrible gutted, twisting sensation returned. It was absolutely unbearable.

And so Haruna leaned back in, slowly, going back to kiss Akimaru's mouth once more, teasing it open with his tongue. He still had Akimaru pinned, so as to retain control of the situation, but used his mouth and his body to invite Akimaru to give back, pressing all of his weight and strength down upon him.

At first all Akimaru did was let go of whatever tension he was holding onto, becoming slack as his lips parted, closing his eyes. He did not fight back against Haruna's kiss but was slow to return it, engaging sluggishly against Haruna's far more decisive form of kissing. Not lazy though; nervous. Nervous of making a mistake, of doing something wrong. Hesitantly, Akimaru kissed back, and when Haruna finally pulled back enough to catch his breath, Akimaru turned his face just a little, towards him, full of caution as he pressed his lips to Haruna's cheek. "Motoki..." he breathed, shakily.

"Want it," Haruna said back, as low and as quiet as he could without whispering. "That's all. Just... want it."

"For you..."

"Not for me," Haruna cut him off. He turned to kiss Akimaru once more, and this time Akimaru wasn't so slow to open up. Haruna tightened his grip on Akimaru's wrists, and as they kissed Akimaru slowly started grinding up against him. Akimaru was definitely aroused, and Haruna was becoming hard now too, just based on all that friction alone.

It definitely wasn't unpleasant.

When they finished that kiss, Haruna nudged Akimaru's cheek with his nose, getting him to turn his head so that Haruna could nip gently at his ear, and then kiss down his chin to his neck. He nipped at that too, little bites over the tendons in Akimaru's neck. "For yourself," Haruna murmured.

"But for myself, I want..." Akimaru swallowed; Haruna could feel it by the way the notch in his throat rose and fell against Haruna's lips. "For you, to need..." Another shivering pause. "I want to be useful, for you. But. I'm no good... you'll be..."

Disappointed? The only thing disappointing about Akimaru was how he never tried.

"What I need now," Haruna said, voice low and harsh and full of some legitimate longing, "...what I want, is for you to give me what you've got. Whatever that is, however much that is. For the next year, give yourself to me. Give me all your effort." Akimaru moaned a little. "If you do, I promise you... you won't regret it."

Haruna underlined his point by returning Akimaru's grinding actions with a little thrusting of his own.

"Okay. Okay." Akimaru was panting along with his small, held-back moans. "For the next year. Okay."

This all felt a bit manipulative, even to Haruna, but it wasn't entirely clear who was manipulating who, either, which kind of made it okay.

Probably it was a good idea that he'd locked the door after all. Haruna was getting hot. Letting go of Akimaru's wrists... but temporarily, only for a moment... Haruna sat up, and took off his shirt. They'd probably be at this for some time.

.+.

A third bad pitch became a ball, as Akimaru let it go by with almost contemptuous prejudice.

Haruna found his attention flitting between pitcher, crowd, and Akimaru, an excited anxiety taking over as he realized what this count possibly portended. A bases-loaded walk was horrendous under all circumstances, but as the gaming winning shot, after a fatiguing battle between pitcher and batter, for a pitcher it would be soul crushing. A walk-off walk had suddenly become possible, and even though it would benefit Musashino it was still profoundly frightening, at least in terms of imagination.

On this stage, to lose in that manner would be awful. The worst. Haruna couldn't even imagine what it would feel like if something like that happened to him.

Fortunately, he didn't have to. This wasn't his problem. He wasn't the one in this horrible situation.

In anticipation, the stadium became still, and Akimaru set himself up once more, doing it no differently than he had the first time he'd stepped up to the plate in this game. For him, the two strikes might as well have not existed. For him, the only thing in front of him was the pitch that was coming now.

For him, there simply was no such thing as a clutch play.

The pitcher from Osaka released his pitch, and Haruna barely had the chance to register the sudden despairing snarl on the pitcher's face before his attention shifted back to home plate, where the ball blew by Akimaru so far outside the strike zone that anyone would have passed on it. The umpire raised his hand. "Ball four!" A roar rose from the crowd.

Haruna straightened to a stand, looking up and around. He didn't even need to run. The rest of Musashino was already spilling onto the field, and the other baserunners were on their way to tackle Akimaru, but Haruna wasn't going to run. There was no way.

On the seventeenth pitch, the game had been called on a walk.

Haruna would walk.

.+.

"Are you ready for this?" Haruna asked, standing next to Akimaru on the sidelines of the practice field. He had his glove, and was hitting his fist into it, pumping himself up so as to ensure that he didn't give Akimaru any slack, despite... Haruna felt his face go warm. Despite everything they'd done the previous night.

It was best to set those thoughts aside for now.

Akimaru looked up at him, raising an eyebrow. "Yeah, sure. I'm okay."

For some reason, despite all of Akimaru's initial nerves and hesitations the night before, and despite the (surprising) level of mutual abandon that had followed, he appeared to be remarkably calm now. In a way, it was almost disappointing; was Akimaru really going to give it his all, looking like that? Was this what 'wanting it' really looked like for him?

Haruna would end up feeling absolutely furious and betrayed if Akimaru didn't give his best effort as promised, and so he hoped that Akimaru understood precisely the level of danger he was in if he didn't follow through.

Seeming to sense the mood, though, Akimaru turned and faced him directly. "Don't worry. I'm ready. I'll do as I said." He smiled a little. "Remember, I promised, too."

After a moment, Haruna nodded. It wasn't so easy, actually, looking Akimaru in the eye today.

There would be no formal practice today. The rest of the team were off doing weight training, which meant there wouldn't be any audience to complicate matters. No one would be fielding today either, other than Machida, who was getting himself into gear over in the dugout. Haruna had done his warmups with Akimaru as usual, figuring that it would be best to impose the least he could on Machida's time. A little surprisingly, Ookawa had also shown up, offering to stand in as umpire... a nice touch Haruna hadn't thought about but what would make this an even more valuable experience. Hopefully.

"Alright. Let's go, then." Haruna jogged off towards the pitcher's mound, and Akimaru went into the batter's box. After a moment Machida and Ookawa joined him, and it looked like both of them took a moment to give Akimaru some encouraging words before getting into position themselves.

It had been such a long time. Akimaru's set up routine hadn't changed since he was a kid; no flourishes, no special little routines, no swing of the bat or pointing it at the pitcher. He just took a deep breath and then lifted the bat, going directly into position. Haruna had gotten used to watching this mainly from the sidelines, although occasionally he also watched from base or right field. Seeing it again from the mound gave Haruna an uncomfortable feeling, a prickly sensation of anticipation between his shoulderblades.

Only now did it occur to Haruna that Akimaru had never actually stated his reasons for why he'd quit batting against him, years ago.

Despite not having a lot of time to prepare, Haruna had come up with a rough plan for how he wanted to proceed with this little challenge. He'd discussed everything with Machida beforehand, and Machida had agreed that Haruna's plan sounded good... at this point Haruna was all too familiar with Akimaru's general weaknesses as a batter: his upper arm strength was fairly good, but it never seemed to translate into power at bat, and on top of that Akimaru was lacking in both pull and aim. And as for bunting, he was hopeless.

So what he wanted to do was let Akimaru have his most hittable pitch to start off with, and depending on whether Akimaru made contact they would follow one of two possible paths.

A mid-speed fastball, down the center... that was Haruna's plan to lead off. For this one play there was no need for signs. Machida squatted down, bringing his glove up into position.

Haruna did his wind-up, and threw.

But before the ball was even out of Haruna's hand he felt instinctively that something was wrong; that this was the exactly wrong pitch to start, that he'd made a critical error. As it flew a sensation of dread came over him, and on reflex found himself going to his knees and then hitting the deck.

There wasn't even any time for Haruna to begin examining the source of this impulse before he saw the reason why it had come into being... Akimaru pulled his bat around on plane with the pitched ball, and within a fraction of a second the ball turned, coming directly and at high speed to the place Haruna's head had been, just moments before.

On hands and knees, Haruna twisted to look up at the sky just above him with wide eyes. That had gone directly for his head.

"Oh my god watch it," Haruna found himself shouting, strained, the words almost as instinctual as his actions.

What the fuck. His head.

Machida was already running up to him, having pulled off his catcher's helmet and tossed it onto the ground, calling out are you okay, are you okay, but Haruna turned his attention instead to Akimaru, who was standing frozen in the batter's box, appearing stunned and terrified, his own eyes wide and even from here seeming pale. Obviously that had not been intentional.

What happened when you took someone with limited control, but almost limitless read, and gave him the most hittable pitch off the bat?

Apparently, this. Akimaru had simply sent the ball back almost exactly where it came from. That had been his catcher's instinct coming into play. The error had been completely Haruna's, for not anticipating such a possible outcome. Haruna stood, dusting himself off, checking his wrist by bending it back and forth even though he knew already that there was nothing wrong there. "I'm okay," he said, feeling a bit faint. He raised his voice, calling out to his friend, and to Ookawa as well. "I'm okay!"

Akimaru simply stared, miserable and despairing.

Well, he also mouthed some words too, which Haruna presumed were words of apology. From here Haruna couldn't be sure.

"Looks like you can make contact, at least," Haruna forced himself to shout, his tone as light and as comforting as he could make it.

Haruna's heart was pounding, racing. That had been entirely his own fault.

Machida stepped to stand right in front of him. "Do you want to continue this?" he asked, voice low so that Akimaru wouldn't be able to hear. "That was so- should we continue?" Machida's gaze drifted down to Haruna's hand, and then back up to his face, clearly worried.

Should they? Haruna looked past Machida to Akimaru. Ookawa had come around front of Akimaru and had taken the bat from him, and appeared to be illustrating a better swing, coming up from under, reminding Akimaru to give the ball lift. Akimaru's startlement already seemed to be passing, as he was now concentrating on whatever Ookawa was saying with the most absorbed, intent look on his face.

Yeah, that wasn't the face of someone who wasn't taking this seriously. Plus, it hadn't been Akimaru's fault to begin with.

Haruna found himself nodding, slowly. They should continue.

"Let's go with plan B... or in this case, C," Haruna said, still feeling a bit shaky as he outlined a completely new strategy.

Plan 'C,' as Haruna conceived it, meant giving himself a chance to cool down his nerves after that close call by throwing some easy outside pitches, near to but not necessarily inside the strike zone. His precision was not such that he could guarantee one result or the other, but he liked throwing these marginal balls that ended up tempting most batters into swinging. It was a Takaya-approved strategy, in fact, and one that Haruna liked because it was so straightforward and reliable.

Machida went back to the batter's area, resuming his position while Ookawa handed the bat back to Akimaru. This new plan should be good for Akimaru too... he had to be even more stressed than Haruna right now, whatever little self-confidence he had shattered, concentration shot- Haruna halted his thoughts, taken suddenly aback as Akimaru finished setting up. Akimaru was looking at him steadily, calmly. He appeared entirely relaxed.

How the hell did he do that? Did Akimaru's emotions run by switch? What the hell?

Although- it occurred to Haruna to remember that Akimaru was always like that when catching, too. It had never seemed to matter what state Haruna was in, even when Haruna was throwing wild pitches left and right Akimaru had hardly seemed to care, just going after them wherever. It constantly bugged Haruna to see Akimaru like that, since it seemed to be proof of Akimaru's complete and utter lack of investment, but seeing him like this in the batter's box put it into a different light. This wasn't disengagement at all.

Haruna threw his first follow-up pitch. It went outside the strike zone, and Akimaru didn't swing. More impressively- or creepily, depending on one's point of view- he didn't even watch the ball as it whipped by. Akimaru's eyes remained trained on Haruna from the moment the ball left Haruna's fingertips until it was caught by Machida.

Surprising. Haruna felt his own nervousness fade, replaced with curiosity. He wanted to try something else. Something different- something Akimaru probably wouldn't expect.

For the next pitch Machida signed for another outside pitch, but this time Haruna shook it off. Machida frowned when his sign was shaken off- no wonder, Haruna was already changing the plan they'd discussed less than three minutes ago- but Machida understood Haruna well enough by now to know what sort of pitch he was angling for instead. An inside slider, not in the strike zone, and coming in close to Akimaru's body.

Yeah, that's what he wanted. The kind of pitch that could easily become a dead ball if Haruna wasn't careful.

A cruel pitch. Haruna wanted to see how Akimaru would take it.

Savoring the windup, stretching into it with the sense of pleasure that always came when Haruna was up to no good, Haruna deployed his pitch, wanting to see a flinch, a blink, a motion, an aborted swing.. anything.

But instead, the ball again went by, inches from Akimaru's flank, without Akimaru moving or even taking his eyes off Haruna.

Without intending to be so obvious, Haruna's jaw dropped.

Aaaaand... that elicited a reaction. Akimaru smiled, just a small little smile, a private smile just for him.

The smile caught Haruna short. He stood up a bit straighter, composing himself as best he could (he closed his mouth, too), but inside he was becoming increasingly flustered. Akimaru had smiled at him exactly like that the night before, but in a very different context, when Haruna was- when he was-

Machida threw the ball back, and with brutal force of will Haruna brought himself back into the moment. He couldn't let himself get tripped up thinking about things he had no business thinking about right now, such as how surprisingly nice it had been when Kyohe- when Akimaru had- no, he needed to not be thinking about that at all.

He needed a better pitch.

So, the same place. A bit more dangerous, so a mid-speed fastball, still inside. Machida seemed unhappy when he realized what Haruna was planning, which took some time because he'd had to go through a couple signs before getting to what Haruna wanted. In fact Machida was shaking his head a little in return, as if to abdicate all responsibility for what would happen next. It was okay, though. Haruna had enough control for this, and this time he wouldn't get into quite so close. It would be a bit more like a strike. Haruna did his windup, and threw.

The pitch came in just brushing the strike zone. Akimaru came around with a swing, sending the ball back directly as a foul tip... or rather, it would have been, but instead of catching it the ball slammed back into Machida's chest and he dropped it accidentally instead.

God, what was he doing?

Not Machida, not Akimaru: what the hell was he himself, Haruna, doing? Haruna had already come into this expecting that Akimaru still had a handle on him, even after all this time, and he thought that he'd prepared himself mentally for the fact that Akimaru would get hits, despite being one of the worst batters in the prefecture while Haruna remained unquestionably one of the top pitchers. In this, Akimaru's ranking didn't even matter, because Akimaru had a deep well of data on Haruna, personal knowledge that no other player could replicate. Haruna knew all this already.

So why was he becoming so easily cornered emotionally?

This lack of mental discipline was disgraceful. Completely throwback to an earlier time, when Haruna hadn't been so skilled.

Was Akimaru just that good at getting under his skin?

Crap. Screw these wimpy, cautious Takaya-level strategies. Haruna had more in him than this. If he couldn't get his emotions under control he'd just have to unleash them.

Machida was nodding now, approving of Haruna's change in bearing. Yes, this was what he needed to do. The sign Machida offered was for another fastball, his fastest, lower outside corner of the strike zone (but definitely within bounds). Haruna's speed was something that a batter of Akimaru's level just shouldn't be able to defeat, regardless of the fact that he could probably see it coming a mile away just based on how Haruna was holding himself. It would be hard for Machida to catch, but Haruna didn't even care so long as Machida avoided letting himself get hurt. This wasn't anything official, after all. Machida didn't have to catch it for it to count, at least in terms of finding the limits of what Akimaru could do with his special, magical, aggravating talent.

And, as expected, the pitch went straight through. But, as Haruna had honestly not expected, Akimaru didn't even try swinging even though the pitch had been an obvious strike. Instead, he watched the ball intently, letting it go by without making the slightest move.

It was nice that Akimaru had at least found that challenging enough to actually look at it. But why hadn't he swung, if he was so good at telling where Haruna's pitches were placed?

Haruna pressed his lips together tightly. Well, then. He'd throw another. Same speed, different place, but still a strike.

And again, Akimaru did nothing other than watch the ball.

"Come on, swing!" Haruna shouted, shaking a fist and getting pissed off now. It wasn't really trying if Akimaru wasn't swinging at these obvious strikes.

And if it wasn't really trying, then Akimaru was just being a prick. An evil, manipulative, prick.

A flash of agonized misery crossed Akimaru's face. Well, that was better. He should be upset, because no one got away with playing Haruna for a fool. No one.

Haruna would give him one last chance. Another strike, in another location, but just as brutally fast. Akimaru had better the hell at least try to swing. It didn't even matter if he couldn't make contact. He should- he needed to-

The ball flew, at Haruna's current top speed, which was just around 146 km/hr.

And Akimaru swung. He brought the bat around precisely in line with the timing of the pitch, and the ball went flying. This time, it went up... and far.

Haruna turned to watch the arc of the ball as it was speeding through the air, but already he knew what it was.

A home run. That fucker had just pulled a home run off him.

It wasn't worth watching to the end. Instead, Haruna turned around to look at Akimaru, intending to glare, intending to smother him with the withering contempt of a "see? look at what you can do when you try." But then he caught a glimpse at the expression on Akimaru's face.

He looked... happy. Akimaru was still watching the ball flying, and there was no mistaking the completely unselfconscious level of pure delight suffusing his being. That wasn't the look of someone who had gotten in a lucky hit and who couldn't believe it had happened. It was a look of utter satisfaction and pleasure, of pride in a job well done.

Oh, that idiot. That moron.

Haruna didn't need to ask anymore why Akimaru had stopped batting against him.

Looking at him make that face, that face, he knew.

The experiment could now be concluded. Haruna stalked off the mound, still feeling pissed off, but a remarkably different kind of pissed than he'd been feeling moments before. He walked directly towards Akimaru, who finally stopped admiring his hit pitch (well, it had probably fallen to the ground by now) and was now looking at him with more of that wariness, that cautious, bullied wariness. Machida was standing and making the "calm down, calm down" gesture, and even Ookawa looked concerned, but Haruna's attention was pretty much focused entirely on Kyohe. On Akimaru.

Oh, that fucker.

Haruna took off his glove, holding it to his chest with his right hand as he clapped his left hand to Akimaru's shoulder. Despite all they'd done the night before, Haruna no longer felt self-conscious, looking Akimaru directly in the eye. He caught his gaze and held it, staring grimly until Akimaru finally looked away, embarrassed. He should look embarrassed.

There was no way in any universe that it had been acceptable for Akimaru to hold himself back simply for Haruna's sake.

No way. In any universe.

And yet, it was difficult to be too hard on him. Akimaru wasn't like this out of any intentionally self-sacrificial design. He just had his own priorities, and followed them instinctively. It was all too natural for Akimaru to subjugate himself to Haruna, since that was exactly what he wanted... not just in baseball, but in life. Haruna might find it infuriating that Akimaru placed Haruna over everything else in his life, including his own happiness, but that left Haruna with only two choices of his own: either to let Akimaru go, or to accept him as he was.

Haruna had never been especially good at letting things go.

"Alright," Haruna said, after taking a deep breath. "I see." Akimaru was trembling a bit under his touch, but just a little, only enough to be felt. "From now on, your goal is to go after the pitcher."

For a moment, Akimaru looked confused... surprised. And then he broke out into the hugest, happiest grin. "Yes!" he said, and Haruna wanted to strangle him a little because it was just too, too easy to make Akimaru happy. How was it right that Akimaru could satisfy himself with so little, simply because it came from him?

It wasn't right. It honestly wasn't fair. And yet-

Akimaru had promised to give Haruna one year.

It was time to take him up on that promise.

.+.

Following the Koshien match, there had been the usual press interviews (focused more on Akimaru than Haruna though, which was a real novelty), the standard fan worship as they went off to their bus to return to school, the routine post-game breakdown, during which everyone to a man credited Akimaru with today's win.

And, as had become their habit after an official game, Haruna had Akimaru spend the night in his bedroom, as a reward for Akimaru's effort.

Haruna was really getting to like this, though, all on his own and not as any kind of reward for Akimaru. Definitely it was flattering to his ego, but it was also just plain enjoyable. There was nothing complicated about it, either: it was just nice to spend time like this with each other, making the most of their final days playing baseball together on the same team.

Dinner was over, they'd spent some time playing some dumb Nintendo Wii sports game (this was also a reward for Akimaru's efforts, since Haruna generally wasn't much into video games), and now they were just lying around. Or rather, Akimaru was lying around while Haruna sat next to him on the bed, playing with his hair and touching his face teasingly, after having confiscated Akimaru's glasses and setting them to the side.

"Tell me what kind of things you want to do tonight," Haruna said, running an index finger lightly over Akimaru's lips. Akimaru made as if to kiss the wandering fingertip a couple times, but Haruna was too fast for him and pulled his finger away at the last second every time Akimaru tried. "Ah, ah, no," he said, waving it to scold. "None of that."

"Hmmm..." Akimaru shifted a little, adjusting his body, parting his lips with a yearning sigh before continuing to speak. "Are you just going to make me tell you all sorts of dirty things only so you can laugh and end up doing none of them?"

"That sounds like an amazing plan," Haruna said, full of praise and admiration. It really was Haruna's all-time favorite strategy, and it pleased him to no end to have Akimaru suggest it now. He leaned in so that Akimaru could get a good look at him while Haruna moved his hand downwards and placed it lightly over the front zipper of his own pants, pulling the zipper down just a little. "Yeah, let's do that. Why don't you get started?"

"Oh Motoki..." Akimaru turned to press his forehead against Haruna's leg, reaching out with one hand to grope at his upper thigh, fingers curling tightly at the crux of the tendon that came up into his groin. "But I want so much..."

Haruna pulled down the zipper a bit more. "Such as?"

"I... I want you, inside me..." Akimaru mouthed the outside part of Haruna's leg, over the pants and with his eyes closed. He'd not technically gotten permission for that but Haruna supposed he'd allow it. "F-fucking me..."

Keeping the one hand over his groin, having pulled down the zipper and now lazily groping down into his pants, Haruna took his other hand and placed it over top of Akimaru's head, petting down his hair. That actually did sound nice. But Haruna was honestly too exhausted for something that energetic right now, and Akimaru probably knew that. Tricky. Very tricky, for Akimaru to ask for things that he technically really wanted but knew were already off the table to start out with. "Don't cheat," Haruna said, softly. "But do go on."

"Um... so. I want also, or well, I want to... I want to go down on you..."

Much better. That was entirely plausible. Haruna stroked himself idly, making himself get hard. "I'd enjoy that," Haruna murmured.

This caused Akimaru to groan into his leg, muffling his voice as he buried his face against Haruna's really amazing leg muscles. Akimaru also gripped at his inner thigh even harder. "Can... can I?"

"Well, no. Not this time." The whole point of this game was that Haruna would not do whatever it was that he got Akimaru to confess to wanting. That was what made it so much fun, and why it was Haruna's all-time most favorite strategy. Haruna stroked himself some more. He really loved how his dick felt when it got all hard like this. He was really lucky, to have ended up with such a great, hot dick. "What else?"

Akimaru pulled back a little, turning to look up at Haruna with flushed cheeks. He was giving him that critical, "don't be a jerk" look, but the effect was somewhat spoiled by the fact that he was breathing a bit hard, betraying the fact that he absolutely wanted Haruna to be a jerk right now. That kind of an expression made him just so weirdly adorable, which was a real accomplishment since Akimaru completely failed in the cuteness Olympics otherwise, preferring to compete for the gold medal in evil instead. Haruna just waited patiently, knowing that he was a far more virtuous person than Akimaru could ever dream of being.

"I, uh... fine. I would like... even though I know you're not up to it... for you to, to..." Akimaru buried his face against Haruna's leg again. "Um, to... tie me up."

Finally, something hilarious that Haruna could properly laugh at. He snickered, fist pumping at his dick a bit quicker. Lately Akimaru had been becoming bolder, confessing to his supposedly filthy submissive fantasies. Nothing all that lurid or shocking about the things he admitted to wanting, not yet, but hilarious because of the fact that Akimaru was reluctant to talk about preferences that were actually ridiculously obvious.

"How so?" Haruna prompted after his quiet laughter subsided, wanting to hear more hilarious things.

"Like... my hands, together."

Mmm... Haruna tipped back his head, closing his eyes. It was such a simple idea, but it brought to mind the image of Akimaru naked and straining against him, hands tied off and made useless, and furthermore tethered to the bed so he couldn't escape. Yeah, that was totally hilarious. Haruna moaned a little now, too.

"...And... to the bed."

That caused Haruna to burst out in serious chuckles, because hadn't he just been thinking that? Akimaru bit at Haruna's leg a bit, obviously not impressed with all the laughter, but Haruna just patted his head, wanting Akimaru to cool down so Haruna could enjoy his amusement in peace.

Oh, this was why Akimaru was his best friend, and always would be. Who else could totally crack him up and turn him on, simultaneously? Not even Takaya had that particular skill.

"One more thing," Haruna managed to get out in between his persistent sniggering, and his approaching climax. "Just one more thing..."

"Maybe I should tie you up..." Akimaru muttered, almost under his breath but not really.

Ooooh, now Akimaru was getting annoyed. Awesome! Haruna was shaking, biting his lower lip in order to try somehow to get his laughter under control, and because he wanted to come, was ready to come, was just about there... "M-maybes don't count...?" It was kind of hard to be stern when Haruna was pretty much dying of the giggles.

But now Akimaru let go of his leg, and with the creaking slowness of someone too aroused to function properly he sat up, and glared directly into Haruna's eyes, looking bitter, oh so bitter. Oh, Kyohe. Haruna smiled through his laughter, and made as if to kiss him, but missed for his cheek when Akimaru turned his head to the side, petulantly. Denied! Haruna bent his forehead to lean against Akimaru's shoulder instead. "One more," he breathed, pleading. "Just one more."

Reluctantly, as if in the midst of some great sacrifice, Akimaru put his arms around Haruna's shoulders, pressing Haruna's face closer to his body after gently guiding Haruna to turn his head so that it was his cheek down on Akimaru's chest. Haruna was panting now, and the laughter inside him eventually washed away as he stroked himself more aggressively. Akimaru was kissing the top of his head now, being tender and sweet which was totally against his nature.

"Okay," Akimaru murmured. "If that's what... well. Whatever. I want... I want to hold you, like this..." Akimaru hugged him a little tighter. "And kiss you, like this..." He leaned down to kiss the top of Haruna's head once more. "And I want to watch, and help..." Akimaru reached out, and put a nervous, eager hand over top of the hand Haruna was currently using to jerk off. "Like this. And mostly, well... I want to enjoy you."

How could Haruna forbid any of that? Even if he was in any position to do so, why would he want to?

And so, overheated and excessively stimulated, Haruna gave up trying to be witty and just concentrated on his wonderful dick, the one that Akimaru had such a huge boner for, the one that Akimaru had pretty much sacrificed all of his baseball dreams for to follow, back in the day.

The most hilarious part of all of this? Akimaru was almost certain to parlay his Koshien success into admission into one of the Big 6 college league teams, and four years from now would "spontaneously" decide to go pro. So long as he learned to bunt, finally, and gave up on all aspirations to be a catcher, he'd do amazingly well.

Talented people were just like that: they could go eight times as far on a quarter of the effort. Akimaru probably didn't even realize now that this was his probable career trajectory, but Haruna knew it, because he knew his place in Akimaru's life, and he knew that Akimaru really had no choice but to do his best to try and follow him, wherever he went.

Akimaru was such an idiot, really.

But at least he was his idiot.