I suggest that anyone who reads this have some knowledge of baseball. "Cross Game" was an amazing story. Knowing some baseball would definitely help the reading experience! READ AND REVIEW!
Disclaimer: I do not own "Cross Game," its story, its characters, names, etc. I am expanding on a pre-created plot and no copyright infringements are intended.
I: More Than Anyone
Koshien Stadium. It was the bottom of the tenth inning, yet another extended game. His team had just scored four runs at the top of the inning, though. It was up to him to close it out.
"One more out!"
"One more out!"
"One more out!"
Sweat streamed down the sides of his face. Everything seemed hazy from the humidity. The stadium crowd continued to chant the same three words over and over. Despite being covered with layers of dust and grime, he felt as fresh as he possibly could. He felt as if all eyes were on him at the moment. In fact, all eyes were on him.
The starting outfielders, Yashiro, Mitani and Hama gazed in, their legs loose and ready for action. But none of them leaned in any direction. They merely looked in as if they themselves were spectators of this game. For some reason, none of them felt as if the ball had any chance of soaring in their direction.
Daiki Nakanishi, the third baseman, took one step in, as if waiting for the batter to bunt, even on a two-strike count. It wasn't completely illogical. Nakanishi knew very well the batter had a better chance getting on base with a safety bunt on two strikes than freely swinging against this pitcher. He took a step back, back level with the third base bag. There was no need anymore.
Keiichiro Senda, the shortstop, smiled gleefully as his feet shifted side-to-side with hasty energy. He was ready for the ball. He wanted the ball to sail his way so he can show off his dazzling reflexes and footwork. But deep inside, he had a feeling that the ball won't even get close to him. At least, not in the way this game had been going.
The starting second baseman, Ehara, tapped his gloves and eased himself alongside the second base bag. No one was on base. There were two outs. He smiled to his pitcher's back, confident that he can play this last out without his glove.
Yuhei Azuma, the first baseman, stood with his arms crossed and his chest held high. He wasn't even in position. He was standing on the first base foul line, peering toward the mound with his deep, serious eyes. He was walked four times in the first nine innings. But after the hitters before him loaded the bases at the top of the tenth inning, the opposing team had no choice but to pitch to him. Instantly, the scoreless tie was broken when Azuma, arguably the most feared clean-up hitter in the league, launched his grand slam home run. Now a smirk crossed his lips as he waited for his pitcher to finish the game.
Osamu Akaishi, the catcher, glanced toward the dugout at the coach before pointing at the ground. He signaled for a fastball. Akaishi's eyes stared forward without a blink. Unconsciously, he nodded in silent agreement with both himself and the pitcher. This fastball was it. Akaishi knew it. His pitcher knew it. They've been battery-mates for over three years.
Ko Kitamura lifted his left leg with ease as he wound up, stretching both his arms over his head.
"One more out!"
"One more out!"
It was all smiles around the baseball diamond as Kitamura planted down, hard and firm, with his left foot. His right arm whipped over his head, cutting through the air, past the flexible, twisting motion of his body. Sweat beads scattered everywhere as Kitamura's right leg gracefully followed through. Before he could lift his right hand up to wipe the sweat out of his eyes, the game had already been decided.
"…S-strike out!" the home plate umpire shouted above the deafening cheers from the stadium crowd.
The endless bellows and applause only magnified when Kitamura's final pitch's speed was reported.
160 kilometers per hour, it said on the back screen.
When the baseball left Kitamura's fingertips, it took less than half a second for the ball to smash into Akaishi's glove. The dust settled in the aftermath, showing only an overpowered hitter extending his bat head out in futility and Akaishi's glove enveloping a spinning baseball on the inside corner of home plate.
"Seishu wins it! Ace pitcher Kitamura has sealed his ten-inning, complete game shutout victory with a 160-kph fastball!" the announcer hollered out.
Kitamura pumped his right fist once in this victorious light, taking a moment to glance toward a particular section of the centerfield stands while his teammates mobbed him from every direction.
Aoba Tsukishima helplessly smiled from the front row of the centerfield bleachers. Her sisters, younger Momiji and older Ichiyo, and Ichiyo's fiancé, Junpei Azuma, were cheering wildly, blending into the rowdiness of the crowd. Even though he was swarmed by his teammates, Kitamura seemed to maintain his contact with Tsukishima. The girl kept her modest smile. Happy. Relieved. Proud.
"He put on a great show, didn't he, Ao-chan?" her older sister asked, still applauding with seemingly no end.
"Is it your turn to give him a hug?" her future brother-in-law teased, laughing loudly and blissfully. The girl responded with a death glare.
They're so happy, she thought.
After the stadium was cleared out, the crowds emptied through the exits and the interviews were conducted, the Seishu High School baseball team, winners of the Summer Koshien national baseball tournament, departed for home alongside their families and friends.
"He could become the best pitcher in Japan."
Aoba suddenly embraced Ko from behind.
Ko dropped his baseball glove onto the dirt and peered over his strong pitching shoulder. Aoba rested her forehead at the center of his back, her arms locked around his torso. Though they were closed, her eyes—in Ko's opinion—were one of her most feminine qualities.
Just as suddenly, Aoba scowled and shoved Ko aside, sending the older boy to the dirt floor. Utterly confused, the ace pitcher blinked a few times as he stared wordlessly at the girl.
"It's a hug, a hug!" Aoba spat. She crossed her arms and turned her face away, showing Ko nothing more than an over-exaggerated frown. "I figured I owed you one after you… well…"
Ko looked on for a brief moment. As tomboyish as Aoba was, her girlishness still seeped through her t-shirt and sweatpants as if they were a tank top and miniskirt. That and her over-exaggerated scowl still seemed cute, despite her often vicious personality.
"Ah, you don't owe me anything," said Ko, patting the dirt off his t-shirt and picking up his glove as he rose steadily to his feet. "If anything, I'm the one who owes you."
Ko had a knack for putting Aoba into a state of silence. It's either silence or pure chaos. Friendly bickering—could it be called friendly?—were as frequent as times of necessary support. Koshien was over a month ago and so much has happened since then. Aoba shifted her gaze back to Ko from the corner of her eyes. The appreciative words meant quite a lot to her, but she wasn't about to show any sentimental emotions.
"Aren't we dating now?" Ko added. "Hugs don't have to be used for repaying debts—"
"Hai, hai, I got it," Aoba boldly declared as she punched in her own baseball glove. "Ki-ta-mu-ra-sen-pai."
"Still gonna address me like that, huh?" Ko sighed.
"Only when we're alone," Aoba sneered. She spun over to Ko and stuck out her tongue as a taunt, then twirled back to the corner of the playground. She took a baseball out of her duffel bag. "Shall we?"
"Eh… so this was your idea of a date, huh?" Ko sighed emphatically, stopping about sixty feet opposite of Aoba. He squatted down into a catcher's position and held his baseball glove up. "Didn't we always do this anyway?"
"Stop complaining," Aoba countered, firing out a blazing fastball directly into Ko's glove.
Ko tossed the ball back and shook the shock away from his left hand. He resumed his position as Aoba wound up again.
"Yikes!" Ko yelped as the ball smashed into the glove's webbing.
"So, how about it?" Aoba asked. "Do you think it got any faster?"
"Probably," Ko mumbled, tossing the ball back to Aoba. "It's gotta be like… around 150-kph or—"
"You're a liar, Kitamura. Sen. Pai," Aoba responded, enunciating each syllable. She flipped the baseball to the ground, letting it roll a few feet toward Ko.
"Your turn," said Aoba, herself squatting down into a catcher's position. "I know what 150-kph is."
"Okay, 145 then," Ko said with a smile.
"Go," Aoba commanded, extending her glove forward.
Ko wound up in the same fashion as Aoba, his leg kicking up to almost exactly the same height. He propelled his right arm forward, releasing the baseball around the same point as Aoba. The ball cut through the air with blazing speed, smashing into Aoba's glove in the blink of an eye.
"There, are you—"
"Don't hold back," Aoba muttered, flinging the ball back in Ko's direction.
"That pitch was at the same speed as mine."
Ko wound up again, this time raising his right leg up just an inch higher than before. He stepped forward, covering a great length before swinging his right arm forward with great force. The ball rocketed out of his hand as he followed through with the rest of his body. Aoba winced as soon as the baseball was caught in the webbing of her glove. The sound from the collision was crisp and incomparably satisfying.
"Arigato," Aoba murmured, dropping the ball out from her glove.
"Don't worry, I'm okay," Aoba responded enthusiastically, getting back up on her feet. "I just wanted a feel of that 160-kph fastball again."
Ko sighed. He was starting to wonder if Aoba was seriously only with him because he could throw a 160-kph fastball.
You weren't kidding, Wakaba, thought Ko. Is that really all it takes to get her to like me?
"If Waka-chan's alive to see you today, I bet she'd be proud," Aoba suddenly added in a solemn tone.
"I sure hope she is," answered Ko. The exchanged words brought a powerful wave of nostalgia over Ko. Impulsively, he walked over to Aoba without hesitating a moment and slowly wrapped both his arms around her slender waist. Stunned, Aoba did not react for the first few seconds while Ko held her. "But I hope she'll give some credit to you, at least. I wouldn't be where I am now if it weren't for you."
"Cut the sappy crap," Aoba muttered.
Aoba closed her eyes and rested her arms at Ko's sides. Her heartbeat steadied and her mind gradually felt more at ease.
I still hate him, Aoba thought to herself. I hate him. More than anyone in the world. I still do. I do…
She gripped his t-shirt at the thoughts and buried her face deeper into his chest.
"I hate you," she mumbled incoherently into Ko's chest.
"Yeah, I know," Ko whispered. "Probably more than anyone in the world."
"Always…" Aoba started to sob.
The stubbornness got to her again. The more she sobbed, the tighter she gripped Ko's shirt and the stronger Ko's embrace became. It became a cycle. And each time, Aoba thought she felt even worse. It wasn't frustration. It wasn't love.
It was guilt.
Seven years ago, when Aoba was only ten years old, her older sister, one year her senior, passed away in a tragic water accident. Wakaba Tsukishima drowned while saving a younger swimmer during a summer swim camp. The tragedy never left the Tsukishima family, but neither did it leave Ko Kitamura. Wakaba and Ko were essentially soul mates, both born on the same day, side-by-side in the same hospital. The only element that consistently tried to separate them, back then, was the younger Aoba.
"You shouldn't treat Ko like those other guys. Once he gets serious, he could become the best pitcher in Japan," Wakaba once proclaimed while Aoba was taking batting practice. The younger sister couldn't care any less. She genuinely hated Ko's very existence. On the other hand, Wakaba was quite the opposite. One could say she was in love. Her praise and confidence never waned. "He might even be able to throw 160-kph."
"Huh?" Aoba scoffed cynically. A mocking and incredulous laugh was all that she offered in response.
"Huh? I don't think you believe me," Wakaba argued assertively. "My predictions tend to come true, you know."
Aoba swung hard and launched another baseball as a strong line-drive.
"But even then," Wakaba continued. "You can't steal him away from me, okay?"
Another baseball from the pitching machine fired in Aoba's direction, only to hit the backboard without encountering a swing. Aoba stared back at Wakaba in surprise. Her older sister smiled back contentedly.
That's right, thought Aoba. She loosened her grip on Ko's now wrinkled t-shirt. I've betrayed her.