Crashing Surf

A Meaningful Way to Kill Time

Akio's magnificent powers of persuasion gained for the reunion the school grounds as a venue to hold their match, as it was back then, long ago.

Today was one of the happiest days in Nagisa's life. It delighted her endlessly to see everybody from her high school days. Even Fuko, left behind in the car, went out with them to the field. The weather also rejoiced with Nagisa. At half past nine the sun already blazed, but a cool wind blew and relieved everybody of the heat.

"Tch," spat Akio, "Wouldn't this wind just ruin my pitches."

"It's not too strong, Otou-san," said Nagisa, "It dies down, too, every now and then."

"I'd rather have it that way," said Kyou stretching out and savoring the cool breeze. "This wind puts me in condition."

The rest of them lined to do a brief warm-up practice, throwing each other pitches. Ushio showed off how far she could throw (though still not very expert at the bat), enjoying herself so much she even forgot Tenshi's presence. She's not letting him ruin such a fine day.

One person, however, very nearly succeeded in doing so. She was late.

"Konnichiwa, everybody!" yelled Mei Sunohara from afar as she ran towards them.

Ushio paled in fright at the sight of her. She ran out of harm's way and went behind her mother again. "Mama," she uttered in distress, "did you invite her?"

"Well, no, Ushio dear," smiled Nagisa in blissful ignorance of Ushio's plight. "But I think it was wonderful of her to come here. She's so fond of you."

"Urrr," uttered Ushio in despair. "Mommy, can I stay here for a bit?" Where's Takafumi when you need him?

Tenshi, on the other hand, brightened up. The rest of them were also thrilled to see her back.

"Mei-chan!" cried Kyou, running to meet and hug her. "It's been a long while! Are you here to put some sense into your brother?"

As if she had any to begin with herself, thought Ushio.

"Nah, he wants to do what he wants to do," she shrugged. "Anyway, everybody, sorry I'm late. Onii-chan only told about it last night or I would have bought a new bat myself."

"Hmph," smirked Akio. "It does not matter if a bat is well-worn. What's important is if the person is a worthy opponent of the great Akio-sama."

"Also," said Yusuke, starting to recite his lines again, "What matters most is the warm… comradeship… and… that this game… will be a memorable—"

"—Yoshino-san!" yelled Mei tackling him with a hug and embarrassing Kouko. "It's so long since I saw you! You're even more handsome than when I last met you! Kyaa, why do men become better-looking when they're married already?"

"Uhh… I thought we're having baseball, not football," managed Yusuke.

"I'll play any game for you, Yoshino-san!"

"Hey!" flared Akio. "Don't say 'any' game! It's should be baseball! Baseball! This is the only sport where one can attain glory!"

A number of them disagree, patronizing other sports as well, but try disagreeing with Akio on that matter…

"Who did you invite to play against us, Otou-san?" asked Nagisa.

"Eh, I saw this wonderful group from another school. They really looked like a bunch from a cool anime I know."

The wind picked up and caused such a dusty racket that everybody had to cover themselves for a moment. Ushio rushed over between Nagisa and her own schoolmates to put a veil over Mimi-chan as the little girl just came from sickness. When the dust lifted, a figure loomed at the far end of the field, holding a cat.

"Misae-san!" said Tomoya. "Since when have you arrived here?"

"Heh. You're not happy to see me? Well, I'm not happy to see you, either. Akio-san simply called me over to play here." Her cat seconded with a meow.

"Humph," said Akio. To Misae, "So you haven't forgotten your roots even after you have moved to Kyushu, eh?"

"You are the only people to pull me out of there," she smirked. "I should like very much to see everybody from Hikarizaka again." Noticing Ushio's schoolmates, "And I see we got young new blood here. What a pity I could not be your mentor now."

"But surely," said Tomoyo, walking to her, very glad at her return, "You could set a wonderful example while you're with us today. Do you remember me?"

She laughed. "Hey, who can forget such a well-known figure as Sakagami Tomoyo? I think you could make it to an international news agency if you pull the right strings."

Tomoyo bowed. "I wouldn't be where I am now if not for you, Misae-san."

"Well now," said Akio, "I trust your skills have not rusted too much yet."

Misae picked up a ball and threw it headlong at Akio, who dodged with a shock, and missed a horrified Sunohara by a hair's breadth. The ball hit a trash bin and clear lifted it off the ground, spilling garbage over a considerable distance.

"How's that, Akio-san?"

He recovered himself. "Hah! Not bad for a *beep* year old hag."

"Whah!" Misae cried, outraged. "How dare you reveal I'm *beep* years old! I will never forgive you!"

She shot another ball at him and he dodged, but the ball ricocheted off a post and struck Sunohara on the cheek.

"Wow, she's amazing," said Ushio in awe. "I'm glad to have her on our side."

"Dad told me she was a dorm mother at Hikarizaka back in the day," said Megumi. "She beat the daylights out of the boys there, even the rugby team."

"Rugby team? Woah! I wouldn't want to mess with her."

"But she's really nice, see? Even Sakagami-san is amazed at her."

"She even knows Krav Maga," said a voice behind them. Nichi. "I know, 'cause my uncle was in that rugby team and he got a sample of her skill back in the day."

"Huh?" said Ushio, surprised at his appearance. "You're here too? I thought you're preparing for the exchange program."

"You trying to stop me from having a little fun?" he said self-importantly. "Perhaps if I tell you that Doctor Ichinose herself invited me to come here?"

"Well, then," said Minako, thrusting a sack of baseballs on him, "you'll be our official ball retriever while we three play catch."

"Hah?" whined Nichi. "After I just arrived?" Groan. Ushio and Tomoe laughed at his complaint.

In the distance, Ryou spotted her Taro gazing dreamily at the girls, his chin propped on his bat. She went over and squeezed her son in the shoulder. "Come, don't be shy. Go to them." But Taro kept hesitating. It concerned Ryou that the boy, normally quite active around his classmates, should be so overwhelmed by admiration that he could hardly move. To Taro's surprise, she took his hand and led him over to the group. "Come on now, Taro, you Aunt Kyou won't be pleased seeing you like this." He stammered, but could not bring himself to voice his protest.

When they arrived, she pulled her son in front of them. "Hello," she said sunnily. "Mind if you let my boy join in? You're the only teenagers around and he's got nobody to talk to." To Taro, "Come on, introduce yourself."

Minako took the initiative. "Hiya," she said pumping his hand mightily and sending him into further distress, "I'm Nakayama Minako. This here is Kiyomasa Tomoe, Hirano Shinichiro, and Okazaki Ushio. We're the dandiest bunch in town. I assure you you'll have a first-class time with us!" In a loud whisper, "You know, you should sit right next to Tomoe. She's a real cute darling. You'll love her."

Tomoe and Taro blushed and even Ryou was stunned, not quite expecting things to turn out that way. Tomoe did not exactly like her friend's effort to comfort her over her heartbreak for Tenshi. Taro, for his part, did not want people to think he was a Mama's boy and he wanted to catch Ushio's attention, so at last, he managed to speak up. "Ah, huh, hey! Look at this!" He swung his bat hard and nearly hit Minako. "Am I good enough to bat? Pretty good, huh?" Picking up his courage, he made several more powerful swings in an effort to impress Ushio but the other girls kept dodging.

"That's my boy!" applauded his mother. "I'm sure he'll make a wonderful addition to your team." She turned to leave. "I'll be going now. You work hard now, will you, Taro dear?"

About half an hour later, a group of high schoolers from another school filed into the grounds. They were such a sight, four boys and eight girls. The lead man had a dignified bearing and short, brown hair. One of the girls, carrying a pet cat, looked like him, her brown hair in a ponytail; she must be his sister. The rest were quite diverse; there was a muscular guy, another man in a kimono and looked like a martial-arts expert. There was also a normal-looking boy, a cool-looking girl with long, dark hair (whom Kyou admired from the start), along with another who almost looked like her except for the mischievous expression. Following was a subdued lass with a parasol, purple-haired girl twins, a long-haired blonde, a childish girl with short hair, and a… Russian?

The lead man went up to Akio and bowed. "Konnichiwa, Akio-san. We're sorry if we're late."

"Humph. You have nothing to worry. We were having some practice while you were away and we are more than prepared. I hope you are ready."

"Well, then, at least allow us to have a trial play with some of your players and we will give some of our own."

"Hmmm. I haven't thought of that before. It was brilliant of you to come up with that."

Both sides immediately prepared makeshift teams, each with three members. The defense will only have a pitcher and two fielders and try to strike each batter out. There will be no bases yet. It was truly a peculiar setup, but it made for an excellent way for the two teams to be acquainted with each other.

"I like the blue-eyed foreign girl," remarked Ushio. "She looked so cute."

The opposing team took the defense while Furukawa Bakers went for the batter's box. The two fielders of the opposing team were the leader's sister and the martial artist, and the ordinary-looking boy will pitch. At the bat was Sunohara.

"It's such an honor for me to be first player of our team, Uwahahaha!"

"Stop hamming there and watch that ball!" scolded Akio. "This isn't even the game proper."

The pitcher threw a low curve Sunohara caught in time and the ball went off to the left field where the martial artist stood. "Wuhahaha! See that?" bragged Sunohara. "You must be thrilled now to see how far I have improved! Wuhahaha!"

"That is barely an improvement," muttered Kyou to herself. "Boasting at a trial game, how pathetic."

The fielder ran after the ball at a considerable distance, much encumbered by his kimono, but as soon as he picked it up, he threw it with all his might to the pitcher… only that he missed and the hurtling projectile of a ball ended up yet again… Plak!... on Sunohara's face.

"Yes!" said Kyou to herself. "Justice!"

Upon learning of his mishandled throw, the fielder went up to the lead man to apologize. "I'm not very precise in judging far distances."

"I see. That proves you will work best as a baseman."

The martial artist was immediately replaced by the cat-loving girl. Tomoya was about to step up to take Youhei's place when Fuko ran up. "Fuko wants to bat! Fuko's always on the defense. No fair!"

A somewhat exasperated Akio agreed to let her have her way. It was just a practice play, after all.

"Fuko will not miss. This game's a piece of cake. Fuko will play for the honor of starfish!"

"What are you talking about?" demanded Miss Ponytail. "Starfish have nothing to do with baseball! Are you even playing seriously?"

"Starfish have everything to do with anything! In fact, starfish are the cutest things ever!"

"No way! Kittens are the cutest creatures to exist."

"Then let's settle this with the ball play! I will show you the power of starfish! If you strike me out kittens are cuter than starfish."

"Alright! I will show a true raging meow ball!"

At the first pitch, Fuko swung wildly in all directions and was so busy she didn't notice the ball went right past her to the catcher's glove. Akio could only hang his head at the girl butchering his sport. Oh man, two more strikes to get her out. It feels like an eternity.

Contrary to his expectations, though, at the second pitch, Fuko chanced a hit. The bat connected well and sent the ball flying… and hitting the girl's cat. Ouch.

(Fuko has mastered the "True Raging Meow Ball!")

The girl hissed in a very cattish manner. "Are you aiming at my cat!" she yelled, outraged.

The day started to get a little hotter so Akio finally decided to begin the game proper. He gathered the Hikarizaka folk to himself while the other team conferred. Akio assigned the first batch to hold the defense. Taro will hold first base, Misae second, Kyou shortstop (an excellent pick for a critical post), Mei third. Kotomi is left fielder, Yusuke center, Megumi shortstop, and Minako right.

"Hey, can't I have a better position? Like pitcher? I throw excellent balls!"

"We do have a vacant position," smirked Akio. "You want to be a catcher?"

There's really no arguing with the great Akio.

Turning to the players again, "Let us do our best as a team. Each one is important to win the game. Remember, there's no 'I' in 'win'!"

"And I will become catcher again?" lamented Sunohara. "For both teams? Am I that disposable?" The visiting teams did not assign a catcher of their own, having fewer players, so they simply borrowed Sunohara.

Rounding out the home team were the pitchers: Mizuumi, Tomoyo, Nichi, Akio, Ushio, and Tenshi.

"Everybody," said Akio solemnly as both teams gathered around him. "We will play for six innings. I trust that nobody would cheat at a friendly game like this so we will need no umpires…"

"Umpire! Umpire!" insisted Fuko jumping up and down. "Fuko wants to be umpire."

"… but I expect that everyone will do their utmost to make this match a memorable one." He made a heroic pose. "Is everybody with me?" he called. They all responded with a resounding yell.

"Umpire! Umpire! Fuko wants to be umpire!"


After everybody had positioned themselves, Mizuumi was brought in by her mother to open the game with her pitch. And rightly so, since the game was organized in her honor.

"Fight-o! Desu yo!" cheered Sanae.

The seven-year-old looked as if she wouldn't be able to stand among much older peers when it came to sports, but with a dead serious stare at the batter, the Russian girl, she threw an amazingly well-executed throw that stunned everybody. She obviously learned it on TV, being a child who watched considerably advanced shows for her age.

"Yipee!" cheered Mimi as she jumped up and down.

It was good start. Furukawa Bakers wreaked havoc on the visiting team and easily scored two runs for their half of the inning.

For the offense it was Taro at the batter's box. He swung his bat on and off hoping Ushio was looking his way (she wasn't, busying herself at the bench with drinking Sanae's lemonade and downing a couple of jelly shortcakes). He was facing the clumsy-looking girl. This will be a piece of cake.

To his horrified amazement, she threw a very low curve—which he caught just in time and managed to send far off. He quickly dashed for the first base… and arrived safe. That was close. I was so unnerved. He panted heavily from the excitement, but, like a triumphant runner hitting the tape, straightened up proudly, yelled, and turned to look for Ushio, only to find her chatting amiably with Sanae. Epic fail!

In contrast, Sunohara was all fired up in jubilation. He's feeling lucky no ball has yet the chance to give a shock to his hands. "Go, Furukawa Bakers! We will make it! This is where they die!"

"Fight-o! Desu yo!" cheered Sanae.

Misae was next to bat. Pitching against her was the cool-looking student. She felt confident she could beat the girl who looked somewhat too young to her.

To her consternation, the girl threw fastballs, really fast fastballs, which pounded poor Sunohara twice. His "Hiiiiiiiiii!" echoed all over the field.

"Would you mind if you stopped screaming like some toddler?" shouted Kyou.

Misae was getting distraught. "If I don't do good for once this will be a very bad start."

The cool girl threw another fast one, her coup de grace. Misae, staring intently at the ball, swung with all her might. It missed. No, it slipped. Her bat deflected the ball way off to far behind Youhei. It wasn't as she had hoped, but at least it wasn't a strike. She can't afford to do this always, of course.

The pitcher, keeping herself level-headed in stark contrast with the raging Misae, tried to get two more fastballs through, but the first was actually a ball, and the second Misae decided to stop with a bunt. The force of the pitch reflected and the ball flew a decent distance toward the center field.

"Not a bad play," the cool girl murmured to herself.

Kyou came up next. Facing her was the muscular guy, who even cracked his knuckles in a show of force. Sunohara was about to turn to Akio to ask him to bail him out, but he glared ferociously at the poor catcher.

The man, as expected, threw a forceful pitch, but he did not reckon on Kyou. She met the ball squarely and sent it hurtling across the field on a level path. Youhei was saved. Kyou immediately ran for the first base, and wanted badly to go for the second, so she could put Taro on the home plate. Misae andKyou took the risk, quite unfortunately, encouraged by the run and terribly underestimating their opposition. The purple-haired twins stood on the field with the Russian girl. The boy was able to make it but the lightning-fast opposition relayed the ball back to third base, then to second. They both did not make it.

Akio whistled "Heh, they're not taking this hands down even if it's just a friendly game." He shuddered a bit to think what could possibly happen if this was an official match.


For the next inning, home team braced itself as cool girl took the bat. Nichi did not want to take any chances. If he was to face somebody as smart as her, he might as well give his best. He threw a curve ball, concerned that cool girl was fixing her stare at the ball the whole time. She hit—

Plak!

Everybody looked up in amazement and disbelief. It was a… pop up. The ball flew high but ended up in the infield.

It appears she was quite good in estimating a pitch but needs to polish her execution.

Next to pitch was Tenshi. Being the son of his mother, he easily strikes out muscle man. Not to mention Mei's around. He jumps victoriously— "Yeah!"— and lets out a victory whoop facing the teacher, hoping she'll be impressed. Mei only claps uneasily as she finds people staring at her. Instead, the one who came out to hug him was… his mother. Tomoyo stood cheering for her child, and when he was through she came over. It was of course, a major disappointment for him.

"How sick," Ushio muttered in disgust.

Later that afternoon, thick layers of fall clouds loomed over everybody, ensuring that no heat would prevent players from being in tip-top shape.

Stepping onto the batter's box at home team's third inning was Mei, facing the cool girl. The opposition seemed to be lenient with her and thus made an ordinary pitch, which Mei easily caught, making her appear quite the ace in Tenshi's lovestruck eyes. She cautiously advanced to first base.

Tenshi went up to Akio. "Please, let me be next."

"Haven't I assigned you a position already? Kotomi is next. You have the strength of your mother so you will stay in pitching."

But Mei-sama was a batter. How could we relate?

Taking her turn at the bat was Kotomi. She had a professional bearing even in sports attire. Facing her was the muscle man. It was a classic conflict of brain and brawn.

"Go, Kotomi!" encouraged Tomoya. "Don't let him overawe you. Remember, baseball is a thinking man's game!"

"You don't have to tell me," she whispered. She decided she would let the first ball strike so she could see how the enemy pitches.

Muscle man, with a yell, threw a powerful ball, meant to frighten who he thought was a timid girl who would rather hide among her books in the library. The projectile hurtled right past Kotomi, but not without her dissecting it, slowing it down in her mind.

Velocity, 38 meters per second, 34 degrees down. Not impressive. By its flight trajectory the ball looks like it came from an amateur. I should bat within 4/100th of a second to pull this off well.

Splack!

The ball hit Sunohara's face guard squarely, toppling him over. It turned out he didn't raise his glove high enough.

"Hey!" shouted Akio at Sunohara. "Are you distracted or something?"

Kotomi turned to him. "Are you alright?"

At this Sunohara jumped up in an instant, abruptly recovering. "I'm OK! Hahahaha! Bring it on anytime!"

With everything back in place, muscle man made another yell-pitch, and this time

Plak!

The ball flew sky-high. It was excellent timing. The ball was so far in the air it was quite difficult to predict whether it will fall on the left field or center field but everybody was certain it will fall on fair territory.

Akio gaped as his stare tried to chase after the long-gone ball. This will take some time to fall, let alone be caught, let alone passed back. "I don't know which of you and Tomoyo are better," he mused. Then, he cheered. "Woohoo! Take that! That's what you get for being fastball-happy!"

And since there was time, Kotomi took the chance to take a leisurely walk to base. "The earliest known reference to baseball is in a 1744 British publication, A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, by John Newbery. It contains a rhymed description of "base-ball" and a woodcut that shows a field set-up somewhat similar to the modern game—though in a triangular rather than diamond configuration, and with posts instead of ground-level bases. William Bray, an English lawyer, recorded a game of baseball on Easter Monday 1755 in Guildford, Surrey.

"This early form of the game was apparently brought to North America by English immigrants. Rounders was also brought to the continent by both British and Irish immigrants. The first known American reference to baseball appears in a 1791 Pittsfield, Massachusetts, town bylaw prohibiting the playing of the game near the town's new meeting house."

Approaching the first base, "By 1796, a version of the game was well-known enough to earn a mention in a German scholar's book on popular pastimes. As described by Johann Gutsmuths, 'englische Base-ball' involved a contest between two teams, in which 'the batter has three attempts to hit the ball while at the home plate'. Only one out was required to retire a side."

Everybody was staring blankly at her while the fielders wore themselves out chasing the ball.

"By the early 1830s, there were reports of a variety of uncodified bat-and-ball games recognizable as early forms of baseball being played around North America. These games were often referred to locally as 'town ball' though other names such as 'round-ball' and 'base-ball' were also used.

Approaching second, "In 1845, Alexander Cartwright, a member of New York City's Knickerbockers club, led the codification of the so-called Knickerbocker Rules. While there are reports that the New York Knickerbockers played games in 1845, the contest now recognized as the first officially recorded baseball game in U.S. history took place on June 19, 1846, in Hoboken, New Jersey: the "New York Nine" defeated the Knickerbockers, 23–1, in four innings. With the Knickerbocker code as the basis, the rules of modern baseball continued to evolve over the next half-century."

Misae somehow managed to speak. "So this scene actually exists?"

Mei, who stopped running and was rooted to her feet at the third base, whistled in disbelief.

Yusuke, who had been gazing into space all this time, developed a major psychic nosebleed. Then, tears. He wept openly in his wife's arms. "I can't talk about memories anymore!" Bawl.

That being the case, Akio had to put him on the bench for some time, and to substitute for him, he selected Ushio.

All right! She bounded across the field and took the bat from Akio before he could speak. Sanae felt proud for her beloved grandchild. "Fight-o! Desu yo!"

However, as soon as she got to the batter's box, Mei pounced on her. "Fight-o! U.F.O.!" Ushio, in her excitement, had forgotten that she was in full view of her nemesis. Nooooo!

Ushio tried hard to concentrate as she faced the ordinary-looking boy. He threw a low curve in an attempt to catch her off guard, but Akio had taught her just enough skills. She easily batted despite the presence of Miss Sunohara irking her to no end. To her, it was an achievement.

Next was Minako. To her great disappointment, it was still the ordinary-looking boy who would pitch. She wanted so badly to humiliate the cool girl. Anyway, she hit the ball and got to the base.

"Tomoya-kun," encouraged Nagisa, holding his hand. "Don't worry about your shoulder now, OK? I'll follow right behind you. Let's just do our best so we won't regret anything. Alright?"

He wasn't very worried, actually. His shoulder did not prevent him from winning the three-on-three basketball match long, long ago—Nagisa cheered him—and he won for his town a home run, also long ago, and Nagisa was there, too. Whenever they're together, they can beat anything.

He faced the cool girl. He knew she's not pampering a guy, even if she knew about his shoulder. She would treat him like any other batter. And indeed, she made a throw that Tomoya only barely managed to catch. The ball did not fly very far, and he had to settle for first base.

And then, Nagisa.

"Fight-o, desu yo!" cheered Sanae.

"Go, Mommy!" called Mizuumi.

Nagisa smiled her brightest and waved at her daughter, then faced the pitcher resolutely. It was still the cool girl. "I have never met a woman so lovely and yet so brave as you, Madam," she said to her.

"Please don't say that," said Nagisa bowing. "I haven't proven anything to you yet."

Cool girl smirked. "In that case, I will give you my best pitch. Prepare yourself!"

She threw a fast-looking slow ball that arced. Nagisa, like Ushio, was well-heeled in her father's coaching, notably his constant admonition to keep her eyes on the ball and not to swing until the right moment. The bat connected. But the ball did not go very far. It landed near third base, and it looked like another double play was in the making.

Tomoya shouted to Nagisa to stay in first base as he dashed for second, not wanting to risk her getting an out even if he should. But Nagisa refused, wanting to push her husband so he could make it as far as he could and hopefully make a home run, even if she gets an out. He stopped short of second base to urge her back but his wife already left first base and is running headlong towards him.

She bumped into him, and they both fell down. The ball reached the glove of the martial artist serving as second baseman.

Out.

Groaning, Tomoya just stared at the sky in disbelief. He wanted to scold his wife for being stubborn, but then he knew it wouldn't have happened if he only took the care to step on the base. In the end, he felt as if he failed to fight for his wife well enough.

"Nagisa, I'm sorry. Perhaps, if I just went on, maybe… maybe we won't be humiliated like this."

To his surprise, instead of sobs, he heard giggles from Nagisa. She got up, laughing. Her cheeks were flushed with color; she never looked so happy in her whole life, and it simply made Tomoya overjoyed. They had given their all. For each other.

"Tomoya-kun," said Nagisa choking from laughter, "I never thought… I could run so hard... in a ball game."

Everybody was touched. "Oh my," cried cat girl, on the verge of tears. "How cute!"

Everybody clapped as the couple looked about in bewilderment. But, whatever… Tomoya stood up and helped his wife up by the hand, and they walked out of the field, hands holding, amid cheers and rejoicing, as players triumphant.

She looked at her husband. "Tomoya-kun, no matter what happens to us, even if we're like this, I want both of us to go on, just like this." She raised her hand with his.

"As do I, Nagisa," he said tenderly.


Akio assigned Fuko to the right field to substitute for Minako as "nothing special happens over there". He could have the lady daydreaming the whole time and not worry, but Fuko was all up for the post. She kept hissing at cat girl who was now on the batter's box. Akio faced him. Sunohara, still clearly remembering how Akio's pitch felt, screamed without his throwing anything yet.

"Will you just stop that racket?" scolded Akio. Then, closing his eyes, "If you face up to this game like a man, I will make my pitch easier on you."

"It makes no difference!" was Sunohara's frightened reply.

"You just calm down over there," said cat girl, "and watch this girl protect you from harm." She didn't really care for the poor guy, she was only bragging.

Akio threw his lightning pitch, but cat girl hit it on the fly and sent the ball on a wide arc far to the right field, right where Fuko was. She saw it coming. She jumped up and down and went round in circles, thinking the mighty effort will get her to the ball, which actually fell far behind her. Akio could not believe his eyes, gaping. He sagged and walked dejectedly out of the field while cat girl ran full circle for a home run.

"Fight-o! Desu-yo!" cheered Sanae, undaunted.

The losing streak continued right into the first half of the fifth inning. The visiting team won that part. The next frame saw the Hikarizaka girls playing decent offense, Megumi giving the defense a hard time with clever grounders, but it was clear they were getting tired, just when the decisive part of the game was approaching. For the last inning, Furukawa Bakers badly needed a miracle.

They did not get it for the first half. The visiting team made three runs. This put them on a slight advantage over home team.

The final frame has arrived. Both teams took time and Akio called a hasty conference with his team. They unanimously decided to put all the pitchers to the bat. "We need to do something extraordinary to regain our lead at the last moment. Everything rests on you."

First off was Mizuumi. She didn't do very well against the clumsy-looking girl, batting a ground ball the center fielder easily picked up, but he made it to first base on time.

Tomoyo was next. Her prowess was no secret to the visiting team, so everybody was alerted and cool girl was sent to the pitcher's mound, with specific instructions to give a very low lowball. They did not reckon on Sakagami's cunning.

Lowball came, Sakagami hit. The reply was a line drive… or was it? It was so fast. Everybody turned to look everywhere, but the ball basically whooshed by without warning. That is, until they found one of the twins dashing far off to the edge of the grounds, outside the playing field. She found there a wall through which the ball punched a neat hole two feet above the ground.

It was home run for them both. However, this only made for a tie. Visiting team bristled like cornered wolves, ready to pounce on the next batter, knowing that if he reaches home the tie will be broken and end in victory for Furukawa Bakers.

"I can't move another bit," complained Kyou. "Is this what being years away from practice means?"

Starting out with the match, one would think the home team would be as glorious as ever, but even at only six innings, the rust of disuse starts to surface. Akio, of course, was not afflicted, so he agreed to support Nichi, but there was no other in his team in proper shape. If he goes out, he reckoned, they might as well call it a day.

"Fight-o! Desu-yo!" Sanae cheered for her husband.

Akio easily bats against cool girl, but as he stepped onto the first base, he halted, suddenly frightened. He knew the visiting team's penchant for vicious defense. Nichi was only a base away from him. Next to bat was Ushio. She stared ahead to her grandfather, seeking strength from him, as she was already starting to lose her stamina as well (Ushio wasn't much a runner herself). They had a mutual understanding. Akio would carry her, and together they will put Nichi on the home plate.

Cool girl tossed her an easy pitch which she hit quickly. As she stepped on the base, it struck her. She was baited. The ball became a grounder, which the Russian girl picked up in a blink and threw back quickly to shortstop as Akio almost arrived at second.

Akio was out.

Nichi and Ushio were devastated. Without him, facing a highly organized opposition, they were just kids.

Tomoyo wanted to be next, but the batting order has been established. Tenshi was next. Unlike his mother, he may be good at pitching but even he doubts himself when it came to batting. As soon as he hit the ball he bounded frantically toward base, and stopped there, dreading further events. Ushio was no better at second. Nichi, at third, was even more frightened. They all knew what was obvious, though. They needed to avoid, very badly, a double play even as the opposition is dangling it right before them. They need to get to their bases unscathed. Without Akio. They have nobody to count on now, only themselves.

Mizuumi went up to the batter's box. The visiting team was smelling roses in the air. They knew the little girl would not hit so well. Cat girl faced her.

She threw a forceful pitch which Mimi hit, but, the ball ricocheted off the ground and flew to the center field where it was easy prey. As one, Tenshi, Ushio and Nichi launched off. Ushio is not letting herself lose. Never. She saw the ball shooting to third and made a split-second decision: If the ball flies, then so must I. She was not good in running and could hardly hope to outrun the ball. She leapt.

The ordinary boy, standing at third, poised to grab the ball but was stunned at seeing Ushio's daring act. The ball missed his glove by a heartbeat and he had to pick it up. By then, Ushio had landed, raising an immense cloud of dust. This also allowed Tenshi to reach second base and Mizuumi first base without fear of any ball coming their way.

Nichi, pounding all his fear into the dirt as he ran desperately, made it to home plate.

Furukawa Bakers won.


Everybody feted Ushio at the bench. Her family: her father, her mother, her ardently admiring little sister, her proud grandmother, could not get enough of hugging her in turn. All the rest gathered round to pat or simply to greet the girl. Even Mei's lavish outpouring of affection did not bother her this time. A victory well won was a victory well won.

Ryou nudged Taro over to Ushio, indicating that he should give her a "triumphal bouquet" that would double as a subtle statement to everybody. But he was too abashed whenever he came within two meters of Ushio. He stammered as he started to talk to the girl… only to ask for her autograph.

The only people from home team not in the crowd was Tenshi, resentful of the attention Mei and the rest showered upon the object of his hate, and Akio, congratulating the visiting team for putting up a good fight.

"I guess you have greater drive than us," said the lead man. "We have learned a lot from you today."

"Heh. If we were better than you, then only by a teeny bit. You sure gave us the shivers back there."

Lead man laughed out loud. Everybody from the visiting team crowded round Akio to get the autograph of "the Babe Ruth of the baking world."

All of them, both teams gathered round for a picture to be taken by Mei. They were worthy to stand together.

Everybody started to drift away from the playing field after a short snack. Yusuke invited the Okazakis over to his car while the Furukawas went in that of the Sakagamis. The rest were content to take the cab.

The last car to leave lay at its usual parking place near the Arts building. Kotomi packed her baseball gear into the trunk.

"That's too much for a lovely maiden like you to bear."

"Well, thank you for your kindness, but I think your sister's waiting for you," she replied, not even turning to look at him.

"Eh, she's too big for her own good now. Say, I think it's time we looked after ourselves for a change."

"You actually mean yourself, right?" She finally stood up to look at him. "My goodness, you look exhausted already. You go on ahead and rest."

"It's nothing," Sunohara said with a bow. "All my fatigue vaporizes from your presence alone."

"I'm afraid I'm not really that powerful."

"Heh. You don't need to be so modest. You have everything a woman could ever dream of. Surpassing beauty, amazing intellect… You are everything… a man could ever dream of." He took her wrist, which she instinctively shook off. At this, he went desperate all of a sudden and grabbed her wrist again. "Be my girl, Kotomi-chan!" he urged as she struggled to wriggle free. "I have waited so long to say this to your lovely face. I cannot afford to let another day pass without seeing for myself your wonderful smile. Please! We have held our feelings long enough."

"Stop this! Please!"

"I cannot! I love you, Kotomi-chan! Go out with me!"

She gritted her teeth. This is getting nowhere.

Suddenly she calmed down and closed her eyes. "OK," she sighed. "If that's the case, I guess you really can't help it." She let her hand hang limp. "Please. Allow me to play a song for you."

Elated, Youhei let go and watched her every step excitedly as she took a violin from inside the car. "Oh… yeah! Oh… yeah!" he moaned in ecstacy. "I did it! I finally captured your heart. I knew you loved me all along. And now I am rewarded by your wonderful music! Ohhh…"

RAHHHHRRR!

The shock waves of Kotomi's violin threw Sunohara to the ground. He lay there unconscious for a good long while, as her car's alarm was turned on from the shock. "I'm sorry if I had to do this. Anyway, that was only about forty percent of the effort." She went to look for any damages and turn off the sound. After which she went in and eased the car out to the driveway.

She had to get back to her house before six.


At about half past four in the afternoon, Yukine was surprised to find Furukawa Bakery closed. She had kind of overheard about a baseball match back when she attended to Mizuumi; was it today? In any case, she only hoped Ushio was going along well.

She proceeded to the cemetery where her beloved Kouhei lay. It wasn't very far; everybody in this little town knew almost everybody else, and every place was close to everywhere else. The roads would almost gladly lead you to any place you wished to go. It was one thing she liked about her town.

Everything looked so empty as she entered the graveyard. Shriveled leaves littered the walks and crumpled under her feet. Indeed, she chose this time as she reckoned nobody would think of coming here late in the afternoon. Visting Kouhei was to her an extremely private affair.

However, near Kouhei's grave, there were a few people here and there visiting their own dead; even that many made her uncomfortable. If only she could cast them out… She went into a shaded area and waited for the last people to disperse.

Unfortunately for her, it took so long that night fell on her. There were no lights at this part of the cemetery and everything was black as pitch. The darkness lay so thick and fast it rendered one blind. She did not mind it. She had a small flashlight. However, there was only so much light as to illuminate but as far as her footsteps. She will have to grope. The crunching of the leaves underfoot offered some comfort as if telling her she was taking the right path, but it took her at least another half hour of searching and backtracking to ascertain the place that marked Kouhei's grave.

A chill autumn breeze ruffled the wreath Yukine placed. It would also drown out the sound of her crying even if she wanted to do so loudly, but she just knelt there letting her tears flow out on their own.

"Kouhei-kun," she whispered, very softly, very inaudibly, to the unhearing gravestone, "if we had a child, she would look much like Ushio, don't you think?"

There was no reply. Oh dear, what am I saying?

As she stood to leave, she heard some distinct rustling in the nearby bushes. She was startled. She turned round this way and that, but there was nothing to see in the darkness save the faint outlines of shrubbery. The sound was soft, like that of a small animal, but she thought all along that she was alone.

Was she?

(Author's notes: Kotomi's trivia courtesy of Wikipedia)

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