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Dugout Investigation

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Koshien: the place of every high school baseball player's dreams. It's the goal every competitive team strives for and few achieve. Those who do become the fascination of baseball fans nationwide.

Nishiura is no exception. When they qualified for Koshien as a relatively unknown team, everyone wanted to know: who are these kids from Saitama? How did they make it here?

These questions are why you're standing at the threshold of a modest baseball field just ten miles from your apartment. As a recent grad from UTokyo’s journalism program, you're itching to make your big break onto the journalism scene. And lucky you! It just so happens that you live a train ride away from the team that qualified for the big game. Surely an article about the most popular high school baseball team in the country will put your name onto the national scene, too.

But to write a story, you need to find a story. Sure, you could list off the NIshiura team stats just like everyone else, but any baseball fan can look at the numbers and know that there's something else setting Nishiura apart. There needs to be drama. Heart. Something that catches readers’ attention. And you need something to set yourself apart, too.

So you make your way across the grass, noting the crudely painted lines and the footprints on the well-used pitch. As you near the dugout, you take out your camera.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. You think this doesn’t give words quite enough credit, but the point stands. As you peer through the viewfinder out at Nishura’s humble little dugout, you can feel the stories bursting from it, every item teeming with memories yearning to be recalled. So much has happened here. So many lives have been changed in this tiny dugout.

With these thoughts in mind, you adjust your angle, press the button, and snap the picture.

There is much to uncover.

You look around at all the interesting things worth investigating.

==

The Water Cooler

“Ren.”

Mihashi flinches a little, and turns to face his catcher, bolting across the dugout to where Abe is holding a cup of water in his hand. Mihashi takes it from him, chugs it, lets out an explosive breath, and goes to refill the water at the cooler.

“Slow down,” Abe grumbles, giving his shoulder a gentle shove, making eye contact with Mihashi, who slowly inches his hands out toward the water cooler. He squeezes it, still moving glacially slow, still maintaining eye contact. The water cup slowly starts to overflow.

“Oh my god,” Abe mutters, rubbing a hand down his face. “Yeah, alright, I know I’m being overbearing. Just drink it.”

Mihash giggles and flicks some water at him before drinking the rest of the water at a normal pace.

Izumi is going to lose his goddamn mind.

“Are you fucking seeing this,” he mutters, tapping Nishihiro’s shoulder with his knuckles. Nishihiro turns away from the field where he’d been watching Hanai, who was practicing hitting with Oki. Hanai had some trouble with a left-handed pitcher in their last match, and hopes practicing Oki—their only lefty—will leave him better prepared for next time.

“Hmm?” Nishihiro says, gaze eventually landing on their main battery. He sighs. “This again, Kousuke? Don’t you get tired of obsessing over it?”

“Taka just shoved him. Shoved him. Abe Takaya does not touch people, ever, but he shoved our pitcher—not hard, but like, affectionately?? And Ren barely even noticed. Ren, who startles when you say his name on the other side of the room, who runs away from butterflies. And then Ren teased him. How am I supposed to let this go?!”

Izumi’s voice is a sharp hiss as he struggles to keep his volume down, staring daggers at his teammates.

“When are they going to tell each other how they feel???

Nishihiro sighs. “People go at different paces, Kou, you know that. You can’t push Ren, he might freak out. And Takaya doesn’t, y’know… listen super well. Or do… feelings. He needs to figure it out on his own.”

Izumi’s gaze goes unfocused as he starts muttering to himself. “Maybe if I sign them up for an escape room or something… Close quarters, puzzle solving, that kind of thing...”

“Oh my god, Kousuke.” Nishihiro rests a hand on Izumi’s shoulder, turning him so he could speak to him face-to-face. “This is not our business! They will figure it out, I promise. Come catch Hanai’s hits with me and stop being a creeper trying to set up our teammates who are clearly not ready.”

Izumi opens his mouth to argue, but then pauses, and his shoulders sag with a sigh. He leans into Nishihiro, whiny and pitiful. “I don’t want to catch, my arms are tired.”

Nishihiro smiles benevolently. “Okay. Laps, then.”

Izumi’s nose wrinkles in a frown. “Ugh. Flies it is.”

“Great! And if you can manage to stop talking about our teammates’ romantic lives for the rest of the day, I’ll reward you by helping you out with the math homework.”

Izumi straightens, eyes lighting up. “Great, that means you’ll do it for me!”

“Absolutely not, stop saying that before Hanai hears you and thinks I’m actually going to help you cheat. It’s never going to happen, you lazy freeloader.”

Izumi does not, in fact, manage to keep from discussing their teammates’ relationship for the rest of the day, but Nishihiro helps him with his homework anyway.

==

Poster

Most of the team does not remember a time when the poster was not on the wall of their dugout. It simply appeared one day without fanfare, stuck to the wall with heavy-duty packing tape and reminding them of their mission: Koshien. Some think Momoe put it up, though they can't remember for sure. Most of them don't remember what life was like before the all-consuming goal of Koshien, after all.

The truth is that Mizutani put it up, and no one knows it but him. It's not a secret; he'd tell any of his teammates if they asked him about it. But they never asked.

He just thought the wall looked a little empty. It’s the natural place to stare when one is staring off into space, but there was nothing on the wall to actually stare at. He brought the poster from home and put it up after practice was over.

Mizutani has never been one for grand motivational speeches or passionate declarations of intent. The poster is not meant to be either of these things—and yet it does motivate, and it does declare intent. Now whenever his teammates' eyes drift they are reminded of Nishiura's collective goal, and the spark within all of them is fed a little kindling.

Perhaps Mizutani likes that his poster helps motivate his teammates. It's not the same as Momoe's pep talks or Tajima's charisma, but the poster has its own kind of impact: quiet, subtle, subliminal. Maybe that's the way Mizutani likes it.

They better not take it down when he graduates.

==

Crumpled Test

Studying at either Mihashi’s or Tajima’s house becomes a regular occurrence for the team.

It’s not always everyone—sometimes there are family functions or social events that a teammate has to be at, preventing them from joining the rest of them. But more often than not, they’re all there, studying together after practice a couple times a week. Mihashi and Tajima both live close to the school, so it’s convenient for everyone.

No study session gets derailed quite as badly as the surprise birthday party Mihashi threw for himself their first year. The members of the Nishiura baseball team are by no means the most focused and diligent students, but they manage to get the work done eventually.

With lots of breaks for snacks and throwing practice, of course.

Somehow, the team never seems to get tired of watching Mihashi pitch against his homemade nine-section target with pinpoint accuracy, or the abundance of snacks Tajima’s mother always provides.

Frequently they enter Mihashi’s house with an informal, “I’m home!” and proceed to the living room to study without much fuss, especially when they realize how frequently Mihashi’s mother is away at work. It doesn’t make sense to listen for a response that won’t ever come, so they learn to let themselves in, and pretty soon everyone thinks of the Mihashi residence as a second home.

“You used the wrong formula for these two, but the rest are correct,” Nishihiro says one afternoon, sliding Tajima’s homework back across the table.

“Whaaaat?” Tajima pulls the test back toward himself, and Oki leans over to point out the difference and show him where he got the numbers confused. Tajima scratches at his head for a minute until he jerks upright in understanding and dives back into the problems, getting the correct answer on his second try.

Nishihiro nods in approval when Tajima shows him the complete set of correct answers, and they celebrate by raiding the snack cabinet before moving on to the language homework.

Izumi looks up from his own worksheet as they head for the kitchen. “Hey Yuu, bring me some chips while you’re up?”

“Barbeque or wasabi?”

“Wasabi, obviously. The only worthwhile flavor.”

“Excuse you, how dare you insult barbeque,” Tajima says, returning with several bags of chips and handing one to Izumi. “Besides, you had the barbeque last week!”

“Lies and slander,” Izumi says as he takes the bag of chips from Tajima. He tears it open, grabs a handful, and then offers some to Mizutani at his side, who takes a few without looking up from his book, and Mihashi reaches across to take several chips from the bag as well before Abe tugs him back to finish the problem set he’d been working on.

The floor is littered with scrap paper and wrinkled tests—the last one didn’t go so well for Tajima or Mihashi, which is why they need the extra study sessions—but they always manage to make up for it on their next test, especially when their teammates are there to go over the material with them.

Mihashi and Tajima both learn best when they have an example to follow, and the extra practice is improving everyone’s grades. Their teammates have gotten pretty good at explaining the material to each other in a way they can all understand and remember for exams.

“Ugh, I can’t read this anymore,” Mizutani says, snapping his book closed and sliding to the floor.

“Maybe—break?” Mihashi says, hesitant, before looking to Hanai, who checks the clock on his phone.

“Hmm. Yeah, that’s an hour... Let’s call it, we can do the rest tomorrow before practice.”

“Woo, freedom! Mihashi, let’s go get popsicles, I’ll race you to the combini!”

Hanai groans. “You just opened a bag of chips.”

“Yeah, but popsicles!”

Mihashi scrambles to his feet and bolts for the door. “I’m going… to win!”

“You dirty cheater!!” Tajima takes off after him with a shout, laughing the whole way.

Hanai packs up Tajima’s bag and puts a clip on his bag of chips with a resigned shake of his head as the rest of the team cleans up their mess of homework and snack debris, but Tajima brings him an extra popsicle as a peace offering, and he finds he can’t really be annoyed with him.

Tajima didn’t even have to ask what flavor he wanted, because Hanai always gets lemon.

Hanai eats his popsicle, and Mihashi gets half of his all over his face, and Tajima gives himself brain freeze and bounces around the room as he waits for the burning cold to subside, and Hanai thinks they’re all annoying at times and often kind of weird, and he’s very lucky that he found them.

==

Dirty Uniform

“TAJIMA!”

Tajima tries to flee, but a hand snags the back of his jersey and hauls him toward the dugout. Of course it’s Hanai—Hanai is one of the few whose reach is long enough that Tajima can’t wriggle or kick his way free.

God damn that beautiful boy and his long arms, Tajima thinks to himself with a sigh as he’s dragged across half the field toward the team’s dugout.

“Yuu, why is your gross, smelly uniform still sitting on the benches??” Mizutani and Izumi are standing a few feet away from the stained shirt and sock, with their hands over their noses, wearing twin expressions of utter disgust.

“Whoops! Guess I forgot to grab it yesterday, sorry!”

“What about when we were here for practice this morning?”

“Haha, I don’t remember! Was I here this morning?” Tajima scoops up the uniform and shoves it into his locker with a too-large grin, and Izumi and Mizutani both grimace even more.

“Yuu, you’re going to forget it—”

“Noooo I’m not!”

“He definitely is,” Izumi sighs, directing his comment to Mizutani. “I’ll remind him at the end of practice.”

“Thanks” Izumi says, clapping him on the shoulder. “We owe you one.”

“I just wished he cared about his uniform a fraction as much as Ren does,” Mizutani grumbles. “Remember when he finally got his customized uniform, with his #1 sewn onto it?”

“He barely let it out of his sight for a week. As much as he loves that thing, though, I think he actually cares about Takaya’s jersey more.”

“Those two can be so weird.”

The whole first year, almost every game they went to, one of the team members would find Mihashi contorted in front of the mirror in the bathrooms, checking his number, as if he was afraid it wouldn’t be there anymore. At first Tajima wrote the number on his back with a marker—they hadn’t had permanent numbers assigned then, they were still changing around the lineup too much to invest in their own customized jerseys.

Mihashi’s number hasn't changed since day one, but he still checks his back, every single game. Now, sometimes he checks Abe’s #2 instead, which seems to mollify him just as well. Whether it’s to remind himself of his position, or to make sure it hasn’t disappeared out from under him, the rest of the team isn’t sure.

But Mihashi’s #1 jersey was the first custom jersey they bought.

“I’m not actually sure which is worse—caring about your uniform too much, or too little,” Mizutani muses to himself with a frown. “They’re both kind of…”

“You’re not wrong,” Izumi says, resigned. “Our whole team is weird.”

==

Destroyed Baseball

The semifinal match that season is one of the toughest games anyone at Nishiura has ever played.

It isn’t difficult because they have shitty weather to contend with—it’s a gorgeous, sunny day. They aren’t down any team members; it isn’t challenging because of a stupid injury (trying to play without Tajima after he sprained his pinky in a reckless stunt had nearly ended their season heartbreakingly early). It isn’t a close game because the teams are so evenly matched, or because a ref is making unfair calls in the other team’s favor, or any other reason they can figure out. It’s just… tough. Nothing they try seems to work.

The opponents score in the second inning, and it takes them three more to tie it up with a single run. The very next inning, they’re down a point again.

Mihashi blames himself, of course. Abe tells him over and over that it isn’t his fault, but for some reason, this game, Mihash just isn’t hearing him. He’ll nod, and tremble, and Abe will sigh, and Mihashi will pitch, but they can all tell he doesn’t believe them.

And they get hit, and don’t score any runs, and they’re still be down in the score.

Everyone on the team is struggling under the pressure, and Hanai feels utterly powerless to do anything about it.

He’s supposed to be their captain. It is his job to keep morale up in situations exactly like this. Usually Tajima comes to his rescue—he’s their strongest hitter, and an endless generator of optimism and positive energy, and is irritatingly reliable. But today, for whatever reason, he seems to be struggling just as much as everyone else.

He’s quiet, with his eyes always laser-focused on the other team’s pitcher, as if he has a personal grudge against the guy. Usually he knows better than to get distracted by a single player, to get absorbed in his own thoughts during such an important match. They’ve discussed it often enough in practice. But Tajima isn’t perfect—none of them are, and they all have bad days.

Today just seems to be everyone’s bad day, all at the same time.

When it gets to the eighth inning, and they are still down a run, it’s Hanai’s turn at bat. It might be his last chance. He follows up after Tajima, who manages to get on base, but it’s only a single and they already have two outs. They need a run.

Hanai takes a deep breath, and then another, and picks up the bat.

The crack of the pitch making contact with wood is the loudest Hanai can ever remember it being, but he doesn’t have time to think about it before he’s sprinting towards first. It’s a good hit, headed deep into the outfield. It’ll be close, but maybe, just maybe, if he runs, Tajima might have time to make it all the way home.

Tajima’s speed is another of his strengths. He is past second before Hanai makes it to first, and they both keep running, urged onward by the frantic base coaches. Hanai’s head is in a fog; he isn’t thinking about anything except home plate, and how badly he needs Tajima to get there.

Faster, he thinks desperately as they both keep running. Please make it home.

The cheer from their side of the stands when Tajima’s fingers brush the plate and the ref’s shout declare him safe is deafening. Hanai sags to his knees at third, for the few minutes he stands there until a fly ball ends the eighth inning.

The rest of the match is a blur, all of them running on fumes at this point, relieved to tie it up but exhausted from the intense pressure of being behind the whole time. After the match is finally over, Momoe finds him before they enter the locker rooms to change.

“I think this is yours, captain?”

She drops a dirty, destroyed baseball into his hands, and it takes several seconds of staring in disgust at the thing before Hanai realizes what it is.

“This was my—?”

“Yep! Your hit that got Tajima home to tie us up. It’s your first destroyed ball! You should be proud, it was an important hit for us.” Momoe smacks him on the shoulder with a huge grin, and Hanai can’t help but return it.

He is going to get a display case for it, so he’ll never forget this feeling.

==

Glove

Maybe taking the whole team at once… wasn’t the best idea.

Momoe Maria doesn’t have a lot of regrets in her life; she tends to do whatever feels right in the moment, and see it through to the end. It’s a philosophy she’s lived by, more or less, and while it hasn’t always been the most successful strategy, she’s been pretty satisfied with the results overall.

Taking her team of highschoolers on a field trip to get new equipment all at once—a time and money saver, she’d thought, when she initially came up with the plan—might be one of them.

“THINK FAST!”

A baseball hurls by her, missing her ear by inches.

“Tajima Yuuichirou, no throwing baseballs inside the store! There are targets out back!”

“Sorry, Momokan!” Tajima then throws himself bodily at Hanai, attempting to jump on his back, and they knock over several crates of baseball bats, swiping a few boxes off the shelves for good measure.

Momoe sighs and rubs her knuckles against her temples. What had she been thinking?

“Come on, Yuu, you’re gonna get us kicked out of the store before we even have a chance to buy anything,” Sakaeguchi chides, trailing after them and doing his best to clean up in their wake of destruction.

“Outside, Tajima, c’mon,” Hanai says, grumbling and grabbing some baseballs, all while carrying Tajima, who is moving constantly, waving and kicking and generally being entirely too energetic for this shopping trip.

Momoe can’t really blame him too much, though. It’s been a while since they’ve been able to splurge on new equipment, and Tajima’s old glove is looking very beat up.

Almost everyone on the team had a parent or two pitch in some funds over the past couple months, and they’re the reason this trip is even possible—Momoe’s part-time job definitely wasn’t enough to cover it, not on top of bus rental fees, team meals, ground maintenance, saving for the training camp, not to mention her own rent and utilities—

Momoe shudders a little, and shoves the thoughts to the side. She can think about her own bills later; right now, she has a team to shop for.

And an entire store to clean up in their wake.

Despite their messes, though, and how loud they all are, and how many silly arguments they seem to get into, she finds that when she thinks about it... she doesn’t regret a single moment.

==

Onigiri

“Does Ren prefer salmon or tuna?” Ruri asks. Chiyo looks up from the rice balls she’s rolling and immediately regrets it, because looking at Ruri’s bright, cheery face makes it far, far more difficult to comprehend the question. She blinks a couple times, replaying the question in her mind. Ren. Salmon. Tuna. Don’t look at Ruri’s hands. Don’t think about how nimbly they sculpt the rice balls.

“Um,” Chiyo hesitates. Onigiri—think about the onigiri. “I’m not sure which he likes more.”

Ruri pouts. “Oh, come on. You’re his manager!”

“But—you’re his cousin?”

“Oh, but you see him so much more often than I do!” She bumps Chiyo’s shoulder with her own, scooting closer next to Chiyo on the bench as she does. Chiyo gulps. “You see him every day. He didn’t even used to invite me to games!”

“I—I guess that’s true.”

"Home-made snacks are always the best way to motivate someone. And we need our boys to stay motivated! So," Ruri grins dazzlingly and gestures again to the supplies in front of them. "Salmon or tuna?"

Chiyo turns her gaze away from Ruri's bright (and distracting) smile and tries, really tries, to contemplate the issue at hand. She thinks back to team dinners. What kind of fish did Mihashi naturally gravitate towards? Could she remember him picking salmon? No, not really. Did he and Abe ever decide to make a tuna recipe? No, not that either. Think, Chiyo, think! Ruri is counting on you!

And then she remembers the road trip to their most recent Koshien training camp.

"Neither," Chiyo says, lifting her gaze back to Ruri's. Gosh. Ruri has such bright pretty eyes. “Ren prefers umeboshi onigiri. I think I remember him picking umeboshi onigiri at the convenience store when we were on our way to the training camp last month.”

"See!? I knew you could do it!" Ruri throws her arms around Chiyo's shoulder and Chiyo tries very hard not to spontaneously combust. Ruri is so close. And she smells nice...

But then Ruri steps away just as quickly and gets back to work. "I think we still have some umeboshi in a jar in the fridge, so we'll make Ren some umeboshi onigiri, and then we'll use the salmon and tuna for the others." She begins deftly rolling the rice ball. "You're brilliant, Chiyo. So observant. I bet you'll be the best girlfriend for someone someday."

Chiyo nearly dies on the spot. Is this normal? Is this what crushes normally feel like? Because if so, Chiyo isn't sure she'll be able to survive another hour and a half of this.

The boys better appreciate these onigiri.

==

An Orange

Hanai stares at the oranges for a very long time before finally putting one in his basket.

Tajima elbows him in the side with a huge grin on his face. “You’re not thinking about Coach, are you, Azusa? Do oranges still freak you out? It’s been, like, a year.”

“Shut up, I was traumatized! Coach is scary. You were freaked out too, don’t pretend I was the only one.” Hanai shoves the orange into his basket, probably a little more aggressively than is warranted.

“You insulted her, you kind of deserved it. And squeezing the juice out of an orange barehanded is kind of hot.”

“Shut up, that’s gross. I know I was a dumbass, it was my first day of high school! We were all stupid then.” Hanai puts a couple more oranges into the basket. They’re going to be making food at camp all week, so they’re going to need a lot. He really wishes they were buying something other than oranges.

I didn’t care that our coach is a girl, unlike some people,” Tajima continues in a teasing voice, and Hanai reaches for him to pull him into a headlock, but Tajima is too fast. He gets to the other side of the fruit aisle, and Hanai can’t be bothered to chase after him, especially when his arms are full of heavy groceries.

“Got all the fruit?” Sakaeguchi rounds the corner with a large bag of vegetables, Sakaeguchi and Mizutani close behind with overflowing grocery bags of their own.

“Yeah, let’s go. C’mon, Yuu, let’s check out and get everything to Coach.”

Tajima’s phone chimes as they start loading the food onto the counter for the cashier, and he pulls it out of his pocket to reply to a message. When he finishes typing he holds out his bag of groceries to Mizutani. “Actually, can you take mine back for me? I’ll make it up to you later!”

“Uhh. I guess? Why?” Mizutani squints suspiciously at him, but takes the bag.

“I’m gonna go say hi to Riou. His team is here this week, too!”

“Who the hell is Riou?” Hanai stops putting the food on the counter to turn and face Tajima.

“You remember Tosei, right? He’s their reserve catcher! We text sometimes, he knows a lot about the teams we’re facing in the next tournament. Plus, he’s really funny! Anyway, I’ll see you guys later!”

Tajima runs off before Hanai has a chance to interrogate him further.

“Ahhh, Yuu doing recon on our future opponents. Never thought I’d see the day,” Mizutani says with a fond sigh.

“You think that’s what it was?” Hanai mutters, half to himself as he pulls out a card to pay for the groceries.

“What else would it be?” Mizutani says, one eyebrow raised.

“I dunno,” Hanai mumbles, even quieter. “Just seemed kinda weird. He bailed on food. Without eating any.”

“Maybe he’s sneaking off for a romantic encounter,” Mizutani says with a big grin. “And lying about it because he’s embarrassed.”

“Yuu, embarrassed?’ Sakaeguchi scoffs, as they all walk towards the van that’ll take them back to camp. “Are we talking about the same guy?”

“Maybe it’s, like, a forbidden romance. You know, like our bitter rivals or something.”

“Or maybe he’s actually meeting up with a guy from another team, like he said.”

“Maybe he’s in a relationship with Riou!”

“I feel like if Yuu was in a relationship, there’s no way we wouldn’t all know about it. In excruciating detail.” Sakaeguchi scrunches his nose in disgust at the thought.

“Fair point. You’re being awfully quiet, Hanai,” Mizutani says, turning to his captain. “You know we’re joking, right? You’re not like, actually worried about him, are you?”

“No way, Tajima can do what he wants,” Hanai says with a huff.

“Aww, cap’s definitely worried.”

“Hmm,” Sakaeguchi says, looking hard at Hanai, who doesn’t make eye contact with either of them.

“Come on, Momoe’s waiting for us. We can’t start prepping dinner until we have all the food.”

“Did he just try to change the subject?” Mizutani stage whispers to Sakaeguchi, who laughs and distracts him by talking about the next day’s training regimen.

Hanai is grateful, and jumps on the change of topic enthusiastically.

Sakaeguchi doesn’t say anything, but he doesn’t miss it, either.

==

Paint Splatter on Wall

Thonk!

Mihashi shivers as he slowly turns to look at the bright green splatter of paint on the wall, inches from where he’s crouched, huddled in the corner, hands curled tightly in his blue jersey.

“Don’t aim for people’s faces, you lunatic!” Abe yells, his voice strained and high-pitched in distress, from where he’s standing protectively over Mihashi’s hiding spot.

“That’s why we wear goggles, you giant baby!”

Tajima is lucky his voice is so faint that Abe can’t tell where it’s coming from, because he is seriously considering hunting him down and throttling him to death.

“Taka, relax. No one’s going to get seriously injured by paint. That’s why we’re playing paintball.” Izumi yawns from where he’s sitting, a couple feet from Mihashi, his paintball gun settled carelessly in his lap, bright yellow paint splattered across one of his arms.

“Are you playing paintball, though? You look like you’re about five minutes from taking a nap.” Hamada is up against a small box a few feet away, keeping his voice low as he peers over the top of the barricade, his gun propped against it and aimed out across the field.

“I put in my time, my duty has been fulfilled. Besides, I’m injured.”

The small group has very little warning before there is a brief shout, and then suddenly there are splotches of paint appearing on every surface in the vicinity.

“Keep pressing the advantage, we’ve got them!”

“Oh my god, Azusa, why are you taking this so seriously. Did you read up on military strategy or something?? It’s supposed to be fun!”

Mizutani holds a protective arm over his face as the wall beside him is absolutely covered in paint, several drops already splattered across his chest, and Suyama ducks out of the way of paint projectiles before he gets caught in the onslaught as well.

“I am having fun!” Hanai shouts.

There are a few smacks of paint hitting protective fabric. “Still having fun, captain?”

“Tajima, you’re supposed to be on my team!!”

Tajima pulls off his red, paint-splattered jersey, throwing it dramatically to the ground. “Hahaha, I’m a double-agent! Did you honestly think I’d agree to being on the team where I’d have to shoot Ren? C’mon, Azusa, you know me better than that!”

“Stop using my first name, you traitorous little bastard--”

“I think they’ve got it covered,” Sakaeguchi says suddenly, appearing around the barricade behind the small group. He sets his empty paintball gun on the ground next to where Abe is standing and drops to the dirt beside it, wiping his hands on his red jersey.

Abe half-turns, about to aim at him, but thinks better of it. He shrugs, dropping his own gun to the dirt, and sits next so Sakaeguchi. “This was a weird choice of bonding activity, even by Shiga-sensei’s standards.”

“Tell me about it.” Suyama follows Sakaeuguchi around the corner, his weapon nowhere in sight, although there are several splatters of paint across his blue jersey. He leans over the barricade Sakaeguchi is sitting against, presses a quick kiss to his cheek, and settles down next to him. “I guess there’s coordination and teamwork involved?” He continues with a shrug, but he doesn’t sound convinced by own argument.

“Maybe it’s just so Azusa and Yuu can channel their competitiveness into something besides bickering laced with unresolved sexual tension,” Izumi mumbles from where he’s curled up next to Hamada, half asleep.

“That’s literally been all they’ve done this entire game, though.” Sakaeguchi pulls a few blades of grass out of the dirt, grinning mischievously, and drops them into Izumi’s hair, who retaliates by frowning and swatting at him without opening his eyes.

“Hmm. You have a point. Maybe Momoe was tired of everything being green and wanted to liven the place up with a new paint job?” Suyama brushes the dirt off of Izumi’s head, and then wipes his dusty hand on Sakaeguchi’s jersey. Sakaeguchi shrugs as if to say that’s fair, and drops his head onto Suyama’s shoulder.

“This seems like probably the most inefficient way to paint I’ve ever encountered. Can we go home soon? I’m getting hungry,” Hamada says, abandoning his post and also dropping his weapon into the dirt with a sigh.

“Ooh, let’s all eat at Ren’s after! He’s got the space to accommodate everyone. We can pick up groceries on the way! Think it’ll be enough notice for your mom, Ren?”

“I-I’ll ask,” Mihashi chirps, pulling out his phone to type out a text.

“Mihashi-san’s cooking is the best, this day just got so much better,” Izumi says, finally sitting up.

“We haven’t all eaten as a group in a while, practice usually runs so late… This’ll be fun,” Sakaeuchi says, before yawning widely.

“She says it’s—fine.” Mihashi shuts his phone and tucks it safely back into his pocket.

“Sweet! HEY YUU,” Izumi hollers, leaning up to shout over the barricade and across the field. “We’re all gonna go eat at Ren’s!”

They all hear a faint Awesome! Followed immediately by an, Ow! And the smacking sound of several paintballs hitting the back of a vest, and a lot of maniacal laughter.

It takes fifteen more minutes before Tajima and Hanai’s battle calms down enough for them to all pack up and leave. They’ll have quite a bit of cleanup before practice the next morning, but none of them are thinking about that with the prospect of a home-cooked meal right in front of them, chatting happily about the paintball game and food and baseball the whole way to Mihashi’s house.

==

Nishiura High Team Qualifies for Koshien

—Written by You

SAITAMA. — The nation held its breath last Saturday as Nishiura High School secured its spot at Koshien in the national high school baseball finals after defeating Musashino Daiichi 8-2 in Game 3 of the final series.

Nishiura burst into the world of high school baseball after defeating this year’s favored champion in a 4-0 no-hitter last month. Though some early-season analysts did wager guesses about the unknown team’s success, ‘Nishiura High School’ was not a household name until its victory over Tosei. Three years ago, Nishiura High School did not have a baseball team. Today, they are one game away from being national champions.

Who is the team that shocked oddsmakers and captured the hearts of high school baseball fans across Japan? What was the key to their success?

A peek into Nishiura dugout looks just like any other high school baseball dugout: well-used, well-loved, a little messy. But a closer look will reveal something more—something deeper. Here is tray of onigiri lovingly made by the team’s managers. There is a paintball stain left over from a team bonding activity. On the ground is the tattered remains of a baseball, kept as a momento to celebrate a teammate’s success.

So many stories are told from this dugout, and all these stories have a common theme: family. To every player on Nishiura High Baseball Team, this team is their kin, and this dugout is home. While Nishiura certainly has the skill, dedication, and passion necessary to become champions, the bonds these boys have forged on the pitch will stay with them for the rest of their lives. That is what makes Nishiura different. That is what sets them apart.

Nishiura High will play at Koshien next Sunday afternoon starting at 6pm. Mark your calendars—this will be a game to remember.