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[04:23] <Minaplo> Thok! Thok! Thok! The baseballs flew, the bats smacked, runs were earned, bases were loaded and diamonds were dusted.
[04:23] <Minaplo> For Hideki, baseball club would probably prove to be a blessed haven away from the drama of 5 Soejima and the brewing pressure cooker of the school itself.
[04:23] <Minaplo> Until he heard the cry.
[04:23] <Minaplo> "HEY, YOGI BERRA!"
[04:41] <Hideki> WHOOSH. Hideki missed his last ball by a mile, and it thudded into the mitt of the catcher crouching behind him. His eyes were already darting to the source of the voice, which sounded… somewhat familiar? With a sigh, he rested his bat against his shoulder and sauntered away from the plate to give someone else a chance to step up to it.
[04:55] <Minaplo> The beautiful, gorgeous Asari Mochizuki was sitting in the bleachers, bat resting on Asari's lap. "HEY GOOD SWING AND A MISS, HIDEKI! WHAT, ARE YOU TRYING TO GET SCOUTED FOR THE BAD NEWS BEARS?"
[05:03] <Hideki> This asshole… But Hideki couldn't help but grin, as he approached the bleachers, sunlight glinting off his gold-tinted sports goggles. "What's the deal, Mochizuki? You run away from your own team's practice or something?"
[06:02] <Minaplo> "YOU JUST WHIFFED BECAUSE YOU GOT HECKLED. YOU THINK THAT SHIT HAPPENED TO BABE RUTH?" Asari cackled, then jumped down from the bleachers. Asari, too, was grinning.
[06:02] <Minaplo> "Have you been doing my exercises?"
[01:43] <Hideki> "Maybe I have, maybe I haven't." He tapped his bat restlessly against his shoulder. "How about a demonstration?"
[01:54] <Minaplo> "Hoh, you want to lose again?" Asari tapped the bat against the league. "Very well. There is a reason all in the Aichi league call me l'Enfant chéri de la VictoireAllow me to demonstrate!"
[01:48] <Hideki> The batting cages were where they always were, silent and waiting for this newest duel. The wind picked up slightly and sent a ball of dried grass tumbling across the entrance as both ball players approached.
[02:22] <Minaplo> "What will you give me if you win?" Asked Asari, hefting the bat.
[02:33] <Hideki> "An autograph. It'll be big one day." Hideki twirled his own bat smugly.
[02:33] <Minaplo> "Hah." Said Asari.
[02:33] <Minaplo> "And if I win, I want us to go out on the town after practice."
[02:34] <Hideki> "I can live with that."
[02:35] <Minaplo> Asari paused for a moment to glance at Hideki with an expression of surprise.
[02:35] <Minaplo> Then Asari smirked.
[02:35] <Minaplo> "And you can shout all our meals! Three-two-one-go!"
[02:35] <Minaplo> The balls began flying thick and fast.
[02:38] <Hideki> Hideki swung! He was doing pretty well; his form was better than ever, and he hit a good number of them. At one point, though, he made the mistake of glancing over at Asari…
[02:44] <Minaplo> Asari was hitting them elegantly, cleanly, as though time had slowed down for Asari's bat.
[02:44] <Minaplo> Asari was focused on visualising the balls, on seeing where to strike, and hitting home… Asari's style was flawless, and with that hair and face, it was impossible to deny the superstar material there.
[02:44] <Minaplo> But it cost Hideki. A ball whizzed past and hit the net behind him.
[03:32] <Hideki> "Tch!" He grit his teeth and tried to focus again, but his performance stayed pretty much the same. Frustration briefly flooded through him, pumping heat into his face and hands.
[03:34] <Minaplo> Asari remained cool and confident. Hideki's focus sharpened, but he knew he was hitting the balls a little too forcefully sometimes, making it a question of when he'd lose his balance.
[03:34] <Minaplo> Fortunately, when their contest ended, Hideki hadn't missed anymore… He'd lost by a single ball.
[03:39] <Hideki> "…" Hideki frowned at the scoreboard. He exhaled deeply and pounded the tip of his bat lightly into the earth. "Damn. Next time!"
[03:46] <Minaplo> "You and me, out on the town, on your wallet." Said Asari happily.
[03:52] <Hideki> "Yeah, yeah." It was hard to be nonchalant when adrenaline was still pumping through him! If only he could go for a nice long jog first. "Where to first?"
[03:58] <Minaplo> "How about dinner?"
[04:00] <Hideki> "Wild Duck's Revenge?"
[04:00] <Minaplo> "Eh…" Asari's face fell. "That's not a very exciting place to go on our first outing…"
[04:05] <Hideki> "Exciting…?" Hideki tilted his head. "Uh, we could do ramen, or go by that place on the dock… I dunno, man. Do you have any specific spots in mind?"
[04:05] <Minaplo> "Maybe we could try a pizza restaurant…?"
[04:08] <Hideki> "Pizza! Alright. Let's see what we can find! Practice is almost over, so hang tight."
[04:10] <Minaplo> Asari cheerfully returned to the bleachers.
[04:17] <Hideki> And Hideki returned to the field, where the other players were gathered around for one last pep talk from their coach. Slyly, he undermined it by nudging one or two of his fellow upperclassmen and grabbing some restaurant suggestions. -
[04:19] <Hideki> Soon enough, they broke formation to grab their gear and head home for the day. With his sports bag hoisted onto one shoulder, Hideki jogged cheerfully to the bleachers.
[04:20] <Minaplo> "So how was practice?"
[04:32] <Hideki> "Ah, you know how it is. Easing in the new first-years with the basics. Scrimmages. See how they handle themselves, work together, work with us." He broke into a big grin. "Next week is a game, though."
[10:42] <Minaplo> "I've seen your opponents. You'll likely trash them without breaking a sweat."
[11:08] <Hideki> "Yeah?" Hideki looked thoughtful, leading the way away from the diamond… and away from campus too. "I wanna win bad. I think everyone does. But it's disappointing if it's -too- easy."
[11:22] <Minaplo> "I understand exactly what you mean." Said Asari as they walked. "It feels like you aren't being tested. Like that practice was pointless."
[11:47] <Hideki> "Exactly. Or the research, in your case. How many schools do you check out each week?"
[11:49] <Minaplo> "Only one."
[11:58] <Hideki> "Hmm?" He side-glanced at him. "Well, well. The great Asari Mochizuki considers Sophia to be his greatest threat!"
[12:09] <Minaplo> "B-but of course…"
[12:20] <Hideki> "So how's your team going? Do you have a reason to feel worried?"
[12:23] <Minaplo> "Oh, I'm always worried."
[12:38] <Hideki> "Really? How come? Heard you guys were pretty decent."
[12:50] <Minaplo> "We are. I meant- ehh…" Asari waved a hand at Hideki dismissively.
[01:19] <Hideki> "Ehh?" Hideki echoed. "Oh well. Guess I'll drop by to heckle you one of these days and see what's really going on over there…"
[01:46] <Minaplo> "Hm. You're welcome to do so, if you want to be discouraged…"
[01:46] <Minaplo> After some walking, they'd come to a pizza restaurant that looked rather 'fancy'. Sandstone-looking walls with rounded crenellations, statues of medieval legionaries in alcoves, bearing pizzas on their spears… Orthodox-style icons stared at them from mosaics, saintly figures carrying slices of new yahk pie and loaves of garlic bread. Inside, mediterranean music played in all directions.-
[01:47] <Minaplo> "Welcome to Byzantine Pizza." Said a mascot near the door- a bigheaded man with a wide grin and golden armour with a purple robe. He had no eyes.
[02:07] <Hideki> "H-hey, thanks…" Hideki tried not to stare; deep chills were running up and down his spine, and he recognized the slight uptick in heartrate he sometimes felt before jumping into battles against shadows. "We can seat ourselves, right?"
[02:14] <Minaplo> A waiter walked past. He wore a gilded mask of iron.
[02:14] <Minaplo> "Seat yourself, or be seated by the LORD."
[02:23] <Hideki> Hideki jerked his head toward a nearby table, and headed over to it, quickly placing his bag under the table. "God, Volkov has terrible taste," he muttered, hoping his voice was low enough for the staff not to notice.
[02:30] <Minaplo> A nearby waiter's masked face turned like a tracking gun turret toward Hideki, stared for a moment, then marched away.
[02:30] <Minaplo> "These themed places really go all in." Said Asari, eyeing the tablecloth, which looked like a priestly vestment.
[02:30] <Minaplo> "Let's order."
[02:48] <Hideki> Hideki eyed the retreating waiter remorsefully. Nevertheless, he opened one of the menus resting on the table when prompted. "No way I'm eating a whole pizza. Coach'll kill me if I do."
[02:56] <Minaplo> "Yes, let's share!" Said Asari eagerly.
[02:56] <Minaplo> "How about a Komnenian Carnivore? Plenty of meat…"
[02:59] <Hideki> "Sounds good." Hideki tried to attract a waiter's attention…
[03:18] <Minaplo> The waiter took the order, iron mask expressionless. He left, saying "To the Strategos!"
[03:18] <Minaplo> "You know, you can't really tell if they're boy or girl under those masks." Said Asari.
[03:21] <Hideki> "They could be anyone," Hideki agreed. "Like, if you wanted to sneakily get a part time job, this would be the place to come. No one would ever know!"
[03:26] <Minaplo> "Yeah." Said Asari. "What do you think about that?"
[03:31] <Hideki> "I could see its uses. Like, if you suddenly became a celebrity and needed to make cash without tipping off the press! Or you were trying earn cash to secretly buy someone a present. Or if you wanted to prank someone! Or! Or if a girl you liked happen to be a regular here. But that last one is kind of weird, because you couldn't approach her without blowing your cover."
[03:40] <Minaplo> "That would just be stalking." Said Asari.
[03:43] <Hideki> "That's why I said it was weird! Ah, you know who might be good at stalking? Reporters." He looked around the restaurant carefully, and lowered his voice again. Surely, the staff wouldn't hear him this time… "A lot of them have been at our school lately. If this is a place a lot of students visit, don't you think some of them would go undercover?"
[03:44] <Minaplo> "That could be possible. But how would you know?" Said Asari.
[03:46] <Hideki> "You wouldn't. Not until you visit a news website, and bam! You're hit with an article describing you and your friends, and how what you ate for lunch was related to the big scandal."
[03:55] <Minaplo> "That sounds like giving up."
[03:57] <Hideki> "Eh? Then… are you saying you have a way to figure out who's a reporter?"
[04:03] <Minaplo> "No. But…" Asari pondered.
[04:03] <Minaplo> "Let's spin it. What if it wasn't a boy trying to get close to a girl, but a girl trying to get close to a boy? Would that be weird?"
[04:08] <Hideki> "Well, I dunno if gender matters so much. If you've got the hots for someone you should be honest and tell them! Or, like, at least don't get a job purely to check them out."
[04:08] <Minaplo> "Well what if it's a girl who just doesn't want the attention?"
[04:12] <Hideki> "I mean… that doesn't make it any less stalkerish. She's not gonna be too likely to openly confess though…"
[04:12] <Minaplo> "No, no, I mean a girl who isn't doing it for a crush, but just to hide."
[04:14] <Hideki> "Oh. Then that's okay." Hideki nodded firmly. "It's not hurting anyone."
[04:19] <Minaplo> "How would you find them, though?"
[04:23] <Hideki> "A specific girl?" Hideki scrunched his eyebrows slightly. "Get to know the staff? Ask one of them to pass a message to her, if you know she works here. Or do an open confession!"
[04:24] <Minaplo> "An… Open confession?" Asari stared at Hideki. "Like… 'I think you're a girl'?"
[04:27] <Hideki> "Like getting all the staff's attention, and saying, 'I like this girl, and I know she's among you. So I'm letting you all know this!'"
[05:09] <Minaplo> "What if you didn't like the girl at all or feel any strong feeling?"
[12:42] <Hideki> "Then go with the first plan? Talk with the staff and see if anyone knows her."
[12:47] <Minaplo> "Hum. I see. That makes sense."
[12:47] <Minaplo> Before long, an ominous waiter returned to their table, lowering a Komnenian Carnivore onto their plate. A great heaving monstrosity of melted cheese, four types of meat (pork, chicken, beef, and lamb), great slabs of tomato and mushroom, garlic granules and swirls of a spicy hot curry sauce.
[12:47] <Minaplo> "Curry Eleison." Intoned the waiter. Then he left.
[12:54] <Hideki> It looked like a lot, even for two people. Nevertheless, Hideki steeled himself, grabbing a few paper napkins. "Well. Let's eat!"
[12:58] <Minaplo> "Hideki?"
[01:00] <Hideki> "Hm? What's up?"
[01:02] <Minaplo> "I like you."
[01:04] <Hideki> "Eh?" Hideki looked up at Asari in confusion.
[01:12] <Minaplo> "I-I like you, okay?!" Said Asari, voice raising in embarrassment. Asari's face had already turned a red to rival the Komnenian Carnivore.
[01:20] <Hideki> Hideki's face slowly settled into one of quiet understanding. He placed the crumpled napkins back down on the table. "I see…" -
[01:23] <Hideki> "Um. I respect you, man. And it's out of respect that I'm gonna be honest and come out and say it. I have a girlfriend."
[01:47] <Minaplo> "I know that!"
[02:06] <Hideki> "I can't return your feelings. That doesn't change anything…?"
[02:19] <Minaplo> "I already knew you couldn't." Said Asari. "And I'm nowhere near ready for a relationship. But… I wanted to tell you, because I still respect you."
[02:19] <Minaplo> Asari sighed. "I knew you before you went steady with Ms. Yi. But there was never any chance to advance things in that way so long as you saw me as a rival and as a man."
[06:39] <Hideki> "Hey. Mochizuki." Hideki kept his voice gentle. "Where do you want things to go from here? If you want more time to think about it, you only have to say so. But if you already have an idea…"
[12:06] <Minaplo> "Well. The first thing is… Nakajima, I need to be certain you're picking up the subtext."
[12:06] <Minaplo> Asari sighed. "You know… I'm a girl, right?"
[12:08] <Hideki> "I… suspected it," he said carefully. "But only after you said that stuff about seeing you as a rival and man."
[02:43] <Minaplo> "Y-Yes. Well." Asari reddened. "Now you can confirm it. I am a girl. I'm a girl. And… You're taken. So I guess we'll just have to be friends and rivals. As we already are."
[02:57] <Hideki> "This was… incredibly brave. And I have so many questions for you! Maybe we should go slow on them, though."
[02:58] <Minaplo> "Brave?" Asari perked up, a great big smile spreading across her face. She grabbed a slice of pizza and tore into it.
[02:58] <Minaplo> "Go ahead!"
[03:00] <Hideki> "You don't mind?" Hideki mirrored her, going for his own sizzling slice just a little more slowly. -
[03:01] <Hideki> "If I ask something dumb, just kick me under the table, instead of answering, ok?"
[03:02] <Minaplo> "I will just tell you to your face, but alright!"
[03:02] <Hideki> "Good?" Hideki nodded. -
[03:06] <Hideki> "So. The whole guy thing… was it intentional? I'm realizing that you never, uh, actually announced your gender at any point before now. The rest of the team and I just assumed you were a guy."
[03:42] <Minaplo> "Well, I do play for the boys' baseball team." Said Asari. "So… Yes, it's intentional. Actually, 'Asari' is usually a female name, but I passed it off by changing my kanji." She took a pen from her bag and wrote down her 'official' baseball name, the one Hideki was more familiar with, which combined 'Morning', Asa, and 'Severe, Stern', Ri/Rin. "Written like this, it seems very manly. 'Asa' can mean morning, but also 'royal family' or 'dynasty'."
[03:42] <Minaplo> But then Asari drew a different pair of kanji, this one bearing linen/hemp, 'Asa', and 'ri', meaning pear or jasmine tree. "But this is my birth name. It's pretty… Feminine."
[04:00] <Hideki> "Pretty clever." Hideki had been watching the pen strokes with interest, and now that she was finished he bit into his own pizza slice. "You've been doing this for your entire high school career, huh?"
[04:11] <Minaplo> "And middle."
[01:58] <Hideki> "So that you could play for a boys' baseball team?"
[01:59] <Minaplo> "That's one of the reasons." Said Asari. "My… Actually, is it ok to talk about my reasons? It can be pretty long winded and boring."
[02:00] <Hideki> "I don't think either of us have anywhere to be right now. Take your time and talk about whatever you want to."
[02:01] <Minaplo> Asari beamed, took another slice of pizza and murdered it.
[02:01] <Minaplo> "My family isn't poor. We aren't wealthy, either. I guess we're strictly middle class. But my family is very traditional and very conservative."
[02:04] <Hideki> Hideki nodded along. He was still on his first slice of pizza, and quickly tried to finish it when he saw that he was being outpaced.
[02:08] <Minaplo> "That… Basically means that you have a lot more rules to deal with as a girl than if you're a boy." Said Asari. "For example, I was always taught etiquette more exactly than my brother or boy cousins. So much attention was paid to what I was wearing, who I was with, how I looked. And there were Good Hobbies and Bad Hobbies. I love baseball and I love swordfighting, and both of them are unladylike."
[02:09] <Hideki> "So your family didn't approve of your interests?"
[02:13] <Minaplo> "Nope." Said Asari.
[02:15] <Hideki> "But you ended up going to a boarding school, which meant you could completely reinvent yourself and do whatever you wanted!"
[02:15] <Minaplo> "Exactly." Said Asari. "I had a sympathetic teacher and someone in my family had my back, so we made some deals, and… I was able to sneak in as a boy." Said Asari.
[02:18] <Hideki> "Not bad. It's a good plan that doesn't involve completely cutting out your family or running away from home. But it must've been hard to hide everything from you classmates and teammates."
[02:19] <Minaplo> "Not as hard as you think!" Said Asari proudly. "Growing up, I had lots of reasons to pretend to be a boy anyway. I know all the tricks and trades."
[02:25] <Hideki> "What can I say?" He said with a grin. "You've got some real grit and determination. If that what it takes to do the stuff you love, then I'm all for it."
[02:31] <Minaplo> "T-Thank you." Said Asari. Asari was usually so tidy and neat, even in the diamond; right now, with curry sauce around her lips and bits of meat on the table in front of her, she looked utterly delighted.
[02:31] <Minaplo> "I knew you of all people would understand. Actually, you helped me once when I was in a tight spot, although you probably don't remember it."
[02:37] <Hideki> "I… did?" He tilted his head. "Come to think of it, you even said that you knew me before Ji-Hu and I started dating."
[02:40] <Minaplo> "Yeah. It was a few years or so ago. We had a game, and the Sophian Scholar-Kings won." Said Asari. "It was a tense game, and a lot was riding on me, and… See, I've always been pretty anxious. Afraid people will find out, that kind of thing. That's what I meant when I said that I'm always worrying."
[02:40] <Minaplo> "But this was worse. I'd had a shower after the game, but I was in a funk and I didn't realise that the door was slightly open. And I think one of my teammates saw me. And my anxiety skyrocketed."
[02:43] <Hideki> "Oh shit…" Hideki's gaze was fixed on her intently. "What did you do?"
[02:46] <Minaplo> "Well I panicked, obviously." Said Asari. "And I quickly got dressed and ran out. But I'd messed up some of my disguise, so I don't think you recognised me when you met me. But I was panicking, I couldn't explain why, and you didn't really know what was happening."
[02:46] <Minaplo> Asari grinned. "So you grabbed me by the shoulders and said, gently mind, 'Just shut up and do something.'"
[02:50] <Hideki> "Heh. Sounds like something I'd say," he admitted. "Did you 'do something'?"
[02:51] <Minaplo> "Yeah, I did."
[02:53] <Hideki> "What was it?"
[03:01] <Minaplo> "I spoke to the guy straight on. Not about what he saw. Just spoke at him, very confidently and sternly, like I wasn't afraid at all. Never came up."
[03:07] <Hideki> "That's how it should be." Hideki nodded his approval. "Man. I'm pretty wise, aren't I?"
[03:08] <Minaplo> Asari laughed. "Sure!"
[03:18] <Hideki> "You've got some good points yourself. In fact, you should come to our game next week, okay?" He reached for his second - damn! Only his second! He was losing! - slice of curry pizza.
[03:18] <Minaplo> "What, to cheer you on?"
[03:20] <Hideki> "Nah. To see how I'm improving! The next contest we have is gonna be my win."
[03:23] <Minaplo> "Not likely!"
[03:26] <Minaplo> The Death Arcana Strengthens…

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