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In Pursuit of Happiness

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Sena woke up with a groan the next morning, a headache pounding out a sluggish rhythm against the backs of his eyelids. He groaned again, more pathetically this time, and Monta made a piteous, commiserating sound from somewhere nearby. Everyone else was still asleep, Koutarou snoring peacefully with his mouth open next to them.

“Whuh happened,” Sena mumbled, cracking an eye open and wincing at a beam of light that speared its way through the blinds and straight into his throbbing head. His voice was wretched and it felt like something had crawled into his mouth and died.

Monta made an incomprehensible noise and flopped a hand in Sena's general direction. “Dunno, but if I die here, make sure they write something good about me okay, Sena? Something like ‘American football loses a handsome young catching prodigy...the entire world weeps at the death of someone so young and talented to the...max…”

Sena laughed feebly, and moaned as pain jabbed in unrelenting spikes through his forehead.

Mamori popped her head into the room at their voices and bustled over to Sena, resting a cool hand against his forehead before setting two water bottles next to them. “You’re awake! Are you feeling okay?” She laughed at their slow, incredulous headshakes. “Well, you’ll feel better after some food and water. Kongo-san and I making breakfast right now, so drink that and come over to the kitchen when you can.” She got up briskly, heading back towards the living room. Her voice trailed in from the hall as Sena rolled over to grab the water bottle. 

“Oh, and Sena, you need to thank Shin next time you see him!”

“Huh? What?” Mamori was already out of earshot, her footsteps retreating down the hallway. 

Sena sat up slowly and took a long drink before nursing his head and groaning. “Oh my god, I don’t remember anything from after we started drinking those little glasses.”

Monta chuckled weakly, groping about for his own water. “That’s because you’re a complete lightweight, Sena.” They lay around for a bit longer, obediently drinking their water before Monta frowned and gestured in the direction of the kitchen.

“Hey Sena, do you really think Agon is helping Mamori make breakfast for us?” There was a heartbeat of silence before both boys exploded into laughter, despite their headaches.

“You know she was talking about Unsui!”

“I know, I know, but c’mon , imagine it for a sec. Agon Kongo, domestic man to the max.” Monta dissolved back into laughter as Sena tossed his empty water bottle at him, giggling helplessly. They only stopped as the other residents of the guest room started groaning and pelting them with whatever was on-hand, not ready to be woken up yet. After that, it was a matter of managing to slowly and unsteadily crawl their way over to the living room, toward the source of the delicious smells.

----

Mamori was putting her dirty dishes into the sink up by the time Sena and Monta made their way into the dining area. Unsui was still eating and waved a hand in greeting, pretending that they didn’t look like two small zombies with severe bedhead. He looked confused as both Sena and Monta burst into snickers upon seeing him.

“Morning, you two. Great party,” he said approvingly. “Better for some than others.” He nodded at the couch where Mizumachi and Agon were tangled together, dead asleep. “I already took pictures,” he said, grinning slyly. “I can't wait for them to wake up.”

Mamori dropped off two loaded breakfast plates with accompanying bowls of soup, and Sena and Monta tucked in, suddenly ravenous.

“What happened yesterday, Unsui-san?” Sena asked between bites. “I remember the beginning of the party, and then I was...outside? And then I woke up here.”

Unsui laughed. “You ran out yesterday while talking to Shin, and he had to chase you down.”

“What?!”

“Yeah, you shouted ‘Let's race, Shin-san!’ and took off.”

Monta laughed too, and nearly choked on a bite of breakfast. “Yeah! I heard you yellin’ all the way from the other room.”

“You guys were gone for a long time after that. He carried you in at the end when everyone was mostly gone, and it was pretty late by then.”

Sena sputtered, promptly dropped his chopsticks and went bright red. “He carried me in?  What?!”

Unsui grinned unabashedly as Sena groped for the dropped utensils. “Yeah, you were completely passed out. He was carrying you like a backpack he was afraid someone would try and steal.”

Mamori made a sound of agreement as she joined them at the table with her own plate of breakfast. “Like this!” she offered helpfully, lacing her hands in front of her to demonstrate. Sena put both hands over his face and let out a tiny scream very similar to a teakettle coming to a boil.

“Oh my god. Oh my god... I can’t believe - oh my god, I have to apologize to him. What can I do, this is awful!”

“It’s okay, Sena! I’m sure Shin-san doesn’t mind. Any of us would probably have done the same in that situation.”

“It’s Shin-san. Of course he minds! I mind that he minds! Eughhhh what should I do?” Sena dragged both hands down his face and oozed down his seat into a dejected slump. Monta gave him a commiserating pat on the shoulder, stuffing his face calmly.  

“Well, you can always say thank you next time you see him.” Mamori said as Sena picked listlessly at his breakfast. “In the meantime, eat up! You’ll feel better about everything after a good meal.” Sena sat up sharply at her words, his eyes suddenly bright.

“That’s - yeah! A good meal! Mamo-nee, you’re a genius!”

“Oh? Um, yes! Thank you, Sena, what a nice thing to say!” Mamori said, cheered by this sudden turnaround. She didn’t expect Sena to shovel the rest of his breakfast down like a snake swallowing an egg and and race to the fridge, rummaging inside with sudden energy and throwing things onto the counter. She exchanged a cautious look with Unsui who shrugged, looking as confused as she felt. Monta was still munching steadily away, content to enjoy the show in blissful ignorance.

“Sena?” she ventured.

“- and then I’ll need to make rice, and hmm maybe I should do something grilled instead - “ Sena was too busy talking to himself, random snatches of mumbling as he looked over the assorted ingredients on the counter with a bright gleam in his eye. Everyone exchanged confused looks again. As if suddenly remembering the presence of other people, Sena gasped and looked back up.

“Unsui-san, can I use your kitchen? And some painkillers?”

“Uh, sure? What...are you using the kitchen for again?” Sena’s mouth thinned into a determined line.

“I’m gonna make a thank-you lunch for Shin-san.”  

----

That afternoon, Sena made his way over to Oujo University to make his amends. He meandered his way through the campus, slightly lost until he spotted a familiar flash of green between two of the tall buildings. As he approached the stadium, he caught sight of the Silver Knights still on the field for their weekend practice, and he sat down nervously in the empty stands to watch and wait.

The Silver Knights were running through their cooldown routines, having just finished practice, and Sena sought out the familiar jersey numbers of the players he knew - Sakuraba’s #18, Otawara’s #60, Ikari’s #66, and finally, Shin’s - Sena paused. Wait, where was Shin?

A blur of movement towards the endzone caught his eye and, oh - there was Shin’s terrifying #40.

He watched, transfixed, as Shin blazed down the field in a dead sprint towards an obviously waiting Coach Shouji, who had a stopwatch in hand. Shin powered through the 40-yard line before easing into a slower pace, jogging a slow semicircle back to the coach, who held out the stopwatch appraisingly for him to check. They consulted and Coach patted Shin’s shoulder, dismissing him to join the rest of the Silver Knights in their cooldown exercises.  

As Shin headed towards the sidelines, Sena realized that his mouth was still hanging open, and that this probably meant that Shin had gotten even faster. It was probably a difference measured in mere milliseconds, but Shin was slowly shaving excess time off his already formidable run. The thought was terrifying, but also intriguing. He bounced his leg restlessly, and wondered if he could get Monta or Riku to time him at their next practice. He would have to step up his game to keep up with Shin’s relentless improvement.

Shin removed his helmet to scan the stands, probably out of instinct - the bleachers were mostly empty, and Sena raised a hand to catch his attention. Shin noticed him immediately, tilting his head curiously before giving Sena a single nod of acknowledgement and heading purposefully towards the locker rooms.

Sena glanced at the emptying field, deflating. “Oh...so, do I just wait?”

After ten minutes of increasingly anxious silence, Sena made his way over to the locker rooms because he felt silly sitting by himself in the empty stadium, looking out over the empty field. He hovered outside the door to the lockers, pacing back and forth for lack of anything better to do.

“Be cool, be cool,” he repeated for the twentieth time, feeling weirdly queasy. “Just apologize, thank him, give him the lunchbox and leave. It’s not like you have to stay and talk about him carrying you back like a child, in his arms, or, or whatever, and -”

“Sena-kun! Sena, is that you?” Sena jerked in surprise and looked up to see Sakuraba headed towards him, waving.

“Sakuraba-san!” he greeted warmly, happy for the distraction. “It’s good to see you again.”

“Same! I’m pretty surprised to see you up, actually. How are you feeling today? It looked like you were having a lot of fun last night.”

“Eehhh, if you could call it that…” They shared a laugh, Sena glancing at the doors as a few other players exited. Sakuraba grinned, following his gaze.

“He should be out soon. He was one of the last ones in.”

“O-oh, yes, of course.” Sena fidgeted, embarrassed that his motives were so clear. Of course, Shin chose that moment to come out, spotting them immediately and making his way over.

“Ah, there he is. I’m off then, Sena-kun. See you around!” Sena waved goodbye absentmindedly, nerves on high alert as Shin stopped in front of him. Shin looked...like Shin, which on anyone else looked like a frown. The nerves got worse.

“Eyesh- Kobayakawa Sena,” Shin greeted, nodding at him. He looked wary, eyeing Sena with something like caution. Sena was too surprised by Shin's use of his name to notice.

“Shin-san! Um, hi! Uh, how...are you doing?”

“I am fine. We have just finished practice. Are you feeling all right?”

“Uh, what do you mean?”

Shin blinked slowly, searching for words. “I was wondering if you had recovered from your…party.”

Sena let out a great shout of embarrassed laughter. “Haha! Ha! Yes! About that! I’m, uh, yes! I’m fine now!”

“That’s good.”

Sena bounced nervously in place before remembering why he had come in the first place and making a grab for his backpack. “Oh, right! The reason I’m here is uh, because I actually made you lunch, Shin-san! T-to um, to thank you!” He rummaged in his bag, rambling nervously. “And before you say anything, I made it really carefully, and I paid super close attention to portion size and stuff like calories, even though it was kinda confusing, so you should be able to eat it, even with your special diet, and um - where, is it - oh!”

He pulled the wrapped box out before glancing up at Shin, who had remained worryingly silent.  “Oh, um...that is, if you want to accept it, I know this might be kinda weird, and maybe you’re worried about your uh, your special meal plan, but I researched very carefully! And, um...happy lunch?” He presented the lunchbox hopefully.

“Thank you,” Shin finally said, accepting it with both hands.

“Right! I uh, I wanted to thank you in person too, and to um, a-apologize.“

“For what?”

“Unsui-san told me that you um, you carried me back yesterday after the party? Because I was passed out?” Shin’s face took on a rather fixed expression.

“Yes,” he confirmed. “You were very drunk. Do you...remember anything?”

“Not really?” Sena said nervously. He dipped into a deep bow. “I just wanted to say sorry for being so troublesome, and thanks a lot for um, carrying me back when I uh...when I couldn’t walk.”

“You were...very intoxicated,” Shin repeated, after what looked like a long internal struggle.

“I uh...I didn't do anything weird, right?” Shin paused for a long moment, opened his mouth to speak, reconsidered, and shook his head no. Sena sagged with immediate relief.

“That's good! Thank goodness! Because usually when I’m drunk I run a lot, and uh, end up in weird places, like a lion’s den, or a biker bar, or the dumpster, but that didn’t happen this time! And nothing weird happened! Which is good! It’s great!” Sena was almost shouting by the end of his ramble. Shin looked startled and a little concerned as Sena turned a slow but steady shade of red. “Well, um, enjoy your lunch, Shin-san! And thank you again, Shin-san! Sorry again! And uh, thank you again!” He bowed quickly once more before turning to dash off.  

“Wait.” Sena skidded to an immediate stop at Shin’s voice. “Kobayakawa Sena. Have you eaten yet?”

“Um, a little -”

“Do you have any prior arrangements?”

“Uh, no, I don’t th -”

“It is not good to delay your meal after drinking that much alcohol. You will have a headache for the rest of the day if you do. Did you drink the water I left you?”

“Um, the water?? Uh, yes, I di -”

“Good. Come with me.”

Sena fell obediently into line behind Shin, too surprised to protest. Should I tell him I already ate breakfast?  The thought flew out of his head as they entered the Oujo university dining hall.

“This is where the majority of students eat their meals,” Shin explained, gesturing at the huge circular expanse of the fancy cafeteria. He handed Sena his student ID card, pointing to the assorted vendors. “You may order anything you like with my card, since you are a guest.”

Sena balked immediately, trying to press the card back into Shin’s hands. “Oh no, Shin-san, you don’t have to -”

Shin pushed the card back firmly. “I usually prepare my own meals, so the credits would go to waste otherwise.”

“Oh, but...Shin-san, I uh, technically, I already ate.”

Shin blinked at him, deflating a bit. “Oh.”

“But! But if you’re really offering, I could, um, get a drink maybe?”

Shin brightened at that. “Yes, that’s a good idea. You should drink more water.”

“Okay! Do you want anything?”

“No. I will eat the lunch you prepared for me today instead of my usual meal.” Sena beamed at that. 

“Okay then, Shin-san, if you're really sure. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Drink more water.”

 ----

As Sena headed for one of the vendors to get his drink, Shin started unwrapping the lunchbox. He studied the contents with interest - it was a simple, well made lunch with evenly portioned sections of rice, chicken, greens, and an indulgence in the form of a single apple slice cut in the shape of a rabbit, with a little football carved into the back. As he was looking over the lunchbox, Sena returned, holding a tray of his own and two bottles of water.

“I’m sorry Shin-san, I said I already ate, but when I got to the front of the line, everything looked so good so I got something small, I hope you don’t mind since you said I could order something, and plus I got you a drink too, and -”  

“It’s fine,” Shin cut in, interrupting the flow of Sena’s babbling.

“Oh,” Sena said, suddenly noticing the unwrapped lunchbox. “Um, is the lunch okay?”

“Yes,” Shin said, reaching up to take the second water bottle from Sena’s tray. “This looks adequate. The portion sizes are good and it looks quite pleasing. Thank you for the meal. You should eat yours as well.”

“O-of course, Shin-san! And you’re welcome.”

 The two boys ate in silence for a bit, Sena taking huge gulps before realizing how slowly Shin was eating and slowing down accordingly to match him.

“It’s really cool that you guys get to have this great food all the time,” he said, studying the different booths. “Enma only has fast food in the food court…”

“Yes, the cafeteria is convenient and well stocked, even if I do not make use of it very often.”

“Oh, here, before I forget -” Sena handed Shin his ID card back. “It’s a good picture of you,” he added diplomatically.

“Is it? My mother says that I look like a rock statue and that I should have smiled.”

Sena choked on his drink and somehow managed to shoot water out his nose from laughing too hard. Shin stopped eating to arch an eyebrow at him, the slightest smile twitching up the corners of his mouth.

“Was it that funny?” he asked as Sena finally managed to catch his breath.

“Yes!” Sena gasped, shoulders still shaking with restrained laughter. “I mean, I’m not saying that it’s true, or anything, but…” Both boys looked at the ID card again, and Sena started laughing all over again as Shin brought the card up to look at it a little closer.

“It’s a little severe,” Shin conceded. 

“You look like you’re angry at something!”

“Why did you say it was a good picture of me then?”

“‘Cause - because it’s a nice thing to say! It’s still a good picture, just…” Sena flattened his features and drew his brows sharply together. “It’s a little severe,” he said, pitching his voice very low.

Shin huffed something that might have been a laugh and turned back to his meal. “I don’t sound like that.”

“Yeah, but - hey! You’re smiling, Shin-san!”

Shin pointed abruptly at Sena's face, distracting him. “You have rice on your chin.”

Sena dissolved into stammering, swiping at the offending grains, and Shin took the chance to look at the smaller boy now that he wasn’t being observed himself.

 “You grew taller, Kobayakawa Sena.“

“Oh, yeah. Food was really big in America.” Sena made a sweeping gesture across the table. “Big portions. Really big portions.”

“Americans do tend to overeat, but in your case it seems to have been beneficial.” Shin put a hand on Sena’s shoulder, turning him slightly to one side to study the broader set of his shoulders and chest. “You look stronger as well, physically. I am sure that your bench press has improved by at least 15 to 20 kilos.” He glanced at Sena expectantly and Sena nodded shyly, confirming it.

“15 kilograms exactly. I can bench 75 kilos pretty consistently now!” Shin nodded approvingly, turning Sena back to face the table. “Your fitness, endurance and overall athleticism have improved greatly. These are incredible results for the amount of time you spent training.”

Sena flushed a noticeable shade of pink down to the neck before looking down, embarrassment and delight warring under Shin’s scrutiny. “T-thanks a lot, Shin-san.”

Rather abruptly, Shin remembered Sakuraba's advice. “Kobayakawa Sena,” he said suddenly. “I have something to tell you.”

“Uh, yes?”

“I enjoy your company, and I like spending time with you. I am very glad that you have returned from America.”

Sena blanched, turning bright red and starting to stutter over his words, unsure of where this strange flood of compliments was coming from, or where it was going. “Uh t-thank you, Shin-san? I uh, I like spending time with you too. T-thank you?” He piled the rest of his plate into his mouth, flustered beyond words. Luckily for him, Shin’s next topic was a much safer choice, guiding the conversation back onto solid ground for them both.

“I wanted to ask you about your training regimen yesterday night, but you refused to tell me anything.” Shin’s tone was only slightly accusatory.

Sena laughed around his too-big mouthful. “Really? I don't remember!”

“Will you tell me now?”

“Of course! What do you want to know?”

“What drills you ran on the field and how your practice routines differed from the ones at Deimon. Were there special exercise regimens that differed depending on what position you played, or did they rotate among different routines for all players. Did meal plans differ for their athletes? Did you -” Shin caught himself starting to tangent and took a deep breath to calm down. “I would like to know about everything you did on the field during your time in America,” he summarized, before looking at Sena expectantly.  

Sena couldn’t help but smile at him. He’d forgotten how chatty Shin could get when they were talking ball, and he didn’t realize how much he’d missed it until now. Most amefuto players he knew had the same tendency, but this was Shin - quiet, reserved Shin, who blossomed into full, almost enthusiastic conversation when discussing the potential benefits of one workout regimen over the other. Shin, who was waiting patiently on his words like there wasn’t anything more important in the whole world.

“Okay, Shin-san. That’s - haha, that’s a lot of stuff, since a lot of stuff happened, but I'll definitely try and tell you everything.” 

----

Sena spent the next half hour talking himself hoarse. Shin really did want to know everything - he asked follow-up question after question, his voice short and terse, and if someone didn’t know him well, they might think he was angry, or even frustrated, but Sena knew it for what it was - Shin Seijuro’s undivided attention and wholehearted interest. It was only when Sena’s voice began to flag and waver from talking so much that Shin realized that they’d become one of the last remaining students in the cafeteria, which was closing soon to prepare for the dinner rush.

“We should leave,” he said, standing up abruptly to repackage the lunchbox and clean their table.

“Oh, yeah, sure -” Sena threw his own trash away and they made their way out, blinking in the late afternoon sunlight.

Sena shaded his eyes with one hand and craned his neck up as they passed through the quad, obviously awestruck by the way the Oujo spires caught the light, refracting it across the open courtyards and casting shards of prismatic light everywhere. Shin watched with mild interest as Sena waved his arm into one of the reflected rainbows in obvious delight.   

“You have been to Oujo University before this, haven’t you?”

“Not...really?” Sena admitted, turning back towards Shin. “I’ve been to Oujo High before, but I've only seen the university from uh...from the sky.”

“From the sky?” Sena laughed sheepishly.

“Haha… Um. It's a long story.” Shin looked intrigued, and Sena launched into an animated retelling of their helicopter spy adventures with Hiruma. By the time he was done with the story, they had made it to the Oujo student dormitories.

“This is where I live,” Shin said, stopping in front of one of the clean white buildings.

“Oh! It's so convenient! Right on campus.”

“Yes, it is -” he was interrupted as Sakuraba exited the building, backpack on one shoulder, probably headed for the library.

“Oh!” he said brightly, catching sight of them. “Hey Shin. Hey again Sena-kun! I didn’t think that you’d still be on campus.”

“Yeah, me neither actually. But it's been fun!”

“Sena has been telling me about his time in America.” Shin explained. “He came to thank me because I carried-”

“YES!” Sena said loudly, trying to talk over Shin. “THAT’S RIGHT! I DID COME HERE. TO DO THAT. EXACTLY.” Shin looked slightly offended, but fell obligingly silent. Sakuraba hid his grin behind one hand.

“Because Shin carried you back to the party last night?” he finished. Sena sagged in place, resigned to the entire world knowing his horrible fate at the party.

“Does everyone know?” he asked forlornly. Sakuraba laughed openly now, clapping Sena’s shoulder in sympathy.

“If it helps, I only know because Shin told me. And that was only because I asked why he didn’t make the last train.”

Sena whirled to face Shin, dismayed. “You missed the last train?!”

“Yes. I got lost, and you were uncooperative, and by the time I found the house again it was too late. I ran back to Oujo.” Shin replied, as if it was no big deal.

“I’m sorry !” Sena wailed, covering his face.  

“You have already apologized several times. It's fine.”

“It’s not! I didn’t know that!”

“It's fine. The lunch was nutritious and satisfying, and learning about your exercise and diet routine in America was worth the trouble. I will have to ask you more about the training regimen some other day.” Sakuraba’s eyebrows went up slowly as he watched the exchange.

“Sena-kun...took you out to lunch?” he asked cautiously, the requisite and you actually went?! hovering unsaid behind it.  

“No,” Shin said shortly. “He made it.”

Sakuraba’s mouth opened, closed, and he settled on an expression of barely-restrained glee, biting the inside of his cheek. “Ah. Yes. Yes, I see,” he said sagely, pulling out his phone. “Um, in any case, I’ve uh, I’ve gotta go. School, and all, busy busy, you know how it is! See you later, Sena-kun! You too, Shin.” He gave Sena a pat on the back, a quick nod to Shin, and took off at a brisk trot towards the university library, texting frantically the whole time.

Sena waved at Sakuraba’s retreating back before turning to look back at Shin. The late afternoon sun was starting to slant into their eyes now, and Sena squinted against the orange light before fumbling for his phone too.

“Oh! It’s getting kinda late. I didn’t mean to take up so much of your time, I’m sure you have training, and homework, and a bunch of other stuff to do.” He snapped into a quick series of embarrassed bows before Shin could speak. “Thanks a lot for showing me around, Shin-san! And um, thanks for the lunch too, and for last night, and, um, also for everything!“

“You’re welcome. I look forward to facing you and your team during the upcoming Golden Bowl Tournament.”

Sena straightened suddenly and shot him a challenging grin. “Hey, that should be my line, Shin-san! You should watch out, I picked up a few tricks in America. I’m not the same player you remember from before.” He feinted towards Shin a few times, mischievous. Shin found himself smiling back.

“That’s good to know. It will be a welcome challenge coming up with strategies against your new tricks, Eyeshield 21.”  

Sena laughed, invigorated. “I know that should probably make me scared, but I’m just excited! I’m so excited to play football with everyone again!”

“I feel the same.” Shin tilted his head at Sena, studying him. “It’s different, now that you’re here.”

“It is,” Sena agreed. “It’s more real, having a goal to work towards.” His eyes sought and held Shin’s unwaveringly for a long moment before Shin nodded and held up his hand.

It was a simple gesture built up over three years and many games together, a ritual borne of familiarity, mutual respect, and friendship transcending their rivalry. Sena laughed, delighted, and brought his own hand up to slap it hard into Shin’s palm. Shin looked at him from across their clasped hands, a lightness in his eyes and face that hovered somewhere close to joy. He was smiling, that quiet lilt of emotion that you had to have the right eyes to see, and Sena grinned back fiercely as Shin squeezed his hand bracingly.

“Welcome back, Eyeshield 21.”

As they separated and Sena made his excuses to leave, Shin felt...buoyant. Uplifted. Sena still thanked him again, one last time, then several last times, bowing hastily before finally dashing off, a hasty goodbye trailing cheerfully after him.

Shin watched him leave, studying his retreating back, the powerful lines of his legs in motion. Even off the field, Kobayakawa Sena still ran with such joy. There was an easy exhilaration in the pump of his legs and the swing of his arms that made Shin feel light and clean, like he wanted to run too, just for the sake of it.

His palm was still tingling where they had clapped hands, and he turned it over to look, curious. It didn’t look any different than usual, but it felt different. He clenched his hand into a fist, held it up and spread it out to catch at Eyeshield 21’s retreating back in the familiar, slowed-down motion of a Trident Tackle before letting his arm drop back to his side.

He headed into the dorm building with that sense of lightness still vibrating within him, humming through his chest and palm like a song he couldn’t shake, and above it all was that sense of not-enough that he still had no name for.

He really was excited to play football again, now that Kobayakawa Sena was back.