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In Pursuit of Happiness

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Kobayakawa Sena returned in April, on a humid, gently sunny day - a perfect day for playing football.

Oujo University’s football club had received a special correspondence from someone using a Saikyoudai letterhead exactly one week ago. Although it wasn’t signed with a name, there was a roughly scrawled invitation with details about when to attend Eyeshield 21’s debut game at Enma University, and concluded with a gleeful ‘See you fuckers there, Ya-Ha!” so there was little question as to the identity of the sender.

“Do you want to go?” Sakuraba had asked, folding the letter neatly back into its envelope.

“Yes,” Shin said instantly, and Sakuraba had smiled.

“Of course, you must miss Sena, it's been so long since we last saw him.” Shin surprised himself by nodding.

“Yes,” he said again. “I want to see how much he has improved.”

Sakuraba shook his head ruefully. “It's okay to say that you missed him, Shin. We all missed him too.”

“Oh. Yes. That too.”

Shin marked the date in his calendar the moment he got back to the room, and upped his training regimen by 30% in the one week he had to prepare for Eyeshield 21's return.

______

 When the little troop of Oujo Silver Knights arrived at Enma on the specified date and time, it was with no great surprise that they saw the entire complement of Saikyoudai’s star players there to observe as well. Sena’s return was no small news, and discussion of his absence before and his presence now sent little ripples of excited reaction through their interconnected nets of friendship and rivalry.

As the game picked up for real with Sena’s late arrival, Shin watched Eyeshield 21 take center stage, observing the differences in his stature and appearance that living in America had wrought. It was distracting though, the inexplicable feeling that stole over him as he watched Kobayakawa Sena’s familiar, vibrant plays. His own jumbled thoughts kept displacing the more important analyses of strategy and tactics that should have been taking place. This first game back was important - it laid the groundwork to observe the new plays that Eyeshield 21 had honed during his time in the United States and to develop initial strategies to counter them, yet Shin couldn’t focus on anything except the lightness within him upon seeing that familiar lightspeed run.

It was baffling. Disconcerting. Totally irrational.

 Seeing Kobayakawa Sena on the field again after stolidly bearing the weight of his absence for the past year made Shin glad, but he couldn't find the right words to capture the feeling, and 'satisfaction' was somehow not enough.

 


 

As the game concluded with an unsurprising and overwhelming victory for the Enma Fires, the audience began trickling out of the stadium, laughing and talking among themselves about the incredible last-minute player who had dominated the entire field. Shin stayed, standing with the other Silver Knights and catching little snatches of conversation from the departing crowd, the same name on every person’s lips.

“- Eyeshield, incredible -”

“...he came back from America, that Eyeshield -”

“- did you see him run ?! Eyeshield 21 -”

“...in 4.2 seconds, Eyeshield 21 -”

Shin shifted restlessly, growing impatience rising in his chest like slow bubbles of anticipation breaking on a calm surface. Eyeshield 21 was back, and he was incredible, and Shin wanted to see him.

Sakuraba pointed at the small group of familiar players clustered around the exit of the Enma locker rooms, obviously waiting for the star of the show to come out. They made their way down through the emptying stadium, Ootawara picking his nose enthusiastically, and it was Takami and a nervous Yukimitsu who greeted them first as they made it to the ground level. Shin joined Taka Honjo and Banba Mamoru on the bench to wait, sitting in companionable silence as the rest of the players broke off into little groups, chatting in the post-game quiet.

When the Enma Fires finally emerged, it was like a pulse of electricity that sparked through every single person gathered there. Mizumachi hopped out first, slamming the locker room door into the wall in his enthusiasm to greet everyone. He made a terrifyingly direct beeline for where Kakei was sitting with Yamato and Juumonji, grabbing him despite his vigorous protests and twirling him in a circle, whooping loudly.

Kurita and Unsui were quick to follow on Mizumachi’s heels, splitting into their respective groups as Koutaro and Riku strolled out behind them. Monta jumped out next, starting up a drumroll against the benches, prepping the small crowd for the star player as everyone else joined in good-naturedly.

“Are you all ready?! he shouted. Are you guys ready to the MAX?!”

“Just get out here already, Sena.”

“Yeah, Monta’s starting to take this a bit too seriously.” Monta shot a nasty glare behind him, continuing like he hadn’t heard anything.

“Now it’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for!! The hero of Notre Dame, returning victorious from America, it’s Eyeshield 21!”

The impromptu drumroll rose to a fever pitch, and finally, finally ...after a year’s worth of waiting, after a full nine months of absence, Kobayakawa Sena, Eyeshield 21 pushed the door open to peek out and wave at his gathered friends, grinning sheepishly, but incandescently happy. The drumroll turned into a roar as a spontaneous cheer went up for him, and there was an immediate rush for the door as everyone fought to greet him, his Enma teammates included. Somehow, Sena ended up sprawled on various shoulders and hoisted out to the field to be tossed into the air, despite his feeble protests.

Shin watched as the rowdy group prepared to toss Sena up for the fifth time, people jostling each other for the chance to participate. He thought that Kobayakawa Sena looked vaguely nauseous at this point, but that didn’t seem to register with the overenthusiastic crowd of his friends and rivals. Very predictably, the shoving turned into a scramble, and Sena let out a screech as he flailed in midair with only a few people left to catch him. Kurita managed to arrest his fall with one well-placed hand, but Sena still landed rather hard in the middle of the rambunctious crowd. The scramble turned into a mob as everyone rushed in to see if he was okay, and in the midst of it, Sena broke free and ran.

Immediately, he was transformed, going from a timid boy to a champion in the span of 4.2 seconds. He ran like it was his calling, his birthright, and Shin was on his feet, blood singing through him, his heart beating a wild, thundering rhythm. He was lit up from within, glowing with a kindred exultation at the sight of that familiar, freeform run.

He moved on instinct alone, charting an intercept, his arm already drawn back in a muscle memory motion as familiar to him as breathing. He had been improving himself in constant, steady increments during Sena’s absence, waiting for his return, waiting on this very moment to challenge him again and test his resolve and ability once more. He knew with unwavering conviction that Kobayakawa Sena would have improved as well, to meet his challenge and to overcome it, because Kobayakawa Sena was Eyeshield 21 and also his strongest rival, and that was simply what he did .

He just hadn’t anticipated the degree of that improvement, or how much it would amaze him.

Eyeshield 21 locked eyes with him as they approached each other, a collision course with an inevitable axis. There was no fear in his eyes anymore, only steely determination borne from their multiple clashes on the field and a new confidence within the set of his shoulders and core that spoke of practice, practice and more practice - a dedication to training and to the sport that had allowed him to surpass his old limits and reach a new level of speed and agility.

Kobayakawa Sena managed to avoid his upgraded Trident Tackle in a way that Shin wasn’t even sure he could describe afterwards. He flowed around it, the casual twist of his body reminiscent of Panther’s liquid style, but with that stampeding impetus that was his and his alone. Even more striking was the fluid, practiced ease he moved with - a confidence in himself and his ability that had never been there before shining out like a blinding light. 

That feeling of awe dissipated immediately as Sena made an unflattering noise, contorting himself into a strange pose in surprise and skidding to an ungainly stop right after he had successfully dodged Shin’s strike.

“Shin-san!!” he said before smiling hugely and bouncing forward to greet his rival. He stopped just short of Shin, who noticed immediately that Sena didn’t have to crane his head up as much, that there was less distance between them than before. Sena had grown taller during his time in America.

“Eyeshield 21,” he said, nodding in acknowledgement. His unused arm lay at his side, heavy. There was a heartbeat of full, awkward silence as they stared at each other, tongue-tied, but then Sena closed the distance to give Shin a rather hesitant one-armed hug before stepping away quickly.

“I-it’s really good to see you again, Shin-san!”

“Yes,” Shin agreed, and before Sena could say anything else or turn back to the crowd of people waiting for him, Shin stepped forward and returned the hug. Everyone behind them went immediately and stiflingly silent, staring unabashedly.

It was the natural thing to do, Shin felt. A hold instead of a tackle, in lieu of his failed attack earlier, but as time settled around them to mute the initial surprise, strangely, he didn’t feel like letting go. The seconds stretched awkwardly long, and still, Shin was reluctant to let go, especially since Sena was standing very calm and obliging in his arms. Finally, Sena laughed a little, patting Shin reassuringly on the back, and as if it was a signal, Shin released him.

“O-oh, um, I really missed you too, Shin!” he said brightly, a growing flush spreading across the bridge of his nose. Shin just nodded jerkily, unsure of what to say back. Sena stuttered into several embarrassed half-bows before grinning and giving him a small wave. “Um, I - um, that was, um - I uh - I’ll, I’ll see you around, Shin-san!” Shin nodded again and Sena spun on his heel, a little bounce in his step as he jogged back to the waiting crowd.

Sakuraba and Ootawara drifted over to where Shin was standing as the murmur of conversation resumed. Sakuraba waved a hand before Shin’s eyes, which was how Shin realized that he hadn’t stopped staring at Sena since he had released him. Focus broken, he turned back to his teammates.

“Shin?” Sakuraba asked. “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” Shin said, rather woodenly. “I am okay.”

“Ookay then! Well, that was...weird. We should probably head back though since the game is over and we got to see Sena and say hi. I’m sure he has a lot of things to take care of now that he’s back.”

“Yes. That is good.”

“You sure you’re okay, Shin?”

“I am fine.”

Shin followed his teammates through the crowd and only looked back once, but Sena was hidden by the press of people eager to see him.

 


 

The next morning, Shin mulled words in his mind as he ran through his daily routine. This was an oddity since his focus was usually solely aimed towards improving himself, but today all he could think about were words, and how he didn't have any for the way seeing Eyeshield again made him feel. He considered his morning jogging route for a full minute before turning his steps towards the mountain route.

He found Sakuraba already stretching at the base of the trail, warming up his long limbs before preparing for the ascent.

"Shin," he said companionably as his teammate jogged over. Shin nodded back, falling in step with Sakuraba as they began their morning jog.

_____

As they took a quick break at the top of the trailhead, Shin frowned as he ran through some perfunctory stretches, still absorbed in his thoughts as Sakuraba straightened next to him to take in the view. He only realized Sakuraba was talking to him when he caught the tail end of Sena’s name in the chatter.

“... and it's nice having Sena-kun back, isn't it?”

“Yes.” Shin said, and that should have been it, but that feeling of not-enough rose again, filling his chest to the point of bursting. “But -” Sakuraba looked at him curiously.

“But?” he mirrored.

Shin struggled, words flitting at the back of his mind, and escaping, unfitting. There was no way else he could express it. “It's not enough,” he finally said, sitting down on the bench and hanging his head in frustration.

Sakuraba sat down too, concerned. He had been friends with Shin for long enough that he could tell that Shin was agitated, but he couldn’t parse why. “What do you mean not enough?” he asked carefully.

Shin stared at the backs of his hands in frustration before clenching his fists. “I'm glad,” he finally said. “But, I don't know how to describe it.” 

Sakuraba’s brows shot up and an inkling of understanding sprang to life, a tiny unrealized suspicion. “Hmm. Well, if you don’t mind me asking, what are your thoughts about Sena in the first place?”

Shin’s answer was instantaneous, almost automatic. “He is my rival. An equal. A friend. I respect him greatly and I am very glad that he has returned.” The words felt strange, even to Shin. It was the first time he had ever voiced them aloud.

“Yee-s,” Sakuraba said slowly. “So it makes sense that you’re glad to see him back. It's normal to miss a friend when they've been gone for a long time, and having your rival back is exciting and makes you want to improve.”

Shin turned the way he felt about Kobayakawa Sena over and over in his mind, but the reality didn’t match up completely with Sakuraba's words. What he said wasn’t false, and there was definitely an overlap between the words and the way he felt now, but there was also a dissonance where the edges didn't mesh together properly, and that sliver of feeling that didn’t fit in with the rest was the thing he had no name for.

“No,” he said thoughtfully. “That’s not it.”

“No? Then how do you feel, Shin?”

Shin thought of the sudden, exultant compression in his chest and throat at seeing Kobayakawa Sena again, that buoyant feeling of - something , like the first long gasp of air after being underwater for too long, and tried awkwardly to put it into words.

“I feel like... the way my opponents look after I've Trident Tackled them.”

Sakuraba gave him an uncomprehending look. “Defeated??”

“No, not defeated. It’s like all the breath has been knocked forcefully out of me with nothing I can do to stop it.” He turned his wrists loosely, frowning hard. Sakuraba waited patiently, watching Shin gather his words.

“It's - my chest constricts tight and everything turns hot. Running doesn't help. Training doesn't help. The school nurse found nothing wrong with me physically, besides a slightly elevated pulse. I don't understand.” Shin turned to Sakuraba, almost plaintive. It was the most distress that Sakuraba had seen his friend in for a long time. He didn’t know what to say as Shin sat quietly next to him.

“But at the end, it felt right.” Shin finally said, looking down. He held out his hands, fingers spread wide, and the slightest tremble shivered along his extended fingertips. “It felt right, to hold him,” he said again, quieter.

Sakuraba’s face lit up with comprehension. It also lit up with an embarrassed flush, because helping his emotionally-stunted friend sort out his feelings for another boy was definitely not high up on his list of ‘Things I would love to do’.

“Oh! Oh. Um...well then. Uh...”

“What should I do? I don't understand.” An awkward silence descended between them, compounded by Shin’s point-blank, unwavering stare. Sakuraba hemmed and hawed, sweating and trying hard to come up with a decent answer that didn’t give the whole game away immediately.

“Uh…well, um, maybe you should get to know him better? As a person?”

“I already know him as a person. We were teammates for the World Cup, and we have been rivals for -”

Sakuraba ran his hands through his hair in frustration. “That's not what I mean.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, um. Do you want to be closer to him?”

“We are already close. He is my greatest riva -”

“Not like that!”

“Then like what?”

Sakuraba sighed. Shin was so relentlessly direct, and he had a bad feeling that if he told Shin what he suspected, then Shin would immediately and without fail, run to Enma to confront Sena about it. Sena would probably die on the spot, which would be terrible for everyone involved and also terrible for the fate of American football in Japan.  To complicate things even more, he had no idea how Sena felt about Shin, or if Shin really had feelings for Sena at all. Maybe Shin was just succumbing to a bad case of rivalry fueled nostalgia or something equally ridiculous, and even if Shin did have feelings for Sena, the possibility of him botching the confession stood at a solid 99.9% in Sakuraba's mind.

Either way, he couldn't just tell  Shin, because then he'd be responsible for Sena's untimely death and he wouldn't be able to live with that guilt. No, Shin would just have to come to this awkward realization by himself. Sena might still die but at least it wouldn't be his fault. At least not directly? He sighed again and scruffed both hands through his hair in frustration. Why did he have to take care of stuff like this now that Takami was gone?!

“Okay, Shin,” he started tentatively. “Um. Do you think that maybe...holding him and talking to him would uh...solve the way you feel now?”

Shin went quiet as he considered it. The tickle of Kobayakawa Sena’s hair against his cheek and the brightness that spilled through him at the feeling, like he was being lit from within, filled him up like sunlight. His breath went short, something in his chest clenched tight like a fist, and he gripped instinctively, trying to catch and hold the warmth of that feeling and finding nothing but air. It was a while before he could speak.

“Yes,” he finally said, voice soft. Sakuraba shook his head, grinning ruefully before carefully, apprehensively setting a hand on Shin’s shoulder.

“Shin...people don't know you like them unless you tell them,” he said gently. “If you missed him, you should let him know how you feel.”

“Oh,” Shin said. He sat in thoughtful silence while Sakuraba fretted, wondering if he had just given everything away. He nearly sprang off the bench as Shin got up suddenly, nodding to himself. “I understand. Thank you for your advice,” he said, bowing to a startled Sakuraba before turning to start his descent.

“Uh, you’re welcome?" Shin continued onwards without looking back or giving any other indication he had heard, and Sakuraba waved a feeble hand after him. "Okay then...I’ll see you later..."

"Oh man, oh jeez, what have I done?!“ he fretted aloud as Shin’s retreating back dipped out of view. There were so many terrible possibilities, the majority of them leading to Sena dying of shock or embarrassment. Poor Sena! Did this make him a murderer by proxy now? Well, either way, things were in motion and there was nothing to do but watch how it would play out.

He sighed, took a long drink from his bottle, and pulled out his phone to send a quick text to Takami before starting back down the mountain himself.

 

 

His phone buzzed later as he was doing his cooldown stretches at the base of the mountain. 

 

 

Chapter Text

Paperwork. So much paperwork.

Sena groaned in abject frustration as the Enma university student portal crashed on him for what seemed like the twentieth time before reloading the site with dull eyes.

Despite his hero-status welcome on the field after the game, things came crashing pretty abruptly back to reality when Sena realized that all those emails he had cheerfully been dunking straight into spam had actually been official emails from the school, and now he was behind on everything . Sure, he might be super hotshot American football returning hero Eyeshield 21 on the field, but here in the registrar’s office he was simply Kobayakawa Sena, late incoming first-year student who hadn’t filled out all the required forms yet.

It looked like a 40-yard dash time of 4.2 seconds still wasn’t fast enough to escape the drudgery that was school-related paperwork.

As he typed in his school ID again, he wondered if Hiruma had been forced to endure the same tiresome process of registering as a student at Saikyoudai, and had to bite back a bubble of laughter as he imagined the face of the hapless administrator who had to deal with that mess.

A loud stage whisper caught his attention and he glanced up to see Monta, Riku, and Suzuna peeking around the corner at him.

“Psst! Sena! Sena!” Monta was probably trying his best to be considerate and quiet, but every student in the computer area looked up irritably as he waved cheerfully at Sena, unfazed. Sena flailed a hand back in an embarrassed wave, gathering his things as quickly as possible before scooting off the computer, head ducked low as he joined his friends and herded them outside.

“Sena! We waited for you ’til we got bored! What took you so long?”

“Well, um, the computers were really slow and kept crashing, and I’m not actually done yet, but - ”

“Okay, okay! Anyways! D’you have your room assignment yet?”

“Room assignment?”

“Yeah, like your dorm and which room you’re stayin’ in?”

“Um...no?” Monta gave him an outraged look.

“Whaddaya mean no?! We have to be roommates! I already requested a two-person room!”

“He doesn’t have to be roommates with you, Monta,” Riku cut in, arching an eyebrow. 

Monta puffed up in immediate indignation. “Whaddaya mean he doesn’t have to be roommates with me?! Sena’s my best buddy, of course he has to be -”

As Riku and Monta got into a bickering spat next to them, Suzuna cruised over to skate next to Sena. “It’s okay, Sena!” she said brightly. “We’ll figure it out, okay? In the meantime, you can probably just stay with one of us. I’m sure Kurita and Mizu-nii and everyone else will be glad to let you stay too!”

Sena gave her a shy smile. “I know they would, but I hate to impose on everyone....”

“You’re not imposing!” Monta shouted, throwing an arm around Sena’s shoulders as he caught up with them from behind.

“You really aren’t,” Riku agreed, falling back into step with them. “Just let us know if you need any help.”

“Well, actually...I don’t have anywhere to stay tonight, so I was planning to take the train back home…”

“SAY NO MORE, SENA!” Monta yelled, grabbing Sena by the shoulders and shaking him. “Of course we can be unofficial roommates! You don’t even need to ask!”

“I - didn’t ask yet, but -”

“Here, let’s bring all your luggage to your room, okay?” Monta grabbed Sena’s suitcase and jogged forward with it, pumping one first enthusiastically in the air. “We’ll be roommates! Roommates max!”

Monta’s enthusiasm was infectious, and Suzuna took up the chant too, zooming past everyone to clear the way. Sena and Riku exchanged amused, slightly embarrassed grins.

“I guess I’m Monta’s roommate now.”

Riku laughed. “Yeah, that was the only option, right?”

“I guess so, but I was planning to room with Monta anyways, so it works out great. Oh, what about you, Riku? Are you rooming with anyone?”

“No, I’ve got my own place. I didn’t choose the university-provided housing.”

“Oh, I see -”

“Hey! What are you slowpokes doing?” Suzuna called from up ahead.

Riku scoffed. “Slowpokes? Us?”

“Yeah! You two! Lagging behind us by a whole hour!”

Riku rolled his eyes. “C’mon Sena. We have a reputation to uphold.”

Sena laughed and darted forward with Riku, his bag bouncing wildly against his back as Suzuna sped up in immediate response, racing with them to the dormitory as Monta followed in their wake with Sena’s luggage.

-----

After a few days of administrative lag, Sena finally received the official verification of his room and roommate at Enma University.

“Congrats, Sena!” Monta had shouted upon seeing the email. “Finally! We’re officially roommates!” They hugged and did a little dance around the dorm, in which Sena had already unpacked all his things.

Monta suddenly clapped both hands on Sena’s shoulders, regarding him with a very serious face. Sena’s euphoric mood dipped abruptly into the realm of general panic.

“What? He blurted. What’s wrong?”

“Huh? Nothing’s wrong!”

“Then why are you looking at me like that?!”

“Because!”

“Because what?!”

“Because you know what we gotta do now, right?!”

“What?!” Sena wailed.

Monta threw his arms out, encompassing the messy little room. “THROW A CRAZY PARTY TO CELEBRATE MAX!!!”

Sena blinked and looked slowly around their very small dorm room.

“Um.”

After coming back to his senses, Monta agreed that it was probably not the best idea to host a crazy party in a first-year student dorm with a curfew of 10PM. When they brought the idea up to Riku and Suzuna, somehow it got passed around until Unsui and Kurita heard about it.

Like the actual saint he was, Unsui volunteered his off-campus apartment, which he was sharing with Agon. Sena winced and did some mental gymnastics, reasoning that maybe the Agon-ness of the whole thing would be diluted in the presence of all their friends, and agreed. After that, it was just a matter of getting the word out (which meant telling Mizumachi to tell everyone he knew) and cleaning up Unsui’s apartment for the party.

-----

By the time Shin and Sakuraba arrived, the party was already in full swing. Most people had already had a few drinks and everyone was slightly drunk, very cheerful, and very loud. A raucous shout of greeting went up as they ducked into the crowded living room, and Sakuraba was immediately set upon by Monta and Ikkyu and hauled over to where the receivers and quarterbacks were engaged in a complicated version of beer pong.

Shin followed Sakuraba for lack of anything else to do, and eyed the setup dubiously. Instead of a ping pong ball, the players had substituted a tiny rubber football, which kept on ricocheting everywhere, knocking over cups and causing mass chaos with every round. It was a very lively atmosphere.

As Sakuraba got sucked into the game, Shin took his leave, looking diligently for Eyeshield 21. Someone clapped him on the shoulder, shouting their greetings over the loud music and planting a red cup into his hand before getting caught up in another swell of activity. Shin accepted the cup in confused silence and sniffed it, wrinkling his nose at the smell of cheap beer. He threaded his way between sloshed partygoers and dancing bodies, making his way over to the kitchen so he could dump out the beer, thoroughly rinse out the red cup, and refill it with water.

In the relative calm of the kitchen, he looked out over the party, zeroing in on anyone under 170 centimeters. He spotted several familiar figures from other teams, but still no sign of Eyeshield 21. Shin frowned. Wasn’t the whole point of this party to celebrate Eyeshield’s return? It seemed strange that he was nowhere to be found. Shouldn’t he be in some centralized, easily-spotted location so that his friends could find him to give their regards?

It was redundant in the first place, to host a party like this when everyone had already greeted Eyeshield 21 at his return game. For Shin, that had been more than enough welcome, and he had been ready to throw himself back into his training, upping the rigor of his daily routine now that he had a worthy opponent and a match to look forwards to. Somehow, Sakuraba had managed to coax him into coming tonight, stressing something about being polite and making an appearance, because ‘it would be rude not to officially welcome him back and you're Sena's greatest rival, right? Don't you care about showing your support?’

He shouldn’t have listened.

Shin made his way to the quieter side room and sat on the mostly-empty couch in resigned silence, nursing his red plastic cup as people chatted merrily all around him. Of course he wanted to show his support for Eyeshield 21, but he he was starting to feel distinctly out of place and increasingly annoyed, because his time could have been put to much better use testing his new upper-body workout routine. Being here was cutting precious hours out of his schedule, and what was the point of staying when Eyeshield 21 wasn't even present?

As if on cue, the couch bounced with the weight of someone landing too-hard on the cushions, and Shin turned to see Kobayakawa Sena settling next to him with a goofy smile.

“Heh,” he grinned. “Hiya, Shin-san.” Shin looked at the telltale red flush across Sena’s face, his half-lidded eyes and tipsy smile.

“Eyeshield 21. You have been drinking,” he said, slightly disapproving.

“Oh?” Sena replied innocently. “That’s not much of a greeting, Shin-san.” He flopped himself in the direction of the couch cushions, which were dangerously close to Shin’s lap and ended up landing sideways on the couch with his head lolling on Shin’s shoulder. “Try again?”

Shin sighed. “Hello, Eyeshield 21. It is good to see you again. I am here to show my support for you. Welcome back.”

Sena gasped and began clapping loudly, looking ridiculously happy. “That was much better! Thank you, Shin-san!” He flung a hand up to pat Shin’s cheek several times. “It’s good to see you again too!”

Shin fidgeted. Kobayakawa Sena’s hand was very warm and kind of...wet? Alcohol or sweat? He didn’t really want to find out. He ducked gracefully out of Sena’s reach before realizing that this was a good opportunity to ask about his training regimen in America.

“Eyeshield 21, I have a question to ask you.”

Sena frowned up at him. “Yeah?”

“I wanted to ask about your training schedule while you were - “ Sena cheerfully clapped his hand over Shin's mouth, effectively shutting him up.

“Don't wanna talk about that!” he grinned. “Try again, Shin-san!”

Now it was Shin's turn to frown. “Eyeshield -”

Sena sat up very suddenly and began smacking Shin with the couch cushion. “Eyeshield this! Eyeshield that!” he shouted crossly. “Rude! That’s not my name, Shin-san!”

“Oh,” Shin said, bewildered. “Yes, I know that. Your name is Kobayakawa Sena.”

Sena’s entire face brightened. “Yes!” he sang out. “Good! That’s me, Kobayakawa Sena! You can only call me Eyeshield 21 when we’re playing football, okay Shin-san?” He placed the couch cushion onto Shin’s lap without waiting for an answer and promptly lay down on it. Shin scooted sideways very quickly, but Sena still managed to flop onto his lap, where he began talking very quickly.

Shin held himself very still. Kobayakawa Sena was very warm, the combination of cheer and alcohol making the brightness radiating off him nearly tangible. Because he didn’t know what else to do, he let Sena stay and ramble happily, trying not to focus on the strange, sudden intrusion of thoughts about the proximity of Kobayakawa Sena's fluffy brown hair and narrow shoulders.

Sena cut himself off mid-ramble to fish his phone out and fiddle with it, squinting at the screen. “Shin-san, why don’t you have a phone? I wanted to text you when I was in America, but I didn’t have your number, and I don’t have your number because you don’t have a phone. Why not?”

“I would destroy it,”

“Oh…right. So...does this mean you’ll get one?”

“No,” Shin said firmly. Sena’s face crumpled into an expression just shy of tearful, and Shin shifted nervously, feeling unexpectedly guilty.  

“But...why not?” Sena asked, looking so legitimately perplexed and sad that Shin didn’t have the heart to further stress his absolute destruction radius for anything more complicated than a stopwatch. “I can’t text you if you don’t have a phone, Shin-san.” Mopily, he reached over and tried to put his own phone into Shin’s hand. “Here, you can have mine, okay?”

Shin very quickly jammed both hands behind him. He was very sure that Kobayakawa Sena would not appreciate waking up the next morning to his wrecked phone. 

“Keep your phone. I will get my own,” he said resignedly, and Sena beamed up at him before reaching up to clumsily pat his shoulder.

“Okay,” he said happily. “Good. Then I can text you whenever I want, and send you funny pictures of cats, and talk about football games, and - and we can talk anytime.” His eyes fluttered shut as he drooped sleepily against Shin, still smiling.

Shin blinked as Sena’s head lolled into his stomach. Had he really fallen asleep? He tapped Sena’s forehead tentatively to no response, before looking around for help. No help was forthcoming - everyone else was too deeply absorbed in their own conversations or their own drinks, and Shin frowned nervously down at Sena’s tranquil face in his lap.

It felt rude disturbing Eyeshield as he slept, but since he had finally managed to give his regards, that meant he could go home and maybe pack in a quick nighttime workout to make up for all this wasted time. Shin leaned down further to check if Sena was really asleep - and Sena’s eyes shot open, he jolted upright abruptly, the crown of his head colliding painfully with Shin’s jaw, and Shin bit his tongue.

“Let's race, Shin-san!!” Sena shouted at maximum volume, his entire face bright. Before Shin could stop him, Sena had vaulted over the couch with far too much grace for a drunk teenage boy and taken off at a headlong run through the side door.

Shin drew one hand over his face in resignation and looked up, catching Kongo Unsui’s eye. Unsui shrugged and nodded in the direction Sena had run off.

There was no other choice but to chase him.

Shin sighed and got up. He jogged out, caught sight of Sena’s back, which was already vanishingly small and very far down the street, and gave chase.

-----

Kobayakawa Sena was fast, Shin mused, feeling a little nostalgic as he gave chase, the night wind streaming through his hair. Eyeshield's endurance and stamina had grown along with his height, and Shin had no idea how he was maintaining his speed while still finding the breath to chatter and laugh like he was having a normal conversation. It was also baffling how he was able to run so fast while obviously tipsy and hollering encouragement for Shin to catch up. Shin gritted his teeth and accelerated to 4.2, arms out in a modified Grab-Tackle, but Sena somehow managed to dodge his grasp - was he more agile when drunk? That made no sense whatsoever.

Sena leapt over a construction sign, clipping the top and sending it flying backwards into Shin, who avoided it by smashing it to bits with a well-placed Trident Tackle. The debris flew out of the way just in time for him to see Sena veering towards the busier intersection away from the residential area. Cars were zooming by at a steady rate, and an unsettling panic seized him at the sight of Sena running heedlessly towards the busy street.

He accelerated again, this time with fierce purpose, lunging forward with his arm outstretched in a full Trident Tackle, and this time he managed to snag Sena by the scruff of his shirt before he ran into the road. The forward momentum was too much though, and the sidewalk flew up at them with startling speed as they toppled forward together.

There was barely enough time for Shin to twist mid-air, curling himself around Sena so that he took the brunt of the impact on his shoulder and back instead of crushing Sena underneath him like a broken practice dummy. When the dust settled and Shin could uncurl and sit up, Sena was lying very still and quiet against him. Immediately and hugely concerned, Shin bent down over Sena to pat his shoulder.

“Eyeshield 21,” he said, shaking him a little. Sena’s head lolled back, unresponsive. “Kobayakawa Sena,” he tried again, the tiniest bit of urgency coloring his voice. No response.

Shin leaned in close to see if he was still alive, and that was when Sena let out the tiniest snore.

Too relieved to do much besides grunt with frustration, Shin sat down and ran both hands through his hair in equal parts resignation, relief, and annoyance. Unfamiliar irritation skated across the forefront of his mind and he rubbed his forehead to try and make it go away. Another tiny snore broke into his thoughts and he looked at Sena’s prone body on the sidewalk before glancing back the way they had come. Nothing looked familiar, and he sighed deeply and stood to try and sit the smaller boy up.  

“Eyesh - Kobayakawa Sena,” he prompted, shaking him a little. “Kobayakawa Sena, we need to return to the house.”

“Nooo oo oo oooo,” was the defiant response, accompanied by a full-body wriggle. Shin waited, but Sena showed no signs of rousing further. He sighed mournfully and ran a hand through his hair again. Tonight was a mistake. He would never listen to Sakuraba’s recommendations again.

Sena made uncomfortable, sleepy sounds as Shin sat him up on the pavement. He was boneless, listing to one side as Shin tried to prop him up. Shin grabbed Sena’s wrist and hauled it over his shoulders in an attempt to get him upright, trying to support him so that they could start walking back, but Sena just sagged against him, nearly tripping over his shoes, completely unable to walk under his own power.

This wasn’t working.

Trying to think of a better plan, Shin sat them both back down. Sena immediately flopped onto the pavement and Shin frowned, looking at him thoughtfully. If Eyeshield could not walk, he would have to be carried. Kobayakawa Sena had grown taller, so he was subsequently heavier, an increase in weight proportional to his height. Before, Shin had been able to stop Eyeshield’s lightspeed charge one-handed. Now it would be difficult, but a few kilos of additional weight were still not a problem for Shin, who bench-pressed an impressive 150 kg during his daily workout.

“Eyeshield 21,” he said, to the tune of a single halfhearted snore. “I am going to carry you.”

He knelt and slid an arm under Sena's shoulders and the crook of Sena's knees to lift him, but Sena was as floppy as a rag doll and his head tilted back unsettlingly far over Shin's arm as he hefted Sena once to test his weight. Shin frowned, unnerved by the bare expense of Sena's throat thrown back like that. He hefted him again so that Sena settled more solidly in his arms, head falling forward to rest against Shin's shoulder. Sena mumbled sleepily and curled into him, tucking his face into the crook of Shin's neck, one of his hands coming up to cling at Shin's sweatshirt.

Shin stood rooted in place. The situation had somehow become better, but also worse, and he wasn’t sure which was the better part and which was the worse part. Sena chose that moment to regain consciousness, blinking fuzzily up at him.

“Shin-san?” he asked drowsily.

“Yes.”

Sena squinted at him, his nose wrinkling slightly with the effort. "Why are you so close?"

"I'm carrying you." 

Sena grinned and tucked his face back into Shin's shoulder. “Oh good, I'm dreaming. Mm, you're really warm, mister dream Shin-san, and you smell really nice.” He sighed happily and patted Shin's chest absentmindedly. “This is really nice.”

Shin had absolutely no idea what to say to that so he just kept on walking. That was when Sena kissed him.

It was a single sloppy kiss pressed to the side of his jaw, but it made Shin freeze mid-step and nearly trip over his own feet when momentum caught up with him. There was a long, unsettling moment where he nearly dropped Sena in surprise before his mind managed to catch up with what just happened.

“Eyeshiel-” he said woodenly. Sena mashed one finger to Shin's lips in a 'shush' gesture. It took him three tries to do this, and he only narrowly avoided poking Shin in the eye.

“Shhhhhhh,” he said, grinning secretively and trying for a wink. “Don't tell Shin-san.” He leaned into Shin’s shoulder, curling close with a content sigh before going quiet, and Shin could guess that he had fallen asleep again. 

Shin breathed in, breathed out. He turned his head very slightly to look at Sena, asleep on his shoulder. Something in his chest was very full, brimming with strange, exuberant emotion. He didn't know what to do about it except tamp it down mercilessly, adjust Sena so that he was a little more comfortable, and continue making his way back to the apartment. 

-----

A good half hour later, Shin finally conceded that he was lost. He hadn't exactly been scoping the scenery during his lightspeed chase with Sena and now all the apartment complexes looked the same to him. As he stopped at a four-way crossroads, trying to decide which direction looked the most familiar, Sena roused suddenly and tried to stage an escape.

“Shin-san! Let’s - c’mon, let’s go race!” he yelled, trying to wriggle out of Shin’s arms.

Shin didn't curse, but he thought unhappy things as he wrestled with the annoyance that was Kobayakawa Sena's drunk, uncooperative body. He managed to prevent Sena from escaping by sitting down on the curb and trapping him firmly with both arms. When Sena finally exhausted himself and subsided back into boneless silence, Shin sat him carefully down on the pavement before standing up to try and get his bearings.

Nothing had changed. The streets remained dark and quiet and unfamiliar, with only the slight hum of power lines overhead to break the silence. Sena slumped against his legs ungracefully and Shin sighed deeply, looking around hopefully for any sign of someone or something he knew. Nothing presented itself after a few minutes of fruitless waiting, and with another deep sigh, he turned his attention back to his unruly passenger.

When he knelt and attempted to pick Sena up again, Sena was not having it, eeling immediately out of his grasp and doing his best to try and roll away down the street.

“Eyeshield 21,” he tried, frustrated. “Eyesh-”

“Nooooooooooo,” Sena moaned unhappily. “Ruuuude.” Shin sighed and tried not to regret everything about tonight.

“Kobayakawa Sena,” he tried again. “Please stop moving. I am trying to pick you up so I can carry you back.”  

Sena cracked an eye open to give him a defiant, slightly-crooked glare accompanied by a very crooked frown and didn't say anything, but Shin finally got him to sit upright long enough to kneel down in front of him and grab his wrists. He slung Sena onto his shoulders and hoisted him up piggyback style this time to spare his forearms. Sena made a small sound of protest at being carried like a sack of potatoes before wrapping his arms a little tighter around Shin and pillowing his face against Shin's neck.

Shin looked at his feet. This was also a better but worse situation. Something in the general location of his his chest was filling up warm and buoyant, and he was suddenly very aware of the drowsy warmth of Sena’s skinny body pressed against his back. He looked up to distract himself, and was caught by the city-lit glow of the night sky. The stars weren’t easily visible against the background light pollution, but he could still pick them out, small dots of light against the hazy purple-blue of the night sky.

It was quiet here, with no rowdy boys or drunken games. Shin couldn’t help but think that he wouldn’t mind staying out a little while longer. He started walking in what he hoped was the right direction instead, Kobayakawa Sena draped across his shoulders like a warm backpack.

-----

After a good bit of walking, Shin came to the unhappy conclusion that they were still quite lost. Nothing looked familiar, and the noise and chaos of the party must have been very well-contained inside the house, or they had run further than he thought, since he couldn’t hear the faintest trace of the party. He had no idea what time it was, but it felt late, and his back and shoulder were starting to feel sore from the hard landing earlier.

At a loss, he sat down on the curb, letting Sena down carefully before turning and shaking him by the shoulders. Sena's head lolled unsettlingly back and forth, and Shin stopped hastily, going for a different strategy instead. Sena finally looked up blearily as Shin started patting his face.

“Hi, Shin-san,” he said, burping loudly before giggling. His breath smelled distinctly of alcohol, and even sitting still, he swayed unsteadily back and forth. Shin sighed and kept his hands on Sena's shoulders to prop him up.

“Eyeshield 21. What is the fastest way back to Kongo Unsui's apartment?”

“Eyeshield 21!” Sena mimicked sarcastically, voice slurred. “I'm Eyeshield 21 and Shin-san doesn't know my name!!!” He crossed his arms and very dramatically turned away from Shin, nearly toppling over. Shin caught him before he could fall.

“Kobayakawa Sena,” he tried, enunciating clearly. Where is Kongo Unsui's apartment?” Sena beamed at him immediately, gaze fixed somewhere behind Shin’s shoulder.

“Dunno,” he said cheerfully. Shin persevered.

“Does this place look familiar?” he asked, pointing to the apartment complex closest to them. Sena turned his head slowly to follow Shin’s extended hand before leaning forward and propping his chin thoughtfully against Shin's forearm.

“Yeeee-ees,” he said. He volunteered nothing else and his eyelids started to flutter closed again. Shin caught him carefully by the shoulders and gave him a small shake.

“Eyesh- Kobayakawa Sena,” he said, frustrated. Sena drooped against him, fading fast.

“I'm sleepy , Shin-san,” he announced, mashing his face stubbornly into Shin's shoulder. “I wanna sleep.”

“If you tell me where to go, you can sleep when we get there,” Shin said quickly, trying to appeal to Sena's rational side. To his eternal relief, Sena perked up a little, blinking owlishly around them before pointing down the street.

“I think it's that way,” he said, yawning hugely before leaning forward to rest his face back against Shin's shoulder, winding his arms around Shin's neck with a sleepy sigh. 

Shin looked down the unfamiliar street before sighing too. He pulled Sena's unresisting body forward, locking his arms under the seat of Sena's pants and hefting him up before standing. Sena's legs dangled loosely, and he gave an unhappy mumble before curling closer, hooking his chin over Shin’s shoulder and grabbing a double handful of Shin’s sweatshirt to hang on before subsiding.

Shin stood very still. Kobayakawa Sena’s hair was soft against the side of his face, and it tickled. The soft puff of Sena's rapid breathing against his neck and the rise and fall of Sena’s chest against his own were so warm. He was feeling something similar to what he had experienced after the welcome game, where he had reached out instinctively to return Sena’s greeting, but at the same time, it was different. This time, Kobayakawa Sena had him in a hold too, both his arms wrapped loosely around Shin’s neck.

Holding him like this was...Shin struggled for the right words, distracted as Sena made a gross slurping sound and tried to curl more comfortably into his shoulder. It was very different from a tackle, he concluded, hefting Sena up as he began to droop under his own weight. It was warm, in a sense that encompassed more than temperature, although Kobayakawa Sena was warm in temperature too. It was an unsatisfactory description, but Shin didn’t know how else to define it.

It was warm and comfortable. It was strange.

It was nice.

Sena began to snore softly into his neck then, and Shin remembered that he still had a job to do. Stubbornly, he banished his wayward thoughts and started walking down the street Sena had pointed out, and once he spotted the wreckage of the construction sign, he knew they were going the right way.

-----

When he finally arrived back at the Kongo apartment, the party was being broken down with great efficiency by one Anezaki Mamori.

Mamori took one look at Sena, passed out and drooling a little on Shin’s shoulder, and gave a great sigh. “The guest bedroom is over there,” she said resignedly, and Shin obediently followed her pointed finger down the hallway.

Monta, Koutaro, and various other person-shaped lumps were already sprawled on a few old futons, snoring riotously throughout the small room, and Shin moved quietly, taking care not to disturb anyone. He turned the covers back one-handed before slowly depositing his troublesome passenger onto a free futon. Sena immediately rolled towards him and threw an arm out with a sleepy exclamation, grabbing a handful of Shin’s sweater in the process.

Shin held his breath, but Kobayakawa Sena remained asleep, curled towards him with one arm flung out. It looked a little like his Spear Tackle, and Shin smiled privately, caught himself, and schooled his face back into impassivity. He uncurled Sena’s fingers and rearranged him so that he was lying more comfortably before removing Sena’s shoes to set them aside. He paused for a second while pulling the covers back up, studying Sena’s sleeping face in contemplative silence.

For all that he had grown during his time in the States, Sena was still barely a dent under the sheets. He had so much presence on the field during their clashes, his fierce determination and raw speed making him a force that could not, would not be ignored. He was Eyeshield 21, a legend carrying the weight of a name that made him larger than life.

Asleep like this though, he was just Kobayakawa Sena, a tired boy who looked very small and strangely vulnerable. Shin had come to the party to show his support for Eyeshield 21, but looking at Sena, he thought that maybe it was the boy who needed his support, not the legend.

Carefully, he reached out and touched his fingers to the crown of Sena’s hair, the tickly part. He didn’t really know what he was doing, was just aware that he wanted to do something, to show that he understood and respected both the legacy of that title as well as the boy who carried it. The loose strands of Kobayakawa Sena’s hair were very soft against his fingertips. Sena didn’t stir, continued to sleep blissfully, unaware of anything outside of his dreams.

Watching him sleep, Shin felt oddly content even as he thought back over the night’s misadventures. There was a lot to think about, but above it all was a swell of lingering emotion that he couldn’t put a name to, a feeling that grew stronger when he thought about the sloppy press of Sena’s mouth to his cheek and the solid, sleepy weight of Sena’s body held firmly in his arms. It pervaded everything that had happened from the moment Sena had bounced down next to him on the couch and he didn’t know how to describe it properly, or what it even was. It was like warmth, but so much more than just that.

Kobayakawa Sena was warm, and the radiant glow that surrounded him made Shin feel warm too. It was a sensation of comfortable, spreading brightness that was more than just body heat. He glanced at Sena’s sleeping face, thinking hard as that indescribable lightness swirled through his chest, warming him with a feeling like contentment, but not quite.

Ah. Perhaps that was it?

The sincere rivalry between them had gone unmatched for so long that seeing Kobayakawa Sena back was making him overly sentimental. The rightness of holding him must be directly related to the desire to tackle him to stop his lightspeed charge. The warmth had to be nostalgia leading into the anticipation of seeing his greatest rival back and facing him again.

That was understandable. That made sense. Once they clashed again on the field in an inevitable Oujo vs Enma matchup, this issue of how strange he felt would be resolved.

There was still a dissonance - something in that explanation wasn't lining up quite right with his feelings, but maybe Sakuraba had been right about how much he had missed Kobayakawa Sena during the year he was gone. Once he had the chance to tell Eyeshield this, he was sure that things would return to normal. In the meantime, he would continue supporting Sena as his rival while looking forward to facing him on the field. 

Mind made up, he nodded firmly, folded himself to stand up - and froze. His hand was still resting quietly on the crown of Sena’s hair. He blinked, looked at his fingers like they didn’t belong to him and shook his head before drawing away.


As he stood, a shadow fell over him and he looked up to see Mamori Anezaki standing in the doorway, silhouetted in the yellow light from the hallway. She looked surprised to see him, and stepped aside quickly to let him pass.

“Sorry!” she whispered. “I was just checking on them, I didn’t know you were still here.”

Shin nodded, unsure of what to say as he picked his way out among the other sleeping bodies. How long had he been there? He had lost track of time and wasn’t quite sure himself. 

Once outside, he grabbed two water bottles from the kitchen counter before turning stiffly back to Mamori, handing them to her. “Please make sure he drinks this when he wakes up. He should feel better after a good meal.”

“Okay,” she said quietly, accepting the bottles. “Thank you for bringing Sena back, I'm sure he'll appreciate it. I hope he wasn't too much trouble? He can get kind of...rowdy.”

“No, he was…” Shin paused, conflicted. A thousand descriptors swirled past, unfitting.

“He was very light.”

Mamori laughed and waved good night, and Shin nodded, bowing quickly before taking his leave.

Chapter Text

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.