"Talent" was a word that people used to explain why good people got shafted. Sena hated that word. Most people who weren't naturally talented did, he thought. That made sense, didn't it?
"Talent" was something that some people, through luck or good genetics, or fate, or whatever it was seemed to get and use to remind Sena why he was the errand boy. Why if he told everyone that he was Eyeshield they wouldn't believe him. Talent was the reason he had to lie, had to keep secrets, and it was what he'd spent so many years running away from. He hated "talent".
He'd spent all evening training again, doing dashes and routes across the field. It was the same work he'd done the day before, and the day before that, and the day before that. Even though his head was swimming and his back throbbed and his knees ached, Sena still had to run home with his books. He'd forgotten his change of clothes that morning, and he knew the minute he got home his mother would start fussing over what happened and who bullied him and why he hadn't called. He glared down at his shoes and willed his legs to stop shaking, hauled his book-bag over his shoulder, and forced himself to run.
The one good thing about running was that usually, it made his mind empty. He didn't have to think about all the expectations people had of him - Hiruma and Mamori's diametrically opposing standards, his mother's smothering concern, his classmates' wholehearted belief that he was uselss when he wasn't wearing a mask and a jersey. If he'd been one of those lucky guys born with talent, he thought, just maybe his life would be a little different.
Halfway home, he stumbled and fell, tumbling over himself and over his bags down the embankment by the bridge. He skidded to a stop, new grass-stains working their way into his t-shirt. He was exhausted. He didn't want to move. He didn't want to think. He sure as hell didn't want to get up the next morning and deal with Hiruma first thing, then classes, then Mamori, then the same practice routine over again.
If he were a guy with talent, he wouldn't have to train this way. If he weren't pretending to be an athlete, he wouldn't be in this mess. Sena, for all their success so far, still felt like he was miles behind the players he'd seen. He felt heat rising to his face, and his chest get tight, and Sena bit it back, angry at himself. "Work harder!" he told himself, grinding out the words. He didn't hear the footsteps on the path above him.
"Work," he said to himself again, "harder, damn it." He struggled against gravity and the weight of his bag and his own exhaustion, unsteadily forcing himself to his feet. "You don't have... talent, so you have to," he choked, and clenched his jaw. Sena told himself that he wouldn't cry. No matter how tired he was or how much it hurt, he'd told himself he was going to be a different person - a person who could show his face once he'd earned it, once he'd gotten good enough.
"Quit being lazy," he said, barely able to stand, even supporting himself hunched over with his hands on his knees. He wavered there. He knew that stopping was a bad idea - if he'd kept going, he'd have made it home and into the bath and the aches would've eased up. He'd have thought, in the tub, that it wasn't so bad to work hard.
The deep voice behind him made him nearly jump out of his skin.
"Working hard is difficult," Shin said, jogging in place on the grass at the edge of the hill's downward slope. That's why Sena hadn't heard him - running on green made it more like the turf.
Sena flung himself around, wide-eyed and pale. "Sh- Shin-san!" The heat was back in his face in a sudden rush - enough to make him dizzy - and he realized he was blushing. Of all the people to see him like this, pathetic and completely and utterly un-talented, why did it have to be Shin?
"I --" Sena started, and for an instant his brain fired panicked half-thoughts that made no sense. His brain wanted him to run, to bolt and head as fast as he could for somewhere hidden, so that he could curl up and pretend to have died of embarassment. He'd have done it, if he hadn't been so tired. He'd have done it, if he hadn't been so tired and Shin hadn't been blocking his way.
The bigger boy shook his head and took a few wary steps down the hill. "Did you fall?" Falls were dangerous for athletes. Before Sena could answer, Shin was dusting stray grass and dirt from his clothes with big, steady hands. He gave a small huff (something Sakuraba would've identified as a laugh, but that Sena misread as scorn). "You smell like a locker room."
"I -- " Sena deflated again, and stared miserably at Shin's knees. He couldn't even look at a guy as talented as Shin, not then at least.
Shin waited, one steadying hand lingering on Sena's shoulder. Was Eyeshield going to fall down? How could someone who ran so fast be so fragile? After the silence stretched long enough to edge its way towards 'uncomfortable', he said, "You smell like ten locker rooms."
"Y-you don't have to be a jerk about it," Sena blurted, and hitched his shoulders up, flinching on instinct. He was waiting for a sharper insult or maybe even a shove. When he was wrapped up in self-pity, Sena had a hard time remembering the true nature of who he was talking to.
Shin frowned, and put his other hand on Sena's arm, to hold him steady and keep him there. He knew when a runner was about to dash from the tension in the shoulders and the thighs. "Nobody smells like ten locker rooms without working hard enough to fill them," he said firmly.
Sena noticed for the first time how heavy Shin's hands were, weighing him down and planting him into the ground. Weights, he realized. Shin was running with weights strapped to his wrists. Probably his ankles, too. He was working hard, too. Sena's eyes stung and he made a frustrated sound. He hadn't wanted to cry - least of all in front of Shin. Damn it, even Hiruma would be better than Shin.
"You ran until you collapsed?" Shin asked, pushing for a response - with words - for once. He could tell that much from the stains on Sena's clothes and the way the grass lay from his downward tumble. "Eyeshield, that's --"
"Don't call me that," Sena said sharply, before he realized it was out of his mouth. "I'm not that guy. That guy's -- he's a star player. He's talented, a-and he doesn't just --"
"Eyeshield," Shin said again, his voice as solid and impassable as the rest of him, "Talented people don't run until they can't stand, and talent doesn't get them past my tackles."
Sena trembled under Shin's gaze, "Y-yeah, it was a fluke. You knew...."
Shin couldn't even begin to understand this boy - this tiny kid, who worked so hard, who got under his skin, who he couldn't stop chasing. He was an idiot, this kid. He was just so frustrating. He couldn't help himself, and he shook Sena hard, twice, at the shoulder. "Open your ears!" He barked the command and Sena tensed in his hands, suddenly wide-eyed and fearful. His legs began to shake, this time with the urge to run and hide rather than exhaustion. Shin's grip, though, it wasn't something a person just slipped out of.
"Hard work," Shin said, his voice gruff and low, as though he were admitting some dark secret that no one else could know, "is difficult. Someone who can work as hard as you has to have a talent for it!"
Sena stared up at Shin for a long moment, his breath coming in short, ragged gasps. "A talent.. for hard work?"
When he finally got the question out, his voice was small and high-pitched and he knew then that it wasn't sweat he was feeling on his cheeks, rolling down his chin.
"Exactly," Shin said with a small sigh. He hadn't said so many words to one person in what felt like forever. It was exhausting, and yet.. he didn't want to let Sena go. Eyeshield was so hard to catch, Shin felt as though he couldn't just let him go now.
It was the longest hug either of them had ever given or received, tight and hot, and it smelled like grass and sweat and field-dirt. They didn't say anything else, when they left, but the next morning Sena arrived at practice with weighted ankles and a hunger for work.