“I don’t think this is a good idea, Takami-san,” Sakuraba complains, staring down at the journal and pen in his hands as if they might bite him or crush his ribs. Really, he is in danger of having crushed ribs, but only if Shin finds out what they’re doing.
“Sakuraba, listen to me. As a medical student, I feel an increasing sense of responsibility for the health of my friends—” the bespectacled man begins, launching into a speech that has already manipulated Sakuraba into enough things.
“Then why can’t you worry about my health? Specifically, my health after Shin realizes what we’ve been doing?” Sakuraba interrupts, pouting at Takami in a way that he knows is just as super effective with Takami as the medical lecture is with him.
“Look. This has been going on for too long. If we want to make sure Shin stays happy and sane in the future, we need to make changes now. Preventative medicine, you know?” Takami reasons with him, and Sakuraba knows he has already lost the fight. “Besides, I need a thesis topic before they’ll let me graduate.”
Of course, Sakuraba thinks, carefully printing the words DETEORATION: SHIN’S REACTION TO SENA IN AMERICA on the first page of the journal.
Day one, things stay mostly the same. Shin is quiet, but Sakuraba prods him about how his morning went. The other man reveals that he went for his customary run, lifted his weights, ate his perfectly balanced and proportioned meal, and now he is in his first class of the day. Sakuraba records all of these details down later, when the rest of the room is so concerned with Shin’s paper being on fire—he writes quickly enough to burn holes through his notes, but it’s not like they can buy him a laptop—and Sakuraba starts to wonder if he’ll really want to be this close if things get more chaotic around Shin.
By day three, there have been notable changes. Sakuraba writes them down in the journal, but he also e-mails Takami out of worry. Shin has seemed to slow down in class, his hands no longer a blur on the paper. He seems sadly withdrawn, and Sakuraba invites him out to the arcade to try to cheer him up. Of course, Shin says no, because he has to do some additional running today, and that’s when Sakuraba knows something is wrong. Shin has a tightly scheduled training regimen, and nothing gets added without serious consideration.
On day five, Takami writes back that Shin might just have more free time on his hands, because he used to make time to run with Sena, which always inevitably wound up including “eating with Sena” or “discussing football matches with Sena.” Now that the Deimon captain was no longer there, Shin just had more time to run on his own. “It doesn’t have to mean something unhealthy,” Takami reassured him.
Two weeks into Sena’s absence, Sakuraba gets definitive proof that Takami’s optimism, good-intentioned as it is, is all wrong. Sakuraba had stolen one of the new plushies his agency had developed to promote him, a cuddlier version of their Oujou White Knight. They had shown him several mock ups, including one that had a trident instead of the regular lance. It was inevitably scrapped, because the Trident Tackle was Shin’s thing, but Sakuraba had saved it from the scrapheap. He figured that Sena would appreciate it, even if the boy was too clueless to realize why.
He had asked Suzuna for Sena’s American address and had been directed to Sena’s Japanese residence instead. Apparently, Sena’s parents were about to send out a care package anyway and there was no use in wasting all that money on postal fees himself.
Of course, when Sakuraba actually arrives at the Kobayakawa residence, he forgets completely why he’s there. “Shin?” he asks, eyes wide and staring at the boy who stands transfixed at the front door.
Sakuraba doesn’t get the chance to ask any other questions, Shin darts past him like a silent blur. That night, Sakuraba writes an entire page that might be more conjecture than observation, and he sends Takami another e-mail.
By the time two months have passed, Shin is totally quiet. He lifts weights more than he runs, and so he has gotten even bulkier for his compact size and can probably lift Ootawara if he felt so inclined. Most classes, Sakuraba is stuck staring at Shin who is stuck staring outside the window at the rising sun. There are a lot of things to the east, one of which is America, another of which is Sena.
Another week goes by before Sakuraba stops Shin in the middle of his marathon weight lifting. “Have you considered writing a letter to him?” he asks, handing Shin an address written on a pathetic scrap of paper. It’s a testament to how far gone Shin is that he treats the paper with such care.
Of course, the following week is hell. Sakuraba is about to burst out of his skin with anticipation, because Shin is tensely waiting for a return letter but does not appear to be. Sakuraba’s body apparently feels like this means he has to appear nervous enough for both of them. The jokes about him expecting are a small price to pay.
Halfway through the week after, Sena sends back three pages of babble. Nervous babble, full of words crossed out and blotches of white out, and written in such formal keigo, Sakuraba can just picture Sena bowing through all of his words. Shin relaxes, goes for a long run, and Sakuraba breathes a sigh of relief.
He asks Sakuraba to read over his next letter, which takes up about half a page and is mostly fragments and nutritional advice. “Is this really what you want to write to him?” Sakuraba questions him, baffled.
“What else should I write?” Shin replies, apparently open to suggestion even though his head is tipped in confusion.
“… Maybe that you miss him?” Sakuraba explodes, exasperated and close to giving up the whole plot.
“That is a valid observation, but it does not seem valuable to tell Sena Kobayakawa so,” Shin replies. Sakuraba goes off to a corner to cry about his friend’s frustrating lack of experience with introspective emotion, and this apparently convinces Shin to add the line in anyway.
A week later, Sena writes back five pages of babble, which ends with “I miss you too, Shin-san,” and Sakuraba chalks up the slight glint in Shin’s eyes as a win.
The vicious cycle continues for months, until suddenly, there are only two weeks before the new school year and Sena’s return. There are only a few empty pages left in the journal, Sakuraba notes. He is probably going to use all of them today, his shocked mind tells him as it tries to process what Shin just asked him.
“What did you just ask me?” he tries instead, and he watches Shin’s shoulders square out and his chest puff up. Shin doesn’t shrink when he’s uncertain—he gets bigger.
“How do I tell Sena Kobayakawa that I do not like him being gone?” Shin repeats himself, word for word, and Sakuraba’s mind seems just as averse to processing it now as it had been the first time.
Finally, he shakes himself, because this is important and Shin is depending on him. Besides, if Takami’s medical lectures have drilled anything into him, it’s that helping people comes first. He wants to help Shin, because he likes Shin and he likes Sena and he likes football, but he knows that can’t be everything in a person’s life. “Well, how do you feel when he’s here?” Sakuraba attempts again, holding his breath.
“… Like I just ran 40 yards in 4.1 seconds,” Shin replies after careful thought, and if Sakuraba were anyone else or if Shin were slightly more normal, that would be the wrong thing to say. There would be hands thrown up in exasperation and disapproving clicks from middle-aged aunties. However, they have been together on Oujou’s football team for years now, and Sakuraba knows exactly what Shin means.
He thinks Sena probably would too, and so he tells Shin just to write that down.
There is no letter next week, and Sakuraba can feel his stomach twisting tighter into knots. He is tempted to pick up the journal he has dutifully written in for the last semester or so and throw it in Takami’s face, because yes, they had good intentions, but what did they really know?
“What if Sena doesn’t, you know—” Sakuraba stops, because he doesn’t want to say it just in case it comes true.
Takami just smiles at him, and he’ll make a good doctor because he has such an air of reassurance around him. “He does,” he says, perfectly sure, and Sakuraba quietly hopes so.
Only a few days left until Sena comes back, and Sakuraba tells Shin that they should go to Enma’s game. Sena will be there, and while that seems to be a sore spot with Shin now—Shin doesn’t curl around his injuries like a normal wounded person, he just works harder until the wound heals and the weak spot becomes even stronger than before—the desire to see Sena is obviously too much. They go to the Enma match under the guise of being the Oujou University football team, there to scout out the competition. Ootawara comes along, just in case they need more plausible deniability.
Sakuraba waves to Takami when he sees him, and they all sit down together and wait nervously.
Time passes, and the match is getting closer and closer. Sena is nowhere to be seen, and Sakuraba’s eyes dart around nervously. Shin is scanning the field with a much cooler gaze, more methodical and less panicked, but Sakuraba can read the tight line of Shin’s back and feels worse and worse with every minute that passes.
Suddenly, there is a hurricane of movement. Dust and dirt kicked up, and that can only mean one thing.
Sena Kobayakawa has grown while away in the States. He looks much more mature, and his growth spurt has finally leveled out. Slightly out of breath, but still as polite as ever, he apologizes to his teammates and half-fakes a freak out at the fact that the game is starting already. Still, he puts his uniform on and plays.
He shocks the entire crowd, and they’re left with their mouths hanging open. America has taught him well, and he seems like an even bigger presence on the field. He’s as fast as ever, but he’s also skilled now. The leadership skills he gained while captain of Deimon have sharpened rather than dulled, and everyone is on their feet and cheering for him. The match will be a massacre, there is no doubt.
Sena steals Shin’s breath away, and Sakuraba tries very hard not to hold his breath. He doesn’t say anything when Shin disappears after the match.
The day after Sena comes back, he and Shin start running again. They also start eating together and discussing football matches with each other again.
A week afterward, Shin sets his notes on fire again. The new semester’s class is so shocked, someone dumps their entire water bottle onto the desk, ruining both Shin’s and Sakuraba’s notes. He just laughs, reminding himself that from now on, he has to be faster if he wants to keep sitting next to Shin and passing his classes.
A month later, Takami buys him dinner to thank him for his work with the journal. Takami’s thesis is almost done, and the paper has apparently attracted an unbelievable amount of interest. Sakuraba pushes for an authorship mention, and Takami opens his mouth to reply when his bottom jaw drops.
“What?” Sakuraba asks, turning in his seat to look at where Takami is staring at. He feels his own jaw drop, his eyes widening more than should be humanly possible.
Shin is holding the door open for Sena, who is laughing and entirely too close to the other. Even Shin looks happy, dressed in non-workout clothes for one of the few times Sakuraba has ever seen him. In fact, he’s cleaned up rather nicely.
Sakuraba stares, transfixed, at Shin’s huge hand resting softly against the small of Sena’s back as they walk to a table. That hand has crushed ribs, taken down great players, dragged the best names in football through the mud, but now it’s just happily resting on Sena Kobayakawa’s back as if it never wants to be anywhere else. Apparently, whether Shin has mentally figured out that there’s something more important than football or not, physically, he’s already made the decision.
And well, Shin was always more of a physical guy than a mental one.
“See? Everything ended well,” Takami says, drawing Sakuraba’s attention back.
“I guess so,” Sakuraba agrees, smiling at the bespectacled medical student sitting in front of him. “Now, when are you going to ask me on an actual date?”
Takami’s paper ends up being published in a few medical journals, with a less technical form appearing in a sports magazine. Shin is not mad or embarrassed or in a ribs-crushing mood when he finds out.
Instead, he just puts on a scandalizing, smug grin and buys Sakuraba some weights as a thank you gift.