"Sakuraba," Takami says, like it's an afterthought, "please stay after practice to wait for me, would you?"
Sakuraba looks confused, but he nods and they continue with practice as though it's nothing out of the ordinary.
Takami spends innumerable hours of practice watching the backs of his teammates. There are times he would rather cut off his own leg than experience the frustration of always seeing his limits. He's not bitter, not the way he could be. It doesn't make it easier to know that he'll never be able to be a quarterback like Hiruma or Kid. Takami has his own strengths and they have their own foibles. It's best to think of other things.
Recently, he's been thinking of Sakuraba. Things have been different since Sakuraba quit Jerry Pro, but it's not enough yet. They're still too far away from the cohesion they need. For himself and Sakuraba in particular they need to know each other inside and out. It's important to Takami in a way that doesn't have anything to do with football and has everything to do with the frustration mirrored on both their faces when the pressure of being "ordinary" or "not good enough" builds up too much.
In many ways, Sakuraba has it worse. He hasn't accepted his limits and instead earnestly fights against the possibility that they exist. It is painful to watch him forcing himself past his body's constraints in order to keep Shin within his sights. As much respect as Takami has for Shin's incredible athleticism, he has to wonder if it's a good thing. To Takami, Sakuraba isn't just a teammate -- isn't just a friend -- he's the partner for whom Takami has been waiting patiently to arrive.
Takami is slow to undress after practice. He takes time to ice his knee and to stretch. It might not help him improve, but it won't do any harm either. Ultimately, it will extend the durability of his body. He'll take whatever advantage he can.
Sakuraba is already changed when Takami comes out of the shower. The football in his hands is worn, the grip on it barely visible, the laces stained and dirty. They nod at each other, and Takami proceeds to dress with unself-conscious ease even with Sakuraba's eyes on him.
"You know, considering your height," Sakuraba says, raising one eyebrow as Takami zips up his jeans. He doesn't have to say anything else for Takami to blush furiously.
"Anyway," Takami says, "come with me for a while." He leads them off campus to a nearby oden shop.
Sakuraba takes a seat next to Takami. Their thighs press, meeting from hip to knee. Takami smiles. He likes that Sakuraba feels comfortable next to him. Everything between them is casual, despite the obvious curiosity Sakuraba has about Takami's reason for bringing them there.
Takami waits until they're partway through their meal before speaking; soaking up atmosphere and dwelling on the places where they don't fit. "I think we need to spend time together," he says, "as much as it takes until you can tell what I'm thinking before I say it."
Sakuraba nods, instead of looking surprised. Even in the past few days, their combination has improved significantly. Takami thinks maybe it's just that he's more aware of Sakuraba now.
Instead of the perpetually apologetic idol he'd been, Sakuraba was finally turning into a confident football player. It showed in the way he stood, holding his head up to show off his impressive height as opposed to the uncomfortable slouch that Takami had seen for so long.
"I will be a partner you can count on, Takami-senpai," Sakuraba says softly.
Takami allows himself an uncharacteristic gesture, scrubbing one hand roughly over the remainder of Sakuraba's hair. "You are," Takami tells him, "all that's left is becoming partners that Oujou can count on."
"We're strong," Sakuraba says, with only a trace of hesitance. "We can do it." Then he turns back to his meal, as though embarrassed by his own forthrightness. Takami smiles and presses their knees a little closer.
That sets the pace for the rest of their week. Sakuraba slows his frantic chase of Shin to keep pace with Takami. Takami can only imagine the sense of frustration Sakuraba feels at being chained down. He pushes himself as hard as he can to lessen that burden.
After the official practice ends, Takami and Sakuraba stay for another hour to practice routes. Sakuraba knows them all by heart now; it's simply a matter of stretching the limits. How high can they go? The answer, of course, is 'all the way'. Takami has never doubted his team's strength or their drive to win. As the tournament nears, his confidence grows.
He watches as Sakuraba leaps after a stray pass: arms out, eyes determined. These days, Sakuraba doesn't fumble. It's as though he can't bear to not catch the ball. Takami silently approves.
"That's probably enough for today," Takami says. The lights are on over the field, so they could theoretically continue to practice indefinitely, but it's nearing dinner time, and they need to rest before they burn out. "Good job on that last catch," he tells Sakuraba as they head for the lockers.
Sakuraba gives him a pleased smile that's been seen more and more frequently. "I didn't think I'd get it, but I guess my hands just wanted to catch it," Sakuraba replies.
They shower and change, side by side. The casual, comfortable feeling that Takami sensed the first day has spread into the perfect partnership. Sakuraba favors him with another smile, as though he knew what Takami was thinking about. Ideally, he did, but it's never a good idea to make assumptions.
"We're doing well," Takami says as he buttons his shirt.
"Yeah," Sakuraba says, "I was just thinking that."
Takami slips on his blazer and waits for Sakuraba to put on his shoes. He holds out a hand, and Sakuraba grips it, lacing their fingers together.
"Glory to the kingdom," they say softly, closing the door to the locker room behind them.