The sun was yellow orange in the high windows of Johnan's gymnasium. Nate was resting on the sideline of half-court, gulping water and air in equal amounts. The team was taking a break from practice, draped on the benches and hardwood floor like a pride of lions basking in the midday sun.
Umakure was ranting to Shurman, probably about Nationals, but Nate couldn't hear exactly what was being said. Their low murmurs were almost soothing, lulling Nate into a semi-hazy feeling of lethargy. The team had been pushing themselves hard, wanting to be prepared for the upcoming competition, and although he was in better shape than when he first started, he could feel the soreness settling into his muscles.
A movement to his left caught his attention, but it was just Sawamura reaching for his water bottle. The ex-smoker was breathing heavy, as sweaty as the rest of them. Nate gave him a half hearted smile, weary but content and wondering how his fellow street ball player was holding up. As usual, Masa's expression was blank, a slow blink of his long eyelashes his only response.
Nate's smile faded to a disbelieving snort when Kobayashi stood suddenly, dribbling a ball lazily out into center court. Looking over his shoulder slyly, the second-year smirked and arched an amused eyebrow. It took Nate a second to realize, but the motion was a challenge to the reclining Masa.
Gracefully, Sawamura rolled to his feet and took the court. Takakura and Saito started making bets among the first-years, mostly agreeing that the cocky rookie would pass out before either scored.
"C'mon, Kobayashi, he's half dead already!" Saito taunted, snapping his towel as Takakura blocked his view for a moment. Kim joined in from the managers' bench, throwing out her barbed remarks.
The players facing off ignored the jeers from their teammates, and Nate found that he was holding his breath. The two forwards had been harsh opponents when Sawamura first tried out for the team, yet now they were an unstoppable offense on the court. They had been described as the Tiger and the Dragon, golden feline grace and dark harsh power, both capable of breaking the toughest defense with fast moves and pure skill.
Watching them pound towards the basket, Masa dribbling furiously and Kobayashi encroaching on his space, Nate realized it was more than a friendly game being played. Kobayashi's elbows were just on the inside of legal, Masa's counters more street than school ball. Both were sweating furiously, Kabayashi's long hair plastered to the base of his neck and flinging clear drops as he slapped the ball from Masa's grip.
The fierce determination never failed to surprise Nate. Only when they were playing Three Slam had he seen Masa so focused, as thought winning this minor scrimmage was the most important game of his life. For his part, Kobayashi was actually aggressive with his teammate, and made a point of predicting most of Masa's moves, which obviously pissed the first-year off. As Masa became more and more frustrated, he turned to trickier moves, daring Kobayashi to see through a fake or expect a three pointer instead of a lay-up.
What made Nate shiver, though, was the unsmiling, serious expressions each wore. Cat eyes narrowed, Masa refrained from any of his usual teasing or smirks, staring straight into Kobayashi's eyes. He had told Nate it was an opponent's eye motion that telegraphed their moves, glancing in the direction he would go despite his obvious hand motions. That was what made the no-look pass so effective. This entire game, though, the two players held each other's gaze challengingly, and it was as though they had a thousand conversations in those few minutes.
After a volley of tough scores they somehow made seem easy, Nate was astonished that the normally arrogant and determined Masa had stopped keeping score. Kobayashi was never one to boast, but Masa could be counted on to keep track and bet on himself during any match. The silence gave the one-on-one a surreal quality enhanced by the waning light from the windows.
"Alright!" Umakure shouted suddenly over Nate's shoulder. "Break's over, you two!"
Nate started in surprise, having been fascinated by the sleek motions and flexing muscles until he forgot they were in the school gym on a Friday afternoon. It occurred to him that, after those first few jeers, everyone else had gotten caught up in the duel as well and now the chatter resumed.
Kobayashi dropped into a light jog, then a casual few steps before he stopped, hands resting on his knees to catch his breath. He was always the first one to slow down in their little grudge matches, ever the aloof samurai Masa accused him of being. Sawamura, on his part, let the ball roll away from him and sauntered over to Kobayashi before dropping to his rear in the middle of the court.
"If you two are done wearing each other out, we'll get back to practice," Umakure snapped and motioned for the freshman to retrieve the ball.
Watching the two a moment longer, Nate caught the glance and smile shared between them. They were harsh rivals, yet enjoyed pushing each other to the limit. Quietly mulling this over in the back of his mind, Nate jogged out on the court as Shurman called his name.
The next morning, Kyle showed up at his house in street gear, getting breakfast out of Nate's mom before he had made it downstairs.
"You mom's a great cook!" Kyle enthused, slurping his miso soup down in one gulp and reaching for the cakes piled in the center of the table. His mother giggled like a school girl while his father ruffled his newspaper with a grunt.
"Yeah, yeah, she's great. Let's go!" Nate dragged him out of the kitchen with a farewell to his parents before he could be embarrassed further.
After a moment of walking with his hands shoved in his pockets, Kyle turned to him.
"So how's training for the big leagues coming?" The question was a familiar refrain, only lacking his usual bitterness over Nate and Masa being on a school team.
"Well enough. Shoe's seriously busting his butt to learn how to break the zone press defense, but he's almost got it down. Saito and Takakura keep playing practical jokes on everyone, and Umakure would be tearing his hair out if he had any--" He paused as they jogged up a set of stairs to the next street. "Masa and Kobayashi are really pushing each other, too. Kim's afraid one of them will end up dead before we even get to Nationals."
At Kyle's smirk, Nate squinted inquisitively. "What?"
"Nothin'. Just those two." Kyle shook his head and picked up the pace.
"What about them?" Nate couldn't help his defensive tone.
"They're just. . . . entertaining."
"I happen to find them inspiring. Their strength really gives the team an extra edge."
Before Kyle could respond, they were on Masa's street and he appeared to concentrate on finding the correct building. Since the government was paying for his lodgings, Masa was living in an efficiency flat surrounded by a semi-decent neighborhood. Nate stared at the neighbors for a moment, having never been there before. Taking the stairs two at a time, Kyle knocked on a door that had seen better days.
To Nate's surprise, Kobayashi greeted them instead of Masa. The power forward's two tone hair was damp and loose, and he was in the process of buttoning his dress shirt.
"Hey." He appeared completely at ease, and Kyle obviously wasn't shocked to see him. The street ball player slunk over to the sole furniture to sit on in the front room- a rumpled futon- and perched on the edge. Nate was left awkwardly standing near the doorway, trying not to gawk at the discarded clothes around him.
"Do I smell coffee?" Kyle perked up after a moment, hearing the percolator hiss. Kobayashi gave a half nod and bent to dig his shoes out from under the futon. Bounding from his seat, Kyle stepped up into the compact kitchen. Rifling through the cabinets as though he owned the place, he grabbed a mug. "Hey, Nate, you want some?"
Nate refused with a quick shake of his head, still feeling horribly out of place. "I'm fine."
"You better not drink all my coffee!" Masa's voice was muffled by the closed bathroom door. At Kyle's maniacal laughter, Sawamura emerged wearing only a worn pair of jeans. "I'm gonna start demanding restitution if you keep it up."
Finished tying his shoes, Kobayashi brushed past Masa to get into the steaming bathroom. Nate tried not to stare at the interaction, debating with himself whether or not he wanted to confirm his suspicions. Masa caught his eye, though, and gave a cheeky wink.
"So what's the plan for today?" Kyle demanded as Masa set about preparing two cups of coffee, heaping half the sugar container into one.
"Mizzy's meeting us at the House," Nate offered gratefully, glad to have a distraction.
"Even in Scratch's off season she's a slave driver," Masa grumbled and held out the sugared cup to Kobayashi, who had finished tying back his hair and looked as though he was going to work.
"Well, Nate tells me you two are putting each other in early graves," Kyle snorted with a lewd smirk.
Catching Kobayashi's gaze, Masa smiled around the rim of his cup and declined to respond. Kobayashi drained his coffee in two gulps and put the cup in the sink.
"I'm running late. Dad expects me for hosting in ten minutes."
"See you when you get off."
Nate couldn't tell if he was disappointed or not when the two just exchanged another glance and Kobayashi left with a mumbled farewell. He was almost positive his conclusion was correct, but he figured he hadn't seen it sooner because the two men were naturally very reserved.
"Lemme grab a shirt and I'll be ready to go." Masa headed back into the bathroom.
"Man, Kobayashi makes awesome coffee," Kyle sighed happily.
"You say that about anyone who gives you food." Masa's sarcastic rejoinder and Nate knew everything was still normal, still balanced.
"Well, it's only proper."
"You're a mooch."
"You're one to talk!"
With a slight shrug, Nate followed them out of the flat. It was going to be a long day.