The only time he sees them up close is in the thick of a pitched battle. The rain sheets down around them, soaking field and players in equal measure, muddying their steps and dulling the roaring of their respective teammates. When they clash—quite literally—head-to-head for the first time, it seems to Shin that something is fundamentally different about this time, versus all the other bouts they've had. In the three seconds of balanced stillness, Shin is face-to-face with his greatest adversary, and suddenly, he notices them, dark and determined and full of ferocious wildfire.
At that moment, Shin feels a spark—but nothing more. The game rages around them, demanding attention. He throws Eyeshield 21 to the ground, ending the play in a spray of mud. Despite the whistle's shrill and words from his friends, the image of those eyes, half-obscured, stubbornly persists.
Later, he decides, taking his position. He can think about this later, when the game has run its course.
It takes four days for his preoccupation with Kobayakawa Sena's eyes go from odd to concerning. He has the suspicion that, had they not lost, thus unexpectedly freeing up a lot of time for idle thought, it may have taken even less time than that. They call him Ojou's ace, a title he accepts with characteristic modesty, and the ace cannot afford distractions of any sort. Even though they have lost, he can't—and anyhow, wouldn't want to—dwell on those sorts of things, not while there is still room for him to improve. And there always is.
The fact that the memory is still as clear now as it was immediately after the fact is unsettling. More than unsettling—in truth, downright perturbing—is the observation that training does nothing but worsen the problem. All attempts to lure his mind to blankess with the rhythm of exertion have failed, to Shin's ever-mounting discomfort. It dogs him wherever he goes. He can't risk overtraining, not even in an effort to rid himself of this sudden obsession—with no alternatives immediately presenting themselves, he does something he has never done before.
He paces. Like a restless animal, he paces the weight room, arms folded over his chest, head angled down to contemplate the austere tiling. Twenty steps to one wall, near the dumbbells. Turn. Twenty steps to the other, near the door. Turn. Back and forth he marches, worrying the issue in his head. His thoughts so consume him that when a hand grips his shoulder, his muscles lock up in surprise. He turns and finds himself eye-level with a pair of collarbones that can only be Sakuraba's. Sure enough, when he redirects his gaze upward, it's him, face set with worry. Behind Sakuraba, the rest of the team is staring.
“Shin? Are you okay?”
He gives the question due consideration, as he would any question. “No. I don't think that I am,” he answers. Sakuraba's brows draw together, but Shin continues, “I think that you may be able to help me.”
Sakuraba blinks and removes his hand from Shin's shoulder. “Okay? How?”
“Ever since we played Deimon, I've been unable to stop thinking of the moment Kobayakawa Sena tried to tackle me. It's becoming distracting. Do you know a way to stop something like this?”
“I'm not sure,” Sakuraba replies, brows still furrowed. “Why that moment in particular?”
“I saw his eyes. I can't get the look that he gave me out of my head. It's very strange.”
“Strange.” Sakuraba's eyes flick so that he isn't looking directly at him anymore. He hears him clear his throat. “Uh... strange how?”
“It's strange because I don't know why I can't stop thinking about it. Whenever I do, it... burns.”
In the substantial pause that follows, Sakuraba turns back to their teammates, as if beseeching aid. Shin notes that not one of them makes eye contact—many of them look away with unusual haste. Sakuraba faces him again and claps his shoulder with a tight smile. “Come outside with me for a moment?”
Shin follows him, confused, from the weight room to the practice field. “Have I said something to upset you?” he asks when they draw to a halt at the edge of the grass. He's not sure what that may have been, but then, he's demonstrably bad at anything to do with feelings, as evidenced by the current situation.
Sakuraba laughs, though, which puts that concern at least to rest. “No, don't worry about that. It was just... starting to get awkward.” He clears his throat again and now even Shin can tell he's uncomfortable in some way. “Now what... exactly did you mean by it burning?”
“I meant that I actually start heating up. My heart rate increases. It becomes much harder to focus.”
“This sounds like you have a crush on Sena.”
“I don't understand.”
The revelation only seems to trip Sakuraba up for a moment. He gives Shin a wide-eyed glance, then his expression arranges itself into something more thoughtful. He makes a low humming sound, then asks, “Well, how do you feel about Sena? Do you like him?”
“I respect him.” Even as he's saying it, he knows that isn't what Sakuraba means. “I don't know,” he corrects.
“Then maybe you should figure that out. Knowing if you do or not will probably help.”
Shin nods—it makes sense. “How do you suggest I do that?”
Sakuraba folds his arms, tapping a finger pensively on his biceps. “I'm not sure,” he admits. “Maybe you'll know what to do if you see him again.”
The odd surge in his heart in response to that idea convinces Shin that it must have some merit. “I'll do that then. Thank you, Sakuraba.”
“Don't mention it,” the taller boy says, smiling a wryly amused smile.
Finding the football club's room at Deimon is not, by any stretch of the imagination, difficult. Their triumph over Ojou has only served to catapult them to fame in the eyes of their peers—all Shin has to do is ask any random person where he might find them and he's pointed towards the first in a procession of many, many ostentatious mural-sized posters that can only be the handiwork of one man. They lead him to a building every bit as flashy and impressive as the posters had led him to believe, if not exponentially more so. It almost seems to grow in size as he approaches it. He wonders what purpose the casino lights mounted on the outside serve.
His knock on the door is answered by their kicker. If Takekura Gen is surprised whatsoever at the sight of him, all that shows of it is the arch of a single eyebrow. “Well, this is unexpected,” he says, drawing the attention of all three other people in the room—Hiruma Yoichi, Raimon Taro, and...
He tears his gaze away from the running back, in the interest of politeness, and because Hiruma is addressing him. “Or it would be, if we hadn't seen you coming.” He points a long finger towards the west wall. Shin follows it to discover a whole mosaic of screens, each with a still shot displaying part of the path towards the clubroom. One of them is a top-down view of himself—he looks up and the lens of a camera glints back at him, tucked away in a blind spot that Shin suspects was built for exactly the purpose of holding a camera. “So?” Hiruma continues. “What exactly are you here for?”
“To ask a favor,” he answers. He turns to Sena, who tenses slightly. “Will you practice with me for a while?”
There had been some discussion, as expected. Raimon had pulled Sena aside for... Shin thinks it might have been a warning. Raimon was bad at whispering, but they had been across the room at the time, so all Shin could make out was “sounds a bit sketchy” and “MAX staring you down”. Then Hiruma had interjected and he hadn't even tried to lower his voice: “Don't fucking worry about it, fucking monkey. I want to see where he's going with this.”
They take to the field, each in their own colors. The sky is cloudy, the air smells of a far-off storm. Sena carries the ball to midfield, Shin positions himself at one end. The rules, as Shin had described them, were simple: “Try to get past me, as if you were in a real match.”
After a moment spent lingering, Sena charges him. Shin follows suit with a surge of adrenaline. He catches the cut to the right, reaches out, and drags him to the ground. The impact jars a grunt from Sena, who clings protectively to the ball. A pause, an imaginary blow of the whistle, and he stands back up, hardly any worse for wear. “Again,” he says, and Shin nods in agreement.
It takes a total of four jousts for Shin to get what he's after. Sena, low on options, crouches and sprints directly towards him, every movement without a trace of fear or hesitation. Shin wonders over the feeling—something like euphoria—that floods him as he meets this challenge. The distance between them shrinks, then disappears completely in the collision. Momentum is on Sena's side again—for a few seconds, everything is still, just as it was before.
Shin discovers then that Sena's eyes are brown. Deep, dark brown, like warm earth on a summer day. Yes, Shin burns at the sight of them, breathless with a combination of fatigue and captivation.
The spell breaks. The determined fire fades and is replaced with something Shin has no name for. “What are you doing?” Sena's voice is high and cracked and Shin realizes that his hands have come to rest on either side of Sena's helmet, just above the chin straps.
Without removing them, he answers, “Looking at your eyes.” After a thought, he adds, “And holding your head, it seems.”
“I'm not sure.”
“...Do you mind, uh... letting go?”
“No.” He thinks that he would rather not, but continuing to do so would be impolite at best. Reluctantly, Shin lifts his hands from Sena's face, stepping back to a respectful distance. Sena fidgets some in the ensuing silence, clearly unsure of what to do or say. It gives Shin enough time to gather some thoughts. “I apologize. That was inappropriate.”
“I'm not offended!” Sena reassures him quickly, waving the hand not still holding onto the football in front of himself. “Just... very confused.”
Probably not hard to guess why. “It was your eyes,” he explains.
“Huh?” Sena asks, proving the explanation to be less than adequate.
Shin tries again. “I've been unable to stop thinking of them since our last match. They are very distracting.”
“Well, um... I'm sorry?” Sena manages at length, looking more lost than ever.
Then it's quiet again—a quiet that hangs long enough for Shin to assess himself and come to a few conclusions. The first is that he, in all his inexperience, has no idea what he should be doing.
The second is that, despite the fact that he's standing stock still and has been for a few minutes now, his heart continues to race a mile a minute, far ahead of his thoughts.
Shin still doesn't know what he should do—how precisely one goes about trying to put words to the heat and fixation, the state of himself in the past few days—but he knows what he wants to do.
“I like you,” he says to Sena, who stiffens and stares at him wide-eyed. “I like the effect you have on me.”
“You drive me to better myself. To be a worthy adversary for you. Your passion for the game is admirable. And, it appears, somewhat contagious.”
For a moment Sena doesn't respond, leaving Shin to wonder over the sudden, vaguely painful clench in his heart. Then he smiles, bright and understanding and confident. “I think I'm the same way,” he admits. “You've been my goal for a long time, Shin. You made me want to be better too.” Softer both in tone and expression, he adds, “So, thank you.”
That smile's probably going to be stuck in his thoughts now too, but Shin, for once, can't find it in himself to care how it may affect him later on. He returns it with a smile of his own, faint but present. “Then I suppose we should get back to practice.”
“Right.” And with no warning whatsoever, Sena plants his foot, surges towards him, and makes to spin around him, almost faster than he can react.
Almost. His instincts save him, turning him around and stretching out an arm, digging his fingers into Sena's uniform. He hauls back on him, stopping him cold before he gains the momentum to drag him forward more than a step. Sena, off balance, falls into Shin's chest, where Shin holds him to prevent his escape. “That was a good try,” he says, releasing him after another imaginary whistle.
Sena, pink in the cheeks, laughs in a way that isn't all embarrassment, and Shin begins to think that maybe he should accept the light, warm, fluttering sensation in his chest as a new normal. After all, getting rid of it is proving to be next to impossible. And as of now, he isn't sure that he wants to be free from it anymore.