Part 1: Hook
As far as sushi restaurants went, it was a nice one. Dark brown wood paneling, the low murmur of conversation, a stream of nighttime lantern light flooding through the windows - the place oozed with ambience. A steady supply of customers, though never too many, was always bustling in through door, where they could be seen standing for a moment, savouring the warmth inside and shivering against the winter air at their backs. It was neither the most traditional of sushi restaurants nor the most avant garde, which meant not only good prices but good food as well.
"I have to admit, this is great sushi, Uozumi-sempai," said the abnormally tall young man sitting at the sushi bar to the impossibly tall young man standing behind it.
"What do you mean you 'have to admit?' You weren't expecting much or something?"
Most people would have blanched at having the two-metre tall Uozumi inflict his scowl upon them, but Sendoh merely smiled disarmingly.
"Well, you also have to admit it sounds a little strange to go from basketball player to sushi chef the way you did."
"I'm not a chef yet," Uozumi replied gruffly. "I'll be an apprentice for another decade. My sushi isn't good enough to serve to customers right now."
"No kidding. I'm just lucky I grew up in this shop, so I got to finish my decade of dish-washing early. When are the others getting here?"
"Tired of my company already?"
"Tired of you eating up all the food."
Sendoh looked at his plate, where all of Uozumi's carefully rolled sushi had mysteriously disappeared.
"Ah, strange, isn't it? Must be because I'm a starving student."
"No wonder you came early, for once in your life," Uozumi deadpanned.
The younger boy laughed at this. "Funny you should mention that," he said, rubbing the back of his head in embarrassment. "To tell you the truth, my roommate set my clock one hour ahead without telling me. He's been threatening to do it for weeks, and I guess he did it today when I was napping, and I didn't realize it 'til I got onto the subway..."
"So, you were actually gonna be half an hour late," said Uozumi, looking pointedly at the wall-clock.
Uozumi shook his head in long-suffering woe. Strange, how someone could be so mature about some things and such an idiot about others. Uozumi had pretty much stopped trying to figure out whether it was an act or not. "Same old Sendoh," he sighed.
"Same old Uozumi-sempai. Except you give out free sushi now! And you seem more relaxed."
"It's not free sushi, it's discounted."
Sendoh met his former captain's glare with innocent incredulity.
"It's not free?"
"Of course not! I can't afford to feed the whole team!"
"Gosh, I feel stupid." Sendoh was rubbing the back of his head again. "And I told all the guys it was free...."
Groaning, Uozumi snatched the menu out of Sendoh's hands.
"Let me guess. You didn't bring any money."
"Just enough to get me home...."
"And the rest of the guys probably won't bring any either."
"Hey, hey, calm down, sempai. Didn't I say you were more relaxed now? You should act like it."
"What kind of stupid thinking is that? And it must be you idiots who make me not relaxed - look at what I have to deal with just one of you."
Sendoh smiled indulgently, and Uozumi realized that he had just been talking like he was captain again, even though he'd stopped calling himself that four months ago. And, in truth, Uozumi had never felt that he had been Sendoh's captain. The younger boy had always respected his authority, of course...but for a long time Sendoh had been the true leader of the team.
It was scary, how talented Sendoh was.
And then Uozumi's father was calling for him to bus tables five and eleven, and Uozumi had to excuse himself.
Part 2: Line
It was a bit embarrassing, clearing and wiping tables while Sendoh watched with that stupid grin on his face. Uozumi looked up to glower at his errant junior.
Oh. He was not watching. He was chatting with the stranger next to him.
Sendoh got along so easily with everyone, even with people who hated his guts. It made Uozumi think, as he slowly ran a damp towel over table five, about how different the two of them were, about how Uozumi hoarded every scrap of friendship and respect he earned while Sendoh shared those things with anyone and everyone, freely, without jealousy.
Sometimes it seemed like they lived in different worlds - Sendoh from Tokyo, living in an apartment away from his parents, endless opportunities before him...and Uozumi in this sushi shop, under his father's thumb, with one path set out for him since before he was born. He had grown up making sushi, would live making sushi, would marry someone who made sushi, and would probably die while making sushi.
So why had the two come together to play basketball?
A long time ago, not long after Sendoh had joined the team, Uozumi had asked the ace why he'd chosen Ryonan, a team that was sometimes good but never great - at least, that's the way it had been before. Why not Kainan, he'd asked, or Shoyo?
Sendoh had smiled his usual smile, and said, "Let's just say...Taoka-sensei can be very persuasive."
Uozumi had asked, gruffly, whether those rumours about the coach bribing him with a Lexus were true.
Still smiling. No, only a Toyota.
But Uozumi had never seen Sendoh drive a car. And the guy wouldn't be late all the time if he had a car (Well, maybe not. This was still Sendoh).
Uozumi hadn't thought about the matter much in the intervening time. Too many other things to think about, like making it to the nationals, making it through Taoka-sensei's horrific training sessions, making Akagi eat his dust. He hadn't thought about it again until, oddly enough, Shohoku's match against Sannoh. He should have figured it out a long time ago, really, but he'd never been able to watch a game so...distantly before that match. His retirement had made him perceptive. He'd seen what Akagi had been unable to see about Masashi, and he'd seen why Sendoh had come to Ryonan.
Sendoh had come to Ryonan because Ryonan was sometimes good, but never great.
It was Sawakita who had been the catalyst for his understanding. Him, and Rukawa, whom Uozumi had seen play only about a million times, and against Sendoh too, but never through such clear eyes.
Sawakita was a spoiled and selfish ace. His team was too good - more than good, they were great. And so Sannoh's so-called Super Ace had never learned to reach beyond himself and become more than himself, to push and change and to forge the team around him into his arms and legs. Sure, he was the most skilled one-on-one player in the country - big deal. Uozumi watched Sawakita play, and all he could think about was how Sendoh would have done things differently, and better.
And because of Sawakita, Uozumi had seen Rukawa grow beyond possibility. No - not just Rukawa, but all of Shohoku.
Hardship makes you strong, Uozumi's father was always saying, a stern expression on his face and a sushi knife in his hand. Uozumi hadn't listened too hard; he was just watching out for the knife. But Sendoh had understood about struggling and strength from the beginning. If he had gone to Kainan, to play alongside Maki Shinichi, he would have grown and learned much; but to play against the likes of Maki Shinichi...to try and try and, yet, in the end, fail to reach his goal...
Sendoh was going to make Ryonan great next year.
Of course, Rukawa was going to be there to challenge him, but Sendoh loved a good challenge more than anything, and he was still miles ahead of the rookie anyway. He had forged Ryonan into his arms and his legs the moment he'd arrived on the team, something Rukawa had never even dreamed of doing until the game with Sannoh; he had a lot of work ahead of him. Sendoh, on the other hand...Uozumi was sure he'd never seen such a natural leader, and that he would never see such a one again.
A bit of a depressing thought, to know that his junior was leading the team better than he ever could, and had been doing so for a long time, but Uozumi was mostly thankful.
And then Uozumi's father was calling for him to get his free-loading friend away from the sushi bar, and Uozumi had to leave his thoughts behind.
Part 3: Sinker
"You," Uozumi addressed Sendoh, "sit here. Don't do anything stupid." He had led Sendoh to a table in a dark corner of the restaurant, and pointed him at a chair that faced the door - as in, away from the sushi bar.
"Okay," Sendoh agreed readily, seating himself and raising both his hands in the air. "Is this a stick-up?"
"Just sit down."
"Is this any way to treat a customer?"
"Ah, so you've decided I don't have to pay after all?"
"That," Uozumi pronounced distinctly, "is not what I said."
"I didn't think so, but it was worth a try."
Uozumi sighed. Taoka-sensei was right; there was no point in getting mad at Sendoh, especially when one couldn't order him to run a hundred laps anymore.
"Were you this disrespectful before? I think you've gotten worse since my retirement."
"You know, sempai, you look really tired. Why don't you sit down?"
"Are you kidding?" Uozumi replied, his eyebrows raised. "I'm still on duty. It would look bad."
"But there's hardly any customers around anymore, right? It should be okay."
He always had the easy solution, didn't he, Uozumi mused. Well, it was near closing time, and only a few of their regular customers lingered on. He had seen his father sit down to share sake and chat with regulars a few times before, so Sendoh's suggestion couldn't hurt.
"Just for a minute, then," said Uozumi. He looked around swiftly to make sure his father wasn't lurking, then carefully seated himself across from his friend.
Sendoh's smile seemed to grow even wider than usual.
Uozumi leaned back, finding himself more at ease than he had been all night. He hadn't realized how uncomfortable he'd been, waiting tables while Sendoh sat and ate like a customer. It was amazing, he thought wryly, what that guy's instincts told him.
"It feels much better having you sit down," said Sendoh, as if reading his mind. "Thanks, sempai."
"This is a good restaurant," the younger boy went on. "Not too uptight, nice atmosphere."
"Yeah. It's a damn good restaurant," said Uozumi with a proud smile.
"It's because Uozumi-sempai is here - you always work so hard at what you do. We miss you back on the team, you know."
"I'm sure you do."
"I'm not joking," Sendoh insisted, looking oddly serious. "We miss your strength under the basket, and your strength off-court too. I have a hard time keeping everyone in line without you."
"Hm," said Uozumi again, feeling unaccountably better about something.
Sendoh was looking at the table, not meeting his former captain's eyes.
"It's hard," he said simply.
Hardship makes you strong, Uozumi's father was always saying. Yet...how strange, for Sendoh to admit to weakness, and so Uozumi had to ask, suddenly, "Why did you come to Ryonan?"
Sendoh's gaze moved upwards, and the look in his eyes told Uozumi that he remembered.
"Let's just say...Taoka-sensei can be very persuasive."
"What did he tell you?" The words were almost casual.
He expected he knew the answer already. It would be about a love for challenge, about hardship that pushes a man to reach beyond himself and become more than himself. About leadership, about forging a team into one's arms and legs.
Uozumi did not expect the answer that Sendoh gave.
"He told me about you. He told me you were going to make Ryonan great."
And then Koshino was at the door calling for his captain, and they both turned their gazes toward him.
Behind Koshino was Uekusa, and Hikoichi, loud as ever, and behind them were the rest of the team with Fukuda trailing in the back, quiet as ever. They were all looking at Sendoh.
"My god, you made it on time, Sendoh-san!"
"We actually stopped by your apartment to drag you out of bed!"
"Took you guys long enough," said Sendoh with an easy smile.
"How are you, Uozumi-sempai?"
He told them he was doing well. How was the team?
Predictably, it was Hikoichi who answered.
"We're training very hard, Uozumi-sempai! Captain makes us run like twenty laps for warm-up, and then another twenty for warm-down! I always think I'm going to die by the end of practice...but I guess that's pretty normal for me. And Captain is making me go back to basics on my footwork so I can use my size and be fast like Miyagi-san from Shohoku, and maybe I can be a point guard some day like him and like captain! Speaking of Shohoku, I did some research on their current training and even though it's winter break--"
"Uh, guys," Sendoh interrupted, his smile now a little strained. Hikoichi immediately quieted down. "You want some sushi? The restaurant is closing soon, so you better order now."
"Huh? Well, I don't want to trouble Uozumi-sempai--" said Hikoichi.
"No trouble at all," he said quickly, leaving the chattering group to go get a few...dozen platters of food. And that was just to shut Hikoichi up.
The restaurant had been transformed into a place of noise, and energy, and some of the regular customers were shooting discrete but disapproving looks at the high schoolers. Kids these days.
He missed this so much.
Uozumi watched as the Ryonan players arrayed themselves around their captain, how they oriented themselves toward him without fully being aware of what they were doing, and how easily Sendoh maneuvered among them, trying to contain Hikoichi's enthusiasm here, encouraging Fukuda to socialize there, doing all the things that needed to be done as easily and naturally as breathing.
Arms and legs indeed.
"He told me about you. He told me you were going to make Ryonan great."
Nice try, Sendoh.
Uozumi came back from the kitchen to find Koshino yelling at his captain in outrage, something about the sushi not being free. Fukuda snickered in the background, while Hikoichi tried to prevent Koshino from mauling his hero. Sendoh was just sitting there, smiling apologetically.
Ryonan's former captain laughed heartily and went to join his friends.
At least he could make great sushi, if not great basketball.
I made some tiny changes to "Making Peace," the first story in my "Captains" series. If you want to know what the changes are, scroll to the author's notes at the end of that story.
I found out recently that people in Japan still don't use credit and debit cards much, and rely on cash for most exchanges. And ATMs aren't open 24 hours a day for some reason. So it's likely that Team Ryonan really won't be able to pay for all that sushi.