A Step-By-Step Guide on Growing the Hell Up
Or: That thing about that inferiority complex.
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Akira Sendoh / Shinichi Maki
If he's being honest, he can admit to himself that he's never really won. If he's being completely honest, he can admit to himself that he doesn't really want to.
You hear people talk about you as though they always thought you were going to win, with sure grins in their faces as they call you "Ryonan's Number One," and you smile back because you're polite and that's the polite thing to do, but you wonder if they also ever think about all the times when you felt like your body was going to break from the sheer exhaustion of carrying your team.
Ryonan is a tired high school with a basketball team. Taoka is the coach who found you, Uozomi is the captain who challenges you, and you are surrounded by the people who adore you.
Except, you've never really figured out how good they want you to be before you're finally good enough. Sometimes, the 'Ace' title stitched to your skin is suffocating.
So there is a spot by the shore where the sunset burns the most beautiful and the air around you does not smell like a whirlwind of sweat and basketball shoes.
You fish until you do not know where the ocean ends and the summer sky begins, until you feel the pressure tied like a noose around your throat dissipate, little by little, into mere vapor around your feet, until you hear Koshino's angry voice ringing in the distance.
"You're late for practice," Koshino says tightly with a familiar scowl on his face.
"Whoops," you say, because you don't really care at all.
When you first meet Maki, he regards you with raised eyebrows and a bored look that says, "I am going to enjoy defeating you."
His overconfidence startles you. It is not until later, when you are seated on the bench and watching the Kainan team warm up, that you realize that it isn't really overconfidence. Maki has an aura of frightening determination.
It is the first time someone has ever looked at you and didn't expect you to win. Your pride doesn't quite know how to handle that. It's infuriating... and yet refreshing, oddly enough.
When you first play Maki, he wins because Maki is the boy who does not know how to lose and you are nothing but the boy who has won far too many times.
"If you want to beat me," he tells you very seriously, "you're going to have to try a lot harder than that."
He is not smiling at you but when he shakes your hand, he is gentle, almost careful. This is when you realize you haven't even introduced yourself to him yet.
"My name is Akira Sendoh," you tell him. Koshino, who is right behind you, groans at how ridiculous you are.
"I know," Maki says. "And my name is Maki Shinichi."
"I know," you answer.
Maki is also the boy who never smiles, but when he nods, the corners of his mouth lift a little, awkward but trying.
The defeat handed to you by the Kainan team still leaves a bitter aftertaste in your throat but the way Maki watches you watch him, amused and he looks so young all of a sudden, makes you breathe a little easier.
You find him next to your fishing spot one lazy afternoon.
Maki looks at his brown boots awkwardly. "They say you're always here."
You don't quite know who 'they' are, but you don't actually care because you never realized how much you wanted to see him until he's there, right in front of you, in a dark shirt that brings out his eyes. You smile brightly, and you really wish you picked something nicer to wear.
"I like to fish," you say as an explanation.
"Basketball isn't enough for you?"
"I don't have Coach Taoka yelling at me to guard tighter down here."
Maki nods like he understands everything you didn't say. Briefly, sadly, you think that maybe the two of you have a lot of things in common after all.
"Stop thinking about basketball," Maki says, without glancing at you. He is staring at the horizon. The sunlight makes his skin look golden.
The outdoor basketball court is heavy from the rapid footfalls and loud voices. Maki arrives later than you, so he watches quietly in the corner as three freshmen from a high school you've never heard of try and fail to stop you as you make a spectacular shot mid-range.
"If you want to beat me, you're going to have to try a lot harder than that." You tell them, in the deepest voice your vocal chords can manage.
Somewhere behind you, there is the unmistakable sound of Maki's laughter. You've never heard him laugh before but you really like the sound of it.
Every Friday after school, Maki takes you to a ramen shop that is run by an old widow with laugh lines on her face and gentle eyes.
It's something you've grown to look forward to every week.
You've known Maki for about a year now. Some things, you find, are a lot different from how they used to be, while a lot of things never really change. You still forget to wake up in the morning for your classes, and he's still better than you at playing basketball. You don't quite remember the exact moment you've stopped resenting him for that, but somewhere along the way, you did.
All you know is that it took two Kainan matches and a dozen one-on-ones between him and yourself to make you realize that the thing about being the best is that someone out there is always better.
And that someone for you is sitting across the table in a denim jacket, sipping on a glass of lemon water.
You wonder if there is still someone who will accept you despite the fact that you aren't the unbeatable basketball player everyone keeps saying you are, and whether you will find that person in this tiny ramen shop with a dusty floor behind the counter.
"We should date," you tell him casually, and Maki chuckles, flattered. He doesn't say no though, so you hope it isn't terribly desperate of you if you take that as a yes.
In the end, nothing really changes. You continue to eat your meals normally together and talk about basketball, homework, and action movies.
Maybe the only difference is that Koshino frowns more fiercely at Maki whenever he comes to pick you up from practice, or that there is now this energetic freshman named Kiyota who threatens you with bodily harm every time he sees the two of you together.
You don't really mind, and from the way Maki touches you with surprisingly soft fingertips, you don't really think he minds either.
Maki arrives at your house one day with a box of your favourite milk chocolates and a single white rose.
He says, "Happy anniversary."
And you, in a moment of panic, dressed in Pokemon pajama pants and nothing else because everyone has always told you that you sleep far too much, realize that his smile still makes your insides clench uncontrollably and you struggle to think of something clever to say.
You decide instead to stay quiet and kiss him until you run out of breath, because Maki is the boy who never smiles, except for when he does, and you are the stupid, silly boy who always wins, except for when you don't.
And then there is a dark-haired boy named Rukawa and a red-haired typhoon named Sakuragi who are both frozen in a perpetual state of arrogance.
And then there come a dozen more, yearning to be the esteemed player who gets to beat Ryonan's Number One.
But you beat them, all of them, one by one.
You smile modestly and shake their hands after, which only enrages them further.
You never really get tired of seeing the fire flash in their eyes. It reminds you of that same passion you first saw all those years ago, in the eyes of that boy you still do not know how to beat.