Takes place on the day of the Shohoku vs Kainan game.
"What's the matter?"
He looked up, startled at the question and the concern behind it. Kogure was staring at him, a worried frown on his forehead. "Nothing's the matter. Why do you ask?" he replied. He went back to contemplating his shoes. He'd had them for a long time. Perhaps he should buy a new pair.
"You've been pretty quiet since the game," Kogure observed.
He shrugged. He looked up at the sky for a change of scenery. Watching his feet move one after the other got pretty boring after the first minute or so. "There's nothing much to say, is there? Besides, everyone was wrapped up in their own misery."
"Oh, I wouldn't say that. Akagi took it better than I thought he would." Kogure sighed. "Poor Sakuragi. He's going to blame himself for this, you know."
"It wasn't his fault."
"No, it wasn't, but he doesn't know that." Kogure went on to say something, then he stopped. He turned to look at his friend searchingly. "It wasn't your fault either."
He started and glanced at Kogure. "No... it wasn't anybody's fault, was it? It never is. Things just happen and nobody is to blamed for anything."
Kogure frowned at the tone in his voice. "If blame must be assigned, then let's blame the whole team. Maybe if Akagi hadn't injured his ankle, we'd have won. Maybe if I weren't so intimidated by Maki Shinichi, we'd have won. Maybe if Rukawa had had the stamina to play the game out, we'd have won. Maybe if Miyagi had run faster, we'd have won. And maybe if Sakuragi had better eyesight, we'd have won." He let out his breath loudly. He hated being angry, but he was tired - they all were, after the grueling game - and his own nerves were frayed. He calmed himself down. "The thing is, everybody did their best, including you."
"Well, my best wasn't good enough!" he almost shouted. He stopped walking and so did Kogure. They stood in the middle of the road, next to the park which was slowly filling with people.
"Your expectations of yourself are too high-" Kogure began, but he cut him off.
"It's not that!" How to explain to him? Once upon a time, his best would have been more than enough. How to explain this choking feeling in his chest, this thing that was strangling him until he could not breathe?
"Kogure, I..." He turned away, looked towards the trees in the park. "You go on home. I'll see you tomorrow."
"Where are you going?"
"Nowhere. Just... nowhere. See you in school, okay?" He started walking towards the park, not looking back to see if Kogure was still there or not.
He slumped down on a bench. Damn his feet hurt. Actually his entire body hurt like hell. His arms and legs were heavy as lead and a steady pounding had begun in earnest somewhere behind his eyeballs. The next logical step would be to head on home and sleep forever, but somehow he just couldn't.
He closed his eyes and saw the bright lights of the stadium. He felt the ball in his hands, a familiar shape, a reassuring weight. He'd held this ball before, or one like it, it had been almost like an extension of himself.
Akagi had looked into his eyes across the court, and he'd had a moment of deja vu, transported back to his early days at Shohoku, when everything had seemed possible and there had been nothing that he couldn't accomplish. He had watched the ball sail through the air in a perfect arc, and he had been sure, he had been so sure, that the ball would go in.
He opened his eyes to a slowly fading day. The air was cooling to the chill of night time. He shivered, pulling his blazer closer. He hated this time of the day. It reminded him of long walks to the hospital, thoughts scattered like broken glass, filled with hope and fear - it's been some time, my knee will heal, this time they'll say it's okay... this time...
But it was never okay, and then he just stopped going.
He sat up straighter on the bench. Perhaps he should be going home. His Kaasan might worry. She worried a lot about him. Afraid, maybe, that he would go back to his delinquent ways.
If truth be told, sometimes he missed it. He would never go back, not now, not that he had basketball again, but life was so much simpler when you didn't care about anything. When you didn't have to think, or feel. Just exist moment by moment. You'd be surprised how quickly those moments turn into years.
The thought that the years could have turned into forever scared the hell out of him.
He looked up and almost fell out of his seat. "Anzai-sensei! What-what are you doing here, sensei?" he stammered.
The white-haired, potbellied coach of Shohoku smiled genially. "I met Kogure-kun and he told me where you were."
He brushed dust - imaginary and otherwise - from the bench, and said, "Anzai-sensei, please, have a seat."
"Kogure-kun told me something seemed to be bothering you."
Kogure-kun has a big mouth, he thought indignantly. "Uh... it's nothing much, Anzai-sensei."
Anzai-sensei nodded, still smiling. "Mitsui-kun, that leaf seems to be moving."
"Ar?" he articulated. Anzai-sensei pointed at a spot near his feet and
he looked down. Indeed, a small leaf seemed to have sprouted legs and was
trying determinedly to climb over his shoes.
"I think those are ants, Anzai-sensei."
"Hmm. Fascinating creatures, ants. Once they've set their mind to something, they never give up on it. I once observed an ant trying to move a grain of rice from the bowl to the table for two hours. Fascinating."
Mitsui didn't question the credibility of Anzai-sensei observing an ant for two hours, because he had a feeling the conversation had moved into some deep bits he didn't quite understand.
But Anzai-sensei merely stood up - slowly to avoid toppling over - and patted his shoulder. "Shouldn't you be going home, Mitsui-kun?"
He felt his eyes pricking at the sheer kindness in the old man's voice. "Y-Yes, Anzai-sensei."
Anzai-sensei smiled, gave a final pat to his shoulder, and strolled slowly away.
Dusk was falling fast. It was going to be a chilly night, Mitsui thought
absently as he lifted his pack and headed for home.