"There's something higher to aim for," Akagi says and Kogure nods. Mitsui scratches the back of his neck. He wants the ball in his hands. He wants to listen to shoes squeaking on the court, not Akagi's speech. At least it's the last one.
Kogure smiles, turning his head to sweep them all. "Thank you," he says, and he and Akagi leave the gym.
"Let's go!" Miyagi calls and claps his hands.
"Finally." Mitsui pushes himself off the floor. The second years face off against him, one at a time, and he tears through them like a hand through paper. "Try harder," he yells. They all look the same to him, their skills are all lacking. Except for Miyagi, the team is boring, like sekihan with all the beans picked out.
Mitsui's stomach growls.
Rukawa brings back a tape for them to watch. "Our game with China," he says, and plunks himself down on the floor. Akagi is there to watch with them and when the game starts, Mitsui can see the longing on his face.
Four minutes in, Rukawa shoots a beautiful three-pointer. Some of the boys applaud. "You were just my substitute," Sakuragi says and Akagi smacks him upside the head.
Rukawa scores again. The All-Japan team is leading. Mitsui looks away from the screen. Watching this was a mistake. Better to go to the gym and do some actual practice.
The door opens. Kogure slips in and sits down beside Mitsui. "Shouldn't you be studying?" Mitsui says.
"I'm taking a break." Kogure leans in to whisper and his shoulder presses against Mitsui's. "How's the team?"
"You stole that move from me!" Sakuragi yells. "I do it a hundred times better. I'll show you."
"You can't play yet, so shut up," Miyagi says.
"Idiot," Rukawa mutters. "You can't do it at all."
"Be quiet all of you." Akagi puts Sakuragi in a headlock. China scores and pulls ahead.
"I miss basketball," Kogure says.
In the winter qualifiers, they make it to the final four. Ryonan push and Shohoku push back. Sendoh plays with a smile on his face. Mitsui tries to wipe it off.
The lead tips back and forth. In the second half, they run a full-court press and sweat drips into Mitsui's eyes faster than he can wipe it away. Ryonan pull ahead, then ahead some more. They won't turn over the ball. Mitsui fouls and Fukuda makes the free throw.
"Get it together," Miyagi yells. Mitsui pushes harder. He's raw inside and out, lungs burning, limbs dull and heavy. He shoots a three and Miyagi slaps him on the back.
Sendoh laughs. Sakuragi and Rukawa turn to glare at him, heads snapping in unison. And it's like a film with the audio half a second off coming into sync. They play together, finally, a combination so perfect even Mitsui can't believe they haven't been practising together. The rest of Shohoku fight to keep up, Ryonan struggle to break them apart.
Nobody can. They pull the score to even, they push it up to win. The buzzer goes and Sakuragi grabs Rukawa around the shoulders. It's a good thirty seconds before they realize and jerk apart.
Mitsui swipes the sweat on his forehead up into his hair. He bangs his fist against Miyagi's. He can't stop grinning. He looks up into the stands.
"I wish I'd been sitting on the bench." Kogure hands Mitsui a sports drink. "That was amazing. They were amazing." He smiles. "So were you."
Mitsui pops the top of the can. "What about your exams?" It's still ten minutes until their train. He wants to sit down, but he's not sure he'll be able to get up again if he does.
"I'm taking a break."
They get seats together on the train. Mitsui blinks and they're already pulling into the station. Kogure is shaking his shoulder. Outside, it's beginning to snow.
"I'll walk with you," Kogure says. Outside Mitsui's house, they stand and look up into the sky until Mitsui is nearly dizzy from the snowflakes.
Only one team can go to the Inter-high. Shohoku want it. Shoyo want it more. Fujima cries. Mitsui punches a wall in the change room.
"Not today," Mitsui tells Hotta. There's nothing else to do, but he doesn't enjoy hanging out with them any more. He goes for a run instead, training himself for nothing.
After supper, he walks to Kogure's house and rings the doorbell.
"Kiminobu is studying." Kogure's mother has creases in her forehead, as though she frowns a lot.
"That's why I'm here," Mitsui says. "To study."
"You don't have any books," she says, but lets him in anyhow.
Kogure blinks when Mitsui opens the door. And then he smiles. "I'm studying," he says, "but I can stop."
"I'll help you study." Mitsui sits on the floor. The room is tiny and there are neat stacks all over the floor, books and papers and cards. He picks up a ring of flashcards. "What's a germ cell?"
"A cell of a lineage set aside for sexual reproduction." Kogure sets down his pencil. "I'm doing math right now."
"So do your math." Mitsui sprawls on the floor, his head on a textbook and his knees pulled up. He listens to Kogure rustle papers and stares at the ceiling.
He's bored but that's okay.
"I'm at the street court near your house." Mitsui bounces the ball with one hand.
"I'm studying," Kogure says.
"Give the germ cells a rest for twenty minutes."
"Mitsui." Kogure pauses.
Mitsui takes a shot one-handed. It rattles on the rim and drops in. "Three points," he says.
They play one on one for an hour. It's the first time in weeks Mitsui really wakes up. The court under his feet, the ball in his hands, the cold air in his throat.
"I'm not much of a challenge for you," Kogure says. His cheeks are flushed from the game. He's smiling.
Mitsui punches him on the arm. "It's better than nothing."
"I should be getting back."
"I'm hungry," Mitsui says. "Come on, I'll buy."
They eat hamburgers and fries and ice cream sundaes. Kogure gets chocolate sauce on his shirt and he scrubs at it with a napkin.
Mitsui stirs the ice in his drink with the straw. "You should stay in practice for university basketball."
Kogure drops the crumpled napkin on the table. "I'm not playing basketball in university."
"It's the new NBA highlights." Mitsui slides the tape into Kogure's VCR. "It's only half an hour."
Kogure pushes aside his history books and sits next to Mitsui. He takes his glasses off for a minute and rubs the bridge of his nose. "Then you have to quiz me on biology after."
"Those dumb germs," Mitsui says. "I don't know how you -- did you see that?"
They watch the tape three times. Mitsui finds his hands moving with the shots, trying to feel them in his body. Then he asks Kogure biology flashcards until he figures he could answer all the questions himself.
"It's late," Kogure says. "You should stay over."
There's barely room for two futons. Mitsui lies on his back, hands behind his head. Too much light comes through the window and he can't sleep. He rolls over onto his side and looks at Kogure.
Kogure's face is shaded, like it's drawn in pencil, and it's a little unfamiliar without his glasses. His eyes are wide open and he's watching Mitsui.
They look at each other for a full minute, maybe longer, and Mitsui's pulse beats in his throat like a klaxon.
"Mitsui," Kogure says. Mitsui reaches out.
"Congratulations." Kogure puts his hand on Mitsui's shoulder.
"You too." Around them, cameras are flashing and girls are hugging.
"Do you know what you're going to do now?"
"You sound like my mother." Across the lawn, Hotta and his gang wave at Mitsui, motioning him over. Mitsui shakes his head.
"My..." Kogure fishes in his pocket. "My uncle has a moving business. If you're looking for a job." He hands Mitsui a card.
Mitsui shoves it in his pocket without looking at it. "Maybe."
"I got into Tokai," Kogure says.
"It was my second choice."
"It's a good school," Mitsui says. He doesn't know whether or not that's true.
A group of kids wave at Kogure. "I have to go." He turns away for a moment, then looks Mitsui in the eye. "But I'm not leaving for a week." He touches Mitsui's arm, then goes off to get his picture taken.
Mitsui crosses the lawn.
If you get this message, Kogure says, I'm at the street court near my house.
Mitsui flips the phone shut. He puts in the NBA highlight tape and lies on his back, picturing himself scoring, responding to the cheers of the crowd.
Kogure calls again. Mitsui turns off the phone and goes drinking with Hotta.
He calls Kogure when he's drunk.
"Are you okay?" Kogure says.
"I wasted all that time," Mitsui says. "I want to go back to the beginning."
"My mother thinks I wasted mine." Kogure's voice is quiet.
"On germ cells."
"A germ cell is a cell of a lineage set aside for sexual reproduction."
"Are you okay?" Kogure asks again. "Should I come over?"
"You can't go back to the beginning," Mitsui says and hangs up the phone.
In the morning, he calls Kogure's uncle.