You, Me and the Willow Tree

Chapter 2
Running in Circles

***


'Twap!' Came the crisp sound of the paper fan hitting a hard object. Unfortunately, the said object happened to be someone's head.

"Itai!" Hanamichi grumbled, rubbing his sore temple in exasperation. "What did you do that for? You should be grateful to be in the presence of the tensai himself."

Somehow, the words grateful and tensai in one sentence struck her as something ridiculously funny. However, she had heard this line a billion times before, in various guises. And it always triggered the same reaction from her...

'Twap!' Again came the crashing sound.

"You're late," Ayako retorted while waving her trademark paper fan menacingly, leaving no room for an excuse. She glanced furtively at her clock and shook her head slowly. Akagi, Mitsui and Ryota were already present at her new apartment for furniture moving. "Very late."

"Gomen, Aya-chan," Kogure said apologetically, unable to suppress the mirth creeping in his voice as he watched Hanamichi rub his head furiously. God only knows how many times he had witnessed events similar to these back at Shohoku High.

It is by no surprise that they often meet each other even after school and practice hours. No matter how different their attitudes were, how some misunderstandings seemed to be impossible to settle, it will always be we and us instead of I and me. They had formed a bond- something that makes them stand by with each other through thick and thin.

Cliché as it may be perceived but they're more than just a mere basketball team. They're a family.

"Nah. It's okay, Kogure-kun," Ayako replied, moving aside to invite the two to come inside.

"What?!" Hanamichi asked incredulously. "How come Megane-kun didn't get some whacking from your fan?" It was Hanamichi's nature to be so obnoxious at times, leading to some disastrous results.

"Urusai!"

'Twap!'

***

"No, the fridge goes there, not the tables..."

Several squeaking sounds reverberated on the floors before a loud crash.

"Oops...! Sorry 'bout that!"

"Mitsui!"

"Itai! I said lift the fucking couch, not drag it!" Some muffled curses can be heard amidst the sounds of furniture being moved.

"My toe! My damned precious toe!"

"Gori! What did you do that for?!!"

"Baka! Are you planning to place the T.V. in the kitchen?"

"Shut up, Ryocchin."

Ryota stood next to Ayako as they surveyed the apartment. "So, what do you think?"

Ayako just whimpered and closed her eyes. Maybe asking them for help wasn't such a good idea...

***

"Wow!" The dark-haired boy lightened up upon seeing the confectioneries in front of him. "Can I have some? Can I? Can I?" He asked Hanamichi excitedly. Chocolates...

"Sure!" Hanamichi answered as he unwrapped a bar and gave some to Rukawa, who in turn, proceeded to take experimental bites on the chocolate. After opening another bar of chocolate for himself, he took a large bite. "Thmis tsmaedes gfods!"

"Huh?" Confusion set on Rukawa's face as he tried to understand the incoherent words.

"This takes good!" Hanamichi repeated, showing his chocolate-stained teeth. He then crammed another piece on his mouth, smudging his face messily.

***

"Hey, Aya-chan, you painted this?" Kogure asked, pointing at a portrait hanging on the den.

The old canvass was that of two kids lying on their backs while looking at the pleasant blue sky. Small grasses surrounded the place with butterflies hovering to golden daffodils that jutted proudly in the green expanse. On the background stood a huge willow tree, its branches giving protective shade for the two. The combination of oils is commendable; it even accentuated the amber glow of the sun.

"It's my aunt's." Ayako said, grabbing a knife and slicing the cardboard boxes open. "She said it reminds her of the two kids she cared for back at Kanagawa Hospital."

"Kanagawa Hospital?" Ryota butted in. He had been listening to the conversation while scrutinizing the old artwork.

"Yes, she's a nurse back then." The statement was followed by thoughtful silence as she reminisced fond memories of her aunt. "She loves to paint in her spare time. Unfortunately, her family didn't have the money so that she can pursue a career in painting. I think that painting was her last piece- she called that 'YOU, ME and the WILLOW TREE."

"You know, these two looks kinda familiar."

"Really?"

"Hey, what's this?" Kogure pointed at some blotched part in the bottom part of the painting. At first, the flaw was unnoticeable, but on closer inspection, it appeared as if a small quote was scribbled in light colors. "...IF TIME IS TO BE CRUEL TO BREAK THEM APART..." he began, and then paused, as the next part was unreadable.

If time is to be cruel to break them apart...

"Oh. I found that painting in her attic after she... passed. It's forming molds and starting to deteriorate so I had it repaired. Pity they can't do anything on the bottom part..."

***

"Thanks for the help you guys!" Ayako shouted from the doorway, watching as everyone left her apartment. A quick glance on the starless sky told her that it wouldn't be long for a heavy rainfall.

Needless to say, her predictions were accurate enough...

"K'so!" Hanamichi cursed, as he was drenched like a drowned rat from head to toe. His muscles were all sore and in desperate need of a warm shower to soothe them. Deciding that since he's already all-wet, walking his way home is the only option.

He was startled as lightning tore the darkened skies, followed by the deep rumble of thunder.

***

'BOOM!'

"Waaahh!" The redhead screamed, cowering from the thundering sound that rattled violently. He brought the covers up and curled himself in a bundle, cringing in fear.

Outside, rain pounded furiously, covering the windows in intricate patterns. Lighting suddenly pierced the monotony, engulfing the room in black and white relief. Soon, roared again, almost magnified in intensity than the last time.

"Waahhh!" Whimpered the redhead under the sheets. He really hated thunderstorms, they make him scared stiff...

He suddenly felt a presence beside him, and before he could look up, he was enveloped by small arms in a comforting gesture. Small palms gently stroked his cheeks, trying to wipe his tears. Hanamichi snuggled closer to the offered warmth, feeling relatively calm and reassured.

'You okay now?" Rukawa asked him, wincing as lightning flashed once again. His blue eyes were suspiciously bright under the dim-lighted room. It was obvious that he also felt scared, but was trying his damned best not to show it.

Hanamichi lifted his teary gaze and nodded slowly, feeling his eyelids become heavier by the minute.

***

"Damn," Hanamichi cursed for the umpteenth time as a car splashed muddy water all over him. He looked at his clothes and cringed. Blotches of mud covered his shirt down to his pants. He concluded that someone probably jinxed him...

Crossing the streets, Hanamichi's cursed luck stayed true to form, as he heard the loud screeching of tires from a car running with dangerous speed. Jolted from his deep reverie, he looked up when headlights focused on him. Sounds of the car's horn echoed in the empty streets, an ominous sense of dread washing over him.

Oh shit...

Oh shit...damn you Hanamichi, RUN!

Alas, all rational senses fled him as he reacted too late.

Time seemed to slow down. Every second was like in a dream-like state, so unreal; He never heard the furious sound of the horn telling him to get out immediately.

And then it hit him. Hard.

***

A searing pain racked Hanamichi's body as he slumped on the wet ground, senses gradually flailing. Unimaginable pain overrode his body, sending him into a moaning and writhing heap. He raised his fingers to his forehead, accepting the knifing sensation the movement engendered.

Red...

Hanamichi looked at his fingers then grimaced at the amount of blood he was losing. How could have this happened? Why? Why now? Harsh breathing, hitching from time to time rushed from his lips as he struggled to rise immediately.

Move!

He desperately tried to battle the darkness that threatened to overwhelm him. It was necessary for him to find some help; with the amount of blood he's losing, it wouldn't take a genius to tell that he'll be in grave danger. He now dragged himself against the cold ground, but blackness challenged him. Slowly, he sank, trying to catch his now erratic breathing.

The bastard or bitch that hit me didn't even bother to help... He thought bitterly.

His strength was slowly vanishing; it would be a matter of time before he'd bleed to death on the streets.

Just as he was about to succumb to the darkness, he felt a sensation of being lifted from the streets. His vision was blurred by intense pain and he failed to recognize the person. The only thing that registered on his mind was the pair of blue eyes looking at him with a mixture of panic and worry.

The last thoughts he remembered was looking up to the darkened sky and thinking, if I die...

***

"Dad!" Hanamichi screamed, sitting up on the bed. The clutches of the unpleasant dream lingered in him disturbingly. His breathing was erratic- body trembling in fear as he clutched the covers and wound it with him tighter. Warm tears trickled down his cheeks and he raised his knees towards his chest, rocking them softly.

"What's wrong?" Rukawa asked, voice still heavy with lethargy.

Hanamichi stared at the inquiring blue eyes before responding. "A bad dream..." He choked out, sadness filling him at the memories of the nightmare.

Father...

Hanamichi kept on seeing his father saying goodbye to him, telling that he'll miss him for he might not see him again. He couldn't understand why his dad would leave him; perhaps he doesn't love him anymore...

"Oh," Rukawa couldn't think of anything comforting to say. Instead, he just closed his eyes and hummed a gentle tune.

"What's that?" Hanamichi asked, momentarily distracted from the soft murmur.

"I dunno," Rukawa answered truthfully. "Mom always does that whenever I have bad dreams."

"You also have bad dreams?" He wandered aloud.

"Yes," Rukawa paused as he tried to remember the last time he had a nightmare. "But after that, Mom tucks me to bed and then sings for me. And then, I wouldn't be so scared anymore."

Hanamichi raised his head and fluffed the pillow before settling down on his position once again.

"You okay now?"

"Yes."

***

"Please, let him be okay..." Haruko sobbed on his brother as they sat on the waiting room.

Fate surely plays its tricks in the most unexpected way. Just a few hours ago, they were talking, joking and going on with their lives perfectly. So perfect that something like an accident was the least of their worries. They never expected it.

The waiting room went utterly silent as all eyes fixed on the doctor who emerged from the glass-paneled room. Heartbeats quickened, and everyone stood to know the exact condition of their friend.

"Are you Sakuragi's friends?"

"Yes," Almost everyone said in unison. Silence enveloped them as they waited expectantly for the inevitable.

The doctor inhaled slowly, then lifted his eyes and gave them a tight smile. "Hanamichi... is recuperating. Your friend seems to be very lucky. He lost too much blood though, plus he suffered some concussions and broken bones. At this point we can't say anything final or definite about the other damages he had received, but I think it's safe to say that he would be fine."

Everyone released a relieved sigh. Cries and murmurs or relief and gratefulness were subdued by the Sakuragi Gundan's loud cheering. Ayako laughed through her tears, almost choking Ryota with her tight embrace. It was over; the storm that suddenly wracked them was finally gone. Haruko's eyes were still bright with tears as she thanked the doctor profusely.

"Don't thank me," The doctor said mildly. He pushed the rim of his glasses high on the bridge of his nose before giving a warm, reassuring smile. "You should thank the young man who brought him here. Weren't for him, Hanamichi wouldn't be so fortunate." He glanced behind them as he pointed at a lone figure sitting in the far end of the waiting room.

Everyone followed the doctor's gaze before gasps of surprise filled the air as they took in the identity of Hanamichi's savior. It was strange that they've been so wrapped up in their anxiety that they failed to see another teammate. Someone they've never expected.

Totally unexpected...

"Rukawa?"

Yes, fate plays its tricks in the most unexpected ways. Just like Hanamichi and Rukawa's lives- as if they're running in circles.

***