Disclaimer : Slam Dunk is owned by Takehiko Inoue.
Author's Note: This was inspired by the scene where Haruko was drawing Rukawa.
"Mangaka of the Year, huh?"
Haruko Akagi stopped from sipping her martini when she heard somebody not too far from her. It must be one of the critics who showed up during the awarding ceremony that took place less than an hour ago, she thought. She was used to this. Ever since she had been a famous mangaka, she got used to hobnobbing with almost everyone, the fans, the elites, and the critics.
She saw a rather tall man standing at the stairs of the hotel lobby. The man was wearing a white shirt, sleeves folded up just before his elbows and khaki pants. Rather simple, she thought as most of the men who go to that hotel come in suits. Haruko squinted her eyes in an attempt to focus her sight, trying to convince herself that the person standing in front of her was really the person she thought he was.
Then the man walked down the stairs and approached her.
"Oi. Don't tell me you have forgotten me already," he greeted after he stopped right in front of her.
"Rukawa-kun?" She asked, still not believing her eyes.
"The one and only," he answered, a gentle smile appeared on his face.
"Oh my God!" Haruko's eyes were wide in surprise as she covered her mouth with her hand. "What are you doing here? I thought you are in America?"
"Oh." She answered with a tinge of guilt. Ever since she became a mangaka, Haruko hardly had any time to pay attention to basketball matters anymore. Creating manga has now become her life.
"Congratulations!" Rukawa extended his hand to the former school mate and team manageress.
Haruko tried to control her amusement. Apparently, Rukawa had become accustomed to the Western handshake instead of the usual traditional Japanese bow. She extended her hand as well and accepted the handshake.
"I knew you'd be famous one day," Rukawa said with a smug on his face. He started to walk beside her, his arms crossed against his chest.
Haruko looked at the tall man beside her and let out a big smile. "How did you know? You must have forgotten that I was the most unpopular girl in school."
Odd but true. Though she never quite understood it, she was voted as the most unpopular girl in school. Later on, she left Kanagawa and went to Tokyo to study fine arts. Even in college, basketball was still a part of her life when she was a team manager of their college basketball team.
Rukawa Kaede was voted as the most popular. It was a given, what with his good looks and superior basketball skills, he was the most sought after boy in school.
Rukawa sighed and shook his head before, "Being voted as the most unpopular is not a measure of what one can become later on in life. You are more popular than me now."
He spoke the truth. Being a mangaka after all, Haruko Akagi was respected throughout Japan.
She led him to a table, dimly lit by candlelight beside the window. "Wow, Rukawa Kaede, you are a philosopher now?"
"Not really," he answered flatly.
Their conversation was interrupted for a while when a waiter came to ask if they wanted to order something. Haruko refused to order anything by saying she was satisfied with the martini she was drinking. While Rukawa was asking for a glass of Chateau Margaux, Haruko took out a manga from her handbag and scribbled something on it.
As soon as the waiter left, she handed it to Rukawa. "Here," she said smiling. "It's my latest volume."
Rukawa scanned it and stared at her scribbled name on the first page of the bestseller manga.
To Rukawa Kaede
All the best!
He smiled, then laid down the manga in front of him. "I must be special, huh? Imagine getting an autographed copy from the mangaka herself."
Haruko laughed. "Sorry to burst your bubble, Rukawa-kun. I must have autographed close to a thousand copies already."
"Really? Well, I have something that none of your fans have."
"Uhm… and what is it?" Haruko asked daringly.
Rukawa took out a folded piece of paper from his wallet, unfolded it and presented it to Haruko.
"Presenting what could be one of the earliest works of the great mangaka, Haruko Akagi," he proudly announced.
Haruko's eyes grew wide as she gaped at her drawing of Rukawa Kaede in his #11 Shohoku jersey.
"H-How come… why do you have that?" She inquired as her eyes darted to him and then back to the drawing that she drew during her English class in high school.
"I saw it at the locker room when I was cleaning, thought that since it was a drawing of me, I should keep it as a souvenir. It's been with me ever since." He refolded the drawing and inserted it back to his wallet.
"Must be worth a fortune by now," he added as he jammed his wallet to his back pocket.
Haruko snickered. "You don't need the money, Rukawa Kaede!"
"Who said I'm selling it? I wouldn't trade it for the world."
Haruko smiled and shook her head in disbelief.
And then there was silence.
After an awkward air of silence, she looked up to him. "I'm sorry about earlier. I didn't recognize you. It's just that you look so different." Maybe it was his tanned skin, Haruko thought since the basketball player was very pale in high school.
"Hm. So are you." He said as he studied her. Haruko looked every inch a lady, hair braided at each side, simple yet pretty in a red Greek styled long chiton. A far cry from the t-shirt and shorts girl in high school. "Not into basketball now, eh?"
Haruko shook her head. "I can't. Basketball is still my first love though. It's just that---"
Rukawa tilted his head and raised an eyebrow. "Really? I thought it was me?"
Haruko froze in the act of sipping from her glass. She glanced at Rukawa who seemed to be smiling mischievously. For a moment, she closed her eyes and started sipping her martini once again.
"You mean… you knew?" She asked as she carefully laid down her glass on the table.
"Well, not for sure… but there were hints," he answered.
Haruko tried to suppress a smile but ended up giggling. "You must have thought I was pretty silly, ne?" She looked up, a glint of happiness in her eyes as she recalled the past.
Rukawa stared at her. Haruko took it as not a good topic to talk about.
"I think we shouldn't talk about silly things like that. Tell me about you. How's life in America, Rukawa-kun?"
As she waited for his answer, she joined her hands together while her elbows rested on top of the table, then rested her chin on the back of her hands.
He shrugged. "You know what they say. It's lonely at the top."
Haruko gave a pained smile. How very true. People assume that when someone is successful in life, that person is happy already. What Rukawa said hit home. She maybe one of the richest women in Japan but happiness continued to elude her.
When she became famous, none of friends contacted her, until she learned that they wouldn't do so out of the belief that she's already unreachable. Unwillingly, she was put on a pedestal to be practically worshipped.
Yes, it was lonely at the top.
Haruko cleared her throat. She's always been a good conversationalist, never running out of topic to talk about when she deals with people from all walks of life. Being a mangaka, it's very rare that she would run out of ideas. But then, talking to Rukawa Kaede just brings back all the memories she would rather forget.
"Haruko, how come you never told me?" He asked in a gentle, almost inaudible voice.
Haruko stared at the flickering candle in the middle of the table, watching the little fire dance in front of her. Would it have made any difference if she had told him then what she felt for him? Truth was she was scared. Too scared of rejection. To scared of losing him as a friend. Or worse, maybe she was too scared that if they ever had a relationship, it would not have worked out since she knew he was leaving for America.
She put on a cheerful face and answered. "Geez… Rukawa-kun, you really love to embarrass me, do you?"
Rukawa raised an eyebrow. Haruko was his friend. The only friend in fact he ever had, the only girl he ever knew aside from Ayako. They had been friends for a number of reasons: they were in the same year, they were team mates, he was the team captain, she the team manageress. She was always there when he needed help. They share the same passion: basketball. The only difference was he made a career out of it, Haruko didn't.
"You're a very good basketball player, Rukawa-kun. You're a star and like a star, you're unreachable."
Rukawa frowned. "Nice line. Is that going to be in your manga?"
Haruko smiled, her eyes lighted up. "And you were such a snob, do you know that? Besides, you never showed any interest in girls. I convinced myself that maybe that was just a silly crush that would fade later on so…"
Rukawa smirked. "What about you? You were such a meanie."
"Meanie? Me? A meanie?"
"Remember when you poured ice cold water on my face?"
Haruko giggled at the remembrance. "I couldn't help it. There's only like what, two hours before your make-up exam and you were still dosing off!"
"I was not," he rebutted.
"Oh yes, you were."
Truth was he was not really sleeping at that time. Beneath the bangs that were half-covering his eyes, he was quietly observing her as she seemed to have been studying him while he was 'sleeping'.
Most of the time, he and Haruko would be at the locker room, her tutoring him whenever there's a chance. There were a lot of opportunities when she could have said how she felt for him but she didn't.
"Well, anyway, you were saying?"
Haruko continued. "Well, since Anzai-sensei announced that you are going to America, I told to myself to forget it. Besides, I figured you would meet someone in America and…" She waved her hand in the air…"you know…" She took a deep breath before, "I didn't think I was the kind of girl who was suited for you, Rukawa-kun."
Rukawa's eyebrows met, trying to digest what she just said. "Where on earth did you get that idea? You know I don't think like that."
Though there was no sadness in Haruko's eyes, he could see that she was in deep thoughts.
"I would have stayed…" he uttered.
Haruko smiled at the man sitting across the table. Rukawa Kaede maybe cold on the outside but inside, he's the kind of man who thinks about other people, too. Yet in her mind, there's no way that she would have stopped him or be a hindrance to him in achieving his dreams.
"Isn't it cool to be an NBA player, Rukawa-kun?"
Haruko's eyes showed some amusement as Rukawa was showing signs of irritation.
"First of all, I never thought of myself as unreachable, even more so a star," he stated empathically.
Haruko smiled. "But you are."
"And second… I never thought that your liking for me was silly."
Haruko let out a laugh. "Well, at least that made me feel better!"
Rukawa held her hand that was lying on the table. "It's not too late. We can pick up where we stopped."
Haruko couldn't believe her ears. "What?"
"You heard me."
"B-But…it's not that easy, Rukawa-kun…"
"It was not easy, Haruko. It's been ten years! How hard should it have to be?" Rukawa leaned closer to her. "I will leave NBA and stay here then."
She almost fell from her chair. "What? You can't do that!"
"Then come with me to America. You can do your manga from there."
Haruko gaped at the man in front of her. Her eyes swept through the other tables beside them. Everyone seems to be engaged in some conversation of some sort, oblivious to the other tables around them. She felt Rukawa tightened his grip on her hand. The candlelight reflected on her eyes when she looked back at him.
Then squeezed his hand in return.