Disclaimer: Standard disclaimers apply. The title I've borrowed from Colin Falconer's epic Cleopatra novel, 'When We Were Gods.'
The ball switched from one pair of hands to another, flying from one end of the court to the other with such fluidity it was breathtaking, with such speed one's eyes would find it hard to catch up.
And when it finally flew the arc, swishing through the air for the fated destination amidst groping, sweaty hands fighting for possession, the crowd held its breath; only to be exhaled in cheers if the shot went in.
He wasn't surprised. Not at all. His trained eyes could tell even before the ball left the shooter's grip, the perfect form with which the three-pointer was executed; it was impeccable.
And for a split second, he felt a painfully familiar twinge of discomfort in his upper arms, an ache in his muscles; but only for a heartbeat. Then it was gone.
Kami-sama, he could even feel it, just by imagining; like he was the one shooting the basket. He must have shot millions of baskets in his lifetime, even the mere thought of it could constrict the muscles in his arms.
How very strange, for his legs to not feel the same.
Sendoh Akira couldn't contain his amusement as No. 14 leaped into a crazy happy dance in the middle of the court; his three-pointer was beautiful, he had to give him credit for that, but it reminded him so much of a guy he used to know, the crazy baka Sakuragi Hanamichi.
Watching Ryonan-Shohoku playoffs is never boring, no matter who's on the starting team, he thought. Seven years down the road with different players, new faces, and it was still never boring.
The only reason Sendoh could think of was that the legend that was Ryonan and the underdog that was Shohoku half a decade ago had somehow rubbed off on the new teams. He doubted any of his juniors had ever watched him play, much less remembered how he looked like. Unless-
Unless they recognise my hair, he thought, patting his head in nostalgic amusement.
It didn't matter, however. As long as the spirit to fight and be the best lived on.
It had been so long since he left high school, everything seemed like a distant memory. He didn't even expect anyone to come up to him and call him 'sempai' anytime soon; no one knew he was coming.
He leaned forward in his seat, ignoring the crowd whose cheers still hadn't died down. Apparently Shohoku's No. 14 is some kind of celebrity, he realised with a smile. Imagine that...Someone like the Ice Prince, but with the red-headed monkey's ridiculous antics?
He shuddered. Please God, no.
Sendoh peered down . The Ryonan bench seemed pretty animated, with Coach Taoka shouting something intelligible at Ryonan's point guard, a slight but agile young man with excellent passing and dribbling skills, not unlike Shohoku's former point guard, Miyagi Ryota.
Coach Taoka was still ranting, gesturing his hands wildly, very much unaware of the watchful eyes in the crowd.
Sendoh pursed his lips. I bet I can guess what he's saying.
"What the hell are you doing Sendoh! Keep your goddamn eyes on that bloody freshman! What, you didn't have breakfast? Go stop him!"
The coach's words rang in his ear, so distinct and clear still even after all these years.
It was always the same 'him'. The freshman, who kept on challenging him at every turn, kept wanting to defeat him when there was nothing to defeat. Because either way, Sendoh would always win, simply by not caring. To him, winning over other players was not a priority. Winning the game, every game, was.
It's that simple. Rukawa.
Sendoh's lips curled at the thought of him, the legendary ace of Shohoku, who had already made a name for himself when he was still in junior high. The icy demeanour which hid a burning fire underneath, a fire which only his opponents on the court were allowed to see.
He never could understand why Rukawa had singled him out, of all the top players in Kanagawa; why he was the only one Rukawa wanted, no, needed to beat?
If Sendoh could see him now, what would he say to him? That Rukawa was already in a class of his own, that his abilities far exceeded what was truly normal for someone his age?
Playing one-on-one with the guy was too much fun for him to pass up. The only problem with that was...
Sendoh's smile faltered.
His thoughts trailed off as his sharp eyes landed on a lone figure sitting at the far corner a hundred yards away.
He squinted, trying to get a better look. His jaw dropped open slightly as realization dawned on him as to who the person was.
It can't be-!
Only 10 seconds into the second half, and already Ryonan wrenched possession of the ball from the offense.
"Chh." His breath whistled between his lips as he bristled, disgusted and mildly angered. He watched as Shohoku's center, a hulk in his own right but still very much like his former captain Akagi, patted No. 10 comfortingly on the back, from whom Ryonan had stolen the ball.
I wouldn't have lost that ball, freshman. Not on my watch.
He shifted in his seat, refusing to wince at the sudden pain shooting down his back from sitting still too long. Through narrowed eyes, he watched, entranced, as Shohoku's No. 14 surreptitiously crept up behind Ryonan's forward who was contemplating breaking through the defence in the key by forcing his way in. He was so easy to read, it was painful.
No. 14 soundlessly tapped the ball out of the Ryonan player's hand...and Shohoku had the ball!
A great cheer rose from within the crowd;cheering, stomping its feet-
"He reminds me of you, you know." A dark figure loomed over him, casting a huge shadow from behind.
The blood in his veins turned to ice.
He knew that voice. His throat tightened, as if on reflex, and his heart began to beat faster. No one was supposed to see him. No one was supposed to know he was here.
Least of all, him.
"His style, the way he plays, the way he carries himself in the court...flashy," the figure finally took a seat, before leaning forward to rest his forearms against the back of the next seat, his fingers curled in a fist so close it nearly touched the nape of Rukawa's neck. "Kinda like you."
As if waiting for an answer, Sendoh kept quiet for a while. When none came, he sighed. "Maa. There's only one difference though. He talks."
They both watched in silence, each lost in his own thoughts, as Shohoku scored another, thanks to an impressive fade-away jump shot by No. 14. Again, another crazy dance, this time complete with cocky laughter and hoots.
"And he makes noises."
Rukawa unconsciously laid his hands protectively over the jacket covering his lap, still not saying a word.
And for a long time, Sendoh stared at the back of Rukawa's head, trying to figure out for the hundredth time if Rukawa was really complicated, or he simply didn't know he was complicated. To rouse the former ace of Shohoku's attention was like provoking a mountain of rocks, futile and draining.
"Didn't expect to see you here. In fact I really didn't expect to see you anywhere in Kanagawa anymore...how long has it been? Five years?" He tilted his head forward slightly, to gauge the other man's reaction, to see if he would get any for that matter. "Ne, Rukawa?"
Rukawa stared right ahead, his cobalt eyes blank and unblinking, still as cold as ever. He hadn't aged a bit. His features, delicate still but much more refined after all these years, remained frozen, as if the slightest twitch would break his face like a broken mirror.
"You're so rigid you look like you're on Botox," he muttered under his breath.
Still no reaction.
Ryonan's point guard stirred an uproar throughout the whole stadium by leaping into the air for a rebound, going against three other players far bigger than him, stealing the ball from right under their noses. The crowd cheered as Ryonan thundered down the court for a fast break.
Finding himself losing interest in the game, Sendoh stood up slowly. Again, the shadow he cast darkened Rukawa's field of vision.
"You look well, Rukawa. Playing for the All-Japan Team must have been good to you."
Rukawa blinked lazily once. Sendoh thought he was imagining things, but he thought he could see Rukawa purse his lips tighter, and now instead of a sullen pout, they were a tight, stretched line on his handsome face. If Sendoh didn't know any better, he would think that the younger man was angry.
Shohoku's No. 14 intercepted a pass in mid-air, faked a lay-up and went in for a dunk. The crowd roared.
"You probably won't believe this but I was just thinking about you. Watching your No. 14...it reminded me of how high-spirited you were. Moody though, but mood I could handle as long as you played well. And you did." Sendoh glanced down. "Play well I mean."
He waited for a sarcastic, arrogant remark, something along the lines of, 'Of course, I did'-or the infamous line Sendoh remembered the most, 'You'll be in my shadow soon', but strangely, there was none.
He continued. "And I was thinking, hell I was wishing, how I'd love to have a one-on-one with you again. Just like the old times."
His proposal only earned him a slight twitch of the former ace's jaw.
You'd like that, wouldn't you, Rukawa? Sendoh asked silently.
"Just like the old days...that's how I like it," he said softly, almost to himself. From the looks of it, he guessed there wasn't any point in asking Rukawa what he'd been up to these days, he would have more luck asking a tortoise to tap-dance.
He must have stood there for a full five minutes before finally giving up. The match was almost over, although there was no telling who would win, each time a team scored, the other would follow suit and get the points back. He guessed he should pay Coach Taoka his respects before heading back home.
"Maa. It's good to see you. Rukawa." Sendoh smiled at his former rival. "I guess I'll see you around then."
Rukawa only acknowledged his goodbye with a curt nod.
Well, at least that's something.
"Ja." Sendoh waved cheerily before moving sideways heading for the aisle near Rukawa, and was about to bound down the steps when something caught his eye. Something metallic glinted in the reflected sunlight, hidden deep under the empty seat next to Rukawa, as if someone had shoved it far back inside.
He stopped in the middle of the aisle and stared harder at the object.
Without thinking, Sendoh dropped down, kneeling down next to the empty chair, and was about to grope under it before a pale hand shot out, and before he knew it, delicate but strong fingers snaked around his wrist, gripping it tightly.
The voice was rough, almost barking. Sendoh's eyes widened involuntarily and with robotic movements, he retrieved his hand from under the seat. The grip around his wrist loosened, and Sendoh lifted his head very, very slowly.
In a softer, almost apologetic tone, "Don't."
Dimly, Sendoh could hear the buzzer blare, indicating the end of the match, followed by sounds of stomping feet and people cheering, but it all sounded so far away.
All he could do was stare at the pale, drawn face of a man he once knew and even liked despite his despicable reticence and iciness, the face an expressionless mask just a few minutes ago, now an epitome of panic and anguish; emotions too foreign for Sendoh to even imagine Rukawa to be feeling.
His gaze dropped to Rukawa's feet, and his heart sank even deeper when he saw that they were only clad in thick protective socks and soft slippers.
In horror, he looked up again and stared into the haunted blue eyes.
"Don't," he whispered. He couldn't remember if he had ever used that tone before, if he had ever said please to anyone, if he had ever begged. But now he knew he was begging.
Sendoh had gone pale as well, his face ashen as he slumped into the empty chair next to him, his eyes wide, disbelieving. The man of a thousand smiles...and now he was incapable of words.
People were stampeding by, some cheering, some cursing but excited nonetheless.
He inhaled deeply. He needed to get his heartbeat under control, or else panic would overcome him. He lost himself once, and he couldn't lose himself again. Not in front of Sendoh.
After a few long seconds, his breathing returned to its normal pace. He turned his head to face the court once again.
"We won." His voice had gone cold again, like it used to be, the way he liked it.
Rukawa glanced sideways, watching as Sendoh's Adam's apple wobbled up and down as he swallowed. From his stunned reaction, Rukawa had a feeling that somehow...
K'so...he cursed silently.
"Huh?" Sendoh's head snapped back abruptly, the shock subsiding little by little, now replaced with the first glimmer of understanding; and also clouds of confusion. But his eyes had softened.
The stadium was emptying. He thought he heard someone calling his name, but he couldn't care less. All he could utter was one word.
"How-?" His voice was so soft it was almost inaudible.
Rukawa's eyes glinted. "None of your business."
Sendoh only nodded, as if the curt answer didn't surprise him at all. But as stubborn and hard-headed Rukawa was, he knew how he'd get to him sooner or later. The old Rukawa, at least.
I'll just wait, he thought. Until you're ready.
Players from the next match were already filling the court, warming-up and practising shots. The next game was starting in 20 minutes. After what seemed like forever, the statue next to him finally moved, squirming slightly as if from mild discomfort.
"Are you in pain?" Gentle, but it was a firm question.
Rukawa went still, his face a mask again. But his eyes were different. They were alive, stormy, as if he were reliving a painful memory.
"It doesn't hurt anymore."
"Hmm?" Either he was imagining things, or Sendoh had really heard him speak.
In defiance, the Ice Prince thrust his jaw forward. "And No. 14 is nothing like me."
Sendoh gazed at him expectantly, watching in fascination as Rukawa's finely sculpted nose twitched in mild disgust, as if annoyed with Sendoh for even making that kind of assumption.
"I was better."
Sendoh wanted to smile, but there was nothing to smile about. Keep him talking.
"How so?" If one-liners were what Rukawa wanted, then one-liners it was going to be.
"I didn't need anyone to tell me I was good."
"If you were paying attention just now, you would see that every time he scored, or every time he got the rebound or made a good pass, he would look around...at his captain, his teammates - like he's seeking approval. And reassurance. That he did good." The cold tone had gone scornful.
"I never needed that from anyone."
A smile found its way back to Sendoh's lips. Self-confidence had been one of the kitsune's most appealing qualities, if he ever had any.
"A little naivety is good," he answered lightly.
"It reeks of uncertainty. A sign of weakness."
Sendoh nodded, for Rukawa's sake rather than his own. "I never needed it from anyone either."
Sendoh smiled softly. "We were in a league of our own, weren't we? Rukawa?"
There it was...a reluctant, barely perceptible nod. A subtle display of pride and long-forgotten glory.
"I forgot to tell you this one thing, the last time we met?" Sendoh leaned forward and propped his elbows against his thighs. Rukawa only gazed at him questioningly.
"When I wished you luck playing for the All-Japan? I wanted to tell you that..." Sendoh's voice trailed off. "That you made me a better player."
Rukawa's gaze never faltered.
"You kept on pushing me. Challenging me. As if winning the game wasn't enough for you. But the thing is...it was always enough for me. Playing with you made me realize it wasn't. That was when you beat me. Rukawa."
"You were never satisfied. And I knew that once you were done with me, you'd do the same to the next guy you meet who you thought might be better than you."
Sendoh's eyes sparkled. "You were everyone's inspiration."
Rukawa's face drained of colour and his lips gave away the slightest quiver.
"Even yours?" He whispered.
Sendoh's beatific smile got even wider. "Everyone's."
Rukawa's pale hand reached up slowly to cover one side of his face, as if hiding something.
If Sendoh didn't know better, he'd think that Rukawa was embarrassed.
"It happened three years ago." His voice was shaking a little, but there was no mistaking the coldness in it that was Rukawa personified. Sendoh pursed his lips. He guessed he should just let Rukawa tell his story.
"We were playing against Korea. A friendly match. I gave it my all." Rukawa's eyes suddenly seemed so far away. "I always did, you know." He attempted a smirk but his trembling lips betrayed him.
"It was a netless dunk, the most perfect of its kind," he said, a little smile gracing his lips at the memory. Rukawa never smiled. He looked like an angel.
"Everyone was cheering, the crowd went wild-" Sendoh looked at him sharply.
"And there I stood, right under the net." Rukawa closed his eyes and sighed.
Sendoh waited. His heart was beating so fast he could feel it thumping against his ribcage.
"And suddenly there was this sound-the sound of something...someone ripping something off the wall. It was so loud I didn't even hear the screams. People were shouting at me... telling me to run... but I couldn't hear them."
Rukawa opened his eyes again. Empty.
But his next words belied his air of icy detachment.
"The backboard fell. On my neck."
And all Sendoh's hot young blood rushed to his face. And burned.
"And no, it doesn't hurt anymore. It stopped hurting once I stopped feeling m-my legs." Rukawa's chin wobbled.
But he remained strong.
Sendoh blinked his eyes furiously. An indescribable rush of emotions flooded over him-anger, grief, anxiety, and pain, all mingled together in an instantaneous, tumultuous rage.
"It's not fair," that was all he could think to say.
Rukawa shook his head. "It's...forgotten."
Sendoh cupped a hand over his mouth. His face was still burning, but a chill shot down his spine. For the first time in his life, he felt uncontrollably angry.
"Does anyone know?"
Rukawa shook his head again. "Anzai-sensei...he was the only one."
"Sou-ka?" In resignation, Sendoh leaned against the seat.
"I missed his funeral you know."
Sendoh nodded. "I was wondering why you didn't show up."
Rukawa's eyes watered. "They wouldn't let me. The surgery really messed me up."
Sendoh bowed his head as a deep, profound sadness overcame him.
Rukawa drew in a ragged breath. "I was invincible."
Abruptly, he doubled over at his waist and grabbed the shiny object protruding from under the chair Sendoh was sitting in.
Sendoh scrambled to his feet, standing up clumsily to give way. A large lump rose in his throat as he watched Rukawa disentangle the metal bars and adjust the wheels, assembling them all by himself deftly. In a split second, the wheelchair was set up and he was ready to go.
Rukawa knocked the brakes and was about to wheel himself out when he suddenly froze.
"Nani." Sendoh gazed down at him, refusing to kneel down even though he wanted so badly to. Rukawa's pride would never allow him to be pitied, especially by Sendoh. True enough, when the Ice Prince, the former ace of Shohoku looked up to him for the last time, his face was smug.
"Don't remember me this way."
"Remember how I was. How we were."
A single tear formed at the corner of Sendoh's eye. There was a gnawing pain in his heart, seeing Rukawa like this, but he fought to keep his smile sunny. As always. Like Rukawa, he too, wanted to remember the good things.
"We were gods."
A/N: This is my first SD fic. Please, feel free to comment. Cheers.