With Every Shot


The ring in the Shohoku basketball gym shook as one raven-haired freshman made one last dunk. Oh, how he loved it. How he loved it when he slams the ball hard onto the ring, it goes perfectly right through that piece of meshwork, and the only sounds that he hear, the only sounds that matter, are that of the ring shaking for all its worth and the ball bouncing until it finally decides to stop.

For him, slam dunk is the capstone of basketball. Nothing can ever beat the rush it can make him feel, the sense of triumph seemingly at the palm of his hands, the happiness it conveys that he thinks is altogether too impossible to experience. To perform a slam dunk is priceless, not for the resounding cheers of the crowd, the raw fear it places on the faces of his opponents, but for the intensity of the act itself. For Rukawa Kaede, indisputably the best rookie of the Shohoku basketball team, rightfully in the top three in the prefecture of Kanagawa, among the crème de la crème of all the players in the whole of Japan, a slam dunk is sacred.

He was shaken out of his musings when he heard the locker room door open, revealing a freshly showered Mitsui Hisashi. For a moment, it seemed as if the older player was about to embark on another verbal onslaught toward Rukawa, which he seemed to have a predilection for, with his juniors being his favorite targets. And so it surprised the younger guy when his senior simply sat on one of the benches, a pensive look on his face.

"It's not enough, is it?"

Well, that was definitely more staggering.

"You play, you practice to the point of utter exhaustion, you get in a hundred thousand shots, and yet it's never enough. It's like the more you get your hands on this orange thing, the more it drives you to perfect every shot, improve your form, hone every goddamn skill there is that has something to do with this," Mitsui spoke as he got up to pick a basketball and twirl it on his forefinger.

Rukawa was caught offhand. For the likes of his senior, that was almost philosophical. How out of character, he thought, smirking inwardly. But then, the statement. Totally unexpected, but there it was. His unspoken feelings spewed out of the mouth of his teammate. He knew, he knew just how true that was because that's exactly what he tells himself every time he gets in this court and starts to practice. Every time he gets out there and plays this game with all the strength and heart that he can muster.

But how was he supposed to respond to that? My thoughts, exactly, sempai, he wanted to reply, but then he was Rukawa so he settled with the best response that he can give.

"Hn."

Mitsui gave him a small smile. "You bastard, don't strain yourself; I'm not hoping for a syllable. I just said it because the moment was there. And you were there. Worn out but by the looks of it, kept playing. And it's the truth anyway so don't even try denying it to yourself. But hey, part of playing is keeping up your energy, not depleting it, so get your bloated ass out of here already, punk. I'm leaving; don't forget the lights," Mitsui finished as he dropped the ball and began advancing to the door.

Punk?! Who was he calling punk?! He was not the one who lost some of his front teeth in his own little gangster world, all the while wrapped up in bitterness over basketball! Besides, he's good. Basketball is his game; that's a given. He's better than most players, better than this former MVP who probably thinks that returning has licensed him to throw around denigrating words at the likes of him, Rukawa Kaede, and someday he's going to be the best. And at least he didn't have to use dentures. Oh, his senior has some nerve calling him punk.

He turned around to hurl his usual scathing reply, which mostly only merited Sakuragi, but this time, very much deserved by his teammate who was about to leave.

"Why did you turn your back on it?"

What?! That wasn't right; that wasn't what he was supposed to say!

"Excuse me?" Mitsui turned to stare at him, his eyebrows furrowed.

I was going to say do'aho, but I guess I changed my mind because I'd much rather talk about your dramatic past with basketball, he thought sullenly. Rukawa was not used to this kind of things. This was talking. But he had to admit, the story of his senior's terribly colorful past was something he would not mind hearing. He knew bits and scraps, mostly courtesy of the teasing of Miyagi and Sakuragi, but he never really got to learning the whole of it. Well, Mitsui probably spilled everything already when he decided to make a theatrical comeback to the team, but he wouldn't know that now as he was out cold then, would he? Nevertheless, whatever happened to his teammate after Junior High? Mitsui was on the top of his game back then, wasn't he? He knew because the guy was a name in itself; he wasn't MVP for nothing. Apart from that, someone who just echoed his thoughts about playing could have at least had a heart for it. So why did Mitsui suddenly abandon basketball?

The older player cleared his throat. "I thought I heard you speak. Ask me a question, actually. Can't tell you how much of an honor it is to be the first to discover that you talk, but some of us normal beings have other things to attend to, so if you're just testing out your new skill, I'm taking off. I'll write it down on my diary if it makes you feel special." Mitsui had his hand on the door, all posed to go out, except there was one thing: he wasn't leaving.

Of course, Rukawa thought. Not after a question like that. He looked his senior in the eye. "If it could never be enough, why did you leave it?"

That was the bomb. He just dropped it.

The size of Mitsui's eyes doubled, his jaw dropped ungracefully, his hand left the doorknob. If it wasn't under the same circumstances, Rukawa would've considered his senior a bad Halloween costume.

A full minute passed, with not one of them uttering a word. Rukawa's eyes were fixed on his senior, taunting, challenging, daring the other to prove that those weren't just empty words. That they meant as much for himself, as in playing in general.

Finally, Mitsui started showing signs of movement. For a moment, Rukawa thought his teammate was going to punch him. To his surprise, the famed three-pointer began to speak. "That's not something you have the right to know, Rukawa, but I'll give you this. Basketball means as much to me as it means to you, maybe even more. So don't challenge me like I have a point to prove because I don't, not to you." Mitsui's face was straight, and his lips were set in a thin line.

"You said the words. To me. You owe me at least why." It was coming out of his mouth faster than he could think about it. If his senior was going to hit him for it, he didn't care. Those thoughts, those feelings were his. He couldn't just allow anyone to play with the words insincerely.

Mitsui began walking back toward him.

"I thought I had no choice." The former MVP slumped down on another of the benches.

He was just getting ready to defend himself, wasn't he?

The other sighed. "You have your point. And you're getting possessive over feelings, you shithead, and it's not like it's an actual secret. So you get it alright, I thought I had no choice. Any more questions or do I have to be your dummy for a few more minutes as you get the hang of conversing?"

Situations like this, and his teammate can still manage to be infuriatingly cocky. Perhaps he should just be the one to throw a punch in himself. Except this time it sort of seemed like a mere defense mechanism, and that announcement just spoke volumes. No choice? Why did his senior have to make a choice to begin with? And if there was a no choice, it was only no choice but to play basketball, not no choice but to leave it. Right? This was basketball.

"Why?" He found himself asking. He was already prying, he could tell, which was so un-Rukawa, but he could not just stop, not right now.

To his utter incredulity, Mitsui suddenly seemed to lose all his reservations for his infamous past.

The former MVP told everything starting with the injury.

"…and suddenly I was not the best anymore because I couldn't. Not because someone beat me to it, but because I just lost all the capabilities to become it. You understand, I hope, the notion of best or not at all." The older player looked at him expectantly.

Yes, yes, I do, and very much so, Rukawa wanted to say. Because he did. Which was why he would not stop practicing, if only to prove to himself that if basketball would be the only thing that was his, then he would damn well be the master of it.

He gave a semi-semblance of a nod.

Mitsui rolled his eyes. "So there, that's where the 'no choice' part comes in. I left and went on my merry way because there was no other option for me. I met Tetsuo and the gang; I found solace in them. With them, I thought I regained the power I had when I played, even the strength that only basketball gave, which was true, come to think of it. I was feared. Except there was a difference, because with the gang, I take that power by beating the hell out of people, but with basketball, I earn it. The respect, the power, the strength, I earned them all by playing."

"But then you didn't have them anymore because you abandoned it to begin with," he couldn't stop himself from saying. It was almost unbelievable how this guy who had just declared that there could never be enough of basketball just left it because he could not control it anymore. He understood the need of being the best, but to separate yourself entirely from basketball and just give up completely? That was purely delusional, and a complete betrayal of the sport itself that supposedly held a lot of meaning.

"Oh right, for a moment there I thought I was boring you already considering you wouldn't speak. For listening intently, I'll treat you a cookie, I think," Mitsui snarled at him. "I know what I did, alright? I had a choice, I made it, it was not the best one. But I did fight my way back here, didn't I? Literally."

Rukawa almost scoffed at that. However, the unanswered question hung heavily between the two of them. What about being the best?

"Every time I hold a ball, I don't own it; it owns me."

How many times did his senior intend to surprise him today? It was not the answer Rukawa was expecting, and what Mitsui just said has never been his perspective, but he had to admit, it made sense. Just how much control do you really have over basketball? You hold the ball, you think of the strategies, you make all the moves, but what makes you do it? For Rukawa himself, basketball is his one constant reminder that he's capable of emotions. Playing is the only thing that pushes his capacity for feeling to the point of excitement, passion, and even anger all in just one game. Maybe, in a different light, his senior was right.

"You become the best in a field, in a game, but this is a way of life, Rukawa, basketball. Maybe I share the sentiment with you, maybe you only see it as a matter of winning, but that's what I realized when I left, when Anzai-sensei gave me another chance. And besides, hate to break it to you, dude, but maybe I just need to make up for lost time, and that throne still belongs to me." Mitsui finished haughtily.

When your teeth grow back, Rukawa retorted mutely. In a way, though, what his senior has said not only proved the sincerity of his love for basketball, but impressed him with his teammate's perception of it. The former MVP may have turned his back on this, but he came back understanding it, perhaps even more than most of them members of the team combined.

Sometimes he, Rukawa Kaede, wondered what his life would be without basketball. He imagined doing something else, like judo, but most of the time he just ended up falling asleep because who cares, really? He has basketball, and there would be bloodshed and his death and he would still not be about to trade it with anything else.

"Are you quite done with silently rejoicing over the fact that you just had an actual conversation, and with me, no less? Because I rather fancy staying on the team by doing my Physics homework, you know, and if you're going to hang around here savoring our little chitchat some more, I'm afraid I'm going to have to leave you to it," Mitsui exclaimed, walking towards the door once more, this time seemingly with every intent to leave.

"Sempai."

"What? Storytelling's over; go find someone else with soap opera material."

"Thank you."

A pregnant pause.

"The lights, moron. Turn them off before you leave." If he wasn't simply imagining things, he was almost certain a smile was tugging at Mitsui's lips before the other finally slammed the door of the gym close.

Yes, basketball is a way of life. It's their way of life.

For every jump ball, there is a will to get up every morning and survive the day. For every rebound, there is a sense of strength that drives you to fight harder, aim higher, because you know you can get better than this. For every three pointer, there is hope for untold, distant dreams, that nothing is too far to grasp. For every slam dunk, there is power to overcome every fear, every obstacle.

For every game of basketball lost and won, there is an existence felt, a life lived.

FIN


A/N: For the errors about the canon parts, my apologies. Thanks for reading. :)