Hello, it's my first time in the Slam Dunk section (although I have been a huge fan of the series for a long time). Constructive criticism is welcome so I look forward to feedback :)
Kogure is the first to notice.
There's a new glow in those tepid blue eyes. Reignited embers much? However, this is a different fire as compared to the one consuming his team-mate when he's on the court, dimpled spheroid springing to and from his roughened hands. There is a different light in his friend's face as he inhales the fresh crisp evening air once they step out from the neon glare of the gym. He is content, Kogure can tell. Beads of sweat dot his face and arms, the smile etched on his lips is genuine.
And somehow, Kogure isn't quite sure that it's from the earlier practice.
"You played well today."
Ah, there it is. The nonchalance in his tone gives it away. This time, Kogure is sure that three-pointers and defense tactics are the furthest thing away from the shooting guard's mind.
"Mitsui, did you enjoy practice today?"
"Oh yes, very much." He practically hums.
"Anything in particular?"
Kogure clears his throat. "I mean… was there anything in particular that you enjoyed? Most?"
The other player contemplates for a seconds. Kogure awaits an answer patiently.
"Hmm… yeah. When Sakuragi was in the middle of his 'Tensai Returns' sermon and then ended up passing the ball to the opposite team instead. Thanks to him, we won."
"Is that so? Akagi wouldn't have been pleased. Good thing he wasn't there."
"Cocky bastard, serves him right." Despite his words, Mitsui grins and deals the bespectacled boy a sympathetic glare. "And you mean, pity that he wasn't there. I don't get why you two quit the team just because a… a…"
"A university acceptance letter has more control over our futures than an invitation from one of their teams?"
"Well, if it helps, Akagi and I are always on hand for advice." Kogure means every word he says. "I mean it, especially."
"Of course. I knew that."
Mitsui is a hard nut to crack even at the best of times but Kogure perseveres anyway. "It's a nice night, isn't it? There's even a full moon tonight."
"Hm." He remains tight-lipped for the moment.
"I sometimes envy our juniors on nights like these. It's Saturday so they must have plans while we have so many things on our plates for now. It must be nice to be free to roam about town and talk about girlfriends and the like…"
Kogure trails off on purpose.
"You want a girlfriend, Kogure?"
And Mitsui still doesn't get the point.
"No, no, not right now." He blusters, cheeks reddening and glasses slipping down the bridge of his nose. "Uh, do you want one? If I may ask?"
Blue eyes blink in confusion, relax and then twinkle knowingly. "Nah, I don't think so. Have to keep my focus on the winter games. It's not like I'm like you or Akagi to get into college on grades alone."
Mitsui stretches out and yawns. "Don't have time for things like women."
Kogure finally gives up.
Youhei is the second to notice.
He isn't sure what it is at first. Perhaps it has to do with the newfound glory that Shohoku's basketball club can boast of. Why, even the archery, tennis and long-suffering Judo club have something to complain about with the lack of publicity for their own successes.
Hanamichi's return from rehabilitation had sparked such a frenzy amongst the media club that the entrance to their homeroom class had had to be literally roped off in order to keep the paparazzi from disrupting the day's schedule. Not that the red-haired self-proclaimed 'genius' loved soaking up the much-awaited attention either. The guntai, as a whole, rejoiced over their friend's happiness. Sakuragi Hanamichi was nothing if not a walking element of surprise. Rumor had it that he was set to be next in line for the vice-captain position after Mitsui graduated. That is, if he could surpass Rukawa's ambition on the court.
Gossip-mongers aside, the basketball club and its members were the subject of many an article in the Shohoku Shimbun. Youhei's personal favorite had to be the issue carrying that highly unflattering picture of Hanamichi on its front cover. The one in which he head-butted the camera when the unfortunate person behind it decided that the brooding silent form of Rukawa Kaede warranted more attention than 'Shohoku's Savior, The Tensai Sakuragi!'.
Lunch period is a mob-scene, for lack of better metaphors. The Inter-High stars are showered with lavish praises ranging from the sincere ("We'll sure miss seeing the famous Gorilla Dunk in future games, Akagi-san") to the absolutely ludicrous ("I've never really noticed but Ryota-kun looks so cute in person! Maybe it's the height?").
And yet, as he watches from afar, Youhei still isn't sure what strikes him.
It is definitely not something which irks or even bothers him in the slightest. He just finds something unusual. The team seems to be handling the attention well. Childish banter and jokes at each other's expense flowed and bounced off them like raindrops over concrete. Nothing seemed to be missing…
"Don't you worry!" Nearby, Hanamichi assures a startled classmate of his. "With this tensai leading the team, you can be certain that this year's victory is safe – "
"Who said anything about you leading?" Ryota interjects indignantly.
"Oh yes! I forgot that they made Ryo-chin captain this term. But how is everyone supposed to look up to you when they have to bend down to hear what you're saying? Nyahahahaha…"
"Baka! No wonder you weren't elected captain."
"WHAT?!" On noticing Akagi Haruko entering, Hanamichi immediately lowers his tone. "What do you mean?!"
"Because you're a dumbass." Both Rukawa and Mitsui reply before giving each other a surprised sidelong glance.
Jeers and catcalls begin to ring out as four pairs of fists begin to fly in all directions. Next to Youhei, Takamiya nudges him slyly, "Shall we prepare the bets?"
However, a swift paper fan cuts in from nowhere and fells all four trouble-makers.
Youhei finally gets it.
Haruko is the third to notice.
And to think that it had all started with a bout of dreaded 'girl talk'.
She's in her usual corner in the gym, supposed to be supervising today's practice with Ayako-san. Fujii and Matsui have tagged along, for want of anything better to do than Physics homework. It has been a month already and she is still trying to get to grips with things. Including Shohoku's spectacular performance at the Inter-Highs, Sakuragi's metamorphosis into a player worthy of the spotlight (although it would take a while for certain other team-mates to accept the fact) and of course, her induction as co-manageress of the team.
Fujii takes a break from examining her nails to speak up. "Rukawa's in good form today, isn't he?"
Haruko winces inwardly at the looks she is beginning to receive. "Y-yes, training with the national team has done wonders. Not that he was worse before but… you know…"
"Yeah, Haruko, we know." Ayako winks and the rest of them giggle.
She immediately changes the subject.
"Miyagi's popularity has grown ever since his performance against Toyotama and Sannoh. Ayako-san must be really proud of him."
Ayako-san nods with a wry smile. "I'm not letting him get too confident, captain or not. The winter tournament is no less competitive and the last thing Shohoku needs is to show that they're nothing but a flash in the pan."
"Does that mean you still won't go out with him?"
This time, she sighs. "No. We're good friends."
"I think that's the way it should be."
A pang of sympathy echoes in Haruko's heart for Miyagi. After all, to have feelings for someone who didn't reciprocate them was indeed a most painful ordeal. She feels Matsui-chan's hand on her shoulder as comfort.
"Plenty of fish in the sea, Haruko."
"Yeah. You're a nice girl with a cute face. Guys everywhere would line up to get on your good side." Fujii chips in her two cents as she eyes potential candidates on the court. "Say, who agrees with me that Mitsui-sempai looks totally shaggable when he's all sweaty and sleeveless?"
"What, Matsui? Weren't you the one who mentioned it the other day?"
"Shush, shush!" The short-haired girl clamps a hand to her mouth, no doubt suppressing giggles of approval as the third year in question runs past them after a stray ball.
Haruko watches and wonders as Ayako's cheeks take on a dark pink hue. As if she feels her staring, the older girl starts to pace with an air of exaggerated composure, smacking her beloved paper fan against her palm and barking out orders to a distracted Sakuragi.
"Are you okay, Ayako-san?"
"Fine, fine, what are you talking about?"
However, her attempted performance as the epitome of calmness is shattered once a certain ex-gangster brushes past her. The redness extends to her chin as well as the back of her neck and a stammer creeps into her normally level voice.
Suddenly, Haruko realizes.
Rukawa is the fourth to notice.
Not that he cares anyway.
The first day he's back from the training camp, everyone on the team rushes to greet him and inquire about his experiences. He nods his head, shakes it or answers in monosyllables, depending on the question asked. Practice proceeds as normal, thankfully without Sakuragi's snide remarks since the redhead is so concentrated on catching up. Akagi Haruko wishes him 'good afternoon' but he barely notices as usual.
After practice, he washes up, overhears Ayako advising Mitsui on study habits, and then rides home on his bike.
On the second day, Sakuragi challenges him to another one-on-one which he refuses for the sake of 'not degrading himself by winning against a handicapped person'. This results in the redhead's temper flaring up, a few punches thrown in for good measure and both of them ending up on the wrong end of their team manageress' temper. Sakuragi scowls, Rukawa shrugs.
After practice, he washes up and overhears Mitsui advising Ayako on skirt lengths. As he shuts his locker, he hears a muffled 'thump!' and a familiar groan of pain.
The third morning, he gets up from bed (with much difficulty as expected), brushes his teeth, gets dressed and leaves just before his mother runs out the doorway calling out to him about forgetting to eat breakfast again. On the way to school, he dozes off on his bike at least four times, hits a lamp-post and almost runs over a stray dog. When he does reach his destination, he prepares to switch into automatic 'don't-give-a-damn-about-anything' mode when a particular scene catches his eye.
Ayako and Mitsui are sitting on a bench close to the gym, deep in conversation. Serious conversation, from the looks of it. He notes how Mitsui makes several attempts to place a hand somewhere on Ayako's person, either on the shoulder or her bare hand resting on the old wood but instead ends up running it through his hair. Surprisingly, the usually observant Aya-chan hasn't even noticed.
As soon as they catch sight of him staring, they both start spluttering like goldfish on dry land. With reddening cheeks, they literally jump up from their positions to wish him a completely unnaturally perky 'Good morning!'. He clicks his tongue and moves on.
After school, practice goes on as usual. Mitsui plays well and is able to block all of Sakuragi's shots, much to the latter's immense irritation. Haruko asks Rukawa how his day went and he replies "So so."
In the locker room, Sakuragi lambasts Mitsui for 'unfairly charging him', Yasuda for 'allowing that kitsune to score twice' and Miyagi for telling him off in front of Haruko-san. As is routine by now, everyone ignores his rants and continues with their own personal business. That is, until the first spray of water hits Mitsui in the eye and retaliates by flinging a towel at the offending Sakuragi.
Ayako has already left for home.
Rukawa isn't surprised at all.
Miyagi is the fifth to notice.
It has been a niggling fact at the back of his mind. Ayako was a beautiful girl with lots of other attractive qualities that made her all the more irresistible to guys. Cute smile, a sharp tongue and mind, always so kind and supportive of 'her boys' as she'd come to refer to the team as.
Of course he loved his Aya-chan. How could anyone not?
How could anyone not?
Perhaps that in itself is the main problem.
The sting of rejection hurts like no another. Except the sting of being rejected twice.
"I'm sorry, Ryota."
She means it, he knows. Ayako wasn't the type to mince her words and then spit them out one just for the hell of it. No, Ayako could never play with a man's heart like he could play a basketball in a heated game.
"We'll still be friends, right?"
But of course.
Right now, he has a new championship to focus on and a new team to lead. Playing against the likes of Maki Shinichi and Sendoh Akira gave him a new sense of self-respect. Success apparently magnifies stature to others. Perhaps he doesn't need a few centimeters or a pretty girl on his arm to feel as tall as his peers.
'Perhaps'. Perhaps is the question.
He refuses a confrontation, although Kogure sees one coming. Isn't winning and losing all part of the game? It isn't about him losing, it's about how well he can take it and learn from the experience. Then again, is love worthy of being called a game when there weren't any rules or regulations to define it? After all, when in love, all you do is play the game, rarely caring about the consequences.
The ball in his position bounces in sync with his heartbeat.
Bruised, not broken. Yet.
Surely, he's a lot tougher than that.
The whistle thrills sharply, signaling the end of a practice match. Sweat streams from every pore on his skin, his breathing deep and heavy. The only person with enough energy (or gall) left to prance around was Sakuragi and Ryota is in no mood to silence him. Actually, the noise blocks out the sound of his own thoughts rattling his head so it isn't that bad. Sort of.
But he doesn't want to give up this soon. Not yet.
Outisde the gym, Mitsui awaits him. Ryota remembers that it has only been a couple of months since they last exchanged blows. It had been right here in fact, where he'd first met Sakuragi and had mistaken the freshman for Ayako's boyfriend.
"Hey, I heard about – "
"Nah, it's okay." Ryota hears himself speaking before the other can finish.
"Ah…" The former MVP looks down, examining the pair of worn-out shoes on his feet. "Still, sorry you had to find out like that. Through the grapevine and all."
"Ayako actually told me too."
A surge of energy springing in his heels, he adds one more thing before taking his leave.
"It's still my era." Keeping his left hand clenched in his pocket, he lifts the other and presses a finger to his vice-captain's chest with a smirk. "Remember that."
Mitsui smiles in return.