Disclaimer: I don't own Slam Dunk. I love it love it love it though.

Persistence of a Lost Cause

She glanced over at the undersized brown-haired point guard sitting on the gym floor leaning against the bench, and her wide, good-humoured eyes twinkled. Although he was taking a break on the sidelines, he was clearly still involved in the action – his back was straight, his hands gripping his knees as he tilted his head forward, face lined with focus, eyes flickering this way and that as he followed the ball's progress.

She made her way over to him, crouching down to give his shoulder a firm tap with the water bottle in her hand. He started from his concentrated daze, blinking as he turned to face her. She smiled at him, dangling the water in front of his nose. "Thirsty, Ryota?"

Still surprised, he accepted the bottle. "Uh, yeah. Thanks, Aya-chan." She nodded amiably, settling down on the bench beside him.

She could clearly remember how she'd cringed away from him in their first year, resenting his ostentatious attention, equal parts annoyed and embarrassed by his little nickname for her. But at the same time, that period somehow seemed unbelievable now; somewhere along the line, he'd matured and perhaps she had too. Now they were friends – even good friends, even confidantes. She kind of liked that "Aya-chan" of his; he wasn't teasing her, he was showing real affection for her with it, after all. He would always be a natural troublemaker, of course. But lately, she felt as if she'd been seeing more and more of his good qualities, and with each one she discovered, she found herself pleasantly surprised yet also deeply satisfied, as if she'd known he had those qualities forever and was just pleased to see them surface.

Maybe, she thought with a smile, she'd liked him all along.

The practice scrimmage ended, the rest of the boys surging off the court to grab drinks and wipe away their perspiration. Ryota didn't move, relaxing slightly and taking a long draught of his water. Ayako watched that pronounced Adam's apple bob in his throat, the muscles in his hard jaw moving, and she was suddenly struck by how much he'd grown physically. Not in terms of height – she didn't think he'd even gained a centimetre there since she'd first come to know him – but in other, more important ways. Again she realized how difficult it was to compare this Ryota to the one she'd known last year.

A bit discomfited by this new perspective on Ryota, she distracted herself by impulsively grasping a towel and draping it over his sweat-soaked head, rubbing hard into his scalp. He jumped and tried to jerk away.

"Argh! Aya-chan, what are you doing? Stop it – mmff!" He got a mouthful of towel, and she laughed merrily. He shook her off, reaching up to gingerly poke at his tousled hair, letting out a mournful cry of, "Aya-chan, my haaaiir!"

"But it looks adorable now, Ryota," she consoled him, the mirth still plain in her voice. It was true; those tight damp curls straying all over his forehead produced a youthful, boyish effect. Ryota was no stud no matter how hard he tried; but he could, on occasion, be cute.

He stopped wailing as he registered what she'd said, giving her that yearning puppy-dog expression. "Adorable, Aya-chan? What else about me do you think is adorable?"

Ayako rolled her eyes, whacking him unceremoniously with her rolled-up newspaper before he got out of hand. "You're hopeless." She'd gotten used to his ungraceful appeals, but the vestiges of discomfort at continually rejecting him remained, today stronger than usual. Sometimes she wondered if her making a joke out of it hurt him, and wished there was some other way.

"Hey, Aya-chan?" Ryota said wistfully at length. "Do you think he'll ever get her?"

Puzzled, she followed his gaze over to the corner of the gym where Sakuragi, enthusiastic as always, was attempting to chat up Haruko, oblivious as always. No surprises there.

She thought about it. "It's hard to say. Sakuragi never gives up, though, does he? He gets points for persistence, at least." Then she grimaced, realizing how a statement like that might be interpreted by Ryota.

"But she doesn't even notice," Ryota murmured. He glanced up at her. "I mean, you know that I'm in love with you, don't you, Aya-chan?"

"W-well, yes," she replied, appalled to find herself actually blushing, "but that's because you've shouted it from every rooftop in town!"

"Yeah," Ryota admitted shamelessly, "and he hasn't?"

"Point taken."

Encouraged by Ryota's queries, Ayako took the opportunity to get a closer look at Haruko and Sakuragi. It was hard to imagine Sakuragi having a serious relationship with anyone, given his countless eccentric tendencies – but then again, he'd achieved a serious relationship with basketball when no one had thought he would. And Haruko was quite eccentric in her own way, although disarmingly ordinary in others. They might actually complement each other in some bizarre manner.

"Haruko is definitely clueless," Ayako began slowly, twirling a long curl around her finger, "but she's also probably not seeing what she doesn't want to see. After all, she doesn't like Sakuragi that way – she's not even over Rukawa."

"She likes Rukawa?" Ryota looked flabbergasted. "What? Him? Why??" Clearly, he thought Rukawa as unlikely a candidate for romance as Sakuragi. Ayako couldn't really disagree with that.

"Honestly, boys," she sighed. "Just when you start to think they might be even a little bit observant, they prove once again that they're completely blind. Of course Haruko likes Rukawa. It's beyond obvious."

"Well, how am I supposed to notice anything about her when I'm always looking at you?!" Ryota whined, injured. Sometimes Ayako thought that he simply didn't understand the mortifying nature of his own phrasing.

"It's not just her, Ryota. Haven't you noticed that Rukawa's pretty popular in general around here? The girls are lining up for him."

"But why?" Ryota couldn't wrap his mind around it. "He barely talks or smiles. And he sleeps all the time!"

She hid a smile. "I don't think they're exactly after his personality."

"Still, it's not like he's that -," Ryota broke off abruptly, swivelling around entirely and pulling himself up onto the bench next to her. "Hey! Wait! No! You're not in love with him, are you, Aya-chan?!"

She laughed outright. "Absolutely not! I like Rukawa, and he's certainly interesting, but he's not my type at all."

He exhaled in relief before latching on to another topic. "Oh, you have a type, Aya-chan? What is it?"

"As if I'd tell you that!" she denied him playfully.

"Please? Please, please, please?"

Amused at his begging, she relented. "Well, if you really want to know, I don't have a specific type yet. I figure I'll just play it by ear – decide when I find someone I really like."

Ryota looked depressed, his face falling. He dropped his chin into his hands, pouting. "That's ho help, Aya-chan. What do I have to do to get you?"

A bit taken aback by the straightforward way he'd asked her, her default reflex was to evade it with a touch of stern humour. "Well, you can start by getting back out there on the court! Break's over. No slackers allowed in Shohoku!"

He rose dejectedly, and she felt somewhat guilty. He was a tough guy when in a game, but he always laid himself raw and open to her, and she bruised him every time. She stood up as well, reaching up to brush the mussed curls back off his brow with her palm.

"Get out there and show me what you've got to offer, Number One Point Guard!" she exclaimed buoyantly, briefly taking his face between her hands and slapping both of his cheeks lightly.

His eyes lit up, and it was a sight to see – a sight she loved to see. She liked Ryota at his best, and basketball never failed to push him to his limits. He grinned at her. "Just watch me, Aya-chan!" Then, in the space of a moment, he took advantage and leaned in to boldly press a kiss against her forehead, his lips grazing a curl poking out from under the brim of her backwards baseball cap.

By the time she'd pulled herself together, shocked and flushed, he was out of newspaper-hitting range. She put her hands on her hips imposingly, but failed to maintain any sort of indignation. After all, what she needed was a man who wasn't afraid to take risks to get what he wanted. Even if he was overly dramatic, loud and a troublemaker to boot.

She glanced over at Haruko, who was watching Sakuragi go with a mild splash of pink over her cheekbones and just maybe something in her innocent gaze that hadn't been there before.

Ayako smiled. There's always a chance.