"Hey look! This looks like a good spot." 15-year old Kimiko called to her boyfriend and pointed at a bare area on the wall of Kawa, Shoyo Junior High's Math and Science building. She heard Fumio grunt, but she didn't see him swipe an arm over his wet forehead before adjusting the big, heavy rolled posters he was carrying. Kimiko stared at the wall as a painter would stare at a blank canvass and smiled. "What do you think, Fu-chan?"
"Ah, Kimiko, just get one already! My arms are killing me!"
"Oh! Sumimasen!" She hastily plucked one big roll of poster—Fumio bent down and placed the rest at his feet—and turned her attention back at the wall, her fingers beginning to peel the adhesive protection at one end. "Why don't you rest and I'll take care of this, okay?"
Fumio looked incredulous and half-hurt. "And miss the fun part? Are you kidding me?"
He got down on his knees with a playful smile now in place and waited for Kimiko to climb up on his shoulders, his head placed between her thighs. They're a short couple but Fumio was strong, and he was lucky to have a girl almost as weightless to him as Kimiko. He got up to his feet and walked towards the wall without wobbling back. Kimiko angled the poster in a perfect horizontal line before pressing the tacky side against it. Just then the school bell rang for recess, making Kimiko and Fumio turn then exchange glances. The area will be packed with students soon.
Quickly but carefully, they unroll, peel and press, revealing a picture of a silhouetted couple in a waltz pose under a spotlight. A Night to Remember was inscribed below it. Fumio smoothened out the lowest portion of the poster before helping Kimiko down. They both stood back and admired their very first post.
Students who began emerging from their classes would stop and look up to what the couple were eyeing about and they themselves were awed at the sudden emergence of this grand announcement. They gathered quickly into a throng, now chattering raucously about the upcoming high school dance night.
"Oh my God, so the rumors were true!"
"Hey, are you going?"
"Is this like a prom-thing in the States?"
"Oh wow! This is so exciting!"
"Attire is semiformal. Dang, better start looking for clothes."
"I wonder if my boyfriend would have the time to take me..."
Behind the throng, a basketball varsity player passed by casually, seemingly unaware of the commotion or the grand poster on the wall. He was looking straight ahead but his mind was drifting somewhere else.
Hanagata pushed his glasses up his nose then combed a hand through his hair. Since Fujima's near hostile and defensive feat at him during basketball practice two weeks ago, he began wondering what had been going on with Kenji's life outside of school that he was not telling them. How long has it been since he started working and seeing that girl anyway? A month or more? Almost three?
Toru made a mental whistle, impressed. That long, huh? He remembered that instance in the clinic when they saw Kenji in the middle of his proposal. They never mentioned anything about that to him, and oddly enough, Kenji never mentioned anything about that to them, as well, knowing that he should have. After all, he is the game; and everyone knows that being one meant that Kenji is compelled to tell his friends about his game progress.
Yeah, Toru smiled, he is the game in more ways than one.
Kenji became focused and driven in basketball, consequently shocking and inspiring and the rest of the team. He had become less severing to the freshmen and he even taught them some of his techniques. To the rest of the seniors, he seemed to be more reserved and amiable. He even began joshing with Captain Minamino during break time. Somehow, Kenji had evolved into this approachable, fun yet professional young basketball superstar one can only meet in their dreams. His best friend is now an icon to behold on court.
Off court, Kenji remained Kenji—friendly and flirty, and laughs a lot—yet he already displayed a certain air of distance to women. Toru began to notice the oddest thing with him: Kenji would keep his hands inside his pockets whenever he would be talking to women, whether she's their nasty, old Math teacher or Shoyo's bevy of hot and foxy cheerleaders. And the most surprising change of his stuck-up best friend was that he even stopped blabbering about his screeching fans at lunch time over dessert.
Hanagata's walk became a breezy stroll; he was smiling to himself at the sudden thought of the girl Yuri. Ten feet away, he spotted Fujima staring at something on the wall and (oddly enough) was also smiling with one hand on his chin, nodding, thinking, and then nodding again. Toru chuckled to himself. When was the last time he saw Fujima Kenji looking like some street mime actor? Never.
"Oi, Kenji!" He called and waived his right hand.
Fujima already had the dance party plan percolating in his mind. As he looked up at the grand poster on the wall, he began to picture himself as that man wearing a black tuxedo and his partner, the woman in the elegant, shimmering black dress, as Yuri. Oh, she would be the loveliest among the crowd! The party would be the perfect time and place for people to start noticing her the way she deserves to be noticed. Then his friends—what naïve blokes they are—would start seeing Yuri as someone who is more that just someone with thick braids, thick coke bottle glasses, menacing braces and likes carrying dictionary-thick books. She's smart, talented, and special, and nothing is more appealing to him now than to break the sham the world believes about Kenji Fujima and finally, finally, reveal to everyone a relationship he is more than proud of having.
"Oi, Kenji!" A male voice called out.
Fujima turned, smiled and waved back at his best friend. "Hey, Toru! Ohayo!"
"Well, well, well, aren't we all perked up this morning." Toru teased. "How's everything?"
Fujima adjusted the hold on his bag then shrugged. "Just fine."
"Ah." The taller man nodded. A cool breeze blew and Hanagata raised his face to meet it with calm delight. By the light of the midmorning sun, he looked refreshed and renewed. When he turned to look back at Kenji, his eyes were thoughtful. "How's your girl Yuri, by the way?" He finally asked.
"Huh?" Fujima blinked, and then his face relaxed to a sly, nonchalant smile. "What about her?"
Toru laughed aloud. "No, no, Kenji, you should be saying: 'Oh, she's fine. We're great! I planned on taking her to Ipanema's for lunch today. I think she likes clams.' Sheesh, what happened to your conversational skills?" he teased further.
Fujima ignored him and pointed at the something on the wall instead. "You going?"
Plastered on the wall was a poster with a picture of a couple in a waltz position. Below it was the inscription A Night to Remember. "Hmm…I just might." He said, looking at the couple's face and their triangular white smiles. "I'm not sure if I'll be able to bring a date with me, though."
His best friend snorted. "Well, you won't have any problems snagging one. C'mon." Though not as devastatingly handsome as Kenji, Hanagata Toru also has his share of admirers—both for his smooth basketball shooting style and for his quiet charm, giving any onlooker an impression of mystery and innate acumen. Fujima was walking towards the direction of the library building; Toru followed closely behind.
"Well maybe. We'll see." Fujima heard Hanagata continue. "How 'bout you? Planning to take her to the dance?"
The shorter man let out a crisp, mocking laugh. "Jeez, Toru, you know I won't bother taking Yuri to social events like that. It's not part of my game. Besides, I already have my eyes set on Riyuzaki Sakura. She's the hot thing today, you know."
Suddenly, Fujima felt a hard palm slap him on his behind, startling him. He stopped and turned to the man in glasses with astonished eyes. "T-Toru!"
Hanagata pushed his glasses up with the same hand that slapped Kenji and lingered there. "There's no need for you to be uptight about it now, buddy. " When his hand dropped to his side, he was smiling sincerely. "It's ok. Really. I'm happy for you."
"Toru…" Fujima stared at his best friend as another breeze blew past them. He had been wary not to fall into Hanagata's indirect questions of persuasion to get hints about him and Yuri. He had thought it best to keep him at bay with the rest of his friends but, judging from the understanding he clearly reads in Toru's eyes, any more attempts of going around the bush would be like outsmarting his own shadow.
The guilt in Kenji's face was unmistakable. He opened his mouth to apologize when Hanagata cut him off. "It doesn't matter, Kenji." Then he quickly put a hand up, "...and don't even ask me if you're that transparent. No, you're not. I just know you far better than your mother."
Fujima blinked for a second then laughed heartily. He looked at Toru with a smile on his face, recalling the things he had said to him earlier on. How foolish! How foolish he must've looked like still tying to lie to someone who can already see through him. And what a laugh! What a rare feat for him to do something utterly amusing yet unforgivably embarrassing in one day.
Fujima held a chuckle then put a hand over one side of his face, hiding his widened smile. "Jeez, Toru…"
It was now Hanagata's turn to laugh.
The peals of his best friend's laughter completely broke down his agitation and won his calm back for him. Kenji was very grateful about it. The burden of constantly hiding is heavy but he has to resign to carrying it now, now that he's with Toru, and what a great relief for him to put down the load, flex his tired hands and sip tea with company. At least for the time being.
"You're really perceptive. I guess there's no use hiding it now." He said quietly. "Domo."
Hanagata smiled and shrugged.
The two of them started walking in silence with an occasional word or two about school and basketball, but the topic awhile back was not brought up again.
Being in the area, and upon Hanagata's suggestion, Fujima agreed to go with him to the Research Library to study. It was a five-storey high edifice between the Arts and Science building and the gymnasium. Hanagata frequents the place before and after practices, and it had been a long time since his last visit along with Kenji. On their way up the long stretch of steps, they met Takano and Nagano who're on their way down.
"Oi!" The Takano-Nagano pair exclaimed.
"Yo." Hanagata smiled and made a mock salute. Kenji said nothing. He looked less than happy to see them.
"Hey, where're you two going?" Nakano asked.
"Ah, getting prepped up for Finals, eh?"
Hanagata shrugged. "Not really."
"I didn't expect we'll be seeing you guys here, of all places." Fujima started to say, his tone a little a testy and his eyes darting. "I didn't know that both of you are still that serious in studying to make your lives a little better. What happened? Sick of whining and doing nothing?"
The statement made Toru turn. "K-Kenji!"
"Hey, hey, Kenji, I don't think I like what you said." Nagano said
"What that hell are you talking about, man? We didn't come from the library. We just made a shortcut from the gym. Nagano and I just talked to some people about how to get some money before the dance party. We never thought we'd be going until our dates agree in the last minute." Takano said.
Fujima was silent for a moment. "Oh, I see. Well, good luck then." He swung his bag behind him and began to leave.
"You're going to the dance, too, right, Kenji?" Nagano asked innocently.
Takano snapped his fingers, remembering something. "That's it!" Then he hollered towards Fujima. "Oi, Kenji, have you managed to get that elusive guitarist to fall for you yet?"
Hanagata saw Kenji jerk, the statement halting him on his tracks. His best friend turned to look at Takano with threatening eyes. "Your voice, aho!"
Takano was laughing when he walked towards Fujima then hooked a strong arm around the shorter man's neck. "Got your attention, didn't I?"
Fujima's head was bent, concealing his eyes. "That's not funny, Shoichi."
"Sume, sume, I'm blowing your cover, demo," Then he perked up. "…it doesn't change the fact about out little bet, does it? So, how what's the status between you and Yuri? I saw the two of you getting all so close and mushy at the gym one day."
"Aw, c'mon! What do you mean 'not really'? Back then you had the face of a love-struck jock and she had the face of naïveté. No sign of Kenji, the player, I knew was there. It's terrible, okay! Just terrible! I'm losing money just seeing the two of you together!"
"I'm not obliged to tell you everything that is happening between us."
"Of course not and you don't have to. Who want to know that anyway?" He said. "What I'm more interested now, ol' buddy, ol' pal, ol' friend, is when she'll say 'no' and do us a big favor. The dance party is just around the corner and I've got to buy that new suit I saw on-line. I suggest you pay Nagano and I in advance. I honestly don't think she likes you that much."
"Oi, Shoichi," Toru said as he approached the two. "I suggest you stop pushing Kenji at a time like this since he wants to be sure of his win. No one wants to lose in this bet, and like you, he also has a goal to reach. He knows what he's doing so he's taking his time."
Takano withdrew his arm around Fujima. "Hmp. And I was expecting you to help me on this."
Hanagata sighed. "Look, I understand you're running out of cash and putting the pressure on Kenji and all but," he hanged his head on the side and eyed Takano with skepticism, his hand on his chin, "is it really true that you have acquired a date for the dance party?"
Takano jumped, losing his composure. "N-Nandato!"
"A-Acquired?" Nagano blinked.
Fujima was chuckling. "Toru, you made it sound like they just bought a new Barbie doll for a date."
"Urusai, kora!" Takano snapped at him then turned and pointed at Hanagata. "Oi, oi, oi, megane, just what the hell are you trying to say!"
Toru ignored him. "So, Mitsuru, who's your date for the party?"
"A-Anou…" Nagano began to blush, "Remember Yanagi of Block 3, right?" He was referring to the girl he'd been wanting to ask out for a long time. "Well, I finally got to ask her out."
Fujima and Toru's face lightened up. "Oh. Finally!"
"A-Arigato!" Nagano laughed timidly. "Demo, you won't believe who this baka snagged for the dance." He added, nudging Takano.
The two exchanged glances. "Who?"
Hanagata burst out laughing as Fujima gaped at Takano, looking as if he was the oddest person he has ever seen. "M-Miss Shoyo herself?"
"Wow! Just how much do you plan on paying her to spend several hours with you?" Hanagata teased.
"N-Nandato! Do you think I'm that ugly!"
The three immediately fell silent, making Takano more annoyed. He cleared his throat instead, trying to keep his infuriation in check. "No more tricks, Mr. Hotshot. I know you've asked Yuri out to the dance. Am I right?"
Fujima smiled. "Hai."
"Did she turn you down for the third time?"
"I hope she won't. I made it a point to invite her in a good mood."
"Ahaha! Losing your touch, I see!"
"Iie. She's just not the type who easily says 'yes' to anyone on a date." Fujima kept smiling, making Toru feel weird all over. "At any rate, it is nothing that I cannot accomplish." He eyed Takano smugly. "I still got what it takes. So you guys better start saving up."
"Oh, by the way, I'll be meeting her tomorrow for her answer. I'll be seeing both you and Mitsuru then at practice to get my advance payment."
Hanagata was struck at his words; Takano and Nagano seem unaffected. "Right. The last time you said that, she turned you down twice." Takano said dryly.
"Why don't you just admit defeat, Kenji?" Nagano said.
"You're asking the wrong man, Mitsuru. There's no thrill if a woman succumbs so easily. And you know what? Honestly, I like the challenge."
"I bet you do." Takano looked bored.
"I'll show you. She'll come to me, just like that." Fujima snapped his fingers for emphasis. "I'll be revealing the results of the bet at the dance party, and when that time comes, you and your pockets will weep."
Takano smirked. "I think it's you who's going to cry."
Fujima smirked, challenging Takano. "Pray hard for that day because it will never happen, Sho-ichi-kun." He said sarcastically. Takano was taken aback when he saw a certain glint in Kenji's eyes. "I told you before that I can make any girl fall for me. And Hajime Yuri," Fujima pointed at Takano, "Hajime Yuri is not that special to be exempted. She's all that, just like the rest of them."
A foot descended one rung from the top flight. "So, which one of you won the bet?"
Everyone turned to look at Hajime Yuri standing at the top of the stairs, looming over them with her glasses illuminating back the sun's harsh glow from outside. Kenji suddenly felt a gripping chill from the base to his feet up and began to see everything in black and white. His heart drummed wildly against his chest then constricted painfully as if immediately clasped by an iron hand. "Y-Yuri—!" Cold sweat was forming on his temples.
The four of them watched as Yuri began to step down further, making the now anxious Takano and Nagano move away as she neared them. Fujima wanted to ask how long she had been standing there and how much she had heard but seeing the unreadable expression on her face, he didn't have to. She knew everything.
Upon reaching the last step, Yuri spoke. "I'm afraid I won't be around at the dance party to find out for myself." She said quietly, then turned her bronze lackluster eyes on Fujima. "…but I bet it was you. Right?"
Hanagata moved forward. "Yuri, no. It's not what you think. He—"
With that she stepped forward and walked passed Fujima, her chin high and her eyes staring straight at the library walls. Kenji didn't move as Takano, Nagano, and Hanagata watched her back in stunned silence.
Note: The reason why this was angst in the first place. Anyway, patience is a virtue and well appreciated. One more thing, Slam Dunk is not mine.