Disclaimer:  Slam Dunk and its characters do not belong to me.  Please do not sue me, I am rather destitute _. 

Thank you for reading.

iron kitty

            He heard the bells of the clock tower toll the hour as he shot a three-pointer.  Swish.  Nothing but net.

            He wiped the sweat off his brow with the sleeve of his shirt.  In the distance the last ring of the bells resonated in his ears and filled the empty gymnasium.

            Seven o'clock.

            Ever since he began studying in college, his mornings always started with early basketball practice at six.  It was a habit he couldn't shake off since high school, a way to start his day that always left him satisfied.

            And tired.  He retrieved his basketball and sank into a chair on the sidelines.  Digging through his gym bag, he tossed a towel over his head and leaned back, catching his breath.  He especially liked this part of the workout, staring off into space.  Not one thought crossed his mind.  He took in the stillness of the court and absorbed it until at last his breathing was soft and even.  He quietly reveled at the fact that he was the only occupant of this gym, even if it was only for an hour.  There were no others.  No movement, just the droning sound of the air conditioning fan, the sound of his breathing, and the faint thud of a ball hitting the wooden floor. 

            // What?  Where's that coming from? //

            He looked around he gym and saw no one else inside.  He shook his head, thinking his ears were playing tricks on him.

            He heard it again.

            Curious, he got up and flowed the sound through the double doors of the gymnasium.  No one was in the hallways.  Another pair of doors immediately in front of the ones through which he came were locked, leading him to think that no one was in the annex gym.  He waited another second for the soft thud to come back, hearing none he started to walk away.


            Turning his head, he began to hear the sounds in sequence, louder this time.  He hurried to the next corner where the front entrance was.  These doors had rectangular windows above the handles that allowed him to see just what was going on.

            In the middle of the gym stood a volleyball net, a rack of volleyballs and a mechanical device that tossed volleyballs one by one to the outer end of the net.  He followed the trajectory of the ball and was surprised to see a girl jump up in the air to hit the ball over the net with such force, it bounced back up so high off the floor.  He stood in awe as he watched her return to her starting place and perform the same feat over and over again.  She must have a 120-centimeter vertical jump, and she couldn't be taller than 165.

            "She's wonderful, isn't she?"

            Mitsui turned around to find the coach of the college's volleyball team smiling at him.  He walked tot his side and watched along with him through the rectangular windows.

            "Good morning, Sato-sensei."  His eyes returned to the spectacle before them.  "She's awfully good.  How come I've never seen her practice with your team before?"
            "That's because she isn't on the team."  Mitsui heard the coach sigh, almost in despair.  "You don't know how many times I've asked her to join.  With a powerful hit and a vertical jump like that, we'd win every game."
            "Does she go to this school?"

            "You'd think so, she comes here almost every morning.  But no, I don't think so."

            "Don't you have to be a student to use the gym?"

            "Yeah, but for her the college made an exemption."

            They watched her some more.  In almost a whisper, the coach remarked, "Watch the look on her face every time she hits the ball."
            She returned to the line and prepared for the next ball.  When it reached its peak in the air, she ran a couple of steps and jumped, her body soared in the air, almost like she jumped on springs.  With godlike speed she hit the ball down the line of the opposite court, landing gracefully on her feet.

            She was smiling.

            Mitsui blinked.  She's been running and jumping for who knows how long, her efforts evident in her shirt drenched in sweat, and her chest heaved up and down for air.  She must be tired.

            "That face you just saw, it is unique among champions," coach Sato said.  "That smile, that attitude she has, that is what makes her a winner."

            The coach opened the door and entered the annex gym.  He waited for her to hit the last ball that ejected from the machine.  To his surprise, she hit the ball just as forceful as before with her left hand.  Landing and catching her breath, she turned around and gave the coach a respectful bow.

            "Good morning, Sato-sensei.  Thank you for letting me use the gym."

            The coach laughed.  "You're always welcome here.  And you know you can get more practice if –"

            "If I join your team."

            "Precisely!  So will you come to practice?"

            "I'm afraid I can't, Sato-sensei."
            Mitsui walked into the gym to the coach's side.  He extended his hand towards her.  "Hello, my name is Mitsui Hisashi."
            She looked at him and his hand, and then smiled.

            "Hello."  She gently shook his.

            "So are you a left-handed hitter now?" the coach interrupted.  "You never fail to surprise me, Reiko-san."
            // So that's her name. //

            "So can I expect you here at three?"

            Again with a smile, she answered, "I'm very sorry, Sato-sensei.  I'm afraid I have a previous engagement."
            Feeling dejected, the coach made a fist and put it against his chest.  "You are a heartbreaker, Reiko-san."

            All she could do was smile and apologize, and all that time Mitsui took in the sight of her.  Her eyes were a shade uncommon to Japanese people.  Grey.  Little wisps of hair stuck to the side of her face and neck, and her thick black hair was woven into a neat braid.  Her face was fair, and the sweat on her face made her skin glow under the gymnasium's halogen lights.  She was beautiful, and her presence radiated a quiet strength that he could feel just by looking at her.  She walked over to a bench where her things laid and took a towel to wipe her face and neck.  The coach was relentless.

            "It's just one practice, Reiko-san.  If not to join the team, then at least to show what my girls are missing."

            "Sato-sensei, do you have little faith in your team's abilities?"

            "No.  I have much faith in my team that they'll learn something from you."

            She sat down and thought about it.

            "Someday, Sato-sensei, but not today.  I am sorry," she said as she smiled.

            "That's okay, but I'll hold you to that!"  the coach exclaimed, almost like a child.

            She packed her things and taking her leave, she headed for the women's locker room.  The coach nudged Mitsui's elbow.

            "All right, you heard her.  That makes you a witness."
            "Hey, don't suck me into your schemes, coach," he protested.

            "Yeah, but it's the least you can do for me since I let you in here every butt crack of dawn!"'

            Mitsui laughed and gave in.  He waved goodbye to the coach and turned around towards the double doors.  A gleam on the floor caught his eye and made him stop.  He bent down to find a small oval piece of metal on the floor.  He picked it up, put it in his palm and looked more closely.  There were grooves on the side of the oval and it had depth to it.  He assumed it was the girl's property and he walked out the double doors of the gym to wait for her.

            Thirty minutes passed and still no sign of her.

            Mitsui looked at his watch and decided to leave, thinking to give it to her another time.  He was going to be late for his first class and he had yet to shower.

            He cleaned up and left the gym, his hair still wet and slicked back looking like he was in a hurry.  As he stepped out into the bright sunlight, he was a black vehicle with four men in suits and dark sunglasses hiding their eyes, waiting outside.  He pad them no mind as he strolled past them.  After a few moments he heard the men greet someone in unison and the car door swung open.  By the time he turned his head to look, he only saw the legs of the new passenger of the vehicle.  Intrigued, he stopped walking and tried to look thought the vehicle's tinted windows.  As the car pulled out of the parking lot, he was the silhouette of a woman in the center seat of the vehicle, with a familiar braid that ran down her back.

            They were waiting for her.

            By the time he felt for the metallic oval piece in his pocket the vehicle was gone.  Muttering a curse for the chance missed, he ran towards the main campus, hoping he wouldn't be late.


            Mitsui was relieved when the professor dismissed class.  He could barely keep up with his handwriting strewn across five blackboards.  At one point he paused to look to his sides to see a majority of his classmates either staring at the wall or sound asleep in their chairs.  Physics was never an attention-getter, especially when the professor rarely speaks. 

            As he walked down the corridor, a tall muscled man emerged from one of the classrooms and began walking with him.

            "Yo, Akagi," he acknowledged.  He held out his hand which Akagi friendly slapped.

            "Hey man, how was class?"

            Mitsui rolled his eyes.  "A fly on the wall can be more interesting."
            His friend eyed his gym bag.  "Did you shoot some hoops this morning as usual?"

            "Yup.  And I saw someone pretty interesting."
            "Who else would be up that early other than you?"
            "Well, Sato-sensei was there with her."
            "Oh, I see.  It's a 'her'," he cooed, hitting Mitsui on the shoulder.  "Is she the reason why you go practice so early in the morning?"
            "No, today was the first day I saw her."

            "Did you talk to her?"

            "I introduced myself, but she never had the chance to tell me her name since Sato-sensei was busy groveling at her feet begging her to join the volleyball team."

            "Really?  She must be very good then."

            "Very good is an understatement.  I heard her slamming volleyballs a few feet over the other side of the net."

            "Oh, big deal.  Anybody can do that."

            "But I heard her while I was in the main gym."

            Akagi's eyes widened.  A narrow corridor and a pair of double doors separated the main gym.  The only thing connecting the two buildings was the air conditioning system that served both gyms.  For sound to travel through air vents like that, she would have to hit the ball extremely hard.

            "Is she butch?" he asked as they sat on a bench by the clock tower.

            "No, very far from it.  She's actually very pretty."

            Akagi began to laugh.  "Hey man, don't fall for her, she might beat you up."

            "Shut up, Gori.  You won't be laughing when you see her.  I mean, she's amazing, man.  She can jump half her height!"

            "You're kidding."

            "No crap, Akagi."

            "How do you know she can hit the ball a few feet over the net?"

            "After I found out I wasn't alone at the gym, I walked over to the annex gym and watched her with Sato-sensei."  Mitsui took out a textbook and some paper.  "I've never seen Sato-sensei look so desperate before."

            Akagi took out an apple from his backpack.  "Well, what else did you find out about her?"

            "Her name is Reiko, I think."

            Munching on his apple, Akagi ruminated on the name.  "Hm, I don't know anybody by that name.  She goes to school here, right?"

            "Sato-sensei said she doesn't, though he did mention that she practices there almost every morning.  Maybe tomorrow I can give this back to her."  He dug in his pocket and produced the oval piece of metal in his palm.  "I think she dropped it."

            Akagi leaned forward and eyed it.  After taking another bit of his apple, he said, "It looks like some kind of locket."
            "A locket?"
            "Yeah.  Haruko has one kinda like it, but that one's much nicer."
            "This thing?  It just looks like a piece of shiny metal to me."

            "No, man, I think that's platinum."

            Mitsui just stared at the oval piece in his palm.  He replayed the morning's events in his head.  The four men and the black vehicle.  Were they some sort of bodyguard entourage?  Was she someone important?
            "Akagi, do you know of anybody famous attending this school?"

            His friend sat as he chewed on his apple.  "Well,… there's that snobby model you often see on TV.  Other than her, I know of nobody special.  Why do you ask?"
            "That Reiko girl got into a black Suburban with four guys in black suits."
            Akagi shrugged.  "Maybe she's the daughter of a senator."

            "Who knows?"

            "Maybe Sato-sensei knows."
            "You're right."  Mitsui replaced the oval piece in his pocket.  "Hey, you shooting hoops later with the guys?"
            Akagi threw his apple core in the trash.  "You know it.  You're showing up, right?"
            "If I finish this physics homework, I will."
            "All right, man, see you later then."
            After his classes, Mitsui stopped by the annex gym and saw Coach Sato practicing with his team.  The girls on the team waved to Mitsui as they played.  They all knew he played basketball and was quite popular with others in school, either because of his thugging days or because of his illustrious basketball career back in high school.  Mitsui declined the college's offer to play basketball because of a promise he made his mother to give his knee time to heal from his previous injury.  Much to the chagrin of the basketball coach, he was still welcome to join at any time and they prayed it would be soon.  In the meantime, he played lightly on his own or with his old team for fun.  Coach Sato held morning practices for his team and was always asked by Mitsui if he could play in the neighboring gym.  They struck a friendship as the months passed, and the girls on the volleyball team always liked it whenever Mitsui came by since their coach would unknowingly give them longer breaks from their relentless skills.

            "All right, Sayuri-chan, take my place.  Let me see what Mitsui wants."  As the coach walked towards Mitsui, he yelled over his shoulder.  "And no slacking off!"

            A resounding 'hai' filled the gym.

            "Hey, Sato-sensei.  I was wondering if you can tell me something."

            The coach sat down on the bench.  "Shoot."

            "The girl from this morning, Reiko-san?  What's her last name?"

            Coach Sato looked pensively at the ground.  "I'm not too sure, but I think it's Nakamichi.  Nakamura?  Nakayama?  No, it's more like Nakamichi."

            "Do you know how old she is?"
            "Don't know exactly, but I think she's around twenty, maybe twenty-one."

            "Is she somebody famous?"
            The coach laughed.  "To me, she's a superstar.  But not too many people know about her, I suppose."

            "Why do you suppose that?" 

            "I never see her around except the mornings.  She doesn't go to school here, even though the president himself wrote me a memo to allow her access to this gym.  She's always alone."

            "What about those guys in suits who wait for her outside the gym?"
            "Don't know.  I figured it was her business."

            Mitsui sat beside the coach on the bench and watched the girls play.

            "Are you interested in her?"

            "You mean do I like her?"

            The coach nodded.

            "Of course, I'm interested in her, but more so because she dropped this on the floor," he said as he showed him the oval piece in his hand.  "I found it this morning and figured it was hers."
            "Man, Mitsui.  You sure know how to get a girl's attention.  That's the old is-this-yours routine."

            Mitsui rolled his eyes.  "Whatever, Sato-sensei."

            The coach's laugh subsided and he got up to tell the girls to repeat the drills.  Before he joined them on the court, he turned to Mitsui and said, "If you can get Reiko-san to show up willingly to a practice, I will be the nicest friend you will ever have."

            "Yeah, that's if I see her again."

            "Oh, you'll see her again, lover boy."

            With that, Mitsui got up, waved goodbye and left. 

            // Lover boy? //