“Arghh where the hell are Mitchi and Ryo-chin?! It’s rude to make girls wait!” Sakuragi Hanamichi exclaimed animatedly, shoving his hands into the pockets of his shorts as he tiptoed sidewards, “Right, Haruko-san?” He asked with a wide grin, glancing at the petite girl standing to his left.
Haruko was dressed in a light blue yukata with white and yellow dandelion prints, held together with a contrasting fuschia obi around her dainty waist, her hair pinned up at the side with a simple yellow and white flower kanzashi.
Haruko-san looks sooooo cute! If only we were here on a date instead of with the whole team… Sakuragi’s grin widened along with the expansion of his fantasies, and he continued to take small little steps towards Haruko… until he was brutally shot down from his happy cloud with a sound punch to his head.
“Don’t get so close to Haruko!” Akagi bellowed from behind Sakuragi, shoving the redhead aside and moving to stand between them.
“A-akagi, don’t be so harsh on him, we’re in public…” Kogure said with a weak smile seeing as they had attracted a bit of attention from the crowds flowing out of the train station.
“Megane-kun…” Sakuragi sulked, shrinking behind the Shohoku vice-captain like a dejected puppy.
They were heading to see the fireworks display, the last one in the area for the season, and the last recreational outing they were taking as a team before the third years retreated from the courts to prepare for their university entrance exams. The venue was along the Katase Nishihama Beach, just a five-minute walk from the Katase-Enoshima station, but they had arranged to meet outside the station seeing as it would be difficult to meet up at the venue, what with the tremendous crowds.
“It’s unlike Ryota to be late… I hope they didn’t get into any trouble,” Ayako muttered, craning her neck trying to spot their two missing members among the troughs of people exiting the station.
“Man, I wanted to check out the stalls before the fireworks started, but looks like we won’t have the time to do that now,” Sakuragi lamented while trying to look casual as he strolled past Akagi to get to Haruko’s other side.
“Why don’t you guys go ahead, I’ll wait here for Mitsui-senpai and Ryota,” Ayako said with a smile, lightly patting Haruko’s shoulder.
The hyperactive redhead jumped at that, “Yossha!! You heard the lady! Let’s go, let’s go, Haruko-san!”
“Are you sure, Ayako?” The captain asked, sparing his junior a worried glance.
“I’ll stay here with Ayako-san, just in case. We’ll catch up to you, Akagi,” Kogure said reassuringly.
Akagi nodded and turned to take off, with the rest of the team trailing behind him. Haruko, too, was about fall in step with the rest, when she suddenly noticed the absence of the lanky figure her eyes always sought out. Turning around to look for the super rookie, her eyes immediately found their target slumped over in the corner.
“Rukawa-kun…? Are you asleep?! Everyone’s making a move…”
Dammit! Haruko-saaaaan... we could have left that stupid fox here! Sakuragi scowled as Rukawa Kaede groggily stood up and pulled his ear phones out of his ears. He soon gathered himself and stomped over to the sleepyhead, glaring at him with his arms akimbo.
“Baka Rukawa, if you wanted to sleep you should’ve just stayed home! And why are you dressed in a tee shirt and jeans, it’s the norm to dress in a yukata for such occasions, didn’t you know! Even Gori’s in a jinbei!”
“Says the do’aho who’s wearing a tank top and shorts,” Rukawa mumbled coldly as he strolled off without a second glance at the redhead, leaving Sakuragi boiling in his wake.
“Sa-sakuragi-kun, it’s all right! We didn’t set a dress code after all…” Haruko explained in a fluster. She always felt so lost and helpless whenever the team’s two powerhouse freshmen got into an argument.
As always, Sakuragi’s expression changed as soon as Haruko spoke, “Ahahaha… you’re right, Haruko-san! Besides, that fox-eyed dumbass will still look like a fox no matter what he wears. Unlike you, Haruko-san~ you look extra cute today in your yukata!” He blabbered on as they walked, scratching his head and grinning from ear to ear.
“Won’t they just hurry up...” Miyagi Ryota grumbled under his breath as he shuffled among the sea of people who had just alighted from the same train they had been on, “We’re twenty minutes late, goddammit! Aya-chan’s gonna be so mad...”
“It’s your fault that we’re running late,” Mitsui Hisashi reminded calmly, though it was evident in the tight expression on his face that he too was extremely annoyed by the slow-moving crowd. Not to mention the stuffy summer heat that was causing sweat to trickle down his back and chest under his navy blue and grey striped jinbei.
Mitsui sighed in comfort as a gust of wind hit his face the moment they finally managed to step out of the cramped station. He swept his eyes across the crowd trying to search for their tall, dark pillar of a captain, thinking that it should be easy to spot Akagi even in a crowd, but failed to. No sight of the tall red haired monkey, who should be as easy to spot, either.
“Oi… I don’t see them anyw-- ow!” before he could finish his sentence, Miyagi elbowed him in the ribs and made a beeline towards the right side of the station. Mitsui looked ahead of the point guard and saw Kogure and Ayako waving at them. He shook his head in defeat. He was the taller one of the two, and yet his wider range of sight hadn’t given him any advantage over Miyagi’s ‘Aya-chan radar’.
“Explain yourselves!” The team manager demanded as soon as Mitsui and Miyagi had managed to break free of the herd.
“Sorry, Aya-chan…,” was all Miyagi could manage before his expression melted into a sheepish grin, a fresh blush creeping into his cheeks as he admired the piece of work before his eyes. Ayako looked absolutely stunning; her vibrant red yukata contrasted her beautiful fair skin, the white and pink peony prints adding a feminine touch, while the simple ivory obi with dark purple borders around her slim waist completed the outfit by keeping the look sophisticated despite the largely flowery design. Her lustrous hair was styled up into a side twist, held in place with a stylish dark red and purple kanzashi.
“This dork insisted on coming in a yukata, which he didn’t have, so we went shopping for one. He took so long to decide, and on top of that the train was totally packed, we had to let two trains pass before we could finally get on,” Mitsui explained, exasperated. “Where are the rest?”
“They already went ahead because Sakuragi wanted to check out the stalls,” Kogure answered. “Don’t worry, with Akagi, Sakuragi and Rukawa in the pack, they would stand out like a sore thumb even in this crowd, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to find them. Let’s hurry.”
Kogure started the walk towards the beach, Ayako falling in step with him and Miyagi following closely on the manager’s other side. Mitsui fell into his own pace behind the trio, already beginning to feel tired from wading through the large crowd that was undoubtedly headed for the same place as they were.
It was then that he noticed that besides Miyagi and Ayako, Kogure was also in a yukata. Unlike Miyagi’s dark green yukata and gaudy black and gold obi, Kogure was wearing an understated slate-coloured yukata, matched with an obi with navy and grey horizontal stripes. And unlike Miyagi, who still appeared to be slightly self-conscious in his new garb, Kogure looked completely comfortable in his yukata. He didn’t even notice that he was staring at the vice-captain’s back, until said vice-captain had turned around and looked at him.
“Mitsui, are you alright? You look a bit pale,” Kogure asked, letting the two second years walk ahead while he stepped back to walk alongside Mitsui.
“Aa… I’m fine. It’s just the heat and the crowd,” Mitsui said with a forced smile. He wondered if he had been caught staring. In fact, he wondered if anyone had noticed that his gaze tended to linger on their vice-captain. He wasn’t sure when it all started, but over the inter-high tournament period he had come to realize that he turns to Kogure for reassurance and motivation during matches, and sometimes even during practice.
“It’s been a long time since I last went to a festival, it brings back memories,” Kogure said with a smile, his eyes glowing with quiet excitement.
The bustle around them started getting louder as they approached the festival stalls that paved the way down to the beach. It was almost difficult to walk as the crowds got even denser, and they were starting to get distanced from Miyagi and Ayako.
“You look good in a yukata,” Mitsui muttered, stealing a glance at the other, then quickly averting his gaze with purposeful nonchalance.
“Hm? Did you say something?” Kogure asked, turning his head to look up at the taller teen, shuffling a little closer so that he could hear his friend more clearly over the buzz.
Mitsui’s eyes widened as the other stepped closer, and he felt warmer than before as Kogure looked at him with those bright, earnest eyes of his. “Uh… I was just saying that your yukata suits you well, unlike Miyagi’s. That guy has horrible fashion taste,” he said with an awkward laugh.
Much to his relief, Kogure responded with a small laugh as well, “This yukata actually belongs to my elder brother. And Miyagi’s doesn’t look as bad as you say.”
Mitsui felt a smile tugging on his lips as he looked at Kogure’s smile. Kogure’s smile was always filled with warmth, assurance and kindness, the things that he unknowingly craved for. He didn’t think that he deserved to be on the receiving end of that smile, especially after that terrible fight he instigated against the basketball team, but Kogure and the rest of the team had been incredibly forgiving. It was something he swore never to take for granted.
They stopped in their tracks as a small boy came running towards them, crashing into Kogure’s legs as he tripped on his little geta.
“Mama…! Where are you…,” the boy wailed, tears streaming down his reddened cheeks.
“Did you get separated from your mother?” Kogure asked, helping the boy to his feet so that he could slip into his geta properly. “Oh no, we’ll lose Miyagi and Ayako-san…”
Mitsui craned his neck in search of the other two. He could still see the top of their heads, but they were a distance away, and there was no way they would hear him over the bustling crowd even if he shouted. Looking around them, he noticed that part of the human traffic had stalled because they had stopped in the middle of the street.
“We’ll worry about finding them later. Let’s move out of the way for now, and help this kid find his mum,” he said as he hurriedly pulled Kogure and the boy out of the crowd to the narrow clearing between two stalls.
“Are you hurt anywhere?” Kogure asked the boy, who looked to be around four or five years old, squatting down in front of him and gently checking his feet to see if he had injured himself when he tripped earlier on. The boy shook his head, but wouldn’t stop crying as his rounded eyes frantically scanned the moving crowds for this mother.
“Don’t worry, we’ll help you find your mama, all right?” The spectacled youth said with a smile, but was taken aback when the boy only cried harder at the reminder that he had lost his mum in the crowd. Kogure felt that he had to stay true to his words, but he couldn’t help but turn around to look for Mitsui for help… only to find that Mitsui wasn’t behind him like he thought.
“Mitsui?” Where’d he disappear to? What should I do, the boy won’t stop crying…
Kogure turned back to look at the boy, and gingerly pat his head in attempt to calm him down. He supposed he could take the boy to the police post by himself, but then he’d be separated from Mitsui, who was already separated from Miyagi and Ayako, and the rest of the team. Not to mention, the fireworks display was starting in five minutes. Should he wait for Mitsui to find him, or should he take the boy to the police post? Either way, he would never make it to the venue in time… Think, Kogure Kiminobu, think! This is not the time to panic!
“Here, take this and stop crying,” a familiar voice came from behind Kogure, and a small bag of donguri ame was dangled between him and the boy. The boy looked up and hesitated for a moment, before reaching for the bag of colourful candy with one hand, sniffling and rubbing his eyes with the back of his other hand.
“Mitsui! Where did you go?!” Kogure questioned, rising to his feet. “Thank goodness… I thought I lost you too,” he added with a soft sigh of relief.
“I was at the stall buying some donguri ame. I wouldn’t abandon you…” Mitsui blurted out before he could stop himself. Feeling too warm under Kogure’s hopeful gaze, he hastily bent down to look at the boy, “Hey kid, what’s your name?”
“...Kousuke,” the boy muttered softly, gripping on to his bag of candy tightly, “are you gonna help me find mama?”
“You bet. I’ll put you on my shoulders, so you keep a lookout and shout for your mama, okay?” Mitsui said with a smirk, trying to play the cool big brother role. The boy nodded, his eyes turning determined. Mitsui picked the boy up effortlessly and placed him on his shoulders. “Which way should we go? Where’d you get yourself lost, Kousuke?”
“I… I don’t know…,” Kousuke murmured, tears welling up in his eyes again.
“Ah! It’s okay! We can make our way to the police post, and search on our way there. If we don’t meet her on our way, we’ll get help from the police,” Kogure quickly said before the boy burst into tears again.
“Sounds like a plan. Kogure, can you lead the way?” Mitsui requested, and was answered with a bright smile, an assuring nod and thumbs up from the Shohoku vice-captain.
Thankfully, the street was less crowded than when they first got here as a portion of the crowd had settled down by the bay, waiting for the fireworks display to begin. That said, the traffic was by no means sparse, and it still took them a bit of effort to trudge against the flow to make their way back to the train station.
Halfway there, the loud booming sounds of fireworks exploding in the air assaulted their ears, and the world seemed to pause for a few seconds as everybody simultaneously stopped whatever they were doing to look up at the sky, admiring the vibrant sparks against the murky canvas of the freshly fallen night.
“Come on, let’s hurry and find this kid’s mum so we can all watch the fireworks,” Mitsui said, raising his voice slightly so that he could be heard over the sounds thundering behind them.
Unfortunately, they did not manage to find Kousuke’s mother along their way, but just as they approached the police post, a woman in a cobalt blue yukata came bolting through the doorway.
“Kousuke!!” She called, arms reaching out as she ran towards them, eyes glassy with tears threatening to spill. Feeling the kid fidget on his shoulders, Mitsui hurriedly lowered him to the ground, and watched as he clumsily ran into his mother’s waiting embrace.
The woman thanked them profusely for taking care of her son, and Mitsui couldn’t be more glad that the ever-polite Kogure was there to handle the pleasantries. Despite being fairly popular with the ladies, especially back in his glorious junior high days, he never knew what to say or how to respond to them.
“You were pretty awesome with Kousuke-kun,” Mitsui heard the other say as they watched the mother and son disappear into the crowds. He glanced down at the shorter youth, and couldn’t help the soft laugh that fell from his lips as Kogure beamed at him. No words of praise did nicer things to his ego than that sparkle of admiration that Kogure sometimes had in his eyes. And it felt even better now because that sparkle was there due to something unrelated to basketball.
“You were pretty awesome with his mum,” he teased, though it was mostly the truth.
Kogure laughed, unreservedly, “Yeah, you looked more lost than Kousuke-kun did when she wouldn’t stop bowing.”
“Shut up...” Mitsui rebutted weakly, crossing his arms over his chest. “So, what now? I really don’t feel like walking down that street again.
“Now that the fireworks display has started, we probably won’t be able to get to Akagi and the rest either… I wonder if Miyagi managed to meet up with them,” Kogure muttered, gazing up at the colourful explosions.
“Hey, I just thought of a place where we can watch the fireworks,” Mitsui said, and started into a jog, “this way!”
Mitsui had led them to the fishing port that was a short distance away from the Katase Nishihama Beach. Kogure bent over and rested his hands on his knees once they came to a stop, trying to catch his breath. It was harder to run in a yukata and geta than it looked.
There were small groups of people who had gathered at the fishing port to watch the fireworks too, but it was clearly less crowded here. They even managed to find a place to sit down and watch the display. They took off their geta and dangled their bare feet from the edge of the port, enjoying the night breeze and watching the various kinds of fireworks that lit up the sky.
It was a few minutes later that Mitsui found himself watching the fireworks reflected on the other youth’s round glasses instead. Kogure had a soft smile on his lips as he admired the bursts of colour decorating the night sky. The fireworks were spectacular, but somehow, Mitsui’s gaze was attracted to the teen on his right like a moth to a flame.
“When are you going to stop watching me and watch the fireworks instead?” Kogure asked softly, his gaze not leaving the brilliant display.
Mitsui’s eyes widened at the question, and he immediately tore his gaze away. “Sorry. It’s sick, isn’t it?” So Kogure had noticed his stares all this while?! “I… you--”
“--If you don’t stop watching me, then I can’t watch you,” Kogure interrupted barely audibly, tilting his head to steal a quick look at the other, before lowering his head almost shyly.
Mitsui whipped his head around, slack jawed, openly staring at his teammate now. He couldn’t tell which was louder, the roaring boom of the fireworks or the deafening thumps of his wildly racing heart. All along, he thought Kogure was unaware, but it seemed he was the unknowing one instead.
“Kogure, you… since when?” He asked stumblingly.
“I don’t know, actually,” the Shohoku vice-captain said with a light shrug of his shoulders, stealing another glance at the youth beside him. “I’ve admired you as a player since I first saw you play in junior high. But at the same time I have admiration for Akagi, Rukawa… many other players. Somewhere along the line, things changed, and it occurred to me that the admiration I have for you is somewhat different from the others.”
Was that a confession?! Mitsui stared down at his bare feet, at a loss for words. He had fully intended to keep his feelings for the other a secret, and he never thought Kogure would look at him the same way, but now everything had exploded beyond his imagination, like an unexpected burst of a firework illuminating a pitch black sky.
“Why didn’t you say something?” He asked again, angling his head just enough so that he could glance sideways at the other.
Kogure straightened his back and took in a deep breath, then faced Mitsui with a smile, “The same reasons why you didn’t.”
For Mitsui, the attraction and realization had been rather recent. He wasn’t intending to take any action on it because they were likely to go separate ways upon graduating from Shohoku, not to mention that they were both male. It wasn’t normal, and it wasn’t worth the risk of losing Kogure as a friend. It was understandable if Kogure had felt the same, but if Kogure had held feelings for him since before… he couldn’t imagine how hurt Kogure must have been when he attempted to thrash the team. When he hit him.
Mitsui’s hands clenched into tight fists, teeth gritting in remorse at the biggest mistake he’d made in his life. No words of apology could make up for the damage he had done.
If only he hadn’t gone astray, none of that would have happened. He would have had more time to get to know Kogure, and perhaps, if he had studied hard enough, they could have even gone to the same university. Everything was out of reach now.
“Are you thinking about that incident?” Kogure asked, noticing the clenched fists and pained expression on Mitsui’s face.
“I don’t understand how you can smile at me like that after how much I’ve hurt you.”
“It’s all in the past. I’m glad you came back; so is Akagi, and Anzai-sensei. It sucks to have to admit to my inadequacy, but we wouldn’t have made it to the Nationals without you.”
“So it’s about the Nationals after all?” Mitsui looked at Kogure, and immediately regretted his words. “Never mind, forget what I said.”
Having Kogure’s forgiveness was already a generous gift; he was in no place to ask for more.
Kogure met Mitsui’s gaze, and felt his face heat up at the raw emotions he saw in the other’s obsidian eyes.
“W-well, that, and… you really looked atrocious with that hair,” he uttered with a nervous laugh.
It was only when the people around them started leaving the area that they realized that the fireworks display had ended. They probably ought to start making their way back to the station and try to meet up with the rest, but neither of them made any move to leave.
“Kogure, which university are you aiming for?”
Kogure’s eyebrows rose in surprise at the sudden question; it was the first time Mitsui had initiated conversation about anything remotely related to academics.
“Ideally, Toudai, but I don’t think I’ll make the cut. I think I’ll have a better shot at Hitotsubashi.”
“So, Tokyo it is?”
Kogure nodded, “What’s the matter? What about you?”
“You know how I fare, there’s no chance I’m getting anywhere with that crap. I’m betting my chances on the winter tournament for a recommendation to a university. In Tokyo. As long as it’s in Tokyo, I’ll take it,” Mitsui said firmly with a glint of determination in his eyes.
Kogure’s eyes widened at the words left unsaid, and fell silent for a moment.
The vice-captain broke out of his reverie as a bag of donguri ame was presented in front of him, “I thought you gave it to Kousuke-kun…?”
“I bought some for myself too. It was my favourite when I was a child.”
Kogure lifted his gaze to look at Mitsui, and saw the other holding a pastel blue coloured candy between his fingers. He dropped his gaze to the bag, searching, and then looked to Mitsui again.
“I want that one,” he declared, pointing at the pastel blue donguri ame just as Mitsui brought it to his lips.
“Wha…?” Mitsui froze, and stared at the round candy in his hand, puzzled. “But I’ve already touched it…”
“It’s fine. It’s the only Ramune flavoured one in the bag,” Kogure explained, reaching over to steal it from Mitsui. “I only like the Ramune ones.”
Mitsui watched as Kogure took the candy from between his fingers and dropped it into his mouth.
“...that’s what they call an indirect kiss…” Mitsui muttered, finding it hard to peel his eyes away from Kogure’s mouth.
When Kogure belatedly realized what Mitsui was talking about, he hurriedly rose to his feet in an attempt to hide the blush creeping into his cheeks. “Are you in elementary school or what? Jeez… grow up. And get off your butt, we have to find Akagi and the guys!”
Mitsui stared blankly at the other’s sudden outburst, and scrambled to his feet as Kogure started walking away. He couldn’t stop the grin that stretched across his face; that was the cutest thing he had ever seen.
He quickly caught up to the vice-captain, walking beside him, “Hey… let me give you a real one if I manage to get into a university in Tokyo?”
Kogure thought for a moment, before tilting his head to look at the taller youth with a smile, “You’ll have to train harder then, MVP.”
P.S.: They managed to meet up with the rest of the team at the station, and they all went for supper after that. Anzai-sensei’s treat. Mitsui made Miyagi buy him and Kogure ice cream for creating “alone time” for him and Ayako.