“The usual rules. First to 10 wins,” Takaki says as he dribbles the basketball to half court. It’s quiet in the deserted park, so the sound echoes off the dark asphalt. “And no cheating!” he adds with emphasis.
Hikaru looks around like he’s trying to figure out who Takaki is talking to. “Who me?” He puts on his best innocent face. “I would never!”
Takaki thinks back to the previous six games, remembers all the sneaky tricks Hikaru pulled to try to win, and says “Yeah, keep living in denial. Especially after I win tonight.”
“Bring it on,” Hikaru grins. He widens his stance and spreads his arms out in a defensive position, looking more like a sumo wrestler than a basketball player.
When Takaki had casually suggested they shoot a few hoops together a few weeks ago, he hadn’t expected things to turn out like this. His original intention had only been to find someone to join him. It was no fun to play basketball alone all the time and Hikaru just happened to have the same evening free that week. He didn’t know Hikaru knew nothing about the rules of the game or that teaching Hikaru would ignite his competitive spirit. And then that spiraled into “let’s play one on one to see who’s the best” which was closely followed by “let’s make it best of 7 games just like the NBA tournament.”
So it isn’t what Takaki had intended but if he’s being honest, he really likes how it’s turned out so far. (And if he’s being extra honest with himself, he might admit he’d gone easy on Hikaru during game 6 just so they’d have an excuse to play again tonight.)
Takaki dribbles the ball very casually at first towards the basket, hoping he could make Hikaru drop his guard and his ridiculous stance. But Hikaru’s picked up a few skills from the previous games, and stealing is his favorite one. An arm swings out at the basketball, and Takaki takes a few steps back. There’s always an ebb and a flow to this game.
“So this is the last one,” Hikaru begins. “Are we playing for anything?”
“You mean other than for the satisfaction of winning?” Takaki asks while he takes a shot. Hikaru doesn’t concentrate as well when he’s talking. Sure enough, the ball goes flying over Hikaru’s head and right into the basket.
Hikaru looks unfazed by his spotty defense skills. It’s his turn with the basketball now anyway. “Yeah, I was thinking the loser has to do something for the winner.” He dribbles fast down the asphalt court but Takaki is ready for him, swatting the ball out of his hands before he can even shoot.
“Isn’t that a yellow card?” Hikaru asks.
“I told you they’re called ‘fouls’ in basketball and no that wasn’t one,” Takaki answers with another two points, ball bouncing perfectly off the backboard and into the basket.
Hikaru grins. “I demand free throws anyway.”
“See? You’re already cheating,” Takaki teases but still passes the ball. He’ll give Hikaru a chance just to drag this game out longer. He likes watching Hikaru play the game even if he’s just fumbling around most of the time pretending he knows what he’s doing.
The sound of the basketball bouncing echoes as Hikaru stands at the free throw line ready to shoot. His stance is awful. His upper body leaning too far forwards and his knees are not bent enough to put the necessary force behind the shot. Takaki watches as he shoots, watches as the ball sails through the air and then misses the goal entirely, watches as Hikaru quickly masks a disappointed look.
Takaki puts the basketball back in Hikaru’s hands and stands beside him. He gave Hikaru tips on how to shoot before but it couldn’t hurt to repeat them again. He walks Hikaru through the proper form and tries to ignore how nice it feels to be so close to another warm body.
He cheers when Hikaru makes his second shot.
“I’m coming back!” Hikaru shouts enthusiastically. He’s back on defense now and bouncing around like he’s too full of energy.
“Don’t get cocky,” Takaki points out. “The score’s 4 to 1. Which reminds me, you never did say what the winner of the game gets.”
Hikaru jumps to block one of Takaki’s shots and moves fast enough to catch the rebound. “The winner gets whatever he wants,” Hikaru answers, looking smug like he’s already won. But Takaki is sure as hell not going to let that happen. Not when Hikaru can just demand anything for winning. Knowing him, it’ll probably be something embarrassing.
Hikaru tries to dribble towards the basket, but Takaki is in full defense mode now, all up in Hikaru’s personal space with arms flailing about, trying to get his opponent to lose concentration and drop the basketball. Everything smells like sweat, which just reminds him of their concerts except that he’s rarely this close to Hikaru’s body during those. He forces Hikaru to take a shot but is then disappointed when the ball sinks perfectly through the hoop.
“Touchdown!” Hikaru shouts.
Takaki rolls his eyes because he knows Hikaru is just being silly on purpose. But damn if he doesn’t secretly love how Hikaru tries to make him laugh throughout every game they play.
They play the next few minutes with a quiet intensity, not speaking much as they each try to outscore the other. Takaki focuses on footwork to dance around Hikaru to score two more times, but Hikaru doesn’t give up and surprises him with a few good shots too. He wonders if Hikaru has secretly been practicing, or if his beginner’s luck is finally starting to kick in.
The score is now 8 to 7 with Takaki only needing to make one more basket to win. But Hikaru has the basketball now and is dribbling around the edge of the court while he calculates his next move. Takaki relaxes. Once he gets the basketball back, he’ll score and win. He thinks about Hikaru’s words from earlier, how the winner picks what the loser has to do. His mind considers all the possibilities he’ll have for Hikaru.
Perhaps he’ll simply ask Hikaru if he wants to continue shooting hoops together like this. He’s having too much fun to let it all end like this. He thinks Hikaru wouldn’t mind either. While he’s musing over his options, Hikaru surprises him by suddenly taking a shot from the edge of the court, well past the three-point line threshold.
Stunned, they both silently watch the basketball sail through the air and then swish perfectly through the hoop.
“That’s three points!” Hikaru cheers, throwing his fists in the air in celebration. “Three points! Three points! I win!” He’s so ecstatic about his miraculous shot that he’s already running a celebratory lap around the court. Takaki remains standing in his spot, still in disbelief that Hikaru had made such a difficult shot and that he’d won the game. Although there’s a small part of himself that is quite proud of Hikaru’s skill improvement.
“Hey,” Hikaru says, coming to a stop in front of Takaki. He’s wearing a proud smirk on his face and his hands are resting on his hips in an authoritative pose. “I didn’t lose.”
Takaki rolls his eyes, hoping Hikaru wouldn’t drag this out forever. “Yes indeed. You’re very observant. What are you going to torture me with because I lost?” Better to bite the bullet now and get it over with.
Hikaru laughs and drapes his arm around Takaki’s shoulders like they’re two teammates just cheering each other after a tough game. “How about going to dinner with me? And you can even pick the restaurant.” He grins like he’s had this planned the whole time. And maybe he has, because Takaki can never really tell when it comes to Hikaru.
“I can live with that,” Takaki answers, trying not to seem too enthusiastic about the offer because it’s way better than he expected. He’s calm, he’s casual. But as soon as Hikaru’s back is turned, Takaki smiles.
The basketball game may be over, but he can’t admit defeat just yet. There’s always an ebb and a flow to this game.