pairing: Rukawa x Sakuragi [ and hinted Maki x Sendoh ]
extra notes: for Christmas 2005; for the RHR mailing list theme project – theme #03: Christmas Eve
And the streets of Tokyo, Japan were just a little busier than usual, the crowds magically expanded to the extent where breathing became a little harder, and bumping into a faceless stranger five times easier. Yet despite the typical hassled atmosphere of last minute Christmas shopping, a pure joy lingered gently in the air, reflected by the glow on so many faces. It was cold, a dull pulse of winter that enveloped, yet felt only by some. And Sakuragi Hanamichi was one of them. Tiny snowflakes flickered down around him, as he walked past countless lighted display windows and tried not to listen to the animated sounds of happier people carrying shopping bags, boisterous kids and contented lovers.
The noisy enthusiasm of the season was contagious, but all Sakuragi could feel was a plain numbness, as he turned a corner and strode easily into a surprisingly quiet café. He nodded, as the pretty waitress asked him if he was alone, and would he like a table by the window. And then he ordered a caffé latte after some deliberation, because he was used to change. A few minutes later, he wondered if he was secretly masochistic, as he continued watching families and groups of high-school students weaving their way around, through the slightly misted glass window. Sakuragi could only feel gratitude as he listened to the soft lounge music that filled the space, rather than the blaring Christmas songs that were everywhere else.
Tearing his brown eyes away from the bustling scene and ignoring the tug of yearning in his heart, he regarded the other customers of the café with only slight interest. Most of them were alone, literally and probably figuratively. Like himself, he reflected wryly. There were a couple of businessmen. One of them was staring blankly at an expensive cell phone he knew would not be ringing in the next couple of days. The other was reading a copy of the evening paper though it reported almost the same events that he had already read in the morning paper over coffee and bland toast.
The decorative bells hanging from the doorknob of the café’s entrance tinkled dimly. Sakuragi looked up from his cooling coffee to study the newcomer, clad in black denim, an indigo shirt and a heavy black coat. With a surprised jerk, he noted black hair flecked with contrasting white snow and deep blue eyes. Those blue eyes flickered momentarily with recognition as said newcomer swiveled around in acknowledgement of an appraising gaze. Sakuragi felt an irrational urge to laugh hysterically as Kaede Rukawa declined the waitress’s breathless invitation to sit at another table several meters away, instead opting to move towards Sakuragi’s small table. Rukawa inclined his head to the left in a wordless question while Sakuragi cleared his throat and nodded imperceptibly in response. As Rukawa folded his tall frame into the seat opposite Sakuragi, an almost easy silence settled in between them.
“Well, fox, it's been seven years since I last saw you.” Sakuragi smiled, expectedly, since Rukawa had already taken the unusual first step. The old antagonism was gone, having been evaporating ever since both of them rejoined the basketball team, Rukawa after the summer of their first year, and Sakuragi before the summer of their second year in Shohoku. Rukawa still called Sakuragi a ‘do’aho’ eleven times a practice, Sakuragi still yelled at the ‘baka kitsune’, and the fistfights were still common, but the sting had gradually faded into oblivion. The reunion had allowed Shohoku to make it into the Top Four of the National Inter-High for the next couple of years, despite the absence of Akagi, Mitsui, Kogure and later Miyagi. They had even clinched the number one title in Kanagawa during the reign of Sakuragi and Rukawa, co-captains.
After high school, Sakuragi accepted a basketball scholarship to attend the same university in Tokyo as Sendoh Akira and Maki Shinichi. Rukawa left for America as he had desired, and played college basketball with great success and recognition. He continued his career after graduation for a while in America and it was almost certain that he would make it into the NBA, until he made a surprising decision recently to return to play for the Japan National Team instead. The rest of the Shohoku team was re-united at Kanagawa University eventually, along with Mito Youhei, Akagi Haruko, Koshino of Ryonan, and Fujima and Hanagata of Shoyo, while Jin and Kiyota from Kainan attended their affiliated university.
“Though if you had actually shown up for Ryota and Ayako’s wedding last year, it’d have been six.” Sakuragi continued with a hint of reproach. Rukawa raised an eyebrow, “I sent a gift.” Sakuragi chuckled, “Oh yes, the champagne basket you FedEx-ed over, along with the gift certificate to that hot springs resort in Kyoto. Ryota loved that one. I think it’s why Ayako-chan forgave you for not being there too. Pity you were too busy to fly back from the States. It was a hell of a reunion. Nevertheless, Youhei and Haruko-chan are getting married next year, hopefully in spring, though it’s all plans so far. You’re invited, so you’d better there this time.” Rukawa was silent, as his thoughts darted quickly back to his days in high school and the people he once played basketball with. On the other hand, it had not been very long since he last thought of them. Playing without his ex-teammates, the team spirit and trust they blatantly radiated but had always refused to acknowledge, and that gratifying common goal, had Rukawa experiencing a loneliness he never knew would hurt so subtly. He hated to admit it, but returning to Japan was the only solution he could think of to recapture the familiarity he had lost, and because he still thought of Japan as home.
And more importantly, he wanted to know if he could finally be closer to the warmth of the red so clear and distinct in his mind, or extinguish it before it slowly shredded the reason for his existence.
“Isn’t it almost kind of sad that you’re the only amongst us all who has a professional basketball career? I suppose that’s how reality is, after all.” Sakuragi sighed, as his fingers traced invisible lines on the table. He blinked a little, as his eyes wandered to the glass pane again, and he wondered at having fleetingly forgotten about the scene out there. Rukawa indulged in an inner smile, as he took in the comforting sight of the usually lively redhead. He quietly observed the mellowed personality of Sakuragi, and the beautifully tough features that he ached to touch. Oddly, Sakuragi was a little more slender now, though he still stood tall and strong.
“So, how’s the world of high finance?” Rukawa asked, amusement lurking faintly behind the impassive façade, as he lifted his cup of cappuccino to warm his lips. His eyelashes lowered as he continued staring at the older version of those lucid memories he had never let go. Sakuragi raked his fingers through his damp red hair, as he chuckled lowly, “Boring, though technically I don’t deal that much with all that nonsense, since I work in public relations.”
“I heard that Sendoh’s working in the same place as you are.” Rukawa said, as casually as he could. “Akira? Yeah, both of us majored in communications studies, and then we ended up working for the same bank.” Sakuragi grinned as he took a gulp of his latte. Rukawa made a small non-committal sound, though his eyes narrowed in unspoken annoyance. “So, why aren’t you guys spending Christmas Eve together since you are such good friends?”
“Ha! Don’t remind me! That smiley bastard dumped all his work on me and took off the minute his leave application was approved. I can still remember the bloody orange post-it. Quote, “Dear Hanamichi-kun, gone to London! Merry Christmas,” end quote. Well, I knew he desperately wanted to go rendezvous with his darling Shinichi since the old man’s stuck in Britain on a business trip, but I didn’t think he was that frustrated! He could at least have left me an early big present or something. I’m going to pound the hell out of them both when they get back.” Sakuragi grumbled as he re-arranged the sugar sachets in their little glass container at their table. The tenseness slipped from his lean frame, and the corners of Rukawa’s mouth lifted minutely in response.
Sakuragi raised his eyes to the night sky for a moment before glancing at his watch. It was 11:45pm, and a quarter hour away from the 25th, Christmas. An outdoor event at the city centre nearby was in full swing, and he could hear the booming music from where he and Rukawa stood, at the sidelines of the partying masses. He left a half-smile grace his lips, as they moved away to somewhere quieter, to an unoccupied wooden bench at the edge of the famous shopping district. Only a couple of hours ago, he had walked into a café, fully expecting to spend yet another Christmas alone. It was almost surreal, he figured, now comfortably seated beside his former nemesis. He fingered the collar of his crisp white shirt thoughtfully and pulled his dark grey coat closer as a wintry breeze ruffled their hair away from their faces.
Sakuragi was not sure why, but seeing Rukawa had cheered him up considerably. It was as if he had missed the icy individual. In fact, right now, he just about felt as if he did not ever want to let this go. And that idea is completely lunatic. And it did surprise him how relaxed he was around the fox, considering the fact that they had not talked for more than half a decade. Sakuragi had matured, and Rukawa’s façade had thawed enough during high school to allow them to be friends. One-on-one on weekend mornings at the public basketball court near Shohoku, the occasional breakfast together at Denny’s, the regular practice by themselves in the school gym after everyone else had left, and then dinner. Sakuragi would walk Rukawa home, because his own place was only slightly further.
Later on, he had, of course, watched him on television, whenever Rukawa’s matches were aired. And sitting there in his dormitory room, Sakuragi had silently admired how much Rukawa had improved, and pushed himself harder during his own training to appease his own muted, but still existent ego. That was also how he knew Rukawa would be as good-looking as before. He flushed, as he remembered how he had wondered how those hands would feel, touching him; how those toned arms would feel around him; how the thin lips would feel against his, how - … just once or twice, sometime during their final year. And he also remembered how scared he had been, before shoving the thoughts from his mind once and for all. Or so he thought. He hastily snapped back to reality, as he rejected these unrealistic thoughts for a second time.
“Hey, Rukawa. Why aren’t you spending Christmas Eve with someone important?” Sakuragi asked, confusion seeping into his tone. I am, Rukawa thought wryly, settling for a shrug in response, “What about you?” Sakuragi let out a hollow laugh, “Nope, all alone here. Youhei and Haruko-chan did invite me to dinner at Akagi’s place, but I didn’t want to intrude. Besides, I’d probably lose my appetite after seeing Gori.” Rukawa cursed his heart’s betrayal as it skipped a beat, and ignored the hope that was creeping into his thoughts. “S – Hanamichi.”
The redhead turned to look at Rukawa, his mocha eyes divulging his trepidation. And Rukawa felt a suffocating ocean of obstruction between them, despite their proximity. The commotion from the Christmas party could not shatter the vacuum that they were enclosed in, as Sakuragi leaned forward to kiss the side of Rukawa’s mouth, before he moved back again, his hot breath a passionate caress on the other’s pale skin. His brown eyes flickered shut, as if to slow down the panic crawling through his body.
And then he heard a gasp catch in his throat as a rough hand reached over to close around his, pulling hesitantly initially, before tugging firmly. He raised his brown eyes to see darkening blues, before he felt Rukawa’s lips fusing with his possessively, arms flinging recklessly around him and his own hand reaching up to grab the back of Rukawa’s neck to deepen the kiss. A loud shouting from the crowds everywhere around them made them break apart, albeit a little reluctantly.
“Merry Christmas, … Kaede.”