She turned around and saw a face she'd never thought to see again.

"Ryota?" She stared, and blinked. "Ryota, is that you?"

He was looking in her direction, but the sunglasses shielded his eyes from her and rendered his face emotionless. But then a smile broke out with a gasped, "Ayako!"

She took a step forward, and another, and another, and stopped, feeling suddenly uncomfortable. A mere six feet of space separated them, but she felt it more like years. And a separation of years was a million times harder to bridge.

He did it in a few short steps and scooped her into his arms. She laughed in spite of herself, in spite of the circumstances of their meeting. Laughter bubbled from somewhere in the region of her heart and she felt as if it was the first time she had ever been so happy.

Then she was reminded of why they were here, and a soft feeling of mourning enveloped her, but the happiness was still there, muted into a kind of contentment. "Ryota," she said, "Ryota. Ryota, I'm so glad to see you."

He drew away a little to look at her. His sunglasses had slid down the bridge of his nose, and she could see his eyes, twinkling and honest and familiar. "Ayako," he said, "So am I."

She smiled - oh, it was so easy to smile at him - and gave his hands a squeeze before letting them go. "Not as much as me. I couldn't - I couldn't face this alone. Anzai-sensei..."

"You don't have to do this alone," he said, his gaze going past her, "None of us has to."

Outside the window of a speeding train, scenery flashed past like a slide show. One after the other, so fast that you can see nothing but a blur of colors and the impression of something out of the corner of your eye. Landscape became streaks and people turned into ghosts, and only the sky remained constant.

He stared at his own hazy reflection on the glass. The eyes that looked back at him were blank. He didn't look like himself. His own face belonged to a stranger, and when he tried to look into that person's soul, all he found were memories.

He turned to his companion in the seat beside him. "Rukawa," he whispered. But Rukawa Kaede was fast asleep, a thin line of drool on his chin. "Rukawa, wake up." He wanted him to wake up and look at him with his own cold eyes and say his name. His name. He needed someone to say his name.

But Rukawa did not wake up. Nothing short of an earthquake could wake Rukawa Kaede up when he was sleeping.

He sighed. Absently, he reached into his pocket and took out a paper napkin. He had several in his pocket, put there for convenience's sake. He reached over and wiped his friend's chin. Briefly, he wondered how much the napkin would be worth to the Rukawa fanclub.

Outside, scenes flashed and changed.

Sakuragi Hanamichi had never been afraid of anything in his life.

This was because of two things. First, it was because he knew something the rest of the world didn't. It wasn't the secret to the universe and it wasn't even the answer as to how Asian bishonen in Japanese cartoons could have such outrageously-colored hair. But it was the secret to his universe, and it was something he'd always known.

He was the tensai.

And that was why he wasn't afraid of anything.

The second thing was that he was actually afraid of certain things, but he would never let anybody know that, and those who did had been successfully persuaded* to swearing an oath of secrecy upon pain of death.

And so the conclusion was - the tensai was fearless.

But as he stood there on Anzai-sensei's doorstep with the sun warming the back of his head and Anzai-sensei's wife smiling kindly at him, he was deathly afraid.

He was afraid because he didn't know what to say to her, and he was afraid because he had a horrible suspicion that if he opened his mouth, he would just start bawling right there and then.

It took him a couple of minutes to realize that she was speaking. "... nice of you to come, Sakuragi-kun - isn't it? I know it would've meant a lot to him..."

He was saved from answering by his name being called by a vaguely familiar voice. He turned slightly and saw a couple walking down the street towards him. The girl had shoulder-length curly hair and dressed in demure gray. The guy was in black pants and black shirt. Something about them struck him as familiar, but he couldn't put his finger on it.

"Ah, Ayako-kun and Miyagi-kun are here as well, it seems."

He stared at them in amazement. Ayako and Miyagi? When they came nearer, he realized that it was them. Why were they together? Miyagi had mentioned nothing about Ayako in their once-a-month-if-both-weren't-too-busy phone call. Surely if they had become an item, such news would merit at least a casual, "Oh, by the way, you remember my high school crush and our former team manager whom we have not seen in three years? Yeah, well, we're seeing each other. Surprise!"

"Miyagi! Ayako! Are you two married?!" Sakuragi yelled.

Miyagi winced but Ayako, surprisingly, laughed. "Sakuragi, you never change," she said, "You're still an idiot."


Miyagi and Ayako ignored him and paid their condolences to Mrs Anzai. Sakuragi scowled at their backs. Hadn't changed? Dammit, he was the star player of Yokohama U! How dared they talk like that about him. It was typical of Ayako, he thought morosely, she hasn't seen me in years and when she does, the first thing she does is insult me.

Thinking about insults naturally led his memories to another person he had not seen in a long time. Hmph, a long time wouldn't be long enough, he thought, screwing up his face. Never would be much better. Who knows, maybe he'd suddenly been kidnapped by aliens and is now a million light years away on some unnamed planet where he won't keep stealing my spotlight.

The more he thought about the possibility, the better it sounded.

* the word "persuade" in Sakuragi's vocabulary is somehow synonymous with "beat", "whack" and "threaten with a heavy, blunt object (a fist would do nicely if a sledgehammer cannot be found) until the victim is reduced to a slobbering, quivering lump of jelly who will then admit to be the illegitimate son of a garden snail if Sakuragi asked him to.

"Tell me again what am I doing here with you guys?" Sakuragi grumbled.

Ayako's hand twitched, but she hadn't had a paper fan on her for years. "Sakuragi Hanamichi, we're here to meet the others!" she said, settling for a glare instead.

"Humph. Nobody met me when I arrived, and I'm the tensai!" he whined plaintively. "I'm much more important than them!"

Ayako opened her mouth to say something, but then her eyes caught the sight of a familiar figure among the throng of people in the station. "Akagi-sempai!" she called, waving.

The towering Akagi Takenori spotted them and made his way over. A path seemed to miraculously open up in front of him.

"Sempai," Miyagi said, grinning.

"Gori!" That was from Sakuragi. "You look shrunk," he offered.

The former captain of Shohoku knocked him on the head, casually sending him crashing to the floor. "Long time no see." He nodded to Miyagi and Ayako. "Where are you staying?"

"Mrs Anzai has offered to put us up," Ayako explained.

Akagi nodded again and hefted his bag, but Miyagi reminded him, "The others' train isn't here yet. We gotta wait for them."

Sakuragi climbed back to his feet and glowered at Akagi, who gave him a long look, then said, "I heard about your performance in Yokohama University team. Well done."

Sakuragi felt a warm glow suffuse him all over. "Gori," he said, while thinking with absolute certainty, I really am the tensai! However, the glow faded a little bit when Akagi continued, "At least you aren't making a fool of yourself all the time."

"You're just jealous," Sakuragi informed him.

"Oh, look, there they are!" Ayako said. She started waving again, shouting above the din, "Mitsui-sempai! Rukawa-kun!" Both of them turned at her voice and came towards them. Ayako watched as they came nearer, noticing how a majority of the female half of the crowd gave them second and third looks as they walked past.

"Hey," Mitsui said, giving them a slight smile. Rukawa said nothing.

Ayako looked at all of them, and felt something indefinable in her stomach, like butterflies, maybe, but they were too calm to be butterflies. Caterpillars, perhaps.

She said, "It's really been a long time."

To be continued

The first part of this fic was written a couple months ago, but then I didn't know where to go with it. I even used some of the lines there for another fic, a YYH one. The second part was written during commercial breaks while watching a rerun episode of X-Files, the one, you know, where Ratboy lost his arm. >_<

Comments? Criticisms? Ideas on how to finish it?
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March 99 (uploaded May 99)