A/N: Something that I had to write to get off my chest. It's a lot of self-reflection, but hopefully, if you're able to stomach it all, it has its moments. Still working on Two Roses, but the inspiration has yet to come.
Sweat. Dripping sweat. Drenched in sweat. Blood rushing. Sneakers screeching. Beep. Beep. Three. Two. One.
The loud horn went off, the clock reached zero, and all that was left was the swish of the hoop and the roar of the crowd. The audience went wild, the commentators in their compartment screaming just as hard as the fans, and the champions pumped their fists with fierce joy, jumping, cheering, whooping.
Yet, even with the rapid current of elation filtering throughout the room, Matsui Jurina wiped the sweat off her brow with a hard edge in her eyes and swept her critical gaze across the mass of people that had formed a mob around the victorious. Then, she turned toward her team; they stared dejectedly around the room, some facing the floor, others frozen at the happy smiles around them. They were defeated in every sense of the word. This was their chance to make it to the nationals, and they blew it, blew it by a long shot. 105 to 68. The basketball rolled lifelessly into her ankle, and she bent down and picked it up, playing with it in her fingers.
Somehow, she should have been right there along with her team, but all she felt was empty. Empty, hollow, sure that she would have felt the same had they won. It made no difference to her whether or not they had achieved the victory. She didn't care. Couldn't care. Not anymore.
When was the last time she had fun playing the sport? When was the last time she saw approval in her parents' eyes? It used to be enjoyable, exhilarating, worthwhile. Every win, every trophy, every cheer was worth fighting for. But now? What was the point?
Ever since her coaches began pushing for more, giving her half-empty congratulations when she won and yelling sessions when she lost (because it was all about her, not the team, and she was sick of the pressure, sick of the responsibility, sick of her teammates glaring at her behind her back), the game was meaningless. The hours upon hours of practice blurred into one another, and for all her work, she felt as if her skill hadn't improved one single bit. In fact, she felt as if she had regressed, and that every minute spent working was spent making her regret she ever started playing basketball.
There used to be a thrill in her body that made her feel alive, feel like her insides were bursting with life, when she picked up the rough orange ball. Now, as the ball lightly passed between her fingertips, she felt sick. And the ball fell from her hands, bouncing up and down a few times before the momentum disappeared and the ball rolled away across the shiny gym floor.
She and her team shuffled across the floor and into the locker rooms, silence reigning over the group. The coaches said nothing for once, simply because there was nothing to say. The season was over, and, besides, Jurina was graduating anyway. Grating metal and harsh slams rung as the team hurried to change and leave, Jurina herself moving the slowest of them all because she saw no point in moving faster. Eventually, she was the only one left in the rows of dull grey lockers and, slamming the door to hers shut, she plopped down on the wooden bench that laid in between every row.
“It's over. Finished,” she sighed, taking her white towel and wiping the sweat from her face and neck. “And now what?”
The rumble of air conditioning going through the vents above her head was the only answer she received. She sat blankly on the bench for a few more minutes, mind blissfully blank after the adrenaline started leaving her system, and focused without seeing on the knob of the locker in front of her face. Then, she forced herself up, heaved her workout bag over her shoulder, and pushed the door to the exit open.
“Ah! Excuse me!” a gentle voice cried. Startled, Jurina instinctively jumped backwards and away from the person. “Oh, I'm so sorry! I didn't mean to scare you! Oh, oh, um...”
Jurina stared at the flustered woman who was frantically waving her thin arms around in confusion and stuttering with every wave. Her red glasses, sitting neatly in front of wide, beautiful brown eyes, accentuated the small mole on her left cheek, and all Jurina could do was stare, stare, stare. The woman was dressed casually in a pair of jeans that hugged her in all the right places and a red blouse that matched her eye-wear (which Jurina thought was rather cute), and if the basketball player had to guess, the woman looked to be in her early twenties. She continued to stare, and eventually, the woman calmed down and stared right back at her.
“U-um, I- I am... I mean-” The woman swallowed nervously, and Jurina found her lips curving in an amused smirk. “You're Matsui Jurina, right?”
She couldn't help herself; the basketball player laughed. “Yeah, the one and only. What can I do for a beautiful woman such as yourself?” She cocked an eyebrow and stood up a little straighter, ignoring the weight of her bag and the fact that she was a stinky, sweaty mess. The woman, however, didn't seem to take note of Jurina's less-than-perfect appearance and flushed.
“I- I'm M- Matsui Rena,” she squeaked. “I watched y- your game and found it interesting that we... share the same surname.”
Jurina saw her jersey in her mind's eye and recalled the black lettering above the red number 5. “Huh. Sorry you had to see that mess of a game, then.”
The woman, Rena, adopted only a look of light incomprehension and said, “Mess? I thought you were quite good. You didn't win the game, but you ran your plays right and you even snuck a couple points in there. That one three you had was amazing! The way you let that play run and had your teammate get triple-teamed in the paint while you waited- Oh, oh, I'm so sorry, I'm gushing aren't I, I can't even-”
Jurina blinked rapidly a couple times, and her mouth fell slightly open. Holding a hand up to stop the outflow of words from Rena's mouth, she fought for her voice. “Err, I don't mean to be offending, but... you seem to know a lot more about basketball than what you look like you do. You don't exactly fit the... typical fan image.”
Rena flushed even more. “I'm sorry-”
“And you don't need to keep apologizing. Seriously, it's okay,” Jurina chuckled, and Rena gulped and wrung her hands.
“O- Okay. To answer your question, my ex-boyfriend was a huge fan, so I kind of got sucked in as well,” she shyly explained. Jurina felt her curiosity perk up at the mention of an ex, but she didn't pry. “I just saw that... Well, I heard that... Um... There was going to be a game here, so before I knew it, I was already paying for a ticket and watching you girls play.”
“I see. Thank you for coming,” Jurina smiled. Rena didn't look like she would stop blushing anytime soon. “I didn't realize I had fans, though. Is it just our surnames that interested you?”
The woman shook her head (seriously, would this woman stop being so cute). “N- No, actually... Um... At first, your name caught my attention but your playing was amazing and I was seriously impressed, but what I wanted to say was wouldyoupleasegoandhaveadrinkwithme?”
It took a couple seconds for Jurina to decipher what was said. “Uh, drink? Sorry, but uh... You might be of age, but I am still playing high school basketball. I could go for a smoothie though. Would you like to come with?” With her smooth rescue, Jurina thought she just did a pretty good job of salvaging Rena's pride in addition to getting herself a hot girl. For an almost-date, anyway. After Rena flushed a little more and nodded, the two were out of the building and in the dusk of the city, chatting idly about the weather, more basketball, where they would be going for those smoothies (Jurina knew the best place for those), some more basketball, and then they were in the shop and ordering their drinks.
“Melon-flavored smoothies? They have those?” Jurina asked, eyebrows scrunched together as she looked over at Rena.
“You could do better than just plain old strawberry, Jurina,” Rena shot back. They mock-glared at one another before Jurina chuckled and then they were both shaking with mirth. Their drinks came quickly, and they both sat down by the table near the front windows of the shop, sipping through straws and continuing their conversation. Soon, Jurina was spewing out childhood stories, and Rena egged her on and on, eager to learn more about the younger girl.
“So I said to her, 'Don't do it', so of course she goes and does it, and then five seconds later, she's being mauled by a pack of flying geese, and they're all pecking at her head!” Jurina roared with laughter while Rena giggled into her hand. “Enough about me, though. What about you, Rena? What was your childhood like?”
“Me?” Rena seemed surprised that Jurina would take an interest in her. “Well... Nothing exciting, I don't think. I got interested in programming somehow, and I self-taught myself for a while before taking a couple classes. I'm... a pretty big nerd, you could say.” Rena looked to be in a defensive position as she confessed the fact, Jurina observed, and she knew that the older woman must have been ridiculed for her hobbies and passions often in the past.
“A nerd?” she prodded. Rena nodded.
“I love anime and manga too. I was never really an active sports participant because I don't really have the body for it, so I picked up what I could,” she confessed, fiddling with her straw.
“Ah. I guess I'm the opposite then. I could never sit still as a kid, so my mom let me do all sorts of sports until I had to choose. One thing led to another, and I ended up on the middle school basketball team and that led to high school. So here I am now.” Jurina swept her arms around and extended her arms out to the side, her body language speaking for her. Rena stared at her for a moment before smiling gently and knowingly. Jurina had changed what was a sore subject for her and directed the attention elsewhere. However, what they both didn't know was that the subject had now been changed to a sore one for Jurina.
“You don't sound... particularly happy about your choice, Jurina,” Rena quietly stated. Jurina froze like a deer in headlights, and she fumbled for a response.
“Well, I mean, I was... I was always better at running, track and field and stuff. My parents pushed for basketball though, since... since it was easier for me to get a scholarship. Though now that's kind of a failed plan because of tonight.” Jurina chuckled bitterly to herself and sipped at her smoothie. She couldn't bear to look at Rena's face, for fear of disappointment or even disgust to see that her basketball hero was such a loser, a failure who didn't love her sport. She was surprised at what the woman said next.
“Would you go back in time and change your choice if you could?” There was no accusatory tone in her voice. There was only understanding and a softness that Jurina couldn't believe she was hearing.
“Honestly? Honestly... I...”
And she turned away and looked out the window. She thought back to freshman year, trying out for the team and learning for the first time what really working for a sport felt like. What crying tears of frustration felt like, but always overcoming the frustration and becoming more skilled because of her efforts. What making friends and comrades felt like, even though the ones she valued had graduated the previous year. What pride felt like when she looked at the trophies lining her wall. What happiness felt like when the ball went through the net with a clean swish and the crowd roared and the score went up by two or three and her teammates were smacking her in the back and she felt her mouth curve into a smirk-
Because maybe that was all she ever needed to play. The feeling of the ball leaving her fingertips, the confident feeling the split second it left because she knew it was going to go in, that there was never any doubt otherwise. She had forgotten. Forgotten the simple joy of letting it fly and hearing that swish (that oh-so-wonderful swish) and maybe that was why she stopped playing the way she used to play. It was because she forgot that she could have fun, that her parents and her coaches and all their damn expectations could go to hell for all she cared. That she played for herself and no one else and that it was her sport and no one else's.
“Maybe... I still would've picked basketball.”
Rena beamed at the girl. The woman, in her mind, cheered as she saw that she had accomplished her goal. “Then maybe you could consider playing some more?”
Jurina looked over at the woman (who she now owed a lot to because her drive to play was back and it was there to stay) and raised an eyebrow. “But... my high school career is done.”
Rena reached across the table and grasped Jurina's hand, causing both of them to flush (oh, she so knew there was mutual attraction and if Rena was there watching maybe playing basketball would be that much more exhilarating). “I'm sorry I didn't tell you this earlier – and please don't think I met with you for this purpose only – but I am actually a college professor. At your top college choice. I have nothing to do with the basketball program there, and it just so happened by chance that I found you after reading your application. I saw the look on your face after your game, and I... I- I knew that expression. So college aside, I just... w- wanted to help you.”
Jurina shoved the college business aside and concentrated on what Rena hinted at. “You knew the look on my face?” she asked. Rena stayed silent and closed her eyes. “Okay, sore subject. I'll... back off.”
“I'm sorry, Jurina. Maybe another day,” she painfully smiled. “I- In any case, I know the head basketball coach, and I can definitely get you that scholarship you wanted. If you'd like, of course. It's all up to you whether or not you still want to play.”
And Jurina stared, stunned, speechless, head in the clouds (cloud nine, to be precise), and inhaled sharply. “You can do that for me? No, no wait, that's not what I wanted to ask. You'd want to do that for me? Why?”
“Because... because... something tells me that the effort to reach out to you will be worthwhile.” Rena smiled. That sent Jurina over the edge.
She reached across the table, cupped Rena's chin, and kissed her full on the lips without hesitation. As she pulled away, she looked into Rena's eyes (oh, they were glistening so wonderfully in the lights of the city) and breathlessly answered, “Then if you'll have me bothering you for the next four years, I'd love to play basketball again.”
Then they both dove in for round two, and Jurina had never felt more fulfilled in her life. Basketball had definitely been the right choice, and though she had to hit a rough spot to get here, all she had to do was concentrate on the delicate (sweet, oh so sweet) lips on hers to forget the emptiness and her parents and her coaches and the expectations and-
“W- We're causing a s- scene-”
“Shhh, to hell with them. Five years from now, they can say they saw the basketball star Matsui Jurina making out with her hot college professor before she became a national basketball icon.”
And when Jurina woke up the next morning, she stunned her household by continuing to keep up her basketball warm ups and workouts. The ball in her hands sent electricity running up her spine, and she knew that Matsui Jurina was back (back with a new contact in her cell phone and an awesome girlfriend that she would never let go of). Time to win.