Helping Out
Part Six

Rukawa couldn't, in all his years of existence, ever remember a night when he had had any trouble falling asleep.  Usually, he went out like a light the moment his head hit the pillow.  That didn't seem to be the case for that evening.  He couldn't believe it.  He, Rukawa Kaede, he who had mastered the art of sleeping to such a degree that he was able to doze on his bike while pedaling to school, was losing sleep over some guy!  But then Akira Sendo wasn't just some guy.  That was the problem.

He slammed his hand against his bedside lamp, turning it on, and glowered at the rather tattered picture of Akira pinned up on his closet door.  " This is all your fault!"  He declared, pointing his finger at it accusingly.  " Why can't you just stay out of my life anymore?  God!  I'd be the happiest person in the world if I never had to see you again!"  An impossible wish, he knew.  These days, he seemed to be bumping into Sendo or one of his sidekicks everywhere he went.  That Hikoichi, for instance, had a strange knack of turning up in places where he usually would have no business being in.  Places where Rukawa just happened to be.  Now, the thing that was bothering him was whether this was a mere coincidence or not...

" You're getting paranoid.  Of course you'll bump into them once in a while.  This isn't that big a place and the basketball players around here sort of run in the same circle..." With a soft groan, he swung his legs over the side of his bed, got up and walked over to his cluttered desk where he selected a sketchbook that he knew still had some empty pages left.  He sat himself down onto his chair before taking a pencil and flipping open the book to an unfinished picture that he had been working on lately.  It was a present.  For Kogure.

Drawing always relaxed Rukawa.  It was his way of letting out all the pent up emotions that he held within him.  It always took his mind of his problems, and right now, that was all that he really wanted in this world.  He hoped that he would eventually get sleepy after a few minutes of working on the picture that he would present to Kogure as soon as he finished it.  Just a little something to show how much he appreciated him giving up all that time just to try and help him out...

He pulled open the top drawer, and sifted through the stacks of photos looking for one in particular.  Ayako had taken it quite a while ago and he had borrowed it, thinking what a perfect portrait it would make.  It was one of Kogure making a jump shot at one of the games.  "A nice picture..."  He mumbled softly to himself as he examined the perfect lines of the older boy's body.  "A nice guy.  Not like some others out there..."

He pulled the drawer further out and fumbled around in its depths, searching for an envelope that he knew would be there.  Rukawa knew that he was bringing it all out again, but he just couldn't help it.  It seemed as though he was determined to hurt himself, dammit!  He was just opening old wounds.  But even with these thoughts, he pulled the envelope out and pushed open the flap.  " What the hell am I trying to do to myself?"  He wondered out loud as he took out a small pile of photos and began to flip through them, stopping once in a while to stare closely at a particular photo that caught his eye.

There was a baby picture of a little Sendo Akira reaching out towards his reflection in the mirror.  There was a school picture of him, from just this year with a short message at the back that he already knew by heart.  Then there were the ones of the two of them together.  Ones that made him cringe.  He and Akira sitting on a park bench.  Akira had one arm around his shoulders, one of his big, stupid smiles on his face ( a smile which Rukawa didn't actually mind that much when it all came down to it ) while he scowled at the picture taker, trying to squirm out of the older boy's reach.  Then there he was again.  A candid shot of the two of them.  Taken by Hikoichi, that little busybody, he remembered.  He had been having a bad day then, what with Hanamichi and Mitsui trying to outdo each other with ' Ice Prince' jokes, and really hadn't been in the mood when an annoyingly cheerful, as usual, Akira had literally dragged him ( with help from a really big team member of his ) out of his house to accompany him to some sort of carnival.  He had spent the whole time glowering down at his shoes and when Hikoichi had asked the two of them to pose for a picture, he hadn't exactly been that enthusiastic.  So Akira had tried to cajole him into it and Hikoichi had taken a photo of them while the older boy was still trying to talk him into it.  He was standing a few steps away from Akira, kicking at the ground while he looked on, his face had a tired, strained look that one wouldn't expect from him.  That one had been taken only two weeks before the break up...

Rukawa examined Akira's face on the photo carefully.  " I did nothing but make you unhappy..." He whispered softly.  " I think I have that effect on everybody who has anything to do with me..."  Hell, he made his parents unhappy with his strange behavior, after all, his cousins were nothing like him, as his mother always liked to point out.  They smiled.  They spoke.  They had friends.  ' When am I going to meet your friends, Kaede?' his mother had kept on asking.  But when he had introduced them to Akira and they learned of their relationship, they hadn't been pleased at all.  Then Kogure had come along and his mother had been so happy to see him associating with such a nice guy.  Mrs.  Rukawa had never really trusted Akira.  She thought that somebody that cheerful couldn't possibly be for real.

Maybe his mother was right.  Maybe Sendo Akira wasn't the all around nice guy that Rukawa had always thought he was.  After all, would a genuinely nice guy flaunt his new lover around before his ex-boyfriend just to make him see how much he was missing?  He didn't think so.  All the times that he had run into Akira or one of his yes men couldn't have been just a coincidence!  After all, they were seeing even more of each other than they ever had before, even when their relationship had still been hot and going.

There were no genuinely nice guys these days, he decided.  Well...Except maybe for Kogure.  That guy was the exception to that, always doing things with no thoughts of any reward whatsoever.  Always so ready to help.  Kogure was...Kogure was a true friend.

Everyone in the team adored the guy and he could understand why.  Hanamichi and Ryota looked up to him and considered him their big brother, Akagi relied on him to help him out about the team and Mitsui, well, that guy absolutely worshipped the ground that Kogure walked on!

He wished there were more people like that in the world these days...He glanced over to the clock on the wall.  It was two o'clock in the morning.  Kogure was probably asleep.  His gaze fell on his telephone.  But he desperately needed to talk to somebody...Just for a while.  Kogure would understand, he was sure.

He picked up the receiver and began to dial the number that he had memorized by heart.

" Hello?"  This was followed by a loud yawn from Kogure as he hastily put his glasses on.  There was no answer.  " Hello?  Who is this?  Hisashi?  If that's you, this isn't funny.  It's two o'clock a.m.  The two of us have just made peace this afternoon and you wouldn't want that to all go down the drain, would you?"

" Uh, no.  It's me."

" And me would be...?"

" Kaede."

Kogure sat bolt upright on his bed, his cheeks flushing at this.  Kaede! He had never called him at home before!  He smiled giddily, suddenly wide awake.  " Oh, Kaede!  Hey!"

" Kogure...I just couldn't fall asleep."  His voice was low and Kogure had to strain his ears to just hear him.  " I'm sorry for disturbing you but I had to talk to somebody and I couldn't really think of anybody else..."

" Well, don't worry about it.  You've called the right guy." The older boy reassured him as he settled in for  a long conversation.

Kogure glanced at the clock on his bedroom wall as he set down the receiver of his phone.  3:30.  Well, now he knew that Rukawa could be quite talkative when he wanted to be!

" We spent an hour and a half talking about Sendo Akira..."  He muttered to himself as he punched his pillow into shape and pulled his comforter over him.  " Damn that guy!  Why can't he just leave Kaede alone so that he could move on?"

Move on with me, preferably...At this thought, Kogure's eyes flew wide open, thinking of Mitsui and his accusations.   Where had that come from?  ' You're in love with him...'  Mitsui had said that day in his quiet, definite way as though it was the most well known fact in the world.  But that was stupid.  Kaede was a friend, somebody that he needed to help.  There might be some attraction on his part, after all, Kaede was a handsome guy.  He had always had a thing for the tall, dark and handsome types.  But it was just an attraction that one would feel for a beautiful person that you were at close proximity with.  Someone close to you but who you knew you couldn't have.

He'd had a few brief flings in the past few years but he had never fallen in love with anybody since Hisashi.  God.  He had fallen really, really hard for that guy.  At one point, he had been so sure that their relationship would last forever.  Hisashi Mitsui and Kogure Kiminobu together for the rest of their lives, but then it had just fizzled.  It had ended.  But how had it really begun in the first place?

He had been attracted to the young basketball star from the beginning but he had been so sure that nobody like Hisashi, such a talented and beautiful person, would ever fall for such a disgustingly average guy like him that he had given it up from the word go.

Was that what he was doing now?  Was he trying to convince himself that he felt absolutely nothing for Kaede just because he thought that there was no chance of anything happening between them, what with Sendo Akira still very much in Rukawa's mind?  After all, how could he ever compete with star player Sendo Akira?  Hell, there wasn't even any competition.  Sendo would win, hands down.

But then, in the end, it had all worked out for him and Hisashi, hadn't it?  It turned out that nice guys actually got a break once in a while and the two of them had gotten together and had had a blissfully happy year together until they had finally decided that it wouldn't work and had resolved to remain just friends, a decision that both of them now felt was right.

Maybe this time, he would get another break...

He shook his head.  No.  This one would just be too much to ask.  So Kaede turned to him for advice, so he chose to call him up in a ridiculously early hour of the morning just to talk about his problems.  Everybody in the team did that!  It meant absolutely nothing!  After all, he was the listening ear of the Shohuku Basketball club, wasn't he?  Akagi would call him the night before games just to vent out his anxiety, Ryota would call about Ayako, Hanamichi would talk about whatever it was that was frustrating him, Mitsui would fume about the stupidity of that red head ( Though Kogure secretly thought that Mitsui was somewhat attracted to the freshman, what with their matching temperament.  Of course, he didn't lack delicacy, as Hisashi had proven that he did, and broach the subject)  And Rukawa called to talk about an old flame that he just couldn't forget.  Maybe he should start asking for a small fee.  He would have been a millionaire by now...

He sighed.  What to do, what to do?  Why was it that giving advice to other people came so easily for him and yet now, he couldn't think even think of one for himself?