lysapadin: pen & ink painting of bamboo against a full moon (Default)
[personal profile] lysapadin
Title: Can't Hold On, Can't Let Go
Characters: Aomine, Momoi, Kuroko, Imayoshi, Kagami, Kise, Akashi
Summary: This is the one where Aomine is the one who has to find a way to reach Kuroko and persuade him that basketball can be fun, instead of vice versa.
Notes: General audiences. No pairings here, but in my head, this is totally AoKuro pre-slash. Title adapted from Cloud Cult's song "Best Friend." 43,647 words.

A while back, I solicited drabble prompts over on Tumblr. This fic comes from a prompt from [ profile] skyfireflies asking to see to see what would have happened if Kuroko had gone to Touou with Aomine and Momoi. As I said then, it was the kind of thing that I couldn't imagine having happened without a couple of things changing... and that it was the kind of thing that really needed to be more than a drabble. Yep, I was right.

My thanks to Branch and Andrea and Traci for reading the draft of this beast as I was putting it together and for cheerleading and providing feedback as I worked. It would not be the fic it is without them.

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five


Can't Hold On, Can't Let Go

Part One

Satsuki must have known—Satsuki always knew everything, it was what she did—but Daiki had been in high school for a solid two weeks before he realized that Tetsu was at Touou, too.

He found out by accident, when he rounded a corner too fast and slammed right into someone and knocked him down. Daiki was complaining and apologizing and reaching a hand down to pull the guy up before it sank in that that was Tetsu's face over the school blazer and tie, Tetsu's flat expression gazing back at him.

"What the hell." Daiki was startled enough that he forgot, a little, that he was helping Tetsu up and just held onto his hand instead. "What are you doing here, Tetsu?"

"Going to class." Tetsu pulled his fingers out of Daiki's hand, like he was annoyed at something, and stooped to pick up his books. "Excuse me, I don't want to be late."

He left Daiki blinking and confused, standing in the hallway while the last few students in the hall scurried to get to class on time, and—that was strange, wasn't it? Akashi had been pretty clear about it when he'd given his final orders. They were all supposed to go to different high schools and different teams, for all the good that was going to do them.

Huh. Daiki rubbed his chin and headed up to the roof to catch a nap, wondering about that and trying to remember whether Tetsu had actually been there for that meeting or not (Tetsu had been absent more than not, towards the end).

Maybe he'd go to basketball practice that afternoon for a change, he decided. If Tetsu was at Touou, that might at least make things a little less boring.

He didn't catch up with Satsuki until practice, when he ambled in and dropped an arm around her shoulder while she talked to Imayoshi-san. "Hey, Satsuki, why didn't you say that Tetsu was here?"

Imayoshi-san's smile didn't even flicker, which was a little bit unnerving and set Daiki's Akashi-senses to tingling. "Aomine-kun, how good of you to join us for practice."

"Yeah, yeah." Daiki was more interested in Satsuki and the way she was biting her lip than Imayoshi-san, tingling Akashi-senses or no. "What gives, Satsuki?"

"I don't know," Satsuki said. The weird thing was, she seemed to be telling the truth. "I really don't know."

That was unusual, but then, Satsuki had been kind of weird and emotional for a while now. Daiki shrugged that off and looked around, craning his head as he searched for a short, pale figure in among the rest of Touou's players. "So where is he, anyway? It's not like him to be late."

Satsuki looked up at him, biting all the color out of her lip, and it was Imayoshi-san who said, "Are you talking about Kuroko Tetsuya? I seem to recall hearing that he went and joined the literature club."

Daiki stared at them both, baffled. "The fuck?" he said. "You're joking, right?"

But they weren't joking at all.

Daiki would have dropped everything then and there to go find Tetsu and demand to know what the hell was going on, but he'd made one fatal error, which was permitting himself to come within arm's length of Imayoshi-san. The guy smiled at him until Daiki was genuinely unnerved and cheerfully folded him into practice despite Daiki's protests that he had more important things to do. "You wouldn't leave again so soon after gracing us with your presence, would you?" he asked, right before setting Daiki to running laps with the rest of the team.

Daiki was beginning to suspect that Imayoshi-san could be one sarcastic son of a bitch when he put his mind to it.

He jittered his way through the laps and then the drills—hah, fucking drills, like he needed more of those in his life—and then a couple of practice matches that were good for one thing, anyway—they gave him a chance to show the rest of the club just what Aomine Daiki could do and why going to practice was so boring these days. Kantoku drew up the teams and put Daiki in with the four first-years who weren't awful. Then he stood back and looked thoughtful while Daiki worked out some of his frustrations by beating the pants off the second-years and then the third-years. By the time he was done, the rest of the club was looking at him differently—well, fuck it, he was used to that, wasn't he? He could count the number of people who'd played on the same court as him and hadn't come away shocked and awed on his fingers and still have fingers left over. So whatever. At least they could stop giving him nasty looks when they saw him in the halls now that he'd made the difference in their respective levels clear.

It was late by the time Kantoku and Imayoshi-san called an end to practice—late enough that Daiki looked at the time in disgust, sure that Tetsu had long since left campus for the day. He cornered Satsuki instead, bumping his shoulder up against hers (Satsuki could get awfully irritable about being assaulted by sweatmonsters after practice) and said, "You and me, we're walking home together, got it?"

"Hey, you can't just—" one of the second-years, Daiki thought his name was Wakaba or Watanabe or something like that—began to protest, like he thought Satsuki couldn't damn well take care of herself or something.

Satsuki forestalled him by sighing and tucking her hair behind her ear. "Yes, Dai-chan." It shut Waka-whatsit right up, even if Daiki didn't much like the way Satsuki looked worried around the eyes.

Wasn't like there weren't things to be worried over. Tetsu didn't belong in any damn literature club.

Halfway through his shower, it occurred to Daiki that maybe Tetsu had chosen the literature club because of Akashi's final orders. He stuck his head under the spray while he considered that possibility. Akashi had been clear about it. They were all supposed to have split up and gone to different teams and become enemies. Or something like that. Akashi could be awfully melodramatic when he put his mind to it.

If that was what it was, Akashi was just going to have to suck it. (Daiki felt vaguely weird thinking it, but whatever. Akashi was in Kyoto now, he couldn't do anything to Daiki from all the way out there.) Tetsu was at Touou, so he was going to play for Touou and that was all there was to that.

Daiki nodded in determination, toweled himself off briskly and pulled on his street clothes, and went to find Satsuki.

She was sitting just inside the gym doors, her mouth tucked down at the corners and her hands folded tight in front of her, and she climbed to her feet slowly. Daiki guessed she must have figured some of what was up, anyway.

"Okay," he said once they were outside in the cool night air. "What the hell is going on?"

She didn't bother trying to play dumb. "Tetsu-kun quit basketball," she said, pretty flatly for someone delivering news of the impossible.

"No way. "Daiki laughed, because come on, it was impossible. "There's no way. Tetsu wouldn't quit basketball. Tetsu loves basketball."

Satsuki walked half a block with him before she answered that. "I don't... I don't think that's really true anymore." Her voice was quiet. "In fact, I'd probably say the opposite."

The opposite? The opposite was—Daiki laughed again, uneasy. "Are we even talking about the same guy? Practiced late every night? Played first-string for Teikou? Small, kind of quiet, definitely on the snarky side?"

"I know who I'm talking about." Satsuki's tone was flat, the way it got any time someone questioned a conclusion she was sure of. "Just how many matches do you remember Tetsu-kun playing at the end?"

"Hell, I dunno, I've slept since then." Daiki cast his mind back anyway, thinking about it, the Winter Cup still only a handful of months past, not difficult to recall even if he complained about it—okay, sure, he'd been pretty distracted right there at the end, but even so, Tetsu's absences for those final games did stand out, didn't they? In retrospect and all. "I figured that it was something Akashi cooked up with the coaches. You know, Finals and stuff." Although if that had been the case, Tetsu should have been on the bench, cheering the rest of them on. Well, saying sarcastic things in perfectly polite ways to spur them on. Tetsu's way of being supportive was subtle like that.

"Dai-chan, did you really not notice?" Satsuki turned a reproachful look on him. "He quit the club."

"No way." He scoffed because Satsuki was just teasing him now, she had to be. "There's no way Tetsu would do that." Even the one time he'd talked about it, he hadn't really wanted to quit, he'd just gotten a little discouraged, at least until Daiki'd talked him back out of it. And then the rest of them had come in and Akashi had seen Tetsu's potential, and that had been that.

Satsuki made a sound, frustrated, and smacked his shoulder. "Stop saying that," she told him—yeah, she was angry now. "Listen to what I'm telling you. Tetsu-kun quit. He stopped coming to games. He's a member of the literature club. He said—"

She stopped; Daiki had to ask, "What did he say?" and nudge his shoulder up against hers before she would go on.

When she did, her voice was small and sad, and so was her expression. "He said that he hated basketball."

"He said that?" Daiki asked, not quite able to bring himself to believe it, even if Satsuki really did seem to be serious. "Really, Tetsu said that to you?" It just didn't seem possible, but Satsuki nodded. "But why?"

Satsuki turned her face up to him, frowning. "That's what I was hoping you could tell me."

"Why should I know?" Daiki demanded, with the words Tetsu said he hated basketball bouncing around inside his skull and making precisely no sense at all. There was no way a guy like Tetsu, who'd practiced relentlessly night after night, could possibly hate basketball. Satsuki must have misunderstood somehow (even if Daiki normally had unshakeable faith in her powers of perception, she had to be wrong now).

"Weren't you his friend?" Satsuki asked, simple enough, but—what did she mean by going and making it sound like it was all over and done with? "I thought that maybe he would have said something to you when he stopped going to matches, or at least when he turned in his resignation. But I guess he didn't, if you didn't even notice."

Daiki winced away from the complete lack of censure in her tone. Somehow that was worse than if she'd actually started scolding him right there on the street. "Aw, c'mon, Satsuki, I was busy!"

"I know that." Satsuki went quiet, expression downcast. "I know, and I'm glad you were—really glad, all that's been good for you, but..." Her voice trailed off. "I don't know. I just don't know."

Sounded an awful lot like she did know to Daiki, or at least had some suspicions. He jammed his hands into his pockets and braced himself. "But...?"

This time she wouldn't say any more than that. She shook her head as they came to their station and shifted the subject. "Are you going to talk to him?"

"Damn right I'm going to talk to him." Daiki bumped his shoulder against hers again, since she looked so worried and all. "I'll find him tomorrow or something and get him all sorted out, and get him on the team where he belongs. Hey, do you think Akashi is going to be pissed about that?"

"I think that Akashi-kun is the least of our concerns right now," Satsuki told him, but she wouldn't tell him what had made her go and say a foreboding thing like that, no matter how much Daiki pushed for it.

But it didn't matter, really, he reasoned. She was right. First he had to get Tetsu back where he belonged, and then they could figure out how to deal with whatever Akashi was going to have to say about that. (Hey, if Tetsu really had quit the team, then Akashi couldn't have given him any orders about high school, right...? Daiki considered how Akashi was likely to receive that argument and snorted. Yeah. Right.)

The problem, Daiki quickly found, was that talking to Tetsu was a lot easier said than done. He was supposed to be in class 1-B, but whenever Daiki went by there before school, after school, or at lunch, Tetsu was nowhere in evidence. Daiki was very sure of that, even taking Tetsu's ability to fade into the background into consideration. He'd had lots of practice in working around that, hadn't he? But Tetsu was a distinct non-presence every time Daiki went looking for him.

Daiki kept that up for the better part of a week anyway, figuring that he would either get lucky and find Tetsu or that Tetsu would get tired of dodging him and find him first, if only to tell him to knock it off. In the meantime, Daiki also went to practice a few more times, because he had to keep his hand in. Besides, he liked the way it made Wakamatsu grind his teeth every time he walked onto the court. Besides, Imayoshi-san seemed to get a kick out of coming up with sweetly sarcastic things to say every time he showed up, and Daiki could always hope that Tetsu would come back to his senses and switch over to the basketball club.

But Tetsu remained stubbornly elusive. "I don't get it, Satsuki," Daiki complained during his second week of trying and failing to find Tetsu. "If I didn't know any better, I'd say that he was avoiding me."

Satsuki bit her lip, which was pretty much never a good sign, and said, "Have you tried the literature club meetings?"

"Not yet." That was a good suggestion. Tetsu would pretty much have to be there, wouldn't he? "Where do they meet?" he asked, beginning to plot how best to extract Tetsu from the clutches of the book nerds.

He came up with a pretty good plan, or so he thought. The literature club did its thing on Thursday afternoons in the library, which made sense. Daiki cut his last class of the day and made like it was so he could go grab a nap on the sunny roof, but went to the library instead. He spent a pretty lively hour dodging through the stacks and avoiding the librarian, who had the damnedest idea that Daiki ought to have been in class or something. Eventually the school day ended and the guy gave it up for a lost cause and retreated to his office to make himself a cup of tea or do whatever it was librarians did when they weren't harassing innocent students. Daiki concealed himself in the stacks near the library doors and the long work tables that were probably where the book nerds would congregate, and settled in to wait for them and Tetsu.

It was exasperating beyond all measure when the book nerds finally showed up, at least fifty percent female and all a-twitter, because they'd brought Kise with them.

It seemed almost normal for a split second. Daiki didn't even know how many times he'd seen Kise wandering around Teikou or a rival school's campus or even one of the arenas where playoffs were being hosted, surrounded by a flock of his fans and doing that thing with them. ("That thing?" Satsuki had asked once, laughing at him. Daiki had tried to describe it, the way Kise smiled and nodded and ducked his head, modest but not, flirting with his fans. Tetsu had gotten it; he'd nodded and said, "Yes, that thing." The only surprise was that Satsuki hadn't gotten it right off herself, but then, maybe she wasn't wholly immune to Kise's supposed charms.) Then Daiki blinked and shook his head, because this wasn't normal at all. There was no reason at all for Kise to be standing in Touou's library, wearing what either had to be Kaijou's school uniform or else the least flattering suit Daiki had ever seen on him and courting a bunch of feather-brained girls who actually thought that Kise's pretty face was the thing about him that was interesting.

Daiki was just about to step out from his hiding place, the plan to ambush Tetsu forgotten in the powerful urge to demand an explanation from Kise, when Tetsu himself entered the library and stopped short upon seeing Kise there. Tetsu never had been one for showing much of what he was thinking—he was too self-contained for that—but Daiki had played with him enough to be able to read the surprise on his face, and the displeasure, too. (But why wouldn't Tetsu be glad to see Kise? Weren't they friends?)

Kise gave a glad cry, though. "Kurokocchi!" He beamed at Tetsu, bright as a sunbeam; Daiki was surprised that the windows didn't rattle with the force of the sighs that gusted out of his fangirls. "Just the person that I wanted to see!" He smiled at the girls clustered around him, doing that thing of his at full power. Daiki thought that a couple of them looked ready to faint at his feet. "I'm so sorry to cut this short, but will you excuse me? There are some things I need to talk over with Kurokocchi."

Tetsu didn't much look like he wanted to talk over anything at all, at least if Daiki were reading the faint tightening of his mouth and the set of his eyebrows correctly, but that didn't seem to matter to Kise. Or to the female book nerds, who cooed and swept out of the library, dragging their bewildered masculine counterparts with them—"But where are we going?" one of them protested as he was dragged off. "It's our library!" But no one paid attention to him.

Then it was just Tetsu, and Kise, and Daiki in his lurking place in the stacks.

Kise immediately boosted himself onto one of the long work tables that filled the area between the circulation desk and the library doors and smiled at Tetsu. "What, aren't you even going to say hello, Kurokocchi? We haven't seen each other in ages."

"What are you doing here?" Tetsu asked, blunt as ever. "It's a long trip from Kanagawa."

Kise pulled a face, maybe not as melodramatic as the one he would have pulled if he'd still had an audience to play to. "I came to see you, of course." He leaned back on his hands, still smiling, maybe waiting for Tetsu to respond. When Tetsu didn't, he went on. "I'm here to steal you, if I can."

What? If it hadn't been for the fact that he was honestly curious about how Tetsu was going to respond to that, Daiki would have burst forth from his hiding spot then and there to tell Kise to get his ass back to Kaijou and stop trying to poach his teammate.

Tetsu stared at Kise, who smiled back, perfectly serene. "I don't play basketball anymore."

Until that moment, a part of Daiki had honestly believed that Satsuki had been mistaken, that what she'd said about Tetsu had been wrong somehow—but there was no way for him to misinterpret the words out of Tetsu's mouth or the resolute tone of his voice. Tetsu meant that, what the fuck.

It felt like being punched; Daiki put a hand out and leaned against the nearest book shelf.

Kise either didn't know Tetsu well enough or deliberately chose to ignore the finality of that statement. He laughed. "What, so you can be in the literature club? C'mon, Kurokocchi, how much fun can that be?"

"I enjoy it," Tetsu said, calmly. "It's certainly more intellectually stimulating."

Kise flattened his hand over his heart. "You're so mean sometimes! Honestly." He shook his head. "Come to Kaijou. Play basketball with me there. It's a great team, and the school's not bad either, if you're after intellectual stimulation."

"No," Tetsu said, tone flat.

"Aw, come on," Kise whined. "You don't honestly want to waste yourself here, do you? This is stupid, you know that."

Daiki bristled automatically—Tetsu couldn't waste himself on anything—and Tetsu said, tone chilly, "I didn't ask for your opinion, did I?" It sounded perfectly calm, even reasonable, but—holy fuck, Tetsu was pissed. Daiki didn't have to be smart like Satsuki was to figure out that it wasn't just having his literature club called stupid that had Tetsu so angry, either.

Kise wasn't actually dumb, no matter how he liked to act. He straightened up and raised his hands. "Hey, hey, geez, don't be like that," he said, quick, placating. "You know I didn't mean it like that. But come on, you know you don't have to do this to yourself. Come to Kaijou and play with me. I promise I won't be like Aominecchi."

What? What? What the hell did Kise mean by that? For crying out loud, Kise made it sound like it was Daiki's fault that Tetsu had decided to quit basketball or something—and that didn't even make sense.

As Daiki wracked his brain, trying to make some kind of sense of that, Tetsu gave Kise a long look, one that actually was a lot like Akashi when he was trying to figure something—someone—out. "I find that difficult to believe. You're still chasing him just as hard as you can." Tetsu's tone was dead level. "Do you really want to play with me, or do you just think that I can help you catch him?"

Daiki flinched back from that almost as hard as Kise did, even if Kise immediately laughed, stuttering and nervous. "You make me sound awful, Kurokocchi. I know you're mad that Aominecchi went and found somebody new to play with, but you don't have to take it out on the rest of us." He paused a moment, looking thoughtful. "If you really feel that way about it, that's why you should come to Kaijou. You and I can show Aominecchi what he's been missing out on."

What—what? It sounded like Kise was talking about—but—that didn't even make sense, why would Tetsu be pissed about that? He'd told Daiki to hang on himself, hadn't he? Daiki remembered it clearly, the sticky cold of Tetsu's ice cream melting down his spine and Tetsu's urgency—how he'd insisted that it was still worth it to play, that there would be something worth playing for—and he'd been right after all. Tetsu had been right, even though Daiki hadn't met Kagami during the Winter Cup but on the street courts instead. It didn't really matter, the important part was that Tetsu had been right all along, and that there was still plenty of reason to keep playing. Still plenty of joy in the game.

Except—Tetsu didn't sound like he believed that anymore. He was looking at Kise, expression closed-off and shuttered, and his voice was cold when he said, "No, I don't think so. Goodbye, Kise-kun." He turned and walked out without any more ceremony than that.

Kise whistled between his teeth after the door closed after Tetsu, while Daiki leaned against the shelves and reeled. "Well, damn. So much for that." He slid down from his perch on the table. "Stupid Aominecchi."

Before Daiki could get enough of a grip on himself to ask what that meant, someone opened the door and peered into the room. She squealed. "Oh! It really is you!"

Kise immediately shifted back into gleaming smiles for her and the string of friends she brought with her, who clustered around him with questions to ask and things for him to sign and followed after him when he began moving for the door. He was gone before Daiki had even begun to figure out how he wanted to react to the conversation he'd overheard.

There was really only one thing Daiki could do in a situation like this. He straightened up and ran a hand over his face, and then he went to find Satsuki.

Satsuki listened to Daiki's recounting of what had passed between Kise and Tetsu with a furrowed brow and her teeth set against her lip and didn't even complain at him for having come to practice to extract her before the club was dismissed for the day. That had been a show of extreme patience on her part, not least because both Kantoku and Imayoshi-san had been very expressive with their eyebrows. (Daiki had heard Imayoshi-san remark, "I'm starting to be really interested in this Kuroko-kun" on his and Satsuki's way out the door, which was going to have to be something to worry about later.) Not that Daiki cared about them, not when Kise had tried to poach Tetsu and Tetsu had—Tetsu had—

"He didn't, did he?" Daiki asked Satsuki. "He wouldn't have quit basketball just because of Kagami—would he?"

He'd brought the question to her, hoping that she would tell him that it wasn't so, or even better, laugh at him for asking it, but she didn't do either. She looked aside instead and fidgeted with the zipper of her jacket. "I don't really know," she said finally. "I can't say for sure—he won't talk about it. He won't talk about anything—not with me." She stopped then, surprising Daiki with the look of misery on her face, more than he'd realized she was even feeling over this.

He'd thought—been under the impression, anyway—that Tetsu was at least still talking to Satsuki. But maybe he wasn't. Maybe he was avoiding both of them.

That pissed Daiki off. Tetsu could be as angry as he wanted to be about—whatever it was that had gotten under his skin—but there was no reason at all for him to take it out on Satsuki.

Yeah, he was definitely going to have to do something about this. "Do you think Kise was right?"

Satsuki looked up at him; her expression was drawn. "I don't know," she said again. "I really don't know, Dai-chan."

Right. It was time to go find Tetsu and figure this thing out, by whatever means was necessary. Daiki excused himself and headed back for the library, since the afternoon was young and the literature club's meetings ran for a couple of hours.

Maybe he shouldn't have been surprised when he went back to the library and found that Tetsu wasn't there, but Daiki was—at least until the surprise shifted over into irritation when one of the book nerds said, "Kuroko-kun sure is popular today, isn't he?"

There was nothing for it but to go home and stew. Daiki toyed with the idea of sending Kagami a message and seeing whether he was free for a game or three, but Satsuki had forbidden doing that during the school week. "You two idiots need all the academic help you can get," she'd told them both at the start of the school year. "You can't go calling each other up at all hours of the night while school is in session. I forbid it. Weekend games only." It was definitely too soon to test that decree, no matter how badly Daiki wanted to play someone who could push him hard enough to make it easy to let go into the game.

He played against himself instead, taking over the street court near his house, dribbling and cutting past a phantom opponent who was as fast as Kise and tall as Murasakibara, precise like Midorima and sharp like Akashi—and as full of potential as Kagami, yeah, someone who grew with every basket he missed and every ball that got stolen away from him. That guy didn't ever give up, sort of like Tetsu—

Daiki slammed the ball through the hoop and dangled from it for a second before he let himself drop to the court. He couldn't say that any more, could he? Tetsu had given up, by the sounds of it. Tetsu had given up, and that was like saying that the sun had decided to rise in the west or that Midorima had suddenly developed people skills. It just wasn't possible.

So much for what was possible.

He cut his last class again on Friday afternoon and spent most of that time on the roof, staring at the horizon and trying to figure out what he was going to say to Tetsu, how he was going to fix whatever was wrong and get Tetsu to snap out of it. He got about as far on that as he had during a night of restless sleep, which was not far at all. Whatever. He was good at improvising, wasn't he?

He went back downstairs a few minutes before the final bell of the school day and planted himself outside 1-B, taking care that he couldn't be seen from inside the classroom, and waited. Eventually the bell went and the end-of-the-day bustle began—people packing up their bags and helping clean the classroom, clustering in groups to talk or to head home or to clubs. Daiki watched the classroom door and ignored everything but the people who exited it, singly or in twos or threes, none of them of any interest whatsoever once he'd assured himself that none of them were Tetsu or concealing Tetsu in their midst. The minutes passed; the flow of them finally dwindled and stopped, and Tetsu still had not emerged.

Fine. At lunch, Satsuki had said that Tetsu was definitely at school. He generally didn't cut classes without a good reason. So, by process of elimination... Daiki came away from his spot next to the classroom door and went inside.

Tetsu was waiting for him. That was the only way to interpret the way he was sitting on a desk at the back of the classroom, watching the door. He was sitting very straight, hands folded in his lap, and his face was so still that Daiki couldn't read anything off him at all. He paused on the classroom's threshold, disconcerted, then came the rest of the way to meet him. "You're a hard man to track down, Tetsu."

"Am I?" Sometimes Tetsu could say things without putting any inflection at all into it, nothing to show what he was thinking. This was one of those times. He watched as Daiki came over and took a seat on the desk next to his and did not say anything else.

So it was up to him to do the talking? Daiki could handle that. "Yep, you are." Kise had been casual, had made a lot of jokes, all things considered, and that hadn't worked very well. So he would be direct. "So I figure you've been avoiding me. And you've quit playing basketball. What gives, Tetsu?"

Tetsu's expression barely even flickered. "Basketball isn't fun anymore." He said it quietly, a statement of fact rather than opinion. "Why should I keep playing?"

It still rocked Daiki back to hear that, even after listening to Tetsu and Kise and after hearing from Satsuki that Tetsu had said he hated basketball. "I don't understand," he said, bewildered by Tetsu's composure. "How can it not be fun anymore? It's still basketball."

Tetsu's mouth tightened. "Why don't you tell me?" Then, when Daiki blinked in confusion, he shook his head. "Never mind." He unclasped his hands and reached for his bag.

Oh, no. They weren't done yet, not by a long shot. Daiki sat up and reached across the narrow aisle to grab Tetsu's wrist and stop him.

Tetsu gave him a look that was plenty full of clear feeling then. "Let go."

"No way." Daiki hung on even when Tetsu tried to shake his hand free. "For crying out loud, you blew off Kise and you've stopped talking to Satsuki, and you quit basketball. What the hell is wrong with you?"

Tetsu stopped trying to pull free and stared at him. "There's nothing wrong with me."

His voice was like an arctic wind; Daiki was a little surprised that he couldn't see their breath hanging in the air between them. "Okay, fine," he said, remembering what Kise had mentioned. "What did I do?"

Tetsu frowned at him. "I realize that this is probably a shock to hear, but not everything is about you, Aomine-kun." He jerked his hand out of Daiki's grip while Daiki was still stinging from that. "I quit basketball because there wasn't any point in playing. You should be familiar with that feeling, I'm sure."

Daiki stared at him—that did sound sort of like what he'd said to Tetsu, complaining about how boring it was to play opponents who only rolled over and gave up, but—"You were the one who said it was worth it to keep going and not give up."

Tetsu slid off his desk and retrieved his bag. "I changed my mind," he said, not looking at Daiki.

"But you were right," Daiki protested. "Tetsu, you were right—basketball got fun again, and there's a guy who's like you, he doesn't give up no matter how many times I beat him, and he just keeps getting better. And everyone went to all different schools—it's going to keep on being fun." High-handed as Akashi had been about it, Daiki could see why he'd done it, after all. This way they were guaranteed to have at least four interesting opponents.

Tetsu straightened up and looked at him. "Maybe for you," he said. "But I'm not you. Please leave me alone, Aomine-kun. I'm done with basketball now."

"But—" Daiki said, baffled. "Tetsu—"

Tetsu ignored him and walked out, holding his head high and leaving Daiki gaping after him.

Then, as though the universe had decided that his afternoon wasn't complete, Imayoshi-san stuck his head into the classroom, smiling in such a way that all Daiki's carefully honed Akashi alarms went off at once. "Well, now," he said. "It goes against my better judgment to interfere in the affairs of my kouhai, but it seems to me that you've really put your foot in it." He sauntered into the classroom, still wearing that pleasant smile, while Daiki was still trying to recuperate from the fact that Tetsu had just disclaimed years of friendship and teamwork for reasons that passed Daiki's understanding. And now he had to deal with Imayoshi-san on top of that? Fuck.

"What are you doing here?" he asked for lack of anything better say. He glanced at the time as Imayoshi-san planted himself on the desk Tetsu had just vacated and clasped his hands around his knee. "Shouldn't you be at practice?"

"This is what I find so refreshing about you," Imayoshi-san said, smiling. "You're so very unimpressed with the charming little ins and outs of social niceties and always cut right to the heart of things."

Daiki squinted at him, trying to unravel the barb hidden beneath the pleasant drawl of the compliment until he decided that it wasn't worth it, not right now. "What the fuck do you want?"

Imayoshi-san pursed his lips. "Oh, world peace and a satisfactory conclusion to A Song of Ice and Fire, but I figure I'm not gonna see either of those before I die. So in the meantime I may as well try and see what I can do about getting you sorted out. I'm just selfless like that."

Where was a person even supposed to begin with that? Daiki opened his mouth but found that all he could think to say was, "What the hell?"

Imayoshi-san clicked his tongue against his teeth. "And much becomes clear. You're splendid on the basketball court and not too good off it. I guess that makes sense. I assume you've always outsourced the heavy lifting to Momoi-chan." He shook his head at Daiki, who wasn't entirely sure what Imayoshi-san was talking about or what Satsuki had to do with it. "That's laziness, you know, besides being just a bad idea all around. Momoi-chan is a fine and talented young lady, and the most forbearing creature I've ever met given how long she's been looking after your affairs for you, but everyone runs out of patience some time. You might wanna give that some thought." He paused a moment, looking contemplative. "Not to mention just how thoroughly you would be screwed if, heaven please forbid, she got herself run over by a bus or something."

There was one good thing to be said for Imayoshi-san's unwanted presence: his commentary was just obscure enough that deciphering what he was trying to say was a good way to take Daiki's mind off Tetsu. (Tetsu wanted to be left alone? He was done with basketball? What the fuck? And why did all that put such a sick, hollow ache at the pit of his stomach?) Daiki glared at him, not that it seemed to impress Imayoshi-san all that much. "Are you ever gonna get to the point, or are you just gonna keep insulting me? Because I've got better things to be doing than sitting here while you get your jollies making fun of me." For one thing, he needed to figure out what he'd done to make Tetsu so angry, and then how to fix it.

"Truly, respect from kouhai is overrated," Imayoshi-san murmured, still wearing that amused smile. Daiki growled, frustrated—and the smile fell right off Imayoshi-san's face. He sat up straighter and fixed a suddenly sharp look on Daiki, one that reached right down into that place where Akashi had installed respect for one's captain in Daiki's soul and hauled it to attention. "Pay attention to what I'm saying, brat. I'm attempting to teach you a valuable life lesson here. Someone ought to, and at least I've had practice trying."

"In what, being cryptic just for the hell of it?" Daiki asked.

"No, that's purely talent." Imayoshi-san studied him for a moment, eyes still sharp. "Let's see whether I can't break this down and make this simple for you. You've got yourself some bad habits and you've let them get you into trouble here. I reckon you've made the mistake of thinking that just because everyone puts up with your shit because you're pretty good with a basketball, the world really does revolve around you. I don't suppose that Momoi-chan is doing you all that many favors by indulging you the way she does, but that's her business." He shrugged, apparently setting that concern aside while Daiki blinked at him, caught somewhere between outrage and astonishment. "Now here's the thing you seem to have forgotten, if you ever knew it. Other people have feelings, Aomine-kun. They feel things just as strongly as you do and they can be hurt by the things you do. Or don't do, as the case may be. Even, and this is the important part now, so pay attention, even people who aren't basketball geniuses like yourself."

"I know that!" Daiki glared at Imayoshi-san, indignant (and not least because Imayoshi-san seemed so completely unmoved by his irritation). "Shit, I'm not stupid."

"No," Imayoshi-san agreed, placid. "I don't believe you are. But you are very careless with people, especially when you're more preoccupied with yourself than anyone around you. Tell me," he said, switching gears faster than Daiki could quite follow. "Why don't you come to practice?"

Daiki blinked at him, not at all sure what that had to do with anything—not sure why it even mattered, except that Imayoshi-san had decided to be an officious bastard about his personal failings. "It's boring. None of you people can match me, so it's not worth the effort of going."

Imayoshi-san raised his eyebrows. "Well, damn, why didn't someone tell me that our team was put on this earth for your personal satisfaction as a player?" he drawled. "And here I had the silly idea that practice was about getting better so we could win games instead." The edge of that cut like a knife; Daiki felt his face go hot in the unfamiliar flush of embarrassment. Imayoshi-san pointed a finger at him. "That right there is your problem, brat. You've got this damn fool notion in your head that just because you're something special as a player, you get to stand apart from the rest of us, above us, and look down on our efforts while you sneer. I figure I might be tempted to do the same thing, maybe, if it were me—it must seem awful funny that anyone would want to play a game when they know there's other players out there who'll always be stronger, no matter how hard they work. But here's the other thing, Aomine-kun—those people still play because they wanna play, because they love the game or they wanna win or because they just like doing it, and when you turn up your nose at them because they're not enough of a challenge for you, because you think they're boring, you're pissing all over their fun, and that is a thing only an asshole would do." He leaned back then, throttling down some of the intensity in his eyes and posture while Daiki sucked in a breath, the first he'd managed to take since Imayoshi-san had launched into that speech. "You want to have fun playing basketball, Aomine-kun? Well, perhaps you should consider that the rest of us do, too." He paused to flick a bit of lint from his sleeve. "Now suppose you tell me just what happened at Teikou that would have spoiled Kuroko-kun's fun?"

Daiki opened and closed his mouth a couple of times, feeling somehow scoured by that cascade of words, uncompromising as a naked blade and all the more unexpected given the generally genial facade Imayoshi-san seemed to prefer. That wasn't—he didn't do that—he didn't sneer, did he? "I... what? Teikou?"

Imayoshi-san gave him a look that fairly dripped forced patience. "Yes, at Teikou. I am given to understand that Kuroko-kun resigned from the club there before the lot of you had completely finished sweeping the tournament season. It seems pretty reasonable to assume that whatever soured him on the game started there."

"But Tetsu was first-string," Daiki protested, nearly automatic about it. "He played in games, he—" He began to say that they had depended on Tetsu in games, but he had to stop himself and think that over. The games at the end... he still didn't like to think about them, didn't like the sick feeling it gave him when he remembered playing game after game against opponents who were supposed to play, not surrender before the final buzzer went. Those games had been bad, so bad that he'd had to force himself to put on his uniform and play and would have avoided doing so altogether if Akashi hadn't insisted...

Imayoshi-san waited while he assembled his thoughts, smiling again, patient as a cat waiting at a mousehole as he wrapped his fingers around his knee and tapped them lightly. Daiki finally said, slowly, "Together, we were all... too good. The games we played were too good, maybe." It had been normal to triple their opponents' scores, very nearly expected—Daiki could still remember the game they hadn't quite done that, because Kise'd had a stomachache and Murasakibara had been distracted by the prospect of stopping by the store for a new flavor of chips. Akashi had frowned afterward and said, firmly, that they would not slip that way again. And they hadn't. "I don't know whose idea it was. But..." The games had been so boring. And it had been so easy, even in the quarterfinals, the semifinals, the fucking finals. "We... I guess we started... playing around our opponents." So easy to run rings around the other players, Teikou and opponent alike, and not even look like he was doing it, so easy to play like he was the only player on the court, to be just as selfish with the ball as Kise or Midorima or Murasakibara was, as selfish as Akashi could be when he left the bench to play.

"Toying with them, you mean?" Imayoshi-san's tone was very flat.

Daiki supposed it was accurate enough, either way. "I guess. It was something to do to pass the time."

"I see." Imayoshi-san was no longer pretending to smile. "And did Kuroko-kun also do this?"

"," Daiki admitted. "He couldn't. He's—he's a good player, sort of, his passes are amazing, but... that kind of thing, it takes more skill than he's got." It hadn't seemed like a big deal at the time—they'd all played together long enough that it had been easy to account for Tetsu and route their plays around him as necessary, but thinking about it now with Imayoshi-san looking at him like that, eyes narrowed behind the lenses of his glasses, Daiki felt almost like hunching his shoulders. "We were bored," he protested in the face of that disapproval. "We were just trying to keep ourselves occupied! I don't think any of the other teams ever guessed what was going on!" Which, in its own way, had been the worst of all.

"Did Kuroko-kun?"

Daiki took a breath that felt sharp in his throat. "He probably did."

"I see." Imayoshi-san raised his eyebrows just a bit. "Not to get all touchy-feely on you, but how do you suppose that might have made him feel?"

How would it have made Tetsu feel? Daiki could see where Imayoshi-san was going with that question, with the whole damn lecture that had led up to it, and resisted that conclusion as best as he could. "Tetsu wouldn't..." He stopped when Imayoshi-san raised his eyebrows again—how could such a simple gesture convey that much scorn? Daiki looked away from it. "I don't know," he confessed. "He stopped playing, I guess. It didn't seem like such a big deal at the time..." He tucked his hands under his elbows, angry again—fuck Imayoshi-san for making him think about these things, and fuck him for trying to judge something he didn't know anything about, and fuck him for the judgmental silence he was keeping now, one so heavy that it contrived to press the words out of Daiki, unwilling confession piling up on unwilling confession in an attempt to fill that silence. "It doesn't even make sense, Tetsu was the one who wanted—" Had it been about playing? How had that conversation gone, again? He'd wanted—to only work as much as necessary, something like that, only as much as it took to win. Then Tetsu had dropped his ice cream down the back of Daiki's shirt and—"He told me," he said helplessly. "He told me there would be someone, eventually. Someone worth playing. He told me not to give up, so why would he give up?"

Imayoshi-san tapped his fingers against his knee delicately. "Seems to me you don't need me to tell you that."

Daiki gripped his elbows more tightly and tried not to—not—it had to be something else, surely, but he could remember the last game he'd played with Tetsu on the court, the way the game had flowed and moved and how simple it had been to route passes and plays around Tetsu, just as easy as it was to evade the other team's plays—him and Kise and Midorima and Murasakibara standing under the net, Akashi on the bench and watching, comfortable and calm in his absolute assurance that they would win even if they'd stopped bothering to coordinate with one another. Tetsu hadn't been able to make that many of his passes. It had been easier to just make the plays without him, because they were already faster and better than any other player on the court, weren't they? Who needed to use Tetsu's misdirection to confound the poor bastards, anyway? And of course, Akashi had substituted himself in at the start of the third quarter, and that had been that. Tetsu had retired to the bench to sit with his towel draped over his head and his elbows braced against his knees, and Teikou had taken the game. They'd all gone their separate ways afterwards, and Tetsu had said he'd catch up with Daiki later. Only he hadn't.

"Way I figure it," Imayoshi-san said, startling Daiki out of his thoughts, "there's ways and ways of playing the game. Isn't anyone who sticks with it who doesn't want to play and doesn't want to win, somewhere in their hearts. No point in doing it, otherwise. But how you do it, well. That matters, too." He tapped his fingers, the rhythm quick and stuttering. "That's what the lot of you genius types overlook. Style counts."

Daiki blinked at him, more puzzled than anything else. "What does that have to do with Tetsu?"

"If we were the kind of team that was all touchy-feely, I'd say something here about teamwork and relying on your team when you get into tight spots," Imayoshi-san said, which still didn't have anything to do with Tetsu insofar as Daiki could see (except, well, maybe it did). Imayoshi-san stood then and used his superior vantage point to gaze down at Daiki. "We're not that kind of team. Everyone plays all-out because everyone wants to win, and that's that. But I tell you want, Aomine-kun. I ever catch you toying with our opponents, I'll bench you so fast your head will spin, you hear?"

He clapped Daiki on the shoulder, almost companionable, and began to walk away. Baffled, Daiki called after him, "But what about Tetsu?"

Imayoshi-san looked back at him, smiling. "I'm not gonna do all the work for you, you lazy brat. Figure it out for yourself." He walked out while Daiki was still sputtering at him in outrage, which was probably why he'd done it. But knowing that didn't help him with the problem of Tetsu.

He brooded on it for the rest of the afternoon and pointedly ignored all of Satsuki's inquiries about whether he was going to attend Saturday's practice and what had happened between him and Tetsu. Instead he took himself out to Kanagawa.

The Kaijou campus was every bit as large and impressive as he remembered it being when he'd come by for a recruitment interview—the perks of having a lot of money to throw around. Wasn't too hard to find the gymnasium, even without having seen it before, and it was easy enough to ease his way inside. Kise still had fangirls aplenty who were dedicated enough to come watch him practice. Daiki insinuated himself into their number and managed to observe a good fifteen minutes of Kaijou's passing drills before anyone caught on to his presence. It was the captain who did. He hammered a pass across the court at his partner and then called, "Our practices are private," as he fixed a pointed stare on Daiki.

Kise immediately undercut his captain's authority by uttering a delighted cry and bounding across the gymnasium. "Aominecchi! What are you doing here?"

"What do you think I'm here for?" Daiki asked, mostly out of curiosity to see how Kise would answer that. Saved having to actually know himself, too.

Kise's enormous smile didn't waver—not that it ever did, not unless Kise wanted it to—though something in his eyes turned sharper, considering. "If you're here for a match, you should know I'm not going to go easy on you."

That worked. Daiki caught an elbow behind his head and scoffed while Kise's fans sighed over how cool he was. "Geez, you've got the shortest memory of anybody I know. You and your team put together couldn't beat me."

"Aominecchi, you say such hurtful things—ack!" Kise staggered forward and turned, already wearing a wounded expression for his captain, who'd just kicked him a good one. "What was that for?"

"Practice is for practicing." Kasamatsu's tone was as severe as his expression. "Not for gossip. Get back to work. And you." He fixed that frown on Daiki, who couldn't help being a little impressed by how briskly the guy handled Kise. "If you wanted a game with our ace, you should have arranged it on your own time."

"There's not all that much practice left," Kise wheedled; his eyes were bright despite the fact that his captain didn't seem to be in any mood to put up with him or his whims. "And Aominecchi is an old friend! You wouldn't want me to be rude to an old friend, would you?"

"Shut up, brat." Kasamatsu didn't even bother taking his eyes off Daiki. "You can greet your friends after practice is over. Now give me ten laps."

Kise's sigh was doleful. "Don't go away before I'm done, Aominecchi!" he called over his shoulder as he jogged away.

Kasamatsu ignored that, too. "I'm sure you'll find that the benches outside are very comfortable for waiting on."

More amused than anything else—what, did they really think he cared about spying on them? That was Satsuki's thing, not his, and besides, based on what he'd seen, there wasn't anybody at Kaijou apart from Kise who was all that interesting—Daiki slouched out and found one of the benches in question. They weren't bad and the sunshine was warm, so he stretched himself out and let himself drowse there for a while.

He didn't know how much later it was when someone prodded his shoulder and blocked out the sunlight with his shadow—Kise, leaning over him and smiling. "Is there anywhere you won't sleep?"

"Haven't found it yet." Daiki sat up and stretched. Kasamatsu was still leaning in the gymnasium door and watching them. "We okay to play now or what?"

Kise followed Daiki's gaze and laughed. "If you don't mind that he'd like to watch?"

"Like I give a damn." Daiki stood and stretched his back out. "Invite your whole team for all I care." He stripped off the long-sleeved shirt he was wearing over his t-shirt as he ambled back inside and cast it aside. His pulse was already beating faster in anticipation of the game as he stepped onto the court and cocked his head at Kise. "All right, show me what you've got."

Kise retrieved one of the balls from the bin and bounced it a couple of times, eyes gleaming. "All right," he said, dropping into a ready crouch in the blink of an eye, and flashed into movement.

Daiki went to meet him, settling right into the rhythm of the game—the steady dribble of the ball and Kise's movements, smoother and more fluid than just about anyone else Daiki'd ever played, for all that Kise was a relative newcomer to the game. Kise feinted left and cut right; Daiki was there when he did and stole the ball from his very fingertips. He ducked away from Kise's reach and lobbed the ball at the basket. It swished through the net just like it always did; Daiki tasted the air on his teeth as they dove for the rebound together. "So about Tetsu," he said, which froze Kise up for the fraction of a second it took to poach the ball out from under him.

"What about him?" Kise launched himself into the air and slapped the ball away from the net; Daiki was pretty sure that he'd seen that move a year or so ago in someone else's repertoire. Kise hooked the ball into the net neatly enough, anyway, and grimaced when he realized that Daiki was right there to steal it away for himself.

Daiki cut away from him when he tried to steal the ball back. "What makes you think you'd be so much better for him than I would be?"

He sank the shot while Kise was still staring at him, and another before Kise shook himself and stepped into the arc of his next shot to block it. "How does Momocchi do it?" he asked, full of wonder. "No one else was even there!"

Daiki blocked the ball when Kise shot and kept his own counsel. Satsuki wouldn't mind it if he added a little to her mystique. "Well?" he asked, crouching with the ball and facing off with Kise while the clock in the back of his head began the countdown from twenty-four. "I'm waiting."

"I don't think I could be any worse." Kise moved when he did, feint within a feint, nearly fast enough to intercept the ball when it left Daiki's fingers. "I never made Kurokocchi quit basketball," he added as they chased after the ball together; he got there first.

That wasn't what Imayoshi-san's lecture had quite implied, but Daiki let it pass as he crowded against Kise, blocking him and close enough to hear the faint harshness in Kise's breathing—yeah, Kaijou's practice had looked pretty rigorous. "Neither did I."

Kise laughed, at least at first. "What, really?" He moved faster than Daiki had expected him to, almost formless—so he thought he could get away with that, huh? Daiki showed his teeth as he heard the ball strike the hoop behind them, rebounding off the rim instead of sinking through the net, and didn't let Kise get away from him. Kise's smile faded. "If it wasn't you, I'd like to know what it was."

He cut past Daiki, fast and hard; Daiki whirled with him, long years of instinct driving him to keep up—this, this was what he'd come to Kaijou for. "What do you mean?" he demanded as he drove the ball out of Kise's fingers and dropped it into the net himself.

Kise didn't answer while they went for the ball together or while they traded stealing it, back-forth-back again, Daiki flexing backwards, fading away from Kise to sink the shot. Kise knew that trick, though, and placed himself where he could snatch the ball for himself and make a basket of his own. "You were his best friend," he said as Daiki went for the ball and felt it pass just beyond his fingertips. He recovered instantly and poached the ball right out of Kise's hands. He dunked the ball through the net, but it was only punctuation for the way Kise said, "But I guess you've got a new one of those now."

Daiki's feet carried him after the rebound and his hands slapped the ball away from Kise's and his body twisted away from Kise while he made another formless shot—moved to catch the rebound then and hooked it right over Kise's outstretched hands and into the basket again, gathered to launch him into the air for the dunk home, which was all to the good. Daiki couldn't really think clearly enough to have made all those decisions himself just then.

He dropped from the basket as the ball bounced away and rolled to a stop against the wall. "Your game," Kise said, quiet in the stillness of the gymnasium. He tilted his head to the side, not smiling anymore. "But maybe it's also mine."

If he'd sounded the least bit triumphant, Daiki might have punched him, but mostly Kise just sounded puzzled. He stared at Daiki for a moment while Daiki looked back—it was one thing for Imayoshi-san, who didn't know, couldn't know because he hadn't been there, to have said all the things he had. It was another thing entirely to hear them from Kise, who had been there. Had been there for most of the important parts, anyway.

After a minute, Kise puffed out his cheeks on the sigh he heaved. He set his hands on his hips. "So, you're going to fix this, right?"

It was enough to jolt Daiki out of his daze. "What do you think?" he snapped, nettled.

Kise pulled a mournful face at him. "I think it's not fair that Touou gets you and Momocchi and Kurokocchi," he announced. He shrugged then. "But I guess you'll have earned that last one before you're through." He went and fetched the basketball while Daiki was still turning that one over, and flashed a bright smile at Daiki. "So. Rematch?"

Part Two

Sometimes Satsuki liked to come out and watch while Daiki and Kagami played on Sundays—she said it was a good idea to keep an eye on Kagami's progress, especially now that he was in regular training at Seihou and had some structure to guide all that raw potential of his—but this time Daiki was just as glad that she and her mother had made other plans for the day. He wasn't quite in the mood to talk his trip to Kaijou or Imayoshi-san's lecture over with her yet. (That last was still weighing on his mind for all kinds of reasons—he didn't make Satsuki do everything for him, she was just... there were some things she was just that much better at doing, and it was easier to let her take care of them than to have her make impatient sounds over his attempts before stepping in to handle it herself anyway.) She'd have it all out of him eventually, and would want his thoughts on Kaijou's team to supplement her own data, but that could all wait a day or two longer.

He met Kagami at the street court that was more or less equidistant from their houses, the same court where they'd first run into one another back when Daiki had been mooching around, bored by everything and looking for some excitement, and Kagami had been trying to find some kind of Japanese basketball worth the name. It had been a damn good thing they'd run into each other then, Daiki reflected; by his account, Kagami'd been just about ready to give up on finding serious basketball in Japan altogether and probably would have wasted himself on some no-name high school instead of picking a place with a proper basketball team. Yeah, that would have been a waste.

Kagami had arrived before him and had already laid claim to the court; he was playing a pick-up game with a few of the guys who normally hung out on Sundays, all of whom Daiki had a nodding acquaintance with, and a whole pack of brats Daiki hadn't seen before, all too young to have a hope of playing seriously against Kagami. Not that it seemed to be slowing any of them down in the slightest; the kids were playing just as hard as Kagami was, pelting around on the blacktop and shouting to one another. Daiki squinted and then snorted when the plays came clear—the brats were playing en masse against Kagami, half a dozen of them plus two of the court regulars against Kagami's height and the way he could jump. (Satsuki had wondered, more than once, whether Kagami actually had springs where his ankles were supposed to be.)

It still wasn't an even game, in spite of the unbalanced numbers, but everyone was laughing anyway, even when Kagami went for the ball and dunked it through the basket. He dangled from the rim for a second before dropping back down to earth, and that was apparently the final point of the game—half the kids set up an immediate clamor for a rematch.

Daiki dropped his bag in the pile near the fence and stepped onto the court. "Why don't we make it an even match this time?"

Kagami turned and grinned. "About time you showed up." He dropped his hand on top of the loudest kid's head and ruffled his hair. "All right, time to redo the teams, guys." He left the kids to conduct an intense set of negotiations—several of them threw Daiki some pretty keen looks as they dickered—and ambled over to guzzle some water during the break. He looked pretty pleased with himself, even considering the fact that the basketball court was as much his native element as it was Daiki's.

Daiki ventured a guess. "You manage to beat that guy, whatsisname, yet?"

Kagami's grin stretched wider. "No one can get through a pressure defense my ass," he reported, which was only good news as far as Daiki was concerned. Kagami was coming right along. "Didn't actually shut him up for long, though. I figure he means to keep working on it. You guys had better brace yourselves come Interhigh."

"Big talk from the guy who can't even beat me yet," Daiki told him, but it only made Kagami throw his head back and laugh.

"Man, I love street ball," he announced as he capped his water bottle and dropped it back into his bag; on the court, the kids were calling to them to stop talking and come play already. "There's nothing like it."

He wasn't wrong, either.

The kids' negotiations had landed Daiki with three of them, none of them taller than his shoulder, and one of the regulars—Tomita, Daiki thought his name was, something like that—a full, if motley, team of players. His set of brats looked him over solemnly; one of them asked, very serious, "Are you any good?"

Daiki grinned down at him. "Nobody is better."

None of them looked particularly convinced, but that was all right. They'd see.

Kagami got one of the guys who was bowing out to stick around long enough to toss the ball up in the air to get them started. Daiki threw himself into the game, which he'd been looking forward to all week even with all the worrying he'd been doing over Tetsu. Playing Kagami wasn't like playing anyone else, not even Kise. Kagami's game wasn't as polished, maybe, and the shape of his talent wasn't as fluid or flexible as Kise's, but that didn't really matter. Kagami's game didn't have the same constraints on it that were at the heart of Kise's game. Kagami played like he didn't even know there were such things as inhibitions.

Or maybe it was just that he didn't seem to have any fear of losing, didn't seem to mind it even if he wasn't resigned to it. Or just had a knack for taking his losses and looking at them as one more challenge to overcome. Whatever it was, Daiki loved throwing himself against Kagami's game and feeling the resistance there, no matter how hard he played. (Kagami hadn't pushed him to his fullest limits, not yet, but they got a little closer every time they played. Daiki didn't know what would happen when they hit that point, but he was willing to bet it was going to be spectacular.)

He was well into this game, bounding around the crowded court and dodging the kids and other guys as he pursued Kagami, when Kagami managed to get the ball away from him and promptly tucked it under his elbow instead of cutting for the hoop. Daiki pulled up short, confused, as Kagami gave him an exasperated look and said, "Hey, dumbass, we're not playing on-on-one right now."

"I know that," Daiki retorted, annoyed, and only then began to notice that there weren't many smiles on the faces around him. A couple of the kids looked downright angry. Something like angry, anyway.

In fact, one of them folded his arms across his chest and glared at Daiki. "Didn't anyone ever teach you how to share?"

Kagami, that asshole, looked like he wanted to laugh and was barely managing to restrain himself. "You and me, we'll play more later, okay? But for now, everybody ought to get to play."

Daiki began to protest—he was just doing what he was supposed to, playing full-out even though Kagami was the only guy on the court who had a hope in hell of keeping up with him—and stumbled over the thought, reminded all of a sudden of Imayoshi-san's pointed remarks about players who weren't as good as he was. "All right, fine, geez, sorry, I got carried away. Now can we go back to playing?"

Kagami glanced at the kids, who frowned amongst themselves but finally nodded back. "All right," he said before immediately passing the ball to one of the runts standing outside the three-point line. He lined up a pretty nice three-pointer for a kid that size, too.

"Oh, come on," Daiki said. The world already had one Midorima Shintarou in it and didn't need another.

Kagami and his team of brats didn't seem to be inclined to listen, so Daiki set that aside to tell Satsuki about later (she'd appreciate the joke) and propelled himself back into the game.

Wasn't like the kids were all that bad, really—some of them knew what they were doing just fine and really only lacked the skill or the strength to carry it through. Made for a strange way to play, though, having to throttle back his instinct to chase after the ball himself and go after Kagami to let the brats do what they could instead. Kagami didn't seem to have anything like the same problem himself, because his game after the impromptu timeout was exactly like it had been before.

Huh. There was something there that was worth thinking about later.

Daiki's team still won, though not by the margin they could have. Kagami handled the loss as philosophically as ever. He shook his head at Daiki. "Next time you're going down."

Daiki had the ball; he spun it on his finger and sneered at Kagami, friendly. "Believe that when I see it happen."

Tomita shook his head at them both, grinning, and began shepherding the kids off the court. "C'mon, guys, that's our cue to let them get it out of their systems," he said while Kagami lit up at the challenge. So that was all right.

Daiki rolled the ball off his knuckles the second the court was mostly clear and dropped into a drive around Kagami, who immediately spun into motion to meet and block him—his defensive game was definitely getting stronger. Some of what he was dealing with at Seihou with their other freshman ace must have been rubbing off. He grinned when he blocked Daiki's first shot at the net and just laughed when Daiki immediately spun around him and dunked the next one right past him, pushing back and playing just as hard as Daiki was, pressing whenever and however he could. Daiki gave himself over to the satisfaction of that, then sense that Kagami could take whatever Daiki had to throw at him and would try to match it—and learn from it when he couldn't.

Kise was closer to being able to push him, maybe, but Kagami was more fun to play—Kagami never held himself back, not even by a fraction of his potential. Daiki took both games that they played, and both of them were wringing wet by the time he did. There was a slightly narrower margin between their final scores to report to Satsuki later, too, which was something Daiki tucked away after they ceded the court to the kids for a few minutes while he and Kagami took a break to catch their breaths and drink some water.

Kagami lolled against the chain-link fence, watching the kids play and grinning in between sips of water. "Didn't think I'd find anything like this when I came back to Japan," he remarked. "'S like how I learned to play at the start."

"Yeah, me too." Daiki watched the kids scrambling around on the court, shouting back and forth and laughing. "Best way to learn."

Kagami grunted agreement and they lapsed into companionable silence for a while as the game on the court unfolded—raw and clumsy and every player absolutely serious underneath his laughter. Damn it. Maybe Imayoshi-san had been right after all. Daiki grimaced at the thought and glanced at Kagami, struck by sudden inspiration. If Kagami reminded him of Tetsu, maybe it was worth asking him. "Hey, you ever hated basketball?"

It sounded stupid as soon as the words were out of his mouth, but it was too late to call them back.

"Huh?" Kagami glanced at him, sidelong and frowning a little. "Hate basketball?" He reached up to touch that ring he wore around his neck. "I don't know. Sort of, maybe, once. Why?"

"I know someone. You remind me of him." Daiki turned his eyes forward and kept them on the game, watching it without seeing any of it. "He says he hates basketball now, and that's... I gotta do something about it."

Kagami whistled between his teeth and didn't say anything right away. When he did, it was slowly, like he was thinking of something very far away. "I don't think it was the game I really hated. More what the game reminded me of and how I felt about—that." He went quiet for a moment. "You know what it is that got to your friend?"

"I've got some ideas, yeah," Daiki said, very carefully, because yeah, he had a lot of those now. "How'd you start liking basketball again?"

"I dunno. I just had to let it go, I guess." Kagami shrugged when Daiki glanced at him. "Didn't have a lot of choice otherwise. I didn't want to give up the game."

Daiki leaned his head back against the fence and watched the clouds. "He gave up basketball."

Kagami whistled again, sympathetic. "Ouch. That's pretty bad. What happened?"

Where did he even begin to explain? Kagami wasn't one of them and hadn't even heard of Teikou six months ago. "He's not the kind of player you and I are. But he worked really hard and never gave up, and... I dunno. The rest of us got off-track in how we played and we left him behind." That was a bad explanation, but hell, he was still trying to put it all together himself. "But he's still a good player, he shouldn't give up, he can do things for his team no one else can—" Daiki stopped there, struck by that thought, and closed his eyes. Fuck. "—if they let him." Fucking fuck.

"Not really your strong suit, letting other players support you," Kagami said, which just twisted the knife a little deeper. Fuck. But Kagami's tone was careful, and he looked sympathetic when Daiki opened his eyes and grimaced at him. "So you apologize for that yet, or what?"

Daiki scrubbed his hand over his face. "Not yet." What had happened between them and Tetsu, between him and Tetsu, had only just sunk in.

"Well, it might help." Kagami sounded like he had some doubts, though. "Might help more if you'd learn to remember that there are other people on the court, too. Alex always said there wasn't any point in saying you were sorry about something if you planned on keeping on doing whatever it was you were apologizing for in the first place." Whoever the hell Alex was.

But—there was maybe a point in there, even so. Daiki let out a breath. "...yeah, I guess so." The game on the court was ending; he drained the last of the water from his bottle as it wound up. "You ready to lose another game or what?"

"One of these days I am going to make you eat all the shit you talk and you are going to be so damn sorry," Kagami told him, grinning easily, and gave Daiki a hand up.

"I guess it's good to have lofty goals," Daiki told him, grinning when Kagami flipped him off and jogged back onto the court.

Later, after he and Kagami had worn the afternoon away on the court and then consumed a small mountain of burgers apiece, Daiki stared at his phone's screen for a long time, trying to figure out what he could say to Tetsu that would at least sort of persuade him to entertain a conversation. Finally he went with something simple, as unambiguous as he could make it. I've been thinking, he wrote. I want to apologize. Can we please talk? I'll try to keep it short. He read it over several times before he finally tapped the button to send it and passed an uneasy night waiting for Tetsu to reply. But his phone stayed silent. Tetsu didn't reply overnight, or during classes, and Daiki almost got in trouble a couple of times for checking his phone to see whether Tetsu had answered or not. (He had a sneaking suspicion that the only reason he hadn't was that his teachers were surprised to see him attending all his classes for a change. Well, whatever, as long as it worked.)

So, okay, Daiki thought when the end of the school day rolled around and Tetsu still hadn't gotten back to him. Okay, so that hadn't worked. Maybe Satsuki would have some ideas instead.

His first urgent instinct was to find her and draft her for assistance, but he managed to curb it halfway down to the gym where Touou held its basketball practices. She took her job as manager pretty damn seriously, so even if it was about Tetsu...

Maybe since it was about Tetsu. Daiki took a deep breath, thinking about it and some of the things Imayoshi-san had said, and went on to practice anyway. If he was going to try out what Kagami had said, to show Tetsu he was going to try to be different, he was going to have to start attending practices more regularly anyway. Besides. Going to practice couldn't hurt anything and he might as well get used to working alongside the rest of them.

It didn't take a genius to see that the rest of the club didn't know what to make of it when he strolled in and changed into his gym clothes with the rest of them, but Daiki ignored that—ignored the whole lot of them, which seemed like the easiest way to handle the whole thing. The only moment of outright discomfiture came when Imayoshi-san wandered past him, looked his way, and drawled, "I guess it's a start," before yelling at the club to pick up the pace and get out onto the court to start the day's laps.

"If I'd wanted to train like this, I'd have gone to Shuutoku," Daiki complained to Satsuki later, after an afternoon filled with laps and sprints and drills and then a demonstration that no, really, it didn't matter what his form looked like, he could make any damn basket he wanted to make, so no, he wasn't going to "correct" his form, thanks for the suggestion anyway, Ikeda-senpai. Third-years, geez. Fuckers thought they knew everything.

Satsuki smiled a little. "I believe that Shuutoku trains like this every day," she remarked, which was as good as a statement of fact.

"Always knew Midorima was nuts." Shuutoku had been his top pick when they'd sat down to decide where they were going to go after Akashi had said they'd have to split up; nothing had swayed his choice after he'd laid it down, either. That was Midorima all over, though. Once he got his mind made up, there was no point in arguing.

"How was Ki-chan?" Satsuki asked, as if just reminded of his existence. Fuck knew how she did it; it wasn't like Daiki had told her he was going out to Kaijou or anything.

"About the same as ever." Daiki thought back to the several games they'd played, five or six of them before Kasamatsu had stepped in and cut them off for the day. "Looks to me like they're working him on stamina. Maybe strategy, too." Made sense; Kise picked up mechanics as easily as he breathed, but that didn't do a damn thing for the years of experience he'd missed in coming to the game so late.

Satsuki hummed, thoughtful, like that fit precisely into place with what she'd been expecting to hear. "And Kagamin?"

"Said he finally got around that guy Tsugawa," Daiki offered and caught the satisfied curve of her smile before she tucked it away. Yep, right on schedule. Before she could draw him into a conversation about either Kaijou or Kagami, he added, "Hey, Satsuki...?"

She glanced up at him, frowning a bit like she already knew there was trouble coming. "What is it?"

Daiki looked away from her, fixing his eyes on the sidewalk ahead of them. "I wanna try talking to Tetsu again. I think I need to, um." It was Satsuki; she wouldn't give him grief for it. "Apologize. For—you know."

Satsuki's willingness not to give him grief for his behavior didn't keep her from making a startled sound. But all she actually said was, "I think that would be good."

Ugh. Why couldn't she have said something before everything had gotten out of hand and gone wrong? (He knew why: Satsuki knew when not to beat her head against a brick wall.) "Yeah, well. Last week he said he wanted me to leave him alone. And he didn't answer when I sent him a message asking him to meet."

They walked the rest of the block in silence before Satsuki said anything. "I don't think there's anything I can do about that." Her voice was quiet; when Daiki checked, she was chewing on her lower lip again. She looked up. "You told him why you wanted to—?" When he nodded—wasn't like he was stupid, at least not that stupid—she nodded and sighed. "I don't know if there's anything you can do if he doesn't want to talk, except wait, maybe. Give him some time."

...damn. "Are you sure?"

She whacked his shoulder, but not as hard as she could have done. "Yes, I'm sure. Don't whine, Dai-chan, it's not attractive." And he had to be content with that. "Now tell me, did you get to see any of Kaijou's practice?"

Daiki gave it a week and in the meantime went to practice every day. It made Satsuki smile at him and gave him something to do while he waited, and besides, the people-watching was a pretty decent sport. Imayoshi-san let no opportunity for a pithy comment pass him by, whether he was playing or merely standing back and observing, while Susa tended to be the opposite—he was pretty quiet as a player, the kind who just put his head down and got the job done. There were a few other third-years on the first string, but Daiki didn't think much of them or their games. They weren't bad, exactly—no one at Touou was that—but Ikeda talked a lot bigger than he could actually play, and Morita seemed to think he was due a starting spot by virtue of having been in the club for three years running. As if that were all it took. Daiki gave the stammering, apologetic kid better odds of being picked for a starter than he gave either of them, because as irritating as it was to hear him spouting apologies left and right, at least Sakurai was good with the ball—and he practiced harder, too.

And then there was Wakamatsu.

"You shouldn't tease Wakamatsu-senpai the way you do," Satsuki scolded Daiki as they walked to the station at the end of Friday's practice and its twenty-minute practice matches. "It's not nice."

She was fighting a smile and losing, so Daiki took that in precisely the spirit it was meant. "I don't know what you're talking about. I was doing exactly what he told me to do," he said, mustering all the innocence he could. "Just like he said I should." Wasn't his fault if Wakamatsu hadn't had a clue how to make use of him properly, was it?

"You know you only got away with that because Imayoshi-san thought it was funny." Satsuki had given in and was smiling, so it was all right. "I heard him saying something to Harasawa-kantoku about how delightful karma could be."

"I still don't know what you're talking about." Daiki grinned when she giggled. "I just thought him and me, we ought to get things clear before prelims start up."

"There's that," Satsuki agreed, her smile bright, anticipating the start of the Interhigh, not very far away now at all. Then she looked at him, smile dimming. "I don't suppose you've heard from Tetsu-kun?" Her smile faded completely when he shook his head. "Oh."

"Yeah," Daiki said, and they left it at that.

On Sunday evening, he tried again. Please, can we talk? he sent, and as an afterthought, I really am sorry.

Tetsu didn't answer either of those messages, either, not before Daiki finally gave it up and went to bed and not by the time he got up again the next morning, which was when Daiki experienced a moment of crisis—had Tetsu changed his number, maybe? Was he even getting the things Daiki was sending him, or were they just ending up floating somewhere in the void (or worse, landing in some stranger's inbox or trash folder)? So he asked Satsuki, but she shook her head. "No, he hasn't changed his number," she said, swaying easily with the motion of the train. On the one hand, that was good. On the other—Satsuki looked about as disappointed as Daiki felt. "He's not answering you?"

"No." Still hadn't, either—Daiki had his off hand in his pocket, wrapped around his phone in case it should vibrate with an incoming message. (Somewhere in Kanagawa, Kise was probably weeping into one of his fangirl's shoulders about the curt reply Daiki had sent him earlier, when his phone had buzzed while he was still getting dressed. Daiki had half-killed himself trying to get to it, and all for a chirpy bunch of nonsense. Kise deserved to weep.)

Satsuki frowned over that and didn't say anything at all about what it might mean. Daiki wasn't sure whether that was a good sign or a bad one—whether he should be pestering her to help him come up with a new plan or not—but he didn't ask. Tetsu was probably getting his messages. Maybe he just wasn't opening them or something.

He pondered that for a couple of days, thinking it over in class while the teachers droned on and at practice, at least until Imayoshi-san gave him a brisk thump and told him to stop daydreaming and pay attention to his footwork. Well, fuck it. He could be just as stubborn as Tetsu. He'd just have to keep it up until Tetsu couldn't ignore him.

Satsuki always had said he had a real gift for being annoying. Might as well make use of it for a good cause.

By his count, he'd sent Tetsu the same basic message—I'm sorry, can we please talk—close to a hundred times by the day the preliminary rounds for the Interhigh began, two or three times a day, pretty much whenever it occurred to him to pull his phone out and send Tetsu a message. His fingers practically had it memorized, so much so that he almost sent a copy to Midorima by accident the morning Midorima contacted him to warn him of disastrous luck for Virgos ("If something horrible does happen, make sure Momoi-san gets video of it." Midorima was all heart.) Tetsu remained unmoved and uncommunicative, which was starting to piss Daiki off just a little bit when he let himself think about it. What did Tetsu want, blood?

He'd caught sight of Tetsu in the hallways at school a few times, too, but always at a distance and never when there was anything less than a crowd of other students between them, more people than Daiki could get through before Tetsu pulled one of his vanishing acts and disappeared from sight again. It was amazing, really, that they'd ever even run into one another in the first place.

So it was kind of a relief when the tournament finally started up, if only because thinking about that was a diversion of sorts. Satsuki was excited, too. She'd been busy running around and collecting her last-minute data over the other members of their block. Had spent a lot of time with Kantoku and Imayoshi-san, too, conspiring over strategy for their games. At the strategy planning meeting before the first game, Daiki listened to Imayoshi-san with half an ear—Satsuki would go over it again with him later, long as he asked nicely—and watched his teammates instead. Imayoshi-san went through the notes on each of Hakuo's team members in the same lazy drawl he used for everything else, talking about his opposite number ("He's been playing for about five years now and has more experience than anyone else on his team; he plays defensively these days because he had a nasty run-in with Kirisaki Daiichi last year") as casually as he talked about the weather.

As usual, Susa listened impassively, all his attention focused on Imayoshi-san and nothing showing on his face. Sakurai was scribbling notes like he thought there was going to be a test at the end. Wakamatsu was frowning—he kept glancing over at Satsuki like he wasn't quite sure he trusted the source of all this data; well, he'd learn. So would the rest of the team, some of whom took on expressions of outright disbelief when Imayoshi shifted into talking about the moves Hakuo would make in the game itself.

"Shouldn't we actually wait until we're in the game to see how Hakuo is really going to play?" Ikeda finally asked when Imayoshi paused to take questions.

Imayoshi-san pursed his lips. "Why would we go and do a thing like that for? We've got something better to rely on that just reacting on the court. Seems to me we ought to take advantage of it."

Ikeda exchanged looks with Morita, then looked at Satsuki. "Look, no offense to Momoi-chan, she's the cutest manager we've ever had, but c'mon, we're not actually going to base our team strategy on what she says, are we?"

Daiki began to sit up, ready to set Ikeda straight about a few things, but Imayoshi-san smiled and took his glasses off to polish them on his shirt. "I guess we are," he said, pleasant enough, and held his glasses up to inspect them for smudges. All of Daiki's the-captain-is-up-to-something senses were tingling. "I figure if I had to pick between Aomine-kun and Momoi-chan here, I'd have to go with her. No offense to Aomine-kun, but not only is she cuter than he is, she's a hell of a lot more useful in general." He put his glasses back on and nudged them into place before smiling at Ikeda. "Lucky for us, they're a package deal. Now. Do you have a problem with my decisions as captain?"

Amiable as the question sounded, it still stung. Ikeda recoiled from it, leaning back perceptibly and fumbling through his first automatic answer. "No! I mean, just, um. No."

"All right then." Imayoshi-san smoothed his shirt back down. "That's just as well. Any other questions?" It was funny, but there weren't any. "All right, then let's talk about how we'll be handling Hakuo when they start falling to pieces on us."

Daiki had a thought then that made him want to grin, but in a meeting like this there wasn't much he could do about it—he certainly couldn't share it with Satsuki while she was sitting back and looking extra prim and proper over her clipboard. He'd have to tell her later, if he remembered it—wait. There was one other person who might appreciate the joke. Maybe.

So the first message Daiki sent to Tetsu that wasn't an apology or an attempt to get him to talk was I wonder what would happen if we locked Akashi and Imayoshi-san in a room together.

Imayoshi-san got sarcastic at him for texting during the meeting, but he got sarcastic about everything, and besides, ten laps around the building was like a slap on the wrist as far as Daiki was concerned.

Tetsu didn't bother answering that message, but then, Daiki hadn't thought he would. He followed up on it anyway after Touou tore right through Hakuo's game in the first round of the prelims, just like Satsuki had said they would, right down to the way Hakuo fell apart in the third quarter after Sakurai got off the third quick-release shot in a row and Hakuo's center looked like he was about to start crying. Ikeda and Morita didn't seem to be sneering any more, which was something, and started giving Satsuki spooked looks after the game. Or maybe that was just their reaction to the honey lemons Satsuki produced when someone asked. I guess Satsuki's got the club just about where she wants it, he wrote to Tetsu. You should have seen Morita's face when he saw her honey lemon trick. Was almost as good as the fuss Murasakibara kicked up the last time she did it.

Tetsu didn't respond to that one, either, but Daiki hoped he had at least read it and maybe smiled a little, remembering how outraged Murasakibara had been over the waste of perfectly good honey and lemons the last time Satsuki had had a point to make about her time and priorities. That had been a good time; it was worth remembering, even if Tetsu was still pissed with them. (Daiki guessed he had to be, since he was still sticking to his radio silence.)

They moved through their block steadily, which was satisfying in its own way, even if playing with Touou wasn't like playing for Teikou had been—but wasn't that why they'd been called the Generation of Miracles, after all? The six of them and Satsuki all in one place at the same time, unstoppable. Like a force of nature, that was how one magazine write-up had described it. Kise had enjoyed making a big deal of that until Akashi had gotten bored of gloating and stepped in to end the discussion. Touou was different, the players were different, but the game itself was pretty much the same. A couple of games into the preliminary playoffs, he wrote to Tetsu again: I think Touou was a good choice.

Even if Imayoshi-san was the king of understated sarcasm and obscure remarks. After the game against Ogawa, which put them in the playoff block for the final league of the prelims, Imayoshi-san paused for a moment and gazed up into the stands as they made their way off the court. He must have seen someone up there that he knew, because he was smiling when he joined them on the way back to the locker room. Might have been a girlfriend or something, though thinking about Imayoshi-san with a girlfriend kind of made Daiki's eyes want to cross.

By the time they were in the middle of the final league of prelims, it was pretty clear to Daiki that the can we please talk messages weren't doing any good with Tetsu, whether they were interspersed with other messages or not. He stopped sending them—stopped sending anything at all while they were in the middle of the final league games. Either the sudden silence would get Tetsu's attention or it wouldn't, Daiki didn't know. In the meantime there were the league matches to pour his attention into and the satisfaction of sweeping down on the other teams—not like a force of nature, but maybe a bit like a well-oiled machine.

"Who's it going to be in the final league?" he asked Satsuki on the way home from the last of the preliminary games, when he was stretched out across a couple of seats even though he wasn't quite tired enough to excuse it.

She looked over at him and tucked her hair behind her ears. "Meisei and Senshinkan." That was just as she'd predicted, of course. Too bad no one ran books on high school basketball; they could be making a killing.

"Yeah, and?" he prompted her, amused—was she really going to draw it all out? "Which of the three kings are we looking at here?"

He was pretty sure he knew already, given the way she was smiling, but it was still oddly satisfying to hear her say it. "Seihou."

Yep, he'd figured. "Man, I bet Midorima is pissed off right now." Daiki could just about imagine it—Midorima's insistence on absolute precision versus Kagami's exuberant style and the way his game could evolve right in the middle of a match. "We should call him and offer our condolences."

"Poke him with a sharp stick to see what happens, you mean." Satsuki shook her head at him. "You have bad hobbies, Dai-chan."

But she didn't try to stop him, either, because she was just as bad as he was. If he had bad hobbies, then so did she. And yeah, she watched with keen interest when Daiki pulled his phone out and scrolled through his contact list for Midorima's number. "Hey, so I hear we won't be seeing you until the Winter Cup," he said in lieu of a greeting when Midorima answered.

It made Satsuki smack his shoulder and mutter his name in scolding tones, but it also stiffened Midorima right up. He went from husky and kind of shocky-sounding straight to pissed off in a fraction of a second. "Calling to gloat is unbecoming of you," he snapped. "Especially in matters governed purely by chance. Why didn't you tell me this Kagami of yours is a Leo?"

Daiki grinned. "He is? News to me." He shifted, slouching lower in his seat so that Satsuki could put her head next to his and listen in. "Wait a minute, he's not my anything."

Midorima, who was all asshole, waited about half a beat too long to say, "I suppose he isn't. My mistake."

Satsuki giggled and then said, cheerful, "Sorry, Midorin! I thought you would have looked into the horoscope yourself, or I would have warned you about Kagamin."

"I wish you would have," Midorima grumbled, tone dark. Then he shifted moods abruptly. "When you meet him in the final league, you should know that he's had some kind of breakthrough in his game. I've never seen anyone jump like that."

"He does that," Daiki said, pleased—they hadn't had much time to play since the start of the preliminaries, but he'd figured something like this might happen once Kagami got out there into the tournament. Kagami's way of evolving right in the middle of a game was what made him so interesting.

Satsuki made an interested sound and demanded more details. Daiki raised his eyebrows as Midorima provided them. Kagami had jumped high enough to interrupt one of Midorima's three-pointers? That was very interesting. Satsuki peppered Midorima with questions until he changed the subject, abrupt. "What about Kuroko? Is he playing for Touou yet or not?"

"I'm working on it," Daiki said.

Midorima's snort carried over the line very clearly, making it comprehensively clear what he thought about that. "I don't think it's particularly fair that you're ignoring Akashi's orders," he said then. "But it's stupid for Kuroko to be wasting his talent. I suppose it'll just be more interesting to beat the three of you together."

Daiki grinned now that Midorima was more or less back to his regular arrogance. "I'll be sure to give him your regards."

Satsuki just cooed and told Midorima that he said the nicest things to her until Midorima grumbled and excused himself, abrupt as ever, and that was that. "I think I'll come watch you and Kagamin the next time you play," she said while Daiki began composing a new message. She leaned against his shoulder and looked at his phone. "What are you doing?"

"Told Midorima that I'd send Tetsu his regards, didn't I?" Daiki pondered his message so far (Seihou beat Shuutoku in the prelims and Kagami managed to outjump Midorima's shots. Midorima sends his love. And by 'love' I mean that he said it was stupid for you to waste your talent, but I guess that counts for him.) It still needed something.

Satsuki socked him in the shoulder. "You didn't say that Tetsu was talking to you again."

"He's not." Daiki frowned at his screen. It sounded kind of confrontational, didn't it? Maybe he should soften it up. I don't know if it's a waste, you always liked books and stuff more than I did. Yeah, that was better. Tetsu didn't really like being ordered around. Daiki sent the message and saw that Satsuki was looking at him funny. "What?"

"I can't decide if that's really sweet or really pathetic," she said. "Or just really creepy—there's definitely some creepy there. Maybe it's all three."

Daiki shrugged and put his phone away. "If he tells me to stop, I'll stop." Telling him to stop would mean having to talk to him again, after all, and Daiki knew how to take advantage of an opening when he saw it. That was probably why Satsuki was giving him such a skeptical look, but then, he'd never been able to get much past her. "Look, I'm open to other suggestions if you've got them."

Satsuki frowned and shook her head. "I guess Tetsu-kun would make you stop if he really wanted you to."

"That's what I figure." Daiki nudged her shoulder. "You wanna get something to eat on the way home? I'm starving."

Satsuki narrowed her eyes at him. "Are you paying?"

"What, don't you feel like treating the team ace—ow! That one hurt." Daiki rubbed his shoulder, but Satsuki seemed unmoved. "Yeah, yeah, it's my turn to treat."

"That's right," she said, serene, and settled herself against his shoulder again.

His phone stayed silent in his pocket, but then, Daiki was pretty much used to that by this point, and tried not to think too much about it. He'd stopped sending the can we talk please messages, but there were other things to say to Tetsu, weren't there? Maybe things had been bad at Teikou at the end, but it hadn't always been that way. So whenever something made Daiki think of one of the good things, he sent Tetsu a message, and hoped that it would do some good.

The first thing Kagami said when they showed up the next free Sunday they had was, "Are all you Miracle people annoying, or is that Midorima guy just special?"

"It's all of them," Satsuki said before Daiki could get a word in edgewise. "But you've already met Dai-chan, so you probably already knew that."

Kagami laughed. "I guess I did." He was sitting, legs stretched out on the blacktop, and laughed again when Daiki protested.

"Midorima is extra annoying," he pointed out. "Even for us."

"I don't know, there's always Mukkun," Satsuki pointed out.

It was a good point, and it made Kagami look wary, but didn't keep him from saying, "That guy had a tanuki statue with him."

"The lucky item," Daiki and Satsuki said together, because there wasn't anything else it could have been.

Kagami stared up at them and shook his head. "You people are all nuts." He climbed to his feet without waiting for a reply. "So, you ready to play?"

Daiki dropped his bag next to Kagami's and bounced a couple of times to shake out his muscles. "Yeah, let's see what you've got."

They made it maybe five paces in the direction of the court before Satsuki's voice cracked through the air like a shot. "Hold it right there."

Daiki turned to her, confused, and watched her march right over to Kagami and poke him squarely in the middle of his chest. "What do you think you're doing?" she demanded, jabbing him with every word. "Are you stupid?"

"What the hell, Satsuki?" Daiki asked, looking between her and Kagami's suddenly sheepish expression.

"You can't play him today." Satsuki poked Kagami again, extra hard if the way Kagami winced was any sign. "He's injured."

"Not very injured," Kagami said. "I can play, really—I'll just take it easy. We can do that, right?" He looked at Daiki, hopeful.

"Well, maybe," Daiki started, but Satsuki interrupted.

"Don't be stupid, I've seen you both play." Her tone was flat. "It would take one play—just one!—for the two of you to forget what you're doing and go all out. You two idiots don't even know the meaning of taking it easy." She pointed at the sidelines. "Get off the court."

There was no arguing with Satsuki when she got like that, so Daiki sighed and went.

Satsuki scolded Kagami off the court after him. "Does your coach know you're injured—oh, good, and what did he tell you to do about it?"

Daiki had heard the term hangdog before, but he hadn't really known what it meant until he saw the way Kagami looked just then. "I'm not supposed to play," he admitted. "Just regular conditioning." Then he shook his head, dog-fashion. "I don't even know how you could tell just from looking at me."

"Woman's intuition," Satsuki murmured, smiling in her preferred mysterious fashion.

Kagami blinked and Daiki just shrugged at him. "She's that good," he said, but no more than that. Yeah, Kagami was a friend, sure, but Touou was up against Seihou in the very near future. Imayoshi-san would probably get very sarcastic if Seihou saw them coming because he'd gotten boastful about Satsuki's skills.

"Never mind that." Satsuki waved it aside and smiled at Kagami, bright. "Midorin was very put out by you, and he didn't want to talk much. You'll tell me all about your game against Shuutoku, won't you?"

Better men than Kagami had fallen for Satsuki's smiling, shameless flattery. Daiki grinned at that while Kagami blinked and began telling her everything she wanted to know, and pulled out his phone. I wish you were here to see this, he told Tetsu. Kagami is singing like a canary for Satsuki and Seihou isn't going to know what hit them.

Maybe it would make Tetsu smile—he always had liked how sneaky Satsuki could be. Had said it gave the two of them a special bond. Daiki didn't know whether he'd been serious about that or not, but whatever. He added I think she really misses you and put his phone away before either Satsuki or Kagami could ask what he was doing with it. "Let's go get burgers," he said, because he was hungry and besides, it would get them away from the temptation of the basketball court.

Part Three

Daiki found himself awake earlier than usual on the first day of the final league matches. Wasn't any good reason to be, except—Touou's first match was going to be against Seihou. Kagami had sworn several times that he would be better by the time the final league matches rolled around, and Satsuki had said he probably would be as long as he had behaved himself. Daiki lay in his bed, gazing at the ceiling and thinking about that and the sense of... that was anticipation, wasn't it? He'd forgotten, a little, what it was like to wake up before a match and want to see how it would go. Touou's matches to this point hadn't been bad, no one had given up in the middle of facing them, but... Seihou was one of the three kings. And he'd never seen what Kagami could do in a full game with other players to push him forward.

Excited. Yeah, he was a little excited.

Reaching for his phone was second nature by this point, and so was trying to find the right words to send to Tetsu. I'm looking forward to playing today, he typed. I think it's going to be fun. He studied the screen for a little while as the morning sunlight crept across his ceiling and down the wall. Then he added, I wish you were going to be there. I miss playing with you. Even that didn't feel quite like enough. Hell, how long had he been texting Tetsu now, trying to reach him? Well, it looked like talking face to face wasn't going to happen, so... I'm sorry that I fucked it up, he wrote, slowly. And for not listening to you. And for forgetting why basketball is fun. At least you were smart enough to listen to me, back then. I should have been smart and listened to you. Though that hadn't ever been his thing, except maybe on the court. And he'd fucked that up, too, in the end. And I'm sorry for the way we played at the end, too. We were all stupid.

He stared at the message for a while, wondering whether there was any better way of putting all that, but words weren't what he was good at. It'd have to do. He punched the send button and got up to start getting ready for the day, and tried not to think about it when his phone stayed silent.

Imayoshi-san found some reason to settle into step with Daiki during the walk from the bus into the stadium, which Daiki did not think was a good sign. There was no point in hoping that Satsuki would help him out; for some reason she thought Imayoshi-san was funny. Daiki braced himself, but all Imayoshi-san said was, "It's shaping up to be a good day for a match, isn't it?"

As comments went, it was fairly harmless even by Imayoshi-san's standards, but that didn't always mean anything. "It's not like the weather matters." Daiki glanced up at the cloudless sky and the stadium rising up before them. "Not once we're inside."

"The problem with today's youth is that they have no appreciation for a good metaphor." Imayoshi-san shook his head; all he was missing was a wagging grey beard to stroke. Satsuki, on Daiki's other shoulder, giggled.

"If you've got something to say, just say it." Metaphors were for literature classes and people like Tetsu, who thought that way by nature and inclination, not for him.

Imayoshi-san smiled, one of the faintly creepy ones that always made Daiki think of cats. "Well, my painfully literal young friend, are you ready to play today?"

Daiki eyed him—what kind of question was that supposed to be?—but Imayoshi-san ambled along, apparently willing to wait for his answer for as long as it took. "Of course I am." Upon reflection, remembering the glow of anticipation that had woken him up and that was still humming at the back of his mind, he added, "Should be some good games." All Satsuki's data pointed that way, and none of the teams that had made it to the final league of the Interhigh preliminaries were slouches. (And Seihou had beaten Shuutoku; Kagami had beaten Midorima.)

Imayoshi-san was watching him from the corner of his eye; Daiki couldn't tell whether he was pleased or not, because that faint, feline smile of his never wavered. "I reckon you're coming right along," he murmured as they came to the stadium's entrance. He caught the glass door when Wakamatsu held it for them and waved Satsuki in ahead of them. "Just don't you forget that we're here to win."

"I know that," Daiki told him, aggravated. "What's the point in playing, otherwise?"

Imayoshi-san's smile shifted slightly, and Daiki couldn't help feeling that the man was laughing at him. "What indeed," he said and gestured. "After you."

Daiki rolled his eyes at the ways of his captain and went inside.

The data set that Satsuki had put together for Seihou suggested that they wouldn't start the match with Kagami, given his recent injury. Iwamura and his coach were the conservative types and Seihou's philosophy was to win through skill rather than raw power. She'd projected that they would save Kagami for later in the match in order to conserve him for the second game of the day as much as possible. That was fine; Daiki ran his warm-ups with the rest of the team and kept half an eye on Seihou's half of the court. Kagami was warming up with the rest of Seihou, looking fiercely delighted to be doing it, and yeah. He'd be playing by the end of the match. Seihou wasn't going to have any choice about it.

Satsuki was also watching the warm-ups going on across the way, at least at first. Daiki turned to pass the ball off to Wakamatsu while that motor mouth Tsugawa let his mouth run away with him, just loud enough that it carried over to Touou's side—something about the Generation of Miracles not being so bad taken separately, and besides, wasn't Touou still pretty much an unknown team?

Wakamatsu scowled; when he passed the ball back to Daiki, it slapped into his hands hard enough to sting a little.

It wasn't like Daiki really cared much what some mouthy asshole from Seihou had to say, but since there wasn't anyone around to defend the Generation of Miracles' name but him, and the ball was in his hands, there was no point in letting it go by unremarked, either, was there? Besides, the hoop was right there, more or less. Launching himself at it and dunking the ball was as easy as thinking about it.

"Show-off," Wakamatsu said in the sudden silence that fell over the court, but he was smiling a little when he caught the rebound.

Satsuki would have scolded him for showing off like that before the game even began, normally, but when Daiki looked around for her, she had her head bent close to Kantoku's and was talking through something that had their coach twisting his fingers through his hair absently. Daiki counted himself as having gotten off lightly and didn't think about it until Satsuki caught up with him in the last minutes before the match. "Be careful of Kagamin," she said then. "I wasn't sure until I saw him warming up with his team, but he's really begun to adapt to Seihou's style."

"What, really?" Daiki looked back across the court to where Seihou was standing around their coach, receiving their own last-minute instructions and advice. "That was faster than you expected."

"Kagamin." Satsuki shrugged like that explained everything. It sort of did, which was the sad part. "Just be careful with him."

Daiki grinned down at her and bumped his shoulder against hers. "It's still me, don't forget."

Satsuki looked over at Seihou and Kagami, who was currently sitting on the bench, taut with his eagerness to hit the court. "I know," she said. "But it's also him."

If he cared to press her to explain that, Daiki knew, she'd only say she had a bad feeling or something, so he didn't bother. He took the caution into the game with him instead and let it linger at the back of his mind during the tip-off and the first fast minutes of the quarter, getting used to Seihou's unusual turn of speed (martial arts training, according to Satsuki, and weird as hell for the first couple of minutes, judging by Sakurai's constant stream of apologies and the things Wakamatsu was muttering). Seihou had Tsugawa marking him—and the guy wasn't bad, Daiki could give him that much. "Listen to the mouth on this guy," Daiki said when Tsugawa screened him from a pass and said something about how even the Generation of Miracles couldn't break through a pressure defense. "Hey, asshole, who do you even think I am?"

Nanba run and pressure defense be damned; Daiki feinted left, feinted again, and when Tsugawa anticipated a third feint, he cut around the guy and let the ball roll off his fingers and into the net, the way it wanted to. (The thing that had always puzzled Daiki was how so few people could read how the ball wanted to move, but then, he'd stopped bringing that up ages ago, once he'd realized that he didn't play the same kind of basketball other people did. He wondered, sometimes, whether Kagami might understand what he meant if he asked.)

Tsugawa had shut up by the end of the first quarter, when Touou was up fifteen points and Daiki had demonstrated that he could blow through the guy's pressure defense any time he liked, and the rest of them had already begun adjusting to the peculiar speed and precision of Seihou's movements. Kantoku nodded his approval and left Imayoshi-san and Satsuki to work through their instructions during the break. "I don't suppose we need to be getting fancy just yet." Imayoshi-san paused to take a sip of water. "If we keep on as we have been, that should put a nice steady pressure on them."

Satsuki was the one who said, "They'll put Kagami in by the eight-minute mark. Iwamura-san and Matsumoto-san will want to turn the flow of the game before the quarter ends."

"I don't see how that's going to matter much," Wakamatsu said. "He can't possibly be more annoying than Aomine is." He leaned out of the way of Susa's elbow and protested. "Well, he can't. The universe isn't big enough for there to be two of them."

"Hey," Daiki said, not sure whether he wanted to be outraged or flattered.

"Kagamin has a great deal of potential," Satsuki told them, quick and precise. "Don't underestimate him. Someday he's going to match the Generation of Miracles."

Even Wakamatsu went quiet at that, not least because they'd all learned to trust Satsuki's data by this point. Then Daiki cracked his neck. "Someday, maybe," he said. "But not today."

"Sometimes I begin to think that there may be hope for you yet," Imayoshi-san remarked. And then it was time to start the second quarter.

Seihou seemed to have taken the break to regroup and came back into the game with set jaws and determined eyes, which Daiki could respect. Tsugawa hadn't been entirely quenched, either, which wasn't totally a bad thing, or something. He wasn't as mouthy, but he stuck by Daiki like a—not like a shadow, but close enough anyway. Didn't do him much good, but he still hadn't stopped trying when Seihou finally called for a substitution in the middle of the seventh minute, 53-39 in Touou's favor on the board, and he jogged off the court with his head high when Kagami came on.

Finally. Daiki felt his pulse beat faster as he smiled, coming alert in anticipation.

"Well, that's not creepy or anything," Imayoshi-san drawled as he loped past Daiki on his way back up the court to get into position for the next play. It was cryptic even by his standards, but Daiki shrugged it off. Wakamatsu gave him an odd look when Daiki went for the ball and knocked it out of Seihou #5's hands so he could drive for the basket instead—but Kagami was already there to block him from it, and yeah, Daiki was willing to admit it, that was a hell of a jump, even if it did look short of what it could be. He faded back from Kagami, falling into a move that he hadn't had any reason to show him before now. He made the shot with the overhead lights bright in his eyes and heard Kagami's indignant should over the swish of the ball landing in the basket: "You never said you could make shots like that!"

Daiki came up with the taste of air on his teeth from the way his grin was stretching across his face. "Didn't I mention that?" Susa already had the ball and got it to Sakurai before Seihou's center could whip around for it himself. Sakurai fired off one of his quick release shots and an apology while Kagami sputtered. "Better keep up, dumbass."

"Watch who you're calling a dumbass, idiot!" Kagami retorted as Iwamura got the ball and passed it to Seihou's #8, who got it to Kagami. He grinned fiercely and blurred into motion, son of a bitch, he really had gotten that crazy nanba run of theirs down, just like Satsuki had said.

Daiki sprinted after him, everything falling away but the awareness of this moment and the game against Kagami, like a one-on-one with a whole court to roam over and the background awareness of their respective teams to deal with whenever someone got the ball away from them, and the fact that Kagami was giving almost as good as he got. When the buzzer went for the end of the quarter, Seihou had closed the score to a mere nine-point gap.

Daiki only realized that his teammates were still giving him funny looks once they were inside the locker room and he was helping himself to Sakurai's honey lemons. He chomped his way through the mouthful and looked around at them. "What?"

"It's really strange to see you smiling," Sakurai said and immediately cringed. "Sorry!" But there were heads nodding all around the room.

Daiki flipped them all off and helped himself to some more of the lemons. "What, I can't enjoy a good game?"

Imayoshi-san plucked the container out of his hands and passed it on to Susa. "Momoi-chan, I've been meaning to ask you for some time now. Tell me. Was he actually raised by wolves?"

"Not exactly." Satsuki shrugged at him when Daiki protested. "Well, really, Dai-chan. You may as well have been."

"Fuck all of you," Daiki huffed and retreated to a corner so he could drum his fingers against his knee and will the clock to move faster so it could be time for the third quarter already. Kagami was faster now with that run, and it looked like he could jump just about as high as Daiki could these days—but it was raw, all of it, certainly not perfected yet. For the time being he still had the edge, but there were twenty minutes of play, real play, left and there was no telling what Kagami might pull out before the final buzzer went. No telling what he might do with all that between this game and the Interhigh itself, between now and the Winter Cup...

Imayoshi-san interrupted the excited circle of Daiki's thoughts by looming over him. Daiki couldn't make much out of his expression, but all Imayoshi-san wanted was—"Of course I'm going to be able to play after this game is over!" Geez, what did he look like, anyway?

"Forgive me for wanting to be sure that we'll still be able to count on you against Meisei." Imayoshi-san regarded him for a moment longer, then turned away. "Two minutes, people."

That was just enough time to get back into his gym bag and dash off a message to Tetsu. I was right, this game is great. And the hell with it, why not? I wish you were playing too. Then it would be perfect.

Not that Tetsu would believe that if he was still angry, but whatever. That didn't stop it from being true.

And then it was time for the third quarter to begin. Daiki put all his thoughts of Tetsu aside as best as he could. (Though it was difficult, because now that he was thinking about it, it was hard to shake the part of him that kept waiting for the pass that wasn't going to come, even though it would have been the perfect play to counter Kagami's stupidly fast nanba run.) The third quarter was even better than the end of the second had been, because Kagami hadn't cooled off during the break. If anything, he'd caught fire and was carrying his team along with him. Not that it mattered much to Touou; they'd already cracked the code of Seihou's movements, or rather Satsuki had. Had something to do with a game Seihou had played against some no-name school, Seirin or something like that. Even so, even when it was obvious that Touou knew exactly how to read each of Seihou's moves, they kept coming. Kagami kept coming. It almost didn't matter that they still weren't enough to push Daiki to the edge. None of them gave up, not until the very end of the game and Imayoshi-san's last buzzer-beating shot. (It almost didn't matter that Tetsu wasn't there to share just how good a game it had been.)

Kagami made a face at him after they'd lined up and exchanged handshakes. "Next time we're going to kick your asses," he promised.

Daiki laughed at him, feeling lighter than he had in a while. "You can try, I guess."

"We're definitely going to see you at the Interhigh finals," Kagami said, and looking at him and the set of his jaw, Daiki could believe that.

There was a two-hour break before the match against Meisei, which was boring to think about but couldn't be helped. Wasn't any telling what the next match was going to be like, either, a good game like the one they'd just had or something that would be a let-down in comparison, but it didn't much matter at the moment. Kantoku had boxed lunches to go around and damn, it had been a good game.

Daiki staked out his corner of the locker room again, meaning to settle in and luxuriate in the satisfaction of that—holding onto it for as long as possible was only common sense—and tore into his bento. He'd sort of expected Satsuki to join him there so they could talk the game over, but Imayoshi-san caught her and bent to murmur some request or another to her. Huh, he must have wanted her to go find out the dirt on how the Meisei-Senshinkan match had gone or something, because Satsuki nodded and went out, looking all preoccupied with manager business.

Daiki checked his phone, but there weren't any new messages waiting for him. Big surprise there, of course. He took a moment to send Midorima a message (Being able to jump high and move fast isn't enough to beat me. Are you sure you haven't gone soft on us?) and grin over the response (Please die).

He thought about texting Tetsu again, but there wasn't anything else he could say aside from another iteration of all the things he'd already said. So instead he put his phone away and stole one of the octopus weiners out of Sakurai's bento since Imayoshi-san had wandered off and wasn't around to get snippy at him for it. "No drinks?" he asked, looking around. The only thing in the cooler was a bunch of water bottles because Kantoku disliked sodas. "Guess I'll be back." There would be vending machines somewhere in the building, surely.

"Don't go too far," Wakamatsu said, since he was the bossy one, but Daiki ignored him and went anyway.

He found Satsuki before he found any vending machines. He forgot all about his search for a soda when he did. She was leaning against a wall, her arms wrapped tightly around her and her shoulders hunched, and she looked so miserable that Daiki's first instinct was to go find whoever had put that look on her face and kill them. "Hey—" he began.

Satsuki's head snapped up and she reacted with a turn of speed that was shocking coming from someone who wasn't in regular training. She had her hand over his mouth before Daiki could get another syllable out and was shaking her head at him while Daiki was still trying to figure out what had just happened. Since it was Satsuki, he didn't say anything, or try to anyway. Then he heard the voices come floating around the corner of one of the little cross-halls that made the whole place into a maze, and understood why Satsuki had hushed him.

"I was told that someone wanted to talk to me?" That was Tetsu's voice, frosty as a winter morning. Daiki froze when he heard it. What the fuck was Tetsu doing here, of all places? If Satsuki hadn't been holding him, he might have ducked around the corner to demand an answer to that very question.

"So I did." That was Imayoshi-san's most congenial drawl, the one that he used whenever he was feeling particularly inclined to take someone apart. Daiki felt his eyes go wider; he looked down at Satsuki. She looked back, forehead wrinkled and guilty, and shrugged at him.

Daiki guessed it wasn't data on Meisei that Imayoshi-san had asked her to go fetch after all.

"Well?" Tetsu said when Imayoshi-san did not proceed. He sounded impatient. "What did you want?"

"Oh, right now I'd like a nice mocha latte and maybe the secret to cold fusion, but since those aren't really in the cards at the moment, I figure it's time you and I had a little talk about basketball." Daiki winced at the light, even tone of Imayoshi-san's voice, feeling like he should try to warn Tetsu or something. (But Tetsu was better at reading people, so maybe he wouldn't be as blind-sided by Imayoshi-san as he'd been?)

"I'm sorry, but I have no interest in basketball." Each word was measured out, precise. Satsuki flinched from them almost as much as Daiki did. "If you'll excuse me—"

"Now the thing I find funny about that is that we are having this conversation underneath a basketball court," Imayoshi-san said. "And we're having it here after you watched us play a nice little game against Seihou, and before we go off and play Meisei, and after you've come and watched us play every single one of our preliminary games. I call that funny, don't you?"

What—what? Tetsu had been watching all those games? Surely that wasn't possible. Tetsu had quit and didn't like basketball anymore. He'd said so himself.

But he didn't deny it, either. "I don't see what the way I spend my free time has to do with anything." Which meant that Tetsu had come to those games. What the fuck.

"Way I figure it, it has everything to do with this conversation." Imayoshi-san sounded almost pleased, as though he couldn't tell that Tetsu was already angry. Maybe he couldn't; Tetsu's anger was a cold, polite thing that only looked harmless. "You know, I'm pretty sure a man who hates basketball doesn't watch basketball games or walk by the gym where the team is practicing. For that matter, he doesn't accept the offer from the school that recruited him for basketball in the first place, does he? From where I'm standing, the best you can say about you and basketball is that you want to hate it, you're trying just as hard as you can to hate it, and you still can't bring yourself to it. Now what do you have to say to that?"

Daiki heard the drumbeat of his own heart pound in his ears three times before Tetsu said, cold and very calm, "I think that I am done with this conversation." So much for hoping, because of course Imayoshi-san was wrong, he had no way of knowing that once Tetsu had made up his mind to do something, he would do it.

"And that would be where you're wrong, of course." Imayoshi-san chuckled. "You're not done, Kuroko-kun. You're never going to be done with basketball. You know why, don't you?"

"I feel sure that you're going to tell me, no matter what I say."

Imayoshi-san laughed again, apparently not bothered by the chill in Tetsu's words. "It's because you want to win. You aren't the kind who knows how to give up. That's why you belong with Touou, you know. Why we looked at you play and decided we wanted you. You're hungry to win, just like the rest of us, and that's what we want on our team."

He seemed to have struck Tetsu into silence, because Tetsu didn't say anything—Daiki would have given almost anything to have been able to see what was on Tetsu's face just then.

After a moment, Imayoshi-san went on. "What's been confusing me all this time is why you're letting them win. Though I guess I can see it, can't I? Turning your back on them is a sort of poetic victory for you, isn't it?"

Satsuki closed her eyes at that. Daiki grimaced and put his arms around her, thinking once again that he was going to have to yell at Tetsu for having gotten her in the middle of this argument (or whatever the hell it was).

Tetsu finally answered Imayoshi-san. "I believe it's my decision to make." He sounded—tired, maybe, underneath all that cold. "It's my business how I handle my—former team."

Daiki had to suck in a breath at the edge of bitterness in that.

"And I can just about respect that, sure." Imayoshi-san was probably even nodding, all friendly and understanding and stuff. "Except for one little thing. I don't care. I want your basketball on my team. I've seen you play, and there are things you ought to be able to do with those skills of yours that'd make it a damn sight easier to get through the tournaments. I've been about as patient as I can stand to be, but if you and Aomine-kun don't care to kiss and make up, we'll just have to work around that. Won't be the first time I've had to deal with a bunch of kouhai at one another's throats. My luck, it probably won't be the last, either."

Satsuki opened her eyes again and squeaked, softly, as though something had just become clear to her. Daiki wished that she could share with him, because of course Imayoshi-san would want Tetsu on the team. Who wouldn't? But it sounded like there were some other things going on there that he wasn't quite getting.

Tetsu was quiet for a while before he said, calm, "Touou's play style does not require a supporting player of the type I used to be."

"Of course it doesn't. If we'd been after a supporting player, then we'd have recruited one. Tch." Exasperation had crept into Imayoshi-san's voice. "I'm recruiting you, brat. You're a play-maker, or you could be with some work and some time. When I retire at the end of the year, Touou is going to need someone who can step up and make proper use of all that lovely data Momoi-chan puts together for us, and someone is going to have to point Aomine-kun in the right direction and make sure Sakurai-kun doesn't get himself lost in the shuffle and Wakamatsu-kun doesn't give himself an ulcer. We don't need support players, Kuroko-kun. We need players who know how to work with and around one another because they trust their teammates to pull their own weight."

Tetsu's silence this time wasn't as long, but his response came out slower and quieter, enough so that Daiki had to strain to hear him. "If that's the case, then I believe that you are still recruiting the wrong person. If you've seen me play, then you know that's not the kind of player I am. It was made very clear in our games."

If Satsuki minded the way Daiki clutched at her, nausea churning in his gut at how resigned and bitter Tetsu sounded, she didn't show it.

Imayoshi-san clicked his tongue against his teeth again. "That's as big a load of shit as I've ever heard," he said, blunt as a hammer. "And I think you know it, too, or you wouldn't still be here. If you're still that miserable over what happened to you back then, you have two choices. You can either forget it, forgive them if you can, and stop moping over the whole thing as you move on with your life. Or you can pick yourself up and show them that they were wrong to write you off. And I think you know which one of those choices is going to be the more satisfying one, don't you?"

Daiki hardly dared to breathe and didn't think Satsuki did, either, while the seconds ticked past and Tetsu's silence stretched out. Then Tetsu said, slowly, "You aren't a very nice person, are you?" For the first time, there was the faintest hint of something thawed out in his voice, something rueful or maybe even amused.

"It seems to me that I may have heard that hurtful accusation from time to time." Imayoshi-san was back to sounding cheerful again. "Club applications should be submitted either to the coach or the team captain, or the manager in a pinch. If you feel like you absolutely must keep up with the literature club, I reckon we can accommodate that."

"I haven't said that I'm joining the basketball club," Tetsu pointed out, which put another twist in the pit of Daiki's stomach just as he was starting to hope again.

"They win if you don't." Imayoshi-san was as matter-of-fact as a weather report. "They win and that way of playing wins, and you lose. And you don't have the eyes of someone who likes to lose without a fight. We'll expect you Monday afternoon." A few moments later he strolled out of the little side hall, whistling tunelessly. He raised expressive eyebrows at Daiki and Satsuki and went on his way without pausing. Just as well, maybe, because Daiki didn't know whether he wanted to shake the guy's hand or punch him. Maybe he could do both—that was feasible, wasn't it?

Thank goodness for Satsuki, anyway, who was better at reacting to things on her feet. She stared after Imayoshi-san for a split second, then stepped out of Daiki's arms and tilted her head in the direction of the hall where Tetsu was, meaningful. Daiki looked at it and then back to her—what, now, really?

Satsuki sighed and grabbed his sleeve, hauling on it, so yeah, she really did mean for him to go and talk to Tetsu right then and there, assuming Tetsu hadn't made his escape while the getting was good—

No. He hadn't.

The side halls weren't lit as well as the main ones, probably because of some energy-saving initiative or something. Every other overhead light was turned off, which meant that stretches of shadow alternated with stretches of light for the length of the hallway. Tetsu was standing in one of the shadowed areas, leaning against the wall with his hands in his pockets and his head tipped back like there was something interesting on the ceiling. Or like he was waiting. He didn't look down until Daiki had shuffled over to him, feeling weirdly like he was trying to wade through water to get to Tetsu (but when he pinched himself, he didn't wake up, so yeah, that was weird). Then Tetsu looked down, his face pale and calm enough that Daiki didn't know how to read it. "I think that if you were to put that guy and Akashi-kun in a room together, you would want to sell tickets."

Daiki wasn't entirely sure that it was a joke, but he laughed a little anyway. "Yeah, probably." Then what that comment meant sank in for him. "So you were getting them after all. My messages." Had read them, or at least one of them, and hadn't—had just—damn. Damn, he'd thought knowing one way or another would have been a relief, not a disappointment.

Tetsu watched him, still calm. Remote. "I did. Though none of them mentioned that you were planning on having your captain do the talking for you."

"What? Huh?" Why would he have done that—he hadn't even realized that Imayoshi-san was still interested in the mess he'd made of things with Tetsu, so why would he have mentioned—oh. Oh, fuck. "No, I didn't know he was—I didn't know, Tetsu."

Tetsu narrowed his eyes a bit, the doubt clear enough to read in that. Satsuki cleared her throat, drawing his attention to where she was standing just a little way down the hall from them. "He really didn't know, Tetsu-kun. He wasn't even supposed to be here. Why are you here, Dai-chan?"

"I wanted something to drink, and Kantoku only brought water." Daiki chanced a glance from Tetsu to look at her; she had her arms wrapped around herself again. "What do you mean, I wasn't supposed to know?" He stared at her, understanding dawning. "Satsuki!"

She winced and lifted her chin anyway. "It was for the team, Dai-chan." Her tone was steady enough, but she was holding onto her elbows so tightly that Daiki could see that her knuckles were white, even at this distance. "We have the long-term good of the team to think about."

"And you didn't think I'd be interested in that?" Daiki demanded, indignant—he couldn't believe it, Satsuki had been working behind his back with Imayoshi-san to—to—

Satsuki lifted her chin a little higher. "You generally aren't," she said, calm. "Right now you're only mad because it's about Tetsu-kun and you weren't involved." She tilted her head to the side when Daiki opened his mouth to argue with that. "Are you really going to tell me that I'm wrong?"

Damn it. "I do care about the team," he muttered, dark. "Can't play without one." And Touou wasn't bad to play with, either.

"But not enough to make a fuss for anyone but Tetsu-kun. I know." Satsuki sighed. "He really didn't know, Tetsu-kun. I swear he didn't. He just gets into everything, you know that."

Daiki protested. "Satsuki—"

But Tetsu was looking back and forth between them, the corners of his mouth tucked down. "You really didn't ask me here for Aomine-kun?" His voice was tense, Daiki thought. Tense like the shape of his shoulders and the flex and curl of his hands.

"You said you didn't want to talk to him anymore," Satsuki said, almost steady. "You said you were done talking to us. As far as I knew, you hadn't changed your mind on that." She sniffed and looked aside. "And I told you that I would respect that."

Aw, damn it. "Fuck, Tetsu, I know you're pissed at the rest of us, but what did Satsuki ever do to you?" Daiki glared at Tetsu and made a move towards Satsuki, but stopped when she waved him off. He watched her wipe her cheeks and had to look away, frustrated.

Tetsu was watching them both, still wearing that tiny, puzzled frown. That was disconcerting; Tetsu wasn't ever the one who was confused. Daiki might have enjoyed the novelty of it, before. Now that Satsuki was doing everything she could to pretend this wasn't tearing her up, it just pissed him off. "What the hell is going on with you, anyway? You said you hated basketball, but you came to all our games?"

Tetsu frowned harder, and yeah, he looked more confused now. Great. "You didn't know that, either?"

How would he have known that? "You said you were done with basketball!" Daiki scrubbed his hands through his hair, because it was that or start pacing. "Why would I have known you were going to games? Or watching us practice? Or—talking to Imayoshi-san or anything else you've been doing? I didn't even know whether your phone number was still the same until I asked Satsuki, and then I just figured you were ignoring me." Fuck, the more he thought about it, the madder it was making him. "What the fuck is going on inside your head, anyway?"

"At the moment, I'm not entirely sure," Tetsu said, his voice distant. He straightened up from the wall. "Excuse me, I need to—I need to—" He made as if he thought he was just going to walk away again, and the hell with that.

"Oh, come on." It was one long stride to get to Tetsu, whose shoulder didn't feel quite as bony as it should have if Tetsu had stopped training, maybe that was a good sign. "You can't just walk away on us again—"

Tetsu stopped and looked at him. "Please let go of me." His tone was perfectly level, but that was more of a warning sign than not.

Daiki knew that and held on anyway. "Seriously, Tetsu—"

In retrospect, all the time he'd spent teaching Tetsu how to throw a punch the summer they'd first met clearly hadn't gone to waste. Or something like that. When Tetsu turned, fist already cocked, it was too late to do anything more than roll with it when Tetsu slugged him in the jaw. He let go of Tetsu, swearing and startled, and came very close to returning the favor, had his hand curled into a fist too before Satsuki intervened, voice sharp. "Dai-chan!"

Tetsu stared up at him, jaw set like he was braced for it if Daiki decided to ignore her and go for it anyway. Then he said, "I need to think." He turned and left, walking fast like he was afraid that Daiki would try to stop him again. Daiki watched him until he turned the corner; he didn't look back.

"He punched me, Satsuki," he said after a moment of staring after Tetsu (like Tetsu was going to turn around and come back—yeah, right). "Tetsu punched me."

"I noticed, yes." Satsuki came to him and drew him into one of the better-lit portions of the hall and tilted his jaw to look at it. "He's probably wanted to for a while."

Daiki hissed when she poked his jaw; that was probably going to mean a bruise later. "I just wanted to talk to him." Or something. Make his apology in person, or yell at him for hurting Satsuki, or something. He made a face at her, careful with it. "If he thought he was coming here to talk to me, why didn't he want to talk?"

Satsuki bit her lip and stepped back, turning her attention to adjusting the fall of her jacket. "I don't know that I can answer that."

"Satsuki—" His jaw ached, he was confused and annoyed, and didn't want to be put off by her talent for talking around things.

She looked up and shook her head. "I don't know. I don't think I know anything anymore, not about Tetsu-kun."

He couldn't be annoyed with her when she looked that miserable. Geez. "Yeah, well, you're not the only one." Daiki hooked an arm around her shoulder. "I just wanna fix this."

"I know." She leaned against him for a brief moment and pulled away again. "Come on, I need to go wash my face. And you should put something on your jaw before it starts to bruise."

Daiki sighed and fell in with her. Before they hit the main hall again, he asked, "Can we fix this?"

Satsuki bit her lip again and said, "I hope so." Which was not the reassuring answer he'd been hoping for, not by a long shot.

Imayoshi-san didn't say anything when they finally got back to the locker room, Satsuki with a freshly washed face that didn't show any of the damage and Daiki with a soda fresh from the vending machine to hold against his jaw. Daiki got the definite feeling that it wasn't because their captain didn't have anything to say, either. He let them be, and Daiki retreated to his chosen corner again, this time with Satsuki, and stayed there until it was just about time to loosen up for the match against Meisei. Satsuki didn't have anything to say either, at least nothing that they could talk about in front of the rest of the team, and Daiki didn't much feel like talking himself. Couldn't really think, either, not when his jaw still felt tender and he had the relentless memory of how angry and bitter Tetsu had been still running through his head. Tetsu had gone away so he could think, but what did that even mean? What had Tetsu spent all this time doing if he hadn't already been thinking?

He was relieved when the close of the interval approached and Imayoshi-san called the team to order and sent them up to the court to get warmed up again. "Except for you," he said to Daiki, stopping him before he could follow the rest of the guys out. "I need a word with you first."

Daiki frowned, not that it seemed to impress Imayoshi-san in the slightest when he did that. (Did anything ever impress Imayoshi-san?) He folded his arms across his chest when Imayoshi-san waved Satsuki out, too—"You go on ahead, Momoi-chan, we won't be but a minute"—until the room was empty. Imayoshi-san stuck his hands in the pockets of his jacket and looked Daiki over. "Was going to talk with you before this game anyway, of course, but it seems a little more pressing now." He rocked on his heels, watching Daiki and smiling. "This game is important. Do you know why?"

If they won it, it would pretty much guarantee their spot in the Interhigh, but Daiki was pretty sure that wasn't what Imayoshi-san was thinking about. He was also pretty sure that Imayoshi-san wouldn't care for it if he went and pulled out the sarcasm like Tetsu had done, or didn't at least try to figure it out himself. Maybe that was the answer, though. "I need to show Tetsu that I don't play like that anymore."

It wasn't the right answer, or at least not the answer that Imayoshi-san was looking for, because he gave Daiki a disappointed look. "Not quite."

Daiki watched him rock himself back and forth, back and forth, and realized that this time, Imayoshi-san was leaving him all on his own. Not quite, he'd said, so—part of his answer was right. The part about Tetsu? But Imayoshi-san had said he wanted to have a talk before this match anyway. It was pretty clear that he wasn't supposed to have been a part of that meeting with Tetsu, too. "I need to show that I don't play that way anymore?"

Imayoshi-san nodded. "Getting warmer." When Daiki frowned at him, he added, "Don't take too long. We don't want to miss tip-off."

Daiki wracked his brain to figure out who else would even care how he played now compared to back then. "You?" That just made Imayoshi-san roll his eyes. "The team." They'd been sort of weird during the break in the Seihou game—man, that felt like it had happened a century ago—but that answer just made Imayoshi-san sigh. Who else was there, Satsuki? But she knew his game better than he knew it himself—no way. "You're joking. You've got to be joking." What did Imayoshi-san think this was, therapy?

"Do I look like I'm joking?" Imayoshi-san reached over and flicked Daiki right in the middle of his forehead, hard enough to sting. "Before you can prove it to anyone else, you've got to prove it to yourself. Games like the one you just played don't happen all the time. You need to decide whether it's worth it to play the other ones in between or not. Whether you care about all your opponents or just the ones who can keep you busy on the court. What kind of player are you going to be? It's time you figured that out. For yourself. Let all the rest follow after that."

Daiki thought of a lot of things he could have said then, some of them sarcastic and some of them serious, but when he opened his mouth, something else came out instead. "Why are you bothering with all this?"

He might have honestly managed to surprise the guy; Imayoshi-san blinked like that hadn't been anywhere on the list of things he'd expected Daiki to say. He pursed his lips and then shrugged. "Someone needs to, and I'm probably the only one who can. You genius types, you all get yourselves turned around in your heads too easily and forget how to deal with the rest of us lesser mortals."

"You keep saying things like that." Daiki looked at the way Imayoshi-san had planted himself, steady like he was facing down an opponent, and the way he was smiling with his mouth but not with his eyes. "You've had to deal with that many geniuses in your time?"

"Maybe one or two." Imayoshi-san's smile didn't waver. "But that's off the subject, so let's forget about that. Do you see why this game is important now?"

Didn't take a genius to figure out that Imayoshi-san was done talking about that whatever it was making him do all this, had decided all that was over and done with, so Daiki set it aside to think about later. For now there was Imayoshi-san's question and his intent gaze, and—maybe it did make sense. Just a little. "I guess."

Imayoshi-san studied him for a moment longer and then smiled, reverting back to his normal affable mood. "That's good. Let's go get warmed up and show Meisei what we can do." He clapped Daiki on the shoulder and breezed out, taking any hope Daiki might have had about asking what the hell he thought he was doing with Tetsu with him.

Daiki followed after him anyway and joined the rest of the team on the court, settling into the familiar rhythm of warming up and looking across the way to where Meisei was doing the same. Satsuki had made it clear that they were a solid team that had climbed through their prelim block without any dramatics. They looked steady, no loudmouths on their team to make claims that were a little beyond what they could actually do. This wasn't the game he'd woken up anticipating; even in the strategy sessions they'd had, Satsuki had seemed confident that Touou would be able to take Meisei.

Daiki looked up at the stands, but the place was too big and there were too many people to tell whether Tetsu was up there somewhere, assuming Tetsu was even in the mood to let himself be seen. He caught a pass from Sakurai and bounced it over to Susa, loped down their half court and caught the next pass from Wakamatsu, and dribbled back down the court to the hoop, letting the familiar beat of his sneakers against polished laminate and the rhythm of the ball take over.

That time, Tetsu had said that he'd want Daiki to go all out against him, no matter what. He hadn't believed Tetsu then, not really, but Tetsu had been right about the other thing, that there would be players who could challenge him. Daiki made the lay-up, caught the ball on the bounce, and took a deep breath. Even if he was pissed with the way Tetsu had broken ties with Satsuki, he was going to have to take him at his word. The people who could deal with his game—they'd show up like Kagami had, or he'd find them, or something—and the rest... there was the game itself, which was still good. The ones who gave up, they'd just have to be obstacles to play around, or something. He'd figure it out. Yeah. Because whatever else happened, he wanted to still have basketball. He wasn't going to give that up again.

Wakamatsu yelled at him then for hogging the ball, so Daiki turned and passed it back to him, and got ready to play.


"Hey, Satsuki," Daiki said later, once they were off the train and ambling down the familiar streets of their neighborhood. She made an enquiring sound. "Imayoshi-san. Who has he worked with before?"

The nice thing about Satsuki (or the scary one, depending on who was talking) was that he didn't need to be any more specific than that. She straightened up and hummed. "In middle school, he was on the same team as Hanamiya Makoto. One of the Uncrowned Generals. You remember him?"

Daiki thought back on it—the Uncrowned Generals, those guys. Annoying, as he recalled, each of them in his own special way. But Hanamiya... yeah. He remembered that guy. "The mean fucker, wasn't he?" Sarcastic, but not like Imayoshi-san tended to be. Vicious, just like his game had been vicious. That had been in their second year, before Kise, back when they'd still been finding their feet. That hadn't been a good game.

"That would be the one." Satsuki's tone was dark, as though she didn't remember him any more fondly than Daiki did. "Why do you ask?"

"Just wondering." Him and Hanamiya, huh? Well, that was unflattering as fuck. And Imayoshi-san was still sticking his nose in like he thought it was his duty. Huh.

Satsuki glanced up at him, looking like she wanted more of an answer than that, but left it alone and changed the subject. "You played pretty hard today. Make sure you get a good night's sleep tonight so you'll be ready to do it again tomorrow."

It was on the tip of his tongue to point out that Touou's spot in the Interhigh was a done deal. They'd defeated Meisei and Seihou had defeated Senshinkan, which put Touou up at two wins and Senshinkan down with the two losses. The only thing tomorrow's matches would decide would be the final standings of their block, unless something bizarre happened. But he closed his mouth on that comment—old habit, and he wasn't doing that anymore, right? "Yeah, sure. I will."

Satsuki hummed again, thoughtful, and they walked on. "Meisei played pretty well, didn't they?"

Daiki thought about it, but—"Yeah." They'd fought to the very end, after all. "Yeah, I guess they did."

He thought about it some more later, turning his phone in his hands and wondering whether he should try to text Tetsu or not. Whether Tetsu would read it or ignore it or maybe respond this time. Wondered what it was Tetsu was thinking about and whether he would show up for practice Monday, whether Imayoshi-san's scheming was going to work or not.

He could think of one thing to tell Tetsu. Well, two. So he typed them out slowly, thumb careful on the keys. Satsuki doesn't deserve to be cut off. I wish you'd talk to her, even if you're not talking to me, he wrote. Then, more slowly, he added, I meant every message I sent. In case you were wondering. There was no telling what Tetsu was thinking any more, so a little reinforcement couldn't hurt, right?

He told himself that it didn't matter much that his phone stayed quiet, and watched it until he fell asleep.

Part Four

Daiki lasted for about half the morning before he decided that there was no way he would survive a full day of sitting in class and listening to his teachers drone on—pretending to listen, anyway—while he waited for classes to end and for it to be time to go to practice. He escaped and fled to the roof, which wasn't much better, really, but at least he didn't have to pretend that everything was normal up there. He found a warm patch and stretched himself out to will the time to go by faster. Not that he was sure that it mattered, not when Tetsu still hadn't responded to any of his messages, not even the one about Satsuki. If he couldn't even be bothered to do that, then how likely was it that he would show for practice?

Daiki closed his eyes against the sunshine and tried not to think too hard about it, or anything else, and hoped he might fall asleep instead, which would at least make the time go by faster. It didn't work, really, but even so, the time passed anyway. The noon bell rang eventually, which gave him an excuse to get up and waste some time buying himself some lunch.

When he got back, Satsuki was on the roof, waiting for him. She'd chosen to sit in the shade of the stairwell, legs folded primly beneath her and her skirt tucked around her knees, and she was looking a little damp around the edges. Daiki settled next to her and bumped his shoulder up against hers. "So what's up?"

Satsuki took a deep breath and passed him a folded sheet of paper, silently. Daiki unfolded it and his eyes landed on a set of neatly written characters that he recognized right away. He was holding a club application, and that was Tetsu's name at the top. The whole thing was filled out, from previous experience (three years in Teikou Middle School's club; starting member in years two and three) to reasons for joining (to play basketball, and Daiki could hear Tetsu's voice, dry, saying that and making it clear just how inane the question really was). And it was all in Tetsu's neat, careful handwriting.

"He brought it to me just a little while ago." Satsuki's voice shook just a bit. "And asked me if I would mind handling it for him." When Daiki pulled his eyes away from the club application—Tetsu's application to the basketball club—she was definitely getting a teary-eyed again. She sniffled and leaned against him when he dropped an awkward arm around her shoulders. "And he apologized for the trouble."

It didn't sound like much, but Tetsu was like that. Subtle. Understated. Satsuki was good with things like that. She didn't seem to mind it much anyway, even if she was getting tears all over his shirt. "He's coming back?"

She nodded and wiped her eyes, for all the good that did. "He's coming to club this afternoon. He said he'd try." She stopped them, abrupt, so there was more coming, once she'd worked herself up to it. Daiki looked at the slip of paper in his hand and focused on that, the important part, waiting for her to be ready to tell him the rest. It took a while, long enough that he was pretty sure it wasn't going to be good, even before she cleared her throat. "Um." Daiki braced himself. "He did say... he did say that he didn't think he could go back to the way things used to be."

Daiki leaned his head back against the wall behind them, but—he'd already known that, hadn't he? Known it by Tetsu's long silence and by how long Satsuki had taken to work up to the point. Known it by the fact that he'd felt the difference in the games he'd played against Meisei and Senshinkan, different from the ones he'd played for Teikou at the end, because he'd enjoyed playing these even though their players hadn't had much hope of pushing him. Yeah. He'd already known. Didn't stop it from aching anyway. "I kind of figured." It was—he couldn't say that he hadn't earned it. Not really. But it did remind him. He lowered his eyes and found that Satsuki was watching him closely. "What about you and him, though? Are the two of you going to be okay now?"

She nodded. "I think so. I think he was trying to make it so I wouldn't have to choose. Or maybe so that he wouldn't. I don't know."

"You'd think he'd know better by now." Daiki shook his head over it. "Well, good. At least he listened to me on that one."


He passed the form back to her. "You'd better hold onto that. Don't wanna lose it now after all this trouble, right?" She frowned but took it, folding it back up carefully and tucking it into her pocket. "So hey, do you think he'll be able to play in the Interhigh with us?"

Satsuki sighed and allowed him to change the subject. "That will depend on a number of things, especially how well he's kept up on his conditioning."

"Yeah? Well, give me your best guess."

"It's not a guess," she said, cross.

Daiki smiled at that and settled back to listen to her talk right through the next bell and the start of afternoon classes.

Even having seen the club application and having held it in his own two hands, Daiki still didn't quite know what to expect when he came down from the roof at the end of the day and took himself over to the gym for practice. There had been time for Tetsu to change his mind or decide that no, the literature club was where he preferred to spend his time. When Daiki actually pushed through the double doors and saw that Tetsu was already there, the rush of relief was so strong that it made his head spin. Tetsu was off on the sidelines, already in his gym clothes and having what looked like a serious conversation with Imayoshi-san. Thank fuck. Tetsu was really going to go through with it.

At the start of practice, Imayoshi-san clapped his hands together and said, nice and clear, "Of course you've all noticed that we have a new member of the club joining us today." Because Imayoshi-san was kind of evil that way, and it was interesting to see who had (and hadn't) noticed Tetsu standing in their midst before he stepped forward to introduce himself. Imayoshi-san carried on as guys yelped and cursed in startlement and Tetsu stood by, expression so bland that he must have been cracking up inside. "I trust you'll make him feel welcome and answer any questions he has."

Kantoku and Imayoshi-san treated the Mondays after tournament matches as a time for post-mortems and a chance to start drilling the club to address any weaknesses that Satsuki had spotted in the games they'd just played. Despite Tetsu's presence, this practice was no different. Imayoshi-san had a few eloquent things to say about the final league matches, from the number of fouls Wakamatsu had committed in the game against Senshinkan to Daiki's game against Kagami: "It was adorable how much fun you had with your little playmate, don't get me wrong, but do keep in mind that the rest of us are playing too. You don't have to carry the whole match yourself." That was all Imayoshi-san had to say about it, aside from the private conversation they'd had, but it was enough. Daiki ducked his head and nodded, trying not to be too self-conscious of the way that Tetsu was still watching him, and Imayoshi-san moved on to other subjects.

He wasn't too surprised when Imayoshi-san broke them down into squads for drills and had Tetsu on a different squad than him. Disappointed, yeah, but not surprised. Not really. Satsuki would have said something, or maybe Tetsu himself. Or maybe Imayoshi-san was just that scarily good. Didn't matter. He dropped into drills with Susa and Sakurai and did his best to focus on those and not the work Tetsu was doing across the gym. It was enough, right? Being on the court with Tetsu again and catching glimpses of him from time to time, working just as hard as ever to keep up with the rest of the club even though, objectively speaking, his skills lagged behind theirs. Of course it was enough. Maybe when Tetsu got settled on the team—

Daiki cut that train of thought off and crushed it ruthlessly. Better not to think that way. Better to take it as it came, because the only thing Tetsu had said was that he would try.

Besides. He had a bruise on his jaw that made it pretty clear that Tetsu was not going to permit himself to be pushed into anything he didn't damn well want to do.

He and Satsuki talked of other things on the trip home, exams and homework and the latest poor schmuck to have left a confession in her shoe locker, because hope apparently sprang eternal or something. "He doesn't even like basketball," Satsuki said, dismissing the guy as easily as that and tossing her head. "You'd think he'd have at least made an effort."

"Standards just aren't what they used to be," Daiki agreed, wondering whether she was thinking of the way she and Tetsu had been the despair of Teikou's male population, at least the part of it too stupid to realize that Satsuki and Tetsu had compatibly evil senses of humor. Even he'd had a hell of a time trying to get to the bottom of that whole thing.

"They really aren't." Satsuki shook her head, sorrowful. "As if I'd settle for anyone who couldn't tell a point guard from a pass."

Yeah, that was pretty sad. "Could have your pick of the club, if you wanted it." Daiki rubbed his jaw as he thought it over. "Of course, most of them are assholes, so that might be a bust." She had them all trained pretty well at this point, and he'd made it plenty clear that she was not to be fucked with. Even so, he had a hard time seeing it.

Satsuki hummed, a thoughtful note to it. "Most of them are," she agreed. Daiki eyed her, alarmed that she hadn't dismissed the lot of them outright, and she dimpled. "Never mind, Dai-chan. Make sure you do the history reading tonight. We're about due for a pop quiz."

Daiki grimaced but let her change the subject to pointed instructions regarding the rest of his evening, boring as the homework was, and they parted ways without having once mentioned Tetsu out loud. He went home, fixed himself something to eat, and reluctantly forced himself to look at the parts of his homework that Satsuki had insisted were important. (She was just as good at anticipating teachers as she was other teams.) He tried to ignore his phone, until he just couldn't any more. Thanks for talking to Satsuki. That was nice and straightforward, pretty much required, considering. Imayoshi-san and Akashi cage match: who do you think would win? That was a long shot, but hey, why not? Even if Tetsu was still mad at him, he'd seen Imayoshi-san in action now. Might make him laugh to read that.

Daiki had gotten so used to sending messages to Tetsu that went unanswered that it startled the hell out of him when his phone buzzed a few minutes later and the reply flashed on his screen: It's too soon for me to say.

Daiki gripped his phone so hard that it made his knuckles ache. Let me know when you decide, he wrote, very carefully, because for some reasons his hands wanted to shake.

When Tetsu's reply came back, it was barely worth the label, nothing more than a terse Okay, but it made Daiki breathe out, immeasurably relieved. Tetsu was going to stick around, at least for a while, and he was willing to maybe talk a little about silly things. Maybe this was all going to be okay after all.

Then, because Satsuki had shown him the list of names for the other teams that had qualified for the Interhigh, he wrote another message, this one to Kise: Hey, guess who put in a club application today?

Kise's first six replies, sent in rapid succession, were a gratifying assembly of emoticons and keysmashes. His seventh message was Your timing SUCKS and his eighth was We're still going to beat you.

Daiki actually laughed out loud over the last reply. I'd like to see you try. Because that would be a satisfying game—one of them, anyway.

Gloating at Kise aside, Daiki didn't expect Imayoshi-san to put Tetsu into the starting line-up for the Interhigh, not least because he'd seen Tetsu at practice and he'd seen Imayoshi-san having earnest discussions with Kantoku and with Tetsu. Even though Satsuki didn't say anything about it, it didn't take long to figure out that Tetsu was sticking around after practice to work some more. (Of course he noticed that: Tetsu ought to have been taking the same train home as the two of them, but wasn't.) It itched at Daiki, knowing that Tetsu wasn't ready to play yet, but then again, they weren't even talking to one another in practice, either. The occasional text message back and forth didn't really count, did it? Daiki didn't think that would, not until Tetsu did something more than answer direct questions or started an exchange of texts himself.

Whatever. Daiki went to practice every day, worked on his conditioning and drilled with the rest of the first string, listened to the strategizing that was going on in preparation for the tournament, and hoped that it was going to be enough to measure up to whatever Tetsu was watching him for. When the tournament started, he tried not to be annoyed that Seihou had landed on the other side of the bracket from them, right where they'd run up against Rakuzan only a couple games in. "That's not fair," he told Satsuki when she shared the bracket with him. "I mean, come on."

"Maybe not." Though she was agreeing, she didn't sound particularly sympathetic. "But just think of how much Kagamin will learn." Which, yeah, was fair enough, but still. "Besides, you'll get Ki-chan in the semi-finals." Yousen was on the wrong side of the bracket, too.

"This bracket sucks," Daiki grumbled. He brooded on the injustice of it and the fact that Shuutoku had gotten themselves knocked out of the running by Seihou for a while longer, then said, "Do you think we ought to warn Kagami?"

Satsuki considered the question and chewed on the end of her pencil. "," she decided. "If Iwamura-san can't do his own research, I don't see why it should be our job to correct that." Then she smiled. "Also, just imagine Kagamin's reaction."

As it turned out, imagining that reaction was completely unnecessary. Touou played its match in the sweet sixteen round, beat Azabu by a solid seventeen points, and was on its way out the door to get a night's rest before quarterfinals started the next day when Kagami showed up and planted himself squarely in Daiki's path. He was still in his uniform and had a gym bag slung willy-nilly over his shoulder, and huh. So that was what they meant when they talked about someone having burning eyes.

For a second, Daiki wondered whether Kagami was going to punch him, but no, all Kagami did was seize hold of Daiki's jersey, haul him close, and snarl, "What the actual fuck is up with that Akashi asshole?" He was so wound up that he'd forgotten to even try being polite, which would have been screamingly funny in slightly different circumstances.

Daiki took hold of Kagami's hand and began prying his fingers loose while the rest of the team (and Tetsu, who was attending their matches per some directive of Imayoshi-san's) stopped and stared. "You're not the first person to ask that." He grinned at Kagami, perfectly aware that doing so was probably not a great idea and not entirely caring. "Have an interesting game against Rakuzan?"

He only caught a quarter or so of what Kagami had to say then, because it came out in a sputtered mishmash of Japanese and English that didn't sound anything like the stuff they learned in class. There was something in there about arrogance and fucking assholes and emperor's eyes, what the fucking fuck and something-something-knocked me over, who does that and doubled our fucking score, which was what made Daiki raise his eyebrows. "They only doubled your score, seriously?"

Kagami sputtered some more. "What do you mean, only doubled it?"

"Well, Akashi." And three of the Uncrowned Generals, too, because it was all fine and good for Akashi to say they were all to go their separate ways, but he'd been sure to stack the deck in his favor before issuing that command, hadn't he?

Kagami sputtered some more, apparently rendered wholly inarticulate by that, and Imayoshi-san chose that moment to step in. "Fascinating and educational as this is, we do have a bus to catch."

Daiki took a second to think about it, but—no. He really wanted to know. Kagami was too wound up for it to be anything but a good story. "Uh, you can go on without me. I'll find my own way home."

Imayoshi-san gave him a long and thoughtful look, the kind that never boded any good, and then smiled. "I reckon that's your prerogative." He turned and snapped his fingers. "Kuroko-kun, do me a favor and make sure Aomine-kun stays out of trouble. Momoi-chan and I have to go over our plans for tomorrow's games."

"What the fuck," Daiki said, blankly, because he could see by the look on her face that it was news to Satsuki that she and Imayoshi-san needed to do that.

Tetsu looked just as surprised in his own way before his mouth tightened. "Imayoshi-san."

Imayoshi-san ignored the protests. "You don't mind, do you? After all, you went to Teikou as well. I'm sure Kagami-kun will appreciate hearing your insights about your former teammate."

Tetsu had only been on the team for a couple of weeks, but Daiki guessed that was long enough for him to have learned to recognize that cheerful, airy tone for exactly what it was. His mouth flattened out even more, but he nodded. "I'm sure he will."

"That's all settled, then." Imayoshi-san waggled his fingers at them. "You boys enjoy your gossip session, and don't stay out too late—we'll be expecting you bright and early in the morning."

He didn't rub his hands together in glee as he walked away with the rest of the team, but he probably should have been.

Kagami had focused on Tetsu like a laser at the first mention of Teikou, and he didn't seem to have picked up on any of the awkwardness hanging in the air. If he had, he was ignoring it. He'd also calmed down a little, enough that he stuck his hand out and introduced himself. "Kagami Taiga. Who're you? Don't think I've seen you before."

"I hear that a lot." Tetsu's voice was flat, so deadpan that Daiki honestly wasn't sure whether he was cracking a joke or just being unfriendly. "I'm Kuroko Tetsuya." He shook Kagami's hand, so maybe it was okay? Even if Tetsu was being pretty cold.

Kagami didn't seem to notice any chill and was obviously coming down from the edge. The next thing out of his mouth was, "I'm starving. You guys wanna get something to eat?"

"I could eat." Daiki turned to Tetsu and strained himself to keep his voice casual. "Tetsu, you hungry?" When Tetsu gave him a flat look, he backtracked. "Or you can just go on, if you want. I don't actually need a babysitter." Imayoshi-san just liked to meddle.

"That would be new, then," Tetsu said, tone still pretty flat.

Kagami spoke up before Daiki could figure out how to react to that. "No, stick around. I want to know what the hell is going on with this Akashi guy."

Tetsu turned his gaze from Daiki to Kagami and went quiet long enough for it to turn nerve-wracking before he finally answered. "...fine."

"Awesome." Kagami adjusted his gym bag and looked around. "Think there's a burger place around here?"

Tetsu looked a little puzzled by that or maybe by Kagami's easy way of overlooking the tension in the air. Part of Daiki wanted to shrug at him and try to explain how Kagami was, casual and easy-going and unused to the way things were done because he'd spent so much time in the States. He even caught himself glancing at Tetsu, ready to shrug his shoulders and do his best before he remembered that they weren't doing that anymore. He dropped his hands into his pockets and cleared his throat instead. "Yeah, I think there's probably a burger place around here somewhere."

"Then let's go find it," Kagami said. "Before I starve to death. C'mon."

Yeah, Daiki thought as they struck out in search of food to feed the bottomless pit Kagami called a stomach, this was going to be weird.

Except that it wasn't. Not as weird as it could have been. They hit a burger place within a couple blocks of the stadium, guided in the right direction by Kagami's infallible homing instinct for grease, and on the way over Kagami peppered them both with questions about Touou's day and Tetsu's experience as a player. ("So you played for Teikou—what position? A pass specialist, huh? That's interesting. You any good?") He ambled between them like a loud, outlandish neutral zone. Tetsu's answers to his questions were brief, but Daiki didn't think he was angry. Not too angry, and not at Kagami. At Imayoshi-san, maybe, that was pretty likely, and maybe at Daiki too, even though he hadn't done anything to cause the situation himself.

Whatever. He was pretty used to having Tetsu pissed off at him at this point.

Kagami got what was a normal-sized pile of burgers; watching Tetsu look at it and then Kagami like he didn't quite believe what he was seeing was pretty funny. Daiki shrugged when Tetsu shot a disbelieving glance his way—no, really, Kagami was going to eat all that, crazy as it seemed. "And we thought Murasakibara was bad, right?"

Tetsu almost smiled at that, and Kagami pounced on the opening in between enormous bites. "Is that another one of you Miracles people?"

"Yeah, he was," Daiki said after the beat of silence and the look Tetsu gave him (He's your friend, it said, you explain). "He's at Yousen now, they're on your side of the bracket." Satsuki wasn't around, so it wasn't until Kagami made a face that Daiki realized that maybe that hadn't been the most tactful way to put it. Considering. "So, huh. Rakuzan really only doubled your score?"

Might as well go all the way if he was going to be an ass, right? Get it all out of the way and stuff.

Kagami actually put his latest burger down and glared at Daiki. "I still don't like the way you say that. Only doubled it?"

Tetsu took a sip of his shake and cleared his throat. "What Aomine-kun is trying to say is that for Rakuzan to have only doubled your score is a sign of two possible things. Either Akashi-kun and his team were taking it easy, or your team played exceptionally well against them."

"Yeah, that." Daiki shrugged when Kagami began sputtering again. "What do you want? He was our captain starting from our first year. Wasn't because we felt sorry for him, either." Not when Akashi had stepped right up at the beginning and assumed control from their senpai, maybe because he did assume that everyone would follow where he led. And in return, he'd led them to victory over and over again...

It had all seemed natural back then. Logical, even. Still did, even now, a little.

Kagami still looked torn by disbelief or outrage or something, because his burger stayed right where it was, untouched. "We were playing with everything we had," he said, tone flat. "Nothing held back."

Daiki thought that over, considering how Seihou had played a couple of weeks ago and Satsuki's predictions for how they would improve over that interval. "I believe you." He looked at Tetsu, who'd watched Seihou play Touou.

Tetsu looked back at him, expression distant, like he wasn't sure he wanted to recognize Daiki's silent request for corroboration. Or something like that. Then he gave in. "It was likely a combination of factors," he said, quiet and precise. "Your team is strong and skilled, and pushed Rakuzan as hard as it could. And Akashi-kun will have wanted to conserve himself and his team as much as possible, because he will not accept anything less than complete victory over this tournament. Akashi-kun does not know how to lose."

Huh, there was a bitter twist to the way Tetsu said that, truly bitter. Daiki sat back in his seat, shocked by it. Either Tetsu had decided to stop holding back, or he was way more pissed with Akashi than he was with the rest of them.

"He put my captain on his knees." Kagami bit out the words, answering Tetsu's wintry tone with something different than his outrage from before. That had been fresh, wild. This was something that was quieter, but hotter somehow—like a gas flame that had been focused down to a narrow jet. "I don't even know how he did it, he just—put Iwamura-san down, because he opposed Rakuzan. Did it to me, too, somehow, a little shrimp like him—"

Daiki was pretty sure the two of them had forgotten him, at least for the moment. They were looking at each other instead, communing silently over the nature of Akashi and apparently getting something out of it. Daiki took a bite of his own burger and chewed it without tasting it as he watched them.

Tetsu was the first to break the silence. "The emperor's eye." He had a faint twist to his mouth as he explained it. "He's very good at reading the body for its cues, how it is likely to move, and that lets him react before his opponent can even begin to act."

Kagami scowled. "How the hell do you even counter something like that?" He picked his burger up again and chomped his way through it, looking more aggravated than Daiki had supposed he could when there was food in his hands. "There's only so fast you can move." He frowned some more, distracted. "Those three-pointers, that's just skill and practice, and you—" He jabbed a finger in Daiki's direction. "You, you're good, but I'll beat you eventually. But eyesight that's good, that's... huh. That's gonna be tricky."

And then there were Kise and Murasakibara, but Daiki didn't mention them because what Kagami had said was more important. If it was eyesight, then—he looked at Tetsu. "Hey, do you think you could—"

He stopped at the look on Tetsu's face, something he didn't know how to label. Tetsu looked angry, and tired, or maybe that was just what bitterness looked like when it was mixed with determination and a measure of something else, surprise maybe. "I don't know." He measured the words out very carefully. "I'm only a passing specialist, remember? I don't play like the rest of you do."

That was what Akashi had said, yeah, back when he'd first discovered Tetsu and taken an interest in him. Here and now, Daiki remembered those words. They seemed less benign than they had back then, somehow. Shit. If Akashi had turned Tetsu's game in the direction he had deliberately, preventing him from developing it into something that could counter Akashi's own game... shit. Maybe he hadn't done it maliciously, but even so... He rubbed his forehead, aware that there was a blank look in Tetsu's eyes, and said, "You're more than that." He knew that now, didn't he? A passing specialist didn't spend hours every night after practice training as hard as he could, honing his skills any way possible. "Though maybe you don't want to play like the rest of us—did. Might be a good thing if you don't."

Tetsu looked at him, silent and unblinking, expression stilled down to the blankness he used whenever he refused to show the world even a glimpse of what he was thinking. "It might be," he said after a moment, and took up his shake again.

Kagami was looking back and forth between them, munching steadily and apparently not bothered that they'd taken a side trip into their ongoing argument. "Huh," he said. "So you're strong after all? 'S weird, I can't smell anything off you, and you don't look like you ought to be any good. But that guy seems to respect you, so..."

Tetsu blinked at him, disconcerted. "I beg your pardon."

"I can smell it when people are strong, and when they're not." Kagami shrugged like that didn't sound weird and gestured at Daiki with his chin. "Like that guy. He's so strong that he stinks."

"Fuck you," Daiki told him. "That joke is getting old."

"That joke will never be old." Kagami frowned then and studied Tetsu. "But you don't really smell like anything." He crammed the rest of the burger into his mouth, apparently unconcerned that it made him look like a hamster with food in its cheeks, and managed to get it all down without choking. (Tetsu looked both fascinated and appalled; watching Kagami eat for the first time was an experience, all right.) He carried on. "But maybe that's why you might be able to do something against that asshole Akashi—what? What are you looking at me like that for?"

After a second, Tetsu said, "I suppose Aomine-kun must have told you about me." He looked—and sounded—like he didn't know what to think of that.

Kagami shrugged and unwrapped the next burger. "No, I think he only ever mentioned you the one time. Didn't really talk about your basketball, either."

Daiki froze. He'd mentioned Tetsu to Kagami, yeah, but he'd never named any names—what the fuck, how had Kagami guessed?

Kagami caught him staring and rolled his eyes. "Jesus. I'm bad at the language. I'm not stupid." Which was maybe something they could argue about, but not right then with Tetsu studying them, a faint crease between his eyebrows. "So you guys wanna know about the game or not? In case you make it to finals."

"In case, hell." Daiki made a face at him, indignant. "We're going all the way."

"Two rounds between now and then," Kagami pointed out, while Tetsu said, "There's Kise in semi-finals."

"Kise hasn't figured out what it's going to take to beat me yet," Daiki said, shrugging that objection aside and ignoring Kagami's mutter ("What, there's another one of you? Jesus."). Tetsu frowned at him, faint. "He hasn't. Getting close though, maybe." The distance of going to different schools and having a captain willing to kick him back down to earth when he was getting too flighty—yeah, eventually that would knock the hero worship out of him and things would get interesting. "And Kaijou's good, but we're just as good. Right now we've got the edge." But never mind that. Satsuki would want all the gory details. "So tell us about Rakuzan."

Kagami looked back and forth between them, and Tetsu gave Daiki a look, long and thoughtful, like Daiki had surprised him somehow. When Tetsu didn't say anything, Kagami shrugged and started in on another burger and launched into an account of Seihou's game against Rakuzan.

Later, after Kagami had consumed half his weight in hamburgers and told them every detail of the game, and after he and Tetsu had shared a silent train ride home, Tetsu preoccupied and withdrawn and Daiki not sure what to say that might reach him, Daiki's phone buzzed on his bedside table. When Daiki checked the message, he stared at it in confusion, because it was from Tetsu: How is he like me?

That was right, he'd compared Kagami to Tetsu once, hadn't he? Daiki let his thumb hover over the keys, trying to figure out how to put what he'd seen in them into words. He loves basketball, he wrote, because that was true—Kagami loved basketball so much that he'd taken to wandering the street courts and looking for anyone who could give him a game, sort of like Tetsu had stayed late night after night to practice a game he had no innate talent for. And he never gives up.

I gave up. I hated basketball. The reply flashed across his screen faster than he would have expected it to, like Tetsu had anticipated the way he would answer.

Daiki frowned at the message, wishing he were talking to Tetsu and could see how he looked, maybe read some of what he was thinking off Tetsu's face. But maybe that was why Tetsu had decided to wait to do this over text. Do you still hate it? Imayoshi-san hadn't thought so, but good as Imayoshi-san was, even he could be wrong, couldn't he? And he hadn't known Tetsu as long as Daiki had.

Tetsu's reply came more slowly this time, like he'd had to think about it. I don't know.

Maybe that was fair. If he'd learned anything from being at Touou, it was that he and Tetsu had had very different experiences at Teikou. Something like that, anyway. Daiki chewed on his lower lip like he was Satsuki and finally wrote as much: I think I like playing with Touou better than I did playing for Teikou.

Tetsu didn't have an answer for that, or chose not to share it with Daiki, and Daiki's phone remained silent for the rest of the night.

During the interval between the quarter-finals match against Onita and the semi-finals match against Kaijou, Satsuki and Imayoshi-san held a final strategy session. Didn't seem to matter that they'd already talked over what to expect from Kaijou—the two of them wanted to make sure it was crystal clear, Daiki guessed. Given what was coming, he couldn't really blame them.

"The thing you're going to have to guard against will be Kise-kun's perfect copy." Imayoshi-san was good; he managed to put just the right note in his voice to make it clear how very exasperating he found the idea of such a skill. "I'm given to understand that the psychological impact of having your own game reflected back at you is downright eerie."

"It can be," Daiki said, since some of the guys didn't look like they believed it. Third-years, honestly. "He's never managed to do it to me, but it freaks people out. I've seen it happen."

That quieted them, and Satsuki stepped in. "Ki-chan is very good and is strong as a player, but he's only been playing for about two years. He's still fairly new to the game, which is to our advantage. He will adapt to our strategies swiftly, but if we keep moving quickly, he may not be able to keep up. The real difficulty will be countering him and his teammates, who have much more experience than he does, even if they aren't as powerful as him."

"Which is why we'll be letting Aomine-kun keep him occupied," Imayoshi-said. "Let them play with each other to their heart's content and keep the rest of Kaijou from sticking their noses in. Everyone understand?" Heads nodded all around the locker room; Imayoshi-san turned to Daiki. "Aomine-kun, will you be able to handle Kise-kun for us?"

Daiki could feel Tetsu watching him closely and rolled his shoulders under the weight of that. "Should be, yeah. He hasn't gotten the better of me yet."

"Make sure it stays that way," Imayoshi-san told him, then clapped his hands. "All right, people. Let's go get ourselves warmed up."

Kaijou was already on the court, getting ready for the game. Kise was right in the middle of the crowd. He spun the ball off his fingers and then ruined the effect by waving vigorously as he began to bound across the court. "Aominecchi! Kurokocchi!"

"He just doesn't ever change, does he?" Daiki muttered to Tetsu, and thought that Tetsu might have laughed softly.

Tetsu did laugh when Kaijou's captain peeled away from his team and came right after Kise to catch him by the back of his jersey. "Greet your former teammates later," he said, loud enough to carry. "There's work to do right now."

Kise waved at them anyway as Kasamatsu hauled him back across the court.

"Sometimes I think the hands-on approach to captaining has a lot going for it," Imayoshi-san said, watching that. He immediately prodded Daiki. "Stop staring at the scenery and get busy."

Daiki grinned and jogged onto the court, settling into what promised to be an excellent game.

He liked the look of Kise when they settled into place for the tip-off. Now that the game was about to start, Kise'd stopped fooling around and just looked determined. "Are you ready to lose, Aominecchi?"

Daiki had to grin at the challenge. "I dunno, are you?"

Kise narrowed his eyes. "I'm here to win."

Daiki felt his grin stretch even wider. "Yeah, well, so am I." There was just enough time for him to see the spark in Kise's eyes before the referee tossed the ball up in the air and the game started.

This was going to be one of the good games, the kind Imayoshi-san had said was worth playing the rest for. Kaijou started off hard and fast—no sooner had they gotten the ball to Sakurai for one of his quick release baskets than Kaijou took possession of the ball and got it to Kise. Even though Satsuki had warned them, Sakurai still yelped when Kise executed a perfect replica of the quick release and tossed off a cheerful, "Sorry about that!" to cap it off.

Daiki stepped in to catch the ball on the rebound and shot a grin at Kise, one that unnerved at least a couple of the Kaijou guys by the looks on their faces. "Always gotta be the smart-ass, don't you?" The ball was in his hands and the court was all his to play with, and Kise was his opponent to guard. Daiki spun around Kaijou's center and drove for the basket, ready to laugh out loud with the satisfaction of the game and the fierce edge of Kise's focus on him, Kise right there trying to block him from the basket, though he knew better than that by now.

"Damn it, Aominecchi," he said when Daiki ducked to the side and sent the ball where it wanted to go, right past Kise and past Kaijou's attempt to block it, right into the basket it where it belonged.

Daiki grinned while Wakamatsu scuffled for possession of the ball. "You think you have what it takes to beat me?"

"The game is just starting," Kise retorted. Then Wakamatsu got the ball to Susa and there wasn't any more time for idle chatter.

Daiki didn't think anything much of the first foul, or even the second. It was more interesting to focus on the game itself, chasing Kise back and forth across the court, satisfying like playing Kagami was, the way only the games that called on all his skill (well, most of his skill) could be. Fouls happened, even in careful games, which this was not. It wasn't until the third time Kaijou caused him to commit a foul that he frowned.

Imayoshi-san clipped him on the shoulder on his way back up the court. "Watch yourself," he said, meaningful, because the game wasn't even close the end of the second quarter yet.

It wasn't until the referee blew the whistle on the fourth forced foul that Daiki caught sight of the look on Kise's face and knew. The guy didn't look determined anymore; he just looked regretful.

Daiki dusted himself off and stretched his back, considering it while the referee threw the ball back into play and everyone fell back into the game. Kaijou wanted to limit his game, huh? Make him play conservatively or get himself thrown off the court? Well, fuck that. Wasn't a bad strategy, he'd give Kasamatsu or whoever had come up with it that much credit.

Just wasn't good enough, either.

Imayoshi-san caught up with him again four points later. "You reckon you can contain yourself for the rest of the game, or am I gonna have to put you in time-out?"

Imayoshi-san would do it, too, if he thought he had to. The man was ruthless on the court. But it would mean leaving the team facing off against Kaijou and Kise all alone, and fuck that, too. Daiki pulled his shoulders straight and cast a look over at Kise, who still looked pathetic and guilty. "Are you kidding? These assholes aren't good enough to force me to foul again."

Imayoshi-san laughed and cuffed him on the back of the head, friendly. "That's what I like about you, your charming lack of humility." He gave Daiki a quick, narrow look then, and nodded. "All right. Go get 'em."

Daiki nodded and let himself sink deeper into the game, into his game, and his awareness of the world narrowed down to what was contained within the boundaries of the court—the other team and his team and the ball, which by rights belonged in his hands or in the basket and nowhere else but that. Nothing else mattered beyond that, not the seconds ticking past or even the points mounting up, and certainly not the way Kaijou kept putting themselves in his way, trying to interfere with him or the ball. Most of them were too slow for that, too slow and too clumsy.

The quarter ended with Touou up by fifteen points and Kaijou looking stunned. As Daiki let the awareness of the world outside the game filter back in, he looked at Kise. "You're going to need something better than that to get this done."

Saying that may have made some of Kise's team bristle, but the look in Kise's eyes turned sharper. Harder. "Game's not over yet, Aominecchi," he said just before Kasamatsu collared him and dragged him off the court with the rest of his team.

Wakamatsu tried to clobber Daiki once they were in the privacy of the locker room. "What were you thinking, getting that many fouls in the first half?" He set his hands on his hips and glared when Daiki dodged the smacking. "Are you an idiot or what?"

"It depends on who you ask." Imayoshi-san stepped in between them and shoved the container of honey lemons against Wakamatsu's chest, prodding him with it until Wakamatsu took it from him. "Here, please enjoy these refreshments Sakurai-kun has so kindly prepared for us and leave the scolding to those of us whose job it is."

Man, it was fun to watch Imayoshi-san in action, as long as he was aiming his sarcasm at someone else.

As if he'd heard what Daiki was thinking, Imayoshi-san turned and nudged his glasses up the bridge of his nose. "I was wondering why you couldn't have kept them from causing you to commit those fouls before you had four of them, though."

Daiki winced and did the only possible thing. "Sorry."

Imayoshi-san shook his head. "I am going to teach you not to coast on that talent of yours if I have to beat it into your thick skull." Then he shrugged and clapped his hands. "Now, if I know Kasamatsu, he's over in his locker room right now putting his next strategy together right this very instant. Bet you anything it'll be interesting, too. So my thought is, we need to have something interesting to show him when that happens. Kuroko-kun. I want you ready to play at the end of the third quarter."

For a second, the room was silent as Imayoshi-san smiled on them like the benevolent dictator he was and everyone processed that, turning as one to stare at Tetsu. Tetsu himself was staring at Imayoshi-san, looking as surprised as he had the night Akashi had looked at him and said there was something in his game that Teikou could make use of.

Then the protests started. Ikeda went off first. "He's not even a regular player yet!" He all but howled it, somewhere between anguished and angry. "You can't be serious!"

"This guy can't even keep up in practice!" Morita added. "And he's a crap player—what's he gonna do, psych Kaijou out?"

"Shut the fuck up." The words were out of Daiki's mouth before he had the time to consciously consider them. "You don't have any idea what Tetsu can do, so keep your mouths shut. That guy was a starting player for Teikou, didn't you geniuses know that?"

"It's true," Sakurai said, unexpectedly enough. He immediately shrank from the eyes that turned his way. "Sorry! But Kuroko-kun was on Teikou's team. My school played him once."

Ikeda and Morita looked like they didn't believe it. Before they could protest, Imayoshi-san made a sound that was thoroughly inelegant and drew all their attention back to him. "He's on Touou's team now, and that's all that matters. Get warmed up, Kuroko-kun. I'm gonna want you in the fourth quarter, because Kasamatsu'll move towards the end of the third." He smiled then. "Now someone pass those honey lemons back this way. I'm feeling a little peckish."

Tetsu was still staring at Imayoshi-san, looking dazed. Satsuki caught Daiki's eye, worried, but before they could do anything, Tetsu shook his head like he was trying to clear something out of it. There wasn't much room to spare, but he retreated down to one end of the locker room and began stretching out, expression set and determined. Daiki watched him, not quite sure what to think of the weird tightness in his chest.

Someone's elbow caught him in the ribs, but not hard—Susa, who held out the box of honey lemons when Daiki looked. He didn't say anything at all.

Daiki hadn't put much thought into it, really, but as he dug into the lemons, he supposed that Susa probably was his favorite senpai.

There was no way of knowing what had happened in Kaijou's locker room during the break, but something had. Kise was right in the middle of his team when Kaijou walked back onto the court, and huh. Daiki squinted at him. There was something in the way Kise looked at him, something that was missing from what had always been there before.

Kise's game had shifted, too, so subtly that the first minutes of the third quarter flew past as Kise harried him up and down the court and Daiki tried to puzzle out what had changed. It was something that had always been in Kise's game, he thought, something whose absence now turned it sharper, more precise.

Daiki laughed aloud when he realized what it was, when Kise drove in against him and knocked the ball out of his hands before he could shoot. "You stopped holding back."

Kise didn't laugh; there wasn't anything but grim resolve in his eyes. "I'm going to beat you today."

Daiki felt his pulse beat faster as he tasted the challenge and felt the weight of Kise's determination behind it. "Let's see you try."

The rest of the quarter flew past beneath the presence of Kise's game—harder now, faster, with Kise's focus blazing like the sun. The points mounted up faster than Daiki could bother himself to keep track of, except for the way that Touou kept itself ahead of Kaijou by a steady margin. Two minutes from the buzzer, Daiki was almost ready to say that Kise was closer than he'd ever been before, but still hadn't found the right place to challenge him, when Kise's whole posture changed. His shoulders went loose as he dropped his stance, flexing on his knees as his arms swung free—what the hell was he doing, that was—

"Son of a bitch," Daiki said through the flash of disorientation, the instant of what the fuck and that isn't right, because that was his stance Kise was copying now. "You really think you can copy me?"

He was pretty sure he recognized the smirk that spread across Kise's face then, too. "Why don't we find out?"

Kise's cut was blazingly fast; Daiki spun with him, reaction time a hair too slow with the utter strangeness of seeing Kise move like that, so familiar that being the one to see it rather than do it jarred him. Kise went through Touou's defense like a blade through water and lobbed the ball through the hoop with an off-handed toss that Daiki could have performed blindfolded. When he cast a look back over his shoulder, the challenge was as clear as the smirk on his face—Beat that, Aominecchi.

Daiki took a deep breath and let it out slowly as he moved, flowing to position himself to be where the ball would be, Susa to Wakamatsu to him, go—down the court, nothing but him and the ball and Kise, matching him as closely as a mirror's reflection, back up the court and falling into the new flow of it while Kise began to close up the gap in points, bit by bit, slipping into the demand of playing like this, having to match his own game and exceed it—

The buzzer sounded to end the quarter, and it was like being plunged into cold water on a hot day. Daiki surfaced and left the court, almost dazed. Somebody, no, it was Satsuki, Satsuki pressed his water bottle into his hand as he sat. He drank and stared across the court at Kise, and—he could do it, he knew he could, because Kise didn't have the stamina to play all out like this for another ten minutes, or the experience to keep Daiki from forcing him to.

It was another shock when he heard Imayoshi-san say, "Sakurai-kun will sit the rest of this one out. Kuroko-kun, are you ready?"

Daiki turned to look as Tetsu said, quiet, "Yes, I am." Because he'd forgotten in that last wild pair of minutes—Tetsu was going to be playing, too.

Imayoshi-san's nod was brisk. "Good. Get the ball where it needs to go. The rest of you, use the ball when it comes to you, like we talked about before." Just like the last-minute change of strategy had dictated. There was some doubt on Wakamatsu's face and maybe a trace on Susa's face, too, but they nodded.

Tetsu was looking back at Daiki when he checked. The interval was counting down fast and the game was still hanging over Daiki, wanting all his attention, which was why, maybe, the words came to him then, easy as the game itself. "I think I can take him alone," he said as he curled his fingers, forming them into a fist. "But I'd rather do it with you." He offered his fist to Tetsu and held his breath when Tetsu looked back, expression gone still and his eyes dark.

The moment stretched out as the seconds ticked past, until Daiki was sure that Tetsu wasn't going to reach back after all and was going to keep on the way he had, with all the ruined history still standing between them. Then he raised his fist and touched it to Daiki's. "Yes," he said, calm and quiet, the tone he used when he was ready to play and play hard. "Let's."

Daiki barely had time to smile in his absolute relief before the interval ended and Imayoshi-san dropped his hands onto their shoulders. "That was touching." He pushed them towards the court. "Now get out there and play already."

Daiki went, feeling the fatigue of the past three quarters and the game against Onita falling away, because Tetsu was stepping onto the court with him, was going to play with him again for this game, and as good as Kise was and as determined as Kaijou was to win, they hadn't seen anything yet.

Kise knew it, maybe could see it coming, because his jaw was set when he saw Tetsu walking onto the court with the rest of them. He nodded at them once, short, and dropped into that formless stance as the referee blew his whistle and the game started up again.

Daiki had forgotten, somehow, what it felt like to play with Tetsu, really play with him—how good it felt to pour himself into the game, chasing the ball and his opponent (Kise, like a second self, pulling more out of him in this game than even Kagami ever had), with the sure knowledge that Tetsu was right there with him, able to catch his passes or send the ball searing right through their opponents' defense whenever Daiki needed it. The memory came back with the reality of it, the way the ball sang as it passed back and forth between him and Tetsu, smacking into his palms with the solid feeling of what was utterly, irrevocably right. Daiki sank himself into the joy of it, into the joy of playing with Tetsu again after having learned to do so without him, and would have laughed if he'd had the breath to spare for it. He didn't; Kaijou continued to push hard and Kise was playing as though his life depended on it, taking everything Daiki showed him and throwing it back at him. Kasamatsu was right there, too, not really all that much like Tetsu except for the way he and Kise moved together.

Even so. The turning point came with three minutes still on the clock, one of those moments when a game could hang in the balance and its flow could reverse directions from favored team to the other one. Kise had the ball and was facing off with Daiki, poised on the ball of his feet just as Daiki was (which one of them was copying the other? who could say?). Daiki waited, his breath coming quick and light in his throat, and felt the game's possibilities hovering on Kise's choice.

Kise's eyes shifted, his gaze flickering to the side for a split second.

Daiki moved faster than thought and slapped the ball from Kise's hand even as he began to pass it—pass it instead of feinting and lobbing a formless shot at the basket. He drove it to the side and heard the yell when Tetsu passed it on to Imayoshi-san, who sank the three-pointer while Kise was still gaping at Daiki. "How?" he demanded.

"You had to look to see where he was," Daiki said, because Kasamatsu was standing a few meters back, looking just as stricken as Kise was. "You weren't sure he would be there."

Kise was a genius in his own right; that was all the hint he needed to put the rest together. It was something that was probably going to come back and bite him later, Daiki supposed, but hell, that just meant that the next time Touou and Kaijou met, it would be that much more fun.

It was going to have to be the next game, though—this game wasn't the one where Kise would beat him, not least because Kise started flagging with more than a minute still to go. When the final buzzer sounded, he was barely standing. Daiki got to him before Kasamatsu did, but only barely. "Idiot," he said when Kise tried to take a step and nearly fell over. "You can't play like that for a whole quarter, not yet."

Kise looked at him, and oh, shit, his eyes were suspiciously bright. For once, Daiki was pretty sure it wasn't because Kise wanted to make a scene, either. "I came so close—"

Then Kasamatsu was there, thank fuck, getting his shoulder under Kise's arm to stabilize him. "Yeah, you did," he said, ruffling Kise's hair even as he gave Daiki a look, something hard and thoughtful in it. "You did good."

That was Kise in good hands, then. Daiki took a careful step back, which made Kasamatsu look less bristly. "Show me what you can do at the Winter Cup," he told Kise, and yeah, if there was anything he could say just then that would help, that was it.

Kise straightened up and lifted his chin. "Count on it."

Daiki nodded; even if Kise was blinking kind of fast, he was gonna be okay.

When he turned away, Tetsu was right there, watching. He looked like he was thinking hard about something. Daiki didn't know what.

He had his fist up, holding it out to Tetsu before he could remember why it wasn't exactly a good idea (Satsuki's voice in his head, saying that Tetsu didn't want to go back to the way it had used to be). Daiki didn't recoil, though it was a near thing, and wet his lips. "Good game?"

Tetsu looked up at him, his eyes still and thoughtful. "It was." He sounded almost surprised, even as he brought his hand up and bumped his fist against Daiki's.

Daiki had to fight down a sudden shakiness—maybe they were going to be okay after all. Maybe this really was going to work.

He thought so all the way through lining up to thank Kaijou for their game and through the walk back to the locker room to pack up, and through the moment that his phone buzzed with an incoming message. He reached to check it without thinking and went cold when he saw the name on the screen. Oh, fuck.

"Dai-chan?" Satsuki's voice was uncertain, a little shaky. When he looked up, she had her phone out, too. So did Tetsu, and the rest of the team was giving them a whole range of funny looks. Daiki didn't have any attention to spare for them, because Satsuki looked queasy and Tetsu just looked angry, and Daiki would have bet anything that their phones had the same terse message on the screen: Meet me at the south entrance in twenty minutes. We must talk.

It was, of course, from Akashi. Who else would be that peremptory and that sure that he would be obeyed?

Imayoshi-san left off repacking his gym bag and ambled over to the three of them. Somehow he made doing that look like he was pulling them aside for a private conference, even though they hadn't moved from where they were standing. The rest of the team immediately got very busy with what they were doing, which gave them a kind of privacy to answer Imayoshi-san when he asked, "Okay, what just happened?"

Satsuki handed him her phone so he could see the message from Akashi as Tetsu said, toneless, "Akashi-kun has told us that he wants to speak to us."

Imayoshi-san took a look at Satsuki's phone and pursed his lips over it before he passed it back. He looked at her and Tetsu and Daiki. He huffed. "Well, so what? Do you want to go and talk with him? If you don't, tell him he can wait until he sees you tomorrow at finals."

Daiki shared incredulous looks with Satsuki and even Tetsu, who may have been pissed at Akashi but still knew how well something like that would go over with him. "I don't think that would work very well."

Imayoshi-san looked at the three of them and smiled. "Might work better than you'd think, but I suppose it's your decision to make." He glanced at the time. "You'd better scoot if you wanna make it over to the south entrance in twenty minutes." He stopped himself then and looked at them, going thoughtful in a way that would have alarmed Daiki if he hadn't already been preoccupied with the looming meeting with Akashi, but he didn't say anything else before he left them to rush through packing their bags and getting out the door.

Part Five

"What do you think he wants?" Satsuki asked, her voice low and taut, as they hurried through the stadium's halls on the way to the south entrance, weaving themselves through the last of the spectators that had come to watch the quarter- and semi-finals.

"The hell if I know." Daiki looked at her and Tetsu, whose face was set. "Haven't heard from him since graduation." He didn't hear much from Murasakibara these days either, barring the occasional inquiry after some snack food or another, but there hadn't been anything but silence from Akashi since he'd headed out for Rakuzan. It made this sudden summons all the more ominous, because the last thing Akashi'd had to say to any of them was a reminder that the next time they met, it would be as enemies.

Akashi always had preferred to be dramatic about his commands.

Satsuki probably was thinking about the same thing Daiki was, because she looked at Tetsu then, too. Yeah, she didn't think it was a coincidence that they'd gone through several days of the Interhigh without hearing from Akashi, only to receive simultaneous messages from him the first time Tetsu played, either. Great.

For his part, Tetsu didn't have anything to say at all, though he looked tense. He caught Daiki looking at him and looked away, his mouth drawn tight. Angry.

Damn it, it wasn't fair—not when they'd just been on the verge of figuring something out, not when they'd just finished one of the best games Daiki had ever played. Damn it.

Akashi was waiting for them outside, sitting on a bench and looking cool and unruffled as ever despite the fact that the summer heat was oppressive and he had almost certainly just come from playing less than an hour ago. He watched them approach, wearing a faint smile that could have meant anything.

Somehow, by the time the three of them had come close enough to stand in front of Akashi's chosen ground, Daiki was in the middle, with Satsuki on his left and Tetsu on his right. It should have felt like he was looking down on Akashi, who hadn't bothered to stand, but it didn't. Felt more like he and Satsuki and Tetsu ought to have been kneeling or something instead.

The hell with that.

Daiki cleared his throat, since he seemed to have been elected the unofficial spokesman. "Got your message. What's up?"

Akashi looked at him for an unnervingly long time before inspecting Satsuki and Tetsu in turn. "It seemed as though we should speak before finals begin." He was as self-assured as ever—no wonder, really. Satsuki had said that he'd taken charge of Rakuzan's team just as easily as he'd assumed command at Teikou. "I thought that perhaps I ought to make some things clear."

Yeah, this wasn't gonna be any fun. Daiki shoved his hands in his pockets and did what he could to act like he didn't care. Probably didn't work; Akashi had said that his emperor's eye could see right through people, but he felt a little better for making the effort anyway. "Yeah? What kinds of things?"

Akashi's smile didn't waver; it reminded Daiki of Imayoshi-san when he was in a mood to take no prisoners. "You will not play in the final match of the Interhigh."

It was so outlandish that it took a moment for the words to penetrate and make sense. Akashi was telling him not to play in the match against Rakuzan? What the fuck? Daiki knew perfectly well what Satsuki's projections for that match were almost as well as she did, because she'd talked her way through them with him, rehearsing them over and over in a tireless effort to figure out how Touou might find a way to win against Rakuzan and its team of monsters. Their best chances all depended on Daiki being in the game. And now Akashi was sitting on this bench like an emperor on his throne, telling him not to play? That couldn't be right. "What do you mean, I won't play?"

Akashi looked up at him, still smiling, absolutely confident in himself. "You know what I mean, Daiki. You will not play."

If he didn't play, then Touou would definitely lose. That wasn't him being arrogant, either, that was fact, grounded in Satsuki's analysis and Daiki's own knowledge of his teammates' games and what Akashi himself could do. Touou would lose, would deliberately be set up to lose, and no. No, that just wasn't going to happen. Daiki wouldn't stand for it. "You mind telling me why?"

"I did make allowances, you know." If anything, Akashi sounded faintly regretful. He opened his hand, gesturing at Satsuki. "I would really have preferred to see what you could have done with your own team, one that depended on you only, not you and a player of Daiki's caliber. But the bonds of childhood friendship are strong. Who am I to sunder them so lightly?" He closed his hand as Satsuki made a strangled sound and a cold chill ran down Daiki's spine in spite of the sweltering heat. Had Akashi really thought about trying to send him and Satsuki off to different schools?

Before he could act on that, before he could even think his way through that, Akashi lifted his other hand, palm up and opened toward Tetsu. "And I winked at it when I first heard that you had elected to go to Touou after all, even after what we discussed the last time we spoke." Daiki had no idea what that meant, so it must have been a private conversation. Tetsu's expression was so still that it might have been carved out of granite. "As long as you did not intend to continue with basketball, I saw no reason to say anything. But now..." Akashi closed his hand again, abrupt, and smiled at the three of them. It might have looked gentle to anyone watching who didn't know better. "I don't believe I can countenance all three of you on the same team. That is not what we agreed to do."

Daiki heard his own voice as though it was coming from a long way away. "I don't remember us agreeing to anything. I remember you telling us what we were going to do and us doing it, maybe because we didn't have anything better to do. But I don't think that's the same thing as agreeing."

Akashi looked up at him. "Semantics." He dusted his hands, dismissing the argument. "You will not play tomorrow, and I will leave it to the two of you to decide whether you or Tetsuya will transfer schools." A glint of amusement lit his eyes. "Which will win out, I wonder—childhood friendship or the bonds of youthful romance?"

"I'm sorry." Daiki was floating somewhere out beyond the immediacy of anger, somewhere that was calm and very sure, sort of like he thought Tetsu must feel like when he was angriest. "My captain is the one who decides what games I play in, not you. And I'm not transferring anywhere. Neither are Tetsu or Satsuki, not unless they want to, and not because you prefer that they go to some other school. You're not the boss of us anymore, Akashi."

Akashi stared up at him; the worst part was that his smile hadn't even wavered. "Excuse me?"

Later on he would remember this and wonder what on earth had possessed him, but at that moment Daiki had sailed well past the point of restraint or, possibly, sanity. He showed Akashi all his teeth. "You know what I mean, Seijuurou. Fuck. You."

"Ah," Akashi said softly, still smiling. "I see. I admit, I didn't quite expect you to be the one to do this, but perhaps I shouldn't be surprised." He shook his head. "You seem to have forgotten something, however."

It went so fast that Daiki didn't know what was happening until after he'd hit his knees. Akashi rested a hand on his shoulder, holding him down, and smiled at him. "I think you've forgotten what happens to anyone who opposes me."

Daiki looked up, some of his anger filtering back into the calm place. "I haven't forgotten, I just don't give a shit." He reached up to knock Akashi's hand off his shoulder. Predictably enough, Akashi lifted it away before he could connect. "I don't play for Teikou anymore, I don't play for you, and if my captain needs me on the court, then that's where I'm gonna be." He stood up and glared down at Akashi, wondering whether he was going to pay for that and pretty sure that it would be worth it regardless. "You got anything else you wanna say to me, or are we done here?"

For the first time in this conversation, Akashi frowned, showing displeasure in the faint creasing of his forehead. "I think you will want to think very carefully about what you choose to do in the next two minutes."

"No," Daiki said. "I don't need to think anything over. I'm done here. How about you guys, you guys got anything here you wanna finish up?" He didn't—quite—dare to take his eyes off Akashi to look at them.

It didn't matter. Tetsu spoke up after a couple of beats, just long enough for him and Satsuki to have checked in with each other. "No, I think you've summed it up quite clearly, Aomine-kun. I don't believe there's anything else to be said here."

Akashi's smile fell away completely, but before he could say whatever it was that made his eyes snap like that, someone else intervened, all cheerful drawl. "I think I'd like to have a word here, if I might?"

Daiki didn't have any idea when Imayoshi-san had shown up, much less why he'd done it, and he didn't know quite what he thought of it when Imayoshi-san set a hand on his shoulder and insinuated himself into their conversation, but one thing was for sure—it pissed Akashi off. He frowned at Imayoshi-san. "This is a private conversation. Outsiders aren't welcome here."

Imayoshi-san sucked on his teeth and rocked on his heels until Daiki and Tetsu had to take a step back or risk getting whacked by his elbows. "Well, now, that's an interesting way of looking at it, don't you think?" He didn't have all that much height on Akashi, certainly not as much as Daiki did himself, but he made the most of it and peered down his nose at him. "By my count, you're the outsider here." He spread his hands wide, wide enough that Satsuki had to dodge backwards before he could clock her. "So tell me, what did Rakuzan's captain have to say to my team that got them all upset? I'm dying to know."

Imayoshi-san had a gift, he really did; Daiki had never seen the muscle in Akashi's jaw twitch like that before. "I am only going to say this one more time. This does not concern you. Go away."

"Y'see, that's where you're wrong." All the good humor evaporated out of Imayoshi-san's voice. "Seems to me like I just heard you telling one of my players that he wasn't allowed to play in a game against your team. Seems to me like I just heard you tell him and his teammates that one of them needed to leave for another school. And it seems to me that everything I just heard is entirely my business, because you are fucking with my team and I do not take kindly to that in the slightest." His voice had gone hard, and from what Daiki could see of his profile, he looked angry. Really, genuinely angry. "I'm only gonna tell you this once, Akashi-kun. You run along back to Rakuzan and stop pestering my players and my manager, and I'll forget all about this. You fuck around with them again and you'll find out just how nasty a person I can really be, you understand me?"

Akashi was silent a moment, then—"I did tell you," he said, hand moving fast as he struck. "I will not be opposed—"

Imayoshi-san tilted his head back so he could look up at Akashi from his knees, and he laughed. "That's a cute trick," he drawled. "What's it supposed to do, exactly? Demonstrate the error of my ways?" When he smiled then, it looked more like he was baring his teeth. "Give it up, kid. You can put me on my knees as many times as you like, if you want, and you and your team can quadruple our score when we play, but it won't change a thing. They're not yours anymore. You lost 'em all a long time ago, and the only thing you've done here is helped 'em figure it out that much faster. You've lost. This game is mine. Now get the fuck out of here, I'm sick of looking at you."

Daiki watched the muscle in Akashi's jaw work as Akashi glared down at Imayoshi-san. Then he said, "Don't imagine I'll forget this."

"You'd better not." Imayoshi-san's smile turned sharp like a scalpel. "Next time I have to have this little talk with you, I won't bother being nice about it."

When Akashi hissed between his teeth, it sounded almost frustrated. He turned without saying another word and practically stalked away.

Daiki watched him go, nothing but static between his ears, because holy fuck, he'd never seen anything like that before. "Did that actually just happen?"

"I think so." Satsuki sounded just as dazed as he felt. "Tetsu-kun...?"

Tetsu was looking at Imayoshi-san, who was climbing back to his feet and had switched back to his normal amiable smile. Tetsu's eyes were dark. "I suppose that means we belong to you now?"

Imayoshi-san blinked at him. "No, don't be ridiculous. You're all too much trouble for me." He snorted. "You belong to you, and thank goodness for that. I'm just your captain." He paused and somehow managed to look over the tops of his glasses at them. "Speaking as your captain, I'd be obliged if you did not let Rakuzan quadruple our score. Our chances against them tomorrow may not be all that rosy, but that would be pretty embarrassing. I wouldn't know how to show my face after a loss like that."

Daiki stared at Imayoshi-san, lost for words, but Satsuki came to his rescue. "Even with the motivation you just gave him, I don't believe Rakuzan can do that." Her tone was brisk enough, but she was looking at Imayoshi-san sort of like Tetsu was, kind of wide-eyed and wondering and maybe a little bit pleased.

Imayoshi-san beamed at them. Daiki could almost have believed that was all there was to him, if he hadn't just seen him face down Akashi and win. "Well, that's a relief, I don't mind telling you." He shrugged at them. "I guess the three of you'll want to make your own way home, but you'll have to excuse me. I've gotta run if I don't wanna miss the bus. You enjoy the rest of your evening, okay?" He took off, waving his fingers over his shoulder in farewell, and that was that.

Daiki gave himself a solid pinch, needing to be sure, but no, he really was awake. "Holy fuck," he said after they'd stood there in silence for a minute or two, trying to recover from that. "Seriously, that actually happened?" Wait, had he actually told Akashi to fuck off, right to his face? Holy shit.

"I told you Touou was the right school for us," Satsuki said.

"Yes, you did." Tetsu's voice was quiet. When Daiki whipped his head around to look, Tetsu was smiling at her, faint but true. "You were right."

"Of course I was." Satsuki tossed her head, but her smile trembled at the edges, just a bit. Nobody else would have seen it, not unless they knew her. "I'm always right, aren't I? About the important things?"

Daiki bumped his shoulder against hers. "You pretty much are," he said as Tetsu murmured something that amounted to the same thing.

"I'm glad you both know it." Satsuki smoothed her hands down her skirt and fixed a look on them. "Because here's something else I'm right about. It's time for the two of you to talk." She held up a hand when Daiki opened his mouth. "No, it is." She was looking at Tetsu, though, not him. "You've dragged this out long enough."

Daiki hardly dared to breathe, not until Tetsu said, slow, regretful, "I did already agree that you were always right, didn't I?"

"You most certainly did." Satsuki's voice barely even wavered. "So you don't have any choice now. You know I'm right." She smiled at them, impartial. "I'll just leave you to it, okay? And remember, no more hitting each other. You have a game tomorrow."

Daiki watched her go and didn't quite dare to look at Tetsu until he said, thoughtful, "I'm not sure that letting her spend so much time around Imayoshi-san is the best idea you've ever had."

"It wasn't my idea," Daiki told him. "And you know better than that. Satsuki does what she wants to do. I just try and keep up."

"Mm." Tetsu slanted a glance at him, like he didn't quite agree with that. "I wonder." But he didn't say anything else.

Daiki rubbed a hand through his hair and finally sighed. "So, you wanna get out of here?"

Tetsu inclined his head. "Yes, I think that would be a good idea."

It hadn't always been strange to be silent around Tetsu, but now it was. Daiki paced along with him, sneaking looks at him and trying to figure out whether he should say something (what?) or wait for Tetsu to start this time. Since the last time he had tried to talk to Tetsu hadn't exactly gone so well—or the time before that, either, huh—he kept his mouth shut and tried to be patient, for a change. Tetsu walked along in silence next to him, and if Daiki had needed to say what was going through his mind, he would have said that Tetsu was puzzled, maybe. Or just reluctant.

It wasn't the first time Daiki had stopped to wonder whether Satsuki really did know what she was doing when she told him to do something. He just had to hope she was right this time, too.

Tetsu broke his silence when they were about halfway to the train station. "I guess we don't have to wonder which one of them would win in a cage match anymore." He sounded more wry about it than anything else.

Daiki laughed, but not because it was a particularly funny joke. "I guess not. Too bad we didn't know it was coming so we could sell tickets, huh? I know at least three people who would have liked that show."

"I wonder how much they would have liked it." Tetsu had his eyes forward, but the way he held his mouth looked a little uncertain.

Daiki thought about that, and the other three. "Okay, all Murasakibara would have cared about was the popcorn. I'll give you that. Not so sure about Kise or Midorima."

"Kise-kun seems to be doing well at Kaijou."

It sounded like a change of topic, but Daiki didn't think it was. Not with Tetsu, who sometimes came at things from peculiar angles. "Yeah, it looks that way. Kasamatsu doesn't seem to tolerate much shit, from what I've seen." And there was the game Kise had just played, too. "Guess he's figured it out. How not to hold back, you know? Be interesting to see what he does with that." Hah. Interesting. Like that did justice to the way his pulse sped up just thinking about possibility.

He caught the way Tetsu turned and looked at him from the corner of his eye. He looked back and raised his eyebrows at the faint way Tetsu was frowning—what had he said to make Tetsu look like that?

Tetsu looked away and didn't say anything before they reached the next crosswalk and were mounting the stairs. "You really have changed, haven't you? Since coming to Touou. I wasn't sure before."

Daiki exhaled, relieved. Finally. No more beating around the bush. "Maybe, I guess." He didn't feel like he'd changed all that much since the first day of classes—more like things had changed for him. Like some things were easier, and some things were clear again, like they'd used to be.

Tetsu paused in the middle of the crosswalk and leaned against the railing to look down the street. "You have. Or you've gone back to how you used to be. I can't quite decide." Daiki stopped next to him and faced back the way they'd come, resting his elbows against the railing. Tetsu glanced at him. "Is basketball really fun for you again?"

Daiki got the feeling that Tetsu wasn't just talking about the games against Seihou and Kaijou, so he thought about playing Onita first thing that afternoon—Onita, a team without any flashy players or genius aces, who'd gotten all the way to the Interhigh quarter-finals on skill and hard work and hadn't bowed their heads once, not even when the final buzzer had sounded and the game had been called for Touou. "Yeah," he said, because that game had been satisfying, even if it hadn't been demanding. "Yeah, I guess it is." He hesitated a moment, watching Tetsu looking out over traffic with an expression that was a little gloomy. "What about you? Basketball any fun for you?"

Tetsu took a while to answer that, like he was thinking over his reply as carefully as Daiki had. "It was." He sounded surprised to be saying so. "It was a fun game. I haven't played like that in a long time."

Yeah, there was that. Okay. Fuck, he'd rehearsed this over and over, so it was time to finally say it out loud. "I'm sorry about that." Daiki couldn't quite bring himself to look at Tetsu, so he stared out over the street instead. "The way we got there at the end—that was shitty of us. You deserved better." His voice felt funny, kind of thick in his throat, especially when he glimpsed the movement next to him—Tetsu turning to look at him full on. Daiki plowed on. "Especially from me. I just—got so wrapped up in what I was missing from the game that I forgot to care about anything else. Or to listen. I'm sorry."

Tetsu looked up at him, solemn, like he was listening to every word and inspecting them and Daiki to see whether they were genuine. When Daiki finally stumbled to a halt, he nodded once and raised a hand to rub his chin. "The thing that was hardest wasn't when you and everyone else left me behind on the court," he said, slowly. Almost methodical about it. Daiki set himself for whatever was coming next. "I thought it was at the time, of course. But I was mistaken. The hardest thing came after that, when you met Kagami-kun and started to come back again, after you'd forgotten about me. Watching that was—difficult. Yes. Difficult. It's not pleasant to be replaced, even when you know that your replacement is better than you."

Bracing himself hadn't done much good; Daiki flinched back from that and the quiet, level way Tetsu laid it out for him. "Fuck, Tetsu...!" But Tetsu's eyes didn't waver. Daiki swallowed hard. "I didn't—I wasn't trying to replace you. I really wasn't. I just—you've seen how Kagami plays. When I met him, it was—what you told me that time, it all came back to me, you know? That there would be players I could go all-out against, who would want me to do that. It was a relief. I wasn't trying to replace you, I just got all caught up in how relieved I was that basketball could be fun again. Could be more than just the games we were winning." He looked at Tetsu, anxious, wondering whether he was even making any sense. "What I liked about Kagami was how much he reminded me of you. Only I wasn't paying attention to you and didn't realize—anything, I guess." Tetsu was still just looking at him, not reacting. Daiki groped for the right way to explain it and finally struck on something that felt right. "Kagami is—I want to play against him. But I want to play with you."

Tetsu blinked once and seemed to relax, mouth easing and shoulders loosening. "Do you? Really?"

Daiki nodded and dug his fingers into the strap of his gym bag, hardly daring to hope. "Yeah, I really do."

Tetsu exhaled and glanced aside. "I missed playing with you. I missed you. I have for a long time." He gestured before Daiki could open his mouth to apologize again. "I'm not done yet. I missed you, and that was one of the things that made me angriest. I wanted to be done with you and basketball. I wanted to move on with my life, and I still couldn't stop missing how we used to be. I couldn't make myself go to another school, even when it meant seeing you all the time and remembering everything I'd thought I'd lost. Isn't that stupid?"

" always were the stubborn one. Never knew when to quit." Daiki watched him close his eyes and laugh, nearly soundless. "But not stupid. Never stupid."

"I thought I must be, considering." Tetsu looked at him again. "I did give up," he said, steady. "I gave up. Do you understand? I gave up, just like you were tired of people doing."

It came out sounding almost defiant, but—it didn't sound quite right to Daiki's ears. Not exactly. He hitched his bag up on his shoulder as he thought about it. "You came to Touou. You watched our games. Did you give up, or just take a break and call it giving up?"

Tetsu made a face, exasperated. "I'm not sure letting you spend so much time around Imayoshi-san is a good idea, either." But he didn't sound like he meant it. If anything, Daiki thought that maybe he meant the exact opposite. "I tried to give it all up. I thought that I hated basketball. Doesn't that bother you at all?

Daiki didn't even have to think about it, but then, it was a pretty stupid question. "No, not really. Why should it?"

That was definitely an exasperated sigh. Tetsu frowned at him and shook his head when Daiki shrugged. "I should have known you were going to make giving basketball up difficult," he said. "But somehow I didn't expect it. I thought you'd already given up on me. But you didn't, did you?"

How was he even supposed to answer that? "I forgot for a while, I guess," Daiki admitted. "But... only for a little while. I didn't ever mean to give up on you." That much he was sure of.

Tetsu seemed to accept that. He nodded, silent, and looked away again.

Daiki watched him and took a breath, nerving himself for what he wanted to say next. "I know... you told Satsuki you didn't want to go back to the way things were." Tetsu tensed at that. "I can see that. I get it. So..." He paused, watching Tetsu. "Maybe we could start over instead?"

He honestly didn't know what Tetsu was going to say to that and tried not to fidget as the seconds ticked past and Tetsu thought. Then Tetsu looked at him, eyes warmer than they'd been in a long time. "I suppose we could do that."

Relief rushed through Daiki, enough to make him dizzy. "Thank fuck," he said, sagging against the railing. "Fuck, Tetsu."

Tetsu's eyes glinted. "Your language is appalling."

Daiki just grinned at him, giddy. "What, that's not new, you know that."

Tetsu's smile was faint, but it was real and that was all that mattered. "I suppose I do, at that." He turned away from the railing and resumed walking.

Daiki fell into step with him, feeling the ache in his cheeks from how hard he was smiling. "Yeah, well. Satsuki's given up on trying to reform me."

"Momoi-san is certainly smart enough to know when not to fight a losing battle," Tetsu said, quiet laughter lurking under the calm of his tone. "You are the walking definition of a hopeless case."

"This is what I've missed," Daiki said. "The constant grief you give me." He grinned at Tetsu and knocked against his shoulder, friendly, and laughed when Tetsu gave him a dirty look and elbowed his ribs. "Fuck, Tetsu. I've really missed you."

Tetsu's voice was quiet when he looked up and said, "I've missed you too, Aomine-kun."


If Daiki hadn't already learned better, he would have assumed that Imayoshi-san's lack of a smile during their pre-match strategy session was the guy's serious face. So much for that, he thought, but paid attention to it anyway as Imayoshi-san walked them through the last-minute updates that Satsuki had made to the data she had compiled on Rakuzan's team. "I'm sorry that it's not as thorough as it could be," she said. "Akashi-kun knows to take certain precautions." Meaning that he'd almost certainly restrained himself and his team during the tournament and that he'd eliminated at least some of her usual sources of information to boot. (Not all of them; Satsuki was secretive enough to have protected some of her channels, and not even Daiki could say what all of her methods for data collection included.)

Imayoshi-san did manage to find a smile for her. "No apologies are necessary, Momoi-chan. We'll just have to make the best of what we have." His smile melted away again as he looked around at the rest of them. "This is going to be a hard game, there's no use trying to pretend it won't be, and I figure Rakuzan'll be playing for blood. But we're going to fight them every step of the way, and if they want to win, well, they'd better damn well be ready to pay for it." He looked around again and whatever he saw on their faces seemed to satisfy him. He nodded, sharp. "Now let's get out there and show them what we're made of."

Kagami had said that Akashi had done his trick of knocking people to their knees with Seihou's captain after Iwamura had stepped in to defend Tsugawa, who'd mouthed off about Rakuzan. Satsuki's data said that Akashi had done the same to a handful of other team captains as well—the ones who'd insulted Akashi or the team that had a first-year captain. Daiki couldn't help noticing that Akashi didn't bother with trying it on Imayoshi-san, not again, not even when Imayoshi-san paused to greet him with a lazy, "Good to see you again."

Man, Imayoshi-san had balls.

While they were warming up, Sakurai found an excuse to edge close to him and Tetsu. "Um, sorry to bother you." He glanced around anxiously and lowered his voice even further. "Is there some kind of bad history between the captain and your former captain?"

Tetsu handled answering that while Daiki kept a sharp eye out for either of the captains in question. "They've had a philosophical disagreement." He paused. "Or possibly a territorial one."

Weirdly enough, that explanation seemed to work for Sakurai, who nodded and apologized again when Wakamatsu yelled at them to get back to warming up.

Even knowing what Akashi could do, even knowing that he had three of the Uncrowned Generals on his team, the shock of the first quarter of that game stayed with Daiki for a long time afterwards. Rakuzan crashed into Touou's game like a fist. Akashi was everywhere at once, somehow, and anticipated every attempt at a play they made. When he wasn't intercepting their passes or striking the ball out of Daiki's hands, their small forward was there to dribble circles around Wakamatsu and Susa, moving the ball even faster than he could talk. Rakuzan's shooting guard kept getting in the way, somehow, like he'd taken a page right out of Kaijou's playbook and wanted all of them taken out of the game for racking up too many fouls. The only good think Daiki could say about Rakuzan's center was that at least he was less hostile than Murasakibara, because he was certainly just as much of a pain to get around. When the buzzer sounded at the end of the quarter, they'd only gotten a paltry thirteen points on the board, and Rakuzan was leading them by a full twenty points.

"I told you that no one is allowed to oppose me," Akashi said as Daiki stared at the scoreboard and seethed.

Daiki set his teeth and walked away without bothering to reply. Satsuki was gnawing on her lip and Kantoku had already made a mess of his hair. Tetsu handed him a water bottle as he sat, and no one said anything at all, not until Imayoshi-san murmured, "I don't know about anyone else, but I'm beginning to be a little bit irritated by Rakuzan."

That broke the tension; everyone seemed to relax at once. Wakamatsu socked his fist against his palm. "These guys are assholes."

"I'm sorry," Sakurai said. "I'll get around their #8 somehow, I promise!"

Satsuki cleared her throat. "I've been watching, and I think that Akashi-kun may still lack the stamina that will let him make the fullest use of his emperor's eye for the full four quarters."

Imayoshi-san pounced on that, which said something about how poorly the game was going—Daiki didn't really think that Akashi's stamina was all that poor. "In that case, let's focus on a broader game. Do whatever you can to keep him moving, Aomine-kun. Make yourself nice and annoying, you're good at that."

"It's what they call natural genius." Tetsu said it straight-faced, too. Daiki forgot to be irritated over Akashi and grinned at him, delighted by the insult and by having Tetsu back on his side. They caught a few funny looks from the rest of the guys, but Tetsu's small smile was just as good as a grin from anyone else.

Daiki hit the court for the second quarter in a better frame of mind than he'd left it, which he didn't think Akashi had missed—Akashi rarely did anything as overt as glaring, but when they faced off before Daiki seized the ball and tried to cut around him, he thought that Akashi looked pretty out of sorts. And that was just fine by Daiki.

The thing about playing Akashi was that it should have been fun—Daiki stretched his game as hard as he could, driving himself against his limits and Akashi's powers of perception. It should have been exciting. He was playing harder against Akashi than he had against Kagami or Kise, but Akashi rarely permitted him to complete even his most formless plays, and that frustrated Daiki far more than it excited him. What fun was a game where he couldn't act without being countered before he'd even begun? Not much, that was for damn sure, and not even the fact that Akashi's hair was dark with sweat by the end of the first half or the fact that they'd managed to keep the gap between their respective scores consistent really satisfied Daiki.

There had to be something more he could do, didn't there? Some way to get around the way Akashi could tell what he was going to do before he did it. "Wish I could misdirect his attention the way you do," he said out loud while he worked on his share of the honey lemons. "I bet he'd love that."

"It's unlikely that you'd be able to learn how to do that." Tetsu could have maybe tried to sound sympathetic, but he looked distracted, like Daiki had just said something too interesting to let him pay attention to the little social niceties.

So much for that. Daiki made a face at him and also at Imayoshi-san, who was watching them, and wished there was room enough for him to get up and pace while he waited for the break to end. Moving would have made it easier to think and to ransack his brain for everything he'd ever seen Akashi do and everything Satsuki had ever said about him, in case there was something in there he could use—anything at all.

But the break ended without him finding any inspiration.

Daiki threw himself into the third quarter, figuring that playing with everything he had was the only option and hoping that at least some of his speed and agility would help get around Akashi and his asshole teammates. He tasted acid in his mouth every time he moved for the ball, to pass it or to try to send it to the net, and Akashi managed to be there to stop him, wearing a smug smile as he did. If this was what losing felt like, no wonder it pissed other players off so much.

The break between the third quarter and the fourth passed in grim silence. There were thirty points between their score and Rakuzan's, and Akashi showed no signs of slowing down—well, that had been a faint hope at best. Damn. Damn.

Sakurai looked almost relieved when Imayoshi-san gave orders for the substitution, and neither Ikeda nor Morita looked inclined to complain that Tetsu was going to play. If anything, they looked sort of like Sakurai did—better you than me, their eyes said.

Tetsu just looked up at Daiki as he adjusted his wristbands. "It's not over till it's over, right?" His eyes were still determined, even though they both knew how unlikely a comeback was going to be.

"Damn straight," Daiki told him.

It felt like a joint slipping back into place, aching and right all at the same time, when Tetsu lifted his fist and offered it to him. "Let's remind Akashi-kun what we can do together."

Daiki bumped his fist against Tetsu's. "Let's do this thing," he said. They went to meet Akashi together, and it didn't matter how fiercely Akashi glared at them, or what the final difference between their scores ended up being—he had his partner back and wasn't going to lose him again.


Imayoshi-san allotted precisely ten minutes of practice time for moping over the loss to Rakuzan. He kept time with a stopwatch, and when it beeped he clapped his hands, the sound sharp in their ears. He leveled a smile at them, small and very sure. "All right, that happened. It's over now, and the only thing I want you thinking about now is the Winter Cup and how we're going to win it." He and Kantoku launched right into the post-mortem and their revised training schedules, which Daiki was pretty sure were harsh enough to satisfy even Midorima's need for punishment.

(Midorima had texted him after the game: None of us could have done better. Daiki hadn't answered, because it hadn't really helped.)

No one even hinted at wanting to complain at the demanding drills, not with a twenty-point loss still fresh in their minds, even though half the club ended practice draped across the bleachers and most of the rest were barely standing. That ought to have been enough for anyone, and most of the club did stagger out to get changed the second Imayoshi-san turned them loose. A few people stayed behind—Imayoshi-san himself. Sakurai. Wakamatsu. Susa.

And Tetsu.

"You're practically dead on your feet," Daiki told him when Tetsu went to retrieve a ball from the cart, because it was true. Tetsu's shirt was soaked through and he was moving at half-speed.

Tetsu picked through the balls carefully, as though looking for just the right one. "I'm sure I'll sleep soundly tonight." He tested the bounce of one of the balls and glanced at Daiki. "Next time I want to win."

Yeah, so did he. Daiki looked over to where Satsuki was lingering by the doors, waiting for him to get changed so they could walk home together. He shrugged at her as he grabbed a ball for himself, but she didn't look displeased or even all that surprised. Instead she wandered over to take a seat on the bleachers, settling in like she expected to be there for a while.

"I think I might be able to do something against the emperor's eye," Tetsu said then, abrupt. "But it's going to take some work and some time to develop it."

Daiki had been wondering about that since the last play they'd made together, the one that had gotten past Akashi and had left him looking puzzled by trying to figure out how they'd done it. Heck, he'd been wondering about it since the other day, when he and Tetsu and Kagami had talked over burgers. Daiki rolled the ball across his knuckles and bounced it idly, and said, "Cool. You want any help with that?"

He held his breath until Tetsu said, "Yes, I think I would."

Daiki grinned at him, the warm glow of satisfaction at that spreading through his chest and dissipating some of the chill that had settled there at the end of yesterday's game. "I'm ready to get started when you are."

Tetsu smiled back at him, gaze steady and sure. "I know."

"So tell me what you're thinking," Daiki said then, and Tetsu did.

– end –

As always, comments are a thing of delight and joy forever!

Date: 16 December 2012 21:58 (UTC)
noodlesoother: (Kuroko)
From: [personal profile] noodlesoother
This was so wonderful. I loved watching things fall into place for Aomine, Kise's involvement, Aomine trying to get Kuroko at least to fix things with Momoi, and just, gaahh, everything. The way you worked in Kagami was really great, and it's pretty awesome that you wrote several games.

Imayoshi was a pleasant surprise too. I'm picturing him and Kuroko having a good time making fun of Aomine together in the future.

Tumblr has kind of turned me into a bad commenter (or at least that's the excuse I'm using), but I'll say now that I've really enjoyed your KuroBas fic. And thanks to you I am a strong believer that Takao just likes to feel pretty sometimes. ;D


lysapadin: pen & ink painting of bamboo against a full moon (Default)
Lys ap Adin


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