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[personal profile] lysapadin
Title: The Art of Hoping
Characters/Pairings: Imayoshi/Momoi; Aomine/Kuroko preslash
Summary: Momoi has her eye on Imayoshi and is pretty sure he's got his eye on her, but before they can do anything about that, they've got this pesky thing called the Winter Cup to win.
Notes: General audiences. In the universe where Kuroko went to Touou with Momoi and Aomine as described in "Can't Hold On, Can't Let Go," this is how the Winter Cup might go. A document of all the original characters I use may be found here. 45,513 words.

Many, many thanks to Branch and Andrea for reading the draft of this beast and cheering me on when I was slogging through the pits of basketball despair.

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


The Art of Hoping

Patience is the art of hoping.
— Luc de Clapiers, Marquis de Vauvenargues

Part One

Satsuki kept one eye on the team, watching the mini-game play out precisely as she'd expected it to, and faced up to the truth: she had finally located a boy who had enough brains to appreciate her for more than her bust size, was neither gay nor already in a relationship, and whom she rather liked herself. That last was an understatement, of course, but practice was no place to be dwelling over the way her knees wanted to go wobbly or her heartbeat went all fluttery when she dwelled too long on the possibilities. For one thing, she had better things to be doing during practice. For another, Tetsu-kun had sharp eyes and knew how to use them without looking like he was doing it.

She was even reasonably certain that the boy in question liked her in return. It wasn't as though Satsuki was the oblivious type like Dai-chan, after all, and most boys were distressingly obvious about how attractive they found her body even if they couldn't muster the courage to do anything about it. Dai-chan always had been rather sweet about defending her honor, whether she needed him to or not, and the rest of the team had long since followed his lead and fallen into the habit of treating her like their own sister to defend.

Therein lay the crux of the problem, of course.

She didn't realize that she'd sighed until Harasawa-kantoku glanced at her. "Is something wrong?"

Satsuki recalled herself to where she was and what she was doing. "Ah, no. I'm sorry, I was just a bit preoccupied."

He rested a thoughtful look on her for a moment, then nodded his acceptance of that explanation and turned his attention back to the game. Even so, Satsuki felt a bit warm around the ears—practice was not the time for brooding, she told herself, and turned all her attention to the game. Tetsu-kun and Dai-chan were playing on opposite sides, as they did three games out of four. They'd fallen back into their old partnership after the close of the Interhigh almost as easily as breathing, and it was far more productive to match them against one another during training matches and use that partnership to force their styles to evolve. Tetsu-kun's misdirection and vanishing drives were coming right along, even when he was partnering with the other members of the first string. Sakurai was close to catching ten ignite passes out of ten, which was deadly when combined with his quick release shots, and Wakamatsu was getting to be an outright menace on defense. Imayoshi-san, too—she followed his progress across the court then as he coordinated with Tetsu-kun almost as smoothly as Dai-chan did, letting Tetsu-kun use him to distract Tsuda from his pass to Masuda and then cutting directly into Dai-chan's path—not the initial route Dai-chan had been planning on, Satsuki thought, but the secondary one, the one that Dai-chan had switched to when he'd seen that Imayoshi-san was going to block him. His tertiary route was almost as smooth as the primary one would have been. This time Satsuki sighed with satisfaction. Dai-chan was improving, too, like all he'd needed in life was to have gotten Tetsu-kun back and to have lost to Akashi.

Dai-chan was fairly straightforward, at least in that sense. She'd worried about him for a while, but she'd been right after all. Touou had been the right choice for all three of them.

When the Winter Cup started up next week, it would go differently than the Interhigh had. Satsuki had the data to prove it.

Dai-chan's team won the mini-game despite the fact that he'd been playing against the rest of the team's starters with a fairly motley selection of the rest of the club's members—Tsuda and Hiyama, Ikeda and Morita. Dai-chan grinned over the win, at least until Imayoshi-san raked the sweaty hair out of his eyes and cleared his throat. "Aomine-kun, do you even know what the definition of sharing is?"

It said a lot that Dai-chan wilted and looked abashed. Well, as much as Dai-chan ever looked abashed—he stopped grinning quite so broadly and ducked his head. "I was trying!"

"I'll spare you the lines from Star Wars, but do not think I am not tempted to quote Yoda here." Imayoshi-san pushed his glasses up his nose. "Try harder, brat. No one likes a ball hog." He clapped his hands together and moved on to the next topic, which was Ikeda's tendency to lose track of the other players in his orbit and end up accumulating fouls as a result of that, then Masuda's work on his lateral movements—yes, he'd seen what Satsuki had there, that Masuda tended not to move as crisply on his cuts as he ought to have done. Then Imayoshi-san called an end to practice for the evening and the club began to scatter, some members to the locker room to shower and head home and others to their own private drills. Dai-chan and Tetsu-kun immediately retreated to their corner of the gym to work together—Tetsu-kun's shooting, by the look of it, and that was going to surprise at least a few people the next time Tetsu-kun played against them.

For her part, she took her book bag over to the bleachers and settled in to get a start on her homework. If she could get the English and the math out of the way, that would leave only the literature and the history for later and would give her a chance to ferret through some of the online postings from her network to see what she could add to the profiles of their opponents in the preliminary bracket. She had a fairly good sense of how Meisei would do against them, considering how they had played during the Interhigh prelims, but it wouldn't hurt to check on their progress since then.

She had just spread her notebook across her knees and looked over the English worksheets with disfavor—Kagamin had a low opinion of them and she was inclined to agree—when she became aware that Imayoshi-san had not yet taken up his own practice for the evening. Instead he was standing in front of her chosen seat, a basketball tucked under his elbow. He was watching her; when he saw that he had her attention, he gestured at the work on her lap. "Seems to me that you'd have an easier time working on that at a desk."

Satsuki looked at the careful arrangement on her lap—feet on the bleachers the next row down, skirt carefully tucked in to prevent flashing any of the boys an accidental glimpse of her thigh, the open notebook balanced across her knees and the textbook and dictionary open next to her—but that wasn't really what had piqued his attention, was it? She'd been doing this for months now. "I don't really notice it anymore, to be honest."
"The human spirit can adapt to a great many things, it's true." Imayoshi-san looked away from her as he conceded the point. She didn't have to follow his gaze to know what he was looking at—or rather, who. Dai-chan's laugh echoed off the rafters; Tetsu-kun must have cracked one of his dry little jokes, or perhaps he'd managed to evade one of Dai-chan's blocks to sink a basket. Either would delight Dai-chan. Imayoshi-san watched them for a moment. "I sometimes wonder whether it should. You let me know if you ever decide you'd like an early evening of it."

There were several things she might say to that, and a couple of them hovered on the tip of her tongue: I don't really mind, or The team manager can stay as late as the players, or even I wouldn't mind getting out of here right now, actually, if you'd be so kind. Satsuki discarded all of those and smiled instead. "Thank you."

Imayoshi-san dipped his head, acknowledging that, and left her to her homework with as little ceremony as he'd interrupted it. Satsuki bent her head over her notebook and let her hair curtain her face as she watched him take possession of the three-point line ands shoot a basket, lope after the ball and catch it on the second bounce, pivot and sink another basket, every movement perfectly economical. Yes, she was reasonably certain that Imayoshi-san was interested. Not even Tetsu-kun had taken notice of the fact that his and Dai-chan's practices had kept her late, too, or if he had, he had not thought to ask whether she minded waiting for them every night. (She didn't, not really, but she supposed it would have been nice to have been asked every once in a while.)

Satsuki tapped her pencil against her notebook, plunged back into the conundrum that had plagued her more and more often lately. If Imayoshi-san did have an interest in her, why on earth hadn't he gone ahead and said something about it? As far as she knew, he wasn't seeing anyone, not even the student council president. Rumor had it that she'd angled for him several times, but had been turned down due to other commitments. The determined sleuthing of several classes' worth of girls had yet to turn up any commitment beyond the basketball club itself. To all appearances, if Imayoshi-san was in any kind of relationship at all, it was with basketball.

Perhaps that was her answer right there. Satsuki watched him sink another three-pointer, his form every bit as elegant as Midorin's, and sighed. The difficulty with basketball idiots was that turning their attention to anything not strictly related to basketball was nearly impossible. She looked away from Imayoshi-san and checked in on Tetsu-kun and Dai-chan. Dai-chan was blocking Tetsu-kun's attempt at the net, close enough to be flirting with a foul. Satsuki sighed again. The boys had it so much easier.

Brooding wasn't going to accomplish anything at all. She turned her attention to her English homework.

After the Winter Cup. The issue could wait until after they'd won the Winter Cup. Once they'd taken care of that, there would be time to figure out what Imayoshi-san's reticence meant and how she was going to deal with it.

There were a great many reasons to look forward to Saturday afternoons, but Satsuki was particularly fond of this one: Harasawa-kantoku had used his influence and the team's winning record to finagle an actual office for the basketball club's use. It was nothing fancy like Teikou's facilities had been, or even as nice as Kaijou's basketball club managed, but it was theirs and it made a comfortable place in which to hold strategy sessions with Harasawa-kantoku and Imayoshi-san after they had dismissed practice for the afternoon. The office had a window that overlooked the sports fields and showed the chilly November skies; the view made the room seem that much warmer by comparison. Both Harasawa-kantoku and Imayoshi-san paid close attention to the data she had assembled regarding their opponents for the preliminaries, and that was a warm feeling, too. "Shakuji has played fairly strongly this season and did well in the Interhigh prelims, but their #9 recently suffered an injury during practice and that's left a hole in their defense." She tapped her finger against the sheet of Shakuji's statistics. "He'll be out for the season, which suggests to me that they'll draw their #14 to play in his stead. However, he lacks the game experience that their #9 has. If he's pushed hard, I suspect he'll waver under that pressure."

Imayoshi-san drew the analysis out from under her hand and studied it in silence before passing it to Harasawa-kantoku. In the beginning, she had wondered whether they were checking her work when they did this—Harasawa-kantoku had played for the national team and Imayoshi-san had not known what she could do. Now she waited instead, because they liked to see the numbers for themselves once she'd delivered her overview.

Harasawa-kantoku slid the paper back to her and sank his fingers into his hair. "This would be a good opportunity to put some of our reserves on the floor."

Imayoshi-san nodded as he leaned his chair back, balancing it on two legs. "Couldn't hurt, I guess. Reckon they'd better get used to the idea of playing." He rubbed his chin, thinking the idea over, while Satsuki looked down at her notebook and frowned. Getting the reserve players used to the idea of playing—ah, yes. Of course. The third years would be retiring. It made perfect sense. She flipped through her binder and looked at the statistics of the Touou reserves, though she hardly needed to check what she already knew as Imayoshi-san went on. "Say we start the game with me 'n Susa and Wakamatsu-kun, and pull, oh, let's say Hiyama-kun and Tsuda-kun for starters."

"Hiyama-senpai is much more oriented for defense," Satsuki murmured.

It made Imayoshi-san smile. "But Tsuda-kun goes for the throat every time. It ought to balance out."

Satsuki studied the profiles on the page and thought about the players themselves—Hiyama's indefatigable defense of the hoop and Tsuda's absolutely precise drives down the court—and nodded. It could work against Shakuji's weakened team. But that wasn't really the difficulty, was it? "Would you plan on putting Dai-chan in at all during the game?"

Imayoshi-san smiled, just a hint of glee in it. "Does it make me a bad person if I say I'd like to see what he'd do if I did bench him?"

Harasawa-kantoku coughed into his fist and did a fairly poor job of disguising his laugh. Satsuki shook her head at Imayoshi-san as severely as she could. "Have you ever seen a toddler throwing a fit over not getting a piece of candy?"

That only seemed to delight Imayoshi-san more. "That bad, really? What a tempting thought. Maybe that will teaching him how to share the damn ball."

"Maybe." Satsuki suspected that it was far more likely that Dai-chan would sulk until Tetsu-kun or she found a way to distract him or until he got to play again. "You can certainly try."

"But not succeed, and make your life more difficult than it has to be in the effort." The smile he turned on her then was knowing, perhaps a bit speculative. "Perhaps I'll have to hold that one in reserve." He shrugged. "Hiyama-kun and Tsuda-kun for the first half, and Aomine-kun and Masuda-kun for the second half, I suppose."

"Not Kuroko?" Harasawa-kantoku said, tone mild and idly curious.

"Not for these games." Imayoshi-san set the front legs of his chair down with a thump. "I would prefer to hold Kuroko-kun in reserve for the opponents we'll meet later."

Rakuzan, Satsuki thought. Seihou, or perhaps Shuutoku, or Kaijou. Or perhaps another opponent altogether, given the dark look in his eyes.

Harasawa-kantoku nodded, apparently satisfied by that rationale, and Satsuki cleared her throat. "Looking at our branch of the playoffs, here's who I think we'll see in the final league." Eight teams' worth of data and game projections seemed like a lot, but between the files she'd already assembled in preparation for the Interhigh and her ongoing research, it hadn't been so bad. Tetsu-kun had talked through some of the projections with her in the evenings after he and Dai-chan had finished practice for the night, which had been helpful as well.

It was still gratifying when Imayoshi-san accepted the grids of her projections and whistled, low and impressed. "We did hit the jackpot when we got you."

He'd said it before, but it was still sweet to hear.

"They're only projections, of course." There was nothing there she could guarantee, not with any kind of absolute confidence, but it served as a starting point.

"Nevertheless." Imayoshi-san studied the projections with close attention before he passed them to Harasawa-kantoku, who gave them the same attention. "This does make my job easier. Thank you, Momoi-chan."

Satsuki inclined her head, acknowledging that. He smiled at her. "Someday you really do have to tell me how you do it."

The perpetual question—at least from the ones who paid attention. Satsuki shrugged and spread her hands. "And give away all my secrets?"

"I suppose not." He made a show of sighing mournfully, then sat up straighter, coming to attention as Harasawa-kantoku finished glancing through her projections. And wasn't that just the way it always went? There was never much time to flirt before basketball intruded again.

The boys really did have it easier, Satsuki thought, putting her wistfulness aside to dive into the plans for the final league. They had it down to a science, these days—Harasawa-kantoku rarely needed to speak up, not when Imayoshi-san had a clear sense of the team's strengths and weaknesses (far fewer of those now than there had been even during the Interhigh) and Satsuki had arranged her data to account for that. They thrashed through a plan for the likely disposition of the final league—Dai-chan would sulk for sure, because Tetsu-kun wouldn't be playing there, either, and Imayoshi-san planned on rotating more players through the line-up for the final league, too.

"Not," Imayoshi-san said, once they'd settled on a plan, "that I reckon he'll enjoy this too much, but he can think of it as a learning experience." She must have made some kind of face, because he chuckled, even as Harasawa-kantoku began to assemble his papers—a clear signal that he was done for the afternoon. "Do tell me if he kicks up too much fuss, and I'll see about settling him back down again."

If anyone could, aside from Tetsu-kun—Dai-chan did still step carefully around him—Satsuki supposed that Imayoshi-san might be the one who could do it. "I'll remember that," she said as she began to gather up her own papers.

Harasawa-kantoku was watching the two of them; he generally looked amused when he did that these days. He never said anything, which was a mercy, but Satsuki was certain that he was laughing at them both. But all he said now was, "Be sure to lock up when you're done," to Imayoshi-san and, "I'll see you Monday afternoon," to her as he saw himself out ahead of them, as he'd done more and more often lately.

It was generous of him, except for the fact that there still hadn't been any call for him to do it. Satsuki dropped her portfolio back in her bag and watched Imayoshi-san from behind the fall of her hair, counting down to—"Reckon it's time to get back to work for me."

Right on time, she thought and stood when he did. "Are you going to the gym?"

"Where else?" He smiled and held the door for her. "I suppose it's time you collected your little lambs and shepherded them off to study."

Satsuki couldn't help giggling, because even she couldn't remember a time when Dai-chan might have qualified for lambhood. "It is, I guess." A person did have to watch the two of them. Left to their own devices, they would practice—play—until they dropped. The Winter Cup was far too close to court the possibility of injury through over-exertion.

Imayoshi-san clicked his tongue against his teeth as they turned their steps toward the gym. She would have liked to have thought that he was walking slowly to stretch out their time together, but he moved at the same ground-eating pace as ever. "I do hope they appreciate what they have in you."

Satsuki glanced up at him, sidelong, but he was wearing the same relaxed smile as always, the one that suggested that he couldn't help enjoying the essentially comedic nature of life, and she had no idea what he was thinking behind it. "I think they do," she said, after a moment of wondering why he'd mentioned it. "In their own ways." Which, admittedly, might not look all that appreciative to someone from outside their shared history.

It was good that she hadn't allowed herself to hope that he might have brought it up as a prelude to finally saying something, because he merely nodded at that and went along in silence until they turned the corner and came to the double doors of the gym. The hollow sound of basketballs pounding against wood laminate and the squeak of sneakers filtered out to them; Imayoshi-san shook his head. "I should have known they'd still be at it."

"They're both a pair of basketball idiots, really." Satsuki allowed him to get the door for her again. "Tetsu-kun is just quieter about it."

Imayoshi-san chuckled at that, and Dai-chan's whoop as he slammed the ball through the basket and dangled from the rim greeted them as they went inside. He dropped to the floor; Tetsu-kun's own rather breathless laughter carried across the floor as he tilted his head back to look up at Dai-chan.

It still made something in her chest squeeze tight, seeing that again after being so sure that it had been lost for good. Satsuki breathed through it, pretending that she wasn't aware that Imayoshi-san was watching her, a faintly sardonic curve to his smile.

He gave the boys a moment, then clapped his hands together sharply when Dai-chan went for the ball again. "All right, brats, playtime is over," he called. "Time for you to call it a day."

Early on, he'd had to get sarcastic at them to get them to knock off for the day, but these days they were both trained well enough that Dai-chan only grumbled for form's sake as he began rounding up the last of the stray balls. Not that he bothered to put the cart away, not when Imayoshi-san was about to take possession of it himself. "Back in a minute, Satsuki," he called, waving at her, and loped to the locker room after Tetsu-kun.

Imayoshi-san watched him go, looking even more sardonic over that for some reason. He didn't say anything, and tipped his head at Satsuki after a moment. "Momoi-chan."

"Don't practice too late, Imayoshi-san," she told him, though she couldn't imagine that he would, and took herself and her frustrations to the bleachers to wait for Dai-chan and Tetsu-kun.

Perhaps it was the basketball itself. She wrapped her arms around her knees as he stationed himself on the three-point line and sank the first shot, fluid enough to make her sigh a little. She hadn't thought much of it before, but he wouldn't be in the club for too many more weeks after this, no matter which way the Winter Cup went. (They were going to win. They were going all the way this time.) Pretty soon being captain of the club wouldn't be his first priority—studying would be. Maybe when that happened... maybe.

Tetsu-kun finished changing ahead of Dai-chan, who did like a long shower—and Satsuki absolutely refused to speculate on any of the reasons why that might be. He joined her on the bleachers, quiet in that self-possessed way of his. "No progress yet?"

Satsuki frowned at him, even though the teasing edge of his question was gentle enough. "I could ask you the same thing."

Tetsu-kun only smiled, serene. "It's not time for that yet."

Satsuki raised her eyebrows at him. "Is that what you're telling yourself?"

Tetsu-kun only smiled. "There are some things we need to do first."

One of those things was Rakuzan, she knew that much, but the others—Tetsu-kun's agenda had been obscure to her for a long time now, ever since things had begun going off the rails at Teikou, and it had stayed that way even now that things were better again. There was no way to tell what he had in mind, and he hadn't chosen to confide in her yet. Perhaps he wouldn't.

She sighed over that thought and watched Imayoshi-san bend over to pick up a stray ball, which was a much more pleasant thing to dwell on. Next to her, Tetsu-kun huffed a near-silent laugh. She elbowed him without looking. "Like you're any better when it comes to Dai-chan."

"I might be more subtle."

"No, you're really not," Satsuki told him. "Really, really not."

Tetsu-kun didn't seem to be particularly convinced by that, but before Satsuki could explain how very unsubtle he was, Dai-chan emerged from the locker room and Tetsu-kun proved her point in the way a portion of his attention immediately turned to Dai-chan as he bounded over to join them.

"Really not," Satsuki repeated as she stood and pulled her jacket on. She smiled at Dai-chan when he blinked at their laughter and demanded to be let in on the joke. "Never mind," she told him. "It would lose something if I tried to explain it."

Dai-chan took the news that he was going to be sitting out major portions of the Winter Cup prelims and final league about as gracefully as Satsuki had expected him to, which was not very gracefully at all. "Oh, come on," he said after Imayoshi-san had briefed the team on the upcoming matches. "You've gotta be joking!"

Imayoshi-san folded his arms. "Do I?" He paused a moment, just long enough for Dai-chan to realize that he was treading on thin ice. "Is there something in our strategy that you're finding humorous?"

Dai-chan wouldn't have been Dai-chan if he weren't willing to walk right up to the boundaries people set and give them a nice, hearty shove just to make sure they were holding steady. "Yeah, the part where you don't have me playing."

It was the kind of thing that some of the third-years on the first string still hadn't grown quite accustomed to hearing from him. Satsuki was less concerned about the dark looks coming from the likes of Ikeda and Morita and Wakamatsu's muttered Here we go again, and much more interested in the reactions coming from Masuda and Tsuda and the other second-years who were going to get a shot at playing in these matches. Tsuda was still and quiet, showing nothing of what he thought; Masuda was watching Imayoshi-san, not Dai-chan.

Imayoshi-san leveled a long look on Dai-chan, one that made even him start to squirm as it went on and on. "Beg pardon?" he said, finally. "What was that, brat? I don't think I quite caught it."

Dai-chan did manage to frown at him, though it wasn't one of his better efforts, more bravado than actual bad temper. "But you don't have me playing."

Imayoshi-san's smile tilted just a bit. "Because we don't need you to play." Satsuki winced back from the brutal edge of that truth at least as much as Dai-chan did, maybe more, even though she'd known it or something like it was on the way the moment Imayoshi-san's expression had shifted registers. She curled her fingers more tightly around the edges of her clipboard as Imayoshi-san went on, uncompromising. "This team won games before you joined it and will probably go on to win games after you leave it, Aomine-kun. I reckon we'll do just fine in the prelims, even if we're just keeping you around to decorate the bench. Now will you kindly get it through your thick skull that this team isn't here solely to provide you your daily allowance of basketball?"

Satsuki's fingers ached from holding her clipboard so tightly and most of the rest of the team seemed to be holding their breaths as Dai-chan stared at Imayoshi-san, paler than usual. Imayoshi-san had had to reprimand Dai-chan pretty regularly from the start of the year, but he'd never been quite this blunt about it before. Not in front of the full team, anyway. But then, Dai-chan hadn't ever gotten quite so cocky as to challenge him so directly, either. Now he opened and shut his mouth a couple of times, soundlessly. Tsuda's expression was as stony as Masuda's was purely delighted, and Wakamatsu just looked ready to applaud. (Had he realized yet that he was the presumptive next captain? Satsuki didn't think he had.) Finally Dai-chan said, "Yes, Imayoshi-san." And then, belatedly, "Sorry," which was almost certainly meant for their captain alone but was non-specific enough to cover the rest of the team.

Imayoshi-san squinted at him and nodded. "Guess you are. Stop back-sliding, brat, it's not attractive. And plan on giving me fifty laps here in a bit while you think about what you said." He clapped his hands together, dismissing the conversation, and beamed at the rest of them. "Do we have any other feedback about our lineup for the prelim game we wanna discuss?" He gave it a moment, but no one said a word. "Well, all right then. Let's get to work, shall we?"

The team began to unfold themselves from their seats and head out the door to the gym. Dai-chan went with them, head down, and Tetsu-kun followed close behind him, looking more thoughtful than anything else. Satsuki waited until they were all out of the way before allowing herself to exhale; after the door swung closed behind Hiyama, Harasawa-kantoku said, almost absently, "I believe that might have actually gotten his attention."

"Was pretty much the idea." Imayoshi-san shrugged. "Since the subtle approach doesn't seem to do much good with him."

"I'm sorry." Satsuki uncurled her hand and flexed the stiffness out of her fingers as they both glanced at her. "I didn't tell him that we'd be drawing mostly from the reserves for these games. If he'd known..." Maybe he still would have made a scene, but at least it would have been in private.

Harasawa-kantoku looked back and forth between them and excused himself to go oversee the start of practice while Imayoshi-san shook his head, disagreeing with her. "That wasn't your job, it was mine, and I didn't mind doing it." He smiled briefly, just a touch of wicked humor to it. "Wasn't me who came out of that little chat looking like he'd been raised by wolves, was it?"

"But—" But it was Dai-chan, who'd always needed a certain amount of careful management, which she hadn't really followed through with this time. She just couldn't figure out how to put that in words.

Imayoshi-san took his glasses off and began to polish them, focusing all his attention on that. "Seems to me that Aomine-kun is a big boy now, Momoi-chan." For all that he said it gently, it was no more compromising than any of the things he'd just said to Dai-chan. "Doesn't act much like it sometimes, I'll give you that, but that's his problem, don't you think? I don't see why it ought to be your job to take care of his sensitive, high-strung spirit. You're not his mother, though I do wonder sometimes whether you didn't take him to raise." He held his glasses up to the light, peering at the lenses, then settled them back into place. He smiled at her. "Seems to me that you've got bigger and better things to do with your talents than that."

It hurt to hear that, set against all the long history she and Dai-chan shared, years of it going back nearly as long as she could remember. She'd grown up knowing Dai-chan, understanding him as well as she understood herself and stepping in to smooth the way when his own exuberant nature clashed with the more straitlaced world, making it easier for him because he'd always been there to support and defend her in return. For Imayoshi-san to be all but telling her that she needed to let go of that—"I don't mind doing it."

"Didn't figure you did." Imayoshi-san's smile was still gentle, for him. "You don't strike me as the type to put up with that kind of grief unless you expect it to be worth it, which seems perfectly fair to me. However." He held up a finger. "What you might want to ask yourself here is whether you're doing it for his sake, or for yours." As she sucked in a startled breath, ready to protest that, he tipped his head to her. "It can be a tricky questions, that one. Not one that you can answer easily. I'll just leave you to it. Wouldn't want to miss all of Aomine-kun's laps, would I?"

He left her to wrestle with that question with no more ceremony than that, certainly on purpose—he was exasperatingly good at that kind of verbal judo, drat the man. Satsuki grimaced, all her rebuttals rising to her lips now that it was too late. Dai-chan was pretty bad at communication if it didn't take place by means of basketball, he was bad at noticing details about other people, unless they had to do with basketball—he was just bad at things that weren't basketball, because his world was basketball.

(Would he have been allowed to get away with such a hyperfocus on basketball if he hadn't been so gifted at the game? The voice that asked the question sounded a lot like Imayoshi-san's. Satsuki did her best to quash it, but it lingered in the back of her head, treacherous, even after she'd composed herself and gone out to join the rest of the team at practice.)

Dai-chan was quiet, even after he'd finished running his laps and joined the rest of the team in their drills. He was quiet during his post-practice work with Tetsu-kun, too. It wasn't until they were most of the way home that he broke into her and Tetsu-kun's discussion of the literature homework to say, "But it would be so much easier to win those games if I were playing."

Satsuki let out the breath she hadn't quite realized she'd been holding and Tetsu-kun said, very grave, "No, I don't believe that is one of the themes in the Ugetsu monogatari, Aomine-kun. Unless your copy is different from mine."

Satsuki stepped out of the way when Dai-chan went for Tetsu-kun, trying to scruffle his hair (but not trying too hard, because Tetsu-kun was able to dodge him). "That's not what I meant and you know it." He made another desultory attempt to grab at Tetsu-kun, who cut around Satsuki to get away from him. "What's the point of it? Of not playing either of us?"

So he had noticed that Tetsu-kun was going to be benched for a while, too. The only surprise was that it had taken him so long, Satsuki thought, looking at Tetsu-kun. He lifted his eyebrows when she didn't jump in to explain and did it himself instead. "Think about who will be playing."

"I already know who'll be playing, it's a bunch of the second-years and a couple of the first-years—" Dai-chan stopped there and walked several paces without saying anything at all as the gears finally began turning in his head. His cheeks puffed out on the exasperated way he huffed. "Why didn't he just say that was what he was doing?"

Satsuki sank her teeth into her lower lip to keep from saying anything, and not because of the things Imayoshi-san had said to her, either. She just wanted to see whether Dai-chan would come up with the answer himself, that was all. Tetsu-kun gave her another of those looks of his, one of the measuring ones, and didn't say anything either.

Dai-chan heaved a huge, aggrieved sigh. "Man, that guy just lives to be a pain in the ass, doesn't he?" He wasn't entirely wrong, either, though that wasn't what Imayoshi-san's primary goal had been. "I don't know why he gets such a kick out of yanking people's chains."

These days, it was easy to forget about the distance Tetsu-kun had put between them after things at Teikou had gone wrong. He was very like he'd always been, soft-spoken and sharp-witted, fitting into their friendship as seamlessly as he'd ever done, at least after Dai-chan had apologized and proved that he'd understood what had gone so wrong between them. Had made it clear that it wasn't going to go wrong like that again. All the same, that didn't mean that it hadn't left its mark on him (on all of them), because his voice was sharp when he said, "Perhaps he was hoping you would see it for yourself."

Dai-chan tossed him a quick look, one that was startled and wary. "Tetsu—"

"You don't think, sometimes." Tetsu-kun said it very clearly, as though he wanted to be sure that there wasn't going to be any mistake in how he was understood. "Sometimes you just don't think."

That wasn't anything new—she'd even told Dai-chan as much a few times herself, when his obtuseness had frustrated her beyond endurance—but for once Dai-chan didn't retort that thinking was what she and Tetsu-kun were for. He looked at Tetsu-kun, wide-eyed, as uncertain as he ever got. "Tetsu..."

"It's careless." Tetsu-kun measured the words out carefully, quiet and matter-of-fact now that he had Dai-chan's attention. "Sometimes you're so very careless, even when you shouldn't be."

Dai-chan flinched back from that, a little, but he seemed to be listening to Tetsu-kun, actually hearing him, which was good. After a moment, Dai-chan ducked his head. "Sorry," he said. "Just—I'm ready to play with you again."

Tetsu-kun's smiles were the subtle sort, as quiet as he was. "There'll be time for that." And as easily as that, Dai-chan was grinning back at him and it was all right again.

Satsuki folded her arms around herself against the sudden chilly kick of the wind and was glad, really glad, that they had Tetsu-kun back now. Even if it did feel sometimes like the two of them were running ahead of her together, caught up in their own private momentum.

She shook herself; there was no point in dwelling on it. The boys weren't actually leaving her behind and there was no point in moping over something she didn't really want to be a part of. "Of course there'll be time for that, once we get into the Winter Cup. So focus on that, hm?"

They both came to attention at that, eyes bright and sharp. Satsuki smiled at them, and kept her sighs to herself. At least some things were still simple.

The preliminary game against Shakuji went smoothly enough, in Satsuki's opinion, especially for a game that involved trying out some of the combinations of players that might make up the core of next year's team. But why shouldn't the game go smoothly? Harasawa-kantoku had made it his business to recruit strong players, and not even Dai-chan slacked off in practice these days. Hiyama took the inside and defended the basket with absolute tenacity, refusing to be budged from it or to allow Shakuji to score, and Imayoshi-san was right about Tsuda—when left to his own devices in a game, he did go for the throat every time, sort of like Dai-chan tended to do, but without the same kind of unbridled joy in it. His game was more precise, in its way; she caught Masuda watching him take the ball and drive up the court, looking thoughtful over it, and made a note to come back to that later.

They were in the lead by the time they broke at the end of the second quarter. Imayoshi-san tapped Masuda and Sakurai for the second half of the game, which he had said he'd do as long as things were going well for Touou. He did not single Dai-chan out for comment in front of the rest of the team, but he caught Dai-chan at the very end of the break, just before heading back to the court. "Well, brat?"

Dai-chan, to his credit, seemed to get why Imayoshi-san was angling that faint smile at him. He screwed up his face and heaved a sigh. "You're gonna let me play at some point, right?"

"Oh, I reckon I'll find a reason to throw you in a game eventually," Imayoshi-san said, lazy.

Dai-chan heaved another one of those heavy sighs. "All right, then."

Imayoshi-san laughed at him. "That's better." He clapped Dai-chan on the shoulder and headed onto the court. Dai-chan made a face at him and resumed his seat on the sidelines and watched the third quarter play out with a hungry expression. He was on his best behavior, though, and yelled for Touou and Sakurai's quick release shots and Masuda's tricky play against Shakuji as loudly as anyone else did. That was probably why Imayoshi-san gave Satsuki the nod with two minutes left on the clock in the fourth quarter and let her substitute him in.

"He put me in mind of a dog I knew," was all Imayoshi-san said about it after the game. "Poor thing hated to be left behind and gave you the most pathetic looks whenever you went out without him." He shrugged. "What can I say? I'm a soft touch."

"Stop laughing," Dai-chan said, indignant, while the rest of the team cracked up. "That's not funny!"

"I don't know, it seems accurate to me," Tetsu-kun said. He paused. "The part with the dog, of course. The other part, well." He shot a sly glance Imayoshi-san's way. "Perhaps it was exaggerated for effect."

"Brats." Imayoshi-san cuffed them both, tolerant. "Go fetch the coolers for lunch."

Satsuki threw herself into the fresh data that came in after the preliminary games, staying up late to sift through it so they would be prepared for the final league games and for the start of the Winter Cup itself. "As I expected, there weren't any upsets in the other games in our prelim bracket. Akabane, Tanashi, and Yotsuya all played pretty much as I expected to," she said during the meeting before the start of the final league matches. "I believe we can count on Akabane and Yotsuya to play consistently with my projections. Tanashi might be trickier; they won by a higher point margin than they should have, so they may have something up their sleeves. We'll want to be careful there."

Imayoshi-san studied her précis of the other prelim matches and how that was likely to affect the league matches and nodded. "I don't believe that's any reason to alter our own plans," he said at last. "The second-years have been doing well, and I want to get a look at Masuda-kun and Tsuda-kun's combination play." By which he probably meant that he wanted Wakamatsu to get a look at it.

Nevertheless. "You're mean," Satsuki told him, really rather delighted by the prospect of seeing what Masuda and Tsuda could make of a real game. They were already deadly enough in practice games.

Imayoshi-san just smiled, satisfied as a cat. "Of course I am. It's my job." He settled back in his seat. "Speaking of which, I notice our favorite little problem child has settled down quite a bit."

It wasn't a question, but it was a request for information nonetheless. "He understands the reasons for the player line-up now. He just needed to think about it."

Imayoshi-san cocked his head at her, knowing. "And did he think about it?"

"With a nudge or two from Tetsu-kun," Satsuki confessed.

Imayoshi-san looked at her without saying anything, then sucked on his teeth. "The three of you have a remarkably convoluted relationship." He dusted his hands off. "Now go find yourself some caffeine, Momoi-chan, and stop yawning at me. Makes me feel like I'm boring and that's hurtful to a man's pride."

Satsuki tried to swallow her yawn, guilty. "Sorry," she apologized, but he just waved a hand at her until she went—not to find a vending machine, but to splash some cool water on her face, which was more effective. Caffeine would be for later in the tournament, when there was too much data coming in and not enough time to deal with it and get a full night's sleep between games.

Satsuki patted her face dry and shook her head at her reflection. Sometimes she had no room to talk about the boys being basketball idiots, did she? "It can't be helped," she said out loud, and went to go rejoin her team for the trip over to the arena.

Part Two

Touou wasn't as fancy as Kaijou was, perhaps, but it made up for that fact in the quality of its amenities sometimes. Satsuki sank into the hot water of the onsen with a grateful sigh and wriggled with satisfaction. Yes, this was definitely the best way to celebrate coming out first in their final league and securing a BYE for the first round of the Winter Cup.

Better still, she had her side of the onsen mostly to herself, which, given the uproar she could hear from the boys' side, was possibly for the best. Satsuki settled deeper into the water and eyed the only other occupant of the women's side covertly, wondering what Aida Riko and Seirin's team were doing at this particular onsen. A team bonding activity, perhaps? It certainly sounded like the boys were bonding, anyway, if only over their arguments about whether to try for a look over at the women's side of the onsen.

Aida met Satsuki's gaze and rolled her eyes at the sounds of all that horseplay. Satsuki giggled and smiled back—why not? A girl could use as many allies as she could find, right? "Doesn't matter which team they play for, does it? Boys are all the same." If she listened, she could hear Dai-chan and Wakamatsu arguing with each other. Tetsu-kun and Imayoshi-san were probably egging them on.

Aida looked surprised, at least at first. "I'm sorry, I'm not sure we've met..."

Satsuki smiled at her, cheerful. "No, we haven't, but I've heard of you. You're Seirin's coach, aren't you? I'm the manager at Touou. Momoi Satsuki."

The judicious bit of flattery worked; Aida colored a bit and relaxed, sinking deeper into the water. "Ah, I see. A pleasure to meet you." She glanced towards the boys' side as a roar went up. "You're here with your team?"

"Yes," Satsuki sighed, picking out the sounds of someone yelling at Tetsu-kun not to sleep—Wakamatsu, probably. She shook her head a bit, assuming that Dai-chan would take care of things, and smiled at Aida instead. "I hear that Kiyoshi-san is out of rehab and back in training again." There wasn't any chance of meeting Seirin before the next season unless they arranged a practice match—now there was a thought—but one might as well gather information where she could find it. And it never did to take one's eye off the Uncrowned Generals, who were each just about as dangerous as one of the Generation of Miracles could be.

Aida's reaction was both satisfied and rueful. "Yes, we have him back now." Satsuki wondered whether she knew that she cast a glance over towards the boys' side as she spoke. "It's a great relief."

"I'm sure it is. I remember when our team played his in middle school—I was sorry to hear that he'd been injured."

Interesting—when she said that, Aida's expression changed, just for a moment, to something hard. Angry, even. "So were we." If that hadn't had anything to do with how Seirin had ended its tournament run last year, Satsuki would have eaten one of her own honey lemons. Then Aida dismissed that flicker of anger and smiled, friendly. "What school did you attend?"

Satsuki sank a little deeper into the water and watched Aida from beneath her lashes, curious to see how she would take it. "I was at Teikou."

Aida blinked and appeared to be doing a bit of rapid calculation and reassessment before she narrowed her eyes. "Then you must have known the Generation of Miracles."

"I suppose so." Satsuki liked how Aida reacted to that—not with awe so much as sharp, assessing interest. She smiled and lowered her voice, conspiratorial. "That nickname makes them all sound a lot cooler than they really are."

Aida didn't seem to quite believe her, because her eyes stayed sharp. "I wonder." She looked toward the boys' side again. "Touou," she said out loud. "You have Aomine Daiki, then."

And Tetsu-kun, Satsuki did not add, watching Aida thinking at top speed. For a team that was only a year and a half old, Seirin had done well for itself so far. At least some of the reason for that was sitting right across from her right now, Satsuki decided. She smiled when Aida said, slow and thoughtful, "Does Touou have any policy on practice matches with other schools?"

"We'll have to wait until after the Winter Cup," Satsuki said, watching Aida's smile turn sharper. "But if you don't mind that, I'm sure Harasawa-kantoku will be happy to arrange something with you."

Aida all but purred. "I'm glad to hear it." Then she tucked away that gleam and looked at Satsuki a bit differently. "After the Winter Cup?"

Aida didn't need her to say that the final league had just wrapped up. "We got our BYE slot this afternoon." It had been pretty well assured after the matches against Tanashi and Yotsuya, and clinched after the Akabane match, even if Dai-chan had spent most of those matches sitting on the bench and letting Tetsu-kun be politely sarcastic at him.

"Of course." Aida-san nodded. "Do you know who your first opponents will be yet?" To her credit, she only sounded wistful, not jealous.

Yes, Satsuki thought. Yes, she liked Aida. "It will should be Yamanoe first, probably, and then either Ichikawa or Kirisaki Daiichi after that. My money is on Kirisaki Daiichi." Who had given both Kagamin and Midorin a hard time, from what she'd heard so far about their final league games, and had managed to secure their place in the Winter Cup by dint of some pretty nasty tactics. Poor Midorin had sounded utterly livid about getting knocked out of the running for the tournament, or so Dai-chan had said. Perhaps he'd have better luck next year.

Aida's expression went flinty at the first mention of Kirisaki Daiichi. "Kirisaki Daiichi." Her tone had gone flat and cold; Satsuki raised her eyebrows at the show of open hostility. "I'm sorry to hear that."

Satsuki hadn't been particularly thrilled by it herself—she really didn't like the things her profile of Kirisaki Daiichi and its captain said, and she really hadn't liked the way Imayoshi-san had looked when the full bracket had come out—but that sounded almost personal. "Why is that, Aida-san?"

Aida looked towards the boys' side again and then moved closer, even though there was already enough ruckus over there to cover up their conversation. "You mentioned Teppei's injury earlier," she said, quiet and serious. "Kirisaki Daiichi—Hanamiya—they play dirty. I don't know how closely your captain will listen to you, but you should warn him about that. They like to break their opponents."

Satsuki fit that into what she'd heard about Kiyoshi's injuries last year and winced. "I see. Thank you, Aida-san. I appreciate that, very much, and I will let Imayoshi-san know." Though he likely already did, given the way he'd been studying the bracket earlier and not smiling at all, not until he'd realized she was watching.

Aida looked at her, thoughtful, and nodded. "Good," she said. "And if you should happen to want to utterly trash them when you play, I wouldn't mind cheering you on."

Satsuki smiled at her, and because she liked Aida, she didn't bother trying to make it a sweet smile as she pulled out her best imitation of Imayoshi-san. "Oh, I reckon we might be able to do a little something along those lines."

It sent Aida off into a peal of laughter. Satsuki smiled, pleased, and let herself wonder what it might be like to have a female friend who was also a basketball idiot. It might be nice, she thought, watching Aida. Perhaps this was something worth pursuing after the tournament season had ended.

Later, after she'd checked on Tetsu-kun, who had passed out in the onsen but seemed to have recovered from that under Dai-chan's ministrations (and at first opportunity, she was going to inquire how, exactly, swooning like a Victorian lady fit into Tetsu-kun's agenda for Dai-chan), Satsuki claimed the seat across from Imayoshi-san's for the bus ride home. "Did you boys have fun with Seirin's team?"

"It's so charming when she talks about us like she's our mother and we're a pack of five-year-old brats," Imayoshi-san told Susa.

Susa looked up from his book, glanced back at the horseplay at the back of the bus, where Dai-chan and Wakamatsu were tussling over the last of Sakurai's bento, and blinked once, slow. "You mean we're not?"

Imayoshi-san pursed his lips. "A fair point," he conceded. "Yes, Momoi-chan, I suppose we did. How did you girls enjoy your time together?" His smile took on a faintly wicked edge. "Do feel free to be vivid in your descriptions."

Just as well that Dai-chan was busy scuffling with Wakamatsu and wasn't around to catch that one. Satsuki tried to frown at Imayoshi-san, but didn't quite manage it, judging from his expression. It was no matter; what she said next wiped the smile off his face. "She had a warning about Kirisaki Daiichi, actually."

"Ah, so you talked business and not pleasure." Imayoshi-san didn't quite manage to sound as casual as usual, though Satsuki could see him making the effort. "What was it that Aida-san had to say?"

Satsuki relayed Aida's message, brief as it had been, and noted that Imayoshi-san looked unsurprised by it. She supposed he would know, if he'd been Hanamiya's captain before. "I haven't had a chance to look at the match information from the final league yet, but it does fit what I know of their play during the Interhigh." And she wanted to check in on Kagamin and Midorin, too, since Kirisaki Daiichi had been in their block.

"You mean you haven't looked at the match data from the games we just finished playing yet? Momoi-chan, you disappoint me." His smile didn't quite reach his eyes, and Susa was no longer even pretending that he was reading his book as he listened in. "I don't figure you'll find any exceptions, though, when you do."

Satsuki knotted her fingers together. He looked tired, more than anything else. "I don't remember him playing quite like this the year before last." Teikou had played against Hanamiya once, when he'd been in his third year and they'd still been second-years, and while it hadn't been a good game, no one had walked away with an injury either.

Imayoshi-san raised his eyebrows and nudged Susa. "Wasn't that the nicest way of asking what the fuck happened that you've ever heard?" Susa grunted, noncommittal, and rolled his eyes when Imayoshi-san wasn't looking. "I don't know, Momoi-chan. I can't tell you why that guy does the things he does."

It both was and was not an answer to the question she'd asked, but he didn't look particularly inclined to permit himself to be pressed for further information. Satsuki nodded, accepting that, and moved on. "Seirin has Kiyoshi-san back now. Aida-san seems to think that by the time next season arrives, he'll be back to one hundred percent."

He relaxed as she changed the subject. "That's lovely for them. You'll have to keep an eye on their team next year. I'm sure you'll see interesting things from them."

"They're certainly on my list of teams to watch," Satsuki said, lightly enough, because of course he'd be graduated by the time the summer tournaments got going. Why did she keep forgetting things like that?

"The terrifying thing is that I'm perfectly sure that she actually does have a list," Imayoshi-san told Susa.

"If you don't stop bothering me I'm going to put my headphones in," Susa told him, peaceably enough, and stuck his nose back in his book.

"I guess I'd better leave him alone, huh?" Imayoshi-san grinned across the aisle at her. "So what do you make of how Yotsuya played today?"

Satsuki settled into her seat more comfortably, and they spent the rest of the ride picking apart Touou's final league matches and how their reserves had played in them.

Midorin had been upset after Shuutoku had gotten knocked out of the Interhigh prelims, there had been no doubting that, but when Satsuki finally got him to answer his phone the next afternoon, he sounded absolutely furious over Shuutoku's loss to Kirisaki Daiichi.

Having reviewed the footage from Shuutoku's match with them, Satsuki supposed she could sympathize with the venomous way he hissed the school's name when she asked about it. She raised her eyebrows at that and switched tacks. "How's Takao-kun doing?"

Midorin very nearly growled; Satsuki blinked and wondered just what on earth was going on out at Shuutoku to have gotten Midorin so invested in his teammates when he tended to prefer a more distanced approach. "It's a bad sprain," he said. "But the x-rays don't show any tearing in the ligaments. He should make a full recovery as long as he doesn't do anything utterly stupid." He uttered that in a tone that suggested he thought that an inevitability. In spite of that, Satsuki thought that perhaps Takao-kun wouldn't have any chance to do anything Midorin considered stupid, because Midorin didn't sound like he was inclined to allow that to happen.

"I'm glad to hear that." She tapped her pencil against her notebook and looked at the still frame of Hanamiya Makoto's smile, frozen on her screen where she'd paused the video at the moment Shuutoku's point guard was being taken off the court. "They're in our bracket, you know. Chances are good we'll meet them in the sweet sixteen round."

Midorin made a disgusted sound. "I suppose you want me to tell you all about their game."

Satsuki smiled; some things about Midorin hadn't changed a bit. If he wanted to be coaxed, well, she could do that. "If you wouldn't mind telling me," she said, putting the tiniest bit of a wheedling tone into it. "It would be tremendously helpful to have a first-person perspective on their strategy and tactics."

He grunted; on the other end of the line, he was probably adjusting his glasses. "You're going to beat them." It sounded like both a statement of fact and also a request, similar to Aida's.

"We certainly plan on it," Satsuki said after a moment. "We intend to go all the way this time."

"...I suppose that will have to do." Which was unusually vague and portentous, even for Midorin. He cleared his throat. "They're very good at concealing fouls, of course, but they didn't begin pulling ahead in points until the second half, when they switched centers. He's not all that good a player, really, but between him and Hanamiya... they're very good at interfering with passes."

She'd noticed that herself, even on a cursory review of the game. Poor Midorin, who did need his teammates to at least get the ball to him if he wanted to make his three-pointers. There were points in the game where he'd looked so frustrated that she'd half-expected him to bite someone. "I was looking at that. They do make a very strong combination, don't they?" Seto Kentarou and Hanamiya Makoto, whose grades were remarkably high for students who were rumored not to even study.

"Yes," he said, grim. "Be careful with it." He went quiet for a moment. "When he started smiling," he said eventually. "That was when they started getting really nasty. And it was after that that they caused Takao to twist his ankle."

Satsuki made a note of that. "I'm glad that it's not a permanent injury."

"He had his lucky item. I made sure of that." His tone was just gruff enough that she didn't dare giggle. "Also, he has a remarkably good sense of the court. He was able to keep himself from taking a really bad fall."

The hawk's eye, yes, that was part of her profile of Takao-kun, though perhaps she needed to add a section regarding his friendship with Midorin—after the Winter Cup, when she had time for such things. She made another note to herself. "Thank you, Midorin," she said, not bothering to tease or wheedle. "I do appreciate this."

"Tell Aomine and Kuroko to watch themselves." Midorin's tone was abrupt. "He said he would have rather seen me taken off the court because of injury. He does not like us."

Satsuki took a sharp breath in spite of herself. "I see. I'll tell them."

"Do that. Are we done now? I have studying to do."

Which meant that he felt embarrassed and wished to pretend that the conversation had never happened. Satsuki smiled, since it wasn't as though he could see her. "Of course, Midorin. Thank you. Good luck on your exams."

"Wishing me good luck is unnecessary," he informed her. "Goodbye." And he ended the call just like that.

Satsuki couldn't help laughing a little, serious as she felt, and added Midorin's observations to her growing body of notes on Kirisaki Daiichi and its captain-cum-coach.

Sometimes Tetsu-kun got a little strange over going to the street courts where Dai-chan and Kagamin liked to play, though it wasn't something he tended to say anything about. Satsuki could guess at his reasons, at least some of them. She supposed she couldn't blame him for them. This was one of the better weeks, though: Tetsu-kun went and bought her a drink to warm her hands while Dai-chan and Kagamin got on with their first game, and leaned against the chain-link fence next to her in companionable silence. Dai-chan and Kagamin had the court to themselves, today, and made fullest use of it, talking trash to each other as they struggled over the ball. They were both in their element, and Satsuki couldn't help smiling at them. Tetsu-kun was smiling too, over his own coffee, fond instead of wistful.

They watched Kagamin jump—impossibly high, these days—and dunk the ball. Satsuki made note of that for later consideration. The way the bracket was set up, Seihou would have to get through Yousen and Mukkun and make it to the semi-finals before they would run up against Touou, but... it certainly wasn't out of the question. Dai-chan laughed as he caught the ball and returned the favor.

Beside her, Tetsu-kun made a quiet sound. When Satsuki looked at him, he said, "They're getting very close, aren't they?"

"Yes." Every time they met, Kagamin closed the gap a little further, though it wasn't as though Dai-chan was content to be a static target. "I don't think it's going to be very long now." And then what would happen? She wasn't sure that even Dai-chan had any idea what he would do once Kagamin had managed to beat him, even though he was the one pushing Kagamin so relentlessly.

Satsuki took a sip of her drink and let it warm her as she pushed those thoughts to the side. They would have to take care of that when the day came, and that was all there was to it. There was no use borrowing trouble until then.

Besides, there were other things to deal with before that day came, and they took priority.

Dai-chan won the match, though it was close; he slammed the final point home and dangled from the basket for a long, precarious second as he whooped. Kagamin laughed, good-natured as ever about the loss, and Satsuki made a mental note of that. Kagamin didn't seem to have a single malicious bone in his body, but all the same, if he didn't have something in store for Dai-chan in case they met during the tournament, well. She'd resign from the club, that was what.

Dai-chan dropped to the court and pretty much bounced in place, hollering at Tetsu-kun to come and play a game with him. Tetsu-kun straightened next to her, smiling, and went to oblige him, trading places with Kagamin just as they'd planned.

Kagamin hustled into the jacket he'd laid aside while he was playing and huddled into it as Tetsu-kun and Dai-chan circled each other on the court. "Don't you get cold just standing around and watching us all afternoon?"

She did, a little, but that was what the hot drink and the layers were for. "I don't mind it." It was worth it to be able to keep an eye on his progress, and there was this, too—Tetsu-kun's smile as he shot and made a basket and Dai-chan's transparent glee over it. She wasn't ever going to get tired of seeing those things again.

"It was bad, huh?" When Satsuki glanced at him, startled, Kagamin nodded at the scuffle for the ball. "What happened between them. It was bad, right?"

"Pretty bad," Satsuki admitted. "But it's better now."

Kagamin hunched his shoulders against the wind, turtle-like, and smiled. "Yeah, I figured." They watched Dai-chan cut around Tetsu-kun, faster that Tetsu-kun could ever hope to match, and he made a quiet sound. "That guy—is he really supposed to be one of you Miracle people?"

Satsuki sipped the last of her drink, trying to decide how best to answer that. "Tetsu-kun is a different kind of player than the rest of them, I guess. This kind of match isn't the kind that shows his talents to their best advantage."

Dai-chan stole the ball and faded back for a formless shot. Tetsu-kun anticipated him and swiped the ball from his fingertips, and they both laughed. Kagamin made another of those thoughtful sounds, though Satsuki had no idea what he might have been thinking. At length he shook his head. "Guess I'll just have to wait and see, huh?"

"I do believe Dai-chan is looking forward to seeing you in semi-finals." Satsuki rolled the empty can between her fingers, thinking about it, but... tit for tat, that was only fair. "Of course, you'll have to get through Yousen first. They have Mukkun, you know. Murasakibara," she clarified when he blinked at her. "Their center. He was at Teikou, too. He's a strange guy, but he's pretty deadly on the court." Kagamin looked like he was listening with interest, so she went on. "He's over two meters tall, and he has a longer reach than most players. He's faster than he looks, too. So you'll want to brace yourselves for that." She tapped her fingers against the can and considered it, but—well, Dai-chan was looking forward to the rematch and getting to play all-out against Kagamin, this time with Tetsu-kun as his partner. "There's also their shooting guard, Himuro. Apparently, he—"

She didn't get a chance to tell Kagamin about Himuro's mirage shot, because Kagamin choked on nothing at all. "Himuro?" he demanded, then shook his head like a dog, vigorous, as if he were trying to clear it. "No way, it would be too much of a coincidence—"

Satsuki pursed her lips, consulting her mental files on Yousen's #12—he was a returnee, too, wasn't he? Just like Kagamin. "Himuro Tatsuya." She watched the color drain out of Kagamin's face as he reached up to touch something under his jacket. The ring he wore, she assumed. "His family moved back to Japan about a year ago, maybe a little more than that, or so I've heard. Is he someone you know?"

She made a mental note of what Kagamin muttered as he swept a hand through his hair. It wasn't orthodox English, perhaps, but Tetsu-kun would have fun puzzling it out later. "Yeah." He looked aside, clearly unhappy about something. "I guess you could say that."

It looked very much like he hadn't known that he would find Himuro in Japan, and that the shock was a bad one. Just as well that she'd given him some advance warning, then. "Well, he has a jump shot that seems to give his opponents trouble. They say it's like a mirage—the ball doesn't ever seem to be where it's supposed to be." She kept her tone purely matter-of-fact, practical.

It seemed to help; Kagamin straightened up and regained some of his color. "Right. That... sounds familiar. Tatsuya—well. That would be his style."

Satsuki didn't raise her eyebrows, though she wanted to. Wanted to pester Kagamin for all the details, too, but that wasn't the sort of thing that would be mannerly. It didn't seem like he wanted to talk about it, anyway. "That's what I hear. You'll see Yousen in the quarterfinals, I guess." She looked at the court and the dodge Tetsu-kun was making around Dai-chan, who moved with him, marking him so closely that it was impossible to say who was following whom. "We'll be up against Kirisaki Daiichi before we meet Seihou, of course."

Kagamin seized on the change of subject with evident relief. "Them," he said, disgusted. "They're a bunch of assholes." And he didn't need much encouragement to elaborate on that score, corroborating what Satsuki had already heard from Midorin and Aida and had learned from her data-gathering.

She listened closely, because it did not hurt to have another point from which to triangulate, until Dai-chan and Tetsu-kun finished their match and Kagamin traded places with Tetsu-kun again.

He went and bought another pair of drinks for them, unbidden. "Did you find out everything that you wanted to know?"

Satsuki pursed her lips. "Not everything, but enough to know that I'm not looking forward to playing against Kirisaki Daiichi."

Tetsu-kun hummed over his drink and slanted a tiny little smile her way. "You and Imayoshi-san will have a lot to talk about, won't you?"

"You would think that, wouldn't you." She shrugged at him when he lifted his eyebrows, curious. "Basketball comes first, I suppose."

Tetsu-kun's answering smile was faint and a little wry. "How could you want it any other way?"

"I'm sure I don't know," Satsuki said, dry, and sipped her drink while Kagamin and Dai-chan laughed over their struggle for possession of the ball.

Imayoshi-san looked over her projections for the rounds one and two matches and nudged his glasses up his nose. "I can't help noticing that you've weighted your analysis just a bit. So sure that Ichikawa and Kita don't have a prayer against Kirisaki Daiichi?"

"They call them the Uncrowned Generals for a reason." Satsuki settled back in her chair and looked across the table at him. Harasawa-kantoku had begged off from the strategy session, citing grading to do, so it was only the two of them and the late-afternoon sunlight slanting in from the windows.

"But is that any reason to write off poor Ichikawa and Kita before the tournament even starts?" Imayoshi-san shook his head sadly, but the glimmer of laughter in his eyes gave him away.

"Kita is only in the Winter Cup because it's an anniversary year, and Ichikawa, while talented, is a newcomer team. You know that perfectly well." Satsuki tapped her pencil against the table, watching him. "Based on what I've seen, they'll be lucky if Kirisaki Daiichi doesn't chew them up and spit them out."

The good humor faded out of Imayoshi-san's expression. "I suppose so."

Satsuki considered it and decided that there wasn't likely to be a better moment to ask. "Why does Hanamiya play the way he does?"

Imayoshi-san turned one of his blandest, blankest expressions on her. "What are you asking me for?"

"You were his captain." Satsuki kept her gaze as steady as she could. She'd raised the question and so she was going to see it through, even if he clearly didn't want to talk about it. No point to it otherwise. "If anyone knows, you'd be the one mostly likely to."

Imayoshi-san took his glasses off and began to polish them industriously. "Wearing the captain hat doesn't give a man magical powers. I hate to be the one to tell you."

She watched him sneak a glance her way, probably to see whether she was going to accept that, but Satsuki knew a temporizing move when she saw one and did not rise to the bait. After a moment, he shook his head and focused his attention on the lenses of his glasses. "I don't know what to tell you, Momoi-chan. Best I can figure it, some folks are just born mean, and that's all there is to it. That guy..." He lapsed into silence, holding his glasses and looking at something that she couldn't see. Then he shook himself and donned his glasses again, shrugging. "I reckon that guy would be the very first to tell you that he does it because he can."

And if there was anything more to be said about Hanamiya Makoto, it clearly wasn't going to be said then.

Whatever personal misgivings Satsuki had about the match against Kirisaki Daiichi were clearly not shared by Dai-chan. He plunged right into the round two match against Taku with more enthusiasm than Satsuki had seen in him since before things at Teikou had gone sour—maybe it was all the pent-up energy from how much of the final league he'd spent on the bench. The game against Taku went pretty much as Satsuki had projected it would. Dai-chan catapulted them into the lead early in the first quarter, then Masuda and Tsuda made sure they kept it during the second half, when Imayoshi-san benched the other half of the first-string—"We've got to conserve your energy," he reminded them when Dai-chan got restive over that. "Wouldn't want any of you delicate blossoms keeling over during finals."

The footage from Kirisaki Daiichi's rounds one and two matches came in promptly, just as usual. Satsuki pored over it longer than she should have, perhaps, just in case it could tell her anything she hadn't already learned. It didn't, and she showed up for the trip over to the arena on the morning of the sweet sixteen round with heavy eyes and the knowledge that both Ichikawa and Kita had suffered injuries in their games against Kirisaki Daiichi. She did what she could to keep that to herself—why ruin Dai-chan's open delight over the fact that Imayoshi-san and Harasawa-kantoku had decided to put Tetsu-kun in today's game?—but perhaps she hadn't done as well with that as she'd hoped, not when it sat heavy on her shoulders and put a sick feeling at the pit of her stomach. The boys settled her between them for the ride over to the arena without saying anything about it to each other, Dai-chan's bulk on her left and Tetsu-kun's quiet on her right. It was really rather sweet of them, even if it did make Imayoshi-san get very expressive with his eyebrows whenever he glanced their way.

In a way, though, it was a relief to get to their assigned locker room and begin the last-minute strategy session. At least, Satsuki thought as she listened to Imayoshi-san walk the team through their game plan one last time, at least she wouldn't have to keep dreading this game and would be able to look forward to the games against Seihou or Yousen, and then the rematch with Rakuzan after that. Or it would be—no, she wasn't going to think about the alternatives. They were going to win, damn it.

Harasawa-kantoku was a fairly hands-off coach and usually let Imayoshi-san do most of the talking during pregame meetings, but he made an exception this time. When Imayoshi-san checked with him to see whether he wanted to add anything to the instructions he had delivered, Harasawa-kantoku said, "Remember that your opponents today play rough games. Watch yourselves closely. You didn't get this far in the tournament to go home injured."

That sobered the team up; glances passed around the room as people shuffled their feet and rustled uneasily. Then Imayoshi-san clapped his hands. "Right. And on that warm and fuzzy note, let's get out there and get warmed up."

For a team with such a nasty game, Kirisaki Daiichi as fairly unprepossessing at first glance. They were already spread out across their half of the court when Touou arrived to begin warming up; they looked like any other team, except perhaps for the player who was sprawled out on their bench, wearing an eye mask and snoring. That would be Seta, Satsuki thought, the center who coordinated so well with Hanamiya.

Hanamiya himself marked their arrival. He paused in the act of making a lay-up as Touou fanned across its half of the court. From that distance, Satsuki couldn't be entirely certain what he was looking at, but she wasn't surprised when one of Kirisaki Daiichi's balls went astray a bare two minutes later and Hanamiya himself crossed over to Touou's side to retrieve it. Nor was she particularly surprised that this allowed him the excuse to speak directly to Imayoshi-san. "Hey there, senpai," he said, loud and clear enough that even Satsuki could hear him from her seat on the sidelines. "It's been a while, hasn't it?"

"I suppose it has." Imayoshi-san inclined his head just a bit, sounding a bit bored. "Don't reckon I'm really your senpai anymore, though."

Hanamiya smiled. Something about it felt off—oh, it didn't really reach his eyes, that was it. "So mean, senpai. After all, didn't you teach me everything I know?"

Satsuki was sitting in just the right place to see the slow upward drift of Imayoshi-san's eyebrows and the way he somehow contrived to look down his nose at Hanamiya, even though they were very nearly the same height. "I don't recall that you ever were that good a student."

Satsuki didn't like the way Hanamiya's expression contorted, from sleek smile to rage and back again in the bare flicker of a second. Nor did she like the silky way he said, "I guess that just means I'll have to remind you." He paused and glanced across Touou's teams and then gestured towards Dai-chan and Tetsu-kun. "Oh, are those your rookies? You have quite a lot of those on your team this year, don't you?"

"We only recruit the best," Imayoshi-san said, bland, which made that rage flash across Hanamiya's face again. "I'd best be getting back to work." He nodded at Hanamiya, the precise angle required by etiquette and no more than that, and turned his back on him.

Satsuki gripped her clipboard and made sure her voice was pitched low when she asked Harasawa-kantoku, "Was Hanamiya recruited by Touou?"

Harasawa-kantoku lifted a shoulder, shrugging. "Not to my recollection."

That was pretty much exactly what she'd expected to hear, so she gripped her clipboard more tightly and tried not to chew on her lip while Hanamiya returned to his side of the court, shooting narrow-eyed looks at Dai-chan and Sakurai and even Tetsu-kun as he went.

The first quarter of the game was awful. Whatever else Kirisaki Daiichi's skills were, the team as a whole had a positive genius for fouling when and where the referees couldn't see—throwing elbows and stomping feet and causing falls at every opportunity they got. Sakurai caught an elbow to the ribs and both Susa and Wakamatsu took spills across the floor, Susa once and Wakamatsu twice. Wakamatsu took a nasty kick to the ankle, too, and got progressively redder in the face as the quarter progressed. Dai-chan escaped the worst of the nasty play, perhaps by virtue of the fact that he was Dai-chan and just faster and more flexible as a player than any of Kirisaki Daiichi's players could keep up with, even though Hanamiya had two people marking him.

Imayoshi-san escaped the egregious fouls, too, and though Satsuki was tempted to think that it was because he was crafty enough to avoid the dirty play, she had changed her mind by the end of the quarter. He came back to the bench at the interval with his mouth set in a flat, unsmiling line. "Be more careful," he told Wakamatsu, terse. "If you can't keep them from knocking you over, I'll pull you off the court."

Wakamatsu flushed darker, possibly from embarrassment. "It's not me, it's those bastards—"

Imayoshi-san simply looked at him and he stopped short, probably because it was so unusual for Imayoshi-san to look like that, no hint of laughter or teasing about him, not even pretending that he was anything but dangerous on the court. Or off it. Wakamatsu took a deep breath and puffed out his cheeks as he exhaled. "All right, fine."

"Stop letting them make you angry. That's what they want." Imayoshi-san looked at Sakurai then, studying the pattern of bruises rising on his arm. "Sakurai-kun, you're going to sit the next quarter out. Kuroko-kun, you're up." They both nodded. Imayoshi-san turned to Susa, checking him over. Susa simply nodded at him, as imperturbable as ever despite the dirty play, and that was all Imayoshi-san seemed to need. He looked to Dai-chan then. "This next quarter is going to be nasty. Behave yourself, brat, and make sure you keep our lead right where it is."

Dai-chan, being Dai-chan, was probably the only one of them not particularly oppressed by the bare edge of Imayoshi-san's mood. He narrowed his eyes. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means keep your head and make as many baskets as you can," Imayoshi-san said, flat.

Dai-chan looked like he wanted to take issue with that, but the interval wasn't long enough for him to push for more. Not, Satsuki thought grimly, that he had to wait very long to find out what Imayoshi-san had meant.

Hanamiya greeted Tetsu-kun's presence on the court with open pleasure, or something that was as close to that as a snake like him could get. "A second Teikou player?" he said, loud enough to carry to Satsuki's ears from across the court. "My goodness, isn't Touou fancy."

Satsuki's knuckles ached from gripping her clipboard too tightly by a mere two minutes into the second quarter. Hanamiya's greeting seemed to have been some kind of signal. He and his teammates turned the bulk of their attention on Tetsu-kun, who had to dodge out of the way of several fouls as he wove himself into the rhythm of the game, including a thrown elbow that would have caught him right in the face if he hadn't stepped back at the very last instant. It was no wonder Imayoshi-san had warned Dai-chan to keep his head.

Even so, Satsuki was sure that Dai-chan was going to throw a punch at Hanamiya anyway when Kirisaki Daiichi's power forward managed to knock Tetsu-kun over for the first time. Satsuki couldn't hear his snarl as he lunged for the guy, but she could see it on his face as he cocked his fist—and she also caught the baffled expression he made when Tetsu-kun caught him behind the knees, folding him up before he could throw the punch.

Sakurai was sitting next to her; he uttered a smothered laugh and then immediately apologized for it. "Sorry, but—it's a good thing we have Kuroko-kun, isn't it?"

"It really is," Satsuki agreed. On the court, Tetsu-kun braced himself and helped Dai-chan back up. She didn't know what Tetsu-kun said to him, but it made Dai-chan screw his face up like he was tasting something awful. Tetsu-kun kept talking. Finally Dai-chan nodded, clearly unhappy about it, and bumped his fist against Tetsu-kun's.

She really didn't care about the fact that being the manager meant sitting on the sidelines, usually, but—just this once, she wished that she could be on the court with the boys, too. The only good thing about it was that being stuck on the sidelines meant that she was in the perfect position to see the consternation it caused when Tetsu-kun unveiled his vanishing drive for the first time, cutting around Hanamiya and directing the ball into Dai-chan's waiting hands as smoothly as clockwork. It was a small consolation against the way Kirisaki Daiichi was trying to knock him and Wakamatsu around, but at least it was something.

So was the fact that they had maintained their lead through the end of the quarter, and the fact that no one had any injuries more serious than bruises when they filed off the court. Tetsu-kun caught Hanamiya as they did and exchanged a few words with him, too quiet for Satsuki to know what they were. It only ended in putting another one of those unpleasant smiles on Hanamiya's face, though, and in making Tetsu-kun angry—angrier.

Dai-chan had hung back a little, waiting on Tetsu-kun; at her shoulder, he whistled, just the faintest sound from between his teeth. "Well, that's done it. They're definitely going to lose now."

Imayoshi-san was holding back as well, waiting to shepherd the last of them off the court. "How's that, brat?"

Dai-chan shrugged at him. "Whatever that asshole just said pissed Tetsu off. There's no way he'll let them win now." He grinned then; it wasn't as wide and pure as it had been before Teikou, but neither was it the cynical smirk he'd learned to wear there. "Not that we were going to let them get away with that bullshit anyway."

Imayoshi-san looked at him, silent, before inclining his head, expression warming just a bit as Tetsu-kun joined them. "I begin to believe that there's hope for you yet, brat," he said, steering them after the rest of the team.

Dai-chan made faces at him all the way to the locker room, where Harasawa-kantoku was already in the middle of checking Wakamatsu and Susa's bruises. He'd already wrapped Sakurai's knee and did the same for Susa's elbow as Satsuki took charge of the box of honey lemons Sakurai had prepared. The room was quieter than usual, the mood grim, at least until Imayoshi-san rolled his head on his neck and shook out his shoulders. "Figure it's about time for them to try and turn this game around. They'll make their move in the third quarter, when they substitute their center in. Sakurai, you reckon you can stand to play against these rat bastards for a few more minutes?"

"Of course I can!" Sakurai said, indignant, and immediately blushed when that broke some of the tension hanging over them and they laughed. "Sorry."

"Forget about it." Imayoshi-san looked him over and cut a quick glance over at Harasawa-kantoku, who nodded. "Right. We'll have you play the third quarter and substitute Kuroko-kun in around the seven-minute mark to change the pace of the game. They'll have moved by that point and will be thinking they have the advantage of us. Keep a cool head. Once they put Seto in the game, it'll be frustrating for a little while."

Wakamatsu's bark of laughter was harsh. "More frustrating than it already is? Awesome."

Imayoshi-san spread his hands and shrugged. "What can I say? They can't all be a walk in the park." He paused and looked around the room, then nudged his glasses up the bridge of his nose. "We wouldn't be here if we liked it easy, though, now would we?"

Satsuki watched as Wakamatsu's shoulders relaxed a bit and Susa lifted his chin and nodded to herself as she finagled her way into a seat next to Tetsu-kun. He'd been absolutely silent since coming off the court and sat now with his elbows braced on his knees, hands dangling loosely between them. He didn't acknowledge her at first. Satsuki looked past him, at Dai-chan, who popped another honey lemon into his mouth and shrugged. Just when Satsuki was casting about for a discreet way of asking Tetsu-kun whether he was all right, he spoke. "He does it deliberately." His voice was so cold and openly furious that Satsuki recoiled from him, shocked and just a little scared to see Tetsu-kun like this. "I asked him why he plays like that, and he said that it's because he can. Because he likes it. He likes hurting people and ruining their games."

Satsuki sat still, not entirely sure what to say—whether there was anything she could say. "Tetsu-kun..."

"I really can't stand bullies." He lifted his head and glanced her way, jaw set at the stubborn angle that meant he'd made up his mind about something, and there was something about the fierce look in his eyes that made her want to shiver. She'd never see Tetsu-kun like this, not even when he'd been angry with Dai-chan and the rest of them. "Especially the kind who spoil other people's fun. It's not right."

Dai-chan figured out how to respond when she didn't know what to say. He grinned and bumped his shoulder against Tetsu-kun's. "Guess we'll just have to give them a taste of their own medicine, huh?" He said it calmly, not the least bit bothered by Tetsu-kun's naked anger. "No less than they deserve."

As easily as that, Tetsu-kun's attention flowed from her to Dai-chan. Some of the sternness melted out of the line of his mouth as Dai-chan offered him his fist. Tetsu-kun bumped his own against it. "Yes."

Satsuki kept her sigh to herself and glanced away. Imayoshi-san was watching them, though his faint smile could have meant anything. She smiled at him, knowing that it was one of her weaker efforts; fortunately, he merely raised his eyebrows just a bit and turned to speak to Harasawa-kantoku.

Kirisaki Daiichi substituted Seto in during the second minute of the third quarter, just as Satsuki's data had suggested they would—Hanamiya only played him in the second half of games, and generally only if they hadn't already broken their opponents entirely. The flow of the game changed immediately when Seto entered play; Satsuki hissed through her teeth as Kirisaki Daiichi interrupted Sakurai's pass to Wakamatsu and scored, interrupted Susa's attempt to get the ball to Dai-chan, and interrupted every single one of Imayoshi-san's plays. "The spider's web," she said very quietly as the gap between their respective scores began to close. "I see why he calls it that."

"They make a formidable partnership," Harasawa-kantoku agreed. He twisted his fingers through his hair, eyes fixed on the court. "Though Seto is a lazy player. I doubt he could actually play a full match."

He probably didn't see the need, Satsuki thought, and cheered with the rest of the team when Dai-chan got tired of waiting for the rest of them to get the ball to him, stole the ball right out of Kirisaki Daiichi's shooting guard's hands, and drove down the court. He whooped as he dodged around Seto and faked his shot, making a formless shot right past him. That was precisely as they'd expected him to do, planning out the games strategy—Might as well make use of how he hogs the ball, Imayoshi-san had said, and he had been right. Dai-chan was good enough that it didn't matter that Kirisaki Daiichi kept intercepting their plays. He moved like water on the court, eluding Kirisaki Daiichi's defense and at least six attempts to give him a nasty fall, by Satsuki's count.

Even so, the gap between their scores closed until Kirisaki Daiichi drew even with them, and then pulled ahead by one point, then three. Satsuki gripped her clipboard until the edges of it were beginning to cut into her palm. It startled her when Tetsu-kun touched her wrist. "You shouldn't," he said, softly, and tapped the back of her hand until she loosened her grip. "You'll hurt yourself that way."

He checked his wristbands and glanced at the clock; on the court, Imayoshi-san signaled. Satsuki went to request the substitution and watched Tetsu-kun smack palms with Sakurai as they changed places. Hanamiya's cold little smile stretched wider; he looked pleased by the substitution, probably because it looked like another chance to get at Tetsu-kun.

Satsuki made a conscious effort to unclench her fingers and keep them loose as the game resumed and Tetsu-kun began to play in earnest.

Most of the schools with strong sports programs had recruited Dai-chan heavily back at the end of their Teikou days, especially after it had become known that the Generation of Miracles were splitting up. Dai-chan hadn't cared much about which school he went to—at least before Kagamin—and had pretty well left it in her hands to do the work of figuring out where they should go. Touou had been her first pick of schools for several reasons, some of which she'd shared with Dai-chan and others she had kept private, but one of the primary reasons for considering Touou had been the way they played. Every team played to win, of course—why even play, otherwise?—and every team had a philosophy for how they played. Touou emphasized a play style that was less about team play than other teams and recruited strong players—strong, flexible players, guys who could play their assigned positions but also had the skill and confidence to play wherever they found themselves, flexible enough to take the ball and run with it if it came to their hands. The style that resulted from that was smoother than that of some of the teams who drilled endlessly on their team plays; it certainly fit Dai-chan beautifully.

And it suited Tetsu-kun as well, in his own way.

Hanamiya frowned when Tetsu-kun was there to pass the ball to Wakamatsu, who pivoted and dropped the ball in the basket without missing a beat. He frowned harder in minute eight, when the ball went to Susa instead of Dai-chan, and when it went to Imayoshi-san for a buzzer beater. He scowled through the break, looking as though he was thinking at a furious rate.

"It's really true, then," Sakurai said to her, his voice quiet. "He and Seto-san, they can see the pass routes."

"They really are a strong pair," Tetsu-kun said absently, staring across the court at Hanamiya, at least until Dai-chan dropped a hand into his hair and ruffled it.

"They aren't the only ones," Dai-chan said.

Satsuki had to look away from the way that made Tetsu-kun smile, because really, the middle of the Winter Cup was no place to be getting all misty-eyed.

Touou began to pull ahead again in the fourth quarter as Tetsu-kun stopped holding back and he and Dai-chan fell into sync again, Dai-chan running up and down the court like he owned it and always in the right place to catch Tetsu-kun's passes when he diverted them from their original recipients. Kirisaki Daiichi flagged in the first three minutes, clearly thrown by the fact that their spider's web was no longer working, while Hanamiya looked progressively more annoyed as he studied Tetsu-kun and Imayoshi-san. Satsuki supposed she couldn't entirely blame him—she'd wondered, too, when Imayoshi-san had said that Tetsu-kun would need to be the playmaker for this game, had wondered whether the team would go along with it, but it made more sense now after having seen Hanamiya interacting with Imayoshi-san. If Hanamiya had laid his plans with the expectation that Imayoshi-san would be his opponent...

It was too late for Kirisaki Daiichi by the time Hanamiya unveiled his own skills as a player—a tricky floater shot that Dai-chan greeted with open delight (that was Dai-chan all over). Harasawa-kantoku shook his head as the last minutes of the game slipped past. "Such a waste of talent."

"Maybe he'll learn something from this game," Satsuki said as Tetsu-kun sent the ball into Imayoshi-san's hands and he sank the last basket before the buzzer sounded. The rest of the team erupted in cheers; Satsuki shouted too, but given the hateful look Hanamiya was bending on Tetsu-kun and Imayoshi-san...

"If we meet Kirisaki Daiichi next year, I imagine we'll have a nasty game on our hands," Harasawa-kantoku said, rising.

Yeah, she'd thought so herself. Well, a person could hope.

On the court, Hanamiya said something to Imayoshi-san; the noise from the stands was too loud to even guess what he might have had to say, but whatever Imayoshi-san said in reply made his face flush dark.

"I guess we'll deal with that when it happens," Satsuki told Harasawa-kantoku as the teams lined up to exchange their thanks for the game and then cleared the court for the next pair of teams. Imayoshi-san was back to smiling, looking as relaxed and cheerful as ever, but that could have meant anything. It was more telling that Susa clapped him on the shoulder in passing and that he paused to exchange nods with Tetsu-kun.

Most of the team dispersed immediately, changing out of their uniforms and heading home, probably to get some studying in. Harasawa-kantoku kept everyone who had just played back, going over their condition with them while Satsuki took notes and Imayoshi-san stood back, smiling amiably, back to contriving to look as harmless as possible. They'd entirely broken Kirisaki Daiichi's streak of injured opponents—Satsuki's phone chimed halfway through the debriefing; Midorin's text said, simple enough, Well done—but Harasawa-kantoku looked at Wakamatsu and Susa and frowned. "Who are we likely to meet tomorrow, Momoi-chan?"

Satsuki consulted her notes to be sure. "Either Nakano or Oji." She considered her projections for that game and her notes for how both teams had played so far, which had been in line with her expectations. "It's more likely to be Oji, but that branch of the bracket has really benefitted from the size of the tournament this year."

"Meaning that they're lucky to be here at all." Imayoshi-chuckled over that. "Lucky for us." He looked to Harasawa-kantoku and offered a suggestion. "Reckon we could pull from the reserves tomorrow and it wouldn't be too much of a problem."

Harasawa-kantoku nodded. "I think that would be wise, if we can manage it."

"Well, I'll think it over while we go watch some basketball." Imayoshi-san clapped his hands and then made shooing motions at them. "Get a move on."

Satsuki held back a bit, mostly because she couldn't help wanting to know. "What was it that you said to Hanamiya there at the end?" she asked Imayoshi-san as he closed up the locker room after himself.

Imayoshi-san glanced down at her, showing a moment of thoughtfulness, and then shrugged. "Not much. He seemed to feel like it was worth mentioning that I'd relied on my kouhai to win that game, and I just pointed out that of course I did, since I've got a reliable bunch of kouhai on my team."

No doubt that none of the subtleties of that had been wasted on Hanamiya, Imayoshi-san's erstwhile kouhai. No wonder he'd looked so angry. Satsuki nodded, satisfied with that. "I'm glad you won," she said.

Imayoshi-san's answering smile was crooked. "Yes, so am I." He nodded his head at the team, which was well ahead of them at this point. "We had better catch up if we want to have good seats for the game."

Part Three

The schedule had made it impossible to watch either Seihou or Yousen's sweet sixteen match, let alone Rakuzan's, which was going to mean a late evening for Satsuki. It couldn't be helped, so the next best option was Kaijou's match against Fukuda Sougou.

"Whoa, hey, is that Haizaki?" Dai-chan said, startled, when he saw who was playing for Fukuda Sougou. "I'll be damned. I figured he'd given up basketball."

"Apparently not," Tetsu-kun said, gazing down at the court, where Haizaki and Ki-chan were exchanging words. There was no telling what Haizaki might have been saying from the way Ki-chan was holding himself, but then, there didn't need to be. It was clear that Haizaki was taunting Ki-chan about their relative skill levels again, just like he always had.

Imayoshi-san leaned forward from his seat in the row behind theirs. "Is there something about this fellow that you wanna tell the rest of the class about?"

"Haizaki Shougo." Satsuki pointed to him. "He used to play for Teikou as well, as one of the Generation of Miracles."

"Akashi kicked him off the team," Dai-chan added when she hesitated over how to explain their complicated history with Haizaki. "Good thing, too. That guy is a real dickhead."

"A scathing indictment indeed," Imayoshi-san said, dry. "Especially coming from you."

"Guess it does take one to know one," Wakamatsu suggested, sounding amused. As Dai-chan sputtered in outrage, he rubbed his chin. "So this guy Haizaki, he's on the same level as the rest of you?"

"Something like that." Satsuki watched Haizaki's progress across the court as he rejoined his own team. "His skills are similar to Ki-chan's, but nastier. He steals moves and alters them just enough to make them his own. Most players who come up against him can't figure out what he's done and never recover from the psychological blow."

"And also, Kise never did manage to beat him," Dai-chan put in. He frowned at the court, thoughtful. "Not before Akashi got rid of him."

"Guess it's gonna be an interesting match then, huh?" Imayoshi-san settled back into his seat, looking more thoughtful than anything else. It was good to see how he'd relaxed now that sweet sixteen match was behind them.

Tetsu-kun was the one who watched Kaijou and Fukuda Sougou finish their warm-ups with a creased forehead. As they lined up for tip-off, he leaned over Dai-chan to ask her, "What does your data say about this one?"

Satsuki nibbled on her lip. "Ki-chan is in for a hard match."

"That was what I was afraid of," he said, quiet, and they settled back to watch as the referee tossed the ball into the air and the game began.

It started off even worse than Satsuki's data—thorough as it was—had suggested it would be. Whatever Haizaki had been doing with himself since Akashi had removed him from the team, he'd clearly kept himself in good form. He hadn't lost his knack for mimicry either, showing it by stealing Moriyama's shot and using it against him right away, probably sealing it for the duration of the match. Ki-chan threw himself into the game, digging deep into his own bag of tricks, and it was clear that whatever else Kaijou's coach had concentrated on, he'd spent some time forcing Kise to polish his sense of the game itself. There was more strategy into the things Ki-chan was trying, the feints to get around Haizaki's reach and the careful plays to break through his defense. The problem was that only about half of his choices worked at any given moment, and that once he used a particular trick, Haizaki immediately stole it and turned it back on him.

Fukuda Sougou took the lead early and kept it through the first half of the game, while Kaijou's mood turned darker and darker and Ki-chan began to look positively grim. He all but stalked off the court at the break, and Dai-chan whistled. "Man. I don't think I've ever seen him so pissed."

"Why wouldn't he be pissed?" Wakamatsu leaned forward, propping himself up on Dai-chan's shoulder. "He's getting his ass handed to him." He ignored it when Dai-chan tried to dislodge him. "What I wanna know is why he hasn't whipped out his imitation of you."

Dai-chan was too busy trying to squirm out from under him to answer, so Tetsu-kun said, "They're probably saving that for later in the game." He looked her way and Satsuki nodded, confirming his hypothesis. "Aomine-kun is freakish. Most players can't play the way he does, not for a full game."

"Hey! Freakish?" Dai-chan left off trying to wrestle with Wakamatsu to turn a wounded expression on Tetsu-kun. "C'mon, now, Tetsu—"

"You are kind of a freak," Wakamatsu observed, grinning, and smacked him when Dai-chan tried to go over the seat for his throat. "Hey, have some respect for your betters, dumbass."

"Settle down, children, you're making a scene." Imayoshi-san hooked a hand in Wakamatsu's collar, hauling him back into his seat while Tetsu-kun jabbed Dai-chan right in the ribs. "They'll save Kise-kun's talents for as long as possible, I reckon, unless things get desperate. Kasamatsu likes to hold a card or two in reserve for when things are starting to look ugly."

Satsuki set her teeth against her lips and didn't say anything at all, because she hadn't really spent that much time with the data on Kaijou—they were on the opposite side of the bracket, along with Rakuzan—so it was possible that she was mistaken. If she was, well, she could keep that to herself.

Fukuda Sougou pushed even harder in the third quarter, and it looked a lot like Haizaki was mocking Ki-chan for it—not surprising, if he was, because he'd always liked that, had always liked to say things that just crawled inside a person and festered there, poisonous and sick-making. And he'd always disliked Ki-chan, maybe more than any of the other first-string players. Whatever he was saying to Ki-chan now had Ki-chan visibly gritting his teeth as he struggled to help his team turn the tide of the game.

Fukuda Sougou had a thirteen-point lead seven minutes into the third quarter when Ki-chan tried to do a fade-away shot and Haizaki stole the ball instead, managing to knock against Ki-chan at the same time. There was something about the way he smirked that made Satsuki suspect a hidden foul. It took Ki-chan a few seconds to recover; when his captain gave him a hand up, Ki-chan said something to him—

Kasamatsu-san hesitated a moment, then nodded as though he were granting permission. He probably was, Satsuki thought, because Ki-chan shook himself, rolling his shoulders and looking down the court to where Haizaki was smirking. There was a set, determined look on his face.

"Here it comes," Dai-chan said, gleeful as a little kid about it. He leaned forward in his seat, grinning, and yelled as Ki-chan dropped into the open, relaxed stance of Dai-chan's own formless play style and then blurred past Haizaki, who yelled something and moved to catch up with him. Ki-chan was faster than he was, though, and Haizaki never had managed to mimic any of the other members of the Generation of Miracles successfully, not like Ki-chan had.

Kaijou rallied with Ki-chan and began to close the gap between their scores again as Ki-chan used his own skill at copying other players to play in the way that Haizaki couldn't—it was enough to set Haizaki seething, that much was clear in the ugly look on his face as the quarter wound down. Then Kasamatsu got the ball to Ki-chan again, who sank a three-pointer from the half-court line just as neatly as Midorin himself could have done it, and the quarter ended.

"Whoa," Dai-chan said, "when did he learn that one?"

"It's not exactly the same as your play style." Tetsu-kun sounded thoughtful. "We've all watched Midorima-kun practice."

"I guess." Dai-chan frowned over it a little. "Still, I didn't see that coming. I didn't think he'd spent all that much time obsessing over Midorima."

Tetsu-kun glanced at him, sidelong, and smiled, tiny and wicked. "I don't think there's really any call to be jealous. I'm sure Kise-kun still loves you best."

"What—what?" Dai-chan sputtered. "What do you mean, jealous?"

Satsuki let the friendly wrangling flow past unremarked—Tetsu-kun's teasing, Dai-chan's consternation, and their senpai's audible amusement at the show—and watched Ki-chan instead where he sat on Kaijou's bench, drinking water and bracing his elbows against his knees. Only a few minutes—if he could sustain this perfected copy of his for more than a few minutes, she'd be surprised. There was a full quarter left to go, but Kasamatsu was deep in conversation with his team and his coach, so that was probably accounted for in his strategy. The other thing...

Imayoshi-san leaned forward again. "Reckon the next thing Kaijou'll need to make their brat learn about is pacing himself," he remarked. "Don't you think?"

Satsuki glanced back at him; his expression was neutral enough, but the fact that he'd said anything at all—"That's not something that Teikou ever really had to worry about after the first year or so." Except for Tetsu-kun, of course, the only one of them who hadn't had more physical endurance than their opponents.

"Seems to me I might have noticed that, yes. You brats have no sense of proportion." Imayoshi-san's smile stretched wider. "It's a damn good thing you have senpai to knock some sense into you."

Satsuki exhaled—there was that. "I suppose so." She turned back to the game as the fourth quarter began. Ki-chan must have been spending time with Midorin, or had at least seen Midorin play; he fired off another three-pointer from well outside the three-point line. It wasn't quite the remarkable distance that Midorin could manage, but it seemed to flabbergast most of Fukuda Sougou and annoy Haizaki, which may have been Ki-chan's point in doing it. Haizaki went for the ball himself and drove in hard for the basket, but Ki-chan was already there, and—Satsuki couldn't blame Dai-chan for cursing, startled, because Ki-chan really didn't have Mukkun's height or reach, but he made the most of the reach he did have and did the next best imitation of Mukkun that Satsuki had ever seen.

Kaijou pulled even with Fukuda Sougou, then edged ahead by a point as Ki-chan distracted and defended against Haizaki, until Haizaki switched tactics during the sixth minute. He abandoned his attempts to use the warped versions of the moves he'd stolen in favor of playing hard and rough, far less subtle about it than any of Kirisaki Daiichi's team had been. He managed to knock Ki-chan over once and didn't even seem to mind it when the referees called the foul and awarded Kaijou the free throw. Satsuki didn't think he even cared about the game itself anymore, though there wasn't anything really new about that.

Dai-chan made an annoyed sound when Haizaki tried to stomp on Ki-chan's foot—the leg that he was favoring, if Satsuki were any judge, and thank goodness that Ki-chan was agile enough to avoid that even if he was starting to flag a bit. "What an asshole."

"He always was a sore loser," Tetsu-kun said, quiet and almost without inflection.

Satsuki knew that tone all too well and looked away from the court just in time to catch the two of them exchanging significant glances. "The more things change," Dai-chan said after a moment, perfectly casual.

There wasn't really anything Satsuki could say, not when all their senpai were sitting in the next row up, so she held her tongue and tried to use telepathy to communicate the fact that there were still three rounds of the tournament to get through and that they should therefore not do anything stupid.

Given that it was Dai-chan and Tetsu-kun, she was pretty sure that they got the message, but she was also pretty sure they were going to choose to ignore it.

In the end, Kaijou won by a bare three points—but a win was a win and there was no point in turning one's nose up at it—and Ki-chan escaped any injury at Haizaki's hands, which was probably better. That was the last of the day's games, fortunately, though Satsuki could see a long evening ahead of her with all the games that she would need to review in preparation for the next day. She glanced down as they filed out of their row, checking her phone and finding that her inbox was already filling up with fresh material waiting for her attention.

When she looked up again, Dai-chan and Tetsu-kun had managed to separate themselves from the rest of the team and had disappeared into the crowd. Tetsu-kun's talent for misdirection and disappearing could be really irritating, she thought, exasperated, as Wakamatsu looked around and said, "Hey, where did they go?" and Sakurai said, "Sorry, they were just here, I don't know where they could have gone—"

Imayoshi-san didn't say anything at all, but he was smiling in a tolerant sort of way, like this was exactly what he'd expected to happen. "I'm sure the two of them can't have gotten too far. But they're big boys now. I'm sure they can take care of themselves."

Wakamatsu screwed up his face in an expression of extreme doubt. "Aomine?"

"Kuroko-kun is with him," Sakurai said, though he didn't seem particularly reassured by that point. That just went to show that Sakurai was one of the more observant members of the team.

"Don't you worry about our little lambs." Imayoshi-san waved his hands at them. "I reckon Momoi-chan and I'll be able to find them without too much trouble. The rest of you head on home and get a good night's sleep."

He waited until the rest of the team had joined the general exodus out of the stadium before tucking his hands in his pockets and turning his smile on Satsuki. "Now, just what do you suppose the two of them are getting up to?"

She didn't know that Dai-chan and Tetsu-kun were getting themselves into trouble—well, not for sure—but she did have a pretty good idea how their minds worked. She had a pretty good idea how Haizaki's mind worked, too, come to that, and was just as sure that Imayoshi-san would not be particularly inclined to be distracted or diverted. "They've probably gone to exchange greetings with a former teammate."

"How remarkably civilized of them." Imayoshi-san seemed to be more amused by that than not, though of course that didn't necessarily mean anything much. He set off, navigating through the flow of the crowd and heading for the level of the locker rooms; it was a good guess on his part, though not quite the right one.

Satsuki struggled with herself for a moment, but—they did have a head start, and he'd guess that she hadn't said anything. She plucked at his sleeve to get his attention. "Not that way."

Imayoshi-san glanced back at her. "No?"

"They've all got at least enough sense to avoid witnesses." Satsuki sighed, thinking about the layout of the stadium and its environs, plus Ki-chan's likely route home. "This way."

He followed her as she fell in with the rest of the crowd, moving through it as quickly as she could. "I can't help but get the impression that this is something that's happened a time or two before."

Satsuki knew that the smile she turned on him wasn't as neutral as it could have been, but perhaps it was all right. He'd probably understand it well enough. "You're not the only one who's ever had a nasty teammate, you know."

"So it's like that, is it?" Imayoshi-san considered that as he kept pace with her. "I suppose I did get that impression from your chatter before the game." He sauntered along with her, silent for a bit. "I don't guess we have to be in too much of a hurry to catch up with them." He grinned just a bit when she threw a startled look at him. "I figure we ought to give them some time to exchange their courtesies before we give them an excuse to withdraw, don't you?"

"You are not a nice person, Imayoshi-san," Satsuki told him, torn between relief and a touch of exasperation. Honestly, she'd have thought he'd have more sense than that.

His grin was wicked. "No, I guess not, but I'm a lot more interesting than a nice boy, aren't I?"

If she hadn't been waiting for just such an opening for weeks, Satsuki would have missed it, surprised by the time and the place—pushing through a crowd to go extract Dai-chan and Tetsu-kun from a sticky situation would not have been her chosen ground for opening up flirtations. As it was, she almost let it pass unremarked, except that the moment he said it, he seemed to regret it, perhaps, if the brief flicker of his wince was anything to go by. So Satsuki tilted her head just a bit, lowering her eyelashes and peeking at him through them, and said, "Yes, you are."

After all, if she'd learned anything from studying strategy and tactics all these years, it was that sometimes there was a great deal of value in a direct attack.

Imayoshi-san opened his mouth and then snapped it shut on whatever his initial response was going to be, and damn it, there was no reason in the world that Satsuki could see for him to look regretful. "It's just one of the many burdens I bear," he said, light, evading the entire point of her response. "Now what do you suppose our little lambs wanted to go and—how did you put it?—exchange greetings with Haizaki-kun for?"

Satsuki silently told over some of Dai-chan's more colorful turns of phrase—damn it all, what the fuck was Imayoshi-san waiting for?—and then said, as levelly as she could manage when she was so irritated, "Akashi removed Haizaki from the team to make room for Ki-chan. They've always had an adversarial relationship, and now Ki-chan has show that his talents really do exceed Haizaki's. There's a good chance that Haizaki will try to resolve that directly."

Imayoshi-san so rarely seemed to be sorry for anything he did that she almost didn't recognize the apology in his expression. "I see. And where do Aomine-kun and Kuroko-kun come into it?"

She didn't want an apology; she wanted an explanation, but by this point they had made it outside, where the air was brisk enough that she could see her breath hanging in it. Now was neither the time nor the place. She set off around the building, heading for the less-trafficked areas that would, not coincidentally, likely put someone right in Ki-chan's path home. "Tetsu-kun never liked Haizaki to begin with, and Dai-chan... lost a great deal of respect for him once he realized how Haizaki behaved off the court. And they're both fairly fond of Ki-chan."

"Given how I have seen Aomine-kun behave himself, I tremble to ask just what this Haizaki-kun could have done to earn such disapproval." Imayoshi-san was back to his usual casual drawl now that they were safely past the danger point.

She was still irritated, which was why she told him what she normally preferred to forget had ever happened, and had only ever discussed twice: once with Tetsu-kun and Dai-chan in the immediate aftermath, and again with Akashi, whose mouth had drawn tighter and flatter as he had listened to her reasons for wanting to resign her position as the first-string manager. "Haizaki likes girls, and he's just as happy when they say no to him as he is when they don't. Happier, maybe." She walked along quickly, listening to the tap of her shoes against the concrete, until she heard the hiss of his indrawn breath. "Lucky for me, I grew up with Dai-chan and know how to make a no stick." Luckier still that Tetsu-kun and Dai-chan had been there to back her up before Haizaki had recovered from that sucker punch.

"Momoi-chan—" Imayoshi-san said, and for once, he didn't sound sure of himself at all.

"I think I hear them." Satsuki kept her tone calm, all business, because she didn't want to talk about it and because it was true—she could hear the rise and fall of Dai-chan's voice just ahead, right around the corner from them. They rounded it and she approved of the choice of ground—it was off the thoroughfare, nicely secluded from any witnesses but her and Imayoshi-san when Dai-chan laid a beautiful right hook on Haizaki's jaw and sent him sprawling.

"Go home, Haizaki-kun," Tetsu-kun said as Haizaki clutched his jaw and swore, indistinct. "You don't have any place in this tournament. You never did."

Haizaki pushed himself to his feet. "You fucking arrogant sons of bitches, you think you're all so much better than the rest of us—" He swung, not at Dai-chan but at Tetsu-kun, which could have gone very badly. Tetsu-kun had no compunctions about fighting, but having Haizaki for an opponent would have almost certainly ended in an injury. Fortunately, Dai-chan was there to distract him by delivering a punch to Haizaki's kidneys that was probably going to be very painful for a long time. Judging by Haizaki's howl, it was plenty painful at the present moment, too.

Satsuki couldn't really make herself feel bad about the way Haizaki staggered and clutched his side, groaning, and couldn't help noticing that Imayoshi-san waited until after Dai-chan had landed one more punch to his jaw to say, "All right, I reckon you've made your point."

Dai-chan straightened up, doing his apparent best to look like someone who hadn't been ready to dive into an all-out brawl at the slightest provocation. Tetsu-kun did a much better job of looking innocent and harmless, which was pretty much normal for both of them, and Haizaki was too busy groaning to notice anything right away. Dai-chan shook out his fist and took a long step away from Haizaki. "Imayoshi-san, this is—"

Imayoshi-san held up his hand. "Spare me the explanations, brat. I've got eyes."

Haizaki swore some more, muffled by the way he was clutching his jaw. "You bastards, I'm gonna—" He lunged for Dai-chan, only to come up short when Imayoshi-san intercepted him and caught his shoulder. "Who the fuck are you?"

"I'm the fellow that's gonna keep you from getting the teeth knocked down your throat," Imayoshi-san informed him. "Looks like it's about time for you to head on home, don't you think? Maybe find some ice for that jaw of yours while you're at it?"

Haizaki wasn't stupid, which was what made him so dangerous. He looked from Imayoshi-san to Dai-chan and saw how badly outnumbered he was. He scowled and spat, just missing Tetsu-kun's shoes. "Don't think this is over," he told Dai-chan. "I'm not done with any of you people."

Dai-chan grinned at him, nothing but arrogance about it. "Sorry, man, but we're done with you."

Haizaki glared, but if he was tempted to abandon prudence and make another attempt at Dai-chan, he restrained himself. He shook Imayoshi-san's hand off his shoulder and began to stalk away, only to stop when Imayoshi-san called his name. "What?"

"I think you should know something." Imayoshi-san's tone was perfectly pleasant, but there were teeth in his smile. "If anyone should ask, they'll discover that Aomine-kun and Kuroko-kun left the arena with the rest of their team and were in their company all the way home."

Satsuki flinched from the utterly poisonous look Haizaki leveled on them, but he limped away without saying anything else. Imayoshi-san watched him go, then turned his attention on the boys. "I have the fullest confidence that the two of you have a good explanation for that." His tone was as dry as a desert, and of course Dai-chan immediately opened his mouth. "Spare me. Instead, tell me whether you boys have ever heard of the concept of plausible deniability?"

Tetsu-kun was the one who straightened his spine and lifted his chin to answer that. "It had to be done."

"Yes, I've gathered that." Imayoshi-san shook his head. "What I would suggest, however, is that you remember two things. We're still in the tournament, and I need both of you on the team and not suspended for fighting. Second, if you must fight, do try to arrange it such that you are not the ones who throw the first punch. I'm not going to be around to cover for you again, and quite frankly, I shouldn't have to be. Have I made myself clear on this?"

Tetsu-kun angled his chin a touch higher, murmuring, "Yes, captain," in a level tone while Dai-chan shuffled his feet, looking sheepish, and muttered, "Yeah, Imayoshi-san, got it."

Imayoshi-san studied them and nodded. "Reckon that's about the best I can hope for. Now get yourselves home and rest up. I'd take it as a personal favor if you brats would try to stay out of trouble until I see you again." He inclined his head to Satsuki. "Momoi-chan. I'll look forward to your analysis of tomorrow's prospects."

"I'll have it ready bright and early," she promised him. He smiled at her, faint, and sauntered away.

Dai-chan puffed his cheeks out and expelled a breath. "Man, is there anything that guy can't be sarcastic about?"

"I doubt it." Tetsu-kun nodded his head in the direction of the train station and fell into step with Satsuki. "I suppose it's one of his charms." He slanted a smile at her that Dai-chan seemed to miss.

"Charm? That guy? Yeah, right." Dai-chan laughed and took his place at Tetsu-kun's other shoulder. "Man, did you see the look on Haizaki's face?"

"I saw." Tetsu-kun was just about as dry as Imayoshi-san had been. "I suppose we'll be dealing with that for the next two years."

Dai-chan just grinned. "Oh, well. Damn." When he held out his fist, Tetsu-kun smiled and bumped his own fist against it, because sometimes he elected to allow himself to be swept away by Dai-chan's enthusiasms.

Satsuki watched the two of them and didn't sigh. What would be the point? They weren't likely to change. "I suppose you didn't damage your hand on Haizaki's face, then?"

"Nope, it's fine." Dai-chan held it out, flexing it in demonstration, and he seemed to have full range of motion and no immediate swelling or soreness. "See? No problems."

"Well, good." That was one less thing to worry over, so Satsuki dug her phone out and began to check on the initial reports for the day's games—might as well get a jump on the night's work while the boys lapsed back into gloating over their triumph over Haizaki.

It wasn't until after they'd made it to the corner where Tetsu-kun left them for the night that she emerged from her thoughts, when Dai-chan bumped his shoulder against hers and jarred her out of her thoughts about Yousen's match. "Hey, you all right?"

"What?" Satsuki blinked at him.

Dai-chan squinted down at her. "You've been kinda quiet tonight." He rubbed his chin, thinking. "A lot, lately."

She hadn't realized that she'd been worried that Dai-chan was more interested in what Tetsu-kun was thinking and feeling than how she was doing until he asked that and she felt the flash of relief. "I've had a lot on my mind. The tournament keeps me busy, you know."

"Hmm." He ambled along, taking one long step for every two she took, keeping pace with her as easily as he'd always done. "Well. You know where I live."

Satsuki smiled up at him and the reminder. "Yes, Dai-chan, I do." Maybe they didn't go straight to one another's homes at the first sign of a crisis anymore, but that didn't mean that they couldn't. She reached up and ruffled his close-cropped hair. "Thanks."

He ducked away from her hand, grinning. "Yeah, yeah. Okay, that's enough mushy crap. Who do you think is gonna win tomorrow, Kagami or Murasakibara?"

"That," Satsuki said, "is something I very much wish to know as well, Dai-chan. Right now I'm not really sure I can say."

Dai-chan whistled through his teeth. "No kidding." He shuffled a few steps along the sidewalk, then said, "I'm thinking Kagami. He wants it more."

Satsuki laughed. "That's not hard, Dai-chan, you know that."

Dai-chan huffed at her. "You know what I mean."

"Yes, I suppose I do." Kagamin's edge was his unbridled love for the game, which was a sharp contrast to Mukkun's weary disdain for it. "I think it's going to be an interesting match to watch."

Dai-chan grinned. "Oh yeah. I'm looking forward to it." And really, he spoke for both of them in that.

Seihou and Yousen were scheduled to play their quarterfinal match on the same court that Touou would be playing on in their match against Oji, which made it easy enough to decide which match to watch—though Satsuki did have a quiet urge to go and watch Rakuzan's match instead—but no. Touou would be meeting either Yousen or Seihou before they would have another shot at Rakuzan, so they were her first priority. They had to be.

Mukkun looked the same as ever when he slouched onto the court, hair spilling into his eyes and his expression bored, but Satsuki hadn't really expected anything else from him. He always had been the strangest of them all, peculiar and disinterested in the game that he'd been all but coerced into playing.

Wakamatsu made a strangled sound when he got his first good look at Yousen's team. "Holy shit, how tall is that guy?"

"Right at 208, last time I managed to get statistics on him," Satsuki said, and ignored the resulting fits the team had over that. She looked to Yousen's #12 instead, their shooting guard—Himuro Tatsuya, the one Kagamin had known before and the one she had relatively little data on. He looked as surprised to see Kagamin as Kagamin had been to hear about him. Surprised, and maybe more reserved about it. Satsuki didn't know what the two of them said to each other when they broke away from their respective teams, but Kagamin tended to show everything, much like an open book. He looked tentative, approaching Himuro-san, as though he was uncertain of his welcome but hoping for the best. Himuro-san didn't show nearly as much, smiled through his apparent surprise, and returned Kagamin's greeting politely enough from what she could tell.

"They were important to each other once, weren't they?" Tetsu-kun asked her, quietly, after the two of them had separated and returned to their warm-ups.

Satsuki glanced at the serious line of his mouth, turned down at the corners, and wondered whether he'd asked because he knew what that looked like. She chose her words carefully, conscious that at least some of the team was probably listening in. This was Kagamin's business, not theirs. "I believe they knew each other before they came back to Japan." Everything she'd been able to unearth about them said that they had probably learned to play together on the streets, but Himuro-san tended to be extremely reticent about that period in his life and Kagamin tended to be vague about it.

"I thought so," Tetsu-kun said, and that was all.

Imayoshi-san elected that moment to prod Wakamatsu in the shoulder. "All right. Pop quiz. You heard Momoi-chan tell us about Seihou and Yousen a while ago. What do you think this match is going to look like?"

Wakamatsu went a little sickly at the question—apparently he'd figured out what was in store for him when Imayoshi-san retired from the team—but he rallied well enough. "They're both primarily defense teams, especially Yousen. No one's managed to score against them yet, and they've got that shooting guard to rack up points for them. It'll depend on Seihou's Kagami and whether he can break past their center or not... whether he can out-jump him or not, I guess." He looked at Imayoshi-san, clearly wondering whether he'd answered correctly or not.

Imayoshi-san's expression was too bland to give anything away. "Don't forget that Kagami-kun has a remarkable talent for evolving his skills during a game." He glanced at Satsuki. "Does your Murasakibara-kun ever play offensively?"

Dai-chan snorted. "What, that guy? Only if you bribe him. Or really piss him off."

"It never fails to amaze me what a quirky lot you all are," Imayoshi-san drawled. "Genius really does have its price, I suppose."

Tetsu-kun's tone was very grave and his diction was exquisitely polite when he said, "I believe that it takes one to know one, Imayoshi-san."

Imayoshi-san gave him a long look while the rest of the team held its breath. Then he smiled, amiable. "That's what I hear, but I don't reckon you ought to believe everything people say, brat."

"If you say so," Tetsu-kun murmured, his smile tiny and very clearly amused.

Imayoshi-san sat back in his seat, grinning. "Brat." He nodded towards the court. "Look, it's starting."

Seihou looked like it was in good form; they'd had a fairly straightforward tournament so far and had cut through most of their opponents' games fairly easily. Yousen had had just as straightforward a run through the tournament, so this game would be each team's first real challenge. If both teams played primarily defensive games, well, they also had Kagamin and Himuro-san respectively, and even Mukkun if he could be bothered to get excited about the outcome.

That didn't seem to be very likely at first, not when he took up his position at the basket and blocked each of Seihou's initial attempts to score, batting the ball out of the air negligently and looking both bored and annoyed at the effort required.

"Geez, that guy really hasn't changed at all, has he?" Dai-chan was studying the court, eyes bright and sharp as he tracked each of Kagamin's increasingly frustrated attempts to break through Mukkun's superior reach. He was jumping higher and higher each time he got the ball, practically roaring as he struggled with Mukkun. "Man, what a waste."

"Doesn't look like much of a waste to me," Wakamatsu said as Mukkun blocked another of Kagamin's impossibly powerful jumps.

"Well, it is." Dai-chan slouched lower in his seat and propped his hand on his fist. "He doesn't even like basketball. I mean, just imagine what kind of damage someone like Tetsu could do if he and Murasakibara could switch bodies."

Tetsu-kun didn't even appear to be looking when he knocked Dai-chan's elbow off the arm of his seat.

Dai-chan laughed, apparently unbothered by this. "What, you know it's true."

"Simmer down, children," Imayoshi-san said before Tetsu-kun could make it clear what he thought about that.

It wasn't just Mukkun who was giving Seihou trouble, either. Himuro-san's mirage shot seemed to be causing its own difficulties, judging by the baffled looks on Seihou's faces as he made shot after shot and their hands always seemed to be in precisely the wrong place to block the ball. Satsuki watched them reach for the ball, either a fraction of a second too early or too late, and frowned over it. By the end of the first quarter, Seihou had not scored even once, and Yousen was up by seventeen points.

"Well, this is shaping up to be a bloodbath, isn't it?" Imayoshi-san said when the buzzer sounded and Seihou retreated to their bench, some of them looking pale and shocky and others just looking angry. "You reckon we ought to be thinking about ways of beating that tricky little shot of theirs or what?"

"The game's not over yet," Dai-chan objected. "Kagami hasn't even gotten started yet."

"Brat, you know I find your unalterable devotion to your rivalry with Kagami-kun adorable and all, but I really think that you shouldn't let that cloud your thinking." Imayoshi-san leaned forward to prod his shoulder. "What makes you think he's gonna pull it out?"

"Can't you see the look on his face?" Dai-chan pointed to where Kagamin was sitting and apparently not hearing a word his coach had to say. Instead he was staring at Yousen's bench, expression intent on them. Unlike some of his teammates, he didn't look stunned or dispirited or even angry. He just looked determined.

And in his determination, he reached up to yank at the chain he habitually wore—the one with the ring on it. He pulled it off and turned to Seihou's captain, handing it to him and saying something brief before turning away.

"Well, that was a fascinating little display, but it was cryptic as all get-out," Imayoshi-san remarked as Iwamura frowned at the chain and ring Kagamin had handed him; he handed it off to their coach. "And I'm not particularly convinced by your reasoning, brat."

Dai-chan twisted around in his seat and gave Imayoshi-san an incredulous look. "Are you joking? This is Kagami we're talking about, and you can see he hasn't given up yet!" He paused and scratched his cheek, reflecting on something. "Also, I'm pretty sure he just got serious about this game."

Imayoshi-san smiled down at him, cheerful. "All right, I'll accept that as being provisionally more convincing. There's merit in knowing the enemy and all that."

"You'll see," Dai-chan muttered, slinking lower in his seat.

Satsuki suppressed the urge to sigh—it wasn't a surprise that Dai-chan had missed the point of that little exercise—and resolutely turned her attention back to the game. If Imayoshi-san wanted to use this game as a teaching exercise, she wasn't going to interfere with that.

She still didn't know what that ring meant to Kagamin, but Dai-chan had been right—he'd gotten serious, and the second quarter started out differently for Seihou. Kagamin got his hands on the ball at once and drove for the net, was repulsed, did it again as soon as Seihou regained possession and was blocked again, and then, on his third attempt, roared with triumph as he fought past Murasakibara's block and sunk the basket—scoring the first points against Yousen that anyone had managed all through the tournament. His teammates roared too, recovering the spirit they'd lost during the first quarter, and Mukkun—

Mukkun roused himself enough to frown, something a little darker than the normal sulky, bored twist of his lips as he seemed to take real notice of Kagamin for the first time. He said something and Dai-chan laughed. "How much you wanna bet he just said something about how annoying guys like Kagami are?"

"I don't believe I'd want to take that bet," Tetsu-kun murmured.

"Neither would I," Satsuki agreed.

Once Kagamin had figured out how to get past Mukkun—primarily by harnessing his knack for being able to jump unfeasibly high for a high school student—the second quarter went better for Seihou. They began to accumulate points at a steady rate, anyway, though that didn't do much good against the lead that Yousen already had and was maintaining, thanks to the way Himuro-san was still making those shots of his at every opportunity.

Then, at the very end of the quarter, something happened. Kagamin was marking Himuro-san, probably fruitlessly, and Himuro-san lined himself up for another shot. Kagamin started to jump to intercept it, but slipped a little on the floor. The timing of his jump was off, just a bit, and he looked almost as shocked as Himuro-san did when he actually managed to block the ball.

"Huh," Dai-chan said as Kagamin took instant advantage of the intercept to drive back up the court and score one last goal before the buzzer sounded to end the quarter. "Is that it."

"Is what it?" Wakamatsu asked, while Kagamin's team surrounded him and pounded on his back on their way off the court.

Dai-chan ignored him and turned to her instead. "What do you think—it's the timing, right?"

"That's what it looks like," Satsuki said, thinking about it. Kagamin had jumped later than Himuro-san had expected he would, so whatever Himuro-san was doing with that shot had something to do with the timing of it. Somehow he was using that to trick his opponents into misjudging where the ball would be. "Tricky."

"Very tricky," Dai-chan agreed, grinning, clearly already turning over all the ways Himuro-san could be managing that while Wakamatsu grumbled at them for being purposefully cryptic. "I wonder if Murasakibara is enjoying himself yet."

"That would be a nice change," Tetsu-kun said in very neutral tones. "Considering."

Sakurai leaned around Dai-chan, looking puzzled. "Sorry, but why would he even be playing if he doesn't enjoy it?"

Satsuki glanced at the boys and shrugged. "His height, I suppose. He defaulted to playing basketball because of it." There wasn't really anything more that they could say than that, though she had some suspicions about why Mukkun had let himself be stampeded into basketball. But Mukkun had never been all that forthcoming and she'd never had a chance to verify those, so there was no point in giving them voice.

That seemed to be enough of an explanation for Sakurai, because he nodded and settled back.

She passed the remainder of the break by checking in on the other quarterfinal matches. Kaijou was doing well against their opponents, which was only to be expected, and Ki-chan wasn't playing. That was good; it looked like there were some sensible heads over at Kaijou. Rakuzan was dominating their match as well, which was no surprise.

The one thing that worried her, just a bit, was how Seihou was playing against Yousen. Hard-pressed as they were, they didn't seem to be doing anything differently than normal. Surely, if they'd prepared any special tricks for emergency situations, this would be the game in which to unveil them, but so far they were playing as they always did. Either they hadn't learned from the Interhigh, or they were that confident that their present game would be sufficient to defeat Yousen.

When Yousen and Seihou returned to the court at the end of the break, Mukkun was still munching on the last of some snack—some things really never changed. Seihou looked serious, determined, but not at all like they were feeling desperate. Maybe that was a good sign—but then, they weren't one of the kings of Tokyo for no reason.

They'd apparently had some kind of strategy session during the break, because the shape of their plays changed in the third quarter. They put two men on Himuro-san to mark him, one of them Kagamin's fellow first-year, the one with the loud mouth, and left Kagamin to press the offense largely on his own. It wasn't a bad choice, in a lot of ways. Kagamin was a one-man offensive force all in his own right. He certainly didn't seem to be having any problems in going toe-to-toe with Mukkun, meeting him and sinking baskets in spite of Mukkun's dour efforts to block him. His teammates were having less effect on Himuro-san—they were doing a fairly good job of screening him from the ball, but less well when it came to blocking his shots whenever he managed to get the ball anyway. Kagamin's efforts to close the gap in their respective scores was working, but not fast enough. Yousen still had the lead when, close to the end of the quarter, Imayoshi-san tapped their shoulders and told them it was time to go and get changed for their own match. "Not," he said, "that this isn't a fascinating game and all, but we'd best be focusing on our own game."

Dai-chan protested being dragged away from Kagamin's match—"Aw, c'mon, I wanna see what he does to make this happen!" but Imayoshi-san just said, positively soothing, "There'll be other chances for you to watch your little friend play. Get your head in this game, brat."

"It's not like you're going to even let me play," Dai-chan muttered, sulky.

Imayoshi-san cuffed the back of his head. "Stop that. It's not attractive." He turned to Satsuki. "I reckon you'll want to watch the rest of this match yourself?"

It was one part question and one part direction. Satsuki smiled. "If you think you can run the pre-game briefing without me."

He grinned back. "I'll have to soldier on alone, just this once."

Tetsu-kun rolled his eyes at her as Imayoshi-san chivvied the rest of the team off to the locker room to get changed. Satsuki would have stuck her tongue out at him in return, but she had her dignity to consider.

Yousen still had a fourteen-point lead when the quarter ended; Kagamin retreated to his bench and sat there with a towel draped over his head, not moving, as Seihou's coach talked urgently with Iwamura, huddled with their heads close together and gesticulating often. Satsuki focused on Kagamin instead of them, because—she wasn't superstitious, certainly not by Midorin's standards anyway, and she didn't have Dai-chan's instinct for the game or his unshakable faith in Kagamin's ability to dig another unexpected layer out of his boundless talent, but—she could feel a tingle of anticipation nevertheless, could feel that something momentous was about to happen.

The fourth quarter began, not any different from the previous quarter. Yousen got possession of the ball; Seihou kept them from making a basket; Mukkun blocked their three-pointer; Yousen got the ball again and ran a complicated play that passed the ball from player to player, right through the screen to Himuro-san's waiting hands. Himuro-san smiled and stepped back, positioning himself for one of his shots, and then Kagamin was there.

Satsuki felt the breath catch in her throat, because she had seen Kagamin play with broad exuberant grins and with a snarling, fierce concentration, but she'd never seen him look like this, strangely calm and collected, as though he'd stepped out of himself somehow, stepped somewhere beyond his limits and all the normal restraints on his game. He was there when Himuro-san made his shot, hands precisely where they needed to be to intercept the ball. The moment his sneakers met the court again, he blurred into motion, speeding back down the court and evading Yousen's attempts to steal the ball from him as though Yousen's defense weren't even there. He'd been making baskets against Mukkun for two quarters now, but this time he seemed not to even notice Mukkun, floating past him to dunk the ball through the hoop.

Satsuki scrambled for her bag and her coat, scooping them into her arms willy-nilly and lurching out of her seat, desperate to get down to the court for a closer look, and the only coherent thought she had as she stepped over people and navigated around the stunned spectators was that Dai-chan was going to be pissed about having missed seeing this.

By the time she got down to the court, Kagamin had reduced Yousen's lead to a mere two points—Yousen hadn't scored once in the time that it had taken her to get down the stairs and through the hallways beneath the arena. She came out just behind the Yousen team bench and heard one of their reserve players swear as Kagamin made an alley-oop off one of his teammate's shots, bringing Yousen and Seihou's scores even for the first time the entire game. "What the fuck is that?"

Araki-san, Yousen's coach, looked like she wanted to bite something out of sheer frustration, but her tone was brisk, no-nonsense. "It goes by different names, but it's easiest just to call it the zone." On the court, Kagamin blew right past Yousen's attempt to screen him and launched himself into the air from the free-throw line. It was an incredible jump; Seihou's bench roared as he dunked the ball right over Mukkun's head. "It's easiest to think of it as an altered state of consciousness. It allows a player to step outside his ordinary limits and play as if by instinct. Right now, that guy isn't really thinking at all—he doesn't have to. Thinking would only slow him down." Kagamin intercepted another of Himuro-san's mirage shots and provided a screen to allow his captain to make a three-pointer as the clock began to count the final five minutes down. Araki-san clenched her hands on her elbows and her voice went tight. "When a player of that caliber enters the zone, there's almost nothing that can stop him."

On the court, something happened that Satsuki had not seen in a very long time. Mukkun, apparently of his own volition, came away from the net he had defended for the entire game and inserted himself into Yousen's offense without giving any heed to his teammates' surprise. Himuro-san recovered the fastest and yelled to his teammates, rallying them as Kagamin took advantage of the opening to score again. Yousen seized possession of the ball and routed the pass directly to Mukkun, whose speed as he dashed down the court was still astonishing, even though Satsuki knew to expect it. Seihou didn't know to expect it, or seemed not to have believed it was possible for someone that large to move so quickly.

Kagamin, however, was beyond the point of knowing or caring about what was possible and what was not. He matched Mukkun's pace and propelled himself into the air when Mukkun tried for the basket, and that was all he seemed to need to get the ball again. The moment he touched down, he cut around Mukkun, ducking under his reach to race for the other basket, still caught up in that mindless place of instinct. It lent him a faster edge; Mukkun paced him up the court and tried to screen him from the net, but Kagamin changed tactics in mid-air, almost as Dai-chan would have done, and launched a shot that was first cousin to one of Dai-chan's formless shots.

Seihou's bench was still roaring in Kagamin's support and Yousen seemed to have been reduced to sick silence as the minutes slipped past. Kagamin blocked another of Mukkun's plays for the ball, and another, and still yet another, until there were only two and a half minutes on the clock and a solid fifteen-point difference in Seihou and Yousen's scores.

That was when Mukkun walked off the court.

Araki-san called the time-out with commendable speed and immediately rounded on Mukkun, who had already seated himself and was holding a water bottle. "What do you think you're doing?" She'd had most of a year to deal with Mukkun, which was probably why she sounded more resigned than furious. Mukkun did move in mysterious ways.

Mukkun looked up at her, blinking at her almost sleepily. "We're going to lose. What's the point?"

Satsuki saw Araki-san draw a breath, as though she didn't quite know what to say to that. Fortunately for her, she didn't have to—in the next instant, Himuro-san himself was there, pushing past his teammates to seize on Mukkun's shoulders. "What are you doing?" he demanded, voice rising up sharper with every word. "What are you doing, we have a game—"

"There's no point," Mukkun said again, sounding bored. "We're not going to win. There's no way."

"So you're just going to give up?" Himuro-san actually shook Mukkun, possibly because he was so upset that he had no idea what he was doing. "How can you just give up when the game isn't even over yet?"

Mukkun looked more puzzled by the question than anything else, bemused, maybe, by Himuro-san's obvious upset. "But Muro-chin, what do you expect me to do? The game is over."

Himuro-san hit him. "It's not over yet!" Satsuki wasn't close enough to be sure, but it looked like there were tears standing in his eyes. "It's not over until it's over! God, I hate guys like you, you have everything and you don't even want to use it, and it's just not fair—"

Mukkun looked at him as his voice cracked and failed him. He removed Himuro-san's hands from his shoulders and stood up again. "It's only a game," he said. "But if it matters that much to you..."

He stepped back onto the court with nothing more than that; Araki-san jerked her head at the remainder of the team to follow him. Himuro-san went too, dashing a hand across his eyes and settling back into something that almost looked like the smooth, smiling expression he normally wore during his games. The game resumed, and Mukkun—threw himself into it again, playing with as little restraint as Satsuki had ever seen from him, as though the game were something he actually cared about for a change, rather than something he participated in because it was an obligation.

She would not have thought that Mukkun would have developed that kind of camaraderie with his Yousen teammates, but apparently he had.

"I'll be damned," Dai-chan said, right at her shoulder, sounding almost awed. "I never thought I'd see the day."

"Dai-chan!" Satsuki started, then elbowed him in the ribs. "Don't sneak up on people, it's not nice."

He ignored that, all his attention fixed on the court, where Mukkun had just blown past Kagamin and slammed a ball past Seihou's center. "Satsuki, they got Murasakibara to play like he means it."

"They did," Satsuki agreed, watching the game. Seihou still had the lead and Kagamin, but he'd been in the zone for several minutes and that time-out couldn't have helped. He wasn't flagging—Kagamin didn't even know what that meant and would play until he fell over if he could—but Mukkun was playing with his full power now, with everything he could do, though for once it didn't seem like he was doing it to crush an opponent he found annoying. Perhaps that was what made the difference, because it almost looked as though he was enjoying himself as he and Kagamin struggled together and Yousen's score began to move again, creeping up on Seihou's lead as the clock ticked down.

Satsuki chewed on her lip as the clock counted down and clutched at Dai-chan's hand when Mukkun blew past Kagamin and Tsugawa to sink another basket and then was there to block Kagamin again when he tried to return the favor—Mukkun looked almost as intent as Kagamin did. Dai-chan gripped her hand almost absently and yelled when Kagamin got possession of the ball again, nabbing it from Himuro-san when he made another of those mirage shots. He drove back down the court with it, to where Mukkun loomed up before him to block him. Kagamin feinted once and then again, cutting past Mukkun on the third movement and launching himself at the basket, sailing through the air and dunking the ball home as the buzzer sounded.

Satsuki shrieked just as loudly as anyone on the Seihou bench as the score flipped over and the game ended with Seihou still squarely in the lead. Dai-chan whooped, too. It earned both of them dirty looks from the Yousen bench, but that was understandable under the circumstances.

Belatedly, Satsuki glanced at Dai-chan. "What are you doing here?"

"I told him to go on ahead of us," Imayoshi-san drawled from right behind them. He gave Dai-chan a pointed look. "He was making a nuisance of himself. As much as I hate to reward bad behavior, I also need to finish going over our game plan."

"Dai-chan." Satsuki let go of his hand and whacked his shoulder. "Honestly."

He didn't look the least bit sorry. "Totally worth it," he proclaimed while Seihou celebrated and Yousen tried to compose themselves. Himuro-san was standing close to Mukkun, who looked—shocked, perhaps. Certainly surprised, as if something had just happened that he did not fully understand.

Kagamin looked sort of dazed, too, like someone rising from an immersion in deep water and dazed to see the sun again. Imayoshi-san stepped forward and looked down at her, eyebrows drifting up. "So how did Seihou turn this one around? I'm dying of curiosity."

"Kagamin found the zone," Satsuki said. On the court, Kagamin shook his head, maybe to clear it, and looked towards Himuro-san, who was preoccupied with Mukkun and didn't see.

Imayoshi-san hummed. "For the first time, I gather?" He smiled when she nodded. "Reckon that'll make the next game he plays an interesting one."

He didn't clarify what he meant by that, but this was hardly the time to be focusing on Kagamin. Seihou and Yousen cleared the court and Touou took their half to begin warming up for the match against Oji. Satsuki made herself forget about Kagamin and took her place on the bench with Harasawa-kantoku, focusing on what was to come. Oji had played the previous day's match precisely as she'd expected they would, and would no doubt do the same again for this match. They were competent players with a solid grasp of strategy, but they were not particularly innovative players.

Perhaps it was just as well that Touou had drawn them for quarterfinals. No one on the team had more than a few nasty bruises, despite Kirisaki Daiichi's best efforts, but a day to rest those and to learn to work through and around them before they went up against Seihou was no bad thing.

Even if Dai-chan did grumble about sitting it out as Masuda and Tsuda winnowed through Oji's game like the pair of holy terrors they were. "I didn't take all that much damage yesterday," he muttered while the two of them coordinated a complicated pass route through Oji's defense that put the ball in Hiyama's hands. Hiyama made the shot and everyone cheered.

"Save your strength," Susa told him. "You'll want to be ready for Seihou."

Satsuki cast him a grateful look as Dai-chan immediately perked up; Susa merely nodded to her and went back to watching the game.

To their credit, Oji put up a solid fight right to the end and held their heads high when the final buzzer sounded and the dust began to settle. The rest of the team thanked them for the game and headed back to the locker-room in a state of general satisfaction—not that Satsuki could blame them for it. Playing a nice, clean game did get the taste of that poisonous game against Kirisaki Daiichi out of her mouth. Plus, tomorrow would be the semifinals and Seihou, and that would be a good game.

She took up her station to wait for the boys to get changed for the trip home and pulled up the early reports about the rest of quarterfinals to see how they had gone. Rakuzan and Kaijou had won their respective matches, precisely as she had expected, even though Kaijou had chosen not to put Ki-chan in for their match. She'd expected that, too, though it worried her a little to be right. It was almost certain to be Rakuzan in the finals, unless she'd misinterpreted her data.

She really didn't think she'd done that, however. Well, Touou played first tomorrow. If everything went well, she'd have plenty of opportunity to see what would come of Rakuzan and Kaijou's match after that. Before then, there was Seihou to consider, with Kagamin's newfound ability to drop himself into the zone plus whatever else Seihou had in store for them. There would be something, she was sure of it, she just didn't know what

She didn't realize that she was frowning at her phone until Dai-chan dropped an arm around her shoulder and said, "Don't you know that if you make faces like that, your face might get stuck that way?"

She elbowed him absently, for all the good it did her. "Oh, is that what happened to you? I've always wondered." She tucked her phone away as Dai-chan laughed and looked around for Tetsu-kun—there he was at Dai-chan's elbow, like always. "Are we ready?"

"Whenever you are," Tetsu-kun agreed, so Satsuki put her worries to the side and let the boys distract her for the duration of the trip home.

Part Four

Satsuki rubbed her eyes, trying to blink the gritty, sandy feeling out of them. When she took her hand away, Imayoshi-san was dangling a can of coffee in front of her nose. She accepted it gratefully and cracked it open as he sauntered around the table and dropped himself into his customary seat. He tilted the chair back, balancing it on the rear legs, and cast a quizzical smile her way. "I gather that the candle burns at both ends."

"You could say that," Satsuki agreed, thinking ruefully of how late she'd been up working on all Seihou's data, poring over it for signs of what might be waiting for them in the semifinals. And, of course, there had been Rakuzan's game to look at in anticipation of the finals as well, plus the forum maintenance and oh yes, her homework, too. It was a bit of a miracle that she'd gotten any sleep at all.

Imayoshi-san studied her from across the table as she sipped her coffee, hot and bitter as a necessary evil. "I wonder sometimes what we did to earn such dedication." He paused. "Or perhaps what Aomine-kun did, I should say."

Satsuki glanced at the time, but there were still a few minutes before they might expect Harasawa-kantoku to come in. He seemed to run perpetually late for strategy meetings these days. "What makes you so dedicated to the club?" she asked him, by way of a reply.

He lifted his eyebrows over the frames of his glasses, laughing at the way she'd turned the question around on him. "An unexpected streak of masochism, I think. Some days, anyway."

That was no kind of an answer, so Satsuki shrugged at him and cradled her coffee under her chin. "I guess I could say the same, if that's how you're going to be about it."

He laughing, tipping his head to her to acknowledge the shot. "I like it," he said after a moment. "The game itself and what it demands of us to play it. The challenge to the player to always be a little better, a little faster, a little stronger, and the challenge to the team, all those moving parts fitting together with one thing in mind. And I like the intellectual challenge of keeping all those parts moving and figuring out what our opponents are going to try and throw at us next." He fell silent, looking more reflective than usual, or maybe simply allowing that to show for once, before he lifted his eyebrows again, this time expectant.

"It was self-defense at first," Satsuki admitted. "Dai-chan and I have been friends almost as long as I can remember. He's been playing basketball for almost as long, and I had to learn the game if I wanted to keep up with him." She smiled, thinking back on it. "I'd play myself if I were a better athlete, but I'm really not all that good at it. I'm not enough like Tetsu-kun to keep practicing until I get better, either. But I am good at strategy and analysis, and I like figuring out how the players on a team fit together and how they're going to develop their games. When I can put that together into something the team can use... it's almost as good as being on the court itself."

Imayoshi-san blinked, slow and surprised. "I don't see how there's any almost about it. Way I figure it, you're as necessary as any other member of this team."

It was hardly the first time he'd said something in that vein, but it still caught her somewhere under her ribs to hear that. Satsuki looked down, perfectly aware that it wasn't likely that the gesture would keep someone as acute as Imayoshi-san from seeing what that kind of open avowal meant to her. "Thank you, Imayoshi-san."

"You don't have to thank me for telling you the obvious," he said, but his tone was gentler than usual.

Satsuki thought about disputing that, but before she could figure out how to explain how different it was to play for Touou compared to Teikou's machine, Harasawa-kantoku came in and it was time to get down to business. But then, she thought, it seemed like Imayoshi-san already had some idea of what that difference was, so maybe it wasn't necessary to say anything out loud.

"The thing we're going to need to be most careful about in this match is overconfidence," Imayoshi-san said at the end of the team meeting before the semifinals.

Satsuki bit the inside of her cheek to keep from giggling when everyone in the room immediately turned to look at Dai-chan, who said, "What are you all looking at me like that for? It's not overconfidence if you really are that good."

"I rest my case," Imayoshi-san said even as Tetsu-kun jabbed Dai-chan a good one in the kidney. "Yes, we've played Seihou before and won against them, but that doesn't have anything to do with the game we're about to play. Do not assume that we're going to get out there and win again, because there's no guarantee that we will. Seihou is going to want to pay us back for the Interhigh, and I for one don't mean to let them do it."

It seemed to have the effect he wanted; everyone stood a little straighter and looked a little more determined. Imayoshi-san glanced around at them and nodded. "All right. Let's get out there and do this."

Dai-chan was first out the door, but then, he'd been excited all day, looking forward to a game with Kagamin. Tetsu-kun followed at a much more sedate pace, but Satsuki thought that he looked eager as well—eager to finally play against Kagamin himself after months of watching Dai-chan and Kagamin play against each other.

Satsuki was sort of looking forward to that herself.

The day of rest had done a lot of good, she thought, watching the team as they moved into their warm-ups. No one's bruises seemed to be causing trouble. Dai-chan was pretty well frisking across the court, maybe just because he could or maybe because he wanted to get Kagamin's attention. Seihou also looked like it was in good form after their match against Yousen. Everything looked like she'd expected it to, and she hoped that meant that everything Seihou threw at them would fit into her calculations.

"We'll start the game with the usual suspects," Imayoshi-san had said while they were planning out their strategy, which meant that Tetsu-kun took his place on the bench next to her for the first quarter. "Way I figure it, we'll spend the first quarter getting the measure of one another while Aomine-kun and Kagami-kun amuse themselves with each other."

It unfolded more or less as he had predicted it would. Seihou was a team primarily given to defense, preferring to keep their opponents from scoring rather than to aim at racking up more points than their opponents. Kagamin's presence in their club must have come as a shock to them all, Satsuki mused, because if anyone subscribed to the philosophy that the best defense was a good offense, it was Kagamin. Seihou's first quarter plays were largely conservative, but as she'd seen in their other games, they had adapted many of their plays to account for Kagamin's unrelenting drive for the ball and the net. Many of their plays seemed to culminate in a pass to Kagamin's hands and then Kagamin's rush for the hoop and those incredible jumps of his. It had been an effective strategy for most of the tournament, to be sure, and remained so even now, but there was also Dai-chan to consider.

"He seems to be enjoying himself," Tetsu-kun noted as Dai-chan ducked and wove around Seihou's center and evaded Kagamin in order to lob the ball behind the backboard in order to sink the shot. His tone was dry enough, but when Satsuki risked taking her eyes off the court long enough for a quick glance his way, his expression was anything but.

"Yes," Satsuki said for lack of anything better she could say when they were courtside and in the middle of semifinals. "He certainly does." And really, that was all either of the really needed to say when they had both been there to watch Dai-chan's slide into despair. Watching him playing now, whole-heartedly, all but romping through the first quarter and laughing just as much when Kagamin was there to stop one of his shots as he did when he made a basket—it was enough to wipe away the old fears that still haunted Satsuki from time to time. She hoped it was the same for Tetsu-kun.

The first quarter went largely in Touou's favor, ending with their leading by a solid eleven points. Satsuki thought that was probably due to the cautious, testing way Iwamura had conducted Seihou's game, as though he was feeling Touou out or trying to lull them into a sense of security, perhaps. During the interval, Imayoshi-san glanced at her with raised eyebrows. She said, "So far they've been playing exactly as we expected them too. No new plays, nothing that hasn't already shown up in their other games."

"All right. I reckon they'll want to go ahead and make their move this quarter, then." Imayoshi-san rubbed his chin. "They'll want to turn the flow of the game around before halftime and demoralize us. Look sharp, people."

Satsuki glanced at the team, but everyone seemed to be alert and ready. They returned to the court, not quite swaggering, but close enough. She gripped the edges of her clipboard and sat up straighter, taking a deep breath to prepare herself, and focused on the court at the quarter began.

During the first quarter, Touou had played as normal, had used their experience with Seihou's plays and the swift edge of their training to good advantage. The first two minutes of the second quarter passed in the same way: Dai-chan and Kagamin ranged up and down the court in an extended one-on-one, trading the ball and goals back and forth while the rest of their teams maneuvered around them, Iwamura directing his plays and Imayoshi-san countering them smoothly. Then, just after the two-minute mark, Seihou's game shifted entirely as their players fanned out into a familiar pattern, one that should have been a pass routed from Iwamura to Sakamoto while Tsugawa screened Wakamatsu and Kagamin fended off Dai-chan. Instead Iwamura sent the ball screaming right past Tsugawa, into Kasuga's waiting hands, and Kasuga made a three-pointer right past Susa's guard.

Satsuki exhaled then. "Here we go," she said out loud, gluing her eyes to the court and trying to fix every detail into her memory for consideration during halftime. That was not a play that Seihou had ever used in one of its games before this one, and this was exactly what she'd been afraid would happen. They'd won against Seihou during the Interhigh prelims by analyzing the patterns of their plays, and Seihou had been perfectly aware of precisely how they'd been countered. They'd done what was only logical and come up with new plays, which they were debuting now.

"It would be boring if it were too easy," Harasawa-kantoku reminded her while the team rallied almost instantly, having prepared themselves for this eventuality. Dai-chan was laughing as he dodged around Kagamin, stepping his game up so smoothly that it looked effortless, and drove himself faster, moving between Iwamura and Tsugawa and handling the ball like he and it were a part of each other. Kagamin kept pace with him and was there when Dai-chan lobbed the ball into the basket.

Seihou was good—they had to be when they were one of the three kings of Tokyo—and Satsuki chewed on her lip till it stung as the quarter ground on. It looked liked they'd built these new plays from the ground up, instead of relying on the more familiar patterns that had made the base for the plays they had been accustomed to using. Prudent of them, really, to assume that Touou would be able to read any of the plays based on their old moves. They didn't bother trying to hold Kagamin back and let him and Dai-chan keep each other occupied, and busied themselves with keeping the ball out of the rest of Touou's hands for the remainder of the quarter, until they pulled even with Touou's score and then, point by point, crept ahead. They had taken the lead and kept it by the time the quarter ended and halftime began.

Dai-chan was the only one in their locker room who didn't seem particularly worried by this fact. He took possession of the box of honey lemons with a cheerful air while Satsuki bent her head over the whiteboard that Harasawa-kantoku had packed, sketching out what she remembered of Seihou's new plays and comparing it to what he had seen. Tetsu-kun sat with them, checking their work, and Imayoshi-san countered the running analysis with his own observations from the court. Harasawa-kantoku rumpled his hair and made thoughtful noises while they cobbled together hasty countermeasures. Ten minutes simply wasn't enough time; Satsuki couldn't help worrying over that even while they were in the middle of making their plans—what if this weren't enough? What if they couldn't find a way to get around Seihou's game and washed out of the tournament before they could get to the finals?

She wasn't the only one who was worried; Wakamatsu was frustrated, too, and gave vent to it in his usual fashion: "How can you be so frigging happy about this?" he snarled at Dai-chan. "They're ahead of us!"

Dai-chan looked up at him, blinking at the way Wakamatsu was looming. "Yeah, but we haven't really started to play yet."

Susa laid a hand on Wakamatsu's shoulder, which was good of him—it wouldn't do for Wakamatsu to throttle Dai-chan before the game was over. Wakamatsu sputtered. "What the fuck does that mean?"

Dai-chan shrugged. "We were letting them show us what they've got, right?" He glanced her way and waved a hand at their whiteboard. "Now we know, and we can show 'em what we've got." He rubbed the back of his neck. "And Kagami still hasn't pushed me all the way yet. It'll be fine."

Imayoshi-san rolled his eyes to the ceiling. "I would swear that you weren't even listening to what I had to say about overconfidence," he said before taking up the whiteboard. "All right, children, gather round. Here's what we're gonna do."

Between their hasty analysis and the rapid strategy session, the break sped by entirely too fast. No one objected to it when Imayoshi-san nodded to Tetsu-kun to join them on the court for the second half. Well, they'd seen what Tetsu-kun could do now. What he and Dai-chan could do together.

Satsuki did her best not to fret as they returned to the court, but despite Dai-chan's confidence, she'd also seen what Kagamin could do—what he was capable of becoming—and he and Dai-chan were getting so close.

Dai-chan paused before stepping back onto the court and bumped his shoulder against hers. "Stop worrying so much," he told her. "Me and Tetsu, we got this. Right, Tetsu?"

Tetsu-kun glanced up from where he was adjusting his wristbands. He'd been Dai-chan's friend first, and Da-chan still knew him the best, but Satsuki could read some of the things on his face despite that—the way that surprised him even now, the pleasure he took from hearing it, and other things that were more private. "I suppose we do," he said after a measured moment, and then he lifted his fist and offered it to Dai-chan.

If it registered with Dai-chan that this was the first time Tetsu-kun had offered a fistbump since Teikou, he didn't show it. He grinned and bumped his fist against Tetsu-kun's. "So let's do this thing."

Kagamin seemed a little bit surprised when Tetsu-kun stepped onto the court, and the rest of Seihou seemed equally puzzled—one benefit of having held Tetsu-kun so much in reserve for this tournament. It wasn't an advantage that they'd be able to keep forever, but it was still a useful one for the time being. Satsuki curled her fingers around her clipboard and smiled as Tetsu-kun slipped into the game, weaving himself into Touou's plays like the shadow he sometimes still claimed to be, and smiled even harder the first time he insinuated himself into one of Seihou's plays to divert the ball to Imayoshi-san for a three-pointer—the first points of the second half. Seihou looked baffled by how that had happened, not sure what was going on, but rallied quickly. Satsuki had to approve the general professionalism of that, even if it was currently an obstacle in their path.

Kagamin was the first to pull himself together after the initial surprise of it, shaking off the disconcertion that came of Tetsu-kun's ability to misdirect his opponents' attention from his presence. It was probably because he'd had the chance to watch Tetsu-kun play against Dai-chan in the months since their reconciliation. Kagamin might have played on intuition rather than analysis, but that didn't mean that his instincts weren't good. When Tetsu-kun diverted another of Seihou's passes and sent it screaming down the court, right into Dai-chan's waiting hands, Kagamin's indignation was clearly audible: "You've been holding out on me!"

Dai-chan was still laughing when he dropped from the hoop back down to the court. Satsuki didn't have to be able to hear him to know what he told Kagamin then. Knowing Dai-chan, it was either a boast or a challenge or, most likely of all, both, something brimful of Dai-chan's cheerful arrogance.

It must have made Kagamin see red, because he threw himself into the game after that, pouring himself into his pursuit of Dai-chan and the ball and dragging the rest of his team along with him for the ride. It was enough to make Harasawa-kantoku suck on his teeth. "Haven't they taught that boy anything about restraint?"

"I really don't think that's a part of Kagamin's vocabulary." She didn't want to take her eyes off the court, but she did smile. "They're probably wondering the same thing about you and Dai-chan."

Harasawa-kantoku huffed a short laugh, conceding the point, because Dai-chan had responded to Kagamin's challenge the way he always did, lighting up like he couldn't imagine anything better than the game he was playing, like it was the best thing in the world—the only thing in the world. And this time he had Tetsu-kun with him, playing in perfect sync with him, always there to put the ball into his hands at precisely the right moment.

Touou regained the points they'd lost during the second quarter, drawing even with Seihou again and then pulling ahead by one point, two, then five, while Kagamin pushed himself hard to keep up and the rest of his team did their best to figure out how Tetsu-kun was managing to intercept so many of their passes. Kagamin was evolving again, right before their eyes, always a little bit faster than Satsuki's calculations could account for—but Dai-chan was still there to meet him no matter how high he jumped or how fast he moved. When he was not, Tetsu-kun was in place to turn the ball aside, into Touou's hands instead.

Kagamin looked very frustrated during the interval between the third and fourth quarters, glaring at the court fiercely while Seihou conferred amongst itself.

"Why doesn't he just use the zone again?" Sakurai wondered at the start of the fourth quarter.

"It's not as easy as that," Harasawa-kantoku said, his eyes on the game. "For most players, slipping into the zone isn't something they can do at will. It's an unconscious thing that happens when they're the most relaxed and at ease." He nodded at the court and Kagamin's evident frustration as Dai-chan faded back instead of cutting around him and sank the basket. "Right now he's probably thinking that himself, telling himself that if only he could reach the zone again, he'd have something to counter us. He's tensing himself up the more he strains after it, and so he's farther away from the zone now than ever."

That was why Imayoshi-san had said that he'd have an interesting time in his next game, of course. Sakurai whistled through his teeth, then cheered when Tetsu-kun intercepted another pass and got the ball to Wakamatsu for a shot at the basket.

Touou kept its lead and increased it, even as Seihou began to figure out how to keep track of Tetsu-kun as they grew accustomed to his presence on the court. By the time there were only five minutes on the clock, Kagamin looked ready to chew glass. That was when Dai-chan paused on his way back up the court to say something to him.

Harasawa-kantoku made an exasperated sound. "Now what is he doing?"

Kagamin blinked at Dai-chan, looking struck and surprised. He shook his head, still blinking, and something went out of his shoulders, some tension he'd been carrying since Tetsu-kun and Dai-chan had started showing off.

Satsuki sighed, resigned. "He probably told Kagamin to relax and loosen up and just enjoy the damn game." Because that was Dai-chan all over; even now, his first priority was still the challenge.

"He couldn't have waited until after the game?"

"It wouldn't have even occurred to him," Satsuki said, rueful, watching Kagamin shake off his frustration and drop himself back into the game, playing with the abandon that she was used to seeing in his and Dai-chan's Sunday games, moving free and easy and relaxed, even when Dai-chan made another basket. The clock was ticking down; even with the hint, there was no guarantee that Kagamin would be able to slip into the zone—

Even as she thought it, Kagamin's posture shifted again, his expression clearing as he moved to anticipate Susa's feint. He got the ball, evading Wakamatsu's attempt to screen him and flowing into that smooth run that was Seihou's characteristic. Harasawa-kantoku sank both hands into his hair and groaned.

"Wait," Satsuki told him, soft, watching the grin bloom across Dai-chan's face as Kagamin blurred past him. "Most players can't enter the zone at will."

But Dai-chan wasn't like most players.

He was already there when Kagamin launched himself at the net from the free-throw line, the grin falling off his face to be replaced by pure intent. He took possession of the ball and for a moment, he and Kagamin paused, watching each other. Who could say what moves were already playing out behind their eyes as they read each other's games? Then Dai-chan moved, cutting around Kagamin, and the game resumed again, shifting to a level that struck Satsuki breathless as she watched them, because their game was so much beyond the level of ordinary high-school players. This was why they'd been called Miracles at Teikou, and if Dai-chan was miraculous then so was Kagamin, and no matter that his game was still forming itself. This was what Dai-chan had spent all that time waiting for, what he'd nearly lost hope of ever finding, and Satsuki could only be grateful that he'd met Kagamin when he had, before the despair that he'd been fighting had overwhelmed him entirely. Kagamin was someone who could match Dai-chan, someone with as much boundless talent as Dai-chan himself, and one of these days fairly soon, Kagamin was going to beat Dai-chan and the real challenge would begin.

Today was not that day, because as good as Seihou was—and they were very good—they did not have a Tetsu-kun of their very own. Or rather, Kagamin didn't have a partner like Tetsu-kun, someone to fall into sync with, someone he could trust to get him the ball whenever he needed it, someone he could pass the ball to in the perfect assurance that he would be there to receive it and get it to his teammates. Dai-chan did have Tetsu-kun, or perhaps Tetsu-kun had him, and that tipped the balance in Touou's favor and let Dai-chan make the final basket of the game to give Touou the victory.

Satsuki came to her feet, shrieking just like the rest of the team, and on the court Dai-chan threw an arm around Tetsu-kun's shoulders, laughing clear and bright, when the other three descended on them to pound their backs and ruffle their hair. Seihou surrounded Kagamin, who looked stunned as he came down from the zone, as if he was waking up. He was too proud to tear up—all of Seihou was too proud for that—but his jaw was tight when they lined up to exchange thanks. Well, who could begrudge him that? Seihou wasn't going to the finals, and they were.

He said something to Dai-chan before he left the court; Dai-chan grinned at him and punched his shoulder. Kagamin nodded, a wry smile touching his mouth, before nodding and following his team off the court.

Imayoshi-san was lying in wait for Dai-chan as they cleared the court for Kaijou and Rakuzan's warm-up; he was smiling blandly when he reached up to seize Dai-chan by the ear. He ignored all of Dai-chan's protests as he dragged him to their locker room. Satsuki followed along, fascinated by this turn of events, and ignored the stifled yelps and the flashes of skin when she sailed into the locker room after them.

Imayoshi-san released Dai-chan and pushed him down to a handy bench while Dai-chan complained and rubbed his ear resentfully. "I believe in good sportsmanship and fair play as much as the next guy," he said, hands on his hips and clearly aggravated. "But would you mind telling me why you couldn't have waited until after the game to give your charming little playmate that hint about his game?"

Dai-chan left off rubbing his ear and looked up at Imayoshi-san like he didn't understand the question. "It made the game better," he said after a moment to consider it. Then he grinned. "Didn't you tell me that style counts?"

Imayoshi-san stared down at Dai-chan in silence for a moment, then squeezed his eyes shut and slid his fingers under his glasses to grip the bridge of his nose. "If there is any justice in this universe, brat, it will see to it that someday you end up with a kouhai who is just like you, and I just hope that I'll be around to point and laugh when that happens." He opened his eyes and pointed at Dai-chan. "New team rule: no more giving our opponents freebies while we are in the middle of the damn game, you hear?"

"It did make the game better," Dai-chan muttered, sulky. He squawked when Imayoshi-san reached down to smack the back of his head. "Okay! Okay, all right, no more freebies in games, I got it."

"Good." Imayoshi-san turned away from him, reaching a hand back over his head to yank his jersey off, which gave Satsuki an excellent view of the sleek movement of the muscles under his skin. Then he stopped and looked around. "What are you all standing around for? We've got a match to go watch. Hurry up and get dressed already."

Wakamatsu, who was clutching a bundle of clothes in front of him, cleared his throat. "Uh. We kind of... can't." When Imayoshi-san glanced at him, he nodded in Satsuki's direction.

Imayoshi-san looked around and raised his eyebrows slowly. "Was there something you needed, Momoi-chan?"

A girl couldn't spend years being Dai-chan's best friend without learning a few things about brazening it out. Satsuki flashed a smile at him. "No, I've seen enough, thanks."

If she wasn't mistaken, Imayoshi-san nearly laughed at that. There was certainly a certain quiver to his voice when he said, "In that case, would you mind?"

"Well, if you insist." She beamed at the team impartially and went out to go find them all seats for the upcoming match.

Kaijou had Ki-chan on the court, warming up with the rest of his teammates, but that didn't have to mean anything in particular. It looked like he was moving easily enough, but that didn't mean anything either—anyone could work through the undemanding motions of warm-ups without straining themselves. It was the strain of playing a full match that would stress injuries, and Satsuki was really very much afraid that Ki-chan had strained himself even before his match against Haizaki.

He almost shouldn't be playing in this match, but the real question was whether Kaijou would have any choice in the matter once Rakuzan took the court.

Akashi was warming up with his team. Satsuki hadn't heard that he'd objected to anyone's opposing him through this tournament—at least not by putting them on their knees. As far as she knew, Imayoshi-san had been the last person he'd tried that on. He paused occasionally in his warm-ups to gaze at Kaijou's half-court, as though he were sizing them up and calculating what moves they would make in the coming game. He'd always been good at that, even before their second year, when the Miracles had first begun to bloom.

The rest of the team joined her by the time the warming-up period had ended. They jostled their way into their seats, arguing (Wakamatsu and Dai-chan) or apologizing for their passage (Sakurai) or silently (Tetsu-kun and Susa) while Imayoshi-san herded them along. "Well," he said, leaning down from the seat behind Satsuki's, "how are we looking?"

Satsuki turned in her seat and shrugged. "I'm not expecting any surprises." It was as diplomatic a way of saying that this match was nearly a foregone conclusion that she knew."

Imayoshi-san hummed. "We ought to always be open to surprises, Momoi-chan. They're what keeps life interesting."

Satsuki frowned at him, wondering what he thought he was up to, or maybe what he thought Kaijou was going to pull out of thin air, but elected not to challenge him on it. In either case, the game was about to begin and there was no point in dickering over it when she could just be patient and see for herself.

She couldn't help being struck by the difference in watching this game with the team and the way they'd been watching the match between Seihou and Yousen the day before. Then there had been horseplay and casual arguments and the normal friendly wrangling back and forth, but as Rakuzan and Kaijou took the court for tip-off, everyone settled down into attentive silence, focusing all their attention on the court. That was what came of having a score to settle, she supposed. They had more important things on their minds than the usual intramural bickering.

Kaijou had Ki-chan in their starting line-up, and it looked like he might have tried to give Akashi a friendly greeting, at least until Akashi ignore the offered hand and said something, brief, to him. Then Ki-chan withdrew his hand and straightened his shoulders, unveiling his serious side. He looked about as grimly determined as his captain, or when he had played against Dai-chan at the Interhigh.

It didn't matter much. Kaijou was good, a whole team full of players who knew the game inside and out and with Ki-chan to supplement that experience with his ability to copy any player's moves—any player, Satsuki saw when he managed to sink a three-pointer from the half-court just as neatly as Midorin might have done, and when he contrived to mimic Mukkun's looming presence beneath the basket—but Rakuzan had Akashi and Mibuchi and Hayama and Nebuya. That counted for a lot. Hayama was ridiculously fast on the court, contriving to run rings around Kaijou, and Mibuchi was a genius for placing himself where he could interfere with Kaijou's passes and collect free throws, and Nebuya defended the net with single-minded intensity.

And then there was Akashi, who was better at reading the game and his opponents' moves in advance than anyone else Satsuki had ever seen. As good as Ki-chan was, and he was amazing in this game, like he'd had some break-through in the twenty-four hours since the game against Fukuda Sougou, the last barrier between his game and the rest of the Generation of Miracles having fallen, as good as he was, he could not be everywhere on the court at once. Neither could Akashi, but then, Akashi didn't have to be.

Rakuzan took the lead right away and held it through the first quarter and into the second quarter, when Takeuchi called a time-out and substituted a player for Ki-chan. Then Rakuzan's lead began to increase, building steadily against Kaijou's steadfast efforts to check their offensive plays and to drive past their defense.

When the buzzer went at halftime, Rakuzan was so far ahead that there were people in the stands who stood up and put on their coats to leave.

Next to her, Dai-chan hissed a breath through his teeth. "Is it gonna help to save Kise for the last quarter?"

"They might not have any choice," Satsuki said, thinking over the way Ki-chan had thrown himself into the first quarter. "If they want to be able to play him later..."

Dai-chan grunted. "God, he's such an idiot."

"Kise-kun has worked very hard to catch up," Tetsu-kun murmured.

Dai-chan grunted again and slouched in his seat, and Satsuki supposed he was right—there wasn't anything more they could say about that.

Kaijou must have known how grim their chances were when the second half started, but there was no telling it from their faces when they returned to the court. They merely looked determined and jumped right into the third quarter, playing hard and pushing back against Rakuzan's game despite the fact that Rakuzan's score only continued to climb higher. Satsuki frowned, watching them—she was going to have to rewatch the game footage to be sure, but she thought... yes, she was almost sure of it. Kaijou was pushing Rakuzan hard, hard enough to force the Uncrowned Generals into showing their hands just a little. If Hayama wasn't using a faster dribble than he had in the first half and Mibuchi wasn't having to step sharp to interfere with Kaijou's plays and cause them to commit those fouls—well, she'd be surprised. "Kaijou is very good," she said quietly as Rakuzan took another free throw off Kaijou.

And on the bench, Ki-chan seemed to be remonstrating with his coach, who was frowning and shaking his head. Ki-chan continued to talk, undeterred, gesticulating. He flung a hand out to point at the scoreboard and Rakuzan's forty-point lead. Takeuchi-san shook his head again. Satsuki half-expected Ki-chan's next act would be to turn on the waterworks, but he didn't. He just twisted his hands together, and even from the stands, Satsuki could make out the shape of the words please and they're my team on his lips.

Takeuchi-san looked loath to call the time-out for the substitution, but he did it, and Ki-chan returned to the court with a minute left on the third-quarter clock.

He made it count for a lot—fifteen points by himself as he blurred into motion, sometimes reflecting the formless shape of Dai-chan's game and sometimes Hayama's superfast plays, once something that looked a bit like a move that Satsuki had only seen in a recorded game from a year ago, once a mirage shot rather like Himuro's, and that wasn't even counting the assists or the times he interposed himself between Rakuzan's offense and the net, looming up like a shorter, blonder version of Mukkun or jumping like Kagamin to swat the ball out of Mibuchi's hands.

Dai-chan made a satisfied sound. "Now that's more like it." He nudged her while Satsuki watched Akashi studying Ki-chan during the break. "You think he'd be up for matches against Kagami, too?"

A person had to be impressed by just how single-minded Dai-chan could be. It was either that or strangle him for it. "Let me get back to you on that," Satsuki said. "And I have to go with you if you play him." Ki-chan might be more sensible than Kagamin when it came to playing with an injury, but she wouldn't have cared to bet on it if Dai-chan was the one doing the asking.

"You never let me have any fun," he grumbled, but it sounded like it was mostly for form's sake.

"That's because I know how you can be, Dai-chan." Not even he could argue with that.

Ki-chan and Kaijou were amazing in the fourth quarter, even though they had to have realized that Rakuzan was going to win the game. They didn't let that stop them. Ki-chan didn't even allow it to slow him down, and for the first time since Satsuki had seen him take up the game of basketball, he showed a hint of how terrifying he was going to be as a player. It wasn't in the fact that he'd pushed himself to the point of being able to copy the things the other Miracles could do so much as what he was beginning to be able to do with his copied techniques. For the first time, Ki-chan was beginning to show a sense of strategy in the way he used the skills he'd acquired from the other players, moving in sync with the other members of his team to route plays around Rakuzan's defense and to take possession back even when Akashi's ability to forecast their plays kept them from scoring.

With another year's experience, Ki-chan was going to be incredibly difficult to beat.

When the game ended, Rakuzan had won, but by much narrower margin than was usual for them. They'd doubled the scores of most of their other opponents in the tournament, after all, and this time they'd won by a bare twenty-point margin. Not that Satsuki supposed that was any comfort to Kaijou when they lined up to thank Rakuzan for the game, though they were all too proud to show their disappointment openly.

And that was that.

"All right, kids," Imayoshi-san said as they filed out. "Everyone get a good night's rest, and we'll see you tomorrow afternoon for the planning session." He paused and glanced at Satsuki. "That goes for you too, Momoi-chan. Make sure you get some sleep tonight."

Satsuki was quite sure that he didn't believe her for a moment when she said, "Yes, of course, Imayoshi-san." But then, she didn't have to be in the same kind of fighting form that the rest of the team did.

The boys spent the trip home talking over the game with her; Dai-chan was practically bouncing in his seat over Ki-chan's breakthrough and still riding the high off his game against Kagamin—"By the way," she asked him, reminded. "What did he say to you after the match ended? I couldn't hear."

Dai-chan shrugged. "He told me that he was gonna beat me one of these days. Which, yeah, of course he is." He scratched his cheek. "Don't think it's gonna be long now."

Tetsu-kun went quiet the closer they got to home, looking inward and probably thinking about the match against Rakuzan to come. Well, they were all thinking about that, of course. He did rouse himself from his thoughts at the corner where they went their separate ways. "Don't forget to follow our captain's orders tonight," he reminded her, straight-faced. "You wouldn't want to disappoint him."

"Perish the thought." Satsuki laughed at Tetsu-kun's clear amusement and waved at him as he turned his steps towards home.

Dai-chan looked a bit puzzled by the exchange. "Doesn't Imayoshi-san know by now that you're not going to sleep when there's data to go through?"

There were times when Satsuki really wondered how he could be so oblivious, but then, he hadn't figured out where things between him and Tetsu-kun stood, either. Perhaps it stood to reason. "I suppose he would rather not see me yawning while I watch you beat Rakuzan tomorrow."

He scoffed immediately. "Like a game I'm in could ever be that boring."

One of these days, hopefully very soon, she was going to have an awfully good time breaking the news to Dai-chan and watching him short-circuit. In the meantime she reached up to pat his shoulder. "Of course not, Dai-chan. And I'm really looking forward to it." And if she had multiple reasons for that, well. He didn't have to know that.

Part Five

There was already a can of coffee waiting for her when she arrived for their strategy meeting. Satsuki smiled at Imayoshi-san and reflected on how nice it was to know someone with an eye for the little details.

He squinted at her in return. "Tell me, did you sleep at all last night?"

"I took a nap around four," she confessed, which drove his eyebrows right up his forehead. "I'll catch up starting tonight. A couple nights of short sleep won't kill me." Besides, she was running on adrenaline and anticipation, keyed up for the evening's match.

Imayoshi-san regarded her, thoughtful. "I really can't help wondering what it is that makes you go to such lengths for us."

It was like, and not like, the question he'd asked her the day before. Satsuki took a drink of her coffee and busied herself unpacking her binder and extracting the reports that she'd compiled on Rakuzan. "Teikou didn't really need me to do this kind of thing." She straightened the stack of papers, tapping the edges against the table to neaten them up. "They had a whole staff of coaches to do this kind of work for them, and that's where I learned how to research opponents and plan for games. But they didn't really need me to do it. For one thing, the boys were already too strong." She looked up; he was watching her and there was no telling what he was thinking. "And for another, I was just the team manager. One of the managers. I didn't really count, most of the time, except when I was being useful. I wanted to stick close to Dai-chan, though, and I did like the work, so I didn't mind too much. But here... this team actually sees what I do and you use it and... that makes me want to work as hard as the rest of the team does."

"And we surely appreciate it." Imayoshi-stretched his hand out for the reports. "So what do you have for us today?"

Satsuki passed her analyses over to him, the careful study of Hayama's dribble and her projections for just what his top speed might be, Mibuchi's patterns and plays and tricks for confounding his opponents into unexpected fouls, Nebuya's strength and speed as a defender and how they might counter that... and Akashi's emperor eye and the cues he gave his teammates. They worked through her analyses methodically, and again when Harasawa-kantoku came in, and then got down to the gritty business of plotting their tactics to counter Rakuzan.

It didn't matter that her eyes felt as though they'd been coated with sand, Satsuki thought, caffeine humming through her system. This was just as good as playing—this was being a part of the team, too, and was what she hadn't even known she'd been looking for when she'd helped Dai-chan pick Touou. Set next to that, an all-nighter or two was nothing.

At the end of the session, before they went to meet with the team as a whole, Imayoshi-san tilted his chair back and balanced on it while Harasawa-kantoku went to run off copies. "So I've been meaning to ask you, Momoi-chan."

Satsuki went still, because there was something about the way he was looking at her that made her heart beat that much faster. "Yes?"

He smiled at her, lazy and charming. "Tell me. Where do you get all this information from? It can't all be from watching matches."

...damn the man. Satsuki squashed her disappointment—consider the timing, she told herself, of course he isn't going to say anything now—and shook her head at him. "That's a trade secret."

"Aw, c'mon now," he protested. "This is my last game! Who would I tell?"

Satsuki frowned at him, but he continued to smile at her, and—argh, damn him for reminding her of that. "If you win this match, ask me again," she said. "And maybe I'll tell you then."

Imayoshi-san raised his eyebrows at that. "You drive a pretty hard bargain, you know."

Satsuki gave him her best imitation of one of his bland, innocent looks. "But Imayoshi-san, you know people don't value the things they don't have to work for."

He chuckled. "Reckon a little extra incentive to win never hurt anyone. All right, Momoi-chan, you've got yourself a deal. After we win this match, I'll ask again."

That sort of lazy self-confidence—some might have called it arrogance—shouldn't have looked so good on the man, she reflected, but then, she'd always had an affinity for that sort of thing. Just look at her best friend and social circle. "All right," she said, smiling. "I guess we'll see what my answer is then."

After all, he'd be retiring from the team after this game. That ought to be as good time as any to get any number of questions settled.

No one had forgotten how the Interhigh had ended, for all that it had been months ago and that neither Imayoshi-san nor Harasawa-kantoku had allowed them to brood over the loss. They forwent watching the consolation match between Kaijou and Seihou in order to spend that time rehearsing their strategies against Rakuzan instead, and not even Dai-chan complained about that. He'd spent the lead-up to every other match in the tournament so far either in a cheerful mood or outright bouncing in anticipation of the game to come, but his mood going into this match was different. Unfamiliar.

Satsuki couldn't help wondering whether this was what Dai-chan looked like when he got really serious about a game. Serious insofar as Dai-chan could get serious, anyway.

He wasn't alone, of course. For once, there wasn't any horseplay in the strategy meeting. Wakamatsu contrived to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with Dai-chan in perfect harmony, which was something of a minor miracle, and as they walked the team through what they could expect from Rakuzan, everyone listened with an intensity that could only be called ferocious.

Well, it wasn't like they didn't have a score to settle with Rakuzan, so that was entirely appropriate.

At the end of the meeting, as the time to go warm up for the match approached, Imayoshi-san stopped talking for a bit and looked around the room, studying everyone closely. "I don't figure I need to remind you all of what happened in the last match we played against these guys," he said when he had satisfied himself. "It's pretty clear we all remember that plenty well. Everyone knows Rakuzan and everyone knows how long it's been since that school has lost a tournament." He sucked on his teeth. "Way I see it, it's good to keep all that in mind, of course, because it'll keep us from getting sloppy, but I also figure there's this to think about: at this point, that captain of theirs is the only Teikou brat who hasn't had a chance to figure out what it's like to lose a game. We're the only ones left in this tournament who can help him to have that valuable learning experience. If you look at it like that, well, it's pretty much our duty to go win this game, wouldn't you say?" He grinned at them, sharp. "We wouldn't want him to feel left out, would we?"

There was a beat of silence before Tetsu-kun cleared his throat. "You're generous to a fault, Captain."

"That's me," Imayoshi-san agreed. "I'm just a giver." He glanced at the time and brought his hands together. "All right, people, let's go play some basketball."

Satsuki followed her team out to the courts, where Seihou and Kaijou were finishing up. Ki-chan was sitting out, and one look at the scoreboard and Seihou's lead made it clear why he looked so miserable. Rakuzan was already courtside, watching the game wrap up. Akashi gave no sign that he'd noticed Touou's arrival, sort of the way one cat might pretend to ignore the presence of another cat in its territory. Satsuki didn't suppose he'd be able to ignore them for much longer, though, so perhaps that didn't matter.

The final buzzer sounded, securing third place for Seihou—probably not that much consolation for either team, but there was always next year for that. They lined up to thank each other for the match and filed off the court. Kasamatsu exchanged nods with Imayoshi-san as he went. Imayoshi-san inclined his head in return, and though Satsuki could hardly be sure, she thought that the two of them must have managed some kind of exchange there.

Ki-chan elected to be much less subtle and stopped to speak to Dai-chan and Tetsu-kun. He glanced at Rakuzan and then leveled a burning look at the two of them. "You are going to win this," he said to them, all the little playful affectations stripped out of his speech. "Right?"

Dai-chan punched his shoulder. "Don't be stupid," he said. "Of course we are."

Ki-chan looked them over and nodded. "Good," he said before falling in with his team again.

Satsuki couldn't help noticing that Akashi ignored the entire exchange.

She took up her usual place on the sidelines while the rest of the team fanned out across the court to warm up and watched Rakuzan's half of the court. They didn't show any sign of being tired, even with the several days of hard games in a row, but then, she didn't suppose they would have had a name like theirs if they did. Hayama all but bounced across the court, much like a ball, and his mouth moved almost as fast as the ball he dribbled. Mibuchi teased him right back—teased Akashi, too, impartial about it. Whatever else she could say about the Uncrowned Generals, no one could deny that they had guts. (Even that snake Hanamiya had his own brand of brazen effrontery.) They were all moving well.

When she sighed, Harasawa-kantoku glanced at her. "Worried?"

"A little," she admitted. "I want us to win this one."

His expression turned indulgent. "There will be other opportunities if we don't."

"Not for this team," she said. "I want this team to win today."

He chuckled. "Fair enough. So do I."

On the court, Tetsu-kun passed the ball to Dai-chan, who cut around Wakamatsu and jumped, twisting in mid-air to slam the ball through the basket, backwards. He dangled from the rim for a second before he dropped himself back to the court. Showing off a little, maybe, or issuing a challenge. Imayoshi-san must have been in the right sort of mood for that to appeal to him, because he didn't bother to scold him for goofing off before the match.

The warm-up period somehow managed to seem like it was lasting forever, though it couldn't have been any longer than usual before the reserve players left the court and the starters lined up for the tip-off. Tetsu-kun bumped fists with Dai-chan, the referee tossed the ball into the air, and the game began.

"We already know what it's like to go up against Rakuzan," Imayoshi-san had said when they were laying out their plans for this game. "I don't reckon it makes any sense to try and hold back with them. They already know they've beaten us once. That might make them over-confident or it might not, but either way I don't see much benefit in trying to lay elaborate traps for them." He'd smiled then, quick and sharp. "Which is a kind of trap all its own, of course. But for this game we'll start off strong and hit 'em with everything we've got. And then we'll see."

That was precisely what they were doing now: the ball went spinning up in the air and Dai-chan propelled himself into the air after it, swatting it into Wakamatsu's waiting hands. It could just as easily have been Susa or Imayoshi-san, but then, that was part of why they'd chosen Touou in the first place. Everyone at Touou knew exactly what he was doing and moved without pausing to question where the rest of the team was or whether they would be there to support him, because everyone who played for Touou was good enough to be exactly where he was supposed to be.

It was a little like Teikou had been, to begin with, before everything had gone off the rails.

Wakamatsu got the ball and headed for the basket; Nebuya was there to cut him off and slap the ball away from the net and into Mibuchi's hands. Mibuchi spun the ball to Hayama, who was breathtakingly fast, it was true, and he sped down the court. But Dai-chan was used to playing against fast opponents; he'd been playing against Kagamin for almost a year now, and Seihou's play style emphasized speed. Dai-chan matched Hayama now, keeping pace with him and stealing the ball right out of his hands.

Then Akashi was there, perfectly serene as he intercepted Dai-chan by placing himself precisely where he needed to be in order to screen Dai-chan from passing the ball to Susa or Imayoshi-san. They froze for just a moment, eyes locked on each other, and Akashi smiled as he waited for Dai-chan to blink or to move.

Dai-chan smiled too, all his teeth in it, and let the ball roll right off his fingers, passing it straight back to Tetsu-kun instead.

Maybe Rakuzan had braced itself for Tetsu-kun's ability to render himself all but invisible on the court, or perhaps Akashi had warned them for it—certainly they'd seen what Tetsu-kun had been able to do in the last game Touou had played against Rakuzan, but that had been some time ago and Tetsu-kun had been working hard since then. He'd learned a lot, most of which he'd kept quietly to himself while Touou had progressed through the tournament, and so Satsuki was very sure that it surprised Akashi as much as anyone when Tetsu-kun lined up the ball and made a shot for the net—and scored the first goal of the game.

Well, as Imayoshi-san had said, there wasn't any point in trying to set up elaborate traps, but holding a few aces in reserve for the finals was just common sense.

Dai-chan whooped with glee as weeks of working with Tetsu-kun one-on-one after practice and on weekends finally paid off in a game, and Satsuki saved up the look on Akashi's face for later. No matter how this game ended up turning out, they would have this to savor: for just a moment, Akashi had looked honestly surprised. He hadn't expected that from Tetsu-kun, maybe not from Dai-chan either, and if he promptly shunted that surprise aside in order to direct his team back into action and through the next three goals—all Rakuzan's, unfortunately—at least they had given him something to think about. With any luck, that would do him some good.

In the short term, it only seemed to have annoyed him. It must have seemed like he was everywhere on the court, Satsuki thought, watching him interrupt play after play, always placing himself where he could anticipate Imayoshi-san's attempt to fire off a three-pointer and Susa's passes to Wakamatsu and every attempt the rest of the team made to get the ball to Dai-chan. Satsuki worried her lip between her teeth over that as the first minutes of the game slipped past and Rakuzan kept the ball away from them and Mibuchi courted fouls from anyone he came near. Perhaps Kirisaki Daiichi had been good for something, though—everyone was still hyperconscious of where they and their opponents were on the court and so Rakuzan didn't get as many free throws off them as they might have done otherwise.

Rakuzan didn't score nearly as often as they seemed to have expected they would, either. Hayama was fast and Mibuchi was clever and Akashi could anticipate Touou's plays, but it wasn't for nothing that Satsuki had spent months studying old footage of the Uncrowned Generals and Rakuzan's matches and old footage of Teikou's matches, mapping out where they had been in order to predict where they might be going. There wasn't anyone whose games Touou knew better than they knew Rakuzan's, and so Dai-chan could cut around Mibuchi and swoop under Nebuya's reach to poach the ball away from Hayama, and Wakamatsu could step between Mibuchi and Akashi and force Akashi to alter his pass routes at the last moment, and Susa could defend the basket with as much tenacity as Mukkun himself.

And between them, Tetsu-kun and Imayoshi-san roamed the court, reading the flow of the game and slipping in to interrupt Rakuzan's plays whenever possible. Rakuzan still had the edge, still had Akashi, who could read his opponents' very movements and anticipate what they meant before the other players knew it for themselves, but even so, Satsuki thought that Touou was managing to hold its own well.

There were two minutes left on the clock when Akashi decided that he'd had quite enough of that and Rakuzan's game shifted, moving into a higher gear. It made sense according to her projections—he would want to change the flow of the game before the quarter ended and send a clear message to Touou at the same time (you may be good, but we're still better). It still took Satsuki's breath away to see just how fast Hayama could be and how sleek Mibuchi's ability to disrupt plays really was and how stubborn a center Nebuya could be. Akashi didn't allow Touou to do more than touch the ball briefly for the remainder of the quarter, and Rakuzan doubled their lead before the buzzer sounded.

"Have I mentioned that these guys are assholes?" Wakamatsu said, disgusted, after he'd gulped down water. "Because these guys are such assholes."

"Now, now," Imayoshi-san said, mild as a spring day. "I'm sure some of them must be perfectly charming off the court." He looked them over and nodded, apparently satisfied by what he'd found on their faces—annoyance, mostly, as far as Satsuki could see, even on Dai-chan's face. No wonder, there. He really wasn't used to games where he couldn't even get his hands on the ball. "All right, Kuroko-kun, you sit this next quarter out and rest yourself up for the second half. Sakurai-kun, you're up. Aomine-kun, if you'll be so kind, keep on behaving yourself. But I'd appreciate it if you'd see to it that they don't get too much further ahead of us than they already are." He glanced towards her and Harasawa-kantoku, who nodded his approval of these instructions. Imayoshi-san clapped his hands, brisk. "All right, let's go show them that we're not gonna just let 'em roll right over us just yet."

Satsuki watched the rest of the team draw itself up a bit, straightening their shoulders and shifting their expressions from irritation to determination. Yeah, that was better already.

Tetsu-kun nodded at Dai-chan and slapped hands with Sakurai. He took a seat next to Satsuki as the rest of the team headed back onto the court. Akashi took note of the substitution and smiled, which was more than enough reason to make Tetsu-kun huff an annoyed sound, full of wordless irritation.

"One more quarter," Satsuki murmured to him as the game resumed and Dai-chan immediately pounced on the ball and blew right past Nebuya and Mibuchi on his way to the net (even Akashi couldn't do much about Dai-chan's sheer speed if Dai-chan was feeling motivated). "Just one more quarter."

It was the same old problem after all: genius was well and good, but they were still playing high school basketball with high school bodies and all the limits those entailed. Tetsu-kun had come a long way since the days when an afternoon's practice could drive him to the point of vomiting, but even so. He had his limits and it had been a hard tournament so far.

And in the meantime, they'd just have to see whether Dai-chan could make himself annoying enough to cause Rakuzan to have to exert themselves a bit more than was usual for them.

Tetsu-kun sighed as Rakuzan took possession of the ball—Sakurai's apology reached them, distant over the squeak of sneakers and the rhythm of Hayama's drive down the court. "Next year I'm going to play through an entire game."

"Believe me," Satsuki said as Susa batted the ball way from the net. "I'm looking forward to it." But that was next year and there was no point in dwelling on that now, in the middle of this game.

Rakuzan continued to drive themselves hard; if they were holding anything back in reserve, just in case, it wasn't much as far as Satsuki could see. Without Tetsu-kun on the court to sneak his way into Rakuzan's plays and direct the ball into Touou's hands, it was much more difficult for Touou to keep the ball long enough to score, especially when Akashi seemed to take particular satisfaction in interrupting their plays. (Satsuki didn't think it was her imagination that he paid closest attention to Imayoshi-san, though she was going to have to run the statistics later to be sure.) If, by the time the quarter ended, Touou had kept the distance between their score and Rakuzan's steady, it was surely down to the fact that Dai-chan really was as good as he thought he was, fast enough to dive in and get the ball to the hoop even when Akashi tried to intervene. But then, Akashi always had found Dai-chan's formless game a little bit more difficult to read than the rest. Dai-chan was better than most at changing the movement of the ball in the very act of making a shot.

What was more, he was doing a far better job of behaving himself than Satsuki had honestly expected he would. He came off the court at halftime looking just about as grim as the rest of the team and didn't change until they were in the privacy of the locker room, sharing out the honey lemons. Then he snitched the box of lemons right out of Sakurai's hands and plopped himself down on the bench next to Tetsu-kun. "You ready for this?"

Tetsu-kun picked a sliver of lemon out of the box and slanted a smile at him. "I suppose I am."

Dai-chan grinned at him and helped himself to the lemons, at least until Imayoshi-san plucked the box out of his hands and passed it to Wakamatsu. "Adorable," he said, shaking his head. "Suppose I don't have to tell you that you can take the brakes off now, do I?"

Dai-chan's grin was so broad that it practically showed his molars. "What, are you kidding?"

"That's what I figured." Imayoshi-san squinted at him. "You sure you're gonna be able to keep that up for two quarters?"

Dai-chan scoffed. "Of course I am. This is me we're talking about."

Imayoshi-san rolled his eyes. "My mistake. Forget I asked." He turned to the rest of the team. "Well, you heard the brat. I don't figure there's any reason to hold back at this point. This is the last game of the season, so we might as well go out in style."

"Damn straight," Wakamatsu said, and that was pretty much that.

Akashi frowned slightly when the break ended and the teams returned to the court: he was clearly suspicious of them, or maybe just the way Dai-chan looked as he stepped onto the court again, already retreating to that place he went when he entered the zone. Of course he and the rest of Rakuzan had enough experience to know or at least guess what that calm, intent expression meant. They exchanged glances with one another, at least until Akashi shook his head slightly, dismissing their concern.

Satsuki took a deep breath and hoped that Dai-chan and Tetsu-kun and the rest of the team would be able to prove Akashi wrong.

The game resumed.

It was always something to watch Dai-chan play, because he'd been playing for so many years that the game was engraved in his bones. The basketball court was, in many senses, his natural element—but it was something else altogether to see him step into the zone and his game open up into something seamless and perfect, utterly unrestrained by anything like conscious thought. Akashi's particular talent as a player rested in his ability to see and react to his opponents before they had even begun to act on their decisions to move, but Dai-chan foreclosed some of that skill by stepping beyond the level of making those decisions. There was no hesitation between the decision to move and the movement itself for him, which had always annoyed Akashi terribly back during the days when Teikou had played intramural practice matches.

As dangerous as he was when in the zone, Dai-chan was only one player, and Akashi was not the only player in Rakuzan. As breathtaking as his game could be, it couldn't carry the game alone, or even turn the tide. Rakuzan still had its Uncrowned Generals and Akashi, who reacted to Dai-chan's searing focus by doing their utmost to prevent Touou from ever getting the ball to him at all, as they had done in the second quarter.

But Tetsu-kun had not been playing during the second quarter.

Satsuki clutched her clipboard close, watching the struggle on the court—Rakuzan doing everything in its power to seal Dai-chan's movements and to block Touou's plays and to maintain an awareness of Tetsu-kun's presence on the court, and their surprise when Tetsu-kun and Dai-chan still managed to stay in sync in spite of all that. That was what came of months and months of training together, though, playing against each other and with each other, rebuilding their partnership from the ground up. Dai-chan and Tetsu-kun had never played like this at Teikou, even when things at Teikou had been at their best. Maybe they couldn't have done this at Teikou, maybe they had needed to the learn the hard lessons of that long, awful breaking apart before they could become real partners again, this time as equals rather than light and shadow, turning a united front against the challenge of a strong opponent together.

Not that they were the only ones on the court pouring their hearts into the game, either. Imayoshi-san and Susa were playing the final game of their high school careers, maybe ever for all that Satsuki knew, since neither of them had said much about their plans for university. They were playing now like they had forgotten that there might ever be another game after this, like they didn't care whether they came out the other side in one piece. Susa defended the basket like his life depended on it and Imayoshi-san seemed to be everywhere at once, so focused on the game that he'd forgotten to hide the sharpness of his edges behind the smooth polish of his constant smiles. Wakamatsu, too—he had another year to look forward to, but he played every bit as fiercely as the rest of them, chasing after Hayama with dogged persistence, and slowly—painfully slowly—they began to chisel away at Rakuzan's lead.

It was too slowly, Satsuki thought, half-frantic with the unbearable tension of only being able to watch as her team fought to catch up to Rakuzan while the third quarter ground to a close. They weren't catching up fast enough, there wasn't going to be enough time to close the gap, not before the final buzzer sounded to end the game and the tournament. Not when Akashi and Rakuzan responded to the pressure of Touou's challenge by playing harder that they had in any other match Satsuki had the data for in order to extend their lead again.

The boys were all dripping sweat and panting for breath when the quarter ended and they broke for the interval to gulp down water. To a man, they were nearly silent, saving their breath and their focus for the game itself. Imayoshi-san was the only one to say anything at all, and that was at the end of the interval, when he looked at Tetsu-kun. "See whether you can't match yourself up to the rest of us, too."

Cryptic though that was, it seemed to make sense to Tetsu-kun, who widened his eyes just a bit before nodding, sharp and sure. Imayoshi-san nodded back to him and the team returned to the court together, moving purposefully.

Tetsu-kun had already been on the court for two quarters, and it showed—not so much in his movements, but in the way Rakuzan was beginning to be aware of him. Or perhaps Tetsu-kun was devoting less of his energy to remaining undetected and was instead choosing to direct his energy into getting the ball to Dai-chan, who certainly showed no signs of slowing down. Neither did Rakuzan, for that matter, who dove into the final quarter of the game with grim expressions as Dai-chan got the ball again and threw himself at the net, twisting in mid-air to avoid Nebuya's defense and lobbing the ball around him to sink the basket. Akashi was there right away to coordinate Rakuzan's game, to direct the ball to Hayama and to screen Wakamatsu away from the ball, but Tetsu-kun was there, too, slipping in past Hayama to direct the ball to Imayoshi-san. Imayoshi-san didn't seem to hesitate even for a moment; the second the ball touched his hands, he sent it arcing towards the basket.

Oh, Satsuki thought, following the path of the ball as it dropped through the net. That was what Imayoshi-san had meant. It was a little like what Tetsu-kun had done in the game against Kirisaki Daiichi, using his sense of the court and his teammates to send the ball to whichever one of his teammates was clear for a shot at the basket, but it was something more than that, too. This time Dai-chan was playing all-out, but without forgetting that there were other players on the court. Or perhaps it wasn't so much that as the fact that he expected them to be right there with him, even though his basketball was so much further along than theirs. They were there, because Tetsu-kun was there to bridge the gap between Dai-chan's effortless zone play and the rest of the team, until it seemed like the two of them were drawing the other three along with them. Or they really were caught up in Dai-chan's rhythm, because even though it was the final quarter of a hard match—the final quarter of a hard tournament—they were still moving with the same smooth assurance of a fresh team, despite the way they were dripping sweat and breathing hard as they wove in and out of Rakuzan's game, contesting every point Rakuzan made. Satsuki barely remembered to breathe as the minutes of the quarter slipped by and they whittled away at Rakuzan's lead—

Akashi seized possession of the ball after Dai-chan passed it to Wakamatsu, who slammed the goal home with a triumphant yell. Instead of moving to pass to one of his teammates, he shot the basket himself, making a neat shot that sank the ball into Touou's basket. As his teammates reacted with shock—"Sei-chan, what are you doing?" Mibuchi yelled—Akashi smiled at them, perfectly serene.

"Don't let yourselves get rattled," he said. "And don't get careless. We are going to win this. If we don't, it will be because of the fault I just made. If we lose, I will quit the team and put out my own eyes to make up for it."

There was a brief, startled silence after that announcement as the Uncrowned Generals stared at their captain. Then Imayoshi-san laughed. "I guess that's one way to make a motivational speech," he drawled before anyone else could react.

Sakurai whistled between his teeth as Akashi shot a venomous look at Imayoshi-san. "They really don't like each other much, do they?"

"Not even a little bit," Satsuki said as Tetsu-kun diverted the ball to Imayoshi-san and the boys dove into the final five minutes of the game. Tetsu-kun's misdirection had all but run out, too soon—there was still time on the clock. Akashi smiled as Mibuchi caught Tetsu-kun's attempt at a vanishing drive and passed the ball to Hayama, but then Dai-chan was there to intercept the ball. Hayama yelled, startled, and Satsuki gasped as Dai-chan ducked around him and pounded down the court. "Oh..."

Harasawa-kantoku's hair was a mess at this point, sticking up in wild corkscrew twists all over his head. "Well, damn," he said, resigned.

"Is Aomine-kun copying Kuroko-kun?" Sakurai asked, sounding puzzled. "I didn't think anyone could do that."

"No," Satsuki said softly. "It's the opposite. Tetsu-kun is forcing Rakuzan to pay attention to him." It was as though he'd extended his misdirection to the rest of the team and made himself the major target for Rakuzan's attention, holding it whether they liked it or not.

"I just hope he's got something else in mind for his game after this," Harasawa-kantoku muttered. "We're never going to be able to use this or his misdirection against Rakuzan again."

It was true enough—Tetsu-kun's presence must have been searing itself into Rakuzan's memories—but the future was going to have to take care of itself. For now, Tetsu-kun was pitting himself against Akashi, thrusting his presence into Akashi's emperor eye as though their match was the resolution of their long history together—as though the outcome of this match was going to determine the shape of everything yet to come.

Slowly, Touou dragged its score even with Rakuzan's.

Satsuki held her clipboard against her chest, not even noticing the way the edges of it cut into her palms as the clock ticked down in the final two minutes of the game and the score teetered back and forth, favoring first Rakuzan and then Touou, neither team able to draw ahead by more than two or three points at a time before the other team stole the advantage back with free throws or a three-pointer or another impossible dunk from Dai-chan, formless and perfect. Neither did she notice the way her throat was raw with shouting, just like everyone else on the bench was shouting inarticulate cheers to egg the team on. The seconds dragged out, managing somehow to last forever as the teams swept up and down the court and to also speed by at the same time.

Akashi got the ball away from Tetsu-kun and shot it to Mibuchi, who lobbed it at the basket. Hayama completed the alley-oop, putting Rakuzan ahead by two points as the clock ticked down, nine seconds to go. Dai-chan roared and swept in, furiously intent on the ball. He ducked around Nebuya, swept past Akashi, and passed to Wakamatsu, who danced around Hayama, pulling his own version of Tetsu-kun's vanishing drive as Tetsu-kun interposed himself between Akashi and the ball. Two seconds and Imayoshi-san had his hands on the ball and was dancing back from Mibuchi's attempt to steal the ball out of his hands or force a foul; one second and he was jumping, launching the ball into the air from well outside the three-point line, and Dai-chan was already at the net, there to keep Nebuya from the ball as the buzzer sounded and the shot sank through the hoop.

The score ticked over, 121-120 in Touou's favor. Satsuki couldn't hear her own voice because the team was screaming so loudly, couldn't see the court through the film of water in her eyes, because they'd done it, they'd defeated Rakuzan, the defending champions for five years running. She blinked her tears away and saw that the team was already converging on Imayoshi-san. Susa pounded on his shoulder and Wakamatsu was shouting something jubilantly incoherent. Dai-chan had descended on Tetsu-kun; it looked like he was scrubbing his knuckles through Tetsu-kun's hair while Tetsu-kun smiled up at him—really smiled, no reservations to it at all that Satsuki could see.

Rakuzan looked stunned, as though they didn't quite understand what was happening, and none of them looked more dazed than Akashi himself. He had gone white, almost as pale as his jersey, and he stared at Touou's celebration as though he could not comprehend it.

Satsuki supposed he must have been regretting that own goal of his now, or would be just as soon as the shock had worn off. That, however, was his and Rakuzan's concern, not Touou's, so she put aside her concern for him and joined in the rest of Touou's celebrations as the tournament officials attempted to herd the teams together to exchange thanks.

Part Six

Afterwards, she remembered most of the rest of that evening as a single joyful blur, punctuated by distinct moments of clarity: watching her team shaking hands with Rakuzan and the way Tetsu-kun held his chin high and proud as he met Akashi's eyes, even though Dai-chan was just about holding him up. The medals gleaming bright gold against Touou's red and black during the awards ceremony. The way her cheeks ached with smiling by the time they assembled for photographs, and the bone-deep satisfaction that came when Susa looked around and said, "Wait, where's Momoi-chan, she should be in the picture too," and the only response from the rest of the team was to shuffle over a bit to make room for her. The celebration afterwards when no one was ready to end the night and they descended on a restaurant in full force instead, and reenacted every play of the game over ramen, laughing late into the night, at least until the restaurant managers delicately hinted that they would like to close for the evening. Finally, the ride home, leaning against one of Dai-chan's shoulders while Tetsu-kun drowsed against the other.

It felt strange to slip back into normal routine the next morning, with no need to assemble extra pages of analysis or to need to get to school for an early strategy session—not to have anything more pressing on her schedule than her homework, in fact. It made her feel strange and off-balance, as though she had been carrying something heavy and had put it down, or as though there were something she was forgetting. That feeling didn't even included the cotton-wool sensation that came of several days' worth of short sleep finally catching up with her. Satsuki spent a significant portion of the day smothering yawns behind her hand and trying to look alert.

Practice was an entirely different, and more emotional, story: Imayoshi-san turned the more formal version of the post-game debrief and analysis over to Wakamatsu-san. He mostly stood back with a smile that was practically paternal as Wakamatsu-san walked the club through the analysis of their game against Rakuzan. He didn't do too badly, Satsuki decided privately, though his approach to picking things apart was more blunt force than delicate scalpel. That was probably going to be the new shape of the team—Wakamatsu-san would certainly be a wholly different kind of captain.

With the tournaments at an end, it was time for them all to devote time to preparing for exams. Harasawa-kantoku detailed the reduced practice schedule and made it clear that staying late for extra practice at the expense of one's exam grades would not be tolerated (and here he gave Dai-chan a very pointed look, adding, "This does mean you, Aomine-kun"). While he did that, Satsuki collected the third-years' resignation forms and resolutely gnawed on the inside of her cheek to keep herself from getting too emotional. None of the third-years would care to see her getting all soppy over what was only the natural course of events.

"Well," Imayoshi-san said after she'd collected the little stack of forms, "I reckon that's just about that." He looked around at the members of the club, wearing a small smile that was perhaps just a bit more genuine than the one he normally adopted. Certainly he sounded much less sarcastic than usual when he said, "We had a damn good run this year, and I want to thank you for it. I've been glad to be your captain, even when certain uppity brats whom I will not mention by name were making me crazy." He grinned at Dai-chan, who pulled a face at him while the rest of the club laughed. "I figure I'm leaving you all in good hands, and I know you'll keep up the good work." He looked around at them again and nodded. "That's all I've got to say. I'll let Wakamatsu-kun take it from here." He inclined his head to them and stepped back, and that was that—Wakamatsu-san stepped up to dismiss practice for the day and the club either dispersed or gathered around the third-years to wish them well.

Imayoshi-san detached himself from that particular group and pulled Wakamatsu-san along with him. "Momoi-chan," he said. "If you don't mind my presuming a little bit on your time, I figured you and I could get Wakamatsu-kun here all set up and oriented to his new duties."

"Of course I don't mind," Satsuki said, brisk, not least because his request accorded with a certain personal agenda that had been postponed quite long enough. "Let me tell the boys and I'll be right with you."

Dai-chan took the news cheerfully enough—"We'll just practice for a bit while we wait, right Tetsu?"—and Tetsu-kun smiled at her, small and amused, before giving her a discreet thumbs-up. Satsuki smiled back at him and went to join Imayoshi-san and Wakamatsu-san in the club office.

Imayoshi-san was just turning over the various keys that went along with being captain, explaining about the job of making sure that the gym was closed up for the night after practice ended—"The main offenders there will be Aomine-kun and Kuroko-kun, and there I advise you to make good use of Momoi-chan if necessary." He tilted a smile her way. "I reckon she's the only person the two of them'll listen to."

"Not quite the only person," she said, amused.

He shrugged that off blandly. "The only person who matters. Do try not to throttle Aomine-kun if you can help it. He's a brat, of course, but the fact remains that he's a fairly useful fellow to have around on the court. I recommend giving him laps until he drops if you're feeling particularly aggravated. Mind you, I never did figure out just how many laps that might be. If you do, let me know. It's a matter of scientific curiosity, you understand."

Wakamatsu-san took on a faintly sick look, possibly because he had just realized that he was now responsible for making Dai-chan behave like a civilized human being.

Imayoshi-san carried on, cheerfully evil about it. "I reckon I don't have to tell you that Momoi-chan is one of your best resources in general. You've already seen the good work she does for us. If you have any questions, I'm sure she'll be able to get you straightened out. Don't forget about Kuroko-kun either. He's got a solid sense for the flow of the game, and he also has some influence over Aomine-kun. I'm sure you'll figure out how to make the best use of that. Now, let's talk a little bit about paperwork..."

Wakamatsu-san looked like his head was spinning by the time she and Imayoshi-san had finally finished walking him through the mechanics that went into keeping the club running smoothly. He stumbled out of the office at last, and Satsuki couldn't help giggling after the door had closed after him. "Poor Wakamatsu-san."

"Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown," Imayoshi-san said, cheerful. "He'll learn to manage. If not, I'm sure you'll whip him into shape."

She laughed and they fell into a little silence, one that was somewhere between companionable and anticipatory. Satsuki glanced down and let her hair fall around her face as a screen for the way she was peeking at Imayoshi-san, who was looking at her with his expression gone grave. Finally they were at a place where there was no reason to hold back, no reason not to speak—finally, they could go ahead and get on with it. Her heart beat faster as the quiet unspooled between them, and she was hard-pressed not to startle with he cleared his throat. "So," he said. "There's something I was going to ask you."

Satsuki shook her hair back from her face and looked up, preferring not to miss anything by playing coy. "What was it?" She was pleased that she managed to sound calm saying that, rather than breathless.

"Well, considering the fact that we did win the Winter Cup and the fact that I'm all officially retired from the team and everything..." Imayoshi-san nudged his glasses up and delivered one of his most charming smiles. "I don't figure you'd care to tell me where you get your data from. Please?"

That was not the question she'd been expecting; Satsuki quashed the moment of disappointment. She had pretty well agreed to tell him if Touou won against Rakuzan, so first things first. "You have to promise me that you'll keep this to yourself."

Imayoshi-san held up a hand. "On my honor as a gentleman, I'll never breathe a word to anyone." When she raised her eyebrows at that, he grinned. "All right, I promise."

That would have to do. Satsuki clasped her hands together, arraying herself as demurely as she knew how. "As it so happens, I am the owner and moderator of the largest Kise Ryouta fan site and message board on the internet."

She left it to him to puzzle through the meaning of that announcement and enjoyed the first moment of his complete bafflement as to what that answer had to do with the question he'd asked, coupled with a certain amount of disbelief that she'd be involved in running a fan site for Ki-chan, and the moment when it clicked for him, clear in the way he widened his eyes. "You don't say," he murmured at last. "This fan site... I suppose some of its members take an active interest in his basketball?"

"Extremely active," Satsuki said, thinking of the endless threads devoted to Ki-chan, his teammates, and all his potential opponents.

Imayoshi-san regarded her and shook his head. "I wish I were wearing a hat, because I'd like to take it off to you." He flattened his hand against his chest and bowed to her. "That is the most amazing scheme I have ever had the privilege of hearing about. I salute you and your evil genius, Momoi-chan."

Satsuki smiled at him, pleased by his delight. "It wasn't a scheme, at least at first. It started out as a way to keep things organized when Ki-chan joined the club. Then I realized that I could outsource some of my research into our opponents, and, well..." She spread her hands. "I'm only human."

"That's still absolutely amazing." Imayoshi-san chuckled. "And I gather that he has no idea?"

Satsuki considered it. "No, I don't think he does. Or at least, he doesn't realize the extent of it. The message boards are member-locked, of course." She tapped her chin, thinking. "I'm pretty sure he just thinks of it as a sort of useful service, if he thinks about it at all."

Imayoshi-san laughed. "I hope you tell him someday."

"Someday, maybe," Satsuki said. "After he finishes playing basketball, or after I move on to other things. Once it's no longer useful, anyway." She'd worried about that a bit when they'd split up to go to different high schools, but fortunately that hadn't dimmed any of his fans' fervor.

"But of course." Imayoshi-san shook his head, smiling. "I do believe they miscounted the number of Miracles that came out of Teikou."

Satsuki couldn't keep herself from blushing. "Imayoshi-san..." That did come out a little breathless, even a little bit husky, but then, it wasn't many boys who complimented her brains rather than her bust, and no one else had ever even hinted that he thought she was a Miracle in her own right.

Imayoshi-san's smile gentled just a bit. "It's just a thought that has occurred to me from time to time."

"And that's why I'm glad we came to Touou," Satsuki told him softly. "Thank you, Imayoshi-san."

"It has been my pleasure." For once he seemed to be perfectly in earnest. "Truly it has." He paused then and Satsuki held her breath, waiting, because now, surely now was the time—He cleared his throat and pushed his glasses up. "Well, I reckon that's about it. Best go find Aomine-kun and Kuroko-kun so you can get yourself home and start catching up on your studying and your sleep."

The sudden briskness of his tone jarred her so much that at first he didn't even make any sense. Satsuki stared at Imayoshi-san, utterly confused. Go find Dai-chan and Tetsu-kun? But what about—what? "I don't think there's any rush," she said, puzzled by the sudden swerve in his mood and tone.

"Ah, but we mustn't be selfish." Imayoshi-san dusted his hands off. "Wakamatsu-kun will want to lock up and head home, too, you know, and I reckon Aomine-kun will need all the studying time he can get in." He gestured at the door. "Go on ahead, I'll close up shop here."

It was unmistakably a dismissal. Satsuki stared at him for a moment longer, wondering whether this was some sort of bizarre joke on his part. Imayoshi-san gazed back, cheerfully opaque to her scrutiny, and tilted his head at the door. "I—guess I'll see you later," she faltered out, utterly confused.

"Of course." But it sounded more rote than sincere. "Have a pleasant evening, Momoi-chan."

Satsuki walked out of the office and made her way to the gym in a daze, feet moving on autopilot as she reeled in the privacy of her own mind, questioning every assumption she had made about Imayoshi-san and their interactions. Had she really misread him so completely as that? Had she over-interpreted her data somehow? Had she overlooked some critical set of variables or assigned significance to factors that they did not deserve? Had she found correlations that existed only because she had wanted them to exist? How had she managed to be so completely wrong about everything?

She collected the boys without being aware of doing it, too sunk into her own bewilderment to give either of them more than the most absent of replies. Afterwards, she never had any idea what they said to her or to each other as they traveled home—had no idea whether they even noticed there was something fundamentally wrong or not. Perhaps they did, but Satsuki couldn't have said for sure, not when her confusion was slowly shading into bitter disappointment, like a cloud of ink spreading through a pool of water. She had spent months lost in private thoughts of Imayoshi-san, caught in her fascination with the way he played his basketball and the way he manipulated his own public face, adapting sarcasm and genial, good-natured malice and subtle mind-games to cover up the keenness of his intellect and his passion for the game itself and his dedication to his team and his kouhai—had she deluded herself into believing in all those things when they were, in fact, nothing but a façade? Could she have been that foolish and that badly mistaken? Was Imayoshi-san really no more than he had seemed to be, just an extremely pragmatic and personable master of manipulation?

Despite the fact that she was still exhausted from the hard work that had gone into the tournament, Satsuki did not sleep much that night.

Part of being Dai-chan's best friend was making sure he got himself to school of a morning, which Satsuki had perfected into an art. Her technique involved texting Dai-chan repeatedly as she got herself up in the morning and readied herself for school, at least until she got an intelligible response back from him, then swinging by his house to collect him. Generally she allowed herself a few extra minutes in her schedule in case it was necessary to motivate him into getting dressed and out the door, because Dai-chan tended to regard getting up in the mornings as a particularly unpleasant chore (unless it happened to be a game day). She no longer thought much about it, sending off her texts as a matter of course, and so was rather surprised when it only took a couple of them to get a reply back from Dai-chan. It was even more surprising to open her front door and find that Dai-chan was lounging outside, already waiting for her.

"Dai-chan," she said, diverted from the weary circle of her own thoughts by this disruption of their usual routine. "What's wrong?"

Dai-chan unfolded himself from where he was lounging on her front steps and yawned. "Nothing. Just figured I'd come meet you since I was up."

"Oh... well... thank you, I guess." Satsuki peered at him, confused, but he seemed all right. Still sleepy-eyed, of course, but that was normal for this time of day. She hitched her bag up on her shoulders and joined him.

"No problem." Dai-chan stuffed his hands in his pockets and ambled down to the sidewalk with her, falling into his usual easy saunter to match her shorter strides. He yawned again, which set her off too, and they laughed.

"Maybe we should stop for coffee," Satsuki said, rueful. "Since we have some time this morning."

"Sure, if you want to." Dai-chan bumped against her, casual and friendly. "Sounds good to me."

"It kind of does to me, too," Satsuki admitted. "Didn't sleep so well last night." Dai-chan made an interrogative noise, but she shook her head, declining to talk about it. "What has you up so early this morning?"

It wasn't usually too much trouble to get Dai-chan to talk about himself—if anything, the real trick was in getting him to shut up and pay attention to the world around him—but this time Dai-chan merely shrugged a shoulder. "Dunno. Guess I just felt like getting up."

Satsuki didn't see that there was much she could say about that, so she let it go. "I suppose you had plenty of time to sleep since you didn't have to stay up late to finish your homework."

As she had expected, Dai-chan immediately looked shifty. "Yep, sure did."

Satsuki sighed. "Dai-chan, they aren't going to let you play basketball if you don't pass your exams." She elbowed him. "And don't you go saying that I'll make sure you pass, either. You need to do this yourself."

That was the sort of speech that Imayoshi-san would have approved of—making Dai-chan take responsibility for himself. Satsuki bit down on her lip, vexed by the thought and by the fact that there wasn't any reason for him to have taken such an active interest in her and Dai-chan's affairs if he hadn't cared at least a little bit. Was there?

Dai-chan let that pass without complaining, which was a bit strange, and peered down at her instead. "You, uh. Wanna talk about it?" The question and his tone were both awkward, because Dai-chan generally preferred to leave anything to do with feelings strictly alone, but—gruff as he was, Satsuki thought he meant it.

"Talk about what?"

Dai-chan made an unhappy face. "I dunno what." He reached over and poked her cheek. "Whatever it is that was bothering you last night and just now. You wanna talk about it or what?"

Satsuki gripped the strap of her bag and stared down the street. "I don't—really know how to."

Dai-chan grunted. "Must be bad, then." He bumped his shoulder against hers again. "Is there anything I can do?" He paused, then added hopefully, "Someone I can punch, maybe?"

Satsuki couldn't help being tempted, just for a moment. Then she bit her lip. "I don't think so. It's... I think I misjudged my data somehow."

"What, really?" Dai-chan eyed her askance as they came to the corner and waited for the light. "No way. I don't believe it."

"I can't see what else it might be," Satsuki told him, frustrated. "Because I was wrong, and so I must have been reading things wrong somehow. I just don't know how."

"Huh." The light changed and they crossed the street. Dai-chan was looking thoughtful, which was sometimes a dangerous sign. "Nope," he said at length. "Can't see it, sorry. You're too careful with your analysis for that." He was perfectly sure, too, which was really very sweet of him, except for the fact that—"Only times I've ever known you to be wrong, it was because there was something you didn't know about."

Satsuki nearly stumbled, so surprised by that kind of insight coming from Dai-chan that she forgot to pay attention to what her feet were doing. Dai-chan stretched out one long arm to steady her, saying something she didn't really hear, being too preoccupied by his suggestion to listen closely. Was there something that she didn't know about? Something that might explain Imayoshi-san's reticence?

She tried to stem the sudden rush of hope—it was much, much too soon for that, even with the sudden dizzying prospect that there might be a chance still—but Dai-chan grunted anyway, satisfied. "That's better."

Satsuki laughed, because she was feeling better. "Thanks, Dai-chan."

He grinned at her, clearly pleased with himself. "No problem."

Satsuki set her shoulders, feeling lighter and more sure of herself—clearly the first thing she was going to have to do was revisit her data and look for the gaps and omissions in it in order to figure out how to correct those as necessary. It was always good to have a plan, so she walked the rest of the way to the coffee shop with Dai-chan in a far better frame of mind.

It was when she'd paid for her silly, fancy coffee and Dai-chan had acquired not only a coffee for himself but also a couple of pastries that she glanced at him, curious. "You're really not going to ask me what all this is about?"

Dai-chan had a mouthful of food, one big enough that it made his cheeks bulge out like a hamster's—in some ways Kagamin had been a terrible influence on him—and it took him a bit to be able to answer that. He finally swallowed the mouthful down and shrugged. "Naw," he said. "Figure you'll let me know when you're ready to."

Satsuki smiled at him, a little helpless in the face of that unquestioning trust, and reached up to ruffle his hair. "Thanks, Dai-chan."

He grinned at her and ducked away from her fingers. "Yeah, yeah. Don't mention it."

Tetsu-kun generally joined them at lunchtime. Dai-chan hadn't brought a lunch with him, so he was off foraging for his own meal when Tetsu-kun came in and sat down with her. He looked at her, scrutinizing her as he unpacked his lunch. He didn't say anything right away, which was his way. Satsuki allowed him his silence and thumbed through old forum posts, rebuilding her profile of Imayoshi-san from scratch in hopes that this would allow her to find anything that she'd overlooked before.

"You seem to be in a better mood today," Tetsu-kun said at last. "Did it go all that badly last night?"

Satsuki looked up from her phone. "It didn't go at all."

Tetsu-kun paused with his sandwich halfway to his mouth. "Sorry?"

It was rather comforting that he looked as puzzled as she'd been. Satsuki shrugged at him. "Dai-chan says that I must have missed something."

Tetsu-kun blinked and took a bite from his sandwich; he frowned as he chewed and swallowed. "But it was fairly obvious," he said at last. "I don't know what you could have missed."

"Neither do I." Satsuki brandished her phone. "I intend to figure that out." She paused, considering Tetsu-kun. "You really do think it was obvious?" Tetsu-kun was as much of an observer as she was, in his own way. His judgment tended to be sound, maybe more so than anyone else she knew.

Tetsu-kun did her the favor of thinking it over carefully as he ate rather than immediately jumping to reassure her. "I think so," he murmured. "He always speaks of you and to you so warmly."

Satsuki made a face. "And yet we had the perfect opportunity last night and he didn't say anything." At least, nothing definitive in the sense that she had been waiting for... though surely he wouldn't have compared her to the rest of the Miracles after his part in Touou's basketball club had ended, would he? She couldn't imagine what gain there could be in such a compliment if it hadn't been genuine.

"Strange," Tetsu-kun said as Dai-chan came ambling in with his arms full of food and plopped himself down on Tetsu-kun's other side.

"What's strange?" he asked.

Tetsu-kun glanced at Satsuki and then flicked his finger at one of the packages of anpan Dai-chan had brought with him. "Your idea of what constitutes a healthy meal."

"Healthy?" Dai-chan snorted. "Please. This is my idea of a delicious meal." He tore into the first plastic-wrapped anpan and took a large bite, and his laugh at Tetsu-kun's dubious expression sprayed crumbs everywhere. Tetsu-kun wrinkled his nose and began to complain about the mess.

Satsuki watched them, smiling, and wondered how much longer that particular development was going to take. Then she turned her attention back to her phone and those forum posts.

Anything worth doing was worth doing carefully and thoroughly. Between the turn to studying for exams and working with Wakamatsu-san and Harasawa-kantoku to begin sorting out the new shape of the team and figure out how to shuffle players around to best fill the new gaps in the starting line-up, plus beginning to assemble lists of middle-schoolers who might be solid recruitment opportunities, it took Satsuki three days to sort through all the information any of the members of her forums had ever uncovered regarding Imayoshi-san and then decide which things were truth and which merely rumor.

At the end of all that, to her deep frustration, she had not uncovered anything that she hadn't known before. Imayoshi-san didn't have any other romantic entanglements with girls or with other boys and seemed to be precisely the intelligent, somewhat underhanded captain that she'd come to know and respect. She hadn't been wrong, as far as she could tell, and if she had missed some factor, she did not know what it might have been.

That—made her just a little bit angry.

The afternoon after she'd come to the end of her new analysis, she caught Dai-chan before he could head to basketball practice. "I may be a little bit late today," she informed him. "Make my excuses for me, please?"

Dai-chan blinked at her. "Sure," he said, beginning to grin. "Satsuki, are you skipping practice?"

"I have something to take care of," Satsuki informed him. She lifted her chin. "It's important."

Dai-chan whistled. "It must be." He chuckled. "I'll let 'em know, I guess."

"Thank you." Satsuki watched him head off in the direction of the gym, set her jaw, and headed in the other direction—towards the library, where she was reliably informed that Imayoshi-san had taken to studying in the afternoons after school had let out for the day.

There were relatively few people in the library that afternoon, probably because it was the end of the week. Most of them were third-years wearing the haunted, desperate look that everyone worried about university entrance exams adopted. They paid Satsuki no mind as she prowled through the room. Imayoshi-san was not at any of the long worktables in the central area of the library; he had retreated to one of the small tables that were tucked away in the corners of the library, back in the privacy of the stacks. Susa was sitting with him and was actually the first one to glance up and see her.

If she weren't mistaken, it was a look of relief that crossed his face when he caught sight of her. He closed his book and notebook and reached for his bag to put them away. He stood, at which point Imayoshi-san noticed his activities. "Where are you going?"

"Somewhere else," Susa said, bland, and clapped him on the shoulder as he tipped a nod in Satsuki's direction.

Imayoshi-san looked up; the only thing that betrayed his surprise at seeing her was the faint widening of his eyes. "Momoi-chan," he said as Susa made his escape. "This is an unexpected pleasure. What can I do for you—something for the club?"

"I'm not here about the club." Satsuki came around the table and seated herself in the space that Susa had just so helpfully cleared. It gave her the height advantage on him and forced him to tip his head back to look at her. "I have some things to say to you."

She'd known him long enough to be able to read the wariness in his smile. "Do you, now?"

"I do." Satsuki took a deep breath. "Apparently, if you want anything done around here, you have to do it yourself, so I want to know—do you like me or not?"

Imayoshi-san's expression went so blank that it could have been used for a mask. "Well, of course I like you, Momoi-chan, you're a very likable person—"

Satsuki jabbed his shoulder, stiff-fingered and hard enough to make him wince. "I want you to be honest with me," she said, angry, which made it difficult to keep her voice down in deference to the fact that this was the library. "I'm not asking whether you think I'm a pleasant person to be around, I'm asking you whether you think I'm a girlfriend kind of person. Am I?"

Imayoshi-san took his glasses off and began to polish the lenses industriously. "I reckon you will be one of these days for some young man or another, but I don't figure that's me."

Satsuki stared down at him, that flat refusal lodging somewhere behind her sternum and aching there, but—"Look me in the eye and tell me that." He was too fixated on his stupid glasses and wasn't looking at her, not directly, and that was always a sign that he didn't want to talk about some subject.

"Momoi-chan, I really don't think—"

She jabbed his shoulder again, right in the joint where he would feel it. "I like you," she said, enunciating each angry syllable clearly. "I want to be your girlfriend and I have wanted that for months. I have been flirting with you for ages and you have been flirting right back, so if you can honestly say that you don't like me in the romantic sense, then I want you to have the balls to look me in the face and say so."

Imayoshi-san's knuckles went white on the frames of his glasses; he took a deep breath. "I'm not sure this is—"

Satsuki cut across whatever temporizing thing he was trying to say. "Yes or no, Imayoshi-san. Do you like me or not?"

He looked up, face strange and bare without his glasses, and he was starting to look as irritated as she felt. "Yes, but—"

Satsuki didn't wait for him to finish that. "Finally." His shoulder was solid under her palm when she gripped it; he had just enough time to look startled before she leaned down and kissed him.

It wasn't a great kiss; the angle was strange and Imayoshi-san was too surprised to get into the spirit of it when Satsuki pressed her lips against his, but she didn't suppose it mattered too much. With any luck there would be other kisses later to make up for it. Satsuki kissed him until he made a sound against her mouth, and then she pulled back, pleased to see that she'd definitely caught him by surprise with that. Before he could try to regain control of the conversation, she plowed forward. "The tournament is over, and you've retired from the club. You do not have a girlfriend or a boyfriend or any sort of long-standing romantic attachment to anything besides basketball itself, and we have that in common. I will concede that studying for exams will certainly take up a lot of your time for the next few weeks, but I'll be busy with that, too. Besides, exams don't last forever. You're planning on attending school in Tokyo, so there's no long-distance factor to consider. There aren't any other problems that I can see, but I suppose I'll open the floor for objections now."

Imayoshi-san had listened to the list of possible obstacles and impediments with a strange expression, something a bit wry and sardonic. "And the fact that I am looking at Tokyo universities doesn't bother you at all?"

Satsuki waited for him to elaborate on that, but he seemed to feel that the question was self-explanatory. "No. Should it?"

Imayoshi-san put his glasses back on and sighed. "I'm two years older than you, Momoi-chan."

"Yes, and...?" When he continued to look at her, clearly being patient, Satsuki frowned at him. "Is that it? You're two years older than I am? That's your objection?"

He closed his eyes and took another deep breath. "I'm older than you, I was your team captain and your senpai, and I have a duty not to pressure you into doing anything that you might later regret—will you stop that?"

Satsuki jabbed him a fourth time for good measure; he caught her hand and held it away from his shoulder. "Do I look like I'm being pressured into something I might regret?" she demanded. "Do I look like I would let myself be pressured into anything I don't damn well want to do? Stop being so stupid. I know you're smarter than this, which is why I was attracted to you in the first place!" She scowled at him. "Although if you keep on being an idiot about deciding what's best for me without asking me what I think, I may change my mind."

Imayoshi-san looked up at her, blinking a bit as though he hadn't expected that kind of anger. His smile tilted just a bit, turning rueful. "It does sort of seem like all the pressure at the moment is coming from you." He paused, hesitating a bit. "Are you really sure that you wouldn't rather have someone else? From your own class, perhaps?"

"Quite sure," Satsuki said firmly. "None of them are you."

His smile went softer and warmer. "Now that's the kind of thing that would give a man an exaggerated sort of ego." He changed his grip on her hand, wrapping his fingers around hers and sliding his thumb against the inside of her wrist. Satsuki shivered at the lightness of that touch. "I do have to say... none of the girls in my class are you."

"You don't say," Satsuki said, but it lacked some of the acid edge that she'd meant for it to.

"I do say." Imayoshi-san stroked his thumb up over her palm and rubbed little circles there. "If I apologize for being presumptuous, will you consider giving me the chance to make it up to you?"

"I might do that," she said, her breath coming a bit quicker. "It depends on the apology."

"I see." He was laughing now, silent behind the lenses of his glasses. "In that case... please forgive me for being a presumptuous idiot, Momoi-chan. It was only that I couldn't dare imagine being so lucky as to have my deep regard for you reciprocated when our stations in life are so different."

Satsuki stared down at him, absorbing that. "I have no idea what possesses me to find sarcasm sexy," she sighed. "Also, it amazes me that you can have that many scruples for someone with a reputation for being a cold-hearted bastard."

Imayoshi-san grinned at her. "What can I say? I am vast and contain multitudes." He stroked her palm and looked up at her, beseeching. "Am I forgiven yet?"

"Provisionally." Satsuki couldn't quite help herself—she smiled at him. "Don't do that again."

"Perish the thought." He drew her hand closer and brushed his lips across her knuckles. His breath was warm against her skin and made her shiver again. "Now, about the part where I make it up to you..."

As she had hoped, their second kiss was much better than the first.


As always, comments are a thing of joy forever!

Date: 19 May 2013 04:26 (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)

I first stumbled upon your work while looking for Alpha Pair fics...and eventually everything else of yours became a favourite too.

I just wanted to say that even though I have my own pairing biases for Kurobas, you're one of the few that really open up the floor for me. I'm able to digest and—more importantly—thoroughly enjoy any pairing/scenario you create, because you're just that good.

I wish I could properly express my compliments…it sounded a lot less lame in my head. (^p^);;

In any case, thank you and keep doing what you do! I look forward to your next concoctions.

P.S. I also really loved Takao the sometimes-cat.


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Lys ap Adin


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