Aomine Daiki was a cynical sort of guy these days, so he wasn’t really surprised when Imayoshi-san started showing up at club practices as soon as the national exams were over. Imayoshi-san was a bit like Daiki, really; he got bored without a challenge. Besides, Wakamatsu seemed happy enough to have his ‘advice’, so who cared?
At least that was what Daiki thought until Imayoshi-san decided his next challenge would be Daiki.
“We’re what?” he asked, really, really hoping he’d heard that wrong.
Imayoshi-san spread his hands, smiling innocently. “It will be the best thing for everyone, don’t you think?”
“Wait, wait.” Kagami was frowning a little, but not enough yet. “Us against everyone? You mean… me and Kuroko and Aomine against the rest of the whole club?”
“Only the first string,” Imayoshi-san assured him, as if that made anything more reasonable. “Probably only ten or so. So they get to practice stopping the kind of opponents you are, and you get a bigger challenge than usual.” He had the gall to smile even wider at Daiki and finish softly, “You like challenges, right?”
Daiki very definitely wasn’t looking at Tetsu to see what he might think about playing together again after the way Daiki had left him out in the cold their third year. Just thinking about that, about Tetsu’s reasons for turning to Seirin and Kagami, made Daiki twitchy, so he’d been trying not to. So much for that plan.
“This isn’t your business,” he snarled at Imayoshi.
“Whose is it, then?” Imayoshi-san asked, head cocked as if he were genuinely curious.
Imayoshi slanted a glance to the side, where Daiki knew Tetsu was standing. “No one’s?”
The urge to violence surged up in Daiki’s veins, like it hadn’t since summer, and he took one long step forward, hands curling into fists.
“Aomine-kun.” Tetsu’s voice cut across his fury like a dash of cold water in the face. “I don’t mind.” Tetsu stepped up beside him, looking up at him quietly. “Do you?”
“It isn’t…!” Daiki took a breath with one last glare at that bastard Imayoshi for pushing them into this. “Are you sure?” Sure it was all right, sure they could even try this after so long with Daiki playing solo, sure Tetsu had forgiven him that much, sure he’d forgiven Tetsu for taking a new partner. He was going to wring Imayoshi’s fucking neck for making him ask these things in front of other people, no matter how obliquely.
“We can try.” While Daiki tried not to wince at the ruthless honesty of that answer, Tetsu looked questioningly at his current partner. “Kagami-kun?”
Kagami was watching the two of them warily. “I dunno what you two are going on about now, but yeah. We can give it a shot.” He eyed Daiki more pointedly. “As long as you’re not an asshole about hogging the ball.”
“Tetsu decides,” Daiki said flatly. Didn’t Kagami at least know that much, after playing with Tetsu this long? Well, maybe he just didn’t think Daiki had known it, because he was looking more thoughtful. Daiki supposed he couldn’t completely blame Kagami for doubting that Daiki would follow Tetsu’s passes, considering he’d never seen them play together. He was in a bad enough mood over all this to glare at Kagami anyway.
Kagami just nodded, ignoring the glare. “Okay, sounds good.”
Imayoshi-san actually clapped his fucking hands. “Excellent! May I join in for this one?” he asked, turning to Wakamatsu.
“Might as well.” Their new captain looked sardonic, like he knew perfectly well this was an Imayoshi-special bit of manipulation, which suggested he had more brain cells than Daiki usually gave him credit for. He raised his voice and yelled, “Okay, first string out on the court; if you ever wanted revenge on Aomine, today’s your lucky day!”
Tense as he was, Daiki still snorted disdainfully. As if.
“I don’t think we should allow that, if we’re playing on the same side for this game,” Tetsu said, thoughtfully but with a glint in his eye, and Kagami grinned, cracking his knuckles.
“Yeah, I’m thinking not.”
A corner of Daiki’s mouth curled up, despite it all, as that familiar merciless attitude wrapped around him like a well-worn jacket. “All right. Let’s show ’em, then.”
As the three of them strode onto the court, he tried hard to remember how it had felt to play with Tetsu before their opponents had all given up and dropped him into the dark. What he remembered most, right now, was how Tetsu had valued their combination. Their teamwork. Exactly what Daiki was out of practice with. This was going to be more than a little strange, he was pretty sure.
Taiga was getting more and more weirded out, as this odd practice game got going. It wasn’t that they had no outside at all, even with Kuroko as their sort-of-point-guard. It wasn’t that Aomine was a a ball-hog, because with at least three marks on each of them at all times even he had to pass now and then. It wasn’t that half the ‘team’ against them now knew exactly how Kuroko operated and were a lot harder for him to get past than any other players would be. It wasn’t even watching their opponents’ double size team trip over each other now and then, though that was really funny and kind of distracting when it happened.
No. It was that Aomine was stumbling.
He kept hesitating in the middle of a move, jerking up short for a split second, which was all it took to get him marked again most of the time. The more he watched, the more Taiga thought Aomine was fighting his own reflexes, hesitating because he was trying to do two things at once. His foot would shift to cut while his hand shifted to pass, and neither happened. He’d already been called twice for holding the ball too long. Touou’s pink-haired menace of a manager was chewing her lip as she watched.
And Kuroko was tense.
Taiga knew Kuroko and Aomine had a lot of history to work out. He wasn’t throwing stones, not after Kuroko had been so good about him and Tatsuya. But he was getting pretty tired of watching Aomine fight with himself instead of the opponents. When the score was flipped over to show the other side ten points up on them, he finally gave up and stalked over to Aomine.
“Do you want to win this damn game or not?” he snapped, hauling Aomine nose-to-nose by the front of his shirt. “Unless you’ve lost your mind and decided losing is actually fun get your damn head in the game and trust your team to want to win too!”
Aomine had his mouth open to snarl back, and it stayed that way for a moment. Finally, he broke Taiga’s grip absently, looking down at Kuroko. “Interesting partner you found,” he said at last, almost mild.
Kuroko was smiling. “I thought so, too.”
Aomine blew out a breath and ran a hand through his hair. “So. You want to win too, huh?”
Taiga rolled his eyes; sometimes he thought there must have been something in the water at Teikou. Asshole extract or brainless juice or something. “What the hell do you think?”
“I wasn’t asking you.”
Something dark flickered through Kuroko’s eyes as he looked up at Aomine. Quietly, he answered, “Did you think I wouldn’t?”
Aomine winced just a little. “Yeah, okay. Sorry.” After another long moment of him and Kuroko looking at each other he said softly, “Trust you to want to win. I can do that, yeah.”
Kuroko’s shoulders finally settled into their normal line, and he nodded to Aomine like they were sealing a deal.
“You guys still playing or what?” Wakamatsu called, and Aomine bared his teeth.
The word hit the air of the court like a challenge, and Taiga smiled. That was more like it. He grabbed the ball and threw it in to Kuroko as Aomine loped back down the court. Kuroko spun and the ball screamed down the court after him. Aomine caught it, feinted forward, left, passed it fluidly back to Kuroko, cut past two of his markers and caught the ball again.
All without even looking around to see if Kuroko was there.
Taiga felt a little like he had the first time he’d seen Kuroko on the court, from the sidelines. Stunned breathless just because what he saw was that fine. If this was what Kuroko had been used to, with Aomine, no wonder he’d been so furious to lose it, so determined to get it back, so tense when it had looked like Aomine might not be able to get back here himself. Almost—almost—Taiga wanted to hold back, to not break that flow between them.
But Aomine slammed the ball in and Kuroko stepped into the path of the other side’s throw in, perfect and inevitable, and it was Taiga he turned to as he spun to pass the ball. As if he’d known already exactly where Taiga would be.
Taiga laughed and ducked past Aomine’s screen to drive for the basket.
Many people saw, and remarked on, how Tetsuya supported his teammates, how their strength increased as soon as he was on the court. Tetsuya thought he might be the only one who really understood how the reverse was also true. It was subtler for him, of course, but just as absolute. Without the trust of his teammates, his game was blunted, even if, mechanically, nothing seemed to be changed. His style of play required him to be aware of everyone on the court, to hold them in his mental hands at all times, and he needed his teammates to reach back to him before he could grasp them firmly. If they didn’t, if they hesitated, his game broke.
The reverse side of that, of course, was that when they did reach back nothing could break his hold on them. Nothing at all.
He could almost feel the weight of Kagami and Aomine in his hands, the way he could the weight of the ball. This, he knew, was why his game matched so well with Aomine’s. This was how Aomine felt the court itself, the space of it and the people in it. Kagami, on the other hand, he matched with because Kagami gave trust the way he needed it, gave it as easily as breathing. Tetsuya had never been more grateful for that than he was today. He was wringing wet and his breath was rasping in his lungs, he could feel the burn in his legs that would turn to watery, trembling muscles soon, and he never wanted to stop. The ball burned through his hands, heavy with the ferocity of his partners, and he gave his own fire to it and sent it back to them. Kagami’s teeth were bared as he jumped for the basket, kicking off the grip of gravity.
Aomine was laughing.
Tetsuya didn’t want this to stop.
All games stopped some time, though, and this one was only supposed to last twenty minutes. When Touou’s coach called the end, Tetsuya braced his hands on his shaking knees, head down, gasping for breath. The corners of his mouth curved up uncontrollably.
They had won by eighteen points.
“All right, there?” Imayoshi-san asked softly, stopping beside him for a moment. Tetsuya slowly pulled himself back upright, hauling himself up by his pride.
“I know how to pace myself with players like them.”
“I’m sure you do, when you bother to,” Imayoshi-san murmured, giving him a cheerful smile completely at odds with the implied scolding.
Tetsuya lifted his chin a little. “You were the one who started this, Imayoshi-san.” He hadn’t missed that Imayoshi-san had known Aomine wouldn’t want to play like this. He didn’t have any problem with Aomine’s ex-captain looking after the development of his players, but he didn’t think it was reasonable to then object to what Tetsuya had to do to make it work.
“That’s why I’m saying something.” Imayoshi-san looked at Tetsuya for a long moment and finally shook his head, obviously amused. “More stubborn than both of them put together, aren’t you, despite all the polite words? Well, I suppose I can’t disapprove. Just use a little of it to look after yourself, too.” He patted Tetsuya’s shoulder and wandered off to where Wakamatsu-san was talking to the coach.
Just in time for Tetsuya to lose his breath and stumble a step forward under the combined impact of an arm around his neck and a hand slapping his back.
“That was fantastic!”
Tetsuya turned to see both his partners grinning, lit up with victory. More than one kind of victory, today, he thought, just as Imayoshi-san had intended. Perhaps… perhaps he could have one more for himself—for himself and for his partners. He smiled back at them, and held out both fists.
There was one frozen moment while Aomine wavered again, the way he had earlier in the game, and Kagami glanced between them with sudden hesitation, while Aomine’s eyes cut toward Kagami and away, darkening, while Tetsuya told his heart sternly that it was too soon to feel chilled, this could still work out…
The relief when Aomine and Kagami both reached out and bumped their fists against his nearly made his knees give out. He might even have showed it, because there was a flash of worry in Kagami’s expression and a flash of what might be shame in Aomine’s. Tetsuya straightened his spine, as contained and sure as possible, and let himself feel a softer wave of relief when they both relaxed. As they all turned toward the wall where bags and water bottles were tossed, Tetsuya’s gaze crossed Imayoshi-san’s, and the impressed arch of his brows added a sharper edge to Tetsuya’s satisfaction.
Whatever he and Kagami and Aomine might become to each other now, Tetsuya would make it work out.
Daiki lay on his bed, that night, arms folded behind his head, staring up at the shadows of the ceiling. Playing on a team with Tetsu again, however irregular, had been strange. Hard. It had hurt, trying to remember how they had fit together, trying to move like that again, feeling how far he’d come from that. He’d felt like he was groping for something in the dark, something that he thought should be there but wasn’t sure of. Looking at Tetsu’s shoulders drawing tighter and tighter, at Tetsu’s carefully blank expression, had made something curl up small in his chest. And then Kagami, of all people, had been the one to see it, to see what Daiki was missing, what he hadn’t remembered because he remembered too clearly why Tetsu had left.
Tetsu loved to win.
Tetsu wouldn’t hold back for any reason, during a game. He would be there.
It had been like a bone, no, like the whole world snapping back into place. And that had hurt, too, but the perfect balance of knowing Tetsu would be there on the court was stronger. It was so good to feel that. So good that, when the game ended, Daiki had wanted to keep feeling it however he could.
He’d almost kissed Tetsu right there in the middle of the gym.
He’d felt Tetsu lean into his arm, too, for one moment; he didn’t think Tetsu would have minded. But Kagami had been there, and Daiki hadn’t held on when Tetsu stepped free, and Tetsu had held out a fist to each of them. To both of them.
Daiki scowled up at the ceiling. He wanted to keep feeling that bond with Tetsu, but Kagami obviously had to be taken into account. This might take some thinking about.
Taiga watched Kuroko out of the corner of his eye, on the ride home, wondering.
Thinking about it now, he was stunned by how Aomine had opened up in the second half of their game. At the time, in the heat of the moment, it has seemed perfectly natural, but he’d looked so different like that. Not innocent, Taiga nearly snorted at the very thought, but… open. Lit up and laughing, and yeah there’d been an edge of wildness in it but hell, it wasn’t any more than Taiga felt in himself when a game heated up. What there hadn’t been was the desperation that he remembered from the spring and winter, or the cold containment he remembered seeing off the court. When they’d both pounced on Kuroko after the match ended, Taiga had almost expected that open, grinning Aomine to pull Kuroko all the way against him and mess up his hair or something. And then, again, Taiga had had a moment of wondering whether he should step back a little.
When Kuroko had turned and held out his fists to them, and Aomine had checked so abruptly… then Taiga had very nearly stepped forward instead, to catch his partner. He hadn’t quite realized how good he’d gotten at reading Kuroko until he’d seen the hope in Kuroko’s small smile, the fear and determination in his eyes at Aomine’s hesitation. He’d wanted to whack Aomine one for being such an idiot. He’d wanted…
He’d wanted to hold Kuroko.
Alex had teased him before about being overprotective. He supposed she’d been right. But wasn’t it only fair? Didn’t Kuroko protect him, all of the team really but Taiga especially, protect his game and his heart from whatever the hell had happened to Aomine?
Now he was wondering. Would Kuroko let Taiga protect him in return?
Tetsuya parted from Kagami with a quiet nod and continued on his way home, thoughtful.
He knew both his partners well, had to know them to play the way he did with them, and it wasn’t as though either of them was being especially subtle right now. The way their shoulders had pressed against his as they’d all sat on the sidelines drinking and cooling down before the next drill, the way Aomine had returned again and again to drape an arm around his neck, the way Kagami had stayed close all the way home… it wasn’t something Tetsuya had thought much about before, because Kagami was so casual and rough and Aomine had been separated from him. But he thought about it now, about the new layer to his awareness of their bodies next to his. About Taiga’s warmth and Daiki’s intensity.
Perhaps… yes. Perhaps he would like to hold that part of them, too.
The lights were on when he got home, and he called as he toed off his shoes, “I’m home!”
“Welcome back,” his mother’s voice answered from the living room, cheerful despite the worn edge.
Tetsuya looked in to see his mother, still in a tailored business suit, leaning back in her arm chair with her slippered feet resting on the table. “Did you just get home?”
She smiled, small and soft and weary, the way she only ever did when they were alone. “Just half an hour ago, yes. My flight out of Shanghai was delayed.”
Tetsuya nodded and padded through to the kitchen to pour two glasses of water and a smaller glass of her Yamazaki whisky. His mother laughed softly when he brought the tray out to the table and handed her the small glass. “I have the best son in the world.” She ran her fingers gently through his hair. “And you’re smiling. Did something good happen today?”
Tetsuya let the smile grow, just for her, looking up from where he knelt beside the table. “Yes. I think it did.”
“Aomine-kun?” she guessed. “Today was a Touou day, wasn’t it?”
“Aomine-kun… and Kagami-kun,” he agreed softly, looking down at his fingers wound around his water glass.
His mother was silent for a long moment. Finally, she touched his cheek, fingers light. “Be careful with yourself, Tetsuya.”
He’d known for a long time that he had learned to read people from his mother.
“I will be,” he promised, looking up again. “I found them for each other, but… they’re both my partners.” Personally, he couldn’t see any good reason to let either of them go.
A sparkle lit her eyes, at that. “That’s my boy.” She leaned down and kissed his forehead. “Hold on to what’s yours, and never mind the ones who say you shouldn’t.”
He nodded and slid up onto the couch beside her chair. “So how did your trip go? Your texts had a lot of grimace-faces in them.”
She flung herself back in her chair and took a substantial swallow of her whisky. “Every time I have to deal with one of Guotai Junan, it’s the same…!”
Tetsuya leaned his chin on his hand and listened. Not that he knew a thing about investment banking or corporate contract law, but this was what he and his mother did—listened for each other. It was also, now he thought about it, what he and Kagami did. Perhaps it was what he and Aomine could learn to do properly, now.
The thought made him smile.
A/N: In hanakotoba, peonies indicate courage.