The door of Tetsuya’s classroom slammed open and Aomine stood glowering in the doorway. “Tetsu!”
Ah. He’d finally heard. Tetsuya put down his sandwich and waited while Aomine stalked through his scattering classmates to slam a piece of paper down on Tetsuya’s desk. The header, as much of it as was visible under Aomine’s hand, said Sei. “What the hell is this?” Aomine demanded.
“A letter,” he observed, just to get things rolling properly.
“Damn it, Tetsu, what did you say to my parents?” Aomine ran a rough hand through his hair, throwing himself down backward into the desk in front of Tetsuya’s. “They went and registered me with this place already, without even asking me!”
“You’ve rejected four top schools already, left to yourself,” Tetsuya pointed out, as he had pointed out to Aomine’s parents. “Seirin has a good reputation, but they don’t chase after athletes with recruiters. Your parents feel they’ll be less likely to indulge you too much.”
Aomine glowered at him. “You want to drag me off to some no-name school that doesn’t care about their sports programs? Tetsu, what the hell?”
“Their basketball club just formed last year, but they advanced to the finals of the Kantou preliminaries,” Tetsuya offered. He hadn’t chosen Seirin on a whim, after all. He’d looked carefully for a school that might help him reach Aomine again.
Aomine flicked dismissive fingers. “Yeah, I looked up their record, too. They got trashed by the high-school bracket’s top three. And then got trashed some more in winter. It was a decent start, but either it was a fluke or they don’t have any staying power. They aren’t in our range at all.”
“Then won’t it be a challenge?” Aomine hesitated at that, and Tetsuya felt the first real tingle of hope that this would work. “Isn’t that what you want?”
“Mm.” Aomine looked out the window, face still. “…you’re coming?”
“Of course.” Tetsuya made himself smile a little; if it was painful to do it after the tournament season they’d just had, no one else had to know that. Aomine did still want him there, and that was another grain of hope after the way the whole team had turned away from him on the court. And if doing this ran against the parting orders Akashi had given them… well it wasn’t as though Tetsuya was feeling either obedient or charitable toward his ex-captain these days. Besides, Tetsuya was a supporting player. Akashi had said so himself, repeatedly. As long as the light was divided, it shouldn’t matter where the shadow went. At least, that would be Tetsuya’s story if anyone asked.
Tetsuya wasn’t giving up his partner, or his game, without a fight.
Finally, Aomine snorted and wadded up the letter to stuff it into his pocket. “Guess it’s too late to be complaining anyway, since my parents already signed me up. Fine. We’ll see what this newbie club looks like.” He stood and stretched, mouth twisted into a half smile. “Maybe you’ll be right, and it’ll be a challenge to face the rest of the guys with a half-assed team.”
Tetsuya thought about the match footage he’d asked Momoi-san to find for him, and the straight, unbowed shoulders of Seirin’s players leaving the court, even after defeat. This time, he smile was truer.
“Yes,” he said quietly. “Let’s see.”
Aomine slouched against the side of the school message board as Tetsuya ran a finger down the map of club tables. “So? Where are we going?”
“Further down on the right.” Tetsuya turned and looked through the sway and shuffle of other new students, and older students talking up their personal clubs. Yes, there was the table they wanted, down in a quiet corner as one might expect for a small, new club. There was a student at it signing up already, though, which was encouraging. “There,” he pointed.
Aomine glanced over the top of the crowd and didn’t move. “Already got someone, huh? Well, at least it won’t be just us. Satsuki, go grab us some forms.”
Momoi swung her bag briskly and whacked him in the side. “I’m not your manager again until we get joined up. Get your own.”
Aomine pouted at her, and that was familiar enough to make Tetsuya smile. “Come with me, Momoi-san, and I’ll get them while you talk to the senpai. Aomine-kun can be left out if he wants.”
Momoi giggled and linked her arm with his as they slipped through the crowd, leaving Aomine looking indignant by the message board. He steered them through the press with a light hand on her elbow and let her take the seat the tall red-head was just vacating. “Hello!” she nearly sparkled at the slight girl and the boy with glasses sitting behind the table, and the second boy hanging over the end of it looking like he’d just gotten off some kind of hair-raising amusement park ride. “We’d like to sign up for the basketball club!”
The girl smiled, open and pleased, and passed over a paper form. “Would you like to manage the club? That’s wonderful, we haven’t been able to find a manager before this!”
Momoi smiled her having-secrets smile and plucked a pencil out of the cup on the table. “Yes. I think I’ll be able to help out a lot.”
Tetsuya took two forms and two pencils and made his way back to Aomine, handing him one. “Fill it out properly,” he added, firmly, “or I won’t take it back for you.”
Aomine sniffed. “Why should I care whether I have to drop it off on the way past?” He ran a quick eye down the form and paused. “Ah.”
Tetsuya enjoyed the small moment of triumph as he meticulously filled in his name and his reason for joining. And his previous experience. Momoi could probably pass through without causing too much excitement, if only because so few people knew what she’d really done for Teikou. But two Teikou starting players? There would almost certainly be a fuss, unless Tetsuya was the one to slip the forms unnoticeably back onto the table. He nodded, satisfied, as Aomine heaved a sigh and scribbled down all his information, holding the paper against the back of the message board.
They picked Momoi up on the way past, and she waved her fingers at the girl, who was looking a little exasperated, and the boy, who was looking a little disheveled, like maybe he’d been smacked by his companion at some point. Momoi-san was grinning as they walked away.
“What did you do, Satsuki?” Aomine wanted to know, eyeing her sidelong.
She clasped her hands behind her, wide-eyed. “Nothing much. It’s just that Riko-kantoku is really easy to tease.”
“Kantoku?” Aomine echoed, looking back at the table, startled. “Wait. You mean… that girl is the coach around here?” He glared at Tetsuya. “I told you this school was half-assed!”
“Aida Riko,” Momoi murmured as they climbed the low steps to the school’s front doors. “Daughter of Aida Kagetora, who played center for the Japanese national team for five years. He retired to work as a very successful trainer in his own sports gym, and his daughter is following in those footsteps.”
“It will never not be creepy, the way you know this stuff,” Aomine grumbled, but he didn’t complain about their new team any more. Momoi winked at Tetsuya behind his back as they went in and started looking for their shoe lockers. Tetsuya gave her a tiny nod back; they would make this work.
And at least, this way, Aomine was forewarned and didn’t do more than sigh when their new coach ordered all the first year recruits to strip, at practice that afternoon. He did roll his eyes when Momoi, standing on the sidelines with a fresh pad of paper in her clipboard, made an interested Oohhhh sound and the entire club blushed as one. Tetsuya was mildly amused, himself, until the coach looked right past him and asked where he was. Then he sighed a little. He’d forgotten the occasional drawbacks of breaking in a new team.
When Aomine and Momoi chorused, “He’s right there,” and pointed to him, though, he smiled. They were still together. They would make this work.
He felt another flash of hope when Aida-san got to Aomine and paused, frowning. “Aomine-kun,” she finally said, hands on her hips. “Why are you in such bad shape?”
“Bad shape?” their new captain echoed, startled. “What do you mean?”
Their coach knelt, one hand lightly on Aomine’s knee, studying his legs more closely while Aomine looked a bit flustered. “His figures are incredible. Off the chart, really. But there’s a lot more muscle deterioration than I’d expect for just the off-season.” She stood and frowned at him more fiercely. “You haven’t been keeping up your training at all!”
Aomine shrugged one shoulder. “I win without it.”
“That isn’t the point!” Aida-san shook a finger at him. “You’re going to injure yourself if you keep playing the way your team did without keeping your motion drills up. I’m not having one of my players injuring himself through sheer idiocy! You’re barred from full-speed plays and any practice matches we have until you’ve built up your joint strength again.”
“I’m what?” Aomine stared at her in absolute disbelief. Tetsuya exchanged a quick glance with Momoi, who was wide-eyed and looked impressed. Their old coach and captain had set limits on Aomine when he practiced against the rest of the starting team, but no one had ever barred him from matches.
“Don’t argue with the coach about training,” Hyuuga-san told him flatly. “If she says you’re in danger of injury, that’s all there is to it. You keep her training schedule or I’ll pull you out of the official matches, too.”
Aomine stiffened at that, and Tetsuya let his breath out, a little wondering at how easy it had been. That was the one threat that would work. The one Akashi would never have allowed. And Hyuuga-san had delivered it without blinking, clearly in earnest.
“All right,” Aida-san clapped her hands. “Let’s get started! Today you can get a taste of the kind of training we do!”
Aomine sulked through the drills, and Tetsuya stayed close to him. Aomine ignored him, though, obviously remembering exactly who was responsible for him being here. When practice was over, and they met Momoi at the doors, Aomine said, “I’ll walk you home today, Satsuki.” He still wasn’t looking at Tetsuya.
Momoi glanced between them, worried, but Tetsuya nodded silently. He wouldn’t put up with being ignored for too much longer, but it suited him well enough to be on his own tonight.
There was someone else he’d been watching, today. He made a guess at where someone like Kagami, who was almost as impatient with the endless drills as Aomine had been, would go after a practice like today’s. Sure enough, he found Kagami shooting basket after basket in the little court at one end of the park between school and the nearest station. He opened the gate and greeted his new teammate quietly. “Kagami-kun.”
Kagami jumped and yelped, and Tetsuya waited for him to collect himself again. “You.” Kagami shook back sweat-damp hair, tucking his ball into the crook of one arm. “Well, I guess that works; I wanted to talk to one of you. I keep hearing about this ‘Generation of Miracles’, but when I came back from the States last year the level of all the middle school basketball I saw was pathetic. So, you’re from that team, right? Are you really that good?”
Tetsuya nodded to himself; Kagami had reminded him of Aomine, earlier, throwing himself into even drills like he was throwing himself over the edge of something, dissatisfied only because it wasn’t enough for him. Kagami was the type who played for intense games.
“Teikou never lost,” he said plainly. “Not once, the whole three years Aomine-kun and the rest played.”
Kagami made a disgruntled sound. “That doesn’t tell me anything. Maybe your opponents were all just weak.” He caught the ball again, bouncing it fluidly. “Play me. I want to see for myself.”
Tetsuya shrugged and agreed. It would be a good chance for him to measure Kagami’s game and get a sense of his nature.
They made it for about five minutes before Kagami blew up at him.
“Of course I’m not going to win,” Tetsuya told him absently, turning over in his mind what he’d seen. “That’s not the kind of player I am.” Kagami’s game burned hot; Kagami obviously loved it, and gave all of himself to it. That was good. But he was still unfocused. Tetsuya guessed that he played by responding to his opponents, shaping his game to against theirs. He’d ask Momoi, after she’d seen him play, to be sure. That kind of reactive play meant Kagami was only as strong as the opponents he’d met so far. It meant Kagami couldn’t match any of Tetsuya’s old team right now, but it might also mean he could grow to do so.
Kagami stopped yelling and sighed, slinging his uniform jacket over his shoulders. “Never mind. Just… look, take some advice and quit basketball. However much team effort you try to put in, the fact is it takes talent to play and win. You don’t have any.”
That jarred Tetsuya out of his thoughts, sent his mind flashing back to the day he’d said almost exactly the same thing of himself. Said it to Aomine, and had Aomine convince him to stay, convince him that his love of the game was the only crucial part to being a good player.
If he said those words to Aomine today, Aomine would probably agree, just like Kagami was right now.
The thought stiffened Tetsuya’s spine. “No,” he answered calmly. “I love the game, and I’m not leaving it. Besides, like I said, that’s not the kind of player I am. I’m a shadow. In a game, you’ll see.” Kagami frowned at him, puzzled, and Tetsuya tipped his head, considering his new teammate. He thought he knew what he needed to do, now, to make use of the strength Kagami did have. “You asked about how good the Generation of Miracles is. Now I’ve seen you play up close, I can tell you this. With your current game, you couldn’t even reach their feet.”
Kagami bristled. “What?”
“If you play Aomine-kun, you’ll see.” If they were lucky, Kagami’s fire would start Aomine’s again. If Kagami was the kind of player who loved hard games, who grew against tough opponents, this would be good for him, too. And Tetsuya might finally get his partner and his game back. If Aomine had someone to play against who didn’t give up easily, maybe he would start to come out of the dark again. “If you’re strong enough,” Tetsuya added, “you’ll have all the challenging games you might want. And when we play together, you’ll understand how I was part of that team.”
He had his own pride, after all. He would make them all understand, his old teammates and his new ones, that his game was strong in its own right. He hadn’t chosen Seirin only for Aomine’s benefit; this was a place that suited him. Seirin was a team that could use and would value the way Tetsuya could make them stronger, far more than Teikou had valued it by the end. And Kagami had potential. He had… light. He might become strong enough to be a real partner to Tetsuya.
Aomine wouldn’t like it, if that happened.
Tetsuya’s eyes narrowed as he pulled his uniform jacket back on. If Aomine didn’t like it, then maybe he’d stop acting like such an ass and act like a partner again.
Yes, this might be a place that suited Tetsuya perfectly.