Taiga swatted his alarm clock into silence, rolled over, and smiled up at the ceiling. He woke up with a smile a lot, lately.
Okay, so his strongest teammate was a total jerk, and he honestly thought Kuroko liked scaring the liver out of people by popping up out of nowhere, and their coach was clearly some kind of demon. He could deal with all of that and more, because basketball was interesting again. A challenge again, and more than a challenge. A bone-cracking, tendon-snapping, nerve-burning hurdle to get over, like it hadn’t been for over a year since he came back to this country.
Aomine said he was the best, but Kuroko said the rest of them weren’t actually much weaker. And a few of them were in nearby schools. Taiga couldn’t wait for the tournaments to start.
And in the meantime, there was Aomine, who might be a deadbeat when he was sulking but was like fire on the court when he did show up. And he was training often enough that Kantoku was starting to let the two of them play opposite each other in the club’s practice games. Taiga sometimes caught himself humming as he put together his dinner bento, for evening practice. Aomine was impossible. The shots he could make were insane; it was like the ball and the basket were his two hands and he brought them together easy as that.
But, then, most of the team already said Taiga’s own jumps were impossible. And he was pushing his height further and further because it was the one advantage he had on Aomine. So Taiga didn’t pay much attention to what was possible or not, only to what he saw in front of him. Right now, that was Aomine.
Aomine… and Kuroko.
Taiga wasn’t always sure what to make of Kuroko. He thought about it today, on his way to school, hands stuffed in his pockets, looking out over a landscape of the tops of people’s heads. In his own way, Kuroko was almost as impossible as Aomine. The things he could do with the ball, the way he could move over the court unseen, straight through any defense, the way he always, always knew who was open and where… it was amazing. When Aomine and Kuroko played together in a practice game, they went through the other side like it wasn’t even there. Even, Taiga admitted, through him, because the speed and precision of their combination was frankly appalling. It was going to be an incredible weapon for Seirin, when the tournaments started.
But Kuroko refused to play with Aomine like that very often. He kept passing to other team members, deferring to Izuki-senpai’s plays, concentrating his passes on Taiga himself, if anyone. And when Taiga asked why, all he would say was that his game with Taiga could become stronger than his game with Aomine, and the way Aomine responded if he heard that tended to distract Taiga. The one time he had tried to press for more detail, the teacher had yelled at him for talking during class—at him, but not at Kuroko, because life with Kuroko was just like that.
Eventually Taiga intended to find out why Kuroko kept setting him and Aomine against each other. In the meantime, though, there were other things to think about. Things like failing English class, because the things they tried to teach here were utterly ridiculous and nonsensical. Things like hanging on to the counter during the rush at the cafeteria long enough to get a decent sized lunch, because he swore no one in this country ate enough to keep a squirrel alive. Things like defending his dinner from Aomine.
That last one was giving him some trouble.
Taiga slapped Aomine’s thieving fingers away from his box of stir-fry and slid further down the bench. Of course, that just gave Aomine a chance to try to snag one of the sandwiches out of the stack on Taiga’s other side; the man really was unfairly fast. Taiga swallowed and growled at his teammate. “What is with you? Bring your own damn dinner!”
“My cooking sucks,” Aomine said easily, eyeing Taiga’s other box, the one with the cookies, greedily. “So does Satsuki’s. And Kaa-san’s way too busy.”
Taiga pinned down his cookies under his toe, glaring. “So go snitch from Mitobe-senpai!”
From his seat against the stage, carefully out of reach, Mitobe-senpai gave them both a reproachful look.
“That’s not a very respectful thing to suggest, Kagami-kun,” Kuroko murmured from where he sat on the edge of the stage, finishing a can of Pocari and watching. And laughing at them from behind that straight face, Taiga swore.
“See? Even Tetsu agrees.” Aomine feinted for the sandwiches again and got a foot around the cookie box when Taiga shifted his weight, smirking with his success. Taiga decided finishing the rest of his food was more important than defending his dessert, and hurried up. If he finished fast enough, he’d damn well tackle Aomine and wrestle him for the damn cookies.
“Don’t you think you should stop them before Kagami chokes on his food some night?” Izuki-senpai asked Hyuuga-senpai in an undertone.
Their captain shrugged with perfect fatalism. “Kantoku thinks it’s good training for Kagami’s speed, to play keep-away with Aomine. I don’t argue with her about training.”
Izuki-senpai looked torn between amusement and worry, but he didn’t argue either. Taiga growled under his breath, biting into his last sandwich ferociously. Fine, then. If he had to teach Aomine some manners on his own, he’d do it.
“We’ll just come with you for your snack after practice,” Momoi offered, leaning on his shoulder and plucking the now empty cookie box out of Aomine’s grip. “And you can make Aomine-kun buy you dessert then.”
“He can what?” Aomine asked, brows going up.
“That sounds fair,” Kuroko put in, and calmly ignored Aomine’s protests. At least he ragged on them both equally, Taiga reflected.
“As long as there are absolutely no full-speed one-on-ones after,” Kantoku specified, looming suddenly behind them. “I’m relying on you, Satsuki-chan.”
Momoi pursed her lips dubiously. “I’ll do my best, Riko-kantoku, but these two…”
Kantoku sighed. “At least you can report it.” She glared down at them forbiddingly. “And then I can take it out of their hides.”
Taiga exchanged a look with Aomine, for once in perfect agreement. “After we eat,” Taiga muttered, as Aida-san moved off with Momoi, talking about individual training for the second-years.
“You’re on.” Aomine’s smirk was annoyingly lazy and casual, but he’d never once turned Taiga down.
“You really are going to get in trouble with the coach,” Kuroko noted, but not as if he expected that to stop them. Just an observation.
The weird part was, that seemed to be as good as a flat no to Aomine. “Oh come on, Tetsu,” he groaned, flopping back to sprawl on the floor. “I’m going to die of boredom if I don’t get to do something besides drills.”
“Kantoku is right about needing to be back in condition before you push harder than you have been,” Kuroko told him, even and relentless, and Aomine hauled himself upright to slump against the bench scowling.
“Like I’ll have to push harder.”
“You will in matches. That’s why you agreed to Seirin.”
Aomine hesitated at that, and finally sighed extravagantly. “Oh fine.” He glanced up at Taiga and waved a hand at Kuroko. “Argue with him about it.”
Of course, Taiga didn’t. One, because it was time to get back to practice, and two, because he was still trying to figure out what was going on with Aomine and Kuroko. Aomine listened to Kuroko like he didn’t to anyone else, up to and including the coach and captain. But there was something else Kuroko wanted, and Taiga could only think it was that something that kept Kuroko turning toward him instead of Aomine. He just had no fucking clue what it was.
He didn’t have much time tonight to think about it, either, because Kantoku put Aomine on the opposite side of the practice game from Taiga and Kuroko, and Taiga still had to fight to get passes to and from Kuroko without Aomine being right there in the way. It was annoying as all hell.
Aomine was annoying as hell about it, too. “Are you guys done yet?” he asked, smirking over the ball cradled easily in his grip halfway to Taiga’s hands.
“No,” Taiga snapped and jerked his head at Kuroko, holding up his hand. They’d find a way around Aomine, because this was exactly the caliber of player who was waiting for the team at the tournaments. Kuroko nodded back firmly, shoulders settling out of the tense line they always seemed to get when Aomine was on the other side.
It really did make Taiga wonder. If Kuroko got this tense about being separated from his old partner, why did he seem so bound and determined to make a new one out of Taiga?
There had to be something he was missing.
When the coach had said she’d gotten them a practice match with one of the other schools that had taken in one of the Generation of Miracles, Taiga had been excited. But he had to say, his first look at Kise Ryouta was not impressing him.
“Kise,” Aomine groaned, hand over his eyes, “will you get rid of your damn fangirls?” Once Kise had finished smiling and apologizing and generally dumping pretty-boy charm all over the landscape, and all the squealing girls had been herded out, he added, “What are you doing here, anyway?”
“I heard we’d be having a practice match with Seirin, and I thought I remembered this was where you and Kurokocchi came, so I had to come say hello didn’t I?”
“Hello, then,” Kuroko said from behind two of the second-years, making them jump and yelp. “But if that was all, then we should get back to practice.”
Okay, Taiga decided, as Kise downright pouted, Kuroko just liked to wind everyone up, is what it was.
“Kurokocchi is so mean, and after I was the one closest to you at Teikou, too!” Kise actually had tears in his eyes, and Kagami was starting to wonder if this guy was for real.
“I don’t remember that,” Kuroko said thoughtfully, and Aomine rolled his eyes.
“Do the comedy routine on your own time, you two. Seriously, Kise, why are you here?”
Kise’s overdone mournfulness evaporated, and his eyes glinted at Aomine. “I just wanted to make sure you were ready to be playing on opposing teams, Aominecchi.”
Aomine bared his teeth, shedding his usual lazy slouch as fast and completely as Kise had wiped away those fake tears, and something in Taiga leaped up like a fire catching. That. That look was the one he wanted to see in Aomine’s eyes, when they played.
Which was when he realized that neither Aomine nor Kise was paying any attention at all to the rest of the team.
“Ki-chan!” Momoi appeared in the doors of the gym, bags of drinks swinging from her fingers, laughing. “Tell me you didn’t come all the way up here to challenge Aomine-kun! The match is already set up, you know, you’ll play him soon enough.”
“Momocchi!” Kise brightened up and laughed along with her. “I just wanted to make sure I remembered right, that this was Aominecchi’s school!” He paused, looking back and forth between Kuroko and Momoi. “Wait a minute… Momocchi too? That’s no fair!” He crossed his arms and huffed at Aomine. “You should give us Kurokocchi, then.”
“Dream on,” Aomine told him dryly. “He’s not going anywhere.”
“That isn’t actually up to either of you,” Kuroko pointed out, and the flickers of guilt and something like panic on both Aomine’s and Kise’s faces almost made Taiga laugh.
Almost. Because watching the four of them, it was blindingly clear that they were still a team. Even broken up and competing as opponents, they still acted like a team—thoughtlessly close and knowing each other like right and left hand. Even Kuroko, who was standing a little back from the other three.
Fuck that. Aomine and Kuroko, and Momoi too, were part of Seirin now. They were Taiga’s team. He scooped up the ball he’d been drilling with, strolling into Kise’s peripheral vision, and heaved it straight for him, fast and hard as if it was a pass he was trying to get past Aomine.
Kise’s head whipped around and his hand came up to catch the ball, eyes wide and startled. “What was that for?” he asked, on a breath of a surprised laugh.
“Kind of doubt Kantoku will let you have Aomine, today,” Taiga told him, strolling closer, close enough to break the group as Kuroko stepped back further and Momoi rolled her eyes and hopped up onto the stage, off the court. “So let’s make sure you didn’t waste your time. Play me.”
“Kagami,” Aomine growled, truly pissed off if Taiga was any judge. He just raised his brows and jerked a thumb at the coach, who was tapping her foot and glaring at all of them.
“Fine,” Aomine snarled after a steaming moment. “Get your ass kicked. Maybe it’ll finally teach you something.” He whirled and stalked out of the way.
“Well.” Kise blinked after him before turning a sharp smile on Taiga. “Just a point or two couldn’t hurt.” He shrugged out of his uniform jacket, ball passing lightly from hand to hand as he did, never leaving his possession. Taiga smirked, pleased, and felt for his footing against the polished court.
Taiga was prepared for the speed, after playing with and against Aomine. He was even prepared for the pure assurance of Kise’s moves, the easy, natural grace. What blew him back was the sudden mirror of his own moves, the cut and turn that made his muscles stutter because they knew that shape and this was the wrong end of it. He stared up at Kise from flat on his ass on the court, and just had to laugh, leaning back on his palms. They were obviously all monsters, all of Teikou’s starters.
“Do that again,” he grinned, hauling himself to his feet.
Kise gave him a startled look that turned thoughtful as he glanced over at Aomine, simmering on the sidelines. “Maybe I see why Kurokocchi brought him here, after all.” He spread his feet, balanced on his toes, and gave Taiga back his grin. “Maybe a few more, then.”
“No more,” Momoi declared, jumping down lightly to step between them, palms held out. “You’ve had your look, Ki-chan. I’m not letting you take more of a handicap than that.”
“But…!” Taiga started to protest, running together with Kise’s, “Aw, Momocchi…” She shook her head firmly, looking past them to speak to the coach.
“No more. Letting Ki-chan see more of Kagami-kun would be dangerous.”
Kantoku nodded slowly. “I remember what you said. All right, then.” She stepped forward, gesturing Taiga back. “We’ll see you next week, Kise-kun.”
Kise sighed mournfully. “Yes, ma’am.” He paused to stick out his tongue at Momoi, and collected his jacket to toss over his shoulder on his way out. “I’ll look forward to it, Aominecchi!” floated back as the doors closed behind him.
“Mm,” Aomine grunted in answer. He was looking at Taiga, not his ex-teammate.
“What?” Taiga prodded. Aomine would brood on shit for days if you let him.
“You’re getting better,” was the startling answer. Aomine stood up and stretched. “A little.” And in a flash, he was across the court, blowing past Taiga and stealing the ball. Pure reflex spun Taiga around to follow his cut, and he leaped to block the shot he knew was coming. Aomine’s teeth were bared as he slung the ball around at a crazy angle and made the shot as surely as always. “A little,” he said again, as the coach yelled at them to knock it off and get back to their drills. “Just not enough.” He turned away to pick up the ball again, and Taiga turned to see Kuroko watching them with something dark in his eyes.
The more he saw of the Generation of Miracles, the more Taiga wondered what the hell had happened to all of them.
The practice match against Kaijou ran into trouble as soon as they’d all gotten changed. Taiga couldn’t say he was all that surprised.
“All right,” Aomine said, dropping his bag behind the bench and turning toward the court with a gleam in his eye, “let’s get this show on the hghk!”
Their coach had reached up for a grip on the back of his shirt and expertly yanked him down onto the bench. “Not you. You’re sitting this one out.”
He surged back up to his feet, towering over her. “What?!”
“You’ve missed almost a week’s worth of practice in the past month,” she snapped back, hands on her hips, perfectly uncowed. “You know the rules. You don’t practice, you don’t play.”
Kuroko’s voice cut over the start of his protest, cool and level. “Good.”
Aomine whipped around to stare at him. “Tetsu? What the hell?”
Kuroko looked up at him, and suddenly there was an edge on the usual calm of his expression. “All you’re interested in, here, is Kise-kun. If that’s the case, you might as well just ask him for a one-on-one match later, and leave the team out of it. That was what you were going to do anyway, isn’t it?”
Taiga found himself edging back, along with everyone else, shocked by actually seeing Kuroko angry, no matter how quietly. And… his voice was quiet, yeah, but also hard. Even Aomine seemed startled, staring at Kuroko with his hands loose at his sides.
“You heard what the captain said, the first day,” Kuroko went on. “If you want to play in matches with the team, then you have to be part of the team. If you can’t do that, then you might as well leave the game!” He gestured sharply at the club members around them. “I’m glad Seirin is this way. Akashi-kun and our old coach spoiled you, Aomine-kun. They let you turn your game into something that isn’t basketball any longer.” He jerked his wrist-warmers into place, motions sharp, and turned away. “If you want to remember what it is, what it was, then sit down and watch.”
Taiga watched Kuroko stalk onto the court, and Hyuuga-senpai going after him to catch his shoulder with a few low words about keeping his temper. Kuroko ducked his head, apologetic, back to being as deferential as usual to their senpai. The rest of the starting team looked at each other and shrugged, and followed them out.
And Aomine slowly sank back down to the bench, eyes still wide, looking like he’d been sucker-punched.
Taiga glanced over at Momoi, questioning, only to find her biting her lip, brows knitted with concentration like she was watching the team practice some really difficult play. When she saw him looking, though, she just shook her head, shooing him out to the court.
Once again, Taiga wondered exactly what had happened to them all.
“Kagami-kun,” Kuroko said softly, as Taiga came up beside him, “will you help me? Without Aomine-kun, there’s no one on the team who can beat Kise-kun alone. But you and I might do it together.” When he looked up, there was something burning in his eyes. Something Taiga recognized, and he grinned back.
“Let’s do it.”
Kuroko smiled just a little.
“What was that all about, Kurokocchi?” Kise asked, slipping across the center.
“Something I would have said a year ago, if I thought Akashi-kun would let me,” Kuroko said levelly.
Kise quailed back, hands lifted. “Don’t involve me if you’re getting into another argument with the captain!”
“Which captain was that?” Kasamatsu asked dryly from behind Kise’s shoulder, and, while Kise was stammering, turned him back toward his own team and hurried him on his way with a very literal kick in the butt.
“I’m glad Kise-kun found a team he can get along so well with,” Kuroko said, to all appearances perfectly serious.
They were all crazy. Every. Single. One.
But being crazy didn’t stop Kise from being crazy-good, and Kaijou matched them speed for speed right from tip-off. Within the first few minutes, Taiga thought he might be going to give himself a headache trying to keep one eye on Kise and one on Kuroko. Kise wasn’t like Aomine, he didn’t seem to feel in his bones where Kuroko’s passes would be, but he was fast and powerful and every move Taiga threw at him was thrown back with bruising force. Keeping track of Kuroko so they could actually get the ball to one another was an edge of concentration Taiga couldn’t afford to take away from Kise.
Kuroko knew it too. After the third ball they lost, just when Taiga swore he was starting to feel his jersey singe from the force of Aomine’s mounting glare, Kuroko touched his arm. “Don’t look for me,” he said quietly. “Can you do that? Don’t watch for me. Just go. I’ll be there.”
Taiga sucked in a quick breath. The thought made his spine crinkle; it would be almost like playing blind. And… he’d have to trust Kuroko blindly too. But Kuroko’s gaze on his, perfectly steady, perfectly calm, still had that will and determination to win burning behind it.
That, Taiga could trust.
“Okay.” He nodded shortly, turning to focus on Kise and nothing else. And it was weird. He’d have expected to have to fight to even remember Kuroko was on the court with him. But every time he needed to pass the ball, or found a place to break past Kaijou, Kuroko was right there in of the corner of his eye. Again and again, Kuroko was there.
He was also paying for it, running with sweat, breath rasping in his throat. “Can you keep this up?” Taiga asked as the first quarter ended, frowning a little.
“I can keep it up for as long as I’ll be effective,” Kuroko gasped, swiping away the sweat running down his jaw with the back of his wrist. “Just go.”
This time, the words put a different kind of shiver down Taiga’s spine, a feeling more like awe. He knew Kuroko was hopelessly weak outside his specialization, but he couldn’t listen to Kuroko, couldn’t look at him, and think his determination was pointless or futile. So, as the second quarter got started, Taiga took a deep breath and didn’t hold back.
Kuroko was paying hard to keep up. But he was also smiling just a little.
By the time they hit the middle of the second quarter, and Kantoku signaled for a player change, as planned, Kuroko was swaying a little on his feet. His grip on Taiga’s arm was hard, though. “Don’t let them get too far ahead,” he gasped.
“Obviously,” Taiga snapped, irritated, glaring down at him. And then he let out his breath and pushed Kuroko toward the sidelines where Koganei-senpai was waiting. “Now it’s your turn. Just go.”
Kuroko blinked up at him for a moment before it seemed to click, and a real smiled flashed over his face for a breath. “All right.”
Kagami watched him off, where the coach pushed him down onto the bench and dropped a towel on his head, crouching down to work on his legs. He watched Aomine watching Kuroko with one of the strangest expressions Taiga had ever seen—pissed off and somehow lost at the same time. He watched until Momoi stepped up to the sideline and signaled him sharply to pay attention to the game, and then he shook himself, getting ready to block Kise as completely as he could.
It was ridiculous to feel a little lost, himself, just because Kuroko wasn’t beside him.
Taiga took a couple deep breaths and sank himself back into the game, into the place where ‘speed’ and ‘power’ had no meaning. The only thing with meaning, there, was ‘more’. His more wasn’t enough yet; he couldn’t keep up with Kise, not all the way. Couldn’t stop him every time. Couldn’t take his attention off Kise to help with the rest of the team. Couldn’t pay attention to the score, only hope that his senpai could stop the rest of Kaijou. Half time barely registered with him except as a blur of cool water and Momoi’s quiet voice talking to Izuki-senpai about how to get past Kasamatsu.
When they got to the fourth quarter, though, they were only eleven points down. There was a glint in Kuroko’s eyes when he joined Taiga on the court again, and both Kantoku and Momoi were grinning like sharks beside the bench. “Ready to go?” Taiga asked him, gulping air.
“Of course.” In fact, Kuroko looked annoyingly cool and composed, and he eyed Taiga up and down, critically. “Are you?”
“Hey,” Taiga growled, and then rolled his eyes when he caught the faint curl at the corners of Kuroko’s mouth. “You’re just as much of a jerk as Aomine is sometimes, you know that?” He straightened up and swiped his hair back off his forehead. “And what did I tell you earlier?”
Kuroko looked up at him and nodded.
Taiga sucked in another breath and took hold of the thought, sinking himself into it like he sank himself into the game, letting go of all the rest. Kuroko would be there. He believed it.
Their first play blazed past Kise.
When the throw-in hit Kise’s hands, he blew back through them like they weren’t even there, every movement sharp as a knife, and there was a look in his eyes Taiga was more used to seeing in the mirror.
“Right.” Taiga rolled his shoulders and jerked his head at Kuroko. “If that’s how we’re doing it, let’s go.”
The last quarter was a crazy back-and-forth scramble of offense, of fighting against the weight of Kise’s focus, and Taiga knew he was only keeping up because Kuroko was with him, because half their plays were something even Kise couldn’t grasp and copy. And even so, they were barely keeping up, and the score was always on the ragged edge of dropping them down too far to get back. Taiga felt the air of the court against his bared teeth.
He loved it.
He didn’t know if Kuroko did. Kuroko didn’t laugh with him; his face was quiet and intent the whole time. But that was okay. He was there, always there, perfectly in place to catch the bounce of Taiga’s passes and send them scorching back, edging Seirin’s score up and up, and that was enough.
Kise kept pushing, though, always meeting every drive Taiga made, always passing him, and the last minutes were ticking down. There had to be something Kise couldn’t just turn back on him!
“Kagami-kun.” He’d gotten so used to knowing Kuroko would be with him that this time he didn’t jump, even when he hadn’t actually seen him. “There’s one thing Kise-kun won’t ever be able to return.” He looked up at Taiga, measuring. “A buzzer-beater.”
“Mm. We’d have to fake him out somehow, and he’s getting better at predicting me.”
Kuroko nodded, matter-of-fact. “We can do that. You already know my timing, for it. You got it the first time we played.”
Taiga’s lips slowly drew back off his teeth again.
And when they got to the basket, it worked. Kise obviously knew exactly how bad a shot Kuroko was and turned toward Taiga, only to whip back in shock when Kuroko tossed the ball up in a gentle, completely inaccurate, curve. Kuroko was right, too; Taiga knew just when he had to go up to complete the shot. It was like the flip side of knowing Kuroko would be there for him on a drive. He slammed the ball in and the whistle blew as his feet found the floor again.
Taiga laughed and reached out to slap palms with Kuroko. They’d done it! This time, Kuroko’s steady concentration brightened into a real smile and his hand met Taiga’s firmly.
That smile stayed with Taiga for a while. So did the absolute stillness of Aomine’s face when the team came off the court. For a moment, he wondered whether this was the answer to what had happened to them. But it couldn’t be; he’d seen Aomine and Kuroko play together, and Aomine still had that perfect awareness of where Kuroko would be, the trust that he’d be there, the belief in Kuroko that let him just go without holding back or thinking about his partner.