On the second day of the Tokyo preliminary finals, Daiki’s heartfelt comment was, “About damn time.” He shrugged off Satsuki’s admonishing look. “Oh, come on, I’ve been bored out of my mind. Shinsenkan was pathetic, and even those Touou guys weren’t exactly a challenge.” Which had been a great disappointment, after he’d hauled himself through the whole month of A-block matches on the hope that the ‘Kings of the West’ would be at least a bit of fun. Or at least that their first match in the final block would be. But no, not so you’d notice. If it hadn’t been ridiculous to imagine, he’d actually have thought Touou was holding back against him. So he had to hope that Seihou would be better; they had Tsugawa, at least, and he might be good for a bit of fun, if Daiki was remembering right.
“Be sure you don’t get careless,” Hyuuga-senpai ordered sternly, folding his shirt into the locker he’d claimed in the changing room. “All you first-years should be prepared. Seihou has the toughest defense in Tokyo; last year, they trashed us badly enough that we actually hated the game for a while. Badly enough we nearly quit.” He banged the locked shut with more force than was necessary.
Daiki’s lip curled a little. “Yeah, you and everyone else.” He said it quietly, though, because Tetsu was giving him a Look. More loudly he added, “Of course you lost, you didn’t have me or Tetsu. Or Satsuki. Or even Kagami, I suppose.” He ducked Kagami’s annoyed swipe, grinning.
“That doesn’t matter.”
Daiki paused in the middle of grappling with Kagami, startled by just how level Hyuuga-senpai’s voice was. And when their captain turned away from the lockers, Daiki straightened up in pure reflex. Hyuuga-senpai’s eyes were gleaming like light off steel.
“It wouldn’t matter who we had or didn’t have, this year. Because we didn’t quit. And we’re going to win.” He opened his hand to Satsuki, and she stepped forward with a demure, bloodthirsty smile.
“Yes, Captain. We’ll be using Aomine-kun and Tetsu-kun in this match, and saving Kagami-kun for the match against Shuutoku. Tetsu-kun, please.”
The start of Daiki’s protest was promptly cut short by a sharp jab in the ribs. As he turned, gasping, to glare at his partner, he saw Kagami bent over on Tetsu’s other side, rubbing his ribs and glaring to match. Tetsu met both glares with a perfectly bland look, just as if he hadn’t essentially sucker-punched both his partners. Satsuki was still smiling, sweet and alarming.
“Thank you. It’s necessary, Dai-chan, so shut up. Midorin knows you too well, and you don’t have the height Kagami-kun does. He’s the only one here who might block Midorin’s shots. You, on the other hand, are better at getting past defense.” She gave Kagami a pointed look while she said it, and he subsided sulkily.
The door of the changing room clicked open and everyone looked around to see their coach standing with her hands on her hips. “It’s time,” she said, eyes gleaming to match Hyuuga-senpai’s. “We have a year’s worth of interest to pay Seihou back on our loss last year. It’s a big debt. Are you ready?”
The snap of the second-years’ agreement made Daiki’s ears perk up. That… that was a good sound. He liked hearing it.
As they filed out into the hall, Kagami glanced down at Tetsu. “Something wrong?”
Daiki looked around sharply; sure enough, Tetsu was looking up at the darkening glass ceiling of the main concourse as he walked, eyes distant. “Have you ever hated basketball, Kagami-kun?” he asked quietly.
Kagami blinked. “Not really.”
Daiki jerked up short in the hall, and Tetsu stopped too. When he glanced at Daiki, those pale eyes were flat and shadowed. “It wasn’t for the same reasons as our senpai. But I know that feeling.”
“Tetsu, what,” Daiki started, chest suddenly tight. “You didn’t…”
“It’s a painful feeling, to hate what you love,” Tetsu said quietly, holding his eyes.
Daiki flinched back from talking about this here, in front of Kagami again. “I don’t…”
“I think this is an important game,” Tetsu continued as if he hadn’t spoken. “For our senpai to get beyond the past. And maybe for us, too.”
Daiki just stared back, wordless. It was Kagami who snorted, hands jammed in his jacket pockets. “I don’t know what all you’re talking about. But if it’s an important game, let’s go win it.”
A slow smile tugged at the corners of Tetsu’s mouth, and the flatness faded out of his eyes. “Sometimes maybe it’s good to be uncomplicated," he said blandly.
“Of course it is.” Kagami frowned. “Hey, wait a minute.”
Tetsu looked back up at Daiki. “Well?” he asked softly. “Shall we go win it?”
Daiki still wasn’t sure he understood everything Tetsu was asking, but there was only one answer to that question. “Yeah.”
And then they were out under the lights and there was no need to think about anything except the ball and the court, which was a relief after all the uncomfortable things he’d had to think about lately. He relaxed into the start of the game, the familiarity of other uniforms lined up across from them, the sound of the first whistle. The absolute presence of the boundary lines closed around him, and the basket was a weight in his awareness, pulling in the ball.
Or at least it would be, as soon as he could shake off Tsugawa, the persistent little bastard.
What Satsuki and Kantoku had said during the week they prepared for this match was true enough. Seihou were only human; they weren’t miracles. And it wasn’t like Daiki objected to having strong opponents, quite the opposite. But it still just annoyed him to see that creepy smile on Tsugawa’s face, and the guy was even interrupting some of the pass combinations between him and Tetsu. It would be satisfying to grind him into paste, no question, but it wasn’t being much fun. Tsugawa was strong, but the weight of him in the game was spiteful; it was like playing a shadow of Murasakibara or something, and Daiki hadn’t liked doing that either, good training or not. He reminded himself he didn’t have to enjoy someone’s game to beat them, and pushed his pace faster, cutting sharper, skimming past his marker no matter how smoothly Tsugawa moved.
Or, at least, that was the plan.
Daiki scowled as he was called for charging again, and Tsugawa grinned.
“Aomine-kun,” Tetsu said at his elbow, a whole paragraph of scolding about keeping his temper in just two little words.
“I know,” Daiki snapped, irritated that he couldn’t really open up his game without getting yet another damn foul. “We’re still winning.” Just not by as much as he’d gotten used to, and not in a way he especially liked. Well, it wasn’t like that second part was actually anything new. He rolled his shoulders and focused. Ignore how annoying Tsugawa was, and the fact that none of Seihou’s players really excited him, and it really didn’t feel like he should have to work this hard against them. Ignore that this wasn’t even as fun as teasing Kagami. All there was was the ball and the court and him, sliding around the stiffness of the other players to throw and let the ball drop into the basket like rolling down a hill.
And even Seihou had the same expression on their faces as everyone else did, who watched him or played him. Disbelief. Fear. He turned away, back to their own defense, feeling ruffled up and weighed down all at once. He’d had fun doing this, once, he knew he had, but it was getting hard to remember the feeling of it. Hard to remember what interesting opponents even looked like.
“Good.” Izuki-senpai clapped him on the shoulder in passing, and Daiki looked up, startled. There was no relief in his voice, no smugness, nothing to say that what Daiki had done was anything out of the ordinary, no comments on how Seirin would depend on him. Just a moment of approval in passing. Just what any of his old team might have said. If Murasakibara had stopped intimidating the other team long enough to notice, or Midorima had stopped snarking long enough to say something so straightforward, or Akashi had, for some reason, stopped taking it for granted.
Okay, maybe not what any of them would have said, but… the same feeling.
“Stop sulking and come with me,” Tetsu said quietly, at his elbow. “We’ll take the ball back.”
Daiki grinned wryly at Tetsu’s familiar snippiness and shook himself back into the game. “Yeah, okay.” Seihou was fast, but he was faster, and he liked their sheer indignation when he proved it. Their passing game was strong and smooth, and it probably worked against most people. But he was Tetsu’s partner. Seihou’s smoothness was nothing to that.
The smack of the ball square against his palm was a good feeling. Tsugawa’s grimace when Daiki gave the ball to Tetsu and spun cleanly past to take it again floated a little bubble of laughter through his chest. And the sweep of the ball through the air into the net was always its own moment of perfect balance, where nothing else mattered.
Which made his annoyance all the sharper, when Tsugawa tried to walk through Tetsu and then freaked out over not having seen him. His oh-so-bubbly chatter about how many points down Seirin had been by this time last year made Daiki growl. He knew it was on purpose. He knew the kind of player Tsugawa was; this was a classic psychological attack. But the sudden darkness in Tetsu’s eyes and the tightening of the second-years’ jaws all across the court kind of pissed him off.
And, okay, he would admit that the pure arrogance of saying all that to a team that contained Aomine Daiki really pissed him off.
He probably should have thought about that more. Should have kept a closer eye on Tsugawa on his next drive down the court, should have realized that those weirdly smooth movements would throw his sense of velocity off, when he jumped to shoot. But he didn’t, until he felt impact against his shoulder and heard the whistle and realized that Tsugawa had suckered him into yet another foul. His fourth.
He wasn’t surprised when the coach called him off, but that didn’t mean he was happy about it. He wanted to grind Tsugawa into the court himself. That would be really satisfying, right about now.
Hearing Tetsu called off, too, and seeing Koganei-senpai and Tsuchida-senpai waiting for them… now that surprised him. “Shouldn’t it be Kagami?” he asked, startled. “He’s the only other one who can really work with Tetsu.”
Hyuuga-senpai shook his head, eyes distant. “No. We’re already ahead by twelve points, that’s enough. We decided this before the game started. We’re only using any of the first-years in the first half.”
Beside Daiki, Tetsu suddenly relaxed, and Daiki shot him a questioning look. Seirin wanted to win. He knew they wanted to win, as badly as anyone he’d ever seen. So why were they benching their two best scorers and their strongest supporting player?
“Why?” he finally asked.
Hyuuga-senpai snorted. “Think about it, Aomine. We’ll need Kuroko against Shuutoku, no question; we need to conserve his strength. Same goes for Kagami. Seihou is already starting to be able to track Kuroko anyway. And you,” he gave Daiki a brief glare, “have four fouls already. With Kuroko off, there’s no one left you’ll actually listen to about keeping your temper. You think I’m going to risk you on the court like that?”
That stopped Daiki short. It was true, he didn’t really bother listening to anyone else, here, except maybe Satsuki. This was the first time he’d felt uncomfortable about it.
“I understand,” Tetsu said quietly, and bowed. “We’ll leave it in your hands.”
Hyuuga-senpai’s mouth quirked up and he rested a hand on Tetsu’s shoulder. “Yeah.”
“Tetsu, what…” Daiki started as his partner took his elbow and started to haul him off. Tetsu was smiling faintly.
“Our senpai have their own determination.” Tetsu tagged Koganei-senpai, and Daiki absently held out his hand to do the same with Tsuchida-senpai.
Daiki frowned, but didn’t ask again. When Tetsu was in a close-mouthed mood, you just had to watch and wait. So he watched as the game started up again. As Hyuuga-senpai and Mitobe-senpai scored with a very smooth combination. As Tsuchida-senpai slid in easily to screen. As the whole team drew in tight around Izuki-senpai’s plays.
Seirin was holding the lead.
“They’re better than I thought they’d be,” Kagami muttered on the other side of Tetsu, only to collect a swat from the coach.
“Their pride is on the line,” she snapped. “This is a revenge game, and it’s one we’ve spent a year training toward. So shut up and watch.”
Was that what Tetsu had meant? That their senpai wanted to win with their own strength? Daiki supposed he could respect that. If they could really do it. He frowned as Seihou’s captain stole the ball from Tsuchida-senpai and sent it back down the court for a shot Hyuuga-senpai barely managed to block. Minutes ticked by as he watched, frown deepening. Seirin was pushing harder, wearing down. Seihou had taken six of their twelve point lead away. If they lost this game because of the second-years’ pride, that would be incredibly stupid.
He meant to say so during the quarter break. If he went back in for the fourth quarter, there’d be no problem. He was used to Seihou’s movement now, having watched from inside and outside the game. Tsugawa wouldn’t catch him out again. But when he opened his mouth to say so to Hyuuga-senpai, the look in his captain’s eye stopped him cold. It wasn’t anger. It wasn’t desperation, despite the pressure they were obviously under. Tetsu had said the senpai were determined but that was too pale a word for what Daiki was seeing. The force of it held Daiki silent while the second-years went back out again.
And somehow, even through they were wringing wet with sweat and panting for breath, they seemed to be pushing even harder. First Hyuuga-senpai and then Mitobe-senpai and then even Izuki-senpai broke past Seihou’s blocks. At the end of the bench, Satsuki made a pleased sound.
“They’ve got it,” she said, eyes intent on the game. “They’ve grasped Seihou’s movements, Kantoku. I think we’re clear.”
Their coach blew out a long, relieved breath. “Good. I was worried for a while, there.”
Satsuki flashed a bright smile down the bench. “It’s always easier to see it than to do something about it in the middle of a game. But our DVD player didn’t die in vain.”
That was weird enough to pull Daiki’s attention off the game for a moment. “Didn’t what?” he asked Satsuki.
“It wasn’t enough for me to analyze Seihou’s habits and report them,” she told him, matter-of-fact. “Their techniques are woven into every part of their game; no pre-made strategy would keep up. Our players had to be able to see the way I do, at least for this opponent. So all the second-years have been studying all the match videos we could find. It was Hyuuga-senpai’s idea.”
Studying Seihou, long and hard enough to burn out one of the DVD players, Daiki filled in, a little shocked. No wonder Hyuuga-san’s focus had felt so heavy, had such a deadly edge.
And, slowly, Seirin was pulling ahead again. A lay-up that Izuki-senpai broke through for. A hook-shot from Mitobe-senpai, answered by one of those long, soft shots by Seihou’s point guard. Seirin was seven points ahead and still pushing like they were behind.
On the other hand, maybe that was wise. Daiki watched Seihou’s captain drive straight through a two-man defense to slam the ball in, and he could feel his shoulders pulling tenser. Only five points ahead and over three minutes to go. Seirin could still lose this. “Kantoku,” he said, low, “you should send me back in.”
“Have a little faith in your senpai, Aomine,” she told him, but her voice was husky and a quick look showed her knuckles white on the edge of the bench.
“If you’re worried about the fouls, send me in,” Kagami said just as Daiki was opening his mouth to argue.
“I’m not going to risk breaking their momentum now,” Riko-san snapped, not looking away from the court.
“Kagami-kun,” Tetsu said quietly, “Aomine-kun. Just watch.”
“Watch what?” Kagami growled, but a brief cheer from the onlookers snapped both their heads around toward the game before Tetsu could answer. Hyuuga-senpai was slapping palms with Izuki-senpai and the score was eight points ahead. Seihou’s point guard went for another shot, but Mitobe-senpai was there this time, pressing him back, off balance, and Izuki-senpai stole the ball and gave it to Hyuuga-san for another of those rock-steady three-pointers. Seihou passed the throw-in around, just as fast and smooth as ever, and Daiki stiffened as he saw the pattern; the ball was going to come back to Iwamura, and no one on the court right now could stop a full power drive from him. The clock was ticking down, though, they would still be safe…
Tsuchida-senpai lunged for the ball like it was the last chance Seirin had and slapped it into Izuki-senpai’s hands. Izuki-senpai to Hyuuga-san, well outside the three-point line, while Mitobe-senpai slid into Tsugawa’s path. And, as the last seconds ran out, the ball sailed in a long, graceful arc and swished through the basket as cleanly as one of Midorima’s shots.
Seirin won by fourteen points. Two more than the lead Daiki had left them with.
“Kantoku said it, didn’t she?” Tetsu murmured at his shoulder. “Our senpai had their pride on the line.”
“I guess so,” Daiki muttered, still a little stunned that the second-years had gone that far to take their game back after a loss like the one Tsugawa had taunted them over. They could have kept him in and won easily, maybe even crushed Seihou as badly as Seihou had done to them if Daiki had kept his pace up once he’d found it. But they hadn’t; they’d been that determined to prove their game to Seihou and to themselves. He’d never seen anyone else do something like that. Not his own team, who’d never had to go that far, and never had a loss to come back from anyway. Certainly no one he’d ever played against, no matter how much he’d wanted it and even, for the last few desperate months before he gave up on the hope, prayed for it.
Which was probably why the first words out of his mouth when everyone came back to the bench were not congratulations but rather, “Where the hell were you for the last three years?!”
Hyuuga-san slowly adjusted his glasses, eyes glinting, and Daiki resigned himself to a brisk cuff which, okay, he probably deserved for that. But Hyuuga-san’s mouth crooked up at one corner and the hand that landed on Daiki’s head was only a little rough, messing up his hair. “Learning how not to give up,” Hyuuga-san told him. “It’s something you could stand to do, too, obnoxious brat.”
Daiki started to protest that, but his captain’s eyes were still bright and hard with the thing that had driven the team so intensely to win in every way possible, and in face of it Daiki fell silent again.
“That’s better,” Hyuuga-san said quietly. “You need to learn how to gauge other players more accurately, Aomine. You make too many assumptions.”
Daiki was unsettled enough to stop and think about what Hyuuga-san meant. About what might happen if he had been on the other side, playing against that diamond focus and drive he saw in Seirin today—if he’d been as slow to understand Seirin as he had been to come to grips with Tsugawa’s tactics, today. It was a thought that unsettled him, made him think of a time when he’d paid a whole lot more attention to his opponents that he had been lately. The discomfort of that thought made him look away from his captain’s level gaze.
Hyuuga-san squeezed his shoulder once and let him go, turning back to gather up the rest of the team and harry them off to the changing room. When Daiki turned to follow, he found Tetsu at his side again.
There was satisfaction in his partner’s eyes.
Another day, another game, and Daiki was on the bench again. He slouched down with a sigh.
“Quit sulking,” Riko-san told him, exasperated. “You knew you’d be out for this game. You’re not ready to play hard for two consecutive days, yet.”
“I’ll sulk if I want to,” he grumbled. “You gave Midorima to Kagami. That’s so unfair.” He’d really been looking forward to playing the others from Teikou. Midorima had had some fairly cutting things to say about the starting line-up, too, and Daiki frankly thought he was right. Riko-kantoku and Hyuuga-san were gambling by using Kagami alone with Tetsu.
Sure enough, Tetsu got the ball through to Kagami for the first shot only to have Midorima block it. Well, at least Hyuuga-san blocked the return shot. It wasn’t a start to make Daiki feel confident, though. The slow minutes that went by while both teams fought for the ball and neither scored didn’t make him any more relaxed, either.
He was more than half expecting it, when Shuutoku’s point guard feinted hard for the basket only to pass the ball back to Midorima, well behind the three-point line. The basket that followed was a foregone conclusion, though Riko-kantoku’s choked sound of disbelief made it clear that no one else had really understood what Midorima could do. Daiki kept his eyes on Tetsu, though, because he knew what his partner could do, also.
And he knew Tetsu’s temper.
Sure enough, Tetsu was sending Kagami back toward Shuutoku’s basket, and Daiki smiled slow and toothy as Tetsu caught Midorima’s ball under Seirin’s basket, stepped over the line and spun hard on one heel to fire the ball back down the full length of the court. He didn’t even mind too much that it was Kagami who was there to catch it, since the resulting basket showcased Tetsu so beautifully. Daiki leaned back on his hands, smirking as players and audience made shocked sounds all around him. “Shuutoku’s going to be in trouble if Midorima doesn’t pull his head out of his ass and remember who he’s playing,” he told Satsuki.
“Stop gloating, Dai-chan, it’s unbecoming,” she told him, just as if she wasn’t doting over Tetsu with hearts in her eyes. The next minute, though, her smile turned sharp again. “They’ll set Takao Kazunari on Tetsu-kun, now.”
Riko-san frowned at the court, fingers tapping against her folded arms. “How soon, do you think?”
“One more play,” Satsuki said, serene in the surety of her predictions.
Sure enough, after one more basket for Seirin, the point guard moved to mark Tetsu. Daiki narrowed his eyes at the way the guy was grinning, all bright-eyed. He liked it when other players appreciated Tetsu, but not when they got pushy about it. Though he supposed this would make the counter Tetsu had suggested more effective, if Takao was that focused on him.
The rest of the first-years winced as Shuutoku scored again. “Are the senpai really going to be able to keep up with Shuutoku long enough?” Furihata asked Riko-kantoku.
She smiled, and it reminded Daiki so much of Satsuki when she’d lost her temper and was about to make someone regret the day he’d been born, that he edged away down the bench. Just to be on the safe side.
“Don’t worry.” Riko-san flicked a little bit of painted wood absently through her fingers. “I trained Hyuuga-kun very thoroughly in how to shoot under pressure.”
“Who cares about this this ‘King’ bullshit?” Hyuuga-kun yelled, out on the court. “Die!”
“Though it maybe did some bad things to his personality,” she finished quite calmly as the ball swished through the net.
Satsuki clasped her clipboard to her chest and sparkled. “Riko-kantoku is such a good trainer.” The women smiled at each other in a happily bloodthirsty way.
“Why did I let Tetsu drag me here?” Daiki muttered. As if Satsuki wasn’t scary enough on her own.
“It’s about time for Midorin to try a longer shot,” Satsuki murmured, ignoring him, eyes on the players again. “Tetsu-kun hasn’t left him any choice, if he wants to avoid those long passes. I hope everyone remembers what I said about that.”
“It’s hard to really believe, but they’ll remember.” Riko-san rocked a step forward as Midorima got the ball again. “Here it comes.”
Midorima shot from the center line, and Daiki nodded as the ball arced up. “It’s in.” And he’d give his senpai this much credit; despite the disbelief on every face but Tetsu’s when Midorima went up to shoot, that was their only flinch. Izuki-senpai got the ball to Kagami fast, after the throw-in, and Daiki rolled his eyes as the jumping idiot shot from the outside and ran to dunk it himself when it missed. “His accuracy sucks,” he muttered.
“So does yours, from the outside,” Satsuki scolded, hitting him lightly over the head with her clipboard. “You shouldn’t… there!” She went up on her toes, focused on Midorima like a predator. “It’s coming! Kagamin challenged him, it’s the end of the quarter, he’ll use a full-court shot now!”
“Unbelievable,” Riko-san whispered as they watched Midorima take a shooting stance under Shuutoku’s basket. “You think he can really…?”
“He’ll be able to do it, by now,” Satsuki said, positive. The ball arced achingly high over the court and down, down, to drive cleanly through Seirin’s net. And the buzzer sounded while everyone stood frozen.
Daiki frowned as he followed the rest of the team back to the changing room and watched them, during the half time break. Everyone but Kuroko and Kagami were shaken. He didn’t think that would stop the second-years for long, not after what he’d seen them do against Seihou. But none of them were fast enough to stop Midorima before he could shoot. “You should put me in,” he said flatly.
“You’d have to use too much of your speed to stop him on the ground, Dai-chan,” Satsuki said, laying a hesitant hand on his shoulder. “Kantoku says you’re not back in good enough condition. It has to be Kagamin, this game.”
Daiki fired up at that; Kagami, to take his place against one of his own ex-team? “Kagami isn’t good enough to sto—” he broke off with an oof as Kagami stopped scrubbing a towel over his face and rammed an elbow into Daiki’s side.
“Don’t make decisions for other people! God you’re an asshole when you don’t get to play.” Kagami look a contemplative swallow from his water bottle. “And when you do, now I think about it. Quit worrying so much, I can do it.”
“I wasn’t worrying you…” Daiki glowered, aware that the rest of the team was stifling laughter. Even Tetsu, who was perfectly straight-faced.
Hyuuga-san clapped Daiki and Kagami both on the shoulders and said, with a toothy smile, “Good, keep on not worrying. And stop arguing like toddlers, you brats, before I knock your damn heads together.”
Both Kagami and Daiki hunched down a little and muttered agreement.
But maybe Daiki’s remark really had gotten to Kagami, because when he went back out onto the court he focused on Midorima like Satsuki focused on her player-data. He jumped to block Midorima’s shots again and again, and he was starting to actually do it, starting to pull Midorima back down the court so he didn’t have to take so long to set up for the shot. Satsuki hissed with satisfaction the first time Kagami actually blocked a shot, and Daiki had to admit that Kagami was tipping the balance of the game. Every shot he blocked, the second-years were there to catch and make a come-back play with. And those jumps were getting higher. Watching Kagami advance like that in the course of a single game tugged at something in Daiki; he remembered how it felt, to do that. Riko-kantoku was starting to make disapproving sounds as she watched him, though, running and jumping and not stopping. She swore out loud when Kagami went to take the ball down the court again and stumbled on one of those jumps, losing the ball to Shuutoku.
Daiki, personally, kind of liked how Kagami wasn’t stopping for anything. So he rolled his eyes over the scolding Hyuuga-san gave Kagami during the third quarter break for not paying attention to the rest of the team. Right now, he didn’t even care if he was showing sympathy for a rival; he liked how Kagami was playing.
“This is the only way to do it,” Kagami argued back, “I’m the only one who can—” Abruptly he stopped talking, so frozen Daiki wasn’t sure he was still breathing, and the whole team blinked at him. Slowly, stiffly, Kagami turned his head to stare at Daiki and then at Tetsu, who was standing beside the bench with that shadowed look in his eyes again. As they looked at each other silently, though, Tetsu’s shoulders eased and fell out of their tight line, and the crease between his brows smoothed out again. Daiki straightened out of his slouch on the bench; he hadn’t realized how tense his partner’s silence was until just now.
“Was that… how it happened?” Kagami asked, a little hoarse.
Tetsu nodded. “It’s all right, Kagami-kun. I won’t let you play like that,” he answered quietly, a quiet that Daiki recognized. That was Tetsu making a promise, and his gut clenched hearing Tetsu speak to Kagami that way.
“Yeah. Yeah, okay.” Kagami took a slow breath and shook his head, hard. “Thanks.” He gave Daiki a frankly disturbed look, and Daiki realized abruptly that Kagami and Tetsu had been talking about him, somehow. Before he could ask or protest, though, Riko-kantoku was standing in front of them and calling for attention.
“Okay, Kuroko’s had a break, so it’s about time to spring the trap on Takao. Also, we’ll use the accelerated pass this quarter We’re eleven points behind, people, it’s time to push.” She gave Kagami a narrow, measuring look. “You… you can block Midorima twice more, I think. After that stumble, though, they won’t think you can do it again at all. We’re going to bluff. Block his first shot in the fourth quarter, and then save your last jump in case you need to block a critical ball and turn the momentum. And then you’re done, and you leave it to the rest of the team, got that?” Her glare intensified when Kagami flexed his legs thoughtfully, and he ducked his head.
“All right. Get out there, then.”
Daiki grabbed Tetsu’s shoulder as he stripped off his t-shirt and turned toward the court. “Tetsu, what the hell did you mean? You won’t like Kagami play like what?”
Tetsu gave him a level look. “Aomine-kun. If you win with a team that still can’t trust each other, if you win but no one’s happy about it… is that really victory?” He shrugged out from under Daiki’s hand, tugging his wrist-warmers up. “I don’t think so.”
Daiki watched him walk out onto the court, silent while the words echoed in his head. It was true enough that none of his wins had felt like a real victory for months. Maybe a year, by now. He wasn’t even sure it would have felt like a real victory if he’d been the one out there playing Midorima. It wasn’t a real victory if you didn’t have to fight for it, and he didn’t think Midorima could really make him fight.
Except… that wasn’t what Tetsu had said, was it? He hadn’t said “fight”. He’d said “trust”. And “happy about it”. Daiki froze, staring blindly out at the court. Were those thing things Tetsu hadn’t felt for a year? Tetsu’s words, back before the start of preliminaries, when they’d fought that one night over dinner, echoed in his head.
Trust… if that was Tetsu’s real victory…
“Fuck,” Daiki whispered to himself, scrubbing a hand over his face. “No wonder he’s pissed off.”
He started when Satsuki hit him very lightly over the head with her clipboard, looking up to find her smiling down at him. “Now you’re getting it.”
Daiki hunched his shoulders a little. “Yeah, yeah.” Satsuki had always been the one who saw what was in his own blind spots; she didn’t need to rub it in.
And then the crowd roared, and he looked back at the game and smiled to see the ball canon into Kagami’s hand from Tetsu’s. In fact, he smirked, because as much as he had blind spots, so did Satsuki, and telling Kagami to save a play was like telling a glutton to save some of dinner. He watched Kagami jump to dunk the ball right past Midorima’s block, and laughed.
Satsuki hit him harder this time.
“Oh, come on.” Daiki rubbed his head, grinning up at her. “Tetsu will take care of things. And you can’t say that wasn’t a fantastic expression on Midorima’s face.” Riko-kantoku growled from his other side, and he subsided, still grinning.
The last two minutes turned the grin to a frown, though. Most of Shuutoku fell back to defend, and Seirin was still one basket short. Even Hyuuga-san’s shots were only keeping even with Midorima’s. Tension crawled up Daiki’s spine as the score hovered, deadlocked, and the seconds ticked down. He wasn’t the only one who let out a relieved breath when Hyuuga-san finally broke free and sank one more three-pointer to turn over the score in Seirin’s favor.
Only he and Satsuki cursed, though, when the ball fell, because what the hell was the rest of the team thinking, why wasn’t anyone guarding Midorima?! The ball was in Midorima’s hands, Kagami and Tetsu were both closing on him, but if Kagami was past his limit already…
“Kagami!” Riko-kantoku yelled, loud enough to make Daiki’s ears ring, up on her feet with her hands clenched. “Don’t…!“
Kagami was already jumping, though, as high as any of his blocks during the game, and Daiki held his breath.
“It’s a fake!” Satsuki shouted, on his other side, furious, and sure enough Midorima brought the ball back down and set his feet for another jump with a serene calm that ignored that last seconds slipping away. Kagami wouldn’t even land soon enough to jump for this shot, never mind whether he actually could or not.
Daiki was still holding his breath, though. There was one person who could stop Midorima, still.
And there, Tetsu was there, striking the ball out of Midorima’s hands, and the buzzer sounded just as Kagami’s feet hit the court again, one second after the ball. Daiki breathed out.
And when the rest of the team came off the court to be piled on by everyone else and, in Kagami’s case, shoved down onto the bench for a fast examination by a furious coach, Daiki just looked down at Tetsu. “I knew you’d be there,” he said quietly.
Tetsu cocked his head, still panting for breath. “Did you know Kagami-kun would? Midorima-kun knew.”
“Midorima believes in a lot of things I don’t.” Daiki’s mouth twisted and he sighed. “I’ve only played with him for a few months, Tetsu, give me a little time.” He folded his arms, looking down at them, and offered, “Knew Hyuuga-san would make the last shot we needed, though.”
Tetsu laid a hand on his arm, and when Daiki looked up he was smiling. “We’ll just keep playing until you know for everyone, then.”
“Okay,” Daiki agreed, low. For Tetsu, he would try. And maybe for that tug of familiarity Kagami’s game had given him today.
“I can’t believe you!” Riko-kantoku was sputtering over Kagami. “Just look at this! Definitely muscle strain, maybe even torn muscles! I’m taking you to the hospital immediately, and who knows whether you’ll be able to play against Kaijou next week?! Basketball idiots!”
Satsuki came to drape her arms over Tetsu’s shoulders from behind and murmur, “And now he says…”
“I’ll be fine, I can still play!”
She mouthed the words along with Kagami, and Daiki had to laugh.
Maybe he was a little glad Tetsu had dragged him to this school, after all. Just a little.