Tetsuya was starting to feel that it was somehow fate: if one of his partners wasn’t sulking, the other would be. Kagami had been sulking for a solid week, in fact, starting from the moment the doctor had informed him he had put micro-tears in the muscle of his calves and strictly forbidden him from playing for two weeks. He wasn’t even allowed to practice, only to do very gentle stretches up on the stage, glowering at thin air under the coach’s stern eye. Like the other end of a see-saw coming up, Aomine had become cheerful again. In fact, he was grinning as they lined up to board the train out to the arena hosting this year’s Interhigh tournament.
Aomine would be the only ace who got to play against Kaijou, for their first round.
He was so cheerful he was nearly whistling, and he took the seat next to Kagami’s, most likely so that he could keep waving his cheerfulness in Kagami’s face. Tetsuya rolled his eyes a little and took a seat against the back of theirs so he didn’t have to watch it. They were like a couple of little kids sometimes.
Momoi settled next to him, humming to herself, which was a better sign. “You’re confident?” he asked quietly.
She smiled, the distant, calculating smile she wore during matches. “Ki-chan is always the hardest to predict because his progress depends so much on who else he’s played recently. But Dai-chan is back in condition, now, and he’ll be playing his best since it’s against Ki-chan.” Her smile turned rueful as Kagami and Aomine’s muttered exchange devolved into a brief wrestling match, behind them. “And Kagamin and Dai-chan still distract each other sometimes, when they play together. Maybe it’s best, for this match, that it’s only Dai-chan.” She leaned against his shoulder. “And you.”
He gave her the tiny smile that only his teammates ever seemed to learned how to spot. “And you.”
On the way to a match, she was in a serious enough mood to not indulge in any over-the-top public affection, and just looked back at him, eyes sparkling with the wicked edge of her own determination. “Of course.”
This year’s venue was down the coast, a town that catered to beach-goers, and a brisk breeze off the water blew through the open streets and snapped the pennons that marched up the steps to the arena. Tetsuya breathed it in, tasting the electric edge in the atmosphere. Knots of other students in school uniforms ignored the gathering crowd around them, aware only of each other. Everyone was here to win, and everyone knew they might lose, and the eyes of the players were bright with that tension every time glances crossed.
Tetsuya loved this. He loved the uncertainty and need and excitement. He knew exactly what it was that drove Kagami against Tetsuya’s old team. He knew what it was that Aomine missed so desperately it turned his eyes dark and dull. And even though he’d ignored Akashi’s plans and orders for the two of them, and followed his own judgement instead, he hoped that Aomine would find what he needed again today, facing Kise as an opponent. Aomine was smiling, which he really hadn’t, yet, through all the preliminaries. There was a manic edge in that smile that made Tetsuya’s spine crinkle, though. He thought he wasn’t the only one to notice, because Kagami watched Aomine from the corner of his eye as the team got changed, not sulky any more but frowning just a little.
“All right,” Hyuuga-san called, waving them to gather close. “We’ve played Kaijou once, but don’t let that make you overconfident. I doubt they were going all out, not in a practice match, and Kasamatsu knows what we can do, now. Stay sharp.” He nodded as everyone chorused agreement, and then reached up to wrap a hand around the back of Aomine’s neck. “Except for you,” he added. “You need to calm down.” He shook Aomine a little, holding his rather startled gaze. “Kaijou isn’t running away, and you don’t need to hunt them down for pity’s sake. Breathe.”
Tetsuya was actually the one who followed that order, breathing out as one thread of tension uncoiled down his back. He had been right, so right, to bring Aomine to Seirin.
Even if Aomine was currently looking at their captain with that manic edge fading back into shadows. “They probably will, after this,” he said, low and so matter-of-fact it made something twist in Tetsuya’s chest.
Out of that tight twist, he said, “Kise-kun never runs away. Especially not from you.”
Aomine hesitated, and finally lowered his chin. “Yeah. He doesn’t.”
Hyuuga-san shook his head at them, mouth quirked. “And now the we’ve had the moment of brooding that seems absolutely required for you two, get out on the damn court and play!” He gave Aomine a little push.
“Yes, Captain,” Tetsuya agreed blandly over Aomine’s indignant sound, and gave his partner a much firmer shove toward the door with a hand in the small of his back. Aomine pouted at him but went, and Kagami followed after them, rolling his eyes. Fortunately it only took a few steps for Aomine to remember that Kise was waiting for them, and then he picked up his pace.
Momoi touched Tetsuya’s shoulder, just before the team went out onto the court. “Tetsu-kun. Are you all right with this, too?” She glanced over at Kaijou, at Kise, who was already smiling that sharp little smile he wore when he let the rest of the world fall away and just played. The one he only ever wore when he played Aomine. Tetsuya watched Aomine’s smile start to sharpen in answer and sighed softly.
“Being unnoticed is my specialty, Momoi-san.”
She bit her lip at that, and he touched her hand lightly, shaking his head. He couldn’t say he didn’t mind; sometimes he got really tired of it. But the fact remained, this was his specialty. His strength. So he stepped out onto the court in Aomine’s shadow, and took what amusement he could in watching Aomine and Kise exchange jabs, and didn’t interject to mention that, even if Kise could beat Aomine this time, Kaijou would not defeat Seirin.
Because Tetsuya was here, also.
Kaijou clearly intended to test that, though. Kise got the ball at once, and only Aomine’s raw speed struck the ball out of his hands and into Hyuuga-san’s for the first basket. Just as Momoi has predicted, Kasamatsu-san gave Kise the ball again, and Hyuuga-san growled audibly when his own three-point form was repeated. Aomine was there again to deflect it, and Mitobe-senpai got the rebound, but Kasamatsu-san stole the ball from Izuki-senpai as soon as he went to pass it and took a basket of his own with beautiful speed and precision.
"Don’t think we’re nice enough to just let you take control of the game," Kasamatsu-san told Izuki-senpai with a tight smile.
Tetsuya nodded to himself, watching. Momoi was right; Kaijou believed that Kise could stop Aomine, and were covering for him while he tried.
They might be right.
He watched Aomine and Kise bare their teeth at each other and scuffle back and forth with cuts almost too fast to follow. He could hear Izuki-senpai’s hiss of indrawn breath when Kise leaped to block Aomine’s shot cleanly. Kise was developing his game fast, at Kaijou, maybe even faster than he had at Teikou. And he had a team prepared to support him, a team led by someone who made Momoi’s eyes burn brighter when she talked about his strength and how to oppose him.
But that was all right, because the more Kise and Aomine drew the eye, the stronger Tetsuya’s own counter-move would be.
Tetsuya flexed his knees, watching his marker out of the corner of his eye. They’d chosen the hyperactive one, the one who went up for all the rebounds. This one would respond fast when he lost sight of Tetsuya. He hadn’t been part of the practice game, though, and would be surprised the first time he experienced it. As soon as Aomine closed again to mark Kise, Tetsuya took the moment of distraction when his own marker glanced at his captain for direction to fade to the side, behind, around, each step smooth and easy, sliding one step ahead of the path of the other player’s gaze as he jerked around, looking for Tetsuya. Who, of course, was now in exactly the opposite direction, closing on Kasamatsu-san. He caught up just as Kasamatsu-san spun to the side to evade Izuki-senpai, and tapped the ball out of his hands, sending it singing back down the court to Mitobe-senpai to take the next basket.
“I’m sorry,” he murmured in answer to Kasamatsu-san’s ferocious glare, “but we’re not nice enough to let you have control of the game, either.”
Kasamatsu-san snorted, eyes glinting as he straightened. “Uppity first-year brats everywhere,” he declared, and spun back to re-deploy his team.
Tetsuya bent his head for a breath, storing up the satisfaction of having such a strong player count him in with Kise and Aomine, to hold back the bitter edge of watching Kise and Aomine focus on nothing but each other. Of watching Aomine forget, again, that he had a partner on this court. He’d known it would probably happen, after all.
By the end of the first quarter, Kaijou was ahead and his senpai were getting tense. But Tetsuya could see Aomine’s focus tightening on the challenge Kise presented. When Aomine stood back up from the bench, the weight of his focus was heavy in the air, and Kagami snorted softly, leaning back on his hands. “Nothing to worry about, huh?” he asked.
Aomine didn’t look around. “Of course not.”
Tetsuya looked over at Momoi, questioning, and, at her nod, sat back down himself.
“Tsuchida,” Kantoku called, “you’re in. Make sure you get the rebounds, because that Hayakawa they’ve put in for the tournament games has way too good a record at that. Watch everyone’s backs!”
Beside Tetsuya, Kagami made a startled sound, looking down at Tetsuya with raised brows. “But aren’t you more of an advantage than him, while the misdirection lasts? Why are they pulling you out already?”
“Because Dai-chan is getting serious,” Momoi said softly, behind them. “If we need to bring Tetsu-kun in at the end, he’s going to need all the rest he can get now, to keep up with how fast Dai-chan will be going by then.”
Kagami looked a little skeptical, but turned back to the court, elbows on his knees as he watched the game start up again.
By half-time, he wasn’t looking skeptical any more. Aomine was moving faster and faster, pushing against every advance Kise made, sliding around him like water, blocking his shots. Most of Kaijou’s baskets were coming from Kasamatsu-san, now, while Seirin had both Hyuuga-san and Aomine making points. They were pulling ahead.
“All right,” Kantoku said, hands on her hips as she stood in front of the bench. “This is the breaking point. Either they’ll go with Kise or they won’t. Aomine-kun, will you be ready, if Kise can really complete his copy of you?”
Aomine’s lips peeled back from his teeth, and his eyes were fixed on the empty court. “Of course I will.”
Riko-kantoku sighed and leaned forward to grab him by the ear. “You will not enter the Zone, understand? You’re back in reasonable condition, but that would put too much strain on your body, still. Now use your brain to actually think and answer me: if Kise can complete his copy of your techniques, can you still deal with him?”
“Ow, shit, okay already!” Aomine rubbed his ear, nearly pouting up at their couch. “Yeah, I’ll be okay; Kise isn’t as fast as me.”
Kantoku raised an eyebrow at Momoi, and her shoulders straightened in response to Momoi’s firm nod. “All right, then, no player changes yet. You all know the strategy, if they don’t go with Kise: Mitobe will join in to double mark Kasamatsu. Now get out there and play!”
When play started again, it was tense. Kaijou was pushing hard, but Kise always passed the ball when it came to him. “You were right,” Kantoku murmured to Momoi. “Look at how Kise-kun is always on Aomine-kun. He’s not just marking tightly, is he?”
“No,” Momoi agreed softly, clipboard clasped tight to her chest. “He’s going to try it.”
“Will it really work, even if he sees it?” Kagami wanted to know, glancing up at her. “I mean, Aomine’s kind of a freak, just physically; can Kise copy his moves?”
Riko-kantoku hummed absently, eyes on the game. “Kise’s physical condition is at least as good, and his potential is equal to Aomine-kun’s. He might not have quite the edge of speed, but he comes very close.” She glowered down at Kagami in a forbidding manner. “You’re still working up to that level, and you’ll be working harder as soon as your legs are healed, believe me.”
Kagami snorted, apparently unconcerned by the ‘triple drills’ glint in her eyes. “Of course. That’s why I’m still with Seirin.”
Momoi caught Tetsuya’s eye and they smiled at each other, wry and tilted. Kagami really was a great deal like Aomine used to be.
And Aomine was looking a little more like himself, as he watched Kise watching him, teeth glinting in a sharp, eager smile every time Kise broke away to try one of Aomine’s moves against another player. He started up on his toes every time that happened, and his return baskets came fast and hard. “Aomine-kun wants Kise-kun to do it,” Tetsuya noted, quietly.
“Well of course he does,” Kagami answered, at the same moment Koganei-senpai said, “Aomine is weird.” Koganei-senpai grinned a little, and added, “Kagami, too.”
“It is not weird,” Kagami insisted, indignant. “I’m not saying he’s not an asshole, but he just wants a game worth playing, that’s not weird.” And then he frowned at Momoi and Tetsuya. “Why are you laughing?”
Momoi wiped her eyes, still giggling. “This is why Dai-chan loves Kagamin.”
Tetsuya smiled faintly out at the court while Kagami turned red and sputtered. The shift in Aomine’s stance pulled him forward on the bench, though. Aomine had been making more and more daring formless shots—daring for anyone who wasn’t Aomine, at least—but he’d just fallen completely out of stance, ball in one hand, other hand planted on his hip. He slung the ball over Kise, careless and hard, and it smacked off the backboard and through the net, leaving silence behind it. They could hear him on the bench when he said, “Quit screwing around, Kise. If you don’t hurry up it’ll all be over. I’m not patient enough to wait until you’re all ready.”
Hyuuga-san dragged a hand over his face. “Aomine, you little brat…”
Kasamatsu-san barked a laugh. “You think that matters? Who the hell cares about your patience?” The throw-in smacked into his hands and he spun free of Izuki-senpai, and sent a three-point shot sailing through the hoop. "Know your place, first-year. You’re not the only player on this court!"
Tetsuya shivered a little, watching. Kaijou seemed to take those words as inspiration, tightening up their defense even more. The next time Hyuuga-san shot, Moriyama was there to block it. The team pulled in around Kise, guarding the score unwaveringly while he prepared. And Tetsuya saw the moment Kise understood what his team was doing, saw the tiny, true smile that curved his lips before he sank into a taut, familiar stance, facing Aomine.
And broke past him like lightning.
The whole bench were on their feet as Aomine gave chase, Momoi shouting a warning just as his feet left the ground that bit too forcefully, driving him into Kise’s back. And Kise completed the shot with a hook behind both of them that sank through the net as though rolling downhill.
“He did it!” Kagami yelled, pounding on Tetsuya’s shoulder, wonder and excitement in his voice just as though it wasn’t the opponent’s ace he was talking about.
“Yes,” Tetsuya agreed, fingers curling tight. Aomine was standing under the basket, blank and shocked by the actual experience of being passed, but the blankness was slowly fading into a burning focus Tetsuya hadn’t seen in over a year. It made his chest tighten, seeing it again, but there was a chill settling around him as well. This was what Aomine wanted, needed, but would he forget the progress they’d made this year, now he had it? Would he forget Tetsuya completely again?
The next ball was stolen when Tsuchida-senpai passed it back to Hyuuga-san, and Kise cut past Aomine again only to have Aomine slap the ball out of his hands, right at the hoop, so hard it landed in the stands.
The other first-years were making shocked sounds, but Tetsuya just nodded to himself. This was more like Aomine, far more like him than all the lazy slouching and drawled complaints of the past year. Aomine blazed through the Kaijou team and faded back almost parallel to the floor to make his shot over Kise’s block.
“He really likes that one,” Kagami grumbled, and Tetsuya smiled a little. Kagami had been on the receiving end of that move more than once, to be sure. It was one of the things that made him think Kagami might be the answer for both Aomine and himself.
Kise’s next shot was the one Aomine had just used, and the ball went in just as smoothly.
Momoi whistled softly. “Ki-chan really has done it. He isn’t as fast, but he’s adjusted his movement for that. His change of pace has just as much impact, and his flexibility is already equal.” She frowned. “Riko-kantoku, this might be a problem.”
“Mm.” Kantoku shot a glance at the scoreboard, where Seirin was only two points ahead. “I was hoping to have more of a lead, yes, but… Kaijou is a very strong team, under Kasamatsu-san. Kuroko. Make sure you’re warmed up.”
Tetsuya nodded quietly. “Yes, Kantoku.” He started stretching his legs out, eyes steady on the flow of the game. Or, perhaps, the rocking of the game, back and forth between Kise and Aomine, basket after basket. They raced furiously after each other, up and down the court, teeth bared, burning fiercer than Tetsuya had ever seen them, before.
Of course, there was a reason he’d never seen them stretched all-out against each other.
There were only a few minutes left to go in the last quarter when Kise faltered and the whole court froze, watching his ball circle the rim, around and around, before it finally fell in.
“That’s it,” Riko-kantoku snapped, and signaled for a time-out. As the players came in, she clapped Tsuchida-senpai on the shoulder. “All right, Kise-kun’s finally reaching the limit of his endurance. We’re putting Kuroko-kun in. Aomine.” She latched onto his ear again, hauling him down eye to eye. “You and Kuroko will double-team Kise to get the ball away from him or past him. We need to open up the lead, because Kaijou won’t just let us go.” She nodded toward the other bench, where, sure enough, the Kaijou players were gathered around Kasamatsu-san, still focused and intent.
“Not like you have to tell me,” Aomine complained, rubbing his ear, and then he slanted a sharp, wild grin at Tetsuya. “You ready?”
The tightness in Tetsuya’s chest loosened all at once, and he smiled back, tugging his wrist-warmers to settle them just as he liked. “Of course.”
He was better than all right. He wanted to laugh. He felt relief sparkling through his veins. This was the partner he remembered.
And when they stepped onto the court, it was the combination he remembered, his partner’s casual, perfect awareness of him as Tetsuya slid into the path of the ball and struck it back towards Aomine, turning his movement jagged and unpredictable. They shook Kise loose once, twice, and Kise caught them the third time but faltered again, stumbling on his landing from blocking Aomine’s shot. Tetsuya caught the wild-flying ball, spun, sent it scorching back to his partner, and Aomine slammed it home. It was hot, fast, incredible play, and Tetsuya gloried in it. Kaijou wasn’t giving way against it, though. Kasamatsu-san stole the ball back for a three-pointer, hauling Seirin’s lead back down to three points, and Aomine bared his teeth.
“Full court, Tetsu,” he breathed. “You can do it for me, can’t you?” And he was gone without waiting for an answer, sprinting down the court toward Kaijou’s basket.
That was all right. Aomine obviously knew what the answer was already. Tetsuya stepped over the boundary line, took the ball, and whirled the weight of it around himself until he could fire it back down the court, hard and heavy.
“Kurokocchi!” Kise yelled, and he was already nearly on top of Aomine; he’d known it was coming, too. Despite the danger of having the last ball they’d have time for stolen, Tetsuya smiled a little. Aomine. Kise. They both knew what he could do.
It was such a good feeling to have again.
Both Aomine and Kise went up, Aomine to dunk and Kise to block it, struggling against each other, each with a hand on the ball. For a long second, they seemed to hang there, perfectly balanced against each other, but then the balance tipped, broke, and Kise’s hand slipped as Aomine slammed the ball into the net.
The buzzer sounded.
Tetsuya’s mouth tightened as Kise stumbled again on landing and went down. Playing so hard against each other, the way they’d never been permitted to do before… he wasn’t surprised. Nor was he surprised when Aomine hesitated, standing over Kise, hand twitching uncertainly at his side. In that hesitation, it was Kise’s new captain who shouldered past Aomine and bent over Kise to give him a hand up. To lift him, when his legs gave out. Aomine turned away quietly to meet Tetsuya and the rest of his own team.
“You sure you don’t want to say anything?” Hyuuga-san asked, mopping his face as they went to line up. “I mean, it’s not like you have to forget you knew each other, even if you’re opponents, now.”
“There’s nothing the winner can say to the loser that would do any good,” Aomine said, low, and Tetsuya stepped up to his partner’s side, brushing his shoulder in passing.
He’d always wondered if maybe Aomine hadn’t really thought through the consequences of splitting the team the way Akashi had demanded (and Tetsuya had re-interpreted for his own purposes). If Aomine really did keep winning, he would have to face his teammates after they’d taken a true loss at his hands. He’d have to see Kise’s face twisted with the tears he was trying, for once, to hold back, and see someone else’s hand ruffling Kise’s hair, steadying him. It wasn’t in Aomine’s nature to think ahead like that, not like it was in Tetsuya’s. Tetsuya met Kasamatsu-san’s eyes as Kaijou’s captain supported Kise to face them, and bowed soberly.
He had known this was coming, and resolved himself to it months ago. It still hurt a little.
It wasn’t until they were leaving, until Aomine stubbed his toe on the stairs down from the arena and almost tripped, and Kantoku’s voice sharpened with concern, that he realized there were implications he hadn’t thought through enough either. Or maybe just hadn’t believed. When Kantoku and Aomine came back from the hospital, though, Kantoku’s face set and Aomine’s dark, he felt the true weight of those implications land like a rock in the pit of his stomach. A chill ran through him, like a cloud had crossed the sun and cut off the light.
“A week and a half off the court,” Kantoku told them, flat and grim.
“Are we going to use Kagami next week, then?” Hyuuga-san asked.
Riko-kantoku’s hands clenched hard for a moment. “No,” she ground out.
Kagami jerked upright from where he’d been leaning against the stage. “But…!”
“I said no!” Kantoku barked, rounding on him. “The doctor said two weeks, and it will be two weeks! I’m not letting anyone who’s injured set foot on the court!”
Kagami stepped back, eyes a little wide, hands raised, and Hyuuga-san rested a hand on Kantoku’s shoulder for a moment. “We’ll deal with it,” he said firmly.
Tetsuya took a slow breath and held on to the firmness of his captain’s words, to steady himself. They would deal with it. As a team.
Even if it was a team that didn’t include either of his partners.
Both Tetsuya’s partners were sulking when the team got to the Interhigh venue a week later. At least they were doing it quietly now, since Riko-kantoku had shown no tolerance for whining and actually made Koganei-senpai bring her a paper fan to smack both Kagami and Aomine with whenever they complained out loud. Momoi had looked enchanted with the idea, and it had been a lighter moment in the middle of the week’s frantic training toward today’s match.
Momoi was looking a lot more serious, now, as she did last-minute briefing while everyone got changed. “…so all of Touou’s players are strong, this year, and they have a real reputation for individual play, but you absolutely must keep your eye on their captain. Imayoshi-san is unquestionably the one who’s shaped Touou’s recent play style, and all of my sources agree that he’s frighteningly good at grasping the one thing you least want him to figure out.” She flipped her notes closed and finished, “Tetsu-kun. If he targets anyone, it’s most likely to be you.”
Tetsuya shrugged to settle his shirt over his shoulders. “There’s nothing to do but deal with it, if it happens.”
A hand landed on his head, ruffling his hair firmly. “Quit stealing my lines,” Hyuuga-san told him. “You can panic a little if you want to, you know. All four of you are way too calm to be first-years.”
“Yes, Captain,” Tetsuya agreed, calmly. All his senpai rolled their eyes, which amused him; someone, some time, had taught his current team how to tell when someone was teasing with a straight face. He wondered who it had been.
“All right, people,” Hyuuga-san said, louder. “Don’t lose your focus just because there isn’t a Miracle on the other side. Let’s go!”
It was so familiar, stepping out under the weight of the lights, week after week, to meet whoever faced them. Familiar and also not, because this time, every time, victory was uncertain. The uncertainly pulled Tetsuya’s nerves tight and made his breath faster.
It was part of what he played for.
Touou’s captain, Imayoshi, smiled as he shook Hyuuga-san’s hand, running an eye over the team. “Leaving both your aces on the bench? That’s a little overconfident, don’t you think?” Without changing his pleasant expression in the slightest, he added, “Or maybe just careless. I suppose you’re still a young captain. Perhaps you’ll learn, today, to take better care of them for the winter.”
Tetsuya could almost see the moment Hyuuga-san’s temper, always chancy during a game, snapped. He smiled back at Imayoshi, toothy. “I don’t need some snake-eyed bastard on the other side telling me that.” He turned on his heel and stalked to his position, glaring the shortest Touou player out of his way, and barked at his team, “Let’s go!”
Imayoshi actually clutched a hand to his chest. “So cruel!” Tetsuya saw the way he looked after Hyuuga-san, though. Measuring. Calculating. Perfectly cool. A little shiver went through him. Momoi had been exactly on target, as usual; this was their most dangerous opponent.
Indeed, even though Momoi had warned them to be on guard, Imayoshi still managed to intercept the tip-off and, when Hyuuga-san blocked him, passed the ball too high for Tetsuya to catch. It went to Touou’s outside shooter and left his hands again almost as fast as the one of Tetsuya’s own redirections. The first basket was Touou’s, and it was a three-pointer. Tetsuya’s team exchanged grim looks. This was going to be every bit as hard as Momoi and Riko-kantoku had projected.
Touou was fast and strong. The center who guarded their net on defense wrestled with Tsuchida-senpai for every ball. Their shooting guard looked even slighter than Tetsuya, but he shot fast enough that, even warned, Hyuuga-san had to fight to block even some of his balls. Their captain, their point guard, had a sharp eye for the flow of the game and always sent the ball toward a weak spot—the extra moment Izuki-senpai needed to get turned around, the instant Hyuuga-san was distracted by the threat of a pass to Sakurai, the opening behind Mitobe-senpai’s back the moment he stepped forward to screen.
Tetsuya took a breath and sank himself into that flow also, hearing the murmur of Momoi’s analysis in the back of his head. Their center had good accuracy up close but not at any distance; when he was away from the net, he always passed. Tetsuya slid into the path of the ball and turned it toward Hyuuga-san’s hands. Touou’s shooting guard was blindingly fast but that meant he never had as firm a grip on the ball as another player might. Tetsuya faded away from his marker and sprinted to strike the ball out of Sakurai’s hands. He could feel his team settling around him, settling in for a long fight, but always poised to receive the ball. Poised because Tetsuya was on the court, and they expected it of him, trusted him to intervene. Part of him basked in that feeling, in the reliance of his team.
But part of him was aware of Imayoshi’s eyes catching him, over and over again, like an unexpected hand dropping onto his shoulder from behind.
Still, they were holding on. By the middle of the second quarter, when the rest of Touou started being able to find him, too, Seirin was eight points ahead. Tetsuya tagged Koganei-senpai at the side-lines and dropped onto the bench between Aomine and Kagami, breathing hard.
“I will never get how you can be so calm in the middle of such a hot game,” Kagami told him, shaking his head.
“Tetsu? Calm?” Aomine stared at Kagami like he was crazy. “Tetsu’s never calm, he just doesn’t actually, you know, yell about things.”
Tetsuya huffed into the towel he was scrubbing over his face. “I can’t keep track of the game if I’m one of the ones yelling,” he pointed out, hanging it around his neck and reaching for his water. It was true; he had to pay close attention to what was happening to keep up with everyone else, to be in the right place for his passes. However much passion he brought to the game, he had to observe everything carefully, even himself.
He knew that wasn’t how his partners played. But he wasn’t like his partners. He wondered, sometimes, what it would be like to play hot and thoughtless the way they did. He knew it wasn’t how his game, his strength, would ever work, but sometimes he wondered.
The second-years were playing pretty hot, themselves, now, pushing to keep Seirin’s lead. Touou was pushing back, though, and Momoi made an annoyed sound between her teeth as Imayoshi feinted around Izuki-senpai and faded back for another three-pointer. “That man is entirely too good at faking opponents out,” she declared, clearly offended that even her scouting beforehand wasn’t quite enough of an edge to close Imayoshi down.
“He’s the one who’s making their individual plays work, too,” Kantoku agreed, mouth a little tight. “We’ll just have to tighten up our own coordination to stop them.”
Aomine had been watching the game with his elbows on his knees, head cocked a little as Kantoku moved down the bench a little, tracking play with a frown of concentration. “There’s something a little weird about Seirin that way, don’t you think?” He glanced over at Tetsuya and then back at Momoi. “About the second-years. I mean, they’re tight, yeah. Really tight. But, being as tight as that, shouldn’t they be able to make more advanced plays?”
Tetsuya made a thoughtful noise, considering his senpai’s play. Touou’s center back-cut around Mitobe-senpai. Hyuuga-san wasn’t quite close enough to interfere properly, and the center threw one of those ferocious passes to their shooting guard. “Mmm.” He had to agree; even knowing Seirin wasn’t a defensive team, he’d have expected someone as experienced as Hyuuga-san to catch that.
Momoi was nibbling her lower lip. “It’s…” She hesitated, which was uncharacteristic enough to make Tetsuya brows rise.
“Shut up, Aomine.” Kantoku didn’t look away from the court. “I know already, you don’t have to rub it in.”
“It isn’t your fault, Kantoku,” Momoi said softly, while Aomine was blinking.
“No, but it’s my responsibility, now.” Their coach took a slow breath and glanced down the bench at the suddenly questioning looks of every first-year on it. “I’m this team’s coach, yes, but my experience is in training, not strategy. Our strategist is… away right now.” Her hand clenched on her knee, and her voice fell. “Just a little longer. If we can just hold on a little longer; he’s almost ready to come back.”
Tetsuya tucked this new information away; it sounded like their team would be bolstered even more than he’d thought, if they could just win this round. He looked back at the game, focusing like he was out there himself, watching the pattern of the second-years’ plays. This was where he put his own fire, where almost no one ever really saw it, into his focus on his team and opponents. This was what he had to strengthen, to support, to make shine—the absolute solidity of Hyuuga-san’s outside shots, Mitobe-senpai’s steady judgement under the basket, Izuki-senpai’s grasp of position.
He could do it.
The second-years were wringing wet and panting when they came in for half-time, and fell on Mitobe-senpai’s honeyed lemons like wolves. Tetsuya was absently grateful that Kagami had brought a batch of his own, and offered them around to the first-years. Even, reluctantly, Aomine, though they got into a brief wrestling match over it when Aomine smirked and tried to take four at once.
“You know, I’m not even sure I’m joking about Dai-chan liking Kagamin,” Momoi said to Tetsuya, not all that quietly. “He acts just like a little boy pulling a little girl’s hair because he likes her.”
That had the effect Tetsuya had no doubt she’d intended, as both Aomine and Kagami broke off fighting with each other to protest. He smiled back, faintly, at her tiny grin, but most of his attention was still on the game—on what he’d seen, and how he’d need to play in the last quarter.
It was, he thought, a good thing he had stayed focused, because when they got to the fourth quarter, Seirin was down twelve points. Kuroko took a breath as he stepped out under the lights of the court and slid straight into the game as though he’d never left; in a way, after all, he hadn’t. He shadowed Izuki-senpai, following the quick signals of his glances to take the ball at unexpected angles and relay it to its true target. He stole passes to Touou’s Sakurai and fired them to Mitobe-senpai instead, in the moment no one was watching. He could hear the shouts from Seirin’s bench, hear the enthusiasm of both his partners. And he could feel his team shifting around him, pushing into a higher gear.
This was what he lived for, this feeling, this triumph of his game, of the strength he gave his teammates, over the opposing team. When the score turned over again, he thought the lightness of the moment might lift him off his feet.
When Imayoshi stepped up to mark him, he felt a chill cut through that glow.
“Will you listen to that?” Touou’s captain said, conversationally, waving a hand at the stands. “‘Can we stop Seirin’s energy’ indeed. You think they’d know better.” Imayoshi smiled, slow and predatory. “Did you know? There are some things you can only see in a mirror.”
Tetsuya frowned to himself and waited for the ball to go to Izuki-senpai, for Imayoshi’s attention to split so he could fade away and cut free. But Imayoshi stayed on him, close up, close enough to…
…close enough to watch his eyes.
Tetsuya pulled in a hard breath. Every time he glanced at Izuki-senpai, Imayoshi looked away from him. Looked at Izuki-senpai, too.
…only see in a mirror.
It happened again when Tetsuya tried to move to relay a pass between Hyuuga-san and Mitobe-senpai. Again, when he went to screen Hyuuga-san’s next outside shot. He couldn’t shake Imayoshi off, and the clock was ticking down. The score turned over in Touou’s favor. Again in Seirin’s favor. And Tetsuya didn’t have anything to do with any of it. He was blocked at every pass, and he could feel the team stumbling; it was worse than if he hadn’t been on the court at all, because they kept starting to rely on him and having to pull up short.
“It’s a double-edged sword, isn’t it?” Imayoshi murmured, still smiling. “The way you strengthen them. The way they rely on you. Very double-edged indeed.”
Tetsuya’s mouth tightened hard, and he met Imayoshi’s eyes, direct and intent. This time, he didn’t look away, stayed focused on his opponent and just moved. He had to hope Izuki-senpai would see and understand. And, sure enough, there was a flicker of movement at the corner of his eye, and Tetsuya spun away at the last moment to reach for the ball coming toward them.
Imayoshi’s hand slid in front of his, and he cut between them, fading back and back and finally going up for a three-pointer neither Izuki-senpai nor Tetsuya were in place to block. The ball arched through the air, slow and high, over the heads of the frozen players, and swished through the basket, giving Touou a two-point lead.
The final buzzer sounded.
Imayoshi looked back at Tetsuya again. “It was obvious they’d rely on you at the last,” he said, almost gently. “Seirin is a young team, and your strength conceals your weaknesses. Too bad, hm?” He turned away toward his team.
Cold slid through Tetsuya like a knife. Was he actually bad for his team, when Aomine or Kagami couldn’t be on the court? Had he led them to overestimate him, just because he wanted so badly to be acknowledged as a useful player? He went through line-up and the retreat to the changing room in a chill fog of wondering what he could possibly do now.
Everyone was silent in the wake of their loss, and the silence plucked at Tetsuya’s nerves. He was almost grateful for the metallic bang when Aomine punched one of the lockers.
“What the fuck good is it being a genius and all that shit, when I can’t use it?!”
Momoi roused at that, though her voice was quiet. “Dai-chan, you know why. None of you are developed enough to use your full strength for too long.”
“Don’t be silly, Satsuki-chan.” Aida-kantoku stood briskly from testing Hyuuga-san’s calves and ankles, and put her hands on her hips. “Now that I have a better gauge for just how much strain it does put on you, you bet your ass you’re going to be training to use your full strength for a full match, Aomine-kun.”
Aomine blinked at her like she’d suddenly turned on all the lights in a dim room. “…I am?”
“Of course you are!”
“But Riko-kantoku,” Momoi started, half hopeful and half alarmed.
Kantoku waved an impatient hand. “In middle-school, of course their bodies couldn’t sustain that kind of play for long! And it would have been crazy to try to train them up to it while they were still growing. But now…” she eyed Aomine thoughtfully, “now, I think you have all but an inch or two of your height, and that’s the important part. Now that your muscles and tendons aren’t constantly under the strain of growing longer, we can take all that effort and energy and pain and put it toward your training.” She gave Aomine a sunny, ruthless smile, and he grinned back the way Tetsuya hadn’t seen in a while, bright and excited.
Tetsuya started a little when that smile was turned on him.
“Hear that, Tetsu?” Aomine reached out and mussed his hair, through Tetsuya’s towel. “I won’t leave you alone out there again. You’ll have all the light you need.”
Tetsuya stilled, caught between relief and a twist of fear. This was what he’d wanted, what he’d worked for, but was it really enough? For the first time, he doubted it. Aomine promised him light. As much light as he needed, to play the way he always had. Enough light to bring out his strength.
Enough light to conceal his weakness?
Kagami’s snort broke the circle of his thoughts. “What makes you think someone like Kuroko, the one who hauled your ass to Seirin and dragged your head out of it too, will be satisfied with stopping there?” He tied his shoe with a rather ferocious jerk, set both feet firmly on the floor, and braced his hands on his knees, elbows stuck out aggressively. “We need to be stronger, yeah. So Kuroko can rely on us, the same way we rely on him.”
“I told you you rely on him too heavily,” Aomine jibed at Kagami. “I, on the other hand, have the perfect balance already.”
Momoi coughed meaningfully into her fist, and Aomine added, “Back again.”
“Oh, nice save.” Kagami applauded sarcastically, and Aomine jumped him, and their corner dissolved into wrestling again. The second-years groaned and rolled their eyes, and the whole room lightened a little.
Tetsuya just sat, not quite seeing what was in front of him, while Kagami’s words rolled through his head. Kagami, his other partner, thought he wouldn’t stop with the goal he’d just barely regained. Thought he’d keep going, keep building up his game. The idea unfolded slowly, like a flower opening up, until his chest felt full and tight with it. To be more, to want more… could he? Could he really? The memory of a hundred quiet moments of irritation or resignation, playing as Teikou’s shadow, came back to him.
Hadn’t he always wanted more?
Tetsuya took a long, shaky breath, feeling like he was looking up after staring at the ground for so long he’d forgotten there was anything else to see.
“Tetsu-kun?” Momoi’s hand was on his shoulder, and she was looking down at him with a shade of worry behind her smile. “Is everything all right?”
“Yes.” Tetsuya shook himself and looked up at her. “I think Kagami-kun is right,” he told her. “I… I need to be more, too. Will you help me?”
Her eyes turned wide and surprised. He supposed that wasn’t something she’d been in the habit of thinking, either. The surprise melted slowly into familiar determination, though. “Tetsu-kun. Of course I will.” She smiled, bright and fierce, the way she hadn’t since they’d come off the court today. “I’m Seirin’s analyst, aren’t I? I’ll find a way.”
Tetsuya nodded back firmly, feeling that determination settle into his thoughts and bones, heavy but comfortable. Yes. They’d find a way around his weaknesses, until his team could rely on him without danger.
He wouldn’t let his game end like this.
The new thoughts tugged at him, as Seirin gathered themselves up and started for home. He’d thought he came to Seirin, and brought Aomine with him, to prove the worth of the way he played the game. He had a team, here, that needed him and knew how he strengthened them. He had a team that wouldn’t let Aomine molder in apathy, that demanded he train properly and play properly. There was even Kagami, to spur Aomine out of his slump, to remind him that there were other strong players, to show him how a decent partner acted.
He’d thought that was all he wanted.
But when Kagami had spoken, so confident that Tetsuya wouldn’t be content with just that, wanting had flared up instantly. So instantly that Tetsuya knew it had to have been lying in his heart all this time, waiting for a spark. It had taken Kagami to make him see, to make him remember his old hopes from before Akashi had found him and told him his strength was a shadow’s strength, from before he’d gotten used to shadow victories.
Maybe it wasn’t just Aomine that Kagami could show how to play again. And when Tetsuya remembered how deliberately he’d set out to use Kagami to make Aomine jealous enough to wake up, he wondered, with a twinge of guilt, whether it wasn’t just Aomine that needed Kagami to show him how to play again.
When he and Kagami waved good night to Aomine and Momoi, and parted ways at the station, his thoughts finally spilled over into words.
Kagami glanced down at him, brows raised. “What for?”
“I used you for my own ends, to make Aomine-kun remember how to be a partner. And even so, you still have that much faith in me.”
“What, that?” Kagami snorted, stuffing his hands further into his pockets. “Don’t worry so much about it. Everyone plays for their own reasons; it’s not like you made me play the way I do. That’s just me.” He gave Tetsuya a sidelong look. “As for you, are you going to tell me you will let it end like this? Your game? Seirin’s game?”
Tetsuya’s response to the mere question straightened his spine in a rush of hot denial. “Of course not," he said firmly.
Kagami was grinning a little. “Thought not.”
“Being smug makes you look like Aomine-kun,” Tetsuya observed, and smiled just a tiny bit as Kagami’s vociferous objections echoed off the yard walls around them.
He walked on through the warm spring night, dwelling on the old, faint taste of playing for himself.