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Crossroads, and Other Places We Met

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The joy of being alive always seems to go
hand in hand with the sorrow that things change.
Not even the brightest future can make up for the
fact that no roads lead back to what came before —
to the innocence of childhood or the first time we fell in love.

 


 

Things get better after the Generation of Miracles’ first year as high schoolers, mostly on account of Kagami and Kuroko teaching them all defeat, although none of them will ever admit it. Kuroko, of course, found his basketball again, and Aomine found the rival he needed. Kise and Midorima found places they could belong to. Murasakibara found that actually, he does love basketball. Akashi began to find himself again.

Like that, they begin to realize, some faster than others  hey, we can try friendship again. We can make it work this time. We can be good again. We can’t be the same, but we can be good.

(Another thing that none of them will ever admit: they do so want to be good again, each of them in their own way.)

 

 

 

It starts like this: since they live close enough to each other, Kise strong-arms Kuroko, Kagami, Aomine, and Midorima into meeting up to play streetball, and it becomes a regular thing by the beginning of their second year. Aomine, Midorima, and Kise take turns recruiting their teammates to even out the numbers until Takao finally settles in as their permanent sixth, much to Kuroko’s intense disappointment. “We-ell, it’s only fair!” Kise says as they eat burgers and milkshakes after a few hours of shooting hoops. “You and Kagamicchi are partners, and you and Aominecchi used to be partners, so it’s just a matter of evening the playing field. Actually ” (he pauses before making a show of putting on an devastated expression) “ that just leave me without a partner, doesn’t it? This is kind of mean, isn’t it!”

“No one cares, you fool,” Midorima helpfully informs him.

“Midorimacchi, why are you so mean!” Kise wails. “Kurokocchi, you get me, right?”

Kuroko sips on his vanilla milkshake. “Kise-kun,” he says solemnly. “No one cares.”

Kise makes an interesting whining noise; Takao, Aomine, and Kagami laugh at it raucously. Kuroko leans back in his seat and hides a smile because  yes, this is what he was looking for. Yes, this is what he had wanted.

 

 

 

After a long period of radio silence in which he was decidedly not moping, Akashi slowly moves into their collective orbit as their second Interhigh draws closer. He does it in a quiet sort of way, casually and subtlety encroaching onto all their lives until all of them (Kagami included) are in regular text and e-mail correspondence with him. “Akashi will be the most terrifying mom in the world someday,” Kagami says to Kuroko during practice one day, after deleting a message from Akashi about how appalling his dietary standards are. Kagami isn’t even sure how Akashi knows about how he eats.

“Just imply something about Seirin winning against Rakuzan last winter,” Kuroko helpfully suggests. “I have tried it before and it’s very effective. Akashi-kun tends to lay off a little after that. I think he might still be in denial from losing.”

“Just kidding,” Kagami mutters. “You’re gonna be the most terrifying mom in the world someday.”

Even though he was pretty sure he said it quietly enough that nobody would hear, Kuroko backtracks a few steps and jams his fingers into Kagami’s ribs. “Why,” Kagami chokes out, clutching his sides in pain.

“It was the look on your face, Kagami-kun,” Kuroko explains.

Kagami winces his way through three-man drills. By the time practice is over, Akashi has sent him a series of diet plans supplemented with personal commentary  Kagami’s thumb hovers over the delete button for a few moments, but he thinks better of it and presses “save message” instead.

 

 

 

The effects of Akashi’s distant guidance have a strange ripple effect. For example: under his new diet plans, Kagami puts on lean muscle even faster than he had in his first year. During one-on-ones with Aomine, he finally begins to outpower Aomine, and Aomine just can’t have that, so he starts going to his practices more often, until he’s almost doing it regularly. This, in turn, inspires Kise to start working on his endurance to make his Perfect Copy run for longer.

An example in reverse: Midorima e-mails Akashi to inquire in a very roundabout way whether or not Akashi still plays shogi. Akashi, of course, still does, so they begin playing with each other online. Akashi’s general mood improves from regaining some decent competition (which becomes the subject of dozens of rumors circulating around Rakuzan), which has a noticeable effect on the tone of his texts. People associated with Akashi tend to be happier when Akashi himself is happier.

“Akashi’s actually kinda nice when he tries, huh,” Kagami says aloud as he skims through his texts in between classes.

Kuroko cranes his head to read over Kagami’s shoulder. “Well, Akashi-kun has never meant to be cruel, I don’t think,” he replies slowly.

“That’s what makes all of you so screwed up,” Kagami concludes, snapping his cell phone shut. “None of you ever meant to be cruel.”

Kuroko kind of wants to get indignant, but he finds that he can’t.

 

 

 

Murasakibara is the last one to be drafted back in. During the Interhigh, Yosen and Seirin happen to play games on neighboring courts early on  Seirin’s is first, and Yosen’s starts during their halftime. “Yo, Tatsuya!” Kagami calls out as the break comes to an end, waving at Himuro to get his attention. “Wanna get dinner after we’re both done here?”

Himuro gives him a smile and a thumbs-up to confirm. Two hours later, Kagami finds himself in an exceptionally cramped booth with Himuro, Murasakibara, and Kuroko at a family restaurant. Elbows and kneecaps are askew every which-where, and Kuroko is so thoroughly squished into a corner that Kagami can barely see him. “Well, isn’t this cozy,” Himuro says, smiling in a vaguely alarming way.

“Extremely,” Kuroko agrees. Kagami and Murasakibara immediately begin to try to make themselves smaller through sheer willpower. Naturally, they fail miserably.

Between Kagami and Murasakibara, they consume enough to feed a family for at least half a week. “Uh, Kuro-chin,” Murasakibara mumbles out as they wait for desserts to arrive. “Are you still mad at me for last year...? Should I say I’m sorry?”

“I’m not mad,” Kuroko says.

“Okay,” Murasakibara replies. “I’ll say sorry anyway. I’m sorry, Kuro-chin.”

Kuroko cracks a tiny smile at that. “Apology accepted. I forgive you.”

When Murasakibara’s jumbo-sized banana split with extra cherries and pineapple arrives, he spends the rest of their time together attempting to feed Kuroko. “Now I’m mad,” Kuroko says. Murasakibara ignores him and clumsily smears strawberry ice cream across Kuroko’s lips with his spoon.

 

 

 

Seirin faces Shuutoku in the quarter-finals and narrowly wins; on another court, Rakuzan defeats Touou. Rakuzan, Kaijou and Yosen round out the top four. The semi-finals come down to Rakuzan vs. Yosen and Seirin vs. Kaijou. Predictably, Rakuzan moves onto the finals; less predictably, Kaijou finally succeeds in taking their revenge on Seirin.

At the end of the Interhigh, Rakuzan comes out first, Kaijou second, and Seirin third.

 


 

In grade school, Momoi had read a book about a little boy who lived on a planet by himself, until unexpectedly, a single rose bloomed. The rose would talk with him, and demand his attention, and insist that her four thorns would protect her from the world  she was an extraordinarily vain thing, and yet the boy loved her more than he would ever love any other rose on any planet in the universe.

(The blooming rose is Aomine. The little boy is her.) But unlike the rose, Momoi watches Aomine blossom a second time.

“I’m getting kinda tired of not winning any tournament titles,” Aomine says to her when they walk back home after practice.

“Fuck, I seriously don’t get any of this,” he mutters when she helps him study for midterms. “What do grades have to do with basketball, anyway? Jeez. They invited me to Touou to play, so they should just let me play!”

“Hell yeah, check it out!” Aomine says, grinning as he flourishes his barely-passing test scores in front of the team. “I’m good for another semester.”

“Ryou, I’m not gonna go easy on you just ‘cause it’s practice,” he says during a drill.

“Yo, Satsuki,” he calls out from the rooftop, waving to get her attention as she walks to the outdoor track for gym class. “Kaijou’s having a practice match at Shuutoku tomorrow, you wanna come watch with me?”

“Kise wants to meet up for some one-on-one this weekend again, he’s so annoying, it’s like he can never get enough of losing,” Aomine grumbles.

Aomine shows up at school the following Monday and confesses in an off-handed tone that sounds forced: “Kise won. He cried, Satsuki, you shoulda seen it. Legit tears in his eyes with the wrinkly chin and nasty crying face and everything. It was so embarrassing to watch, like damn, you just beat me, so what the hell am I doing comforting you? Man, I could’ve taken a photo of it and posted it on the Internet. I bet his fangirls would riot.”

“All’s right in the world again, I beat him this time,” he says the next week, and Satsuki can tell he’s trying not to seem pleased with himself.

“We’re gonna win the Winter Cup this year,” Aomine says to her when they walk back home. He doesn’t skip a single practice through November.

In the story, the boy had left the rose alone on his planet to explore the other planets, unsure of whether he was leaving the beautiful rose to die. But Momoi isn’t scared to leave Aomine anymore, because Aomine wouldn’t be alone. The rose is all the more beautiful and all the more dangerous for the fact that the rest of the flowers in the field have finally bloomed too.

 

 

 

Without the special bracket, the Winter Cup is shorter and more intense than the year before. In the first round, Touou is pitted against Yosen and Kaijou against Seirin. Touou crushes the shield of Aegis like it’s made of aluminum foil and Seirin returns the favor paid to them during the Interhigh.

The rest of the Generation of Miracles all go to watch Touou play Seirin. “Tetsu,” Aomine calls out during the pre-game warm-up. “Don’t be too disappointed watching us win, okay?”

Kuroko looks up and smiles briefly. “Aomine-kun. I apologize, I’ll have to sit out for this one,” he replies. “But I don’t think I’ll be disappointed at all.”

“The hell you’re gonna win anyway,” Kagami says, giving Aomine a smirk and a playful thumbs-down as they pass by each other.

“The only one who can beat me is me,” Aomine declares, but both Kuroko and Kagami can tell that he means it in a different way from before.

 

 

 

In the stands, Kise laughs nervously. “Hey, Midorimacchi… basketball is a team sport, right? So why does it seem more like this is a one-on-one?”

“They’re being too aggressive, both of them will burn out before long,” Midorima says, but three quarters later they’re still going strong and Midorima is forced to swallow his words.

“Maybe I’m just seeing things,” Kise murmurs, “but I kinda feel like I can see a tiger and a dragon going straight for each others’ necks.”

He expects Midorima to say something like, “Don’t be ridiculous, you fool,” but Kise turns to look at Midorima and the expression on his face says that he agrees.

 

 

 

Touou wins like this: with five seconds left in the last quarter and Seirin with a one point lead, Aomine takes a rebound and dashes straight to the other end of the court. Kagami’s already there, ready to block  so Aomine fakes and passes to Sakurai. It’s a shockingly calm and collected decision: Sakurai’s specialty is a quick-release shot from the outside, putting him in a better position than Aomine, even though Aomine might’ve been able to score himself.

Nobody, least of all Sakurai, expects him to pass. He nearly misses the pass, but the ball lands smack in his palms. Aomine watches as Sakurai moves from muscle memory, looking confused and even more terrified than usual as he raises his arms and snaps his wrist forward to score a buzzer beater. Sakurai’s mind catches up with his body a few moments later; he sinks to his knees and begins repeating, “I’m so sorry for stealing the last shot! Please forgive me!”

Aomine just kneels next to him and throws an arm over his shoulder. “Not bad, Ryou, not bad at all,” he says, grinning wide.

 

 

 

Kuroko watches all of this from Seirin’s bench. “Next time,” Kagami vows as Kuroko passes him a towel and water bottle. “Next time for sure.”

But somehow, Aomine’s grin is infectious  Kuroko smiles. “Yes, next time,” he agrees. When he looks up, he sees that Kagami’s smiling too.

“I told you I wouldn’t feel disappointed,” Kuroko wants to tell Aomine, but it isn’t necessary.

 

 

 

On the other half of the tournament bracket, Rakuzan breezes through to the final with ease, so they go up against Touou in the finals. “This is different from last year’s Interhigh, Akashi,” Aomine says. “I’m gonna go all-out against you.”

“That doesn’t mean things will turn out differently,” Akashi replies.

Aomine laughs. “You’re the most elegant shittalker I’ll ever meet, I bet.”

The Touou vs. Rakuzan quickly becomes one of the fastest-paced games that the Winter Cup has ever seen. The fourth quarter ends with both teams tied 125-125  three overtime periods later, Touou finally manages to edge out a win at 138-136.

 

 

 

Aomine gives Momoi the medal he gets at the awards ceremony. “They said they’d give a medal to each team member,” Aomine grumbles, looking away and rubbing the back of his neck as he shoves it into her hands. “Well, they forgot one, so here you go. I don’t even want it, so you better not think about giving it back, alright?”

Momoi doesn’t cry, but she has to stop and blink back a few tears before she smiles. “Thanks, Dai-chan,” she says.

“Yeah, whatever,” Aomine replies, but Momoi knows what he really means.

 

 

 

Elsewhere in the stadium: “Shintarou,” Akashi says, “I wonder if it’s coincidence that I’ve met defeat twice in the same place.”

Midorima contemplates briefly the aligning of the stars, their shared histories, the feng shui of the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, Akashi’s fixation on victory. Akashi’s humanity. “Two times isn’t enough to determine that, as you should know,” he replies. He pauses, and then adds: “Sometimes it helps to cry, if you’re frustrated. It… seems to make some of my teammates feel better, at any rate.”

Akashi smiles thinly and slings his bag over his shoulder. “Thank you for the advice. Are we still on for Skype and shogi at the end of the week?”

“Of course,” Midorima replies.

“Then, I’ll see you,” Akashi says. He turns and walks away, and Midorima can tell that his shoulders are tenser than they usually are  that Akashi is walking more stiffly than usual.

There’s a temptation to follow, but he decides he doesn’t want to know if Akashi actually cries or not.

 


 

After the Winter Cup, there’s a collective feeling that the school year is hurtling uncontrollably towards its end. Their upperclassmen officially retire and they become the seniors; they begin thinking about what universities they want to sit their entrance exams at. New captains and vice captains are picked, and schools begin recruiting middle school talent in earnest. Some people (Midorima, Akashi, Kuroko) are absurdly well-prepared for the new responsibilities; others (Kagami, Aomine, Murasakibara) just kind of stumble through it and hope for the best.

Kise, for his part, tries his best to float above it all and not worry too much. “I’ll only be a high schooler once in my life, so I might as well enjoy being a high schooler right now, right? Besides, worrying too much will give me premature wrinkles,” he says to Kasamatsu, when his former captain invites him out for lunch during Golden Week. Kise suspects it’s just a pretense to nag him about his future, but he doesn’t mind.

“You’re amazing, Kise,” Kasamatsu replies. “Amazingly short-sighted. How can you afford not to worry at all?”

Kise laughs embarrassedly and rubs the knuckles of one hand with the other nervously. “Well, I already have a career… ah, and my grades aren’t that great so I don’t have any expectations for university. Anywhere will do, as long as they accept me.”

“What about basketball?” Kasamatsu asks.

“I’m still taking basketball seriously, of course!” Kise replies quickly.

“Okay, then,” Kasamatsu says thoughtfully. “Has Coach Takeuchi picked a captain for next year yet?”

Kise shakes his head. “Nope. Ah, Kasamatsu-senpai  have you had the chocolate cake here? It’s really good, you should try it,” Kise says, hoping that Kasamatsu will be distracted enough to drop the subject.

Kasamatsu shoots him a look to say this isn’t over yet, you overgrown child, but he allows Kise to order them cake and ice cream anyway.

 

 

 

“Kise, who do you think should be captain next year?” Coach Takeuchi asks him a few days afterwards. (In retrospect, Kise will think, he should have realized where this conversation was going right from the start.)

“Well, I think Tachibana would be pretty good, he’s really responsible, and Nakamura-senpai really relied on him a lot this year. Personally, I think Tezuka wouldn’t be a bad choice either… why?” Kise replies.

Takeuchi clasps a hand on his shoulder. “Kasamatsu came and talked to me a while ago,” he says. “He suggested that you take the captaincy.”

Kise feels his jaw slacken; involuntarily, he remembers the way that Kasamatsu’s eyes had looked when he asked about Kaijou’s next captain. “Oh,” he murmurs blankly.

“Think it over,” Takeuchi says. “Tell me your decision by next week.”

When Kise gets home, he curls up in bed with his phone, staring through his list of contacts Kurokocchi  Aominecchi  Midorimacchi?  but in the end, there’s only one person he can think of to ask for help.

 

 

 

There are advantages and disadvantages to having distance between them, but there are more advantages by far. None of them have to deal with Midorima firsthand on a daily basis, nor do they have to bankrupt their allowances on snack offerings to Murasakibara, and Akashi’s threats lose an edge when he tries to communicate them through text. And above all else, distance makes it easier to forget that they’re a pack of finicky bastards who have so many personality defects between them that it’d take every psychologist in the entire country of Japan to even begin to work through them.  

A disadvantage, though, is that they aren’t so readily available to each other, and there are conversations that one would rather have in person than over the phone. But Kise doesn’t feel like taking the bullet train to Kyoto  and he gets the feeling Akashi wouldn’t like an impromptu, unannounced visit  so he settles for what he can get. “Akashicchi, hey,” Kise greets, after Akashi picks up the phone. “Well, uh  sorry, I’m probably interrupting something, right? I feel like you’re always doing something important, so I can… call you later, I guess? Or you can call me back later, whatever works for you!”

“I can make time for you, Ryouta, whenever you are in need of it. To what do I owe this call?” Akashi replies. Kise gets the feeling that Akashi has sensed his anxiety, and is being considerate in overlooking it.

Kise takes a deep breath. “You know, in my head, I know rationally that there’s no way you can actually see the future  though it kinda seems like it sometimes  but anyway, I wanted advice on what to do, so. It seemed like you’d be the best person to ask. ‘Cause of the whole seeing the future thing.”

“I see.” There’s a pause. Kise assumes that Akashi is smiling the uncomfortably ambiguous smile he always puts on when people imply he may have supernatural powers. “Go on, Ryouta.”

“The coach asked me about becoming captain next year. And the thing is that, I think  I know  I wouldn’t be too good at it. I’m not a leader, I just want to play basketball and have fun with my teammates. I wouldn’t be strict at all and I’d probably be kind of annoying, I dunno, trying to poke into everybody’s business or whatever.” He pauses and takes a breath. “But then I think about Kasamatsu-senpai… you know, when I was a first year, he made us all do introductions, right? I did mine wrong so he kicked me and said, ‘I didn’t tell you to say all that!’ and when I complained that he should treat a star recruit from the Generation of Miracles better than that, he said that where I came from didn’t matter, because from then on, I’d be Kaijou’s Kise, and that made me really happy to hear. When I think about that, I feel like  if I could be that kind of person…”

Kise trails off and falls silent. A few moments pass, and he begins to wonder if Akashi is still listening, but then Akashi replies, “Ryouta. To me, it sounds like you have already decided in your heart what you want to do. If you want it, then take what’s been given to you, and have faith that the rest will work out if you do your best.” There’s a pause. “That, and a good vice-captain helps.”

“Akashicchi,” Kise says, and laughs shakily.

“I will look forward to greeting you on the court captain-to-captain,” Akashi says. “Kaijou’s Kise.”

Akashi indulges Kise’s wibbling for a few more minutes, until he politely and firmly ends the conversation: “There’s something I need to attend to,” he says.

“Okay!” Kise replies cheerfully. “Thanks for listening to me, Akashicchi. Talk to you later!”

They hang up, and Akashi refocuses his attention on his laptop, where there’s an ongoing game of shogi displayed on his Internet browser. He turns on the microphone. “I apologize for the interruption, Shintarou,” he says. “Let’s continue."

“No matter,” Midorima replies. Akashi watches as he shoves his glasses up his nose over webcam. “It has given me time to think about my current strategy.”

“Oh? I look forward to it, then.”

Akashi beats him in the next five moves.

 

 

 

So Kise becomes Kaijou’s captain. At Shuutoku, Midorima accepts the vice captaincy (“Only because Takao will be utterly useless as a captain without the proper support,” he tells everybody who attempts to congratulate him for it). Akashi, of course, is Rakuzan’s captain for the third year running. Nobody is stupid enough to put Kagami, Aomine, or Murasakibara in positions of authority.

The biggest bombshell, though, comes from Kuroko  or rather, it comes from Kagami about Kuroko, after a streetball meetup. “He’s gonna be our manager this year,” Kagami mumbles in between bites of a burger.

“He’s what?” Kise and Aomine ask simultaneously.

Kagami swallows and wipes ketchup off his mouth with a napkin. “Yeah, came as a surprise to me too,” he says. “But his mind’s set, so there you go.”

“That is a logical decision, as you two should know,” Midorima says. “His misdirection has become more and more ineffective over time. It is, as you should know, already useless against several major schools. Since the rest of his abilities are below average, it only makes sense for him to relegate his skills elsewhere

“But Tetsu loves playing basketball,” Aomine cuts in, just as Kise asks, “Is that why he’s not here today? He’s not depressed or something, is he?”

“What? No, I don’t think so, he said his parents wanted to go visit his grandparents,” Kagami answers around a mouthful of fries.

(“You are an absolute caveman,” Midorima says, scootching his seat away from Kagami, but nobody listens to him.)

Anyway,” Takao interjects. “It’s fine, right? Kuroko can still love basketball and be the team’s manager. Maybe it’s ‘cause he loves it that he wants to be the manager instead of a player.”

Kagami nods and chews through Takao’s explanation. “Kurokocchi’s so noble,” Kise says, sounding impressed, but Aomine chews on his straw and continues thinking about it even after they change the subject.

 

 

 

Aomine and Kuroko meet up later that week at a neighborhood coffee shop, because old habits die hard and agreeing to help Aomine with his homework is almost reflexive to Kuroko. “But in exchange, you’re buying my drink,” Kuroko says, which Aomine agrees to.

In the middle of trigonometric identities, Aomine suddenly says, “Hey, Tetsu. I know Kagami said you were okay with it and all, but I hafta ask myself. Are you really alright with not playing anymore?”

Kuroko sets his chai latte down and gives Aomine an even stare. “Did you invite me here on the pretense of studying just to ask that?” he asks.

“Well, I mean. I also want you to help me with my math homework, but ” (Aomine shrugs and scratches the back of his neck) “ I was thinking about it a lot is all. ‘Cause I know how much you love playing basketball.”

“Please think more about tangent functions more and less about my personal life,” Kuroko says, but Aomine keeps giving him these glances as if to ask are you sure? Absolutely sure?  Kuroko sighs and rubs his temples gently. “Yes. It’s really alright. I have known for some time now that my usefulness as an active player is necessarily limited. During middle school, it wasn’t a problem, since the Generation of Miracles masked my presence completely, but now it’s different. There aren’t many teams that my misdirection will consistently work on anymore, so I ” There’s a pause. Kuroko coughs delicately and swallows hard. In a rare show of social consciousness, Aomine pretends not to be watching him too carefully. “Anyway, there are things I can do from the bench that nobody else on Seirin can, so this is how I want to support my team from now on. Besides... I can always play for fun anytime.”

“Okay. Just checking is all,” Aomine replies, before attempting to change the subject by scribbling something into his homework.

Kuroko immediately erases it. “That’s not even close to the right answer, Aomine-kun.”

“Hey, Tetsu,” Aomine says as he attempts to fix the problem. “You wanna go play for a while after this?”

Kuroko leans over and chops him over the head gently. “Finish your homework first, Aomine-kun.”

 

 

 

Although Kuroko becomes Seirin’s manager by name, he does a little of everything, from running intel on other teams to coming up with new plays to making mid-game snacks. At a Seiho-Seirin practice match that Midorima and Takao go to observe, Midorima comments, “It’s obvious just from watching that Seirin has lost a significant amount of power this year. It’s really only thanks to Kuroko that they’re managing to stay so competitive.”

“How do you figure that?” Takao asks.

“Just watch their movements. Even a fool should be able to see Kuroko’s influence,” Midorima answers. “Misdirection only works as well as you can read your opponent, as you should know. But being able to read your opponent well can be used for more than just misdirection… your average player can use the same techniques as Kuroko, if they are observant enough. They might only be able to misdirect the opponent for a split second, but with good team play, that’s all that is needed.”

Takao nods. “Ahh, I get it now. He’s made Seirin change their play style to compensate for the members that have graduated is basically what you’re saying.”

Midorima sighs and turns around. “We don’t need to see the rest of this match, Takao. I regret saying it, but Seirin will not be much of a match against us this year. This strategy will work against most teams, but not ours.”

 

 

 

Kuroko knows that, too, because he knows all too well that Takao’s Hawk Eye renders most of his techniques ineffective. So when Seirin faces up with Shuutoku for the first time that year, at the Interhigh quarterfinals, Seirin goes back to their original run-and-gun style with Kagami as the lynchpin to their strategy. “This isn’t ideal, since Kagami-kun usually scores from the inside and Midorima-kun from the outside,” Kuroko says. “Keep the ball in our possession for as long as possible, and especially away from Midorima-kun and Takao-kun.”

With Kuroko guiding Seirin from the bench, Shuutoku’s victory doesn’t come easy, but they take over the flow of the game in the second half. Shuutoku shakes Seirin off completely by the third quarter, and they win by a 15 point margin.

“Kuroko and Kagami’s partnership is amazing even when one of them isn’t on the court, huh?” Takao says afterwards. “But I guess we should’ve known that already.”

“Our partnership is nothing to be scoffed at either, as you should know,” Midorima says. To anybody else, it’s Midorima’s usual loftiness, but Takao can hear the compliment buried in here.

He smiles and nudges Midorima affectionately. “Yep, we’re no joke either,” he agrees.

 

 

 

On another court, Yosen’s quarterfinal match-up is with Meisei High. The match goes relatively unattended, because the difference in level between the teams is so great that everybody takes it for granted that Yosen will move onto the semifinals and likely play against Rakuzan.

Yosen has all but accepted that whenever they’re matched up against Rakuzan High, Murasakibara will adamantly refuse to play. “I’m sick,” he’d said the first time, and continued to insist that he was ill despite the fact that there was absolutely nothing wrong with him. “Family emergency,” he’d said during the Interhigh semi-finals his second year. Then, at the last Winter Cup, he threatened to purposely fail his upcoming midterms if he were forced onto the court, and refused to give in even with Himuro both metaphorically and literally knuckling him.

So when Momoi approaches Murasakibara between games and asks, “So, Mukkun, what excuse are you going to use to get out of playing this time? You know, if you and Akashi-kun meet at the semi-finals?” and Murasakibara answers, “Eh? I guess I’m going to play after all,” she has no choice but to spread the news like wildfire.

 

 

 

Takao has mostly gotten used to seeing Midorima hanging out with his old teammates at this point, but Midorima and Murasakibara are an interesting (and freakishly tall) pair to have to stand next to. They loom in the back, watching Rakuzan face up against Kirisaki Dai Ichi in the third quarter  Kirisaki struggles at ten points down and seems to be losing steam the longer the game goes.

But Midorima and Murasakibara are too busy with other topics of conversation to properly pay attention. “It’s about time that Akashi let you play against him,” Midorima says, rather loftily. “It was, as you should know, getting a bit ridiculous.”

“Aka-chin only asked me not to play the first time, though,” Murasakibara replies as he munches his way through a bag of red chili-flavored chips. “And he said I could refuse if I wanted. Every other time… I just didn’t feel like playing.”

There’s a pause before Midorima says, “That isn’t the impression that the rest of us were under.”

“Hmm. Ahh. You thought Aka-chin told me not to, so I didn’t, right?”

“What else were we supposed to think?” Midorima asks.

Murasakibara shrugs, and they are temporarily distracted at the sight of Akashi ankle breaking Kirisaki’s power forward for the fourth or fifth time. Takao doesn’t think he’s a mean-spirited person by any definition, but he has to admit, there’s something weirdly therapeutic about watching somebody far larger and more muscular than him essentially trip over his own feet repeatedly. He wonders for a few moments if he’s been spending so much time with Midorima’s middle school classmates that they’ve begun to rub off him. The thought is mildly terrifying.

“It didn’t matter because we would have lost even if I did play and I don’t want to bother with the effort if we’re going to lose anyway,” Murasakibara says.

“That is an extremely ridiculous pattern of reasoning, as you should know,” Midorima replies. “To think I had believed you felt guilty. I shouldn’t have overestimated your emotional capacity.”

Takao stifles a laugh at the hypocrisy of Midorima lecturing somebody else for a lack of emotional capacity. “Guilty over what?” Murasakibara asks before upending his bag of chips to get the crumbs at the bottom.

“Have you ever stopped to consider,” Midorima begins, shoving the bridge of his glasses up his nose, “that one-on-one with Akashi in middle school may have had much to do with his change in personality?”

“Ahh, Mido-chin,” Murasakibara replies. “To say something like that… what exactly do you think of me?”

Takao watches out of the corner of his eye as Midorima pretends to adjust his glasses again to buy some time and think about how to phrase what he wants to say. “As a child, you were probably the type to often break your toys,” he answers slowly. “Not because you meant to, because you did not know your limits. Am I not correct?”

Murasakibara turns to face Midorima, stands up straight, and calmly crumples up his empty bag of chips in one hand. Takao already feels short enough having to be with Midorima all the time, but with Murasakibara drawn up to his full height, he thinks he understands where Akashi’s Napoleonic complex over being looked down upon may have come from and sympathizes deeply. “I don’t like what you’re trying to say, Mido-chin. Aka-chin isn’t a toy,” Murasakibara says, tone sharp and harsh. Takao winces on Midorima’s behalf. “Aka-chin’s not a toy and I didn’t break him. Aka-chin is a human being, not a toy. I didn’t break Aka-chin. Aka-chin isn’t broken. Don’t say stuff like that about Aka-chin, or I’ll get mad.”

“You fucked up,” Takao silently mouths, attempting to send Midorima signals through rapid eye movement. Midorima ignores him in favor of looking shell-shocked. “You fucked up, Shin-chan, time to get out of here and wait for it to blow over. Murasakibara seems like a forgetful kind of guy, I’m sure it won’t take long, but we probably should go

But then Midorima frowns, sighs, and bows his head slightly. “You are right,” he says. “I said too much.”

Takao’s jaw drops.

Murasakibara slumps again. “Mm. Okay. As long as you understand, Mido-chin.”

“Stop gaping, Takao, it’s unsightly,” Midorima says. Takao has to manually force his mouth back together.

The three of them stand there silently and watch until the game ends. It’s Rakuzan’s victory. Yosen and Rakuzan will play each other for a spot in the finals.

 

 

 

So Murasakibara plays against Akashi for the first time since their one-on-one in high school. “Atsushi, I look forward to it,” Akashi says before the game starts. He smiles, and Murasakibara suddenly craves something sweet.

Murasakibara moves from under the basket immediately and marks Akashi for the entire game (which makes everybody who didn’t attend Teikou Middle School stare in confusion at first, because the mismatch in heights is just that drastic), but Akashi makes him fall every time it comes down to a one-on-one. Nevertheless, it’s a close match  Rakuzan wins with only a five-point margin, 72-67, leaving four people in the stands and one person on the court contemplating whether or not there’s any meaning to it.

“Good game, Atsushi,” Akashi tells him as they leave the court. “You did well.”

Murasakibara bites his lip and tastes bitterness.

 

 

 

Kaijou beats Shuutoku in the other semifinal match and advances to the finals. Everybody expects Akashi to lead Rakuzan to victory at the Interhigh for the third year in a row, but he suffers an injury in the first quarter. One of the Rakuzan players disbalances going into a drive; Akashi tries to catch him and ends up getting caught in the momentum. They end up both falling, but Akashi takes the brunt of the impact  when he gets up, it’s immediately obvious that there’s something wrong with his left leg. The entire stadium bursts into whispering and gossiping as they watch a teammate help Akashi limp back to Rakuzan’s bench.

“Satsuki, do you remember if Akashi ever got injured in middle school?” Aomine asks.

Momoi shakes her head. “According to what I’ve heard, Akashi-kun’s never been injured through high school either,” she says. “There are all sorts of rumors about it at Rakuzan. Stuff about Akashi-kun being invulnerable.”

Over where Seirin is sitting, Kagami comments, “Doesn’t seem like Akashi to do something like that, does it? He should’ve known he was risking getting hurt, he wasn’t even in that great a position to help out. It felt kinda like he moved without even thinking about it.”

Kuroko furrows his brow. “Well, it’s not like the Akashi-kun you’ve known, I suppose,” he says, choosing his words carefully. 

In the end, Rakuzan’s coach forces Akashi to get immediate medical attention. As he leaves the court, supported on either side by a teammate, they pass Kaijou’s bench. “Ryouta,” Akashi says. “If you go easy on Rakuzan because of this, you will be looking down upon me and my team. Do you understand?”

Kise lowers his head and nods, because he understands perfectly, and refuses to regret it when Kaijou wins the Interhigh, 82-71.

 

 

 

A few days afterwards, Kasamatsu invites Kise out for dinner. “I heard Kaijou won the Interhigh,” he says, “and that you cried shamelessly at the awards ceremony.”

Kise gives him an embarrassed look. “Well, I was so proud of how far we’d come, I couldn’t help it,” he replies.

Kasamatsu punches him in the arm, but he smiles, because Kise really is Kaijou’s through and through.

 

 

 

Later that night, Murasakibara calls Akashi at two in the morning. Akashi picks up on the second ring. “Hello, Atsushi? What is it?” he asks. He doesn’t even sound a little annoyed or tired, which is even scarier than if he had.

“Aka-chin, when are you coming home?” Murasakibara asks. “I miss Aka-chin.”

“Well, it’ll be a while until either of us can return to Tokyo,” Akashi replies. “Atsushi, it’s late. Shouldn’t you be asleep?”

“No, I mean,” Murasakibara begins, before stopping abruptly. Akashi waits patiently; finally, Murasakibara sighs sharply and continues: “I want to walk to school with Aka-chin again. I miss it when Aka-chin would give sweets he didn’t want to me. I want him to pat me on the head and tell me, ‘Good job today’ and smile for real, so it feels warm. I want to play basketball with Aka-chin. With him.”

There’s another pause. “I… am sorry. For not realizing what you meant,” Akashi replies. There’s something strange in his tone, thick and viscous.

For a few moments, they listen to each other breathe. “Mm. No, it’s okay. It’s because it’s late. I’m saying weird things ‘cause it’s too late,” Murasakibara mumbles. “I’m gonna sleep now. Good night.”

He hangs up before Akashi can reply.

 


 

Between the end of the Interhigh and the beginning of the Winter Cup, all of them lose track of each other a little. They have double practices and they start cramming for entrance exams (some more fervently than others) and barely have time to think about things outside school, practice, sleep. Akashi completely falls out of contact right after reassuring them that his injury was a just a minor sprain. The Tokyo streetball meetups putter out. All of them focus on their own teams with a sort of frantic, manic energy, because all of them instinctively understand that the paths they have walked as high schoolers are coming to an end soon.

The Winter Cup will be their final stand, the last time they can all compete in the same place, united for the same purpose. All of them instinctively understand this, too.

 

 

 

The third Winter Cup that the Generation of Miracles participates in is eerily similar to the first, though not exactly the same. Under Kuroko’s careful guidance and preparations, Seirin manages to knock out Touou in the first round. Shuutoku beats Yousen in the quarterfinals, but is beaten by Rakuzan in the semifinals. Seirin defeats Kaijou to advance to the final round.

Rakuzan and Seirin meet again at the Winter Cup championship match  the second and last time that Kagami and Akashi meet as rivals on the court. Akashi still wears number four, but Kagami wears number five on his back this time. “Kagami Taiga,” Akashi says when they line up at the center. “I acknowledge your skill, since you and Tetsuya were the first to teach me defeat. I look forward to playing you again.”

Like the rest of the Generation of Miracles, Kagami thinks to himself, Akashi seems all the more terrifying when he’s clawing his way up instead of looking down. They mark each other for the whole game, playing as if they are waging a war of attrition; they spend the entire game within three points of each other, each continuously overtaking the other by increments.

When Akashi talks about the Winter Cup finals later, he’ll insist that in a match where the opponents are of equal strength, victory is decided by strategy. Rakuzan won because they played with the superior strategy. In reality, both Kagami and Akashi know that victory was decided on the edge of a coin: when Kagami fumbles a pass in the middle of the fourth quarter, Akashi seizes upon the opportunity as if he’d been waiting for it the whole time, and Rakuzan manages to hold onto a two-point lead for the last five minutes.

Akashi chokes up a little when he receives the trophy, which surprises just about everybody in the stadium. “I want to say thank you to my teammates,” he says into the microphone, staring up into the stands, eyes shining with unshed tears. “Not just my current ones, but everybody I have ever had the chance to play with and against… thank you. It is because of them that I cannot take this moment for granted. I’ve never been so happy to win before.”

 


 

After that, the Generation of Miracles retires from high school basketball.

“It’s strange,” Kuroko says, sitting in Seirin’s gym with Kagami as they watch their underclassmen practice. “We never did manage to win another tournament. But I don’t feel like I regret the way things ended up.”

Kagami shrugs. “I guess I don’t either,” he replies, before holding a fist up.

Kuroko smiles and knocks his knuckles against Kagami’s. Neither of them were playing for a reason as simple and corrosive as winning in the first place.

 

 

 

Takao doesn’t like to assume stuff about others because that’s rude and he was raised very well, thank-you-very-much. But he’s spent enough time with Midorima’s old teammates to piece together some pieces of what exactly happened between them to screw them all up so badly. Not that he really needed any explanation  to Takao, it seems pretty obvious that putting a bunch of prepubescent basketball geniuses in the same enclosed space and demand complete victory from them was bound to turn out badly sooner or later.

He could ask for the exact details, but Midorima probably wouldn’t tell him. Besides, he’s not really personally invested in sordid details of the Generation of Miracles’ backstories  one Miracle is plenty for him to handle. Which is why Takao (the nicest person, the best former captain, the most wonderful friend) volunteers to take Midorima’s books to his house on a rare sick day.

After going to watch practice for a bit, he doubles back around to their classroom to grab Midorima’s things. As he grabs Midorima’s physics book, a thin, black notebook falls out. “Huh,” Takao says aloud as he picks it up. Sometimes in class, when Midorima thinks nobody’s looking (but Takao sits behind him and sees everything that goes on in the room), Midorima  pulls the notebook out of his desk. He presses his fingers against the cover, as if tempted to open it, but he never does.

Naturally, Takao’s curiosity is piqued. He flips through the pages, but the notebook is completely empty except a page, where Midorima has made a list in neat, tiny handwriting:

Myself - University of Tokyo
Murasakibara - Le Cordon Bleu Tokyo Culinary Arts School
Aomine - Tokyo Cinq Rêves
Kise - Tokyo University of Foreign Studies
Kuroko - Tokyo Gakugei University
Akashi - University of Tokyo

He flips the page and finds a few more names on the back:

Takao - Tokyo Metropolitan University
Kagami - Nippon Sport Science University (Tokyo campus)
Momoi - Tokyo Junshin Women’s College

Takao knows why Midorima tapes his fingers and gets manicures every month, why he listens to Oha Asa with religious fervor, why he would pick up on all the work that the captain is supposed to do when Takao was busy. He knows why Midorima goes to his old teammates’ matches. And he knows better than anybody that Shintarou Midorima is a genius in every sense of the word but Shin-chan is just another human, and thus Shin-chan is filled with all sorts of human thoughts.

So Takao also knows why Midorima made the list just looking at it, but he stares at it for a few moments anyway, letting its contents sink in. Finally, he quietly closes the notebook, returns it to Midorima’s desk, and smiles to himself.

 

 

 

Seirin and Kaijou hold graduation on the same day. Touou’s and Yosen’s are the day after that. Rakuzan begins and ends a week later than the rest of them, so the rest of them have already been relaxing for a while when Akashi texts them:

To: Midorima Shintarou, Aomine Daiki, Kise Ryouta, Kuroko Tetsuya
From: Akashi Seijuurou
Subject: I want to see everybody.

I’m back in Tokyo. I’d like to see everybody.
Let’s meet outside Teikou’s front gate at 2PM on Saturday.
I look forward to it.

Everybody shows up on time, of course. Akashi was the one who called for them, so that was never in question. In fact, Akashi is the only one who isn’t there 2PM on the dot.

“So I guess Kagamicchi wasn’t invited,” Kise notes, leaning against the gate.

“Don’t be stupid,” Aomine replies, which makes Midorima snort. “Like we could invite Kagami to this place.”

They fall into silence for a few moments, so that all of them notice the sound of footsteps approaching when Akashi comes. “Sorry to keep you waiting,” he says. “I was busy making preparations.”

All of them seem a little uneasy at Akashi using the word preparations, probably because they subconsciously associate it with training retreats from hell. “Mm, it’s okay,” Murasakibara finally says, as if speaking for all of them.

Midorima pushes his glasses up and turns to look at Akashi. “So, why have you invited us here?” he asks.

There’s a pause before Akashi smiles vaguely. “I wanted to see the court here,” he says. “I thought the rest of you might want to as well.”

 

 

 

Akashi demonstrates a rather disconcerting talent for lock-picking and breaks them into Teikou’s main gym with unnerving ease. The basketballs are kept exactly where they were three years ago. “Should we do some three-on-three?” Akashi asks. “I’ll take Shintarou and Atsushi. First to five wins, and then we can reshuffle the teams. Is that alright with everybody?”

Aomine drapes his arms over Kuroko and Kise, pulling them in close and grinning wide to show his teeth. “We’ll crush you, you know?” he says. “C’mon, Tetsu, Kise. Let’s show ‘em.”

“I don’t feel like losing today,” Murasakibara replies, finishing off a stick of Maiubo and brushing the dust off of his hands.

 

 

 

A few hours later, all of them are breathless and sweaty, lying bonelessly on the floor next to each other. They stopped keeping track of wins and losses about halfway through, but it doesn’t matter.

“Oh man, if I knew we were going to be doing this, I would’ve worn something different. This shirt is designer,” wails Kise, but his heart’s not really into the complaint.

“Stupid,” Aomine mutters, leaning over to punch him on the arm playfully. “Who the hell just wears designer stuff on a normal day?”

“Anything could happen and if I have a tragic accident, I want to at least look my best,” Kise explains.

Midorima makes a derisive noise in the back of his throat. “Instead of that, just think about how to avoid having accidents, you fool,” he says.

“Well, I think Ryouta looks nice,” Akashi offers. Kise flashes him a smile, bright and bold.

Kuroko sits up slowly, looking around at each of the five people before him. He watches as Akashi reaches up and pats Murasakibara on the head, as Midorima pretends not to be happy, as Aomine and Kise flop against each other to balance each other out. He looks down at his hands: six years’ worth of callouses have left his skin hard in places, but he knows it’s the same for all of them. He feels it from each of them  hard, but still warm.

He makes a fist and smiles. “Basketball is fun, isn’t it?” he asks aloud, though he has already heard their answer.

 


 

 

So if there is no road back to how things used to be,
to the naïve fearlessness of what was untouched,
there is a road forward. To be brave. To keep on as before.
To turn the other cheek as we ask: “Is that all you’ve got?”