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The first thing that anyone notices about Takao Kazunari is his laugh. Generally, this can be attributed to the fact that the sound precedes him into every room, reverberates in the air that he inhabits like some kind of articular aura, lingers in the air long after the boy himself has actually departed. Takao's laugh is the first thing about him to which people are exposed and the one that they remember long after they leave.

 

Midorima Shintarou wonders if he is the only one that hears Takao's laughs in his dreams. He certainly hopes so.

 

Takao's laugh is memorable because he laughs well; Takao's laugh is always the perfect laugh. It is always the perfect sound for the occasion, like his passes are always the exact pass needed for every play.

 

Midorima knows all Takao's laughs, like he knows all his passes, and he treasures them just as much.

 

Takao can break the tension of a room with one well-timed guffaw. He can shift the focus of an irate Miyaji-senpai away from a cowering classmate with a not-so-stifled giggle that is perfectly pitched to echo across a noisy hallway. Takao can comfort a teammate with a lowly humming chuckle and a swat on the arm: minimizing a loss, a break-up, a failing mark. Takao can make a room sparkle with mirth, his gut-deep cackle at some mischief bringing broad smiles to grim-faced teammates or a blush to the face of the most sanguine senpai.

 

Midorima loves these laughs, but he hates them, too. Takao laughs like a grandmother gives out sweets: indiscriminately and much too frequently.

 

Takao can humiliate with what his teammates call his “sneer laugh”. The sneer laugh is choked. It traipses out of Takao's mouth as his narrow eyes slit and falls on his victims like the blunted edge of a jester's ax. Worse than the sneer laugh, perhaps, are Takao's teasing titters. Each titters is uniform in tone, duration, and pitch, but has the opposite effect on their target. They unbalance even the most staid and stolid of subjects for no one can ever tell if a tittering Takao is being genuine or facetious, if he is laughing with them or at them.

 

Midorima is positive that he is the most frequent target of Takao's teasing. As a result, his default mood around the point guard can only be described as nervous.

 

Takao's most rarely heard laugh is his surprised laugh. Takao knows people—he told Midorima so after their first game against Seirin. Takao thinks he can predict people, that humans as a species move in foreseeable patterns and react with calculable behaviors. In this way, Takao is more jaded than many other boys his age, with the possible exception of Akashi. So when Takao is surprised, really genuinely shocked by something or someone (regardless of whether that surprise is pleasant or not), Takao emits a guffaw that seems almost startled out of the depths of his body. The guffaw explodes from him in a deep cough and then grows into a glorious crescendo, seemingly without Takao's volition. It builds on its own momentum, on the crumbling bones of the smashed misconception which Takao gratefully lays to rest. Takao's surprised laugh is the one that escapes from him as he steps onto the basketball court, full of wonder at the world that can still surprise him, of joy in life's unexpected pleasures. For, even for one so self-consciously jaded, Takao seems bemusedly surprised by basketball, by the exhilaration and comfort he feels every time he he picks up the ball once more.

 

Whenever he hears Takao's surprised laugh, whenever he sees the telling twinkle in his point guard's eyes that anticipates it, Midorima feels something inside himself soar. It happens most often in close games, their blood pumping fiercely in their veins, their minds running paths of instinct, of team and trust and together, when he sees Takao steal a pass. He knows instinctively what his shadow will do, both boys running the court until the roaring pass is zipped to him, to the exact spot he wants to shoot from, to where Takao knows Midorima will be. And when Midorima feels the roughness of the ball slap into his hands and flows into his shooting stance, and when he hears Takao's laugh (the laugh) from across the court, he feels his blood leap and spark within him, because he hears what is inside the laugh. He hears Takao's surprise and elation to discover and rediscover, over and over again, how well they fit together, how well they know each other, how fun it is to play the best game in the world with your best friend in the world.

 

Takao has a secret laugh. It is almost soundless, this secret sound, a barely audible of huff of breath that escapes almost-smiling lips. Takao's secret laugh is the opposite of everything that Takao is; it is reserved, quiet, unassuming, full of the unsaid. It can mean everything and nothing, but usually the former. It is not a voluntary sound, but one torn from its owner by an outside force. It is never exactly the same. The first time Takao utters the secret laugh, when he sees Midorima on the first day of Shutoku's tryouts, it is full of unknowable sadness, of grief in a purpose lost. The second time, when Takao tells Midorima that he will make the shooting guard acknowledge him and he sees the flash of respect in Midorima's eyes before he turns away, the laugh is a puff of surprise, of unexpected happiness in a new goal and a new team. He laughs the secret laugh after Midorima passes for the first time in their second match against Seirin, when Midorima pedals the rickshaw on Takao's birthday without one game of janken pon, when together they manage the three-point play against Rakuzan in the Winter Cup semi-finals, and when they cry in the hallway after after they lose that same game. Takao laughs his secret laugh in many different situations, at many different times, and with many different meanings, but one thing is always constant; it is always for Midorima.

 

It is Takao's secret laugh, and the burning dark eyes that accompany it, that make every shot Midorima takes feel a bit more fulfilling, somehow more than the mere satisfaction of of hard work vindicated and unshaken faith rewarded. It is this laugh for which Midorima will endure the thousand teasing laughs that fill his days, hoping and awaiting the infectious joy of Takao to which Midorima seems to have become addicted. He thinks that he should be more disconcerted about this fact, that he should try to extricate himself from this tenor-timbred trap, but he knows it would be futile. For fate rewards only those would do all that they can, and he knows he could not meet those standards; he could never take that step away from temptation, never condemn himself to a life without the chance to hear that joy again. He is well and truly damned. It is not such an unpleasant fate, Midorima thinks, not if he can hear that laugh for the rest of his days.

 

Because, for as long as Takao will laugh, Midorima will listen.