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Catastrophe

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        The first time it happens, it is an absolute catastrophe. A one time event causing devastation and carnage; an aberration of nature; a freak event. It seems only right that something as shocking and unforgettable should happen exactly once in a lifetime.

        Catastrophic is the only way for Takao Kazunari to describe the sight of Kuroko Tetsuya standing on his doorstep dripping wet and holding a squirming, equally-wet dog.

        “Ehhhhh...Kuroko?”

        The blue-haired boy blinks at him, dripping. Then  he bows, still holding the panting Nigou.

        “Domo, Takao-kun. I am pleased to see you.”

        Takao highly doubts this. Then again, he thinks as he watches more icy droplets slide down the other point guard’s face, maybe Kuroko is simply thankful for the shelter that Takao's tiny awning provides from the torrential rain. Takao’s keen eyes catch the tiny tremors that wrack Kuroko’s body and the way the other boy holds Nigou closely to his chest. He weighs his options.

        Takao cannot leave Kuroko out in the rain. However much he dislikes the other boy, he can’t ignore the shivers that are growing more obvious as the painfully silent seconds tick away. He’s only being polite, he reasons, as he reluctantly opens the door wider; even enemies can be polite to each other. And it would be a shame if Kuroko were not able to play his best the next time they meet on the court. A cold cannot defeat Seirin’s shadow before Takao does, after all.

        “Wanna come in, Kuroko? Nigou looks like he's freezing his furry behind off,” he asks, smirking and gesturing for the shorter boy to follow him into the genkan.

        Kuroko hums and murmurs, “Thank-you, Takao-kun.” The Phantom enters with yet another bow.

        Takao jogs to the bathroom to retrieve two towels for his guests as Kuroko removes his shoes one-handedly, his other hand preoccupied with restraining his enthusiastic dog. Takao is grateful; his mother would have been furious to come home from her double shift to find the tatami soaked through.

        When Takao returns to the entrance-way, he can’t help but laugh at the sight that greets him. Kuroko is kneeling on the ground, evidently trying to dry Nigou with his still sopping jacket. The dog in question is yipping pitifully, trying to garner the attention of the dark-haired twelve-year old currently petting Kuroko’s blue head. The look of utter shock on Kuroko’s normally impassive face is priceless. It is an absolute crime that Takao’s guffaws wipe it off his face before Takao can snap a picture on his phone. Shin-chan will never believe him.

        The little girl (pre-teen, Takao reminds himself) looks up at his laugh. Her freckled face is positively beaming as she turns to him, hand still caressing Kuroko’s locks.

        “Kazu-nii, look! His hair is blue! He says it’s natural, but there's no way! I want to dye mine blue, too! Do you think it would look good? Do you think Mom will let me?”

        She ends her soliloquy and spins back around to Kuroko who has managed to compose himself. Nigou has accepted defeat and is sulkily pawing at the ground.

        “What’s your name, by the way? Are you Kazu-nii’s friend? Why haven’t you come by before? Do you think the next time you dye your hair I can come, too?”

        Kuroko blinks at her twice. He looks even paler than usual. Takao stops laughing long enough to swat his sister away from the distressed boy.

        “Aza-chan! Don’t molest strangers! Kuroko-kun will think we’re uncivili--No! Come on, Azami, leave his hair alone! You’re gonna pull it out!”

        He tosses the towels to Kuroko in order to use both hands to throw Azami over his shoulder and haul her out of the hallway.

        “Kazu-nii!” she whines. “This is so unfair! Why do I have to go? You never introduce me to your friends!”

        She lets all her weight rest on him as he carries her. Takao huffs with exertion as he drags her to the living room. He rolls her onto the couch and chucks the remote at her as he leaves the room.

        “He’s not my friend, Aza-chan, he’s Shin-chan’s …”

        Takao pauses in the doorway. He is not actually sure what Kuroko Tetsuya is to Shin-chan. While his friend professes to dislike the Aquarius waiting in his hall, he knows that Shin-chan respects Kuroko’s diligence and persistence, his ability to play with much more talented athletes. He’s even seen Shin-chan texting Kuroko on occasion, though the shooting guard categorically denies this.         

        Sometimes, the not-so-secret texts preclude Shin-chan ordering him to ready the rickshaw. On these occasions, Takao spends an entire day ferrying his ace to the far-flung corners of Tokyo to watch Seirin’s countless practice matches (Takao's sure their Coach is a fiend of some kind, maybe even worse than Nakatani-sensei). Takao wishes that Shin-chan would find another means of transport to his little Teiko reunions; his calves are becoming weirdly big for his slight build from all the uphill pedaling.

        “He’s Shin-shan’s friend, I guess. Stay here would you? I won’t tell Mom if you watch her soaps as long as you stay in the living room. Okay?”

        She eyes him shrewdly and Takao gulps.

        “Does Mom know that he brought his dog with him?”

        Azami is too much like him for her own good, Takao thinks.

        “Pardon my interruption, Takao-kun, but would you inform Takao-san that I cannot stay for dinner. It was very kind of her to offer yesterday, and I understand that she wanted to meet Nigou, but I'm afraid we both must be on our way soon.”

        Takao turns to see Kuroko standing patiently beyond the doorway of the living room. Nigou sits at his feet, still glaring balefully at Azami. Takao turns back to his sister and smiles smugly as he responds:

        “Sure, Kuroko, no problem.” He turns his back on his sister’s pout and appraises his guest.

        Kuroko's face is blank except for the infinitesimal raise of his right eyebrow as the shadow returns Takao's scrutiny. Takao thinks Kuroko has earned himself some slack. He grins.

        “Thanks for that,” Takao says as he slouches off to the kitchen, gesturing for Kuroko to follow him. “Want some tea?”

        Kuroko's soft footsteps follow him as he pads into the kitchen and grabs the kettle.

        “Hai, thank you, Takao-kun. And you are welcome.”

        The quiet is deafening as Takao boils the water and prepares the tea leaves. From down the hall he can hear Azami switch on the television and flip immediately to the soap opera that their Mom is convinced rots her brain. The sound comforts him, despite the blue eyes staring holes in his back, and he begins whistling a tune as he pulls out snacks to accompany the tea.

        Takao’s attempts to harmonize with the whistling kettle keep him from realizing that Kuroko is speaking until he pours the water into the teapot.

        “--can see me?”

        Takao turns around, almost burning himself with the steeping tea as he twists his neck to address Kuroko.

        “Ehhh? Sorry, didn’t hear that.”

        Kuroko glances up from where he is petting Nigou under the table.

        “Your sister. She can see me, too.”

        Takao grins and turns back to his task. “Ahhhh, yeah. Hawk-eye’s a family trait. I tried to convince her to go out for her school’s basketball club, but,” he shrugs, almost dropping the tray of tea and rice crackers as he does so, “She likes soccer. Guess its useful in either game? Azami’s really good, too! The best mid-fielder in her division!” He’s lucky that said mid-fielder is watching her soaps; she hates it when he brags about her.

        Takao catches the tiniest sliver of a relieved smile on Kuroko’s face as he chatters and Takao wonders if Kuroko had been nervous. He has no reason to be, Takao thinks. It’s not as though Takao’s going to throw him back out into the rain or challenge him to a duel over the tea tray. He mentally shrugs. Shin-chan’s former teammates are so weird.

        Takao pours the tea, still keeping up a constant stream of chatter about Azami. Kuroko nods in the correct places and accepts exactly one rice cracker with a quiet, “Itadakimasu.”

        Takao casually watches his guest cradle his teacup. As Kuroko takes the first sip of his tea, Takao pauses in his monologue and asks:

        “Hnnnnnh ….how do you know where I live anyway, Kuroko?”

        Kuroko swallows the tea too quickly and coughs. Takao grins and scoots a glass of water across the table to him.

        “My sister would go haywire right now. You know that you even cough cute?”

        Kuroko, caught off guard from the comment and the burning in his throat, shoots a watery, blank-eyed glare from across the table. Takao laughs as Nigou paws his owner. He feels his own shoulders loosen a bit, and he slouches back in his chair. He hadn’t realized that he was feeling anxious until the tension flows out of him with his laugh.

        Kuroko seems to collect himself. He pats Nigou reassuringly and takes a determined sip from his teacup. Takao smirks at him from behind a rice cracker.

        “Actually, I’m here because of Midorima-kun,” says Kuroko, and Takao’s stomach drops.

        A horrible thought occurs to him and his heart stops beating momentarily. Of course this has to do with Shin-chan. Why else would Kuroko, of all people, be at his house? Terrifying images of forest-green hair matted with blood and smashed lucky items blaze through his brain. He leaps to his feet, the teacup sloshing across the table.

        “What? What do you mean? Is he okay? Oh my god, why didn’t you say so before? What hospital is he in, wh--”

        Kuroko sets down his cup. “Takao-kun, Midorima-kun is, as far as I know, fine. Please, calm down. I didn’t mean to alarm Takao-kun.”

        Kuroko’s eyes are almost warm as he watches Takao sit down again. Takao sees this, wonders at it, but his heart is still beating much faster than usual, his mind still full of all the horrible things that could have befallen his teammate.

        “Shin-chan’s okay? What do you meant then, Kuroko?”

        Kuroko takes another sip of tea, nibbles daintily on a rice cracker. He seems completely unperturbed and Takao feels irritation replace his apprehension. He snorts when he realizes Kuroko’s plan, and Kuroko smiles for the second time that afternoon.

        Takao lets his head fall back and a laugh escape, “Ahhhhhaaa, you were saying, Kuroko?”

        Seirin’s point guard sets down his snack and takes an almost inaudible breath.

“Hai.”

Kuroko glances once at Nigou, clears his throat, and then lifts his chin with steely determination.

        “Midorima-kun is happy.”

        Takao takes a moment to process what he hears. There are a number of things about this statement that he could point out to Kuroko, but he decides to hear the other out.

        “Uh, if you say so?”

        Kuroko gazes at him. Takao has the strangest feeling that Kuroko is analyzing him.

        “Yes, he is. I’ve never seen Midorima-kun smile as much as he does when he plays now, not even during the early years of our time at Teiko. He seems at peace ... more settled in himself. I do not think his messages to Kise-kun have ever been more civil.”

        Takao has never heard Kuroko speak more than four words together. The length of Kuroko's speech amazes him, but the words-- Takao would be lying through his teeth if he said these observations, made by one of Shin-chan’s oldest acquaintances, didn’t make warmth spread through his stomach and chest. He has his doubts, however. Takao would love for Shin-chan to be happier. His teammate deserves some contentment in a life of constant challenge. But--

        “Kuroko, Shin-chan’s smiled exactly twelve times in the year I’ve known him and all of them were because he’d just crushed another team’s dreams. He’s not so jumpy nowadays because he’s actually grown into his talents--and his ears, yeeshhhh. And Kise doesn’t get those “go die” texts anymore because six months ago I figured out how to set the auto-correct on Shin-chan’s phone to change ‘die’ into ‘dye,’ and he doesn’t want to look like an ‘illiterate fool, nanodayo.’”

        What Takao doesn’t say is that he isn’t actually sure if Shin-chan can be happy. He is sure that, underneath his callous demeanor, Shin-chan cares deeply for people. He cares so deeply that he worries himself to distraction and the relationships that should bring him joy only bring more anxiety to an already obsessively apprehensive person. Takao doesn’t say this, but he suspects that Kuroko knows.

        Kuroko looks at him with his typically blank face and shakes his head. “Takao-kun, Midorima-kun is happy. Perhaps, because Takao-kun did not know him before Shutoku, he can’t tell the difference. I assure Takao-kun, though, he is happy. And,” Kuroko takes a deep breath, “I would like to make Kagami-kun happy, as well.”

        Kuroko looks up from the table and his eyes shine as though the combined weight of the Generation of Miracles has been lifted from his shoulders.

        There is a small part of Takao that wants to laugh; only Kuroko would confess his feelings in such a impersonal, roundabout way. Why the master of misdirection did not simply say that he liked his partner, Takao cannot understand. It’s not like Takao’s going to say anything to anyone. He hasn’t said anything about any of Shin-chan’s oblivious friends yet, after all.

        “Ahhhhhhhhh, congratulations, Kuroko! I wish you and Kagami much happiness and many freakishly tall, blue-haired babies! Oh, can I come to the wedding? You know, Shin-chan won’t ever tell, but he's an expert in feng shui. He could be your wedding planner!”

        Kuroko looks down at the table once again and Takao knows he’s said something he shouldn’t have. Nigou whines from beneath the table.

        “Takao-kun, Kagami-kun is not interested in me that way.”

        Takao’s jaw drops. “Hah?”

        Kuroko sighs and his fingers begin to absentmindedly trace the rim of his tea. He hasn’t touched his rice crackers except for his three teasing bites.

        “Takao-kun, I … care for Kagami-kun, yes. But, I do not think that Kagami-kun likes men in that way, let alone me. I simply wish to make him happy. He,”

        Kuroko pauses again. When he looks up, he spears Takao with a fierce glance, daring Takao to ever reveal what he is about to say to anyone. Kuroko's blank-eyed stare is much scarier than Shin-chan's attempts at intimidation and Takao thinks that he wouldn't really like to get on the wrong side of Teiko's famous Sixth Man. Takao nods.

        “Sometimes, Kagami-kun is sad. He has no one else but our team; Kagami-kun’s parents both live in America. His brother is also rather ... inconstant in his affections. Kagami-kun has no other family in Japan. He does not know our ways and has no one to teach him. And his grades are rather poor.”

        “Yeah, Shin-chan may have mentioned that. Something about a lucky pencil that he never returned?”

        Kuroko smiles at this, but it fades quickly.

        “I just want to be able to make Kagami-kun happy, Takao-kun, and … I do not know how. I am not a demonstrative person. I don’t know what I can say or do to make Kagami-kun feel joy again, somewhere other than the basketball court.”

        Takao watches him. He knows how hard this has to be for Kuroko. The point guard before him could rival Shin-chan for steely pride. Yet, Kuroko is sitting in Takao’s kitchen, under the mistaken impression that Takao is the cause of Shin-chan’s supposed increase in happiness, asking for help.

        A slight resentment shimmies its way into Takao’s mind. He knows he’s not Kuroko’s arch nemesis or anything; the rest of the rainbow gang are his rivals and Takao is just a sideshow. But really, he thinks, it is just plain insulting to have Kuroko ask him for help like this. This is not what rivals are supposed to do! By god, letting him in out of the rain and giving him tea was one thing, but this! Why does he have to be the one to give the Phantom Sixth Man advice on his love-life? It's just too embarrassing!

        No, he can't do it. He’ll tell Kuroko to ask someone else--preferably someone with actual experience in these matters--for advice. Takao looks at Kuroko again to tell him to finish his tea and go home.

        Seirin’s point guard is slumped over in his chair. Takao can feel Kuroko watching him warily from behind his messy blue bangs, eyes hopeful. In this position, Takao thinks, Kuroko looks even more like a small child than usual. He’s hunched ever-so-slightly, eyes wide and hidden. Takao can see his fingers twist in his lap beneath the table. Takao decides then that he hates Shin-chan and Shin-chan’s stupid friends and himself.

        He sighs resignedly. He can’t make it too easy for Kuroko, though.

        “Eh, maybe Shin-chan’s wrong? Maybe Kagami isn’t the only idiot on Seirin's team.”

        Kuroko looks up at him, anger blazing in his eyes. It is wounded anger, though, and it makes Takao inexplicably angry and sad. He sighs again.

        “Kuroko, you make Kagami happy.”

        Kuroko’s face is blank again. “Takao-kun is not funny.”

        “I’m not kidding! Everyone can see it--he’s happy when he’s with you, Kuroko. That giant kid is bizarrely infatuated with you!”

        He can see that Kuroko is unimpressed with his choice of words. Nigou growls from somewhere in the hallway. Takao worries vaguely for the shoes in the genkan before turning his mind to the task at hand.

        “Haaah, look, Kuroko. Kagami’s a simple guy. He doesn’t hide what he’s thinking. You know this. I mean, you two spend every waking moment together from what Kise and Momoi tell Shin-chan. He lets you sleep on his shoulder in the train, for heaven's sake.”

        Kuroko looks unconvinced. Takao searches for something, some way to communicate all the things he sees that others can't. He's been in situations like this before, on the court, but never in one that felt so urgent. He's not cut out for this! How can he explain such mushy, romantic things? About Kuroko and Kagami no less?

        He tries again.

        “And the way he looks at you sometimes … it’s the way Nakatani-sensei looks at his wife. Like, I don't know, like he wants to hold onto her and never let her go. Like ... he'd give up basketball to watch old movies and play house with her. Actually, I think he did. But, yeah. It's the same way Kagami looks at you. And not just on the court either. At Maji Burger and on the street. At the onsen that one time. You know?”

        Takao rubs the back of his head hoping vainly that he has a concussion and that that is the reason these embarrassing things are spilling from his mouth.

        “Takao-kun should have been a poet.”

        Despite the sarcasm, when Takao looks up Kuroko is still watching him. There is a fragment of hope in his eyes. Takao smirks and places his hands behind his head. Maybe's he's not so terrible at this, after all. Just one more push …

        “Kuroko, who’s the first one Kagami calls if he has a problem?”

        Kuroko stares at him, thinking. “Me.”

        “Ahhhh. And who does Kagami run to first when he passes a really difficult test?”

        “Me.”

        “When he feels sad or lonely?”

        “Me.”

        “When he learns how to do a new move?”

        “Me.”

        “And who do you think gets veeeeerrrrry scowl-y when Aomine comes to watch Seirin’s practice matches? Or when Kise clambers all over you like a jungle gym?”

        “... Kagami-kun.”

        “Hnnnnnnn, I wonder what all those things mean, Kuroko. Don’t you?”

        Kuroko looks like he might break. Takao lowers his chair to the ground and leans across the low table to look his counterpart directly in the eye. Kuroko makes a low sound and moves backward, but Takao grabs his wrist.

        “Kuroko, did you ever think you could make Kagami happy by being yourself?”

        The moment feels tenuous. Takao doesn't know why, but he whispers when he says, “Did you ever think that maybe one of the reasons Kagami’s sad is because he's in love with someone who he thinks doesn't love him back."

        Kuroko’s eyes widen and he pulls weakly in Takao’s grasp. Takao lets him go and sits quietly at the table. He can almost hear Kuroko’s thoughts buzzing in his head over the blare of another episode of the new hospital drama and what sounds like Nigou whimpering.

        By the time Kuroko shakes himself from whatever daze he is in, Takao’s tea has gone cold. He hates cold tea, he hates Shin-chan, he hates Shin-chan’s stupid friends, and he hates the look that Kuroko gives him.

        “Takao-kun is much wiser than he seems,” says Kuroko finally. It is as close to a “thank-you” as Takao will ever get from Kuroko.

        Takao snorts. “Che, just don't fuck it up.” It is as close to a “good luck” as Kuroko will ever get from Takao.

        Kuroko looks out the large window facing the busy street. The sky has darkened since he arrived. The rain has stopped. Kuroko rises and bows to Takao.

        “Thank-you for the hospitality, Takao-kun. Nigou and I shall be going now. I have somewhere I need to be.”

        Takao walks Kuroko out of the kitchen. Azami calls out a lazy farewell from the couch as they pass the open door to the living room.

Takao and Kuroko look into the room from the hallway. A tiny, hiccup-like sound escapes from Kuroko at the sight before them. Takao himself has no words.

Azami, who he thought had been peacefully watching soap operas this whole time, is sitting on the coach with a lump of towels in her arms. More accurately, a lump of towel and blue-tinted Nigou.

"Wha--" he starts.

"Kazu-nii! Kuro-chan! Look! Now Nigou and Kuro-chan match!"

She looks so excited, holding a defeated-looking Nigou. Kuroko looks from Takao to Nigou and Azami and then back to Nigou.

"Wha--Azami, how?" Takao stutters, for once speechless.

"Oh! My watercolors! You know, Kazu-nii, the ones you got me for my birthday last year! It took forever to paint him, but he looks so cute now! Look! I even did his toenails!"

Azami holds up the embattled Nigou's paws and Takao sees that she has, indeed, painted his little doggy nails a shade of turquoise slightly darker than his fur. Takao turns to Kuroko to apologize, to do something to avoid a lawsuit. How can he play basketball if he's in jail?

Kuroko is smiling, actually smiling small, happy grin. Takao figures that's better than the alternative and lets out a breath he hadn't even realized he'd been holding as Kuroko collects Nigou from Azami. Seirin's shadow smiles down at the little girl and hands her the towel.

"Takao-chan did an excellent job. Nigou looks wonderful in this shade. Thank-you for caring for him."

He bows to her and she laughs delightedly as they leave.

"No problem, Kuro-chan! Remember that you agreed to let me dye my hair with you!"

Kuroko smartly says nothing to this and merely smiles and waves. Takao looks from his sister to Kuroko to the utterly miserable Nigou and follows his guest to the genkan.

Kuroko slips on his shoes and his still-wet jacket. He holds Nigou in one arm as he fixes his coat in place and Takao thinks that they look even more scarily alike now, all huge, blue eyes and aqua hair. It's almost too much cuteness to take in at once.

Takao opens the door and they both stand there looking at each other for a moment before Kuroko says, “Until next time, Takao-kun.” And then he leaves, walking into the damp night with his newly-blue dog by his side. Takao hopes he means the next time that they see each other on the court. Somehow, he doubts it.

Takao really hates Shin-chan and Shin-chan’s weirdo friends.

***

        In the wake of Kuroko’s departure, Takao lies on his bed. His nerves are frazzled and he jumps every time Azami clangs the pots in the kitchen. He stares at the screen of his phone once more before clicking it shut decisively and throwing it across the mattress. Takao glares at the ceiling and sighs.

        He will not be able to assess the truth of Kuroko’s words by staring at the photo of Shin-chan he's made his screen saver, he admonishes himself. Though, Shin-chan’s deeply entrenched frown seems to suggest a pretty clear answer.

        His discarded phone buzzes. Takao reluctantly rolls over to check the caller id. A smile splits his face, and he laughs softly.

        “Hahahahaha, speak of the devil! Why is Ace-sama gracing me with his call, ah?”

        Takao cannot help but grin when he hears the put-upon sigh from the other end of the call. He knows with absolute certainty that Shin-chan is frowning, the corners of his mouth turning down just so.

        “Takao, why is Kuroko calling me to ask for your number?”

        Takao lets the words sink in and laughs shakily. “Haaaaaah? I have no clue, Shin-chan.” He answers honestly.

        There is a moment of quiet as Shin-chan evaluates Takao’s answer. Then:

        “I do not like this, nanodayo. Kuroko could be trying to befriend you.”

        Takao laughs. “Ne, Shin-chan! Why is that so bad? Kuroko is Shin-chan’s friend, why not mine?”

        Takao thinks he may have been the slightest bit cruel when he hears Shin-chan splutter furiously over the phone. He would bet money that Shin-chan is pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose at this exact moment.

        “Takao! Kuroko is not my friend, nanodayo!”

        Takao shifts to his stomach to better concentrate on the sound of Shin-chan’s breathing. He sounds like an enraged kitten.

        “Shin-chan is such a tsundere! Don’t worry, I won’t tell him.”

        “Ta-KAO!”

        Takao holds the phone away from his ear and then laughs deliberately into the receiver.

        “Shin-chan, not so loud! I need my ears! How else can I tell you about Miyaji-senpai’s plans to murder you? You neeeeeed me, Shin-chan!”

        “Fool, your ears are superfluous. Your most important asset is obviously your vision. Kuroko clearly wants to desensitize you to his misdirection. You should avoid him at all costs, for the sake of the team, nanodayo.”

        Takao rolls his eyes and sighs. “Shin-chan, if this is because he’s an Aquarius--”

        “And blood type A!”

        “Ahhhhh, Shin-chan! Wouldn’t it work both ways? I could train myself to not focus on him on the court. It would be like, I dunno, exercising my field of view. He beat me the last time with that reverse-misdirection-whatever and I couldn’t get any steals,” Takao pouts.

        Takao hears Shin-chan breathe in deeply through his nose. He is 85% sure that Shin-chan is fine with Kuroko contacting Takao, but he doesn’t want to push Shin-chan’s boundaries. If Shin-chan wants to keep Kuroko to himself, that’s fine; it’s not as though Takao and Kuroko like each other anyway. Perhaps, Takao thinks, Shin-chan’s just embarrassed to be friends with Takao. Perhaps he doesn’t want his Teiko teammates to meet his new partner. After all, Takao is not a prodigy like Kagami, or ridiculously handsome like Himuro, or nationally ranked like Kasamatsu.

Takao feels his smile dim just a bit and is unsure why.

        “Hhhh. Don’t worry Shin-cha--”

        “Shut up, Takao.” Midorima sighs again. “I will … give him your number, nanodayo. I trust this extra ... relationship will not disrupt practice, however. Or your studies.”

        Takao shakes his head, though Shin-chan cannot see it, and smiles. “Silly Shin-chan! Of course not! Ace-sama would get lonely at practice without me!”

        “Hmph.”

        For some reason, Takao’s heart beats irregularly during the silence that follows. The pause is filled with something he cannot quite interpret and finally Shin-chan breaks it.

        “You have an exam tomorrow. Go to sleep. I expect to see the rickshaw at six sharp.”

        “Sweet dreams, Shin-chan!”

        “... Goodnight, Takao.”

        It's only as Takao lays sleeplessly in his bed in the early hours of the morning that he realizes Shin-chan never denied it.