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Most people would have a more sensible reaction to this, Takao is sure. They might have called out, or run toward the person at the edge of the roof. Most people would have panicked or felt obligated to do something. But Takao Kazunari is many things and at the top of the list are both, not an idiot and intimately acquainted with one Midorima Shintarou, so he doesn't move closer. He doesn't call out, he doesn't panic. Just looks at him, standing there on the wrong side of the railing, looking out over the school grounds. Midorima isn't the type to get so dramatic over the loss of a game. He'd been... He'd been devastated, Takao is sure of that. But it had been more than the loss of the game that caused him to act like this. Takao had seen that in the locker room after his own tears had long disappeared, seen it as they got onto the bus and the taller boy had just slid into a seat and pulled his hood up, lucky item in his untaped left hand, face turned toward the window. Takao tried to be subtle in his glances, but Midorima cried all the way back from the game. Silent, close-mouthed, open eyed, he'd cried.

Maybe that's the most disturbing part about it.

Takao is not, as it has been stated, an idiot. No, he's not an idiot, he's not stupid, and he knows damned well that Midorima isn't used to losing but more than that, Midorima isn't used to being the only genius player on a team and that carries a different kind of weight than the weight of a captain. Midorima had surely grown accustomed to being someone who won games, who never played and lost. Certainly not someone who lost alongside a team of ordinary players.

If Takao has to take a stab in the dark, he'd say that Midorima thinks it's his fault they lost. Not Rakuzans, not—not the monstrous power of that snake, Akashi. His own. Midorima may not be the captain, the source of buoyancy and hope of a team, but right now he probably feels like the ball and chain around a drowning mans ankle.

“Shin-chan,” Takao says, not having to try very hard to keep his usual mirth from his voice. “What are you doing out here. It's cold.”

Midorima turns his head and Takao is reminded like a sucker-punch to the gut that Midorima is a kid, too. He's sixteen just like the rest of them, no matter his height and his power, no matter his fucking genius. He's a sixteen year old boy with social skills that on a scale of one to ten sit at a pretty negative four, who practices for hours later than the rest of them, tries so hard, and he'd cried all the way home from the game and no one but Takao had come to find him up here on the roof by himself, standing on the wrong edge of the rail. If he'd been anyone but Midorima Shintarou, Takao would have been afraid he was going to jump.

But he's Midorima Shintarou. And he doesn't jump.

He just looks back at Takao and makes Takao feel like slaughtering everyone who has ever said anything about how Midorima Shintarou, the miracle shooter, is an alien who can't display emotions, or a robot who can't experience emotions and doesn't have feelings at all. Midorima is standing there on the wrong side of the railing and he is an emotional wreck, all the time, and he can be read like a book if only a person is willing to look between the lines of nonsense horoscopes and basketball. No one ever wants to read that far though, huh Shin-chan.

“Come off there. You're gonna fall.”

For a moment Takao is viscerally afraid that he's not going to get down. He has a moment of terror that Midorima is going to stay there but then Midorima turns his entire body very slowly. His hands grip the railing. He pushes himself over it, landing roofside before his legs buckle underneath his weight and Takao lunges forward, remembering too late that Midorima is afraid of heights—his chest is heaving, his cheeks are a harsh red and his lips are chapped.

“Shin-chan,” he said, grabbing at Midorima's shoulders. “Shin-chan. Hey. Are you okay?”

“Takao,” Midorima says, looking down at the pebbled ceiling. “I. I'm s—”

“If you're about to say you're sorry, save it,” Takao says, voice gruff. “What are you, a loser or something? So we lost a game today—it was one game, Shin-chan. It's not the end of the world.”

“Felt like it,” Midorima murmurs, and Takao sucks in a breath. Yeah, he... He thinks that Akashi probably never put up with failure. Thinks that Midorima got real used to being on the winning team with a bunch of other freak geniuses. That's a damned high bar to have set in front of you before your high school career even really starts.

“Well, it ain't.” Takao's heartbeat slows, and he can feel that Midorima is still trying not to cry, his mouth and nose against Takao's shoulder. He can't hear it, but he can feel the little gulps of air he's taking in. “I promise it ain't, Shin-chan. Nobody's mad at you,” he says, wondering if Midorima is perhaps afraid of going back to practice next week and being called a fake or a failure for his inability to lead his team to nationals. “No one. I promise.”

“Right,” Midorima mumbles into Takao's jacket. He's holding on to Takao.

Takao holds him, too. Keeps him on the ground, where he belongs.

><><><><

Takao should have known it wouldn't be so easy.

Midorima is putting on a brave face. He listens to the jeers at school that he's not really as talented as everyone said he was, that he failed their team, that he should be benched, and does nothing. It's infuriating to Takao, as someone who has always been extremely passionate about standing up for himself—seeing Midorima just stand there, silent and unyielding with his lucky item in his taped hand is more distressing than any loss might have been. Granted, it still stings. It still sucks that they lost to Rakuzan, to that demon with eyes like a fucking nuclear apocalypse—but nothing is worse than watching Midorima stand there, silent and tall as a tree, taking abuse that is misdirected.

It's not Midorima's fault, how could it be Midorima's fault?

But Takao doesn't really think about how Midorima is really feeling until one night at practice, long after everyone except maybe Otsubo (who is probably running laps around the building, concerned for their first-year shooter as all of them are) have gone home, Midorima misses a shot.

It falls just short—hits the rim, spins once, and drops off the wrong side. Takao gapes from where he stands at the hall to the locker rooms—stares in shock as Midorima, tall and unyielding, drops his shoulders. His hands fall to his sides, clenched in fists.

Takao isn't really sure what Akashi did to Midorima. He doesn't really understand the Emperor's Eye, or whatever, but more he doesn't understand what kind of leverage Akashi has on Midorima to make it so viciously effective. It was effective against him of course, since he's a mere mortal or whatever, but... Takao had watched Midorima fall under that gaze—watched him drop and then fall back onto the floor. He'd watched Midorima's calm eyes run wild in panic like a rabbit in a snare and when the game ended, he'd...

It's more disturbing to see Midorima's hands loosen, fall limp. It's worse to see him alone in the gym near midnight, when he's got no one else around. It's worse to hear him hiccup, just a little. Midorima, always so confident and self-assured. Midorima, always so mentally resilient and determined and...

Midorima, crying in the middle of the gym, pressing his hand to his face. Midorima, walking slowly to pick up the lost basketballs to put them away, Midorima's shoulders winding up tense, Midorima's left hand becoming a fist—

“Shin-chan—!!”

The sound of Midorima's top left knuckles crunching against the cement wall, the sound of broken fingers, maybe a sprained wrist. The sight of Midorima falling to his knees like he had when Akashi had turned the Emperor's Eye on him, lower your head, sliding against the wall, pressing his forehead to the stone and snarling like a cornered animal.

Midorima isn't used to losing, Takao knows as he runs, runs, grabs Midorima's arm as he draws back for a second punch to the wall. Grabs him and yanks him back, drags him to the gym floor, wraps his arms around him to keep him from getting up, from hurting himself.

I should have known, Takao thinks, as he tries to hold Midorima still while he struggles and coughs and squirms in his grip. I should have known this would happen. Of course Midorima didn't blame his team. Of course he didn't blame Akashi, or Rakuzan. Of course he blamed himself.

“Let go, let go of me.

The sickest thing about it is that, wrapped around Midorima's left wrist is a little leather strap with a scorpion charm on it. The lucky item for the day, for all the good it's done. Takao grabs that left forearm and holds it and tries not to look at Midorima's broken middle and ring fingers, limp and wrong.

“Stop,” He whispers, hard and harsh as Midorima tries to get away from him. “Stop, stop it, Shin-chan stop it. It's over. It's over. Stop, stop it, please.”

Takao isn't sure what's worse. The fact that he does, or the fact that he forces himself to turn around and pants into Takao's shoulder instead of out into the open air of the gym, hyperventilating and holding on—like somehow, Takao can protect him, cradle him, keep him safe from everyone else and also from himself.

I don't think I can comfort you right now.

He hasn't done a very good job of comforting him since, either, he thinks as he hears Otsubo come running, no doubt to the sound of Takao shouting. He's always running laps around the gym until everyone's gone.

No... Takao hasn't done a very good job of protecting Midorima, at all.

><><><><

Midorima's fingers are broken. That precious left hand has been—luckily not irreparably—damaged. They're lucky since it's the off-season for now. Midorima has at least a month (if not more) to heal up properly, but Takao still has to listen to people talk shit about him and he hates it. He hates it.

Midorima still comes to practice. He dribbles with his right hand, works on defense and one-handed shooting. It's embarrassing for him, because he only makes the shot about sixty percent of the time. Maybe he thinks he's losing face in front of the team, but that couldn't be more untrue and Takao knows it.

Still.

Midorima hasn't asked him to pull the rickshaw in a while. They've just been walking home, which is fine. Takao isn't sure what's possessed him, but as they reach the intersection where they normally part, he grabs Midorima's wrist and carefully holds his broken left hand. “Come on,” he says, very gently. “Come to my house.”

Midorima doesn't protest, or try to pull away. He's stopped doing that for the most part, in the aftermath of the Rakuzan game. He lets himself be led and Takao isn't sure he likes it as he tugs Midorima along until they reach his apartment. Takao lives by himself, in a small room near his family's home—his family is noisy and just too much for him most of the time, these days—and he opens the door to silence. It continues to be silent as he and Midorima take off their shoes and make their way into the little space, like a studio apartment with his bed on one side, his desk on the other, and an open space in between, covered in a plush rug.

“Taka—”

“I'm sorry,” Takao says, cutting off his friend who is standing there, tall as a tree and numb to the world. “I'm sorry, Shin-chan. I never asked if you were okay.”

“What?” Midorima blinks and almost visibly recoils. “What, why—why would you? It's not your fault, Takao, I'm the one who—”

If Takao thought for one minute that this was some kind of self-flagellation—that Midorima was doing this as penance of some kind, he would have hit him upside the head. As it is, he knows Midorima well enough to know that he would never engage in such stupid, selfish behavior—he genuinely feels that this is his fault, he's responsible, and he is punishing himself without really thinking about it. They'd performed a miracle out there against Rakuzan, but the proof of how much the loss beat them down was staring him in the face in the form of Midorima's broken fingers.

“He really fucked you up, didn't he, that short guy. Akashi.”

Midorima looks at the floor, then at the wall. He pushes up his glasses, rakes his fight hand through his hair. “I supposed you could say it in that way and it would not be incorrect.”

“What did he do, Shin-chan.”

“Nothing any good captain wouldn't have.”

“Any good basketball captain?” Takao asks. “Or any good feudal lord, because those aren't the same thing Shin-chan, and only one of them applies to you.”

Midorima flinches. No one else would have noticed but Takao has been watching Midorima all season, and knows all his tells. He remembers reading something in an astrology book, Scorpios and Cancers are adept at using psychological manipulation against one another. Scorpios are especially adept at this. He wants Midorima to explain to him, he wants to understand why.

“Shin-chan,” he says, and his voice is deep and serious. “Shin-chan, what did he do.”

“...Reminded me of my place,” Midorima says, and Takao has never wanted to knock someone out so badly before. Never in his life has he been so ready to grab someone by the shirt and give their face an intimate introduction to his fist as many times as it takes for their nasal bone to be introduced to their frontal lobe.

“That's ridiculous,” Takao hears himself say. “What does that even mean, Shin-chan.”

“He has always taken great pleasure in...” Midorima is choosing his words very carefully. “Asserting his control over us. Any of us. He is the feudal lord, as you say. We were just retainers. Myself, Murasakibara. Aomine and Kise. We...” he hesitates. “We were tools. Pawns to be used to win.”

“Shin-chan,” Takao says, moving closer. “You know that's abuse, don't you?”

“He never laid a hand on me.”

“He doesn't have to put his hands on you to abuse you, Shintarou.”

The use of his full name makes Midorima look up at him, finally. His expression is so hurt that Takao feels like he's going to be sick. His teammate looks so... Small, despite his height, and Takao tries to imagine Murasakibara looking so small. Aomine, or Kise, or even Kuroko. He wonders what Akashi did to them to make them the way they were.

“He never...” Midorima trails off.

“He did,” Takao says, trying to keep his voice low and warm when he wants to scream. “He did, Shin-chan. He abused you. He used you and left you behind when you didn't... I don't know, meet his standards anymore.”

“I can take care of myself,” Midorima whispers.

“You don't have to,” Takao replies, reaching out to take Midorima's wrist in his hand, kissing the bandage over his broken fingers, desperate to make him understand that he's not alone, that he doesn't have to suffer by himself anymore. Those days are over. “You don't have to, Shin-chan. I'm right here. Let me help you.”

“You,” Midorima starts. Takao cuts him off.

“I made those passes to you, Shin-chan, during that game. You trusted me then—why won't you trust me now?”

“I do,” Midorima protests, weakly.

“You don't,” Takao replies, still holding Midorima's wrist. “If you did, you wouldn't have done this.”

It is both incredible and sad to watch as Midorima crumple in front of him. All that composure, all of that strength lost from his limbs and his face and he falls to Takao's floor, presses his face to his neck and cries wretchedly, harder than he had in the aftermath of the game because it's not just the game he's mourning, this time. Takao can't catch a lot of what he's saying—his voice is muted and mumbling—but he catches the phrase it's not fair and his heart breaks.

He holds the ruined remains of Shuutoku's ace shooter and tries very hard not to fall apart with him. Midorima needs him, right now. Well, he always needs Takao, since he's a useless brat, but he needs him even more than usual. Needs his support, his friendship, his love.

“I've got you,” he promises, as Midorima's chest-heaving shakes become quiet trembles, and then silent tears. “I've got you, Shin-chan, I'm right here.”

><><><><

Let it never be said that Midorima Shintarou is an excellent communicator, because he is not. In fact he's a pretty terrible communicator—he has a way of speaking that puts everyone else below him, he's arrogant and self-centered and almost disgustingly confident in himself. It feels more like a masquerade lately, but it's better than when he wasn't saying anything at all.

Besides, he's sure Takao sees right through him as though he were a pane of glass.

Midorima practices more than anyone else on the team, especially now that he feels he has something to prove, to make up for. He fights through his broken left fingers and sprained wrist, keeps the hand slung against his chest as he practices shots and fights back the urge to cry when he doesn't make it. He feels so fucking weak.

Any good basketball captain? Takao had asked. Or any good feudal lord, because those aren't the same thing Shin-chan, and only one of them applies to you.

After practice, Midorima finds himself picking up his phone and dialing Kuroko's phone number. He doesn't know who else to talk to. Takao has an appointment and he has to walk home alone, but he can't bring himself to call Kise, who will pity him—Aomine, who will be disgusted by him. Atsushi wouldn't have anything productive to say. Kuroko... He won't be comforting. But he might understand. He was the first to break away from Akashi, anyway—he might at least have some advice on how to deal with... With this.

Kuroko picks up and Midorima's breath catches in his throat for a moment.

“Midorima-kun.”

“Kuroko,” he says, and stops. How is he supposed to phrase this? How is he supposed to explain himself?

“...What's wrong, Midorima-kun?” Kuroko asks, and Midorima lets out a hard breath, bemused.

“It's that obvious?”

“You never call without a reason. And you never wait to speak it.”

Which is true. Midorima takes a deep breath.

“When you... When you left,” he starts. “After Akashi... How did you move past it, Kuroko. Past Akashi.”

There is a moment of thoughtful silence. Kuroko is weighing his words, as he always does. Midorima feels exposed, even as he sits in his bedroom with his body tucked to a wall, knees to his chest. He feels very small and stupid and helpless.

“Kagami-kun,” Kuroko finally says. “Kagami-kun... Has helped me a lot, Midorima-kun. Don't you also have Takao-kun?”

“He doesn't understand,” Midorima says, shaking his hair from his face. “Akashi, it's... It's hard to explain to him. I don't think anyone but us understands, really.”

“Aah,” Kuroko breathes it out. “Akashi-kun was very... Strict on you, wasn't he, Midorima-kun. You were vice-captain, after all.”

That was one way of putting it. Akashi had mindfucked Midorima past the point of being able to function, if that was what Kuroko meant.

“Takao-kun doesn't have to understand what Akashi-kun did, Midorima-kun.” Kuroko's voice is low and somehow reassuring. “Takao-kun just has to understand what he can do to help you, right now. How can Takao-kun help you, Midorima-kun.”

“I don't know,” Midorima feels pathetic saying it, hates his tears and his weakness. Hates that he's talking to someone who has clearly moved past all Akashi did to them in school, who has moved onward while Midorima himself is still stuck in the murk and mire and suffering for it.

“Your compatibility with Takao-kun is very high, Midorima-kun,” Kuroko says, as gently as he possibly can. “You should let him help you in the ways he knows how.”

“I'm afraid of that,” Midorima whispers.

“It's very frightening, Midorima-kun,” Kuroko says, his voice flat. “But. Do you trust Takao-kun?”

“Yes,” Midorima says it with no hesitation.

“Then you should let him help you. You should help him. Takao-kun needs you too, Midorima-kun.”

Midorima thinks of Kagami and Kuroko. How the two of them are foils of one another, how the two of them are a unit, despite everything. He wonders if Takao feels that way about him, or if...

“I'll do my best. Thank you, Kuroko.”

“Of course. And, Midorima-kun,”

“Hm?”

“...I hope it stops hurting you, soon. I don't mean your hand, either.”

Kuroko hangs up and Midorima is left holding his phone and staring out into his room and wondering how, exactly, it all came to this.

><><><><

Takao opens his door and blinks at Midorima standing there, his good hand in his pocket. He looks very tired, and Takao lets him in without any hesitation.

“Shin-chan?” he asks, thinking of the last time Midorima was here—how he'd all but run away when his tears had run out, as though he were afraid that staying with Takao was going to keep them coming. Takao was sure that was probably true. But...

“Takao,” Midorima says, once the door is closed. There is a moment of hesitation. “...Kazunari.”

Takao blinks at the use of his given name. He is too stunned to speak, and Midorima just keeps talking.

“I never... I never thanked you. For helping me. I should have, I know...” his face twists and Takao wonders how much of himself Midorima is giving up to speak to him so candidly. He's not like Takao—he doesn't find relief in letting go of his preconceptions and behaviors. He's terrified of it, that much has been clear to Takao since their second or third conversation.

“I know I'm not easy to get along with. I'm not easy to... Befriend. Not all of that is... Not all of that is Akashi's fault, either, I...” Midorima takes a breath and Takao looks at him, trying not to let his surprise and confusion show on his face. “Kazunari.”

There it is again, Takao almost gasps. Midorima moves to stand close to him and Takao stares up through those green bangs, through those glasses, into those green, green eyes.

“Kazunari. Thank you. For... For helping me, when I wasn't willing to admit that I needed you.” Midorima looks like the words are being torn out of him by a fishhook. “I can't thank you enough. You've done so much for me, and I've been so selfish, I've done... Nothing for you.”

“That's not true,” Takao starts, but Midorima puts his good hand on Takao's waist, and he won't look him in the eye, and Takao feels a surge of affection well up in his belly.

“Kazu...” Midorima trails off and he looks so young, and Takao reaches to cup his face and bring him down for a kiss because it feels like the right thing to do, because he's so close and so anxious and his eyes are darting but they close when their lips touch. Midorima melts into him and Takao wraps one arm around his waist, the other staying on the side of his neck as the kiss remains chaste for as long as two young men can allow.

Then Takao pulls Midorima into the main area of the room, still kissing him, his hand knotted in the back of Midorima's dark green hair, his other hand pressing into Midorima's lower back to bring him closer. They kiss, and Takao lets Midorima down onto the floor and kneels over him, pulling back to look at the taller boy. Flushed, lips pink and wet with spit, his eyes wide and his glasses askew. He looks like a normal boy. Takao falls a little more in love with him.

“Shintarou,” he says, and Midorima's entire body stiffens in anxiety. Takao remembers Akashi, looming over Midorima, knocked to the floor. Lower your head, Shintarou. You're in the way.

“Shin-chan,” he corrects and Midorima relaxes, lets Takao bend down to kiss him. For a long time, all they do is kiss. Slow, wet, quietly deepening until Takao has his arms bracketing Midorima's head, and Midorima's breath is panting, weak, his lips red. “Shin-chan. I've been waiting for you.”

“Sorry to make you wait,” he croaks out, and Takao laughs, the sound bright in the dim room.

“You should be,” he says. Midorima stares up at him and then he laughs, weakly. Takao kisses his laughing mouth, his blushed cheeks, the skin around the frames of his glasses. He lays down to one side on the plush carpet and tugs Midorima in against him, kisses his forehead. “You're so stupid, Shin-chan,” he chides, running his fingers through Midorima's hair, which is softer than it has any right to be. “Did you think I wasn't gonna wait for you, huh? You're hopeless without me.”

“I am,” Midorima says, and Takao pauses, looks down at him. Midorima is looking up, his eyes unhidden by his glasses, which he'd pulled off, sometime between pulling away from one another and lying down. They're so lovely, Takao thinks. Deep green and just a touch of gold.

“I am hopeless without you.”

“You're not supposed to admit that,” Takao chokes out, though his heart feels very warm and full. He kisses Midorima's head like he's a small child being put to bed. “How unmanly are you, huh.”

“Compatibility between Cancer and Scorpio is very high today, Takao,” Midorima says, his voice almost—barely—unsure. “But I... I think our compatibility is very high all of the time.”

“Agreed,” Takao replies, feeling Midorima turn a little more into him, feels him rest a little more against his body.

“I'm glad for that.”

“Me too.”

The two of them lay in silence until Takao wiggles down to be face-to-face with Midorima. Then the silence turns to the tiny wet sounds of kisses and Takao's soft, pleased noises as Midorima finally, finally, lets go of whatever's been haunting him, and trusts him completely.

Midorima offers out the gem of himself and Takao cradles it in both hands. In the dim light they are safe and secure, and Takao thinks that while he could have done without the dramatics—up on the roof, Midorima's broken fingers, his wretched tears—this was all very worth the wait, after all.

“I've got you, Shin-chan,” he whispers.

“...I've got you, too,” Midorima replies, his arm tightening on Takao's waist, his left arm caught between them. “I promise.” His voice is so sincere, so staunch and stalwart that it makes Takao's skin break out into goosebumps, because he knows it's true. Others might not believe it, but it isn't as though Midorima is capable of being anything but completely sincere, full of strange earnestness and integrity.

Takao closes his eyes and is amazed at how much comfort he takes in that promise. In those very, very simple words. Until now, it's been Takao supporting Midorima; Midorima, who is just that touch older and anxious and afraid. But now it will go both ways, and the two of them will get stronger together, supporting one another, and Takao wonders if that's all he wanted in the first place, really. To be on equal ground with Midorima, even if they weren't of equal skill.

A prodigy and a prodigy of hard work, huh...? he thinks, sighing gently. One pair, instead of two separate cards. Midorima puts a shy kiss on his chin. Takao grins into his bangs. Having one pair is a good start of a game.

I can work with that.