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Take a Deep Breath (and Hold)

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Takao turned when he finally noticed that the quiet presence at his side had frozen three steps back. Kuroko Tamaki was standing very still, taking slow, deep breaths, and her usually serene face was tight with some emotion he couldn't interpret, eyes locked shut.

"Uh, Tamaki-chan? Are you okay?" Takao asked, a little nervously. God, he hoped she wasn't getting sick - Shin-chan would kill him.

Blue eyes finally opened and turned on him. Takao resisted the sudden urge to run because now he could tell what that tight emotion was: fury. With a visible effort at control, Tamaki spoke, "Your team did what to Shin?"

Gulping, Takao answered her carefully, "Well, uh, it was a long time ago, you know, but - " Picking up the pace at the rising impatience in the girl's face, he rushed out the next words, "A couple of seniors threatened to break his lucky item during the match against Seirin. They didn't actually do it, but - "

Tamaki ignored his babbling after that, stewing in the rage she could feel seeping through her famous composure. Footsteps behind her pulled her back to reality, and she spun on her heel, only to see Shin turning the corner with his team behind him.

A tiny little devil that looked uncannily like her cousin started a cackling dance by her ear.

Shin, loyal friend that he was, took one look at her and Takao's terrified face and froze.

"Shin," Tamaki was careful not to let anything but calm into her face, but her voice was tight and shaky with anger. "Please, explain to me why your team should be allowed to live."

Now the rest of Shuutoku was frozen as well, and Shin had to sigh, "If this is about the incident during our match, I'd have to say because it was an isolated incident and - " Light glinted ominously off his glasses for a moment, "because Akashi is not here to help you hide the bodies this time."

That brought a smile to her face, though she knew it was not a friendly one. Meeting the eyes of Shin's teammates one by one, she finally deigned to rebut, "As if I require Sei's help, Shin."

He sighed again, resettling his glasses on his nose and ignoring the whimper from one of his cowering teammates.

"Required or not, it does make things easier," he hesitated and Tamaki turned her eyes to him again. She could count on her fingers the number of times she had heard Shin hesitate to speak his thoughts. Under her gaze, he coughed once, uncertain, and then continued with an admirable attempt at his usual hauteur, "I admit, I have also become accustomed to their presence. It would be irritating to have to break in a new team so close to the Winter Cup."

Tamaki mentally translated this emotionally constipated Shin-speech as 'I have grown fond of these people and would miss them if you made them disappear,' and almost had to smile. Restraining the impulse, she gave them all one last, vicious glare, then stepped up to slip one arm through Shin's, leading him away.

Offering him a small smile, she was gratified to receive one in return, clearly stunning his team if their gaping was any indication.

"Only because you insist, Shin." He patted her hand on his arm and with surprising, quiet sincerity, replied, "Thank you."