Actions

Work Header

i'm leaving this letter with no address (no need to fear the distance here)

Work Text:

i'm leaving this letter without an address (no need to fear the distance here)
2014.07.03

 

He had seen it once. When Nigou died.

He had still been young. Even in dog years, maybe past middle-aged, maybe a little younger. Still, it was a wrench to see his bright eyes clouded with sedatives, his black-and-white body lax on the operating table. They shaved a part of his leg for an IV and the nurses slotted it in while Kuroko ran his hand through the plush husky fur, feeling the lump rise in his throat along with the volume of the mantra in his head. Why why whywhywhywhy.

Chemo would only extend his life one year at most, the vet said. Nigou woke slowly in his basket-bed, letting his weight sit on the curve of the doggie cushion before he tested his legs and stood. In the space of an hour he was up and running, the medicine washed from his system, but even at his most frentic pace he was never as fast as he had been.

Still, Kuroko fooled himself. He said it was the same, and for a time it was. One year. One singular year.

A week before he buried Nigou he scratched his paw on the back door, his regular wordless plea to go out. It was raining, but Kuroko put on his leash and led him into the yard. There he sat in the grass, the storm like a living hand pushing the both of them back, the water lashing and pulling down on their bodies, drowning them together. He undid the leash and Nigou went to the furthest corner of their tiny yard, as far as his weakened limbs could take him, behind the strawberries he used to patrol against birds that liked to steal them.

Kuroko could still see in his mind exactly what he looked like: a black shadow, curled in onto itself, shivering, shaking from the elements and the continued medical treatments. He looked back and his blue eyes pleaded, Don't take me back there. He said, Leave me, just go, it's over.

Kuroko reattached the leash, and because Nigou couldn't fight, had no energy left to do so, he carried him back into the house when Kagami called for them. He was so light. Then he dried off the two of them right there on the floor, in front of the couch, Kagami brushing him down with a towel before tentatively running a hand through the soft fur behind Nigou's ears. That hadn't changed. The look Kagami got in his eyes when he realized he could touch without fear any longer, Nigou gave that to him.

The two of them dealt differently with the slow fade of their third family member, but the ending was the same. They lowered the body into the ground forever and Kuroko finally understood again what it was to leave his heart torn and bleeding, buried in that unmarked grave behind the strawberry patch. In that moment he couldn't remember any of the good times, the stick-throwing, the frisbee-catching, the picking-out-toys and picky-about-kibble. The doggie breath that smelled like fish when he ate the kind made from tuna. The sly bump of his nose tucked between Kuroko's knees as he stared adoringly upward, silently hopeful for scraps. Quiet hours of TV and sleeping, minature canine heater arrayed sloppily across his midsection.

Those days would never return. Kagami knew it too. He cried when he saw Kuroko cry, in a way that Kuroko had never seen him: silent heaves at first that cracked at the first squeak of Kuroko's hiccups, and moaned as they rocked each other, desperate in all that they had lost.

Only a dog, some people said. Just a pet.

Only my family, Kuroko shot back. Only a part of my life for eight short years. I loved him, do you know that? Do you understand, really? And I lost him.

Years stole the particulars away but he never forgot what he saw that night. Because that was the night Nigou really died. It was the night his heart gave up. Right before they go, animals find the most secluded spot outside to do so. Sometimes he wished he hadn't opened the door at Nigou's request, but in the end he knew it wouldn't have changed anything. He would still be dead by now.

And then, abruptly, it was Kagami's turn.

-------------------

It started out with a bang.

Not the kind he found in the kitchen, because sometimes that did happen. And when it did they both laughed, because usually it was because Kuroko forgot to slice his boiled eggs again. Seriously, this is the last time, Kagami would tease. Such a little thing; you'd think you'd remember by now, eggs explode. And plastic wrap sometimes. How can someone fuck up the microwave? Wow, this is a new level - wait, no, new genre of genius -

He would jab Kagami as hard as he could, vicious and teasing as Kagami's gleeful smile as he dodged. They would chase each other briefly around the table - just one loop around - and then Kagami would 'get caught' and Kuroko would jab him a few more times just for good measure, until Kagami wailed surrender and they had sex. On the couch, on the counter, on the bed, against the wall, snickering as they both wordlessly remembered Aomine screeching, Is there no part of this damned place that's still safe!? and Kagami shooting back victoriously, Hell no!

No, this was the other kind of bang. Not a gun. Not inanimate A hitting inanimate B and B protesting. This was the real thing, that slang thing, banging hookers and prostitutes and wenches. Women. This was infidelity.

What? was Kuroko's first response. The second one was to laugh. What? It was inconceivable, because Kagami was faithful, Kagami was faith himself, he was the one who stayed up with Kuroko when he hit writer's block, puttering around the house doing random things that needed doing. Being a good house-husband between the restaurant and the firehouse, letting Kuroko hear him working in the background exactly the way he liked to. Telling Kuroko he wasn't alone.

You are too good to me, Kuroko had never said aloud, because he always dreaded the answer would be the same as Aomine's Yeah I know, you can take more, then. Bitch. Slut.

Kagami had saved him from that, too. Poaching was what Aomine had labeled it, but both he and Kuroko took the split much better than either of them expected. Liberating, Kise had deemed it.

Kuroko preferred Akashi's Wised up, didn't you?, which made Kagami turn pink whenever he heard. That never changed either: his inability to take a compliment without embarrassment.

But now Akashi could give no explanation, no clever words. He could only say that yes, he kept tabs, and Kagami had been seen with someone else. That he had hired a private investigator, and the results were the same as he discovered before: that Kagami was taking less hours at both the restaurant and the firehouse, and was spending them in an apartment across town. An apartment that had someone else's name on it.

Kuroko tried to think, tried to laugh, but betrayal had always twisted him up inside. He didn't dare tell Aomine, because he would only get I told you so back. He didn't tell anyone, not the Seirin crew that might have helped him think it through. He couldn't speak for the shame of not being enough.

Because that was what it had to be. I am inadequate; I am unable to produce progeny that Kagami's father wants to take over his company in the future. Kagami is bisexual; he wants curves sometimes. Kagami likes the thrill of danger, that's why he's a fireman. Kagami hates this house because I picked the curtains and when one of my students said Nigou might rise from the grave because he's buried outside, he looked seriously freaked out at the possibility.

Reasons. All foolish, he told himself. All impossible. Look, all I have to do is talk to him about it, right? Akashi warned him against doing so, saying Sometimes people change and Men always get this way, but Kuroko was a man and he wasn't like that. He wasn't afraid of change, but he didn't need it either.

But when he broached the subject one night, with What's the 98,000 yen payment for?, Kagami clammed up, flustered. Trying to explain. Trying not to stutter. Finally he wouldn't give Kuroko a straight answer and said only that it was important. That it wasn't ready, that it was a - a surprise.

The next day Kuroko went to the apartment. He thought of picking the lock like some criminal, but in the end he knocked on the door. It took three knocks, but finally there were footsteps and the distant wail of a baby, getting closer and closer.

The woman blinked when she saw him. Kagami Sachiyo, she answered. And this is little Gane-kun. Ne? She waved the toddler's chubby hand, but when Kuroko didn't smile like people usually did, she shifted Gane to the side and eyed him suspiciously. May I help you with something?

No, he said firmly, even with his mind and his heart empty as drums. A torn instrument parroting ballads on the radio, shuffling obediently to the steps of a rhythm, a song he thought he knew. Following the thread of truth to the end.

And what an end.

He didn't take anything more than what he needed: copies of Kagami's work schedule for the next week so he could avoid him, basic toiletries, his laptop, drafts of his unfinished books. His parents were thrilled to see him, and he settled down in his old room as if he had never left, seeing the same people on the street corners and in the convenience stores. Old teachers, old classmates saying How do you do? and I'm married; I'm single; I have this great job at Noshiba Electronics; I'm still doing grad school at TU, can you believe it, Tokyo University! He didn't remember how he responded, but he hoped it wasn't the same vacant stare he gave the window when he got home.

Sometimes he lost hours that way, watching the sun set. His computer would go black when he left it open long enough, but he wouldn't notice. His thoughts would be interrupted with calls for dinner, and his father coming home from work. We'll pay if you want to join that friend of yours, Masaharu-kun, was it? You could get a Masters in something you like. Japanese, like your BA, or History, or maybe even Business. Doesn't Business sound interesting? So many things you could do with that!

Mother, I'm fine. I'm happy, he lied. When his parents asked why he had come back so abruptly, he only said I thought I might try some new places to write, since I've hit a block. Another lie; it was terribly ironic, because he could churn out forty pages a day when he wasn't staring into space. And none of it was even related to heartbreak at all.

Still, when he read his work over again, he always felt there was something melancholy about it. And then Why so serious? in Kagami's teasing voice would come to his head. They had agreed to buy the DVD, since Kagami liked the fighting and Kuroko the elegant storytelling, but had never gotten around to it. The most they had ever done was fuck in front of the TV as the bad guy said You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.

Was he unfair for leaving so abruptly? No. Was he a fool for leaving something so good behind? No. Was he a villain, then, for not pursuing a better explanation, for letting things stand as they were? If he was more constant, more faithful, he could have taken it -

No. No, no, and no. He was done giving chances. He had given so many. Now all he was, was a drain, not a faucet, a drain. And all the loving, the caring, the sweet I love yous and walks, the tears they shed together over serious things like Nigou and silly things like The Last Samurai, the cohabilitation, it wasn't enough in the end.

He should have known. But even a month of this humming, ordinary life, all he could feel was shock.

Until slowly, slowly there was anger.

---------------

Anger before tears, he had heard from somewhere. But it was a long time before he remembered the truth of that.

----------------

He simply woke up one morning and thought, How dare he.

And then he called Kise. Kise, now a producer of his own, a finger in every cinematic project in Japan. Acting in some, prodding others. He knew audiences well, he had innumerable contacts, and in one of those Kuroko could definitely find what he was looking for.

I want a date, he told the blond, who even after all these years, almost fell over himself to agree, making noises about platonic dates and not cheating on their significant others, maybe shopping or a museum exhibit or Kise could take him to see a real movie set in action. But not with you, Kuroko added, a preface to grumbling and whining. With someone else.

Tentatively Kise began to suggest the single people they both knew. People from their old teams. People who would actually give a damn, and no, Kuroko put a stop to that at once.

I need someone easy. And someone not like him. Someone who will fuck me for one night and not ask for anything more. There was a stunned kind of silence from the other end that Kuroko deliberately misread. If you're worried about me, I can assure you that I've never left my partner unsatisfied, and I don't plan to stop now.

I might know someone, Kise said, a little colder, a little more businesslike. Because this was his whole job: connecting A with B, and reaping the profit of that connection. But underneath was the forlorn hurt, the confusion, and the unasked What happened?

The man Kise set him up with was also blond. He had muscles, but in the way that spoke of lifting files every day rather than people, or ladders, or fire hoses. Maybe he was a paper pusher somewhere in the movie industry, sitting at his desk all day, staring at the screen - Kuroko didn't know, didn't remember. He didn't even remember the man's name.

He got as far as taking off his clothes, lying in bed. Even kissing once. And then he apologized, put his body-warm clothes back on, and left.

Damn him, and the anger was mixed with grief because his cock had risen at the sight of another naked body, another's touch. He ran past the train station in his haste, stumbling a little with his blue balls.

But anything was better than being in that hotel room, stripping in preparation to be pounded into like a slab of meat. With Kagami he never had to ask Will you take me slow today? or Hard, rough, please, now. Kagami always knew.

When he got home he said nothing, didn't pick up his phone though it had vibrated for the entire twenty-eight minutes it took to get home, and went straight upstairs into the shower. He turned the tap on with his clothes still on and let the water rain down. He stayed as long as he could there, shivering as the seconds ticked by. Watching his fingers and legs shake like the gradual increase of a one to a nine on the Richter scale, until his weak knees sent him crashing to the tile.

He still didn't feel clean.

His phone wasn't waterproof, so he went to the shop the next day to get a new one. He froze when the lady said, Would you like to transfer the contents of your last phone to this one?

It took him every tortured beat of courage to say no.

No? She looked so innocently surprised. Um, sir, if I don't transfer the contents list, you'll have to go around collecting phone numbers and e-mails again. Are you sure there's nothing you would like to retrieve from the old memory card?

The word rang like a bell, struck again and again. No. No. No no no. This is over. We are over. I am over this. I am, I am, so no. Back to the start, except he didn't know the start, it was all a blur and he couldn't remember the exact shade of Kagami's eyes in that moment and he didn't know why that made him want to cry. It had never mattered much before, except maybe when they were picking a shirt to go to Kagami's tux for last year's anniversary.

You remember what you said to me that day? Kagami teased. You said you'd make me number one in Japan or something like that.

I do remember, Kuroko shot back without heat. I also remember you saying I was weird. Or crazy. Or both.

I must be crazy for you, then, Kagami had replied.

They had lifted their glasses together to toast, silently, fifteen years. Fifteen years not since they started dating, but since it started to matter. Since the day they made their first promises to each other. Taken that first step.

He almost took it back, but in the end he couldn't. He knew he wouldn't have the strength to refuse a second chance if he couldn't even do it here, without Kagami standing in front of him. Ironic that Kagami had always praised him for his strength despite his smaller body, his shying away from conflict unless it was necessary. And even then, he met challenges with only just enough determination to overcome it.

Y-you're always like this, he said once in the middle of sex. Controlling yourself. Knowing where you are. You always know what you want.

That was a terrible lie. Kuroko was very lost right now. He was torn apart inside. But in remembering that one tiny sliver of memory, another much more catastrophic seed took root in his brain.

What I want is to be free of you.

No, he told the lady again. She was staring at him with wide, wide eyes as this near-invisible customer cried at her work desk. No, please - I need this. Don't put anything on it. Please do this for me. Please.

His new phone had no stickers from the kids volunteer program, no dings from all the times they knocked it off the nightstand in their enthusiasm, no wallpaper of Fushimi Inari Shrine, where they had visited Akashi last November for the autumn leaves. No grocery lists and pictures that went with the grocery list, though Kagami kept reusing the same blurred one to differentiate baking powder and baking soda. No texts from work of I'm bored or Tell me something interesting or I just burned myself again, why do I always burn myself more in the kitchen then burning buildings? None of Kuroko's responses of You're silly and deranged, Go jack off in the tiny firehouse bathroom, I'm not sexting you, and You need a haircut, here's a coupon, it expires today so get one before you come home tonight.

No personality; it was empty of anything resembling history.

What a happy place to be, if Kuroko could start back at zero again.

His contacts consisted of Father and Mother and Engawa Publishing and Saitama University, Literature Department. But staring at the truncated list no longer made him angry. It made him sad.

Say goodbye, he told his old life. I have lost you too.

He didn't cry, not for this loss. But maybe it was because his regrets were so piled up that his tears had dried up for good. He wasn't sure, but he was hopeful for the first time in a while. It was the first time he thought he might get through this without doing something dramatic like the characters in his books, like slicing through his wrists or finding a gun. Or a convenient train platform to throw himself off of. So many ways for people to die, but even in the darkest throes of despair, Kuroko didn't really believe heartbreak was one of them.

-----------------

12:31 PM, KAGAMI>> Toshi keeps telling me to get a girlfriend
12:31 PM, KAGAMI>> All I see is boob posters when I walk into the locker room, seriously firemen are dirty
12:31 PM, KAGAMI>> No matter which way you swing it
12:32 PM, ME>> Maybe you should tell him the truth
12:32 PM, ME>> Just a hint, the PC wording is 'domestic partner'
12:34 PM, KAGAMI>> Fuck being PC, I don't care about that crap
12:34 PM, KAGAMI>> Plus it doesn't really describe what you are
12:35 PM, ME>> I am unsure what you mean
12:36 PM, KAGAMI>> You're my shadow, baka

-----------------

He was wrong.

He thought the light of day would wash away the negative feelings, clear the bad air, so to speak. But more often his mind wandered in circles, sometimes brief, flitting ones about how the apartment looked and if his plants were still alive, and other times the ones that cut swift, jagged and deep, about Kagami's child and Kagami's happiness.

He knew he had a problem when he got addicted to sleeping, because sometimes if he was lucky, he wouldn't remember how it was now. He could go back to the time when everything was fine and nothing hurt. When he could let Kagami's smiles, the one that barely touched his lips but pierced Kuroko through with the kindness from his eyes, run him through again and again and feel the sweet pain well up like a black bruise.

Even if he woke up crying, he couldn't bring himself to regret Kagami's duplicity. What it had meant. What pressures Kagami had finally succumbed to.

And I did nothing for you. I let the wound fester.

But there was a part of him that churlishly scorned acceptance. It folded and refolded, turned and twisted the amalgam of feelings around and around. Through the peaceful years, Kuroko stood at the operating table and looked down at himself, torn apart in his dreams, pumping love like blood. Why. Why why why whywhywhy.

Why I can't I get over you?

-----------------

He tried to write.

Not a book; unless it was published one day as such. Without his permission, then, maybe once he was dead, like he was some sort of major writer or something. He didn't really have any ambitions past making readers feel what he felt, cry when he cried, laugh when he laughed. Perhaps he could use a little bit of that meager talent now.

Dear Kagami-kun, he began. It's been three months since I left the house and haven't gone back. I hope you're still paying the rent. I hope to go back someday because almost everything I have is there - at least, I would like to pick up my books and such. I hope you're watering the plants, or else they will be long dead by now.

I hope, was what he said. I hope I can set foot in the place we picked together. I hope I can do it without flinching someday. I hope I won't reach out and hit the wall one morning when I wake up. I hope I can look you in the face, and tell you Hello without flinching.

He didn't quite pray for that someday, because he had never believed in God or gods except in that absent, vague, New Years hatsumode way, and he knew no amount of wishing would make things go faster. These things took time. He had learned that the opposite way, gaining something good - but maybe on the flip side, this was also good.

He was getting himself back, scraping his shattered self piece by piece, fitting the pattern together. He imagined putting the clues together like a private investigator in a mystery, and oh, that wasn't a bad idea, that was something he could write about.

He made fifteen on the bestseller's list, his publishing manager crying tears of happiness over the phone. Chapter twenty-five had this:

Dear Liar,

I had hoped that you would have the courage to meet me, but I guess I was wrong. I was so sure - so sure - you were exactly who I thought you were. I'll never be sure now, since I no longer have any way to contact you.

All that time, and you never came forward. Did you even care? Was it all false? But why does it matter. It doesn't. But it is all I have of you; memories. And even then, I'm haunted by the fact it doesn't really mean anything in the end. Love alone is never enough, and it definitely isn't strong enough to stand up next to truth.

I would give you a second chance, but I'm all out. Now even if you were to come back for me, tell me who you really were, cry, apologize, beg, I don't think I could ever do for you again what I did before. I can't allow myself to be used again.

You told me once I was strong. That I could get through anything. If that's real, then I'll get through this too. Listen, if you're regretting this - don't. Don't hang on. I'm not.

He had sent this letter off to every Japanese-reading corner of the world. This would be his legacy. This would be his love-hate letter: the heroine, trembling like a newborn faun, crawling on her fingernails towards her future. He didn't know why he equated himself with a girl, but in the end it fit better. It let him write every hairsbreath, every splinter of hurt out so it could bleed, clot, dry, fade into yellow-green and then clear skin.

The spat of publicity he enjoyed helped him keep his mind off of things too. Kise had somehow gotten ahold of his new number and offered to pitch for a movie deal (he said no). Midorima had come to one of his book signings and told him point blank that some of his research was wrong. Kasamatsu, surprisingly enough, was the only one who had anything really productive to say: that it was thrilling at the chase parts, somber at the right moments, outright hilarious at the funny ones. And perhaps a bit weepy on the overblown ending.

"But not bad at all," he said. They shared a coffee after the signing, and thankfully he offered nothing about Hyuuga and Riko and Kiyoshi, or Koganei, or any of the freshmen.

It was the first thing he had really, really heard in what seemed like forever. Like his ears had suddenly been unplugged and suddenly he was hearing the cars, the trains, the baristas calling out names on cups, the hiss of steamed milk, the grind of the blender. Foreign chatter from a couple in the corner, two blond girls shades lighter than Kise's. Kise was still determinedly hanging onto a movie deal though Kuroko had refused on the grounds that he knew nothing about movies. Kise had countered with, "But just think about it - you could learn, starting now."

The next day he found an arts school that taught basic cinematography, and told Kise he would like to see a script for a TV drama. Nothing special, just a script. Even for one from the recent past.

When he was done purviewing the three-hundred page document the sky had gotten dark beyond the windows, but he hadn't noticed. Kise leaned forward to ask, "Can you write something like this?", in which Kuroko cocked his head, thinking.

"I'll see what I can do," was how he finally responded. When Kise grinned and finally left, he pressed a hand to his heart. Strange, now that feeling had returned to his limbs. His head was clear though he hadn't even realized it had been clouded. And his heart - well. For better or for worse, it was still beating.

I can do this, he said, and started to believe again.

-------------------

He met with Kasamatsu more often. First, only once a month after the book signing, and then more. Mostly because Kasamatsu looked and actually saw him, and treated him like an equal.

He texted Kuroko sometimes to say he had read some of his other books and wanted to discuss them. A few of his preliminary questions were along the lines of That character was totally inspired by me, wasn't it? and Did you really write an okama version of Moriyama? I can't believe this. Some of the comments made him laugh because they were so off, but most of the time he was thrilled someone had made the connection, or amazed that he himself hadn't realized it until now.

It was fun. It could be more fun than just chatting in coffeeshops and talking about wording and language (Kasamatsu worked for Kise, so he had some things to say about negotiating, though most of his negotiations with Kise still involved kicking the blond in the ass). He had seen the looks the other shot him when he thought Kuroko wasn't looking: shy, charmed, a little in thrall but looking as if he didn't mind. Yearning in the last few times they parted in front of the little coffeeshop at closing time.

Did I look like that? He wanted to laugh. I bet I did. I bet I looked just as besotted. Fool, foolish me. Foolish you.

"I can't," he said one day, gently shattering the dream. "I don't think I'll be alright for a long time. But when I am, when I'm ready to try again - I'll think of you, okay? You're a good man, Kasamatsu-sempai."

Kasamatsu had attempted a smile before he fled.

I hadn't been able to do that much, Kuroko thought, but this time the ache wasn't the same searing-flesh pain that it was. Did that mean he was inured now? He didn't know, but he wanted to be. He wanted to heal. But there were these reminders every day - the sunsets just like the ones they used to watch, the bright neon lights of Maji Burger, the smell of spices cooking from someone's kitchen. His fading ring tan.

And then he would remember, sometimes for hours, sitting with his back to the wall on the bed. They had made love the first time there, furtively under the blankets. Making a mess but neither was willing to clean up at the time, and plus they would be at it in again in the morning. They didn't, because they were late for class due to the shower they took together. Kuroko had his revenge when they did it at Kagami's house next.

He touched his chest and tried to imagine it. Would it have been different if I was a woman? He tried to make the shape with his hands, but with no flesh it still felt unreal. He tried again, slower. Round globes of fat and a skinny waist. Larger hips, a love of high heels and lipstick. Longer hair. Missing something between his legs. What would it have been like?

How had they met? What did Kagami even say to her? A flicker of the old anger surfaced, but now it was cooler. Controllable.

It doesn't matter, and he let himself stride away from that thought. It's all over.

------------------

Please leave your message after the tone - BEEEEP...

Hey, I'll be a bit late coming home today. One of the guys couldn't make it to shift and I'm taking over for him, so I'll probably be back tomorrow morning. Fucking thirty-hour shift.

Don't work too hard on that Toshi-wannabe's romance sideplot thing. I mean, actual Toshi isn't getting anywhere either with his...I don't even know what to call her. Anyways, love you and see you - BEEEEP.... End of messages. To delete, press nine. To replay, press pound. For all other options, press zero to the main menu...

------------------

17:59 PM, ME>> I got it wrong ONCE
18:00 PM, KAGAMI>> Doesn't mean you won't do it again. I had to go to the supermarket and freaking show you last time
18:01 PM, ME>> Thankful as I am for you clarifying that small detail, your assistance is unnecessary
18:03 PM, KAGAMI>> Like hell it is, any baker worth their salt will tell you baking powder and baking soda is completely different
18:04 PM, ME>> I said I know. I won't get it wrong this time
18:06 PM, KAGAMI>> You say that about the boiled eggs too. I'm starting to think you just like to see them explode
18:07 PM, ME>> Why does it matter? I clean the microwave afterwards, so there is nothing you can complain about
18:07 PM, KAGAMI>> I KNEW IT!

------------------

He watched a mother and a baby in a stroller pass by.

It had been months since he last imagined what it was to have breasts. And something missing between his legs. The script was good, the script was fine - the evidence was here on his computer, which was in his lap as he watched mother and son play in the sand. He put the toddler at two years, maybe a little more.

He wondered if he looked strange in a hat and sunglasses, typing away on a laptop in the middle of a park. Sometimes he set his work aside to pick up the phone - Kise, or his publisher, or his parents, telling him to rest, telling him to take it easy, but the plot wouldn't write itself and he still had so much emotion and story to hurl onto blank documents, white paper - and sometimes behind tinted shades he watched the sandbox, the tower being built in buckets and much mud-flinging and indulgent smiles from onlookers.

He wondered why Kagami was not there.

He had followed them from their apartment. He had watched them for days. Maybe Kagami was just on some sort of extended business trip, or rubbing shoulders with his father-CEO's friends, but something told him it wasn't like that. That the grandson and heir wasn't the only apple of his mother's eye, and that the son was anything but solely devoted back.

Then he went back to their house, and standing in the foyer, he knew no one had been here for a long time. His plants were dead. The garden was overgrown; vines choked Nigou's grave. Some things were missing - picture frames, old clothes, blankets. The refrigerator was empty and unplugged as it hadn't been since they moved in.

The feeling of something jagged and out of sync hit him again, and he wondered what piece he was missing.

Because there had to be something to be found in their old bills, their old passbooks. More than a money trail, more than an SD card, more than memos and texts and pictures. The first editions from his early days of writing were still proudly upright on the shelf, crisp and untouched; he hadn't read them in years, hadn't had the reason since Kasamatsu only knew the ones published under his real name.

Now he cracked them open, and after three chapters the block print started to swirl dizzily, messily. He was crying, he realized belatedly, over one of his stupid little books, written back when he thought an interesting twist of words was all that was needed to become a novelist. Fifteen minutes of the hero, an old man, losing the only person he had ever loved, words that he had written himself recalling every loss he had ever accrued, and Kuroko was done.

He thought of hands in his hair, gentle, comforting, shifting to his shoulder, cupping the back of his neck, a little possessive but more reassuring Kuroko that he was there. That the two of them weren't alone - they never would be alone any longer -

He clenched his fingernails tight around his arms in an embrace of air and bitter memory, and tried to parse his way through scattered evidence like one of his detective characters. What was the catalyst? What was the conflict? What had he done that made Kagami want to let go? Where were the signs, goddammit, where were symptoms of love withdrawn to leave him lonely and cold?

Nothing, he reasoned, and the word echoed and echoed like a hollow drum in his ribcage, roiling black. You have nothing.

---------------------

The apartment was paid for on a stipend that came from Kagami Senior himself.

When Kuroko called for a formal meeting, he was politely and firmly declined.

"Well, that's a dead end," Kise sighed, reading the script Kuroko had concocted for the next installment. "How's the reluctant hero gonna resolve that? And please don't tell me you're gonna wait until next season."

I don't know, the mantra whirled desperately over his head. He suspected this was the effect Kagami had on him, a year after the split, that he was still looking over his shoulder for clues, for an answer. But now he was facing himself, facing the problem head on.

In that, it wasn't so different than Teikou. He had needed time then, to gather his thoughts, marshall a plan of action. Step forward with all his strength gathered behind him, so he could control where the blows were coming from, anticipate his own weaknesses. Put up his guard in case of failure and disappointment.

He had done this before. That fact made it a little better, but it didn't mean he wasn't still scared to death.

------------------

"Akashi-kun."

"It's been a while, Tetsuya. To what do I owe the pleasure of this call?"

"Do you still keep tabs on Kagami Taiga?"

"I do not. I thought resources expended would be more efficient in other areas after your parting." Said pleasantly enough as if Akashi was commenting on the weather, Kuroko put that through his Akashi-to-Japanese translator as I was pissed enough at him that I didn't want to see his face or know about him any longer.

"May I inquire as to the contents of your last...reported sighting?"

"The apartment I told you last time. With his wife."

"I see."

"Was this helpful for you, Tetsuya?"

"I'm afraid not. You see, I do not believe he is there."

"You've been staking out his apartment?"

"No, well, not always, but...it's just a feeling. A hunch, if you will. There isn't any empirical evidence as to the contrary -"

"- but you believe it to be so, which leads to the question of where he is now." A pause. And then, gentle and firm as Akashi could be, "Why do you want to find the man who cheated on you, Tetsuya?"

Akashi was truly, truly the soul of patience and a very real friend when Kuroko realized five minutes had passed and he was still waiting on the other end, without a single ambient sound to break Kuroko's concentration. "I have unfinished business with him," he said in a rush, and added before he could chicken out, "On another note, what about his brother? Himuro Tatsuya?"

"Last sighting of Himuro Tatsuya was in Yokohama - he worked as a bartender there. I'll give you the address."

It was careless to hope, Kuroko chastised himself. But all the broken thoughts and splintered memories couldn't file away the excitement, the desperate urge that drove him to see Kagami again.

--------------

"Himuro hasn't worked here for a year. Went back to America to travel or work or something."

A wooden bar, solid and wide, the shine of glasses and mugs, the drone of the refrigerator. The lighting was dim, hazy with cigarette smoke, yet elegant in a way that fit his mental image of Himuro Tatsuya. Next to him Kise took in the three-sixty view, eyes cool behind his shades despite being inside, along for the ride just as Kasamatsu was there for moral support, jaw stubbornly jutted as he glared the rest of the patrons down.

Kuroko didn't know how he could be so serene and untouched though he took the words like a body blow. Gone; lost; past reckoning. "I see. Is there no form of contact you could provide me with? I am looking for a mutual friend of ours."

Had Kagami come here sometimes, slinking into one of the bar stools? Maybe Himuro had let him behind the bar, if only to use the panini machine. Maybe the two of them had laughed over drinks right here, over the solid oak, smooth and unblemished. Maybe he had talked about the wife and child that he didn't live with. Maybe he had confessed to his oldest friend just what he was up to, why he was doing it, and exactly what Kuroko had done to make him reconsider.

The main bartender frowned, scratching his head. "I might have his e-mail somewhere, maybe -"

For the first time in the interview Kise took off the sunglasses and pressed one hand proprietarily against the bar. He leaned in, just a little, using his height to his advantage, and Kuroko didn't even have to guess to know he had done this before in some other setting, as himself, or an actor in a role, or a director of a film. Radiating influence, reined loosely as a panther poised to pounce, except that was usually Aomine's role. It stung a little to remember couples rubbed off on each other, but right now, he was more in marvel of Kise's effortless grace under fire.

"You should find it," the blond said, smiling a little. His eyes were bright fire like he was when he was in the Zone. "Now."

Kuroko vowed the next episode he wrote, Kise's character would get all the glory.

--------------

To (recipient): h.tatsuya88@grooglemail.com
From (sender): kuroko.t.phantom6@yhoomail.co.jp
CC:
BCC:
Subject: Request for contact information

To Himuro Tatsuya,

I apologize for contacting you out of the blue. I don't know if you remember me, my name is Kuroko Tetsuya and I was on the Seirin High basketball team. We played against each other in several matches, and your guidance of Kagami Taiga and example of good sportsmanship contribute greatly to my positive memories of that time.

Actually, today I am asking you for information about that mutual friend of ours. Do you have any information on the whereabouts of Kagami Taiga now? Or perhaps a method of communication I might establish with him?

I greatly appreciate your cooperation in advance, and await your reply.

Sincere regards,

Kuroko Tetsuya

-----------------------------------

To (recepient): kuroko.t.phantom6@yhoomail.co.jp
From (sender): h.tatsuya88@grooglemail.com
CC:
BCC:
Subject: Re: Request for contact information

Kuroko-kun,

You've kept me waiting for a while; I honestly thought you were going to contact me before this. He is at 156 Conford Drive, Rodondo Beach, CA 91041, but you'd better hurry.

Best of luck to you,

Himuro Tatsuya

-----------------------------------

He couldn't sleep. Ten hours on a plane and he couldn't sleep.

Kise was conked out next to him with an eyemask on that featured his next movie (a historical piece that Kuroko only promised to see because he got to see Kise swing a sword), Kasamatsu in the next row over, Midorima somewhere in front - but Kuroko was the only one awake with a book and a light, illuminating the words he already knew by heart. He had written them, after all.

I'm all out of second chances.

What a wonderful liar he was.

Scraping by on his fingernails, on the very knife-edge of sanity, it had still been Kagami to bring him back to himself. His wife and his son and the absent father - and Kagami hated his own, how Kagami Senior had never been there for him, never cared as long as he didn't land himself in jail, had always sworn he wouldn't become like him yet that was exactly what he did - even when he wasn't there, Kagami was a presence so dense and deep he was helpless to react, to deny he was there.

That love was still there, one-sided.

He wondered if Kagami had received this message, couched in another person's story. For all of his bluntness he could be too damned sensitive at times. He read all of Kuroko's books, though, the old and the new, real and the alias, though he often didn't have an opinion one way or the other. Just laughed when he saw their friends and family written into print.

He wondered if Kagami had dreamed like Kuroko did, had wept with joy in the throes, had cried upon waking. Remembering what they had. Remembering the sated taste of everything right in the world.

Nine hours, and he couldn't sleep, could only watch the black print swirl and his eyes burn as the tears dropped to the page, blurring them further. He never asked for illustrations. He had always been too afraid they would all look like him and Kagami, but now he was glad, because he still didn't know what he would do if he saw Kagami's face, and he could keep up the pretense a little longer so he wouldn't scream, wouldn't cry some more, wouldn't laugh, wouldn't fling himself into Kagami's arms. Wouldn't react to how crazy Kagami made him, turned his guts and his brains inside out for all to see his raw, bleeding soul.

At some point the cabin went dark as the plane dropped into sleep mode, and despite all the mental turmoil, so did he.

Then the plane landed, and it was game time.

---------------------

156 Conford Drive was a little house set on a little private beach that Kise said probably cost a helluva lot of money. Kuroko didn't doubt that. He only wondered at the necessity.

It became clear the moment the door opened and a face peered out - so familiar, yet alien, strange, had he seen this face before? - a bandanna tucked low enough to hide his eyebrows, jaws and cheekbones sunk, moving slowly. Elbows and knees sharp as knives, the joints of his fingers strange and knobby. A tall, thin man that scanned each of their faces curiously, thoughtfully, unspeaking, before standing aside to let them in.

Kuroko couldn't move, rooted to the concrete. Because those eyes, oh, those eyes were familiar. He knew those eyes.

"Kagami-kun?"

The wraith - the real shadow man now - nodded, and opened the door a little further.

They trooped in silently, all four of them, and Kuroko didn't remember how he got to the couch, only that Kise was sitting next to him, face grave, while Kagami shuffled deeper into the house somewhere in fluffy slippers. A beach house, made necessary by medical recuperation so Kagami could regain his full strength. He refused to believe in anything otherwise.

A private getaway? A house for a mistress? A surfing retreat? Kuroko might have giggled, and Kasamatsu might have given him an alarmed look. He wasn't sure. Either way, Nigou coming back to life seemed more likely than this surreality.

Finally the gaunt specter returned with Midorima trailing in his wake. The doctor took out his tools, looked over the papers Kagami told him. And all the while he rubbed his head, scratched under the bandanna where Kuroko realized belatedly that he was bald. That the red hair he loved to pull in the middle of sex was gone, along with the smooth planes of muscles he loved to skim his hand over, the full round of the shoulders made strong by death-defying fire rescues and repeated applications of streetball against an ex-NBA star.

This was Kagami, looking sedentary and frail, ready for what was to come. Waiting for his last breath, having made his peace beforehand. Having abandoned his lover, his wife, his child, his home country, to die in as far of a place as he could, wishing for the storm to swallow him up whole as if he never existed.

Did you think I could forget fifteen years like that was what he wanted to say, but instead what came out was Did you think I wanted this, followed by How could you lie to me and I hate everything you've done to me. Kagami closed his eyes at the vitriol and his chin drooped a few centimeters down, a convict waiting for the final blow. Go on, say it, his bent head seemed to tell Kuroko. Go on, be my executioner, it's over, just go, take me out of my misery.

"I still love you," he said, and he was the one jerking, falling like a puppet without strings into Kagami's lap, feeling the same fingers in his hair, on his face, his nose, his lips. He kissed those fingers. He kissed that mouth. He kissed every bit of skin he could reach, he knocked off the bandanna and kissed the bristles that were just growing in, he kissed the edge of the jaw that had a band-aid probably from a shaving cut, he kissed Kagami's bare shoulders that sagged under the weight of this new malady. He blessed every bit he could touch and steal, because this was real, this was not a dream, and Kagami was right in front of him, pale, shaking, starving for love.

"I still love you," he said.

"You didn't have to do this, but now I understand," he said.

"You never have to be alone again," he said, but all Kagami could do was nod and stare at him with those eyes, saying, Go on, leave me, it's over.

I am going to bury this man, Kuroko realized, and as if he read his shadow's mind, Kagami's head bent down low as it could go, hitting Kuroko's chest with a thump. His arms closed in automatically and held on because this was not a storm they could weather alone, or at all, surely they would shake apart in the process.

"I'm sorry," Kagami said, as if it was his responsibility to bear bad blood, bad DNA, bad disease that gulped his body's protections one by one, a whale sucking all the krill out of the sea. "I'm sorry, so sorry. I didn't want you to see me. Like this. Didn't want the pain. Not you or me. Didn't want...I'm sorry, Kuroko. I'm so sorry." As if he was the one to blame.

Don't you see, I'm the one that's sorry. I'm the one who lost faith. Listening to another's words. Believing all the wrong things. Doubting, plain and simple. And for the love of God, why? He couldn't recall at all, his brain was a red splatter of relieved, hysterical laughter, unprepared for the pain yet to come.

But at least I know this much. He might have wiped snot on Kagami's bald pate, but it didn't matter because Kagami was making an awful mess of his shirt, and at some point it was just the two of them slobbering away in the living room. Arms vise-tight, lest the other drift away to where they couldn't reach, where they would become less than Us once more.

This time, Kuroko thought with a fury that outshone the sun, I'm not letting go.

--------------------

Kagami moved slower, acted slower, answered questions as if they were the last thing he might say, and sometimes he couldn't get warm, no matter how many blankets were piled up on top of him. Kuroko lay in his arms, or Kagami lay in his arms, and the world revolved slowly hour by hour, minute by minute, and they didn't feel it it churning, the gears turning and cranking. They didn't want to.

Kise stayed a week, spewing things about the benefits of sunshine and long-overdue vacation, but in the end he left too. Kuroko's writing was on schedule - he just did it wrapped in Kagami's scent, Kagami's sheets, his typing a direct counterpoint to Kagami's soft snores - and every time he pressed 'Send' he remembered the hours, the minutes, the precious seconds.

He couldn't run or surf or even bounce a basketball, but he could lay in the California sunshine, scrunch his toes in the sand, tan the hollows of his ribs and the juts of his shoulderblades. Kuroko loved to touch him still, rubbing suntan lotion all over him, tickling his ribs and his toes lightly. Now Kagami resembled the feline he was supposed to be, lazing in the sun - but then Kuroko would catch him flipping bored through one of his books, or taking his cell count, or wistfully watching as people played beach volleyball, and the shadow would fall upon them both.

But for a time it was alright. For a time Kuroko could pretend, knowing what was coming, dreading the day Kagami would stumble and fall out of bed, just like Nigou failed to get out of the basket one morning. His eyes were duller now, still garnet red, still full of love, but hooded and shaded. No matter how much Kuroko vowed I would take that pain, that weariness from you.

Two weeks later Kise came back with Aomine in tow. August; two birthday boys; Kagami directed their efforts from the kitchen table for two cakes, one chocolate and one plain, after they had a race at the supermarket. Kagami and Aomine vs. Kise and Kuroko, with Aomine dashing Kagami down aisles in his wheelchair and Kagami grabbing and stuffing items into the basket as fast as he could. In the end his laughter had been more wheezing, and in a grandiose manner Aomine had lifted him, basket, blanket, boy and all, and hidden his tears long enough for the checkout lady to scan each item and take Kagami's credit card, bemused at their antics.

Kuroko fed Kagami frosting on his fingers, and Kise and Aomine cried cooties and Ewww, they're back to being on honeymoon, before they did the same. They might have revenged themselves on Kagami's couch, though Kuroko made them clean up their own mess and Take a shower now, please, we are not having a party while two members are covered in spunk. "There are women around the world who would kill to see this!" Kise protested, in which Aomine responded with, "And I'll kill them for seeing it." All the dumb sex jokes in the world were alright as long as Kagami kept smiling like that, smiling so wide Kuroko could pretend for just a little more.

He wished for another year, he wished for a miracle cure, it wasn't even his birthday but he wished for a meteor shower so he could see the wonder in Kagami's eyes. He wished for more wishes.

The day before they were scheduled to leave, he found Aomine sniffling on the stairs. He had never seen his old partner this way. "Shit," he cursed, spitting as mad as Kuroko felt. "This is wrong. This isn't fair!"

It wasn't his place - wasn't even his lover or boyfriend - but he gathered Aomine in his arms and let him cry it out. All the while he thought, What's the use of all your clever words now, Kuroko Tetsuya, you could write the whole world down and it wouldn't make any difference. What's a witty spin of vocabulary when you can't stop time, can't hit up a lab, can't even deal with your own pain.

My words, wise words, are all bled bone-dry to the bottom of the sea, and I can do nothing.

Nothing.

Aomine continued to say the mutter the words Kuroko couldn't because he spent all his time with the man himself except now when Kise was out shopping with Kagami in a kids' shopping cart, he took a picture of them in the damn red plastic car and V-for-victory peace signs. Kise who walked a distance Kagami could no longer cover to the end of the residential block every night to ask if Midorima had found anything, anything at all that could help, please, it's killing him, it's killing Aominecchi, it's killing me, tell me something good.

Once they were gone Kagami nuzzled his arm, fond and half-dozy in the morning light, and smiled, saying, "They're good guys. Coming all the way out here."

He stroked the bristles that were just coming in, a little longer each day. Just a little longer, please.

"Our best friends," Kuroko agreed.

His eyes cracked open then, fixing on nothing. "They'll be alright." He sounded like he was trying to convince Kuroko. Convince himself.

No they won't. "Let's get you out of bed, hm? What about breakfast? Pancakes, cereal, eggs?" They love you too, just like I do. They love you too much to let you go easily. " You know I can do eggs."

"Your repetoire expanded beyond boiling them yet?"

"Hmm, no. But you can teach me."

In the quiet of the morning, with Kagami directing him, he made an egg fry-up of some sort - Kagami called it a 'frittata' - with leftover vegetables and cheese. Kuroko made toast too, because no one could mess up toast, and he buttered two slices for each of them.

Kagami ate maybe half a slice. He ate less than Kuroko these days. No more squirrel-cheeks.

But bathed in daylight, Kuroko could hardly notice, because Kagami's smiles had returned to his life, each like the light Kuroko claimed he was, brighter and warmer than the sun, flickering briefly across his lips before snuggling in for good every time he saw Kuroko. That, and the comfortable way they fit on the couch, on the bed, on the sand - their jagged edges, matching puzzle pieces, melded together to never be apart.

"I'm glad," Kagami said one day, apropos of nothing.

"Of?"

"That you're here. That we still have this." He tilted his head back to look Kuroko in the eye. "That I'll never belong to anyone else."

The wave and swell of feeling he felt then, he could not properly put into any description. In fact, he could not speak, for a long moment, and even stopped pushing the wheelchair.

Kagami's gaze was knowing, as it ever was. "Does that comfort you?" he asked.

In a strange way, it did.

-----------------

Then there were the nights, with the moon, no sun visible, and Kuroko hated it because it reminded him of himself, slowly being eaten away on the inside, turning into itself, turning into a mere reflection of light. He clenched his hands and gritted his teeth, but he made no sound as the tears streaked his face, as he lay in a C-shape curled protectively around Kagami's head.

I will let no harm come to you. I will let no hurt touch you.

Promises he could not keep. And truth that he didn't want to face when Kagami wasn't awake to distract him with his presence, his needs, the sweet and softened lilt of his mouth. No words, no kisses, no touches, save what Kuroko could cling to desperately: the inhale and exhale, the minute twitches, the flutter of dreams behind his eyelids. Proof Kagami was still here, still alive.

Unlike the others, I cannot save you from what ails you.

He wrenched his thoughts away from that searing touch, cold fire, cold rain, the storm drenching him to the toe, oh - no California sunshine and warmth could make him forget the dog in the yard, waiting for death.

It will come for you too. Soon.

He never knew if Kagami ever awoke to the touch of his hot face, hot from frustration and anger, hot from tears. He knew he could taste them. But he prayed Kagami slept soundly through the nights, and dreamed the same joyful dreams of the past that Kuroko had once escaped into.

-------------------

"You don't have to," Kagami said, eyes fond and amused. "I mean, look at me."

"You're smoking," Kuroko deadpanned, and Kagami's hand dug ticklishly into his ribs, which made him fall over dramatically to the side. They laughed - though Kagami's was more of a wheeze - and then Kuroko climbed back over him pantsless, and guided one thinner, frailer hand to his cock.

It knew Kagami's scent, his touch, the rough callouses, the nips and dings from the kitchen. The hairlessness of his legs was new, of course, but not really off-setting - still Kagami, still reading what he wanted, and what he wanted was to fuck his fist, arching back, feeling the familiar heat coil low in his stomach. Kagami's other hand settled on his hip, lukewarm, but his eyes were hot as they settled on Kuroko - and gentle, careful as illness made him. Ever the considerate lover.

He still had Kagami's mouth, Kagami's kisses. That same care, that same dedication - just slower, sensual, stroking him to full blaze. "Do you feel this," he whispered brokenly against those lips. "This is what you do to me."

"I love you, Kuroko," Kagami whispered back. "I feel you. I love you so very much." Eyes so goddamn kind - hands delicate - knees knocking against Kuroko's ass as he thrust, fists clenched against the wall -

"Do you remember what I said about Paris?" Kagami asked afterward, his hand sifting lazily through Kuroko's hair.

"That you wanted to try the food?"

"The other thing."

Kuroko tried to think back, but all he could recall was a vague sense of importance. "I'm sorry, I think you'll have to tell me again."

Kagami explained for a good five minutes about the river, the old fence, the keys and locks. The names written on those locks, the numerous keys at the bottom of the Seine. Pictures that visitors took of this wall of mysteries, of yearning, of pining. Of secrets never come to light that lay in the mud, sunk, as their owners walked away with their hearts willingly burdened.

"What secret would you dedicate to the fence?" Kuroko asked.

Kagami was silent for a long time. "Too many locks," he finally chuckled. "Starting with those goddamn curtains. I still think they're ugly as sin."

"That's not a secret. I think even Aomine-kun knows that."

"Alright, how about that I once loved Tatsuya?" Abruptly the conversation took a very serious turn.

However, Kuroko was already ready to derail that one. "I already knew that too," Kuroko responded.

"Really? How? When? I never told you!"

"I knew from the first moment I saw you look at him. You were uncertain, not thinking straight - afraid, even. Of the emotional damage Himuro-san might inflict."

"I wasn't afraid."

"You were, too. You were shaking in your basketball sneakers." He soothed the awkward corners of Kagami's face where they pointed stubbornly outward, skin pulled tight over the bones. "I don't blame you. The two of you were very close."

"I never told you that either."

"You didn't need to. Do you know, I was glad I was there. Because it was the first time I saw what you looked like in love."

"I wasn't in love with him then!" Kagami shifted upright, indignant. "I was already in-like with you. I wasn't interested in him any longer."

"But the promise of it has never left. I know how it feels. It's what brought me here, to California. I couldn't let you go."

They clasped hands, tangled feet and legs, exchanged kisses. When he closed his eyes Kagami's skin was still overheated, though he couldn't manage to get fully erect or even come any more. No matter; it wasn't important. Kuroko didn't need any of that, really. This was just him having fun, closing his eyes, wishing for a better place. Another chance.

"What did you imagine in your head just now? When I was jacking you off?"

Kuroko had to smile. "I thought of us, the first time."

Kagami was smiling too. "I knew it."

"You did?"

"Yeah. You arched just like that. Wasn't that kneeling position uncomfortable?"

"Not as uncomfortable as lying in a wet patch all night."

"You got your revenge the next time, be happy with that."

I am happy. He was draped in Kagami's arms, his nose in Kagami's neck, the beat of Kagami's breath in his ears. Drenched in every sense of his lover's essence, except for the literal meaning. And that didn't matter at all.

How could it be, he wondered, that a person might disappear. Not in the way that their loved ones might hope they were living their lives somewhere far away and happy, but in the dead kind of way. Time, washing away the grains of sand; the hurt, lessened since a human brain could not keep up that kind of pressure for long; blood and documents, clean, cut and dried, categorized neatly and tucked away. Time. It all came back to time.

I would be happy if this moment lasted forever, he begged, and he shut his eyes, but this was one terrible dream he couldn't shake.

------------------

He woke one night to find Kagami downstairs at the computer, talking softly to a head in an open window.

"Can you forgive me?" Akashi Seijuurou asked from hundreds of kilometers away.

"Of course, you've done nothing wrong. I'm the one who's sorry for using you, since I knew you had minions watching me." Akashi remained unmoved. "But if you want...could you come here? And will you watch him after I'm gone? And maybe Tatsuya too?"

"I will do all you ask," Akashi said, and his voice was as soft as Kuroko had ever heard it, as if coddling a hurt animal. "I will arrive within the week."

"Thank you."

He disappeared up the stairs as soon as the computer shut off, but Kagami didn't return. By morning he was there, sprawled out, Kuroko tucked under his chin like always, with no sign as to what had transpired in the night. Kuroko wondered what he thought of in the wee hours, if he had sat in the dark, watching the tide come in and out like the heartbeat of the planet. He wondered if Kagami had ever asked himself Why why whywhywhywhy. He wondered if Kagami might still prefer to go to Paris to die alone as a secret never told.

He never dared to ask, not because he was afraid, but because he was too selfish by far. Not even Kagami's illness could change that.

----------------------

Somewhere in the months after arriving in California, he realized he had picked up a lot of new vocabulary. And not just English, though English was a big part given he was in an English-speaking country.

Palliative care, what he was doing now. Neoplasm; tumor; metastasis. He didn't know some of the meanings. He knew Kagami was a rare genetical case, five out of ten percent. He did not follow the regular reasons of obesity, diet, lack of physical exercise, or environmental factors to get sick. It could have been from firefighting - two to twenty percent of cases were related to work. But it could have easily just been nothing.

He wished he had a language that he could scream at the oncogenes, Go away! Leave him alone! Give my Kagami-kun back to me! But even as he thought of it, he laughed. Undoubtedly Kagami would laugh too at the mental picture of Kuroko armed with a megaphone, yelling loud enough to wake the dead.

He had other things to do anyway, other than study. Buy Kagami all thirty-three tiger-patterned head accessories on Namazon, check. Practice baking cakes and cupcakes in Kagami's particularly superb oven, check. Feed the tiger, feed himself, check.

Live for Kagami's smiles, check.

Yes, he had better things to do than Groogle translocation or chronic myelogenous leukemia, but nevertheless the foreign words strayed into his thoughts and at night, he wondered, wondered if in some other world where he knew what they meant earlier, if it would have changed anything.

-----------------

Akashi arrived on a sunny Thursday while Kagami was facedown on the beach, snoring through a towel, Kuroko lying over him in a half daze. The computer might have sand in it, he thought, but by this point he didn't really care. He had finished his writing for Kise's last series and this was more important, this was Kagami, so he set work aside and curled up on top of his lover like a protective watchdog.

They both awoke to sand being kicked in their direction and some assholes yelling something unintelligible in English, only for Kagami to surge up with what little strength he had, shouting back, rising to his full height, trembling hands clenched into fists -

- he never got there, because Himuro and Akashi got there first. They decked two each, and Kagami had to throw himself at his sworn brother to make him stop punching the last one that called them faggots and cocksuckers and so fucking gay and fucked up queers, fucking up our beach. "Tatsuya, stop!" he cried, and his gangly arms knocked against Himuro's chin. Himuro stopped pounding the hater's face in, but only long enough for Kuroko to drag Kagami away. "Tatsuya, it's fine! Just leave them - we'll go inside -"

Meanwhile Akashi was explaining in as best, clinially clipped English as a Japanese FOB could that they were wrong, he was the absolute fucking Emperor, and California could marry gays which put them in the minority, he should call the fucking police, and generally dropped the F-bomb everywhere as if this was a Hollywood action movie. Kagami listened to his diatribe for about thirty seconds before he fell onto the towel, howling with laughter, but Akashi didn't stop, just spoke louder how this country was stupid and what freedom? fucking brochure lied until he, too, was smiling and helping Kagami to his feet.

"I have enough money to buy this city," Akashi told the bewildered assailants seriously. "Okay. Maybe not all of Los Angeles. Maybe a half. Or a fourth, at least. I could definitely buy all of your houses, your schools, and your jobs."

"Who the fuck are you!?" one of them asked.

Akashi nodded as if he hadn't heard. "Shogi is very profitable when you're me."

Still chuckling, Kagami looped one arm around the ex-Emperor's shoulders, which straightened instantly to take the weight. "C'mon, Mr. King of the World, help me back to the house. Fucking sand dunes aren't my fav to trip into anymore."

"So you crude Americans do swear in every situation," Akashi noted, still quite serious, and staggered when Kagami collapsed with laughter again.

He met Kuroko's eyes for a moment over Kagami's bandanna. Is this enough? he asked, and Kuroko understood because he had never had trouble reading what his once-leader meant. Will you allow me to atone?

Not enough, he telegraphed in a single blink. But you can start now.

Akashi nodded, movement imperceptive except for Kuroko who was watching for it, and carefully, gently, helped Kagami the scant three steps to the elevator, speaking softly all the while so Kagami was grinning silly and wide at the antics of Kise and Aomine back home, getting into trouble with some starlet or another. Aomine, or Coach Aomine, being photographed with some woman with a child, and the child's name was Kagami Kurogane, an energetic and normal two-and-a-half year old.

He lingered long enough on the pretense of folding the blankets and maybe knocking one of the gay-haters 'accidentally' on the head with the umbrella, for Akashi to ask, "Did you really name the child from your platonic baby-mama who you bribed into taking your name after your gay lover?", and for Kagami to wheeze in that way that boded not well for his lungs but quite well for his spirit, before he trotted over to join them, dripping sand from every pore and not caring at all.

--------------------

"I'm sorry," Midorima answered the first time he called, and for lack of any intelligible reply, Kuroko hung up on him.

He was properly apologetic the next time, but Midorima cut him off, saying he understood. He had lost people too, the hospital was full of them. And they didn't get better; he only got better at hiding it, dealing with it, talking about it with a psychologist.

He was so tired of that word, sorry. His whole life was one big middle fucking finger in his face of goddamn SORRY at night, even with Akashi and Himuro bunking on the couches downstairs. He was glad for them - glad for his and Kagami's friends. They were good friends, they banded together like a fence against the world. The walls of their bubble where he and Kagami could just be us.

It didn't matter that the days he spent outside were fewer, that he couldn't push himself too far anymore, he couldn't even go bike-riding or walk down to the tidepools or even mix cake batter when Akashi demanded What is this madness, I do not condone this atrocity, carrots cannot become cake. He cleaned around the house a little, but some of the chemicals made him cough non-stop. He had some sort of blog where he wrote down his thoughts, kind of like a running dialogue with himself, sometimes nothing more serious than shopping lists and how he was going to finagle Himuro into taking him there, other times things about regrets and the universe and how if he knew this was going to happen, he would have started wishing for a cure from the first candle on his first birthday cake.

... Then I'd have thirty-something of the same wishes, God has to listen to that. For Shadowboy if nothing else.

All that mattered was the next day, the next moment, the next brush of their bodies. In sleep, awake, preparing breakfast, making Akashi's tea, laughing as the four of them played every board game ever invented and making up a few themselves, Kuroko bitching at poker, sheesh, why did I even try? and Kagami great at Taboo when Himuro was his partner. Lunch where Kagami only drank a few sips of soup, falling asleep against Kuroko's chest as they put in Black Knight Rises, and no word, no goddamn SORRY ever made things better, but this did. This made his heart stop when he traced the bones that stuck out, like the snappable wings of little birds, a big feline protector reduced to prey with an invisible shield that couldn't stop anything. This reminded him fear was not the end-all, fear was not the solution.

Himuro looked over at where his so-called 'younger brother' was dozing, head re-balded from the last round of radiation and shots, bared for once without a bandanna. "I'm sorry," he said, and Kuroko bit down the automatic retort of That never bodes well. "When we first came here - when he first asked for my help - I might have pushed a little. Manipulated a bit."

"How?"

"I came onto him." He leaned back. "I cornered him right where you are right now and kissed him, felt him up. Did he ever tell you he liked me way back when in junior high?" Kuroko nodded. "I liked him back, I just didn't show it. I was jealous of basketball, of all things. Stupid of me.

"Do you hate me for what I've done? I just wanted to see...just wanted to feel what it was like to be all he looked at." After a long stretch, Himuro deduced - correctly - that Kuroko couldn't, or wouldn't say anything. "It was disappointing. Because I could tell even when he was focused on me, he was thinking of you."

That disappointment was clearly audible. Himuro let it be so. "I guess a first love's only good until the love of your life comes along," Himuro added softly, but it was with a steely-sharp resignation he pierced Kuroko with, looking for sympathy, or condemnation, or any kind of reaction at all.

Calmly he brushed Kagami's eyebrows, thumb following the sideways V-fork back and forth. Yes, Himuro was right to compare them. Just, Kuroko had gotten over Aomine and clearly Himuro had never gotten over Kagami. But his previous question? Could he forgive Himuro for encroaching on what he had never claimed until it was too late?

Himuro was watching his hand. Kagami grumbled, or purred, digging his nose into Kuroko's shoulder, unaware of gunfire and explosions going off on the TV. Watching hungrily, Kuroko thought. Yearning, wistful, pensive hunger. The kind that ripped a person inside out.

"I don't hate you," he answered. He would not be a hypocrite; he couldn't fault anyone for failing to let go, not when he was clinging like a limpet himself. "I only envy you, because he saw fit to tell you the truth while he withheld it from me."

Himuro relaxed a little at that, a drink in hand, lubrication or a ready excuse for a painful confession. Whatever he saw in Kuroko then, maybe it was smugness, or protectiveness, or a mix of both, because his voice was silky-soft as he chuckled, "Nothing to envy, when he still chose you in the end."

Kuroko might have smiled too, but it was tight and humorless. "The end is coming up sooner than I thought."

Himuro's smile died. "I didn't mean it that way."

"We all don't mean a lot of things, Himuro-san."

It was not a completely uncompanionable note that both of them took a toast to that.

---------------------------

"How is he?"

"He went for three hours before falling asleep today."

"That sounds right on schedule, from what I've seen of his files. Has he reported any additional pains? Or troubles doing anything?"

"He's still cold a lot. And his hands have started to tremble all the time - he can't sign his name any longer. The specialist says that Monday was the last treatment. He'll have to rest at home from here on out."

"He must be getting antsy from staying in the chair all the time."

"Not really. He...doesn't have energy to refuse, really."

"How is his appetite?"

"Not good. He tries - he nibbles snacks all through the day, but it's really not enough. His throat hurts after swallowing too much though, even liquid."

"I'm afraid that's also on par for the course. It's a common symptom at this stage."

"Your bedside manner has gotten better, Midorima-kun."

"I don't need to hear that from you."

"...."

"...."

"Thank you for checking back every night. I don't know if I've said that yet."

"You have. And it is not a problem. Isn't it annoying to be called so early in the morning on that end, though?"

"I don't mind."

(Aside) "Of course you don't. (Clearly) "I'm afraid there is no change on my end either."

"I see. Thank you."

"...It's almost time then."

To let go? Never. I'm never letting go.

----------------

He liked to feel the breeze from the window; he always slept facing it. Like he could fly out of there if he tried, spread his baby-bony wings and flutter away.

Don't leave me, the thought stabbed him swiftly through the lungs and he couldn't breathe for the slack, loose corners of Kagami's mouth. He kissed them but Kagami didn't respond, breathing slowly in and out, deeply asleep.

His sweet, sad love wouldn't feel the tears now, so he let them fall, let them turn the pillow into a wet mess where no one could witness him mourning. No one could deny this was his family dying this time, not when the ring was back on his finger. Kagami's kept slipping off, though, so now he wore it next to Himuro's beat up one around his neck. The pair winked in the sun.

He was possibly getting fat and maudlin from sitting and sleeping and too much cake. They were almost through all of Kagami's recipes now, including the ones Murasakibara had sent from France. Akashi organized them into some semblance of order before he left. Kuroko didn't like cake, and Kagami couldn't eat more than a bite, but when he was there directing Kuroko the familiar flavor of baked spices would rise to his tongue just like it did before. Angel food and tart citron, shortcake and mango mousse. Mille feuille and opera, eclairs and flan from leftover egg yolks and puff pastry.

The fridge was full to bursting, the whole top half leftovers for nobody to eat until Kuroko threw them out. If Kagami had seen he would have said sorry with his eyes, rueful and grinning all at once, because this had happened even while he was healthy. He always loved to cook, no matter if it was at home or in the restaurant, and sometimes they would give the extras away.

He wished he could burn the sweets on the beach. A big bonfire to the heavens, sugarspun chocolate and baking soda or powder and molasses, flour, eggs, seasonings. A dedication to a man who wasn't yet dead, or an offering to a God or gods to spare a sacrifice.

He had stopped pretending. He had stopped praying for more months. Now he only hoped for less pain for Kagami, and just one more second for himself. One second. One kiss.

A message to no one in particular out there: please.

---------------

Love's hair grew back in, but it was thin and straggly. Almost not there at all.

Love's fingers couldn't grip anything, no pens, no blankets, no spatula...no basketball.

Love couldn't get up to see the windsurfers or volleyball players, or scrunch his toes in the sand.

Love wore what was put on him, not what he could put on himself.

Love's voice was papery and lost in the wind, lost in the tears that leaked from the corners of his eyes. From regret, or denial, or hope, or pain - or all of them at once.

Love's body was a husk of what Kuroko remembered, like autumn leaves in Kyoto, crushed underfoot.

Love's insides were out of control, a moving picture of cells warring cells and a stuttering heartbeat as background music.

Love collected bruises like pavement collected water in a thunderstorm.

Love's food was a poison that choked him.

Love had blue rings under his nails and bags under his eyes. Love looked like a skeleton.

Love couldn't get warm, no matter how hard he tried.

Love's mouth barely moved when it was kissed. Love's muscles everywhere were frozen and stiff, joints swollen with liquid to the point of immobility.

("Don't look at me," he said one night to the open window and the twinkling stars. He couldn't turn around. Kuroko cradled him gently from behind. "Please go. Don't look at me."

"You are beautiful," Kuroko insisted.)

But Love's eyes were still alive, if weary. And every morning he could still do one thing: point at the bandannas Kuroko arranged on the bedspread. Sometimes he touched them reverently, gently as if they were precious gold. Ever the considerate lover.

Don't go out in the rain, he pleaded, but he knew Kagami lacked the strength to do even that. I can't bear to lose another that way.

"Go," Kagami urged gently, Himuro hovering on the edges.

Kuroko would not take the coward's way out. "No," he retorted firmly. His heart felt like it was breaking, falling, scattering in slow motion like so much careless glass. "I will have nothing but all you can give me, Kagami-kun."

Kagami looked at him, reading him for tells, cracks that he might give. But Kuroko was resolute. And Kagami could see that. He always knew.

He said nothing more, just stared as if he could drink Kuroko in with his eyes, and stroked the fabric of the tiger bandanna over and over and over.

----------------

All you can give me.

What a gross overestimation of his own control.

When he flatlined just before dawn, Kuroko drew his last breath with a kiss. He felt the last of Kagami's strength shudder out in that moment, last drops flinging free from the container. He drank them, felt them settle in his gut like miniature iron sinkers dragging him down into the deep, down into the ocean. Somewhere light could not reach.

He wished desperately for their house then, even with the brown rotting plants and empty refrigerator. But then he could hold him, rock him on the couch, look out over the garden Nigou once protected from birds and other pests. They could return home together. Instead the distant crash of waves was thunderously loud, as was the long wail of the heart monitor.

He reached over and turned it off and the silence was deafening, a pressure so dense it pushed down physically on his ears and his chest like a kanashibari.

He curled more securely around Kagami's fading body warmth - guard dog, protector, invisible shield - and watched the sun rise until it peeked over the edge of the windowsill. It was autumn and wan and it couldn't warm anything, but that was okay, because Kuroko was cold and numb inside and couldn't have begun to feel anything anyway. Somehow he dozed a little with Kagami's scent crushed against his face.

He awoke at the rough shaking of Himuro's hand on his shoulder. "Is he - Kuroko-kun, wake up - Taiga, c'mon, please -" Disheveled and desperate as no one had ever seen him. "We have to resuscitate him!"

"For what? More pain?" Kuroko disentangled himself from the body gone stiff and picked up the phone. He called the coroner they agreed upon, explained the situation, gave date and time for the death certificate. Then he called the lawyers, Kagami's father, the firehouse, the restaurant owner, and started on the e-mails to friends.

He remembered the rest in little snatches. Himuro alternately cursed and wept for the first few days. He rendered the kitchen useless by virtue of breaking every piece of crockery and glass possible; Kuroko ordered takeout, had groceries delivered, and cleaned up the mess himself. Then Himuro calmed when the casket was delivered, and began to look more like his old self. He shaved. He smiled with the same poker face. He jokingly offered to get anyone willing dead drunk, as long as they didn't mind him doing the same.

Funny magic, it was. The body was slipped out of bed and into a car. When the car came back, voila, Kagami was dressed smartly and cushioned in a fine wood casket. Then voila again, appearing briefly at the funeral home, before being whisked away. Then the last transformation, a body into a sealed jar of fine ashes with his ever-present two-ring necklace around the neck.

("Would you like to say anything?" the guy in the black robes said. The others had gone through their pieces, little anecdotes and snippets of foreign lives. Some new stories, some old.

He thought of the depth and breadth he would have to cover and knew it would take too long. After all, how he could explain the way Kagami preferred canola oil was intrinsically connected to his basic personality in three different ways? "No thank you," Kuroko declined politely.)

Kagami's father was a tall, stoic, dour man of few words. His mother, recently divorced for the third time, was a little closer to her son: honest, active, and hopelessly charming. She had not seen Kagami in some years; Kuroko did not step forward as any more than his high school friend and current roommate.

Kiyoshi had made it out and when he clapped a hand on Kuroko's shoulder, he felt that stinging, ominously pressurized silence return. But it wasn't the same, being left for good by another. At least Hyuuga was alive and safe, with a second baby on the way; and Kiyoshi was big-hearted enough not to begrudge his old friends their happiness.

Similarly Murasakibara's tenure as pastry assistant had just ended, and he showed up with more recipes in tow. He fit them into the binder Akashi had left, saying he would make them when people weren't crowding the kitchen and he could properly locate all of Kagami's baking things. Kuroko knew he knew he didn't much like cake, but when Himuro cried at the first bite of tart citron, he understood it wasn't for him.

There were cards from the restaurant, cards from the firefighters, cards from people Kuroko had heard of vaguely, ghostly figures dancing in and around Kagami's life, little onibi coveting warmth and brightness. These people might understand what it meant when the rings clinked against Kuroko's neck, or they might not. These people spilled meaningless platitudes upon paper and computer pixels, saying their final goodbyes, saying their sorrys and it's not fairs and we'll miss yous. Sometimes little things in those messages would make him angry, send a frission of that fury rising to the surface, If you loved him why didn't you come - but then the numbness would descend again, detached and cool, and he would reply to each one with Thank you for your kind words, I'm sure he knows how you feel already and I know he's in a better place now. Silly and frivolous right back.

They had the bonfire after all, burning stupid things, trinkets and all the food, blankets, sheets, the bed, the machines. Kuroko watched the wires and screens pop, the glass tinkle and melt, the food turn to charcoal black. After the last two, Aomine and Kise, had gone to hide their heads in the sand or have desperate this-world-sucks sex, he watched the glow until it was gone, then calmly and responsibly called beach clean-up.

(The blow barely struck him, Himuro was aiming blinded by tears and a whole lot of rage, so Kuroko only blinked as he fell back on his ass.

"You cold bastard, you never loved him! You - he - he deserved so much more than stone fish who doesn't even cry at his lover's funeral, you couldn't even say anything, you selfish bastard you kept him all for yourself - I hate you, what you've done to him, I swore I'd kill you if you even touched him wrong and you hurt him so goddamn much, you should have just stayed away -" The diatribe dissolved into sobbing, and after Kuroko rationalized that Himuro probably didn't mind if he got up, did so and went for the dustbin.

Ah well, Kagami-kun always hated this lamp anyway. Ugly puce like the curtains. I wonder if he bought it for that reason?)

Each of their friends touched him, traced his hair, drifted fingers over his neck and his shoulders, hugged him. Even Himuro, once he was ready to apologize. That was the closest thing to actual sensation, standing in the empty space where Kagami's bed had been and realizing this was where Kagami had learned to give those big, earnest, heartfelt hugs that felt like being smothered in white angel wings. Himuro wasn't quite the same - more edges, more elbows - but then he tilted his cheek against Kuroko's head, that same wordless plea for reciprocation that Kagami had always used, and a hot-ice stalagmite slipped soundlessly into his ribcage, into his heart, gutting him effortlessly in two. Torn apart past recognition.

Who was he, anyway? What was he doing? What was important?

He couldn't remember.

----------------

[excerpt from webpage] ...I don't really care about myself. I just don't want the others to worry and feel pain after I'm gone. I wish I could tell him to live for me, but Shadow's always done what he wants in the end. I don't know if he'll listen. He's healed enough on his own, but now - now I just hope seeing me hasn't made him backslide into depression or anything.

I didn't want him to see me like this. And I don't want him devastated either, he deserves better than that. He's worth so much more than just changing one life, my life, as short as it's been.

Sometimes I wonder if it would have made a difference if I knew sooner. And wished for it on every birthday cake, or something. Then I'd have thirty-something of the same wishes, God has to listen to that. For Shadowboy if nothing else.

==Comments below==

Date: 2031.09.27, 18:10 PM
User ID: k.t.phantom6 [NO USER ID PICTURE]
WARNING: THIS USER ID HAS TURNED ON ISP TRACKING
Subject:
----------
On the contrary, Kagami-kun, I have always been the one undeserving of your affections.

Even if God or gods had listened to thirty-something wishes, I still would not trade this journey for anything. Because it has brought us closer, and I treasure that more than any second chance. Because no matter how much of a Bakagami you were about doing it, and I'm still angry, but I know now all you did, you did out of love. I can forgive and forget a lot when I focus on that.

Also, take down that picture of the carrot-cake-to-the-face Akashi before he murders you before your time.
-----------
[end of excerpt]

-----------------------

Murasakibara took him back to the house.

Together they cleaned up the dead plants and bought new ones. He didn't know what they meant, but Murasakibara was often on the computer and he trusted him to buy ones that weren't too ugly or meant something strange. For Kuroko they meant very different things: Edelweiss because their hot water dispenser sang that song when it was ready and Kagami sometimes sang along; jasmine because they always ordered that tea in Chinese restaurants; sweet peas because they could be eaten; thyme, rosemary, oregano, mint, all of Kagami's favorite spices. Murasakibara wasn't half bad at cooking himself, though his specialties was still pastries and cakes. His pasta had a distinctly foreign flavor that Kuroko could appreciate.

A layer of dust had settled over everything, and it took them some days to air everything out. Thankfully the weather held as they beat out old blankets and sheets, enough to at least crash on the couch for the first few nights.

At some point Kagami Sachiyo, with little Kurogane in tow, came to help or run around underfoot, Kuroko wasn't sure which one. Certainly Kagami's baby-mama tried to help, but Kurogane was as mischievious as they came, he got into everything.

He liked colorful band-aids, even when he wasn't hurt. He stuck them all over until his skin was bright blue and red and neon pink. Kagami's Pak-man band-aids.

He ran headfirst into something hard at least once an hour. Murasakibara thought it was hilarious; Kagami Sachiyo worried constantly if something was wrong with his depth perception.

His favorite dish was kabocha-and-onion mac and cheese from his 'daddy'. Kuroko recognized the recipe, but when Kuroko made it, it just didn't taste the same. Murasakibara said something about infusing food with love, which was why mothers' food always tasted great. He liked telling the child things Kuroko already knew about how Kagami arranged his spices and how he sniffed everything new before he bought it, even if it wasn't food. About how his favorite accessory was a bandanna. About how he could always produce a pen from somewhere but never could find his keys.

At some point he was resigned to the knife-pain in his gut, stabbing him over and over again. It wasn't the kind of pain that made him cry. He rather thought he was out of tears. It was the kind that came and left so lightning fast he didn't know he had been cut, until he was bisected in two and spraying, spilling, vomiting emotion as his insides felt like they were the ones with the cells gone out of control, proliferating at a fatal rate, bursting out of his torso.

But that was nothing compared to the first note, slipping out of the medicine cupboard:

I always knew you would come back.

Kagami had never lost faith.

I never believed this ruse would work. I knew you would just see through me, like you always do.

I'm the one who's transparent when it comes to you. My love, my heart.

I think of you every day, every second. I dream of your face and your skin.

Funny how a body scan and a few doctor's appointments can change your life. I always meant to tell you, you know that, right?

I knew I loved you before I met you - goddammit, I just quoted the corniest love ballad ever, look it up on Utube.

Good morning, good evening, hello. Today is...whatever day it is and I still love you.

Are you tired of these dumbass messages yet? By the way, I still love you.

They were stuck everywhere. Some were tiny, stuffed in tiny cracks and hidden inside of every hiding place possible. Every bill, salary notice, and tax return had something inside. Some of them were full letters starting with Dear Kuroko, today I'm still crazy about you and ending with I think I'm still going to be crazy tomorrow, hope you don't mind, Love forever, Kagami. Some were darker, like I wish I had more time or I missed you so goddamn much today or I wish I could see you right now without context or reason, and it was those times that Kuroko sat down where he was and cried though he could have sworn he was out of tears, out of time, past feeling anything.

What a gross overestimation of his own control.

Murasakibara was a godsend. He left him alone in those times, cleaned or cooked or did whatever needed to be done around the house. And when he wasn't there, making ambient noise as he experimented with whatever spice or sweet or savory filling was going to be doled into puff pastry today, it was Aomine, or Kise, or Aomine and Kise, or Midorima and Takao, or even Kiyoshi. Hyuuga and Riko came once with their kids, so strange to hear childish voices echoing on the stairs, but Kuroko didn't think Kagami would mind. They were the best at finding notes.

I bought and hid ten boxes of Akashi's favorite tea in our safety deposit box, Kuroko found stuffed in his favorite hot Dhermos bottle. The next day he went to the bank. Kagami wasn't lying. Kuroko laughed and laughed for the first time since the ashes under the blue sky and Why why whywhywhywhy. He went to the post office next, bought a box and a stamp, and sent it with a note From Beyond The Grave to Mr. King of the World, XOXO, Kagami Taiga.

Kise keeps the girl's clothes in the back of the closet, including a pair of white jeggings with red lips all over them. Kuroko orchestrated a diversion with Aomine, something that took just ten minutes, alcohol, dark chocolate and unlimited access to the closet, to lay out two sets of clothes on the bed: one black fishnet over white red-lip-patterned jeggings, a black lacy bra and Spice Girls black heels; and another neon green peppermint sundress, complete with floppy hat, fake sunflower, white socks and ballet flats that really resembled small boats instead of shoes. And a razor, just a subtle hint, because Kuroko knew how hairy Aomine's legs were.

(Kise and Aomine took pictures in a purikura booth. They even gave Kuroko some, but there were suspicious holes cut out. Though seeing the state of their fake makeup from pane to pane, maybe it was better they had.)

He was aware, then, that he was on watch, because he was never alone. He didn't know who organized it, and sometimes he really wanted time alone to mourn, but then there was always something, somewhere, that reminded him that he really shouldn't be, and that the others had lost someone too. Different facets of the same person, maybe, but that didn't change it wasn't fair -

Shit. This is wrong. This isn't fair! Aomine's words.

If he thought about it too long, his throat would get tight and the drawn-out beeping of the machine, the exhausted electronic sigh as Kuroko shut it off, would haunt him. The last vestiges of Kagami's body heat. The wan light of the autumn sun. The stiff coarseness of his bristly hair. What could he have done. What could he have done to change things.

Why, why Kagami. Why him. Why did it all come back to him.

He knew all these inconsequential things now. From the notes, from his own memories. Kagami liked soft things though he would never admit to it. He was bashful when their friends found out and gave them a housewarming present of some thousand-thread cotton sheets. It extended to hand towels and mops and underwear. If someone told him to choose between a free luxury yacht and the biggest, softest, fluffiest bathrobe in the world, Kuroko didn't have a shred of doubt that he would choose the yacht, but only so he could sell it and buy ten bathrobes.

He liked action movies, no surprise there, and would watch them over and over until he could quote them. He always expected someone to quote the next line, and was thrilled if someone did. He could gush over hamburgers, or how he liked using onions in food except for the cutting of, or how nice a hot bath was after a long day, but he clammed up like Aomine when the talk turned to feelings or 'squicky' things.

His favorite store was the hundred yen store, and he often said a person could live off of just those in Japan, such a pity, because American ones were crap. He collected bentou boxes and hot Dhermos bottles in every color because he always wanted matching sets. His favorite book of Kuroko's was a tragicomedy following the steps of a couple through first meeting, marriage, divorce, and a meeting five years after that showed they still had that spark that brought them together in the first place. It was the first book Kuroko ever wrote.

I still like those honey almond crackers the best, said one note. Kuroko went out just to buy them. He held out a mirror as he stuffed as many as he could in his mouth, bulging his cheeks, but he looked ridiculous instead of adorable like when Kagami did it. He still took a picture and sent it to Kise.

Sometimes I would hang onto you a little longer just to sniff your hair. It always smells good, said another.

Do you know I still love you?

Do you know I still miss you?

I love you. I miss you.

I love you forever and ever. I miss you every damned second of the day.

Sometimes I wish I had never made you cry, but then I remember it brought us back together.

Sometimes I wish for less pain, but more than that I wish I could take the pain from you.

Don't cry, Kuroko. Please don't - think of the good things, think of the good times. Remember the way we were. Remember how we were happy. Does that help?

At some point the handwriting had changed, becoming slanted or round or tiny or overlarge. The others still dropped by regularly, Kagami Sachiyo and little Kurogane in particular, though sometimes they left him unsupervised now. Kagami Senior too, at one point. He brought the stray calico cat that had always sniffed around Kagami's herb planter and once tried to eat their raw chives, put a collar on it and said Kuroko should name him. Funny thing, that Kagami got his sensitivity from the parent that seemed insensitive. The cat ran away after a day anyway, but Kuroko appreciated the gesture.

He learned the reason why his name was 'Taiga' was because it was a joke between mother and father. She called him selfish, big-headed, for wanting to pass the company down to a blood relative, like it was some sort of monarchy. "He's gonna pop out saying 'me big, big me' or something," and that became his name, what a laugh when Taiga turned out to scorn the company, the father that was never there, the mother that escaped her forced isolation. This son who was generous and hardworking and didn't do what normal Japanese children did, get good grades and enter some sort of white-collar desk job. He walked his own path, working with his hands, working where he was appreciated. Loved.

At some point Kagami Senior figured it out and said, "I'm glad he had you," and clapped Kuroko on the shoulder. He couldn't pinpoint the strange part of the sentence until later, when he realized it was past tense. Because Kagami Taiga was dead.

Whatever ghost, whatever feelings floated around Kuroko and his friends now, they were just that. Ghost of someone who would never come back. A presence that might stay or go, depending on who was feeling it. Little reminders that would fade with time and distance and space -

I'm never letting go.

The thought burned, because Kuroko realized he had lied. He was getting over it. He was letting go. He was busy, he was getting out of the house, working on another script, writing another book (based on Kise's movie, which was really quite excellent, he said he had to train three months straight to swing a sword that well), experimenting at the oven with Murasakibara. He wasn't on suicide watch anymore. He put on the necklace with the rings every morning and didn't have to blot his tears or run his hot face under the cold tap for the redness to go away.

A few nights ago he had seen Murasakibara lounging on the couch he claimed his for as long as he stayed, headphones plugged in and watching porn on a tablet. Kuroko had lingered unnoticed, laughing a little on the inside at the sight of his tallest friend with his legs scrunched up to hide his erection, reduced to beating off while he thought Kuroko was upstairs taking a nap. Kuroko did take a nap, he went upstairs with a new plot percolating in his head about two gay AV actors who wanted to do regular movies, rivals who fell in love with each other, and wouldn't it be funny if one was serious and hardworking and the other young and carefree? He imagined naked bodies and the people who watched them, the shine of sweat and the splatter of come. He remembered revenging himself at what was then Kagami's apartment, stealing the sheets so Kagami had to do the Walk of Shame to the bathroom naked, though there was no one but Nigou around to watch, and huffed a laugh as he jerked off and came.

It was the first time since the illness. Since bird-bones and the dry press of lips and the body that couldn't get warm, no matter how many blankets were used.

And when the stars cleared from his vision, semen cooling on his stomach, he was still smiling. Not so much at the remembrance of Kagami, but that this might make it into this porn-star-story thing somewhere, along with a bunch of their other regular shenanigans, and once again the little gems scraped from the surface of their relationship might shine in print though readership of gay fiction was just a tiny, tiny portion of the Japanese public.

It would be a tragicomedy, he decided. And maybe if he ever got the courage - writing drunk, that was a thought, would it increase his creativity or just depress him? - he might write something more serious. Something about his real journey. Something about disease and how it killed people, broke people. Something about true friends in need. Something about a trail of secrets left behind for a lover to find. An ever considerate lover. And an invisible shield of air that could stop nothing.

One day he found Kise dozing at the table, fresh back from a round of gladhanding in congratulations for winning some prize for Best Actor somewhere. He was sleeping with his face mashed against a notebook. On his left was a stack of slips, crossed-out or half-written. And on the right, completed notes in Kise's jaunty, stylish script.

He woke the blond gently. "You guys don't have to keep doing this, you know. I get the point."

Kise made an abortive motion as if to throw himself over the table, but then smiled sheepishly and sat back down in the chair. "Guess you've known for a bit, huh?"

"I like to people-watch. And I recognize everyone's handwriting from the Generation of Miracles, at least. The rest was easy to figure out."

Kise sank down in the chair. "Aominecchi's gonna kill me."

"I already knew."

"He's still gonna kill me. 'Watch Tetsu like a hawk', he says, and here I am snoring away while you figure everything out like a super-sleuth in one of your books."

"You could tell him I already knew."

"Still gonna kill me," Kise muttered, then brightened. "Hey, we could go somewhere! Escape for a while, I'm totally overdue for a vacation. I was invited to Cannes this year, you know? France is great that time of year, all sunny with flowers and the beach -" Kuroko watched the blond actor backpedal rapidly, "- has lots of naked people, totally great eyecandy though I know Kurokocchi's probably not interested but might be good for research, you know, for a book -"

"I'll go."

"- really hard to reproduce if it's for a TV series or movie, cuz Japan just doesn't have beaches, gotta go all the way down to...Okinawa...for that, wait, what did you say? You want to go with me?"

"If Aomine-kun isn't going."

Kise waved a negligent hand. "The season's starting soon, Mr. Ex-NBA I'm-An-Awesome-Coach has to stay. But are you serious? You...abroad...last time..."

Kuroko smiled slightly to see the blond so uncharacteristically lost for words. "Yes, last time I saw a beach, I threw everything I couldn't bear to bring back to Japan with me into a giant roaring bonfire," he answered gently. "I'm pretty sure every beach looks different, especially in a foreign country, so unless film festivals feature bonfires, I think I'll be okay. And even then."

"W - well...alright," Kise tried to smile but it fell flat. "You'll be my plus-one, then. Oh, but Kasamatsu-sempai is coming too -"

"I could hardly turn down the opportunity to see your assistant kick your butt into the water," Kuroko said wryly.

"- how does everyone know about that? It was just once! And it wasn't even in Europe, it was a pool in Miami and an accident because he was helping move the set and clocked me over the head with a spotlight -" Kise paused, full stop, wide-eyed as he watched Kuroko chuckle softly. "Wow. I think I actually forgot what that sounds like."

"Sorry to keep you waiting for the reminder, then." Kuroko was still smiling. "But I have just one question. Do you think we could stop somewhere else while we're in France? Just for a little bit?"

Kise blinked. "S - sure! I bet Aominecchi'll be jealous I get you all to myself for so long. But it's his fault for being all Good-Coach-y and staying extra practices, it's really not fair I only see him on weekends, and every time he lets the tabloids catch him another actress I withhold sex and he sleeps on the couch but he's so damned lazy, it doesn't matter how many times I tell him how to avoid the paparazzi, they always get some incriminating evidence he's a total man-slut -"

Kuroko picked up one of the completed slips. It read Cross my heart and hope to die, swallow a thousand needles if I break my promise in what he suspected was Kasamatsu's neat hand. "What are you going to do with these? I'm not saying you should throw these away, I'm sure you put a lot of work in them..."

"...um. Well." Kise looked embarrassed and caught off-guard. But then he shook out of it. He took the completed slips and turned them face-down so Kuroko couldn't read them anymore.

"Listen to me, Kurokocchi." His eyes were earnest and serious. "Yes, Kagamicchi started this, and yes, he told us where to hide them. He spent the first few months writing boxes and boxes of them. And when we started running out, we got together to decide what to do. For me, it gave me an outlet for all the mushy stuff Aominecchi hates. I like writing them. I'm not really thinking of you when I write them, sure, and maybe Kagamicchi's gonna kill me in the afterlife for warping whatever he meant for this whole gambit to be, but I'm not sorry. I got to be here for you. That means something."

"It does," Kuroko agreed.

"Though I still think it's kind of creepy," Kise admitted.

"It is," Kuroko also agreed.

"But I don't want to stop. Is that okay?" Kise's gaze was keenly apprehensive.

"Yes," Kuroko answered after a short while. Wordlessly Kise shifted through the completed ones to hand him It's going to be alright, I promise, and when the tears he swore for the millionth time were dried up started to fall, Kise woke Murasakibara on the couch and they sandwiched Kuroko between them while voices on the TV chanted Deshi basara, deshi basara! What does it mean?

'Rise'.

--------------------

There was a space near the bottom, and Kagami would have joked about it being perfect for his height. The lock slid on with a clank and Kuroko understood what Kagami meant, to have so many secrets inside, each clamoring for space, for time, for closeness, for all the things a human needed to live.

I am still here. Despite it all. Despite the absence of the person he loved, and who loved him back so deeply Kuroko was still touched every day in the little ways, the only ways that really mattered.

I will never get over you completely. Was that a lie or truth? It remained to be seen.

I wanted to die with you, but now it's too late. Funny, so many ways to die, but there is only one way for me to live now. I'm stuck living for us both.

He twisted the key out, and took a moment just to stare at the plain bronzy lock, shiny in its newness, flickering with the reflection of the water from below. Their names were written on the back in black permanent marker, but maybe someday that would fade too, and this would be just another lump of metal, a tiny monument to the unknown.

But Kuroko would know. He would always know.

I remember your secrets. Even the ones you never told me.

The key sailed, arched high over the river, and sank fast, pulled by the current, out of sight in an instant. Then it was over and instead of the knife it was a buzzing in his ears, the silence returned to blank out all the ambient noise, pressing around him like a living thing. Only this time it wasn't the fear of being alone, the ache of abandonment, the knowledge that Kagami could never get warm now - it was dizzying, suffocating lightness as the burden was lifted and he could feel the wind carrying voices, shouting his name, calling him back. He listened to them.

He didn't know how long he stood there, losing the hours, watching the sun set. But when he turned around Kise was gone. Only Kasamatsu was there, alternating between muttering dire threats at some trashy tabloid that featured Kise with his new female costar ("Japan's most famous celebrity CAUGHT IN FLAGRANTE DELICTO WITH SEVENTEEN YEAR OLD") and watching him. When he saw Kuroko was looking back, he asked, "Ready to go?"

"Yes."

Kasamatsu hovered close, shy, yearning, a little in thrall. His hand twitched as if he wanted to reach out and do what regular friends did, pat Kuroko on the shoulder or maybe even his cheek, but he refrained. What a gentleman. "Kise went back to the hotel, some sort of snafu with -" He gulped the rest of the sentence down, because Kuroko was very carefully twining their fingers together. He continued an octave higher, strangled, "Um. Does this mean --?"

"Yes." And then, wickedly prim, "By which I mean yes, we should join Kise-kun back at the hotel."

"Okay," Kasamatsu said, breathless and disbelieving, following speechless where Kuroko led.

He didn't look back. He didn't look at the bronzy lock at the bottom of the fence. He didn't think about the key sunk in the dirt of the river, or all the things Kagami didn't get to say before his life was cut short. He didn't think about the hours he wasted, or if it would be weird to have a wet dream about Kagami one night while tangled up in Kasamatsu's arms, or if he should actually change the curtains because really, he only bought the puce color because he wanted revenge for the whole boiled-eggs-exploding-teasing. Kagami was gone, after all.

He would steal a little of Kagami's light for himself, he thought. He would keep just enough to light the days ahead.

He got the feeling Kagami wouldn't mind. Go ahead, he would say, eyes knowing. Everything that's mine is yours anyhow. All-inclusive package. Kagami always knew.

Then I humbly receive, he replied, if only in his mind. He paused. Thank you, Kagami-kun.

Yeah yeah. Just get on with it.

He didn't look back, because everything he needed to remember, everything he was, everything that he was meant to be, was already inside of him.