Maybe it wasn't the best idea she'd ever had. But dammit if her throat didn't burn with words yet to be uttered and her veins with betrayal and anger, anger anger anger of the kind she hadn't boiled with for years, not since high school when her temper had been as flammable as her self-combusting stove. (It wasn't actually self-combusting but Riko had dubbed it to be.)
"Jerk," Taiga spat and her fist flashed forward, striking Kuroko Tetsuya square in the jaw and sending him reeling, stumbling into the couch behind him, knees hitting its edge and making him take an unexpected sit. "Hypocrite! You criticized those rainbow bastards for being cold and condescending and- and now you look at me the way they used to and you-"
You're not supposed to ever be infected by it.
"-you look at me like I'm stupid. And I'm not, I know I'm not because I graduated from college so there."
The pettiness of her conclusion was just about an invite for Kuroko to come with one of his flat, secretly fond deadpans but it didn't come, his eyes remained dull. The wrong kind of dull. Not warm and misty but distant and icy, as though she were a stranger.
"Congratulations, Kagami-san," he said, picking himself up and rubbing the reddening sore spot with pale, gentle fingers. The absurdity of it almost left her gaping.
He'd barely changed over the years: his powder blue hair was a tad shorter and his face, though still soft, had a slightly more defined jawline than before, and while he'd always been lithe the absence of most muscles since he couldn't play as much basketball anymore left him even more vulnerable in appearance. She still stood almost a head taller. And his eyes were so blank in the wrong way and it just... pissed her off. (Made her feel terrifyingly hollow but it was easier to be angry.)
"What, that's all? It's been four years since we last saw each other and whenever I ask anything you just brush it off? Show no interest in anything I've been up to? What happened to the whole friends part, huh?"
I punch you and you barely even notice?
Her heart felt painful, cramped, beating erratically against the jail of her ribs as though trying to break free and it hurt too much. Four years and she'd still considered him to be the one closest to her, closer than Tatsuya or Naomi from the dorm next-door, and when finally returning for good and meeting him first thing after getting off the plane (her oversized suitcase was even parked in his kitchen) she got this slapped in her face.
This utter coldness.
"My apologies, I fail to see how I've wronged you," he spoke up, blinking once. "Did I add too much sugar in your coffee?"
Her heart smattered into fleshy pieces littering the inside of her ribcage and her head whistled until her eardrums shattered. "You're kidding me."
"I have no humor, Kagami-san, remember?" He admonished gently, denying any funny bone as always. The breath she sucked in was so deep it could've swallowed an ocean.
They stood in his modest living room, a small square dinner table behind her with the couch, TV, shelf with books and basket cups, cheap painting, cupboard and stupidly perky plant behind him. Any more furnishing and it would've become cramped, but the simplistic style of it and the large window facing the bustling streets of Tokyo gave it a larger appearance. Taiga had visited Japan every single year, usually during summer, but the only time he'd been able to meet her had been the first time, three and a half years ago. Circumstance had prevented them from meeting up more often, though they'd kept mailing each other. And how had she not payed more attention to the way his phrasings had changed over the years? That she'd been the one to egg their conversations forth with only polite cooperation from his side? How had she been able to look away and ignore all the signs?
She heaved another sigh, rubbing the back of her neck. She, too, had changed she supposed. It had been a year since the last time she'd struck somebody, for one. Her eternal trainers had been exchanged for a pair of sturdy ankle shoes which, from a distance, almost looked like army boots. And instead of still screaming her voice into tatters and beating the cause of her anger into pulp she was taking calming breaths and studied her friend with almost hopeful scarlet eyes.
"How are the others? I saw our old Seirin team the last time but I haven't seen any of the Miracles since high school. Well, actually I met Midorima two years ago, though only for a short while since he had an essay for uni to write. Guess he's still got years to go, huh?" She recalled belatedly, knowing the green-haired man aimed to become a doctor. Taiga couldn't imagine voluntarily studying for nine whole years. "Tatsuya says hi, by the way."
"I see," Kuroko nodded, walking past her to pick up the two empty coffee mugs from his small table. The dregs had dried and colored the bottoms of both white cups a mottled brown. The entire duration of the coffee talk had been spent with her trying to coax anything meaningful from him while he only nodded or made the right comments in the right places and made it seem like he was indulging her by spending time in her company. "How is he?"
Walking into the adjoint kitchen, he didn't slant her a single glance over his shoulder.
"Good, though I still can't believe he'd want to spend his life with numbers, it seems so headache-y. And don't avoid my question!" She finally accused.
"They're doing well. Midorima-kun has indeed not taken a break from his studies. Aomine-kun moved to the southern part of Shibuya District last year and seems to be doing very well. Kise-kun almost dropped out of uni since modeling pays him better and better. He's doing it part-time, now, and still earns enough to support himself with ease," Kuroko started and it was as though he was ticking off a checklist. "Murasakibara-kun , I have not seen much of the last year but his bakery is doing very well, and Akashi-kun," he paused, "is Akashi-kun. We meet each other more often than in high school, now that we all live in Tokyo. It's almost like we're back in Teikou."
"Huh, can imagine," Taiga stated flatly, watching this new Kuroko place the two cups in the dishwasher. Those five Miracles had wriggled out of meeting her as well, come to think of it: contact with them had already started waning in their third year of high school, but at least Kise could've tried harder to meet up. Instead something had always come up last minute. She was no genius, but she couldn't help but to wonder if they'd all avoided her on purpose.
That did more than sting, it drenched her insides in acids and clawed at her vocal chords until any words she'd try to utter would end up mangled and broken. She felt angry, but even her trusted fury couldn't drown out the heartbreak, shame and bitterness of not being wanted.
Kuroko didn't answer. She suddenly had the horrible, gnawing feeling of intruding, and once the notion had planted itself into her mind it wouldn't leave, it stayed nestled in the background and watched her with unblinking eyes. Her toes curled in her shoes.
So being a stranger didn't stop Kuroko from picking up on her slightest emotions, it seemed.
"Yup, just tired from the trip," Kagami shrugged. "It's a nice place you've got here."
"Worked on the side since I started uni," he answered blandly, "and full-time since I graduated."
Kagami had volunteered for a year before entering college, meaning almost all her age mates had graduated with a BA already. She'd spent that year at an overcrowded school in Cambodia as an aid to the sports instructors and English teachers: most friends had raised eyebrows and snorted at her choice, but she'd pulled through and been of help.
No have you gotten a place to stay or no problems on the flight or even a how were the final exams. She'd asked about him, his time, what he was doing, how he was, how others were, complimented his cheerful fucking plant and been a general angel (sort of) up until the punch. And even after that he hadn't changed a bit, not even faltered in his approach.
Taiga started heading toward the kitchen, joining him. "I'll be going home now."
(She had the feeling that if she extended her hand for a fist bump, he wouldn't return it.)
"I thought you'd be staying with me," Kuroko spoke up, turning around and peering up at her with dull blue eyes, still expressionless.
She paused, staring right back. All which separated them was her swollen suitcase and she was torn between running away, far far away, or pushing it to the side and sweep the short man into a hug. She did neither in the end.
"I'm renting an apartment about an hour away from here, in Shinjuku," the redhead informed him after a moment. Surprise had thrown treacle into her thought-generator. "Sorry. I thought... why'd you think that?"
"You brought your suitcase here," he supplied dryly.
"Oh, no, I just wanted to see you before anything else," she informed him, part sheepish and part embarrassed, discomfort digging its claws deeper.
The non-committal response was like a blade twisting in her heart. No air would reach her lungs.
Nigou, who had until then been sleeping soundly in a fur-ridden basket in the corner, yapped and pushed himself up to its feet, blue eyes wide and happy. He'd truly grown into a massive husky, muscular with thick fur and soft ears. If Taiga had ever harboured illusions about managing to get over her fear of dogs, they were thrown out of the window at the sight of the beast.
(And her phobia was a great excuse to get out of there.)
"I really have to leave now," she told Kuroko and made a beeline for the door, the suitcase big enough to fill so much of the narrow hallway in front of his apartment door that Nigou wasn't able to reach her.
Her eyes were glued on the tips of her shoes.
"Have a nice evening," Kuroko recited, raising his hand in goodbye with the frost in his blank gaze not thawing. She glanced back and her heart shuddered: he didn't stand in the kitchen anymore but in the hallway next to Nigou, right in front of her though two paces away. It seemed he still popped up out of nowhere.
"You too," Taiga managed and then she was in the corridor of the apartment building and the door was safely shut in front of her.
It was gray and blocked out the sound of Nigou's curious sniffing and barking, leaving her in drab silence with a heart which had been stuck in a blender installed on frappe. Before the dog had woken up she'd almost started thinking that maybe, just maybe, the chilliness was because it had been so long ago they'd last met, because she herself was different or wasn't used to Kuroko's Kurokoness anymore. But Nigou's eyes were exactly the same as they'd been before and it was undoubtedly Kuroko who had transformed.
Taiga had been in two romantic relationships her entire life: a short-lived one with Hayama Kotarou during her second and his third year of high school, lasting until they'd broken up in mutual agreement since the spark was so dead it was actually tragic, and a longer one with a girl named Clara back in college two years ago, which had ended with the redhead being dumped for being too intense and rough around the edges.
That had hurt.
This hurt far more and it hadn't ever been been romantic.
She inhaled the cleanex-scented air, biting down on her bottom lip until her canines threatened (but ultimately failed) to draw blood. Then she exhaled sharply and corrected her ponytail: her hairstyle had not changed, garnet tresses still bushing against her shoulders and bangs tickling against the dark arch of her eyebrows and subtle cheekbones.
Her fingers curled into tight fists, vessels pumping thick, sluggish blood. Taiga turned in her heel, that hollowness inside spreading like dripping gray paint and she was so alone-
Coming to Japan had been like coming home. Now the very person who made it home barely even acknowledged her, and the main comfort of being back was mercilessly stripped away.
On the bus she caught herself searching for familiar faces in the crowd, and abruptly stopped. The disappointment of not finding a single person who as much as rung a bell had already started setting in, however. They were all blobs telling her that she'd been gone for so long, too long, that she'd lost touch and was rejected. (No longer necessary.) Riko and Hyuuga were together at the other end of the city, granted, but they'd had never been quite that close, Koganei and Mitobe had moved to the other end of Japan and were running a gay club, Izuki had disappeared off the radar completely and Kiyoshi had a new phone whose number she was unable to get ahold of. And he was all the way up on the Hokkaido island, according to Kotarou who she occasionally had contact with. (Once a year, maybe.)
She felt lost in the familiarity of Tokyo and couldn't shake the feeling that she was a random person who'd ended up where she was on accident, blown around by the wind with the illusion of belonging and goals.
Taiga leaned her forehead against the cool glass: outside it was warm although the breeze had made her wear a hoodie nonetheless, but the bus had been heated by the summer sun and the people's perspiration had fogged up the windows as a telltale sign that it was far too warm inside the vehicle. Her veins were magma and-
And oh gods that was somebody she knew on the street.
She didn't hesitate to leap off the bus at the next stop which was thankfully only a few more houses away, fat orange suitcase slamming against the tarmac as she landed and skidding after her when she sprinted down the street. The sun beat down against her, though the breeze cooled her overheated skin and brain within seconds and made her realize that she'd once again only listened to feelings and instinct instead of her head which was pointing out that they hadn't been so close to warrant her jumping out of a bus for him.
"Oi," she threw out and the elderly couple she passed look with with indignation and surprise at the volume of her rough voice. "Hey! Hey- Moriyama!"
The slender young man turned around. He'd barely changed at all: his face was still as slim and clear, hair still smooth and not quite raven and his lashes were still far too long. He smiled with an almost automatic charm even though it was clear as the day he racked his brain to remember who she was: "Yes?"
"Tch, I kicked your ass at basket back in high school, remember?" She threw out, and it was probably not the best introduction of herself but she blamed that on her state of mind.
On top of that, the reason she'd been more fond of him that most other old rivals was because he hadn't made the comment: I got beaten by a girl?
The once-over her gave her was one part surprise and four parts appreciation. The combination of being a late-bloomer and not committing herself to sports as much anymore had reshaped her into a more feminine figure. The last time they'd met had been at the end of her first year at high school, when she'd been muscular and athletic with eternal sports bras flattening her then-average chest and baggy clothes hiding any curves. Now she wore a simple shirt which fell flatteringly against the swell of her bust and small of her waist, though her open black hoodie with cat ears hid most of it, while faded jean shorts hugged the flare of her hips and showed off long legs which still possessed some muscle: even though she didn't play basketball competitively any more, she was unable to part from the ball for long and had stayed loyal to street basket during her free time. While it was vastly different from Riko's regime, allowing her edges to soften, it had still kept her in shape.
"Did you miss me that much?" He asked with a goodnatured grin, to which she rolled her eyes.
"Only as much as I'd miss the next rival from Kaijou."
"Very much then," he decided sagely, sighing blissfully, "good old Kaijou. Sometimes I wish I was still there."
"I know exactly how you feel," Taiga shared with a huff.
"Seems to be a story there," he picked up on far too easily, "can I buy you a drink?"
She paused, glancing down at her wristwatch, seeing it was already a half past six. "I'm not sure-"
"See it as a welcome back drink," he pushed, eyes searching her face, and she gave in almost with almost embarrassing ease.
"Only if we go past a fastfood place on our way, airplane food really sucks and I'm hungry," she bargained and he laughed.
"Sure thing, I was heading home to an empty fridge, anyway," Moriyama agreed readily, and they started walking down the streets together, buildings rising up high and looming on either side of them. Taiga wondered what on earth was going on with her. Maybe it was an attempt to escape the loneliness which had threatened to pull the rug from beneath her feet, perhaps it was lingering anger simmering beneath her skin at Kuroko spurring her on.
"Let me take your suitcase," he offered, reaching out with an expectant hand.
"If you insist," Taiga agreed after a moment, not above taking advantage of chivalry and passing the handle to the slightly taller male while correcting the straps of her practical handbag over her shoulder. She had a pair of shoes and four manga which hadn't fit into her suitcase there, along with her purse, papers, keys and emergency chocolate.
He wrapped his hand around it and winced when they kept on walking. "What on earth do you have in here?"
She raised a painstakingly plucked eyebrow -the only part of her intentionally altered, makeup never worn since that stuff was just nasty and impractical- and stated: "The essentials. There's another box that size coming with the post in a few days."
"Naturally," he accepted.
(Kuroko would've made a flat, funny comment.)
A few minutes later they rounded the final corner, ending up in a well-lit street where cars couldn't go, people scattered about in mellow conversations. He paused outside a small stall next to a shopping mall. He proposed: "What about gyudon?"
Taiga glanced at the menu, checking the feasibility of the prices. "Sure."
She ended up getting the largest beef gyudon there was while Moriyama went for a shrimp one, after which they continued down the street with their papers cups.
"You went back to the US, right? Kise mentioned something about it," he spoke up after swallowing a mouthful. "How was it?"
"Good, good," Taiga shrugged, cheeks puffed up with noodles. "Never would've imagined myself as a physiotherapist. Well, I've got three more years to go, but I'll be taking a year long break."
"Hm, I can imagine you as one. The sort who gives massages or makes you do exercises?" Moriyama asked and she rested her scarlet eyes on him: he seemed to be genuinely interested. (Unlike Kuroko.)
"Both, probably. I just wouldn't want to work in a hospital," she admitted, "that'd be too stiff and structured."
"Would you be wearing a nurse outfit in a hospital?"
She swatted his shoulder: "Idiot."
"It's a legitimate question," he defended valiantly.
"Hardly. And what about you, what have you been up to?"
Moriyama smiled up into the sky: the sunset, though hidden behind buildings, colored it an off yellow and matted pink. "Numbers, mostly. Kasamatsu and I are finishing our masters soon. He still plays basketball, but, well, since I'm taking physics courses as well..." He made an almost apologetic gesture. "I quit basket after my BA."
"Figured the shoulder I swatted was too soft," she grumbled before confessing; "I just play streetball nowadays, and only a couple of times a week at that."
"Figured your swat was too hard for you to have quit completely."
She flashed him a glare, slurping at her noodles and swallowing without hardly any chewing. "Why is everybody doing maths around me?"
"Because it's the most interesting choice, of course," he grinned and winked, then moaned: "But there is only a single girl in my class, one, and she's only half as beautiful as you."
"Tch," she huffed and stalled by stuffing her mouth with a clump of beef, taking care to chew and swallow. "You should try looking at personality and brains for once."
"But I do," he cried theatrically, not quite Kise-esque since there was more flair than drama. "I see the beauty of mind and soul as well."
"What, you've got X-ray eyes now?"
"No," he mourned, "what lovely sights that would be, though."
"Somehow I get the feeling you're not thinking about skeletons and bones," Taiga muttered, broth staining her lips and the heat of it rendering them a darker hue of pink. "Perv."
"Am not," Moriyama denied, "I'm an admirer of feminine wonders."
"Anyway," he cleared his throat, waving away her accusation, "your flight here went well?"
"Yeah," she said, "the flight went well."
"And after that?" he asked, smile soft but dark eyes too keen, "did something happen?"
"What makes you think that?"
He pursed his lips: "Except for the fact that you were far too eager to see a friendly face and the mention of wanting to be back in high school was entirely too relatable?"
"I didn't know you were smart," Taiga defended her obviousness with a Look.
Moriyama heaved a sigh, grousing: "I'm smart."
The redhead smiled at the change of subject. "Sure you are."
They ended up going to a cozy bar hidden behind a grocery store where he treated her on her first Kirin Lager since far too long. He nursed one himself but had insisted she'd have to pay for anything more herself since his salary wouldn't come until two days later and he was running short.
"How's Kise? Haven't seen him for ages," asked Taiga when there were only a few gulps left in her second glass.
"Busy. How's Himuro?"
"Tatsuya's doing good, he's a mathsy person like you and Kasamatsu and thrives right now," she answered and didn't call him out on brushing past her question: she'd avoided his question about what had happened as well. (But the fact that she'd lost contact with the Generation of Miracles and that Kise's ex-teammate didn't want to talk about him didn't bode well.) "Izuki Shun also went to study maths, but I lost means of contact with him a while ago. You wouldn't happen to know anything about him?"
Moriyama looked thoughtful, swirling the golden liquid left in his glass (he was on his third) without paying much attention to it. "He went to the same uni as Kasamatsu and yours truly, but after graduating I haven't seen much of him. Haven't seen him at all, come to think of it. He moved to Shinjuku from what I heard..." Then he heaved the deepest sigh she'd ever heard from him. "Kaijou is in Shinjuku."
"Pull yourself together," she snorted amicably, "you're twenty-five."
He smiled rather smugly at the reminder: "I've aged well, I hear."
"You sound like you're fifty when you say that, jiji."
"You're brutal," he informed her, smile not wavering as his inky eyes met hers.
"I can be far worse."
On their way out of the street, Taiga paused next to a supermarket and said: "They're selling some Italian wine for half-price."
"Where would you put it if you buy some?" Moriyama pointed out, still lugging around her suitcase which was almost bursting at the seams.
"I've got a good handbag," she boasted, patting the trusted contraption. "It'll fit another bottle or so."
(She ended up getting two bottles for her new apartment while Moriyama ended up getting a glower for staring at her ass.)
Taiga didn't wake up in a slow and comfortable manner, nor did she suddenly startle awake. One moment she'd been fast asleep on her couch and the next she'd opened her eyes and found herself face to face with the TV her father had payed for a few months ago, heart racing. Together with the broad, low shelf it stood upon, a sofa table and the checkered couch she'd slept on, it made up her new living room. Her bed had yet to be made and exhaustion had kept her from dealing with that the night before when coming home. All she had in her kitchen were two bottles of cheap wine. Her suitcase lay unopened next to her: she'd slept in her clothes and fuck, her shorts were uncomfortable to sleep in.
She stumbled out of her couch, feeling hot and cold at the same time with too much nervous energy fluttering beneath her skin. The coffeemaker had yet to be installed, so she had to make do with tap water and four squares of her emergency chocolate. The partially crushed crackers in her suitcase were devoured for breakfast, after which she pulled off her clothes and baptized her shower by soaking in hot water until her brain returned.
At least she wasn't hungover.
Wrapping a towel around herself, she padded back into her impersonal living room and reached toward her suitcase, only to freeze, hand extended. The hairs on the back of her neck tickled and for a horrifying moment, she thought somebody stood right behind her. Whipping around, she was met with empty air and a clump of dark red hair smacking against her cheek at the sudden movement.
She exhaled, slow and careful. There was nobody in her apartment. She'd locked her door after her, but the gnawing feeling of dread and paranoia which had haunted her during her dream which she couldn't even remember still clung to her.
"Kuroko?" Taiga called out, only to feel like slapping herself. She was being ridiculous.
Alarm became energy.
She hastily changed into a plain beige skort with a thin cotton T-shirt which once had been lavender but now almost seemed gray, tying her hair up in her eternal hairstyle and almost forgetting to brush her teeth before starting to organize her apartment, funneling any discomfort into motivation to work.
Once moving, she couldn't stop.
First, the two shoes from her handbag were put next to her front door and manga were lined up in the empty shelf also serving as nightstand since it was next to her bed, which was then dressed in dark gray and white sheets. The small wardrobe was filled with all other clothes from her suitcase, her two nicer outfits hung up together with her winter jacket. Then the four framed photos were placed on top of the nightshade-shelf: one of the Seirin team after the Winter Cup, one of her with Kuroko and the other Miracles plus Momoi (Akashi in the middle and looking rather short since Murasakibara was on one side of him and Midorima on the other, though nobody had dared to point that out), one of Naomi and Tatsuya (Clara had also been on that picture but been cut out after the breakup), and one of her with her father. They shared the dark red hair and were both grinning mischievously on the picture.
Taiga worked and worked and didn't stop moving until she sunk into her freshly made bed, stomach whining for lunch and with food from the nearby supermarket in the kitchen and a bushy green plant on both the windowsill in her bedroom and the one of her living room, where the sill was wide enough to sit on.
"Finally," she breathed out, closing her eyes and yes, that was definitely unease which came crawling back. Where had this come from? Why on earth did she start fearing that people hid beneath her cupboard?
It made her lips purse and eyebrows furrow dangerously.
She checked her phone (her alarm clock was dead and its batteries were being charged), seeing four messages from Naomi and one from Tatsuya, as well as the fact that it was quarter to three in the afternoon. At least her hair had dried.
Naomi: taitai you gotta tell me when you wake up
Naomi: cos the message you sent yesterday evening was weird, both about that Kuroko being a jerk and going out with somebody you're not that close with
Naomi: or seen for six years just saying
Naomi: and you have to tell me if your neighbor is hot
Taiga sent: am up and got nest in order, off to buy a roommate now
Then she read Tatsuya's from yesterday, which was long and complex and undoubtedly the result of him helping out his roommate with deciphering Shakespeare, but also nice and caring. She answered: everything okay, currently trying to come back to life after a long trip and being up late, no need to worry, don't die while i'm gone, play basket instead of reading shkspr
Naomi answered within seconds: you can't BUY roommates
Taiga wrote: yes i can