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Rattle the Stars

Chapter Text

Kuroko frowned.

It wasn't an expression especially familiar to the Seirin team, but then, any expression on this teammate's face was unfamiliar to them.

Even Riko paused in her rant, starting to pay attention to the world outside of her temper, freezing in the act of reaching for Kuroko's neck with violent intentions - honestly, these freshmen were more trouble than they were worth. Disappearing like that, leaving the rest of the team to hunt them down at a street court of all places, and right after a match!

She had been so focused on her charges, she hardly registered Kise Ryouta's presence until Kuroko frowned at the blonde. Following his eyes, and twitching a little as they visibly narrowed, Riko finally noticed a storm to match her own charging down the street.

Kise didn't seem to notice all the eyes on him anymore, flinching as the shouting figure of Kaijo's captain came near enough to smack him over the head. Riko couldn't help a sympathetic wince, noting the force behind the blow as well as the signs of something very unpleasant brewing in her quietest freshman's face.

That even she could see those signs was a very bad sign in itself.

Kasamatsu Yukio seemed oblivious to the imminent danger, though, shouting into Kise's pouting face about selfish disappearing acts and obsessing over old teammates. Riko almost winced at the echo of her own thoughts, grateful suddenly that she hadn't actually touched Kuroko in anger.

As she watched, Kasamatsu's hand rose for another strike and Kise seemed to shrink in upon himself, eyes scrunching closed and fists clenching at his sides—she really didn't like the implications of that, of a strong boy like Kise having learned not even to try and defend himself.

Frozen, she watched that strike come down at Kise, too absorbed to notice when Kuroko vanished from in front of her between one blink and the next and—

Kuroko was not impressed. Kise's new captain had behaved very unbecomingly, and worse, was apparently unaware of exactly how poor an impression he was making.

As he listened to the taller boy shout and flail his arms, he recalled several instances during their practice match when the other boy had also raised a hand to Kise. Seeing that hand raise again, Kuroko didn't need to think any further—this was not acceptable.

Pulling on the speed he had rarely employed off a basketball court, Kuroko moved and—

Blinking, Kasamatsu stared bemusedly at his arm and then at the unexpected force which had pressed it aside as easily as a passing basketball. Staring right back at him, that force frowned.

"This is not acceptable. I understand Kise-kun might be frustrating, but that does not entitle you to raise a hand to him."

Kuroko's voice was as monotone as ever, but Kasamatsu went almost as still as Kise had just from the look in the little guy's eyes. This Kuroko had never seemed so much like a member of the Generation of Miracles as he did in that moment, looking back at Kasamatsu with empty pits for pupils and ruthless determination set in every line of his face.

Like a shock of cold water, Kasamatsu felt all his fury drain out of him, anger at Kise, at his coach, at their loss, feeling it all fall away, he realized for the first time that his hand was still raised to strike his ace with the entire Seirin team watching silently. Horror rose in him, and embarrassment, at his loss of temper and at his behavior in front of a rival school.

For a moment those emotions buzzed in him, trying to become anger as it seemed all of his stress lately did, and the urge to hit something, anything, anyone, but especially Kise, tried to rise. His hand twitched even where he'd brought it to rest at his side, and the whole time Kuroko's pale eyes watched him.

He got the uncomfortable impression they were seeing into his soul.

Tearing his eyes away, he saw Kise clearly for the first time, and was shocked to find him - not cowering - almost shrinking behind his old teammate. His own strange urge to take out his upset on the blonde was well and truly squashed at the sight and he tried to understand where it had even come from. Kise had played hard today, the kid had been honestly amazing, and had done nothing since to earn Kasamatsu's ire except run off to say goodbye to an old friend.

Why did I hit him? Kasamatsu asked himself, and felt bile rise in his throat, his grandfather's old lecture returning to him—You must be calm, Yukio. You have so much passion in you, and you must be careful where you direct it. Sometimes, your passion can settle into wrong habits and you will not be the only one to suffer then. Be calm, be patient, think first.

The men of his family had always had infamous tempers, but he had thought he was better than that.

As if to prove his thought of soul-seeing right, that Kuroko spoke again on the tail of his revelation, "It is never acceptable for a captain to abuse his authority over his team. Not for any reason. You must be better than that, Kasamatsu-san."

Kasamatsu almost flinched away from those pale eyes that saw too much, but they held him silent and still until he nodded, ashamed.

As Kuroko continued to appraise him, Kasamatsu was saved from further reprehension by an unexpected grace. From his place behind Kuroko, Kise leaned forward, draping himself over Kuroko's back and wrapping a hand around the curve of his shoulder. Settling his head easily atop his own hand, Kise seemed to meld into the smaller figure for a moment before speaking, "It's alright, Kurokocchi."

Quieter than Kasamatsu had thought the blonde was capable of being, Kise tilted his head until it brushed against Kuroko's, repeating, "I'm alright." Kuroko never flinched at Kise's closeness, turning his head easily to meet Kise's eyes. As Kasamatsu and Seirin watched, the two seemed to have a silent conversation, several of their observers wondering how Kise could look so at ease meeting those striking eyes for more than a moment.

After several tense breaths of time, Kise spoke aloud, a wry smile twisting his lips, "A captain can't abuse his teammates, huh?"

Kuroko only blinked solemnly at him, "Akashi-kun treated punishments as exactly what they are: training." Kise shook his head, snorting in a shockingly inelegant manner for a famous model, and with that the tension over them all seemed to break.

Kise couldn't resist a last comment, though, "You're still so overprotective, Kurokocchi."

Kuroko had turned his eyes to Seirin's fidgeting, but twisted back to Kise at his words. Meeting those eyes, only Kise noted the hint of amusement overlaying Kuroko's lingering ferocity — the sharpness that only ever rose in their defense, he thought.

As a reply, Kuroko gently untangled himself from Kise, allowing a parting squeeze before drifting back to Seirin's huddle. Pausing there, he glanced over his shoulder at Kasamatsu and Kise.

"It is not my fault you seem to find the most trouble, Kise-kun. You know I do not tolerate harm to my team." No one missed the present tense, and Kasamatsu held in a shudder as he offered Kuroko a solemn nod and Kise just beamed, bouncing in place.

With a cheerful wave, Kise started dragging his captain away, leaving Kuroko to quickly begin fading back amongst the Seirin players who stared at him until he was simple and invisible again.

Gathering herself, Riko called for Izuki to lead them to the bus station, knowing, as they shuffled away, that her team would be thinking much as she was: they had seen a new side to Kuroko today and while he had returned to normal now, this didn't feel like an end. She wasn't sure how she felt about it all, but some sixth sense told her—this was just the beginning.

Chapter Text

Kuroko watched silently from Seirin's bench as certain members of Midorima's team muttered resentfully about his being shut down by Kagami. Eyeing the venom in their fists and hissed comments –useless pain that guy why him can't even failing a joke – Kuroko let the slightest frown rise to his features. When half time was called, he followed the mutterers with his eyes as they trailed Midorima into Shutoku's locker room.

Eyeing the special supplies he'd slipped in Riko's bag by the bench and deciding his team could make due without him for one minute, he slipped away after them, easily ignored as he crossed the edges of the court to shadow the last Shutoku player to his locker.

Unnoticed, Kuroko watched, his frown steadily growing darker as Midorima's teammates did not even twitch to defend him when the particularly antagonistic trio threatened to destroy his lucky item. They had to know how important those items were to his old teammate, and yet the other boys only reacted when the echoing smash filled their rest space and Midorima's stricken shout could no longer be ignored.

Pained, Kuroko watched the immediate aftermath: Midorima dropping to his knees, shaking hands sifting into the shards of his faith, his new team only staring, half uncertain and too many smug.

He stepped up.


Midorima went still. Of course Kuroko would be here, against the rules or not, appearing out of thin air because he'd always known when they were hurt. Midorima did not look at him, eyes set on the ceramic shards cradled in his shaking hands.


He ignored the chokes and shrieks from his teammates, refusing to move, to give up any more of his pride today.

Then a hand settled firmly on his bowed head, fingers scrunching in his hair, but there was no pain; with Kuroko, there was never pain. The familiar, slight warmth settling beside him was too much – he gave in to the inevitable and looked up.

Kuroko Tetsuya was still short, scrawny, and pale, and being next to him was still the safest place in the world, as it had always been for their team. They did not smile, but Kuroko's fingers stroked once through his hair and the old affection rolled off his tongue as easily as it ever had, as if they were still just down the hall from their shared classroom, lingering to discuss a new book they'd both enjoyed.

On the court, Kuroko and Aomine may have been inseparable, but off court, Midorima and Kuroko had always shared the most.

"Shintaro, get up." Every player from the Generation of Miracles knew the tone that was never to be disobeyed, the sharpness that Kuroko only ever used in their defense. Midorima rose, his eyes never straying from tiny, impossible Kuroko, who pulled his free hand from his bag and presented an exact replica of his shigaraki.

Midorima almost smiled, his hands steadying as the figure settled between them, "You came prepared, Kuroko." A raised eyebrow was the only response for a moment.

"I am always prepared for you, Shintaro."

Then Kuroko's attention shifted over his shoulder and Midorima did not need to look to know the chill that had just befallen his new team. "You are all very lucky we are in the middle of a game or I would deal with you now," Kuroko's tone never inflected, of course, and Midorima knew better than to look at him in this moment.

"There is no worse enemy than the shadow always behind you. Everyone within ten miles of Teiko understood, but it seems the rest of Japan must be taught."

There was good reason their team had so respected Kuroko, even outside a basketball court.

Chapter Text

It was as devastating a loss as he had expected.

Tetsu's style was just never a match against him and Aomine hated that fact on some level he refused to acknowledge, because he respected Kuroko Tetsuya probably more than anyone else alive. Even under awful circumstances, Tetsu had never backed down and never given up. Yet, it wasn't enough.

Tetsu's style was only as good as his team, and there wasn't a team in Japan that could match him, Aomine brooded as his – no, Touou's – team made their usual post-win ruckus. He only tuned back in to their babbling when that moron from the bench started talking about Seirin Number Eleven: Kuroko Tetsuya.

"And we thought Seirin was so strong! Especially that number eleven, he was incredibly weak. He still was trying to fight in the end, probably has some mental issue or something. Isn't it better to give up earlier?"

Before he could even consider it, Aomine was up and furious, like he hadn't been in months. How dare this waste of air talk about Tetsu, talk about giving up like he knew anything at all

"A bastard who's benched should shut the fuck up!" Aomine roared in the kid's choking face, Satsuki shouting for him to stop somewhere in the background noise, but Aomine couldn't hear her, couldn't hear anything but this stupid fuck's stupid opinions and his stupid choking breaths because Aomine was holding the kid up like he weighed nothing and he hadn't even realized, certainly couldn't care, but—

A pale hand wrapped around his wrist.

"Aomine-kun, put him down." 

Tetsu didn't sound surprised or alarmed at all, Aomine noticed as the red haze abruptly lifted and he dropped the gasping kid like the pathetic trash he was. His fist was still clenching on thin air, but Tetsu hadn't let go, just guided his arm down gently because Tetsu had always been too patient with him.

Aomine refused to look for a moment, and then snorted at his childishness, glancing down. Tetsu looked calm, but tired.

"What are you doing here, Tetsu?" Aomine asked roughly, though he knew the answer well. Tetsu had always had a sixth sense for when he was about to go off the deep end, though that hadn't been such a problem before basketball became a chore instead of a joy. He ignored the shrieks of surprise from Touou and Satsuki's grateful squeals behind him – the team didn't matter and Satsuki was too predictable.

"Please watch your temper, Aomine-kun," Tetsu ignored the question. Aomine snorted and Tetsu just looked at him serenely, if a little sadly. After a minute of staring at his old partner, Aomine huffed out something that might have been acquiescence and was at least enough to erase some of the sadness from Tetsu's pale face for the minute. Turning, Aomine stomped through the parting seas of Touou's team, grabbing his bag and swinging it over his shoulder.

"Shouldn't you be with Seirin, Tetsu?" There was no immediate reply and Aomine glanced back at his old partner, who watched him silently before answering.

"They do not need me right now." 

Something near that unmentionable level in Aomine shrank back from the words, though he couldn't have said why.

"Might as well walk with me then," Aomine shrugged and headed for the door, certain beyond any doubt that Tetsu would follow him. Their progress was halted by that loudmouth Wakamatsu and Aomine barely held in the urge to pound the guy. Tetsu was standing right next to him now and he knew it wouldn't go over well.

"What the hell, Aomine, where the hell do you think you're going? We've got a game tonight and another tomorrow, you can't just go off and sleep!" Wakamatsu shouted right into his face and Aomine, noticing the tiny frown forming on Kuroko's face, decided to end this quickly.

With his usual bored drawl, he stepped easily around the blonde, "Back the fuck off, man. You guys don't need me for those games. I only even came today because you were facing Tetsu's team." Slightly amused by the rising red of the guy's face, Aomine glanced back at Tetsu and tilted his head to the door.

Tetsu nodded and stepped by Wakamatsu to follow him, when the stupid blonde had the nerve to grab Tetsu's arm in what had to be a bruising grip. Leaning down to get right in Tetsu's face, Wakamatsu was practically spitting with fury, "And who the hell are you? We just beat you, Seirin, and now you show up in our locker room and steal our ace! Where the fuck do you get off—"

Aomine had felt something in his chest turn cold and hard the moment the stupid blonde dared put a hand on Tetsu, but one look and the tiny frown on Tetsu's face kept him still. To distract himself, he looked up and eyed the rest of Touou's team to see if they would cause any trouble.

While a lot of them were staring, only the captain was watching him rather than Wakamatsu, and rather than looking angry, he just looked thoughtful.

Aomine turned back when he heard a choke and a stumble before him, unsurprised to see that Kuroko had easily slipped from Wakamatsu's grasp and now stood at Aomine's side, facing the blonde's back. Quietly, he offered, "You should really work on your temper, Wakamatsu-san. Your team will not survive with the both of you throwing tantrums."

It took Aomine a second to realize Tetsu was also talking about him and then he scowled down at his old partner, "Oi, Tetsu!" Tetsu looked up at him, expressionless, "Aomine-kun," and Aomine knew that tone of half teasing, half reprimand too well. When he just huffed and turned away, he didn't need to see it to know there was a tiny smile on Tetsu's face.

An oily voice interrupted his sulking just as he was going to stomp out the door, and he and Tetsu both turned to Touou's captain, "I'm sorry, but I don't believe I caught your name."

To Aomine's surprise, Imayoshi was looking straight at Tetsu, who responded politely, "I am Kuroko Tetsuya."

"Ah, and you were on Aomine's team in middle school?" 

Tetsu nodded, "Yes, we both attended Teiko."

"I don't suppose you'd care to share your secret with his new team?" Aomine ignored the creeping shudder of his shoulders when Imayoshi smiled at Tetsu. It wasn't an uncommon reaction to the people he called captain. Somehow Imayoshi knew, though, because his smile widened when he finished, "He seems to listen to you, at least, and his attitude is causing problems even on a team like ours." 

Aomine's jaw dropped and he knew Satsuki was giggling into her clipboard somewhere at the back. Tetsu was just looking over Imayoshi thoughtfully.

"Oi, there is no secret!" Aomine interrupted their little stare-off and seriously? Where the fuck did this guy get off? "I'm not a dog, bastard, you want me to listen to you, you'll have to earn some respect! So either turn into Tetsu or start carrying scissors." 

Aomine snorted at the last and he just knew Tetsu was laughing on the inside. Turning to finally leave, Aomine growled as stupid Wakamatsu just had to open his stupid mouth, "What the hell? Are you saying you respect this Kuroko when he just lost—"

Aomine was moving before he knew it, the red haze coming back, but Tetsu was already between them, one hand behind him to press against Aomine's raised arm. He looked up at Wakamatsu and interrupted as calmly as ever, "Please do not finish that sentence."

Imayoshi appeared behind the blonde at that point, wrapping an arm over his head and choking him to sputtering silence with another smile and a short bow, "Thank you, Kuroko-kun." 

Tetsu just looked at him, and for a moment Aomine saw something cold in those empty blue eyes, "You have nothing to thank me for. You think I am acting to protect your team from Aomine, but you do not understand. I am protecting Aomine only, even from himself." 

That something in his chest froze up again, and Aomine stared down at Kuroko's blue mop as he bowed politely to Imayoshi, guiding Aomine from the room with the hand that had never released his arm.

When he was still frozen out in the hall, Tetsu sighed and tugged gently on his arm, stepping close enough to look straight up at his eyes, "Come, Aomine-kun. You were meaning to head home?"

Aomine nodded automatically and then shook himself, "Yeah. Yeah, let's get out of here." 

And then he was walking, taking short enough strides for Tetsu to keep pace without even thinking about it. The next half hour passed without them speaking more than ten words apiece as they walked the half mile to the train station and caught the afternoon ride to his neighborhood.

They mostly dozed on the way, though Aomine woke up enough at one point to ask what Tetsu was doing with him when his team still had games to play. Tetsu explained that Seirin's next two games were tomorrow and Aomine nodded sleepily, stretching out on his seat, before red marks on Tetsu's hand caught his attention.

Swearing violently, he leaned forward and snatched that pale hand off Tetsu's lap, holding it up in the light.

"Are these from that bastard Wakamatsu?" he growled.

Tetsu shook his head, too used to Aomine's roughness to be bothered by the manhandling, "No, I punched a wall." 

Aomine stared at him for a moment, and then their earlier game seemed to seep through the haze of red and sleep in his brain.


Lips twitching, Tetsu pulled his arm back easily and suggested Aomine lay back down. Shaking his head as if to clear it, Aomine did so and fell asleep again despite the cold in his chest that refused to thaw.

Tetsu woke him at his stop and he shuffled out, yawning, behind the shorter figure. As they stumbled out into the sunlight and started walking down his street, Aomine's sleepy thoughts were interrupted by Tetsu speaking, "You know I dislike you living in this neighborhood."

Aomine groaned, stretching to try and wake himself up for this conversation. Cracking his neck to each side, he took in the familiar sight of his rundown district. Every building was old in this part of town and there were few large or pleasant businesses.

"I know, Tetsu, but at least no one bothers me here and it's the best I can afford on my own."

Tetsu sighed quietly, but did not argue. It's not like even the rough types in this neighborhood would trouble someone as large and obviously strong as Aomine.

Aomine sighed, too, and offered, "Besides, at least it's away from my dad."

Tetsu nodded to that, and Aomine frowned at the tension that always strung his old partner too tight at the mention of his old man.

"Relax, Tetsu," Aomine slapped a hand on the shorter's shoulder. "With what I've heard from home, he'll probably drink himself to death soon enough."

Tetsu shook his head at him, but he did relax some and too soon Aomine realized they were at his apartment. Knowing Tetsu would refuse to come in even if he offered – he was too polite by half – Aomine stopped on the steps, looking down even farther than usual to meet Tetsu's eyes. If it were anyone else, he wouldn't let them walk back to the train station alone, but no one would even notice Tetsu long enough to cause trouble for him.

It wasn't like anyone else ever followed him home, either.

Feeling the awkwardness of goodbyes rising in him, Aomine patted Tetsu's shoulder again and glanced away as he muttered, "Take care of yourself, Tetsu."

Staring up at him without any sign of strain, Tetsu was silent for a long moment. The sorrow had crept back into his face, Aomine noticed, but knew he could do nothing to fix it.

"Sleep well, Aomine-kun. And please watch your temper."

Before he could even huff out a reponse, Tetsu was gone and Aomine sagged against the door before stalking up the stairs to his apartment.

He was being silly. It wasn't like he wouldn't see Tetsu again.

Chapter Text

Imayoshi stared at the swinging door thoughtfully, ignoring the sputtered curses from the boy in his chokehold. Finally releasing Wakamatsu and turning back to the room, he asked his newly quiet team, "Does anyone know anything about this Kuroko Tetsuya?"

He watched as they glanced between each other, bewildered, and tried not to remember the look on Aomine's face as his friend dragged him out. He'd never seen Aomine be anything but overwhelmingly self-confident, yet this Kuroko had shattered him with a few words and a loose grip – it was more than disconcerting.

As captain, Imayoshi's first thought had been that he could use this; his second that he wouldn't dare. That Kuroko kid defending his own was probably the most worrisome thing he'd ever witnessed, and he'd met Akashi Seijuro.

His musings were thankfully interrupted by Momoi stepping forward. While not as laser-focused as she was in a game, he was surprised by how solemnly she faced him now.

"Tetsu-kun will take care of Aomine-kun as well as anyone can, Imayoshi-san. That's really all you need to know." Every line of her face said she would not yield another word of information and Imayoshi nodded easily. This was one mystery he would have to wait to solve, it seemed, but he'd guess she really had just told him everything he needed to know about Kuroko Tetsuya.

He will take care of them.

Takao frowned at his shoes, half his attention on the familiar road, the rest on the steady breathing beside him. They were walking for once and he was considering taking advantage of the extra breath to ask a question that had been bothering him for a while.

His companion sighed, adjusting his glasses in a show of exasperation, "Whatever it is, just say it, Takao. My horoscope warned I would be faced with unexpected questions today and your thinking face looks painful." Takao just snorted at the insult, rolling over the words in his head and deciding he might as well take advantage of Midorima's superstitions.

"Ah, it's nothing so bad, Shin-chan. I was just wondering about your old teammate – the one that gave you the replacement lucky item when those jerks broke it during the game. Which, by the way, I don't get; I swear, I leave for two minutes to use the facilities and I miss the whole show." Midorima had gone stiff at his side in the first part, but relaxed enough to roll his eyes at the second.

Takao let him hold his silence and think for the next minute, before he started getting fidgety. Midorima ignored him a few more seconds and then sighed again.

"Kuroko was at Teiko, as you know. He was on our team and known as the Phantom Sixth Player – I'm certain you remember his lack of presence." Takao barked out a laugh. 'Lack of presence' was a severe understatement; the kid was practically invisible. Midorima glared at him for the interruption, but Takao just waved him on with a smile.

His friend's horoscope must have said something particularly positive about answering the unexpected questions, because Midorima did without further prompting.

"I don't know what exactly you want to hear about him, so be more specific." Okay, so the tsundere was obviously sulky, but he hadn't shut down yet. Takao thought fast.

"I guess what I want to know is what happened and why. I mean, I've heard the others talk about the locker room incident, but I've only met the guy a few times and I can't really imagine some of the things they described." Takao twitched under Midorima's raised eyebrow, elaborating in a rush of words, all his curiosity and confusion spilling out in a mess.

"—I just mean that some of them have said he was actually scary or something, and that he threatened them, and those three that broke your item have practically dropped out of school since. They keep twitching when they're here and, and I might have heard one of them say this Kuroko called you Shintaro but you don't let anyone call you Shintaro and they say you listened to him and it all sounds crazy—"

Midorima finally slapped a hand over his tag-along's mouth when it looked like he wasn't planning to slow down any time soon.

"Alright." Ignoring the sheepish face at his left, Midorima considered a moment and then started explaining as much as he could. Even beyond the promised good fortune for his uncharacteristic openness, he felt oddly compelled to defend Kuroko, to explain to his crazy new not-friend who Kuroko was, how important he was.

"I will never speak of this again, so be quiet and listen well." He fidgeted with his bandages under Takao's wide eyes, and continued, "Kuroko Tetsuya was Teiko's – was our – secret ace. We were always talented, but before we became the Generation of Miracles as you know them today, Kuroko Tetsuya was the one to carry us to victory. On and off the court, he held the team together. Last minute scoring because he slipped past impossible defenses was just the beginning. To this day, I do not know what we did to deserve it, but somehow our team found itself under Kuroko's protection."

Midorima stared blankly at the road, allowing himself to remember as he hadn't in a long while.

"Off the court, Kuroko had some sort of sixth sense for when he was needed. Aomine lost his temper, Kuroko was there; Kise was harassed by his fans or his manager, Kuroko would help him disappear; when my lucky item seemed impossible or Murasakibara ran out of snacks or Akashi ran out of patience, Kuroko was always prepared to protect us, even from ourselves."

He glanced up at the blue of the sky, grateful for the silence from his typically boisterous company.

"Things changed. We changed, he changed, I don't know which anymore, but the Generation of Miracles fell apart without Kuroko able to balance us. What happened that day is simply proof that he is too stubborn to let go."

An involuntary smile rose to his lips and he let it stay for a moment, "Of course, he wouldn't be Kuroko if he just gave up."

He shook himself, returning to Takao's question smoothly, "Whatever you might have heard is probably true. Kuroko does have permission to call me by my name and I'm certain he was quite intimidating. With his lack of presence, he tends to be underestimated, but he is still very much one of us – and our team was called monstrous as often as it was called genius."

Midorima cut himself off with a mental grimace, feeling he'd said more than enough, and Takao was quietly thoughtful. They had almost made it to Takao's street when he broke the silence once more.

"So, your friend's overprotective. Does that mean he's the reason those guys left the team and have been so twitchy?" The smile that rose to his friend's lips was truly frightening and Takao took an involuntary step back.

"I wouldn't implicate anyone, of course, and those fools could well have just handled the stress of high school poorly, but I will say theirs was not so uncommon a fate for similar fools back at Teiko. Kuroko takes his responsibilities very seriously."

In Kaijo High School's basketball gym, the first string restrained a collective wince at the force of Kise's latest dunk. He'd been practicing on his own for the last hour, after showing up late with only four words of curt explanation: Seirin lost to Touou.

As the hoop started creaking and groaning ominously, Kasamatsu finally had enough. Stepping up, he snatched the ball out of Kise's tight grip and pinned the blonde with a glare. Kise didn't precisely wilt, but the fire in his gut seemed to finally burn out. Kasamatsu shouted over his shoulder for everyone else to get on with practice, and when he was certain they would have some modicum of privacy, he asked.

"What the hell was that?" Kise shifted restlessly, and finally explained in a quiet voice Kasamatsu had only heard once before.

"Aominecchi has gotten stronger. A lot stronger. Kurokocchi was—" In an alarmingly out of character move, Kise cut himself off and wordlessly swiped the ball back into his own hands. Kasamatsu watched him for a moment before asking again, just as quiet, "What happened?"

Kise met his eyes and there was something so sad there, Kasamatsu almost looked away.

"Kurokocchi and Aominecchi were partners, back at Teiko. I've always admired Aominecchi, but he can be…harsh. Even cruel. I've never seen him be that way to any of us and I just, I never expected him to be so mean to Kurokocchi." Kasamatsu thought back to the fierce little guy that put him in his place, defending his team as ferociously as any guard dog, and thought privately that Kuroko could probably take care of himself.

Kise turned his eyes back to the basketball in his hands, rolling it gently between his palms as he seemed to consider his next words. Quieter than any before them, the words eventually came.

"I have to get stronger. Kurokocchi protects us, but I think he needs a little help with Aominecchi." Kise bit his lip, "And, I know they really respect each other and Aominecchi doesn't respect many people, so I want to beat him before he really hurts Kurokocchi."

All the uncertainty fell from Kise's face abruptly as he turned away from Kaijo's captain.

"He can't be allowed to hurt Kurokocchi. Kurokocchi is our hope."