not your typical annihilatrix (furiosity) wrote,
not your typical annihilatrix
furiosity

Fic: [KnB] Softer than Before (All the Second Chances) (Aomine/Kagami/Kuroko; NC-17) [2/?]

Title: Softer than Before (All the Second Chances)
Chapter: 2 - Don't Act Like I'm on Your Side
Author: furiosity
Fandom: Kuroko no Basket (The Basketball Which Kuroko Plays)
Genre: Romance/Drama
Rating: NC-17 (overall); this part a moderate PG-13
Characters: Kagami Taiga, Kuroko Tetsuya, Aomine Daiki
Pairings: Kagami/Kuroko; Aomine/Kagami; Aomine/Kuroko; Aomine/Kagami/Kuroko (pairings in order of appearance, the name order is alphabetical)
Warnings: None.
Disclaimer: Fujimaki owns. I only play. You do not sue.
Length: 5400 words (this part)
Summary: In which Kagami's brain is a much stranger place than he thinks, Kuroko is not as mature as everyone thinks, and Aomine is Aomine. Featuring a gibbering lust monster, Vanishing Dirt, an intimidating snorefest of foundational classes, incorrect reasons for purchasing plastic food, a brief overview of Kuroko's player profile, a surfeit of drills, Aomine in the doghouse, the radical difference between crazy and crazy, Kagami's excellent wardrobe adventure, a minor construction project, a startling team line-up, and sage advice from the head coach.
Beta: None. u_u
Note: This story is about a polyamorous (triad) relationship. If you enjoy the seme/uke dynamic or have strict seme/uke preferences based on whatever criteria, this is not the fic for you. Placebo's Ask for Answers inspired the title.
Concrit: Always welcome and appreciated.
Previous Parts: 1 - I'd Rather Tame a Velociraptor

Softer than Before (All the Second Chances)
Part 2: Don't Act Like I'm on Your Side


-

After waking, Taiga is on his way to the bathroom when he bumps into Kuroko, already dressed.

"Good morning, Kagami-kun," Kuroko says and brandishes his little toiletry pouch. "I'm all done, so please go ahead."

Taiga nods without a sound, wondering how Kuroko can be so composed. His own insides have declared a mutiny: stomach flipping and guts churning and heart nearly popping out of his chest. Everything about Kuroko is sexy, even his bedhead. How has Taiga managed to spend two minutes in the same room with him until now without becoming a gibbering lust monster?

"What's wrong, Kagami-kun?" Kuroko asks, but before Taiga can answer, his eyes widen. "Don't tell me I did something strange last night. I can't seem to remember very much after that third beer."

Oh. With an effort, Taiga shakes his head. "Nope," he manages. "You were just really drunk so I had to, uh, carry you most of the way."

"I'm sorry for the trouble." Kuroko looks down at his feet.

"Hey, no worries," Taiga says. "If I knew you were such a lightweight, I'd never have let you into the hard stuff."

He heads into the bathroom, careful not to slam the door, slides the lock into place, and turns to look at his rumpled face and bloodshot eyes in the mirror. I think I handled that well enough. Kuroko's powers of human observation are scientifically beyond compare, but he didn't seem suspicious.

Sometime around the five hundred and fourth revolution of the ceiling fan last night, it occurred to Taiga that he could pretend not to remember what happened. He dismissed the thought outright; he's terrible at lying and even worse at lying to Kuroko, whose mind can absorb seventeen unrelated facts and spit out a correlation in the time it takes to blow and pop a gum bubble.

Only now he has to pretend nothing happened, for Kuroko's sake if not for his own. Thirty minutes remain until Aomine and the movers arrive. It isn't time enough to rattle the foundations of a friendship, and after that time is up, there will be no opportunity for privacy.

He turns on the cold water and scrubs his face until it stings with shock. I will have to forget it happened. Would that his memory were as merciful as Kuroko's.

-

The movers have gone, and Taiga is in his new bedroom, folding shirts into the massive dresser's top shelf and sneaking looks at Kuroko, who's hanging clothes into the middle third of the wardrobe.

There is negative space around Taiga's mouth, shaped like Kuroko's lips.

"Why do you keep staring at me, Kagami-kun? Is there something on my face?"

Taiga averts his eyes quickly. "No," he says. "I keep thinking there is dirt on your nose but when I look again, it's gone. Must be Vanishing Dirt."

"You say strange things sometimes," Kuroko observes.

"You're one to talk," Taiga mutters.

"I think he was going for witty," Aomine says, sticking his head into the room. "You guys are too slow. I'm going to check out the weight room on campus."

"Wait, Aomine-kun," Kuroko says, sliding the wardrobe door shut. "I'm done, so I'll go with you."

"What about Nigou?" Taiga calls after him.

"My dad will bring him tomorrow. He said I could have today for settling in. Come find us later if you want."

"Sure," Taiga says, but the front door has already slammed; they are gone.

He has half a mind to leave everything unfinished and follow them, but that's stupid. He needs to stay away from Kuroko for the next little while, until the memory of last night's kiss fades. Right now it is so fresh that the aftertaste of Kuroko's warm mouth is his for the taking whenever he's not making himself think of other things.

The first sight of Aomine disabused him of any delusion that he would get over Aomine if he chose Kuroko. His feelings for Aomine remain, and his feelings for Kuroko haven't grown; they've just taken a sharp turn for the R-18.

It's a good thing classes are about to start.

*

Taiga skips new student orientation. He can look up what he needs online, and he's in no mood for either small talk or awkward group activities. He naps on a sunlit bench outside his department's student affairs office until it's his turn for registration.

A harried faculty advisor makes him choose a track -- Taiga goes for manager training. His old man probably wants him to go for international business administration, but Taiga wants to stay in Japan. In the States, he's different no matter how well he tries to blend. He doesn't mind that, but he wants the option of not having to try.

He fills out paperwork for the laptop loaner while the advisor drones on about the foundational courses he has to take this year. It's a total snorefest: information processing, modern civilisation, basics of business administration, introductory economics. An intimidating snorefest.

Aomine and Kuroko have gone off to their own departments long ago. A quick look at the campus map tells Taiga that he'll likely never see them outside basketball practice. He's glad; he needs time away from them, especially Kuroko. It's been four days since the kiss, but whenever Taiga's mind doesn't wander, it is full of the soft press of Kuroko's lips, the firm grip of Kuroko's hand on the back of his neck, the hesitant longing in Kuroko's eyes.

Taiga finds the sports club tables behind the archery dojo. Laden with textbooks, laptop, and an ominous sense of foreboding -- what was he thinking, going to university? He's gonna die -- he writes his name, year, and faculty on the basketball club sign-up sheet. Kuroko's name is at the top of the first of four pages; he can't find Aomine on it. Bastard probably won't even bother signing up. He'll just show up and expect to be a starting member right off.

"The first club meeting is in a week," the manager calls after him. "You can find the details online."

"Yeah, thanks," Taiga says, walking off -- he's already looked it up. It feels kind of nice being just a face in the crowd. Seirin's basketball success made both him and Kuroko kind of famous at school, and unlike Kuroko, Taiga has no talent for disappearing acts. He prefers the double-takes at his height to the double-takes at his face followed by whispers and pointed fingers. No more love letters in my shoe locker, either. There aren't even any shoe lockers.

He did see a few names on the list that he vaguely recognised; people from Tokyo-area schools that Seirin faced in the past. They'll probably recognise him, but that stuff's easier to deal with when it's just ball players around -- at least they have something in common. Only one of the girls who sent Taiga love letters in high school actually cared about basketball.

I bet Aomine will have a mental breakdown when he gets here and people don't recognise him right off, he thinks uncharitably. Then it strikes him that he can't know that for sure.

He doesn't know all that much about Aomine -- not his favourite food, not the kind of music he listens to or video games he plays, not what he thinks of stuff like global warming and national suicide rates and the flagging Japanese economy. Taiga has absorbed such things about Kuroko by osmosis, but he only knows Aomine on the court.

Some guy once said that basketball doesn't build character, it reveals character. Besides, what would Taiga do with Aomine trivia? I'll leave that to his inevitable fan club.

-

One of the first things Taiga learns about Aomine is that he's kind of hopeless when it comes to some fundamental human survival strategies.

They have agreed that Taiga and Kuroko will split paying rent and utilities while Aomine takes care of food expenses. After the first week of classes, the food they bought together on moving day runs out, so Taiga hands Aomine a list of ingredients to last them another seven days.

Aomine returns suspiciously quickly, announcing, "I didn't know what half this stuff is supposed to look like, so I just got premade food instead."

The bag he's holding is not from any supermarket Taiga's ever heard of, and as he empties it onto the kitchen counter, Taiga feels the beginnings of a tension headache.

"This is plastic food," he says flatly. "The kind restaurants use for advertising."

"Oh," Aomine says, peering closer at the plate of what looks like fried tofu. "No wonder it was so expensive."

Taiga has never seen Aomine look abashed before. His eyelids lower and spots of deep crimson bloom high across his cheeks. Taiga has a brief but fevered vision of pressing his lips against the flushed skin, of being the reason Aomine is blushing. The familiar process of undressing Aomine with his mind begins, but Taiga clamps down on it and shoves the fake food back into the bag.

"Ahomine," he mutters. "Let's go return these and then we'll hit the real supermarket. Kuroko, you come too."

"Yes, dad," Kuroko says with a dead-serious expression.

Aomine laughs uneasily and fluffs Kuroko's hair. Taiga wonders what those pale strands would feel like beneath his fingertips. He wants another chance to kiss him, and this time he wouldn't be so startled that his hands are useless. He would stroke Kuroko's hair and let Kuroko guide his free hand wherever he wants it. Aomine would walk in on them like this, and Taiga would beckon him closer, closer, and Aomine's sharp eyes would begin to cloud with unreason as Taiga--

"Kagami-kun, you're in everyone's way," Kuroko says, lightly touching Taiga's elbow.

Taiga jumps as high as he ever has on the court, and a woman hurries past him with a suspicious backwards glance, through the doors and into the supermarket.

"Right," Taiga says, cursing himself for a daydreaming fool. "Where's that list I gave you?"

It's a good thing there's basketball.

-

The basketball club is nothing like Taiga expected.

The team is huge. Seirin had about thirty people by the end of the third year; Tokai has at least five times that if you count the hopefuls. They gather in the stands like spectators, the existing team members clustering together, the freshmen obvious in their loneliness, many of them recognising both Aomine and Taiga as expected, most failing to notice Kuroko until he's pointed out as usual.

Taiga studies the upperclassmen, going over the team's rankings from the last season in his mind, and wonders if he'll even get to play in a regular match this year. None of the men are as tall as Aomine, though a few approach Taiga's height. Some of them are very adult-like; they give off an impression of seasoned pros, just like Tokyo Big Blue. Down in the centre circle, he counts four coaches, six managers, and another half dozen people whose jobs he can only guess at.

"What do you think they all do?" he asks Kuroko, who is also studying the staff group.

"Probably stuff like specialised training," Kuroko says with a shrug.

"I hope that hot babe on the left is a masseuse," Aomine says. "Pro teams have them, you know."

Taiga rolls his eyes. "Thanks for telling us stuff we know better than you, dumbass."

Aomine turns to him with a furious glare, but one of the coaches below blows a whistle, and the crowd hushes up. Aomine shoves an elbow into Taiga's side; Taiga wants to retaliate but the guy with the whistle is looking right at him, so he subsides. One thing is certain: this team will have none of Seirin's easy camaraderie. A club this huge must have discipline and order.

After roll call, head coach Tsunematsu announces that there are thirty open spots on the team, ten of which are already filled, then rattles off the ten's names. Taiga, Aomine, and Kuroko are on the list.

Taiga tugs on Kuroko's T-shirt sleeve. "You were recruited too?"

Kuroko shakes his head. "No, but the coach was there when I signed up and he recognised me."

"Why didn't you say something about it?" Aomine demands, leaning over Taiga. His skin gives off a faint scent of cologne, and Taiga's heart stutters at the smell of sweet dark green sea. Aomine's neck is a breath away, his skin smooth brown perfect--

"You didn't ask," Kuroko says.

Aomine settles back with a snort and a rueful shake of his head.

Taiga blinks back the daze and remembers where he is and what just happened: Kuroko has made the team because a big time university basketball coach knew what he looked like. He's often marvelled at Kuroko's remarkable progress over their high school years. The weak-ass scrawny shrimp Taiga challenged and wiped the floor with three years ago, whose only strength was his lack of presence on the court, grew into a solid all-arounder with a dozen trick moves that no one else can match.

He's damn proud of Kuroko, for all the grief he gives him during practice. He glances sideways at Aomine and sees something similar reflected in his expression. It fills him with resentment. You weren't even there to watch Kuroko grow, to push him, to believe in him. You just spent five minutes teaching him to shoot, so wipe that satisfaction off your face, you bastard.

Aomine seems unaware of Taiga's telepathic messaging; his focus is on the court.

The other fifty or so hopefuls have a dunking competition, which weeds out ten. The rest play five-man, five-minute skirmishes tournament-style. By this time, Taiga is half sorry he was recruited; sitting up here between Kuroko and Aomine is making him sweat for reasons unrelated to basketball. He'd rather be sweating from running around the court. The idea that all three of them are on the same team has sunk in.

That means changing rooms and showers. It means seeing Aomine naked for the first time ever and seeing Kuroko naked for the first time since they kissed. It means worrying about boners when he should be worrying about triple threats and shooting percentages. He's got half a boner now just from sitting between them. Maybe I should stop thinking about them naked.

Taiga stares at the ball players jockeying below, bodies colliding in the paint where the fighting is fiercest, and wonders if maybe he should have thought this whole following Kuroko to university thing through a little more critically.

-

Tokai puts defense first; their strategy is to achieve a comfortable point difference in the first two quarters and then aggressively keep the opposing team from scoring in the second two. With Aomine and Taiga on the team, the coaches are assembling a new strategy that they're going to start implementing come pre-season.

In the meantime, the players drill -- in teams supervised by athletic trainers and individually with player development coaches. Taiga used to think Riko's training was ridiculous, but she clearly let them off easy. On the three days a week that he has practice, to drag himself home and fall asleep is the most he can manage; readings and homework and other school crap is impossible to contemplate.

He adjusts -- all three of them do -- and Taiga's fears about things becoming weird with Aomine and Kuroko never materialise. They are driven too hard to think about anything except running faster, jumping higher, getting more baskets. As the weeks pass, even Kuroko's drunken kisses fade from awareness; those sweet secret moments are ethereal as the remnants of burnt silk, an impossible dream.

Taiga watches Aomine get past three defenders and windmill a shot with so much raw force it's still a blur even when it hits the floor.

"Thinks he's Kadour Ziani, huh?"

Taiga glances at Fuda, a third-year point guard who's overly friendly with everyone, but says nothing. He understands the resentment towards Aomine; he feels it every time he watches the asshole on the court. Aomine is every breathless adjective reporters stick to him and more: unstoppable, godlike, ferocious. Still, he doesn't like anyone who isn't him badmouthing Aomine.

"Aomine is Aomine," he says, opting for diplomacy. "Don't worry, he'll stop coming to practice soon enough."

It's true -- as soon as Aomine determines that Taiga remains the only marginal threat to him, he stops practising and starts partying.

One late June evening he stumbles home while Taiga and Kuroko are up past their bedtime studying for midterms. They bought a library table for the living room to accommodate all three of them, but Aomine's never sat at it.

"Aomine-kun, I wish you would come to practice more," Kuroko says while Aomine sprawls out on the couch and begins to unbutton his shirt.

"Tokai's the strongest, and I've beaten them all," Aomine says. "I expected more of a challenge at this level."

Taiga tries not to watch the undone shirt fall away from Aomine's chest, fails. "I hope you like the bench, then," he says. "Tsunematsu said--"

"Screw what the coach said to the rest of you pawns. He's going to put me in the starting line-up and you know it."

"I wouldn't be so sure about that," Kuroko says, sliding a bookmark into Modern Japanese Literature and rising. "By the way, you forgot to do the dishes again yesterday."

"I'll just walk the dog instead of you tonight, how's that?" Nigou, curled up in his doggy bed after greeting Aomine at the door, lifts a floppy ear.

"Kagami-kun and I have already taken Nigou for his walk," Kuroko says.

It was a nice walk, too; they talked about time travel and saw a cloud of fireflies.

Aomine sighs. "I'll take him tomorrow morning--"

"I hope you don't think that the two of us are going to keep picking up after you, Aomine-kun," Kuroko interrupts. Taiga hopes Aomine has the sense to back down; Kuroko never interrupts people unless he's seriously pissed off.

Aomine scowls at Kuroko. "I didn't mean to forget, okay? It won't happen again."

Kuroko walks off to the bedroom, and Aomine stares at his retreating back. "What's with him?" he asks, noticing Taiga watching him.

"Don't act like I'm on your side," Taiga says, glancing away. He was actually just admiring Aomine's profile and replaying bedtime fantasy number ninety-seven, in which both Taiga and Aomine follow an angry Kuroko into the bedroom to try and appease him, get stuck in the doorway, and--

He gives his head a firm shake. "I cook, Kuroko does a weekly clean and walks Nigou, you do the dishes, we all do our own laundry. It's fair and really not a challenge."

Aomine gets up from the sofa. "Whatever. When did you guys turn into a couple of old ladies?" Taiga watches him go, wishing he'd wear tighter trousers.

Aomine doesn't forget to do the dishes again.

-

After midterms, Kuroko and Aomine both go home for the summer break, but as much as Taiga missed living alone, he misses having them around even more. He thought living with them would desensitise him, but instead he's only sinking deeper.

He's given up on the hope that familiarity would breed contempt as advertised. Before they moved here, he had powerful, soul-deep crushes on Kuroko and Aomine. Now he's hopelessly in love with them. At least he's good at pretending he feels nothing of the sort, and he gets better at it every day.

He spends August going back and forth between the apartment and the campus training centre, and every night he's alarmed not to find Kuroko watching some badly acted mystery while reading a book at the same time, or Aomine sheepishly scrubbing an entire day's worth of dishes still in his party clothes. He can recall in perfect detail every time he pretended to doze on the couch and watched Kuroko eat a banana. He knows exactly when Aomine jerks off in the shower because Taiga's been timing him.

He can't wait for classes to start again, and that's a thought he hasn't had since elementary school.

When he was sixteen, Taiga was perfectly aware that normal people fall in love with one person at a time. He thought he was just confused, that his feelings for either Kuroko or Aomine would fade, leaving behind the sort of fondness he feels for Tatsuya. Now he's starting to believe that either he's not a normal person or there's a lot more to love than normal people think.

It's bad enough that one day he'll have to tell his parents that they shouldn't expect grandchildren because their only son has no interest in women. Even if his fondest wish is granted by some miracle and both Kuroko and Aomine agree to be with him -- not that he would ever ask, but wishes aren't dreams, you don't strive for them -- how the hell is he supposed to explain that? His folks are far from ultra-conservative but even the broadest minds have limits.

That girl in my civ class was telling me about the campus psychiatrist before the midterm. Maybe I should go see him. But that's ridiculous. Taiga may be crazy about Kuroko and Aomine, but he isn't crazy. At least he doesn't think so.

He opens up his laptop and phrase-searches I love two people. He finds blog posts by women whose two-timing husbands claim to love them as much as the mistresses. He finds advice column submissions, the answer to which is inevitably "just search your feelings carefully and pick one person".

"Yeah, I tried that," Taiga mutters at yet another one of these. "Didn't work."

He never actually let Kuroko know he was picking him before Aomine waltzed into their strange new life. Maybe if he tried to commit to Kuroko, Aomine's hold over him would vanish. If there were anything normal about how Taiga feels, at least someone somewhere would be talking about it, but he's already on the ninth page of results and all of it's screaming at him to make a choice.

"I'm home," Kuroko calls from the door, and Taiga slams the laptop shut reflexively, whirling around in shock. Of all the times he could have decided to show up, why did it have to be right this minute?

"Were you looking at pornography, Kagami-kun?" Kuroko asks as he walks in.

"N-no, why would I be doing that in the middle of the day?"

Kuroko moves to the fridge and pulls out a Pocari. "If you want pornography, you can just open the cardboard box under Aomine-kun's clothes inside the wardrobe. He's got lots. I'm sure he won't mind."

"Dumbass," Taiga says, reopening his laptop and calmly closing the browser windows he opened; Kuroko's too far to read what's on them but it's obviously not porn. Taiga's always thought porn was for people with no imagination. "What brings you by, anyway?"

"I forgot to bring some of my classics notes with me," Kuroko says, bending down to rummage through his bookshelf.

Taiga studies the shape his butt makes and wants to come up silently behind Kuroko, wait for him to straighten up, then turn him around and kiss him, take him by surprise the way Kuroko did to him. If I make the choice now, today, then by the time Aomine comes back I might be over him.

The vision of the unexpected kiss is so potent that Taiga actually rises and crosses half the room to the bookshelf before Kuroko straightens, notebooks in hand. "Found them," he says. "Kagami-kun?"

Taiga freezes awkwardly in the infinite space between table and shelf, between the Internet's unforgiving answers and Kuroko's slender, real form. "Er, I was just going to help you look. But I guess there's no need, huh."

"I appreciate the thought," Kuroko says. His steady gaze pins Taiga to the spot. This is it. I can tell him how I feel right now. I will. He's so damn beautiful.

As Taiga opens his mouth, a vision of Aomine intrudes into his thoughts: Touou's black home uniform, sweatdrops across his forehead, midnight eyes intent on Taiga's face, every muscle taut with anticipation, a wicked smirk on his thin lips, and a whisper: you'll never win against me.

Kuroko breaks eye contact. "I've got to run; I have a meeting with my faculty advisor in twenty minutes," he says, slipping the notebooks into the bookbag strapped across his chest. "Sorry for intruding and I'll see you in a month."

"Yeah," Taiga says, defeated. "Later." What's wrong with me? Damn it, why can't I choose?

He walks to the balcony and watches Kuroko cross the playground below and head for the campus shortcut. When he can no longer see him through the trees ringing the property, Taiga goes back inside and retrieves Aomine's porn stash from the wardrobe. Most of it isn't even real porn, just gravure idol photobooks, though someone as pure as Kuroko would consider them pornographic.

He finds a few American magazines where the women are actually naked, sometimes with their genitals on display. Taiga studies these with interest -- he's never actually seen a woman's private parts in such detail -- but it does nothing for him. Often there aren't even any faces in the pictures, just vulvae held open by slender fingers with clawlike nails.

Are body parts without the person supposed to be hot? Taiga doesn't get it. He feels a vague thrill when he finds a well-used formerly glossy mag with young men in it, and the idea of Aomine leafing through this while jerking off makes him so excited that Taiga puts it aside. With his luck, Kuroko will come back for another notebook or Aomine will decide to pay a surprise visit, and he'll never be able to explain himself.

Underneath a stack of idol magazines from three years ago rests a photo album. The cover cracks as Taiga opens it to a black-and-white headshot of a younger Kuroko, the one Taiga remembers from first year of high school. The one Taiga had no use for, then grew to respect, then fell in love with. Kuroko wears his usual ultra-serious expression of mild disapproval.

Taiga turns the page to purikura shots of Kuroko, then Aomine, then Kuroko and Aomine. In the very last shot, Aomine's holding Kuroko's face between his hands, their mouths close together, and Kuroko looks startled but unafraid.

A photo of Kuroko sleeping, his bare shoulder peeking out from underneath a pure white comforter. Same shot, but Kuroko's eyes are open and he's smiling vaguely at the person behind the camera. A shot of Kuroko on an outdoor court in a bright yellow practice jersey. Kuroko in his Teikou uniform, hanging off the rim by his hands. Kuroko in a bathtub, mildly irritated. A diagonal selfie of Kuroko and Aomine, faces pressed together, grinning up at the lens. Shirtless Kuroko, eyes hidden beneath his bangs, a tiny smile on his lips.

There's more of you I want to taste, Kuroko said to him on the night they kissed.

Taiga has suspected that Aomine and Kuroko had a past beyond basketball, but to have it confirmed makes Taiga feel like one of the wives in those blog posts he was reading earlier. Someone as pure as Kuroko, huh. Taiga flips through the rest of the album and finds more of the same: nothing explicit or even suggestive, but all of it meaningful. On the last page there is only a candid shot of Kuroko in his Seirin uniform, half-turned to Taiga in the background.

Did Kuroko suggest Aomine's stash knowing what Taiga would find? If so, what does it mean? Has he noticed Taiga's feelings? Is this a delicate way of telling Taiga to stay away from both of them?

Taiga carefully replaces everything, fits the lid back over the box, and slides the box where he got it. I need a fucking intervention.

-

It takes three telephone conversations, two bottles of illegally purchased expensive cognac and an enormous box of Belgian chocolates to convince Ueda that a blacktop basketball court on the building's dilapidated playground is a good investment that will increase the rental value of the apartments.

Midway through September, two weeks before Tokai's second semester, construction finishes. The baskets are not at regulation height as Ueda wants the neighbourhood children to be able to play too -- which they do -- but at least now Taiga only has to go downstairs to practice whenever he wants instead of having to drag himself to campus during opening hours only. His shooting accuracy begins to improve.

Kuroko and Nigou are the first to come back during the third week of September. Taiga keeps meaning to bring up Aomine's photo album but can't find a pretext. In the imaginary conversations he's had with Kuroko about it, Kuroko is always the first one to ask if Taiga checked out Aomine's porn collection. The real Kuroko seems to have forgotten he was ever here during the break.

Nigou spends a lot of time trailing after Taiga and begging for belly rubs. Taiga understands the mutt's feelings: he keeps finding reasons to be in the same room as Kuroko and wishes he could be as honest as Nigou. Only it's not a belly rub he wants from Kuroko.

Aomine returns three days later, and Nigou starts mooning after him instead of Taiga, but Taiga can't switch his focus so quickly. Not seeing them and having the playground court at hand made it easier not to think about them, but now that they're back, Taiga's a mess. Kuroko's serene and deadly grace, Aomine's intense eyes and broad shoulders -- fuck me, I do want them both. It's no good if it's not both. What am I going to do?

One week before classes restart, the basketball club announces regular and starting members for the season. Of the three of them, only Kuroko makes the list, and even that spot is on the bench. The coaching staff has decided that the new offense-heavy strategy needed more refinement. Taiga's disappointed but unsurprised: it's rare that first-years are anything but benchwarmers.

Aomine is furious. Taiga watches his jaw tighten as the coach issues final instructions to the new starters; he fights the urge to put a hand on Aomine's arm to try and calm him down. What a joke. If I touched him, he'd probably get even more riled up and yell at me not to pity him. Just a year ago, he would have been pleased to see Aomine so frustrated, but Taiga's hopeless crush underwent an upgrade so major that seeing Aomine suffering is the opposite of pleasant.

After the meeting is over, Aomine shakes off Kuroko's attempts to stop him and stalks down the steps towards the head coach. Kuroko follows him sullenly. Taiga tags along, though he'd rather be half a world away.

"How may I assist you?" Tsunematsu asks, tucking his clipboard under his arm. He's practically half Aomine's height yet he doesn't look the least bit intimidated.

"Are you kidding? Why am I third string?" Aomine demands. His arms are at his sides, fists clenched.

Tsunematsu purses his lips, retrieves the clipboard again and flips to the middle of the sheaf of papers held there. "According to assistant coach Motoharu's records, you missed seventy-nine per cent of practices in the first semester. Nobody with that many absences gets first string consideration. This is clearly explained in your team handbook, which you're expected to read."

"Who cares about a handbook?" Aomine snaps. "I'm the best player in the region and you know it."

Tsunematsu adjusts his glasses and peers at Aomine as though inspecting a new molecule. "I spoke to your high school coach over the break regarding your behaviour -- frankly, I was very surprised he took no steps to root this nonsense out of you, given your potential. You are an immensely talented ball player, Aomine-kun, but your attitude will ruin your career."

Aomine frowns. "What attitude?"

"That a team is only as good as its best player. Basketball is a team sport, and here at Tokai we have a team, not a motley band of brilliant players who somehow make it all work. If you think you can carry a match all by yourself, quite frankly I don't want you on my team. I can't force you to leave, but if you can't adhere to Tokai's game philosophy, I suggest you quit." He looks at Taiga. "This isn't high school and I'm not here to wipe your noses, gentlemen."

Taiga recoils. He hasn't missed a single practice. He tries to think of a polite way to tell this asshole of a coach to go fuck himself, but can't come up with anything in any Japanese form of address.

"I spoke too rashly, Kagami-kun," Tsunematsu says upon noticing Taiga's expression. "You were kept off the roster because we really aren't ready to switch strategies to make good use of a strong power forward, and let's face it, your defensive capabilities need a lot of work. Kuroko-kun's misdirection can be used defensively to great effect, which is why we've kept him as an option."

"Him?" Taiga asks, bewildered. Kuroko's right here, isn't he? He looks around and realises that Aomine and Kuroko are gone. "When did they--"

"Aomine-kun took off before I was finished speaking to you," Tsunematsu says. "I didn't notice Kuroko-kun leaving. Was that all for today?"

"Yeah, thanks, uh, sir," Taiga says, bowing. "Please excuse me."

Oh, this is really bad.

[Part 3 - How Do You Even Keep That Thing Upright?]
Tags: fic:knb:softer than before
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