Atsushi stared at the doll in his hands, his expression barely shifting save for a lift of an eyebrow as he pulled it out of its wrapping. Mikoto in turn stared back, her hands clasped before her as she sat in the living room of the Murasakibara household and awaited his response to her gift. Atsushi's birthday had fallen on a Sunday, and Mikoto knew for a fact that the guys on the team were waiting to properly celebrate with him after practice the following day- hence why she decided to pay him a visit to actually give him her present on his day of birth itself. She didn't want to be subjected to any possible taunts for her choice of present for Atsushi- she had a nasty feeling that Kensuke especially would have a few witty things to say- and she also didn't want to start comparing everyone else's gifts to her own. She was hesitant enough about this as it was, and the last thing she needed was to start feeling that her gift was inferior compared to everyone else's.

A warm palm enveloped her joined hands, and Mikoto flinched in surprise, looking up at Tatsuya as he sat beside her. With a reassuring smile, he slowly slipped his fingers between her clenched hands and pried open their hold- she hadn't realised how tightly she'd clenched them; her knuckles were even turning a little pale. Not for the first time, Mikoto was grateful for his presence- asking him to accompany her to Atsushi's house had been the best decision she'd made all day. She definitely needed the moral support to get over her nerves- and for someone to stop her from hurting her already burnt fingers further. She really had to watch where she put down her glue gun.

"So." Mikoto cleared her throat, noting just how hoarse her voice sounded. Atsushi didn't even glance over to acknowledge that he'd heard her, but she knew he was listening anyway. "Do you like it?"

"Soft..." He murmured, squeezing the body of the doll between his thumbs as if to emphasise his observation. Mikoto's face fell at the remark, unsure if that was a positive or negative comment. Was he one of those people who preferred sturdier textures over soft ones?

"Is that a bad thing? If you need me to, I can change the stuffing material to something firmer-"

"Shira-chin," Atsushi spoke up, cutting her off midway. He stood up just then, handing the doll to her. "Hold this."

"Uhm, okay?" Mikoto glanced from the stuffed figure to Atsushi's departing back, then back down and up again. With a furrow in her brow, she sat back down as Atsushi disappeared up the stairs and whispered, "What is he doing?"

"Probably fetching something," Tatsuya replied, seemingly nonchalant about the entire scenario. Mikoto merely hummed in response, glancing around to try and distract herself from the building anxiety. She noted just how quiet the household was when none of the other siblings were awake and about- Eiko and Daisuke had gone out with the parents, possibly to get something ready for Atsushi, and Junichi was apparently still sleeping. It was strange- this was the first time she'd seen the place so empty and quiet, and it was almost unnerving.

"Should I take that as a good or bad sign?"

"Relax, Mikoto-chan," Tatsuya assured, his hand coming to rest upon her shoulder with a comforting squeeze. "Stop assuming the worst- it doesn't take much to make Atsushi happy. Just wait and see."

"Still, I can't help but worry." Mikoto sighed, looking down at the doll in her hands. Her fingers trailed along the ridges of the felt bag of potato chips she'd sewed onto its hand, and she found her mind wandering back to the years she spent in Teiko. "It's just... we spent two years in the same school, but even now I feel like I barely know anything about him. It's like I haven't made much progress on understanding him at all."

"My guess is that you're thinking too much about it. You may not think you get him, but Atsushi's actually a pretty easy person to read," Tatsuya reassured, a slight smile on his face as he tapped her chin, urging her to look at him again. "Besides, he seems to think of you fondly. Any gift that you give him will be treasured."

"You think so?"

"I know it for a fact." Tatsuya nodded, pushing a stray lock of hair behind her ear. Mikoto was very sure that her face flushed at how gently he'd touched her, but before she could embarrass herself he withdrew his hand just as quickly as he'd reached out. It occurred to her just then that Tatsuya had never said anything about her new haircut directly- idly, she wondered what he thought about it. Before Mikoto could ask, however, Atsushi chose that moment to return as he descended the stairs. To her surprise, he had brought his schoolbag down with him, and as soon as he approached them, he held his bag out to her.

"Can you tie it on this?" Atsushi asked before she could even begin to wonder what was going on. Hesitantly, Mikoto stood up again, her eyes darting from the item in her hands to the strap of his schoolbag that Atsushi held.

"Uhm, what...?"

"I'm not good with small things," He stated plainly, as if that explained everything. The towering first-year shook the bag slightly, pointing at the buckle of the strap as he said, "Tie it through here."

"Oh... okay," Mikoto muttered absently as she stood, deciding not to ask any more questions. Unhooking the main doll from the chain with the sturdy lobster clip she'd attached to it, she made a simple loop through the buckle of the bag's strap adjuster, securing it in place before she hooked the stuffed figure back on. Letting it hang loose from its new position, Mikoto took a step back to see how it looked- it seemed to dangle nicely in its new position without looking too unnatural or awkward, and she was satisfied. Still, it wasn't her opinion that mattered. With trepidation acting on her nerves, she glanced up at Atsushi, who was eyeing the new addition to his bag with a mildly scrutinising look on his otherwise passive face.

Biting her lip, Mikoto traced her index finger over the lines of her bracelet, seeking comfort in the familiar habit as she awaited Atsushi's reaction. She thought it looked alright, but did he like how it looked as much as she did? He hadn't said anything since the doll had been presented to him- would he think it was too childish? Maybe it was too big, and he didn't like the way its bulkiness hung from his bag? Heck, maybe he didn't like his own avatar that much after modelling it, and now it was just a reminder of his own bad decisions-

"It's not bad," Atsushi said, startling her out of her continuous downhill deliberation. "Thanks, Shira-chin."

"So... you do like it?" Mikoto asked, not quite sure what to make of his reaction. Atsushi merely shrugged in response.


"You don't have to be nice if that's what you think. If you don't like it, I can-"

A hand clamped down on her head, and Mikoto cut herself off with a wince.

"Shira-chin, that's getting really annoying." Atsushi pressed down harder on her head as he spoke, and Mikoto nearly stumbled under the pressure. She tried to push his hand away, but it had little to no impact on him whatsoever, so she gave up with a huff.

"Just wanted to be sure, is all. I didn't know what to expect- it was somewhat nerve-wracking, to be honest."

"I can attest to that. She was muttering to herself and pacing the entire time before we arrived, it was even making me nervous."

"Tatsuya-kun!" Mikoto spun towards him, her cheeks flaring up. Tatsuya just tilted his head at her, his innocently neutral expression betraying no emotion as he stared back at her. Before she could decide on whether she wanted to become single again, however, Atsushi sighed heavily.

"I like it, okay? Stop asking already," He grumbled, his hands digging into his pockets for sweets. Even though he didn't look her in the eye as he said that- and he didn't sound too enthusiastic either- Mikoto found herself feeling awfully relieved at his assurance.

"I'm glad that's the case." She murmured, an awkward smile on her face and her fingers toying with her bracelet. When Atsushi looked up for a minute, their eyes met-and even she found that she couldn't look at his face for long as they both glanced away simultaneously. For a long moment, there was utter silence save for the sound of Atsushi unwrapping another milk candy, and Mikoto found herself rather fascinated by a particular spot in the floorboards. Things continued like that for a solid half-minute before Tatsuya sighed.

"You're both terrible at this."

"At what?" Both Mikoto and Atsushi chimed in unison, resulting in a peculiar exchange of looks between them. Tatsuya laughed this time, shaking his head and shooting them both a look that said they were proving his point.

"Being sincere with each other really isn't that hard."

"This is coming from you?" Mikoto raised an eyebrow, scepticism evident in her tone, and Atsushi nodded in agreement.

"Muro-chin is a hypocrite. He's worse than either of us."


"You're both ganging up on me, now?" Tatsuya sounded almost offended, his smile slipping off his face almost comically. In response, the two teens looked over at each other, paused for a moment, and then turned back towards him with a shrug.

"Yes." They both replied in unison, earning yet another sigh from Tatsuya as his shoulders drooped.

"I'm not even going to try responding to that."

"Smart choice," Mikoto teased, feeling almost triumphant at this small victory. Even Atsushi appeared smug, and as they exchanged another look, Mikoto felt her smile widen.

If someone had told her two years ago that she would be sitting in Atsushi Murasakibara's house, giving him a birthday present and agreeing with him on something, she would have told them they were delusional. And yet here she was, doing exactly that and actually enjoying herself.

Maybe it had taken a lot of time, but Mikoto decided that calling Atsushi Murasakibara her friend really wasn't a bad thing at all.

Chapter 26: Progression

It was a long day in the Student Council room that afternoon, and Tatsuya took his time as he rearranged the strewn items around the classroom. The members had just finished hanging up posters detailing the school trip for the third-years as well as the updated information sheets around the campus, and he had volunteered to help with cleanup duty in the meeting room once it was over. There wasn't all that much to do, and besides himself, a few others, including Hinata Matsuki, stayed back to ensure everything was in order before locking up. The aforementioned third-year had acknowledged his presence during the meeting as they all got around to doing their jobs, but they hadn't really talked much with all that was going on.

It was only after the only other person besides the two of them finally left the room that she actually addressed him properly.

"You know, Himuro-kun." Her voice called out to him as he placed the last of the supplies back in the class' cabinet. Having not expected the sudden address, Tatsuya turned towards her- and was almost surprised to see the calm, yet almost indifferent expression on Hinata's face. With a tilt of her head, she said, "You're lucky I trust Shirato-chan's judgement."

"Sorry?" The statement left Tatsuya in utter confusion, but he made sure his expression didn't reveal the fact that he'd been caught off-guard. Hinata merely leaned back against a chair that had been pushed into the main discussion table, brushing her long blonde hair over her shoulder. Tatsuya absently noticed that the dark roots of her hair were showing- it looked like she was in need of a re-dye soon.

"You've got lots of people with their eye on you, Himuro-kun. I know that you caught on to how Yamagishi-chan was batting her eyelashes at you the entire time while you were helping with the posters." The third-year snorted, though her laugh was humourless. "And that's hardly the only incident. Honestly, after all the times you were confessed to in the past few months, I'm surprised that you even chose to be with Shirato-chan."

Tatsuya's eyes narrowed at the statement, an unexpected feeling of indignation on both his and Mikoto's behalf stirring within his chest. Still, he maintained a civil tone as he asked, "What are you implying, senpai?"

"Glad you asked. I'll cut to the chase," Hinata replied easily, barely even hesitating. Her feet crossed over casually as she stood with her back braced against the chair, her eyes meeting his- when Tatsuya noted the solemn expression on her face, a chill ran down his spine. There was something about the gymnastics captain that he'd both respected and was intimidated slightly by from what little he'd interacted with her within the student council, and at that moment he was all too aware of those mixed emotions. "You're practically the ideal high schooler. Looks, popularity, charisma- you've got the whole package, but I never could get a read on you. Always felt that you had some sort of hidden motive under all your niceties and politeness. To be frank, I didn't like you very much."

Well, that was certainly honest. Tatsuya felt mildly affronted by her accusations, but before he could respond, Hinata continued.

"Then." She took a breath here, her tone softening as she said, "You took notice of Shirato-chan. I was apprehensive, admittedly- I assumed you wanted something from her. Even though I teased her about it, I knew she could handle herself- and I was more than ready to talk her out of getting involved with you if it came to that. It's just... I never expected the two of you to actually become friends."

The third-year's expression had shifted into something less harsh as she spoke of her friend, and it was then that Tatsuya understood what this was really about. He took a step forward, causing Hinata to look up at him again before he said, "I don't blame you for not trusting me, senpai. However, I assure you- I have nothing less than Mikoto-chan's best interests in mind. Whether or not you believe that is up to your judgement."

Hinata eyed him silently for a moment, her expression blank. It was rare for Tatsuya to ever feel uncomfortable under someone's scrutiny, but Hinata was sharp- enough such that he was almost worried about what deductions she would make from her observations of him. When she finally looked away, Tatsuya found himself exhaling a breath he hadn't realised he'd been holding.

"Like I said, I trust Shirato-chan's judgement- and in this case, I value that over any other opinion I may have." Hinata supported her chin with a hand, a sigh leaving her lips. "But I'll also give you more than just the benefit of the doubt. I... haven't seen Shirato-chan quite like this in a long time."

That piqued his interest. "What do you mean?"

Hinata didn't miss the curious tone in his voice, it would seem- the quirk of her lips said as much. Looking back at him, she scrutinised his expression once more before she spoke. "She was different back in her first year, you know. Still a little shy, being the new kid and all, but she seemed willing to at least try to find a place she could fit in. That... that changed, somewhere along the way. It became obvious after she went back to Tokyo during the school break."

Here, Hinata paused. The image of Mikoto with that reserved, proper attitude came to Tatsuya's mind once more- her short replies, closed-off demeanour and overall distant nature made her seem almost like a different person from the girl he'd come to like now. When Hinata spoke again, quieter this time, her voice was tinged with regret.

"I tried to approach her, but there wasn't much I could do. It was like she wanted to be alone, so I let her." Hinata sighed, her fingers drumming against the back of the chair. "To be frank, I still don't know if that was the right thing to do."

Her self deprecation didn't sit quite right with Tatsuya. He'd seen how the captain looked out for Mikoto- as far as he knew, she'd done more for her than virtually any other person in this school. With that in mind, Tatsuya reassured her, "Regardless of how little you feel you did, I'm sure your presence helped her through those times, too. Perhaps you did do what was right- maybe you gave her the time and space she needed to heal."

"Even so, you did what I couldn't- you've managed to give her motivation to try again. That's something I can't deny," Hinata said, turning to him with a sharp look in her eye. "So don't you dare break that trust, Himuro-kun. If I catch wind of you doing something fishy or that you've got something to hide, I'm going after your head first." Here, her voice gained a sly tone, and the captain casually added, "If that happens, I assure you- you won't get her back again. There are those of us who would be more than willing to take your place."

Tatsuya blinked in surprise at that last statement, realisation dawning upon him at the gymnastics captain's indirect warning. As the information sank in, the corner of his lips twitched upwards.

"And here I thought you liked Okamura."

"I do. He's a sweetheart," Hinata admitted easily, unfazed by the reaction to her confession. "But Shirato-chan is cute, too. She could be my type."

"I'm glad you decided that you liked Okamura more, then. I don't think I would stand a chance against you, senpai."

"Flattery will get you nowhere with me, Himuro-kun." Hinata snorted good-naturedly, and she shook her head at his words. Still, she fell silent, contemplating her words for a moment before she said, "You know what Shirato-chan's like. Once she's committed, she'll stick with it- that applies to everything she does. Make sure you don't do anything to betray that faith."

The phantom sensation of Mikoto's fingers ghosting over his face tingled over his skin, the memory of her quiet assurances and soft smiles kindling a warmth that settled in the centre of his chest. With a barely noticeable quirk of his lips, Tatsuya bowed slightly towards Hinata with gratitude. "Thank you, Matsuki-senpai. For the talk, and for being a friend to her all this while."

"You just take care of her." Hinata waved off his formalities, finally pushing herself off the chair as she reached under the table and scooped up her bag. She seemed ready to leave, before she suddenly paused and added, "Oh, I almost forgot, I heard from Tanaka-kun that the volleyball team had a surprise inspection yesterday at practice. Fukui-kun or Kenichi-kun will probably mention it, but I think you lot should probably get to tidying up your lockers before practice tomorrow."

That made Tatsuya pause. The image of the Yosen team's locker rooms flashed before his mind's eye- particularly the pieces of wrinkled clothing that were strewn about the place, the stain on the floors from the last time one of the guys spilled their coffee and didn't mop it up, and the disorderly state of the belongings he'd seen from what few glimpses he'd had into the others' lockers. His own locker was somewhat disorganised, but it wasn't anything he couldn't handle. The others, though- they were the ones he was afraid for.

...Oh god. Atsushi.

"That bad, huh?" Hinata laughed at the way he'd paused, realising that the workload that lay ahead was going to he a rough one indeed. She shook her head, a grin on her face as she sang, "Good luck tidying up then, Himuro-kun. In the meantime, let's get around to locking up, alright? You can continue stewing in your despair later."

As the two of them fetched their things and left the room, Tatsuya sighed quietly under his breath. This... this could only end horribly.

A puff of white left Mikoto's lips as she exhaled, watching as the condensation from her breath took form for the briefest moment before dissipating from sight. The manager made her way over the open field to the basketball court, the soles of her shoes crunching on the snow-laden path before her. It was snowing rather heavily today, she noted as she tilted her umbrella back just a little, wincing as another cold breeze nipped at her exposed face. She was wearing a winter jacket over her uniform and had its hood pulled up, but the onslaught of the falling snow was merciless. Unconsciously, she picked up the pace, hastening her journey towards the sanctuary that was the gym with ducted heating.

As soon as she stepped through the door to the main building, she sighed in relief and took a moment to sag against the nearest wall. Gathering herself, Mikoto shook off the snow on her umbrella and her person, making sure she didn't trail in too much of a mess before she continued walking down the hall, folding up her umbrella as she reached the entrance to the court. To her surprise, she noticed that there were already people inside-it looked like she wasn't the only one who had decided to drop in early today, and she had a good feeling as to just why that was.

"Good afternoon. I see everyone's already here," She announced as she walked in, making her presence known. The numerous members of the team that had gathered in the centre of the court tensed up and spun towards her as she approached, and Mikoto could tell from their reactions that they knew exactly what she did, too.

"What brings you here so early, Shirato-chan?" Kenichi asked, an innocent smile on his face. That only served to further confirm her suspicions- they were trying to act innocent, but there was really no point.

"I'm not going to pretend that you all don't know about the inspection notice, so don't bother. I'm not here to oversee that, either- but Coach will be arriving at the usual time." As soon as she said that, she could almost feel the tension leaving everyone's bodies. However, she folded her arms, keeping her expression stern. "The fact is this- if you fail the inspection, we all pay for it. So, I'm going give you guys a hand with the cleanup."

"That's it?" Kensuke seemed surprised at her generous offer, his incredulous tone betraying his otherwise neutral expression. "No conditions?"

"Well, if you insist." Mikoto shrugged, waving a hand with a sigh. "Fine, if I see anything I disapprove of that can't be cleaned in time, that means extra work for all of you during practice. Is that better?"

The glares that were turned Kensuke's way were so painfully incensed that the intensity could have melted him into a puddle. From the expression on his face, Mikoto had a feeling that he would have preferred that, too- but she decided to be merciful and bring attention back to the task at hand. Clapping her hands once for attention, she commanded, "Get to it. Don't waste time- Coach Araki could come in any second."

Without a moment's hesitation, the guys on the team went to work at once. As they all marched towards the locker room, Kensuke turned to Tatsuya with a deadpan gaze, muttering, "All the people in school chasing after you, and you chose that tyrant?"

"Fukui-senpai." Mikoto's voice chimed in all of a sudden, her neutral tone sending immediate chills down all of their spines. Kensuke, realising his mistake too late, didn't even have the chance to turn and look at her before she said, "That's three extra laps to your regimen."

"What? But-"

"Five laps."



Kensuke, finally getting the message, shut up after that. Tatsuya wouldn't say it aloud, but when he glanced over his shoulder and saw the faint smirk playing on Mikoto's lips, he knew that she'd definitely orchestrated that entire thing on purpose. With a slight shudder, he turned away before she could notice his stare, and silently reminded himself to never get on her bad side unless he had a death wish.

(But damned if he didn't find that smirk unreasonably hot.)

Tatsuya shut his locker a little more forcefully than he'd intended, mild annoyance itching at the back of his head. He understood that Atsushi hadn't meant anything bad with his playful commentary on the picture of Alex that he kept in his locker, but he was quite sure that Mikoto heard what was said, as well. It was almost impossible for her not to- she'd been right behind them, helping to clear out Mamoru's locker when the picture had fallen out. Tatsuya couldn't be sure, but amidst all the cleaning and the chastising comments she'd made against Mamoru's lack of tidiness, he was quite sure that Atsushi had spoken loud enough that it caught even Mikoto's attention, despite the fact that she'd made no comment to indicate as much. She'd left to head over to the other end of the room before he'd answered Atsushi's inquiry, so now he had no idea what she thought of the picture.

"Didn't mean to make you mad, Muro-chin," Atsushi muttered apologetically, a pout on his face as he noticed the change in his mood. Tatsuya just took a deep breath, willing himself to remain calm before he shot Atsushi a pointed look.

"You should have known better than to joke about things like that when she's right there," He stated, making Atsushi grimace as his shoulders slumped in shame.

"Shira-chin has a sense of humour. I don't think she minds," He mumbled, his eyes directed at the floor. Tatsuya sighed at that, his gaze trailing in the direction that Mikoto had taken off in. He hadn't seen her react, but he couldn't help but worry. After what Hinata had said to him, Tatsuya wondered if Mikoto had the same thoughts and insecurities as well- if so, then that was one fire he did not need to have fuel added to.

"Just... don't, alright?" He asked, earning a reluctant nod from Atsushi. The first-year looked like a child that had just been scolded, what with the pout he wore and his shameful posture, but Tatsuya hardly felt sorry for the tone he used. Thankfully, the exchange ended there, because at that very moment, Kenichi emerged from the storage room with a broom- and something else in his other hand.

"Hey, anyone know how this got in the storage room?" The captain called out, summoning all of them to him as they peered curiously at the item he'd brought out. Numerous murmurs arose at the sight of the rectangular sheet in his hand, and upon closer inspection, Tatsuya realised it was a photo- one much older than the one he'd just rearranged in his own locker.

"Hey, check it out!"

"Man, this is ancient. Look how fuzzy the colours are..."

When he finally got close enough to catch a glimpse of the photograph's contents amongst the rest of his team, Tatsuya raised an eyebrow. It was a picture of a woman, clad in a studded leather jacket with matching black jeans that flared out at the bottom to reveal sturdy looking combat boots. A pair of sunglasses rested upon her head, and despite the aloof expression on her face, her body language exuded confidence. A hand rested on her cocked hip while the other held a shinai that she braced on her shoulder, and the light on the bike behind her shone upon the granite road amidst the shadows cast by the evening sun.

"Is that..." Tatsuya blinked, staring at the fierce-looking woman. There was something familiar about the glare she wore- in fact, as she held that shinai, she almost looked like...

"Coach?" Atsushi's eyebrows rose as he made the same connection, and everyone simultaneously gawked.

"She was a biker?" Kenichi spluttered, his eyes practically bulging out of his head.

"Well that explains a lot." Kensuke muttered. His expression then shifted from surprise to contemplation, and he eyed the picture with a newfound appreciation. "I like her outfit, though. I could do with a nice leather jacket, too."

"Something the matter, Liu?" Tatsuya questioned when he noticed that the small forward was scrutinising the picture particularly intensely, leaning forth as he squinted at the image of their coach. Liu's brow was creased in thought, and he brought a hand to his chin as he hummed in contemplation.

"Correct me if I am mistaken," Liu muttered, his eyes narrowing. "But is it simply my imagination, or does our coach in this picture look quite a bit like-"

"Did you all find something?"

The moment Mikoto chimed in, every single one of them jumped. Turning towards the source of the voice, the members of the team found their jaws going slack once again as they stared apprehensively at their manager... and the item she carried in her hands.

"Mikoto-chan... where did you get that?" Tatsuya broke the silence first, voicing the question all of them wanted the answer to ask as he stared apprehensively at the shinai she held. Mikoto simply shrugged, giving the bamboo sword an experimental swing- that had more than a few of them flinching at the rush of wind- before she rested the blade upon her shoulder, her free hand resting on her hip.

"I found it in the back. I think Coach must have left it there... or someone was trying to hide it from her." Her eyes narrowed as she turned towards the exit, muttering to herself, "Now, what to do with this..."

"Nope. It's not Liu-chin's imagination," Atsushi mumbled in response to Liu's unfinished question. With the way their manager was posed, shinai and all, she was almost the spitting image of their coach in the picture. Kenichi shuddered at the connection, goosebumps rising on his skin.

"That's almost scary, man."

"There's literally no difference..."

"Did you say something?"

As soon as Mikoto turned her head, everyone straightened up with a jerk and simultaneously chimed, "Nothing!"

If the basketball team ever went out of business, it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to say that their coordination would make them a fantastic acapella group.

"Your locker is impeccably neat. I'm impressed- compared to everyone else, yours is perfectly fine as is," Mikoto commented off-handedly as she peered into Liu's locker, having to stand on her tiptoes to do so. The boy in question merely snorted at her remark, but Mikoto could have sworn that he sounded somewhat pleased to receive such praise.

"I would be a rather terrible representative of my country and its values if I were to be sloppy with my personal belongings in school." He said it as if he had expected to hear nothing less, and Mikoto shook her head, a quiet huff of laughter leaving her lips. His words brought another subject to mind though, and she turned towards him with curiosity lingering on her tongue.

"Speaking of which- how's your family? I haven't heard about them in a while."

"They are doing well," Liu replied with a shrug. Her lab partner and classmate had naturally spoken to her of his family before, and it wasn't odd for him to mention them in passing every now and then. As far as Mikoto knew, Liu's family was somewhat well-off to be able to afford to send him here for his high school studies, and Liu and his brother were rather hard workers themselves. A family of intellectuals, it would seem- and from the pictures he'd shown her, Liu and his brother definitely took after his mother. "Wai Lun will be sitting for his first major exam soon."

"I hope he does well. He should, if he's got half the brains his big brother does."

"As underwhelming as that compliment was, I appreciate the well wishes on his behalf."

"'Underwhelming'?" Mikoto repeated, not attempting to conceal her annoyance at his response. So much for being nice.

"It is also to my understanding that you and Himuro have established a proper romantic pursuit," Liu stated, clearly ignoring her frustration. Mikoto frowned, but ultimately had no choice but to relent.

"You're just changing the subject as you see fit, aren't you?" She sighed, giving up before she got too stressed out "But yes, we have. Where did you hear that from?"

"It came as no surprise to any of us. We all suspected as much for a while now, but Himuro has only confirmed it recently with several of us who asked." Liu said it as though it was obvious, and Mikoto was stumped by how sure he sounded.

"You all noticed?"

"Very much so. It is only natural- prior to this, there was already a betting pool as to which of you would be the first to make an advance. It was vital that all updates were provided."

"Excuse me?" Mikoto's voice raised a few pitches at that, but Liu seemed undaunted by her incredulous tone. If anything, he just seemed like this was a perfectly normal conversation to have, like a chat about the weather instead of a bolt from the blue about money being circulated based on her personal relationships.

"Despite my confidence in our ace, it should flatter you that I saw it fit to vote in your favour instead." A slight smirk tugged at his lips, and Liu seemed almost smug about his decision. "In turn, I have profited much from such sound judgement."

"T-thanks...? Wait, why am I thanking you?!" Mikoto slapped her cheeks lightly, before she turned towards him with a glare and demanded, "What betting pool? Between who?"

"I merely participated in the one between the team. If there was anyone else involved, I do not know," Liu remarked casually, either ignoring or oblivious to Mikoto's mounting distress.

"The whole team was in on it?!"

"Excluding Himuro himself, yes. It proved to be quite a relief when things finally seemed to make progress between the both of you, might I add. Honestly, it was getting boorish to see you both skirting around each other like flustered hens."

"Well excuse me for not playing along with a bet that everyone apparently made without my knowledge." Mikoto scowled, jabbing her finger at Liu accusingly. Liu merely brushed her off without so much as a second glance, instead reaching into his locker and withdrawing his water canteen before shutting the door.

"Even so, I should hope that this does not distract either of you in regards to the preparation for the Winter Cup?" He shot her a sidelong glance as he took a sip from his bottle, and Mikoto paused at the sudden change in tone.

"What kind of people do you take us for? At the very least, have more faith in me- do you honestly believe I'd lose all sound judgement because of a relationship?" Narrowing her eyes, Mikoto met Liu's gaze evenly, raising her head just a little higher. At her words, the corner of Liu's lip quirked slightly before he turned away, a quiet huff of breath leaving his lips.

"Your logic has not faltered, it seems. As expected." Seating himself on the bench next to his locker, Liu leaned his elbows on his knees and muttered, " With everyone giving it everything they have, then there is no doubt that we will excel. For how long, however, that is yet to be certain."

"You can start deciding on the limits once you're standing at the top of that podium," Mikoto stated simply, earning a mildly surprised look from Liu. He blinked at her for a moment, as if registering her words, before he turned away and gave a quiet snort.

"Perhaps you are right." He looked up again, shooting her a crooked smile, and Mikoto found herself smiling back- right before she heard the sound of a loud crash coming from the next row of lockers. When she heard the yelling, the smile dropped off her face completely and she closed her eyes to start counting to ten in her head, willing herself to not completely lose her head. She felt Liu walk by to peer around the corner, and when she finally finished counting and opened her eyes again, she shot him a blank stare.

"Do I even want to know?" She asked calmly, and Liu paused to think momentarily before he slowly responded.

"Perhaps, for your blood pressure, it would be best to avoid addressing this directly."

"You make it sound like I have that kind of choice in this matter." Taking another deep breath, Mikoto rubbed at the spot between her eyebrows and walked towards the source of the commotion."I'll go see what's happening."

Liu merely raised a hand in farewell, taking another drink from his canister as he watched the manager leave. When she was safely out of hearing distance, he heard the heavy footsteps of Kenichi walking up behind him, and he merely spared him a nod in acknowledgement. The captain in turn scoffed at his calm demeanour, shaking his head disapprovingly.

"You've got real guts mentioning that to her, you know that, Liu?" He shot the second-year a pointed look, saying, "If she finds out that you were the one who started the entire betting pool, you're dead."

"She will not find out," Liu replied easily, his eyes sliding over to the captain with a glint that sent a chill down Kenichi's spine. "Unless you wish for her to discover the recorded names of the ones who bet against her?"

The barely concealed mischief in his voice made Kenichi shiver, and he shot Liu a weak glare. "You should be arrested for blackmail."

For a moment, Liu's lips curved into a smile.

"Now that is a compliment I am most willing to accept."

In all honesty, Mikoto had no idea if she was amused or annoyed. She'd looked away for all of five minutes, and somehow Atsushi had managed to get himself into an even bigger predicament than before. As she hovered worriedly over the first-year who sat in the floor, groaning as he clutched at his stomach, she briefly wondered if babysitting would have been an easier job than this- at the very least, she expected that babies were helpless and cried a lot. These grown boys knew better and still got themselves into these kinds of situations.

Plus, she didn't even get paid for all the pains she went through here.

"Indigestion. Why am I not surprised?" Tatsuya shook his head, sounding almost weary as he stood over the ill first-year as well. "That's why you don't eat so much all at once, Atsushi."

"Shut up. I know already."

"Come on, no fighting," Mikoto interjected, dropping the tablet she'd fished out of her bag into the cup of water she'd set aside for Atsushi. As the tablet disintegrated, she passed the cup over to him with a simple command. "Drink up. This should help."

Not in any position to refuse her, Atsushi took the plastic cup from Mikoto and downed the contents in one go, swallowing the concoction with a grimace. "It tastes gross."

"It'll be good for you." Brushing off her hands, Mikoto stood and glanced around at the locker room, relieved at how things had calmed down somewhat. "At least we covered everything. We should make it through the inspection now."

"After all this effort, I'd be upset if we didn't."

"Hey, Shira-chin." Atsushi interjected after Tatsuya spoke, earning Mikoto's attention. Without missing a beat, he said, "Were you jealous when you saw that picture of Muro-chin and his coach?"

"Atsushi." The hard tone Tatsuya employed when uttering that single name was completely bone-chilling; even Mikoto felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise. She glanced over at Tatsuya momentarily and saw him fixing Atsushi with a steady gaze, but his visible eye was filled with warning as he stared down the first-year. Atsushi seemed unflinching under his scrutiny, but Mikoto couldn't help but notice how his free hand, which had been lying on the floor, had lightly latched on to her skirt as she knelt by his side. It looked like she wasn't the only one intimidated by the stare-down.

"What? You were worried about it, so just ask now," Atsushi groused, folding his long legs to his chest as he leaned his chin on his knees- Mikoto noticed how he made sure to face away from Tatsuya as he did so. His statement intrigued her, though, and she looked up at Tatsuya in bewilderment.

"You were worried that I'd be jealous of a picture of Alex-san?" She questioned, earning a look of surprise from Tatsuya.

"How do you know she was Alex?"

"You've spoken about her before." Mikoto waved her hand, elaborating, "That first lunch we had. I remember you talking about her, and the picture matched that description."

"I see..." Tatsuya tilted his head slightly at her, and Mikoto felt unusually embarrassed by his stare. "I didn't think you remembered all of that."

"I've been told I'm a good listener. Besides... she seemed important to you." Scratching her chin awkwardly, Mikoto hesitantly glanced up at Tatsuya. "It was nice to hear about an adult you could rely on when you were a kid. I'm glad you weren't alone back then- and it's good to see that you still think of her fondly enough to keep her picture close."

Something in Tatsuya's eyes wavered when she said that, and Mikoto wondered if she'd said something wrong. However, his eyes darted back to Atsushi just then, and the look on his face reverted back to an unreadable mask. "In any case, contrary to Atsushi's assumptions, she really was nothing more than just my coach."

Atsushi visibly cringed this time, and he turned to Mikoto with a pout. "Shira-chin, Muro-chin is making a scary face at me."

"Well, maybe you need to stop egging him on, too." Mikoto sighed, shooting Tatsuya a quick glance before she stood up again.

"Come on. If you're feeling good enough to talk, you can get up and sit on a proper chair."

"I'm lazy."

"Don't make this harder than it has to be..." Mikoto muttered as she tugged uselessly at his arm, earning nothing more than a groan from Atsushi as he refused to budge. Never one to give up easily, she continued to work to get the titan up to his feet, and despite her fruitless physical efforts, at the end of it all Mikoto could safely say that she'd annoyed Atsushi enough that he actually got up after her constant badgering.

(If she'd taken the time to look back at the otherwise silent Tatsuya Himuro, she would have noticed that his eyes lingered on her the entire time, his expression giving away nothing about the thoughts that remained a mystery to all but himself.)

The snow was coming down heavily, and it didn't look like it was easing up just yet. A glance at Tatsuya from the corner of her eye told her that he'd noticed it, too- a small frown lingered on his lips as he looked out the nearby window and saw the same sight that she did. Mikoto herself wasn't too keen on heading out into the cold away from the warmth of the gym, but unless she wanted to end up going home in darkness, they had to pack up and leave soon. With that in mind, Mikoto mentioned as much to the shooting guard who had paused from his practice, her voice carrying easily over the silence of the otherwise empty basketball court.

"That's almost an hour earlier than usual, though." She took a few steps forward as she spoke, watching as he turned towards her at the sound of her voice. "Would you be alright with stopping so early?"

"I'm a little tired today, anyway." Tatsuya rolled his arm with a quiet grunt, and Mikoto's eyes wandered to the dip of his shoulders as he did so. She wondered if all the stress he was putting on himself was doing anything to hurt his muscles- she hoped he wasn't straining himself. He'd eased up on pushing himself to the limit ever since their argument, but she still worried after him a little. "Been busy with student council work this week too, so I don't mind catching an earlier break than usual."

"Alright. Sorry to disturb you anyway." Mikoto laced her fingers together behind her back, her gaze wandering towards the big clock hanging on the wall as she tried not to look too sheepish. However, her attention was drawn back to Tatsuya when he approached her instead, placing a hand on her head gently.

"Don't apologise for looking out for me," He said, the soft smile on his face making her look away once more to compose herself. Tatsuya's expressions were always so subtle in their differences- to anyone else, he probably looked like he wore the same faces all the time. However, the little nuances and the emotion in his eyes made all the difference in the world. Before everything that had transpired between them, Mikoto had been unable to decipher the expression in his gaze when he smiled at her like that- now, she could recognise it as affection.

Tatsuya's hand suddenly drifted over through her hair, and Mikoto looked back as he loosely grasped a lock of her newly-shorn hair between his fingers. He seemed to examine it rather closely, prompting Mikoto to hesitantly ask, "Does it look bad?"

Tatsuya glanced back at her at that, looking genuinely surprised. "Why would you say that?"

"I remember you saying how you liked my hair before this. Now it's just... different."

"Different isn't bad. Different actually looks pretty good on you." Tatsuya commented softly as he pushed her hair behind her ear. Mikoto felt her cheeks flare at the flattering comment, and her feet shifted awkwardly as she averted her eyes, clearing her throat as she tried to change the topic.

"That's nice to know. The last time I had hair this short, I was still in middle school." She felt herself smiling slightly as she spoke, fond memories of her first couple of years as a young teen rising to the forefront of her mind. "I started growing it out after first year, when Shuuzo-kun told me I looked better with my hair long."

"Did his opinion really play that big of a role in your decision?" Tatsuya inquired, and Mikoto shrugged, feeling somewhat shy at the recollection.

"I suppose so. I think... it was just nice to be told that I looked pretty." As she admitted the truth, Mikoto felt her face flush an even deeper red, an embarrassed laugh escaping her lips. "Shuuzo-kun had a rather funny look on his face after he said that, though. He walked off really fast before I could respond."

Tatsuya chuckled at that, the sound of his melodic laughter dancing pleasantly over her ears. His visible eye shone with amusement as they both headed towards the nearest bench, sitting themselves down before they continued their conversation. "I wasn't even aware that you and Shuu were *that* close."

"Well, we were rather good friends. That tends to happen when you pick a fight with five other people for someone."

"You've got to tell me more about him. I'm pretty sure you have some embarrassing stories I can exploit the next time I next contact him," Tatsuya suggested, his conspiratorial offer prompting Mikoto to snort as she nodded in agreement.

"It's a deal," She agreed, already mentally listing out as many embarrassing accounts of Shuuzo's mishaps as she could remember. Lost in the memories of a past that wasn't all that distant, Mikoto didn't notice the way that Tatsuya watched the changes in her expression, his slight smile never leaving his face. It wasn't until he spoke again that Mikoto snapped out of it.

"Actually, what was your childhood like?" His inquiry surprised her, and he quickly added, "Outside of all that middle school drama, that is."

The question he presented prompted Mikoto to think hard for a good few moments, trying to put her thoughts into words. Folding her hands in front of her, Mikoto glanced upwards as she said, "Well... I was a naughty kid. I had my fair share of experiences sneaking around the rules before I grew out of it."

"Really?" Tatsuya's eyebrows roseas he shot her a look of disbelief, and Mikoto's lips twitched as she shrugged.

"I'm not joking. For one, Daiki and I would go out to the creek near his old home to look for crayfish. They always came out in huge numbers when it rained, and we'd sneak out through the back to get there." The memories brought a fond smile to Mikoto's face, though her expression turned sheepish when she added, "Of course, when our parents found out, they put a stop to that pretty soon."

"I don't blame them. That sounds pretty dangerous for a couple of unsupervised kids." Tatsuya commented with a raised eyebrow, and Mikoto hummed in agreement.

"I'll admit, it was reckless. But it makes for fond childhood memories." Here, she turned to him, an accusing look in her eyes. "I doubt your record is clean, either. Any dangerous escapades on your end as a kid?"

"Well... there was one time when Taiga and I were caught by our parents after we lied about sleeping over at each others' place. We actually stayed out the whole night back then, going on our own little quest for a treasure trove," Tatsuya recalled, the mere summary of the wild tale earning a wide-eyed look from Mikoto. With a wince, he added, "That got me grounded for months. I even got a scar from falling through a rotting floorboard during that excursion."

"How bad was the injury?" Mikoto's brow creased as she imagined the scenario playing out in her head- two kids alone in a building with rotting floorboards? That was a situation she wouldn't want any child to be in.

"Nothing too major. Just caused me a lot of pain, really." In response to her question, Tatsuya crossed his left leg over his right knee and pushed the fabric of his shorts up over his thigh, exposing a pale, faded scar several inches above his knee.

"That looks rather nasty." Mikoto murmured, leaning in slightly to get a closer look. For it to have left a mark after so long implied that it had been a somewhat nasty injury, and Mikoto frowned as she reached out and ran her fingers over the marred skin- only to quickly recoil and withdraw her hand when Tatsuya jumped slightly at the contact with a quiet gasp. Immediately feeling the rising blush on her face, Mikoto scooted away from him on the bench, her hands covering her face as she began apologising profusely. " I-I'm sorry! I wasn't thinking, and I didn't mean to-"

"It's okay, really! It just surprised me, that's all," Tatsuya reassured her quickly, and Mikoto felt him move back closer to her on the bench before his hands came over hers. With a gentleness that never failed to surprise her, Tatsuya coaxed her hands away from her face, and when she looked up at him, Mikoto was startled to see the faint flush of colour in his own face. Clearing his throat, Tatsuya met her eye with an uncharacteristic hesitation in his actions. "I just... didn't expect that. That's all."

"I shouldn't have touched you there. I'm sorry."

"Don't be. It was an innocent mistake." A laugh left Tatsuya's lips, and Mikoto noted once more how uncharacteristically flustered he sounded. When their eyes met again, he put on a crooked half-smile that only made Mikoto all the more aware of her racing heartbeat. " I'm just a little bit sensitive, I suppose you could say."

"Sensitive? You mean... you're ticklish?"

"Yeah. I am." The new information sent Mikoto's head spinning- Tatsuya Himuro was ticklish. That was a trait she'd never have thought he possessed, and she had no idea what to do with this new information. "So you see, it's really alright. I was just a little bit startled."

Despite her lingering embarrassment, Mikoto chose to believe Tatsuya's reassurances, and simply nodded mutely at his words. Silence persisted between them for a brief moment before Tatsuya spoke again- and by then, he sounded completely normal again, like she hadn't just touched him in an unexpectedly... sensitive location on his person. Mikoto really had to marvel at just how he managed to compose himself so quickly at times.

"So, how about you? Any battle scars of your own?" He asked, prompting her to sift through even more memories as she tried to answer his question.

"I don't think so... oh, but I did lose a tooth once. Got socked right in the face during a fight- Daiki ticked off the wrong person," Mikoto added the last part as an explanation when Tatsuya's eyes widened. She reached up to rub at the bridge of her nose, muttering, "That punch is probably the reason for my flat nose, I think."

Tatsuya's lips twitched upwards at that. "It's not really flat."

"Flatter than most, though."

"Still not flat enough that it kept you from sticking it into other people's business, though," He teased, and Mikoto's eyes narrowed.

"Speak for yourself, Mr-I'll-Ask-You-Out-So-You'll-Crack-And-Spill-The-Beans-About-The-Dirty-Bracelet-You-Always-Use." She punctuated each word with a jab of her finger at his chest, and Tatsuya smirked as he playfully swatted her hand away.

"That nickname was unreasonably long."

"It still fits."

"You're such a child." He shook his head at her, before reaching out and grabbing her nose between his thumb and forefinger. Mikoto squeaked in response to the sudden action, and he watched as she tried to push his hand away with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. "Maybe this will help sharpen your nose a bit more."

"Oh, and I'm the child?" When swatting at his hand didn't work, Mikoto reached out and grabbed his nose in turn, demanding, "Let go!"

"You first!" Despite their tussle, Tatsuya laughed as they tried to pry each other's hand away, all the while trying to hold on with the other. When she finally let go, he did the same in turn, and Mikoto rubbed at the reddening bridge of her nose with a half-hearted glare at the shooting guard who still hadn't stopped laughing. Even as he rubbed at his own sore nose, he wore a grin, and when their eyes met, there was a new expression on his face- an earnest sort of fondness that Mikoto was almost alarmed to see reflected so clearly in his gaze.

"Hey." His voice was quiet, and his hand came up to brush her hair behind her ear once again. He smiled softly, eyes meeting hers without hesitation as he said, "You know that I like you, right?"

If her face got any warmer, Mikoto decided that she would have to start worrying that she was actually running a temperature. With burning cheeks and a furrowed brow, she said, "You've already told me as much."

"I just wanted to be sure." Tatsuya sighed as he leaned his head against the wall. "Matsuki-senpai talked to me the other day. It got me thinking."

"She did? What about?" This was a development she hadn't heard of. Hinata had always seemed content to let her and Tatsuya continue on their way without much fuss- that she'd actually confronted him was a surprise.

"Us." Here, Tatsuya's eyes drifted away. "Mikoto-chan, does my status bother you sometimes? The 'popular' kid with everyone after him- do you ever feel uncomfortable about that?"

The question he presented almost made Mikoto feel like he'd just put her on the spot. Those were thoughts she'd cycled through her head numerous times before she'd blurted her feelings out to him-and they'd crossed her mind even more times after she'd done so, too. She'd done her best to shove aside those intrusive thoughts about what an amazing person Tatsuya was and how everyone else seemed to realise it as well- hell, his numerous admirers had been the very first thing she'd noticed about him. Those thoughts hadn't really bothered her too much yet, but when he confronted her about it just like that... well, she couldn't lie. She really had no reason to.

"To be honest, sometimes I wonder why you accepted my confession." Mikoto admitted, her hands gripping her knees as she stared down at them, not quite daring to look at Tatsuya's face. "I'm not blind to the attention that people give you, Tatsuya-kun. Honestly, I'm still a little surprised that you'd like me- but at the end of it all, I trust you. So I choose to believe that you'll return the faith that I place in you, too."

As she said that, Mikoto forced herself to look back up at Tatsuya, and she was almost stunned to see the intense look he was giving her. It wasn't an expression that she could quite decipher- the closest she could compare it to was the look on his face that she had seen when they'd watched the first snowfall. He was the first to look away this time, his eyes cast to the ground before he spoke softly.

"I just wanted to make sure that you know as well as I do- it doesn't matter how anyone else feels about me; it's you that I like. I don't want there to be any reason for you to doubt me on that front."

Even though it was mild, the genuine emotion underlying that statement startled Mikoto. Hesitating only briefly, she reached out with her free hand to touch his arm- despite her short pause, she was beginning to realise that it was becoming much easier for her to bring herself to touch him. He seemed to respond positively when she did, too, and she made a mental note to do so more often. "As you said- it doesn't matter what other people feel about this. It's only us- and that's enough, isn't it?"

There was a brief pause before Tatsuya reached out and grasped the hand she'd placed on his arm, his voice light as he said, "You entrust so much of your faith to me. I don't know if I deserve it."

"I think you do," Mikoto reassured, her words quiet yet sincere.

"Then I hope I'll prove that I can live up to those expectations." Despite his solemn words, Tatsuya still shot her a smile that expressed his gratitude plain as day. There was a strange expression in his eyes, and he added quietly, "You know, sometimes I wish we'd met sooner."

"What do you mean?" She started at the sudden statement, not quite sure if she had heard him right.

"I think I would be... different now, if I had met you when I was younger." He stated, his eyes never leaving hers. He was waiting for a response- very intently at that, or perhaps he was looking for some sort of outward reaction. Of what exactly, Mikoto didn't know. Oddly enough, however... she found the answer coming to her far more easily than she had expected.

"Then in its own way, maybe it's good that we didn't." Tatsuya seemed to pause as she responded with all the assurance in the world, but Mikoto found herself averting her gaze as she continued. "I like the person that I see before me today. I wouldn't have you any other way. "

The shift in Tatsuya's expression was subtle, but Mikoto didn't miss a thing. His eyes had widened ever so slightly, and the slight hitch of his chest indicated that he'd actually caught his breath. Silver eyes bore into hers with increased intensity, as if he was trying to find some kind of answer in her gaze. Mikoto had no idea what to do or what he expected to see, but whatever it was, he schooled his expression once mode, barely any indication of his earlier response ever crossing his face.

That was when his hands went around her waist, settling against her back as he gently pulled her against him. Mikoto started at the unexpected embrace, but she didn't resist as he held her against his chest. For a moment, she thought that the loud, fast-paced heartbeat that drummed in her ears was her own- but it was with surprise that she realised that it was actually coming from him. Her ear was almost pressed up against his chest, and the thumping of his heart dominated any sort of sound that she might have heard from her own pulse.

"I don't get you sometimes." Tatsuya's quiet murmur sounded forlorn amidst the confusion in his statement, and Mikoto found herself wondering what kind of expression he was making. "How could you even consider liking someone like..."

"Don't say such things," Mikoto interrupted quietly, her hands hesitantly curving over his shoulders as she returned his embrace. "You aren't nearly as bad as you think you are."

"You say that now, but you haven't seen the worst of me."

"We have time. We can leave that side for another day." Pressing her head against his chest, Mikoto silenced the logical voice in her mind that told her to keep her mouth shut, choosing instead to let her feelings be heard for once as she murmured, "Right now, you're here. That's enough for me."

Tatsuya didn't respond to that, but Mikoto could have sworn that he held her just a bit tighter than before. He shifted slightly, his lips pressing against her hair for a moment before the sound of his voice ghosted over the shell of her ear in lilting notes- just loud enough that she could hear him. He was singing in English, and as Mikoto deciphered the lyrics of the tune, she felt her face warm once more as she lowered her eyes, embarrassment colouring her cheeks. She wasn't sure if he was singing to her or to himself, but either way, the sweet words that left his lips left her feeling both flustered and touched all at once.

As he continued to sing quietly, Mikoto's eyes drifted shut once more as she took it all in- the thrum of his heartbeat, the vibrations of his chest as he sang each note perfectly, the warmth of his arms around her. In that moment, time itself seemed to stop- it was her and him, and that was all that mattered.

It was a new feeling- a foreign and unfamiliar comfort- but if this was what their moments of peace were like, Mikoto figured it wasn't so bad.


From the entrance of the gym, Masako Araki's eyes softened as she watched the shooting guard and the manager through the windows of the door. Slowly, she removed her hand from the handle and stepped back, making sure not to make a sound. She'd intended on going in there and telling them to leave the place for her to lock up, but that could wait for a while.

As she turned away and headed down the hallway, the corner of Masako's lip twitched into an amused smile, and she shook her head with a quiet chuckle.

She knew she was right to have seen this coming.

(Good thing that she'd bet on the manager, too. She couldn't wait for the other staff members to cough up the dough.)

AN: I seriously need to get my activity on this site organised lmao. Shoutout to everyone who reviewed last update- sorry for not replying to all of you just yet! Been sorta busy with everything, but I'll be catching a flight tomorrow and I'll be reading through all your comments and writing up replies to each of yall then!

Bless all of you for being patient with me, and I hope this long chapter made up for the wait somewhat. Not much goes on here just yet, but this was sort of necessary for the buildup to the Winter Cup arc, which we'll be catching up to in about... one chapter, I believe? Two at most, but we're getting to the fun parts of the story soon (coughs Haizaki coughs), so I hope yall stick around for that! Once again, I'm always open to suggestions or comments on things you all would like to see- I've taken great pleasure in incorporating some of the ideas ya'll have given me in the past into this story, and they've definitely served to make writing this fic all the more enjoyable. Until next chapter, and thanks again for tuning in!

(Bits of trivia in response to questions a couple of people have asked regarding this story, in case yall were interested lmao)

- Mikoto started liking Kuroko after seeing how dedicated he was to what he was passionate about. She greatly admired his kindness and strength of spirit, and the intellectual conversation he could provide

- in this fic Himuro wears a patch over his bad eye most times, especially while playing basketball. More on that in future chapters

- I'd like to continue this story into EG, but I don't know if I can incorporate Mikoto into the entire story arc properly, even though I have a vague idea

- Himuro won't be Mikoto's first kiss. More on that later on too :^)

- Reiko will not romance Murasakibara. I only made her to contrast Murasakibara as a member of Mikoto's gang of gal pals, and to add a bit more of a dynamic to the plot

- I don't actually know what the ship name for Mikoto and Himuro would be lmao nothing seems particularly catchy