It's too difficult for me to find the stories I want to read, so I just end up writing them. Every time.
I've written five chapters so far, so I'll post a chapter a day until I run out. I have every intention of keeping this story relatively short, but...well...that rarely works out for me. We'll have to see how it goes. Ten chapters? Maybe? I'd like to say I'm drawing the line there. But who knows.
It was nothing obvious at first. Nothing with Kuroko was ever obvious. "Not being at all obvious" was pretty much the definition of Kuroko Tetsuya.
Kagami first noticed something off when he realized that he was starting to lose track of Kuroko again. Over the months they'd known each other, he'd gotten good at paying attention to where Kuroko was. He hated that feeling of looking around and then jumping out of his skin when Kuroko surprised him by being right there the whole time, so he'd done his best to make sure it couldn't happen to him anymore.
Plus, how much did that suck for Kuroko, always having people not even notice he was there? Didn't it make him feel insignificant? Kagami hated the idea that Kuroko would ever think he was insignificant, and he didn't want to be another person who made that happen.
Then one day he stopped on his walk toward home to pause on a bridge and look out over the water. He rested his elbows on the railing and leaned over, staring down at the dark ripples in the fading red light of the setting sun. "It's fast..." he murmured, just to himself. Or so he thought.
"The river is moving at the same speed as it always does," said a voice at his elbow, and Kagami jerked upright and yelled in shock, flailing his arms like a toy being shaken by a toddler.
"What...what are you doing here?" Kagami gathered himself and stood still, clutching his heart in shock as he stared down at his teammate, Kuroko Tetsuya, the phantom man.
Kuroko blinked serenely, just like always. His face was still and solemn. "I've been with you the whole time."
"You...you decided to walk home with me?"
"Not necessarily." Kuroko's voice was a gentle murmur. "It just so happened that we were going in the same direction, that's all."
"Well, why didn't you say anything to me earlier? I could have used the warning!"
He expected Kuroko to say, "I did," or perhaps to roll his eyes at Kagami being his usual idiot self. But Kuroko didn't reply. He just looked out over the water, clutching the handle of his bag over his shoulder.
He... He seemed to be avoiding Kagami's eyes. Kagami frowned. What was going on here? Something was definitely up.
"I'm...sorry I didn't notice you were walking with me," he said after a moment, when his heart had finished racing in his chest. He did feel bad about it. What was wrong with him? He thought he'd gotten better at this. "I didn't mean to freak out at you."
Kuroko shrugged. "It's all right. No harm done."
Kagami squinted at him, his eyebrows lowering over his eyes like the gables of a roof. He wasn't sure that was true. Some instinct—deep, hidden, dark—was screaming at him that this was a lie. That harm had indeed been done.
"Are...are you okay?" he asked after a moment, slowly, unable to come up with another way to respond to this situation.
Kuroko gave him a smile, small and light and almost invisible. "I'm fine." It looked like his usual smile.
Maybe it was nothing. Maybe Kagami's instincts were wrong. Maybe Kuroko had just decided to try to startle Kagami on purpose again, to make sure his skills hadn't atrophied or something.
"If you do want to come to my place, that's fine," Kagami said. "I won't turn you away. It's a big place and it feels empty now that Alex has gone back to America."
Kuroko shook his head. Was it Kagami's imagination, or had there been a moment of hesitation before his head moved in negation? He couldn't be sure. "No, I need to get home," Kuroko said. "But...thank you for the invitation, Kagami-kun. It's kind of you to offer."
Kagami's shoulders relaxed, falling down one at a time from the tight hunch they'd leaped into when Kuroko suddenly appeared at his side. Kuroko's speech seemed more natural now, more like himself. "Anytime."
"I mean it. The invitation is always open."
Kuroko gave him his version of a big smile, lips curving up, eyes closing for a moment. Really, it was the best Kagami could have hoped for. "Again, thank you. But...I'll just take the train station up ahead."
"Okay. I'll walk you there, anyway."
So they went. Kagami took special care to walk at Kuroko's pace, beside him instead of in front of him. It was easier to keep track of him that way. Kagami wasn't going to fall for Kuroko's invisibility trick again.
But it kept happening. Kuroko succeeded in startling Kagami on the walk up to school, in the line during lunch, and even while they were sitting next to each other in the same freaking class. After only a few days of constant vigilance and constant failure, Kagami was about ready to tear out his hair. The weirdest part was that Kuroko kept following him part of the way home, then skipping out at the nearest train station when Kagami finally noticed.
Scratch that—maybe the weirdest part was how basketball practice was still the same. No one on the team forgot that Kuroko was there anymore. Sure, when they had a practice game, Kuroko used his usual misdirection, reducing his presence so the opposing team got befuddled and couldn't tell where he was. That was normal—it was the way they played. But during regular practice, no. Kuroko was his usual self. No one else on the team got freaked out by Kuroko suddenly appearing out of the woodwork, because they all paid attention to him and knew he was there.
So it was just Kagami, then. Kagami was the only one who was having trouble noticing Kuroko again, after months and months of working and training and losing and winning together. Why? What was he doing wrong?
"Are you doing this on purpose?" he asked out of frustration one day, when another walk home was interrupted by Kuroko suddenly commenting on something, causing Kagami to flail and clutch his chest. "Are you trying to kill me? Is that what this is? Or am I special project or something? What did I do to make you angry? Why do you keep following me, and why do I keep not seeing you?"
For this time since this new ordeal began, Kuroko looked genuinely troubled. "If I'm bothering you, I do apologize most sincerely, Kagami-kun. It is not my intention to cause you distress."
Kagami hated that look on Kuroko's face. That look like he should be better at being invisible, so no one ever noticed him at all. "You're not bothering me! That's not what I'm asking!"
Kuroko tilted his head. "You're not bothered by my presence? But I keep startling you. You seem to find it unpleasant."
"I don't find your presence unpleasant, okay? That's not it at all. I find your lack of presence unpleasant."
Kuroko looked even more troubled, his forehead wrinkling as if he was in pain. "But that's who I am. A lack of presence. It's what gives me power on the basketball court, and I know that you appreciate that."
Kagami slapped his own face, dragging his fingers down his cheek in despair. "That's not what I mean! What I'm finding unpleasant is your tendency lately to be invisible to me again, like at the beginning, which is what's allowing you to scare me and startle me. I don't like being scared and startled. And I just want to know what's going on and maybe why you've been following me home so often lately."
Kuroko's face, already troubled and wary, fell completely. He looked down at the pavement and shuffled away to the side, his steps plodding and slow. "I'm very sorry, Kagami-kun. Please forgive me for troubling you. I won't walk in the same direction as you anymore, since you're finding it bothersome."
He started to trudge away. Kagami stared after him, frozen in shock. Then he shook his head, breaking loose, and caught up in two long strides. If he took his eyes off Kuroko for one second the guy was going to disappear and he would never be able to find him again.
"Wait, no, that's not what I meant." Kagami got his hand around Kuroko's shoulder, halting his momentum, his motion. Kagami stared at his hand, at how big it was on Kuroko's slender upper arm. He was always aware of the size difference between them, how much taller and bigger and stronger he was than his teammate and friend, but rarely was he aware of just how small Kuroko could seem. How thin and fragile and easy to break.
Kuroko flinched when Kagami's hand landed on him, shoulders hunching up, and then he held so still that it was like he'd been carved in ice. Kagami hesitated, then firmed his grip on Kuroko's shoulder and gently, carefully pulled him back, turning him around so he could look at him. Kuroko kept his head down, his eyes hidden away behind the fringe of his hair.
Kagami studied Kuroko, his downturned face, his hunched posture. He didn't know what to do. Something was going on, something was wrong, but he didn't know how to fix it. He didn't even know how to figure what it was, why Kuroko had suddenly decided to reduce his presence everywhere but basketball practice…
Kagami's eyes widened at the realization. That was it. That was why Kuroko was succeeding in surprising him again. He'd known all along that Kuroko had the ability to reduce his already weak presence when it suited him, during games and other times when he wanted to fade into the shadows. But for months now, months, ever since they'd become partners, Kagami had been used to Kuroko's usual presence. To what might be called his default setting.
Now, suddenly, in the past week or two, Kuroko had begun deliberately reducing his presence anytime he wasn't with the entire basketball team. Why? Was he trying to hide from something?
Was...was he scared?
Kagami caught his breath in horror. Oh, god, it wasn't him, was it? Was that why? What could he have done to earn this much fear and distrust?
But no, if Kuroko wanted to hide from Kagami, he could very easily do it. He could choose not to walk with Kagami every time he left the school grounds, and he could choose not to say anything so Kagami would never realize he was there. It was more like Kuroko kept reducing his presence on instinct, and Kagami just happened to be around when he did.
That was probably why no one else on the team had seemed to notice anything off about their shadow. None of the others were in Kuroko and Kagami's class. They didn't see Kuroko anywhere but practice and games, and there he was normal. Because...because he felt safe there?
Darkness began to press on the edge of Kagami's vision. His hand tightened on Kuroko's shoulder, making him wince, but Kagami couldn't bring himself to let up. He thought he understood what was going on, now. And it infuriated him.
"Kuroko…" He spoke slowly, deliberately, forcing as much calm as he could into every syllable. It took enormous effort. He had to speak through gritted teeth and a locked jaw. "Is someone bullying you?"
Kuroko said nothing. He just stood there, staring at his shoes.
Kagami grit his teeth. His blood was boiling, but he did his best to hold it in check. He didn't want to scare the guy. He wanted to help.
He wanted to make this stop.
"Is it someone at school? Someone's been harassing you? Is that why you're making yourself invisible all the time?"
Kuroko shook his head, slowly, side to side.
"Then someone else? Who is it? C'mon, Kuroko, I know it can't be anyone on the basketball team, but that's all I've got here. Give me a clue so I can make this better for you. I'll do anything, but you have to help me out. Just a little."
Kuroko shook his head again, lethargic at first, then fast and rough. He raised his head and looked Kagami in the face. His eyes were wide and guileless. "No one is harassing me. No one is bullying me. You don't need to worry about that."
Kagami stared into his eyes. He knew he was making Kuroko uncomfortable with his American habits again—Japanese people did not tend to value a lot of eye contact during conversation. He couldn't help it, though. He was pretty sure his friend had just lied to him.
But Kagami couldn't fix that. If Kuroko didn't want to tell him, Kagami couldn't force it. As much as he might have liked to.
After a long, tense moment, Kagami grunted in frustration and let him go. He still didn't take his eyes off Kuroko, afraid that he would disappear the moment he looked away.
What else could he do? There had to be something he could do.
Kagami spread his hands, helpless and extremely irritated by that helplessness. "Do you want to come to my house? I'll make dinner for us. I have ingredients for curry."
Kagami was pretty sure that Kuroko was thinner than he used to be. That wasn't a good sign. Kagami might not be able to help much, but at least he could feed his friend.
Kuroko considered the offer. Kagami could see him wavering. But then he straightened his shoulders, shook his head, and gave Kagami a sad, sad smile. It might have been the saddest smile Kagami had ever seen.
"Thank you. I should go home."
Kagami sighed and scrubbed a hand over his head, making his hair stand on end. "Okay. I'll walk you to the train station."
Again, he was careful to walk next to Kuroko all the way there to be sure he didn't lose sight of him. It didn't seem to be enough.
He didn't know what would be enough.