A/N: Thank you to the readers who continue to support this very slow story, to the reviewers, favouriters and alerters too. Y'all give me joy.
You were conceived next to a Tortoise Enclosure
The Merciful God Akashi Seijuro
"Do you know why you're still alive?"
"My winning personality."
"You're in love with me-"
"The reason I have not tied you up and dragged your sorry arse over to Yamamoto-sensei is because of the deep respect I hold for your brothers."
"So you're in love with them."
There was thump and then a whimper.
From a safe distance, the first-string pretended not to listen as Tsukino received her lecture, accompanied enthusiastically by corporal punishment.
In the end it had been thanks to Kuroko's intervention that Tsukino did not burn down the shed. Made every piece of equipment inside look like it had been run over by a steamroller, yes. Carved banners of curse words into the wooden frame, yes. Been caught squatting in the corner with her skirt hiked up and an expression on her face that could have been interpreted as straining… yes. Kuroko had explained that burning the shed down would have been a waste of such pure delinquent genius. Then taking her by the hand, he had led an unsuspecting Tsukino back into the building and right into the waiting clutches of Nijimura Shuzo.
"It seems a little unfair that Kame-chan is taking the brunt of the punishment," Momoi said as she passed Aomine a water bottle. "Midorin and Muk-kun were skipping too."
Midorima had turned up with a meticulously bandaged stuffed bunny rabbit cradled protectively in the crook of his elbow and Momoi had discovered Murasakibara fast asleep in the industrial freezer surrounded by frozen lollypop wrappers.
"Captain will get to them later," Aomine said, watching as Tsukino was made to kneel, a medicine ball balanced on her head like a trained seal.
"Recite the Japanese National Anthem," ordered Nijimura.
That's easy, thought Aomine.
"That's easy," said Tsukino stupidly.
She can do that, thought Aomine.
"I can do that," said Tsukino stupidly.
Doomed, thought Aomine and Tsukino.
Tayama Hitoshi did not come into school the next day. Or the day after that. Or even the day after that. In fact, a whole week passed before Tsukino decided to give up and stop lurking on the roof like some sort of constipated gargoyle armed to the giant teeth with paint balloons and her trusty slingshot. After some polite enquiries, some of which involved holding a goldfish hostage, Tsukino learned that Tayama had decided to take his summer break a few weeks early so that he could go and visit his sister in the states. It definitely had nothing to do with the psychotic little imp that had been posting drawings through the slit in his locker, and while the crayon stick figures couldn't be considered feats of artistry, they got their point across well enough.
Regret was not a good enough word to describe how Aomine had felt when he wandered over to Tsukino's desk and found her hunched over a piece of photo paper she'd stolen from the shed, scribbling maniacally. Of course, he had been stupid enough to ask what it was.
"See this line here," said Tsukino, pointing at the page and looking up at Aomine with wide, terrifying eyes. "This is a laser beam."
The ensuing conversation kept Aomine awake for the next three nights.
Once Tsukino learned that Tayama Hitoshi had fled the country, the erratic behaviour did settle down, made easier by the fact that Nijimura had her on an even tighter leash. This included forcing Aomine to accompany her to and from classes and practises. There was a lot of protesting at first, mainly on Aomine's part, but then they both looked into the eyes of their captain and tacitly agreed that spending more time with each other was definitely better than spending time in the dark hell Nijimura would put them in were they not to comply.
"What's for lunch?" said Aomine, dropping into the desk opposite Tsukino where Midorima usually sat.
Lifting up her bag, Tsukino tipped it upside down on the desk, shaking out her multi-layered bento. "Buro told me to tell you that he hopes you like it and that your feedback on his Yakisoba was useful in creating a new recipe."
She passed him his compartment and his mouth watered upon seeing the contents.
"Gonna have to thank your brother in person one day," said Aomine, shoving an entire pork cutlet in his mouth.
"By the way, I think you have another admirer," said Tsukino.
"Oh yeah, who?"
"Arai said some tall blonde was asking a lot of questions about you today."
"Was she cute?"
"Supposed to be a model."
"I'd give them an A."
Tsukino took a long swig of her water bottle before resting her chin in her hand. The sun was getting higher every day, and today the sky was especially warm. Her eyelids fluttered.
"Aren't you gonna have some?" Aomine asked between mouthfuls.
Despite the strict schedule Tsukino was on, Aomine had noticed that the circles under her eyes were only getting darker.
"Oi, what time did you go to bed last night?" Aomine asked suddenly.
"Like two or something," said Tsukino. If she was surprised by the line of questioning Aomine had taken, she didn't show it. They'd been forcibly attached at the hip for a week now. Tsukino was beginning to think of him as a supernumerary nipple.
"What happened to getting twelve hours of sleep a day?" said Aomine. "At this rate you're going stay a midget for the rest of your life."
"What can I say, I had better things to do."
"Yeah, like what?"
"Terrorising the townsfolk, stealing candy from babies, knocking old women down with my bike, you know, the usual," said Tsukino, letting out a long, gaping yawn.
Aomine's chews grew more aggressive as he stabbed a chopstick in her direction.
"Have you looked in a mirror lately? You look like a raccoon dog."
"Ah, did Aomine-kun just inadvertently call me adorable?" asked Tsukino.
"Tch," he grunted, looking very unimpressed. "Only idiots sacrifice their health for their boyfriends."
"What are you talking about, Aomine-kun? I don't sacrifice my health for you."
Aomine slowly placed his chopsticks on the table. "You're the one that started the rumour that we're dating."
"Two days after Nijimura stuck us together," said Tsukino. Picking up his chopsticks, she began popping pieces of Sushi in her mouth.
"That explains the condolence cards in my locker," said Aomine, pushing the rest of the bento towards her. He'd had a fair bit already anyway.
"I want the names of all those people."
"So I can give them a reason to condole."
"Why did you start that stupid rumour anyway?"
"People kept coming up to me and asking me why I was spending so much time with you," said Tsukino, biting into a cutlet and continuing with her mouth full. "And then Goldie McRiding Hood threatened to tell the disciplinary committee that I was harassing the great, magnificent Aomine Daiki so of course, I had to tell her the truth."
"We're not in love."
"We're totally in love."
"No way they believed you just like that," said Aomine
"Not at first, but then I started bringing you home cooked bentos and you started walking me to class," said Tsukino, bopping his nose with her chopsticks. "It was like the story of Beauty and the… what was the name of that big hairy rat?"
"Beast," Aomine said slowly, reminded of why Tsukino was almost bottom of the year. "That's a story about Stockholm syndrome."
"A whale as old as wine," said Tsukino, polishing off another piece of unagi.
"Did your parents find you in a zoo?" asked Aomine. "Or did a travelling circus throw you out of a moving caravan?"
"So," said Tsukino, belching wetly, "June wedding?"
Lunch continued in much the same fashion; Aomine insisting that Tsukino talk to a psychiatrist, Tsukino insisting on wild hydrangeas for the garland flower arrangements, not that she knew what wild hydrangeas looked like, or for that matter, garlands. Occasionally, Tsukino would mention a feature of their wedding that even hypothetically Aomine could not abide and he would find himself suddenly arguing the pros and cons of having a one-man band with an accordion for live music. It was during a heated debate over what the song for their first dance would be (they had narrowed it down to the Sailor Moon Theme Song and Please God Anything but The Sailor Moon Theme Song) that Tsukino's phone started to vibrate.
"Who is it?" Aomine asked as Tsukino turned the phone over.
"It can wait," said Tsukino. She yanked out a notepad from her bag, smacked it down on the table and poised a pen over it with furious conviction. "This requires my full attention. So, we'll be serving the guests crayfish at the reception, agreed? It's cheaper than lobster and you're so good at catching them, Aomine-kun."
"Sometimes when I talk to you I imagine myself crashing through the window just to get away," said Aomine.
"And the other times?"
Before he could respond, her phone vibrated again. When Tsukino picked it up to turn the vibration off, Aomine caught sight of the caller ID. It wasn't unusual for Mareo to ring Tsukino at all times of the day, but it was unusual, highly unusual for Tsukino to reject his calls. In fact, the only other time he had seen her do it was when Kuroko got knocked out during a practise match with another school.
"So?" asked Tsukino, putting her phone out of sight.
"So what?" said Aomine, lost in his thoughts.
"What do you do the other times?"
"I imagine you crashing through the window."
"I bet you catch me. That's what boyfriends do."
Aomine blinked, picked up her notepad, and with a sweep of the arm, flung it effortlessly into the trashcan beside the teacher's desk.
"You just lost your horse-drawn carriage privileges, young man."
"We are not getting married, Tsukino."
"If you're having a June wedding then I'll have to move some things around to accommodate you," Sakata said as they walked to their respective clubs that afternoon. "Most of my weekends in June are spent training for the summer meets."
"Actually, I think June is too far away. I don't think I can wait a whole year," said Tsukino, cocking her head back. "What do you think, Aomine-kun? September. It'll be near your birthday."
"You're both idiots," Aomine muttered as he trailed behind them.
"Naturally, I am to be a bridesmaid."
"Naturally," said Tsukino. "And Midorima will be my maid of honour."
"I will not!"
"Ahah! Eavesdropping tsundere!"
"And what will I do in the wedding, Kame-san?" a ghost of a voice said beside them.
Aomine reared back and nearly tripped over his own feet, Sakata flinched but otherwise maintained her decorum and Midorima began sweating profusely. The only one who didn't react at all was Tsukino.
"Hurry up, Aomine-kun, if you're not with me when we walk through those doors the captain's going to string us both up from the hoops," she said.
Aomine swung an arm around Kuroko's neck.
"Yo, Tetsu, you gonna stay late to practice this time?" said Aomine, grinning down at him. "By now you should be more used to the training regime right? It's a pain in the ass with just Tsukino. She spends the whole time sleeping."
"I have some business to take care of after practice," said Kuroko.
"What's more important than training with your partner, huh?" asked Aomine. "Plus we've got that practice game coming up with Haranishi, and you're not as effective on teams you've played before."
Kuroko didn't respond.
Tsukino and Sakata were still discussing the wedding arrangements. Sakata was trying to veer Tsukino away from a dress with a long train, arguing that its size would only draw attention to her lack thereof. Sighing Aomine let his arm slip from around Kuroko's neck.
Tsukino giving Kuroko the silent treatment hadn't seemed like a big deal at first. She was notorious for being melodramatic and Kuroko handing her over to Nijimura seemed like the perfect opportunity for her to flaunt her best King Lear impression. Except no weeping monologues followed, no exclamations of betrayal, no leaping out of bathroom stalls with shaving cream and clippers. Only silence. Aomine started to think that Tsukino might actually be upset, but broaching the subject with her was taboo. Her lips would twist together and she would look firmly in the other direction until you started talking about something else. Midorima maintained that she was being childish (after all, they had once witnessed Kuroko throw her bag in the bin after she called him garbage face), and Momoi insisted that it would blow over soon enough.
Since Aomine was a firm believer of not getting involved in things that were none of his business, he had gone along with Tsukino's desire to not talk about it. Then he started catching Tsukino staring at Kuroko during practice and he would feel the urge to say something. Not that he ever did. Tsukino put as much stake in his opinion as she did a fruit fly, which could be demonstrated by her insistence that they get married in an ice cream parlour… Not that they were getting married at all! Aomine cursed under his breath.
Arriving at the gymnasium, the demon and her supernumerary nipple met eyes with the captain to show that they had fulfilled their end of the bargain before splitting up. Along with Kuroko and Midorima, Aomine made his way to the locker rooms, while Tsukino headed over to Momoi who was sitting on a bench chewing the tip of her pen as she poured over a thick red binder. So engrossed was she that when Tsukino plopped down beside her it took her a full five minutes to notice she wasn't alone.
"Uwah!" exclaimed Momoi, almost jamming the pen into the back of her throat. "Kame-chan, how long have you been sitting there? Jheeze, don't tell me Kuroko-kun's been giving you lessons on misdirection. That's all I need."
"What's that?" asked Tsukino, nodding her head at the binder.
"Player profiles of Haranishi's first string," said Momoi, shifting the binder so that Tsukino could have a better look. "The coach asked me to revise their line-up for next week's practise game. They've been training extra hard ever since the last time we beat them and it might be difficult with just our second-years, especially since Haizaki's been so unreliable recently."
"Haranishi," muttered Tsukino. "That sounds familiar."
"It was Kuroko-kun's first game," said Momoi, her smile fading as Tsukino's expression darkened. "Still not talking, huh?"
"So what duties has the captain lined up for me today," Tsukino said loudly. "Polishing the weights? Pumping up the basketballs? Removing the lime scale off the underside of the urinals with a toothpick, again?"
"Actually," said Momoi, perking up, "you'll be happy to hear that the captain has decided to let you off. I mean you'll just be doing normal managerial duties like the rest of us but still-"
Turning slowly, her mouth parting so wide it looked as though her jaw was about to unhinge and clatter to the floor, Tsukino gaped at Momoi.
"U-uh, well," said Momoi, inching away, "Aomine-kun's been complaining that you haven't been sleeping or eating properly and how the captain's been unreasonable these last few weeks overworking you, so I had a word with Akashi-kun and he agreed to speak to Nijimura-senpai at the beginning of today's practice, which he did. And there you have it."
"This isn't a dream," said Tsukino, leaning forward so that she was uncomfortably close to Momoi's face. "This is really happening."
Momoi leaned back. "Yep. You're free. Sort of."
Tsukino threw her arms around Momoi's neck and squeezed until the circulation started to cut off.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you," said Tsukino, releasing Momoi when she started to choke. "You don't know how much this means to me. If I had to scrape another piece of gum off a bench, I was going to show up in Murasakibara's room in the middle of the night with a pair of dental pliers. I had it all planned out. No anaesthetic."
Massaging her throat, Momoi almost screamed when she saw the look Tsukino was giving her. There was no constipated grin, no evil glint in her eyes, only a look of pure reverence. Momoi found herself missing the serial killer of whom she had grown so fond.
"Momoi, whatever you need," said Tsukino, "as long as it is under twenty thousand yen because that's all I have in my savings account, or if it's something that can be stolen. Or maybe you want Buro. He cooks and cleans, and so long as you don't lactate in front of him, he's reasonably well-adjusted."
"Really, it's fine," said Momoi, trying to yank her hand free of Tsukino's vice grip. "And it's Akashi-kun you should be thanking. Honestly, I was a little surprised when he went for it-"
"Of course," said Tsukino, shooting up from her seat, a determined expression on her face. "Where is he?"
"Changing, but it can wait until after- Oi, Kame-chan, you can't go in there!"
But it was too late; Tsukino had already exploded into the changing rooms.
"Demon alert!" shrieked Nakadan, running headfirst into his locker in a poor attempt to flee.
"Oi, Tsukino, you're not supposed to be in here," said Aomine, pulling his shorts up quickly, but Tsukino wasn't paying attention. She marched over to the vice-captain, who, fully clad in his gym gear, was sipping from his bottle of water.
Akashi-san, the first-string thought simultaneously in shock. The demon never addressed him so respectfully, usually preferring to call him that-red-head, what's-your-name-Aka-something, or even Nijimura Number Two.
"Tsukino-san," said Akashi. "I assume you're here to…"
The rest of his words trailed off as Tsukino lowered her head in a deep bow.
"Thank you, Akashi-san," said Tsukino. "I am forever in your debt. Whatever you want is yours, but not my collection of Takeshi Kaneshiro DVDs, I'm sorry, anything else. My first-born?"
There was silence as the first-string held their breath.
Delicately, Akashi touched Tsukino's shoulder and she straightened up, gazing at him, eyes sparkly with admiration.
"Your dedication to this team hasn't gone unnoticed," said Akashi, smiling a little weakly at the sorry excuse of a demon in front of him. "Please… continue your hard work."
"Is there anyone you really hate? I could shave their head off," offered Tsukino.
"Tsukino-san, you should return to the court. Not all of the team have finished dressing and I think Nakadan may have just passed out."
Haizaki kicked the lump of human that was heaped up on the floor. "Yep."
After Tsukino had glided dreamily out of the changing rooms, Nijimura walked over to Akashi.
"I'm guessing she doesn't know about what's in the box yet," he said to Akashi. "When are you planning on telling her?"
"I thought we should let the demon of the first-string gymnasium enjoy the next few days," said Akashi, placing the rest of his things inside of his locker. "There's no rush."
"You're turning out to be one hell of a sadist," said Nijimura, shaking his head.
"Of course not. This is entirely for the benefit of the team."
Meanwhile, a pale phantom sat on the bench behind them taking note.
The change was instant. Instead of staying until long after everyone had gone, Tsukino was now allowed to go home with the rest of the managers, free to spend her evenings as she pleased. No more slave labour did mean that the first-string, which had grown accustomed to a certain standard of pampering, had been forced to pick up the grunt work but this seemed an acceptable sacrifice for the ability to walk safely through the hallways. No more peering around corners for wayward basketballs, no more poking their towels with sticks in case of fire ant infestations, and no more underwear disappearing and then reappearing stapled to the chalkboard in homeroom the next day with their names written helpfully underneath. Things for the basketball club and its demon were beginning to look up.
But there was one, slight hiccough.
"Akashi-san," said Tsukino, trailing after Akashi with a water bottle. "Make sure you stay hydrated."
"Akashi-san," said Tsukino, trailing after Akashi with a towel. "Don't let the sweat get in your eyes."
"Akashi-san," said Tsukino, trailing after Akashi with a protein bar. "Keep up your muscle mass."
"Akashi-san, Akashi-san, Akashi-san," grumbled Aomine as he and Momoi walked home from school. "Doesn'tshe have any respect for herself? What happened to the demon of the first-string gymnasium, huh? Now she's more like the- the- the lapdog of the first-string's… vice-captain."
Momoi patted his shoulder. "Aomine-kun, you're exaggerating. Today I saw her pass you a towel during practice."
"She threw it in my face," grumbled Aomine, stuffing his hands into his pockets. "Said I looked like a drowned rat and that I was making Akashi-san look bad."
It used to be that he and Tsukino walked home together since they were normally the last ones out of the gym. But ever since master gave Dobby a- ever since Tsukino started leaving early, Momoi had kindly decided to stay behind and keep her childhood friend company, something she was beginning to regret.
"Kame-chan is just very grateful that Akashi-kun put an end to the punishment trials," said Momoi, sighing. How much longer was she going to have to put up with his whining?
"Yeah and the only reason he did that was because you asked him to. Tch, Satsuki, this is why I keep telling you to mind your own business."
Momoi gasped, hands curling into tight fists. "Yeah, well, I only did that because someone was worried about Kame-chan's health, and that someone wouldn't leave me alone," she said, crossing her arms over her chest and glaring nastily into space. "The nerve of this guy."
Aomine walked on in silence.
"Wait, Satsuki, who are you talking about?" he asked finally.
Momoi's scowl grew more terrible and she began muttering to herself. "For days this basketball idiot's been complaining and when I do something nice for him he still can't stop complaining. Why do I even bother? Idiot, moron, thug-"
"Oi," said Aomine, watching fearfully as her face turned pink with rage. "Oi, Satsuki."
"-Make sure he wakes up on time, I let him borrow my notes, I cook for him-"
Realisation dawned on Aomine and he came to a sudden halt at the intersection. "Wait… are you talking about me?"
"And do I ever get a thank you? No!"
"Really, Satsuki, who would thank you for your cooking?"
Aomine leapt back as Momoi swung her bag at his face, putting a good few feet between them.
"Walk home by yourself, you ungrateful lout!" snapped Momoi, hitching her bag onto her shoulder and storming off.
"We live on the same street," Aomine called after her, receiving a rather rude gesture in return. "Ah, whatever."
Staring at the four-way intersection, Aomine contemplated following her until she cooled down, but then he remembered the thick red binder that was in her bag and started walking in the other direction.
Soon he found himself on route to Tsukino's house. Well since, he was already on his way… plus Tsukino had been a big fan of basketball once upon a time… which wasn't surprising considering who her older brothers were. Maybe he could convince her to lend a ball and come play some one-on-one.
Turning onto the street she lived on, Aomine was as usual a little irked by how neat and orderly everything was. It was very modern unlike Aomine's street, which was entirely made up of traditional Japanese housing, and he guessed that this must have been a part of the new cheaper housing initiative he'd heard about from his mother. As he drifted further down the street, getting closer and closer to the Tsukino residence, he felt the eyes of the sun-hatted neighbours converge on him as they mowed their lawns, watered their plants, pruned their hedges and swept up their statues, which had been smashed to pieces…
Aomine stared at the cupid head, lying in the fountain basin. Desecrated by black sharpie pen, the monobrowed eyes bore into his soul. Lifting his gaze, he was met with the scrutinising glare of a middle-aged lady with rolled up sleeves and trousers, and a wide-brimmed yellow sunhat on her head of cropped brown hair.
"You're friends with that Tsukino brat, aren't you," she said.
"The whole street's seen you with her," she continued, hurling a plastic tarp over the decapitated cherub as if it could serve any protection against the town hoodlum. "I'm warning you; The Watch has a zero tolerance policy for thugs."
Then she seized hold of the cupid head and nearly tipped forward from the sheer weight of it. Aomine stepped forwards to assist her, but she reared back, a wild glint in her eyes.
"Don't you come near me," she barked, swinging the head over her shoulder as if she was going to fling it at him. "Get going then. And when you see that little menace, you tell her I'm going to the police this time. I've got witnesses."
He walked off, shooting nervous glances over his shoulder in case the neighbour changed her mind and decided to bludgeon him to death. Climbing the steps to the Tsukino household, Aomine asked himself just what he was thinking, but it was already too late, he was here now, so he might as well ring the-
The door creaked open and a tiny figure crouched low at the opening.
"What are you doing, Tsukino?" said Aomine, staring down at the imp with a tired expression as she crept through the little gap and shut the door softly behind her.
"Mama Tsukino wants me to help feed number five," Tsukino hissed, scuttling past Aomine down the porch steps not unlike a crab. "Don't stand there like an idiot or they'll see you!"
Aomine strolled down the steps and followed the prone figure as she led them further down the street, watching as she ducked behind garbage cans, leapt over guardrails and flattened herself against fences.
"Looks like you've made a lot of enemies here too," Aomine said, as he received the stink eye from an elderly man hobbling past with an archaic looking walking stick. "Saw what you did to your neighbour's fountain."
"Psssht, she can't prove anything. Plus Old Lady Sumitimo has always had it out for me since the day I was born," said Tsukino climbing out of a trashcan and brushing herself off. "When I was four she told me that the reason I didn't have red hair like the rest of my family was because I had a black soul and that I needed to repent for all the misdeeds of my past lives."
"Ah," said Aomine, following Tsukino and ducking into some bushes. Was he feeling unwell, because for once Tsukino didn't sound unreasonable? "And the old man?"
"Old Man Munkata. He's always complaining about how Mama Tsukino and Papa Tsukino can't keep it in their pants," Tsukino said, pushing through the foliage. "When number five was born the bastard sent round a pamphlet on vasectomies. Zinan and me went to the store and bought a bunch of condoms, filled them up with plain yoghurt and chucked them at his house. It's the only time we've ever worked together against a common enemy."
"What's a vasectomy?" asked Aomine, crawling over a fallen tree stump.
"It's a surgical procedure that stops a man from being able to have children," said Tsukino. "I'll show you the pamphlet later."
"There's a little diagram showing what part of the penis they cut off-"
With a grunt, Tsukino collapsed flat on her belly with her arms sprawled out as Aomine dug his knee into her back.
"You were saying," he said next to her ear.
"It's the balls, Aomine. They cut off the balls."
"SPECIAL NOOGIE ATTACK!"
Minutes later, they emerged from the bushes into a small shopping high street, their clothes muddied, rumpled and torn.
"You're a bully," said Tsukino.
"I don't want to hear that from someone like you," said Aomine.
"I'm going to get a bald spot, Jerk."
Seizing the top of her head, Aomine combed his fingers through each section of her hair, peering closely at her scalp.
"No bald spot," he said, releasing her. "Why are you staring at me like that?"
"I'm not staring at you," said Tsukino, turning away. She began marching through the crowds of people.
"You had a weird expression on your face," said Aomine, following behind her.
"You're seeing things," said Tsukino. "All those nights with your eyes glued to gravure magazines, well you know what they say about doing it too much. Makes you go blind."
"Doing what too much?" asked Aomine, a veritable fount of innocence.
She told him.
"It doesn't make you go blind," said Aomine, a tinge of worry creeping into his voice.
"We'll see. Get it?" said Tsukino sniggering to herself. "We'll see, because blind. Get it? We'll-"
"What are we doing here anyway?" asked Aomine, peering around. There were a lot of teenagers. This must be where all the kids from Kaijou hang out, he thought, recognising the uniform.
"I'm buying a new plunger," said Tsukino. "The old one mysteriously disappeared."
"The one you broke after you tried scaling the building."
"You say potato, I say kumquat."
"That's not even close- Woah!"
Spinning round, Tsukino found Aomine with his face pressed against one of the shop windows. In the display, a spotlight shining down on it, was a pair of limited edition metallic red Jordans released three years ago according to the flashing neon sign beside it.
"Only ten thousand sold in the world, two hundred in Japan," breathed Aomine, eyes burning. "When it came out they were gone in a day."
"Look at the price tag," said Tsukino, also pressing her face up against the window. "You could feed a small Murasakibara with that kind of money."
Aomine whipped his wallet out and peered into it. Tsukino watched uncomfortably as the light faded from his eyes. He had the same expression on his face as when he'd found out Horikita Mai had a boyfriend.
"Um, hey… don't- don't lose hope. You could always save up, you know," said Tsukino. "The ice cream parlour needs a new scoop boy. It's not far, look, right over there," she said, pointing at a white and purple store just across the courtyard. "Give it a couple of weeks and you could probably afford…"
She trailed off as one of the shop assistants from the sports store reached into the window display, picked up the Jordans and returned to the front desk. Aomine and Tsukino watched in silence as he sold them to a very tall boy wearing a Kaijou uniform, the hoodie he wore under his blazer hiding his face from view.
"This is why you shouldn't spend all your money on porn mags."
"Shut up, Tsukino."
The Kaijou student who had purchased the Jordans came out of the store and a girl who was also wearing the Kaijou uniform ran over and hugged him. The girl looked very familiar, Tsukino realised with a queasy feeling, like Tsukino had once eaten dinner with her while Papa Tsukino asked the girl probing questions about what she planned to do with her future and her intentions. Eyes darting all over the place, Tsukino tried to plot out an escape route. But it was too late.
"Why if it isn't the Almighty Midget Middle Child!" exclaimed the boy, pulling his hood down to reveal a head of curly red hair tied up in a ponytail.
"Zi-nii," said Tsukino, her face crumpling into a look a five year old having a tantrum would envy. "Girlfriend-san."
"A-ah," said the girlfriend, grinning sheepishly. "It's Morita Ami."
"It's easier if I don't get attached, Girlfriend-san," said Tsukino, grinning darkly at the couple.
Aomine elbowed her, shooting pointed glances at Zinan.
"Oh, right. This is my pet giraffe, Aomine Daiki," introduced Tsukino. "Aomine Daiki, this is my horribly disfigured older brother Zinan and his girlfriend, Girlfriend-san."
"Oh, right, Aomine Daiki," said Zinan. "You're Teiko's new ace. Nijimura's told me tonnes about you. Supposed to be the best power forward since Kobayashi."
"Ahah, I guess so," said Aomine, rubbing the back of his neck, and grinning brightly up at the older boy. "And you used to be the small-forward for Teiko, right? I managed to see a couple of your games. Your drive was incredible."
Zinan let out a glittery laugh. "Just doing my part."
In the background, Tsukino made a gagging motion, clutched her throat in both hands and sank dramatically to her knees.
"You didn't happen to catch the game where my little sister threw a paint-balloon at Nijimura's head."
"I was aiming for you," Tsukino muttered before resuming her performance.
"Nah, it was the game against Yomi, when you doubled their score," said Aomine, too engrossed in meeting one of his heroes to care about the ugly lump on the ground. "Watching you make that buzzer beater was what helped me decide to go to Teiko."
"Glad to have been of assistance. Hey, if you're not busy next weekend, why don't you and Kame come and see Kaijou play. It's just a preliminary match for the Interhigh but we're up against Gawako so it should be interesting."
"Gawako High, three-time qualifier of the Interhigh preliminaries," said Aomine, stars practically dancing in his eyes. "Hell yeah, we'll be there!"
Tsukino sat up. "We?"
"Excellent. I'll leave the tickets with Kame. They're front row."
"Come on, Zi, we have to go," said Morita, grabbing Zinan's hand and pulling him towards another group waving them over.
"See you at the game," said Zinan, before being dragged away. "Nice meeting you, Aomine-kun."
"Wait, Zi-nii," said Tsukino, jumping to her feet. "I was banned from ever attending one of your matches. Papa said something about shallow graves and vengeful ancestors."
"Yeah, well, I figure the Almighty Midget Middle Child wouldn't do anything stupid with her boyfriend around," said Zinan, throwing a wink over his shoulder.
"You underestimate my power."
"Ah she's not my-" said Aomine, but Zinan had already disappeared into the crowd of Kaijou students. "Why does your brother think we're going out? Oi, Tsukino, did you tell your brother that we're going out?"
Tsukino glared at him. "Don't worry. I'm sure it won't ruin your chances with him."
Unfazed, Aomine clapped a hand around the back of Tsukino's neck and pulled her into an affectionate headlock.
"Let's go find your plunger," he said, unable to stop himself from grinning. "Oi… what's your brother's favourite food?"
Unfortunately, Aomine's euphoria over meeting Tsukino Zinan did not last the week.
"Do you like ice cream?"
"While I'll eat it if it's offered as a dessert, I have no opinion on it."
"Not even Rocky Road?"
"Is that the American one with the marshmallows."
"I still have no opinion on it."
"Were you dropped on your head as a child?"
Behind Aomine, Haizaki buried his laughter into the crook of his elbow while Midorima readjusted his glasses and glared disapprovingly in the pair's direction. It was well known in the club, made well known by Midorima's incessant complaining, that Tsukino's unforeseeable attachment to Akashi had been interfering with their Shogi matches. In that she would sit between them and ogle Midorima with her dead fish eyes to psyche him out, which she did.
Aomine tossed the mop and bucket that he had been using into the cupboard with a loud clatter. As he turned back round, he bumped into something at stomach level.
"Respect the equipment," said Tsukino, dead fish eyes now ogling him.
Aomine looked at where Akashi was standing all the way across the court, appearing almost relieved, and then back at the goblin trying to tower over him through sheer force of will.
"You got faster," said Aomine, sliding the bucket into its proper place, which Tsukino had neatly labelled.
"I want to be prepared for when Tampon comes back. And the mop."
Aomine gently hooked it behind the door next to Tsukino's black overalls. "Happy?"
"Respect the equipment, Aomine," said Tsukino, slowly walking backwards, "and the equipment will respect you."
"What's that even supposed to mean," shouted Aomine, watching as she returned to Akashi's side. "Respect the equipment, Aomine- tch, like she can even spell equipment."
Aomine felt his ancestors scream out in terror. He turned slowly round to meet the phantom sixth man.
"Tetsu," said Aomine. "I'm not even gonna ask how long you've been standing there."
"Who did you think was carrying the bucket?"
"This is the third time today. Honestly, I'm a little hurt, Aomine-kun," said Kuroko, turning away slightly. "We've known each other for almost a year now."
"Don't be like that, Tetsu," said Aomine, scratching his forehad. "And after all if you didn't have such a weak presence we wouldn't make such good partners. Yeah, yeah, it's definitely a good thing I can't see you."
"So it's true, Aomine-kun is an insensitive basketball idiot."
"Oi, what's Satsuki been saying about me? Don't listen to her. You know she once set a banana on fire."
"It has been happening a lot more these days. You seem really distracted," said Kuroko. "Ever since you stopped chaperoning Tsukino."
"Eh, no idea what you're talking about," said Aomine, scowling over the top of Kuroko's head. Akashi was gesturing for Tsukino to stay put, which she obediently did, before walking to the top of the court where Nijimura was waiting for him. "Probably you're just getting better at hiding your presence."
"Maybe," said Kuroko following his gaze.
"May I have everyone's attention," called Akashi.
The managers and the members of the first string (including Haizaki who had tried to run before Murasakibara dragged him back) gathered on the court. There was silence. It was rare for the vice-captain to call a meeting, the only other times being when the captain had been absent, but Nijimura had taken a literal step back and given Akashi the floor. Everyone's eyes were on him.
"As you all know," said Akashi, when he was sure everyone was accounted for, "a few months ago we had a unique new addition to our team."
No one looked at Tsukino.
"Tsukino-san," said Akashi, nodding his head at her. "On behalf of the first string, I would like to thank you for your tireless efforts in supporting us."
Tsukino beamed her shark teeth at him.
"And as such," said Akashi. Nakadan and Kira came out of the changing rooms carrying a crate between them and placed it in front of him before scampering quickly out of his way. "We would like to offer you a new position on the team. Please step forward."
Smirking pompously at no one in particular, Tsukino practically skipped over to where Aksashi was standing and leaned over the crate. Her shark teeth disappeared. No one could tell what she was thinking and this made everyone nervous.
"Of course," said Akashi, staring coolly at the crown of her head, "if you refuse this position, you will be asked to resume your previous activities, which, as I understand it, have been taking a great toll on you."
Reaching into the crate, Tsukino lifted out a large fluffy blue head with two twisted horns protruding from it, and an eerily familiar grin on its face.
"So, demon of the first-string, do you accept the position of Teiko's mascot."
Everyone held their breath.
"I guess... if Akashi-san wants me to," said Tsukino. "I accept."
It's been forever and all I can offer you are my humble apologies and the hope that you enjoyed this chapter as much as I enjoyed writing it. I know I haven't been replying to reviews, or maybe I did, it's all a blur, but if I haven't replied to you just know that I will... one day... maybe when Tsukino takes her next shower. Just know I read and re-read those reviews because they do give me so much joy xD
Can I also point out that it has only taken me 20+ years to clock that you only capitalise nouns in titles. The things becoming a teacher teaches you.