"How has the experience of Winter Cup been so far for you?"
Kohaku still feels slightly awkward when addressing Okamura, but the fact that the captain is going out of his way to interact with her sets her slightly at ease. Additionally, she has been in frequent contact with most of Yosen's basketball team, having stayed back to watch most of their practices. Though the fact that they have not allowed even a single basket to be scored so far still manages to astound her.
"It's really amazing," Kohaku admits. She's definitely more at ease when the topic is about basketball. "With the team's defense, the title 'Shield of Aegis is really not just for show." That is why she is looking forward to the next match. Seirin has established itself as an offensive team. Will they be able to break through Yosen's seemingly impenetrable defense?
Okamura looks pleased with the answer. Before he can say anything in reply, however, Kohaku spots Himuro and ducks away from the conversation apologetically.
"I heard you'll be playing against your childhood friend later." Himuro nods firmly at her statement. He has been his usual amiable self for the past two months preceding the Winter Cup. But Kohaku has the uneasy feeling that he is hiding something. Though no matter how hard she has tried, Himuro has always dismissed her worries. To the point that while a small part of her remains suspicious, Kohaku is convinced that it is just her imagination.
"Then all the best out there, Tatsuya-senpai." Grinning, Kohaku punches Himuro's heart lightly. The latter's eyes widen in surprise. But he smiles (one that feels more genuine than his previous ones) and wraps his fingers around her hand - which is still balled into a fist.
"Thank you. After the match..." Himuro clears his throat. "I have something to tell you." The words spark Kohaku's curiosity. But before she can ask him to elaborate, something light lands on her head and she looks up. The object on her head is dislodged in the process and she catches it before it can hit the ground. It's a box of pocky.
"Atsu–kun!" Without turning around, Kohaku knows that the tall purplenette is behind her. "Good luck for the next match!"
"Don't need luck," Murasakibara iterates slowly. His words do hold some truth in them, especially when he has not let a single person score for the past two matches. Though if anyone can surpass him, Kohaku suspects that the blue-haired member on Seirin's team who has been making a name for himself so far, along with Himuro's childhood friend can.
"You shouldn't eat so much before a match, what if you throw up?" Kohaku admonishes while she shoves the box of pocky at him. Murasakibara grumbles in retaliation.
"Mine?" Kohaku stares at him quizzically.
"It came in the value pack," Murasakibara shrugs. "I'll take it back if you don't want it." But even though she has no fondness of sweets, Kohaku finds herself gripping the box tightly. She shakes her head.
"You gave it to me. I'll keep it." Unexpectedly, Murasakibara smiles a little at her reply. And for some reason, Kohaku feels her face heating up as she looks at him. Though before she can make a jibe about how miraculously generous he is being today to cover up for it, Okamura is already telling them to gather.
Murasakibara and Himuro depart, sharing one last smile with Kohaku before they head opposite ways.
Kuroko's cyclone pass, Kagami's dunk, Yosen's near impenetrable defense and Seirin's fast-paced offense – Kohaku drinks all of this in with the eagerness of a child. Her first dream had been to be part of the players, and while that has failed to come true, watching brings her just as much joy.
As Murasakibara eventually embarks on the offensive, the apathy in his eyes makes a shiver run down her spine. Kohaku has heard Muraskibara say those words before - "I'll crush you." But this - the confidence with which he delivers those words when he is on the field - is entirely different. Kohaku struggles to reconcile this Murasakibara with the laid back and lumpish individual she has come to know.
When Murasakibara slams the ball into the hoop with so much force that it sends the entire structure crashing down, Kohaku finds herself gaping - wide-eyed - with the rest of the spectators. To be able to break a hoop... Just how much strength did Murasakibara have? Even though this is not the first time she is watching play, Kohaku feels like she is only starting to realise just how different he is on the court.
At one point, the towering basketball player drags one of Seirin's players up by his arm. But whether the action is sportsmanlike or not is questionable. Especially when the opponent's face contorts in devastation and horror after Murasakibara whispers a few words in exchange. Kohaku feels her fingers tightening over the unopened box of pocky given to her earlier. Has Murasakibara always been such a cruel basketball player? More than the desire to emerge victorious, he almost seems to relish the fact that he is crushing his opponents' dreams.
When Himuro's childhood friend, the performance of the red-haired member from Seirin's team - Kagami, Kohaku vividly recalls - skyrockets abruptly, the initial point gap is closed in a swoop. When a time-out is closed, the players' faces are ashen. Murasakibara, in particular, radiates a quiet anger.
She stands in shock when Himuro punches Murasakibara. Kohaku has always thought it was overthinking on her part whenever she sensed any tension between them - given how well they get along. Murasakibara is a player with no love for basketball, but who is still ridiculously proficient at it. It is a stark contrast to Himuro's passion and limited talent. Murasakibara has everything Himuro would want. Although Kohaku does not know if he is even aware of any possible envy on Himuro's part - something she cannot entirely blame him for when their senior never seems to let on much.
It may have been the trick of light. But as tensed words are exchanged, Himuro looks like he is crying.
Kohaku feels lost as she watches on, saddened by her inability to comfort Himuro. In all the times she has asked him if the stress of Winter Cup was getting to him, he has always brushed her questions away. Yet she thinks that even then - or maybe long before it - a sense of inferiority and envy has always been lodged within him. It feels disappointing that the only time Himuro has truly confided in her was during that trip to the amusement park.
When Murasakibara stands, Kohaku dreads what will follow. His usual words of distaste will only aggravate the whole situation even more. But when he asks something from Coach Araki - a hairtie, she guesses - before re-entering the match, hiis demeanor seems to have changed. Kohaku is certain that Murasakibara will play with even more determination now. Though she supposes he will never admit it, Himuro's emotions have probably touched him.
The tension of the game becomes almost unbearable. Kohaku feels as if she is sitting on pins and needles as Seirin leads by a single point. When Murasakibara steals the ball, and Kohaku's heart lifts. A one point difference. Victory will only take a single dunk.
But as Murasakibara bends and prepares to shoot, he stops. Kohaku feels her anxiety rising. Why won't he shoot? Then the realisation sets in. It is not that Murasakibara won't shoot; he can't. He has already reached his limit.
Murasakibara attempts to make up for his inability to jump by tossing the ball in. But he is too late. A member of the opposing team slaps the ball out of his grip and the match ends. It takes a few seconds for Kohaku to realise that Yosen has lost. That they have lost. The fact that it was such a close match probably doesn't help the players.
Murasakibara is downcast, a towel draped across his head. When he clumsily knocks away Okamura's hand and keeps his head down, Kohaku wonders if he is actually trying to hide his tears. A sense of calm overwhelms her as she regards the loss. While it is bitter to accept, she hopes both Himuro and Murasakibara will be able to learn something from it.
Kohaku manages to catch up with Murasakibara outside the locker room. He has had some time to cool off, though even then, he does not seem particularly eager to meet her eyes.
"You were really different out there today, Atsu-kun. That side of you scared me a little," Kohaku admits. "But after that match, I don't think you truly hate basketball after all." Murasakibara stares at her apathetically, as if unsure how to respond. He eventually settles on walking past her.
"I'll crush all of them next time," he announces, ruffling her hair as he establishes that claim. Kohaku can only grin. While he may simply be too tired to correct her, the fact that he has not denied her words comforts her a little.
When Kohaku ventures outside to catch a breath of fresh air, she sees Himuro from afar. Surprisingly, he had not been in team's presence when she was looking for him earlier. Although he probably does want some time alone after the match. Kohaku prepares to call out to Himuro, until she realises that he is deep in conversation with someone else.
Kohaku stops in her tracks when she sees the tall and well-endowed woman he is talking to. Is she interrupting something? Lingering in the shadows, Kohaku decides the woman must be the reason Himuro has rejected the advances of Yosen's female population. Not a single one of them cam hold a candle to this willowy blonde lady.
"Hello? Who are you?" Unfortunately, while Himuro leaves without noticing her, it takes only a second or so for the blonde lady to turn around and notice her presence.
"I- I'm sorry, I was looking for Tatsuya-senpai!"
A light of realisation dawns in the woman's eyes. "Ah, you're Izumi Kohaku, aren't you?" Kohaku gapes at her. How does she know her name?
"Tatsuya mentioned you before!" The woman appraises Kohaku vividly, while she tries not to fidget under her analytical eyes. "He said there was a really tall new student who enjoyed basketball."
Kohaku gives an apologetic smile, anxious that she will end up sounding rude. "I'm sorry, but I'm afraid I don't know your name. Tatsuya-senpai never told me about his girlfriend before."
"Girlfriend...?" The woman blinks at her quizzically, before suddenly erupting into loud laughter. Kohaku flinches and stares at her - utterly puzzled - as she hugs her stomach and doubles over with laughter.
"Y- you think I'm Tatsuya's girlfriend?" She is wiping away at tears that have sprung at the corner of her eyes. Judging by how hilarious she finds her assumption to be, Kohaku can only assume that she is wrong. Though she is no closer to discovering the woman's relationship with Himuro.
"Maybe if he was a few years older..." The woman trails off at the implication and her smile takes on one of fond wistfulness. "Either way, I'm not his girlfriend. I'm his mentor. My name is Alexandra Garcia–"
"Y– You mean," Kohaku cuts in abruptly, stuttering. "You're the Alexendra Garcia who used to play in the Women's National Basketball Association before her eyesight got worse? You're Tatsuya-senpai's mentor?" Lost in her thought, Kohaku does not notice that she has shed her shyness in seconds. "That explains how Tatsuya-senpai's fakes are so impressive..."
Meanwhile, Alexandra assesses Kohaku in a puzzled silence. Despite the rather detailed description Himuro has given her during their conversations after training (along with strict orders not to attempt kissing her if they ever meet), the navy haired girl's ability to lose all reservations when it comes to the topic of basketball is still quite wondrous. All the same, Alexandra smiles.
"No wonder Tatsuya talks about you..."
"Hm? Ah, sorry, I got distracted again! Did you say something?"
"It's nothing." Alexandrea shakes her head in emphasis. Himuro probably won't be happy if she let anything slip. But she cannot help herself from offering a few hints. "About Tatsuya's girlfriend... I'm sure he has someone else on his mind."
Kohaku frowns in confusion as she runs over any potential candidates she is aware of. But given how small her social circle is - along with the fact that almost the entire female population of Yosen has already confessed and been rejected - makes it unlikely for her to be able to recognise the girl Himuro is interested in.
"I best be going soon. Can you help me check up on Tatsuya? He got into a small scrape with someone else just now. Plus, I think you can tell that he tends to keep his worries to himself." As Kohaku nods and promises to do her best, Alexandra leaves with one last comment, though the meaning of it is lost on Kohaku.
"You're a very lucky girl, Kohaku-chan."
When Kohaku enters the locker room, Himuro is seated on one of the benches with his hands pressed to his stomach. Sweat lines his brow. Upon seeing her, Himuro rises in alarm - though he winces in pain soon after.
"I saw Alexandra-san just now. She told me to check on you," Kohaku explains, eyeing Himuro worriedly. His bruises look serious. Though thankfully, she has managed to locate two ice packs to help with the swelling.
"Where else did you get hit?" Kohaku asks, as Himuro accepts the ice pack and places it on his face. Hesitating at her words, it is only when Kohaku repeats it that Himuro grabs the hem of his jersey and pulls it up.
"Here," he mumbles. Kohaku stares at the bruised flesh in horror. Hastily, she picks up the second ice pack and inches it closer to his skin. Whoever injured him was obviously someone familiar with fighting. More concerned with easing Himuro's pain than discovering the perpetrator, Kohaku sits next to him on the bench as she helps him ice the bruise on his stomach.
Himuro hisses when the ice pack makes contact with his injury. Whether it is because of the cold or pain, Kohaku does not know. His face contorts with discomfort, and while Kohaku feels bad, she cannot help but giggle. She has almost never seen Himuro make an expression that is neither calm nor mildly sad before. Himuro huffs in balefully in reply, though before long, they end up bursting into laughter. The sound is lighthearted and reverberates in the empty locker room.
"Sorry, you looked a little funny just now..." When Kohaku looks at Himuro, he seems to return her gaze differently. That is when she realises that her hands have been in direct contact with his skin for some time now. Embarrassed, Kohaku pulls away. Too caught up with his injury, she has not realised how intimate her actions have been. They are sitting so close that her thigh is pressing against his.
"I– I'll see what else I can get you for the pain!" Turning away in a flurry, Kohaku rummages through the contents of the first aid box next to her. Even with her back facing Himuro, however, her face is still bright red.
"Were you here for the entire match?" Perhaps sensing her discomfort, Himuro starts to make small talk to fill the silence.
"Yes." She knows the hidden meaning behind his words. Himuro wants to know if she has seen them lose. "The match was an exciting and close one, and I know nothing I say will be able to change the fact that you lost. But I'm proud of you Tatsuya-senpai." It is easier for her to say all this when she is not looking at him directly. "You never faltered. You kept working hard. You even made Atsu-kun decide to start playing again even when he seemed to have given up. I think you give yourself less credit than you deserve."
"... Thank you." It is said so softly that her ears strain to catch it, but Kohaku smiles regardless. While the loss will definitely hit Himuro hard, his tone seems to suggest that he has largely accepted it. Yet he does not sound any close to giving up on basketball as she has initially feared.
"Say... Do you still remember our conversation on Sport's day?"
"Yea..." Kohaku nods to herself. The change in subject feels a little sudden, but she cannot blame Himuro. As much as he has embraced the fact that he has lost to his childhood friend, it would be impossible for him to move on from it so quickly.
"I wanted to tell you something back then. But I decided to postpone it. I was hoping to do that after winning against Seirin... But that didn't exactly work out." Kohaku can imagine the wan smile Himuro has on his face as he tilts his head to the ceiling tiredly. "That's why I'll just tell you now."
"I like you."