- Important: Please Read! -

To my fellow readers,

There have been changes to this fanfic, and for that I am both glad and sorry. I could not continue until things from the past had been resolved, and unfortunately that took a lot more time than I had planned. However, the changes have been made, and I am ready to move on with this story and perhaps finish it quite soon.

To those who have already read this story before this update has been posted, I give you two options; you can choose to go back and read the scenes that have been added/altered, OR you may continue to read without having to do so. If you choose the latter, I feel obligated to forewarn you of references that will be made in the future, regarding the new scenes that have been added/altered. Still, if you are comfortable with this then I encourage you to keep reading on.

I apologise deeply if these changes inconvenience you at all, but I deem them necessary for the sake of finishing this fanfic. Almost every chapter has been changed somewhat, so I cannot exactly point out which one's you should go back and read if you are interested. Otherwise, I am continuing with this story and am currently in the process of writing up the final chapters.

Thank you all for your time and patience, and above all, for your helpful reviews.


Chapter Twenty-One:

~ Setsuna ~

"Again."

I lifted a shaky hand and swiped it across my brow, glaring up at Akashi. I was beginning to hate that word.

"Did you not hear me?"

Seriously wish I hadn't. "I heard you."

"Then why are you still stationary? Collect the ball." The hardness to his tone and piercing eyes commanded me to get on with it.

"Yeah, yeah, I got it." Except I didn't have it.

All afternoon Akashi and I had been working on my offensive game, since we'd pretty much given up on my defence. I was, as he put it, 'little more than a fly in his peripheral vision'. So, after declaring his efforts a failure, we'd switched perspectives and focused purely on offense in the hope that somehow I might have some unrevealed talent in that area. Yeah, like that was going to happen. With every passing hour the crease in his brow became more and more prominent. Clearly, I was making zero progress here. And with the match a mere week away…

Even now the thought was a major slap in the face. How a whole month had passed without my being aware made the whole thing even more daunting. Now I was trying to establish how I was going to learn everything I could about basketball before my match with Chinami – the girl who already knew everything there was to know about every sport, ever.

Don't think about it, don't think about it, don't think –

"If you think we have time to be standing around twiddling our thumbs, I'm not sure you're quite aware of what's at stake here."

Brow twitch. Shooting him an irritated look, I shook the ball – that I had literally just retrieved – meaningfully. "What part of 'I got it' didn't you get? Geez, Akashi, you need to chill out." Oh God, did I really just say that?

Aaaand cue the crickets.

After a few moments of awkward – stony – silence, I shakily said, "Uh, did you want to go again?"

The soft sigh that escaped him surprised me – obviously, I was expecting some form of swift retaliation. Instead he adopted a curiously resigned expression and motioned with a perfectly-manicured finger for me to continue. After a moment of hesitation, I did.

But then I stopped. "I'm sorry… for being short with you sometimes. It's just – I've got a lot on my plate and I'm not used to dealing with so much…"

"Drama?"

I nodded, and put my pride on a temporary hold. "Not that it's any excuse. I'll try to be easier to work with."

He nodded. "Good."

"And I'll make sure to work as hard as I can."

"I know."

"… That's it?"

He cocked a brow. "Yes, that's it. We have no time for apologies – I'll take your victory as an apology for the entire month I've spent training you."

Don't succumb, Setsuna, keep your cool… Logic capacity of a squirrel –

I launched the ball at his chest, and he caught it, seemingly surprised by the force behind the pass. Not that I cared; I was already bending at the knees in preparation for the onslaught that was about to come. Because my eyes were challenging him, and when he realised what it was I wanted, the small smirk that changed his face from cold to taunting told me he would readily oblige.

He began to dribble, watching me with those mismatched eyes.

I could barely focus on him at all. Strength from an unknown source began to leak into my leg muscles, then my torso and arms – until it felt like a had a single electric wire running from my toes to my head, giving me energy. Suddenly hyperaware of the flexibility in my own limbs, I gazed at Akashi with new eyes, taking in the slightest movements of his body as he shifted. My eyes, which had previously spent more time tracking the ball in his hand than anything else, now shifted their focus to the centre of his chest. Things that were far away before seemed a mere step away now. Movements that could only be executed with the utmost concentration and meticulously honed reflexes I realised would only take two pivot movements in my entire body to achieve.

But the rhythmic thumping in my ears was what kept my attention. It was slow, and beat a continuous, repetitive rhythm – one my whole body was in tune with. In this moment, I knew that if it changed, my whole being would change with it. Thump…

Akashi seemed to be saying something, but it was utterly negligible in comparison to the beating in my ears.

He moved to the right.

Thump… I got him on the left.

His eyes widened at my unexpected foresight into his move. Instantly he was out of range again, moving back whilst keeping the ball behind his feet to dribble. Not that it mattered; ball or no, he wasn't getting past me.

Head cocked, he seemed to be studying me patiently, waiting for me to move. When I showed no indication of doing so, he changed tactics and began to dribble the ball directly in front of him – as if he wanted to draw my attention there. But again, I didn't charge.

His chest suddenly began to quake, and I realised then that he must be laughing. Or at least chuckling – mirthlessly. Was he finding my statue-stance amusing –?

He was moving.

Thump…

I didn't know if it was my brain or body that processed it first, but instantly I was in his way. He seemed to know what I was going to do before I did it, however, because no sooner had I stopped his advance than he pivoted with blurring movements around me. I saw the shift in his chest, knew it was coming – Thump – but my balance was on my right leg, and the time it would take to shift and intercept was too short – Thump –

I wasn't going to make it –

Thump thump-thumpthumpthump –

He was before me. And… the ball was in my hands.

The shock was what knocked me out of it. Reality slammed into me like a torrent of icy cold water, bringing scents and sounds, the sound of my breathless panting, and… Akashi.

"You… did it." He seemed just as stunned as me.

My eyes shot to his. Dropped to the ball still clutched in my hands, which I quickly released. It bounced on the wood between us.

"I did…" I blinked as I processed the fact that I had literally just stolen the ball from the top basketball-team in the nations' captain. "Holy shit!"

"Language."

"Sorry." Don't care.

But when I looked at him again, he was wearing what could only be a pleased expression. My gut tightened peculiarly. "Well done, Setsuna. You're making true progress now."

Red swiftly flooded my face. Akashi, praising me…? Naturally, I had no idea how to respond coherently. "W-Well, of – yeah! I'm making true basketball – I mean, progress – with basketball…" Oh my God, please shut me up… "I've been practicing, like, heaps, so it was, um, bound to happen…"

One perfectly straight red eyebrow rose at my gabble. "I see. You are starting to understand now? Practice makes –"

"Perfect," I thoughtlessly interrupted.

He was silent for a few moments, making me squirm awkwardly under his intense stare. "Victory. Practice makes victory. There is no such thing as perfect."

I blinked. "Right. Yes, of course… Because I won, so I guess I understand what you're saying."

His head cocked a little. "One victory does not ensure the win."

"But… I beat you, didn't I?"

"Did you get the ball through my hoop?" he asked so politely, I almost missed the fact that he was totally defending his pride right now.

Wow, what a sore loser… It was so like him. Suddenly all I could picture was a small red squirrel with mismatched eyes jealously defending his stash of nuts. A hastily muffled snigger escaped me. So cute..!

His lips lifted a little, but it did nothing to ease my growing anxiety; in fact, coupled with his wide staring eyes, it gave a totally creepy and sinister vibe that I should have been accustomed to by this point. Unfortunately, it still raised the hair on my arms.

"I'm impressed by this newfound confidence you've found, Setsuna. Come, let us build on that even further." His head tilted further. "I may have to step it up and give you my all… My all ten per cent, of course."

I quailed at that. "Ten… per cent?"

He nodded. "Surely you didn't think I would go all out on my student? I would have nothing left to train…" Bending to retrieve the ball that had rolled to his feet – like it was somehow drawn there – he began to dribble slowly. "Come."

I took a deep breath for courage and took a step forward. The pain that raced up my leg from that one movement told me everything I needed to know. Oh… I am so dead.


"Get up. You're going to be late for your Aunt."

I groaned from my perch on the floor, the wood under my face bouncing the sound right back at me. "I can't… I'm dead…"

He sighed. "Then become the walking dead. We need to pack up and leave."

I actually whimpered at that. "No… Don't make me..." Even trying to wipe the sweat from my face was going to be a challenge for my shaking arms. The grogginess in my head also wouldn't help matters.

In my peripheral vision I saw his shoes approach, until he was standing beside my lifeless body. "Come."

I could barely process what he was saying, let alone make out what was presented in front of my face. "What?"

"Reach out your hand and I will help you up."

I grunted in agreement. "Help me up onto a stretcher? I think I need one… Call the ambulance, Akashi…"

I could practically hear him roll his eyes in that sophisticated, better-than-you way of his. "Now you're just being dramatic."

"Wee-oor, wee-oor…"

"Stop being ridiculous and get off the floor. You're not a child." This time his tone was hard, as if he expected me to obey quickly.

I raised my head at that, turning the full force of my glare on him. "This is your fault, you know!"

Suddenly he squatted down, his face ending up not five inches away, piercing eyes seeking and ensnaring my own. I swallowed, but not from fear. "No, Setsuna. This is what you wanted, remember? Victory demands sacrifice."

I frowned at his strange choice of words, still struggling to understand. "Sacrifice?"

"Yes." One of those brows rose again. "Although you also provoked me into action."

I went to nod, but the movement had me groaning pitifully. "Drastic, over-the-top action."

"… Perhaps."

I froze, surprised. Had that been… some kind of an apology? He didn't say he was sorry outright, yet I was still tempted to forgive him.

Dammit, he does this all the time… I should start calling it the 'Akashi-Apology'… Or maybe the 'Akology'… 'Apoloshi'…?

"You seem very… sluggish," he commented wryly.

I frowned at him. "Shush for a second… Trying to think…"

He blinked. "Did you just –"

"SHHHH!" I raised my right hand to place over his mouth, but the weight that was shifted onto the left was too much. I toppled over, ending up on my back by his feet and groaning pitifully as I did. When I looked up, he was staring at me with a strange expression. "Apoloshi… Ako…logy? Akology… no, not that one…"

"What are you mumbling about?"

"Apoloshi…" I giggled suddenly. "Yes, I like that one best!"

His face became annoyed. "Enough of this. I have more important things to do. Make sure you take some magnesium tablets before bed. It will help with the pain." He made to stand.

With a speed I didn't know I still possessed, my hand flashed out to seize his jersey. "Wait! You're… leaving?" Had my voice come out pleading?

His mismatched eyes met mine, and I shivered all over again. "Yes. Your training is done for today."

I frowned. "But –"

When I didn't continue the thought, he sighed once. "Setsuna, I'm here to train you, not baby you or spend quality time with you."

Ouch. "What's… so bad about spending time with me? Am I that insufferable?" When he didn't reply, I looked away, allowing my hand to fall from his jersey. "Sorry. I get that you're always busy… I'll stop bothering you so much." Silence met my words, awkward and filled with disappointment – on my end, at least. And although I refused to acknowledge the reasoning behind that particular emotion, it didn't stop me from wishing he would stay.

When I realised he hadn't moved at all, I flicked my fingers at him dismissively. "It's fine, Akashi-san. I'll be up in a minute, so you should just – WAHH!" He reached over to grip my wrist, pulling my torso off the ground gently but swiftly and throwing my hand over his opposite shoulder. "Akashi, what –"

"I doubt you can make it to a standing position right now, let alone all the way home. I will take you home today." With that, he pulled me fully across his back and stood all in one motion. The moment the ground fell away from my feet, I instinctively locked both arms around his neck. He grunted once and tapped on my arm. "I'm going to need oxygen if we hope to make it out alive."

I blinked. Loosened my hold. Blinked again. "Did you just… crack a joke?"

"If you think it amusing."

"No," I replied quickly. "I'd say your humour is more like your Shogi; deceitful and only used to lure the unsuspecting victim into a trap."

"… You're clearly still a bit slow."


As he carted me out of the school piggy-back style, I tried more than once to reduce the awkwardness through pleasant conversation, but Akashi wasn't one for wasting words. At least, with me he wasn't. On multiple occasions in the past he had made polite conversation with others, yet he seemed to drop all manner of proper decorum when we were alone.

When I mentioned this, his response was to simply shrug – making me wince – and say, "That kind of thing is unnecessary with you."

My brow twitched in annoyance. "Right. Because I'm just the nuisance you can't seem to get rid of."

He shook his head as we came up to the gate. "I didn't say that."

Oh, how very reassuring…

But I was momentarily distracted from replying when a gust of wind blew in from the gate, causing Akashi's bright red hair to swish this way and that… And making it all-too-irresistible to touch. My face was so close… It would be nothing to lean forward just an inch and feel it against my cheek. Would it be soft? Or coarse like straw from using products? I studied it again. No, I don't think he puts any cream in… It looks soft… Wait, am I seriously going to feel his hair with my face?

Yes. Yes, I am.

Before I could think on it any longer, I bent my head downward that single inch… And sighed at how soft it felt. Like a kitten's fur… I sighed again and got a little closer…

He tensed, and I knew then that I'd over-stepped the mark. My spine stiffened in anticipation of the reprimand that was sure to come.

"Setsuna?"

I straightened up, instantly alert. The voice was deep and familiar, but didn't sound like Akashi's – and it was coming from somewhere from my right. But no, he was supposed to have left this morning… Were my ears playing tricks on me…? My head slowly turned towards the source.

The receptionist lady who had been hired to watch Akashi was standing there, beside a black limo – his limo, I realised distantly. But that wasn't important.

Because standing directly behind her was my uncle, open-mouthed and staring at me as if I'd grown two heads – or like he wanted to rip the one I had off. And he'd just seen me face-rub Akashi's bright-red head…

Oh… I am so dead.