Tetsu was lying on his bed reading book when a quiet knock sounded on his half-open door. He looked up to see Taiga diffidently peeking in at him with one eye, almost hiding behind the door with only part of his face showing. It was so unexpected that Tetsu almost laughed aloud, but he managed to keep it down to just a slight twitch of his lips. "Yes, Taiga-nii?"
"May I come in?"
"Of course. Anytime." Tetsu sat up and shifted to the head of the bed to make room for him. Taiga usually just came in without asking when the door was open, though he would knock or call when the door was closed. Something must be going on for him to be this formal.
Tetsu was curious about how Taiga and Kise's visit to the aquarium had gone. Had something happened? For a moment longer, Taiga didn't move into the room. He just stood there. Staring.
Tetsu blinked. "Is something wrong, Taiga-nii? Why...why are you hiding?" His nascent anxiety ticked upward a notch. Seriously, what had happened?
Taiga sighed, then finally emerged from the door and stepped into the room. He was holding something in his hands, and he held it out straight in front of him for Tetsu's inspection. "Look what Kise bought for me at the aquarium gift shop."
Tetsu blinked at it, his eyebrows rising. It was...a little stuffed fish. It would have fit comfortably in one of Kagami's palms, and it was bright and colorful, with many floppy fabric fins. Tetsu was pretty sure the fish came from the coral reefs, but he didn't know its name.
"That's nice," he said doubtfully. He wasn't at all sure that it was nice. Why did Taiga look so worried? "Don't you like it? How did your visit to the aquarium go?"
Taiga pulled the fish back in his hands and stared down at it glumly. "It went great. It was the best stress-relief outing yet. I told Kise that I would like to go back. Watching the fish swim was really, really relaxing."
Tetsu blinked again. "So then...what's wrong?"
"Kise bought me a present." Taiga looked up at Tetsu again, his eyebrows twisting together. "And all these visits to different places in the city, and he's been so nice... I think he's trying to get into my pants. I don't want to hurt his feelings, but I have to turn him down."
Tetsu almost choked. His throat burned, and he coughed instead. He set his book aside and coughed into both hands, which gave him the opportunity to hide an enormous grin behind his palms. It took every ounce of strength and determination he had to keep from bursting into ear-piercing screeches of laughter. Oh. Oh, wow. So that was what was troubling Taiga.
After a few moments, Tetsu managed to control himself. He lowered his hands and looked back to the fish plushy, studying it as seriously as he could. "No, I don't think that's what this means," he said in the most thoughtful tone he could muster. "When Kise-kun likes someone, he goes full out. If he wanted to woo you, he would have bought a much, much bigger stuffed animal. Something you would barely be able to hold in both arms. That's...that's a friend gift. Because he was happy, and he wanted to show it."
"Oh." Taiga stared down at the fish for a moment longer, then sighed and moved over to the bed. Tetsu expected him to sit next to him and lean back against the wall, but instead Taiga moved to the foot of the bed and flopped backward on to it, making the bed bounce. His head ended up a few inches from Tetsu's crossed legs, and his shins hung over the end of the bed with his feet still on the floor.
Tetsu blinked down at him. Taiga still didn't look reassured. "Is something else bothering you?"
"I guess." Taiga held the fish above his chest in both hands and stared at it. "It's just...everything is weird."
Tetsu frowned. "I know you still feel depressed sometimes, Taiga-nii, but it's okay, you're getting better..."
"No, not that," Taiga rocked his head back and forth against the bedding and bent his neck back to look up into Tetsu's eyes. "It's just... Everyone is being so kind. Even Midorima was freakishly patient with me during our history tutoring this week. I forgot dates that I should have memorized weeks ago, and he didn't even grunt at me. Just got out the page and went over it with me again. I don't understand."
"You don't understand why everyone is being kind to you?" It was such a ridiculous idea that Tetsu had to repeat it to be sure he understood.
"Yeah. I mean..." Taiga let go of the fish with one hand so he could wave it around in the air. "Hyuuga-san and Coach Riko being nice to me makes sense. Or enough sense, anyway. They still feel like they're my senpai, and they take that duty seriously. And of course you and Dad and Aniki are kind to me. But the others... And not just now, but earlier, when I was in the hospital, too. They've all gone out of their way for me so many times."
Tetsu frowned down at him a little harder. "Yes?" He still wasn't sure he understood the question.
"Those guys...those are your friends. Your old teammates from middle school. I just... Who am I to them? I don't get it."
"Oh, Taiga-nii." Tetsu sighed and leaned his head back against the wall for moment. So that's what this was about. He shook his head to himself, the corner of his mouth turning up wryly. Sometimes it astonished him how Taiga could be so, so sweet and also so, so dumb.
"Taiga-nii." He opened his eyes and looked down at his big brother again. "They're your friends, too. Did you really not notice?"
Taiga stared at him. His hands tightened around the little fish. "Wh...what?" And now he was sputtering. Tetsu might have found it funny if it wasn't threatening to break his heart. "Wh...when did that happen?"
Tetsu couldn't help himself. He reached out and started carding his fingers through Taiga's hair, the way Taiga had done for him a few times back when he was so sick and unsteady. He remembered how nice it had felt to be touched like that, how soothing and reassuring it had been to know that someone who cared about him was at his side. Perhaps he could offer back even just an echo, give the slightest bit of that reassurance in return...
"Taiga-nii, what did you think was happening when Akashi-kun and Kise-kun and even Aomine-kun kept showing up at the hospital back then? Who did you think it was for?"
Taiga frowned. He noticed that he was starting to crush his fish plushy, his grip was so tight, so he set it next to his head in the crook between his shoulder and his neck. His folded his hands over his chest and shrugged, making the little fish bob up and down. "I don't know. At first I was too out of it to really consider why, but I guess... I always assumed it was for you. Because they were your friends, and they knew how upset you were that I was hurt, so they came to support you. And I mean...I was glad for that. I know how precious those weirdos are to you, so I was glad they came to help you when I was useless."
"I see." Tetsu nodded slowly and looked away. His hand continued to sift through Taiga's hair. It was soft and slid easily through his fingers, and he liked the sensation. "But when they agreed to tutor you...that was when it began to seem strange to you?"
"Yeah. I mean, at first I figured it was because me being unhappy was making you unhappy, so they were doing it for your sake again. But it just... They've been doing so much. It's...so much effort. Akashi, Midorima, Momoi... I can almost understand it from those three, because they're all smart and analytical, so they would have known that helping me would help you. But Kise..." Taiga fell silent, unable to articulate what he was thinking.
"You can't make sense of Kise."
"Not at all." Taiga blew out a breath and stared up at the ceiling. "Dad told me that Kise refused the idea of taking you along on these outings, too, and I just...I've never heard of Kise turning down an opportunity to spend time with you. Never even imagined it. But he... He put a lot thought into these trips. A lot more than I would have expected. Especially the last two, to the cat cafe and the aquarium."
Tetsu smiled. "Yes, I know. He even asked me for advice for things you might like to do after the first trip went badly."
"Did you know he's allergic to cats? Not so bad that he's in danger of dying or anything, but he spent the whole time at the cat cafe sneezing into his sleeve, and his eyes got really red and watery. One of the waitresses asked him if he'd had a bad breakup and that was why he came to the cats for comfort."
Tetsu laughed, soft and affectionate. "I didn't know that, no."
"I mean, he flirted with her and I think he got her number. But still. That's a lot of dedication."
Tetsu nodded thoughtfully. "It is. You're right." Unconsciously, his fingers began to slow in Taiga's hair. Taiga tilted his head to look at him not a little reproachfully. It reminded Tetsu of Nigou when he'd been petting him for a while and suddenly stopped. So Tetsu smiled and starting combing through his hair again.
He thought about a little boy who moved across the sea and couldn't make friends for an entire year until he started playing basketball. A ten-year-old whose mother yelled that she couldn't endure him right before she walked out of his life for good. A fifteen-year-old who loudly declared that he only had use for people who were strong at basketball, then immediately proved himself a gigantic liar.
Did Taiga say such a thing because he thought it was true of himself? That no one would have a use for him if he wasn't good at something? At basketball? Perhaps it was a bad thing, then, that Taiga had always been amazing at basketball. He had never had an opportunity to learn that people could like him and befriend him and want to be around him just because of who he was: Kagami Taiga, a kind, loyal, generous young man who only deserved good things in life.
"Taiga-nii," Tetsu proclaimed solemnly. "You'll be able to play basketball again. Soon, I hope."
Taiga's shoulders twitched. "Yeah, I know. You guys don't have to keep saying that all the time."
Tetsu nodded. "Yes, it's true. But have you considered what might happen if you can't?"
Taiga twitched again. Tetsu felt bad about making him uncomfortable, but not that bad. He felt that something important was about to happen, and if he hadn't been lounging comfortably, he might have been sitting on the edge of his seat. He felt this...this something, something that was about to break, to fall, to disperse into mist. It was trembling on the edge, like a boulder about to plunge down a path, an avalanche about to sweep down into a valley, a flow of water about to break through a jam. He wanted it to happen so badly he could almost taste it.
Taiga lay still for a moment longer, then abruptly rolled up on his side, his body curving into a loose ball. He was facing the wall, that familiar position he took when he wanted to shut out the world. But he hadn't pulled away from Tetsu. Instead, he had somehow pushed himself closer, his head only centimeters from touching Tetsu's leg. Tetsu kept petting his hair, the motion slow and soothing.
The fish had gotten crushed under Taiga's head. He pulled it out with one hand, then held it in front of his chest, sheltered in the curl of his body. "I don't like to think about it," he muttered.
"But you have, right?" Tetsu already knew the answer.
Taiga blew out a silent sigh. His fingers tightened on the fish. "Yeah. After the...the accident... The scouts stopped coming. I knew I wasn't going to get a scholarship, not anymore. And it sucks, but I mean... I can't blame them. A scholarship... It's basically a salary. A huge, expensive salary. You don't give a salary to someone who can't do anything to earn it. Maybe in a year...or two... Maybe I'll fully recover. Everyone seems to think so, even the doctors who were the most cautious at first, so I guess it's probably true. But still... Yes. I thought about it."
Tetsu's chest ached. He had to swallow against the lump in his throat. "What did you see when you looked ahead at a future without basketball?"
Taiga said nothing for a moment. Then, "It was dark," he whispered.
"And who did you see there at your side in that future? Anyone?"
Taiga had to think about it. "You. Dad. Aniki."
"Anyone from Seirin? Any of the Generation of Miracles?"
Taiga looked over his shoulder at Tetsu. "What are you getting at?"
It hurt, but Tetsu forced a smile. "Do you really think so little of your friends, Taiga-nii? Do you really think that everyone would abandon you if you couldn't play a ball game anymore?"
Taiga blinked. "I..." He looked forward again. At the wall. His head was pressed into Tetsu's leg now, instinctively seeking contact. Tetsu could feel his tension, his trembling. "I don't know. I didn't...I didn't think about it that way."
Tetsu's hand went still against Taiga's head. His pressed his palm into that soft, dark red hair, firm and solid, like an extended pat. His hand was steady, but his voice wavered. "You didn't think about it that way because you thought you already knew. You assumed. Without putting any thought into it, you were sure that anyone who did not consider you family would leave if you couldn't play basketball anymore."
"Yeah." Taiga's voice was barely audible, just a low murmur of breath with no force behind it. "I guess that's true."
The pads of Tetsu's fingers pressed into Taiga's scalp. There was a strange sensation in his chest, an aching and a pressure, like a heavy balloon about to burst with the weight of air. He wanted to make an impression. He wanted Taiga to hear him, to understand. To feel the truth. "And what...what do you think now? Have our friends proved to you yet that they value you, with or without basketball? Because they do. We all do."
Taiga was so still for so long that Tetsu almost could have believed he had fallen asleep. But he could hear his breathing, soft and ragged. Struggling.
"Taiga-nii?" Tetsu's voice fell to a breath, too. He sank down on his side into his bed, curling up in a ball with his face toward his brother. As Taiga sheltered his little stuffed fish, Tetsu sheltered Taiga's bowed head. His knees almost touched Taiga's back, his feet hanging off the edge of the bed, and his hand remained buried in Taiga's hair. It was difficult to maneuver and a little cramped, but he got his own head between Taiga's and the wall. In this strange, awkward position, he could see Taiga's face.
His eyes were squeezed shut.
"Taiga-nii." Tetsu felt like crying. "Don't you believe me? We love you, Taiga-nii. We all love you. So, so much. We have for a long time. Pretty much since we met you, I think. Maybe some of us took longer than others, but we're all there now. We love you and we want you to be strong and happy, and we'll do anything to make that happen. Please, please believe me."
Taiga breathed. His face was damp with sweat, with tears. His expression twisted, and he ducked as if trying to escape Tetsu's eyes, but Tetsu's hand on his head held him still.
"Please, Taiga-nii. Do you believe me?"
Achingly slow, Taiga opened his eyes. He met Tetsu's gaze, though upside-down and distorted. "I..." His face twisted again, longing and pain almost equally mixed. "I think so. I want to. I didn't...I didn't expect this."
"I know." Tetsu carded his hand roughly through Taiga's hair, in relief as much as anything else. "You never expect anything." He jerked out a little laugh, harsh, broken. "You're so selfless, Taiga-nii. You could stand to be a little more greedy, sometimes. If you reached out once in a while, you might realize that we were all eager to give back to you."
Taiga's nose wrinkled incredulously. "What are you talking about? I've been...I've been so selfish. Ever since I came home... I've just been focused on myself, on my own little world. That's what you said, right? I was withdrawing from everyone. It was selfish of me. That's why I've been trying to fix it."
Tetsu shook his head in despair. "Oh, Taiga-nii. How can you understand so much and so little? That's..." He didn't have words. Taiga stared at him in confusion. Tetsu sighed and went limp. His hands fell down on the bed beside Taiga's head, no longer pressing him. Tetsu was going to have to let this one go. In withdrawing from everyone, trying to bear his own burden and not bother anyone with his pain, Taiga had been as far from selfish as Tetsu could imagine. But he didn't know how to make Taiga understand that.
He had to try something else. "Listen, Taiga-nii. I know it's hard for you, but can you please, please just let us all be all kind to you? We want to, so very badly. You'd be doing us a favor. Let Midorima-kun be patient with you. Let Akashi-kun enjoy teaching you. Let Kise-kun show you how to relax. Let me and Dad and Aniki shelter you when you're weary."
Taiga didn't respond right away. After a moment of waiting, Tetsu felt his tension begin to drain away. He'd done everything he could. He had laid it all out for Taiga as clearly as he knew how. From here on, it was up to Taiga to understand or not understand, to accept or reject or just mull over it all for a while. Tetsu couldn't ask for more.
But after a long, considering moment, Taiga came to a decision. His face smoothed out. The wrinkles vanished, his shoulders falling loose instead of hunched and tight. And he reached behind his head for Tetsu's hand, picked up, and dropped in on top of his own head again. Just like Nigou asking for petting.
"Okay, Tetsu-chan," he said. "You can be kind to me. I won't object."
Tetsu laughed and ruffled his hair. His heart was so light that he thought it might float away. Finally, something was going right for a change.