That year, Kuroko moves in with Aomine in a mixed dorm normally reserved for Named fighter-sacrifice pairs. Kuroko figures this privilege is one of the many perks Aomine has as the top Fighter in the academy. What surprises him more is Akashi agreeing to such a thing. The headmaster sends him off in an unusually thoughtful mood and Kuroko numbly obeys as always.
The calculating smile on Akashi's face before he bids Kuroko farewell lingers in Kuroko's mind for the rest of the evening as he moves his paltry bag of belongings to the new dormitory building. The nagging feeling of unease only dissipates when Aomine greets him at the door with a dazzling smile that brushes away all his worries.
Kuroko can't help but smile back. If he is with Aomine, then surely, things will work out.
"Tetsu! Come on in," Aomine calls, and Kuroko follows like a moth to a flame.
Their classes start a day after the move. Even though they share a room, Aomine is still a Fighter and Kuroko is still a Sacrifice, so they share no classes except for a joint fighting practice that everyone in their year is required to take.
It is the first time for many blank, Unnamed Sacrifices to interact with the Fighters, and the gossip mill churns like never before. Kuroko supposes, in a way, he has a bit of an unfair advantage because of his friendship with Aomine, but as their tactics instructor has mentioned, sometimes life is unfair and that's a fact that must not be dwelt on but rather exploited to its fullest.
While his peers gossip anxiously about rumors of the upcoming class and the bad temperaments among the Fighters, Kuroko spends the whole day looking forward to it. To having a class with a friendly face. With Aomine.
And when the time for the class finally does come, Kuroko wastes no time slipping away from the side of the room where the Sacrifices congregated to the side of the Fighters. To Aomine's credit, he doesn't even flinch when Kuroko greets him from behind.
"Oh, you're finally here Tetsu?" Aomine grins, holding out a fist. "We're going to work together, right?"
Kuroko meets the fist with his own and smiles. "Of course."
With the encouragement of their instructor, the rest of the students soon follow their example, albeit more slowly and with much more pandering around. While Aomine yawns, bored of the lack of action already, Kuroko takes careful note of his surroundings. He doesn't see Midorima, though he briefly hears Kise's voice among a crowd of the more forward Sacrifices vying for his partnership.
Aomine catches on and snickers at Kise's predicament. "Serves him right. " 'M lucky I have you Tetsu, huh?"
Kuroko thinks that, if anything, he is the lucky one, not Aomine, but the instructor grabs their attention once more with the sound of a whistle. The whole gymnasium has finally finished separating into little islands of Fighter-Sacrifice pairs, a sight that Riko looks over with satisfaction.
She is a new instructor at the academy, one of the youngest they have ever hired, but by no means incompetent. She will make these students bloom.
"Now I hope everyone has found a partner," she announces through her loudspeaker, "because to start off this class, we're going to have a ranking tournament."
Aomine's eyes light up at the thought of a battle. A whole tournament of battles. "Alright! Let's win this, Tetsu!"
Kuroko shakes from nervous anticipation. This will be his first real battle, outside of classroom theories and simulations. But for Aomine's sake, he nods in agreement. "Of course," he repeats.
The matches are more like slugfests than actual spell battles. The link between the couples are tenuous at best, and even the damage from a single hit is multiplied tenfold by their unsteady resonance.
'Well,' Riko thinks as she checks off the results of yet another match on her list, "I expected as much.'
And yet, one pairing does defy her expectation.
"Too slow, too weak, your attacks can't reach!"
Aomine Daiki, the top Fighter of the school, even outplacing the seniors through sheer talent. He has no trouble dispelling the other team's attack, calling out a counter for it before they could even finish it. 'What a monster,' Riko thinks approvingly.
"Aomine-kun, the real one is to your right!"
And not only that, his connection to his Sacrifice is noticeably better than any of the other couples. Riko can sense it, even without the Sacrifice receiving a single scratch. It is unusual, considering Aomine's record of delinquency and aloofness, to see such a strong attachment.
The Sacrifice is unremarkable in comparison, and yet he plays the role of a typical Sacrifice perfectly, assessing the situation with a keen eye and directing Aomine's destructive power efficiently.
"Got it. Split, divide, restrain, your illusion is no more!"
What made the pairing truly effective though is the way Aomine reacts to his Sacrifice's words without hesitation, a trait usually only found in veteran pairs. It speaks volumes of the trust and respect they shared, a vital trait for Fighter-Sacrifice pairs.
Aomine rips through the illusion spell of the opposing team like tissue paper and with that, the other team's sacrifice becomes immobilized by chains, losing by default. The whistle blows.
"Looks like we have our winners," she declares.
Riko smiles. Aomine Daiki and Kuroko Tetsuya, an interesting pair indeed.
That night, Kuroko finds Aomine on his bed, curled up and still in uniform. Kuroko would even dare to call it cute, if not for the puddle of drool he spots forming on his sheets.
"Aomine-kun, please move. You have your own bed," Kuroko says calmly.
"Don't wanna, 'm tired,' Aomine whines.
Kuroko's eyes soften. Aomine did do most of the work in their matches today, gleefully tearing his way to the finals and bringing Kuroko for the ride. Even now, Kuroko has no words to describe how amazing it feels to see Aomine in action, to be even a small part of that action.
"Then, scoot over please. And don't drool."
Aomine grunts, but obeys nonetheless and Kuroko slides in next to Aomine. The bed is warm with the heat of a second body, warmer than any blanket Kuroko had ever had. Unconsciously, he relaxes inside that cocoon of safety.
"We were pretty awesome today, huh?"
"You were really amazing out there too, ya'know? Thanks for watching my back."
This time, Aomine receives no reply. He turns around, noticing that Kuroko is already fast asleep. It's a nice sight, Aomine thinks. Rarely has he ever seen Kuroko so relaxed, lips slightly parted with a completely peaceful, unguarded expression.
It's an expression of trust, Aomine realizes. Trust in him, of all people.
Aomine turns back around.
"Hey Tetsu," he says once more in a hushed whisper. "I think…I think I like you."
He pauses, and in an even quieter voice, asks, "…Do you like me too?"
It becomes routine for Aomine to regularly crash Kuroko's bed, and soon he begins to invade other aspects of Kuroko's living space. It becomes almost expected to find a porn magazine lying in every shadowy corner, and Kuroko has gone around half asleep more than once in an overly large shirt that had been mixed in with his own laundry.
Somehow, Kuroko doesn't find himself minding as much as he expected.
Aomine's mere presence fills the room in a way the silence of his old dormitory room never could and it added an atmosphere to their new living space that Kuroko could only describe as cozy, as corny as that sounded. Perhaps the lazy afternoons spent together on the couch watching (much to Aomine's complaint) reruns of the sappiest soap operas is wearing off on him, but in between their adventurous take-out food sampling and their late nights of brainstorming an ever growing list of combinations and strategies, Kuroko has no time to be anything less than content with the new pace of his life.
And yet, much to everyone's bewilderment, Aomine and Kuroko are not the first pair in the class to share a Name. That honor goes to a relatively low ranked couple. Aomine doesn't even remember seeing them in the final rounds of a ranking tournament before.
More and more, Aomine catches sight of Kuroko staring at his palm for a word that still refuses to appear. And again and again, he takes that small hand in his own.
"It'll come, it'll come," he reassures.
"Mm," Kuroko agrees, then looks away.
A fair share of partner switching occurs during every class, even between practice matches. As the school year goes on, everyone becomes more desperate to find that one partner who will complete their true Name. It is only Aomine who still stubbornly clings to Kuroko, and Kuroko clings right back.
Riko is not sure what to say to them, so she remains silent because, despite all odds, the two continue to defend their position as the top pair in the class without fail.
She wonders, though, how long this can last, especially with the increasing amount of Named pairs. An Unnamed pair is put at a significant disadvantage when receiving damage, one Aomine and Kuroko has only managed to avoid by completing their matches without a scratch.
It's a miracle, really. One born by Aomine's monstrous strength.
"Let's raise the challenge, then," Akashi proposes during the board meeting amongst the faculty after Riko reports the oddity in her class.
"…raise the challenge?" Riko repeats in confusion.
A smirk, shrewd and predatory, forms on Akashi's face, setting the whole room at ill ease. "I think it's about time we let them learn from the seniors on how spell battles truly work."
"Please be careful, Aomine-kun, our opponents this time are seniors," Kuroko warns before their match. Even if it is an unranked practice match, he fully intends to take it as serious as a real match.
"I know," Aomine mutters, glancing at their opponent's Fighter. "I've fought him before. He's a bastard."
Kuroko sends a questioning look. "What is he like?"
"Annoying," Aomine huffs and gets into position for their match. "But don't worry, I won't let him lay a hand on you, Tetsu."
"Oh? So arrogant already?" The other pair is already in position, with their fighter in front. Kuroko immediately feels unease at the wild gleam in the fighter's eyes. They are eyes that challenge Aomine's confidence without hesitation.
"Tch, I've beaten you before, Haizaki." Aomine taunts, holding out his middle finger defiantly.
"Ha, that's because we've only met in unpaired matches. Paired matches are a whole different ball field."
Suddenly, Haizaki roughly grabs his Sacrifice's hand and Kuroko can almost seen the resonance between them in their identical smirks. "Let's show you how it's done."
They chant, perfectly in unison, "We are Ruthless, attacking like a gale, tearing, constantly, unrelenting!"
Aomine unconsciously moves in front of Kuroko before the razor sharp winds even form. "Turn back, send back, you are not welcomed. Taste your own medicine, all spells-."
The other team quickly counters. "Rip, cleave, your barrier is too weak. Break!"
A resounding explosion of wind sounded from the center of the field. In the midst of it, Aomine can't even open his eyes, but he hears one voice clearly over the roaring of the gust. "Aomine-kun, it's okay, attack."
"Tetsu! Shitshitshit-" Aomine is torn between seeking out his Sacrifice and obeying, but he realizes he doesn't have a second to waste. "Dispel, redirect, circle, enclose. You cannot escape!"
The field clears.
Aomine can finally see again. In front of him, Haizaki's Sacrifice is firmly bound in both wounds and multiple restrictive chains that reflect the full extent of his powerful counter attack, and while Haizaki remains without a scratch, he is noticeably annoyed. They had won, but more importantly -
"Tetsu! Are you alright?"
Kuroko is in a better state than their opponent, if not just marginally. There are several bleeding cuts on his arms, and a chain encircles both his wrists and his neck. And yet, Kuroko looks up and assures him in a strangely calm voice, "I'm fine, Aomine-kun. These are just minor wounds. I don't feel any pain from them."
"Minor?" Aomine scoffs, pointing at a particularly nasty wound on Kuroko's shoulder. 'Too much blood, too much,' his mind reels in alarm. "You're bleeding all over the place, Tetsu. I thought I told you that you can be honest with me."
The chains burst into light and disappear, signaling the end of the match. Finally free to move more, Kuroko examines his own wounds with a disinterest that alarms Aomine. "But I am being honest with you, Aomine-kun," Kuroko says. "I am not supposed to feel pain. This is what all Sacrifices are trained for, so please, don't worry about me."
"..not…feel pain?" Aomine repeats in confusion.
The whistle blows. "Okay, Kuroko, let's get you to the nurse," Riko interrupts, and Aomine can only stare worriedly as a group of teachers carry away his partner.
"I'll be okay," Kuroko repeats, but the words do not comfort Aomine at the least.
Aomine and Midorima are not friends. They are grudging acquaintances at best, but as much as Aomine hates to admit it, Midorima is smart, more often than not, in a very obnoxious manner.
And yet here he is, seeking out Midorima after the conclusion of their class. Aomine has questions, and he wants answers, even if it means swallowing his pride.
"What kind of training do Sacrifices get?" Aomine asks, cutting directly to his question without delay.
Midorima examines Aomine once over, noticing his curled fist and obviously agitated expression. He adjusts his glasses and sighs. "You really don't pay attention in class, do you?"
"Oi! What does that have to do with anything?"
"If you had been paying attention, maybe you would know that Sacrifices are very different from Fighters. Because they shield us from damage in a battle, their lifespans are also significantly shorter and their numbers far fewer. Whereas academy training is voluntary for us, it is mandatory for them for the sake of optimizing their survivability. Most are taken in at a young age with much…harsher training. "
"I thought Tetsu just read books all day. Tactics, or something like that? How is that harsh?" Aomine says, dumbfounded.
"That's only a part of it," Midorima explains. "Pain desensitization is also ingrained at a young age, so that they can persist longer in battles, and for the most part, they are kept isolated to prevent attachment to any particular fighter before the critical period when Names begin to appear. It's surprising that Kuroko managed to visit you so often. Didn't you find it odd at all, that he's the only sacrifice you've ever met last year?"
"…no? He's the only one I wanted to meet anyways."
"Hmph, you really are a dense idiot. I suggest you don't think further about this, your brain might explode from the effort." With that, Midorima dodges Aomine's petty swipe of anger at his shirt and walks away.
"I'll do what I want!" Aomine shouts at his back.
"Go ahead, I'm not your babysitter. I won't be responsible for the mess that you're bound to make," Midorima challenges, leaving Aomine by himself for the second time that day.
When Aomine returns, he finds Kuroko asleep before him for once. His wounds are bandaged now, covering a significant part of his body. It's amazing that they even let him return back to the room.
"Hey Tetsu," Aomine whispers, reaching for Kuroko's uninjured palm. It's blank, as usual, and for the first time, Aomine understands that nagging feeling of uncertainty that Kuroko must have always felt.
"I'm sorry, I'm a pretty shitty Fighter, aren't I?"
For the first time, Aomine sleeps in his own bed.
"I'll fight by myself today," Aomine declares the next day in class. Everyone stares at the unprecedented move.
"Aomine-kun, I'm fine, I can fight-" Kuroko begins, but Aomine is already in position, beckoning his opponents to start the battle. He does not even turn around at the sound of his voice.
Now, more than ever, Aomine's back appears infinitely distant despite only being separated by mere meters.
For the first time, Kuroko begins to understand a new kind of pain, one that he doesn't know how to ignore.
A/N: As you can see in this chapter, I took a lot of liberties with the term "loveless AU" haha. Hopefully it isn't too confusing. Not that the original loveless universe wasn't confusing, but that's a whole different rant.
One more chapter left! They are steadily growing longer ugh.