Disclaimer: All applied materials belong to their respective owners.

Warning: Female Kuroko, spoilers.

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皇帝の提案

Emperor's Proposal

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Step VIII : 挨拶

– Greeting –

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As expected, though not desirable, the air was suffocated with tension from earlier little episode. Deciding to turn a blind eye, the only outsider among the group made her way to vacant seat at the back. She had no idea why the captain's stride was on its steady way to claim the seat by her. Neither did he say anything prior to occupying said seat as if it were the most natural thing that happened on daily basis.

Momoi glimpsed at the scene and realized there was no place for her beside the blunette. With contented disposition, she wisely chose a seat at the front.

Rewinding her memory, Kuroko thought back to the answer about what purpose her presence served on this occasion. She had thought nothing of it but as a whimsical means to change the main topic due to the questioned individual's incapability of supplying an answer.

"Don't think too much about it."

Her grip on a small basketball handbook tightened at the sudden remark.

"Observe the players. That is all I ask of you."

Understanding dawned on her as his forthright words sank in. "Akashi-kun is more than capable of such appraisal without my input."

The superficially petulant tone in the blunette's murmur prompted a small smile on the aforementioned person's lips. "I see no demerit in listening to someone else's opinion. It will put all the reading you have done to good use."

Somehow, the way he concluded it left her in no position to betray his expectation. Just a little, despite the limitation on her freedom to decline, she felt happy.

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.

Akashi decided to leave the girl to her own devices and went over a conversation between him and the head coach near the end of lunch break instead. From what he had gathered, Kamata West might resort to provocation in order to get Teiko's first string players to play.

For the sake of data-gathering…

Their most recent practice match's result should have reached quite some schools by now. Grasping this fact firmly, he had predicted this outcome from the beginning. Had it only been the provocation scheme, Midorima would have been sufficient to withstand such childish trick.

What had caught his attention was the twin freshmen who might partake in today's practice match. Momoi had alerted him of the possibility Kamata West's consecutive winning streak these days had something to do with the twins.

"Let's give our first years a good match!" – was conveyed yesterday when the other side called to confirm the allocated time for the match.

With the authority to coordinate today's match from the head coach, he would stay a puppeteer.

Haizaki who pales a shade compared to the other freshmen will be enough as a sacrificial pawn.

"Akashi-kun is plotting," his seatmate pointed out bluntly as she put away her handbook.

Amused, he watched the expressionless blunette retrieve a black hair rubber band from her bag. "That's harsh. I was merely devising strategies."

Kuroko lifted up her long silky hair and successfully styled a high ponytail with the help of the rubber band. Slightly tilting her head downwards to flip her lustrous strands back, she whispered to herself, "Liar."

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The group got off the bus in silence after arriving at Kamata West. In the supreme captain's close presence, the second string could not help but felt overwhelmed. Affected seniors self-consciously let go of hierarchy between upperclassmen and freshmen, labeling it a triviality in the light of his ability and leadership.

Akashi started walking into the building with second string members in tow. Gazing at his back that shouldered responsibility of a captain, the group was reminded for the umpteenth time of the ingrained philosophy to be ever victorious.

Such was the pride of Teiko Junior High School's basketball club.

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"That chibi is a second string?"

"Aren't they underestimating us?"

"Hey, hey, don't be rude to our visitors. They're members of the reputable Teiko's basketball club."

Similar jeers could be heard from every corner of the medium-sized gymnasium. Still with white jacket over his number-four jersey which symbolized his captaincy, Akashi disregarded the foolish savages' frivolous attempt to rile him up.

Seeing the captain's calm demeanor as he started briefing them despite the mockery, especially the personal attack on his height, the second string's respect for Akashi Seijuro went up a notch.

"Stay calm during the match."

That was the last warning Akashi gave before sending the team out for warm-ups with the coach's consent. "Kuroko," he called out softly after taking a seat on the bench.

The blunette deciphered the unsaid invitation and took a seat next to him. It did not appear to her that he would be playing in the first half. "There are many things I have yet to understand. Please go easy on me."

Akashi presented her a light chuckle before turning his attention to the court. Any trail of amiability in his eyes disappeared in an instant once the loud whistle pierced through jeers and cheers.

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A few minutes into the game started to show that Teiko had an upper hand even though they were playing it safe by defending and gaining points gradually. The opponent's poor performance on court proved him right. Those players composed a less-than-average team at best.

This was an insult to Teiko's pride.

Who is the one underestimating here? – he sneered inwardly.

"Damn those bastards, looking down on us!" Haizaki berated after realizing what was playing before his eyes.

"From that standing, we are taking this match for granted as well, are we not?" Akashi debated without missing a beat.

"Then send me out! I will–"

"Haizaki."

Hearing the captain calling his name with absolute authority undertone, the ashen-haired player's protest halted at the tip of his tongue. A tapering glare from the corner of the red-head's eyes pinned him motionless.

"Know your place."

Those acrimonious words carried enough weight to crush his pride mercilessly. Residual anger and embarrassment from the humiliation coiled inside the taller player. He could barely refrain himself from punching the living daylights out of his captain.

"There is no need for you to entertain them in the first half," Akashi phrased his opinion.

The adult of the group possessed prudent perception not to criticize the captain's attitude in this case. "The possibility of them substituting players is not nonexistent," he approached the subject carefully.

"They will substitute players starting next quarter," Akashi affirmed. "Nevertheless, it will still be within our members' capability to defend the game."

For a moment, the benched players were struck speechless by the captain's trust in them. Even the coach and Momoi, who had been busy gathering data, shifted their focus to the point guard. Kuroko sported a fleeting smile upon detecting sincerity in his voice.

Those were precious words they might not hear again in the near future.

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True to the red-haired leader's words, Teiko was leading with a five-point margin by the end of second quarter. Momoi also confirmed the opponent had sent out one of their regulars in second quarter.

"Heh… So that's Teiko…" a boy scoffed as he walked toward the exit during half-time break.

"Should I say as expected?" his companion retorted. "I doubt any of those on court was actually their first string." Leaning against the door frame, he eyed Teiko team warily. "That shorty might be more than meets the eyes." Something about the way the red-head stood in front of seated Teiko players and spoke in perfect composure with arms crossed did not sit right with him.

"Tch… I thought he's here to play but he didn't even bother to warm up."

"…"

"Don't tell me…" Their eyes widened as reality pulled the rug from under them. "That shorty is actually a first string?!"

"Calling someone short while your height hardly towers over him is self-deprecating."

The twins chorused a cry in response, simultaneously turning their heads to the feminine voice. "You are…" Both took in her appearance from head to toe. "That uniform… You're from Teiko?"

Kuroko stared at the one who was asking her a question. "Yes, I am."

Good timing! – The twins cheered in their minds.

"Hey, is he a first string?" one of them asked as he bent down to even his gaze with the blunette's.

The stranger's brazen attitude to impose on her personal space did not faze her. She replied flatly, "Who knows? I am not part of the basketball team." Since her initial objective to get some fresh air had subsided considerably, Kuroko turned around to go back to Teiko's bench.

A hand shot out to detain her by the elbow. "Hey, that's not very convincing."

"…Please unhand me," Kuroko requested with a note of admonitory.

The boy pressed onward regardless, "Is he going to play in second half?"

The grip on her elbow increased in power despite her polite plea and attempt to break free. She let out a sigh and flexed her fingers, ready to retaliate. "Pardon my rudeness–"

Surprise flashed in her clear aquamarine eyes when someone suddenly tugged at her wrist from the side, ripping her off the boy's grip. Her figure tumbled forward from momentary balance lost. An arm seized hold of her waist instantaneously, protecting her from any form of impact.

"Do you have any business with my girlfriend?" Akashi enunciated in minatory low tone, a cryptic smile decorated his features.

Kuroko froze in her savior's arms with her back to the twins. His choice of word drowned her in shock. Of all possible and more appropriate terms, he had chosen the least expected one to gain control over the situation.

"Chill, we're just asking her a question," the twin defended with a slight falter.

"Is that so?" Irritation corroded Akashi's smile. "Then, refrain from committing unnecessary deeds." His hold around his fair-skinned captive visibly tightened to send his point across. "Else, I will take it personally."

Her current position shattered her equilibrium to recognize the twins' distressed state. The split-second momentum had framed a kaleidoscope of his vibrant movements. Each reverberated in harmony with her almost audible heartbeat.

It is the same thump.

Her analytical mind lost its apt ability to scour logic for an answer to the irregular poundings of her heart.

What is this feeling?

Kuroko relented to his warmth, her thin fingers curled around the fabric of his jacket in defeat.

Akashi loosened his hold to secure her delicate hand in his. He suggested gently into her ear, "Let's go back," to which he received a quiet acquiescence. Noticing her flustered state, he opted to be a gentleman and led the blunette away with a heartfelt smile instead of teasing her.

The inarticulate twins stood rigid with a terrified look. Both feared they might have just made their worst enemy.

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Kuroko upturned her gaze to capture a view of the supreme captain's robust back. There were facts she had been negligent to notice before. Perhaps the word negligence did not do justice to her favorite activity, human observation. It was more of a miss on her part to observe without fully comprehending what reality bore.

His wide shoulders that offered comfort.

His taller height that shielded her from harm.

His velvety voice that brimmed with genuine concern.

And more importantly…

The hand that retained hers was very warm. She had forgotten when the last time someone held her hand was. It seemed like a faraway memory, flickering in monochromatic dull gray rivaling the bleak winter sky.

A squeeze greeted her hand as if wanted to alleviate the gloom in her heart. It was such a simple gesture. But his warmth and her erratic heartbeat were not illusions.

"I saw it," Akashi started a mellow conversation without any indication he would be letting go of the blunette's hand before reaching their destination.

The curt utterance veered Kuroko's focus to the red-head's claim. Through sheer willpower, she regained her poker face and asked, "What did Akashi-kun see?" She wondered if the red-head had seen through the stance she had not meant to flaunt.

"You were about to wristlock him, weren't you?" Akashi had known there was something peculiar about the girl since he first laid his eyes on her. The natural reflex and precision she displayed during lunch had not been a fluke after all.

True, she had intended to resort to immobilizing the twin to free herself. Her parents had signed her up for basic martial arts class for this very reason, to protect herself during their absence. She had never guessed the captain was also familiar with it. "…Is Akashi-kun a practitioner?" Kuroko asked hesitantly.

"Mostly for self-defense purpose," Akashi replied. "Well, if situation calls for extreme measures…" he trailed off, leaving rooms for traumatizing imaginations.

Kuroko processed the new information without a twitch on her facial features.

"The twins are martial arts' practitioners," Akashi disclosed the fact he had just found. "His firm grip on your flexed elbow would have given him the advantage to apply more pressure to restrict your movement." The fact the insolent twin had grabbed his object of interest's vulnerable joint in the elbow proved that he was used to identifying human's nerves. It was a custom to most martial artists.

Kuroko was rendered speechless for a few seconds by the explanation. The person in front of her had seen through not only her intention but also the twin's. If he had not stopped her, she would have been the one being restrained instead.

I am no match for this person…

She finally reciprocated the red-head's gesture with her own and ceased her steps. "Akashi-kun is truly amazing..."

Akashi's steps ground to a halt in time with hers. Upon turning back, her serene gaze met his slightly widened ruby orbs. Words alone could not describe the priceless beauty radiated from her smile. It was so pure, so sincere…

And reminded him of his selfishness that would leave him no choice but to bury her smile with his own hands.

I am the worst…

Kuroko gasped when she was suddenly pulled forward. Although this time there was no arm locking her in place, her companion's desperation was palpable to her when the supreme captain lowered his head to nestle his forehead on her small shoulder.

"Ten seconds…"

Deep inside, he began to fear the future he foresaw. It was like watching an hourglass counting down every second toward inescapable sequence their future beheld. The fear lurked in the dark corner of his heart, haunting him the more as he came to terms with his feeling.

I am not strong enough to defend myself against this feeling…

Akashi Seijuro, a living miracle who had always been victorious, silently admitted his first defeat in the hand of Kuroko Tetsumi, a girl he had not expected to really fall in love with.


Author's Note: As I promised on my profile page, here's the eighth chapter. I tried my best to keep a leash on Akashi's characterization as much as possible yet it turned out like this...

On another note, I wonder if there are people from last year who are still reading this story… OTL