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Pei Yi ([personal profile] lacewood) wrote in [community profile] toxicskyremix2015-03-08 06:58 pm

kuroko no basket - past present future tense

If asked, at age 16, where she saw herself 10 years later, Araki Masako would have shrugged, looked out the window and said, “Who knows?” She had no patience for adults and their well-meaning questions, their irrelevant advice.

She wouldn’t have been lying either. What could the future promise? What did she want from it? What did she even want from herself? Nothing she knew how to put a name to.

No point wasting time, asking stupid questions with no answers. There were so many other ways to waste it already.

Late spring, early afternoon; sky teetering undecided on the edge between sun and rain.

By unspoken agreement, Masako and Kaoru cut their last class for the day, ignore the warning clouds, and camp out behind the sports clubs. The narrow concrete alley between container block and storage shed is cramped and overgrown with weeds, but with a whole field between the clubs and the rest of the school, this is the furthest they can get from school without leaving it, and teachers never think to come here.

So they sit, wreathed in nicotine haze, watch the clouds pass and trade bets on how long it takes before they get rained on.

The last bell, tinny and insistent, rings to release the law-abiding citizenry. Students disperse themselves through the school - trickling through the gates, running through the corridors, scattering themselves across the field. They’re free to leave now, but instead Kaoru steals the last cigarette and Masako rolls her eyes and lets her, while her own smoulders down to the filter paper.

In one of the second floor club rooms, the soccer club starts a vigorous argument over - something. Their noisy, pointless bickering tumbles through the open window, and Masako tunes out the details with the bored ease of practice. Once you’ve heard one petty club debate, you’ve heard them all, and they’ve certainly sat in on enough of them here in this alley.

Then a voice interrupts their self-imposed exile to say, “Hmm, what’s this?”

They turn, startled, to find their Chemistry teacher standing in the mouth of the alley, studying them with interest. Masako drops her cigarette. Beside her, Kaoru says, “Shit.”

It’s too little too late, of course. Osano-sensei strolls in, looks down at the still-glowing stubs on the ground, and leans one shoulder against the storage shed. “Smoking on school grounds?” she says to them.

Masako glares because even with the serious face she’s wearing, there’s a lilt to her voice that says she’s really laughing. At them. “So what are you going to do about it?”

Kaoru jabs her in the side. “Don’t make things worse!” she hisses and drags Masako to her feet with her.

“It’s already worse!” Masako hisses back.

Kaoru ignores her protest, clamps a hand on the back of her head and pushes until Masako is forced into a semblance of a bow beside her. “We’re very sorry, Osano-sensei! We won’t do this again, we promise! Really!”

Osano-sensei holds out a hand and waits. Masako reluctantly drops the empty crumpled cigarette packet in her hand. She raises her eyebrows at them, still waiting. Even more reluctantly, they hand over their lighters.

She pockets the loot, meets Masako’s angry stare and observes, “You’re expecting me to report this to the principal and call your parents.”

Masako doesn’t bother answering. Why else would she have bothered to come all the way here?

Instead, Osano-sensei says, “Why don’t we make a deal?”

“A deal,” Masako says, flat. Her expectations of authority are universally pessimistic, but even by her standards, Osano-sensei with her unflappable calm has always been a cipher. You never know where you stand with her. What the hell does she want?

“I won’t tell the principal what I saw today…. and in exchange, the two of you will join the girls’ basketball team.”

For a minute, they stare blankly at her.

“Girl’s… basketball… team…?” Kaoru echoes, in case they’re somehow both imagining this.

“The club is new, so we don’t have enough members to qualify for games or matches yet. The two of you would be very welcome additions,” Osano-sensei tells them.

Masako takes refuge in disbelief. “You snuck up on us so you could blackmail us into the basketball team?!”

“Yes,” Osano-sensei admits. Then she grins at them, unrepentant and uncharacteristically honest, as if she knows they know she’s laughing at them, like they’re in on the joke together.

“We don’t even know anything about basketball!” Masako snaps, determinedly clinging to the shreds of her defiance.

“That’s not an problem, everyone has to start somewhere. And the two of you are very athletic. PE is your best subject, isn’t it?”

It’s certainly not fucking Chemistry. They’re out-played, out-maneuvered, and cornered.

Masako exchanges looks with Kaoru. If they were model students, they might get out of this with a slap on the wrist and a lecture, maybe a black mark in a record somewhere. But their histories are far from clean and the discipline committee knows their faces too well to be inclined to mercy.

Kaoru bites her lip and shakes her head, the movement so slight it could be a twitch, barely conscious. It says enough. If the school comes calling - Masako’s parents might give her hell, but Kaoru’s father will be worse. Much worse.

“Fine,” Masako tell Osano-sensei. They’ll probably suck. The club’ll probably lose all their matches and disband before the year is over. They can find another way out of this later.

“We’ll join your stupid basketball club.”

Contrary to every expectation, they do not suck.

Completely against her own will, Masako realises how much she really hates to lose.

There’s blood in her mouth. Masako presses her knuckles to her cheek and tastes the bright copper tang on her tongue, but there’s no teeth lost, just a cut on the inside from when the Mizuho High banchou punched her.

She sneers. “That the best you can do?”

In answer, the other girl tries to claw her eyes out.

There are seven Mizuho High girls to the three of them, all blonde curls and pristine makeup and pink-painted nails, their war paint deceptive yet formidable. Masako knows - everyone knows - what happens to people stupid enough to underestimate that dolled up exterior. The odds are not in their favour.

Aoba should have been smart enough not to mess with Mizuho property, but she’s never been able to resist turning her charms in all the wrong directions. Old habits break hard. Masako and Kaoru should have been smart enough to turn their backs, when it came down to it - but old loyalties break harder.

Now, Masako hits back and she hits hard.

Mizuho’s first mistake was thinking that going straight meant going soft. They’re welcome to survive a week of basketball training and see if they still believe it. Their second mistake was trying to trap them in a cramped, dingy alley behind a street of shuttered bars. There’s too many of them to move easily, too much rubbish and broken furniture to trip them over.

Kaoru kicks a girl hard enough that she crashes into the overflowing dumpster that half-blocks the mouth of the alley and Masako chucks a broken crate at someone else’s back when they try to go after Aoba. There’s too many bodies standing in the way for them to make a run for it.

This is not a game. There’s no finesse to fighting like this, only raw, brute, force

But the third mistake Mizuho made - was thinking they wouldn’t call for help.

Masako hears the growl of an engine, coming closer than it should. She doesn’t have time to process the warning before the bike skids past the dumpster and plunges straight into the battle. Shrieking girls scatter from its path, throwing themselves to the sides while the rider somehow performs an impossible turn and whirls back around to face them.

The engine snarls. The Mizuho girls run like hell.

Masako, high on adrenaline and relief, stands in the middle of the mostly-empty alley and gapes at their rescuer like an idiot. Kaoru leans against a wall and giggles wildly, while Aoba shakes her shoulder. “Is that… Kaoru, stop laughing! What’s going on here?!”

The biker takes off her helmet, shakes out long, red-dyed hair, and grins at them. She’s young, dressed in a nondescript windbreaker and jeans, and Masako has never seen her before.

“So you’re Rui-chan’s cute students,” she says.

Masako doesn’t have to ask who Rui-chan is because the pillion rider behind her gets up, pulls off her helmet, and reveals--


“Are any of you hurt?” she asks.

“I’m fine,” Masako says, ignoring the fact that a lot of things are reminding her that they hurt a lot.

Kaoru flashes a thumbs-up and says, “Just watching those bitches run screaming makes me feel better already.”

Aoba ignores the question to demand, accusingly, “Sensei is a bosozoku?! Since when?!”

“Looks your dark and secret past is out, Rui-chan,” the maybe-bosozoku girl mock-whispers from behind her hand. Her black bike looks too ordinary to belong to a gang, but she’s obviously way too good a rider to be normal. She might be the coolest person Masako has ever met.

“Of course not. It’s not my bike,” Osano-sensei says mildly.

“But - but--”

Maybe the biker girl takes pity on sensei. More likely, she takes pity on Aoba. “Hey, don’t worry about it. I’m an old friend from back when your sensei still kept bad company, but that was a long time ago. She called in a small favour to bail you guys out, that’s all.”

This doesn’t explain much, but if the past year has taught Masako anything, it’s that there’s no use asking Osano-sensei to tell you anything she doesn’t want to. She’s not even sure she’s really surprised by this.

“Thanks for the help,” she says.

“No need to thank me,” Osano-sensei’s friend says. “It was fun, almost like being back in high school again.”

Sensei gives the three of them a shrewd once-over, but they’re standing on their own power with nothing more worrying than a grim collection of bruises and scratches. Concluding that the damage isn’t permanent, she nods at her friend.

“I’ll get them cleaned up. You should head back to work, Chiyo,” she says.

“Sure, now you tell me to get lost,” the biker girl says. Then she winks at Aoba, pulls her helmet back on and waves before vanishing from the alley in a parting roar of noise and exhaust fumes.

“My car’s parked a few streets away. Come on.” Osano-sensei tells them.

They trail her out of the alleys, turn out into one of the smaller side streets. When it becomes clear Osano-sensei doesn’t plan to say anything, Kaoru breaks the awkward silence to say, “Sorry, sensei. Thanks for coming to get us.”

Osano-sensei doesn’t look at them, just shrugs and says, “Consider yourselves on cleaning duty for the rest of the month, and double training for a week.”

Kaoru and Masako exchange pained glances, but they can’t complain, and Aoba doesn’t get a say in this anyway.

Masako watches Osano-sensei’s back as she walks before them, never looking back, one shoulder slouched lower than the other. One year ago, she didn’t know the first thing about basketball and she didn’t care. She didn’t give a shit about who won the Inter-High. And she definitely didn’t believe that she could trust a teacher to watch her back.

Kaoru slings an arm around Aoba’s shoulders. “Maybe Sensei should blackmail you into joining the club too,” she says. “The Inter-High’s coming, no time to get bored or chase boys.”

Aoba squawks a horrified protest before she manages to stop herself. Osano-sensei crooks a sidelong smile at them. “I’ll leave that up to the two of you,” she says.

Masako props an elbow on Aoba’s other shoulder to announce, “Practice tomorrow starts at 8, no complaining allowed.”

One year ago, the Mizuho fight would have gone differently.

But maybe the biggest mistake Mizuho made today was believing that you ever really go straight at all.

On their last day of high school, Osano-sensei gives their lighters back.

“You kept them? You’re returning them?” Kaoru says, amazed. “You don’t need us on the team anymore so it’s okay if we get lung cancer now?”

“If that’s true, I should have given them back after the Winter Cup,” Osano-sensei observes. Then she looks contemplative. “I must have forgotten.”

Masako feels her lips twitch. Then she gives in and laughs until Kaoru joins her and they have to lean against each other because they’ve forgotten to breathe.

“Is this supposed to be a valuable life lesson, sensei?” Masako asks when she gets her breath back, dropping her tacky yellow plastic lighter, so old it probably doesn’t even work anymore, into her pocket.

“That’s for you to decide. I’m not your sensei anymore, remember?”

“Coach, then,” Kaoru says. “You’ll always be our Coach so long as we keep playing basketball.”

“Is that so?”

Masako snorts. Kaoru is going to a college with one of the strongest women’s teams in Tokyo, and the only reason Masako has a sports scholarship is because of her. Maybe they won’t play basketball forever, but four years is a long time. It’s two years too late for Osano-sensei to try and sidle out of this.

“Obviously,” she says.

Second year of university, Masako finally saves enough to buy her own bike. Kaoru asks if she’s going bosozoku when she sees it, but it’s an older model, nothing flashy, and between school and basketball and her part time job, Masako barely has time to sleep, never mind join a gang.

When she can, she saves her weekend afternoons for it: messes with the engine, gets herself covered in grease, brings it down to the garage to talk to Chiyo, maybe goes for a ride to nowhere in particular. Sometimes she rides the highways for speed; other times, she takes the smaller side streets and alleys, away from the crowds and traffic.

The Saturday morning after she makes the cut, she gets on her bike and heads out. She spends an hour on the highways, the city passing in a blur, before looping back into the smaller streets, heading back for familiar territory.

She goes back to Omori High School.

It’s been over a year since the last time she came back with Aoba and it looks the same as it ever did. She parks her bike by the front entrance and doesn’t bother going in, just heads around the main school building for the gym at the back. There are still a few students scattered around, giving her curious looks as she passes, but she ignores the stares and no one is foolhardy enough to approach.

The gym, when she gets there, is empty. The basketball team must have finished training already even though it’s only - she checks her watch - a little before noon.

“Slackers,” she mutters to herself, standing in the open door. She could try the teacher’s room, but instead, she walks across the open field to the club rooms, the sun beating down on the back of her neck.

The club room is empty too, but coming down the stairs, she smells nicotine in the air, and on a hunch, looks into the same alley behind the storage shed where she and Kaoru had gotten caught so long ago.

“Coach,” she says.

Osano-sensei, leaning against the storage shed wall, cigarette in hand, turns and looks surprised. “Masako?”

“Practice finished already? Thought you’d still be at it when I came,” Masako says, stepping into the shelter of the alley to lean against the opposite wall.

“Midterms start next week, I let them off early to study and make sure the whole team doesn’t fail,” she says, dropping her cigarette to stub it under her shoe.

“How’s the team doing?” Masako asks.

Osano-sensei hmms. “A little less danger of failing all their classes and getting kicked off the team,” she concludes. When Masako snorts, she smiles and adds, “They’re not a bad team, but they need more confidence out on the court, especially when the opponent’s strong. I never had that problem with any of you.”

Masako is pretty sure confidence isn’t really the right word for the team they used to be. Bravado, maybe. The brash aggression of a team too young and stupid and stubborn to admit when it was out-classed.

“They can’t be more troublesome than us. They’ll be fine,” she says.

“That’s true,” Osano-sensei says. “What about you? I heard your school’s been doing well.”

Masako nods. Then she says, “I made the cut for the national team. I’m playing in the Asian Games next year.”

Osano-sensei stares at her for a long moment. When she doesn’t speak, Masako realises that for the first time, she’s really, truly surprised her. Then she blinks, and the spell seems to break.

“Congratulations. You didn’t tell me you were trying out for the team.”

Masako shrugs. “Didn’t want to make it a big deal. Wasn’t really - wasn’t really sure I’d make it anyway,” she says, pushing her hands in her pockets. She doesn’t know how to explain it. It wasn’t exactly a secret, but so long as she didn’t talk about it, she could believe it was just another game, just another practice session.

There’s a trick to it on the court, thinking far enough ahead to know where you’re going, but not so far that you lose sight of what’s in front of you. Watch the ball, watch the players, forget the rest.

“You’ve done very well,” Osano-sensei says, “for someone who called basketball stupid not even five years ago.”

Masako splutters. “You were blackmailing us!”

In reply, she gives her that same sharp, unapologetic grin that she only ever really showed to the basketball club, before something complicated that Masako can’t read twists in the corner of her mouth.

“I quit basketball in my first year of college,” Osano-sensei tells her, and tilts her head back to stare up at the narrow strip of blue sky above them.

“You quit? Why?”

“I wasn’t good enough,” Osano-sensei says with blunt honesty. She meets Masako’s eyes and adds, “It’s a little strange to think back on it now. I loved basketball more than anything else in my life, and we were a good team, even if we weren’t the best. But the more I played, the more it felt like the only things I could see were the things I couldn’t do. The shots I didn’t make. The limits on my ability. So I quit.”

“But you came back anyway,” Masako says.

“In the end, I came back. It’s taken me a long time to realise that maybe the only person I wasn’t good enough for was myself.” She gives Masako a wry smile. “But I don’t think you’ll make that mistake.”

“Are you calling me cocky?” Masako says, folding her arms and staring her down.

“No,” Osano-sensei says. “I’m telling you I don’t think you need an old woman’s advice.”

“I’m not here for advice. You never tell us anything useful if you can help it,” she grouses.

Back then, it felt like her evasions were part of some kind of complicated lesson Osano-sensei was trying to teach them, but now she wonders if maybe she was just trying to avoid teaching them anything - the wrong thing - at all. Well, she’s failed on all those counts. Masako’s still standing here, in this narrow alley with the arid incense of nicotine lingering in the air between them, and for a unsettling moment of clarity, it’s like they’ve traded places.

“I just thought you should know,” she says. “Coach.”

There’s a knowing light in Osano-sensei’s eyes when she looks at her, but all she says is, “Your kouhai will be very proud. We’ll make sure to tune in and watch all your matches.”

Masako makes a face. “You don’t have to tell them, that’s embarrassing.”

“But think about how much your story will inspire them!”

“Yeah, right,” she says. “Just tell them to stop thinking so much. You can’t care what your opponents think about you.”

“Is that your advice to them as sempai?”

“It’s my advice to me,” she says. “I don’t have time to be inspiring.”

The games are still a year away. A year of hard training with a team she doesn’t know yet, to play in a city and country she’s never seen. But there’s no point thinking that far ahead in the here and now. Focus on the ball in your hands. Line up the shot. Trace the arc in your mind’s eye. There’s no time for hesitation.


December 19, 1998
Japan trashes China to win gold for women’s basketball

Japan’s women’s basketball team won their second Asian Games title yesterday in a decisive 93-69 victory over reigning champions China. After a fierce battle…

Of all people, it’s Katchan who finds her practicing three-point shots on one of the basketball courts outside the training center. He drifts past, then stops to lean against the wire fencing and watch, a movement caught out of the corner of her eye as she makes the toss. Masako knows her aim is off even before the ball hits the rim, wobbles, then tips through the hoop, more a fluke of physics than skill. It rebounds off the fence and rolls to a stop.

It’s December: the evening air is chilly, her fingers are cold and the light is fading too quickly. Everything is messing with her accuracy and she knows she should just head back in, but the quiet steadies her mind, and once she started, it was easier to keep going through the motions than to stop.

“We’re heading out for dinner in a bit. Tora was looking for you,” Katchan says when she goes to retrieve the ball.

Masako rolls her eyes. Tora probably just wants to drag her along with them so he can tell his girlfriend she won’t be the only girl there and persuade her to come along. And then maybe rub it in Gengen’s face that he’s single but Tora is not.

“Is he offering to pay for my drinks if I come?” she says.

Katchan raises his eyebrows and says, “Unlikely. I doubt he could afford it.”

She glares at him. It’s not like he’s in a position to talk, given how much she’s seen him put away.

“You should come anyway,” Katchan says, surprising her. “Might not be many chances after this.”

For once, he has a point. “Tora told you?” she says, dribbling the ball absently with one hand as she crosses the court to pick up her track jacket from where she left it on the floor. She expected it anyway - telling Tora and Gengen anything is as good as announcing it to the whole national team. At least it saves her the trouble of going around breaking the news, fending off everyone’s questions and well-wishes.

Katchan nods. She doesn’t say yes, but when he turns to leave she tucks the ball under her arm and follows.

“What are you planning to do next?” Katchan asks. “Go pro?”

“No,” she says. “Getting my teaching certificate.”

“Ah,” Katchan says. “Coaching then. High school?”

“Yeah,” she says and waits for him to laugh or ask if they teach Delinquency 101 in schools now. Tora and Gengen certainly joked about it enough when she told them. They think it’s a waste she’s not going pro.

She has offers. She’s young, she could play for years yet, especially with the prestige of the national team under her belt. But she’s spent five years playing under the blinding glare of international attention, international pressure. She’s ready for something different. Let someone else have the limelight.

“You’ll be a good teacher,” Katchan says.

Masako swivels around to eye him suspiciously. If he’s going to snigger at her, she’d rather he do it up front. But you can never be sure with Katchan. He looks like it’s a statement of fact so evident it needs no further explanation.

“Is there a problem?” he asks, eyebrows rising when he catches her staring at him.

“Nothing,” she mutters.

Tora and Gengen can laugh all they want - they know Masako hits as hard as they do and won’t change her mind for anything they say. And it’s not like Katchan’s opinion carries more weight than anyone else’s. It’s just that the ease of his agreement is jarring, un-looked for. A good teacher? Masako’s not even sure she knows what that means.

For most of her school life, there was no good or bad about it. Teachers were The Enemy. Sure, Osano-sensei changed things, but she was the anomaly, a fluke. Masako has too much of a temper to believe she could be anything like her, and how many problem students can you hope to fix by forcing them to play basketball anyway?

She’s thinking too hard, asking herself stupid questions like this. What kind of teacher will she become? The only proof she’s going to get is in the doing.

“My contract ends next year,” Katchan says. “Maybe I’ll get my teaching certificate too.”

“Ha?” she says. “Are you serious?”

“I haven’t decided yet,” he says. “But it’s not a bad idea.”

Masako clamps her mouth shut before she can say something rude. “Good luck with that,” she finally tells him, just for something to say.

She shouldn’t be surprised, really. Eiji left the team a year back when his contract ended, headed back to university for some fancy sports science degree. Sooner rather than later, their circle is breaking up and scattering. Maybe they’ll head back to the pro circuit, maybe they’ll move on to something new.

“Guess it’s the end of an era,” Katchan observes.

Masako isn’t sentimental enough to dwell on it, but he’s probably right. She hefts the weight of the ball in her hand for a moment, tips it to the ground, catches it on the way back up and sends it to him. He intercepts it easily, then lets it bounce back to her, the two of them never breaking pace as they keep walking.

“The game’s not over yet,” she says.

She’ll miss this: the instinctive camaraderie, the jostling and teasing, the highwire adrenaline of matches, the merciless glare of the stadium lights - even the gruelling tedium of training. But basketball is more than just what happens out on the court. Maybe she won’t be the one standing at the three-point line, ball in hands while a packed stadium holds it breath, but--

There’s more than one way to stay in the game.

Masako makes her decision five minutes into Murasakibara Atsushi’s interview.

She’s seen the footage from the Winter Cup. She saw that closing shot. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that something isn't right at Teikou, even if she doesn’t know the how or why. But that doesn’t concern her - the Teikou team is not her problem. She came down to see Murasakibara for herself and decide if he might be her problem.

He’s a brat, pure and simple. But that’s fine. Masako knows how to deal with brats, and she’ll beat the petulance out of this one with a stick if she has to. He’s not the first to have deserved it, and she doubts that he’ll be the last.

“We’ll make the offer and see if he takes it,” she tells the principal when the interview is done. “He’ll be a good addition to the team.”

“So the interview went well? You had reservations about him before the meeting.”

“Nothing I can’t deal with,” she says.

Another December night, another basketball court, another team.

Masako spots the woman first, blonde hair under sodium yellow lighting, standing beside a familiar Yousen track jacket on one of the outdoor courts outside the Tokyo Metropolitan Gym. They’re talking, in English, loud enough that she can hear them as she approaches and too engrossed in conversation to notice that they have company.

She narrows her eyes at the scene, stalks onto the court and barks, “Himuro!”

The two of them turn, startled.

“Ah, the Yousen coach,” the woman says in Japanese, surprising Masako in turn. She revises her suspicions - if this woman can recognise her, she must know Himuro in some capacity, so he’s not picking up strangers on the streets, at least.

“Coach!” Himuro says. “What are you doing here?”

Masako folds her arms and says in dangerous tones, “What time did I say curfew was?”

Himuro blinks, then checks his watch. “Oh, it’s… almost midnight. We must have lost track of time. Sorry, Coach.”

“And your phone?”

He checks that next and ends up scrolling for a minute through a string of messages and missed calls, most of them from Okamura, who spent an hour trying to reach Himuro before pounding on her hotel room door in a panic, convinced he’d been kidnapped by muggers.

For a moment, he looks rueful, before flashing her a disarming smile. “Sorry, I must have put it on silent before the game and forgotten.”

The first day he showed up to practice, Masako took one look at that smile and figured that he’d be trouble. The question was only how and why and whether he’d let her find out about it. He’s one of those kids that are a little too smart for their own good: too good at twisting themselves into knots, then hiding what they’ve twisted themselves into afterwards.

But sooner or later, one way or another, it shows.

“That’s no excuse,” Masako tells him, before transferring her stare to the woman beside him. “And this is?”

“Oh, I should introduce you. Coach, this is Alex. She taught me basketball back in the America. Alex, this is our coach, Araki-sensei.”

“Very pleased to meet you, sensei,” Alex says, her Japanese accented but surprisingly fluent. “I came to watch Himuro’s match and we stayed to talk. Sorry if he worried you.”

“Please to meet you,” she returns politely, as she examines the other woman.

Himuro’s basketball came to Yousen polished to a high shine, nearly full-formed, and now, looking at this tall, bespectacled woman with her clever, laughing eyes, Masako recognises the reason why. Alex meets her stare and gives her an amused look, one professional watching the other at work.

“That was a good game today,” she says to Masako.

“It could have been better,” Masako replies. They could have won, for one thing.

“I should get back to the hotel,” Himuro says. “Sorry, Alex--”

“She can come with us,” Masako says. The two of them blink at her, and she jerks her chin in the general direction of the hotel. “It’s too cold to stand around talking out here.”

They exchange looks in the unspoken language of two people with too much shared history to put into words, before Alex grins at her and says, “Thanks, Coach.”

Masako doesn’t snort at her, but she’s tempted. It’s been a long day. All she wants right now is a beer and a good night’s sleep before she sits down to start thinking of all the things they could have done differently against Seirin. She really doesn’t have the energy to deal with either of them tonight.

“Himuro, I want to talk to you,” she says instead, and turns to leave. Alex trails a polite distance behind them, and he falls in step beside her.

“What is it, Coach?” he asks, when they’ve left the gym behind them and she still hasn’t spoken.

He seems to have calmed down from the Seirin match, cooled the bitter, desperate fury that made him hit Murasakibara. Did losing bleed it out, or has he only locked it away again, now the game is over? Masako doesn’t know enough about the thousand and one things he’s tangled up inside himself to say.

But she heard the way he was talking with Alex, before she interrupted, and there was too much heat in their raised voices for it to be a simple conversation.

“If you want to talk, I’ll listen,” she says. “But it looks to me like the people you need to finish talking to first are your teacher over there, and that Seirin ace.”

The line of his mouth thins. “That’s true,” he says.

“We’ll meet Seirin again next year. I don’t intend to lose twice,” she says. “What you can do now is make sure you’re ready.”

There are other things she could say to him. Maybe if she was a different kind of teacher, she would. Himuro thinks that talent means nothing in the face of genius. But what he hasn’t learned yet is that at the end of the day - even genius is not enough. There will always be bigger monsters out there, and they won’t all wear the same face.

She could tell him this, but she doesn’t think he’s ready to believe her yet. Maybe he’ll believe it from Alex. Maybe he’ll just have to stay in the game long enough to realise it.

“I’ll try,” he says, voice low.

She gives him a sharp look, but he doesn’t look at her, just gazes into the distance as they walk. She thinks of a long-ago conversation with Osano-sensei and wonders what she would say to Himuro if she could see him now, staring down a demon that looks a little like her own.

Nothing helpful, she bets.

“The person who decides what’s good enough here is you,” she says. “Stop thinking so hard.”

“When you put it like that it sounds easy, Coach,” Himuro murmurs. But he’s smiling at her, a silent laugh in his eyes.

If Masako had her shinai with her, she’d smack him. But there’ll be time for beatings later. “Don’t get cheeky with me. Simple’s not the same as easy,” she says.

“I know. I’m not very good at simple,” he admits. He tips his head to the sky for a moment, the remnants of his earlier smile still curled in the corners of his mouth. Himuro has always smiled easy, but there’s an honesty to this smile that he barely realises is there at all. “But I guess I can try,” he says.

If asked, at age 33, where she sees herself ten years later, Araki Masako will snort and tell you not to waste her time. She has brats to chase and a national-level basketball team to train.

If asked where she sees her students ten years later, she’ll probably hit you with her shinai, then tell you to get lost and stop asking stupid questions. How the hell would she know? Most of these kids barely know what they’re doing with themselves today, never mind tomorrow.

The future makes no promises. Not to her, not to them. And that’s fine. What she has is the here and now; where they go from here is up to them.

But what she can tell you is: they’re not going to need someone else’s promises. Not where they’re going.


January/February 2015

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