The next day, Murasakibara remained over at Tatsuya's house, as he intended to stay the weekend. They shared a simple breakfast, though Murasakibara made Tatsuya cook quadruple the normal portions. They bickered a little over this, and were both slightly moody when they returned to Tatsuya's room. Tatsuya lamented his broken imported bed. He would be too embarrassed to try to lie to his parents about how it broke, so he set about with a drill, screws, and nails to fix it. Murasakibara sat cross-legged on the floor, eating chips and going through Tatsuya's magazines. It irritated Tatsuya that he did not offer to help, but he knew forcing the stubborn boy to work would not be worth the battle.
The doorbell chimed at midday. Miffed to be distracted from his battle to save his bed, Tatsuya stomped down the halls. He opened the door, a hammer still in hand, and his eyebrows raised in surprise. On his doorstep was the unlikely trio of Shintarō Midorima, Takao Kazunari, and Tetsuya Kuroko.
For once, Tatsuya was at a total loss for words. "Uh ..."
"We know, we shouldn't be here," Midorima sighed. "Kuroko insisted."
"We were in town, anyway," Kuroko said in his usual mild way.
"I was in town anyway," Takao chimed in. He grinned, patting Midorima on the shoulder. "Shin-chan followed me-"
"I wasn't following you, and stop calling me that," Midorima bristled.
"Then suddenly we turned around and this guy," Takao nodded at Kuroko, "was with us. Scared the shit out of Shin-chan!"
"No, it didn't," Midorima scowled.
"I was going to talk to Murasakibara," Kuroko explained. "When I saw you two, I figured we could all go together. His family told us he was here."
"So here we are!" Takao said. He pushed past the baffled Tatsuya. "And freezing. Mind if we come in?"
It was too late, however. Takao strode inside and removed his coat, followed by Midorima and Kuroko. Tatsuya looked up at the tall green-haired, emerald-eyed Shintarō Midorima, and then down at frosty-hued Kuroko. These two were part of the junior high 'Generation of Miracles' basketball team that Murasakibara had also played with. Not only that, but Kuroko was what Taiga Kagami had found for himself in Japan; what Murasakibara was to Tatsuya, Kuroko was to Taiga. Our first names are almost identical, Tatsuya realized. Tatsuya and Tetsuya. I guess Kagami has gotten as predictable as I have. Are we getting old?
In Tatsuya's room, Murasakibara did not look very pleased to see his two former teammates, either. Fortunately, Kuroko had brought him some limited edition winter candies from Tokyo that mellowed him out. Tatsuya felt an absurd shred of possessiveness over this, as he was used to being Murasakibara's sole candy provider. Tatsuya let them all catch up, settling back down to the task of repairing the bed.
Takao, left out of the Miracles' reunion, noticed the fractured bed frame. He came over and knelt beside Tatsuya, whistling.
"That's pretty bad," he observed. He snickered, the near-perpetual grin settling on his sly face. He had the kind of face that made you think he was always in on some private joke, most likely one at your expense. "Who in the world did you have over to do that to your bed with?"
Tatsuya coolly met Takao's mischievous blue eyes. He hardly knew the other boy, but from what he had seen of him, he didn't like him. Takao was one of those people who took nothing seriously, and would laugh at you for any reason. The term 'class clown' would have been applied to him back in America.
"Me," Murasakibara replied to Takao's question plainly. "I was over with Muro-chin last night."
Though Midorima and Kuroko had only half-heard this exchange, the point shocked them into silence. Tatsuya gaped over at Murasakibara. Takao's narrow eyes went wide as they could. The room was utterly quiet save for the sound of Murasakibara's crunching.
"A-ATSUSHI!" Tatsuya burst out, for once losing every last bit of his cool. He jumped to his feet. His hand tightened on the hammer and he was tempted to bash his more-than-friend's head in. "What-Why-What-"
Everyone looked at Tatsuya now, more shocked than before. Like most people, they knew Tatsuya for being inscrutable. He turned red at his outburst, knowing it had told them all they needed to know. Murasakibara looked up at him from the floor innocently enough, but was that a gleeful sadism in his eyes? Cruel, Tatsuya remembered, children can be very cruel. And he did say that he only wanted it to be kept a secret 'at school'. I didn't get the distinction, but I guess there was one. Damn it! I should have been more specific!
The silence was broken by a snort, and then cackling laughter. Takao stood up and stood between them. Tatsuya considered using the hammer on him instead. Takao looked at Murasakibara, at Tatsuya, and back again. He laughed so hard that he had to sit down on the floor between Murasakibara and his friend and teammate from Shūtoku High, Midorima. Midorima watched his mirth with an aggravated expression.
"H-ha-how is that even physically possible?" Takao laughed hysterically. "You and him? Last night? And you're walking?"
"Takao, sto-" Midorima began.
"I was on top," Tatsuya said before he could rethink it.
Takao's merriment only increased.
"That's incredible!" he exclaimed, barely able to speak from laughing. "But aren't you afraid? I mean, he could probably crush your thing just by clench-"
Takao turned to Midorima, still grinning, too amused to be checked by the stern snap. Midorima took advantage of his distraction, grabbing him by the wrist and yanking him close. Before Takao could leave the jokes forming in his mind behind to see what was going on, he found himself thrown over Midorima's lap.
"Eh?" Takao blinked, looking over his shoulder at his teammate. "What're you doing, Shin-chan?"
"How many times have I told you?" Midorima said wearily. He straightened his glasses, and then brought his palm slamming down across Takao's upturned bottom. "Don't call me 'Shin-chan'."
"Hey! What? Ow!" Takao protested. He tried to get up, but Midorima was much taller, and easily held him down. The spanking instantly cooled Takao's mocking glee. "Shin-chan, come on, I was only joking! Don't do this here, in front of them!"
"Don't like your own secrets out to be laughed at, do you?" Tatsuya said smugly. He settled back cross-legged on the floor to watch this very pleasing scene. From Takao's phrasing, he could tell Midorima had given him similar discipline before. Good, Tatsuya thought. That guy needs it.
Murasakibara moved over to sit beside Tatsuya. He gave him a questioning look. He wants to know if I'm still mad at him for spilling about us being together, Tatsuya surmised. I wonder if he's worried I'll give him the same? I should, that brat. But ...
Tatsuya stroked Murasakibara's arm, gave him a forgiving smile. Pleased, they watched the flailing Takao's punishment together. Midorima paused a moment, and then removed something from his jacket pocket.
"What are you doing?" Takao asked, still looking over his shoulder. The object struck his bottom, cutting through his pants to deliver a sharp sting. "Aooow! What is that?"
"This?" Midorima held up the wooden ruler for them to see, before cracking it down on Takao's helpless buttocks again. "It's my lucky item for the day."
"You've gotta be kidding me!" Takao cried out in frustration. He actually almost laughed at the coincidence, but then was spanked again. The fates were not kind, and he dared not laugh at them at the moment. "Ugh. Aow! Cut it out, Shin-chan. Isn't it bad luck to use your lucky item for something so sadistic?"
"Not very lucky for you, huh?" Murasakibara drawled to Takao.
"N-no," Takao admitted, struggling not to laugh. He shook his head, exhaled heavily. "Shin-chan, I'm sorry, okay? I was just joking!"
"That's exactly why I'm punishing you."
Takao flinched, saying nothing. Midorima had warned him many times not to joke about crass things-or important things, or serious things, or sad things, or anything. Midorima had no sense of humor whatsoever, and he had made it clear that Takao's constant laugh grated on his nerves. Takao had earned many a slap on the head, and a few spankings, already, but losing his sense of fun was not a lesson he planned to learn anytime soon. Not that Shin-chan needs to know that, he thought now. His backside was really starting to burn, and he knew he needed to muster up enough contrition to get Shin-chan to-
The ruler broke in half across Takao's bottom after a nasty whack. Midorima stared at it in confusion, and then horror. Despite his position, Takao broke into laughter all over again. Midorima glared at him, mortified, but released him after a few open-palm spanks. Takao sat up, leaning on his lower back to keep pressure off his buttocks. He tried to rub the sting out with both hands, his humor waning. He glowered up at Midorima, angry and a little hurt at the rough treatment.
"So ... Are you two also together?" Kuroko asked, his tone absurdly polite.
"No!" Midorima and Takao exclaimed at once.
"More like we have hate sex, once in a while," Takao explained. "When Shin-chan isn't admiring college girls."
Midorima raised a hand, but only lightly punched it down atop Takao's head.
"Too bad for you," Murasakibara told Takao. "Mido-chin is strict and pretty mean."
"Only with unruly brats like you two," Midorima said archly. "Neither of you have taken a single thing seriously in your entire lives."
"Stupid things don't deserve to be taken seriously," Murasakibara said.
"I take things seriously, but I'm not going to let that stop me form having fun," Takao defended himself. "You can only win at life by enjoying it."
"Why am I even here?" Midorima muttered to himself, rubbing his forehead to avoid a headache.
"I only came to talk about basketball," Kuroko said.
"Why?" Murasakibara asked spitefully. "You don't have to talk about it anymore, Kuro-chin, you already won everything. I don't want to talk about basketball with you. I want to crush you."
Kuroko's light blue eyes widened. "M-Murasakibara … "
Murasakibara crossed his arms and leaned back against the tortured bed frame. He did not give Kuroko his snacks back, but he refused to speak to him again. Takao's good humor had not been entirely spanked away; he was kneeling off his bottom, but also teasing an irate Midorima about his broken lucky item.
Thankfully, the visitors did not stay very long.
"I'm sorry," Kuroko apologized at the door. Midorima and Takao had already gone ahead, and Murasakibara was still in Tatsuya's room. "I guess Murasakibara still has issues from the Winter Cup."
"It changed a lot, for everyone," Tatsuya said. Though he did not like Kuroko, he felt a little sorry for him; the youth looked generally disappointed not to have everyone on good terms. "It's not your fault. All our teams, and the 'Miracles' themselves, had cracks in them already. Playing against Seirin's strength just forced us all to face our weaknesses. It was tough, but it was what it was. Yōsen, at least, will come back stronger for it."
"I'm glad," Kuroko said. "How is Murasakibara? I'm glad you're taking care of him, but he still seems upset."
"He's just sulking," Tatsuya said. "He hates losing more than anything, and now he got a good dose of it. He complains, but he's more determined to win again than anyone, deep down. He might never admit it, but I even think he's enjoying having a challenge to rise to. He's going to be just fine. More than fine. That kid is going to be a monster on the court."
"Thank goodness he didn't quit."
"I'd never let him," Tatsuya said. He knew damn well he could not physically force Murasakibara into anything, but he was confident in his dominance over the other youth now. For whatever reason, Murasakibara trusted and respected him; he would do what he said. That security made it easy to ask what otherwise would have been difficult: "How is Kagami doing?"
"He's very happy," Kuroko said. "This is his dream."
Tatsuya heard the affection in Kuroko's voice, that familiar note of attachment. He had expected it to hurt, but it didn't. Life really does go on, he thought. Thank goodness.
Tatsuya soon bid Kuroko a friendly goodbye. He went back inside the house-no longer his 'new house in Japan', simply his home. With a smile, he headed to his bedroom to cheer up his friend-not a replacement or a surrogate, not anything other than his partner. Like the town covered in snow, his past was buried; like the world after the spring thaw, the past would be rinsed clean, its shape again revealed but also irrevocably altered, a little more worn away. Time really was a fearsome, beautiful thing.