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Kuroko wakes to the sound of birdsongs and the pain of a palm print welting red on the side of his cheek. 

 

The first thing he notices is the canopy of leaves above him, a prismatic speckling of greens and yellows backlit by sunlight. With his mind working in a bit of a dreamy haze, he carefully takes in the rest of his surroundings. His hands—splayed at his sides—idly scratch into the loamy soil beneath them, and he feels the dirt roll up underneath his fingernails, soft from earlier rain, perhaps. The air is warm and hangs thick, and it seems to stick wetly to his lungs when he takes in a long, sore breath. His chest aches, his head too when he gives himself a chance to think about it. Odd. 

 

“Hey,” a voice asks. “Hey, come on. You with me?”

 

Ah, that’s right. The looming shadow at the corner of his eye. He brings up one dirt-streaked hand to rub at his sore cheek then turns his face to the side. There’s a young man there, seated on his haunches. He leans over Kuroko cautiously, one arm braced just above his shoulder. He’s dressed in old, ratty pants caked with what looks like mud and clay and a loose shirt in much the same state. However, in contrast, there’s a bright red sash tied across his chest, embroidered with elaborate gold stitching looping from one shoulder down to his waist where it wraps around him like a belt. The color is only rivaled by the even darker carmine of his roughly cropped hair. 

 

“Oi, can you speak?”

 

He tries. “I’m lost,” he says, blankly. At least, he must be, right? The words had come out on their own, but he doesn’t doubt the truth of them, even if he questions their origins.

 

The young man snorts. “Yeah, they always are,” he says, and it would have come off as more cryptic if it hadn’t been uttered on the tail end of such a childish scowl. “Here, take this.”

 

He holds out a water-skin for Kuroko to take, which he does gladly and with trembling hands. God, is he parched. In fact, he didn’t even realize how dry his throat felt until the thought of water came up. Planting his unoccupied hand next to him, he moves to sit up to drink, but as he leans forward a sudden shocked pain courses through him. It rattles through his bones and sends fire up the sinews of his muscles and he gasps hoarsely. He feels his arm threaten to give way under him, but the stranger rocks forward, catching his shoulder in his large, firm grip before Kuroko can fall.

 

“Whoa, whoa. Easy does it,” the young man grunts, shifting his position so he can plant his knee behind Kuroko’s wilting body. His face is contorted in a grimace that’s one part awkwardness, one part concern, and one part complete uncertainty of what to do. “Don’t shock your system too much, all right? Just… take it slow.”

 

Kuroko’s head is reeling, but he lets his weight slump back against the stranger’s thigh. He shakily removes the plug from the opening of the skin and drinks it down in long, greedy gulps, small trails of it leaking from his lips. When he’s had his fill he breaks away from it with a crisp gasp, panting from the strain. There’s a deep-set ache in his bones and in the tense pull of every muscle. Still, at least his head isn’t swimming anymore. 

 

The stranger plucks the water-skin from his hands with a wry smirk. “Yeah, bleed me dry, why don’t you.”

 

Kuroko looks up at him with bleary, confused eyes. Then they widen with understanding. “Oh. Oh, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to use all of it up,” he says hoarsely. 

 

But the young man just barks out a laugh like the crashing of a wave. “Dude, I’m messing with you. There’s a spring about a five minute’s walk up the path from here. You take as much of that as you want.”

 

In the wake of his (somewhat cruel, at least in Kuroko’s opinion) teasing, he grins down at him. The feral smile takes up the entirety of his face, crinkling the corners of his eyes with deep-set laugh-lines. Still, he can’t bring himself to be so jovial just yet. The dizziness is gone and the aches in his body are fading into cottony nothing, but there’s an unsettling notion lingering under his skin. Like something isn’t right in the air. 

 

The birds continue to titter around them in delicate songs. It really is lovely here, he thinks, suddenly. But then again, he still doesn’t know where here is.

 

With steadier hands, he sits forward and leans off of the stranger. Curling his arms around his bent legs, he slumps against his thighs and rests his chin on the peaks of his knees. “Where are we, exactly?” he asks, voice low, cautious. 

 

The stranger draws his leg back and folds down into a cross-legged sprawl. He ruffles a hand through his hair and frowns. “Not sure if there is an ‘exactly’ in this case, but I’d say we’re probably about a third of the way down the path from the southern trail-head.”

 

Kuroko looks at him sidelong, his mouth arching downward in a confused frown. “What path?”

 

“You really must have hit your head or something,” the stranger says, staring off into the trees. “Y’know, the way through the forest?”

 

That only causes his frown to deepen. “What forest?”

 

The stranger looks at him like he’s grown another head. “Don’t tell me you’ve got amnesia or something. That’s so cliché.”

 

“Oh,” is all Kuroko responds with. Well, maybe, maybe not. Of course he remembers his name. That’s a good start at least. He remembers a lot of things actually: his family, his home, his college syllabus. His upcoming semester. He remembers his friends. He remembers the between-semester trip they’d taken to Hokkaido, just last week. At least he thinks it was last week. What an odd change of scenery.

 

“You’ll be glad to know I don’t think so. At least, if it is amnesia, it’s highly selective,” Kuroko remarks flatly. “The only thing I can’t remember is how I got here. Everything else seems fine.”

 

The young man sends him a cheeky grin. “Can you give me your name then?”

 

“Kuroko Tetsuya,” he replies, sending the stranger his own small smile. Then, after a beat. “Are you going to give me the courtesy of your own?”

 

Thankfully the young man doesn’t seem put off by his dryness. “Call me Kagami Taiga.” He reaches a hand out between them and waves it in the air invitingly. 

 

Kuroko is baffled for a moment before he takes the proffered hand and gives it a short shake. “Maybe I do have amnesia. I can’t remember the last time I shook hands with someone in greeting.”

 

“I’m a worldly kind of guy.” Kagami shrugs, but he keeps his grip on Kuroko’s hand. “You think you can stand?”

 

With most of the pain gone, Kuroko figures he can at least give it a try. He nods at Kagami, who stands up and gives his arm a small tug. Kuroko takes a deep breath, then plants his feet and slowly rises, using Kagami’s hand as a crutch. Thankfully, there’s no pain this time around, just a small creak in his joints as they straighten out.

 

The redhead makes a pleased little sound. “There you go. You think you can walk too?”

 

He tests his limitations, letting his weight lean from one foot to the other, then he takes a few steps. When he feels that nothing is out of the ordinary, he nods. “Good as new.” 

 

“All right, then let’s get walking. We’ll go back to my place and we can get some food in you and let you rest. Maybe something’ll jog your memory as we walk.” Kagami says, hands coming to pull at the sash out of what appears to be habit. He turns to walk away, and that’s when Kuroko gets a better look at his back. 

 

It’s not just a sash swathed around him, but a baldric. Looped up in the bright red fabric is a long, gently curved scabbard. The entire thing is wrapped in worn leather, and the metal accents are weathered with obvious age. There’s a distinct cross-guard sticking out of the top of the scabbard. It molds into a hilt that curves into a sharp L-shape. The hilt in turn ends in a stunning pommel that has been carved in the shape of an animal’s head, but from where he stands he can’t tell what kind.

 

Kuroko’s breath catches minutely. He stays planted where he is, tracing the shape of it with his eyes. Seeing a sword out in the open at all is, well, startling. Unnerving, even. Seeing something that is so obviously not even a Japanese blade is even more so.

 

“What was it you called yourself? A ‘worldly kind of guy’?” he asks, though his tone implies it’s not much of a question. 

 

Kagami peers over his shoulder. Coincidentally, it’s the one that the sword arches over, and he comically blinks at the hilt with crossed eyes before turning back to face Kuroko. “What, are you talking about this?” He gestures a thumb at the pommel that sticks out near his left ear. “I mean, I know it’s not in the best condition, but you take what you can get. Gotta fight the Wispswith something.”

 

He must make a face at that, because Kagami blanches. “What, you’re telling me you don’t know what Wisps are either? You sure you’re not messing with me?”

 

When Kuroko’s only answer is a blank stare, Kagami groans and drags a frustrated hand through his hair. “Never mind, things to discuss when we get back to safety. Just stick close and don’t wander off of the path, got it?”

 

Kuroko nods, sidling up beside the other man in a few careful steps. When he’s sure Kuroko can walk without any problems, Kagami starts off, shaking his head in what looks like disbelief. Now that he’s this close, Kuroko can see the intricate metalwork of the hilt in finer detail. The metal here is also worn, the gold color faded and black in certain areas. He follows the grain of it along the curve. First the steel fans out in a halo of what looks like fur. Buried in that are two rounded ears. Following the grain further, the metal slides down into the strong ridge of the brow bone that ends in a squared-off muzzle. Two haunting eyes have been dug deep into the jut of the brow, as have a line of teeth at the creature’s gaping maw. It’s a tiger, he realizes, as his eyes trace over reverently.

 

“I hope you haven’t conveniently forgotten any kleptomaniac tendencies,” the other man mutters. 

 

Kuroko shakes his head, humming thoughtfully. “I think I would remember those, at least.” He pauses. “It is beautiful, though.”

 

Kagami seems to preen under the praise, his lips twitching up at the corners. “Yeah, it is, isn’t it?” The tension he’s been carrying in his shoulders seems to lessen a little. “Well don’t get too jealous. I’ve got a few other things back home for you take a look at. If we’re going to get you out of here and back home we might as well have you properly equipped to do so.”

 

A short, bewildered laugh escapes Kuroko. Kagami whips his head down to look at him, startled, which only causes Kuroko to let out another. “Right. I’m sorry. This is all just so… bizarre.”

 

The redhead quirks an eyebrow at that. “As if you’re the one who should be telling me that.”

 

“A fair point when you take in perspective, I suppose.” Kuroko smiles, “Thank you, Kagami-kun.”

 

“Yeah,” Kagami says, lopsided, incredulous smile and all. “You’re welcome.”

 

What a strange dream, he thinks, falling into step behind the man.

 

Distantly, like an echo at the back of his mind, a single note rings out. 

 

Beep

 

_____________________

 

The house is more of a small bungalow, huddled in the corner of a rock-face that careens down into a deep, foreboding gorge. It lies a few meters off of the main path, which twists back up along the crag and heads back into the denser parts of the forest. Everything seems to be painted in tones of sepia, from the faded wood of the small hut, to the sandstone that surrounds it, to the older, yellowed leaves on the trees, to the sunlit mist obscuring the bottom of the ravine. As Kuroko peers out from where he stands near the edge, all he sees is haze below him and more trees stretching out along the mountain across the way.

 

“Careful,” Kagami calls to him, hefting a bundle of chopped wood over his shoulder as he comes back down the side-path. “You don’t want to go falling down there.”

 

Kuroko makes a thoughtful noise. “How deep down does it go?” he asks, staring down at the swirling haze.

 

The young man comes up beside him, peering down as well. “Honestly? No idea. I haven’t really been itching to go test it out.”

 

When he turns to walk off, Kuroko follows at his heels. “Does it always look like that? Haven’t you ever seen all the way down?”

 

Kagami shrugs, shifting the bundle in the process. “Nope, not as long as I’ve been here. Weird, right?”

 

That’s not even the half of it. As Kagami goes to unlock the door, Kuroko comes up next to him, staring intently into his face in profile. “How long has that been?”

 

The lock clicks open and Kagami looks down at Kuroko, puzzled. “Years. Maybe ten? I kind of lost track.”

 

He sends Kuroko a ‘who knows’ kind of face before he walks off into the building. Kuroko trots after him, growing more and more frustrated by the second. He’s never really been the type to get riled up so easily, but he can’t shake the sour, churning feeling in his gut. Ten years? Kagami barely looks a day older than twenty. “What do you do here in the forest?”

 

The inside of the bungalow is surprisingly tidy, though it’s something of an organized kind of chaos. There’s a bed tucked into the corner surrounded by towering stacks of books. From what Kuroko can see, there are at least twenty different languages represented on their spines—Japanese, English, and Spanish take up most of the titles—and most of them are falling apart at the bindings. There’s a hulking wooden wardrobe lining one wall, and a beaten-up couch tucked against the far one. At least a third of the space is taken up by the kitchen, whose most prominent feature is the giant cooking pit that makes up the wall to his right. It protrudes into the space in a large stone semi-circle and leads back into a deep, vented fireplace where three different cast-iron pots sit. Kagami crouches in front of the hearth and starts shoving pieces of wood under the largest pot. “Well,” he says on the end of a grunt, “I spend most of my time picking up strays.”

 

Kuroko crouches down next to him, watching him flatly. “Strays?”

 

The redhead brings an arm up to wipe away some sweat from his brow. “Yeah, like you. You’d be surprised how many people show up on that path like you did. Though most of them have a better idea of how they got there.” He mutters the last part, and Kuroko’s not sure but he thinks the young man is being purposefully cheeky. It might be the small upturn of his lip as he arranges the wood that gives him away. “I know these woods better than anyone, so I take a few days at a time to lead them out and start all over again.”

 

“That’s kind of you,” Kuroko says, reaching over to hand him some kindling as the other man reaches back blindly for the pile of it at Kuroko’s side. 

 

When the bundle of twigs hits his hand, Kagami looks over, startled, then sends Kuroko a grateful half-smile. “Eh, it livens things up a bit. To be fair, for all intents and purposes I’m basically just a hermit.”

 

Kuroko grabs another handful and holds it at the ready for the other man as he fiddles with his arrangement. “You live here all alone, then?”

 

Not taking his eyes off of his work, Kagami nods. “Yep, just me, myself, and I. There are a few others who live in other parts of the forest, but I’m here on this side. I don’t get to see them too often, but strangers are usually entertaining enough to keep me busy.”

 

“Well I hope I don’t disappoint you, Kagami-kun.”

 

Kagami grins at the dry bite to Kuroko’s words. “Believe me, you’re already up in my Top Ten.”

 

“Lucky me,” Kuroko quips, but even he can’t hide the smile behind his sarcasm. 

 

When everything is properly arranged, Kagami shoves a hand in his pocket and rummages around a bit before producing a pair of flint stones. It doesn’t take long for him to get the kindling to catch fire—he’s probably had a lot of practice if he’s been here alone for ten years—and after fanning the flames gently for a minute or so he stands, brushing off the seat of his pants. “Right, that’ll take a bit to warm up again. In the mean time, want to know how lucky you really are?”

 

Kuroko looks up at him from where he sits on the floor. “Do tell,” he says dryly.

 

Grinning down at his charge, Kagami walks over to the wardrobe and throws the doors open with an initial, strenuous grunt. Lining the inside of the doors and every inch of the inner surface are all manners of weapons. They range between words, maces, chains, shields, spears, more items than Kuroko can honestly name. European, Arabian, Slavic, South-East Asian, East Asian, African, all different kinds, from what Kuroko can tell. All glinting menacingly in the newborn fire light. It’s enough to make his head spin, really. 

 

Kagami looks back at him and seems to interpret the look on his face as something else. He blanches. “Oh, shit, no, I don’t mean it like that. God, you must’ve thought I was going to murder you or something. W-Which I’m not!” he adds, hurriedly. “I’m giving you one. To protect yourself when we head out.”

 

Kagami stops rambling when Kuroko lets out a stuttered, punched-out breath of a laugh. The man’s mouth works around a few more silent words before he clicks it shut and falls back against the wardrobe’s thick frame. One hand comes up to drag across his face and ruffle up into his hair. “Sorry, I didn’t really think of how that could be taken. I got excited.” He mutters the last part into the palm of his hand.

 

“No,” Kuroko says breathlessly. “No, it’s not that.”

 

Kagami tilts his own head to the side like a curious dog, which drags another incredulous chuckle out of Kuroko. 

 

“This,” he starts, leaning back on his hands and taking in the scene: a young man with a sword slung over his shoulder presenting him with a chest of weapons in a fairytale-esque cottage in the middle of a mysterious forest he can’t remember how he came upon. And he’s cooking dinner for him. And giving him, what, a sword? 

 

This is the strangest dream I’ve ever had, he thinks.

 

Beep

 

“This is just a lot, is all,” is what he says, instead. 

 

Kagami cocks his head the other way. “What, all of this,” he waves a hand at the wardrobe, “or… just everything?”

 

Kuroko manages a small, wry smile. “The latter, though it is a very impressive collection.”

 

“Yeah well,” Kagami says, pushing off of the frame to face the inside of the wardrobe again. “When you see what we’re up against tomorrow, you’ll be glad I have so many.” 

 

Kuroko makes a thoughtful noise and pushes himself out of his seated position. “The… Wisps, you called them?”

 

He nods, folding his arms across the front of his chest and eyeing each item in the wardrobe. “Yeah. They’re fiends that inhabit the forest and try to draw travelers deeper into unknown areas off the road. Normally I’d say that as long as you stay on the path there’s no chance for them to get at you, but they’ve been testing those boundaries more and more lately. It doesn’t help to be prepared just in case.”

 

Nodding to himself, he starts to rummage through the contents. Behind them Kuroko can hear the pot begin to bubble lowly, simmering and letting off a thick, hearty aroma. It smells amazing. Too amazing, actually. The smell, the sounds, everything is just so vivid. When he comes up next to Kagami, the man radiates warmth. He can feel it prickle at his own skin. 

 

“Ah, here we go.” Kagami falls down into a squat and tries to wedge something out from behind a couple of criss-crossed bo-staffs. It’s a long pole weapon made from a dark red wood. The wood ends at a gold hilt, which curves up into a wide, curved blade. A single metal claw juts out of the blunt edge of it where a small, red tassel is tied. Carved into the metal is a long, winding dragon. “Try this out.”

 

With that he tosses the weapon one-handed to Kuroko, who scrambles to catch it while it’s still vertical. Surprisingly, the weapon isn’t as heavy as he’d thought it would be. It has a decent weight to it, but in his grip it feels… well, it feels right. The flat side of the blade is parallel to his face, and he traces the shape of the dragon with his eyes. 

 

When he doesn’t say anything immediately, Kagami snorts. “Fits like a glove, right? I have a good instinct for these things.” 

 

Humming thoughtfully, Kuroko turns the blade in the light, watching the flames flicker off the polished metal. “Sorry to disappoint, but I’ve never used anything like this before. I do basketball, not martial arts, and I’m not even very good at that, to be honest.”

 

Kagami shrugs, closing the wardrobe doors with another strained grunt. “You don’t have to be good at it. I mean, you don’t see me giving you a flail or nunchucks or anything like that, do you?” He snorts and moves towards the fireplace. “It’s a guan dao. It’s a good size for you, plus it’s versatile. If we’re lucky, you won’t have to use it. If we’re a little less than lucky, you can leave fighting the Wisps to me and stay on the defensive. And if we’re really unlucky, then it’s not to hard to figure out where the business end of that thing is and how to use it.”

 

He can throw all of the platitudes he wants at Kuroko, but the sick, nervous energy isn’t going to leave him any time soon. “I suppose we’ll see for ourselves tomorrow.”

 

There could be no tomorrow, he thinks, as this is how dreams always go, but he sends Kagami a barely-there smile anyway.

 

Kagami plants his fists akimbo on his hips. “That’s the spirit. Now, you mind helping me with the food for a bit?”

 

Kuroko turns the guan dao back and forth between his hands. The polished wood feels warm under his fingertips. It’s a strangely comforting sensation. “Of course,” he says distractedly, before leaning the pole against the wardrobe and heading over.

 

________________________

 

Tomorrow comes against all expectations and they start off early into the woods. When they leave the cottage there’s barely any light peeking in through the foliage so Kagami leads them by the pale morning sun and instincts. There’s a buzz in the air and a sensation like ice lingering under Kuroko’s skin. It makes his shoulders shiver, and he hikes the leather rucksack Kagami had loaned him further up his back. The metal ladle and cup that are tied to the side of it clank together, causing Kagami to look back at him over his shoulder. “You okay?”

 

“Yes, I’m fine,” Kuroko replies. “Just a bit cold is all.” 

 

“Shit, sorry. I threw a few longer shirts in my pack if you want one of those.” Kagami is a strangely jittery wreck this morning, bumbling and flustered for some reason. Kuroko wonders how long it’s been since he last took this trek with someone. He seems anxious in both senses of the word.

 

Kuroko shakes his head lightly with a small smile. “No, that’s alright. I’m sure it will get warmer with the sun.”

 

Kagami’s eyes search his carefully. “If you’re sure,” he says with obvious skepticism.

 

Kuroko gives the young man a nod to ease his concerns. Kagami purses his lips and nods back firmly.

 

They walk in silence for a short while. Kuroko keeps himself a good step behind his guide, occasionally tilting his head up to watch the pale light through the small breaks in the canopy as it transitions from dark indigo to lighter shades of pale pink and lavender. Whenever he looks back down, he catches Kagami watching him from the corner of his eye before he darts his eyes forward again. The cut of the man’s jaw is sharp and the skin is pulled taut as he clenches it tightly.

 

“Is there something wrong, Kagami-kun?” Kuroko asks, arching an eyebrow. 

 

Kagami tenses his shoulders like a child who’s been caught red handed. “No, it’s just…,” he deliberates for a moment, letting his chin drop down to his chest. A few seconds later he seems to find his resolution. “Tell me about yourself,” he says, a bit forcefully. 

 

Kuroko blinks back at him, startled. “Excuse me?”

 

The man slows his pace enough for Kuroko to catch up to him, then he makes a small, frustrated noise. “That came out wrong. I mean, I’ve told you a bit about myself, so I figure you could tell me something about you. It’s at least a three day’s walk to the head of the trail so…,” he waves a hand, as if trying to find words for something but not being willing to speak them. “Jeez, I’m not very good at small talk. It’s really been a while since I’ve had to help someone along,”—believe him, Kuroko can tell—“and most of the lot I get can’t shut up about themselves, let alone how–,” he stops himself, forcefully clenching his jaw to preventing himself from talking. Kuroko waits for him to continue, but he seems resolute in staying quiet after whatever flub he’d almost let slip.

 

That’s certainly no good. Ducking forward into Kagami’s line of sight, he fixes him with his wide, blue eyes, and sure as rain Kagami chews on the inside of his cheek and relents. “Look, maybe if you tell me a little about yourself you’ll remember how you got here.” 

 

It’s not exactly the answer that he was trying to pry for, but Kagami does make a fair point. Getting out of the forest is one thing, but figuring out how he got here might hold some necessary answers. 

 

“Well, I suppose I’ve already told you my name,” he says, bringing a hand up to rest at his chin. “I turned twenty this past January.”

 

Kagami makes a pleased little sound. “About the same as me. Well, probably.”

 

His first instinct is to press that point, but he suspects he won’t get very far. Kagami really does seem to have lost track of the days here. It’s not surprising, since time seems almost suspended in the quiet of the woods. “I’m a second year university student. Well, third now that we’re on vacation, I suppose. I’m majoring in Education and Classical and Contemporary Japanese Literature.”

 

He thinks back to the cork board hanging in his dorm room and the various things he’s pinned to it over the past few months. A photo from when he’d moved in, Aomine’s arm slung over his shoulder and a grin bright on his face. A printout of his class schedule for the second semester, worn at the edges. The magazine clip Kise had tacked up of his own winking face from a recent photoshoot for Zunon Boy Magazine. The shrine charm that Midorima’s friend with the sharp grey eyes had stolen from him and asked Kuroko to hide. The photo of everyone in their elaborate hakama on Coming of Age Day, mockingly crowded around him in his plain street clothes. That version of him wouldn’t turn twenty for another three weeks. Then the space he’d left in the corner for whatever souvenir he’d bring back from their ski trip. 

 

He’s still drawing a blank on that one. 

 

The silence is a bit stifling, and it prompts Kagami to try another ice-breaker. “Classics, huh? Like what?”

 

Kuroko glances at him sidelong, and Kagami bristles at the obvious skepticism in his gaze. “Hey, I might not look like it at first, but I read.”

 

True. Someone can’t have that many books crowding their living space without having gone through a few of them. “Well I’m afraid my tastes aren’t too exciting. My favorite authors would probably be Akutagawa and Souseki.”

 

Kagami shrugs. “Nothing wrong with liking popular stuff if it’s actually good.” Then he pauses, thinking. “I think I have a collection of Akutagawa’s stuff, actually. We could’ve brought it along.”

 

He turns on his heel to walk backwards, considering the path they’ve already walked. His face scrunches as he mulls something over. He radiates indecision, and Kuroko has to chuckle at that. “Don’t bother. When I said he was a favorite of mine I meant it. I don’t think there’s a short story of his that I haven’t read.”

 

Kagami lets out a low whistle and turns back to face forward again. “How do you have the time? Don’t go out much?”

 

Kuroko fixes him with a tart frown. “That’s not the most polite way to phrase that,” the redhead sends him an apologetic-but-not-really half-smile, “but no, I suppose I didn’t go out much during grade school. I was a member of the literary club and most of the free time not committed to our book club choices was spent reading other novels or studying for my classes.”

 

“Only in grade school?”

 

“Now as well,” Kuroko replies. “However most of the books I read these days are for my studies only, and that’s if they’re books I haven’t read already. If they aren’t, they usually don’t take me very long anyway.” He pauses, a thought suddenly occurring to him. “I haven’t read for pleasure in a while, actually. I’ve been too busy with other things.”

 

Kagami seems genuinely interested in hearing about these things. “What kinds of things?” he asks, looking at him with curious eyes.

 

“I play basketball with friends of mine from university. We have a club team.” He smiles fondly at that, thinking back to late winter nights spent in the gym. Then the smell of wet pavement on the outdoor courts. March had been unseasonably warm in Tokyo, so they’d moved outside early. 

 

Ah, wait. That brings something to the surface. He remembers the snow melting off of his boots as he stepped into a local gym, Aomine calling to him to hurry up. There had been a community gym near the hostel, he remembers. At least now he knows that he made it to the mountain at all.

 

Beep

 

He shakes his head and continues. “The six of us came together over the course of freshman year. Akashi-kun and I met first at freshman orientation, and he and Midiroma-kun were a bit of a package deal those first few weeks. Murasakibara-kun too, I suppose. Aomine-kun and I shared our first-year lecture series, and he’s the one who convinced us all to do club sports in the first place. He plays with us whenever he’s not busy with the university team. Kise-kun followed on his heels a few months after we’d started playing in the cross-campus tournaments. I guess we’ve been a bit of an odd coterie ever since.”

 

Oh, he’d rambled a bit. He turns his head to his guide, an apology already forming on his lips, but Kagami doesn’t look too put off. His eyes are bright and there’s a small, wistful smile tugging up the corner of his mouth. “I used to play basketball a bit. I miss it, but as you can see I’m a few players short of a team. And a court, for that matter.” 

 

He shrugs his arms out at his sides with an only slightly self-deprecating laugh, and it startles a bird somewhere above them into flight. Kuroko looks up to find it and sees only strong, midday sunlight filtering in through the canopy. The gentle stream of light catches off of the light specks of dust that float aimlessly through the air. Wherever the bird has flown off to, it seems to suddenly have set off a choir of other bird-sounds. Maybe he just hadn’t noticed it before, too caught up in his self-introduction, but the air is alive with their cheerful tittering chorus.

 

Kuroko doesn’t even notice that he’s slowed to a halt until he hears Kagami’s own feet shuffle to a stop a few paces away. 

 

The forest seems endless, and while yesterday that had carried with it a weight of chilling claustrophobia, today, in the warm morning light, it seems filled only with endless possibilities. 

 

“Did you remember something?” Kagami prompts.

 

Kuroko drops his chin down to meet his gaze. His body seems so light, all of a sudden. The stress he didn’t even know he’d been carrying melts out of him. “No, just thinking about how lucky you are to live out here. It’s very peaceful.” He chuckles lightly. “If I were as good at writing my own work as I am at analyzing others’, I think this would be the perfect destination for a creative escape.”

 

Kagami’s face… well, it does a few things at once. First his eyebrows jump, startled by something, but he lowers them slowly, his face softening at all of the hard edges. There’s something strange swimming in his eyes. As the trees’ leaves sway in the wind, the light also dances across them, and with each flicker the emotion seems to change. First surprise, then an aching kind of pity or maybe sympathy, and finally shaky, fond understanding. 

 

“Yeah,” he says, looking up to the canopy with a wry smile. “I get what you mean.”

 

____________________

 

 

They break for lunch at the crest of what had been a long, winding hill. The ridge they stop at overlooks a small valley with a stream running lazily through the brush. The sunlight is high and bright above their heads, and it frames the patch of ground they’ve stopped at in an almost perfect circle. It feels comfortably warm on the back of Kuroko’s neck, and he sighs at the feeling.

 

“If you’re done taking in the sights,” Kagami’s voice barks from behind him, a bit breathless, “then maybe you could, I don’t know, lend a hand?”

 

Kuroko blinks and turns to him. The redhead has a large chunk of deadwood wrapped up in his arms, and though he’s certainly capable enough to carry it on his own by the looks of it, the strain is obviously an annoyance. Kuroko starts towards him. “I’m not sure I’ll be of much help, Kagami-kun. You’ve seen my physique, whereas you seem to be doing a fine job on your own.”

 

He snorts. “Don’t be a smart-ass. Just grab that end and help me balance it out a bit. I promise it won’t break your delicate little twig arms.”

 

Kuroko fights the urge to laugh as he closes his arms around the worn end of the deadwood. Kagami guides him with a few jerks of the log before they set it down close to the edge, overlooking the river. With their makeshift bench secured, Kagami brushes his arms off, drops the rucksack from his one shoulder, and then lifts the sword and baldric from his back. He leans them against the bench. Kuroko places his own things next to them and takes a seat. He watches as Kagami digs around in his pack for a moment before the man tugs out a cloth bag tied up with twine. He hands it to Kuroko distractedly as he continues to sift through the bag’s contents. “If you’re hungry dig in,” he says. Then, as an addendum, “But that’s for the both of us so leave some for me.”

 

Kuroko nods and starts to untie the twine. Inside is a thick loaf of bread, lumpy and obviously hand-baked, as well as a small slab of what looks like ham, a half-eaten head of lettuce, a small tomato, and a block of cheese. “Sandwiches?” Kuroko asks, turning his head to his guide. 

 

Handmade sandwiches,” Kagami corrects, pulling a knife and a small wooden cutting block from the sack and coming over to join him. “When’s the last time you made your own, city boy?” 

 

Kuroko blinks at him, handing over the materials when the redhead sticks out his hand. “I can’t say I remember,” he replies, thinking back to wilted convenience-store goods and frowning at the thought. “They’re not something I usually think of to make.”

 

Kagami flicks his eyes to Kuroko as he slices horizontally through the loaf. “Are you one of those people who only sticks to making Japanese food?” When Kuroko doesn’t respond, he takes the lack of an answer as answer in itself and laughs. “You need more variety than rice and salted fish. Maybe that’s why you’re so scrawny.”

 

Kuroko makes to retort—he lives in Tokyo and thus gets plenty of variety, he wants to say—but the fresh-baked scent of the bread, somehow still warm, wafts over to him and he stops. It smells good. It’s rich brown in color and speckled with grains and nuts. Whole-grain bread is a rare find among the standard white-bread options in the local supermarkets and bakeries. “Did you make that yourself?”

 

Placing the four thick slices of bread face-up into Kuroko’s lap, Kagami gets to working on the meat. “You see a supermarket around here?” The knife thunks on the wood as it slices through.

 

“Then how do you get all of this?” 

 

Kagami shrugs. “The bread and meat I made and caught on my own. The others…,” he pauses, his jaw shifting as he thinks. “There’s a farm back down closer to where I found you, near the head of the path I can only assume you came stumbling down. We trade supplies when I run low.”

 

Kuroko expects the man to continue, but he seems too focused on carving his knife around the stubborn bone at the center of the roast. “You really do live off of the land, don’t you?”

 

“Yep,” Kagami replies, his mouth quirking up. “You get used to it.”

 

“Have you always lived this far outside of society?” Kuroko asks, accepting the slices of ham when Kagami holds them out and arranging them across their respective slices of bread. 

 

Now working on the cheese, Kagami sends him an odd look but answers nonetheless. “Nah, I used to live in a big city too. Two of ‘em, actually.” He hands over the cheese and gets to work on the tomatoes. “I lived in L.A. for a while and then moved to Tokyo for family reasons when I was fifteen.”

 

Something about that sounds odd to Kuroko, but he doesn’t give it much thought. Instead he raises an eyebrow at Kagami and says, “It is a bit hypocritical of you to call me me a ‘city boy’ when you yourself were not any different.”

 

Kagami almost loses a finger when his sharp bark of laughter sends the blade slipping only a few millimeters away from where he grips the tomato. “Fine, guilty as charged. Cut me some slack, it’s been a while.” He slaps the tomato slices into Kuroko’s hand, causing the innards to spatter across his fingers, much to Kuroko’s annoyance. Then he stands, lettuce and utensils in hand, and starts off to the small ledge in front of them. “I’m gonna go clean this stuff off. Keep talking, I’ll hear you.”

 

With that he shuffles down the small slope to the water’s edge a few meters off, careful not to drop anything. Kuroko sits forward to shield the food in his lap from the subsequent upheaval of dust, and when he sits back again Kagami is already crouched down at the water’s edge. “What caused you to move out here?” he asks, continuing the impromptu interview.

 

“Train crowds,” Kagami calls, a joking lilt in his tone. “You ever been on the Tozai line during rush hour in the summer? Screw that!”

 

Kuroko laughs lightly. “Often, actually. My family lives in Takadanobaba.”

 

“No shit!” The redhead jerks around, his face lit up with startled excitement. “I almost went to school around there, but stayed closer to where my dad’s apartment is in Iidabashi. Small world!”

 

“Seems so,” Kuroko smiles back at him. “Where is your father now?”

 

Kagami’s shoulders jump up a bit, and he reaches up a hand to ruffle through his hair. His eyes slip to the side, clouded over with something. “He’s still in the States with my mom. He was supposed to move out to Japan with me but some big consulting deal came together a few weeks before we were going to head out…”

 

“Oh,” Kuroko says quietly, cataloguing the odd hitch in Kagami’s voice as something to think on later. “I’m sorry for bringing it up.”

 

“What?” Kagami turns his gaze back to him and he looks confused. “Oh, no, it’s no big deal! More frustrating than anything.” With an airy huff he turns back to river and the job at hand. “The old man’s family is from Tokyo so it wasn’t a big deal for me to go it alone. Besides, the two of them still visited when they got the chance.”

 

That’s a bit of a relief. “Do they visit you here too?”

 

Kagami is silent. His shoulder-blades still shift beneath the loose fabric of his shirt as he cleans up, but he appears to have not heard what Kuroko had asked. Kuroko’s mouth thins and he clears his throat. “Kagami-kun?” he calls out, a bit louder this time.

 

This time he gets a response. Kagami’s head perks up and he turns his ear towards Kuroko, still not looking directly at him. “Shit, sorry, did you say something?” he calls back.

 

“Does anyone come to visit you out here?”

 

His shoulders shrug up to his ears. He still won’t look at Kuroko completely. “Not really, but like I said people come wandering by, and I… I had friends who lived out here with me too.”

 

Kuroko perks up. “I thought you lived alone?” 

 

Kagami seems to be working furiously at either the utensils or the lettuce, as his arm jerks back and forth and his head bows down. “Well now I do, but yeah. I, uh, came out here with my friend Tatsuya. Believe it or not I was a stray like you once.”

 

Well that’s certainly new information. Kuroko sits forward on the log, eyes bright and curious. “First you mock me for being a city boy, then you mock me for getting myself lost in the woods… You certainly are a hypocrite, Kagami-kun.”

 

He hears Kagami’s wry snort of laughter even from several meters away. “Unlike someone we actually knew how we got here.” He’s silent for a moment as he reaches over to rest the cutting board onto a nearby rock and then places a piece of clean, stripped lettuce on top. “But lucky for us, and now for you, we found ourselves a guide. Alex. She offered to get us out and back to the city, but we decided to stick around for a bit.”

 

Kuroko hums, looking at the soft sunlit greenery surrounding them. “I can see why.”

 

He looks back down at Kagami when he grunts. “Yeah,” he grumbles, voice teetering on the edge of sour. As if catching himself on something, he coughs lightly and continues. “Anyway, that hut we stayed at before? That was her place. Tatsuya and I crashed there with her for a while, then she let me have it when I decided to stick around.”

 

That makes sense in retrospect, Kuroko muses. The assortment of things in the house had seemed more of a collage of several people’s lives than the combined interests of a single person. Especially the books. “Where does she live now?”

 

Kagami makes a frustrated, contemplative kind of sound, tossing a few more clean leaves of lettuce onto the cutting board. “Think she might have headed back to the city, but who knows. She wanted to head out, asked if I’d watch over the place if I really wanted to stay, I said yes, and she got the hell out of dodge.” He shrugs with (somewhat forced, Kuroko thinks) nonchalance, almost causing himself to lose balance and teeter off of his heels into the muddy embankment. “It’s more space than I really need, but it’s good for when people like you show up.”

 

Kuroko nods sagely. Rooming with Aomine in their small, cramped university apartment certainly makes him yearn for more privacy and cleanliness sometimes, but living in that place by himself? It wouldn’t feel the same. “And your friend? Tatsuya, you called him? Where’s he now?”

 

Kagami doesn’t respond right away, and Kuroko almost calls out to him again when he speaks up. “He stayed with me for a while after Alex headed out, but I think he wanted a change of pace, or something.” Kagami sighs deeply, his hands stopping their motions. “He’s out here somewhere,” he mutters, waving a 

hand absently at the surrounding trees. 

 

Despite the idle wave of his hand, Kagami’s back is curled in on itself in a long, graceful arc, like the tense curve of a bow ready to snap. But the root of his tension is a passive, aching kind of stiffness that reads as bone-weary and evasive. Melancholy dressed up as indifference.

 

The sudden guilt licks at Kuroko’s gut. He’d overstepped some boundary, pressed Kagami too hard into a conversation he obviously did not want to touch. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have pried,” he says, head dipping down to watch his hands as the clench and unclench idly around his knees. “We don’t have to talk about it.”

 

A sigh rushes out of Kagami that ends on a exasperated grumble. Kuroko hears the mud and gravel squelch under his shoes as he no doubt stands up from the river, and he looks back up. Kagami’s arms are spread akimbo, and his hips pivot forward as he stretches the earlier tension out of his back. “Nah, I’m sorry for killing the mood,” he says, shaking his head. He bends down to grab his things, turning back around to face Kuroko as he does. “Let’s forget about it and get back to lu– shit, Kuroko, get down!”

 

What happens next is such a blur that Kuroko doesn’t even notice the knife windmilling just to the right of his head until it’s already flown by. There’s a grating, animalistic screech behind him, and then he’s hitting the ground and skidding down the dusty embankment towards the river. Pain flares up along his right shoulder as he tumbles over himself. Kagami is suddenly there at his side. He lays a hand on Kuroko’s good shoulder and barks something at him, but Kuroko can’t make any sense of what he’s saying, too shellshocked from the abrupt attack and head ringing like a shrill flatline. Kagami’s eyes dart over him, checking him for injuries as he rambles something off to Kuroko, but he’s so distracted that he doesn’t seem to notice the large, viscous shadow looming over him. 

 

“Kagami-kun!” Kuroko chokes out, eyes going wide as the… thing rears up, a taloned arm slipping out from the cold, black miasma of its long body and cocking itself to strike.

 

Realizing Kagami will be too slow to move if he turns to look, Kuroko throws his left arm up to hook around the larger man’s neck and throws them both to the side with the weight his whole body. No sooner has he thrust them both to the right than the talons impale the dirt where his head had been, at least five centimeters deep into the ground.

 

Kuroko stares at the embedded talon, head reeling, but then he’s being pulled up by a hand tight on his bicep. He turns his head and almost collides with Kagami’s, whose brow is cut in a hard line and whose eyes are narrowed and glinting wildly as they lock with his. “Make a break for the path.”

 

Dazed as he is, Kuroko still has enough of his bearings to make sense of that. “You can’t be serious. What about you?” he demands.

 

The redhead’s eyes flicker over to the creature. Its faceless shadowy head turns to them, thrashing wildly and shrieking as it tries to wrench its claws from the ground. Its four legs skid along the unstable gravel in an attempt to gain leverage. Kagami’s cooking knife juts out from the side of its neck, oozing ichor down the handle. He turns back and grins, teeth bared. “I’ll improvise.”

 

“Wh–,” Kuroko starts, but then Kagami’s ramming into him with the brunt of his shoulder and Kuroko stumbles backwards a few paces. 

 

“Your arms may be twigs but I bet those legs can carry you pretty far!” Kagami barks, bouncing backwards on the balls of his feet. “Now run! I’ll catch up.”

 

With that he vaults over the body of the beast and lands a hand on the knife’s slippery handle. There’s another howling scream like metal grating against itself as he uses his momentum to wrench the thing down further into its body and slice the clawed limb clean off. Detached from its host, the appendage loses shape and melts out into shadowy sludge that oozes into the earth until there’s no trace of it left. 

 

While the threat of the talon is gone, the beast is free, and its long, flat-nosed snout turns on Kagami. The man takes no pause, just grins fiercely and sprints off down the riverbank away from Kuroko.

 

The beast charges after him and they round the bend, out of Kuroko’s sight. It snaps him out of his stupor and he realizes he has to move now, while he has the chance. On impulse, he hurries up the slope to where he’d been sitting before.

 

He goes to their supplies, shoving the dusty remains of their lunch into the cloth satchel and stuffing it haphazardly into Kagami’s bag. His heartbeat is hammering in his ears, and the shrill ringing in his head like an alarm hasn’t stopped. Over the piercing, machine-like tone, however, he hears a loud crack and shifts around to see the beast barrel over a freshly fallen tree branch. A few paces out of the creature’s reach, he sees Kagami propel himself forward by swinging on a low-hanging branch and then weave himself through a few saplings. 

 

Kuroko knows he should follow Kagami’s orders and head back to the path, but he can’t stand the idea of leaving his guide to the sharks, quite literally, no matter how long the man’s lived in the forest. Even so, he has no idea what to do. The beast, body long and slender, follows after Kagami, right on his heels, but the man is agile. He moves through the undergrowth of the forest with practiced ease, and it occurs to Kuroko that he’s taunting the creature. Watching the way he circles around the area, it’s almost as if he’s luring it towards something. 

 

As if confirming his suspicions, Kagami makes a leap for a branch overhead, hoisting himself up and over it. The creature lunges up, but its body, built low to the ground for running, not jumping, holds it back. It takes a moment to pace around the tree, its snout poking about blindly in the air for Kagami, but thankfully he’s far out of reach. 

 

Kuroko lets out the breath he’d been holding and watches Kagami slump back against the trunk of the tree to catch his own. In the moment of respite, Kagami looks back over to their resting point and starts when he sees Kuroko still standing there. His features darken. “The hell are you doing?” he bellows at Kuroko. The creature perks up at the noise and gives another feeble attempt at leaping towards Kagami. He draws his legs up further onto the branch, then turns his sharp glare back on Kuroko. “I’ve got this, just get back to the path!”

 

Kuroko opens his mouth to say something, but Kagami cuts him off with a snarl. “Save the excuses! Grab the bags and go!

 

He wants to argue the point, but Kagami’s right. He’s no help out here, only a liability. He nods shakily and stumbles back to the log to quickly and quietly gather up the rest of their things.

 

Just as he’s tied the bags up, the creature lets out a garbled shriek and Kuroko tenses. He looks up to find it huddled in a formless mass at the foot of the tree. It undulates, curling into itself and moulding its viscous body like putty. Kagami stares down on it from his perch on the branch, poised as he watches the beast’s transformation with hawk-like concentration. From the look on his face, he doesn’t seem surprised by this new development, in fact it looks like he’d been anticipating it. His hand is clenched around the kitchen knife and he grins, waiting for something. 

 

Even from this far away, Kuroko can see a sudden recognition bloom bright on Kagami’s face a moment later. His fingers dance on the knife’s hilt as he inches forward on the branch, angling himself directly over the beast. 

 

He’s going to pounce on it, Kuroko realizes. He’s noticed something, a weak spot perhaps, in the creature’s defenses and he readies himself to take it down. It’s a comforting thought for all of a few seconds before Kuroko spots something out of the corner of his eye a little ways away from the beast’s mass.

 

Kagami leans over to swing down from the branch just as Kuroko screams, “The tail!”

 

By some grace Kagami hears him, but his downward momentum is too much to stop himself from falling. Still, the split second of hesitation is enough for him to raise the knife up to slice away the sharp point of the whip-like tail the creature had hidden in the undergrowth. With his attention focused on the tail, Kagami doesn’t have enough time to get his legs under him, so he hits the ground hard a few feet away from the heaving black body of the beast. The impact knocks the wind out of him and the knife flies from his hand. 

 

The creature’s transformation isn’t perfect yet, but even so, a newly-formed appendage rises from the shadowy ooze and lands firmly on the ground a few inches from Kagami’s face. Kuroko half expects Kagami to roll over and run, but he doesn’t. The fall must have affected him more than Kuroko had thought, and his heart drops into his stomach. 

 

Kagami is defenseless, and Kuroko has no idea what to do.

 

With what strength he does appear to have, Kagami shuffles up onto an elbow and drags himself away, but the large paw continues to slam into the ground, searching him out. He’s just barely keeping himself ahead of its movements.

 

Indecision keeps Kuroko planted where he is, hands bunched up tightly in the fabric of the satchels. His eyes dart back and forth between the path and the beast. As he watches, it’s as if his body is a magnet both being attracted and repelled by the same force. Fight or flight? 

 

It’s so much, too much. His heart is racing and the shrill beep in his head, god, it just won’t stop. His head is swimming and he suddenly feels faint, like all of the energy in his body is draining out of him and…

 

As if sensing it, the beast turns its head on him and a cold shiver runs up his spine, freezing him.

 

Kuroko’s sure it will come for him, but then Kagami rolls himself up onto his feet and stumbles out of its immediate reach, drawing its attention back to the prey at hand. Another paw slips from the black sludge and slams down towards Kagami’s head as he moves, but he notices and ducks underneath it in time. Kagami’s reflexes are coming back to him, but not quickly enough. His movements are slow and sluggish, still obviously dazed, while the beast is only getting stronger and more defined. And he still doesn’t have anything to defend himself with.

 

As Kagami hobbles out of reach again, the beast’s hulking mass smoothes out, spine curving and limbs becoming more defined, until it settles into the shape of a large, faceless cat. True to its panther-like form, it stalks after Kagami, tail swishing in the air with every purposeful step it takes on its still-forming legs. As he closes in, Kuroko can see what Kagami is stumbling over to: the kitchen knife, gleaming in the sunlight a few meters away. 

 

He’ll never make it in time, Kuroko realizes. The thought leaves him feeling sick. But, then again, maybe it’s not just that.

 

Kuroko’s heart thuds painfully, and the nausea churning his gut is making his head spin. His vision is growing fuzzy at the edges, worse than before, and his chest suddenly aches. He feels numb, and the thudding of his pulse in his ears is deafening, only overpowered by the shrill, constant note in his ears that won’t stop.

 

eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee—

 

It’s unbearable.

 

Before his brain can catch up to his body, he’s ducking forward and skidding to the edge of the ledge. As he runs, he reaches down without looking, catching his fingers on cloth and steel, before he slides down to the riverbank and races through the shallow water. Breaking out on the other side of the water, he sees Kagami close in on the knife, just as the beast settles down on its haunches, ready to leap. He can’t let it have that chance.

 

Pushing the last of his strength into his arm, he belts out, “Kagami-kun!”

 

Kagami looks up and Kuroko throws the scabbard of the sword in his hands with all he can. Kagami is floored for all of a second before his eyes sharpen. He pivots, catches the sword by the handle and, in one swift movement, slides the blade out of its scabbard and clean through the neck of the beast mid flight. 

 

The head drops to the ground with a sickening squelch, but the back-end of the body—propelled by its momentum—collides with Kagami’s and sends them both tumbling to the ground with a loud thud. Kuroko is frozen in his spot and watches in mild horror as the beast’s body de-solidifies and fades out into shadow-like tendrils that slip over Kagami’s body and into the ground. When it’s faded out completely, all that’s left behind are Kagami, wheezing against a thick tree root, and a pair of broken glasses resting on his chest. 

 

Kagami groans and Kuroko jolts from his brief spell. He slumps down at Kagami’s side, hands hovering in the air like he has no idea what to do with them. If he is to be honest, he genuinely doesn’t. The man doesn’t look outwardly injured, since there’s no blood from what he can tell, but with the force that he came crashing down—twice—there could be broken bones or some sort of internal damage. He needs to do something though, or at least say something.

 

“Kagami-kun…,” is all he manages, voice a bit shaky. 

 

A second or two passes and Kagami opens his eyes. They’re creased at the edges in pain, and when he sets them on Kuroko he… well, he laughs, of all things.

 

“You,” he half growls, half wheezes, bringing a hand up to fall over his eyes as another rough cough punches itself out of him.

 

Kuroko blinks. Tentatively, he prompts, “…Yes?”

 

“Where the hell did you come from?” he asks, voice reedy with exhaustion and, maybe, awe as he pulls his hand back and stares up at Kuroko. “You appeared out of nowhere.”

 

“I…,” Kuroko starts, head suddenly going blank like he has a million things to say and yet nothing at all. “From the campsite,” he finishes dumbly.

 

This only causes Kagami to laugh again. With what looks like painful effort, he rolls himself over onto his side to slam a hand up over the top of Kuroko’s head. His fingers tangle into his hair and half-ruffle, half-pull as he laughs his way into a coughing fit. Kuroko doesn’t have the heart to push him away.

 

“Kagami-kun, you’re being a bit rough.” Even so, he has enough heart to berate the man, apparently. “On both yourself and me.”

 

Kagami’s cough-laughs subside to breathy chuckles. The tugging stops, but his fingers don’t pull away immediately. Instead they card through his hair, tangling it together between the pads of his fingers and Kuroko’s scalp, before slowly and softly slipping down the back of his head, across his shoulder, and to the ground. Kuroko shivers. 

 

“I guess those delicate little twig-arms are good for something,” Kagami mutters wryly, face pressed into the rough bark of the tree root. 

 

Kuroko swallows and gives Kagami a worried, barely-there smile. “Don’t underestimate these guns.” 

 

Kagami’s dark red irises peek up at him from the corner of his eyes. “Are you making a joke?”

 

This man is unbelievable. “Of course not.”

 

Kagami shakes his head incredulously. “Of course not,” he mocks. Then he groans and rolls back onto his back. “Well, this has been fun. Now do me a favor and help me up.”

 

His eyebrow furrows. “Kagami-kun, are you sure that’s wise? You took quite the fall. Twice, in fact. Are you certain that you’re not hurt?”

 

He snorts. “Believe me, I hurt like a bitch, but I’m just going to have to suck it up.”

 

“I don’t think that that is the best–”

 

“It is,” Kagami interrupts. His eyes are sharp. “Unless you want more of those things to show up, we really need to get our asses back to the path.”

 

Of course. “So then… that was one of the Wisps you mentioned earlier,” Kuroko asks, but it comes out more like a statement than a question.

 

Kagami’s mouth tilts down at the corners into a sour frown. “Yeah, and with how strong it was we’re lucky it was just one of them. 

 

Kuroko opens his mouth but Kagami glares at him. “I can tell you more later, but, y’know, priorities.”

 

Kuroko purses his lips into a thin line, but nods. Hefting himself back onto his feet, he holds a hand out to steady Kagami as he inches his way up. When he’s standing and doesn’t seem like he’ll tip over without supervision, Kuroko walks a few steps over to grab the sword from where Kagami had dropped it. He re-sheathes the blade and turns to find Kagami looking down at something in his hand. 

 

“What is that?” Kuroko asks, holding the sword back out for Kagami to take. 

 

Kagami takes it from him with his free hand and holds out the other for Kuroko to see. It’s the broken glasses from before: a pair of thin, grey wire-frames with scratched lenses. They’ve been sliced into perfect halves at the bridge. “Not what I’m looking for, that’s for sure,” he mumbles distractedly.

 

Kuroko waits for an explanation. When he doesn’t get one, he carefully prompts, “What is it that you are looking for?”

 

Kagami looks at him like he hadn’t thought he’d said that out loud. “Nothing,” he mutters, pocketing the frames in the small breast pocket and shaking the thought off. His hand lingers and itches at the fabric of his shirt, right in the center of his chest and just below his breast-bone, then he swings the arm out towards Kuroko. “Hey, I need a crutch and your scrawny shoulders’ll have to do.”

 

Kuroko sends him a dry look but does as he’s told. He slips himself under Kagami’s outstretched arm and with some effort they hobble their way back towards the path. 

 

They shuffle over in silence. Then, “Please tell me the sandwiches are okay.”

 

“If you don’t mind eating a bit of dirt, I suppose.”

 

Kagami groans and Kuroko dips his head down to hide the small, relieved smile tugging at his lips.

 

Hm. What he’s looking for. That’s a conversation that he’ll file away for later, he supposes.

 

 

_____________________________________

 

 

The rest of the day passes uneventfully enough, as does the next morning. Thankfully, there are no more Wisp ambushes or sightings. Maybe there is something special about the path that keeps them away. Magic? The strange mechanics of a dream? When he’d first found himself in these woods he would have laughed at the thought. Now, Kuroko’s not so sure.

 

Half of the time they spend in comfortable silence, simply listening to the sounds of the woods, and the other half is peppered with lively smalltalk. 

 

Kuroko talks about school and his friends. He lists out his classes for a good part of the afternoon. Over dinner later that night, he outlines the ideas he already has for his senior dissertation—one on the prevalence of the Gothic as a literary theme in Meiji-era novels, and another on narrator reliability in classical literature—at Kagami’s insistence. He tries his best to keep up, and for that, Kuroko gives him credit where credit is due. When he exhausts all possible conversations about his studies, he tells a few amusing stories from his first few years of university as he falls asleep in their makeshift camp (this time on the path) with Kagami standing guard. 

 

Kagami does the same the next day, recounting a few scenes from his childhood in Los Angeles and doing his best to shock Kuroko with horror stories from America. He manages to get Kuroko to let slip a loud laugh during a story about his neighbor’s dog, and preens over his victory for the rest of the morning.

 

It’s comfortable. Kuroko hasn’t been so relaxed in ages. Maybe it’s simply the lull of spring break finally catching up to him, but the lack of stress is something he feels like he hasn’t had in years. It’s so much simpler to be out here in the forest. No classes, no rush-hour crowds, no concrete-jungle extending on for miles. When was the last time he hiked? The last time he got out of the city? The trip to the mountain was nice, of course, but it had only been for a few days. Class schedules, project deadlines, vacation limits… it’s funny how in a space like this, with no clocks or watches standing as constant reminders of time slipping away, it can be so easy to lose track of the hours.

 

Kagami’s just in the middle of a story about Disneyland when Kuroko hears it. 

 

Tetsu…

 

He stops, body going cold all of a sudden, and then turns to look back down the path. There’s nothing there. No one there. Kagami stops as well, his previous story dying on his lips, and he cocks his head. “What’s up?”

 

Kuroko frowns and looks off to the side, deep into the woods. This section of the forest is denser than they’d seen earlier. Even though it has to be close to noon, only a few scattered rays of sunlight break through the thick canopy. Beyond the path, everything is murky and dark. “I thought I heard something,” he mutters. 

 

“‘Something’? Like, what kind of ‘something’ are we talking about?” Kagami asks. 

 

Tetsu…

 

Kuroko narrows his eyes and scans the tree-line. “I… I think I heard my friend. Aomine-kun, I mentioned him earlier.” He speaks distractedly. “Didn’t you hear him, Kagami-kun?”

 

The man clicks his tongue sourly. “Crap. Stay close to the middle of the path and try to ignore it if you can.”

 

“What is it?” Kuroko asks as Kagami takes his shoulders in his hands and guides him to the center. He doesn’t take his eyes off of the trees. 

 

Kagami puts himself between Kuroko and the edge of the path and removes his hands. “Alright, so the Wisps,” he says firmly, tone explanatory. “There’s a few different kinds of them. Alex gave them all names so we could sort them out better.”

 

He waits for Kuroko to nod in comprehension before he continues.

 

“The one we saw yesterday? We call their kind Huntsmen. They’re shape-shifters and they're fast. They try to snag you when you’re already off the path and drag you in further. But that guy?” He jerks his head to the side. “She called them Sirens.”

 

Kuroko hums thoughtfully. “Like the creatures from Greek mythology?”

 

“Yeah. They’re trickier than the Huntsmen. Huntsmen get you when you take off on your own, but they’re useless if you follow the rules and stay the course. The Sirens…,” he trails off, turning a grim eye to the side. 

 

Tetsu… come on…

 

Kuroko takes a sharp breath in through his nose. “The namesake suits them.” 

 

Kagami grunts, shoving his hands deep into his pockets. “I’ve only ever heard or seen them in the denser parts of the forest, like this. Probably so you can’t see what’s really trying to get you. Look, you just have to wait it out until you get out of their territory, but that won’t be too long, so hang tight.”

 

Screw that! Where the hell are you taking him? 

 

Kuroko nods again, but he can’t stop his eyes from glancing back over past Kagami. It really is too dark to see very far off of the path, but his curiosity is getting to him. The voice sounds too real to just be a figment of his own imagination, or a mimicry made by a beast.

 

“Are you gonna be okay?” Kagami asks slowly, carefully.

 

Kuroko glances up at him and smiles lightly. “I’ll be fine.”

 

Hey, I’m talking to you!

 

Fine, he’d said, but still the voice makes Kuroko shudder. That was Aomine-kun, he was certain of it. He looks to every tree and over every bush, searching for the slinking, black form of the Wisp. He has to make certain that it’s a monster out there and not the man himself. Because if Aomine were here, like him…

 

Just let me… fuck, Tetsu, I’m so sorry…

 

“For what?” Kuroko murmurs in response, not thinking. 

 

Kagami tenses next to him. “What’s it saying?”

 

“He apologized.” Kuroko frowns. “But I don’t know why.”

 

He’s suddenly startled out of his reverie by Kagami’s fingers snapping loudly right next to his ear. “Hey,” he barks, forcing Kuroko to tear his eyes away from the shadows looming off the path. “Not he. It. Doesn’t matter what it’s saying, anyway. You have to tune it out.”

 

Kuroko’s head aches faintly. He suddenly feels panicked and antsy. “I understand, Kagami-kun, however… there still might be a chance that it is  really him.” He stops and looks up at Kagami fiercely, eyes darting back and forth from the forest to his guide. “He was with me on the ski trip, and that is the last thing I can remember, so what if I wasn’t alone when I got here?”

 

The man steps up to him and matches his gaze stubbornly. “I’m telling you, it’s not.”

 

Hey, what do you think you’re doing with him! I’m coming along too, dammit.

 

Kuroko winces again. It’s so real. “I know Aomine-kun’s voice. I know how he sounds, and how he speaks. And… that’s not just an imitation of his voice, that’s him.”

 

Kagami makes a frustrated sound in the back of his throat. “That’s what they do. It wants you to think it’s real so that you go running out there into its clutches without a second thought. It’s out there projecting your friend’s voice from–,” he cuts himself off abruptly and growls, scrubbing a hand roughly through his hair. “Look, it’s using his voice, sure, but that’s not him.”

 

Tetsu!

 

“How do you know that?” His voice suddenly sounds so small to his own ears. 

 

Kagami’s expression is caught somewhere between being irritated and somber. “Because,” he says, “I can’t hear it, Kuroko.” He speaks firmly but with a note of sympathy. “That’s why I’m here, all right? That’s why you need a guide, otherwise you’d go running off after it.”

 

God, fuck off and let me go! Tetsu!

 

“Tell me I’m not wrong,” Kagami prompts, mouth slanted stubbornly.

 

Kuroko doesn’t want to answer, but his silence does a good enough job of doing it for him.

 

Kagami snorts, sounding agitated but not quite mean-spirited. He claps a hand against Kuroko’s shoulder-blade, causing him to stumble a step or two, and moves him along. “Just keep walking and don’t think about it so much.”

 

“I think that’s easier said than done,” Kuroko retorts, shooting him a look.

 

It doesn’t seem to throw Kagami off much, as he simply grins down at him and keeps walking. “Talking helps. Hey, I can finish the Space Mountain story if you want, though there’s not much left to it…,” he trails off in thought. 

 

Aomine’s voice is still echoing in his ears. If he’s out there, if he’s leaving Aomine out there to the beasts in the woods then… no. He sucks a breath in and lets it out. Kagami is right. Something is off. It is Aomine’s voice, so recognizable that it’s painful to listen to it, but there’s a static-like feeling lingering under his skin that tells him something is wrong about it. Besides, he knows he’s just met the man, but he gets the feeling that Kagami wouldn’t lie to him, not about something like this. He just needs to ignore the voice. He just needs a distraction.

 

“Tell me about your friend,” he blurts out, the words leaving his mouth before he can hold them back.

 

At his side, Kagami stiffens. 

 

So much for going for any semblance of tact. Kuroko is already trying to find ways to backtrack when Kagami slows his step and sighs. 

 

“We grew up in Los Angeles together,” he mutters. His head is tipped forward, eyes downcast and focusing on the ground as he walks. “His dad was a professor at UCLA and his mom did freelance translation out of their house. He was one of the few other Japanese expat kids I knew in the area, and I would’ve been lost if he hadn’t saved my ass.”

 

He chuckles, idly trailing a hand across his breastbone. “We played street-ball together and he helped me with my English at the beginning. His mom, too, whenever we stayed at his place. You know, she made the best lemonade, like you wouldn’t believe. Nothing tasted better in the summer than her lemonade.”

 

Kuroko smiles lightly. “Sounds nice.”

 

“Yeah, it was.” Kagami’s lip twitches up in a tired half-smile. “We used to do our homework there all the time. When I think about it, he was always there to help me out in a pinch. To tell you the truth, I still don’t know why because, god, I was such a brat back then.” 

 

Kagami turns to glare when Kuroko snorts—as if saying ‘only back then?’—and socks him across the shoulder.

 

Anyway,” he continues, sourly. “His dad’s tenure ended just as he was finishing up ninth grade, so they decided to move him back to Japan. I threw a total fit when it happened, you know, as fourteen year olds do,” he scowls, but his ears are peaking red. “Guess it paid off in the end though, because Tatsuya and his family being there is, like, ninety percent of what got my dad to agree to send me back.”

 

“Did he live in Tokyo too?”

 

Kagami shakes his head. “Nah, he was all the way in Akita at the time. I had to stay close to my dad’s family in Tokyo, like I said, but we visited each other a few times a year, like for New Years and Obon, since he was basically family already. Besides, video calling from Tokyo is way easier than doing it from the US.”

 

For all of the stories he’d told earlier, Kagami hadn’t once mentioned this Himuro fellow. It strikes him as odd, now, for him to have not been mentioned even once, since it’s obvious that he is (was?) an important person in Kagami’s life. Of course he doesn’t want to be too blunt, but he is curious. He supposes he’ll just try to ease the answers out of Kagami. 

 

“You went to visit him in Akita for New Years?” Kuroko asks blithely. “How was that after Los Angeles?”

 

“The worst.” He barks out a laugh. “God, don’t remind me. Thankfully Tatsuya came back to Tokyo for university or else I would have just stopped visiting him all together.”

 

“For what kind of studies?”

 

“Classical Mathematics.” He rolls his eyes. “Believe me, none of us were surprised. He tried to get me to try for the same school, but there was no way I was getting in there without the entrance exam scores to back me up, even with sports talent.” 

 

“Sports talent?”

 

Kagami grins down at him. “I wasn’t kidding about basketball. Tatsuya was all worried that I wouldn’t get in anywhere with my grades. Thankfully I lucked out with a sports scholarship back in Cali or else I would’ve never heard the end of it from him.”

 

“You went back to America?” Kuroko asks, puzzled.

 

“Yep. Can’t argue with a scholarship. The training’s tough, but worth it,” he shrugs. “I would have preferred to stay in Tokyo, but Japan’s not the best at scouting for basketball.”

 

Kuroko hums understandingly. “Yes, Aomine-kun mentioned similar woes. His grades were abysmal so, like you, I suppose he just got lucky.”

 

Kagami laughs, but meanwhile Kuroko takes pause. Mentioning Aomine’s name suddenly reminds him that he hasn’t heard his voice since they started talking. He waits for Kagami to quiet down again, assuming it’s simply the distraction that he’s provided keeping the voice at bay and that any second the sound will filter back in. But no, the woods have gone completely silent and still around them. The sour pang of worry is still there at the bottom of his gut, but relief overpowers it. He looks up at his guide. “Kagami-kun. The voices stopped.”

 

He quirks a lopsided smile down at Kuroko. “See? Told you talking would help.”

 

“Yes, I suppose I should give your advice more credit.” 

 

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

 

Kuroko huffs a light laugh at the sour look Kagami sends him, but stops when the man’s eyes flick up and his face grows serious. 

 

“What is it?” he asks, following his line of sight somewhere off of the path. 

 

Kagami clicks his tongue and straightens. “Wisps off the path to the right. The Sirens didn’t convince you to wander off out there so I think they’re antsy. Testing their limits.”

 

He ducks down to Kuroko’s height, then puts one hand on his shoulder to turn him to the side. With his other hand he points off into the trees. Kuroko follows the line of his finger and trains his eyes on the spot. It seems almost too dark to see anything, but then he sees them. There’s two black figures lingering beside a tall, thick tree about fifteen meters off of the path. One is crouched down like a predator stalking its prey, and the other is an oozing lump of shadow that simply stands there, suspended on two bird-like legs, watching them. Their faceless heads track them as they continue down the path. 

 

Kagami snorts, and the breath tickles Kuroko’s ear. “Runts.”

 

“What?” Kuroko asks, tilting his head to look at him. 

 

Kagami’s grinning, wide and feral, and his teeth flash in the faint light. He claps the hand on Kuroko’s shoulder and reaches up to grab at the hilt of his sword. “They look bad but those two are half the size as usual. If I can pick them off before they can run off, that gives us a better chance further down the line.”

 

Kuroko steps back to get a better look at him. “A better chance?”

 

Kagami nods. “Of them not causing us trouble on the path later.”

 

That’s right. Kuroko remembers what Kagami had said to him in the cabin at the start: normally I’d say that as long as you stay on the path there’s no chance for them to get at you, but they’ve been testing those boundaries more and more lately. Kuroko pulls a grim face at the thought. 

 

Still, Kagami straightens up, pulling the sword from its sheath in one fluid movement. “Small little things like those two never get within five meters of the path. But the big guys, like the one yesterday?” He flicks his eyes over to Kuroko’s. “I still don’t know how they’re getting through and I don’t want to test it.. What I do know is that the taller one, that’s an Observer. I’ve never seen it go after anyone, but it’s probably scouting us out right now to get reinforcements. They’re not smart, but these things have a hive mentality, and if it gets news back to the big guys of where we are we could be shit outta luck.”

 

Kuroko shakes his head incredulously. “So you’re going to go out there and fight them?”

 

“That’s the plan,” he replies. “Besides, I have to check something anyway. Killing two birds with one stone!”

 

Frowning, Kuroko steps forward into Kagami’s sightline, stopping him before he can step off of the dirt path. “Check what?”

 

Kagami sends him a purposefully cocky smirk, but it seems a bit off. Distracted. “You’ll see later.” He must notice the apprehension and annoyance on Kuroko’s face, because he drops the smirk and follows up with, “Seriously, I take care of small guys like these all the time. You,” he pokes a finger into the center of Kuroko’s chest, “stay here with the supplies and don’t move, alright?”

 

The look Kuroko is sending him must be tighter than he thought, because Kagami sighs and slumps a bit. “Hey, don’t give me that. I know when to throw in the towel if things seem too dangerous. And if not you’ve got that.” He gestures to the guan dao tied up in the straps on Kuroko’s rucksack. “Remember what I said earlier: if we’re really unlucky and you have to use it–”

 

“–then it’s not to hard to figure out where the business end is,” Kuroko finishes with a sigh. “I realize that, Kagami-kun, but I still think this is a bit reckless.”

 

Kagami smirks again, but this time it’s softer. He grips Kuroko’s shoulder again, giving it a squeeze. “Don’t worry. I’ve got a job to finish up and it’s not my policy to leave people stranded without a guide.”

 

“My hero,” Kuroko replies dryly, but he gives the man a small smile in return nonetheless. 

 

It’s a bit nerve wracking to watch Kagami step off of the safety of the path and into the thick, dark underbrush, but he holds himself with such loose, effortless confidence that it’s hard not to share the feeling as he watches. The cat-like Huntsman advances on Kagami first, taking his bait easily as it pounces and sails through the air, but Kagami moves like fire incarnate. He’s fast and deadly, ducking around the Wisp’s snapping mouth and leaping over it like a flame licking through the tall grass and dancing in the air. As nervous as he is about all of this, even Kuroko can’t deny that it’s absolutely mesmerizing to watch him work. He is very good at what he does. 

 

Kagami catches one of its black, sinewy paws against his blade and calls back, “Hey, can you tell me what’s going on with the other guy.” He sounds completely unfazed by the creature bearing down on him. 

 

Kuroko starts out of his trance of watching Kagami and turns to look. “He’s at your three-o’clock,” he replies, crouching down into a cross-legged position at the edge of the dirt path so as to not startle it. “He’s advancing towards you, but it still seems like he’s only watching.”

 

“Good,” Kagami grunts, angling the blade so he can get behind it and push it through the webbing of its paw and slice through the shadowy ooze. The creature shrieks, the sound like nails on a chalkboard, and retreats a few steps on its three remaining limbs. “I’ve got its attention now, but think you could get it if it decides to run?”

 

Kuroko hums thoughtfully but doesn’t take his sharp eyes off of the looming Observer. “I’m sorry, but I doubt it.”

 

He hears Kagami grunt followed by another grating cry from the other Huntsman. “No worries. Just let me know if it looks like it’ll take off, alright?”

 

“Understood.” The bi-pedaled beast is only a few meters away from Kagami at this point, having approached on slow, cautious steps, but it’s stops and simply tilts itself back and forth to get a better look at him as he shifts around his target. Kuroko feels a bit odd—the observer observing the Observer—but then movement beyond its swaying form catches his attention. “Kagami-kun, there’s something else approaching at your five-o’clock. It looks like another smaller Huntsman.”

 

“Thanks for the heads-up!” he barks, kneeling down just as the Wisp’s tail whips above him. “And the Observer?”

 

Kuroko’s eyes dart back from the incoming creature to the Observer. “He’s still standing there. Is that normal?”

 

Kagami laughs harshly. “Since when is anything normal out here?” He gets a chunk of the tail off and it fades into nothing before it even hits the ground. “How long do I have until the other guy’s on me.”

 

“Well,” Kuroko starts, but in the span of time that he’d looked away to the Observer it has disappeared among the tall grass. “Kagami-kun,” he says, voice suddenly tight. “I lost sight of it. I don’t know where it is.”

 

He hears what sounds like Kagami mutter a curse as Kuroko scans through the underbrush looking for the shadowy mass. Where did it go? Where could it have gone? He catches the Observer once again in the corner of his eye, silently looming to the side, and a shudder runs down his spine. 

 

He doesn’t have time to ruminate on it for long as he suddenly catches a flicker of something closing in on Kagami. To his relief it’s the other Wisp. It moves slowly, like a lioness prowling through the tall grass, waiting for its moment to strike. He can’t have that, but he also can’t yell to Kagami at the risk of startling it into striking prematurely. The same hot, anxious feeling that he felt at the river the day before burbles up in his gut.

 

This time, however, there’s something else: a heavy weight in his chest that feels like it’s going to burst out at any second if he doesn’t move. A drive to do something. His heart rate climbs and his breathing shallows as he zeroes in on the approaching shadow. 

 

Without thinking Kuroko yanks the guan dao from its straps and slips down off of the path into the tall weeds. The sound of metal slicing through viscous ichor tells him Kagami is holding out, but he can’t afford to look and check. His heartbeat is a thumping staccato in his ears and it thrums against his chest. Even so, there’s something oddly thrilling to it. The sweat on his palms is making the polished wood a bit slick, but the feel of the staff is pleasantly warm in his grip. This feels right, in a very foreign kind of way.

 

He sees Kagami make a move to his left out of the corner of his eye, and the newcomer seems to notice too. It readies itself on its haunches, but before it can move Kuroko thrusts the pole-arm out ahead of him, catching it in the thick of its flank with a wet squelching sound. He tenses up as the beast wails, turning its black, formless head on him in an instant. He’s terrified for all of a second before Kagami bursts in from the side and rams it with the brunt of his shoulder. The guan dao almost slips out of Kuroko’s hands as the beast jerks, but he manages to tighten his grip in time to wrench it from the creature’s retreating body. Breath stuttering out of him, he blinks up at the redhead, who is looking at him with another bewildered but awestruck expression. “Seriously,” he pants. “How do you just appear like that?” 

 

Kuroko quirks him a half-smile. “The other Huntsman is approaching you at six-o’clock.”

 

Kagami blinks before he breaks out in a grin. “Won’t take long to take care of. Yours is hovering at your five so hold it off and stay close.”

 

“Mine?” Kuroko quips, bemused, before Kagami turns him around with a hand on his shoulder and ducks back to the first one. 

 

It’s a bit terrifying to face creatures cornering him from both sides, to know that he’s now staring into the belly of the beast, quite literally. There’s a panicked pressure in his chest, making it a bit difficult to breathe or swallow down his nerves. Then he hears Kagami moving behind him, feels the warmth of his back lingering just short of touching his own, and it’s as if at least some of the anxiety drains away, little by little. 

 

He trusts Kagami, and Kagami obviously trusts him, which is odd but no less comforting. He smiles softly to himself and tightens his grip on the pole-arm as he hears Kagami move behind him.

 

The newer Wisp stalks back and forth in front of him. Its faceless head twitches and shakes in a way that’s unsettlingly alien. Even more unsettling, however, is the Observer, still standing among the tall grass. Unmoving. Neither of them make a sound as he stares them down. 

 

Suddenly a piercing shriek erupts behind him, louder than any of the cries before, and Kagami makes a triumphant sort of yelp, which Kuroko can only assume is a sign that the first Wisp has been slain. Even so he can’t risk turning around, else the deadlock he has on the remaining Huntsman be broken. 

 

He hears the grass shift behind him, and he barely hears Kagami mutter a curse and then “not this one either” before the Wisp in front of him decides to spring forward. He makes a startled sound, which might be Kagami’s name, but he’s not sure. He doesn’t have enough time to think about it as the creature advances. He raises the bladed end of the pole-arm in defense, hands going clammy again, but Kagami gives an answering cry and suddenly he’s leaping past Kuroko and charging the thing. 

 

With the Wisp coming at him head on, Kagami certainly can’t use the blade as it’s intended. Instead, his hands go tense on the hilt, which he then slams down into the wide peak of its head as he comes down off of the crest of an impressive jump. 

 

The action does its job, but only so much. The force leaves the creature momentarily stunned, but as Kagami stumbles on his feet again it rebounds faster than he must have expected. The shadowy miasma of its face splits open into a large, gaping maw that turns itself on Kagami. Before he can think on it too much, Kuroko grips the guan dao tightly at either end and cuts the blade up in a swooping arc. It catches the beast right in the neck and slides through without any resistance. No bones, just slippery black shadows, which sends a shiver down Kuroko’s spine. When he pulls the blade back, black ichor oozes from the wound in thick globules that splatter across the ground. 

 

Kuroko is so stunned by his own initiative that he doesn’t register Kagami finishing the job until the creature’s head falls into the matching puddle of muck. He follows the ridges of its face and lands on the hollow holes where eyes would have been on any normal creature, locking his gaze with it as it melts away into nothing. 

 

For a long moment all he can hear is the ragged rush of his own breath and the steady thrum of his heart. He’s not sure exactly how to describe what he feels, equal parts horrified and enlivened, but it feels good, in a somewhat terrifying way.

 

Kagami’s tuft of red hair invades his vision as he stoops down in front of Kuroko to inspect the last remnants of the beast in the blades of grass. He sifts his fingers through a slowly fading puddle of sludge, and when they pull back, there’s a crumpled wad of paper in his hand. He makes a small, disappointed noise, but carefully smoothes the picture out on his bent knee. Kuroko peers down as well. It’s a photograph of a middle-aged man, crouched down with his arms slung over the narrow shoulders of two smiling, elementary-aged girls. One is missing a tooth and her arms loop around the man’s neck. The other has her hands fisted in the rainbow tulle fabric of her tutu. The man’s glasses are tilted on the bridge of his crooked nose and there are crows feet at the corners of his eyes, but Kuroko can’t tell if they’re from age, laughter, or a healthy combination of both. Kagami turns the photo over, careful not to damage it further, and scrawled across the back in neat handwriting are the words Masaru surprising Miyuki and Kaede at their piano recital, November 14th 2013.

 

He hears something like a soft whine, and after a moment he realizes that the sound had come from Kagami. It’s so out of character that Kuroko pauses before carefully asking, “Who are they?”

 

Kagami won’t look at him as he folds the photo into careful quarters and slips it into his pocket. “I don’t know,” he says, standing.

 

“That’s not what your reaction says.”

 

All he does is shrug. “I don’t, honest. It’s just a… nice picture. Whoever they are, they look happy.”

 

Kuroko frowns, giving the man a moment as he rolls a crick out of his shoulders. “Still not what you were looking for?”

 

Kagami starts, then turns a suspicious eye on Kuroko. Kuroko mimics his aloof shrug from before and simply replies, “You can’t expect me to have forgotten what you said yesterday.”

 

The man’s face scrunches up sourly, but there’s no acid behind it. “No,” he replies, straightening his rumpled clothes. “It’s not.”

 

“Are you going to tell me what is?”

 

“Nope,” he says breezily, but with a note of finality. “Nothing for you to get your panties in a twist over.” Then he turns and grins down at him. “Let’s get you back to the path, killer.”

 

Kuroko quirks an eyebrow at him as they shuffle through the grass. “You’re the one who dealt the finishing blow, Kagami-kun. I think that title belongs to you.”

 

Laughter barks out of him. “Yeah, alright, but I couldn’t have done it without you coming in out of nowhere. Told you you’d find a way to use that thing.”

 

“Thank heavens for your sixth sense for weaponry,” Kuroko counters, voice bordering on playful. He watches Kagami out of the corner of his eye, then, “We make a good team.”

 

Kagami’s eyes widen minutely and he swallows. A hand comes up to scratch at the hair at the nape of his neck. “Yeah, I guess we do,” he says, lips twitching up at the corners. Then he coughs. “Now let’s take care of that Observer and get back on track.”

 

Kagami ducks his head down to hide his face, but the red tinge at the tips of his ears has Kuroko fighting back his own small smile. He feels his own ears grow a bit hot as well, and, well, maybe it’s a good thing that Kagami isn’t looking his way. He turns his gaze away from the man to spare him the embarrassment, chuckling softly under his breath as he gazes out ahead.

 

The Observer is nowhere to be found. 

 

Beep

 

That can’t be right, though. It had been standing there, waiting and watching that whole time. Would it really have stayed that long only to run off the moment they’d forgotten about it? If it had enough sense to get away, he supposed. A shiver runs down his spine, regardless. “Kagami-kun.”

 

Kagami must hear the odd timbre in his voice, because he looks over with obvious worry. “What’s the matter?”

 

Kuroko scans the tree-line for the tall, hulking figure. It couldn’t have gotten too far. He swore he’d seen it just before they’d taken out the Huntsman, hadn’t he? “The last Wisp… I think it got away.”

 

“Shit, are you kidding?” Kagami groans, clicking his tongue disappointedly. “Crap, it’s probably half-way to alerting the cavalry by now. Let’s hurry up and at least get to more open–”

 

There's a sickening squelching sound to Kuroko’s right, and he hears Kagami take a sharp, startled breath. 

 

Heart sinking with dread, he turns to find Kagami a step behind him, face uncharacteristically pale and mouth tight. Jutting from his right side is a razor-edged wisp of shadow that snakes across his flesh and blooms over his belly like a weed, ugly and black. Claiming him.

 

Nausea rolls Kuroko’s stomach and causes his knees to almost go weak underneath him and the guan dao to slide from his grip. Frantically he searches for the source of the appendage and… there, crouched in the underbrush. Hiding among the swaying grass is another amorphous mass of shadow. There's no recognizable animal shape this time, but folded up at its sides are two long bird-like legs, anchoring it to the ground. He’s seen those legs before. 

 

His eyes dart back to Kagami, who has his left hand clenched around the base of the tendril. In just a few seconds it’s split apart into smaller threads that make spider-like fractals across his shirt, dipping in and out like stitch-work. Kuroko can see the man’s hand quivering with strain, as well as the dark patch of blood blooming across his shirt and down his side. Kagami’s whole body is tense, chest rising and falling with barely-controlled breathing, and he’s dug his feet as hard into the ground as he can. Kuroko realizes suddenly that the creature is acting as an anchor, slowly trying to reel Kagami back further into the forest. Kuroko swallows, feeling sick and dizzy, and the panic must be apparent on his face because Kagami shudders and shakily chokes out, “Hey, Kuroko—Hey, look at me. Keep your eyes on me.”

 

Kuroko does, fixing him with wide blue eyes. He makes to step forward, hand extended to help pull him back, but Kagami glares at him.

 

Don’t,” he grits out.“I-I’m going to count to th–three, and then I’m going to need you to move.” 

 

He almost doesn’t process the words. 

 

“One.”

 

Kuroko watches in dumbstruck horror as Kagami’s hand tightens on the tendril and pulls it further out of him. The wet noise it makes makes Kuroko’s stomach drop and he steps forward again. “Stop, you’re only making it w–!”

 

“Two,” Kagami interrupts, stopping Kuroko in his tracks. He’s managed to pull it out about a finger’s length, but he’s shaking even harder than before and the blood

 

Kagami-kun.

 

Three!” he roars, and then his right arm is slicing the forgotten shamshir up at an awkward angle and just barely managing to cut through the tendril. The black limb instantly deteriorates into sludgy ichor and it sets off a chain reaction through the rest of the appendage back to where the wisp had anchored itself several meters away. Without the force pulling him back, Kagami stumbles forward. Kuroko swoops in, nearly crashing down under Kagami’s weight in his arms, but the man catches himself somewhat and tries to straighten up. “Guess we make a good team after all,” he wheezes, breathing right across Kuroko’s ear as Kuroko tries to push him upright. “Path. Now.”

 

Kuroko scrambles to adjust Kagami’s weight to his shoulders. He takes a single, fearful second to glance back at the beast. Thankfully it seems to have dug itself too deep into the ground, and its struggle to break free is more than enough of a head start. Kuroko shifts Kagami and starts off, half dragging the man back to safety. He hears himself talking but doesn’t register himself actually forming the words as they spill past his lips. “Y-You said they don’t attack, Kagami-kun, you said–

 

“I know what I said!” he hisses, not out of anger, but strain. It’s an effort to keep Kuroko calm, but Kuroko fears he’s already too far gone. “It’s not an Observer it’s a Hun…,” he takes another shuddering breath as he stumbles. “Huntsman. I w-was wrong.”

 

He doesn’t even know what to focus on as he drags Kagami back: the remnants of the Wisp’s tendrils oozing out of each hole in Kagami’s shirt, the tremor in his legs, the distant sound of something shifting behind him. All of that or Kagami’s face, pallid and slicked with sweat, but fiercely focused on the path ahead of them. He can’t look at Kagami’s face like that for long, so he shifts his gaze down to the blood that’s steadily seeping into the fabric of his shirt. There’s so much. “Shapeshifting,” he breathes, recalling Kagami’s earlier explanation. “But it waited for us… it planned that, that means it’s intelligent…”

 

Kagami laughs wryly, but it comes out slurred, “Nah… ’s because you’re too… too clever. They got tha’ from you…”

 

Kuroko’s foot hits an odd mound of dirt and he stumbles. Kagami starts to slip off of his shoulder, but he hefts him up again with all that he can. “What does that mean?” he mutters, frantic with panic and exasperation. “Why are you always so infuriatingly cryptic?”

 

The path is just a bit further. He just needs to get Kagami out of this thing’s reaches and then… then he’ll find some way to patch him up. He’s not really sure how or with what, but right now the path is the objective. The spine-crawling thought that the Wisp could be on them at any moment is an easy distraction but he forces that thought aside and zeroes his focus onto the path. So much so that he almost misses it when Kagami mumbles, low and mumbled, “’m sorry, Kuroko, ‘m sso sorry.”

 

“Don’t apologize,” Kuroko says, trying to hasten their pace. “You can apologize when you get to the path.”

 

But Kagami isn’t listening. His head drops forward and when Kuroko reaches the hand across his shoulders up to feel his forehead he’s feverishly hot. Kuroko’s heart sinks. “I jus’ wanted to protect you from th’… I mean y-you were really lucky t’ not remember an’ I thought… I thought that I could…”

 

The weight on his shoulders is suddenly so much heavier as Kagami starts to slow, but, dammit, the path is right there. He tries to shake Kagami as he pulls him along. “Kagami-kun, please, keep talking to me,” he pleads, groaning under the man’s weight. “Thought you could what? What didn’t I remember?”

 

Kagami goes limp. Kuroko’s legs buckle under the weight and they both fall to the ground, only a meter or so away from the dusty dirt trail. Kuroko hisses in pain from the impact but fights through it and scrambles up onto all fours. He shoves Kagami over onto his back and takes his face in his hands. “Kagami-kun, come on, you have to keep moving.” He shakes him a few times, but there’s no response. Kagami’s skin is clammy and damp under his fingers. “You haven’t finished your job yet. You made me a promise, remember? You promised me you’d help me out of these woods and you can’t do that if you’re–,” he cuts himself off and swallows. He can’t think that just yet, but it’s hard not to when he can barely feel Kagami’s heartbeat against the fingers at his neck. 

 

He hears the grass behind him rustle and turns just enough to glance back. The Wisp is making its way over at a lazy pace, almost like it knows there’s no need to rush. Like it’s already won. 

 

Kuroko’s hands slip over Kagami’s slick skin as he rises to his feet. It might be pointless, but he’d rather try to stall and think of something than abandon his guide. 

 

The Wisp, now a long, snakelike thing with four straggly legs bent at sharp angles to the ground, perks up when Kuroko faces it. Kuroko doesn’t give it time to make any moves before he slowly starts to walk towards it. The Wisp’s thin tail rattles, curious and a bit wary, as Kuroko brushes away the grass in his path and inches towards it. He keeps his head held high, all the while his pulse is racing in his chest. There’s a nagging desire to look back at Kagami, to check to see that he’s okay, that maybe he’s gotten up and onto the path, but he has the thing’s attention and he can’t risk losing it. 

 

He gets within five meters of the Wisp and then starts to cut sideways in a circle around it. He never takes his eyes off of its viper-nosed face, focusing on where the eyes should be. It has the desired effect because the creature turns, tracking him with its eyes while its spindly legs rotate it around, ready to strike. It’s so tempting to look, with Kagami’s body now probably visible to his left, but no, he’s so close, he just has to…

 

His foot hits metal, and his relieved sigh shudders out of him before he can stop it. The noise startles the beast, and it rushes him in a flash. Kuroko reacts instantly, ducking down to wrap his fingers around the smooth staff of the guan dao and he manages to bring it up in front of him just in time to catch the Wisp’s sharp talons as they reach for him. When its talons fail, the Wisp’s head darts forward to strike at him next, but he lets himself fall down to the ground so the thing is right above him. He kicks at its underbelly with both legs like a swimmer kicking off the wall, and the thing flips. For all of the strength that they seem to possess, their shadowy mass is not nearly as heavy as he would have thought. 

 

The creature shrieks as it lands on its back. It thrashes around in an attempt to right itself and it gives Kuroko just enough time to scramble up and stab the thick blade of the guan dao directly into its sternum.

 

There’s a long, terrifying moment where the beast claws at the staff, shrieking bloody murder into the silent woods. Kuroko puts his whole body into the blade, cutting up further into its neck and the base of its head with all that he can. Its shadowy claws scramble to grab at him while they ooze ichor down the wood, catching his arms a few times and drawing dark red lines into his skin, but they grow weaker and weaker. Eventually, the life drains from it completely until there’s no more fight left. 

 

He looks into the empty hollows of where the Wisp’s eyes should be and feels empty himself.

 

Beep

 

With caution, Kuroko unsheathes the blade from its body when he’s almost certain that it won’t move again and the Wisp’s terrifying talons slump to the ground. It coughs out a few sputtering, burbling attempts at sound before it melts away into the earth. In its wake is a set of keys, spilled out across the ground around a shattered chain.

 

Hands clenched around the guan dao like a life preserve, Kuroko simply stands there, staring down at the dark puddle disappear at his feet. His heart is hammering, face flushed, and he greedily gulps down air into his aching lungs. The tinny ringing in his ears that he hadn’t even noticed until now fades out to nothing.

 

There’s a sound at his side and he whirls around to face it, tensing up like a coil wound tight. 

 

It’s… it’s Kagami, rising from the ground with a cross between a scowl and a grimace pulling at his face. There’s black ichor seeped into his clothes and his shirt is torn open at his side where the beast brought him down, but he seems to have staunched the bleeding with a scrap of fabric he’d torn from the bottom of his shirt. Above all else, he’s okay. 

 

The thought hits Kuroko like a punch to the gut. He’s alive. He’s able to stand and brush himself off and scowl that petulant, childish scowl of his, and that means that Kagami is alive. Kuroko’s whole world suddenly narrows to tunnel vision, like the only things he can process are the sharp sting of fear he’d felt only moments earlier and the sudden sense of being so absolutely and breathtakingly alive as he stares at the other man. 

 

Kagami scrunches his face up and winces, fingers skirting along the edge of his makeshift bandage, but as he notices Kuroko watching him dumbly, he snorts and his mouth curves up into a wry half-smile.

 

He looks tired, sweat-slicked and a bit worse for wear, but absolutely beautiful.

 

Catching the look in Kuroko’s eyes, the man’s smile falls. He opens his mouth to say something, but before he can Kuroko stumbles over to him, dropping the guan dao without a care as he latches one hand into the collar of Kagami’s ruined shirt, the other across the side of his neck, and drags that breathtakingly beautiful mouth down to his own. 

 

He rushes up to meet Kagami, nestling his nose in next to Kagami’s like the soft wake of a wave. Kuroko can feel the man inhale sharply as he slides his mouth neatly along the seam of Kagami’s lips, still slightly parted in question. Every nerve of Kuroko’s body feels lit up in the rush of adrenaline and it’s as if all of his senses are heightened as he tilts his head further and pushes himself deeper into Kagami’s space. He feels Kagami’s pulse race against the palm laid flat against his neck, breathes in the earthy, petrichor smell of Kagami’s skin, locks his half-lidded gaze on to the ring of red around Kagami’s wide, blown pupils. 

 

It can’t last anything more than a few seconds, but the world seems to slow down just enough to let him drink in the moment while he has it, while his heart is still beating wildly and driving him on. He memorizes the chapped feel of Kagami’s lips for a final, lingering moment, then he pulls back. 

 

The action seems to drag the other man out of his stunned stupor. Kagami’s eyes blink slowly, then they slip down to focus on Kuroko’s, half-lidded and searching. He looks torn, a painful glint across the dark reds of his eyes. His bottom lip catches between his teeth, and Kuroko can’t help but track the movement with his eyes before he shakes his head and recoils. What had he been thinking?

 

“I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t have–”

 

No sooner has he started apologizing then Kagami takes a purposeful step forward. His hands rise up and splay themselves on either side of Kuroko’s face with an intensity that is still achingly delicate and his tongue darts out again across red, red lips.

 

His hands are shaking, Kuroko manages to think before he rocks up on his toes and swells up to meet him. 

 

For all that he’d been almost cold to the touch moments earlier, Kagami’s mouth is nothing but slick warmth when Kuroko licks into it. He feels a shiver go down Kagami’s spine through the hands digging into his shoulder-blades, and then Kagami retaliates, trying to steal back the momentum of the kiss. His hands slip down his neck to palm at Kuroko’s sides, fingers tracing along him reverently and lightly dipping into the small of his back. Kuroko’s breath hitches. He arches sharply at the sensitive shock of nerves it sets off; however, the abruptness of it causes him to lose his balance on his toes. He tips backwards, but Kagami is quick to follow him, sending them both back a step or two before Kuroko’s back hits the solid trunk of a tree to steady him. The impact is nothing to Kuroko, who lets out an out-of-character breath of laughter, but Kagami pulls away from the kiss with a hiss. 

 

The sound startles Kuroko out of the fuzzy haze on his mind and he pushes Kagami back from him with two steady hands on his shoulders. Kagami leans back, expression similarly dazed despite the pained twist of his features. 

 

“Y-Your injury,” Kuroko says, tongue not feeling like it’s working quite right yet after being used for other things. “I am so sorry, Kagami-kun, how could I even think of–”

 

Kagami snorts lightly, cutting Kuroko off. He buries his face in Kuroko’s hair and chuckles, the puff of air causing his bangs to tickle across his forehead. “It’s fine,” he says, chest jumping with held back laughter. “I’m fine.”

 

Kuroko’s fingers brush down his sides and hover right above the crumpled bunch of fabric. “We should take a better look at it,” he says, somewhat reluctantly.

 

“Don’t worry, I heal fast,” Kagami says, voice muffled by Kuroko’s hair. He pulls back, and Kuroko has to look up. There’s a lazy grin slanting across his face. “Later.”

 

Kuroko stares up at him with wide, dazed eyes, licking his lips slowly. “Later,” he agrees breathily, dragging Kagami down to him. He can think about all of that later, but now, Kagami is warm and alive and that’s all that matters. 

 

When he pulls away for air again after what could have been seconds or minutes, he tilts his head back against the tree and takes a good look at Kagami’s face. The deep flush smeared across the peaks of his cheeks, the slight bruising on his lips, the hooded heaviness to his eyes. Kuroko brings his hands up to cup his cheeks, and the skin is warm to the touch and the barely-there scratch of stubble pricks his palms. Kagami’s pulse thrums against the sensitive skin of his fingertips where they rest against the sharp cut of his jaw bone and it all feels so…

 

Real.

 

Words spill from his lips before he can stop them. “This is the strangest and most realistic dream I’ve ever had,” he breathes, his own blood rushing in his ears and his heart beating so fast he thinks it might burst from his chest. He laughs softly. “And, to be honest, I don’t think I want it to end.”

 

Beep

 

Kuroko can feel the sudden, strong thud of Kagami’s heart through their pressed-together chests. The redhead’s mouth thins, his grip on Kuroko’s waist tightening momentarily. Then he breathes out, fingers relaxing, and he bends his head down to tuck it into the crook of Kuroko’s neck. It tickles, and Kuroko laughs as he feels lips and teeth tease at the exposed length of his neck. Kagami’s face may be hidden, but Kuroko can tell the shift from idle teasing to purpose as he feels Kagami mouth something into the skin below his jaw. 

 

Kuroko huffs lightly and traces a hand up from the redhead’s shoulder and across his neck. He trails the tips of his fingers across the cold links of a chain just barely peeking out from the collar of his shirt before they sweep into the hair at the nape of his neck, carding through it softly. “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t quite hear that,” he murmurs, a small smile tugging at his lips.

 

The only response he gets is Kagami humming against him, which causes him to shudder. “You’ll have to come up with a better answer than that,” he says, running his fingers in small circles along the base of Kagami’s head.

 

Kagami pulls back languidly, nosing his way up the line of Kuroko’s neck and jaw until he hovers a hair’s-breath away from his mouth. His pupils are blown wide, the red of his irises a thin, blazing ring around them. They’re hiding something and his face is tight, but he blinks and the shadow is gone. “You talk too much,” he grins, before he leans in again, sliding his lips along the curve of Kuroko’s quivering smile before parting the seam of his mouth with his tongue.

 

As Kuroko loses himself to the headiness of the kiss, he distantly recognizes that yes, that was something like sorrow swimming in those dark, dark eyes.

 

___________________

 

Later that night they set up camp at a spot as far down the path as they could it before they’d grown too tired. When dinner is eaten and all the cleaning is finished, Kuroko lays out their bedrolls and lies down to watch the stars. They’d stopped in a spot with a break in the canopy, and the night sky is a sea of swirling indigos and speckled white starlight above them. It’s the clearest look of the stars that he’s ever seen to his knowledge, and he can’t even bring himself to speak, as if doing so would shatter it all and wake up from his dream-spell. It’s utterly unreal, but then again, what isn’t in this place?

 

“Nice view?” he hears Kagami ask, just before the redhead leans over above him, blocking him from it. 

 

Kuroko hums thoughtfully, “Quite. Where were you just now?”

 

Kagami lowers himself onto his haunches, which puts his face further into Kuroko’s space and blocks out even more of the starlight. He can’t say he particularly minds; the sight it’s been replaced with is just as nice, in his opinion. “Just checking up on my side.”

 

“Is it alright?” Kuroko asks, moving to sit up. “Would you like me to take a look at it?”

 

Before he can get too far, Kagami reaches forward and none-too-gently flicks him in the forehead. “Chill. I changed the bandage and everything on my own. Didn’t want to disturb your beauty rest.”

 

Kuroko shoots him a withering look but glances down at the spot beside him where he’d unfolded the other bedroll in invitation. Kagami send him a grateful half-smile in return and sits. 

 

With no tasks to distract them, everything goes quiet. There’s a bit of awkwardness mixed into the silence that falls into the space separating their bedrolls. It’s a tension pulled taut between them that Kuroko doesn’t really want to put words to for fear of making what had happened earlier more real than it might have been. Was there something really there, or had it just been desperation fueled by adrenaline? The thought makes his stomach flip-flop uncomfortably. 

 

But then Kagami shifts back into a reclined position and his hand barely brushes the side of Kuroko’s own. Ah, he thinks with a private smile, catching the telltale fluster on Kagami’s face out of the corner of his eye as he jerks it away. Kagami pointedly looks away, jaw clenched in embarrassment, and it’s so endearing that Kuroko can’t help but chase after his hand and carefully lay his pinky overtop Kagami’s. It’s an invitation, perhaps a bit bold, but he leaves it there for the man to take or reject. As expected, Kagami jolts again, his skin radiating heat under Kuroko’s inquisitive finger, but he doesn’t pull back. Instead, he leans towards Kuroko almost imperceptibly and curls his finger up to link them together. It’s a small action, laughably so, but even so it sends a shock of warm pleasure up Kuroko’s arm and through his chest. When he looks sidelong at Kagami, his cheeks are dark, his ears now too, and even the pale starlight can’t hide that. 

 

Maybe they don’t need to put words to what happened. It’s something of a relief, an awkward situation sidelined by both parties’ stubborn nervousness. 

 

“You’re unnaturally warm,” Kuroko murmurs, leaning into the heat rolling off of Kagami’s body in waves. Come to think of it, he’s been surprisingly cold this entire trip, and the warmth radiating off of Kagami is enticingly delicious right now. He bumps their shoulders together gently.

 

Kagami snorts but doesn’t pull away this time either. “Maybe you’re just unnaturally cold.”

 

He hums airily in response. After a brief pause he continues. “Is the sky always this clear?” he asks, tilting his head up again.

 

Kagami follows the line of his sight. “Not always, but a lot of the time.”

 

“We never see the stars this well in the city. It must be nice.”

 

There’s something sour in Kagami’s tone when he replies, “Yeah, but it gets old after a while.”

 

“Quite the grouchy old man, aren’t you, Kagami-kun?” 

 

Kagami shoves him but doesn’t protest when Kuroko settles back against him a moment later. 

 

Comfortable silence falls between them again, which Kuroko spends tracing patterns into the twinkling starlight. He doesn’t recognize any constellations—perhaps their vantage point is too small to see any of the major ones—but it’s calming to start from scratch. 

 

“Alex used to make up her own too,” Kagami mutters, and Kuroko glances down to find the man studying him instead of the sky. He must have seen Kuroko’s eyes tracking the invisible patterns. “There’s a map somewhere back in the bungalow. I kind of wish I’d brought it along, but hindsight’s 20/20, right?”

 

Kuroko’s lips just barely tilt up at the corners. “You’ll just have to show it to me another time, then,” he replies. It’s a nice thought, that even after he wakes up he’ll be able to enter this strange dream world again.

 

Kagami doesn’t respond. He goes oddly still, then says, somewhat sarcastically, “You don’t even remember how you got here, how would you find your way back?”

 

“I’ll find a way,” Kuroko says, shrugging. He looks into Kagami’s eyes and sees the starlight reflected in them. There’s something ethereal about the moment, white light dancing across the dark reds of his eyes. He supposes that’s just how things work here, and gives the man a small, wry half-smile. “Maybe I’ll just follow the stars.”

 

Kagami raises an eyebrow at that and snorts, but he can’t fight the amused quirk of his lips. Kuroko is very fond of that smile, he realizes, and he suddenly wants to remember what it felt like against his own. Without much pause, he grips the collar of the man’s shirt and leans up to find out. 

 

Unlike last time, Kagami seems to expect this kiss. Their noses still brush a bit awkwardly, but Kagami at least tries to fix the angle by bringing a hand up to cup the curve of Kuroko’s neck. His other hand hasn’t moved from where their pinkies are linked together, and Kuroko’s heart thuds almost painfully at the warmth that spreads through him at the thought. He pushes himself up into Kagami as much as he can, not realizing the imbalance it causes until it’s a moment too late.

 

Kagami’s arm buckles and he falls down onto the bedroll with a soft thump. Kuroko follows the hand still curled around the back of his head gladly, chasing after Kagami’s mouth with uncharacteristic forwardness. While he may be of average height, he feels dwarfed in comparison to the redhead, whose hand practically takes up his entire head as it palms reverently across his jaw and to the nape of his neck. He sprawls across him lazily, one arm braced across his chest and the other still tangled up in Kagami’s own. The kiss this time is slower, ebbing and flowing like a gentle current, and so unlike the one earlier. It’s softer, more tentative, like he’s dipping his toes into a pool of something both familiar and yet still unknown. It’s less of a battle, more of a conversation. Kuroko takes his time to learn Kagami, to study the cut of his jaw and the slope of his shoulders with his hands. He memorizes the scrape of stubble, the curve of Kagami’s half-smile against his own, the way Kagami’s calluses tickle as they drag across the sensitive skin behind his ear. 

 

If this is a dream, he wants to make sure it’s one that stays with him when he eventually wakes up.

 

The world shifts, suddenly, as Kagami leans forward and rolls them over. They break contact, noses bumping and teeth catching on lips as they shift onto the other bedroll, but amidst their shallow, gasping breathing are small wisps of shy laughter. They look at each other, taking in their mirrored expressions, all glassy eyes and ruddy cheeks. From his new position, Kuroko cranes his neck up to steal a few short, chaste pecks from Kagami’s slightly-bruised lips and only stops when the redhead huffs exasperatedly and leans back down to give him a real one. His tongue sweeps across Kuroko’s teeth in a way that reveals a lack of experience that hadn’t been noticeable during the adrenaline-fueled sloppiness before, but like everything about the man there’s something strangely endearing to it. Kuroko tilts his head to give them better access, guiding Kagami into an angle where they slot together perfectly. 

 

When Kagami pulls back for air a moment later, all he can manage is a somewhat stunned, “Wow.”

 

Kuroko sends him a coy smile. “Out of practice, Kagami-kun?” he asks.

 

His face scrunches up indignantly, and he headbutts Kuroko in retaliation. He doesn’t pull back afterwards, though, keeping their foreheads pressed together. It’s surprisingly intimate. His eyes slip closed and he sighs, equal parts exasperated and begrudgingly fond. Kuroko closes his own and hums at the pleasant warmth where their bodies touch. 

 

“You should get some rest,” Kagami mutters reluctantly.

 

Kuroko hums back his agreement. “Will you join me?” he asks, suddenly feeling bold. 

 

Kagami makes a choked sound in the back of his throat and he feels the heat radiate off of his cheeks in a way that Kuroko didn’t think physically possible. “S-Someone’s gotta stick to guard duty. Especially with how persistent they’re starting to get out there,” he manages, voice reedy. 

 

Still, he doesn’t move just yet. His forearms are braced on both sides of Kuroko’s head, shielding them both off from everything. The stars, the trees, the shadows lurking somewhere in the distance. It’s just them for now, breathing each other’s air, feeling their pulses beat against each other in arhythmic patterns, sharing body heat in the cool night. Kagami makes a few aborted attempts to move, guilty noises forming in the back of his throat as Kuroko cards his hands through his short hair in short strokes. For a few minutes they linger like that.

 

Still, eventually Kagami sucks in a long breath and pushes himself away. Despite himself, a low whine threatens to escape him, but Kuroko keeps it in check. He wants to follow after the man, but he feels very tired all of a sudden. Maybe the kiss had dragged the last of his already dwindling energy from him. He watches Kagami rise up on stiff legs and stretch before grabbing his sword to sit down on one of the fallen trees lining the campsite. Kuroko curls up onto one side to watch the steady rise and fall of his shoulders. It’s calming, and he smiles to himself, savoring the pleased tingle in his lips and skin as the sight lulls him to sleep.

 

Beep

 

Then, just as he’s drifting off, there it is again, somewhere above the breath of the wind through the leaves. While it’s been there this whole time, a steady constant at the back of his mind, it occurs to him he’s never brought it up. Then again, is it truly there, or just another figment of his imagination, like Aomine’s voice had been? “Kagami-kun,” he murmurs sleepily. “Do you hear that?”

 

“Hear what?”

 

“The beeping,” his voice comes out sleep-hazy and soft. “You told me to tell you if I hear things I’m not certain are real. Do you hear it too?”  

 

Kagami doesn’t turn to him, but the tense line of his back is telling. His arms come up to latch onto the baldric, which hitches the scabbard further up the stalwart line of his back. “Yeah,” he mutters, barely loud enough for Kuroko to hear. “Most people do.”

 

“What is it?” The words trail off on a yawn. He can already feel sleep take him, but even so he can’t shake the small, anxious feeling twisting in his gut.

 

Kagami sighs, reaching down to thread his fingers between Kuroko’s. Kuroko looks up at him through his lashes, lids already heavy. Kagami’s eyes look soft and guilty. “Go to bed, Kuroko.”

 

And, try as he might to fight it, he does.

 

 

_______________________

 

 

It comes as a surprise to Kuroko when he wakes the next morning and finds himself still surrounded by birdsongs and high-reaching trees. 

 

He’d been almost certain that this would be the night he’d wake up from this strange dream-spell. Dreams always seemed to work like that, coming to an end just as things start to click into place and turn vivid, almost real. Kissing Kagami had seemed like the natural climax to a dream that would end before any resolution would be reached, and he’d been steeling himself for it. Now, however, he sits up to find his senses assaulted with the warm smell of fresh oatmeal and wild-berries and can only think of how glad he is that it hadn’t.

 

Kagami glances up at him with wide, startled eyes, a spoon shoved comedically into the hollow of his cheek. Before he can even finish garbling out the words ‘good morning’ around it, Kuroko is already laughing airily into his fist. 

 

That’s how their morning starts, and the tone of it seems to bleed into everything they do as they pack up camp. Kuroko’s chest feels light, his eyes bright, and he’s pleased to find that the constant crick in his neck—related to stress from his school-work, he’s sure—is nowhere to be found. 

 

That’s why it comes off as odd that Kagami suddenly seems so stiff. It’s not obvious at first, since he also seems light on his feet and there’s a faint dusting of red on his cheeks that won’t go away, but his smiles don’t reach his eyes like they did before. There’s something tight in his expression, and he seems antsier than ever, even though he tries to mask it as giddiness.

 

They walk for a few hours, chatting and making furtive glances at each other. It’s all a bit ridiculous, Kuroko thinks. He feels like the genre trope of a middle-schooler, awkwardly working around the lightness in his chest and the heat in his cheekbones. Kagami is… distracting, for lack of a better word. Kuroko keeps catching small little details about him, both things that he’d discovered last night and new things, like the way his nose scrunches up when he frowns and the wheezing squeak to his laughter that’s somehow endearing and not strange. He’s not sure how he managed to dream up someone this vivid, this lifelike.

 

Shaking his head to clear his thoughts, he looks out into the woods, but something catches his eye. He slows his steps. Somewhere off in the distance there’s a faint glimmer of light. “The woods are thinning out,” he murmurs, squinting his eyes to try to see more clearly.

 

“Right,” Kagami says, punctuating the word with a short nod. “Not much longer now.”

 

Kuroko turns back to him. “Until the trailhead?”

 

“Yeah. We should reach there by sunset,” he calls over his shoulder, and there’s an edge to his voice that Kuroko can’t place.

 

Kuroko’s head tilts to the side. A thought occurs to him, and he quickens his pace so he can sidle up next to Kagami. “What happens when we reach the end?” He’s fairly certain the end of the path means waking up. After all, he’s not blind. He’s seen the hints and clues. Even so the thought—while logical—sours his stomach.

 

When he looks up, Kagami is staring down at him with wide eyes. The redhead blinks, then abruptly turns his head forward again. “There’s, um, I mean there’s a town where you can probably get in contact with your friends or family.” He shrugs, the baldric slipping down his shoulder slightly. “We’ll figure it out when we get there.”

 

Kuroko huffs lightly and turns ahead himself. Maybe this is part of the mechanics of the dream, to try to avoid any mention of the reality of it and draw him deeper into the strange folklore his own mind has created. It’s strange, really; he’s never been so self-aware of a dream before, and it’s somewhat unsettling to feel so lacking in control when it’s his own headspace to begin with. Still another part of him kind of enjoys it. It’s a story being mapped out for him, the same kind of thrill that came to him in reading books as a child. It’s nostalgic, in a way. Maybe the best term for it is wanderlust.

 

What genre would he classify this dream as? Adventure? Mystery? His eyes flit up to the redhead, and a wry smile tugs at his lips. Romance? A short, amused laugh breezes out of him, causing Kagami to jerk his head to the side and regard him curiously.

 

“What’re you laughing at?” he asks, hiking his pack further up his left shoulder. One of his eyebrows arches up suspiciously, while his mouth presses together into a small frown, and the movement catches Kuroko’s eye. Kagami notices where his gaze is settled and unconsciously licks his lips, but that only causes Kuroko to stare more. The moment lingers for a few seconds too long, and just as Kuroko starts to move forward, Kagami clears his throat and jerks his head forward. Kuroko does the same with a more subtle, but no-less-awkward cough.

 

Silence, only broken by the sound of gravel crunching under their feet. “What will you do when we get there?” Kuroko asks a few seconds later. He’s curious to get an answer out of Kagami, but a thought sends a chill down his spine: is Kagami also nothing but a figment of the dream? 

 

Kagami doesn't say anything at first, but then he lets out a ragged sigh and reaches up a hand to ruffle into his hair. “Dunno yet. I could, um, grab some supplies while I’m there, maybe.”

 

“You could keep me company,” Kuroko says quietly. He doesn’t miss the way Kagami’s gaze goes startled, then softens. 

 

The redhead sends him a small half-smile, but it doesn’t reach his eyes. “Yeah, I could do that too.”

 

“I’d appreciate that,” Kuroko replies. He tries to manage his own smile, but even that doesn’t feel quite real. A pang of sadness hits him. It’s a dream, he tries to remind himself, and all dreams end

 

Kagami’s hand brushes against his, pinky against pinky, somehow making the pain both better and worse.

 

Beep

_______________________

 

 

“–only fifteen more seconds on the clock and so I set up to take the shot, right? But then Espinol comes in to guard me, catches his shoelace or something, and does a face-plant right into my stomach, which sends us both down hard onto the court.”

 

Kuroko manages a chuckle, but it feels a bit lackluster. The mood of the day has steadily sobered since the morning. Even as he tries to make conversation now the edge in Kagami’s tone and stance hasn’t left, though he’s done his best trying to mask it thus far. Kuroko appreciates the effort, but  he can’t help the sudden dread he feels low in his stomach as he gazes sidelong at Kagami through his bangs.

 

There are so many small things about Kagami that he keeps noticing that feel off, like they’re almost too real. The pale scar on the underside of his elbow where he said he’d nicked himself during a rock climbing trip in middle school. The dark spots on the curve of his cheekbones, old acne scars from adolescence scattered among a faint dusting of freckles. And it’s not just his physical appearance either, but the detail to his stories is staggering when Kuroko carefully reminds himself that this is all just a dream. 

 

“–swear I had a bruise the size of Texas plastered across my face for a month.”

 

It is just a dream, isn’t it?

 

Beep

 

Kuroko’s eye twitches against the faint throb at his right temple. He scrunches his face up a bit to relieve some of the pain. “I’m sure it was quite a sight,” he says in a deadpan.

 

“Best part?” A sharp canine flashes when he grins. “We had an interview the next day for a March Madness preview spread. The photographer looked like she was going to have a heart attack when she got a look at me.” Then he pauses, brow creasing in thought. “Come to think of it I never got to see the shot in the end.”

 

Kuroko looks up at him curiously. “Were you that eager to see yourself? Some might call that vain, Kagami-kun.”

 

His cheeks flush to match his hair. “No,” he sputters, “It’s not like that, I mean…,” His mouth clicks shut and he pulls a face. Then, muttered with embarrassment, “It was a big deal to me, y’know? It was my first year on the roster and already I’m showing up in a popular magazine where our team is gonna be the main story, so… it would’ve been a cool souvenir, I guess.”

 

One of his hands reaches up to rub the back of his neck, something Kuroko’s come to notice is an embarrassed habit of his. He files that away with all of the other small, trivial details he’s noticed. Kuroko smiles softly to himself and asks, “Why didn’t you get the chance to see it?”

 

Kagami kicks his leg out and sends a rock skidding down the path ahead of them. “Because I got stuck in this place instead, that’s why,” he grumbles. 

 

The words take Kuroko aback. “Stuck?” he parrots. That’s not exactly the feeling he’d gotten from Kagami earlier. Coming here on his own was one thing, but being stuck here? That is certainly an entirely different circumstance. 

 

The redhead’s eyes go wide and he takes a sharp breath in through his nose. “Metaphorically, I mean,” he amends. “I was… stuck with Tatsuya. He needed someone out here with him and god knows he was useless without me.”

 

“I thought it was the other way around.”

 

“Only when it came to schoolwork,” he replies. “Tatsuya… asked me to come with him and I did. That’s…,” a pause. Then, somewhat distantly, he says, “That’s what brothers do for each other.”

 

A steady ache starts to build in Kuroko’s temples. Something about that doesn’t sit right with him. The tense coil of Kagami’s body hasn’t lessened, but grown tighter instead. Although his shoulders have slackened in an attempt to look casual, one of his hands has crawled up to grip the baldric, twisting the fabric between his fingers. Another detail Kuroko knows too well already, and it’s too real, too real

 

“What was that, your freshman year?” Kuroko asks, trying to keep his voice cool.

 

Kagami shakes his head. “No, sophomore. I had to work to get myself noticed that first year.”

 

“Then… you never graduated?”

 

“Not yet,” he says, then seems to catch himself on something. “Ah, I mean, no.”

 

“So you dropped out?”

 

Kagami turns to him, an eyebrow quirked up in challenge. “Alright, I know I’m not the brightest looking guy, but give me some credit.” He chews his lip. “I didn’t drop out, I just… I had to take a break half way through the year.” 

 

The statement causes Kuroko to pause for a moment to sort out some details. It dawns on him slowly, the feeling like something is off about the timeline of events. He’s felt it before, he realizes, but he never followed through. Odd.

 

“Wait… did you and Himuro-kun move out here before you finished university?”

 

“Out here?” Kagami asks, turning to face Kuroko.

 

Kuroko blinks up at him, brow furrowed slightly. “To this forest,” he supplies, lightly waving his hand at their surroundings.

 

“Ah…,” is all Kagami says. After a moment he makes a sort of strained sound in the back of his throat. “I mean… so, it was more of a spur of the moment decision. To come out here. It happened between semesters, I think?” Then, in a quiet voice to himself. “God, that feels like ages ago…”

 

Kuroko’s frown draws down deeper. “It was that long ago?”

 

“Yeah, I mean maybe?” Kagami replies. His voice is suddenly gruffer, a bit more defensive. He reaches his hand up and scratches at his chest, fingers looking like they’re itching for something. “Like I said, I lost track of time.”

 

Beep

 

“I don’t believe you,” Kuroko says. The words come out barbed, and the redhead looks at him, startled. “Kagami-kun, how old are you?”

 

Beep

 

Kagami looks at him suspiciously, though there’s a sort of apprehension lingering in his eyes. “Why are you asking?”

 

Kagami-kun.”

 

“I…,” he falters. Tries to pass it off with a shrug. “I don’t know.”

 

Beep

 

Kuroko’s head throbs, and it only makes his conviction stronger. It feels like he’s teetering right on the edge of something big, something important. “No you do. You said so yourself earlier: you’re around my age…,” he says, voice hardening. “And you said you went to university, but you made it sound like it was years ago. Now you’re saying that you were a second year when you left, but that doesn’t make sense because you’re my age. That’s not possible if you’ve been here for ten years like you said in the cabin.” His chest is starting to tingle with something dark and cold. “Why didn’t I realize that sooner,” he breathes to himself.

 

Kagami is starting to fidget. He drags a hand through his hair like he’s exasperated, but there’s a nervous tension in the movement. His eyes look panicked. “Look, I probably said it felt like it’s been ten and I was exaggerating. Just let it go.”

 

“No,” Kuroko says firmly. “No, you’ve been making mistakes like that this whole time.” The more he digs into that idea, the worse the ringing in his ears gets, but he can’t back off just yet. Not when he’s so close to figuring something out. Something important. An idea dawns on him. “You’re lying to me… you’ve been lying to me.”

 

Kagami’s hands tense around the baldric at his chest. “I’m not lying.”

 

Another shrill, resounding beep. This time it doesn’t go back to its staccato rhythm, instead elongating into a high, piercing ringing. Kuroko cringes, screwing his eyes shut against the intrusive sound. 

 

“Well you’re certainly not telling the truth,” he snaps, pain getting the best of him. “Lying by omission is still a lie.”

 

Kagami goes quiet, but he keeps his stance tall and proud, even though he won’t look directly at Kuroko. “Fine… Fine, all right? I may have left some things out, but I swear that it’s nothing you need to know so just drop it for n–”

 

“When the Wisp caught you,” Kuroko says, speaking over Kagami’s attempts to quiet him down and the pain licking its way from his head to the rest of his body. “You said something then about protecting me from the truth.” He turns on Kagami, eyes sharp like daggers. “You were going to tell me but you passed out and… and I never followed up on it after we kis–”

 

He shuts his mouth firmly before he can finish, but he catches Kagami’s guilty wince and the way his tongue darts out to swipe across his lips. Ice crawls into his chest. Tension seeps out of his body and his shoulders sag. Then, “Was that a lie too? 

 

Kagami stiffens, and Kuroko takes a bold step forward in retaliation. “Were you… indulging me this whole time so that I wouldn’t keep talking? So I wouldn’t ask more questions?”

 

To his credit, Kagami recoils like Kuroko’s words had actually struck him. “Are you serious?” His face falls, and he chokes out, “God, Kuroko, that’s fucked up. What kind of person do you think I am?”

 

There’s pain in Kagami’s eyes, honest and betrayed. It causes Kuroko’s chest to constrict because of course not, of course he doesn’t want to believe that, and yet… still. “I…,” he starts, voice cracking slightly. “I don’t know. I don’t know anything about what kind of person you are.”

 

The tension slowly seeps from Kagami’s shoulders and they slump back down. His stance crumbles until he looks small and vulnerable. Defeated. He takes a step back to distance himself from Kuroko. “No,” he says softly, but his expression is hard as if to shutter away the pain. “That wasn’t a lie. None of it was.”

 

The sincerity in his words makes Kuroko’s heart thud painfully in his chest. Still, he has to ignore it, or else he won’t get anywhere. He closes his eyes and takes a deep, shuddering breath, “Prove it to me,” he says. “What were you going to say to me when the Wisp got you?”

 

Kagami is quiet for a long pause. He searches Kuroko’s face for something, but Kuroko won’t give him an inch. He takes a deep breath and matches Kuroko’s defiant stare. “No,” is all he says in return. 

 

“Kagami-kun,” Kuroko says, voice dangerously low.

 

No.” The words come out cold and firm. “It’ll only make it worse.”

 

A frustrated noise escapes him. “It will only make what worse?”

 

“The pain, alright?” Kagami snaps, but then he softens. His eyes slide away from Kuroko. “Not just the physical pain, but the emotional stuff too. Once you open that can of worms you can’t shut it back up.”

 

Kuroko’s eyes narrow further. “You can’t keep me in the dark forever.”

 

“I could if you’d just let me,” he growls, going hot again and stepping into Kuroko’s space to take his shoulders in his hands. His grip is firm but still gentle. He bends down to look Kuroko directly in the eyes. His tone is clipped but his eyes are gentle. “I wouldn’t do this if I knew you were better off knowing, but you’re not. You don’t want to know, and you don’t need to know.”

“You don’t get to decide that for me.” Kuroko counters as he roughly shakes Kagami’s hands off of his shoulders and steps back on wobbling legs. His heel hits the edge of the path, grass tickling at his ankles. His head throbs. “I wish I could believe you but the more you tell me to stop thinking about it the more everything seems to fall apart.” His body suddenly feels cold and numb, head spinning. “Things aren’t adding up and I can’t make heads or tails of anything here. Least of all you, and you were the one thing I was most certain about!” 

 

He tries to hold Kagami’s gaze but the pain in his head is too much. He brings a hand up to his throbbing temples and squeezes his eyes shut, taking a small step back. “And, god, why won’t that incessant noise just stop.”

 

Kagami suddenly goes tense. When he speaks, he does so cautiously. “Kuroko, careful.”

 

That causes Kuroko to open his eyes again. “Or what? A Wisp will take me?” He laughs, and it comes out harsh and biting. “What is the danger in that, anyway? You’ve somehow told me so much without telling me anything at all!”

 

His body feels foreign, like he’s not really there, like a part of him is watching everything play out from miles away. He knows the words coming out of him are his, but his mouth feels cottony and dry and his limbs hollow and light. It’s like the pain has burned its way through him so much that he’s become completely numb. It’s like ice in his veins, causing him to shiver violently. There’s a stirring in the biting hollowness, though. A drive.

 

… starting to crash… 

 

His breath hitches. Voices again. Barely audible over the ringing, but there.

 

ngerouseeeeeeeely low… someone get meeeeeeeee…

 

The ringing clashes against the voices, fighting to overtake it and it hurts. God, does it hurt.

 

Kagami takes a slow step forward towards him, panic apparent in his wide, red eyes. “Hey… hey, don’t listen to whatever they’re saying.” He must have seen something on Kuroko’s face to give it away. “Remember what I said, it’s not real.”

 

A laugh startles out of his chest. “I’m not sure any of this is,” he says, a touch of sad, scared mania in his voice.

 

eeeeeeeevels dropping, I need teeeeeeeeeeeehe’s not reeeeeeeeeeeee

 

I’m real!” Kagami pleads. Kuroko can barely hear anything above the cacophony in his head, but he thinks Kagami might sound scared. “I know you don’t want to believe me, but it’s true. Look, we’re almost at the end of the path, Kuroko. You have to trust me.”

 

His head pounds again. For all that the rest of his body is numb, his head flares in pain, like there’s a vice on his head that’s being screwed tighter and tighter. The voices are getting louder, echoing and overlapping. It’s absolutely maddening.

 

Kagami reaches out to him. “Please.”

 

He has to get away. 

 

Kuroko’s whole body shivers in the intense cold in his veins and he overbalances, tipping backwards until his feet crunch against twigs and grass. With one foot off, he suddenly feels a draw, an ache to go keep going deeper into the shadows of the forest. He stumbles back one step, then another, until he lets go and lets his body take him. As he turns around to run, he catches Kagami’s face, stricken and terrified, and for a moment there’s a throbbing warmth in his chest, a sensation that pulls at his heartstrings and fights against the pull to lead him back. It’s not enough to fight the tide, though, and with a turn of his head Kagami is gone and all there is is deep, infinite forest.

 

And he runs. He runs and runs until there is nothing but the wind rush around him and the chaotic echoes in his head. The scenery smears together at the edges of his vision as he whips by, until he can’t tell the difference between the dark evergreens and the shadows no doubt looming after him. He has to find the end to it, he has to know that there is some answer out here for him to find. The desperate drive for some control of his own is all that keeps him moving, even as his muscles and bones scream in protest.

 

Then, there… the trees thin out ahead of him, sudden light breaking through the foliage. The cacophony in his head has him dizzy and his legs feel ready to shatter, but he pushes himself desperately through the burn spreading through his entire body. With a final burst of energy, he stumbles past the last tree, gasping for breath but throwing himself into the open with all that he has.

 

The world goes silent, save for one, lone

 

Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep

 

Past the limits of the forest is an open cliff. There are no barriers lining the ridge, and in his rush to stop himself his one foot catches the other and he trips, tumbling to the ground. His body is on fire, yet paradoxically he’s overcome with a bitter cold that bites deep into him. Every inch of him feels like it’s about to split open, and his vision is spotty. He allows himself to lay there and catch a few wheezing breaths before he tries to lift himself up on shaking arms. It hurts, god does it hurt, but he has to know, has to see what’s out here. 

 

When he finally sits forward and looks out, it’s like everything comes to a stop all at once.

 

Beep

 

The cliff overlooks a gaping ravine that reaches so far he can’t see an end. The rock-face stretches out beside him in both directions, curving around and extending off into the distance, obscured by heavy fog. Further down he can see water running in large cascading waterfalls off into the abyss, and though he can’t see the bottom he can see the swirling, powerful mists billowing up from its depth. The massive cloud is ever-shifting. It catches the waning sunlight that lingers on the horizon just ahead of him in fractals. The sky above him is painted in deep shades of red and orange, while below the chasm is a sea of dark blues and purples, all melding into one where the horizon meets. It’s incredible, unbelievably beautiful, and enough to stop his breathing and latch his heart in a powerful vice. 

 

Beep

 

He raises himself on trembling legs to get a better view, and faced with the image in full, it’s as if something suddenly clicks into place. A cog settling itself back into place.

 

Behind him he hears Kagami break out of the forest. “Kuroko!” he cries, but the frantic edge to his voice dies as he trails off, coming to a slow stop somewhere behind him. 

 

The swirl of clouds and mist is mesmerizing. The bright ochre of the setting sun swirls together with the dark indigo blue of the water and it’s so… peaceful. Kuroko feels his pulse slow and his muscles relax and everything goes oddly still. His mind feels clear and calm, transfixed on this moment in time, and his chest feels paradoxically like it’s both expanding infinitely and clenching under the weight of everything. Each breath runs deep in his lungs, and he feels infinite.

 

They stay there in silence for what could have been seconds, minutes, or hours. Kuroko’s not sure. It’s quiet save for the deep panting breaths the both of them take and the sound of distant, rushing water. Neither of them breaks the peaceful quiet of the moment, though Kuroko can feel the bowstring tight thread of tension running between them.

 

“You know,” he says dreamily, the words spilling from his mouth without him prompting them. “Now that I think about it, when you asked me about my favorite novels on that first day, I wasn’t entirely honest. There was another story that I favored when I was younger, but I suppose that I’ve read so many that I somehow forgot about it.”

 

Kagami doesn’t say anything, but Kuroko knows he’s listening.

 

The winds paint pastel brush strokes across the clouds so that the colors begin to bleed together until he can’t tell where one starts and the other begins. “Did you ever read Night on the Galactic Road, Kagami-kun?”

 

“No,” there’s Kagami’s voice. He’s uncharacteristically quiet. Then, after a pause, “Is it good?”

 

“I thought so.” A small chuckle escapes Kuroko, springing forth from his chest to his own surprise. “Honestly, I can’t believe I forgot about it. It’s about a boy and his friend traversing the Milky Way on a steam-engine train. I know it sounds a bit whimsical, but I always liked the wanderlust it inspired.”

 

Kuroko steps forward, closer to the edge. Wildflowers tickle his exposed ankles, and he crouches down to pluck one between his thumb and forefinger. “Giovanni, the main character, is a young boy who struggles to make ends meet for his sick mother after his father leaves on an expedition. He has a friend, a boy named Campanella, who stays by his side even though their classmates ridicule and ostracize Giovanni for his father’s disappearance.”

 

Letting himself sit down completely, Kuroko folds his fingers into the soft wildflowers. He brings one knee up to rest his chin on as he gazes out into the swirling blanket of clouds. “There’s a stargazing festival one night, but Giovanni cannot go because he must care for his mother. He tells Campanella to enjoy the festival on his own, and that he’ll join him if he gets the chance. When he finally finishes his chores, it’s quite late, so he hikes to the top of a hill to stargaze on his own.” Kuroko waves a hand up above his head to the dusty pink sky above him. “Suddenly a large train appears from the sky, and stops to allow him on board. Inside is Campanella, who tells him he’d just come from the festival.” Kuroko frowns, falling into the narration. “He’s wet, but when Giovanni asks him why he says he does not know. He doesn’t ask further, since they’re both content to relax and enjoy the journey.”

 

Kagami does not interrupt him, but Kuroko can hear his steady breathing behind him. He has proven to be such an avid listener during their journey. Kuroko smiles fondly to himself, burying his face against his knee. “They travel through the galaxy together, traveling to different stars and exploring the worlds they hold. Still, Giovanni begins to notice something is off. He begins to notice that the passengers coming aboard all have something in common, even though he doesn’t want to acknowledge it. The train makes a stop at the Southern Cross, and all of the passengers leave the train one by one until only he and Campanella remain. Campanella tells him that he should leave, but Giovanni convinces him to stay so they can ride the train to the end together. And they try, but eventually Campanella disappears, and Giovanni wakes up on the same hill he’d left from, all alone.”

 

The swirl of colors ahead of him has settled into a deep indigo, speckled with whispers of pastel. It looks like its own Milky Way, in a way. The wind licks up over the cliffside and sets his hair fluttering. He takes a shuddering breath. “Kagami-kun, are you my Campanella?” 

 

Kagami is quiet, but his confusion hangs in the air.

 

Beep

 

“No,” Kuroko breathes, rising from the ground, “Perhaps I am yours.”

 

Kuroko slowly pulls his gaze from the abyss and turns to his guide. He feels the mist swirl around him, dotting the skin wetly and sending gooseflesh up his arms, and he reaches up to tuck a loose strand of hair out of his eyes so he can better look at the man. Kagami’s stance is rigid, jaw tight, and there’s sorrowful resignation in his gaze.

 

Beep

 

“Please promise me you’ll answer this one question, no matter what the answer is,”  he says tiredly. “Please, no more lies.”

 

Kagami hesitates, eyes boring into Kuroko with an intensity that makes him swallow, but eventually he nods.

 

Beep

 

Kuroko smiles at him, eyes watery but heart light. 

 

“Am I dead?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beep

 

Kagami’s face crumples and his breath rushes out of him on a long, punched-out exhale.

 

“No,” he says, voice shuddering. “Not yet. That’s up to you.”

 

And there it is.

 

Somewhere in the back of his mind Kuroko registers that this revelation should affect him more than it does. And to an extent, it certainly does do something to him. He nods heavily, feeling the sudden thud of his heart as it rattles in his chest, as well as the sensation of his stomach twisting in his gut. He shivers with the cold, numbing chill that follows, and yet… and yet, mentally he just feels… nothing

 

“Kuroko…,” Kagami says carefully as he takes a cautious step forward. 

 

Kuroko’s chin slips down to rest against his chest and he stares down at the swaying wildflowers brushing against his ankles. 

 

“Look, I– shit, I didn’t want you to find out, especially like this. I’ll explain everything to you, I promise,” he hears Kagami say. “But you have to come back onto the path with me.”

 

Kuroko’s head rolls heavily up to one side to look at the man. His eyes feel so tired all of a sudden. “Why?”

 

The redhead’s lips purse together and his leg jostles, suddenly anxious. His hands are balled into shaking fists at his side. “Because, we can’t stay out here much longer.”

 

Can’t they? Hmm. His head feels so fuzzy. Every fiber of his being feels so light, but paradoxically his feet feel like lead weights beneath him. “I don’t want to move,” he murmurs, eyes trailing over to gaze at the shimmering, darkening sunset beyond the cliff’s edge. 

 

“Kuroko, I know you don’t, but you have to try.” He says, voice quieter than Kuroko’s ever heard it and just short of pleading. “Can you please just listen to me?”

 

He could, but something sounds so wrong. Like an odd timbre to the redhead’s words. It sounds sharp, off key, while everything else around him seems to be in such harmony. He closes his eyes and listens to the rustle of the wind through the grass and the roar of water from below. This… this sounds calm, peaceful. Right. 

 

He absently registers Kagami calling his name, but he can’t be bothered to respond. He turns into the breeze and his eyes flutter open again. It really is just so breathtakingly beautiful. The scenery here is so otherworldly and vivid, like nothing he’s ever seen before and nothing he ever will again. He wants to melt into it, to let go of all of the tension and stress, to let himself sink into the billowing mist below…

 

A hand grips his wrist and he starts, blinking the thick haze away from his mind. The gorge seems so much closer than before, and it takes him a moment to realize that that’s because it is. From where he stands he’s only a scant step away from the drop-off. When did he get so close to the edge? 

 

Shaking the dreamlike film from his mind, he turns to where his hand is being pulled back behind him and there is Kagami, knuckles white around his wrist and breath shallow. It’s almost hard to recognize through the fog of his mind, but Kagami’s face is contorted somewhere between frustration and cold terror. “Please,” he says, voice ragged. “We have to go.”

 

Kuroko turns around slowly. He looks down to where Kagami holds him in a vice grip and lets the fingers of his other hand carefully trace the ridges of the young man’s knuckles one by one. “I don’t want to move,” he repeats, voice soft but more aware, more confused. It’s not a statement, but a question. Why doesn’t he?

 

Kagami’s breathing is labored, and his hand feels clammy against Kuroko’s skin. It’s like he’s exerting some force that Kuroko can’t see. “I know,” he says, shakily. Then, more firmly, “I know. I feel it too, and that’s why we have to move. Trust me.”

 

With the haze receding from his thoughts, he realizes that yes, that’s what he should be doing. Kagami knows the way out of the forest. Kagami, whose large, trembling hand feels like an anchor on not only Kuroko’s body, but his mind. Kagami, who is staring at Kuroko with such desperate intensity, even as his body quivers with obvious strain. Kagami is doing this for him. 

 

So Kuroko nods lazily, lifting his leadened feet with slow but purposeful effort and following the strong line of Kagami’s back. He trains his eyes on the tiger head pommel, golden and worn, as it jostles with every step he takes. He watches the waning light shimmer across it until it fades away in the shadow of the forest.

 

They walk and walk, and the light grows dim as it struggles to break through the canopy. The fog is still there in the back of his mind, making the world drunk-hazy and quiet around him, but it fades with each step that they take. He tries to focus his attention on something to bring him back. The obvious distraction is the warm hand wrapped loosely around his forearm, a contrast to the chill in his bones. The callused pads of Kagami’s fingers rub against the sensitive underside of his wrist as they walk, keeping a steady rhythm that is easy for Kuroko to fall in sync with. By the time they reach the path again, his head is clear. Clear of fog, clear of voices, and clear of that incessant mechanical beeping. 

 

It’s hard to tell whether the sounds before were more deafening than the current silence, he thinks, as Kagami leads him to a set of waist-high boulders and seats himself on one tiredly. Kuroko follows suit, watching in owlish silence as Kagami lowers his pack to the ground and puts his head in his hands. It’s quiet, save for the scattered night-cries of a blackbird or two in the distance, but Kuroko’s not exactly sure what to say. There’s probably an apology necessary here, but Kagami looks so tired, and to be honest Kuroko hardly has the energy to speak himself. Instead, he tilts his head back, leaning onto his arms as he stares up at the sky through the canopy. Nothing but clouds tonight. 

 

“The Verge,” Kagami says suddenly. He sounds a bit hoarse, and Kuroko looks back at him curiously. 

 

Kagami has one eye fixed on him, head still tucked into his palms, but he nods out to the trees looming above them. “This place,” he elaborates, “Alex called it the Verge.”

 

Kuroko thinks over that for a moment. “What is it supposed to be?” he asks quietly.

 

Kagami’s eye flicks downwards again. He studies the ground as he chooses his words. “Something like an in-between. ‘Like the edge of everything,’ she used to say. ‘Life and death’ and all of that mumbo-jumbo.”

 

“Purgatory,” Kuroko whispers. 

 

“That’s what Tatsuya called it too, but she didn’t like that name too much.” The redhead lets out a soft snort. “It doesn’t quite cut it, most of all because it’s not like we’re dead. Well, not yet, anyway.”

 

The usage of that word—dead—causes Kuroko to visibly shudder. It suddenly sounds so much more real when he puts it like that, actually using the words instead of veiling his speech so much. “If we’re not dead, then what are we?”

 

Kagami turns his head in his hands so that he actually faces Kuroko. “Depends. You could be a lot of things, but my guess is you’re probably comatose. The people who are fading in and out of consciousness are usually a lot more scatter-brained and not-all-here.”

 

“Comatose?” Kuroko parrots in slight disbelief. Then, suddenly a thought occurs to him. “Of course,” he says. “The beeping.”

 

It’s funny how he hadn’t realized the sound for what it was sooner. Kagami sends him a weak smile and taps his chest with two fingers, right above his heart. “Spill-over from out there. Same thing with the voices.”

 

Out there. As if that explains anything. Kuroko shakes his head, confused. “I don’t understand,” he says. “This… the Verge, are you saying this is all just a dream?” It’s funny how that thought was comforting up until a few hours ago. Now, the thought of waking up sours his gut.

 

Kagami’s smile twists at the edges and he shrugs noncommittally. “No, at least I don’t think so. Or if it is, it’s done a damn good job of hiding it. I mean you’ve felt it too, right? Try to tell me it hasn’t felt some kind of real to you.” 

 

Real. Kuroko thinks of the old, worn-book smell in the dusty corner of the bungalow. He thinks of the heavy, hearty weight of stew in his belly and the cool tickling of grass against his ankles. He thinks of the warm wetness of lips peppering his jawline and asymmetric heartbeats pounding against pressed together skin. He thinks of Kagami’s hand encircling his own.

 

“Yes,” he mutters, looking down and rubbing at his wrists. “It does seem too real to be just a dream.”

 

Kagami studies Kuroko’s hands as they skim over the skin, then after a beat he continues. “The Verge is, shit what’s the word… malleable.” Kagami raises his arm and twirls it in the air absently. “The environment, the Wisps, they all shuffle around depending on who’s here. The only thing that stays constant is the path.”

 

That piques Kuroko’s interest. “Is that what you meant when the Observer attacked you? You said it was because of me that it was so intelligent.”

 

“Coming from you it sort of sounds like you’re bragging,” Kagami says, faintly amused. He smiles a bit, but it’s too tired to be fully comforting. At least he’s trying. “But yeah, that’s my working theory, anyway. You’re crafty, sneaky. I think that eventually bled over to them the more you interacted with them.”

 

Kuroko tilts his head. “So what is it that they get from you?”

 

The man makes a contemplative noise at the back of his throat. “Probably nothing anymore. You stay here  in the Verge for long enough you start to build up defenses to it and shape it. Alex said eventually it shapes you as well, but who knows what that means.” He looks up and catches Kuroko’s concerned face and tries to assuage him. “It’s not as bad as it seems. You also start being able to think up the things that you need when you need them.”

 

“That explains all the things in your cabin, I suppose,” Kuroko says absently.

 

“Yeah,” he murmurs. His eyes go soft with what looks like nostalgia. “Yeah, they were… well, the books were mostly Alex and Tatsuya’s.” His lips twitch up in a small, sad smile. “They were the better read ones. I spent most of my time at the kiln or in the kitchen on their orders. As the only one’s here, we had to find our own way to keep ourselves entertained.” 

 

The only ones here? “So then that thing you said about the farmer living outside the woods?”

 

Kagami sighs, slumping down further into his hands and digging fingers into his temples. “A lie. I just needed a cover to explain away how all that food just popped up.” Then, belatedly. “Sorry.” 

 

A soft laugh breathes out of Kuroko. “All this time I thought you were a talented chef only to now find out it was all a farce. How disappointing.”

 

Kagami shoots him a withering look. “Hey give me some credit. I may think up the ingredients, but that cooking was one-hundred percent real deal.” He pauses, then huffs tiredly. “Well, as real as anything, anyway.”

 

“What does ‘real’ even mean here?” 

 

Kagami shrugs. “Well, I think it’s kind of like our minds are tightrope-walking between our crapped-out bodies and just moving on. A world in between sounds crazy when you say it out loud, but it’s hard to deny when you really look at everything.” 

 

There’s an edge to Kagami’s voice that twists his gut, but he’s vowed to figure out his situation and that means not backing down from his questions. “What do you mean by moving on?”

 

A long, ragged sigh spills from Kagami’s lips. He sits up then, spine steadily straightening out and hands coming down to his knees to brace himself. His eyes are deathly serious, and they bore into Kuroko, warming the chill settling over his body just barely. “The Verge is a trial for those of us stuck in limbo. You start at point A and have to move to point B without giving in to all the things around you. It tests you and pits you against tasks like the Wisps if you go off the path to make sure you really want it. Deserve it, even.”

 

Kuroko matches his stare. “Want what?”

 

“To go back. To keep on living,” Kagami says, as blithely as if he were talking about the weather. Nonetheless, the words cause Kuroko to shiver again.

 

He rolls that idea around in his head, thinking it over. Going back. It’s a strange thought; for all that this trip to the woods has seemed like only four days, who knows how long he’s actually been resting back in the real world. Time seems to work strangely here. How long has Kagami been here?

 

Eventually, he says, quite plainly, “What if I want to stay here?”

 

Kagami goes stiff, shoulders squaring and hands going tense on his thighs. “You don’t,” is all he says, voice small. Still, there’s a tension to it.

 

“Why not?” 

 

His face twists up and he makes an annoyed sort of growl. “You’ve seen this place. It’s dangerous. You give in to the pull and go wandering off the path, then either Wisps get you or you throw yourself off the edge. That’s just what happens to people.”

 

“It didn’t happen to you.” Kuroko retorts.

 

“Not yet, anyway,” Kagami replies. “But it almost has, and it’s not worth risking it.”

 

Kuroko’s lips purse together and his brow furrows. “Then why do you stay here?”

 

Kagami opens his mouth to answer, but second guesses himself. He closes it, chewing over his words with a strained restlessness. “It’s not like I want to,” he grumbles. His eyes seem to stare through Kuroko off into the distance. “I have to.”

 

Kuroko tilts his head to the side. “Why?”

 

The man’s face darkens. “It’s none of your business.”

 

“Fine,” Kuroko says shortly. “But you still haven’t given me a reason for not staying here.”

 

“Kuroko.” It comes out like a warning.

 

Kuroko matches his gaze. “What would be the harm of it? We work well together, you must admit that.” Kagami doesn’t argue that point, but he doesn’t budge either. Kuroko breathes in to steady himself. “I like it here. I missed the trees in Tokyo, and I miss not having responsibilities and deadlines to meet. Sometimes life is just so…,” he fumbles for a word. “Suffocating. I don’t feel that here. It’s my trial, and it ends when I reach that point, is that right? Well then what would be wrong with staying here for a little while longer?”

 

Something in what he said causes Kagami to snap. “This isn’t a vacation, Kuroko,” he snarls, brow cut sharply. “Sure, everything is all new and fun now, but you’ll grow bored of it! With the boredom comes the restlessness and with that comes you diving off a cliff into who knows what, and I–,” He stops, then his glare softens, so minutely that Kuroko almost misses it. He lifts a hand to toy with the chain around his neck where it dips into the collar of his shirt. “I know what happens when people get bored of it. And I won’t be responsible for keeping you safe.”

 

And there it is again: the feeling of a gear sliding into place, the cogs whirling back to life. Kuroko takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. “Won’t or can’t?”

 

Kagami doesn’t answer, just clenches his hand tighter around the chain and hikes his shoulders up further. 

 

“That’s what happened to Himuro-kun, isn’t it,” Kuroko continues, a statement rather than a question.

 

Kagami’s expression changes in an instant. His eyes go wide, equal parts shocked and affronted and scared. His mouth twitches and his jaw tightens. For all of the answers he never gave Kuroko before, Kagami is spilling truths now. 

 

It hurts to see Kagami look so vulnerable by his own hand, but he’s tired of Kagami’s constant dodging. “What happened to him?”

 

The look in Kagami’s eyes doesn’t change immediately. The shock of Kuroko’s revelation seems to have caught him off guard, and he doesn’t seem prepared to confront it. 

 

“Please, Kagami-kun,” Kuroko asks, but this time his voice is far less pressing. 

 

It takes a moment, but then Kagami swallows thickly. His expression dips down into something more somber than the earlier shock. This time it’s guilt. “Alex told us to watch out for each other. She… well, she died,” he stutters out awkwardly. “Sure time runs weirdly in here, but it’s still running. Whatever kind of condition she was in back in reality or whatnot started deteriorating and she could feel it. I think she’d been preparing for it for a while.” 

 

Kagami sighs, a long, rattling sound. “I’m pretty sure she could’ve gone back whenever she wanted to, but I don’t think she had much of a reason to do it. We only got bits and pieces of her life out there, but from the sound of it something happened that caused her her career, and that hit her pretty hard. I think being here gave her a kind of purpose she was missing after that.” He shrugs heavily. “When Tatsuya and I got here, she brought us to the end of the road like everyone else, but… we were also kind of enamored with the place. And with her. I think deep down she wanted the company, too.”

 

He smiles, small and private, and Kuroko feels his stomach twist for intruding on it. “It was great for a while. We had our own little family-dynamic going on in that run-down old bungalow. Every so often we took shifts leading people to the end. I mean, usually when you wake up here you just know what you’re supposed to do, but having a guide for backup never hurts.” His smile falls. “We knew something was up when Alex started letting us take more shifts on our own and stopped holding our hands through everything. She kept making hints about us getting out and back to our lives out there, but we didn’t really see the point. When we realized what was happening it was too late to convince her to get out herself. Then one day she made her goodbyes and headed off to the end of the trail like always, and that was it. ”

 

His head cranes back and he looks up at the treetops. Kuroko traces the long line of his neck and watches his Adam’s apple bob as he swallows again. “Then it was just the two of us. We made it work, busier than before but not much worse. At first, at least, but Tatsuya started getting weird. He’d take longer than usual to get back from his trips and when he was back he didn’t talk much. I thought it was just, you know, the grief. I tried to stick with him on trips after that, but that only made him more prickly, accusing me of a lot of things but most of them boiled down to me not trusting him. I guess it just came to a head one day. We’d seen someone off and he was real quiet and I… I actually thought it was a good sign because he wasn’t getting angry at me like usual. But then he told me he was hearing things like Alex had taught us to do, you know, to confirm it with someone else so you can convince yourself it’s not there. I don’t know who or what it was but it was bad. I tried to calm him down and get him to hurry up, and he snapped at me more than he had before, and then he…,” he trails off.

 

Kuroko hadn’t noticed how far he’d leaned forward during the story, drawn in by the anxious build. When Kagami ducks his head down to face him, their faces hover only a few inches apart. “He ran off into the woods,” he says heavily. “That’s the last time I saw him.”

 

Kuroko’s heart drops immediately. The memory of Kagami’s face, stricken and terrified, as Kuroko had turned off into the woods comes to the forefront of his mind and remorse runs icy cold down his spine where it pools into his stomach. “I…,” he starts, struggling for words. “What I did… I’m so sorry, Kagami-kun.”

 

“Not like you were in control,” he replies with forced airiness. “I should have told you sooner. I should have been better.”

 

The way he says that last line, bitter and dripping with self-loathing, causes Kuroko to rise and walk over to him. He stands himself directly in front of Kagami, but once there he realizes he has no idea what to do. His hand reaches out to do… something, but he can’t bring himself to go through with anything, leaving it to dangle in the air helplessly. He almost expects Kagami to snap at him or push him away, but he doesn’t. Instead, he leans forward and tiredly ducks his head into the soft spot where Kuroko’s chest meets his stomach. The hand, left hanging in the air, finally comes down and settles itself onto the crest of Kagami’s head. He cards his hands through the rough crop of hair, and for the moment it’s enough.

 

They stay like that, silently apologizing for their own faults and mistakes. Kagami is the first to speak. “I made you a promise.” He murmurs into the loose cotton of Kuroko’s shirt. “I’m getting you out of the Verge.”

 

Kuroko nods slowly, lips pursing together. A thought occurs to him. “What about you?” he asks, tracing the soft fuzz of hair that dusts the base of his head.

 

“Not yet,” Kagami says, barely audible even in the resounding silence of the forest. “Not until I find Tatsuya.”

 

Kuroko’s lips tilt downwards. “Find him? I thought…” 

 

Kagami’s whole body shifts as he takes a deep inhale and lets it out on an even deeper exhale. “He ran out there. Most likely he’s been turned by the woods. If that’s the case, I need the proof.”

 

More things start to click into place. The slick ooze of a dying Wisp. Photographs and glasses and car keys. Kagami’s words, flat and disappointed: Not what I’m looking for.

“Oh god,” the words whisper out of Kuroko. “All of those Wisps, they were… You’ve been looking for something of his, haven’t you? To make sure.”

 

Kuroko looks down and watches Kagami’s arm shift and the chain around his neck pull taut. “I’m not leaving until I have that proof.”

 

The next words leave Kuroko’s mouth before he can rein them in. “Let me stay here and help you, then.” 

 

That causes Kagami to go tense again, and he leans back from Kuroko’s almost-embrace. The warm spot where his head had been feels unpleasantly cold, and Kuroko’s hand lowers to rub at it idly. 

 

When he looks up to Kagami, the expression is cut hard into his face. “No.”

 

Kuroko’s brow furrows. “You’ll do it all on your own?”

 

Kagami nods. “That’s what I’ve been doing and it’s worked so far.”

 

Kuroko shakes his head incredulously, “But what about when it doesn’t?”

 

“Then tough shit for me, I guess,” he says, rising to his feet. He towers above Kuroko, as if trying to impose the finality of his argument with his stance. “But the fear of that’s not going to stop me from doing this.”

 

“If that’s your reasoning then I’m not going.” Kuroko counters, “I’m not going to leave you behind here to spiral in your own self-loathing.”

 

“I’ve done fine on my own this far.” Kagami’s eyes flash dangerously as he steps back and turns away. He stomps down the path with quick, heavy footsteps. “And besides, it’s not your decision whether I stay here or go. It’s mine.”

 

Kuroko shakes his head fiercely and follows after him. “Well then my decision to stay is mine as well.” He manages to get ahead of Kagami and stops him in his tracks with a heated glare. “You don’t get to dictate my choices for me.” 

 

“You have a lifeout there!” The man barks, throwing his hands up in the air violently. His voice comes out strained and desperate. “One worth living out. I can’t let you give it up for something that doesn’t concern you!”

 

“You do too,” Kuroko retorts with firm, hard conviction.  

 

There’s a pause as Kagami stares down at him in apparent shock. A moment later laughter chokes out of him, but it rings sour. “Yeah, sure, maybe. But even if I do I can’t go back to it. Not yet.”

 

“Because you don’t think you deserve it?” Kagami’s quiet, jaw clenched tight, but his lack of an answer is answer enough. “Kagami-kun, maybe you can’t listen to your own reason so let me say it for you: what happened to your friend was not your fault.”

Kagami lets out a frustrated growl, sidestepping Kuroko and walking further down the path. “No, that’s the problem. It was.” As he walks he turns sideways towards Kuroko and gesticulates wildly. “I made Alex a promise and I fucked it up. I mean there were signs for days and I couldn’t see them for shit. I let my best friend die out there because I was too caught up in my own world to notice someone else’s problems!”

Kuroko wants to bite back just as fiercely, but a thought comes to him. He stops in his tracks, listening to the crunch of gravel under Kagami’s shoes as he keeps walking. “You don’t even know that for certain,” he says as the idea dawns on him. “What if he got out? I mean… Kagami-kun, you have no proof that he didn’t.”

 

“And you have no proof that he did! Why do you think I keep looking?” Kagami snaps, finally stopping ahead of him. He turns on his heel angrily and barks out, “I can’t stop until I know for sure he’s not here. And if that means I have to keep shuttling people like you off and cutting Wisps down until I know for a fact that he’s not lurking somewhere out there then so be it! If he is…,” he quiets, licking his lips apprehensively. “If he is then that’s my responsibility too.”

 

Kuroko stares at him in disbelief. “You’ll kill off all of the Wisps? That’s an impossible task and you know it.”

 

Kagami laughs darkly and replies, “Well then go ahead and call me Sisyphus.”

 

The harsh bite of his tone causes Kuroko’s next retort to die in his throat. As they’d walked Kagami had put quite a distance between them and the rift feels like an ocean. He stands tall, back straight, but every line of his body screams of resignation. This is the life he’s chosen, a life of constant self-punishment and guilt. Kagami has given up his own chance back in reality as payment for his failure to another, and the idea absolutely breaks Kuroko’s heart.

 

“Are you certain that this is what he’d want?” he finally asks. Kagami’s expression doesn’t change, so he tries again. “Is Himuro-kun the kind of person who would want you to waste yourself away in here like that out of guilt?”

 

“You don’t get it,” Kagami insists, shaking his head. His words are weaker this time, and they break at the ends. “He was like a brother to me, and I let him down. I have to make up for that somehow. I made a promise to Alex and I don’t break my promises.”

 

Kuroko takes a cautious step forward, then another. “You can start by forgiving yourself, Kagami-kun.” Kagami averts his eyes, glancing off into the thick of the forest. “You think that you need to repay Himuro-kun, but haven’t you already done enough to make up for that as is? Think of all of the people that you helped lead down the path, the ones that didn’t turn into Wisps. Think of the family you gave your mentor before she passed on. Your single failure towards your friend shouldn’t undo all of that.”

 

Soon he’s right back in Kagami’s space, even though the man still won’t look at him. He slowly reaches a hand to cup the sharp line of Kagami’s jaw. “Stop atoning and start living.”

 

The red in Kagami’s eyes is bright when they finally turn down to him. His eyebrows crease up sadly and his beautiful mouth purses together in pained indecision. Kuroko’s thumb traces his cheekbone as he searches Kagami’s eyes for some kind of comprehension. 

 

There’s a moment where Kagami leans into the touch, where his eyes close and he takes a deep breath. Kuroko thinks he might have gotten to him but then he reaches up a hand, gently taking Kuroko’s wrist and pulling it away from his face. Even as he draws back he seems reluctant. “We’ll make camp here tonight,” is all he says, then he stalks back down the path until he’s out of sight. 

 

Later that evening, with both of their bedrolls pressed together as always, they sleep back to back, and the space between them feels infinite.

 

_______________________

 

 

Kuroko wakes up on the fifth day to an empty camp and a cooling fire. There’s stew in the small pot standing over it, and the smell brings back nostalgic memories of his first day in Kagami’s company. Had that really only been five days ago? In fact, had it even been five days at all? He wonders what the correlation between time here and in the waking world is like.

 

As he eats, echoes whisper across the back of his mind. Familiar voices, not just Aomine’s this time, or the doctors, but others as well. They come in scattered, disconnected, but he recognizes them nonetheless.

 

Any news?

 

It could be for another few days or another few weeks. It’s hard to say for certain.

 

Dai-chan you need to get some rest. In a real bed.

 

If you don’t get up I’m going to eat all of the chocolate Kise’s left here for you.

 

You’re gonna be fine, all right? 

Please wake up…

 

Why the hell won’t his parents pick up ?

 

Our train leaves in the morning. I’ll need all of your class lists, if you don’t mind.

 

Hey, hands off, that’s for Kurokocchi!

 

 

He sits and listens to the chatter for a long while. Anticipating the Sirens’ temptation makes it easier to resist their call, but it doesn’t make the aching in his heart hurt any less. Those are his friends calling out to him to come home. That’s the world out there trying to bring him back, and still his chest clenches at the guilty thought that some of him doesn’t want to leave yet. A part of him is still so attached to this world, to…

 

He takes a deep inhale and filters the voices out until the only sound he can hear is his own steady breathing.

 

Kagami’s still missing after Kuroko finishes off what’s left of the meal and cleans up. A bit irked, he moves on to the rest of the equipment, but there’s still no sign of Kagami even after another fifteen minutes go by. As he ties the twine around their bedrolls to keep them secured, he can’t shake the anxious jump in his leg or the chill in his bones. Even the warm stew in his belly can’t fight the bone-deep cold, so with a rough huff he reaches deep into Kagami’s forgotten rucksack and pulls a long-sleeved sweatshirt from it. He slips his arms into it and for a moment he allows himself to study the frayed edges of the sleeves and how the soft fabric brushes against the tips of his fingers. Only a moment, however, then he stands and rucks the sleeves past his elbows and starts off down the path. 

 

He’d considered the possibility that Kagami had gone back the way they’d come, but there’s a stirring in him that draws him the other way into unknown territory. His feet seem to move on their own and he lets them carry him forward, tipping his head back and watching the trees above instead of focusing on where he’s going. The early morning sun is still dewy and pale as it streams through the foliage. There’s a bird crying out in the distance, but besides that the only noise is the rustling of the wind and his own footsteps. No signs of Kagami yet. 

 

That chill still lingers just under his skin, but the worn sweatshirt hangs heavy and comforting on his shoulders. It smells like Kagami, he thinks, hiking it up further and relishing the warmth against the back of his neck. More details to file away, he supposes, though the point is almost moot now.

 

The tugging at his chest, like a fishing line reeling him in, jumps as if it’s gone slack and then taut once more in the blink of an eye. Curious, Kuroko dips his head back down again, and there only a little ways off is Kagami. He’s seated on the dirt path in a lazy sprawl, back turned to Kuroko, and ahead of him is something that causes Kuroko to pause. 

 

Instead of the linear progression he’s used to, suddenly there’s a split in the path, branching off a few meters from where Kagami sits. His back is hunched as he rests his arms and chin on one lifted knee. As Kuroko approaches, his head cocks towards the sound of steps, but doesn’t turn completely. 

 

Kuroko walks over until he stands just behind the man. Bent over as he is, Kagami looks small and tired. His eyes are trained on the midpoint of the split, and one of his legs jostles restlessly. 

 

“You feel it too, don’t you?” Kuroko says in greeting, watching the way Kagami’s foot rocks back and forth as it bounces. 

 

Kagami gives him a short nod. “The pull is stronger at the edges of the forest. It’s fine though, I can control myself.”

 

Kuroko hums thoughtfully. “How long have you been sitting here?”

 

“I thought you’d figured it out by now that time isn’t really that relevant here,” the man says dryly. Then he sighs, as if amending his rudeness. “But not too long. I finished up cooking, had my share, saw you starting to wake-up and I… yeah.” He trails off, turning his head down to the ground. 

 

Kuroko’s lips thin, but he continues. “Why here? Why this direction?” Why did you leave me alone? Why didn’t you leave me completely? he wants to add, but he holds his tongue.

 

“Because that’s where the path told me to go,” he says, shrugging like it’s as simple as that. “I had some things to work out.”

 

“Such as?”

 

He’s silent for a long while, which is something Kuroko has grown used to when asking Kagami personal questions. However, the man doesn’t have to lie anymore, so eventually he says, “What you said yesterday got me thinking. Y’know, I haven’t heard voices from the Sirens in a long time. Part of why I never felt the need to head out was the fact that I never really had anyone calling me back.” 

 

What a heartbreaking thing to say, Kuroko thinks to himself as he watches the somber arch of Kagami’s spine. He rests his hand on the curve of his shoulder blade, causing the man to look up at him through the corner of his eye.  

 

“Ah, don’t give me that sad puppy-dog stare,” he jokes weakly. His eyes search Kuroko’s face for a moment, then he smiles, wry at the edges. “You heard him again, right? Your friend.”

 

Kuroko blinks. “How did you know?”

 

“You’ve got a different look in your eye. More sure and less like you’re gonna cling to my leg until I let you stay.”

 

He chuckles, soft but apologetic. “I did. Not just him, but all six of the friends I was traveling with.”

 

Kagami’s own half-smile tugs at the corner of his mouth. “So you’ve made up your mind then?”

 

Lowering himself to the ground next to Kagami, Kuroko folds his legs up and rests his hands around them. “The voices were a bit jumbled and I couldn’t make everything out, but what I did hear was sufficient enough to help me decide.” 

 

“Yeah?”

 

Kuroko nods, letting his chin rest on the tops of his knees. A light breeze whispers through the trees and causes his fringe to tickle across his nose and into his eyes. He breathes in the earthy smell of it and begins to speak on the exhale, “The Verge really is incredible. The mystery of it all was so refreshing and nostalgic, in a way. It’s like… I used to love fantasy stories as a child. Being here with you has been like living out those adventures instead of simply making them up in my mind. 

 

Kuroko pauses to gather his thoughts. There’s a feeling clutching his chest tightly, but putting it into words is frustratingly difficult. “That swelling, overflowing thrill in my chest that I used to get when reading and dreaming… this place has made me feel that sense of being alive again in a way that real life just… hasn’t. I don’t want to lose that feeling again.” 

 

The last sentence comes out of him like a broken confession. That’s what the problem has been, hasn’t it? The Verge gave him a taste of something he’d been yearning for for years, a drive and sudden color to a daily routine that had become so lackluster. The thought of losing that, of going back to a world that seems so ordinary and uninspiring, causes his stomach to flip. The thought of leaving behind everything that has made him feel so alive…

 

He turns his head to the side and catches Kagami looking right back at him, expression inscrutable. His heart stutters in his chest, but he pushes it down. Once he feels in control of himself again, he continues. “However, running away isn’t any sort of way to live. The life I have out there is boring at times, then it’s stressful at others, and I’m never quite sure where I’m going, but that’s what living is, I suppose. It’s just a different kind of adventure. Besides, it would be selfish of me to stay here avoiding my problems when they’re doing the best they can to bring me back.” 

 

Kagami’s expression is still frustratingly unreadable when Kuroko finishes his speech. There’s something like understanding in the small quirk of his smile, but beyond that Kuroko has no idea what he’s thinking. 

 

“You’re lucky to have them,” he says. Then he looks back out to the split path. “And for the record I think you’re making the right choice.”

 

I know you do, Kuroko thinks, but I’m still not sure. “Kagami-kun,” he says instead. “What happens when I wake up?”

 

“Honestly?” The man shrugs. “No clue. I only bring people here to make their choice, but I don’t know what happens beyond that.”

 

“Choice?”

 

“Yeah,” he says on a grunt as he pushes himself up to his feet. “It’s the last test that the Verge throws at you. You have to pick which path you’re going to take to get back.”

 

Kuroko cocks his head to the side and regards Kagami curiously. “Where does each path go?” As he says the words, he looks down each path, as if looking for an answer. All he sees is deep green canopies fading into imperceptible darkness.

 

“It depends on how certain you are by the end of this whole soul-searching trip.” Kuroko looks up again when he catches sight of Kagami pointing a finger in either direction. “One of them leads you back, and I assume the other is how you just… move on.”

 

The memory of Kagami’s earlier story resurfaces. He stands himself, then slowly touches his fingers to the inside of Kagami’s wrist where it hangs next to him. “So this is where your mentor made her choice?”

 

Kagami hums an affirmative, gently pressing into the light touch of Kuroko’s hand. “If the Wisps get you you’re stuck here, just another one of them, but if you go through on your own, I guess you go peacefully. Like I said I don’t really know.”

 

Kuroko frowns. “Then how do I know which path is right?”

 

“There isn’t a ‘right’ path,” Kagami murmurs. His gaze is distant as he stares off into the thick of the woods. “Just the one that you’re meant to go to. It’s all about determination. You have to be set in what you’re doing, and once you’re sure, you’ll just know which path is right.”

 

“Do you know?” Kuroko asks, tipping his blue eyes down to glance at Kagami’s still-jumping leg.

 

The man just shrugs and takes a step back. “I haven’t felt the draw strong enough yet.” His hand brushes past Kuroko’s searching fingers, but the tremor in his leg quiets down. 

 

A thought occurs to Kuroko that sends a chill down his spine. “Wait… what happens if I choose the path that takes me back? If the Verge is real… then do I remember it when I wake up again?”

 

Kagami’s face goes hard and closed off. “Like I said, this is as far as I go and as much as I know.” His hands dip down into his pockets and he rocks back on his heels in an attempt to look nonchalant. “My guess would be no. Otherwise we would probably have known about it out in the real world with how many people I’ve seen come through here.”

 

Suddenly Kuroko’s decision to go home isn’t as straightforward anymore. Going back is a given. Seeing his friends and returning to the life he’d made is obviously the right choice, but not remembering this place? Not remembering the thrill of it all, the way he’d felt, and… not remembering Kagami. Leaving them behind is one thing, but knowing he won’t even know about it when he wakes makes his heart clench painfully and his blood run cold. 

 

He looks up at his guide, who is resolutely looking anywhere but down at Kuroko, as if already trying to withdraw into himself. 

 

This is wrong, Kuroko doesn’t want his catalog of tiny, beautiful details about the man to fade away. Kagami’s freckles, his scars, his petrichor skin and hiccuping laugh. The unbalanced slant of his grin and the warmth of his fingers ruffling Kuroko’s head. His proud attitude masking all of his insecurities. The way his eyes soften and crinkle at the edges when he’s really letting his happiness show through…

 

No, he doesn’t want to forget this.

 

Suddenly the fishing-line hook in his heart seems to go taut again, tugging at him painfully. 

 

Beep

 

No. It can’t be time yet, he panics. He just met Kagami, he doesn’t want to lose him so soon. There has to be a way for him to remember Kagami, to get Kagami to come back to him when he goes. There has to.

 

Kagami seems to see the change in Kuroko’s demeanor and he makes as if to step forward towards him. Then he hesitates, like he’s trying to hold himself back. Distancing himself again, like he’s trying his best to steel himself for the worst. 

 

Beep

 

No. No, that’s not how Kuroko wants this story to end. 

 

He steps up to Kagami with purposeful strides against the painful tugging at his core and drags his hands up the length of Kagami’s neck. Their eyes connect, and he tries with all that he can to convey every apology and confession he has into his own gaze before he leans up and fits his mouth across Kagami’s. His eyes fall shut and his brow tilts up, pained and bittersweet, as his nose nuzzles up to the other’s just like when they’d first kissed. He tries as best as he can to memorize the chapped feel of the man’s lips against his own, the warmth of his skin, the sound that Kagami makes at the back of his throat because no, he can’t let himself forget this. Kagami’s hands come up to the curve of his jaw to cradle his face between them, but as he moves to deepen the kiss, Kuroko reluctantly pulls back. 

 

The redhead looks bewildered when he finally gets his own eyes open again. His hands still hover weakly at Kuroko’s throat, and he asks, “What was that?”

 

Kuroko tilts his head into the warm palm of one of Kagami’s hands. There’s a lightness to his tone when he replies, “That was you and I signing a deal.”

 

“A deal?”

 

Instead of answering directly, he amends, “Actually, more like a promise. And I’ve been told that you don’t break your promises.”

 

Kagami blinks at him dumbly from where he stands rooted to the spot, then after a second or so his face splits in a wry smirk. “You sly bastard.”

 

Kuroko sends him his own half-smile, feeling breathless as he speaks. “Language, Kagami-kun. I preferred it when you called me clever.”

 

He shakes his head incredulously. “Too clever for your own good. Don’t I get a say in this deal?”

 

“I’m sorry, but you already signed the contract,” he says, then he licks his lips. Kagami’s eyebrows jump as he seems to get the message. 

 

“I guess I can’t argue with that logic,” he replies, features softening into a genuine smile.

 

He wants to keep their playful banter going, but his heart is starting to thud in his chest where the line is drawing him in and there’s staticky noise building in his ears. “You already signed it,” he says resolutely, “So no going back on your word. Just like you said, you made a promise to me and you don’t break your promises.”

 

Kagami seems to wilt under the sudden gravity to Kuroko’s tone. He leans his head down and buries his nose into Kuroko’s hair. “That’s playing dirty,” he says after a moment, voice going wobbly.

 

“I know,” he says with a soft smile. Kuroko wants to stay here, burning Kagami’s image into his mind, but he knows he doesn’t have the time. He brings his hands up to the redhead’s wrists and gently pulls them away. Then he lowers them, threading their fingers together. “I’m sorry.” 

 

With a deep inhale, he takes a cautious step back, then another. Kuroko lets his feet carry him back towards the fork in the path, trusting that they’ll lead him to the right one. Kagami’s hands follow his own until the distance is too much and they pull apart. As Kuroko walks, the woods at his sides grow denser and darker. The canopy of trees starts to arch together into a tunnel above him, the sun’s rays growing weaker and weaker as he continues further down the path.

 

Unable to resist the urge to look back, Kuroko turns his head down to the start of the path. Kagami stands like Kuroko’s own light at the end of the tunnel, mouth barely open and looking like he has so much more that he wants to say. Kuroko knows the feeling. He can feel his grip on the world growing weaker and his eyes feel heavy with fatigue. It would be so easy to fall into an easy sleep, but he needs to hold on to that image of Kagami. He needs to burn that face into his memory, hold onto that image no matter what.

 

“Kagami-kun,” he calls out, and the man’s eyes go sharp from where they’d taken on a sort of resigned distance. Kuroko swallows, feeling his vision start to go hazy. He doesn’t have much time, so he has to put his thoughts into words. 

 

“Before I go I need you to know that you said earlier isn’t true. Even if I don’t remember this, or even if I think this is all a dream, there will be a part of me out there that is calling you back. Even if you don’t hear it from the Sirens, I promise you that you’ll have at least one person out there waiting for you, even if you think no one else is!” 

 

His hands clench the sleeves of Kagami’s worn sweatshirt against the chill in his chest and, despite the ache in his chest, he smiles, wide and bittersweet and pleading, trying to convey everything he can before he fades out.“You are still worthy of the life you had out there!”

 

As the darkness seems to wash over his eyes, Kuroko catches Kagami’s smile, half-cocked yet still wavering and unsure. Despite that, he still gives Kuroko a final nod. “Yeah,” he calls, cupping a hand next to his mouth to amplify his voice. “Guess I’ll see you later, then.”

 

Kuroko nods back. “See you soon,” he says around his own wet smile.

 

 

Then everything goes dark. 

 

beep

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beep.

 

Kuroko wakes to the sound of machines and a constant, painful ache in his chest.

 

The first thing he notices is the ceiling above him, sterile white illuminated by sunlight. With his mind working in a bit of a dreamy haze, he carefully takes in his surroundings. His hands, splayed at his sides, idly scratch into the bedsheets beneath them, and he feels the fabric bunch up underneath his fingertips, crisp and starchy from cheap cleaner, perhaps. The air is cold and it seems to cut into his lungs when he takes in a long, sore breath. His chest aches, his head too when he gives himself a chance to think about it. Odd. 

 

“Hey,” a voice asks, breathless and breaking at the end. “Hey, Tetsu. You with me?”

 

He tries to turn his head to the side, but a faint tugging at his face stops him. There’s something wrapped around his head, and it takes him a moment to recognize it as a ventilator mask. His eyes trail lazily down the length of his body, over the white sheets and his papery-pale skin. There’s a small clip around his finger—a pulse oximeter, his brain supplies from somewhere—and an IV drip hooked up to the same arm.  

 

Beep

 

His eyes flicker over to the heart monitor, and for some reason the sound of its steady readings causes his chest to clench.

 

“I’m lost,” is all he manages to rasp out, though even to him the words don’t make sense. It feels nostalgic, in a way that he can’t place.

 

He looks over at the figure to the side of his bed. Slumped in the chair pulled up close is Aomine. His hands are clenched around the rail like a lifeline and he looks at Kuroko with obvious apprehension and worry. 

 

Kuroko has so many questions for Aomine, but as soon as he makes to shift, his body flares up in bone-deep soreness. He lets out a pained hiss, which causes his companion to shoot up at his side. 

 

“Oh yeah, shit, hold on,” he says, scrambling to find something. He finally gets his hands on a small remote and presses the largest button on its face. “Hey, the doc’ll be here in a sec but you’ve gotta stay still for a bit.”

 

When Kuroko tries to speak, it comes out rasped. “What happened to me? I don’t remember anything.”

 

Aomine’s eyes are dark, almost haunted. He clenches his jaw, glancing to the door and back, and then says, “Well what’s the last thing you remember?”

 

Kuroko tries to think. God his head is killing him, and the beeping isn’t helping. What does he remember? Well, he remembers… 

 

He remembers the train up to Sapporo. An overnighter. They’d taken the cheapest route, though Akashi and Midorima had insisted on the Green Car option. He remembers Aomine rolling his eyes at that.

 

He remembers renting skis with Aomine while Kise had tittered around them both. He remembers Murasakibara watching from the doorframe in nothing but a simple fleece jacket. He’d grown up in Akita, of course, and no doubt his impossible metabolism was also helping in keeping him warm.

 

He remembers Momoi and Kise wanting to learn how to skate, and Aomine pointing to a flyer on a storefront window about lake lessons. 

 

He… he remembers the cold. He remembers icy black cold working into his veins. He remembers it digging nails up every inch of his skin and he remembers gasping it down into his lungs like glass. 

 

He doesn’t remember anything after that. 

 

The shocked rush of his inhale makes his lungs ache and Aomine tenses at his side. The lake. They’d been out on the lake when he’d fallen in. 

 

“I went beyond the boundary line,” he mutters as he thinks back for more concrete details. He flexes the fingers on his right hand, chasing the phantom chill and stiffness in his joints. “I went after you, didn’t I?”

 

“I’m sorry” Aomine blurts out. His face is set in a glower that wobbles with guilt. “I shouldn’t have pointed out that stupid flyer and I shouldn’t have gone off like that. If I’d fucking listened none of this would’ve happened!”

 

“Aomine-kun,” Kuroko breathes. 

 

The man doesn’t stop at his own name. He continues to ramble, voice strained with panic. “It’s just… one minute you were there and the next you weren’t. And Satsuki and Kise went off to get help but you were sinking and I couldn’t reach you and… shit.” He snarls out the last word, but it’s directed at himself. He leans back in his chair and drags a hand down his face. “When the paramedics finally dragged us both here to the hospital you… I mean, you weren’t moving or… or breathing, and I mean you’re normally pale but this was just–”

 

“Cold-shock response,” a new voice says from the door. Aomine whips around at the sound, but Kuroko’s movements still feel sluggish. When he finally turns completely, there’s Momoi, standing tall in the doorway, even though her hands grip the frame with cautious worry. “In severely low temperatures the blood vessels in the body contract and hinder blood flow through the body, which classifies the initial shock and would have made you pale. We lost sight of you when you fell because you immediately gave in to the gasp reflex and took freezing water into your lungs which only worsened your ability to fight the shock. The water was shallow, but regardless you were under for several minutes, and the hypoxemia on its own is dangerous, let alone the fact that you were slowly succumbing to the hypothermia as well.”

 

Momoi’s nervous tell has always been her propensity for listing details and statistics. Kuroko has a feeling it that she does it to distance herself from her emotions and focus on the critical facts of the moment, whether she is aware of it or not. Her eyes are puffy and pink and there’s mascara streaked faintly down the lines of her cheeks, so Kuroko weakly raises his hand to stop her, offers her a weak smile, and says, “I’m fine now, Momoi-san.”

 

Her eyes go shimmery wet in an instant and her mouth wobbles into a smile. “Yes, you certainly are” she replies, bringing up a knuckle to run along the watery edges of her eyes. She takes a calming breath and then directs her next words at Aomine. “I-I saw the nurse outside responding to the call. He’s going to find Dr. Miyabara and they should both be back soon. I…,” she looks off over her shoulder guiltily. “I’m going to tell the others.”

 

She offers one more wet smile Kuroko’s way and then disappears out the door in a flash of pink. When the door clicks shut, Kuroko lets out the tired breath he’d been holding for her sake. “What happened to me after they got me out?”

 

Aomine slouches in his own chair. Perhaps the stress of this whole situation has gotten to him as well. “I thought all they’d need to do was warm you up, you know, like put some blankets on you or something. But when the ambulance got here they pushed me off to get a routine check-up and took you off into the ICU. Next thing I heard was that you’d been pumped full of whatever and put into–”

 

“–a medically induced coma,” Kuroko finishes for him, slightly dazed. 

 

Aomine frowns at him. “Yeah. How’d you know?”

 

Honestly, he’s not sure. “How long was I out for?” he asks instead, letting his head flop heavily back onto the pillow.

 

Aomine’s mouth tightens. “Don’t panic, all right? People always panic when they wake up from comas. I see it in movies all the time,” he says, and he actually waits for Kuroko to give him a confirmative nod. Then he leans forward, bracing himself on the bed’s rail, and says, “Five days.”

 

Kuroko blinks. It’s apparently not the reaction Aomine had been expecting, as he frowns and slowly settles back in his chair. Five days? To be honest, that feels about right. He wonders why. 

 

“They said you’d be out for a while to reduce brain swelling from the lack of oxygen and whatnot. Midorima knows the details, but he said if you’re lucky the cold probably prevented some of the major brain damage.”

 

A raspy laugh escapes Kuroko. “I suppose he is the expert when it comes to luck.”

 

Aomine rolls his eyes. “Tell me about it,” he grumbles, jerking his head off to Kuroko’s other side. Over on the windowsill of the room is a collection of all sorts of oddities, ranging from jars of bath salts to post cards to a truly garish hot-pink maneki-neko figurine. 

 

Kuroko snorts at the sight, but can’t fight the warmth pooling in his chest. He leans back and stares up at the ceiling. “And here I had already celebrated my birthday. I should injure myself more often.”

 

He expects a laugh out of Aomine, but his friend just looks off to the side and clenches his jaw tighter. “Not funny, Tetsu. We were… everyone’s been worried about you. Akashi and Murasakibara already headed back home to deal with the administration at school since we’re all missing the first few days of school. Midorima’s been up the doctors’ asses for any kind of records he can get, and Kise and Satsuki’ve been sulking around the waiting rooms for days. The only reason I’m in here is that your parents couldn’t get an earlier flight back from wherever they’ve been vacationing.” He throws his hands up exasperatedly as he finishes. 

 

“Guam,” Kuroko supplies, causing Aomine to scowl further.

 

“I’m serious,” he growls, though the anger is soft around the edges. Scared. His blue eyes waver as he spits out, “You almost died, Tetsu. Why aren’t you freaking out about that?”

 

Something in how he phrases that makes Kuroko pause. Why? Well, he’s not sure how to put it into words, but it’s almost as though he knows that he didn’t need to worry.

 

“Because,” he starts, rolling the idea around in his head and over his tongue before he speaks. “I knew I could make it back.”

 

When he looks over, Aomine’s face is contorted in an odd, confused look, but before he can say anything back the door slams open on the tail end of a wailing “Kurokocchi—!” and the room erupts into chaos.

 

Several tests and scans later find Kuroko back in his hospital bed ready to rest. For someone who had just been asleep for five days, he still feels exhausted. The same can be said for his companions. Against the wall, Kise and Aomine are slumped together in adjacent chairs, their heads pressed together comically as they doze off. Momoi has the seat closest to his bedside, and her thumbs fly across the keyboard of her phone as she no doubt informs their missing members of the good news. Midorima had been by earlier, scanning Kuroko’s medical records four times to check for inconsistencies, all the while Aomine had ridiculed his ego for thinking he’d understand anything as an undergrad. Flustered and annoyed, he’d left in a huff, but not before dropping off one more lucky item.

 

Draped across the head of Kuroko’s hospital bed is the scarf, dark carmine-red and silky to the touch. Midorima had thrust it at him and stalked off before he could open it in his presence, but for all that he and the other man tend to butt heads, the gift is strangely touching. It’s a… nice color, he thinks, as he twists the tasseled ends between his fingers and watches the somewhat iridescent thread glisten in the light. His chest clenches in something similar to nostalgia, but the slow drag of sleep makes it hard for him to parse out why exactly that would be. 

 

As he sinks further into the mattress, he suddenly imagines the image of bright red eyes and a familiar half-smile before he slips off into slumber.

 

______________________

 

 

“–ut how am I supposed to get any work done on it with our game against Keio coming? Coach has been riding my ass since August, Tetsu, come on.”

 

“Even if I were so inclined as to take on more workload than I will already have on my own, I doubt your group members would appreciate hearing that you’d slacked off again.”

 

Aomine takes an angry drag from the straw in his mouth and promptly winces at what Kuroko can only assume is brain freeze. “It’s not like I’m not trying to do the work this time,” he grouses. “I’m totally putting an effort in.”

 

“And yet in the time you’ve spent badgering me to cover for you, you could have already done the reading necessary for your half of the project. You’ve had all of August, Aomine-kun,” Kuroko says to him blankly. He drinks from his own shake slowly and tries to hide his amused smile as Aomine sinks further into his chair and pouts like a petulant child. 

 

For late August it’s surprisingly temperate outside. The campus is abuzz with students preparing for the start of classes in only a couple of weeks and the clocktower nearby chimes out the hour. It’s not nearly as swelteringly humid as the earlier half of August had been, which means Kuroko had been less adverse to Aomine’s suggestion to sit outside. 

 

“You know I wouldn’t pester you if I didn’t really have reasons, Tetsu,” Aomine starts again, leaning onto his elbows across the table. “After that practice match with Senshu the whole team’s been going into overdrive. The coach tried switching Sonoda in after Hidaka tore his rotator cuff and that threw us all off, that new guy from abroad’s still a bumbling idiot on his feet even after a week here, the new freshmen still can’t seem to sink even a standard layup, and Satsuki’s trying to get us to study up on like three teams at once!” He buries his fingers in his hair and looks up at Kuroko with pleading eyes. “One time. I’ll buy you shakes for a month.”

 

Kuroko blinks owlishly at him over the rim of his drink. “The rest of the semester.”

 

Aomine pulls a face. “Do you think I’m made of money?”

 

With a shrug, Kuroko leans back into his chair and turns away. “I guess you’ll have to ask Kise-kun then.”

 

“But he’s even worse than me,” he groans. 

 

“Then you might as well do the reading and start from there.” With that, Kuroko leans down to grab his messenger bag and pulls out a large book and his headphones. 

 

Aomine slumps further down onto the table. He pillows his head on his arms and looks at Kuroko sideways. “What, are you gonna try to guilt me into reading by tuning me out?” 

 

“Perhaps,” he connects the jack of his ear buds into the base of his phone and slides one bud into his ear. 

 

“Fine, I’ll do it. Asshole.” Aomine finally says, hefting out a ragged, irritable sigh.

 

Kuroko quirks an eyebrow at his friend over the top of his opened book, then turns back down to his novel.

 

There’s blissful silence for all of one minute, then, “So what, did you slack on your class reading too?”

 

Kuroko peers over his book again to see that Aomine hasn’t moved. Instead, he’s peering over at the book in Kuroko’s hands. “Pardon?” he asks. 

 

Night on the Galactic Railroad,” Aomine quotes, blue eyes tracking the spine as he reads. “Is that for one of your Lit classes?”

 

He lowers his hands to rest the book on the edge of the table. With one hand he reaches for his unfinished milkshake. “No, just for pleasure. I saw it at the library the other day and decided to read it again.”

 

Aomine hums in lazy, feigned interest, then nuzzles further into the crook of his arm. 

 

Kuroko glances down at him with flat disapproval. “What happened to doing your reading, Aomine-kun?”

 

“Later,” the man mutters, muffled by his elbow. 

 

Kuroko rolls his eyes but settles back in to his chair. Before he turns down to his book again, he looks out across from himself. There’s a small park next to the cafe, built into the center of the campus and filled with groups of students and families alike. Around them the tsuku-tsuku-boushi cicadas seem to sing out the end of summer vacation in warbling tunes. The trees lining the park provide shade across the cafe’s patio, and the leaves are a prismatic patchwork of greens where the sunlight peeks through. It feels a bit nostalgic, in a way Kuroko can’t place. 

 

He ducks his head down to get back to his reading, but something in the distance catches his eye. 

 

Red, carmine red hair amidst a sea of green. 

 

His heart stutters against his rib cage with surprising force, and the book knocks limply from his grasp into the edge of the table. Aomine cracks one eye open at the sound and rises up on one elbow when he notices Kuroko’s paralyzed expression. 

 

“Tetsu, you okay there? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

 

That speck of red is dipping further into the tree-line, and without taking his eyes off of it, Kuroko rises from his chair on unsteady legs. “I have to… I have to go,” he mumbles distractedly as he starts to walk off almost in a daze. 

 

He barely registers Aomine’s protests him as he walks, then jogs, then runs off into the tiny side path running along the back end of the park. The foliage grows thicker as he goes and he keeps losing sight of the flash of red among the leaves, but he continues ducking through the low hanging branches by pure instinct alone. His feet slosh through the park’s shallow creek, missing the rocks in his rush, but he hardly pays his soaked shoes any mind. He doesn’t know why he feels so drawn to whomever it is, but he knows he has to find them, no matter what. 

 

He comes upon a hill and takes the steps two at a time, pushing himself past the burn in his legs and lungs. When he reaches the top, gasping for breath, there standing by the bench at the viewpoint’s edge is a young man with fiery red hair. There’s a pamphlet in the one hand cradled next to his head, while the other is clenched around the strap of the sports bag slung across his back like a sash. He turns at the sound of Kuroko approaching, and as Kuroko pants in fatigue he watches a strange sort of recognition dawn on the man’s face. 

 

Hidden behind the pamphlet pressed to the young man’s ear is a phone, into which the stranger dazedly mutters, “Hey, Tatsuya, lemmie call you back.”

 

His dark red eyes blink dumbly at Kuroko as he lowers the phone from his ear, and he feels himself do the same. Suddenly standing there he has absolutely no idea what to say. 

 

“I know you.” The words spill from Kuroko’s mouth on the end of a ragged exhale .Then, belatedly he tacks on, “…at least, I think I do.”

 

The stranger’s brow slants downwards, not in anger but confusion, like he’s searching for something in Kuroko’s cool blue eyes. He licks his lips, and Kuroko feels himself do the same unconsciously. “I…,” he trails off. Then, he looks down at the pamphlet in his hand and holds it out for Kuroko to see. It’s a map of the campus. “I’m lost,” he says dumbly. 

 

When the subsequent shiver runs up Kuroko’s spine at that phrasing, he’s almost certain he sees a similar jolt in the strangers’. 

 

“I mean,” the young man stammers, ears flushing red at the tips as Kuroko continues to stare at him, awestruck. “I’m looking for Building 11 and I kind of got turned around. I came up here to get a better view, but that didn’t work out too well…”

 

He watches as the young man reaches a hand up to rub at the back of his neck, just brushing against the hair at the nape of his neck. Kuroko opens his mouth to say something, but nothing comes out right away. There’s something so… familiar about the man, even though he’s certain that he’s never met him before in his life. It’s a feeling similar to déjà vu, only so much more concrete. More real. 

 

“I can take you there, if you’d like,” he finally manages to croak out. 

 

The redhead gives him a crooked half-smile, which shoots another strange jolt of something through Kuroko’s chest. “Yeah, that’d be great.” His mouth opens again to say something, but he closes it, chewing on his lip for a moment as he seems to think of something to say. “Um… can you give me your name then?”

 

“Kuroko Tetsuya,” he replies almost immediately, sending the stranger his own small, dazed smile. Then, after a beat. “Are you going to give me the courtesy of your own?”

 

He’s not sure why, but he’d known that the young man wouldn’t be put off by his dryness. “Call me Kagami Taiga.” 

 

Those red, red eyes of his turn to the side, looking out over the park and the urban jungle spread out beyond it. “Jeez, this place is huge. You sure you can get me there without getting lost?”

 

The sun is stretched high above Kagami’s head, illuminating him through the green overhang of foliage, and an unexplainable warmth seems to bloom in Kuroko’s chest. He wants to know more about Kagami Taiga, he decides, standing in the dark line of the man’s shadow. He gets the feeling that they could be something fantastic together. 

 

“I promise,” he says, meeting Kagami’s startled gaze when it turns back on him in shock. “And I don’t break my promises.”

 

Kagami looks dumbstruck, but then, slowly, that beautiful half-smile breaks out across his face again. 

 

“Yeah,” he says, the brightness of his features almost blinding Kuroko. “Same here.”