" So tell me why baby, they might call me crazy for saying 'I'll fight until there is no more... "
Akashi watched their 'training manager' sing her way into the first-string gym, a piece of paper in her hands. She was fresh from the meeting on the allocation of club funds, and with the Interhigh just a few weeks ahead, it is essential that their club be given a fairly larger amount than what was given on off-seasons. Momoi was supposed to be the one to attend said meeting, as Kimiko was the one handling the training, but the pinkette was on one of her recon missions, and thus Kimiko offered to take her place. After all, she was the one who sent Momoi on that particular assignment, after Akashi himself had mentioned to the chartreusette in a passing comment about the petal-haired manager's skill in information gathering. In just three months, the two girls had proven to be of great help to the team – even the head coach was impressed. Of course, no one expected two freshmen girls to be as dedicated to their jobs as managers; Momoi, he understands, since her childhood friend was on the team but as for Kimiko, well, he has no idea.
Aside from the fact that she was a demoness when it comes to their training.
Kimiko's face had that triumphant look as she skipped to their captain with a bright greeting of "Shouzo-taichou!", waving the paper high in the air and directing the upperclassman's gaze to it.
"Aa, Kimiko... So how did the meeting go?" he heard Nijimura asked the chartreusette, who promptly held the paper in front of the surprised male as he read what was written on the sheet. Nijimura stared with wide eyes at the figure written on the area labeled 'Amount'. "How did you...?"
Kimiko was saying in a wistful tone, "Hmm, well, I tried going for more, but then, there won't be anything much left for the other clubs to divide amongst themselves so —"
"Nah, this is even better than what I expected. Last year we only got about half. Good job, Kimiko. Though I wonder... How were you able to get as much funds for the club?" Nijimura said the last part with narrowed eyes, to which she smiled impishly, confirming his suspicions. "Kimiko, you didn't, or did you? My instructions was to peacefully negotiate with the treasury — peacefully! What about that part did you not understand?"
The girl pretended to think. "Well, I remembered peacefully threatening them, though...", causing Nijimura to facepalm at their cheeky manager.
Her laughter echoed in the closed walls of the gym. Everyone present stopped their training to look at their 'strict' captain and equally 'strict' manager and wondered how the ever-scowling Nijimura was able to elicit such a response from the chartreusette. At the sudden silence of the gym, aside from her own voice, Kimiko composed herself in a heartbeat, and with a menacing glare directed to everyone in the vicinity, she barked a curt "Back to your training!", which sent everyone scrambling to resume whatever drills their division was supposed to be doing. No one wants to incur the wrath of their golden-eyed demon manager unless they have a death wish.
In Rakuzan's gym, Akashi performed drills with the rest of the team, calling out orders and executing it with them as well. After thirty minutes of passing-and-shooting exercises, he called for a ten-minute water break, to which everyone was grateful for. With a towel slung around his neck, Akashi checked his clipboard for the next set of drills as he drank from a bottle of cold mineral water that Mibuchi had handed him earlier. They were practicing hard for the delayed Nationals, and after that loss during the winter's tournament, Rakuzan was determined to get the trophy this time. With Akashi having returned to his old self, victory was almost certain for the rest of the team. Even though this version of Akashi was more or less the same as the one they first met when it comes to training and all, his game plans were focused more on teamwork and not on individual strengths, which makes them evem more formidable. Given that their individual skills were already excellent than most, combining them all together makes them almost invincible to a point.
"Sei-chan, I was thinking, maybe we should consider finding a capable person to handle the training menus next year," Mibuchi told him in the changing room after practice. "Not that I'm saying you can't handle it, but what with your academics, student council and club president duties — not to mention your family duties..." Mibuchi trailed off. "I'm just worried about you overworking yourself. You tend to do that sometimes."
Akashi didn't look him in the eye as he was taking his change of clothes in his locker. "I'll consider your suggestion, Mibuchi. Yes, things are quite tiresome indeed. I appreciate your concern, though."
"You need to take care of yourself more, Sei-chan. I don't think you even realize that you're too selfless," Mibuchi said with a shake of his head. Then he added an afterthought. "You know, I still find it odd when you call me by my last name."
"Somebody used to tell me that some years ago." Akashi had an almost nostalgic look in his eyes, but it disappeared before Mibuchi could ask him further on the subject as the redhead turned to him and ask in a curious tone. "Oh, is that so? Does it make you feel uneasy?"
"No, not really. It's just, taking me some time to get used to it."
Akashi hummed and nodded thoughtfully. A while later, underneath the shower taps, he remembered yet another memory from 3 years ago.
It was when he first met her as the manager of the famed Teiko's basketball club.
Classes were finally over on their first day of formal classes, and Akashi, along with the other interested applicants, had gone to the main gym of Teikou for the tryouts. There they were introduced to the head coach, Shirogane Kōzō, and to those who handle the first-, second-, and third-string divisions. They met the team captain, a sophomore with black hair and sharp gray eyes — Nijimura Shuuzo, the number one power forward in middle school, and also an incredible point guard as well.
And then, there was her.
Akashi recognized her immediately, what with her unique hair color of bright lime-green and piercing golden eyes. She was his classmate, and just like she had done earlier in their class, the girl stepped forward, confident and proud, a clipboard clutched in front of her chest, and introduced herself to the intrigued crowd of males before her. For some reason, she gave a cocky look at one of the coaches behind her — Coach Sanada — and in a clear voice, she stated her name and her position.
"Listen, everyone! I'm Kimiko Akumi, freshman, and I'm your training manager." All the coaches, even Nijimura, was watching her intently from behind. To Akashi, it seemed like they were evaluating Kimiko in some way, though why the need for such thing for a mere manager he has no idea, but Kimiko seemed to be ignoring their intense gazes and continued on with her task.
His companions seemed to be talking to one another about their 'cute' manager — he overheard the boy beside him say to his friend — and soon enough, the gym was buzzing with their whispers. Nijimura was about to tell them to shut up, but the girl beat him to it.
"Done talking?" She did not even raise her voice, but everyone heard her just fine. At their silence, she smiled at them, but the threat was clear in her golden orbs. "Good. Now, let's continue, shall we?" There was something in her tone that demanded one's attention and respect. An admirable trait, and he could see the head coach nodding his head in agreement.
"First up is the placement test. Remember that only the first string gets to play in official games as part of the regular roster. Thus, if you want to be on the court, then give it your very best. Nijimura-taichou here will be explaining the nature and mechanics of the test, and you better listen up. Now, then," she turned to their captain. "Captain, if you would," and she gave the floor to Nijimura.
During the tests, Kimiko stood beside Nijimura on the side of the court, watching each of them as they did the routine instructed and demonstrated to them by Nijimura at the beginning. Once in a while, they would talk to one another, commenting on the person doing the drills at that moment. Finally, everyone had finished the exam and gathered in front of the stage, and Kimiko addressed them once more.
"So, the results are out! When I call your name, please line up in front of your respective coaches. Let's start with the third string." She ratted off a series of names. "...#28, Shimada Shunsuke. #30. Tanaka Ito. #31. Kuroko Tetsuya. That's all for the third string. Good job. Next, second string." Another series of names. "...#14. Dai Kuroki. #35. Yagi Masao. Congratulations."
By then, most were already expecting her to wrap things up, but the girl was not yet through with her announcement. She took a deep breath.
"And now for the first string."
The third- and second-stringers looked at her in confusion.
"Did she just say 'first string'?"
"She's kidding, right?"
"I thought no one makes first-string on the first try?"
Kimiko rolled her eyes, and glanced at her clipboard once again. "First string," she repeated as if to emphasize the fact. "#8, Aomine Daiki. #11. Midorima Shintarou. #23. Murasakibara Atsushi. And lastly, #29. Akashi Seijuurou." Her eyes strayed to his person for a mere second before it wandered off to the others. She lowered her clipboard to her side.
Kimiko was not the only manager of Teiko's basketball team. The next day, another freshman, a pink-haired one this time, came over and joined Kimiko. Her name was Momoi Satsuki and was the childhood friend of Aomine Daiki, one of the first-years that made it to first string with three other freshmen. Several more girls came in the following days to help with the club duties, but only the first two made an impression to the young heir.
Kimiko was assigned to the first-string specifically, and the reason was revealed to the rest of them on the second day. Posted on the wall of the first-string gym, written in her fine solid handwriting, was a twelve-month training schedule devised by the chartreusette herself, and a closer inspection would reveal a well-planned menu that maximizes the time alloted to club activities and the resources available to them. The chart was divided in three sections under the labels 'Pre-season', 'In-season' and 'Off-season', under each of which was a detailed list of activities on strength conditioning, power and jump training, speed and agility drills, aerobic and anaerobic conditioning, and flexibility exercises. Akashi, in all honesty, was impressed. She had clearly given much thought on this matter before she came up with the final thing.
Nijimura rounded them up, and announced that they'll be having a fitness test first thing that afternoon. Everyone performed them perfectly, and Kimiko recorded all their data on her black leather-covered notebook. The next day, she arrived in class looking a bit sleepy, and Akashi found out why later during their practice. From the results of their fitness test the day before, the girl had practically spent all night drafting out their individual training menus that was designed to bring their skills to a certain level in a period of three weeks. She stifled a yawn as she handed Akashi his menu.
"Here you go..." She covered her face with the rest of the papers as she cannot held her yawn any longer. "Excuse me." Her eyes were a bit teary.
"Oi, Kimiko, don't go straining yourself too much," Nijimura said in brotherly concern as she gave him his menu last. He read what she had written for him, and he glanced at the once-again yawning chartreusette. One of her eyes was closed, and when she wiped the tears that gathered at the corners of her eyes, Akashi was reminded of a cat that was washing its face with its paws.
"You're really good at this..." Nijimura said in a low voice, awed. "Where did you learn all this?"
"Tell you later, Captain," she replied with a smug smile. "Right now, you have training to do." And to the rest of the first-string, she said louder. "All of you as well. Follow what was written on your papers. Now hop to it." She blew her whistle as a signal. "Hajime!"
"See you tomorrow, Sei-chan!" Mibuchi bid him goodbye as they reached the part where they have to part ways. Turning their backs to one another, they continued their journey home on their own, Mibuchi plugging in his headphones and singing along to some JPop song, while Akashi walked on in silence, still lost in his reminiscing of the past.
He was passing by a branch of Maji's which was near his apartment when out of the fastfood joint's door stepped a certain chartreusette, biting down on a burger. Their eyes met and they stopped, regarding each other silently, carefully.
"Seijuurou," she said by way of greeting when she had swallowed her food.
A trait of Kimiko: she calls everyone by their first names, except when she was talking about a person to a crowd. Like, she would call their captain 'Nijimura-senpai (outside the gym) or Nijimura-taichou (inside the gym) only when she was referring to him in front of or to other people, but when she was talking with him face-to-face, she would use his first name Shuuzo.
"Kimiko-san," Akashi greeted back politely.
She frowned lightly, then told him "You make me feel old. Call me Akumi."
Before they knew it, they were walking side by side, chatting about small things, and Akashi was able to find some interesting things about their manager. Even though she has the tendency to be sarcastic at times, Akashi does not find her boring to talk to, unlike most people he comes across in his daily life.
"Here's my place," she said, stopping at an apartment building three blocks away from his. "Where's yours? Is it still far from here?"
"No, it's that one over there," he pointed to a towering buiding up ahead. She nodded, then gave him a smart pat on the shoulder.
"Oh, I see. Well, nice talking to you, Seijuurou. And thanks for the company," she had a knowing smile on her face. "Though I never expected the heir to be like this. Guess I was wrong. See you tomorrow then!"
She turned to go, but Akashi stopped her by grabbing her wrist.
"What?" she asked.
Akashi was looking at her intently. "How did you know I was —?"
"Hah?" she shook her hand, releasing it from his grip. "I don't know, maybe because of your name?" she said sarcastically.
"You expecting special treatment for that?" She raised an eyebrow at him. "Nah, I don't think so. So what is it? What's the fuss with me knowing you as the heir? It's not like I'm gonna shout it out from the rooftops..."
Akashi blinked at her answer. "Sorry. I was just surprised. No one else at school seemed to notice it yet, aside from you."
She rolled her eyes at him. "Like, duh, they're all idiots, anyway. And you're wrong — I'm not the only one who knows about your 'secret' identity. Nijimura-senpai does, too."
"...I didn't notice."
"Does it matter?" She shrugged. "Heir or not, so what? It's just a name, no need to sweat it. What you need sweating over is our training tomorrow. Being an Akashi won't let you get special water breaks or whatever, so prepare yourself. Ja," she turned on her heel and waved at him once. "See ya."
Kimiko walked the rest of the way back home alone, softly singing a nostalgic melody after parting with Midorima and Takao at the intersection. Back in middle school, that intersection was where their group would finally disband into smaller ones — Aomine and Momoi (joined by Kuroko later), Midorima and Murasakibara (sometimes with Nijimura - and was replaced by Kise later), and then there was her and Akashi.
"Why does it have to end like that...?" She murmured, pausing for a while in her singing and looking up into the late afternoon sky. It was still the same horizon that she saw every afternoon years ago — the same red-orange sky and the same yellow rays of the sun that always made his hair look like it was aflame.
She picked up where she left off, and realized with a start how fitting the song was to her state right now. She smiled bitterly at the coincidence of it all, as memories of days long ago flashed in her mind with every line she sang.
At our parting point, we'd let go of the other's fingers
Turn our backs toward each other and walk our own ways
"Ja, see you all tomorrow. Satsuki, c'mon."
"Dai-chan, I haven't said goodbye to Akumi-chan yet — Dai-chan!"
"Hmm, I think I'll go buy some snacks~ Midochin, you go ahead~"
"Murasakibara, you already have eaten enough snacks for today. Akashi said so. Not that I'm worried for your health or anything."
"See you tomorrow, everyone. Keep safe on your way home."
"Ja, minna — another day of training tomorrow! Look forward to it and get lots of rest tonight!"
When I suddenly looked back
You were no longer there
"See you tomorrow, Seijuurou," she said, stopping in front of her apartment building.
"You too, Akumi. Don't stay up late," he replied, referring to her tendency to pore over the team's skill sheets and do a detailed - sometimes unnecessary - analysis of the results of their latest fitness test and see if she can do anything to improve it. "The preliminaries are going well, and we can still get the championship this Interhigh if we just continue with the existing training menu."
"Hai, hai... Now run along, it's getting late." She dismissed him with a wave of her hand, as if she was shooing a bird or something.
"Aren't you going inside yet?" he asked when she remained by the gate.
"Aren't you going home yet?" She shot back, and the redhead sighed.
"Remember what I told you, Akumi. Go to sleep after you finished your homeworks."
"Yes, yes, I know. Just go already." When she can no longer see Akashi's figure, that was her cue to go inside as well.
The stories you told me the - visions you painted
The scenery we saw today-I won't ever forget
"If we keep going like this, no doubt, soon we'll be the best basketball team in Japan," she said, flipping over the pages of her black notebook where she kept all the records of their individual and team progress. They were now preparing for the Winter Cup, and as she reviewed their scores in all their matches during the newly-concluded Nationals, Winter Cup would be theirs as well. "What do you think, Seijuurou? Seijuurou?"
Akashi snapped from his daze. Kimiko looked at him curiously. "You seem to be thinking a lot the past few days."
"Oh, yes, I am..."
"Aren't you satisfied with the results of the tournament? We're the champions, right?"
Akashi nodded. "We did win, but there were a few times when it was a close shave. Thinking one or two years ahead, we can't say things are concrete."
She closed her notebook. "Oh, nothing that additional training can't fix..." Kimiko grinned as his eyes widened for a moment.
"Our current training menu is perfect as it is, Akumi." The words 'We're doing our very best to keep up with your high but still reasonable standards' were left unsaid, yet it was evident in the redhead's tone. "It's just that everything is too straightforward. Our victory was gained through sheer difference in skill to our opponents. However, we can't say that will always work. What I want is a curveball... For instance, a valued sixth man who can change the game's momentum when deemed necessary..."
Kimiko listened to Akashi's explanation with a thoughtful look on her face. "A player of that nature... One with a specialized skill — you think we can find someone like that in the club?"
"I haven't found someone in the first-string that have the potential to be that person. But I have a feeling that he's somewhere nearby."
But the more I thought of them
The more anxious I felt, somehow
The long shadow of mine trembled
They entered the third-string gym with Murasakibara and Midorima behind them.
"Aomine," Akashi called out. The tanned boy looked at them, a ball in his hand.
"I noticed that you've been absent for training the past few days. I was thinking that you've been disregarding the menu I assigned to you for the next two weeks. So you were here all that time?"
"Yeah. Since the other gym's pretty crowded, so the two of us always practice here."
"The two of you?" Akashi asked.
"Hey, what's your name?" Akashi turned his head to look at the person whom Kimiko had directed her question, and was surprised to see another boy standing beside Aomine, who was staring at them in wonder.
"Huh? Was there a guy like this on our team?" Murasakibara asked, looking at the pale boy with sky-blue hair and eyes.
"Your name?" Kimiko asked again.
"K-kuroko Tetsuya desu" was the quiet reply.
"Oh, third-string," she commented. Of course, she remembered — she was the one who called his name during the placement test at the beginning of the year.
Murasakibara immediately lost interest when he learned that this Kuroko was from the third-string. Weak, was what the purple-haired boy thought. He yawned. "Can we go now? I'm pretty sleepy~"
"Shintarou, Atsushi, you can go on ahead."
Akashi was still observing Kuroko. "Strange..." he said quietly. Then in a louder voice, he said, "I'm slightly interested in him."
"Hmm? Love at first sight, Seijuurou?" Kimiko quipped, earning an incredulous from all three boys in there.
Akashi sighed. Turning back to Kuroko, he said apologetically, "Don't mind her. Can you come with me for a moment?"
"I want in! Daiki can wait outside, but not me!"
"Oi,why do I have to go outside?! Can't you just —"
"Out, Daiki, out."
"O-oi! Don't —!"
I fell in love with that simple happiness
I felt as if those days would continue
Everything was a first memory for me
I didn't even care about what would happen the day after
The ball missed the hoop.
"Okay, that's enough," Akashi spoke beside her. He had Kuroko show them his basic skills through a series of drills, and somehow, the redhead had seen something in the boy that Kimiko was yet to figure out.
"This is a first. Someone as devoted to basketball as you, yet the results don't come with the efforts," she commented, speaking her mind out.
It took Kuroko a while to process her words, and when it did, he was unsure if it was a compliment or an insult. "I'm sorry. I'm not in the mental state to accept that statement."
"There's no harm in being outspoken, but you need to know when to speak and when not to."
Akashi ignored her last statement. "Again, don't mind her."
"From what I've seen, your motor skills are not terrible. Your career and amount of practice are enough to call you a veteran. Yet still, I don't feel nothing at all by looking at you."
Kimiko said in realization, "Now that you mention it... It's a bit strange indeed. Practice hard in a sport and anyone's seasoned veteran's aura is bound to show itself. Yet with you, it's like nonexistent!"
Kuroko seemed to wince at the girl's words.
"What Akumi means to say is that you lack presence. And even if she makes it sound like an insult, I assure you that it's not. In fact, your lack of presence is an advantage to you. If you can capitalize on it, it's sure to become an enormous weapon for the team."
Kuroko was confused. "Capitalize on the lack of presence? Can I do something like that?"
Akashi was about to say something, but Kimiko cut him off. It seems that she had figured out what Akashi was trying to tell Kuroko. "Seijuurou means to say that by using your lack of presence, you can do something like — Hmp!"
His hand covered her mouth. "I'm sorry, but this is as much as I can tell you." Kimiko struggled to free herself, but to no avail. As Akashi exited the gym, dragging Kimiko with him, he gave Kuroko his last words.
"When you find the answer, come see me."
Akashi heaved a sigh as they stepped outside into the deepening twilight. They were walking home together as usual, and the redhead had just finished lecturing her about her habit of speaking her mind outright without considering its effect on other people. Kimiko half-listened, answering a half-hearted "Understood" at the end of his speech.
"So is that our sixth man?" she asked him after a moment's silence.
"There's a great potential in that ability of his."
"Then why did you stop me from giving him a clue or something? The guy looks pretty clueless, you know."
Akashi's tone was cold and calculating when he answered to her question. "I've told him everything he needs to guide him in his search for the answer. It won't do any good if we were to spoonfeed him — that would defeat the purpose. I only let the string hang down... Whether or not he can use it to climb up depends on him."
I'd look at you at all times
And smile for you-or so it was supposed to be
But we started to stray from each other in the flow of time
And your hand left mine
That was the first time she saw that side of Akashi. That time, though, she just ignored it. In their team dynamics, Kimiko was seen as the evil one — the one who sends everyone to Hell with her harsh training regimen. It was only later when the 'other' Akashi emerged that the redhead was feared by the other members of their club. Between the two of them, Kimiko was the 'feared one', while Akashi was the 'respected one'. In their second year, when Nijimura passed the captaincy to Akashi, and Coach Shirogane appointed Kimiko as the first-string coach, the two were the ones who led Teiko to victory — Akashi leading the team on the court while she took care of them from the outside. Their personalities complimented each other well, and with Kise's addition to the team, it was almost perfect.
I fell in love with that simple happiness
Even now those days remain a gentle memory in me
If I'd just turn back your hand would be right there for me
Even now I still feel that way
Fast forward to their last year in middle school. Now dubbed as the Generation of Miracles after their consecutive victories in all the major tournaments in their two years of playing basketball, Teiko had its sights on the gold trophy that year as well, starting with Interhigh. However, things were starting to get out of control. Being prodigies themselves, and coupled with Kimiko's brilliant training, the five of them became so skilled to the point of invincibility. Kuroko was rarely sent to the court as the regular players' skills blossomed to new heights. There was no need for Momoi to do her intel job, and Kimiko was having doubts as to improve their training even more to match the level of their abilities. Everyone drifted apart. Their bonds were strained until it finally snapped. First Aomine, then Kise, then Midorima, then Murasakibara, and finally, Akashi. Arguments became the common thing before and after every match, and usually it ends up with some kind of a cold war among all of them. It was still bearable, but Kimiko managed to rein in her temper.
That is, until the issue of demoting Kuroko was once again brought up before her. It was the second time that she fought for the phantom's spot on the team — first was when she and Aomine had bargained with Coach Sanada to give the boy a second chance to prove his worth to the team back in first year — and now this. This time it was her alone, arguing against Akashi who was planning to send Kuroko back to third-string, just as cold as when he ejected Haizaki from the team even though Haizaki had contributed to the team in a way, but with Kise's arrival, keeping Haizaki would be useless when there's a much better choice than him. In the same way, it's like Kuroko was tolerated to be on the first-string since he was useful to the team, but now that he had used up his 'usefulness', it's the end of him as a regular player as well.
During that period of turmoil inside the club, everything before their Awakening seemed like a distant dream to her.
"What could I should have possibly done to prevent all those from happening?"
Kimiko had asked herself that question ever since she retreated to France to forget everything for a while, to clear her head, to take a breather. Even after all the things that had happened, she cannot find it in herself to hate them, to forget them, and though it pained her a lot in the past, here she was again, walking the same old path that had been witness to her smiles and laughters that soon faded to sadness and tears.
With the setting sun behind me and my long shadow as my company
I am climbing up this slope all by myself
When I close my eyes
I see myself from my young days
Searching for someone
In two different places in Japan, standing on different roads with the same setting sun behind them, two people gazed at their lonely shadows that was slowly lengthening in front of them, thinking of the time when there used to be two of them standing side by side, walking the same path, gazing at the same horizon, as the sun continued its slow descent in the west.