The community centre was not an attractive building, grey with varying sizes of windows it was not one of the hot tourist spots which the town advertised about. Still it was where he had to go, where he would be going for the next few weeks and at least it wasn’t difficult to get to. Just thinking about what he was here to do sent another wave of nervous anticipation crashing over him.
A bird cawed from somewhere up above and Suga sucked in a jittery breath in an attempt to steady himself. It had seemed like such a good idea when he’d applied for the position; Daichi was away visiting friends in Tokyo and Asahi’s parents had taken him to Europe for the holidays so he’d had a lot of spare time on his hands. Then an old friend of his from middle school had called telling him about the opportunity to play some volleyball before he started his third year at Karasuno. The centre was running a camp of sorts, attempting to get young children interested in sports and they needed one or two volunteers to act as rough coaches; his friend was going to be running basketball sessions and had invited Suga to apply for one of the volleyball slots.
A couple of fun weeks teaching young children how to play the sport he loved right? Some extra practice before he went back to school and it would prevent him from feeling too lonely with the absence of his friends.
So why did he feel like he’d just eaten Noya’s first attempt at cooking again?
Nauseous, worried, and wondering how to politely excuse himself from the situation without hurting anyone’s feelings.
“Oh you must be Sugawara-san!”
Just like before, foiled before he could properly escape.
The smile on his face felt forced but the girl jogging towards him didn’t seem to notice. She was wearing a pair of sweat-pants and a blue tank-top, long black hair was tied back in a tight ponytail apart from a few strands which had escaped. There was a clipboard clasped in her arms and she looked to be only a year or two older than him. She extended her arm with a bright grin which he shook after a moment’s pause.
“Yes that’s me.” He replied and watched as she scribbled something down at an impressive speed.
“Great, my name is Kaguya Hirasaka I’m in charge of the volunteers here so if you have any issues just come and find me alright?” He nodded his understanding and they started walking towards the entrance. “You’re here to teach volleyball correct?”
“Uh huh I’ve played it for a couple of years and I’m on my high school team.” That information was on his application form but he felt unsure, still trying to find his feet.
“That’s good. Your partner also has a great deal of experience too.”
“My partner?” Kaguya looked across to meet his perplexed gaze and tapped on the clipboard with her pen.
“Yep! We pair up the volunteers to teach the kids, it’s better to have two pair of eyes keeping an eye on them as well.” Suga chuckled at that thinking about the antics of some of the rowdier first years in the club; Noya and Tanaka definitely required more than one mentor when they were together.
“I get it, so who am I with?” He wondered if he’d know the person. Karasuno had played against a couple of schools from the local area in friendly games even if they hadn’t made it very far in the tournament so it was a possibility he’d met them before. He hoped they would be able to get on well together; they’d be spending a lot of time together after all.
“Let’s see, I think he’s here staying with relatives for the holidays and his name is…” she flipped through a couple of pages of text, eyes trailing down the tiny black print, “Wakatoshi Ushijima.”
A frown creased Suga’s forehead. He’d heard that name before, he was certain but he didn’t think he’d met a player with that-
Wait a minute.
Wakatoshi Ushijima, second year wing spiker of Shiratorizawa and considered to be one of the top aces in the Miyagi prefecture. In fact this coming year he’d probably be the number one ace. He’d been famous as a middle school player and had only gotten better each year.
Strong. Dedicated. Smart. Universities across the country had their eye on him already.
He was on a completely different level to Suga who was, at best, a good average player. It was akin to partnering an emperor with a farmer.
He always looked stern in the TV interviews and magazines he appeared in, a frown or blank mask seemed to be his preferred expression. Suga had been able to see a Shiratorizawa match last year and it had been a wake-up call on what was required to get to nationals.
He was the best player Suga had ever seen, and he was expected to work with him for the next few weeks.
The word nervous suddenly took on a whole new meaning.
Dressed in the blue t-shirt with the centre’s logo that Kaguya had given him he stood outside one of the indoor courts at the centre, it would be his place of work for the near future and he was pleased that the equipment looked to be of good quality. He’d been given several documents to look over and a rough lesson plan that he or Ushijima could change if they wanted to.
“Sugawara-san.” He turned to see said girl walking briskly towards him only she wasn’t alone. She was a short person and the impressive height of Ushijima loomed over her as if she was being followed around by a large stone guardian. Stony was the best way to describe his impression and Suga felt the tension in his shoulders hitch up a notch. His smile felt more forced than ever but maybe it wouldn’t be as awkward as he thought, Ushijima was most likely a very nice guy and they may get on well.
At least that was what part of his mind hissed at the cowering, hopelessly intimidated part crying in the dark corners if his head.
“Ushijima-san this is who you’ll be working with during your time here.” An alarm went off in her pocket; she pulled out her phone and frowned down at the screen. “Shoot, I’m late. Listen, can I leave you two to get acquainted? I’ll be just down the corridor if you need anything and the kids should be here in about half an hour.”
“We’ll be fine.” Suga blinked at the new voice; it was deep, deeper than a lot of high school students and Suga couldn’t detect anything beyond blankness. Truthfully it was a little robotic, a little stiff and stilted that felt heavy in Suga’s ears.
Kaguya had already turned around, scribbling furiously away again, ponytail bouncing up and down to match the briskness of her walk.
It was just the two of them now. Silence drowned them in an instant; Suga could feel the moment when the other turned his eyes onto him. It was like getting hit by a laser, all sharp intensity and precision. His manners struck him in a rush and his hand shot out in a jerky motion.
“Nice to meet you Ushijima-san. My name is Koushi Sugawara; I look forward to working with you.” The words were simple but he spoke warmly despite his unease.
A hand clasped his own. Well to be accurate it swallowed his. Suga was very aware of the physical differences between the two of them.
“As do I.” The tone wasn’t cold or anything, no it seriously wasn’t anything simply an absence of feeling or opinion. The handshake was firm, not that he expected it to be otherwise.
Incredibly awkward silence that caused a sinking feeling deep in Suga’s stomach.
It was going to be a lot like this wasn’t it.
After all what does a peasant say to an emperor?
“Suga-san, am I doing this right?”
“That’s very good Sena-kun, you’re really getting the hang of this.” The brown haired child grinned at the praise and rushed back over to his friends. Suga smiled, he enjoyed working with kids and the majority of them were well behaved. Sure there had been one or two squabbles but Ushijima had stepped in and peace had emerged rapidly between the upset parties.
Around him clusters of children practiced tossing, receiving, blocking and spiking; some of them showed great promise, others were average, and one or two were admittedly awful. They all had smiles on their faces though, the pressure of high school sport had not yet touched them and they were simply enjoying the game. Any fears about them not liking him were quickly resolved and he usually had a small group milling around his feet asking for help.
He assumed that part of it was down to him being patient and helpful but he was aware of another reason for the children’s partiality.
Almost against his will his eyes slid over to look at his partner. Ushijima was helping one of the girls with her spiking; he was stood up, staring down at her, and his words came out more as orders than anything else. Suga wondered if he was the only one to notice how uncomfortable the girl looked under Ushijima’s tuition. He wasn’t the only one intimidated by the star player, in a way he seemed to be treating the kids like players his own age and it was putting them under unneeded pressure. This was meant to be a fun, carefree introduction to volleyball not a team practice.
Ushijima must have sensed his gaze because in an instant Suga found himself staring into those intense eyes again. They held gazes for a second and Suga saw something in Ushijima’s gaze, some emotion he couldn’t define. Whatever it was it made him look, if only for a moment, like a teenager. Then he blinked and realised what he was doing. Embarrassment flooded through him and he quickly turned his head away. What was the matter with him? That was so rude!
A small hand tugged on his sleeve and he gratefully turned to deal with another request for help. It was a much easier task then trying to figure out a solution to the obvious awkward atmosphere that followed the other boy around like a loyal dog.
Their interactions were stilted and uneasy. His questions were met with short one-word answers, Ushijima hardly ever started a conversation and when he did it was about volleyball, which would have been fine if Suga didn’t feel completely inept talking to the Wakatoshi Ushijima about their sport.
They weren’t miles apart. The distance would be more accurately described in light-years.
Maybe it would have been easier if they weren’t constantly around one another, a break from the apprehensive atmosphere which swallowed them. Alas this was not meant to be and the only times they were apart were for toilet breaks. During lunch all the children would sit together leaving the two high schoolers sitting in each other’s company for half an hour.
This was even worse because it literally was just the two of them sat in silence, chewing their food, and in Suga’s case desperately wishing for it to end. The failure of his previous attempts to talk to Ushijima always hung over him and he felt discouraged of ever feeling at ease around him.
Today he was making notes at the table, writing down ideas of what to do over the next few days and on another page was a list of food his mom had asked him to pick up on his way back home. He was calculating if he’d have enough money to pick up a snack for himself as well when Ushijima spoke.
“You are very good with the children Sugawara-san.” Stunned at the comment, and who it was coming from, Suga’s pen slipped between his fingers. He lifted his head and blinked stupidly at his table companion before his brain kick-started itself into working.
“T-Thank you Ushijima-san, they’re really well-behaved so it’s not too difficult to oversee them.” Unwilling to let the silence fall just yet he decided to talk some more, Ushijima had started it so that meant he wanted to talk too right? “They’re making pretty good progress too, a lot better than I was at their age.”
Ushijima frowned and stared down at his meal. “One or two have the potential to be good players but the rest are unlikely to excel.” The words sent a chill down Suga’s spine, anger started to prick at his heart and he matched Ushijima’s look with a displeased one of his own.
“So what? They’re having fun, why should it matter how skilled they are at this point?”
“Because it would be pointless for them to continue.” It’s a cold hard truth and Suga hates it, hates it because it’s exactly this sort of sentiment that is at the root of his doubts about his own skill.
“Are you honestly saying it’s pointless for them to carry on playing volleyball with their friends because they’re not as skilled as some of the others?” There’s a heat in his tone and judging from the slight widening of Ushijima’s eyes it’s fairly obvious.
“I did not me-”
“It’s pointless for them to want to stand on the court for as long as they can? Pointless to want to play side by side with their friends? Pointless to want to improve even if at best they’ll only ever be a decent player?” It’s gotten very personal, very fast and Suga knows he’s being a little too sensitive but it stung. It stung to hear someone like Ushijima voice what whispers in his head now and then after another loss. It stung because that logic reduced Karasuno to a pointless team; as if the tears, sweat, and energy they put into it didn’t matter. Reduced to nothing more than a single drop of rain in the middle of a storm.
Below all of that was his own fear, his own worry that he would be replaced next year and a selfish greedy hope that he would. That he wouldn’t have to face the pressure again, but at the same time he longed for it. He just wanted to….
Lungs expanded as he sucked in a deep breath, his hands braced against the table as his anger struggled with self-doubt and horror for having lashed out like that.
“I’m sorry Ushijima-san, my stomach isn’t feeling well,” that was true there was a churning in his lower belly and he felt like he was about to throw up, “I’ll see you after lunch.” The only thought running through his head was leave, leave now because he needed to bottle everything again.
Ushijima’s words had unleashed everything he tried to keep hidden. Everything that kept him up at night. Everything that festered in his mind when he was alone.
He found himself hunched over a sink splashing water on his face and taking in deep breaths. Unbidden the image of Ushijima’s shocked face rose to the forefront of his mind; eyes a little wide, mouth slightly open and eyebrows raised, and with it came the niggling thought that the other boy hadn’t realised what his words would do to Suga. Suga held his head in his hands and sighed.
This couldn’t get any worse. They were going to be stuck in awkward silence for the rest of their time here. It was going to be awkward as hell and incredibly uncomfortable.
Until it wasn’t.
A couple of days after his outburst and Suga was skipping out on lunch, it was shameful but he couldn’t bring himself to face Ushijima on a one to one basis. The result was his guilt for snapping at the teen growing stronger and stronger with each hour he didn’t apologise. So here he was sat on one of the benches outside while hunger started to jab at his mind.
He had thought that he was slightly more mature than yelling at his partner in the cafeteria, evidently he was wrong. Ushijima’s shocked expression remained in the forefront of his thoughts worsening the swirling vortex of remorse in his gut.
He had to do something to fix this.
Something colourful dropped in front of his vision and hung in mid-air. The motion caused him to lean back sharply and his muscles protested as they hit the back of the bench. Ouch.
It took a second for him to realise that the mysterious coloured object was an energy bar and the reason for its unnatural floating was that it was being held up by someone, a certain someone who was tall and had an unfortunate habit of looming over people.
Suga wasn’t sure exactly what his expression was but Ushijima blinked and averted his gaze, shoulders held a little tenser than usual and maybe it was working side by side for a while but Suga thought he looked unsure. Not exactly certain what he was supposed to do he shuffled his feet on the floor.
“You missed lunch again.” He felt his cheeks flush at the calmly spoken words, of course the other would notice they were the only two teenagers there after all.
Silence, a now familiar foe, threatened to fall again.
“You should eat this, you need some food before we start the afternoon activities.”
That was unexpected.
Feeling incredibly off balance Suga raised his arm to take the snack. The other continued to watch him and he felt his skin tingle again under that heavy gaze. Shaking his head to clear his thoughts he slid to the left and gestured to the now empty spot.
“Thank you Ushijima-san, would you like to sit down?” A moment’s pause before the dark haired boy nodded and sat down next to him, the bench creaked under their combined weight and Suga busied himself with unwrapping the food bar. Already he felt more comfortable with the other sat beside him rather than standing up. He could still feel Ushijima watching him but tried hard to ignore it as he took his first bite of the bar.
It didn’t taste all that great but his stomach was thankful for the sustenance.
“I believe I owe you an apology Sugawara-san.” Once again the other’s voice cut through his thoughts and surprised him enough to nearly choke on his mouthful of food. Then he registered the words and two things happened: one, the guilt in his stomach turned into a hard ball of lead two, he spun around to face Ushijima. Ushijima who had moved his gaze from Suga and was now staring at the floor.
He opened his mouth to assure the other that he didn’t need to apologise, that Suga was the one who had thrown a tantrum, but those eyes flicked up to him and the words got stuck in his throat.
“I…I do not do well in social situations, and sometimes…I am clumsy with my words.” He let out a sigh and in that moment everything changed.
How could Suga have been so blind?
Because the person sat across from him was not a super ace, not an emperor of the court, not an incredible prodigy so far above him he couldn’t even reach his feet. No, he was a teenage boy. One who had most likely been isolated because of that very talent. Children did not always react well to others who were gifted; they were jealous, afraid, awed and not inclined to look past that. How many hours had he spent on the court practicing rather than out on the playground making friends?
Beside him was a nervous, socially awkward, boy who was trying to make amends for something he had probably done on accident.
Flashes of his first meeting with Asahi, the initial wonder at his size and strength before the realisation that he was essentially an overgrown puppy who got scared by loud noises.
He thought he’d gotten past judging other’s on their appearances after that. Yet he’d done the same thing the second he found out that Ushijima was his partner, so blinded by the name and intimidating looks that he’d not even attempted to think that there might be more than just that.
All this was adding to the lovely stone of guilt inside.
Forcing his epiphany back he gave Ushijima his full attention.
“I did not mean to offend you and I’m sorry that I upset you.” They were both staring at each other and yes it was awkward but it was also honest. The distance between them didn’t factor in anymore. It was just them, two boys attempting to salvage whatever kind of working relationship they could, and now it was Suga’s turn. Pausing just a minute to take another bite of the bar and swallow it this time when he looked at Ushijima there was earnestness, warmth and guilt instead of a forced smile.
“I will accept your apology if you accept mine Ushijima-san.” Two birds cawed up above. “I have no excuse for acting the way I did, it wasn’t right and I’m sorry for taking my personal issues out on you. You didn’t deserve it. I’m also sorry for acting so oddly around you all week as well.” At this Ushijima straightened and looked like he might interrupt so he forged ahead. “I think I was a little daunted by your reputation and your incredible ability so can we start over?”
It was the second time he’d seen that stunned look, and this time it was under much more favourable circumstances. Taking it as a yes he stuck out his hand.
“Hello my name is Koushi Sugawara. I like volleyball, board games and practicing with my friends. I’m the setter for my high school team and I tend to overthink things.”
Ushijima stared at his hand and then slowly reaches out to take it.
“Hello, I’m Wakatoshi Ushijima. I’m the wing spiker of Shiratorizawa and I’ll be captain this year. I like volleyball.” He paused for a second, trying to figure of something else to say. Suga kept an encouraging smile on his face. “I enjoy playing with my team nearly as much as I do winning. I am not good at conversing with others.”
“It’s nice to meet you Ushijima-kun.” The change in honorific startled them both and Suga almost wished he could take it back, but then a smile tugged at the corner of that stern mouth and something a little like hope lit up those eyes and Suga doesn’t regret it at all.
“I look forward to working with you Sugawara-kun.”
Everything is infinitely better.
They start to work together rather than as two separate people. Suga managed to convince Ushijima to kneel or bend down when talking to the children and to ease up on the serious just a little. He’s pretty sure that the look he gets after one of the boys thanked the spiker the same way he did Suga was the closest he’s seen the other to grinning. Perhaps in return Ushijima asked him to set for him after the session was over.
It was amazing.
After only a few tosses they had found a rhythm, he guessed that it was more down to Ushijima’s skill than his own, and it was thrilling to toss to someone of his calibre.
The sound of the ball slamming into the ground with enough force that he knew few blockers would have a chance at stopping it. The precision and power being displayed were unreal and there was no smugness. Ushijima was his own harshest critic and would frown at spikes Suga thought were strong, he’d ask Suga for his thoughts and gave out clumsy compliments on his technique.
It was fun.
Lunches were no longer periods of static silence. Conversation flowed semi-freely and Suga learnt about the grandparents Ushijima was here to visit for the holidays. He’d had a lot of free time and had seen an advert for volunteering at the centre. Suga spoke of his unimpressive career as Karasuno’s setter but also happier moments of how he first started the game and how he met Daichi and Asahi.
If Ushijima didn’t know much about volleyball then that’s what they’d talk about.
The silences became less frequent. The air between them became comfortable and Suga thought he was getting fairly adapt at reading his usually silent partner.
They both enjoyed the ease.
Suga found that he liked Ushijima. There was something very endearing about him; the way he’d freeze up if one of the children came to him for advice or praise, the time he took to speak in their more personal conversations as if he weighing every word for importance, the quiet confidence in his own skills combined with the burning desire to improve.
In his mind, and he hoped in Ushijima’s too, they were fast reaching a point where they could call each other friend.
It was the start of their final week together and Suga was just rummaging around in his pockets for his phone; he’d heard it buzz for a text. His fingers had just closed around it when Ushijima walked in. That was odd; usually at this point Ushijima was getting warmed up on the court. Suga had a longer journey and was about ten minutes later than him each day.
“Morning.” He called out, taking the errant phone out to check his messages.
“Good morning. My grandmother needed some help in the garden today.” Suga nodded and let his eyes glance over the text from Daichi asking him if he wanted to hang out with him and Asahi this evening. He looked back up to ask about today’s lunch when he choked on air.
The uniform the two of them had to wear was only a blue t-shirt. Suga would pull it on at home and Ushijima would be wearing it by the time he got onto the court. Except today he’d either been in too much of a rush to put it on at home or he normally changed at the centre Suga had front row seats as Ushijima took off his shirt and looked inside his bag for the blue t-shirt.
Front row to one of the most impressively sculpted chests Suga had ever seen.
Suddenly his mouth felt very dry.
It was perfect. Skin stretched over defined muscles. He’d obviously run part of the way because there was a fine layer of sweat over-
Dangerous bad thoughts that needed to be locked in a steel box and thrown in the ocean.
It shouldn’t have affected him. He’d seen guys fully naked before at Karasuno. Tanaka had no issues taking his shirt off and Noya wasn’t exactly a modest person. Daichi and Asahi were fairly strong and he’d seen them bare-chested before.
So there was absolutely no reason why the sight of Ushijima without a shirt should cause his pulse to quicken and his cheeks to blush bright red. He should be immune to such things by now.
(But who could be immune before such a vision of power and masculinity?)
Completely unaware to the turmoil he was causing Ushijima moved to pull on his t-shirt causing wonderful movements and flexing and Suga tore his eyes back to his phone.
He wouldn’t look. He wouldn’t look at Ushijima like that.
(Except the image was seared into his brain and he could feel his palms start to sweat.)
“…-kun, Sugawara-kun are you alright?” That calm collected voice, with maybe a hint of worry pierced his bubble of self-loathing and he looked up to see a now fully clothed Ushijima in front of him. He ignored the whining disappointment in the back of his skull and sat up.
Ushijima hadn’t shortened his name to Suga like most of his friends but he liked the way it sounded in the other’s voice.
“Yes! Yes, I’m fine. Just a little tired.” Giving what he hoped was a convincing grin he stood up and slipped his phone into his bag. “I’ll just put this in my locker and we can head for the court.”
He barely waited for Ushijima’s perplexed nod before leaving at the slowest quick walk he could manage. Ushijima was very observant and they’d spent long enough together for him to notice if Suga was obviously uneasy.
At the other side of the door he pressed his forehead against the wall.
It was just attraction. Just a simple physical attraction. Ushijima had one of the best bodies he’s ever seen so of course he appreciated it.
(Bursts of memories from their time as volunteers streaked across his mind. The growing fondness for the awkward spiker bubbled warmly in his chest. Images of Ushijima slowly relaxing around him, the half-smiles and almost grin, the interesting lunch conversations, and the afterhours practice with just the two of them.)
It had to only be attraction because this was their last week together and anything else would be far too complicated.
“Thank you Suga-san, thank you Ushijima-san!”
A row of children bowed to the two of them in an adorable presentation of gratitude. Suga smiled and saw Ushijima nod at his side. It had been fun. It had gone a lot better than he thought it would and he’d managed to make a new friend as well.
The little group ran for the exit and he chuckled at their energy. It was easy to picture one or two of them being handfuls for their senpai’s in middle school and high school.
The two of them wandered towards the lockers a heaviness hanging over them though it wasn’t because of anything they had done. Tomorrow Ushijima would leave for his home town and it was unlikely they’d meet again for a long time. Despite his hopes for Karasuno Suga was unsure whether or not their teams would meet.
He would miss Ushijima.
Sure it could still get awkward between them and his newly discovered attraction (crush) was a constant niggle in his skull whenever he was around the other but they were friends. He’d miss the lunches, the conversations, the late night practice.
The locker swung open and he reached for his bag, the question of how to say goodbye bussing around his head. There was something he wanted to ask but he wasn’t sure if-
“Sugawara-kun.” His bag swung on his shoulder and he turned with a hum. Ushijima was stood there with an odd look; halfway between nervous and hopeful. “I go back to my home tomorrow.”
“Ah, I know.” He replied with a smile. “I hope you’ve had a good time here Ushijima-kun.”
“I have it has been…I have had…I have enjoyed it, a lot. I did not expect to make a friend.” Suga responded to the questioning tone on the last word.
“Me neither, but I’m glad I met you.” Ushijima’s shoulders relaxed fractionally.
“I feel the same and,” he braced himself for something, “because of that could I get you phone number?” Suga’s eyes widened and Ushijima hurried on. “You can say no, I would just like to make this friendship last longer than a few weeks.”
Affection sprung to life in Suga’s chest and the grin on his face was blinding; big, warm and joyful.
“I’d like that a lot Ushijima-kun.”
He reached down to get out his phone and subsequently missed the light dusting of pink on Ushijima’s face at his smile.
When Daichi asked him about how his holiday went he smiled and said he had a lot of fun working at the centre. In between the browsing of photos Asahi had taken on his trip his phone beeped with a new message and his smile widened as he stared down at the photo of Asahi standing nervously next to a man dressed as a Roman Centurion.
Lots of fun indeed.