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It was a little sadistic, Tsukishima supposed. True, it was just for practice, and true, they were all teammates anyway, but sometimes, he wondered if he had underestimated Ennoshita. It had been his idea to split up the team like that—old guard versus the new.

On paper, it (almost) worked. Their regulars were divided up between the two teams, they mostly had a fair distribution of players who worked well as blockers, and it wasn’t like they had many player combinations that would be threatened by a split in the grades.

In practice, it had him mentally cringing.

Ignoring the fact that the third- and even the second-years had sheer experience on them, the other team had their captain, their ace, their probable next ace, and their libero. Tsukishima was stuck with the freak quick. While both teams managed to have offensive power, the younger team was severely lacking in any sort of defense outside of outright blocking. Ennoshita was their best receiver, and while Kageyama was decent at it, they needed him able to set. It was obvious Tsukishima and Hinata would have to focus on stopping any spikes, because they weren’t likely to get another chance.

“You should have argued for us to have Nishinoya-san,” Tsukishima said thinly to Ennoshita beside him. The other team was comfortably ahead. Even Hinata was starting to whine about it.

“It may be a little unbalanced, but they do have to use him as an actual player, remember,” he replied with a small smile.

“A failed serve is only one point for us,” Tsukishima pointed out. Although it had been funny. Not that he’d admit it.

“Noya’s in the front next turn. I can’t wait to see him try to spike,” Ennoshita said sunnily.

Tsukishima had definitely underestimated him.

But it was Narita’s turn to serve. Yamaguchi and Kageyama nearly collided trying to receive it but somehow the ball made it up to Ennoshita’s waiting spike. Daichi had marked Tsukishima and only Sugawara was there to block, which meant there really wasn’t much of a block at all. He couldn’t help the small sigh of relief at their point.

“You thought the King was going to toss to me?” Tsukishima had to ask, tone mocking. “You may have a little too much faith in the teamwork on this side, captain.”

Daichi only grinned back at him. “You’re a trickier spiker than Ennoshita. Didn’t want to risk it.”

“It wasn’t a risk. The King’s tosses have been getting faster again, and there’s no one to separate the dynamic duo or babysit him,” he said with a pointed look to Sugawara, who was staring hard at Kageyama and Hinata (bickering, in the back, per usual).

“You don’t think you can handle faster tosses?” Ennoshita asked lightly.

Tsukishima scowled. “I think he’ll rely on Hinata even more than he has been. Even he can be self-aware at times. So I’m facing even slimmer odds than normal to spike anything. Don’t bother marking me,” he said, annoyed despite himself.

Ennoshita turned to look over his shoulder to regard their setter with a thoughtful hum. Tsukishima had to wonder if he’d do anything to try to wrangle them. He certainly had no problem keeping Tanaka and Nishinoya in line at times.

“Yamaguchi, nice serve!” Kinoshita cheerfully called as he came up into the front row with them.

Oh, thank god, Tsukishima thought. Their team may have been losing, but they were still winning points through sheer determination. Half of what they’d earned was from Yamaguchi’s last serving streak. He bent over and adjusted one of his kneepads while Hinata enthusiastically and repeatedly called for a nice serve.

Yamaguchi was far less nervous in practice than any games, and he’d gotten far more skilled at serving in a few short months, so Tsukishima was utterly unprepared for the feeling of a volleyball slamming into the back of his head.

There was a beat of silence.

The ball had enough of an angle to bounce off his head and over to the other side of the net, landing neatly in front of a stunned Sugawara.

Hinata broke the horrified silence with a cackle. As Tsukishima gingerly raised his hand to rub at his head, still processing what had just happened—did Yamaguchi really just serve into the back of my head what the actual hell—Tanaka and Nishinoya collapsed into laughter as well. He was fairly certain Kinoshita snorted, too.

“What the hell are you laughing at, dumbass?! Who else do you think has done that?!” Kageyama snarled and abruptly there was one less laughing teammate. His shout broke the spell for the rest of them.

“Are you okay?” Ennoshita asked, eyes wide.

Tsukishima calmly fixed his glasses. His head hurt but he wasn’t dizzy or anything. It could have been worse, but then again, Yamaguchi had just served at him. He had to process that.

“A-Are you alright?!” Yachi squeaked as she came skidding around to that side of the court. She already had the first aid kit in her trembling hands.

“I’m fine,” he replied, waving off their concern. He heard Daichi yelling at the laughing second-years, Asahi and Sugawara were nervously hovering on their side of the net in front of him, Ennoshita and Kinoshita were staring at him like he’d drop dead in a moment, and he had still not heard a single peep from behind him.

Tsukishima narrowed his eyes as he turned around.

Yamaguchi was scarlet and there were definitely tears in his eyes.

“Yama—” the blond started, but was cut off.

“I’m so sorry!” he practically wailed and did an impressive impression of Hinata running from Kageyama. The noise did nothing for his headache. Tsukishima wanted to chase after him, annoyed because why had he run, but instead he crouched down and rubbed at his temples. “Oh my god, Tsukki, I-I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to do that!”

“I should hope not,” he shot back.

“I-It slipped, and I hit it lower, and it was an accident, and…!”

“Tsukishima made Yamaguchi cry,” Hinata said, too loudly.

His head snapped over to turn his glower on him instead, but he hadn’t missed the way that Yamaguchi was, in fact, crying by that point. Hinata jumped and hid behind Kageyama with a panicked noise.

“Are you sure you’re alright?” Daichi asked as he ducked under the net. Tsukishima barely reined in his glare before looking up at him.

He could still hear Yamaguchi sniffling. That annoyed him more than the sudden pounding in his head did. “I’m just fine.”

“If you say so,” he replied dubiously. Setting his hands on his hips, he called over, “Yamaguchi, are you okay? It was just a bump on the head and a missed serve, you know.”

Sugawara knelt down beside Tsukishima, setting the ball beside them, and by that point he noticed that Yachi had disappeared, leaving the first aid kit behind. While the third-year fretted over him, he glanced backwards again and found the girl trying to console Yamaguchi. He felt irrationally betrayed. Which was even stranger, considering his best friend, their pinch server, the one who had shown the most remarkable progress on the team, had somehow managed to serve a volleyball into the back of his head. “What the hell.” He was only half-aware he’d said the last part out loud.

Kiyoko knelt beside Sugawara, picking up the first aid kit and wordlessly gesturing to see if she could check him over. He nodded. Daichi had abandoned them to try to soothe Yamaguchi, too, and Hinata was shouting again about how it wasn’t a big deal and “Tsukishima probably deserved it, so stop hyperventilating!”.

“Why am I the bad guy all of a sudden,” Tsukishima ground out.

“To be fair, we did feel bad for Hinata when Kageyama was set loose on him after their incident,” Sugawara replied kindly.

“I was not set loose on Yamaguchi. In case you missed it, he just hit me with a volleyball. Our pinch server. Did that. To me.” He shouldn’t have been talking to his senpai with so much venom, but the ongoing Comfort Yamaguchi Parade behind him was grating on his nerves a little too much. Yamaguchi was not the victim in that situation. And he had not made him cry.

“Accidents happen,” Kiyoko said.

“Can you stand?” Sugawara asked. He stood and extended a hand down to Tsukishima, who graciously did not bat it away. He grabbed the ball, stood on his own, and tried not to look as irritated as he felt as he adjusted his glasses again.

“I’m perfectly fine,” he told them. Kiyoko made a doubtful noise but did not argue. Sugawara looked two seconds from going into full angry parent mode when he glanced back at the boys clustered at the back wall.

Tsukishima turned on his heel and strode toward the knot of concerned teammates surrounding Yamaguchi. Tanaka gave a hoot of laughter as he approached but Nishinoya jumped up between the blond and his goal. “Stop looking so scary! It was an accident, okay?” he declared at his usual volume. His headache did not appreciate it.

Tsukishima cocked his head back and looked down his nose at him.

“Hey, hey, no more fighting,” Daichi broke in before he could even say anything. And what did he mean by ‘more’? “Back to your positions, both of you.”

“But he’s gonna—” Noya started but Daichi gave him a Look that sent him skittering back.

Ennoshita frowned as Tsukishima approached, and Yachi looked close to tears herself, but Yamaguchi was dry-eyed, albeit still red-faced. “If you’re quite done,” Tsukishima said, and thrust the ball at the freckled boy, “You are up to serve again. Try to avoid my head this time.”

Daichi raised his eyebrows. “Don’t you—”

“The ball touched the floor on your side of the court,” Tsukishima told him, flatly. Technically, sure, he had touched it, but it wasn’t with his hands, and they should be impressed that it made it over anyway, and it was just an incredibly stupid practice game, and perhaps he was daring his captain to say it wasn’t their point. But they couldn’t afford to lose Yamaguchi’s serving streak if they wanted to stand a chance at staying in the (still incredibly stupid) match.

Daichi looked past him, at Ukai, but evidently the coach was leaving it to him. “…Fine. Then I want to see you all back on the court, now!” He physically steered Tanaka back with him.

Yamaguchi looked down at the ball in his hands, avoiding Tsukishima’s eyes. He still looked like a kicked puppy, which was a look he hadn’t seen stay on his face so long for several years. He didn’t like it. He was supposed to be the one who wasn't afraid of or pissed off by Tsukishima all the time.

“You are the reason we have even half of the points we do have against the upperclassmen. So. Continue that,” Tsukishima told him.

“Um, y-yeah, okay,” he replied, still not raising his head. Tsukishima wanted to grab his face and raise it himself, but he’d probably have half the team on him, accusing him of more abuse.

As he jogged back to his spot, he finally realized why the Comfort Yamaguchi Parade had bothered him so much. It was not the fact that he was receiving support from the team, even instead of him, or that half the team apparently thought Yamaguchi was (still?) as fragile as Asahi. It was the fact that they thought they needed to do that because of Tsukishima.

He was not Kageyama. (Or half as sadistic as Ennoshita.) Tsukishima watched Yamaguchi’s second serve fly overhead. It was received fairly cleanly by Nishinoya, went to Sugawara, who glanced over at Daichi and Tsukishima started moving down to block.

Sugawara tossed to Asahi.

Scratch that, he wasn’t half as sadistic as Sugawara.

Tsukishima managed to graze his fingers against the spike, hand already stinging from the force of it, Ennoshita jumping beside him (better timed but too far to the left), and heard Kageyama yell to Hinata behind him. Tsukishima glanced back, just in time to see Hinata jump for a back attack—Daichi already jumped to block in his limited peripherals—but Kageyama caught his eye.

Tsukishima jumped and swung. The ball, miraculously, came to him. It was one of those pinpoint tosses he usually found so unnerving, but he had Asahi in front of him, so he supposed he could forgive it in that particular instance. The ball glanced off of Asahi’s arm, just enough to angle it away from Nishinoya behind him. Narita dove for it, but it hit the floor.

Asahi shrunk away from Tsukishima as soon as they landed. He hadn’t thought he was scowling but he made sure to smooth out his expression as the ball was tossed back to their side. He caught it and handed it back to Yamaguchi with a, “One more.”

Yamaguchi finally met his eyes again with a shy, crooked grin. “Right.”

They scored three more points with his serving (even if one of them was thanks to Tanaka literally tripping over Nishinoya). Ennoshita looked particularly happy with their increase in points, but when he met Tsukishima’s confused stare, all he said was, “You block more enthusiastically when Yamaguchi’s serving.”

“He’s the main reason we’re scoring points right now,” he replied, nonplussed. Sometimes, he didn’t get his teammates. Why couldn’t they make up their minds about whether or not they wanted him to try?

With Daichi’s turn to serve, the front lineup was Sugawara, Asahi, and Nishinoya. The ace was a problem, the setter really wasn’t, and the libero was still a large question mark in Tsukishima’s mind. Nishinoya seemed just as confused as they were when it came to him playing normally, but he was arguably the most enthusiastic on the court. (Which was saying something, considering Hinata was absolutely starry-eyed over the situation.)

Daichi’s serve was as solid as ever, but nothing they couldn’t get. Yamaguchi received it, Kageyama tossed it, and Kinoshita spiked it. Daichi received it easily in turn, and the ball soared over to Nishinoya, and Tsukishima felt like his half of the court was holding their collective breath.

With a surprising leap—it was rare that they saw him jump straight up, but he had impressive height to it, and Tsukishima wondered why their team kept collecting freakishly-jumping short people—their libero tossed the ball.

They knew he had been practicing setting, but it still came as a bit of a surprise, and Tsukishima had to admit he’d expected Nishinoya to try to spike it, anyway. He and Ennoshita clustered in front of Asahi, tensing to try to block him, but the ball went over his head.

Sugawara jumped up and spiked it.

Rather pathetically.

Tsukishima and Ennoshita stared at him with fairly matching expressions of disbelief, frozen in front of Asahi.

Is this a joke? Has the entire team lost their mind? he wondered, oblivious to Kageyama’s snarl as he was forced to receive the weak spike. Nishinoya was cackling, despite the ball still being in play. It became their free ball, and he was still laughing when he bumped it over for Sugawara to set. Tsukishima was half-expecting him to take a dump shot then, too.

Sugawara glanced at Asahi, but Tsukishima was wise to his ploy, and tugged Ennoshita down from jumping prematurely. True enough, he tossed back, and Tanaka roared in approval at getting the opportunity for a back attack. But the two of them were there, perfectly timed, and it was enough to stop him.

“It’s very entertaining to see what they use when they don’t have Kageyama and Hinata again,” Ennoshita remarked as they rotated out.

“They’re toying with us,” Tsukishima deadpanned.

“Suga is the one who helped me get this team idea through Daichi and Ukai-san. It stands to reason that he’d have some fun with it.”

“And it certainly doesn’t help that they’re ahead by almost ten points.” He almost asked, then, why Ennoshita had suggested the idea in the first place. It wasn’t even a test of endurance; this was a test of seeing how long it took for them to lose. They were two points from losing the first set. It was unlikely they’d ever use that team competitively.

Ennoshita didn’t respond and Tsukishima went back to serve. Yamaguchi gave him a thumbs-up and Hinata bounced in the front row, calling out support. At least with him up there they could start using the freak quick again. Even with his speed and Kageyama’s tosses, they couldn’t quite get the swing of back attacks yet.

His serve went out. Tsukishima ground his teeth and Tanaka laughed. “At least you didn’t hit anyone!” the second-year called.

Yamaguchi squeaked.

“This game is not worth the aggravation,” Tsukishima said and sighed.

“But that’s why we’re doing this now instead of later, right?” Yamaguchi replied.

“Huh?”

He cocked his head and blinked at him. “Ennoshita-san probably wanted to figure out how we’ll play without the third-years. And he put Tanaka-san and Noya-san on the other team because they’re just as good—he wants to see what the team will be like next year, doesn’t he?” Yamaguchi said, voice rising like he was suddenly unsure.

“…Huh,” Tsukishima echoed. He wondered why he hadn’t just come out and framed it that way when the practice game was announced. “Then why are the third-years fooling around so much?”

“It’s fun?” Yamaguchi guessed, shrugging. “We… They… don’t really have a lot of time left to do this sort of stuff, and this is already a pretty silly match. There’s not much to lose right now.”

At least someone else halfway admitted to the ridiculousness of the game.

They finally got to see Nishinoya’s spike attempt after Sugawara’s serve. They had returned the ball, Sugawara had given him a fairly decent toss to work with, and Hinata had been on him with an exuberance bordering on manic. The two jumped at the same time, Hinata predictably getting more air, and Nishinoya did manage to hit the ball. It was just a terrible hit, too far down on his hand, and it smacked the net, coming back down on their side (to Asahi’s vocal dismay).

The problem was that Nishinoya was used to using more momentum in his jumps. Probably. He was too far forward and hit the net himself, flailing briefly, and must have somehow snagged Hinata through it, because they were both tangled in a matter of seconds. Hinata fell heavily on his ass with his shirt untucked and halfway tugged off his head; Nishinoya dangled from the net, stuck, legs kicking fruitlessly.

Tsukishima had to lean on Yamaguchi with how hard he was laughing. His friend was laughing just as hard, gasping for air, sliding against him as they tried to prop each other up. He was certain he could hear quite a few others laughing, too, in spite of Ukai’s bark.

Asahi and Narita managed to detach Nishinoya, Hinata started squawking in dismay (or awe?) when he noticed Kageyama was laughing at them, too, and with a particularly breathless laugh Yamaguchi lost his balance. Tsukishima narrowly avoided collapsing on top of him and Yamaguchi’s face slipped down and smushed against his collarbone. He pulled back at once, face still red from laughing so hard, and chirped, “S-Sorry, Tsukki.”

“You were trying to win the set with that?!” Tanaka shouted from across the court, and oh yeah, it was match point. It only made Nishinoya’s spike attempt that much funnier. Kinoshita clamped his hands over his mouth to muffle his giggles and Ennoshita sighed.

The older team won the set during the next serve, thanks to a rather straight play with Asahi. Tsukishima could only feel relief that it was over, but that soon twisted back into irritation when Ennoshita grinned and asked if they were switching sides for the second set. They had lost by thirteen points.

“Hm, we need to work on our defense,” Ennoshita hummed as they traded sides.

“You think?” Hinata asked.

Kageyama gave him a filthy look. “Did you not notice how badly we played there, dumbass?”

“They’re still not playing totally seriously,” Kinoshita pointed out. “At least not offensively. If they really wanted to, they could just have Azumane-senpai and the baldy steamroll us and we would hardly stand a chance.”

“Suga is giving us the time to play, which is why he hasn’t been tossing to Asahi very often. I don’t think he’s been tossing as much to Daichi, either. He’s the only one who hasn’t seem to catch on that they’re just messing around,” Ennoshita said.

Can Daichi-san mess around? Isn’t he always a scary, overbearing guy?” Hinata asked, lowering his voice as if the captain could somehow hear from across the gym.

Ennoshita looked over to the other team’s huddle, where Sugawara was very animatedly talking to Daichi and Tanaka. He smiled when he returned his attention to his own team. Tsukishima was beginning to dread that faint little smile of his. “I’m sure he’ll figure it out. What we need to figure out is how to get past their receives. Hinata’s speed is always useful, but they know him just as well as we do. Does anyone have any ideas?”

“More fast attacks!” Hinata said at once, practically sparkling.

“We just said we need something else, too!” Kageyama snapped and smacked him.

“There’s merit to simply trying to race them, but we’re a team,” Ennoshita reminded them.

“Tsukki can spike, too! I mean, he can spike in a lot of different ways,” Yamaguchi chimed in.

Tsukishima frowned at him. Kageyama frowned even more deeply and looked away. “Yamaguchi should receive more. He’s probably our next best receiver after Ennoshita-san and the King.”

“He’s also pretty tall,” Kinoshita said. “Not that it’s easy to notice, since he’s always hanging out with tall, blond, and scary here, but you can’t be so scared to get in there and block, too.”

“What did you just—”

Ennoshita cut across Tsukishima and told them, “Hinata, I’d like for you to swap starting positions with Kageyama. That will put Kageyama, Tsukishima, and Yamaguchi up as the blockers for Suga, Asahi, and Noya, since they seem to be the troublesome group.”

Why are we getting so strategic over a stupid practice game? Tsukishima wondered, yet again. Even if this was just Ennoshita’s ongoing experiment (combined with Sugawara’s ongoing fun), it was just one match. Half of them were already starters and knew how each other played. They were very unlikely to ever play competitively with the same team as they had right then.

But at the same time, he felt uneasy chasing that train of thought. The game already felt different—accidents and stupidity notwithstanding. Chatting with Ennoshita, regularly relying on Yamaguchi’s serves, unable to count on Daichi or Nishinoya saving balls…

“E-Ennoshita-san,” Kageyama said, before they split, still as stiff as ever, “I have one more idea for this team formation.”

Ennoshita and Kinoshita raised their eyebrows expectantly, the latter breaking into an expectant grin.

“Part of the other team’s advantage is how well they know us and our playing styles. We’re not only up against their own experience, but their experience with us. Many of our points last game were from things they didn’t expect—so shouldn’t we do what they’re doing? Unexpected things as well?” he asked seriously.

“Are you suggesting we troll them back?” Kinoshita asked, grin widening.

“Woahhhh, Kageyama can have fun ideas, too!” Hinata exclaimed.

“You think anything involved in the game is fun,” he snapped back.

“I think that’s a wonderful idea. Have fun with it,” Ennoshita said with a beaming smile.

‘Have fun with it’, Tsukishima thought sourly as he took his starting position. He was still having issues with motivation and expending effort, and now they expected him to have fun, too? The club was going to kill him.

But Yamaguchi’s smile beside him made things a little better.

Sugawara looked down the line at their blockers, mind visibly working, and Nishinoya bounced on his feet in front of Tsukishima. He didn’t return his grin. “Ready for round two of this beatdown?” he asked.

Tsukishima smirked. Have fun, huh? “You’re not a libero right now. And you’re taunting a player who’s thirty centimeters taller than you,” he replied with an airy tone.

“Let’s see you get through Tsukki’s block,” Yamaguchi added.

“Let’s see him get it over the net first. We may be waiting awhile.”

Nishinoya fumed, expression set in a dark scowl, and on the back line, Tanaka actually growled at them. “Cut it out with the shit-talking! Don’t you two forget who your senpais are here!”

Tsukishima and Yamaguchi exchanged a look. He hadn’t meant to get Tanaka involved—they knew firsthand what a mistake that was—but if they had already crossed that line… Both pasted their best shit-eating grins on their faces and Tsukishima mentally prepared himself. “I don’t remember you getting many spikes past us in the last set, either, Tanaka-san,” he told him.

“Is that a challenge?!” he retorted with a frightening sneer.

The rising volume had grabbed Daichi’s attention, but he didn’t intervene. It looked like he was planning on loosing Tanaka on them.

“I don’t remember a whole lot you did against Yamaguchi’s serves, either,” Tsukishima continued. “Oh, wait, I remember—you tripped over Nishinoya-san and stopped him from receiving it, too.”

“Five whole points off of my senpai in one streak,” Yamaguchi added. The pride in his voice did funny things to Tsukishima.

“You won’t get a single point off us this time!” Nishinoya declared.

“And I’m going to enjoy breaking through your blocks!” Tanaka added with a shark-like grin.

Tsukishima was aware of Ennoshita watching the exchange curiously. He didn’t want to turn to him, do anything to pull attention from them, but he hoped the second-year was going to use this opportunity.

The second set started, and completely predictably, Nishinoya and Tanaka were on Tsukishima and Yamaguchi like rabid dogs.

Also completely predictably, with Nishinoya forced to be a regular player, his skill level plummeted. He tried to block, but he didn’t have Hinata’s jump height (though their reflexes were scarily comparable) and didn’t know how to angle his arms to make up for it. It was mostly luck, but after a toss from Kageyama, Tsukishima managed to feint and the ball went through Nishinoya’s outstretched arms and landed between him and Tanaka.

They probably weren’t getting any peace for the rest of the game after that. Tsukishima sincerely hoped that either Ennoshita or Kageyama was smart enough to use the fact that they’d successfully drawn them away from doing much else. He consciously ignored the fact that he’d willingly turned himself into a decoy.

Nishinoya was clearly unused to being so bad, and between Tsukishima and Yamaguchi, they could block most of Tanaka’s spikes, especially since they knew he was coming straight for them. Sugawara was beginning to use them less, shooting worried looks across the court, especially as Nishinoya approached nuclear meltdown. Daichi looked like he regretted not reining them back when he had the chance.

What was better was the ripple effect it had; with Nishinoya a vibrating ball of frustration, and with Nishinoya constantly next to Asahi, the ace was beginning to crumble. Tsukishima had never seen him so nervous while on the court, which was saying something. When he completely missed a perfectly good toss, he realized they had just figured out how to win.

It was dirty, and some small, horrendously sentimental part of him worried about crossing lines (he thought uneasily of Oikawa’s tactics and selfishly hoped that no one else would). He’d never cared enough about many other people to learn how to pull his punches and it wasn’t as if he particularly liked Nishinoya or Tanaka, but they were his teammates, for better or for worse. He wondered when he’d begun to care about that fact.

Sugawara’s toss went to Nishinoya, as if hoping against hope that he’ll make it, and Tsukishima’s block was mostly an accident as it ricocheted off his shoulder. Their team took the lead with that point, and Tanaka looked half-ready to start a brawl. “Pathetic,” he drawled, before he could stop himself, really. Being an asshole was second-nature to him.

Asahi looked to be steadily nearing tears and Sugawara motioned Daichi over in the back line. Tsukishima had enough self-awareness to realize he had probably crossed the line.

“I’ve just about had it with your trash-talking!” Nishinoya snarled, yanking on the net between them.

“And what are you going to do about it?” he replied mildly. He wondered if he’d be able to dodge a punch from him. He then wondered how terrified Sugawara would be if a fight broke out. And how terrifying Daichi would be.

“Noya,” Sugawara called, right on cue.

“Nice serve, Narita,” Daichi said loudly. Asahi jumped at the volume of it with a high whine.

Kinoshita received the serve, but it went back to the other side as a free ball, and Tsukishima figured that wouldn’t end well for anyone. Tanaka all but roared for the spike and Asahi cringed back, away from Sugawara—Tsukishima did not miss the way the setter reacted, pain flitting across his expression, and Nishinoya made a strangled noise in front of him—and Daichi ran up for a back attack with his glare on Tsukishima.

Sugawara tossed to Tanaka. He was probably hoping against hope again that they could fix it themselves.

Tsukishima jumped to block, only to feel a sharp yank on his jersey, strong enough to throw him off. Tanaka spiked through his arms, very narrowly avoiding the top of his head, and Tsukishima turned to look at Yamaguchi.

Tanaka and Nishinoya did their usual boisterous winning cheer, multiplied by the libero’s stress-induced frustrations. Yamaguchi didn’t meet his eyes, staring straight ahead. Sugawara looked ready to faint with relief.

They scored off of Narita’s second serve, which meant it was finally time for Tsukishima to get off the front lines. Ennoshita flagged him down before he could serve. “I know,” he said before the second-year could say anything, “I shouldn’t act like that to teammates. I’ll work on my team spirit or whatever it’s called. I don’t need a lecture.”

“That’s not what I was going to say,” he replied.

Tsukishima arched an eyebrow.

“You’re usually so quiet during matches. You should talk more,” he said with yet another sunny smile. Tsukishima definitely associated that smile with dread by that point.

As he stepped back to serve, his mind reeled. He had verbally attacked other teams before (with Tanaka too, in fact), but normally he was told to stop. Yet he couldn’t hear Ennoshita’s words as anything but permission. It was so incredibly unlike the current captain that it staggered Tsukishima. Permission to act like an asshole. Encouragement to do so. Or was that Ennoshita trying to encourage him to have fun?

“Tsukki, nice serve!” Yamaguchi cheered from ahead of him.

Tsukishima briefly considered serving it to the back of his head.

Tanaka and Nishinoya were making faces at him from the other side of the net, the taller with both middle fingers up. Without the third-years around, was Ennoshita going to turn them loose on opponents, too?

Sugawara received his serve, although it may have been out (or damn well close), and the inanity continued: he sent it to Daichi. Who then tried to toss. From a technical standpoint, it was a working toss, since his hands were positioned right and the ball did bounce off of them in an angle that may have almost been on purpose. Kinoshita and Tanaka burst out laughing and Nishinoya crowed in delight when the toss came to him. There was no way it was going to turn into anything.

Yamaguchi didn’t even jump and instead watched as Nishinoya got stuck in the net again. Tanaka had run across the court to lean on Sugawara for support, cackling all the while, and Kinoshita had his hands on his knees as he wheezed weakly.

“See, Daichi? It wasn’t that bad!” Sugawara called.

Holy shit, their captain was actually blushing. “Just get Noya down from the net. Again.”

“D-Daichi-san, toss to me next!” Tanaka gasped out. His arm was slung over Sugawara’s shoulders and Tsukishima was positive that was the only way he was remaining upright.

“I’ll toss it at your head if you don’t cut out the laughing!”

“Well, it’s nice to see the captain isn’t so solid in everything, at least,” Tsukishima called over, earning a snicker from Yamaguchi.

They only narrowly lost the second set. Kageyama’s unpredictability plan had worked, but it had been a double-edged sword; it wasn’t as if they were used to each other’s tricks any more than the third-years were. Tanaka had rebounded magnificently after his successful spike and seeing Daichi toss, and while Nishinoya didn’t suddenly become any sort of spiker, he did manage to score exactly one point that Tsukishima suspected was on purpose from Kinoshita.

He was glad it only lasted two sets. Kageyama had been turning into a monster while trying to keep up the points, and Hinata had missed two of his tosses. Yamaguchi had nearly gotten one to the face. Daichi offered to buy all of the losers meat buns on the way home from practice, which had Hinata positively screeching for joy, and Tsukishima was almost convinced he was off the hook until the captain and vice-captain cornered him while they were taking down the net.

“Tsukishima,” Daichi started, using his most impressive disappointed father tone, Sugawara nodding at his side, “don’t hold any grudges, alright?”

“…Alright?” he repeated, because that had not gone where he’d feared.

“You know how fired up Tanaka and Noya get,” Sugawara said, as if he needed reminding.

“And while it’s not as if you have a temper, really, I don’t want this to become a problem,” Daichi added. The conversation was going further and further away from where Tsukishima thought it was headed. “Tanaka might trash-talk with the best of them, but you should know as well as I do that he’s loyal to any member of this team, and—”

“I’m sorry,” Tsukishima said, squinting at him, “Do you think I’m mad at Tanaka-san, captain?” Shouldn’t they be having this conversation with the second-year instead? Or Nishinoya?

“You seemed to be picking a fight with him during the game, and things got a little more heated than what we’re used to,” Sugawara said delicately.

Tsukishima definitely did not jump when a hand clapped him on the shoulder. “Tsukishima will be alright,” Ennoshita said with That Smile.

Daichi frowned at him. “Are you sure that’s a wise decision? This can lead to a lot of trouble—”

“It won’t hurt anyone for him to talk a little more during matches,” he replied.

“Am I the new attack dog?” Tsukishima politely inquired.

He also didn’t jump when he felt a weight hit his back, and then, bizarrely, stay there. Tsukishima was half bowed over, and it took him a moment to realize that it had been Nishinoya who’d hit him. The shorter boy had tackled and climbed he and Ennoshita both and was bracing himself on their shoulders, a head taller than the both of them.

“Chikara’s got this! We’re gonna use Tsukishima’s asshole powers for good! It’ll be like our own personal Oikawa!” Nishinoya said with a bright grin. Tsukishima flinched at the parallel. If anyone noticed, they didn’t say anything.

“I can’t serve nearly so well,” he mumbled.

“That’s what you have Yamaguchi for!” Nishinoya said, unperturbed. “He’s the scary serving, you’re the scary word-ing.”

“You can’t let the team go around picking fights with others,” Daichi warned.

It dawned on Tsukishima that these were all actual, concrete plans. They were fairly treating Ennoshita like he would be the next captain, Ennoshita was already making plans for the new team, and apparently, he trusted Tsukishima (and potentially Tanaka) to pick his battles.

“Hey, are we talking shit again?!” Tanaka inserted himself into the conversation and there were getting to be too many people for Tsukishima to be comfortable. He still needed time and space to adjust to the fact that his new captain was content to let him be instead of making him behave.

Tsukishima ducked out from beneath Nishinoya and Ennoshita’s arms and retreated quickly. He thought he had made a fairly clean escape, but Sugawara popped up again before he’d made it to the showers. “We don’t really want a whole lot of changes after we leave, but some things are inevitable,” he offered.

Tsukishima regarded him warily before he pushed open the doors. It sounded as if Hinata and Kageyama were having their usual yelling match inside. They immediately quieted at Sugawara’s presence.

“Daichi worries about the team picking fights, that’s all. Especially with the reputation we’re growing again,” the third-year said with a smile. Tsukishima was beginning to distrust smiles on the upperclassmen.

“I don’t pick fights,” he replied flatly.

“And please, continue that trend. I need to go make sure Daichi doesn’t get into a fight himself, so we’ll meet you at Sakanoshita in a bit, alright? You don’t have to wait for us!” With that, the vice-captain left.

“Everything’s going to be different next year,” Kageyama said without warning.

“That’s what happens,” Tsukishima replied gruffly. Only the first-years were in the locker room, and it felt a little weird to be alone with them when the future was the topic at hand.

“Ennoshita-san will be a good captain,” Yamaguchi said.

Hinata paused in pulling his shirt off, head bobbing. “I liked playing with him. Who do you think will become the new regulars?” he asked, probably innocently, but Yamaguchi’s shoulders went rigid.

“Dumbass! We’re going to be losing our senpai and everyone’s probably worried about that instead!” Kageyama snapped at him, but there wasn’t much heat. “…They probably haven’t even discussed new team formations yet.”

“I wouldn’t be worried if I were you two,” Tsukishima told them, lip curled. “With Sugawara-san gone, you’ll be our only setter unless we get fresh blood. And if the King is on the court, then I’m positive his favorite peasant has job security, too.”

“Tsukki, don’t,” Yamaguchi said in a low voice.

“Ennoshita-san is going to graciously allow me to be myself, so why not speak my mind?” He should not have said that. Not to Yamaguchi especially. He was still reeling from the fact that Ennoshita was okay with psychological warfare and the latent realization that it was so easy for him to go with that, dangerously easy, and his sense of filtering was running on empty.

And the annoyance he’d felt earlier when everyone expected him to be an asshole to Yamaguchi came back in full force.

His teammates honestly thought that was his default state. And it was. But it was rarely acknowledged, least of all by half the team, several times, and in different ways, in a single day.

“I don’t think you’re that much of an asshole,” Kageyama said, and the room fell silent.

“…Hah?” Tsukishima intelligently replied. He began to suspect the entire day had been a very bizarre dream.

Kageyama scrunched up his nose and he looked even more emotionally constipated than usual. “Alright, you are.” That was better. “But you’re part of this team, so I thought I should say that anyway.”

“Did the King really just try to comfort me,” he deadpanned.

“Stop calling him that!” Hinata jumped in, as literally as ever. Tsukishima jerked back from the orange hair suddenly in his face.

He turned from him, not answering, because he wasn’t even sure what they were supposed to be arguing about. All he knew was that he was annoyed, and confused, and thinking about a very different next year.

“We’ll figure out who the regulars will be when we do. We still have a few months left with the third-years, anyway, so I’m sure they’ll figure it all out before they l-leave,” Yamaguchi said. “And I’m sure we’ll get another setter with next year’s first-years.”

“Why would I care?” Kageyama asked bluntly.

“O-Oh, um, well it must be reassuring to have someone in case something were to happen—”

“Like when you block with your face!” Hinata chimed in helpfully.

Kageyama shoved him into the nearest locker.

“Maybe we’ll all be pushed to the bench with new players next year,” Tsukishima said, unable to help but poke at the wound. He’d never been benched, not seriously. Not like Yamaguchi, not like Kageyama or Hinata and definitely not like his brother.

“God, why are you in such a pissy mood today?” Hinata demanded. “We’re trying to have a moment here!”

“Is that what we’re doing?” he replied thinly. It definitely hadn’t felt like a moment, and Tsukishima didn’t do moments, anyway.

“Tsukki’s not the only one who keeps ruining it,” Yamaguchi pointed out.

“I don’t need to have a moment,” Kageyama retorted.

“Kageyama’s always in a pissy mood! Well, okay, so is Tsukishima sometimes, but he made you cry today! Normally it’s only stomachaches that do that!”

Yamaguchi went scarlet and Tsukishima resisted the urge to pull his best Kageyama impression and throw Hinata into the wall or something. “I didn’t make him cry!” he snapped, fresh layers of annoyance settling in, especially once he saw Yamaguchi’s expression. Which, again, looked close to tears. “Stop looking like that, it’s pathetic. It was just a missed serve.”

“See, Kageyama, that’s how you should—ow, oww, let go of me!”

“He’s the pinch server, dumbass. He’s supposed to be a good server. Unlike some people here. That’s like Oikawa-san missing a serve.”

If Tsukishima heard that name one more time that day he was going to scream. “Oikawa missed plenty of serves,” he spat.

“Do you think he ever served into the back of someone’s head?” Hinata asked, utterly oblivious to the grave he was digging for himself, even while Kageyama had him by the collar.

“I’m going to go shower. I’m tired of talking about that damn serve.” He slipped off his glasses and tossed them onto his stuff before grabbing his towel and leaving them there. His head was still a little sore if he touched it, but that was it. Just a bruise.

By the time he’d finished showering, a good chunk of the upperclassmen had noisily joined them. Daichi, Sugawara, and Ennoshita were still missing, he noticed. “And I want to learn to spike, too!” Nishinoya exclaimed with a leap at Asahi. “I don’t see how you do it all the time! It was so cool!”

“It helps when you’re thirty centimeters and twenty kilos bigger,” Narita told him.

“You’re not that big and you manage,” Nishinoya replied, then caught sight of Tsukishima before he could slink around them to his stuff. “Hey! Tsukishima! Call me senpai and I’ll practice with you!”

“I don’t think learning to block you would be constructive for either of us,” he said, squinting at them, really wishing he could get back to his glasses.

“No, not that—”

“Against me!” Tanaka declared. Tsukishima probably liked that idea even less. “Noya sets, I spike, you block!”

Yamaguchi popped up from somewhere behind the knot of second-years-plus-Asahi (whom Nishinoya was still literally hanging off of). He handed Tsukishima his glasses. “Hey, Yama, you too!” Nishinoya burst out, making him jump, “Call me senpai and you can practice with us! You and Tsukishima blocked so many of Ryuu’s spikes—”

“Let’s play a two-on-two game on Monday after practice!” Tanaka all but commanded.

Tsukishima spared him a cold look. That sounded like the worst idea

“Okay,” Yamaguchi answered.

Tsukishima glared down at him, betrayed and annoyed. He did not want to sign up for more time spent with the team’s shenanigans, but especially Tanaka and Nishinoya’s. He had certainly already served his Annoying Blocking Practice sentence at the Tokyo training camp.

Yamaguchi managed to tug him semi-safely out of the locker room after that. “Why,” Tsukishima demanded as soon as the door swung shut behind them.

“We’ve never played a two-on-two match together. It will be fun?”

“Then why with them.”

“You’re good at blocking, and Tanaka-san is probably going to be the next ace, isn’t he? It would be good for you two to practice against each other.”

“You aren’t my mother, Yamaguchi.”

Surprisingly, Hinata and Kageyama were waiting for them outside, Hinata’s bike already retrieved. Tsukishima had to be in hell if the forced team spirit training was continuing. Yamaguchi and Hinata struck up a conversation about some anime they both watched, and he could only feel relief that he wasn’t expected to join in. He was about all socialized out. Normally, he could get through practice and maybe exchange two dozen words with the others.

Yachi and Kiyoko caught up with them just as they started walking. “Are you still doing okay?” the tiny blonde squeaked, and Tsukishima was honestly not sure if she was asking him or Yamaguchi. They exchanged a look.

“Just fine,” Yamaguchi replied and smiled.

She pressed a hand to her chest with a sigh. “Oh, thank goodness. It’s still really stressful to see the players so upset, and today was just—n-not that there was anything wrong with today! It was, uh, fun to see the senpai acting so silly, but no, wait, we should be training seriously, even if they’re—”

“Hitoka-chan,” Kiyoko said, placing a hand on her shoulder.

“R-Right! Oh, sorry!”

“It’s important to be less serious once in awhile,” the older girl added. The ‘especially for the third-years’ hung, unsaid, between them all.

“I wanna do another silly game!” Hinata exclaimed before the future thoughts could get oppressive. His cheeks were pink and he bounced as he walked, his bike jingling. “I wanna go whoosh and bwoah and try to set, too! Then Kageyama can spike it and he can see how he likes it!”

“No.”

“But you can spike!”

“I know I can, idiot, but there’s no way you can toss.”

“Daichi-san could,” he pouted, cheeks puffed out.

“Daichi-san has two years of experience on us and probably practices with Suga-san a lot.”

“And it was still mediocre at best,” Tsukishima had to add. Yamaguchi nodded. While seeing Kageyama aggravated had its entertainment value, he didn’t fancy getting a Hinata toss to the face.

“Normal games are fun, but today’s was fun in a different way and I wanna do it again sometime,” Hinata maintained.

“I get what you mean,” Yamaguchi agreed. “Well, it was harder in a lot of ways, but it was a little… freeing? There was less pressure.”

“Is that why you served into Tsukishima’s head? Do you only work well under pressure?”

I’m going to serve into your head if you don’t drop it!” Kageyama snapped and slapped him upside the head for good measure. Yamaguchi chuckled nervously and shied away from them.

“But Kageyama’s serves are scarier.”

“How many times do you go to the bathroom before each competition?” Tsukishima asked archly. Hinata stuck his tongue out at him and then darted around to hide behind Kageyama. “I don’t think you’re one to talk about nerves.”

“It’s okay to be a little nervous!” Yachi piped up loyally.

She didn’t have much room to talk. Then again, Kiyoko (and himself) aside, their present company was basically the kings of poor nerves. All they needed was Asahi and Ennoshita.

It wasn’t long before they made it to Sakanoshita. Even the few other workers at the small store knew the team by face and name by that point, and Kiyoko ducked inside while Hinata tried to describe (with no small amount of sound effects) what he thought it would be like to toss. When she came back out, arms full, it became a race to see who could turn the reddest, fastest. Yachi probably won.

“You didn’t have to buy these for us,” Tsukishima mumbled as Kiyoko went down the line, passing out pork buns.

“Da-Daichi-san said he would! For us!” Kageyama stuttered.

“I’m your senpai, too,” she replied simply.

Yachi was holding onto hers like it was the holy grail. Hinata looked like he was receiving the Olympic gold instead of a snack. “Th-Thank you!” Yamaguchi squeaked.

Kiyoko smiled, small and maybe a little shy, and Yamaguchi won the second round of the race.

“Kiyoko-saaaaaaan!”

She smoothly sidestepped the two second-years who’d taken running leaps at her. Not that face-planting dampened their spirits at all.

“Do we get meat buns, too?!” Nishinoya asked hopefully, hands clasped in front of him.

“You were part of the winning team,” Ennoshita said as he came trotting up behind them. It looked like the rest of the team trailed behind, just up the road. He gave Kiyoko a smile and asked, “Or are you just spoiling the first-years?”

“I am now,” she replied. Yachi gasped softly as she looked down at the half-eaten gift in her hands with a new eye.

“Ah, that’s too bad. I guess we’ll just have to rely on the captain’s generosity.”

Tsukishima was honestly approaching his limit for socializing, as kind as they were being. He nudged Yamaguchi and grumpily shoved more bun into his mouth. “Ah, we’re gonna head off now. See you guys on Monday!”

There was a chorus of goodbyes and waves, more than usual. He wondered how he had managed to earn more teamwork points during such a stupid practice session.

“Still have a headache?” Yamaguchi asked.

“No, just tired.” He finished his pork bun and fished around in his bag for his headphones.

“Oh. Well, that’s good? Th-That your head isn’t still hurting. I didn’t nail you that hard, did I?”

“If anything, I have a headache from putting up with them all afternoon.”

They parted ways in front of Tsukishima’s house. Some small part of him had hoped that Yamaguchi would want to hang out for awhile—he was always exempt from the Other People Are Stressful thing—but he was glad to have the quiet time. He put on a relaxation playlist and dozed in his bed, unable to bring himself to care about an actual meal or his homework.

He was woken up again not quite an hour later, unaware he’d fallen asleep in the first place, and looked at his ringing phone. “Mmwha?” His glasses were askew and one side of his face hurt from how his headphones had pressed into him.

“Let me in?” came Yamaguchi’s voice.

He wanted to point out that they’d just seen each other. But, as groggy as he felt, he was still glad. He shuffled downstairs and unlocked the door. Yamaguchi stood in front of the door with a bright smile and suspiciously pink cheeks. Tsukishima snapped his phone shut. “What’s that?” he asked, nodding to the plastic bag in his hands.

“It’s just cake, Tsukki.” Still suspicious. “Strawberry shortcake. It’s, uh, just from that store on the corner, but here! The chocolate one in there is mine.”

Even more suspicious. But Tsukishima was incredibly susceptible to bribes, so he took the bag and allowed him inside. “What are these for?”

“W-Well, I did sort of hit you in the head today.”

“I think you apologizing and bursting into tears was enough for me.” He set the bag on the table and went into the kitchen to retrieve forks.

“And I don’t want you ducking out of the two-on-two with Tanaka-san and Noya-san next week,” Yamaguchi added sheepishly. “I think it’d be really fun to play against them.”

Tsukishima rarely looked so sour when there was cake right in front of him. Yamaguchi chuckled, at him, which was another rarity.

“A-Also, I sort of didn’t mean to, um, cry. Or hit you! D-Definitely not that, but you sort of,” he made a gesture Tsukishima didn’t know how to interpret, “straightened back up into it? It was a slip-up but it wasn’t as if I was aiming at you.”

Tsukishima faintly remembered bending over to pull up a kneepad. It clicked.

Yamaguchi had been embarrassed. He was embarrassed because he had missed a serve because he had been staring at his ass.

He broke into his widest smirk. “Yamaguchi, really?” he asked in a scandalized tone.

The freckled boy stubbornly looked away. His nose was scrunched up, cheeks red and puffed out, and he missed the stab of cake he’d meant to make.

“I think I should get both pieces of cake for that.”

“It was an accident! And I wanted to apologize for it, and come clean, so, uh, there. Let’s drop it now, Tsukki. …Please,” he said, voice bordering on pleading.

“But I feel so victimized. My head hurts so much remembering it.”

Yamaguchi stood up without warning and leaned across the table. He grabbed Tsukishima by the face, yanked his head down, and pressed a kiss against the top of his head.

When he released him and sat back down, his face was red. Tsukishima had a feeling his was, too. “Now you can stop,” he said seriously.

“You should have done that at practice. Maybe then the team wouldn’t have assumed I was about to murder you.” He speared a strawberry with his fork and popped it in his mouth. If he was going to be expected to play guard dog with Tanaka in the future, it’d be nice if the rest of his teammates didn’t expect him to actively turn on them.

Even if he would.

But only if they were acting like idiots.

“A-Anyway,” Yamaguchi said, face still red, “even if we’re losing the third-years soon, and even if Ennoshita-san decides to use you to freak out the opponents, you have to promise me one thing, Tsukki.”

He gave him an expectant stare over the fork in his mouth. He wasn’t really in the mood for more bullshit about team spirit and friendship, drained as he was from the day. Cake couldn’t fix everything.

“You’re absolutely not allowed to scare the new first-years on purpose,” Yamaguchi ordered.

He smirked around the fork. “No promises.”

And really, he should be trying to secure promises that he’d behave himself on the court when he knew how easily distracted he was. But Yamaguchi was thinking of the team, like Ennoshita did, and while Tsukishima still didn’t understand the logic behind trying so hard—just replace Daichi and Asahi with whoever gave them the best defensive boost—he could at least be distantly pleased that someone cared. Someone else cared and someone else was content to let him not care. That was the sort of team dynamic he could get behind.