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Close to the Chest

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Yahaba Shigeru only starts playing volleyball on a whim. Years later this will make him feel guilty, when he is surrounded by teammates who had dreamed of playing from the first match they'd seen on TV or the first time they'd felt the weight of the ball against their palm. The truth is, Yahaba never had a moment like that, a moment where his dreams crystallized and he could see himself standing on a National stage with only his skill and game sense to guide him. No, Yahaba choses to play volleyball during his first week of junior high for a few small reasons, none of which would stand up to rigorous questioning.

He knows he's going to join a sports club. His parents expect it of him, and Yahaba doesn't want to disappoint them. His father had been on his school's wrestling team through his last year of high school, even gone to a championship match once, and speaking about those days is one of the few times Yahaba ever sees his father's face twist with so much emotion. That Yahaba would also play sports during his school career is a given.

His father would like it best if Yahaba had gone into wrestling as well. He might even show some excitement at his son following in his footsteps, but Yahaba can't bring himself to do it. The few times he's tried wrestling in gym classes he'd hated it. The press of someone else's body against him with no space between them, the way the mats felt sticky with sweat against his skin, how close you had to be to your opponent - it was humiliating and Yahaba couldn't shake the feeling that everyone was staring at him.

"What club are you going to sign up for, Shi-chan?" Itsuki, his best friend at the time, asks him as they walk to school on their second day of classes, schoolbags swinging from their shoulders. "I'm going for the brass band."

Yahaba shrugs. "I dunno yet," he says. "Basketball, maybe? Something like that."

"Wah, cool!" Itsuki says. He's an excitable kid, curling dark hair always falling into his eyes and lips never far from a smile. Yahaba likes that about him, likes a lot of things about him. "You'll be an athlete, Shi-chan!"

"I probably won't even get to play for another year or two," Yahaba says.

"Hmm…" Itsuki pauses for a moment before hitting his fist into his hand like he'd made an amazing deduction. "I know! You should join the volleyball club!" At Yahaba's confused glance he continues, practically sparkling with enthusiasm. "I heard some people talking about it the other day, but apparently our school's volleyball club is really small. So if you join it, you can probably even play official matches in your first year!"

"Eh…" Yahaba hadn't really meant his statement about not getting to play as a complaint. He would be fine sitting on the bench, he thinks. He doesn't really want to stand out, have people staring at him and heaping pressure on his shoulders.

"Oh, come on, Shi-chan!" Itsuki reaches out and tugs on Yahaba's arm excitedly, almost overbalancing the pair. "If you get to be a starter, I can come to your games and cheer you on! I'll be the first member of your fan club!"

"Stupid!" Yahaba says, shoving his friend away and trying to hide the odd blush he could feel heating his neck. "Like a school volleyball player would get a fanclub, anyway…" he grumbles and changes the subject, not sure why he is feeling so weird all of a sudden.

Three days later, though, he submits his application to the school's volleyball club. It was just a random choice, he tells himself. After all, a smaller club means fewer people to try to get along with, which is a plus. He doesn't really care which club he ends up in, so any reason is good enough to tip the scales.

Later, he wonders at the decision. Wonders if he really joined to see if Itsuki was telling the truth, if he'd show up at Yahaba's games and cheer him on, and if the reality of that situation would produce the same strange, fluttery feeling in his stomach that imagining it had done.

It's a moot point in the end. Even with the small size of the club, Yahaba still needs months to learn the basics of volleyball. By the time he's good enough to play in even a practice match, he and Itsuki have already drifted apart in the way that many childhood friends do in junior high. In different classes and clubs, the two just don't have enough in common anymore. And after a few years of just passing each other on the way to class or awkwardly trying to keep a conversation going on the way to school, any odd feelings the other boy had brought out in him have dwindled away to nothing.

Yahaba tells himself it's a relief, not a disappointment.

---

His middle school team is solidly middle of the pack, skills-wise. In any given tournament, they usually advance one round, maybe two, before coming up against a school that is more serious, works harder, and attracts more talent. At that point, they are soundly defeated but go home with their heads held high, glad that they worked together as best they could and made good memories. It's a relaxed dynamic and Yahaba enjoys it.

Then in his second year, they go up against Kitagawa Daiichi and Yahaba sees Oikawa Tooru for the first time.

He'd played against serious players before, of course. Just the year before, he'd played almost a full set against the boy already being called a 'Super Ace', Ushijima Wakatoshi, after their main third year setter had crumbled against the unrelenting onslaught of attacks and the coach had flung the terrified Yahaba in as a last ditch effort to change the game's momentum. That effort had failed.

Oikawa is different, however. If Ushijima's presence on the court was like that of broadsword, slamming through all resistance, Oikawa's is that of a dagger, slid between his opponents ribs with a delicacy that belies the strength it takes to puncture through muscle to the heart. Not a single detail of play seems to escape his intense brown eyes and any hint of weakness is pounced on, turning small mistakes into devastating openings for attack.

He steals Yahaba's breath away.

Kitagawa Daiichi moves on from pummeling Yahaba's team to winning second place in the tournament as a whole. Oikawa wins the prefecture's Best Setter Award and Yahaba watches him accept it from his spot with his team.

"He deserves it," he breathes as he watches Oikawa beam over the award while trading words with his team's ace.

"He's out of your league," one of Yahaba's teammates, their second year libero, says with a grin.

Yahaba jumps guiltily. "Wh-what?" His heart is thundering in his chest and he wrenches his eyes away from the ceremony in front of them to stare at his upperclassman.

"Don't take it personally," the libero continues. He's perfectly calm, watching the proceedings as if he isn't doing his best to make Yahaba's heart quit its job from stress. "There probably isn't any setter in our prefecture that is in the same league as him unless there's an actual genius running around."

It takes Yahaba's brain a few minutes to catch up and then he laughs, much higher and harder than is warranted. Oikawa is out of his league as a volleyball player, as a middle school setter, as an athlete. Obviously. "No kidding," he said, trying to regain his normal calm. "He must have been practicing for ages to become that good."

"I'm sure he'll be invited to Shiratorizawa for high school," their team captain muses, having overheard their conversation from the row ahead. "If he wasn't before, he will be now."

"Ah, scary," the libero says, rubbing the back of his neck. "A setter that good on the same team as Ushijima? Nobody else in the prefecture will have a chance. We might as well all quit and take up more realistic high school dreams like dating the cutest girl in school! Right, Yahaba?"

"I'll stick with volleyball, thanks," Yahaba says, because he knows it will get a laugh from his teammates. They often make fun of how he stammers when girls talk to him, how he blushes at just asking the girl's volleyball team who has the gym that weekend or their manager that he needs a new towel. They joke about how Yahaba is scared of girls, is scared of crushes.

They're right, if not in the way they think they are. Yahaba has been scared of girls ever since he'd walked home with a female classmate who he'd been partnered with for a English project and he'd been teased for days about his 'girlfriend'. He'd walked home with boys plenty of times before and had never realized that walking a girl home was supposed to be different, hadn't felt different to him when he'd done it. Since then he'd started overanalyzing all his interactions with girls, waiting for the feelings everyone talked about to finally bubble up to the surface. The more they didn't arrive, the more anxious he became.

If other people misinterpret that, Yahaba is okay with it. It means some teasing, but he can handle teasing more readily when it is about a problem he doesn't have, a problem he sees reflected in TV shows and manga and the way his teammates complain about their ineptitude against the cute female volleyball team that shared the gym with them, rather than the problem he does have, which he feels an instinct to hide because he doesn't see it reflect anywhere and that terrifies him.

---

Something changes after that tournament. Yahaba starts trying harder in practice, uses his free time to study the game and famous setters, does exercises he finds online that will increase his ball control. A lot of what he finds is disheartening. He's not a bad player and the time he puts in does translate into improvement on the court, but he's nothing special by any means and it seems like no amount of work is going to change that.

You never wanted to be the best, he reminds himself after a particularly embarrassing fumble in the second practice game of his third year, where he set the ball far too close to the net for the spiker, the team's ace and captain Sakuma, to stand a chance of getting it. Volleyball is just a club activity and you don't want to be a pro athlete or anything like that, so don't get so discouraged. Improve or not, it really doesn't matter.

Still, he can't get rid of the knot of disappointment in his stomach as he apologizes to the team after the game has concluded. "I didn't play well today," he says, looking at the locker room ground rather than their eyes. "All the spikers were on a roll and I didn't get the ball to you the way I should have… I'm sorry."

He's surprised when he's greeted by laughter. "What are you apologizing for?" Sakuma asks, his kind brown eyes crinkling. "You did the best that you could, right?"

"I did…" Yahaba says. But I wanted to do better, he doesn't say.

"So then there's no point being down about it now, right?" When his words don't seem to have an effect, Sakuma frowns and propels Yahaba toward the exit. "C'mon, I'll treat you to yakitori."

"You don't have to do that!" Yahaba exclaims, embarrassed. First he messes up on the court and now the captain is going to spend money trying to cheer him up? It's all too much and Yahaba opens his mouth to dissuade him.

"No arguments!" Sakuma says, wagging his finger under Yahaba's nose as he struggles to keep a straight face. "And that's an order!"

They walk in silence to the store, Yahaba mulling over a way he can get out of this awkward situation with some modicum of grace.

"You don't need to be so hard on yourself, Yahaba," Sakuma says as they lean on the wall outside the store and eat their chicken, watching the wind stir up dust from the road in thin tendrils that grab uselessly at the air before falling back to the earth.

"I just want to be better," Yahaba says, feeling like he's admitting something strange. He's never done anything in his life to stand out, so why does it matter if he stays just an okay setter or not? It's embarrassing that he cares so much about something that shouldn't matter to him in the first place.

"Of course you do," Sakuma says before taking another bite and chewing thoughtfully. "You know, sometimes I think that it was a mistake that I was made captain instead of you."

Yahaba gapes at him for a moment, forgetting that he'd lifted his yakitori stick up to his mouth and is standing like a slack-jawed idiot. "Th-that's ridiculous!" He splutters. He was never even in the running for captain, didn't want to be. "I don't- Nobody would listen to me and-"

Sakuma ignores him, tone staying quiet and unhurried. "Everyone can tell you've been working extra hard lately. I think it's been inspiring to the other guys, especially the underclassmen. We're all so used to being mediocre that we all just focus on not being bad, you know? But you're actually trying to become good and everyone can tell. It's kind of infectious."

"I didn't mean to-"

"I'm not scolding you, Yahaba," Sakuma says. He turns so that they're facing each other, lamplight highlighting the planes of his face as he smiles slightly. "I think it's really great that you want to get better. I just don't want you to beat yourself up about not becoming perfect over night." He reaches out and gently tugs on a tuft of Yahaba's hair that's flopped over his temple, still messy from the game. "I need my setter in good shape, okay?"

Yahaba blinks, lets his eyes slide from Sakuma's broad hand to his face, from his kind eyes to the way his lips are halfway tilted up in a smile that hints at a dimple in one of his round cheeks and feels his neck grow warm and his breathe come thick.

Oh, he thinks.

Shit, he thinks.

Well, that explains a lot, he thinks.

I wonder if I can repress this for a few years and deal with it later, he thinks.

You haven't said anything in almost thirty seconds since he touched you and it'll get indescribably weird if you don't say something right now so hurry up, the most useful part of him thinks.

"I'll do my best," he says, smiling widely so he has an excuse to close his eyes and cramming his mouth full of chicken so he doesn't have to say anything else.

---

He doesn't really manage to repress it, but that doesn't mean he confronts it head on, either. The realization floats around his consciousness for months. He'll be filling out a math test or washing dishes in his family's cramped kitchen when it will suddenly bubble up - I like boys, I like boys, I like boys - and he has to take a minute, breathe in and out while feeling the realization fill his mouth before swallowing it down, returning to whatever he was doing as if it wasn't just fluttering on the tip of his tongue.

He wonders if that would go away if he told someone.

He wonders who he could possibly tell.

He doesn't really have any close friends. He'd grown apart from Itsuki, from all the kids who lived nearby that he'd played with as a child. He's on good terms with everyone on the team but they all treat each other with a certain degree of formality. He's not close enough to any of them to be able to guess their reactions.

He can't imagine telling his parents. They have expectations, firm plans for the path his life will take, plans that probably include a wife and children. Yahaba can't imagine what would be worse, if they were angry at him and yelled, or if they didn't care, just assuming that he'd ignore what he'd figured out and keep heading down that path they'd picked out like the good son he's always tried to be. He's not sure if he'd be able to resist giving in to either one.

He briefly considers running away from volleyball. Or, to be more precise, running away from Sakuma. It's hard to face the other boy when he's suddenly very aware of how close they are at any given moment, of how many times that almost-dimple tauntingly appears, of the way the air seems to go thin and shivery when their eyes meet.

He can't actually go through with it, though. Just like his attraction boys, his love of volleyball has grown while he wasn't paying attention and he can't imagine giving it up.

He just needs to remember how to act normally, he tells himself, and it will all be fine.

He manages it, just barely. He's always been good at blending in, has years of experience doing just that, and he draws on every ounce of his skill to pretend that he's just like all the boys surrounding him. He's careful, he plans it out. He picks a girl in the class next door, one who isn't interested in his type at all, and pretends he has a crush on her. He creates an imaginary list of attributes he'd like in a girl - good cook, long hair, gentle, serious about her studies - that he can call upon whenever conversations veer toward crushes or attractiveness. He makes sure none of the traits he finds attractive in Sakuma appear in his imaginary list so that he can be assured of his control when they come up.

He's very careful.

It works.

---

He attends every day of the Spring High School Tournament. He wants to see how the schools work together, try to figure out where he could go. He knows he doesn't stand out enough to get invited somewhere to play, won't unless his team through some miracle get to the end of their tournament this year, but his grades are strong enough that he feel confident he could get into one of the better schools. He thinks he'd like to go to one of the top eight, if he can.

He's surprised when he sees Oikawa playing not for Shiratorizawa, as he'd expected, but for another team, Aobajousai. He wonders if it's possible that Oikawa didn't get invited after all, but that doesn't make any sense, not with how good he is. That can only mean that Oikawa chose not to go to the best school in the prefecture and Yahaba wonders why.

He ends up watching most of Aobajousai's matches, though he tries to watch the other blocks as well. He's drawn to watching Oikawa on the court, the way he subtly directs everyone around him with just the movement of his body and a few words here and there that Yahaba can't make out. Even though he's only a first year and Aobjousai's third years are still playing, he spends a lot of time on the court, almost as much as the third year setter.

He's just as amazing as Yahaba remembered. His serves, his set-ups, everything he does has improved, increased in control. Yahaba finds his fingers twitching as he watches. He wonders if he could ever become that good, even if he spent the rest of his life practicing volleyball.

Aobajousai loses to Shiratorizawa in the final. It's the most intense match Yahaba has ever watched and his heart is in his throat the whole time. Oikawa's team manages to steal points from the monstrous champions, manages to make them work for the sets they win. Yahaba's fingers hurt from how hard he clenches the railing the whole time he's watching and when the final whistle blows, he lets out a groan with the rest of the crowd, head dipping forward with the release of tension.

They're all so amazing, he thinks watching the teams shake hands. Like a battle of giants. He can't imagine what it must feel like to be one of them.

His train home doesn't leave until later in the day, so he waits at the gymnasium after most of the crowd has left. Feeling his stomach grumble, he starts wandering around in search of a vending machine, rustling around in his bag for the money he brought with him.

He pauses when he hears voices around a corner, echoing in the mostly empty halls. He makes the turn and then springs back, shocked. Oikawa and one of his teammates are standing in the hallway, changed out of their jerseys into sweats. Oikawa is sagged against the wall as if his legs can't support him, and the other boy is doing his best to lean over him despite being shorter. Yahaba thinks he recognizes that one as being Kitagawa Daiichi's former ace, now also a member of Aobajousai. He didn't play very much in the games Yahaba had seen these last few days, though he seemed mostly likely to be put on the court when Oikawa was on it as well.

"-when you weren't even playing for half the match, anyway!" he's saying in tones harsh with emotional urgency. "So stop being a dumbass about it!"

"I know," Oikawa says, voice sounding clogged. Yahaba realizes he can see tears slipping out of the corners of Oikawa's eyes, slowly, as if he'd been crying for awhile and is running out of energy. "I know, Iwa-chan, I just…"

"We have two more years," the boy Yahaba already has too much respect for to refer to as Iwa-chan, even just in his own head, says. He brings up a hand to brush gently against Oikawa's cheek. Oikawa leans into the touch, just slightly, and Yahaba finds himself leaning forward as well. It's just looks so trusting, so intimate and even though Yahaba feels like he's being a creepy voyeur for intruding on such a moment, he can't wrench himself away.

"Iwa-chan…" Oikawa says, eye fluttering open.

"Hey," the other boy says, voice suddenly gentle. "I think I should take a picture of you and send it to all your fangirls so they can see what an ugly crybaby you are."

Yahaba's mouth drops open in shock, but Oikawa just giggles.

"You're so mean, Iwa-chan!" he whines, but he's reaching up to wipe his face, standing straighter. "Jealousy is really not becoming, you know, and you're already so ugly that I don't think the world could take it if you got worse..."

"I'll hit a crying guy, you know," the other boy says, grabbing the back off Oikawa's head and mussing his hair.

"Bully!"

"Dumbass!"

Yahaba watches the two walk away, turning down another side hallway without ever seeing him, insults never stopping while their shoulders bumped against each other with every step because of how close they walked.

Yahaba thinks about what he saw the whole train ride back. How even someone as great as Oikawa was shattered after a loss, how quickly his friend had managed to pull him back to himself, how close they obviously were. How Oikawa looked, tears sliding down his cheeks, how gently the other boy had touched him. The way they'd walked away together, their steps matching up as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

When he gets home he looks up the admission requirements for Aobajousai.

---

They make it to the third round in their tournament. Yahaba is thrilled, though he knows their success has more to do with the strength of the spikers and defense then his setting skills. Still, he can't help but enjoy the feelings of pride fluttering in his stomach as they arrive on the second day to face their third opponent, Minamisan.

"Now," Sakuma tells them as they huddle up before the match. "Minamisan isn't generally known for being strong, but they've been receiving more attention in the last couple of years. Apparently, that's mainly because of one extraordinary player they've got."

"I've heard of him," the vice-captain says with a nod. "Number 4, Minamisan's aggressive attacker, Kyoutani Kentarou. Apparently he's super strong and always plays all out, even when his team is already in the lead."

Yahaba looks over to the other side of the net. He picks out Number 4 easily. He's standing apart from his teammates in their huddle, glaring at the middle distance. His dark hair and deeply lined eyes just enhance the ferocity of his stare even when he's not aiming it at anything in particular. He's the kind of guy that practically oozes intensity.

Suddenly his gaze swings over and meets Yahaba's, his eyes burning. Yahaba jumps and ducks his head down, unable to meet those eyes for longer than a moment.

"Scary," he breathes out. "He looks like some kind of wild animal."

"Wild animal or not, we'll show him what we've got, right?" Sakuma says, smiling encouragingly at the team, which was beginning to look a bit wilted under the pressure. "After all, we've all been working hard these part few months, so it'll take more than one good player to scare us off, right?" He claps Yahaba on the shoulder and leaves his hand there as they do their chant. Yahaba can feel the warmth on his palm through his jersey and desperately hopes the warmth he feels climbing up his neck isn't translating into a secret-destroying blush.

After they break their huddle, with the team's focus turned safely away, Yahaba reaches up as if to readjust his jersey and lets his hand linger over where Sakuma had touched. It doesn't feel as burningly hot as it seems like it should, given how intensely he'd been aware of it, but it's nice all the same.

When he looks up, Minamisan's Number 4 is still staring at him. Yahaba's eyes widen for a fraction of a second before the referee's whistle blares out, drawing both their focus away.

They lose. It's not even particularly close. Number 4, Kyoutani Kentarou, slams past their blockers, blasting his team into victory after only two sets. Yahaba's school tries to put up a fight, but most of the points they get are due more to Minamisan's mistakes than any skill on their own part. Surprisingly, Minamisan has a lot of mistakes, particularly their ace Kyoutani. He hits the ball into the net, or out of bounds, or knocks into his own teammates and disrupts their rhythm. He yells at them, too, particularly their setter, whenever he doesn't get the ball.

Frankly, their team is kind of a mess that dominates through sheer force, but it works well enough to destroy Yahaba's team's defense. By partway through the second set, he can feel his teammates giving up around him. They stop diving to save balls they might have been able to get, they move sluggishly. As the setter, as their side's control tower, Yahaba feels like he should be able to do something to lift them back up, but he has no idea what he could do.

The game doesn't last for very long after that.

When they line up to shake hands, he finds himself in front of Number 4. Even though his team has won, Yahaba can tell that Kyoutani is angry. His glare is even more pronounced than before and his bottom lip is red as if he'd been gnawing it with frustration throughout the entire game.

A wild animal indeed, Yahaba thinks as he stretches out his hand to shake. He knows there are tears in his eyes and he's trying furiously not to blink and let them escape. He'd worked so hard and it was all over in barely over half an hour just because of one strong attacker. If it wouldn't have left him ashamed, he thought he might be bawling right there in the smelly gymnasium. He wonders what someone like Oikawa would have done differently.

Kyoutani barely touches their palms together, just the tiniest brush of skin to skin, before he drops his hand and turns to stalk away.

"Hey!" Yahaba is surprised to hear himself snapping. He realizes he's reached out under the net and has grabbed Kyoutani's arm, yanking him to a standstill. "What the hell?!"

The other boy turns, slowly, disbelievingly, to glare at where Yahaba's hand is encircling his wrist. "What the hell, what?" he asks. His voice is rough from shouting at his own teammates.

"What, you think you don't owe us a respectful handshake? You think you're that much better than us?" Yahaba can hear his voice cracking and has no idea what he's doing. This isn't blending in, this isn't staying in control, this isn't how he normally acts at all. What is he doing? "You, you, you're supposed to shake my hand and say good game, asshole!" he says.

"It wasn't a good game," Kyoutani says with a snort. He's still not looking at Yahaba's face. "Both sides sucked."

Yahaba has never wanted to punch someone so much in his entire life.

"Yahaba, c'mon." Sakuma's voice sounds unsure. He's never seen Yahaba like this, none of them have. He tentatively places a hand on Yahaba's shoulder, tugging gently. "Let's go get our stuff."

Yahaba drops Kyoutani's arm, lets himself be pulled away by Sakuma. He looks back as he gets to the white line that marks the end of the court but the other boy's already turned, has grabbed a volleyball and is slamming it against a wall.

Yahaba looks away.

They don't stick around for long, even though Yahaba had planned to try to watch Kitagawa Daiichi's game in one of the other blocks. He'd heard that their new starting setter really is some kind of a genius, that he might be even more talented than Oikawa. Yahaba had wanted to see that with his own eyes, unable to believe it, but what had happened after their match has left him feeling sour and strange, like he wants to rip out of his own skin with frustration that had no place to go. He doesn't think he could sit quietly in the gymnasium seats, so close and yet so far from the court. The rest of the team apparently feels much the same way. They ride their bus back to school in silence that's only broken by Sakuma's final speech as captain.

For once, Yahaba can't make himself pay attention.

Chapter Text

Yahaba fills out the application for the volleyball club on his first day of high school. When he turns it in to the second year collecting the forms, a boy with tired looking eyes and thick eyebrows, he tries not to let himself be intimidated by the number of papers already in the pile. You knew this school is popular for sports players, he tells himself. So there's no point in turning chicken now.

Still, he has to steel himself with a long, steadying breath before he enters the third gymnasium for the beginning of club activities. He can hear the sounds of boys calling out to one another, sneakers squeaking on the parquet floor, balls slapping against the walls, the ground, and hands. It seems louder than his junior high's gymnasium ever was, even when the boys and the girls teams were sharing the space.

A sing-song voice behind him pulls him out of his reverie. "Yahoo, what's this? A little intimidated first year?" Yahaba whips around to find Oikawa, in the flesh, wearing the team's practice uniform and shading his eyes as if trying hard to see something tiny in the distance, although Yahaba is not even a meter away.

"Oi," the boy standing behind Oikawa breaks in gruffly. Yahaba recognizes him as well - after the Spring High finals, he had looked up the names of all the players and matched the face and number he'd seen to a player named Iwaizumi Hajime. "Don't pick on the underclassmen."

"I wasn't!" Oikawa protests, voice dropping its silky tone to pick up a hint of a whine. "I was just saying hello, Iwa-chan, that's not picking on someone at all!"

"Maybe if you were a normal person," Iwaizumi says. He steps forward, passing Yahaba. "C'mon," he says and Yahaba thinks he's still speaking to Oikawa until he looks up to find Iwaizumi watching him over his shoulder. "Don't worry, we won't bite."

Yahaba blushes and does his best not to fall all over himself as he enters the gym. Thankfully, the intimidating second years leave him alone after that, heading over to where a group of team members are chatting while warming up. The first years are scattered about the gym, a few clumped in groups of two or three. Yahaba is relieved to see that most of them look as overwhelmed as he feels.

He notices that many of the other first years are taller than him, that their arms are more muscular than his. Gnawing insecurity rears up again, twisting in his gut. He should have done more practices after he stopped his club activities. He had put them on the backburner while he studied enough to get into Aobajousai, but maybe that was a mistake. Maybe he had gotten into the school he wanted to, only to be so woefully underprepared next to his peers that he'd just stay on the bench the whole three years… no, maybe they'd make him take the manager's position, because he was so useless at everything else… no, maybe they'd go so far as to laugh him out of the club from the very beginning.

His increasingly frantic thoughts are mercifully cut off when a hand claps him on the shoulder. He turns to find another first year smiling at him.

"It's pretty intimidating, isn't it?" the other boy asks. His hair is shaved close to the skin and he's short, close to being the shortest person in the gym, but he has hard muscles that are obvious even in the loose practice t-shirt. "But you don't look fazed at all. I'm impressed!"

Yahaba blinks, surprised. He figured his panic would be obvious to everyone around him, but taking an inventory of his body he finds that he's standing still, not shaking, and his face has settled in the usual mostly-blank, semi-interested expression he's perfected to go unnoticed. He wonders if he's so used to trying to fit in that now whenever he gets nervous, he just goes into that mode by default. He's not sure if that's a good or bad thing.

"I may not look it, but I'm pretty terrified," he says, figuring that's the kind of admittance that gets people to trust him more and costs him very little. It's expected to be nervous on the first day of school surrounded by awesome upperclassmen, after all.

He's right. The boy's smile widens and his body language opens up, shoulder broadening slightly. It's a sign of trust, Yahaba thinks. He's used to looking for those signs.

"Me too," the boy says. "I'm Watari Shinji, by the way."

"Yahaba Shigeru," he says. With Watari fully straightened out, it's clear how much shorter he is than the rest of their peers. "Are you a libero?"

Watari's face falls slightly. "Everyone guesses that…" he says, somewhat mournful. "Just because of my height. I'm still waiting for my growth spurt, is all. I'm a setter."

"Sorry," Yahaba says quickly, glad that Watari seems more resigned than offended. "I am too. A setter, I mean."

"Ah, that makes us rivals, I guess?" Watari says, grinning.

Yahaba blinks. He's never really had a rival before, isn't sure he's cut out for that kind of relationship. But Watari seems like a relaxed kind of guy, unlikely to get truly upset over competition over a position. "Sure," he says, then glances at the upperclassman. "Although I doubt either of us will get a chance to play while Oikawa-san's here."

Watari follows his gaze and nods. "That's true. Have you seen him play? He's a monster on the court, it's amazing."

Yahaba isn't sure, but he thinks Oikawa might have noticed them paying attention to him. He's shifting a little, looking like he's almost… preening.

Yahaba is about to reply to Watari when the he catches sight of a new boy entering the gymnasium from the corner of his eye. Something about his stride is familiar and Yahaba turns to get a better look.

It's Kyoutani Kentarou.

He looks different, though not by much. He's a little taller, a little stockier, but the greatest change is his hair. Instead of the black hair he sported at the last tournament, now his hair has been bleached within an inch of its life, still cropped short around his head like a fuzzy blond halo except for two stripes. He looks even more like a delinquent than he did before, the kind of guy people spread whispered rumors about in class and parents move their children out of the way of when passing on the street.

Watari notices his stare. "Hey, who's that?" he asks. "Do you know him or something?"

"Kind of," Yahaba said. "I played against him once in middle school." His voice is moving on automatic while his mind reels. Oh god, what is that guy doing here?

"Is he as scary as he looks?" Watari asks, clearly curious.

"Worse," Yahaba says. He makes himself look away before Kyoutani can notice him watching. He does not need to deal with that guy right now. "He's a total asshole." He realizes his words and tone have come out harsher than would be considered normal in an exchange like this and can feel his neck heating up. Why does his usual control seem to vanish whenever Kyoutani shows up?

Thankfully, before he can get himself into any more trouble, the coaches call everyone over. They introduce themselves one by one, stating their name, what middle school they went to, their height, and what position they want to play. Yahaba doesn't look over at Kyoutani when the other boy speaks and keeps his gaze fixed ahead when his own turn comes around. He doesn't know if Kyoutani recognizes him or not.

The upperclassmen also introduce themselves. Yahaba is slightly surprised when a third year call himself Oikawa's backup setter. He imagines it must be rough, having your position filled by someone younger than you. He certainly can't imagine securing a starting spot from any of the tough looking upperclassmen.

"Well then," the head coach, Irihata, says after the last of the second years has finished speaking. "First years, you'll spend most of your time under Mizoguchi-sensei's care." He motions at the younger trainer standing next to him. "I'm telling you now that he'll work you to the bone, so no complaining that you're surprised when he yells at you for slacking off, understand?"

Mizoguchi steps forward, grinning in a way that Yahaba can't help but think of as slightly evil. His impression isn't helped by the way the upperclassman are covering wicked smirks of their own. "Don't worry, children, we'll start off nice and easy. Do warm up stretches for fifteen minutes and then I want 10 laps from each of you - and the last three people to finish have to do an extra lap, but in flying falls."

Many of the first years smother groans. Someone giggles. Yahaba thinks it's Oikawa, but he can't see the second years well from his spot in line.

Nothing escapes Mizoguchi. "Just because you've technically moved up a year, Oikawa, don't think you're so high and mighty as to laugh at the first years. If you find it so amusing, you should feel free to join them."

Oikawa splutters unhappily. Yahaba thinks he overhears one of the other second years whispering that he deserves it.

On their eighth lap around the gym, Oikawa slips into place next to him. Yahaba isn't surprised. He wasn't sure at first, being too busy focusing on not messing up, of staying solidly in the middle of the running group, safely away from the final three but not so far ahead that he wears himself out, but a few laps ago he'd noticed that Oikawa seems to be moving around the pack a lot, spending a lap in one place, then the next lap in another. Yahaba thinks he might be trying to run a lap with every first year. He doesn't know why.

"Yahoo~" Oikawa says, waving at him. He doesn't even sound winded. "You're Yahaba-kun, right?"

"Y-yes, sir!" Yahaba says. Oikawa is different off the court, he notices. His voice is higher, his expressions more exaggerated. He's just as intimidating.

"So formal!" Oikawa giggles. "I played against you once, didn't I? In a middle school tournament?"

Yahaba is shocked that Oikawa remembers. His team had barely put up a fight against Kitigawa Daiichi that year and it was so early in the tournament. He'd think they'd be less than a blip on Oikawa's radar.

Oikawa doesn't wait for him to answer, tapping his finger against his chin. "Yes, I remember you! You were the setter in that match, weren't you? You had some pretty good instincts!"

Yahaba feels his neck burning. He'd been terrible in that match, he thinks, unable to keep up with Oikawa's level of play at all. He wonders if he's being mocked. Oikawa's voice seems so light and teasing, it's not hard to imagine that he's making fun of Yahaba. "N-no, not at all," he says quietly, looking down to watch the ankles of the boys running ahead of him. "I didn't play that well that day…"

"Ah, ah, Yahaba-kun's too down on himself!' Oikawa says. Yahaba wishes he would keep his voice down. He's sure the boys running around them are listening intently. "After all, I never said you were good, I said you had some good instincts!"

"Oikawa-san?" Yahaba isn't sure what he means.

"It was clear you had a good awareness of what was happening on the court, where all your teammates were and how they were doing," Oikawa explains. "And you were trying to incorporate that into your tosses. Now, you failed at that, you couldn't capitalize on your awareness at all… but you can learn that. So work hard, Yahaba, understand?" He winks. "After all, I need good setters to take over after I graduate! Although that's still almost three years away, so no need to improve too fast, okay?"

"Yes, sir!" Yahaba says, still in shock. That Oikawa would notice something like Yahaba's awareness on the court, let alone remember it years later and tell him… He's really incredible, Yahaba thinks, not for the first time. And he believed that Yahaba had promise! Even as Oikawa moves away, settling in to talk to another first year, Yahaba can feel his words ringing in his head and realizes he's running slightly faster despite himself, edging toward the front of the pack.

He balks when he gets to the front. Kyoutani is there, well away in first place. He's running at practically full tilt, even though they are only warming up for practice. Yahaba wonders if he's an idiot.

Kyoutani finishes his laps first. Yahaba finishes second, with Watari close behind him in third. Oikawa comes in fourth to last, accelerating while waving mockingly at the three first years who were trying desperately to pass him and avoid flying falls.

---

At the end of the first week, the nine first years have a practice match against each other while the coaches watch. They play three-on-three, rotating team members in and out. Yahaba and Watari both play the full game as the two setters. It's fun to play against Watari, Yahaba finds. Their skill at sets is evenly matched. Though Yahaba has an advantage in height and ball control, Watari thinks faster and better at setting from awkward places after a faulty receive.

Kyoutani is on Yahaba's team. They still haven't acknowledged each other and by now Yahaba is fairly sure the other boy doesn't remember him from middle school after all. It annoys him for some reason, though it's not like Yahaba would want to start off with an enemy on the team. Still, that Kyoutani could just discard the memories of their match, of what Yahaba had said, pisses him off.

When the time comes in the match for him to set to Kyoutani, he can't help but toss the ball slightly too far and too high for Kyoutani's swing. Not so far that he won't be able to hit it, because Yahaba wants the point, wants to win, but just enough that it's outside of Kyoutani's comfort zone and he can't hit it full force. It's a vindictive toss, trying to spread some of his own annoyance to Kyoutani.

To his shock, Kyoutani whips through the air faster than he expected, getting into position and slamming the ball straight down the line.

Kyoutani turns to glare at him, eyes narrowing. It's the first time they've made eye contact and Yahaba represses a shiver of something like excitement, letting his mask slip into place.

Before Kyoutani can say anything, however, the coaches interrupt.

"Nice power," Mizoguchi says. He glances over at Irihata, who nods. "None of the first years are able to block you right now. You're out of the game- go practice with the upperclassmen."

Kyoutani turns away, Yahaba apparently completely forgotten. He can't help but be bothered by that. He'd wanted to know if Kyoutani had realized he'd given him a bad toss on purpose, what he'd say.

After that, Kyoutani works on the opposite side of the gym from the other first years, drilling with the second and third years instead of following Mizoguchi's endless instructions on basics. Yahaba is kept too busy to spare much time looking over at their practice, which suits him just fine if Kyoutani is over there.

He'd rather rid his mind of the other boy completely, but unfortunately that's impossible. Although Yahaba doesn't see much of Kyoutani, he certainly hears a lot of him. It seems like he's always shouting at one of the other players for some mistake or another, even though when Yahaba can't help but steal sneaky glances over, he sees that Kyoutani makes tons of mistakes himself. It makes Yahaba want to march over and yell at him, tell him to get better himself before he dares to lecture their senpai.

Of course, that would probably be just as rude on his part as Kyoutani is acting, so Yahaba just stews quietly and tries to ignore it. He focuses on his own practice, especially memorization and tactics. He talks to the other first years, making sure he's on good terms with all of them.

He grows closer to Watari than anyone else. It's not that they have a lot in common. Watari likes fighting games and working out, while Yahaba prefers to listen to music and people-watch. Despite that, they get along well. Watari is a calm, easygoing guy, slow to offend or get emotional, but sensitive to the moods of the people around him.

Briefly, Yahaba is scared that he'll develop a crush on Watari. He'd intentionally avoided becoming too familiar with another guy in case his feelings got so strong that he did something stupid, something masquerade-breaking. However, all he finds himself feeling for Watari is a sense of comfort and warmth, not anything romantic or sexual.

Yahaba wonders fleetingly if maybe he's cured, if his problem went away while he wasn't paying attention. Then the next day at school, his lab partner in science class leans in close while they are hovering over a microscope. Yahaba can almost feel the stubble from the other boy's cheek against his own.

Of course it wouldn't be that easy, he thinks as he pulls away, tries to get his heart to stop going so stupidly fast. It's not like regular guys have a crush on every girl they meet, so why would I be any different about guys?

He decides to just be happy that he can carry on a friendship with Watari without worry and not think too hard about the rest.

---

About a month later, Kyoutani stops coming to practice. Apparently during a recent practice game, where he'd been given a chance to play against another school in the prefecture, the tensions between him and the upperclassmen had come to a head and he'd stormed off the second the bus had gotten back. He doesn't show up at practice the next day, or the next, or the next, and eventually they just accept that he's left the club.

"If I'd been playing when he was put in, I wouldn't have let Mad Dog-chan treat me like that," Yahaba hears Oikawa telling some of the other second years. He'd nicknamed Kyoutani almost immediately after meeting him. "I'd make sure he'd listen to me with my tosses."

"We've hit your tosses for ages and we don't listen to you," the second year named Matsukawa says in a dry voice.

"He'd probably have slugged you," Iwaizumi says. "Be grateful he was playing with the reserves."

"Rude, rude, all of you are so rude," Oikawa complains. "Someday you'll see what I mean and you'll be sorry to have ever doubted me."

"No matter what, I can promise I'll never be sorry for doubting you," Hanamaki says.

Yahaba thinks about what Oikawa had said. Could he really bring a spiker with such a wild personality in line and get him to play how Oikawa wanted with just his tosses? That kind of thing would be amazing. Yahaba can't imagine himself ever having the confidence to make such a claim, not even if his technical skills were through the roof.

After Kyoutani's departure, something breaks amongst the first years. Others start avoiding practice, avoiding the hard work and drills. It's as if seeing Kyoutani leave has made them lose heart, since he was clearly the most talented of them. Yahaba grits his teeth. He knows that Kyoutani didn't leave because it was too hard - he left because he was a narcissistic asshole unable to work with others. The rest of them don't have that excuse and should suck it up. But he doesn't say that, just keeps doing his own work, maybe putting in a little extra effort, and keeps his nose firmly out of other people's business.

His resolve to stay out of it is tested when he finds Watari slumped outside the club room after the rest of the team has cleared out. He's holding his practice jersey and his face is unreadable. Yahaba had hung behind because he'd noticed Watari had been acting strange ever since earlier in practice, when the coaches had called him over to talk to him after a receive drill. Yahaba wasn't sure why they had done that, since Watari had cleared the drill perfectly. He was the best in their year at receives by a wide margin.

"You okay?" Yahaba finally asks, figuring it's different to talk to Watari than the other guys, who he really doesn't know that well. "You seem… off?" He winces at his own phrasing. Anything other than shallow conversation is still firmly outside of his comfort zone.

"Why do you want to be a setter?" Watari asks. "Like, what drew you to the position in the first place?"

Yahaba thinks for a moment. The real answer is that when he signed up in middle school, his small team needed setters, so he'd chosen it as the position most likely to get him on the court soonest. If they'd be short on middle blockers or wing spikers, he supposes he would have gone for that instead. But that answer didn't feel right to give to anyone in a school like this, where people had practically breathed their ambitions from when they were born.

"I guess I like getting to set up the attacks," he says finally. It's not exactly a lie, he reasons, he just didn't realize it until later. "Getting to choose in a split second which spiker to send the ball to for the best chance of scoring a point."

Watari nods. "Do you think you could ever play another position?"

Yahaba cocks his head to the side. "I don't know," he says. "I guess it would depend on whether I'd be any good at it."

"The coaches are saying that I should consider switching to being a libero," Watari says, finally looking up at Yahaba. "They say that the team is going to need one when Kubota-san graduates and I'd be a good fit for the position."

"Your receives are really good," Yahaba says carefully, unsure how Watari is feeling about the idea. "You don't get to use them a lot as a setter, but you're better than the rest of us at them, I think."

Watari's mouth twitches slightly. "That's true. In matches it screws up the team if the setter receives but I've always been good at them. And I'm short enough to play libero."

"And you'd get to be a starter pretty soon," Yahaba says. "I heard the third years are planning to leave after the Interhigh, so you might take over for Kubota-san then. Starting as a first year is really impressive."

"I guess," Watari says. "It just feels like I'd have been wasting these last few years, trying to become a setter. And… I dunno, I just wonder if I wasn't so short, would they even have thought of the idea?"

Yahaba doesn't know what to say to that. He's not sure what to do in this situation. He can come up with things to say that could push Watari in either direction, but he doesn't know which answer is actually right.

"Watari-kuuuun!" Oikawa's voice pierces through their respective reveries. "Oh good, you're still here! I want to talk to you," He runs up and drapes an arm around Watari's shoulders, tugging him away from the building. "I'll have to steal you from Yahaba for a bit, okay? Iwa-chan can keep him company!" And with that, they've rounded the corner and are gone from view.

Yahaba turns to see Iwaizumi rubbing his hand through spiky black hair awkwardly. "Ah, sorry about him," Iwaizumi says. He apologizes for Oikawa a lot, Yahaba has noticed, though he only tacks on an insult if Oikawa is still within earshot.

"It's fine," Yahaba says. "I didn't know what to say, anyway."

Iwaizumi grunts and the minutes stretch long in awkward silence. Yahaba doesn't know very much about Iwaizumi, though he's always seemed like a polite guy, except where Oikawa is concerned. Yahaba flashes to the scene he'd seen the Spring High.

"You and Oikawa seem really close," he says before he can think better of it.

Iwaizumi laughs slightly. "Do we? Well, we've known each other for as long as I can remember, so I guess it makes sense." Although his words seem rather dispassionate, Yahaba notices a fond smile tugging at his lips.

"Childhood friends, huh," Yahaba says. He leans back against the wall where Watari had been and looks up at the clouds crawling lazily across the sky. "That's nice." He wonders if that really explains their closeness. Maybe the rules are different for childhood friends. Maybe they can be that close without it being anything weird, anything like what he tries and fails not to long for.

"You wouldn't say that if he'd cried at every one of your birthday parties growing up until you gave him one of your presents," Iwaizumi grumbles.

"Iwa-chan, Iwa-chan," Oikawa is back, making a big show of pouting as he throws himself onto Iwaizumi's back, making his friend support most of both of their weight. Watari trails behind him, looking thoughtful. "Don't badmouth to me to the sweet impressionable first years! I haven't done that in years."

"You did that on my last birthday!" Iwaizumi says, trying to headbutt Oikawa from behind.

Oikawa dances back, laughing. "Did not! I didn't cry, I just took it! And besides, that sweater wouldn't have looked good on you anyway, so I was doing you a favor, really."

They continue bantering back and forth as they wave goodbye to the first years and wander away from the gym.

"Did talking to Oikawa help?" Yahaba asks as he and Watari make their own way toward their homes. Yahaba lives far enough away that he takes the train, but Watari walks with him to the station most days so they can chat.

"Yeah," Watari said. He looks a bit shellshocked, the way Yahaba has noticed that most people look after a one-on-one with Oikawa Tooru. Still, there's a renewed sense of conviction in the set of his jaw. "I think I'm going to go for it. Being libero, I mean."

Yahaba wonders what Oikawa said, how he could have discerned what choice Watari should make and then helped him find it himself. He wonders if he could ever do the same for another one of their teammates.

---

Life falls into a routine. Yahaba and the remaining first years mostly drill with Mizoguchi while the older students and Watari work on the other side of the gym with Irihata. Watari practices hard, usually working with Kubota or some of the spikers. Oikawa frequently practices with him as well. Yahaba is surprised to see that when those two work together, Oikawa often has Watari doing tosses from the back line.

Yahaba expects that now that he and Watari don't practice together much, their friendship will dwindle away. To his surprise, the opposite occurs. Watari puts forth the effort of inviting Yahaba over to study after practice more frequently, or to hang out on weekends, or eat lunch together. They talk more about things unrelated to volleyball. It's nice, and Yahaba awkwardly tries to reciprocate.

Slowly, everything seems to come together for Yahaba. He works hard in practice, earning himself praise from the coaches, but the comforting knowledge that no one would ever expect him to come close to Oikawa's talent keeps him from becoming too stressed on days where he doesn't do well. He's on friendly terms with all his teammates and most of his classmates. He's even managed to get over his issue with girls now that he has identified the problem. His secret is firmly safe.

For a short, wonderful period, Yahaba can relax.

---

Trouble arrives in the form of Aobajousai's cultural festival.

It starts out innocently enough. The club captain, a third year middle blocker named Kamei, gathers them around after practice on evening to explain.

"It's our school's rule to have clubs pair up to do something together instead of classes," he says. "Now, traditionally, we've always teamed up with the girl's volleyball team and do a volleyball exhibition where we teach other students some game history and a move or two, but due to last year's incident," he punctuates his statement with a pointed glance Oikawa's way. "The girls refuse to work with us this year."

His declaration is met with a chorus of groans from the boys. A few boo and throw things at Oikawa, who holds up his hands in protest.

"It's wasn't my fault!" he whines. "How was I supposed to know that those girls would start a fight over who I was going to be teaching?"

"Smack him, Iwaizumi," Kamei says and takes a moment to smile as his order is carried out. "Now, luckily, there were plenty of other clubs that don't have partners yet. I reached out to the photography club and they said they'd be happy to partner with us. Hirano-san?"

At Kamei's call, a group of students enter the gym. Smaller than the volleyball club and coed, the photography club looks out of place on the courtside. Yahaba doesn't recognize most of them, although he thinks he's at least seen one or two in the halls before.

"Nice to meet you," a tall girl with short black hair says, waving slightly. She has high cheekbones and catlike eyes, but her smile is open, turning what would have been an intimidatingly beautiful face into an approachable lovely one. "I'm Hirano Suzu, the photography club president. Glad to be working with you!"

The boys around Yahaba clamor to respond to the gorgeous girl suddenly in their gym, bowing too forcefully and generally making idiots of themselves. Yahaba sighs and hopes they'll get over it soon. Even Watari is turning slightly pink and staring at his shoes. Other than Yahaba, Oikawa is the only one who doesn't look flustered, but then, he has the most experience out of all the team members in dealing with pretty girls. Instead of staring at Hirano, he's watching Iwaizumi intently.

"First up, we need to come up with an idea for what we're going to do," Kamei says when the volleyball team seems to have gotten themselves back under control. "Nothing too elaborate, okay? We can't be losing too much time from practice if we're going to go to Nationals this year."

"We don't have much time either," Hirano says with a nod. "Everyone needs to be focusing on getting their entries ready for the contest at the end of that month. So, we just need to come up with something simple to put together but that won't make our clubs lose face. Any ideas?"

People begin calling out suggestions. Dance performances, a restaurant, and a haunted house are all rejected.

"How about a series of competitions?" Oikawa's voice cuts through the discussion, causing everyone to turn to him. He's smiling widely, eyes closed. "Since both clubs are preparing for competitions, it's fitting, don't you think? We can come up with things our members are all ready good at and let people challenge the champions!"

"Stuff we're already good at?" Kamei says. "I dunno… no offense, guys, but I'm pretty sure all you lot are good for is volleyball."

There's a few snorts but Oikawa shakes his head. "Don't be silly, I'm sure we all have lots of talents! Take Iwa-chan here, for instance." He throws an arm around his friend who looks as if he's waiting to be clobbered by Oikawa's other shoe when it inevitably drops. Oikawa takes no mind and practically coos his next words. "Iwa-chan is so strong and manly, you know? When we've done arm wrestling at our training camps, he's always undefeated. So he can be the arm wrestling champion!"

By this point, Iwaizumi seems torn between confusion, embarrassment, and murderous rage.

"I guess people might find something like that fun," Hirano says, taping her chin with a finger. "We can have little prizes for people who manage to defeat our champions, but other than that it shouldn't take much preparation to pull off."

After a bit more discussion, Oikawa's idea is chosen. The club members are given the homework assignment of coming up with some talent that people could challenge them on. The best ones would be picked, tested, and put into the final activity. Everyone else would do supporting roles.

Yahaba is trying to think of what he could put down as his talent as he changes to go home. He doesn't think he has any particular talents, certainly nothing he's so good at that he could claim to be the champion at, except maybe lying. His thoughtfulness leaves him slow, so he's only pulling off his sweaty practice shirt when the last clump of second years leaves the club room, taking their chatter with them. In the sudden quiet, Yahaba can't help but overhear hear voices from outside the window, previously smothered by the noise inside the club room.

"What were you thinking?" That's Iwaizumi's voice, dropped to a low growl. From the volume, he must be almost directly below the window. "Putting me on the spot and humiliating me like that? Not everyone wants to be the center of attention all the time, Asskawa!"

"Ehhh, but I was trying to do a nice thing for you, Iwa-chan!" Oikawa's voice is even more bubbly than normal. "I figured I'd lend you a hand, out of the kindness of my heart, and talk you up in front of those cute girls! After all, Iwa-chan's personality and looks aren't so much, so you'll have to rely on impressing people with brute strength if you ever want to get a girlfriend."

"I don't want to get a girlfriend, asshole!" Iwaizumi snaps. Yahaba can picture his expression from memory, the furrow of his brow and sparkle in his eye that he only shows when arguing with Oikawa. "I'm having enough trouble balancing my time between volleyball and schoolwork as it is!"

"Is that really true, Iwa-chan?"

"Uh, obviously it's true! I got one of the lowest grades I've ever gotten in English on our last test. My mom almost cried!"

"Not that," Oikawa says with eerie intensity. "Is it really true you don't want a girlfriend?"

"Look, like I said, I'm busy. I like my life how it is now, no need to mess with it," Iwaizumi says. "So yeah, I don't want a girlfriend." There's a long pause. "What's that look for, Oikawa? There's no need to look so thrilled, jeez, you-"

"I'm just so happy!" Oikawa says. Whatever strangeness Yahaba had detected in his voice before is gone, nothing but airiness remains. "I was worried that since Iwa-chan is too ugly to attract a girl, he'd get grumpy from loneliness, but now I know I shouldn't have worried! Iwa-chan likes being an icky hermit!"

"You should start running," Iwaizumi says with exaggerated calm. "Because if I catch you, I'm going to kill you."

With the echoes of their conversation lingering in his mind, Yahaba leaves the clubroom. Maybe eavesdropping is my talent, he thinks, feeling a bit guilty. Not that he and everyone else in the volleyball club could help but bear witness to the many, many arguments between Oikawa and Iwaizumi, but somehow Yahaba feels like he's intruding whenever he's in the front row. It's in the way they look at each other, the way Yahaba has never been able to forget the gentle way Iwaizumi handled Oikawa after the Spring Highs.

He's thinking of that image when he almost trips over someone crouched by the corner of the stairs to the clubroom. He yelps and jumps, managing to preform an awkward leap over the person in his way.

Strong hands steady him. "I'm sorry!" says the tripping hazard now hanging on to Yahaba's arms. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah," Yahaba says, taking a deep breath. "I'm - it was my fault, I should have been looking where I was going, I was just- um…" He trails off when he gets a good look at the boy he fell over.

He's tall, if not quite as tall as Yahaba is, but broader. He has bleached blond hair, worn long and held back in a ponytail. His eyes are large and dark against his tanned skin, his nose strong. His mouth is full and open in surprise.

He's gorgeous.

"Are you really okay?" the gorgeous boy asks, leaning in closer to peer into Yahaba's eyes.

"Fine!" Yahaba says, too loudly. He steps back out of the boy's hold on his arms. "Really, I'm okay." He smiles as well as he can manage and hopes that his neck isn't turning bright red, the traitor.

"Oh thank goodness," the boy says. "I'd hate if I ruined our clubs's new partnership by giving one of you guys a concussion…"

"You're in the photography club?" Yahaba says. A second later he see the camera hanging from the boy's neck and blushes worse. "I mean, um, no, I'm fine! And I run into things all the time, so I'm used to it!" I'm used to it? Yahaba thinks despairingly. Now I sound like an idiot

"Good to know," the boy says with a chuckle. "I'm Nagao Taiji, by the way."

"Yahaba Shigeru," Yahaba says, relieved he at least manages not to trip over his own damn name. Then he thinks for a moment about the oddness of their meeting. "Er, if you don't mind me asking, what were you doing crouched by the stairs?"

Now it's Nagao's turn to blush. "I was trying to take a picture," he admits, holding up his camera. "N-not of the stairs! There's a spiderweb, see?" He points to the corner he'd been crouched at, where the stairs meet the ground.

Yahaba has to crouch and squint, but then he sees it. There is indeed a spiderweb trailing between the wood of the step and the ground. It's hard to see with the light dimming, but still distinct enough to make out. "Oh," he says, catching sight of something on the ground. "The spider's dead."

Nagao nods, crouching down next to Yahaba. Their thighs are brushing, which almost distracts Yahaba from his answer. "I thought it could be kind of meaningful to take a picture of that? Like, how the web is still there even when Mr. Spider died?"

"Mr. Spider?" Yahaba echoes. He gave the spider a nickname?

Nagao laughs self-consciously. "There's this big photo contest coming up. We're supposed to submit a set on a theme, Things Left Behind, only I don't really have anything that fits the theme… I mostly only have pictures of like, plants and people sometimes, not really anything that suits the… Ah, sorry for rambling on! You probably don't care, do you?"

"Oh, um," Yahaba has no idea what to say. He doesn't know anything about photography or artistic themes, but he's driven to say something, anything that will keep this boy talking to him. "Maybe you just have to think about it from a different way?" he says. "Like, maybe there is something in the pictures you already have that could inspire you…"

Nagao chews his lips thoughtfully. Yahaba tries not to stare. "Hmm…" he breathes.

Yahaba's phone vibrates in his pocket, making him jump. He pulls it out and sees it's a text from Watari: You coming?

"Shoot," Yahaba says, jumping to his feet. Watari must be waiting for him by the school's gate. "I- I have to go, sorry."

"No problem!" Nagao says, getting up as well. He grins at Yahaba. "I'm glad I didn't accidentally injure you. See you around?"

"Yeah," Yahaba says and tries to ignore his stomach doing flips in his stomach.

He really didn't need this development.

Chapter Text

It doesn't end there.

Yahaba sees Nagao frequently in the halls at school and the other boy always smiles when they make eye contact, waves. They greet each other when they pass on their way to class.

The best - or worst, Yahaba can't decide - is when they see each other during lunch. Nagao always waves Yahaba over and he can't help but follow, sitting next to him on one of the benches as they eat. Thankfully, Watari is usually with Yahaba then and is included in Nagao's invitation. The two of them carry on most of the conversation while Yahaba tries to eat and drink in front of his crush without choking.

Through these lunches, Yahaba learns a lot about Nagao. He's in the same year as them and has a younger sister who also wants to go to Aobajousai. His best class is literature, his worst is math. He likes arcade games, classic rock, and daifukimochi. He's always loved photography and his favorite subject to capture on film is people's hands.

"I should take pictures of your hands," he says one day, reaching over to gently grasp Yahaba's wrist. He touches people frequently, Yahaba has found, but the knowledge never stops his heart from racing each time as if it means something. He leans in, looking at Yahaba's fingers where they curl around his chopsticks. "I've heard setter's hands have to be really amazing."

"If that's what you want, you should ask Oikawa-san," Yahaba says, pulling his wrist away gently. He tries not to let Nagao touch him for too long, no matter how much his body likes it. He's scared that someone will be able to tell what he's thinking during those moments where he can feel Nagao's warm skin against his own. "He's a much more accomplished setter than I am. And a lot more photogenic."

"That guy scares me," Nagao says, rubbing his nose in a nervous habit that Yahaba finds ridiculously endearing. "He always seems like he's up to something…"

"Oikawa-san's not that bad," Watari says. "He'd be flattered to be asked, I'm sure."

"Maybe," Nagao says. "Right now I need to focus on my contest entry… Yahaba, your idea from before was great, though!"

"Eh?" Yahaba said, completely lost.

"About looking at my old stuff! I was looking through some of the pictures I took last year and found some of flower petals on the ground… It's probably not good enough, but it's a start. I want to look through the rest of my pictures, but there's just so many of them that it would take forever to do by myself."

"Oh…" Yahaba says. It's very hard to be anything more than monosyllabic around Nagao. He has no idea why the other boy keeps talking to him with this quality of conversation.

"Hey, since it was your idea, do you want to come help?" Nagao says. He then blushes. "I mean, you don't have to, I realize looking through old photos in my attic would probably be a really boring day for you-"

"Yes," Yahaba says quickly before Nagao can retract the invitation. "I mean, um, no, that sounds fun. It'd be cool to see what your photos are like."

"Watari-kun, you too," Nagao says, grinning now at Watari. "I mean, if you want. We can make a whole day of it."

"Sure," Watari says. He's tipped his head to the side in a way that Yahaba knows means he's thinking about something, but he doesn't say anything else.

They plan to meet up at Nagao's house that Sunday. Yahaba sleeps over at Watari's Saturday night, something they do semi-frequently. It's nice to go from practice to watching movies on Watari's computer in his room, relaxed and comfortable. Yahaba spreads out the guest futon on the floor by the bed and is just about to doze off when Watari's voice, soft in the darkness, surprises him.

"Did you hear that Kubota-san got a girlfriend?" Watari asks.

"Yeah," Yahaba replies sleepily, turning over so his face isn't smushed into the pillow. "Some girl in the softball club, right?" He'd overheard the third years talking about it earlier in the week but doesn't know why Watari would bring it up. He usually wasn't much for gossip.

"He seems happy," Watari says. "I saw them eating lunch together today. She made him a bento."

"That's nice," Yahaba says, still unsure where the conversation could be going. "He's lucky."

"I'd like to go out with a girl who'd make a bento for me," Watari says. "Though I wouldn't really mind if I was dating a girl who didn't… I guess most of all, I'd like to date a girl who's also into sports, you know? So we'd have something to talk about. Hey, if I dated a girl who played volleyball, we could even practice together."

Yahaba wonders if Watari is getting lonely. He hadn't brought up things like dating in the past, but maybe seeing Kubota with a girlfriend had made him think about it. "A lot of people don't start dating until after high school," Yahaba says, twisting the blanket around his fingers. "But I'm sure if you're patient-"

Watari continues as if Yahaba hadn't said anything. "Looks-wise, I don't think I'd be all that picky, though I guess a girl who wore her hair in clips would be really cute. Then I could give her hairclips and she could wear them… I think that would be really cute."

"Sounds nice," Yahaba says.

"What about you?" Watari says and Yahaba can hear him shift on his bed. "What kind of person would you like to date, Yahaba?"

It's been a while, but it's not like he isn't prepared for this. The words roll of his tongue with an easy grace that he in no way feels. "I'm not picky either," he says. "But girls with long hair seem the cutest to me, I think. And I'd want to date a girl who has a gentle air about her, maybe someone more calm and serious."

"Do you have a crush on anyone in particular?" Watari asks.

"Nah," Yahaba says and wonders if he should pick out someone soon. Maybe a third year girl, for maximum unattainability. He thinks it might be harder, though, to lie to his new teammates. To lie to Watari. He remembers what Iwaizumi had said to Oikawa and decides to try a new tactic. "I'm having enough trouble balancing my time between volleyball and schoolwork as it is. I like my life how it is now, no need to mess with it."

"That makes sense," Watari says.

Yahaba waits for a few long moments, but Watari seems to be done talking. He hears the other boy's breathing even out and releases a long held breath of his own. Thank goodness for Iwaizumi-senpai, he thinks and rolls over to try to fall asleep, feeling confused and guilty.

---

Nagao's home seems massive to Yahaba, used to the size of his family's apartment. He wipes sweaty palms on his pant legs before ringing the doorbell, desperately wishing that Watari was with him. At the last minute, Watari had remembered that he had some big civics assignment due on Monday and begged off coming to help. Yahaba can't remember Watari mentioning the assignment before and he hopes that he has time to complete it, since it seems that he's forgotten about it for a long time.

"You came!" Nagao throws open the door. "Come in, come in! Nobody else is home right now, my parents are at one of my sister's lacrosse matches, so we have the house to ourselves. Do you want anything to drink? Tea, lemonade?"

"Lemonade would be great," Yahaba says as he steps in, taking a second to marvel in the fact that he's in his crush's home with his crush, alone. He knows better than to get his hopes up, but it's still a heady moment.

After fetching them drinks, Nagao leads him up to the attic. It's a cramped space and plenty dusty, but Yahaba doesn't mind the way he normally would.

Nagao points out two large trunks. "My mom always saved my sister's and my stuff from when we were really little, so most of my old photos are in them. The right one is my sister Yuuki's, but the other one is mine." He cracks it open.

Yahaba leans over Nagao's shoulder to look. The box is well organized, with photo albums in a stack and loose photos and papers collected in manilla folders. Besides the photos, Yahaba catches sight of tiny shoes, a box marked "baby teeth", a broken camera, a baby's blanket.

"Here," Nagao says, thrusting one of the albums in Yahaba's hands. "You start with this one, okay? We'll just pick out anything that could help inspire an idea about Things Left Behind. It can't just be any old thing, though, it has to be something special. Something with a unique point of view."

"Got it," Yahaba says though he feels woefully underprepared for a task like this. Still, he dutifully opens the album and begins to look through the pictures. These are old, polaroid shots. Many are blurry, so he expects that Nagao took them well before he was practiced with the camera. Some of the pictures are of adults that must be Nagao's family members.

"You took a lot of pictures of the stars at this age," Yahaba observes, flipping through the pages. Other than his family, the night sky is the main recurring subject in his album, although a peak at the one in Nagao's hands doesn't seem to have any such pictures.

"Ah, well," Nagao says, blushing slightly. "I had watched a documentary about space and I got the idea if I took enough pictures of the sky, I was bound to discover a new planet that they'd have to name after me…"

"That's cute," Yahaba says with a smile.

"Of course it's cute," Nagao says with mock bravado. "I'm a very cute person!"

This is starting to edge into dangerous territory, so Yahaba quickly looks to his album for inspiration of a topic-change. He points to one of the photos, of a baby sleeping in a crib, holding on to a bright blue toy elephant. "Is this your sister?"

Nagao leans over. His usual grin softens. "Yeah," he says, his voice warmer than Yahaba's ever heard it. "Ah, she was such an adorable baby… I gave her that toy when she came home from the hospital, actually. It had been mine, but when I met her, I wanted to give it to her, apparently."

"What a good big brother," Yahaba says. "She must have loved it."

"She did! Actually…" Nagao rifles through the album he's holding, thumbing through the pages until he finds what he's looking for. He holds it up to show Yahaba a picture of his sister, now looking to be about seven years old. She's at some kind of festival and has had her face painted to look like a butterfly's wings, the yellows and pinks bringing out the colors of her yukata. The blue elephant is clutched tightly in the crook of her arm, a matching yellow and pink scarf tied around its neck.

"She never went anywhere without him for years," Nagao explains. "So it's in pretty much all my pictures of her."

"That's really sweet. Does she still have it?" Yahaba asks.

"It's in the back of her closet somewhere," Nagao says and then his eyes widen. "Yahaba, that's perfect!"

"It is?"

"Yes! I can do a series, or a collage, or something, centered around my sister's growing up and shedding her childhood toys!" He's practically bouncing with excitement. "I think I still have the negatives for some of these, so maybe I could do a double exposure effect over a picture of the current thing, or-"

His excited chattering turns more technical, losing Yahaba completely, but Yahaba is happy to sit and watch Nagao talk to passionately, nodding at what seem to be the appropriate times. Nagao is even more attractive when he's excited, Yahaba realizes, and feeling relatively safe in the fact that Nagao is caught up in his grand, if vague, plans to take the photography contest by storm, he allows himself to unabashedly enjoy just looking at Nagao.

It's a pretty good way to spend an afternoon, Yahaba decides.

---

He gets a text from Watari that night, while he's studying.

Hey! (o´ω`o)ノ How did it go today? it reads.

Great! Yahaba replies right away. I think he came up with a good idea. It was really fun!

After he hits send, he remembers that Watari was originally supposed to have been there, too. It's too bad you couldn't make it, he sends quickly. We missed you.

Don't worry about me, Watari sends back. I'm glad you had fun with him ヽ(o^―^o)ノ

---

Nagao continues to be excited about his photography project, updating Yahaba on its progress at every available opportunity. They eat lunch together most days while Nagao chatters happily and Yahaba tries his best to keep his appreciative staring at unnoticeable levels. Usually Watari is with them, but he begins to excuse himself from eating lunch with Yahaba once or twice a week for various reasons - extra homework, wanting to get some practice in, needing to find a particular teacher.

Yahaba worries that Watari might be pulling away from their friendship, that he offended him somehow, but they still hang out just as much outside of lunch periods and Watari's behavior hasn't changed at all otherwise, so he lets that idea go with relief.

Yahaba's pattern is further disturbed the week of the cultural festival. While the regulars do their same practice schedule, first years like him who won't even be benchwarmers at official matches are given new jobs preparing for the festival. They paint banners, create champion sashes, and make posters and prizes for the event. With the photography club's help, they clean up and decorate their club rooms so that they'll be able to run their contests in places that don't smell, well, like the locker room of dozens of teenage boys. Yahaba misses playing volleyball for hours at a time, the change does mean more time with Nagao.

He's just finished applying one poster to the clubroom's door when Mizoguchi waves him down. Yahaba trots over obediently.

"Yahaba, you remember Kyoutani, don't you?" Mizoguchi asks.

"Yes, sir," Yahaba says. It'd be impossible to forget that kind of guy, as much as Yahaba might want to do so.

"Good," Mizoguchi says. "I need you to find him before the cultural festival and pass on a message that he needs to be involved in our event somehow."

"Sensei?" Yahaba says, brow furrowing. "Er…" He's not exactly sure what it is he want to ask, though top contenders are why would we want that asshole around and why couldn't you have asked anyone but me oh god I hate that guy.

"Well, all team members are obligated to contribute in some way to the club's activity," Mizoguchi explains. "And Kyoutani is still officially on our membership list. We'd like to keep him there, too - the more club members we have, the more sway we have in the financial decisions of the school. But if the administrators don't see any proof that he's actually a part of the club..."

Yahaba nods, understanding what Mizoguchi means. It makes sense, but unfortunately doesn't give him any idea how to make Kyoutani be willing to do anything for the club he'd clearly washed his hands of months ago. Still, he can't refuse his coach, so he bows his head and promises to get it done.

---

Finding Kyoutani proves to be a problem enough on its own. He's like a ghost, or even more of a delinquent than Yahaba had thought. He's not in his homeroom come lunch time and even when Yahaba stakes out the school's gates the next morning, he doesn't show up and Yahaba ends up having to stand in the hall for coming in late. Yahaba's annoyance at the errand turns into seething anger, though he knows rationally that Kyoutani can't be avoiding him on purpose because he has no reason to assume Yahaba's looking for him.

Finally, quailing at what it will do to his carefully unremarkable reputation, Yahaba starts asking people all over the school if they've seen Kyoutani around. It's frustratingly slow going as Kyoutani apparently has absolutely no friends, but eventually Yahaba's mental log of Kyoutani Sightings leads him to, of all places, the library. There, tucked away between shelves at the very back, Kyoutani is sitting on the floor, a book in his lap. His lips are moving slightly as he reads with fervid concentration, his fingers drumming on the floor.

It makes for quite an incongruous picture and Yahaba takes a moment to bogle at it before coughing to get Kyoutani's attention.

Kyoutani doesn't react.

Yahaba coughs again.

Kyoutani doesn't so much as twitch.

Yahaba can feel a vein in his forehead throbbing. He steps forward, closer to Kyoutani, and coughs as loudly and pointedly as he can without risking the librarian's ire, leaning into Kyoutani's space as he does to.

"Don't fucking cough on me," Kyoutani grumbles without looking up.

"I need to talk to you," Yahaba says in a hushed voice.

"No," Kyoutani says. He's still refusing to look away from his book, but his eyes have stopped tracking, so Yahaba is sure he's just pretending to be still reading. Dick.

"No, just like that? What if I was about to offer you 10,000 yen?"

"I'd tell you to leave it by my bag. Now, fuck off." Kyoutani says and starts reading again, apparently sure that this will make Yahaba leave him alone. Normally he'd be right, but Yahaba is there on a mission. A mission entrusted to him by the coach, for the good of the team.

Also, he really wants to piss off Kyoutani.

"Fine," he says and sits down next to Kyoutani, as close as he can manage without them actually touching. He leans back against the bookcase as if preparing to stay for a long time. Thinking of how Oikawa annoys Iwaizumi into paying attention to him, Yahaba begins to hum quietly under his breath, a catchy pop tune he'd found online.

Kyoutani audibly grits his teeth. To Yahaba's utter delight, the tips of his ears are turning pink as he clearly struggles to remain calm.

"I'm going to punch you," Kyoutani snarls.

"That will get you kicked out of the library," Yahaba points out in his most reasonable tone as he inspects his nails, holding them up to the light. "So will yelling at me, so be careful of that, too."

Kyoutani replies with a suggestion so vulgar that Yahaba chokes and also mentally file it away for later, because as anatomically unlikely as it seems, it's a rather vivid image.

"If you talk to me, I'll go away," Yahaba says, stretching his legs out and admiring how long they've gotten. He's grown a lot recently, he thinks happily.

"Fine," Kyoutani grits out the word as if it physically pains him. "What the fuck do you want?"

"You need to help out the club for the cultural festival," Yahaba says as quickly as he can, turning to face Kyoutani.

Kyoutani makes a face as if Yahaba had asked him to drink pig urine. "Pass."

"You can't pass," Yahaba says. "Just come by and hammer a nail or hand out a flier or something. There is literally no job too small for you to do. I don't even care if you manage to screw it up, just show up and do something."

"I'm not doing that stupid shit," Kyoutani says.

"Well, you have to. You'll be kicked out of the club, otherwise."

"So what?"

Yahaba's eyes narrow. "So what? You really want to be the kind of guy who drops out of his high school club after a few measly months because he can't be bothered to put a piece of tape on a poster and stick it to a wall? Do you realize how that will look to people? To your parents, to your future employers?"

Kyoutani snorts. "Do I seem like the kind of shallow guy who cares about that kind of shit?"

Yahaba rolls his eyes. Trust the kind of argument that would sway him have no effect on Kyoutani. "I haven't put that much thought into what kind of guy you seem like, to be honest." He sighs and tips his head back against the bookshelf, thinking. "I'm just going to keep bothering you until you agree, you know. I'll show up wherever you are, all the time, and just be around you in the most annoying way possible until you cave."

"You don't have that much patience," Kyoutani says.

"Maybe not," Yahaba says amiably. "But I only need to have more patience than you do, right? And that's pretty easy. So, if you don't want to become my newest, bestest companion, come by the clubroom and do something, okay?" He gives Kyoutani his most perfect, most practiced smile and gets up. "Be seeing you soon!" he calls over his shoulder as he leaves the library, the delightful sounds of Kyoutani grumbling following him all the way.

---

By the time the first hour of practice-turned-festival prep is done that afternoon, Yahaba has begun to get nervous that his bluff hasn't paid off. Having to go back and figure out some other way of getting Kyoutani to fall in line would be equal parts difficult and humiliating after the smug preformance he'd put on earlier. Yahaba wants to put his head in his hands and cry in mortification just thinking of it.

Feeling his neck heating up and worried one of his teammates will ask him what's wrong, Yahaba grabs a pile of posters and mutters something about sticking them up somewhere before beating a retreat out of the clubroom. He heads down the stairs and is trying to remember which areas they still need to put posters up in when his arm is gripped in what feels like a vise and he's forcefully dragged around the corner.

He's deciding between throwing a punch, shouting, running away, or some exciting combination of all three when he realizes the person grabbing him is Kyoutani.

"What are you doing?" he says, wrenching his arm away and endeavoring to look like someone who wasn't just two seconds away from trying to run through a building, cartoon-style.

"I've been looking for you," Kyoutani says, glowering like Yahaba has done him some deep wrong. Which, in Kyoutani's mind, maybe he has.

"I've been in the gym or the clubroom like a normal person, you- you- lurker!" Yahaba shakes his head and tries to collect his wits, thankful that he at least managed to avoid dropping the posters into the mud. "What on earth do you want?"

Kyoutani looks at him as if Yahaba had said something stupid. "You said I had to do something for the stupid festival."

"So? Go to the clubroom and get an assignment like the rest of us!"

Kyoutani pulls another face. "I don't want to deal with all those guys."

"Go bother someone who cares," Yahaba says.

"Just give me a fucking job to do before I beat your pretty face in," Kyoutani says.

Yahaba considers his options. It should be an easy choice, given that one option finishes this assignment from hell and the other likely ends in him losing a fight very badly, but there's just something about Kyoutani that makes Yahaba want to ignore all that common sense and do whatever option annoys Kyoutani the most.

His common sense wins out, barely. "Fine," he says and holds out the posters. "Go hang these up in Building C, okay?"

Kyoutani eyes the posters suspiciously. "Challenge the Champions?" he reads aloud. "What the hell?"

"Don't worry, you don't have to take part," Yahaba says. "So you don't have to feel bad about not having any special skills." He ignores the fact that he had barely come up with a skill of his own at the last minute and what he had eventually come up with - mental arithmetic - had been dismissed from the running.

Kyoutani grunts. "I'm strong," he says.

"We already have Iwaizumi-san for that," Yahaba says and points to the part of the poster that reads Arm Wrestling. "Look, just put them up in Building C and you can go back to ignoring this club completely."

Kyoutani grunts again and turns to leave before Yahaba realizes something.

"Wait!" He pulls out his phone. "I need proof that I actually got you to take part so the coach doesn't accuse me of just putting them up myself." He takes a quick photo of Kyoutani with the posters in hand. "There," he says.

"You better delete that once you've shown it to the coaches, you freak," Kyoutani says.

Yahaba snorts. "Do you really think I want you taking up any of my phone's memory for even a second longer than I have to?" Of course, now that Kyoutani has ordered him to do something, Yahaba really, really wants to do the opposite. But for the second time in so many minutes, he manages to make the respectable choice and lets Kyoutani go without bothering him any further.

Really, Yahaba thinks, he deserves a medal.

---

The festival goes off without a hitch. Most of their champions remain undefeated and the turnout is good, earning the club enough money that the coaches promise them a special treat at their next training camp. Yahaba spends most of his work duty shifts helping tally results for the contests. Other than Iwaizumi on arm wrestling, they have Oikawa showing off his skill at quick memorization, Hanamaki at estimating the number of beans in a jar, Matsukawa at guessing a song based on the first few notes, Watari playing a fighting game he brought from his home, and several third years in their own competitions as well. The photography club has offered just as many champions of their own, including Nagao building a house of cards in a timed race against his competition.

Nagao and Watari drag him off whenever they get a break to wander the school grounds, buying food and checking out activities. Nagao shows off his arcade game skills, winning a few small prizes at some of the booths. He gives one of them, a phone strap with a cute pink spider charm, to Yahaba.

"In honor of our first meeting," he says gravely. "I entrust Mr. Spider 2.0 to you."

Yahaba bows his head in mock seriousness. "I will protect him with my very life," he promises.

On their way back to the clubroom, Yahaba runs his fingers over the charm. It'd be so easy, he thinks, to let himself pretend like this was a date, that this gift means something more. But that kind of thinking is dangerous, too dangerous, so he has to concentrate, remind himself of the truth.

As they turn into the club room, someone knocks into them, rudely brushing between their shoulders and forcing them apart as he stalks out. Yahaba turns and sees familiar blond hair.

"What was he doing here?" he says as he watches Kyoutani disappear into the crowd.

"Trying to defeat Iwaizumi-san," Watari says. He'd parted ways with Nagao and Yahaba a little earlier, saying he wanted to grab a more substantial meal before going back on duty. Now he's leaning against one of the tables, wiping his hands and mouth with a napkin, a set of food sticks stripped bare in a little pile next to him. "He challenged him three times and lost every one."

Yahaba shakes his head. "I can't believe he actually would show up so brazenly after ditching the club for so long."

"Well, his money is as good as any, isn't it?" Nagao points out. "So who cares?"

Yahaba shrugs. He does care, but he doesn't want to contradict Nagao and doesn't really know how to explain, so he drops it.

---

With the festival finished, Yahaba's club life returns to normal. The first string players are all working hard, prepping for the Interhigh, but Yahaba is still on the side of the gym set aside for the reserves of the reserves. Poor Watari is worked to the bone by the coaches, though he never complains.

To be honest, Yahaba has a hard time getting excited for the Interhigh. He knows he should, knows it's a huge moment for the team, but he feels so far removed from the team members who will actually make it onto the court, even as just reserves in case of trouble. He'll be sitting far off in the bleachers the whole time, too far away to truly feel like a part of the team.

Still, he can't allow any of that to show on his face. Even if he's only there to cheer and support the team, he promises himself that he'll dedicate himself to the task as best he can. Even if all he is doing in unpacking bags from the bus, fetching drink orders and double checking supplies, he throws himself as fully as he can into each and every job given to him.

To his surprise, Oikawa pulls him aside before the first game and gives him a different assignment than just cheering in the bleachers.

"Watch the other teams games?" Yahaba repeats.

"Yahaba-kun has good eyes," Oikawa says, holding up his hands to frame his own eyes. "So I want you to go take notes on our opponents and report back to me!"

Yahaba's mouth twists slightly as he wonders when on earth Oikawa could have made an assessment of whether he has good eyes or not. It's not like they've ever practiced together or even spent much time around each other.

"Surprised that I noticed?" Oikawa asks, grinning in a way that broadcasts how smug he is about being able to guess what Yahaba is thinking. "Didn't you know, Yahaba-kun? I know everything about all my teammates!"

"That's disgusting," Iwaizumi says from nearby.

Oikawa is too busy peering at Yahaba's face to reply. "Oh my, what's this? Yahaba-kun has gone so pale! Could it be you have a secret you don't want your beloved senpai to find out about?"

"O-of course not," Yahaba says, feeling his neck heating up. Shit shit shit shit.

"Knock it off, Asskawa," Iwaizumi says, taking aim at Oikawa's head with a volleyball. "Yahaba, just ignore him."

"I'll go take notes now," Yahaba says and retreats as quickly as he can manage.

They play. They make it to the finals. They lose to Shiratorizawa. Yahaba tries not to think of his first true Interhigh experience in more detail than that. It's too frustrating, to be sitting so far off the court, unable to do anything, unable to help, while his teammates are crushed.

They take several days off of practice, officially speaking, but Yahaba heads to the gym anyway after school, unsure where else to go. He finds the door unlocked and Watari in the gym. His face lights up when he sees Yahaba.

"Will you help me practice my receives?" he asks.

Yahaba agrees and they get to it. Watari throws himself after every ball more intensely than Yahaba has ever seen him before. Yahaba wonders if he should say something, tell Watari not to push himself too hard, but he knows what he is feeling and imagines Watari, who was actually on the bench, must be feeling it even worse than he is.

He says nothing and continues to practice.

Chapter Text

The gallery the photography contest is being held in is large and intimidatingly fancy. Yahaba tugs at the sweater of his school uniform, checking it for any wrinkles. He'd feel completely underdressed if there weren't so many other students in their own school uniforms milling about, looking at the photos and discussing the contest. Besides Watari and himself, who were both invited by Nagao, he sees several people from Aobajousai as well as some other uniforms he recognizes from schools nearby.

"There you two are!" Nagao appears before them, practically twitching with nervous energy. "I'm glad you could make it!"

"Of course," Watari says with a smile.

"Where's your piece?" Yahaba says, looking around with wide eyes. The gallery somehow seems huge, though it has to be far smaller than the Sendai gymnasium. The atmosphere is somehow similar, even without anyone chanting or waving noisemakers.

"Down this way," Nagao leads them toward the east side of the exhibition hall. He keeps up a stream of commentary, telling them about the other schools present, some of the standout pieces, who is favored to win. "Here it is," he says, throwing his hands wide as he comes to a halt.

Yahaba leans in to look at the photos on the wall. It's a series of three photos, all in muted colors, of Nagao's younger sister at different ages with her elephant toy. Below them is a long, rectangular photo of the elephant in the back of a closet, partially hidden behind an old baseball bat and clearly forgotten about.

"These are really good," Yahaba says, although it's not like he has any frame of reference. He's glad he said it anyway when Nagao's face lights up.

"Really? You think so?" Nagao says, beaming.

They stand by the photos for a while, chatting. Nagao occasionally runs off when he spots someone he invited coming in to the exhibit or when one of his other friends in the photography club waves him over by to say hello. Watari and Yahaba look around at some of the other photos while they wait, though they don't wander too far. All this is too far out of their comfort zone, which has narrowed to basically just volleyball. Luckily, Nagao always comes bouncing back quickly and is more than willing in his excitement to keep up almost an entire conversation about the exhibition by himself.

Yahaba knows there's a clump of girls in the corner, whispering and looking over at them every few minutes, has been aware of them for a while, but only in the way that Yahaba is generally aware of everyone who can see him at all times, so he doesn't peg them as something he should be concerned about until one girl is pushed forward, out of the group, and stumbles toward them. She's in the Aobajousai uniform and Yahaba thinks he remembers seeing her in Nagao's class. She's cute, with bouncy brown hair and soft features, although right now her face resembles the inside of a watermelon, both in color and, well, wetness. She's sweating up a storm.

Yahaba is about to offer to get her water or a tissue when she bows right in front of Nagao.

"N-nagao-kun!" she says, voice thin with nerves. "I- I'm a big admirer of yours and please, um, I hope you can accept my feelings!" She thrusts an envelope at Nagao and spins on her heel, about to rush away, when a thought seems to occur to her and she spins back. "P-please give me a reply at school tomorrow!" She races away, vanishing into her pack of friends.

Yahaba can feel his heart stuttering in his chest. He hadn't prepared for this, why hadn't he prepared for this? He'd never even thought of a girl confessing to Nagao, nevermind figure out how he'd feel or how he should act to hide how he was feeling and what would he do if Nagao said yes and oh god, he'd never considered Nagao getting a girlfriend, why hadn't he considered someone wanting to date Nagao when he was already living proof that people would want to date Nagao?

"Wow," Nagao says. He's looking shocked, Yahaba notes dimly past his ever rising sense of frozen panic. "I've never been confessed to before." He looks over at Yahaba and frowns. "Hey, are you okay, you look kind of-"

"I'm fine!" Yahaba says instantly. He does not sound fine. He sounds like the embodiment of the opposite of fine. "What are you going to say to her?" he hears himself ask in that same not-fine voice and oh god what is he even doing?

"I'm not sure," Nagao says, looking down at the envelope. "I should probably read this first, huh? Wow, I never thought Yanagita-san thought of me that way… She's really cute, isn't she?"

"She's, um, well," Yahaba says. He's getting worse by the second. What is he supposed to say? Yes, she's beautiful, date her and stomp all over my heart without realizing, that's fine?

"We need to go," Watari cuts in. "Early practice. Congrats on everything, I hope you win." And then he's grabbing Yahaba by the shoulder and steering him away from Nagao, out of the gallery and down the street toward Yahaba's train station.

"Early practice?" Yahaba mumbles, feeling faint. He can't remember any early practice, but right now he's having trouble remembering anything but Nagao-kun, I'm a big admirer of yours and She's really cute, isn't she?

"Don't worry about that," Watari says. Does he sound anxious, too? Yahaba isn't sure. All his usual ability to read people has trickled away under the onslaught of distress and he feels empty and lost and vaguely terrified at trying to figure out what someone else is thinking.

Thankfully, Watari doesn't say anything else, just stays as a solid, comforting presence at Yahaba's side until the train comes. Yahaba finds a secluded seat and tries to affix some kind of normal expression over his face like a mask to wear through the trip, to his stop, up his street, past his mother in the kitchen and into his bedroom.

He shuts the door heavily and holds his hands up to his face. He presses the heels of of palms hard against his closed eyes, notices the wetness of his eyelashes and pressed down harder, hard enough to hurt against his cheek bones as his breath comes in shaky gasps. He wants to punch himself in the face, he wants to crawl out of his own skin, he wants to, he wants to, he wants to be normal.

It's that last thought that breaks the last remnants of his self control and looses the sob that has been stuck in his throat.

---

Yahaba doesn't go to school the next day. He tells his mother that he's sick, and it doesn't even feel like a lie. He lies in bed, staring at the cracks in the wallpaper and tries to figure out how he'll be able to face anyone ever again.

Watari sends him a couple text messages checking up on him. Yahaba spends two hours drafting a response that seems to be appropriately normal sounding.

I'm okay!!! Just an infection, he writes. I should be back tomorrow! Practice hard for me!!

Okay, is Watari's response. Let me know if there's anything I can do? (´-ω-`( _ _ )

I just need to rest, don't worry!

After a few more hours, his phone beeps again. He rolls over to check it and pauses before opening it. It's from Nagao.

hey… it reads. r u OK? u seemed weird last night.

Yahaba rereads it a few times. He doesn't trust himself to write a response so he tries to ignore it. He rolls over and does his best to fall asleep. It doesn't take at first, his mind is both going too quickly and too slowly for him to be able to do anything but just wallow in panic and fatigue. Finally, though, he drifts off into absolutely terrible dreams.

He's woken up by a knock at his bedroom door. A muzzy glance out the window shows that it's the afternoon. He sits up and calls to come in, trying to arrange his face so his mom will both believe that he's truly sick but also not freak out and stuff him full of disgusting home remedies she half-remembers from her grandmother's teachings.

He freezes when the door opens to reveal Nagao.

"Sorry for barging in," Nagao says, looking pale and awkward. "You, um, I wanted to talk to you?" His voice lifts at the end, turning a statement into a question.

"Er," Yahaba says. He's not sure what to do, but eventually politeness wins over. He straightens up in his bed and gestures toward the foot for Nagao to sit, the covers creating a safe barrier between Nagao's thighs and Yahaba's feet.

"I- look, maybe I'm being ridiculous, but are you upset with me?" Nagao says, staring at Yahaba with huge eyes that make him look like an adorable but distressed puppy. It just isn't fair, for him to be in Yahaba's room right now, looking so earnest and concerned.

"No," Yahaba croaks and then wonders if he oughtn't have lied. If that would have been a good cover.

"It's, it's just, you seemed like you were having a good time last night, and then Yanagita-san came over and well, you know, and you started acting so strange and then you didn't come to school today and I just thought maybe…" Nagao trails off, rubbing his nose as he thinks.

Yahaba stares, fists clenching against his bedspread. "It's not… I just…"

Nagao sucks in a deep breath and looks up. "Do you like Yanagita-san?" he asks in a hurried tone.

"I- what?" Yahaba blinks and opens his mouth before closing it a few times. Of course, he realizes, of course Nagao would jump to such a close but incorrect conclusion.

"If you do, I promise, I'll turn her down," Nagao says, leaning in and practically bristling with sincerity. "I told her I needed more time to think, so I could check with you, because if you like her, I won't get in the way, I promise. I don't want a girl to come between us."

He's just so well meaning and woefully confused, woefully naive about what's really going on that Yahaba-

Yahaba starts to laugh.

"Are you okay?" Nagao asks, leaning away and looking even more concerned. "Yahaba?"

"I don't like Yanagita-san," Yahaba says between laughs and oh god, he thinks he might be crying again. He looks away from Nagao. "You- you should date her. You should tell her yes and date her."

Nagao carefully places a hand over one of Yahaba's clenched fists as if worried about scaring Yahaba away. "You don't have to lie," he says. "I really, really mean it. If you like Yanagi-"

"I don't like Yanagita-san!" Yahaba says and his voice sounds harsh and wild with laughter. "I don't like… Yanagita-san," he repeats.

"Then what's wrong?" Nagao asks and when Yahaba moves to pull away he grips his hand tighter. "Please, Yahaba-"

"I like you," Yahaba says. "I don't like Yanagita-san, I like you."

Nagao drops his hand like it burned him.

"Yeah," Yahaba says.

"You're joking," Nagao says. Yahaba can't stand to turn to look at what expression might match that tone of voice.

"I'm not," he says. "I wish I were."

"You're not gay," Nagao says like he can make that true by saying it.

"Yes, I am," Yahaba says and it's the first time he's ever admitted it aloud, in a room with another person. It feels just about as terrible as he'd imagined.

Silence stretches, lengthens, and Yahaba wonders if they'll be stuck like this forever, in this awful moment of honesty and recoil.

"I… I better go," Nagao says.

Yahaba doesn't reply. He doesn't turn as the door to his room opens, shuts again. He lies down, stretches out his legs to the patch of warmth that's the last bit of Nagao left in this room.

He doesn't know what he's supposed to do anymore.

---

He takes the next day off school as well. He knows he'll have to go back, but not going in Saturday means he has through the weekend until next Monday to figure out what to do. He's never planned for this, not for coming out to his crush, not for having his crush run away immediately after, not for lying in an increasingly cocoon-like mess of covers while trying to figure out how to explain to his parents that he needs to change schools.

He gets a text from Nagao.

Yahaba, it opens, which already makes Yahaba feel sick. Nagao is a lazy texter, using abbreviations whenever possible and never bothering to type out the name of someone he's texting. He closes his eyes and steels himself before reading the rest of the message.

Yahaba, I'm going out with Yanagita-san now. I thought I should tell you.

I don't think we should hang out anymore..

Yahaba stares at it for a while. He opens up a reply, closes it. Sets his phone down, picks it back up. Hits his head against the wall until he accidentally does it too hard and sees stars. He pulls the charm Nagao had given him off his phone, tosses it into a drawer he rarely opens and shuts it away.

Finally he texts back a simple message.

OK.

He's not expecting a reply. He doesn't get one.

---

He forces himself to school on Monday morning. He checks and doublechecks himself in mirror, making sure his calm expression is perfect. There's no practice on Monday, which works well enough for him. It means less hours surrounded by people. He just has to get through the school day, he tells himself. Then he can go back home and stare at his wall again, pretending the world doesn't exist until the next morning. Just one day at a time.

The first sign that something is very, very wrong comes around when he enters the school gates. As soon as he started to fall into the pack of students in Aobajousai uniforms making their way to the high school, he got the prickling sense that he was being stared at, but before the school gates he could write it off as nerves. Once inside, however, he can't ignore the way that certain students are looking at him, how they fall quiet when he walks by and a flurry of whispers reach his ears as he walks away.

It only gets worse as he gets into the halls where the first year students have their classes. He's sure of it now, people are gawking at him, talking about him. His hands begin to shake and he stuffs them in his pockets as he hurriedly enters his classroom and sits at his desk.

Normally a few other students who sit nearby will chat with him in the morning, ask him about the volleyball team or recent assignments. Today, no one says a word to him. It's as if he's been enveloped in an invisible bubble and no one can even come near.

He can't concentrate on his classes at all. He clutches his pencil too tight to try to hide his shaking, leaving his hand sore by the end of the morning.

Watari comes and finds him during lunch period. He leads him out to their usual spot. He's clearly trying to act normally, but he keeps sneaking concerned looks Yahaba's way as he fills him in on how the practices he missed went. Then it's back to class, back to the stares and whispers. When the last bell rings, Yahaba wants nothing more than to head home and have some kind of breakdown in his room, in privacy, but Watari follows him home.

He keeps waiting for Watari to say something, but he doesn't. He stays silent the whole way to Yahaba's apartment and just starts pulling out his homework assignments like this was like any other day. He gets to work in that same quiet, patient silence.

Finally, Yahaba can't stand it anymore.

"Please tell me," he says, taking a shuddery breath. "Please tell me what's going on."

Watari gives him a long look before answering. His voice is calm. "There are rumors going on about you and Nagao," he says finally. "Well, more about you then Nagao, I guess."

That's what Yahaba expected and all he really needs to hear, but for some reason he pushes anyway. "What does the rumor say?"

"There are a few different versions of it," Watari says, shifting.

"Tell me the worst version," Yahaba says and braces himself.

Watari frowns slightly. "That… That you tried to force him to kiss you."

Yahaba gasps. "I didn't," he says. "I only- I didn't do that!"

"I know," Watari says. He looks down. "That's just the worst version, Yahaba. The others aren't so bad. Just that you told him that you… well, that you're in love with him."

"Do you believe that one?" Yahaba asks in a quiet voice.

Watari looks up and his eyes are the kindest Yahaba has ever seen. "It doesn't really matter," he says gently. "Whether you told him or not. I know you like him."

Yahaba shakes his head. He's sure if this was a week ago he'd be gasping and struggling against that statement, but his system seems to have overloaded so he can only register a certain dull surprise. "Oh," he says.

"I'm sorry," Watari says. "That he didn't like you back."

"I never expected him to," Yahaba says, his voice hollow. His eyes are burning, he realizes faintly. "I just… wasn't prepared for this."

"He shouldn't have told anyone," Watari says and the anger in his voice is the first crack in his perfect calm. "He had no right to."

Yahaba shakes his head again, not out of disagreement but just rejection of the whole idea. "I shouldn't have told him," he says. "I didn't mean to, I never meant to. It just… slipped out." He closes his eyes. "How am I supposed to face everyone now?" he asks.

"I don't know," Watari admits. "But… if there's anything I can do to help, I will, okay?"

"Then people will just start gossiping about you too, you know," Yahaba says. "They'll say your my boyfriend."

"I'd be honored if they assumed that," Watari informs him solemnly. "After all, I'm pretty sure you're out of my league. You actually, like, spend time on your appearance and stuff. Own hair products. You probably don't even wear the same pair of boxers two days in a row."

Yahaba stares at him in horror for a second. "That's gross," he says. "Please tell me you are joking."

"I never joke about underwear," Watari says, seriousness never wavering. "Never."

Yahaba throws a pillow at him, both because ew but also to hide how touched he is by Watari still being here, still wanting to be his friend, for trying to cheer him up. Maybe, he thinks, maybe he can get through this.

---

It's easy to think that sitting alone in a room with Watari. It's a lot harder the next day when he finds the word FAG has been written on his desk in chalk. He stares at it for a moment, ignoring the hushed whispers around him. Everyone is watching for his reaction, he realizes. They want to see what he'll do, whether he'll freak out or cry or yell.

He turns and leaves the classroom. He walks out, unsure exactly where he's going. Away, he thinks, just away. He thinks of areas that are likely to be deserted and finally hits upon one, the space beside the E building where the dumpsters are. No one in their right mind would be there, he thinks to himself.

Which is, of course, why it shouldn't come really as a surprise when he turns the corner and finds Kyoutani leaning against the wall by the largest dumpster. He has earbuds in his ears and is listening to music so loud that Yahaba can make it out from over a meter away.

Yahaba stops for a second, unsure what to do. He really doesn't want to deal with Kyoutani, but he also can't imagine going back to face the other students. It's not like Kyoutani owns the spot by the dumpsters to sit around ditching class and destroying his hearing. Yahaba can use it, too.

With that decided, Yahaba steps forward. He eyes the area around him with a bit of distaste before taking off his jacket and spreading it on the ground so he can sit on it, leaning back against the wall. He's not really sure what to do now, since he's never intentionally missed class after coming to school. The only thing that comes to mind is doing homework, so he pulls out one of his books and starts to study.

He doesn't make good progress. No matter how much he tries to concentrate on the words in front of him, all he can think about is the one word on his desk. He wonders if it's still there or if someone wiped it off before the teacher could see. He wonders who wrote it, how many people saw it and agreed.

He's almost thankful when a shadow falls over his book and he has an excuse to look up from it. Kyoutani is glaring down at him.

"It's rude to stare," Yahaba says with more venom than he'd meant to use in his voice.

"I thought you weren't going to annoy me if I helped out with your fucking festival," Kyoutani says.

"I'm not here to annoy you," Yahaba says and taps his book. "Leave me alone."

"You leave me alone first," Kyoutani says. "This is my spot."

"I'm not bothering you," Yahaba says with as much patience as he can manage. "So just pretend like I'm not here."

"If I could do that, I wouldn't be talking to you," Kyoutani snaps. "This is my spot and you're contaminating it with your… your… freakishness."

Yahaba flinches. "Oh, is that what we're calling it, now?" he ask quietly. There must be something off about his voice because Kyoutani steps back and eyes him warily, having the audacity to look confused. Yahaba snorts and gets up, aggressively shoving books into his bag. "Fine," he snaps. "I'll take my freakishness away from your wonderful little spot." He slings his bag over his shoulder and storms away.

It's only after he's gotten a respectable distance away, turned some corners so Kyoutani can't see him and found a wall to lean against so he can collect himself, that Yahaba realizes he may have misread that. Kyoutani hadn't said anything specific, after all, and nothing much different then anything they'd said to each other before, so combined with how surprised he'd looked at Yahaba's reaction, it was possible he hadn't heard.

That would be a good thing. If even a loner like Kyoutani had heard, it would mean that there wasn't a soul left in the school who didn't know, well, everything. Yahaba would like to know if that's true, but he can't bring himself to go back and what, ask Kyoutani to clarify? He shakes his head at the ridiculousness of the idea and, reminded of the other time he ran into Kyoutani ditching class, heads to the library to hide amongst the back shelves where he won't be disturbed.

He skips two more classes before he's worked up enough courage to face people again. He can feel their stares on his back throughout every minute of class, exhausting him. He feels too fragile to deal even with Watari's unshakeable support during lunch, so he locks himself in a bathroom stall and tries not to overhear when the boys in the bathroom, not knowing he's there, discuss him.

"I feel bad for the guys on the volleyball team," one remarks. "They've been changing in front of him for months now."

"Ugh," another agrees. "If I ever catch him staring at me, I'll make sure he doesn't do it again."

There's a chorus of laughter and boasts as the boys leave the restroom. Yahaba's glad he didn't eat anything, because he feels like he'd be sick if he had.

He goes through his afternoon classes in a daze. By the time the final bell rings, he's had the words he'd overheard bouncing around his head for hours. He'd never looked at his teammates that way, of course he hadn't, but they won't know that, won't believe that. They probably despise him now, except for Watari, who is clearly some kind of acceptance mutant.

With that in mind, Yahaba turns away from the gym and heads toward the gate instead. He doesn't want to face the rejection from his teammates. Even if he's never stood on the court with them, he feels connected to them in some deep way he can't explain. It's better, he thinks, to voluntarily leave then to be kicked out.

He's almost made it to the gate when he hears hurried footsteps behind him and strong hands grab his shoulders, yanking him to a stop.

"Oh my~!" he hears Oikawa's sing-song voice, overly loud so near his ear. He twirls Yahaba around so that they are facing each other and gives him a scandalized look. "Why, what have I here? Is my usually dutiful kouhai Yahaba-kun actually planning to skip out on practice on my first day as captain? I'm so offended!"

"Oikawa-san," Yahaba says stiffly. Is it possible that he doesn't know? "I… I'm sorry, but something has come up and I'm afraid I'm going to have to leave the club."

"Hmmm," Oikawa says, tipping his head to the side. "Nope, I'm afraid I can't allow that! Now go get changed for practice!" He begins to pull him in the direction of the clubroom.

"Please," Yahaba says, planting his feet. "It's really for the best, for everyone, if I-"

"Tsk, tsk, Yahaba-kun! You aren't supposed to argue with your captain's direct orders!" Oikawa changes tactics and circles around in back of Yahaba once more and starts pushing him. Oikawa is freakishly strong and Yahaba can help but be pushed along.

"Oikawa-san!" he protests, finally starting to walk a bit on his own so that Oikawa doesn't end up pushing him facedown in the dirt. "You don't understand! I… I'm…"

"Gay? I heard," Oikawa says, not bothering to lower his voice at all. "But more importantly, you are my top choice for my reserve setter, so you can't quit the club!" He's successfully towed Yahaba all the way to the clubroom. "Look," he says, finally dropping his lighthearted expression. "Stay after practice today and we can discuss it. But only if you stick around and don't slack off in practice today, understood?"

Yahaba wavers for a moment, but Oikawa's expression is serious and somewhat terrifying, as if he's more than ready to tear any argument that might come his way to shreds. Yahaba can't stand up to that, not from Oikawa, who he's idolized for so long. He nods.

"Hooray!" Oikawa chirps. "Now hurry, or you'll be late on a day where the coaches might be looking to make examples of people!"

Yahaba shudders and runs up the stairs.

---

Practice goes by in a blur. Watari grins, looking impossibly relieved, when Yahaba walks in and settles down next to him to listen to Oikawa's first captain speech. It's a grand affair, filled with lots of inspiring imagery and only a few jabs at Iwaizumi, who is looking too proud for anyone to take his threatening responses seriously. Oikawa outlines his plan to win Spring High, avenging their team, including the now retired third years, for their loss at Interhigh.

Irihata steps in at the end. "The final make up of our first string is indefinite for now," he says. "No one is assured a spot, regardless of year or position. How you all preform in our upcoming training camp and practice matches, both individually and as a unit, will decide who gets a spot."

Everyone seems focused on their own improvement during the drills, and Yahaba starts to relax. With his teammate's attention on practice, not him, he feels like he finally has room to breathe. He's worried people will avoid partnering with him during drills that require it, but every time he turns around for one of them, there is Watari, or Iwaizumi, or Matsukawa, or Hanamaki. Watari he can understand, but he wonders if Oikawa is behind the other second years's actions.

The best thing, though, isn't the teammates. It's the feel of the volleyball in his hands again, getting to turn his brain away from everything except the sport. The feeling of sweat running down his back, of his legs pumping steady and sure as he runs for the ball.

He missed playing, he realizes. Even though it hadn't even been that long, he'd missed it.

He waits after practice like Oikawa had told him. To his surprise, it's not just Oikawa who stays with him, but Iwaizumi as well.

"Ugh, talking in the smelly gym is no good," Oikawa says. "Let's walk to the convenience store down the street, okay? I'll treat you, Yahaba-kun!"

"Okay," Yahaba says and follows Oikawa's lead. He'd prefer to fall in step slightly behind his upperclassmen or at least to the side, but Oikawa drags him in between the two of them with an arm draped around his shoulder. With the two of them flanking him, taking him to buy him food and apparently going to give him a serious talking to, Yahaba can't shake the feeling that they seem like a very bizarre family unit.

"You don't want to quit the volleyball team," Oikawa says.

Yahaba hesitates. "But-"

"Let me finish," Oikawa says. "Like I said, you don't want to quit the volleyball team. If you can't see that from how you clearly felt during practice today, I don't know what will show you. But, you feel like you have to quit the volleyball team, don't you?"

"All the other team members," Yahaba begins.

"If they have a problem, they can bring it up with me," Oikawa says, eyes flashing. "And anyone who lets having a problem with you get in the way of my volleyball team's performance, well! Let's just say, I'll be more than ready for quite an interesting conversation with anyone who feels that way." He grins and Yahaba is struck again by how Oikawa can go from silly to downright terrifying in less than a second.

"What if there are a lot of them, though?" Yahaba points out. "Isn't it better just to remove the source, then?"

"That's only hypothetical," Iwaizumi points out. "And it won't be a lot, anyway. I mean, for all that the coach said earlier, we can guess a good part of the first string players already. Oikawa, me, Hanamaki, Matsukawa, and Watari are all definitely going to be starters. That's already five people who don't have an issue with you, including all of the oldest members. Everyone will fall in line easily enough."

"Like I said before, I want you as my reserve setter," Oikawa says.

"I'm not that good of a setter," Yahaba says. "Watari is probably just as good, so-"

"Nuh-uh," Oikawa says. "I need Watacchi as my libero. That's where his talents will really bloom, I think. Yours will bloom as a setter. But, even beyond that… your notes from the Interhigh were very good, Yahaba-kun. You've a knack for telling a teams strengths and weaknesses, and I need a setter like that courtside to catch things I might miss as we play."

"You're good at staying calm, as well," Iwaizumi puts in. Yahaba is starting to feel distinctly double teamed. "Any reserve setter for Oikawa is probably only going to come into play when something has gone fairly wrong. A lot of setters would crumble under that, show the team how scared they are and make everyone lose confidence. You always seem to be keeping your cool, even if you're actually freaking out. That's an important asset for a setter to have."

"Wah, look at Iwa-chan, giving out so many thoughtful compliments," Oikawa says as Yahaba takes a moment to digest. "I want Iwa-chan to compliment me like that!"

Iwaizumi turns red. "It'll be a cold day in hell, Oikawa," he says.

Yahaba remembers what he had overheard that day. "What about, um, changing? The other guys probably won't want to change in front of me," he says and looks down, ashamed.

"If anyone has any issues like that, I'm more than happy to let them change outside!" Oikawa says with a smile.

Iwaizumi smacks him. "That's not going to comfort him, asshole," he says. "Look, if someone actually feels uncomfortable with it, we'll work out something so that everyone can be okay, understood? So don't worry about it."

Yahaba is silent for a bit longer. Finally, he has to ask. "How do you guys… why don't you care? How does it not bother you?"

They look at each other and shrug in unison. "It's just not a big deal, I guess," Iwaizumi says.

"Iwa-chan's brain is too full of muscle and volleyball to care about anything else," Oikawa says gleefully. "And I am accepting of love of all kinds. After all, I have in fact received a few confessions from boys already, and their candy is just as delicious as any that I've gotten from a girl, so their love for me must be as wonderful and pure. In fact, I am surprised that more boys around me haven't fallen in love with me already!"

"I can't even decide which part of that makes me want to hit you the most," Iwaizumi says as they reach the store. "I'm going to buy gum just to stick it in your hair."

"Jealousy is so unbecoming, Iwa-chan," Oikawa says before getting distracted by the food. "Yahaba-kun, pick out whatever you like!"

Once Oikawa has paid for his and Yahaba's selections, he leads Yahaba outside while Iwaizumi checks out. He pauses in opening his milkbread while humming to look down at Yahaba with a serious expression.

"These last few days have been really rough on you, huh," he says.

Yahaba swallows and gives the smallest of nods. It's not like he could really hide that at this point, but he still feels terrible admitting to it.

Oikawa ruffles his hair gently. "Well, for what it's worth, I think it was brave of you to tell him," he says.

"I didn't even mean to," Yahaba says, blushing. "It just kind of… slipped out, in the moment."

"Still," Oikawa says, his voice soft. "A lot of people would never be able to take that kind of risk." And in what looks like an involuntary motion, his eyes flick slightly to the side to the window of the convenience store, where they can just make out Iwaizumi.

A few things click into place for Yahaba and he blinks. He looks at Oikawa again and for once sees him as just another boy, only a year older than him, nowhere near perfect and just as likely to feel as lost and confused as Yahaba does. "Well," he says carefully. "It didn't exactly work out for me, but then, Nagao and I hadn't known each other that long. He had no reason to stick around."

Oikawa narrows his eyes for a second before smiling even wider than before. He reaches out again and tousles Yahaba's hair, this time almost hard enough to hurt. "See?" he says. "Yahaba can be pretty sharp when he wants to be! It's so cute that I almost want to kill you!"

"Stop bullying the underclassmen," Iwaizumi says as he exits the store. "I can't even leave you alone for five seconds, what did I miss?"

"Nothing," Yahaba and Oikawa say in matching innocent tones.

"Ugh," Iwaizumi says.

---

Things don't exactly get better, but they get more bearable. His desk is still sometimes defaced and most of the other students still avoid him, but he manages. He fixes his most normal smile to his face as he cleans the chalked words, hateful and ugly, from the desk each morning as if it were just a part of any regular student's routine and keeps his posture straight no matter how many whispers he hears behind his back. It helps that any time he has out of class, every break or lunch period, someone from the volleyball team seems to magically appear by his side, just as casual as if it were pure chance. Even a few of the retired third years occasionally appear, stunning Yahaba just as much as his classmates.

One night he gets a text message from Nagao.

I'm sorry, it says. I only told a couple friends because I wanted advice on what to do. I never meant it to get out like this.

Yahaba doesn't reply to it, not sure what to say.

Chapter Text

Training camp is brutal and amazing. Yahaba has never been so tired in his entire life than at the end of each day of grueling practice, but eating dinner and chatting with his teammates after lights out is the most fun he's ever had. It's so comfortable, so easy, that Yahaba wishes he could spend all his days just surrounded by these people, who've become more than just a team to him. They've become his family.

On the second day of camp, they realize the bag with their first aid kit was mistakenly left behind at school when Oikawa scrapes his elbow in a fall and they have nothing to dress the cut with. The first years draw straws and Yahaba loses, so he's sent out with a list and some money from the coaches to replenish their supplies from one of the nearby stores.

The camp is held in a part of town Yahaba isn't used to, being on the opposite side of the school from his train. He has to check carefully to make sure he doesn't get lost on the way. The streets are fairly deserted since most people are on vacation, but that suits Yahaba just fine.

Finally he locates the store Irihata had told him to go to, a corner mart that's next to an apartment complex in the middle of being expanded to a new lot. The sounds of construction are heavy in the air as Yahaba searches decides between two different antiseptics. By the time he's picking out bandages, the sounds have come to a halt, perhaps signaling some kind of break, and have been replaced by one man's very loud shouting.

Even though Yahaba tries not to listen as his purchases are rang up and he distributes their weight across a couple bags for the long walk back, he can't help overhear enough to piece together the general gist of the rant, that one of the workers is selfish and never going to amount to anything. Yahaba shakes his head, hoping he never has a boss like that. It'd be hard, he thinks, to hear the kind of things his own mind was more than willing to supply, all in the voice of someone with authority over him.

As he exits the store, Yahaba has to leap back to avoid being knocked into by someone storming past. Yahaba turns to glare and is surprised all over again when he realizes the person who'd almost bowled him over is Kyoutani, haircut unmistakable even from behind.

"I apologize for him," comes a hoarse voice, the one Yahaba had been hearing earlier though now at a much quieter volume. Yahaba turns to see a broad shouldered man in a foreman's vest and holding a hard hat in his hands. His hair is balding but his eyebrows are thick and only accentuate his deeply set, dark eyes which could be the mirror image of Kyoutani's. His cheeks are still flushed with anger, though he seems to have regained his calm for the most part.

"Um," Yahaba says, scrambling for his bearings. "It's fine." After a quick bow he hastily retreats, mind whirling. Though it had only taken a few minutes, the whole experience leaves Yahaba feeling unsettled. There's nothing he can do with that feeling, however, so he forces himself to trot back to the camp and puts it as far out of his mind as he can manage.

---

Since no one on the team other than Watari and, that one day, Oikawa and Iwaizumi, has ever directly mentioned his being gay, Yahaba almost expects it to never come up. He figured that the teammates would feel more comfortable around him if they could pretend he was just like the rest of them. To his surprise, however, Matsukawa brings it up during one of the days they are playing a practice match against another team from the area.

Yahaba had been chatting with their manager, a cute second-year girl who wore her hair in a ponytail. He'd seen her struggling to carry a heavy tub of supplies and offered his help, chatting with her as they worked.

"It's not fair," Matsukawa sighs as Yahaba rejoins a group of his teammates. "The only one of us that can talk to girls is the one who it doesn't matter to…"

"Oikawa-san can talk to girls," Watari points out generously as the others are busy nodding and sighing.

"He doesn't count," Hanamaki says. "He's made a deal with Satan, or something like that."

"They're just people," Yahaba says, shaking his head. "You all just overthink it because you're too focused on them being girls."

"That's easy for you to say," one of the other first years says. "Whenever I go to talk to a cute girl, my head gets all full of mush and I can barely remember my own name!"

"It's not like we really have time for girlfriends," Watari says. "But just to talk to a cute girl, even for just a little bit…"

"Do you want me to introduce you to her?" Yahaba says, remembering how much easier it was to talk to Nagao when Watari was around. "I mean, I can go talk to the girls and you all can break in when you feel less, uh, brain-mushy." At the intense amount of excited attention suddenly trained on him, he raises his hands automatically in defense. "Er, just one of you at a time, though."

During the practice matches, Oikawa often sits out, letting Yahaba and one of the other first year setters carry the entire match. It's to test them, to decide who will be the reserve setter. Yahaba knows that when measured against Oikawa, he's practically on the level of an infant, but he does better than the other first year and wins several games. It doesn't surprise him when, at the nice dinner that was their promised treat for making so much at the festival, the coaches announce that he'll be the new reserve setter, but just hearing it changes something in him anyhow.

He can't stop looking at his official jersey, Number 12, where it hangs in his room.

He finally gets a chance to wear it on the first day of Spring High. He grins happily at his reflection in the mirror before turning to rescue Watari from where he's gotten himself tangled in his own jacket. It's Watari's first time as a starter, first time playing in a high school tournament, and he's awash with nerves.

"You're going to be fine," Yahaba tells him once he's gotten his friend sorted out and in his uniform properly.

"I'm going to faint on the court," Watari says.

"Well, if you do, try to fall in the path of an oncoming ball," Yahaba says.

"That's the spirit," Oikawa says with a grin.

"I'm going to die," Watari says.

Watari doesn't die, or faint, or carry out any one of his terrified predictions. He's a bit too tense in the first set, fumbling a few receives Yahaba knows he'd usually be able to return to the setter with ease, but as the rest of the team shows their strength, scoring point after point, he eases into a groove and soon is playing normally.

They win their first game, 2-0, and eat a light lunch during the break before their second match.

"How did it feel?" Yahaba asks Watari after they finish and begin bumping a ball back and forth to stay warmed up. "To be on the court, I mean."

"Like I was about to be crushed under a billion tons of pressure, but in a good way," Watari answers after a beat. "It was amazing."

Yahaba sighs enviously as the coaches call them over to discuss the next match.

Their next opponents are good. Their defense is tight, especially since they still have their third years playing, and their attacks are well controlled. Aobajousai wins the first set and take an early lead in the second thanks in large part to Oikawa's service aces and smart tosses, but they have to stay on their toes. In response, the other team begins to concentrate their attacks on Oikawa's position, trying to throw off their rhythm. Watari starts having to toss more, but with the restrictions on the libero position, he has less options.

After the opposing team scores three consecutive points off of blocks, getting the score to 21-20 only barely still in Aobajousai's favor, their coaches call a time out. Oikawa leads the meeting as they brainstorm ways to fight back.

"Watacchi's tosses are a good tool, but it's predictable if the other team knows they can force us into using him that way," Oikawa says. "So we need to find a way to disrupt their plan before it can get that far."

"We need to keep Oikawa from being stuck taking the initial receive," Iwaizumi says, wiping sweat off his face with a towel.

They change their formation slightly, decreasing Oikawa's defensive area. It means he's starting from further back and will have to dart between Watari and Hanamaki to get in place for the toss, but Oikawa is fast enough to pull it off.

Or he should have been.

Instead, as Hanamaki dives for the ball and Oikawa sprints to get by, they collide and Oikawa is sent slamming into the gym floor as the ball drops beyond them. Hanamaki scrambles to his feet as the whistle sounds and looks for Oikawa to do the same, but Oikawa is on the ground, clutching his knee and his face is twisted, unlike any expression Yahaba can remember seeing from him before.

Iwaizumi is by his side in an instant and the other team members aren't far behind. Yahaba watches in stunned silence from his place in the player's box as Oikawa slowly gets to his feet, not putting any weight on the knee he was holding and leaning on Iwaizumi.

"Can you get to the infirmary like this?" Irihata asks. His voice isn't harsh or overly brusque, but it's business-like, calm. When Oikawa nods, he turns to the rest of the team. "Mizoguchi-sensei, you'll take him? Good. Yahaba, you'll be taking Oikawa's place. Hanamaki, do I need to substitute you?"

Yahaba hears Iwaizumi's words from weeks before echoing in his ears, about how Oikawa's reserve setter would only be put on the court if something has gone wrong. He's dreamed of getting to play, looked on with jealousy at the other first years standing on the court, but now that the reality is facing him and Oikawa is radiating tension and pain as he switches from Iwaizumi's hold to Mizoguchi's, Yahaba doesn't think he can do it.

"I…" he says and his words die in his throat as Oikawa looks straight at him.

"Yahaba," he says. "I'm counting on you, so you need to win, okay? So I can come back and play tomorrow."

"Understood," Yahaba says, trying to project a sense of certainty that he doesn't feel and steps onto the court.

Just four more points, he tells himself. We just have to score four more points and not let them score three more before we do.

But the team doesn't work with him like they do with Oikawa. His tosses don't come at the perfect height and speed for them and they hesitate, slow down, become increasingly less sure of themselves. Hanamaki is still playing but he's rattled, not playing his best. They try, but they lose the set.

"Breathe," Irihata advises Yahaba during the time before the next set. "Stay calm. The teams you beat in practice matches weren't any tougher than the opponents before you today. You haven't hit your groove yet in your play today, which is normal. It just looks bad because that set was so close to being finished anyway."

Yahaba nods and tries to follow his advice. He breathes in and out slowly, tries to forget about everything else except the court, except the plays they need.

"Don't try to be Oikawa-san," Watari tells him as they get into position. "Just try to be you."

But I'm not good enough, Yahaba wants to answer but doesn't, because he knows morale is the most important thing at this stage.

"It's hard for guys like you," Iwaizumi says quietly. "Guys who are more cerebral. You're always thinking about what kind of tosses would be the best to send even if your physical abilities don't quite match up yet, so you feel like you're constantly failing in almost every play. But you need to trust in our spikers. Even with a toss that's not the best, a toss that's just good, you have to have faith in us that we can use it."

"I'll do my best," Yahaba says.

The second set is better. He tries to do as Iwaizumi said, to trust in the spikers, and rely on the defense. The score edges up, slowly but surely. It's nothing like what Yahaba knows Aobajousai can be, but they win by a narrow margin, with Iwaizumi scoring the final hit.

As the rest of the team cheers, Yahaba sags in relief. He doesn't even feel the thrill of victory, only relief that he hadn't managed to screw up the team by not being good enough. He feels strange, shaky.

Irihata tells them that Oikawa and Mizoguchi have been sent on to one of the hospitals for scans. The bus takes them to the hospital, where they can wait for the results and tell Oikawa about the game.

"You can't all go in and see him at once," the nurse on duty says with an offended look at the sheer number of them and the fact that they hadn't bothered to change out of their sweaty uniforms. "Two at a time."

Iwaizumi and Irihata are the ones to go back to the room. The rest find spots in the hospital waiting area and sit, awkwardly awaiting the news that could make or break their team, not just in this tournament but for the next year. Every minute without news is brutal and Yahaba wonders if this is what people mean when they talk about stress taking years off their lifespan.

Finally, Mizoguchi and Irihata both appear. Irihata holds up his hands, stalling the team's questions before they can begin.

"He'll be okay," he says in a gruff voice. He says more after that, but it all gets blurred after those first few words and Yahaba only picks up on the generalities. Oikawa will be okay, will be able to play again. He has to be careful not to injure his knee further, has been told to wear a special brace to offer more support, will have to do some physical therapy to avoid doing more serious damage, but he's okay.

"Will he be able to play tomorrow?" Matsukawa asks.

The coaches look at each other. "Yes," Irihata finally says. "But not how he normally does. Yahaba, Hanamaki, he asked for the two of you."

They jump a little and make their way down the path the nurse shows them to Oikawa's room. He's in a hospital bed with a simply absurd amount of melon gelatin piled around him. Iwaizumi is seated in a chair dragged close to the bed. Oikawa waves them in.

"Makki first!" he says, sounding like his usual self. "Iwa-chan, can you and Yahaba go get me a yogurt drink?"

"You already have a drink," Iwaizumi says.

Oikawa pouts. "But I want a yogurt-y drink."

"We'll get you one," Yahaba promises.

"See, Iwa-chan? You should be more nice to me, like Yahaba is!" Oikawa says.

Iwaizumi rolls his eyes but follows Yahaba out. They head to vending machine and Iwaizumi pays for the drink.

"He just wants to make sure Hanamaki isn't feeling guilty," he says to Yahaba, selecting something for himself. "He really shouldn't - Oikawa's had issues with that knee before. He probably should have been wearing a brace already. Something like this could have happened at any time."

Yahaba nods. "That makes sense," he says. "I guess we should give them a little time alone, then?"

Iwaizumi nods and leans against the wall. Yahaba looks at him, really looks, and sees that he's unusually pale. He looks exhausted, more than after even a day's worth of training.

"You really worry about him," Yahaba observes.

"Well, one of us has to," Iwaizumi says, then shakes his head. "No, that's not fair. Oikawa is a lot more careful these days. He looks after himself, most of the time."

Yahaba hadn't been aware that there was a time when Oikawa wasn't careful, didn't look after himself, but he just hums an agreeable noise and twists his hands awkwardly. He thinks about what he'd seen in Oikawa's eyes that time and can't stop himself from saying, "You really care about him, don't you?"

"Of course," Iwaizumi says. "I mean, he's my best friend, we've known each other since forever. Even if he drives me up the wall sometimes, or even most of the time…" He shrugs. "I don't know what I'd do without him. He's everything to me."

"Aw," Yahaba says.

Iwaizumi reddens. "It's not a big deal. Don't tell him I said that."

"Maybe you should tell him," Yahaba says. "I bet it would make him really happy."

"He has a big enough head as it is," Iwaizumi says, blushing even harder than before.

Yahaba just hums again.

Before long, Hanamaki exits Oikawa's room. He looks as if a great weight has been lifted from his shoulders, walking more lightly and expression more open than it had been since the collision. He waves Yahaba over and directs him into the room. Oikawa grins at him as he comes in, leaning back against the pillow in between the piles of gelatin that, if Yahaba is not mistaken, seem to have somehow increased in number since he was in here just minutes before.

"Here," Yahaba says, holding out the yogurt drink Iwaizumi bought.

"Thank youuuu," Oikawa says. He points at the chair. "You can have a gelatin if you want, they're yummy!"

"No thanks," Yahaba says, perching on the edge of the seat. "I'm not really a sweets person."

"Even though you have such a cute appearance," Oikawa muses and shakes his head. "Congrats on the win today! You made me really proud."

"It wasn't me," Yahaba mutters, looking down at his hands twisting in his lap. "It was the rest of the team's skill that-"

"Yaaaahaaabaaaa," Oikawa says, pulling out each sound in a scolding tone. "If you can't accept good results, you'll never be able to accurately evaluate yourself or your team. Everyone walks off the court thinking of things they should have done better. But it's just as important to know what you did well, so you know what base you have to build on."

"I… I'll try," Yahaba says.

"Good," Oikawa says. "Let's talk about tomorrow."

He outlines a plan he'd figured out with the coaches. Over the training week, they'd started to practice using a two setter-system and now they'd use it in a regular match. Both Yahaba and Oikawa would be on the court, taking the heat off each other. Yahaba tries not to let his insecurities cloud his focus as he listens intently to Oikawa's careful plans of how they will respond in different situations.

That night, his mind races and he has trouble falling asleep. The tension on the court that day, Oikawa's fall, his fears for tomorrow, all of them stick in his brain like molasses, making it impossible for him to clear his thoughts. His dreams, when they finally come, are no better.

Yet strangely, when it comes time the next day to step foot in the gym, Yahaba feels calm. Perhaps it's the fact that unlike yesterday, he has Oikawa there on the court with them. Despite the fact that he's seen Oikawa lose, several times now, there's still a part of him that truly believes that Oikawa is invincible. If Oikawa is there, directing him, he feels like maybe it will be alright.

They win. Not elegantly, not the way they usually do, but they snatch victory after victory that day. When they leave the court, Yahaba is feeling almost giddy with it. Now he actually feels like a victor, unlike the day before. He's wiggly with energy on the bus ride back, sitting next to Watari and watching Iwaizumi hold an icepack to Oikawa's knee where it is resting in his lap.

"I haven't seen you so happy in months," Watari says, smiling. "Maybe not ever? You're not usually so hyped up."

Yahaba smiles back. "I've never gotten to the finals in a tournament before," he says, although he knows that not nearly the whole explanation.

"Well, hopefully tomorrow you can say 'I've never made it to Nationals before'," Watari says with a grin.

He doesn't, since they lose to Shiratorizawa. It's okay, though, Yahaba thinks, even as tears roll down his cheeks. They're a strong team, becoming more bonded by the day.

"Next year," he says to Watari as he leaves the stadium. "When we have new first years and Oikawa-san is back in full health. Next year, we're definitely win!"

---

Life after Spring High is a flurry of exams and preparation for the school athletics festival. The coaches expressly forbid them from getting too competitive about the festival, warning them that they shouldn't exhaust themselves on non-volleyball pursuits, but there's just no helping it, especially when the third years come back to help them with the events.

Yahaba takes the festival day easy. While he participates in the volleyball exhibition and a few other events here and there, he is more than happy to leave the real intensity to other students. In the weeks leading up to the festival, Iwaizumi had received all sorts of challenges and so takes part in tons of different events, and other teammates take part in many of them as well, so Yahaba is kept busy cheering.

He also helps out passing out water and fruit. Although the festival had its date moved to earlier spring to try to curb issues with overheating, the sun is still intense. He's kept busy chopping up oranges and running back and forth to get more water and ice that he gets a bit dizzy under the sun himself. Irihata notices, of course, and Yahaba endures a brief scolding before some of the supplies he was just fetching are pressed into his hands and he's given the order to go sit under the shade of the medical tent for awhile.

He's hardly the only one to be sent there and the large tent is busy when he arrives. He's packed off quickly to one of the chairs with a damp cloth for his neck and even more water. Yahaba is worried they might be expecting him to drink his own weight before they let him go. Once they have him settled, though, the staff are busy with dealing with new patients and he can play with his phone in peace.

It's just Yahaba's luck that one of those new patients is Kyoutani. He's hard to miss when he comes in, blood gushing down his face from his nose. He glares even as the volunteer nurse examines him. To Yahaba's horror, he ends up put in the seat next to Yahaba.

"Pinch your nose closed for ten minutes," the nurse tells him as she gives him a towel. "Don't tip your head back or you'll get blood down the back of your throat. If you're still bleeding after ten minutes, come back to me." She looks over at Yahaba, who is still holding his phone. "You, make sure he does it for ten whole minutes." Before he even has a chance to argue, she's off to deal with someone else.

"What happened?" Yahaba asks, impressed despite himself. He's seen enough people get a volleyball to the face to know that Kyoutani's bloody nose isn't the kind of injury that's a cause for concern, but the way Kyoutani has let it spill down his chin and drip onto his shirt certainly makes it look spectacular.

"Knocked into someone playing baseball," Kyoutani grunts around his towel.

"Why did you let it get all-" Yahaba waves a hand at Kyoutani's face and shirt.

"I was too busy trying to get to home base to care about my appearance," Kyoutani says disgustedly.

Yahaba narrows his eyes. "Trying, as in you didn't succeed?" he asks. "Sounds like you would have been better off caring about your appearance to me."

"Listen, you-" Kyoutani says, dropping his hand and towel to point at Yahaba.

"Hey!" Quick as a whip, Yahaba leans forward and snatches the towel from Kyoutani's hand and replaces it on his face, using his own fingers to pinch his nose shut. "Were you even paying attention to what she said? It hasn't even been two minutes, you idiot."

He's expecting Kyoutani to slap his hand away or maybe even hit him, but to his surprise Kyoutani has gone dead still, staring at him in shock. It occurs to Yahaba that perhaps people tend to be too intimidated by Kyoutani to ever get up in his space like this, let alone touch him, so Kyoutani doesn't know how to deal with it. Yahaba files that bit of information away for later, just in case he ever needs it.

"If you don't keep it pinched shut for ten minutes it won't close up," Yahaba says. "Here." He grabs Kyoutani's hand and places it back on the towel, bumping against his own for a moment before he lets go and leans back. "Now you have to start the count over."

Kyoutani's scowl deepens and looks away. "Fuck off," he says, sounding infinitely more subdued than Yahaba has heard him before. "Why do you even care, anyway?"

Yahaba raises his eyebrows. Why does he care? "You're still officially on the volleyball team," he says in his blandest voice. "If you compete in other events and pass out from blood loss or something, it'll embarrass the team."

"More than losing at Spring Highs did?" Kyoutani asks, flushing angrily. "Some championship team you all are, if you can't even-"

Yahaba stands up, blood turned to ice. He lets some of that frost color his expression as he glares down at Kyoutani. "If I were interested in the opinion of someone who couldn't even hack it for more than a few weeks of practice, I'd fucking ask for it." he says and turns on his heel.

Even with the afternoon sun, it takes a while for Yahaba to feel his temper thaw out.

Chapter Text

"Most of the first years are taller than me," Yahaba says mournfully as he warms up, looking at his new underclassmen standing in awkward huddles in the gym.

"Hush, you," Watari says. "Anyone over 180cm has no right to complain."

The coaches call everyone over and have them introduce themselves before giving almost word-for-word the same speech as the year before. Mizoguchi sends the first years on their laps and the rest of the team is set to an easy passing drill.

"I'm surprised you didn't get yourself doing laps with them again," Iwaizumi says to Oikawa, his passing partner.

Oikawa sniffs. "It wouldn't be dignified for the captain to be scolded at the very first practice," he says. "I'll just have to get time alone with them later."

"Don't worry," Matsukawa says. "I'm sure you'll have plenty of chances to lose your dignity in front of them later."

"That makes it sound like he has dignity to lose," Hanamaki says, making Iwaizumi snort with laughter.

"You three are just jealous, small people inside, and I pity you," Oikawa says, flicking his hair out of his face. "The rest of the team sees me for the fantastic, honorable, cute, perfect leader that I am. Right, Watacchi, Yahaba?"

"You're great, Oikawa-san," Watari says.

"Very admirable," Yahaba says.

"Stop bullying the underclassmen," Iwaizumi says.

The new first years breathe new energy into the team. Two of them are moved up to the first string, boys named Kindaichi and Kunimi. Oikawa crows about how it's because they had been his underclassmen before, that clearly his leadership skills left a lasting mark of excellence upon his kouhai, before Iwaizumi smacks him upside the head. Yahaba reserves his opinions until he can see them play, especially for Kunimi, who strikes him as unmotivated, but they are both good and Kindaichi's height is a welcome addition to the team.

One day, the team overhears the coaches talking about some weird teacher from another school who will probably come by to beg for practice matches soon. When they mention the name of the school, Karasuno, Oikawa perks up.

"I want to play them," he informs the coaches. "We should set up a game."

"Why?" Mizoguchi asks with a frown. "Karasuno isn't especially notable in any way. Maybe they'd be good practice for our reserves, but…"

Oikawa shakes his head. "Have you heard of Kitigawa's Daiichi's King of Court, the genius setter Kageyama Tobio?"

"Of course," Irihata says. "We offered him a spot here, though he didn't take it." His eyes flick over to Kindaichi and Kunimi for a moment where they are stretching and, in Kunimi's case, possibly trying to take a stealth-nap.

"He went to Karasuno," Oikawa continues, determined. "I want to play him. I need to play him."

"Even if we did set up a practice match, he might not even play. He's only a first year, after all, and they must have other setters."

"Then make it a condition of the game that he has to play the whole time through," Oikawa says patiently. "Please?"

The coach still looks unsure but after Oikawa wheedles him for a while, he eventually relents. "I guess it will be interesting for our team to play against a genius setter," he says.

Yahaba shudders and is glad he won't be the one trying to stand up to a genius.

Which is why it feels like a personal betrayal when Oikawa goes and sprains his ankle a few days before the match.

"How could he do this to me?" Yahaba asks at morning practice on the day Karasuno is coming. Oikawa hadn't shown up, sending word through Iwaizumi that his ankle still needs rest. "I try so hard to be a good underclassman, to do my best, and then he gets me stuck being the starting setter in a weird grudge match against a genius I've never even met…"

"You should yell at him," Hanamaki says helpfully.

"It's not like he meant to get hurt," Watari points out.

"Not that you should let that stop you from yelling at him," Matsukawa says.

"Iwaizumi-san, you went to the same middle school, too, right?" Yahaba asks, doing his best to ignore the commentary. "What's this genius like?"

"Earnest but awkward?" Iwaizumi says and shrugs. "I only knew him for one year, after all, only played with him once, and that was ages ago. You should ask Kindaichi or Kunimi. They were on the same team as him just recently."

Yahaba is a bit relieved when he talks to Kindaichi. It sounds like for all his monstrous talent, Kageyama can't work with a team at all. If that's the case, Yahaba feels he might have a chance. The first impression he gets of the team makes him feel better as well, since they act with none of the calm efficiency he's used to seeing in strong teams, even if they are kind of scary off the court.

Which is why it stings so much when they lose. The only set Yahaba manages to win from them is the one where the Karasuno's bizarre tiny middle blocker screws up his teammates. By the time Oikawa appears in the eleventh hour, not even his amazing serves are enough to save them. Even with the other team lacking a libero, Yahaba can't utilize the spikers the way Oikawa could have, can't possibly match the terrifying abilities of Kageyama.

He holds himself together through the coach's breakdown of the match and through the team's chatting as they get changed and start heading home. He smiles, laughs at the jokes when appropriate, nods and "Mmms" and generally acts like his normal self, but somehow Oikawa can tell anyway and pulls him to the back of the group, slinging an arm around his shoulder in that way he has that offers just as much comfort as it works to ensure that Yahaba won't run away.

"Do you know what your biggest mistake was in that match, Yahaba?" he asks in a cheerful tone of voice.

"My sets were too weak," he says. "I didn't let our spikers show their true strength."

Oikawa makes a buzzer noise. "Nope, that's wrong!" He pauses as if waiting for Yahaba to guess again, but Yahaba remains silent. He doesn't want to play this game, not now. Oikawa senses his mood and shakes his head. "Yahaba, when you saw me arrive, you gave up, didn't you?"

Yahaba stiffens. "I…"

"You probably thought something like, 'Oh good, Oikawa-san is here. He's the real setter, not me. If he were playing, we wouldn't be in this fix. He should come into the game as soon as possible, so that we have a chance. When I look at setters like that Karasuno guy, who is a complete genius, and Oikawa-san, who uses every scrap of talent he's got, it's clear that someone like me doesn't have a hope of winning.' Am I wrong?"

Yahaba blushes and says nothing. He hadn't thought it in those exact words, but the sentiment is right.

"What am I going to do with you, Yahaba?" Oikawa asks, tone still light. "It seems like every time I turn around, you've plunged into a new well of insecurity."

"I'm sorry," Yahaba says.

"The truth is," Oikawa says, face turning serious. "I can't advise you on how to stand up against a genius, how to close the gap between you and them. I still haven't figured out how to do it myself. But the moment you give up on yourself is the moment you make sure that gap will never be closed."

Yahaba looks down. "I'm not very good at believing in myself," he admits.

Oikawa leans in and smiles conspiratorially. "Neither am I," he says.

Yahaba starts to give him a disbelieving look but stops himself. It's so easy, to get sucked into Oikawa's pretense of constant confidence, but Yahaba believes he's seen enough cracks, few and far between though they may have been, to know there's more there to him than that. "Then how do you do it?" Yahaba asks instead.

Oikawa's eyes flick to Iwaizumi.

"That's not helpful to me," Yahaba says before Oikawa can open his mouth. "I don't have one of those."

"Let me actually say something first, geez," Oikawa huffs. "What I was going to say was, I found something else I can believe in. With six people, the strong are even stronger."

"But that's the problem," Yahaba says. "I don't help make anyone stronger."

"You still aren't getting it," Oikawa says. "It's not a one way street, Yahaba. You have to let the team make you stronger, too."

"I don't understand," Yahaba says.

"You will one day," Oikawa tells him. "Maybe it'll just be for a moment at first, but someday you'll know what it's like, to have the players supporting you so that you can be free to do your best to support them, too."

"I hope you're right," Yahaba says.

"Of course I'm right!" Oikawa says, back to light hearted in an instant. "I'm your wonderful senpai, aren't I? In fact, now that we've started having these lovely little chats, I should probably give you a nickname, shouldn't I? Usually I wait for inspiration to strike, but you deserve one right now!"

"Please don't," Yahaba says hastily. Oikawa's nicknames run the gamut from mildly embarrassing to Oh god I want to die levels of humiliating.

"Now, let's see," Oikawa continues with false obliviousness. "Yahaba, Yahaba… Yachan? Yahabachi? Fluffy-chan?"

This has already gotten out of control and Yahaba knows he has no choice but to bring out the big guns. It's a dangerous move, but he feels the situation calls for it. "Oikawa-san," he says, making sure his voice is low enough that there is no way any of the boys around them can hear. "If you call me by a nickname, I'll give Iwaizumi's phone number to the girl in class 3-5 who has a crush on him."

Oikawa stares at him in shock for a second. "Yahaba…" he says, voice heavy with betrayal and maybe a tiny bit of pride. "I can't believe this… My darling little Yahaba, who was so cute and tiny and eager to please, has turned into a terrible, terrible bully. Threatening his upperclassmen with these vile, horrendous things!" The hold he has around Yahaba's shoulders suddenly turns into a headlock and Oikawa begins to give him one of his patented hair rufflings that are just on the far side of painful. "Why couldn't you have stayed cute and innocent forever?!" he shouts as Yahaba squeaks and tries to get away

Iwaizumi's angry voice interrupts them, making them both freeze. "How many times do I have to tell you: Stop. Bullying. The. Underclassmen." Yahaba peeks up to see that he's holding up his schoolbag ready to throw at Oikawa's head.

"I wasn't bullying the underclassman!" Oikawa protests. "The underclassman was bullying me!"

Yahaba slips out of Oikawa's grasp as Iwaizumi lets loose.

"Ah, the dulcet sounds of friendship in the early evening," Hanamaki says dreamily over the familiar yelps and shouts of Iwaizumi and Oikawa squabbling. "It's enough to bring a tear to my eye."

"Shouldn't we stop them?" Kindaichi asks nervously.

"First years," Yahaba says knowingly to Watari as he tries to fix his Oikawa-induced hair situation.

"Adorable," Watari agrees.

---

Yahaba enjoys the beginning of his second year a lot more than his first. He feels comfortable around the team, of course, and loves practice, but it's more than just that. The rumors about him have finally become old news, only interesting to the new freshmen and the rare obsessive type. Everyone else moves on, more interested in talking about newer gossip that still has some juice left in it. While Yahaba will never be a beacon of popularity who is surrounded by friends wherever he goes, at least people seem to have stopped avoiding him or treating him like an exotic zoo creature. He can go about his business with a quiet normalcy.

Yahaba even finds that, wonder of wonders, he has some free time. The volleyball team takes Mondays off to rest and recover and he's managed to stay well on top of his schoolwork. Watari has less luck in that area and ends up finding a tutor from his class. Yahaba offers to tutor him instead, but Watari turns him down with a blush that Yahaba only understands when he sees his actual tutor, a very attractive girl that Yahaba recognizes as a member of the girls volleyball team. Yahaba grins, wishes Watari the best of luck, and leaves him to it.

Still, all this adds up to Yahaba having more free time than he knows what to do with. Eventually he hits upon the idea of finding a part time job. The idea of having actual pocket money is an exciting prospect, so he looks around for places that would be open to hiring a high schooler, even asking his teammates for ideas. It's Matsukawa who points him in the direction of a small grocery store not too far from campus, apparently owned by his aunt and uncle. They are more than willing to take on Yahaba as a part time employee, especially to help with carrying heavier items around.

By the time he's reached his second week on the job, Yahaba is used to seeing Aobajousai students come in. Matsukawa and Hanamaki often come in to say hi to Matsukawa's aunt, gently tease Yahaba about how supposedly cute he looks in his work uniform, and buy snacks. A few other classmates greet him as well and even more come in to the store on their way home, so Yahaba doesn't even register the familiar uniform entering and then pausing just in his field of vision as he stacks up watermelons, quietly singing along with the music playing on the store's radio. He finishes and stands up, turning, and almost smacks into the person standing to his left.

He jumps back quickly. "Ah, sorr-" he begins before recognizing who's standing before him. "What are you doing here?"

Kyoutani expression is a mixture of shock and anger. "I shop here," he snaps. "What are you doing here?"

Yahaba points at his apron. "I work here," he says. He'd managed to avoid Kyoutani for ages now, ever since the athletics festival.

Kyoutani looks like he's in physical pain. "Why?"

"Are you asking me to explain the concept of jobs to you?" Yahaba asks just to see that pained expression grow deeper.

"Why here?" Kyoutani clarifies.

"To personally bother you," Yahaba says and rolls his eyes when Kyoutani looks like he might actually believe him. "Because it's close to school and Matsukawa-san put in a good word for me."

Kyoutani stares at him blankly for a second and Yahaba realizes that he doesn't recognize Matsukawa's name, for all that Matsukawa is a third year and starting member of the club Kyoutani's still supposedly in. Incredible. He rolls his eyes for a second time and catches sight of Kyoutani's basket, which is currently packed full of milk and little else. "Aw," he says in his most annoying tone possible. "Are you trying to grow?"

The tips of Kyoutani's ears turn pink. "Sh-shut up," he growls. "You- you look stupid in that apron."

Yahaba flaps the hem of his pale green apron at him and gives what Oikawa has assured him is his prettiest smile. "No, I don't," he says. "I look adorable. Would you like to buy a watermelon?"

"No!" Kyoutani says in such a vehement tone that one would think Yahaba had offered him poison and stomps away.

Yahaba thought that would be the end of it and he wouldn't see Kyoutani again, but to his surprise, the opposite happens. Kyoutani comes into the store all the time, sometimes even more than once a week. He tries to avoid Yahaba when he's in the store, but often Yahaba is the only one on checkout duty and Kyoutani has no choice but to have Yahaba ring him up.

They never talk, except for Yahaba reading out how much he owes. Yahaba always makes sure to read the amount in as sugary a voice as possible while Kyoutani does his best to glower at the empty air somewhere to the left of Yahaba's general area.

It's weird, but slowly Yahaba gets used to seeing Kyoutani's grouchy face, always pulled into some ridiculously angry expression, as a normal part of his week.

---

Training camp, when it comes, is as fun as ever, which is to say completely torturous during the day and ridiculously amusing at night. This time they're sharing their camp with a couple other schools, playing practice matches against a different one every day. It's good practice. Though Aobajousai is the best team involved, the matches are still often close.

Yahaba is refilling water bottles behind the gym when he's approached by a player from the team they'd played against on the first day, a boy with freckles and short black hair. Yahaba thinks he might have played wing spiker, but he's not sure. He nods politely and turns back to his task, only to be stopped by the other boy's voice.

"U-um," he says and Yahaba sees he's blushing furiously. "Are you Yahaba-san?"

"Yeah," he says. "Can I help you with something?"

The boy blushes even worse than before. "Is it true that, um, are you really, uh…"

Yahaba frowns, not at all sure what he's being asked. "Am I what?" he asks, trying to sound patient.

"Gay?" the boy says and then raises his hands in an awkward placating gesture. "N-no offense, or anything, I just-"

"Oh, that," Yahaba says and wonders when he started feeling Oh, that about the whole thing. "Yup, I am." He'd wonder at how a kid from another school has heard about him, but he knew how the volleyball world could be endlessly gossipy.

"I… um, if it's not a bother, I was wondering if you could? With me? Maybe?"

It takes Yahaba a moment, then he splutters. "Are- are you asking me to have sex with you?" His voice cracks embarrassingly on the word sex and yeah, this is definitely not Yahaba's finest moment.

At least the other boy looks just as horrified as Yahaba feels. "No!" he says, waving his hands around. "Not that far! Just, um, kissing, maybe? To see if I like it?"

Yahaba scrubs a hand through his hair as he thinks about the idea. The boy is pretty cute, in a thinner way than Yahaba usually likes, and he's offering, and who knows when Yahaba will have a chance like this again? "Okay," he hears himself saying. "Um, yeah. I mean, not right now, of course. I need to, you know." He points at the water bottles. Smooth, he thinks.

"Right, sure!" The boy says. "Um, we could meet when people are eating lunch?"

Yahaba nods and thinks about what kind of place would offer them some privacy. "Let's meet in the changing rooms," he says. He stacks up the water bottles and is a few steps away when he realizes something. "Er, what's your name?" he asks.

"Otake!" the boy says. "Otake Murai."

"Cool," Yahaba says, mainly because he's not sure what the appropriate response is to learning the name of someone you plan to make out with later to help them figure out their sexuality. He's not sure if there even is an appropriate response for that situation. "See you later, then."

Kissing Otake turns out to be a lot of fun. Well, the first few times less so, with too much tension and confusion about who should tip their head where and maybe a little more saliva involved than Yahaba is quite comfortable with, but they calm down after a few minutes and manage to find a pattern that seems to work well.

Otake's lips are warm and slightly chapped, but Yahaba thinks maybe he likes that, likes the tiny bit of roughness against his own lips and skin. And Otake's hands are nice, too, especially when they settle around Yahaba's waist and spread slightly farther back as Yahaba pushes forward. One of Yahaba's own hands curls against the side of Otake's jaw, originally to help maneuver everything into the right angle and left there because he likes how how he can feel the slight movements as Otake opens his mouth and gasps.

They break apart when a nearby shout reminds them that the rest of their teams are only a short distance away and if they don't head back they are sure to be missed.

"Can we do this again?" Otake asks, looking breathless and blushing.

"Sure," Yahaba says.

They manage to sneak back into the the mess of clubs without anyone commentating, so Yahaba figures with relief that no one even noticed their absence. He does notice Oikawa watching him speculatively, which with Oikawa is never a good sign, but since the captain doesn't approach him at all through lunch or practice after, he puts it out of his mind.

---

They get him on the way to the bathroom before bed that night. One minute he's walking down the hall, toothbrush in hand, and the next a bag is slipped over his head and he's being lifted off the floor.

"Hurry, Iwa-chan!" he hears through the bag, which seems suspiciously like one of the pillowcases the team has been using.

If Iwaizumi is the one carrying him, Yahaba knows the likelihood of getting away is close to nil, so he sighs and hopes they aren't planning to throw him in the lake nearby.

He's set down in a chair and held there by strong hands on either of his shoulders. The pillowcase is tugged off his head and Yahaba takes moment to digest the scene in front of him.

Oikawa is standing directly in front of him, a terrifying grin on his face that is only enhanced by the flashlight he has held up under his chin as if he's about to tell a ghost story. He's flanked on either side by Matsukawa and Hanamaki, both with dead serious expressions carefully in place. Matsukawa has in his arms a bag from the grocery store where Yahaba works. Hanamaki has a party noise maker in his mouth, at odds with his stony face, and is holding up one of the small white boards that the coaches use to explain plays, except all the volleyball terms have been wiped off and replaced with two terrible words.

Sex Ed.

"Oh no," Yahaba says.

"Oh yes," Oikawa says. "My dear kouhai, it is time we have… the talk."

Ptweeet! goes Hanamaki's noise maker as the tube unfurls, punctuating Oikawa's statement.

Yahaba tries to run.

Iwaizumi catches him and pushes him back into the chair. "I'm sorry," he says, having the decency to look the tiniest bit regretful. "This is for your own good. Mostly."

"I've done nothing to deserve this," Yahaba says, more trying to reason with fate than with his upperclassmen.

"Yahaba, Yahaba," Oikawa says, shaking his head. "A little birdie told us that you have started to have relations." He flickers the flashlight on and off as he says the final word. Hanamaki helpfully tweets his noisemaker again.

"I'm not!" Yahaba argues, blushing furiously. "We just-"

"Made out? Smooched? Frenched?"

"Swapped spit?" Iwaizumi breaks in when Oikawa seems to run out of synonyms.

"Played a rousing game of tonsil hockey?" Matsukawa offers.

"Sucked face?" Hanamaki adds, pulling the noisemaker from his lips briefly so he could join in.

"How do you even know about that?" Yahaba asks to cover how much he wants to die. This goes beyond embarrassment. This is true mortification.

Oikawa leans in close to Yahaba's face. "Didn't I tell you once, Yahaba?" He turns the flashlight on steadily this time and grins his most terrifying grin. "I know everything about all my teammates!"

"That gets more horrible every time you say it," Iwaizumi says.

"It's to be helpful!" Oikawa protests and then clears his throat, stepping back and turning off the flashlight. "Anyway, we know you've been doing the lip tango supreme with that kid you snuck off with during lunch and as we all know, one kind of tango can eventually lead to another!"

Ptweet! Hanamaki punctuates once more, letting the tube roll out suggestively.

"Exactly," Oikawa says, though he's blushing only slightly less than Yahaba is. "So, as your dutiful senpai, the time has come upon us to teach you everything you need to know so that you can go forward, like a beautiful butterfly, making safe, enjoyable, and most of all, responsible decisions!"

"Those beautiful responsible butterflies," Matsukawa echoes dryly. "They are the most sexually sensible of insects."

Ptweet! Ptweet! Ptweeee- Hanamaki has to pull the noisemaker out of his mouth as he giggles for a moment. "Caterpillars," he says by way of explanation, which only sets him off again.

"Stay focused, Makki!" Oikawa scolds.

"I've already been through sex ed," Yahaba says with desperate hope that he can slip away at this slight break in the ranks. "So, please…"

"But that was focused on straight people only!" Oikawa says. "And you seem like the type of kid who is too shy to be allowed to research things on your own. You might die of embarrassment!"

"Aren't you also that kind of guy, though?" Iwaizumi asks.

"You almost fainted while we were doing our research," Matsukawa agrees.

"That was from the heat, the heat, and I hadn't eaten enough, and shut up," Oikawa says, his blush intensifying. "In any case, the point is, we are here to help in your time of need! With Iwa-chan making sure you don't try to escape, Makki on illustration duty, Mattsun on props, and I, of course, taking the starring role and explaining everything, we are going to cover all the bases in teaching you how to cover all the bases!"

As Matsukawa reaches into the grocery bag and pulls out a banana, Yahaba wonders if this is how he's going to die. Not from old age, like he'd hoped, or tragically slain by a misplaced spike, or even murdered one day by Kyoutani, but from this. This… torture.

Oikawa manages to get through most of the basics alright, but as Hanamaki and Matsukawa's parts of the demonstration grow increasingly elaborate, his face grows redder and his voice grows weaker.

"Fight-o, fight-o," Matsukawa calls out, waving one of the multiple bananas now in play around.

"Faint-o, faint-o," Hanamaki chants in response, making an obscene gesture with the whiteboard pen and his fingers.

"Go sit down, dumbass, you're clearly at your limit," Iwaizumi says. He helps Oikawa over to the wall, no longer needing to hold Yahaba in place because he must know that Yahaba is now a broken man, incapable of escape. "You two, take over."

Matsukawa reaches back into the bag and pulls out a pineapple.

"You're both fired," Iwaizumi says immediately. "Fine, I'll do it myself."

Iwaizumi's explanations are as matter of fact as they blissfully brief. It's still horrifically awkward, of course, especially when Hanamaki and Matsukawa break in with their own witty commentary, but it's slightly less soul crushing than it could have been.

"Iwa-chan," Oikawa says mournfully, looking at the banana that Iwaizumi has just finished rolling a condom on to. "When did you become such a pro at this kind of thing?"

Iwaizumi turns red. "I'm not!" he insists. "Y- you're the one who told me research this!" He shakes his head and faces back toward Yahaba. "Look, the most important thing is to know you can go at your own pace, okay? There's no need to rush into anything you aren't comfortable with."

"I won't," Yahaba promises, knowing his entire neck and face must be crimson by now.

Finally they let him go, armed with a bag full of safe sex supplies.

"Just to keep for whenever you may need them," Iwaizumi tells him.

"Or for hilarious water balloon fights," Hanamaki adds.

"Can I eat this?" Matsukawa asks as he peels a now naked banana.

"Don't kiss anyone who doesn't make you feel good about yourself," Oikawa says, face unusually serious for being off the court. "It's not worth it. And don't kiss anyone you don't think you can make feel good about themselves, either. It's not right."

Yahaba blinks. "I'll do my best," he says finally.

"And always eat your vegetables," Matsukawa adds, breaking the suddenly heavy mood.

"Look both ways before crossing the street," Hanamaki says.

"Feel free to run away now," Iwaizumi says.

The whole reality of the situation hits him as he reenters the room the team is sleeping in. He falls onto his futon with a quiet moan, letting his face smush into his pillow as he tries not to replay what has just happened.

"Are you okay, Yahaba-san?" Kindaichi asks nervously. "You were gone to the bathroom for ages…"

"Maybe he's constipated," is Kunimi's bored observation.

"Do you need some prunes?" Kindaichi asks.

"I need to die," Yahaba says, turning his face from the pillow so he can speak clearly. "I need to die and be reincarnated as a being with greater wisdom so I can never, ever make the same terrible decisions that led me to this point again."

"Sounds like constipation to me," Kunimi says.

Chapter Text

Yahaba and Otake meet up a few more times before training camp is over. Yahaba feels a bit guilty, especially in light of Oikawa's last piece of advice, that they never actually talk or seem to have any real interest in each other beyond the physical, and even then it seems more a matter of convenience than true attraction. Yahaba doesn't regret kissing him, doesn't feel like he's being taken advantage of or like he is taking advantage of Otake, but he notices a hollow feeling in his stomach sometimes, not right away after they break apart, but later when he's lying in bed replaying the day's events.

After they leave camp without trading contact info or anything, really, apart from general well wishes toward each other, Yahaba decides he's just not cut out for a casual hook up type of relationship. The realization is sour. He can imagine being approached once in a while by guys like Otake, who are looking for physical confirmation of their suspicions or just someone who will be willing to keep their secrets, but he can't envision any guy being willing to do more with him than that. Anything, well, relationship-like, and if Yahaba is going to hold out for that, he wonders if it means giving up completely on kissing, too.

He doesn't even know how having a relationship like this would work. He's not out to his parents, still struggles to imagine coming out to them ever. He still knows the expectations they have of him, of his future. His mom, maybe, he can see coming to terms with it with time, but his dad is another story. They barely even see each other nowadays, his dad is so busy with work, let alone talk. To admit to liking guys, to be in a public relationship with another guy… even if he could manage to draw up the courage to do so himself, where would he find someone who'd be willing to trash his own relationships and future like that?

Once again, volleyball is his saving distraction. Throwing himself into practice for the upcoming Interhigh eats up enough of his time and energy that he can't get stuck in worries about the future for very long.

Before he can remember to dread it, the cultural festival is looming in front of the team again. He doesn't even have time to panic about the possibility of being in close proximity to Nagao after everything that happened before Oikawa is chirpily explaining to the club how he used his wonderful charms to get the girls team to forgive them and partner up like they used to.

"They liked what we did last year, though," Oikawa says. "So we're going to run something like that again this year!"

Yahaba breathes out a shaky sigh of relief as the team gets ready to depart, only to suck it in again when Oikawa motions for him to stay back with him.

"Yahaba," Oikawa says as he flips through his phone. Usually Iwaizumi wouldn't let him get away with the rudeness of checking his phone during conversation, but the other third year had left them alone without hanging behind like he usually did. Yahaba had thought so before, but now he definitely was sure that the two had been a bit off around each other lately, though he had no idea why.

"What is it?" he asks finally when Oikawa just keeps pursing his lips at his cell phone.

"Hmm…? Oh, right! I wanted to ask you to tell Mad Dog-chan about helping with the cultural festival again," Oikawa says, looking up. "Since the coaches told me how you were able to do it last year."

Yahaba makes a face. "Do I have to?" he asks, already knowing the response.

"Captain's orders, sorry!" Oikawa says. His phone buzzes and he smiles at the screen. He holds it up to show Yahaba a picture of a picture of a girl holding up a tray full of unbaked cookies. "My girlfriend's making cookies for me, isn't she cute?" he says, smiling.

Yahaba narrows his eyes slightly. "You have a girlfriend?"

"Mmmhmmm," Oikawa says, focusing on his phone again to tap out a response. "She's super fun."

Yahaba says nothing and waits for Oikawa to notice the look he's giving him.

Oikawa eventually looks up and does, making an indignant sound. "Don't give me such a mean look, Yahaba. It's not like that," he says. "I like girls too, you know."

"Sure," Yahaba says, unimpressed. "But you love Iwaizumi-san, don't you? So whether they're a girl or boy, anyone else is-"

"Well," Oikawa says, a bright smile plastered over his face. "He doesn't feel the same way about me, now does he? So I have to move on."

"What about that whole speech you gave me?" Yahaba asks. "You can't just apply one set of standards to me and another to yourself."

"I'm not," Oikawa says, still with that terrifying smile. Then he sighs and drops it, letting his face slide into a frown. "I do really like her, okay? Maybe not as much as I-" He shakes his head and Yahaba realizes he still can't bring himself to say it aloud. "But I think, with time, maybe, I could love her. I don't know. It's worth a shot."

Yahaba isn't sure what to do. He's no good at being comforting or kind, especially not with someone as complicated as Oikawa, who he still has trouble seeing as just a highschool kid like him. "Does he even know?" he asks. "About how you feel?"

Oikawa shakes his head, laughs. "Of course not."

"Then how can you be sure that he doesn't feel the same way?"

Oikawa smiles again, but it's not one of his usual cheeky grins. It's a sharp, inward turning grimace of a smile. "I'm sure," he says. "I know Iwa-chan better than anyone. He doesn't… not the way I do."

Yahaba presses his lips together in a tight line. He wants to argue, wants to tell Oikawa about all the little moments he's seen, about the way Iwaizumi looks at him when Oikawa's not paying attention, about how he'd said he's everything to me in the hospital, about how even when Yahaba sends him the best possible toss and Iwaizumi hits it dead on, it's clear there's something that just isn't as perfect as when he gets to attack with Oikawa. But Yahaba isn't sure that knowing any of that would change Oikawa's mind, or if it even should.

So Yahaba just reaches forward on impulse and squeezes Oikawa's arm gently for a second. "Okay," he says. "If you ever… you've done so much for me, so if there's ever anything I can do for you…"

"Buy me milkbread," Oikawa says without hesitation.

"I meant, like, emotionally," Yahaba says.

"Buy me milkbread, emotionally," Oikawa says.

Yahaba sighs.

---

Yahaba sighs again when he sees a familiar blond figure entering the store a few days later, on a gloomy Sunday afternoon. He'd managed to put off dealing with Oikawa's original request so far but now that Kyoutani is right in front of him, he knows he can't hide from it any longer.

Thankfully, they are the only two in the store, which at least means there won't be an audience. It's been storming all day, keeping sensible people indoors and not out shopping. Even the store owners are gone, though they promised to be back in a few hours to let Yahaba head home. Not that he really minds - with so few customers around, work is easy and at home he'd probably just be procrastinating from his homework, anyway. He might as well be paid to sit around listening to the rain and thunder. He finds the sound soothing.

But now Kyoutani is here, far more disruptive to Yahaba's mood than any storm could be, shaking the rain out of his hair as he comes in like the dog that Oikawa calls him. Yahaba carefully doesn't stare at him as he makes his way around the store, filling his basket. Usually they don't acknowledge one another until they absolutely have to, so if Yahaba deviates from that Kyoutani might suspect something and Yahaba will lose the upperhand. Instead, he leans his head on his arms where they are pillowed on the counter next to the register and closes his eyes, letting the sound of the rain wash over him.

Soon enough, he hears heavy footfalls approaching. They stop in front of him and Yahaba waits, listening to Kyoutani breathe for a few moments until he hears the telltale harsh inhale that tells him that Kyoutani is about to yell at him for not paying attention. Before he has a chance to do so, Yahaba sits up straight and opens his eyes.

"This all for you today?" he asks as he scans.

Kyoutani only grunts in response and shifts his weight from leg to leg as he waits for Yahaba to finish. He has his money out before Yahaba is done reading the total.

Yahaba is about to hand the change back into Kyoutani's outstretched palm when he thinks better of it. He pulls the coins close to his chest, safely out of Kyoutani's reach. Now he has a relatively captive audience.

"What the hell?" Kyoutani says and sticks his hand forward more insistently.

"The cultural festival is coming up," Yahaba says.

"I know what time of year it is," Kyoutani snaps, squinting angrily as lightning lights up his face. "Give me my change."

"You need to help out again," Yahaba says.

Kyoutani actually growls at him. "Why can't they send Iwaizumi-san to tell me these things instead of you?"

"Iwaizumi-san?" Yahaba echoes, shocked. "You actually remember one of our senpai's names and use an honorific for him? Are you the real Kyoutani or are you some poor fool that just looks like him?"

"How do you get even more annoying every time we talk?" Kyoutani asks, but his ears are red. "I know who Iwaizumi-san is, okay? That's not weird."

"Yes, it is," Yahaba says and hums a bit as he thinks, though the sound is all but lost in the increasingly heavy rain. A memory strikes him, of the last cultural festival. "Oh! Could it be because he beat you at arm wrestling last year?"

Kyoutani's expression, a mixture of horror, anger, and embarrassment, tells Yahaba that he's right.

Yahaba gasps in delight as more memories hit him. "I've heard rumors that some weird kid has been following Iwaizumi-san around and challenging him to all kinds of things only to lose… could that weird kid be you?"

"Shut up," Kyoutani says, crimson. Thunder booms in the background and the lights flicker.

"It is you!" Yahaba says and breaks into laughter. Not even the calm chuckle he's trained himself to give around most people but the giggling, snorting kind of laughter he usually only lets Watari hear.

"It's not fucking funny," Kyoutani snaps. "I could take you in any of those competitions."

"Sure, sure, but I wouldn't actually care," Yahaba says. That's not actually true, Yahaba is self-aware enough to realize that if he got in any kind of competition with Kyoutani, he'd want to crush him, but Kyoutani doesn't have to know that.

"Will you just get to the fucking point?" Kyoutani says. "I don't have all day."

"Fine," Yahaba says. "You know the deal. Cultural festival, competitions, do something for it, photographic proof for the coaches. Can you handle that?"

"Yes," Kyoutani growls. "Though the posters you gave me last year were shit. Give me something less ugly this year."

Yahaba shrugs and smirks. "Not my call," he says. "First-string players like me are too busy practicing for the Interhigh to do decorating." Even as a reserve, last year's Spring High had shown them how important it was that everyone who might possibly play be in peak condition in case they were called onto the court.

"I don't want to deal with some idiot first year," Kyoutani says. "Can't I work with Iwaizumi-san on something?"

Yahaba sighs loudly. "You're the most high maintenance slacker I have ever met," he says. "And no, Iwaizumi-san is even busier than I am. He's the team's ace, after all. He doesn't have time to babysit you." When Kyoutani doesn't offer anything more and just stares, Yahaba finally backs down. "Okay, here. I'm sure the posters will be done pretty soon. When they are, I'll grab some and bring them here, and the next time you come in I'll give them to you to hang up and tell you where to put them. That way you don't even have to go anywhere near the clubroom."

"Perfect," Kyoutani says. "Now give me my change."

Yahaba hands it over. "Shoo," he says, just to have the last word.

Kyoutani snorts and hefts his bag over his shoulder. He marches toward the automatic doors but just as he gets to them, the loudest clap of thunder yet roars above them and the lights die.

Yahaba sighs and pulls out the electric lantern he has stored next to him in case of this very event. He fumbles with it for a moment and flicks it on. In the cool blue light it emits he can see Kyoutani pushing on the automatic doors, trying to get them to open.

"Here," Yahaba says and walks around to where the manual switch is, the one that should open the doors no matter what. However, when he presses it, nothing happens. He hits it again.

"Why isn't it opening?" Kyoutani asks, anger rising in his tone.

"Why should I know?" Yahaba says. "Just cool it for a moment, will you?" He pulls out his cellphone and scrolls through his contacts until he reaches the number his bosses had given him. While he calls it and talks to Matsukawa's aunt, he watches Kyoutani pace furiously back and forth.

"Well?" Kyoutani says when Yahaba hangs up.

"It's stuck closed while the power is off," Yahaba says. "Apparently it's a problem they've had before, though it was supposed to be fixed last year."

"So we're trapped?" Kyoutani asks.

"Just until the power gets turned back on," Yahaba says. "They say it shouldn't take too long. Just an hour or so."

Kyoutani curses and kicks the door.

"Hey!" Yahaba says. "Don't break anything."

"I'm going to break your face," Kyoutani snaps. "If you could have just been less of an asshole for just ten seconds I could have been out of here before the power went off at all!"

Yahaba makes a disgusted noise, unimpressed by Kyoutani's threats. For all his scary expressions and big talk, Yahaba hasn't heard of him getting into a single fight. "You'd just be stuck outside then," he says. "If the power is out here, the trains will have stopped running, too. We're on the same grid."

"I don't take the train," Kyoutani snaps.

Yahaba frowns and holds up the lantern. Now that he's looking, really looking, he can see that Kyoutani isn't just wet - he's soaked. "You were walking around in this weather?" he asks, disbelievingly.

"So?" Kyoutani asks suspiciously. "What's it to you?"

Yahaba blinks at him. "Then you should be thanking me," he says. "It's dangerous to go running around in a storm like this."

Kyoutani sniffs. "I can handle it."

"You can't tough guy your way out of being hit by lightning, or a tree branch, or hypothermia," Yahaba says. At the last word, he takes an even closer look at Kyoutani, stepping forward so he can see him in the dim light.

"Hey, personal space!" Kyoutani says nervously.

Yahaba ignores him. "You're shaking," he says. "You really are freezing, aren't you?"

"Well, if you had let me out of here, I'd be on my way home to where there's a heater and dry clothes," Kyoutani says. "So it's really your fault, again."

"You should have stayed home to begin with," Yahaba says. There's a fierce battle within him between the part of him that hates dealing with Kyoutani for a moment more than he has to, and the stupid nice part of him that sounds suspiciously like Watari and wants to help someone clearly uncomfortable. The nice part wins out, to his horror. "Come on," he says and turns. "There's some spare clothes and stuff in the back office."

Kyoutani hesitates, but Yahaba eventually hears him following him past the counter and into the small back room where Yahaba can just make out the table where his bag is sitting. He rummages around in it until he finds some of the loose workout clothes he had brought with him in case the weather had cleared in time for him to go for a run after his shift had ended.

"Here," he said, tossing them to Kyoutani and rifling through his bag some more. "They might not fit you very well, but at least they're dry." He finds the towel he was looking for fairly quickly, but continues to pretend to be looking so he has an excuse not to turn around. There's only the one lantern, so he'd rather not leave, but he isn't sure if Kyoutani would be okay with changing in front of him.

"You're skinny," Kyoutani says, which Yahaba takes as his cue to turn. It's true that Yahaba's shirt pulls tight against Kyoutani's shoulders and chest, though not as badly as Yahaba was fearing it would.

He glances down and smirks. "Taller than you, though," he says, pointing at how the legs of his sweatpants are pooling around Kyoutani's feet. Before Kyoutani can make a retort, Yahaba holds out the towel to him. "Here," he says.

Kyoutani stares at it suspiciously and makes no move to take it.

"For your hair, stupid," Yahaba says. When Kyoutani just continues to watch him quizzically, Yahaba sighs and steps forward. Briskly he runs the towel over Kyoutani's head, rubbing into the wetness of his hair, which is much thicker than he thought it would be. For all his talk, Yahaba still has to stand on his tiptoes to get a good angle. "You'll catch a cold otherwise," he says. "What are you, feral?"

"You're such a dick," Kyoutani says, but his voice is quiet and he stoops lower, dipping his head so that Yahaba doesn't have to strain to get at the back of his head and the nape of his neck. Even in the dim blue light of the lantern, Yahaba can make out the strong cables of muscle in his shoulders, the way his hair softens into little wisps that are parted by a drop of water that slides down Kyoutani's neck, down to where Yahaba's shirt collar bunches slightly to disappear between his shoulder blades that move, ever so slightly, each time Kyoutani breathes in, stretching the material tighter…

Nope, Yahaba tells himself firmly and steps back. He holds up the towel between them as if inspecting it, using it as a shield between their faces. "Touching your hair won't bleach my towel, will it?" he asks. His voice sounds normal. Thank god he's practiced at appearing to keep his calm.

"Don't be fucking stupid, of course it won't," Kyoutani says. "God, you can't even be-" He cuts himself off and turns away, stomping off.

Yahaba sighs and follows him back into the main shopping area, afraid that Kyoutani will crash into something without the light and he'll be the one to have to clean it up. He finds that Kyoutani has slouched next to the door and is looking very absorbed in glowering at the ground. Yahaba sighs and puts the lantern on the counter, where its light just hits Kyoutani where he's standing a meter or so away. He sits back on the stool by the register and resumes his pose from before, head on his folded arms.

Minutes pass, but he can't sink back into his calm. In the darkness, the rain which he usually likes is oppressively loud. He keeps waiting to hear Kyoutani move or say something, but he doesn't, and that sets him on edge. He doesn't really want to try to clear his mind, he realizes guiltily, because he's afraid of what kind of… foolishness might pop up right now. Clearly the weather is getting to him, somehow, making him think strangely.

Finally he gives up and opens his eyes. Immediately, he jumps. Kyoutani is staring at him, expression impossible to read in the darkness, but clearly watching him. Kyoutani startles as well and looks away, glaring back at the ground.

"What?" Yahaba asks, wondering if he missed Kyoutani say something under a roll of thunder. "Is something wrong?"

"I'm stuck in a tiny grocery store with an asshole," Kyoutani says.

"Wow, I have no idea what that could feel like," Yahaba says brightly. When Kyoutani just grumbles, he sighs. He can't believe he's actually going to ask this, but clearly the sitting around in silence thing isn't working out for them. "Want to do something?"

Kyoutani startles even more than before. "What?"

Yahaba rolls his eyes before realizing that if he can't make out Kyoutani's expression, the reverse is likely true. "Settle down, I meant like, play cards or something. Well, not cards, unless you have some, but you know what I mean. Something to make the time go faster."

Kyoutani hesitates for a second. "Fine," he says and stands up straight, heading toward the counter. "But if it's boring or stupid, I'm out."

Yahaba purses his lips, thinking. "How about a contest?" he says, figuring that should hold Kyoutani's attention. He looks around for inspiration. "Ah," he says, catching sight of some bottles of water nearby. He grabs some and starts setting them up in a triangle on the floor by the door. "Like bowling, see?" he says. "We'll roll, um," he looks around again.

"I have some tennis balls in my bag," Kyoutani says and shrugs when Yahaba looks over. "I pick them up for my dog, but they should work just as well for this, right?"

"Yeah, that's perfect." Yahaba finishes setting up the bottles as Kyoutani gets the tennis balls. He sets the lantern so that it lights almost the full aisle and heads to the back, waving Kyoutani to follow him so they end up about three and a half meters away from their target. "How about we play as each pin is worth one point and whoever has the most after five rolls wins?"

"What's the consequence if you lose?" Kyoutani asks.

Yahaba smiles innocently. "Being a loser, of course."

Kyoutani snorts. "Obviously. But there should be something else, too. It's more fun to play for something."

"Fine, fine," Yahaba says and thinks. He'd offer to make a bet, but Kyoutani would probably chose something terribly embarrassing to make him do and Yahaba isn't particularly confident in his abilities at this makeshift game. Better not to risk it. "How about each game's winner gets to ask a question and the loser has to answer it honestly?" His biggest secret is already out, after all, so it should be safe.

Kyoutani makes a face. "Gross. Fine, but nothing too personal, okay?"

"Fine by me," Yahaba says. "Ready to play?"

The game is actually pretty fun. The floor is uneven and the seams on the tennis balls make them change direction at strange times, so combined with the poor visibility, there's a distinct challenge to actually getting the pins knocked down. Kyoutani's rolls are more powerful than Yahaba can match and he wins the first game.

He's a terrible sport about it, of course, letting out a loud "Hah!" as Yahaba's last shot fails to tip over enough pins to challenge his lead.

"Ask your question," Yahaba says, wiggling his fingers. He may have lost that time, but he thinks he's getting a feel for how to gain more accuracy. If he can pinpoint where to hit, he's pretty sure he can knock down more bottles with less power.

"Why do you care so much about me participating in the cultural fair?" Kyoutani asks.

"I don't, personally," Yahaba says. "But I do what I'm asked to by the coaches and captain."

"I meant you the club, not you personally," Kyoutani says.

"Money," Yahaba says and explains what he'd been told about more members meaning more budget awarded from the school. "But if you don't participate in anything we do, it's pretty clear you aren't part of the club anymore."

Kyoutani makes a disgusted noise. "I should have known it was something like that."

They play again. This time, Yahaba wins, if barely. He smiles and decides to ask Kyoutani an easy question, since he figures if he asks anything too annoying the other boy might quit playing. "What's your dog's name?"

"Coco," Kyoutani says. "Don't be a wimp."

"You're the one who said not to get too personal," Yahaba points out.

"I didn't mean ask me stupid shit you don't care about," Kyoutani says.

"Hey, having a dog might be your most redeeming feature," Yahaba says, only slightly sulky. "Though I'm more of a cat person."

"I have a cat, too," Kyoutani says.

Yahaba fans himself. "So much information without me having to knock over anything, you're spoiling me."

"You're so annoying," Kyoutani growls. "Let's play again."

His aggravation apparently fuels him better than the regular competition, as he wins the next game decisively. "Why did you come to Aobajousai?" he asks. "You can't have been invited on a sports scholarship because we're not permitted to get part-time jobs. And if you assumed I was taking the train, you don't live nearby. That line doesn't stop anywhere close."

Yahaba blinks, surprised that Kyoutani could be so perceptive. "I came because I wanted to play on the same team as Oikawa-san," he says. "He's the best setter in the prefecture."

"That's stupid," Kyoutani says. "If you went to a different school, you might have a chance of playing in more games, but if you're on the team with someone who is the best at your position, obviously you won't. I'd never go to Shiratorizawa with Ushijima there."

Yahaba tips his head, trying to think of how to explain it. "It's not about playing in games for me," he says. "Oikawa-san plays volleyball in a way that I admire. It's about more than just his technique, though that's of course amazing, too. It's how he uses his players, how clearly he knows how to work with them no matter what else is happening…" He sees that Kyoutani is giving him a look that can only be described as dubious. "I guess for someone who isn't a setter, you might not be able to understand if you've never played with him."

"I don't want to play with that guy," Kyoutani says. "He's annoying."

"He'd make you a better player," Yahaba says.

"I'm fine on my own," Kyoutani says, steely-eyed.

That's literally impossible in a sport like volleyball, but Yahaba lets it go. He doubts anything he could say could change Kyoutani's mind. He focuses on the next game and wins.

"Why do you keep challenging Iwaizumi-san to things?" he asks.

Kyoutani looks at him like he's asked something very stupid. "Because I want to be the best. That guy is strong, so if I can be stronger than him, than I'll be the best."

"You really think if you happen to beat him at baseball or something that it will mean you've become better than him at anything else?" Yahaba asks.

"No," Kyoutani says. "But it's a start."

"Well, it's not just him you'd have to overcome, you know," Yahaba says. "I mean, Hanamaki-san is probably the second-best arm wrestler in the club and I doubt you could beat him either."

"I've never tried," Kyoutani says. "I could beat him."

"Do you even remember who he is?" Yahaba asks, exasperated.

"It doesn't matter," Kyoutani says. "I could beat him."

"How long did you last against Iwaizumi-san?" Yahaba asks.

Kyoutani looks down. "Twenty-eight seconds," he says. "But that was last year."

"Hanamaki-san lasted almost seven minutes at the last training camp," Yahaba says smugly. "And Iwaizumi-san's only become stronger, you know."

"Hmph," is all Kyoutani offers.

Yahaba wins the next game as well. "Ooh, a streak," he says, flicking his hair out of his eyes. "Hmm, let's see… Why do you skip class so much? I know you do, last year when I was trying to find you it was a total pain to track you down because of it."

Kyoutani frowns. "I don't skip that much anymore."

"Well, why did you skip so much back then?"

"I don't like being surrounded by people, especially people I don't know," Kyoutani growls, voice heavy and harsh. "People are so loud and needy and… it just is tiring, okay?"

Yahaba holds up his hands, surprised by the vehemence in Kyoutani's tone. "Okay," he says. "I didn't know it was a sore spot."

"It's not," Kyoutani snaps in a way that says that it definitely is. His concentration is blown in the next game, but Yahaba's distracted by his mood so Kyoutani wins in the last throw, demolishing all his bottles in one go.

"Good strike," Yahaba says, trying to make nice, but his voice comes out overly sweet so it sounds like he's making fun of him again. Damn.

"What are you the most afraid of?" Kyoutani says.

Since Kyoutani clearly gave his real reason for Yahaba's question even though it bothered him, Yahaba feels like he has to do the same. "Being different from other people, I guess," he says. "And especially if they find out about it."

"That's stupid," Kyoutani informs him. "Everyone is different from other people."

Yahaba trails his gaze over Kyoutani, sizing him up and not for the first time. So much of Kyoutani, from his hair to his posture, his way of talking, the darkness around his eyes, makes him stand out from the crowd. But they are all things Kyoutani chose for himself and he could change them back if he wanted. Someone like him would never understand. "Perhaps," he says. "Still, that's my answer."

Kyoutani wins the next round as well. He frowns as he tries to think of another question. "What do you plan to do after high school?" he asks.

Yahaba barely stops himself from making a face. He hates thinking about the future, but he isn't going to tell Kyoutani that. He doesn't feel that bad about Kyoutani's earlier discomfort, not by a long shot.

"Oh, whatever is expected of me, I suppose," he says airily. "University, maybe. Stay in Miyagi, almost definitely." His parents probably expect him to go into programming, which is what both of them do, and Yahaba knows he can, he's sufficient enough at it, but the idea has never really appealed to him. He'll just have to get over it, he tells himself, and find something to look forward to on weekends.

It's clear that Kyoutani thinks his answer is boring. Yahaba decides that he'll win the next game and demand to know what Kyoutani plans to do, to look down on Yahaba's ideas. He picks his shots carefully, which has the unexpected bonus of making Kyoutani huff impatiently, and has earned a strong though not quite decisive lead when the lights flicker back on and the radio crackles to life again over the speakers.

"Oh," Yahaba says, letting the tennis ball slip out of his hand. He wanders over to the lantern and clicks it off before stepping close to the automatic door. It responds as it's supposed to, sliding open. "Well, you're free to go," he says to Kyoutani. "Try not to get hit by lightning."

Kyoutani sniffs as he steps forward. Instead of leaving immediately, like Yahaba expected, he stops to pick up some of the water bottles. "I'll help you clean up," he says.

"You don't need to," Yahaba says. "It's only a few bottles."

Kyoutani ignores him and continues picking up. Yahaba shrugs and helps him. With the two of them, they finish within the space of a few minutes. Kyoutani slips into his still wet sneakers, making a face, and picks up his grocery bag. "I'll bring your clothes back clean when I come shopping again."

"Sure," Yahaba says. "If I'm not here, just give them to whoever is, I'll let them know to expect it."

Kyoutani pauses. "You were going to win that last round," he says. "So I guess it's fair for you to ask me another question."

"You still might have beaten me," Yahaba says, scrupulous in these sorts of matters. "The point gap wasn't that large."

"Just ask a fucking question," Kyoutani says. "Ask something you can answer, too, if it bugs you that much."

That would rule out Yahaba's planned question. He hums and taps his finger against his lips a couple times before a terrible, evil, tempting idea strikes him. He smiles sweetly and enjoys the wary expression that gains him. "What's something you like about me?"

"What the hell?" Kyoutani growls.

"Oh, come on," Yahaba says, grin widening. "Just one itty bitty compliment. It can be as shallow as you want. Here, I'll even give you one first. Hmm…" He makes a big show of thinking. "I think it's sweet that you pick up tennis balls you find for your dog. Very cute, Mad Dog-chan."

Kyoutani rears back, ears pink. "Don't call me that," he snaps.

"Now it's your turn," Yahaba says.

Kyoutani pauses and rubs the back of his neck, with his free hand. "You- Your voice is nice, I guess." When Yahaba stares at him, he blushes harder and looks away. "When you hum or sing along to the music, I mean."

"Oh," Yahaba says, feeling self-conscious. He didn't think anyone, let alone Kyoutani, was paying that much attention to him. He can feel himself matching Kyoutani's blush. He didn't think he'd pick something that felt so personal. "Th-thanks."

"Don't make a big deal of it," Kyoutani growls and stomps out of the store, hunching his shoulders against the rain.

Yahaba watches him go until he can't even make out his silhouette through the fog. Then goes back to the counter and sighs, dropping his head into his hands. "You did this to yourself," he says aloud. "You idiot."

Chapter Text

True to his word, Kyoutani brings Yahaba's clothes to the grocery store six days later. Yahaba trades him a stack of posters in return, along with instructions to put them up in the D building. It's a busy day at the store so they don't have any opportunity to speak more than that. Yahaba considers it a relief. He'd prefer to go back to the way things were before, where he could ignore Kyoutani's existence entirely save for a few minutes here and there when he had to ring him up.

The cultural festival goes well. This time Yahaba is the one making excuses so that Watari has time alone with his crush, the same girl from the volleyball team that's been tutoring him, Nakata Ai. Yahaba spends most of his time recording results and handling money for the competitions. A few times he thinks he catches sight of a familiar blond head in the doorway, but when he looks up, the person is gone. After it happens the third time in so many hours, Yahaba excuses himself to go on break. He doubles back toward the clubroom just in time to see Kyoutani head in.

So he is avoiding me, Yahaba thinks and shrugs. Probably for the best, he decides. Still, he can't stop himself from checking the scores when he gets back, looking for Kyoutani's name. He lasted nearly two minutes against Iwaizumi this time, he sees, substantially more than most of the people who come in can manage. Yahaba clicks his tongue, impressed despite himself.

Time seems to pass quickly after that, barreling on toward the Interhigh. Yahaba doesn't get a chance to play but watches from the bench, offering commentary and advice to the other players when appropriate. Though they make it to the final only to lose to Shiratorizawa yet again, Yahaba thinks he'll best remember the match against Karasuno. He watches the genius setter Kageyama closely. Next year, unless they get a genius first year of their own or one of the other reserves suddenly burgeons in talent, Yahaba will be the one standing against him. He wonders if he's up to the task.

On the bus ride back after their loss, Oikawa sits next to Yahaba. He pulls his legs up onto the seats and crosses them, shoving his knee practically into Yahaba's lap, though Yahaba doesn't mind.

"Have you thought about what comes next?" Oikawa asks him.

"Exams," he says glumly. He's got a pile of homework waiting for him at home. He wonders if he can put it off just until tomorrow…

"I meant in terms of the club," Oikawa says with a smile. "You do remember that last year our third years retired after Interhigh."

Yahaba stares at him in undisguised horror. "You can't retire yet," he says. "There's still Spring High, and-"

Oikawa holds up a hand, silencing him. "There are a lot of factors that go into deciding whether third years should retire after Interhigh or not," he says in the voice he uses when he's settling in for a longer speech. "There are individual questions, like how likely is it that I'll get scouted, am I planning to go to university and for what purposes, or even do I think I've played to the best of my ability yet, am I ready to be done with my high school volleyball career? And then there are team factors, like how well can the team manage without the third years, what positions have strong reserves waiting in line, how likely is it that the team could progress to Nationals?"

"By any of those measures," Yahaba says. "Shouldn't you and the rest of the third years stay? Unless I'm missing something."

"Mm," Oikawa says. "There's one more thing. If the third years retire, the new captain is chosen out of the second years and leads his team at Spring High. Being a captain is different then being any other player, you know, especially in a tournament. But since not all the schools make the switch at the same time, it means that by the time next year's Interhigh comes around, there's a vast difference in experience. Some teams will be coming onto the court with a captain who has already led his team in a tournament. Others will be using the Interhigh as the first and, potentially, last chance for the captain to ever lead the team that way."

Yahaba looks down. He knows that he's the top candidate for being the new captain. Him and Watari are the only second years to ever play in official tournaments, and Watari is ineligible as the libero, but he knows it is more than just that. He knows Oikawa has taken him under his wing more, has been quietly trying to push him for months now by having him evaluate the team's performance on the court and look after the first years. The idea is terrifying to him, but that isn't new. He's coming to terms with it, bit by bit. However…

"Oikawa-san," he says. "Last year, you were ready to become captain after the Interhigh was over. But this year, I can say with certainty that there isn't anyone among the second-years who is currently ready to be captain. We need more time. A captain who had a bad experience in the last tournament and lost the faith of his team can be just as detrimental or more so than a captain who doesn't have experience."

Oikawa's smile widens. "I'm glad you see it that way, Yahaba," he says. "Because I have no intention of giving up my spot! But, that means we'll also have to be aware of what advantage we're affording our opponents next year and do what we can to combat it. I'm going to be working you extra hard these next few months, so you better be prepared!"

He's true to his word. Yahaba has never been more immersed in volleyball in his entire life. He has some kind of volleyball-related task assigned to him practically every minute of the day except for when he's asleep, and even then he's haunted by volleyball dreams. He wonders if this is what Oikawa's life looks like all the time.

It's not just the physical aspects, though those increase as well. Oikawa has Yahaba watching recorded matches of their team, their opponents, and even games played by teams Yahaba has never heard of, and then quizzes him on what each player's strengths and weaknesses were, when the team's moods shifted, which members seemed to get along with each other better, what the team needed to improve on, and a million other questions. He gives Yahaba a veritable library of books written on volleyball, the theory of playing, and then psychology and books about leadership. All of them come with tests as well.

During practice, the whole team works on improving their serves and flexibility. They frequently practice for when their usual line up gets knocked off balance, having different members toss or spike than might normally, as well as having players analyze things in the moment. Through summer vacation, several alumni home for break play in practice matches with them. Sometimes, Oikawa switches to play on the other side and has Yahaba take over as their main setter and makes other alterations to the starting line up so that the team can learn to work with any configuration that might need to be used in a tournament, making sure they won't be thrown off.

"We need to become like water," Oikawa says. "No matter what obstacles are put in our way, we flow around them, to meet up again downhill. We don't break down, we only alter our course."

The most enjoyable assignments are when Oikawa takes him along to watch pro or college level games and practice matches and quietly talks out the strategies in real time. Sometimes other team members come along as well, most frequently the third years, but often it's just the two of them.

One day after watching such a game, Oikawa drags him to a nearby restaurant for dessert before they head home. Yahaba still isn't much of a sweets person, but he orders some green tea ice cream and watches Oikawa. He's been acting odd all day, slightly over-exuberant about everything and harsher on Yahaba when he doesn't notice something Oikawa thinks he should have.

"I'm not Iwaizumi-san, you know," Yahaba says when he can't take it any longer. "I can't read your mind. If something's up, you have to tell me."

"So blunt, Yahaba," Oikawa says, pushing the pastry around on his plate. "You're becoming more like Iwa-chan every day!"

Yahaba licks his spoon and waits.

"My girlfriend broke up with me," Oikawa eventually says.

Yahaba frowns. He already knew that, actually. Oikawa had been talking about it with the other third years and the discussion had spread to the whole team. "Do you miss her?" he asks.

"Well, yeah," Oikawa says. "She was a really nice girl, you know. Well, still is, just not in my life anymore. It's not that, though." He sighs, leaning his head back against the wall behind his booth seat. "It's about why."

Yahaba fiddles with his spoon, thinking. Oikawa had said she'd broken up with him for spending too much time on volleyball, causing the rest of the club members to tease him about how he probably couldn't help bringing up the game during intimate moments. "You lied," he says. "She broke up with you because of Iwaizumi-san, didn't she?"

Oikawa looks at him squarely. "How'd you figure that?" He doesn't sound offended, only curious, a bit like how he sounds when quizzing Yahaba on reading people. It does make a sort of sense.

"Because you're talking to me about it and not Iwaizumi-san," Yahaba says. "There's only one thing I know about you that he doesn't, only one thing you'd ever go to anyone else but him for help with."

"Ugh, you're right," Oikawa says. "Are you going to say I told you so?"

Yahaba shakes his head. "I'm sorry it didn't work," he says with all honesty.

Oikawa sighs gustily, lowering his head into his hand. "What am I going to do?" he says, more to himself than to Yahaba. It's a good thing, for Yahaba doesn't know what to say in return.

They spend the rest of their meal in silence, Yahaba wondering the entire time what he should be doing to try to comfort Oikawa. Thankfully, it seems just sitting with him is enough, for Oikawa gives him a much more genuine looking smile and ruffles his hair in a way that doesn't hurt at all before saying goodnight.

---

Things get better, after that. Oikawa perks back up, focusing in on the team to fill his time. Any remaining traces of the awkwardness between him and Iwaizumi from when he first started dating his girlfriend disappear. The first years are completely integrated into the team now, so they really feel like the perfect unit they try to become.

Just as Yahaba gets comfortable, the unthinkable happens. He and Watari are in the middle of running through some drills with Kunimi and Kindaichi when the gym door slides open and Kyoutani strolls in, eating a snack as if he doesn't have a care in the world about appearing after over a full year of ditching the club. When Watari, ever the good guy, greets him, Kyoutani only grunts in response as he scans the gym and Yahaba sees red. He steps forward and begins to yell at him, only for Oikawa to cut him off.

He holds it together well, but inwardly Yahaba seethes through the rest of practice as the third years evaluate Kyoutani and ultimately decide to give him a chance. If Oikawa says he wants him there, that he thinks he might help them win, Yahaba can't publicly disagree, but he hates it. Hates that Kyoutani has infiltrated this one space he feels comfortable in, that he feels passionate about, hates how aware he is suddenly of where Kyoutani is in the gym at all times. It was fine when they just saw each other at the store, because Yahaba had grown to expect it, knew how to school his emotions and keep his walls up both outwardly and in his own mind, but now all of that is shattered.

He does his best to ignore Kyoutani. It's pretty easy, since he still doesn't come to half the practices and only works with Oikawa or Iwaizumi when he does deign to show up. Yahaba makes sure to always be busy practicing his serves when Kyoutani is around so that he is less likely to be asked to toss to him. He knows that everyone is wondering how losing Oikawa's powerful jump serve will impact them next year, so if Yahaba is working on his own version of the attack, he's rarely disturbed.

Of course, nothing can get by Oikawa for long. Toward the end of practice just a week before the tournament, Yahaba is collecting the balls he's finished serving from the other side of the net when Oikawa's sneakers come into view. He knows that Oikawa was just working with Kyoutani on the other side of the gym, knows Kyoutani is definitely still standing there, probably glowering in their direction.

"Oikawa-san?" Yahaba says, looking up and trying to his best to appear like he isn't dreading what he's about to hear.

"Your serves are really improving," Oikawa says. "Your accuracy is commendable, but don't you think you should try to add a little bit more power to them? You've gotten a lot better at not running away from a fight on the court recently, Yahaba, but you still slip into bad habits when you think no one's paying attention."

Yahaba knows Oikawa is talking about more than his serves and tries not to fidget. "I'm working on it," he says.

"Excellent," Oikawa says with an easy grin. "Come help Mad Dog-chan and I for a bit and I'll let you get back to it!"

Yahaba knows he can't say no, but that doesn't change that he really, really wants to. "What do you want me to do?" he asks obediently.

Oikawa leads him over to where Kyoutani is waiting. Yahaba keeps his gaze fixed on Oikawa, but he can tell that Kyoutani is looking at him.

"You toss for Mad Dog-chan while I observe, okay? There's certain things I can pick up better if I'm not the one tossing, so I'll be counting on you." He passes the ball to Yahaba and leads them to where he wants them. "We'll start with a five ball. Send it nice and high, Yahaba."

"Isn't there someone else who can toss?" Kyoutani asks.

Yahaba's hands ball into fists at his sides. The nerve of Kyoutani, not only to let his dislike of Yahaba bleed into practice so obviously, but to even question the choices of Oikawa, of the captain, when he has been giving him so much special attention.

Oikawa only laughs, clearly not bothered at all by Kyoutani's rudeness. "Of course other people could toss," he says. "But Yahaba's the one that I asked. So go on!"

Kyoutani opens his mouth to argue more, so Yahaba just tosses the ball, making sure to send it high as Oikawa had said. Since they are doing a five ball, Kyoutani wouldn't have to begin his approach until the ball has reached the high point of its arc, but Kyoutani is still taken by surprise. He has to rush to hit and and his timing is wrong, barely getting the ball over the net.

Too bad, Yahaba thinks as he makes sure his face remains straight and calm. I was hoping he'd miss it completely.

"Don't just toss before I'm ready!" Kyoutani yells.

Yahaba is aware that they are probably attracting attention. He gives an innocent smile and makes a placating gesture with his hands. "Sorry, sorry," he says. "But the captain said go, so I thought you'd be ready."

"You fucking liar," Kyoutani growls, taking a step toward Yahaba with menace written all over his features. Yahaba feels a prickle of excitement as he wonders if Kyoutani might try to take a swing at him. That would get him kicked off the team for sure, especially if Yahaba kept himself from ducking out of the way and let Kyoutani actually hit him.

Oikawa claps his hands. "Okay, okay, settle down you two," he says as cheerfully as ever. "Mad Dog-chan, please focus on volleyball and be ready for the toss. Yahaba," he winks. "How about you try that toss again, mm? I haven't seen what I wanted to yet."

Yahaba licks his lips, feeling appropriately chastised. Him throwing off Kyoutani is really just as unhelpful to Oikawa as Kyoutani arguing with him is. He takes another ball and looks at Kyoutani. "Ready?" he asks.

"Just toss the damn ball," Kyoutani says.

Oikawa has them work together for a while as he watches, running them through different attacks. Yahaba asks Kyoutani if he's ready every single time and Kyoutani grunts or growls something rude in response. Oikawa says nothing except to tell them which attack to use. Finally he holds up his hands. "Good job," he says. "I learned a lot of interesting things!"

"I don't think it'll be that useful to you," Kyoutani says as they collect the balls from the opposite side of the court. "His tosses aren't as good as yours, even in this kind of drill."

Yahaba closes his eyes for a second as he picks up a ball, glad he's turned away so no one can see his face. He's sure his usual expression has slipped. It's not like he's wrong, he thinks. So I really shouldn't want to yell at him this badly!

"Hmmm?" Oikawa says, tipping his head to the side. "Are you saying you're glad to play with me already, Mad Dog-chan?"

"No!" Kyoutani says and stomps away, kicking a ball as he goes.

"Ahhh, he doesn't even know how lucky he is," Oikawa says to Yahaba as Kyoutani slams out of the gym. "After all, if us third years had retired and you were the captain, you wouldn't have let him rejoin the team, am I right?"

Yahaba turns the ball in his hands, watching the colors swirl. "I stand behind all your decisions, captain," he says, carefully keeping his eyes down.

"Yahaba's so diplomatic today!" Oikawa says. "And so dishonest, too!"

That does make Yahaba look up. "I do stand behind your decisions," he says. When Oikawa just watches him, he shifts guiltily. "Even the ones I disagree with."

"See, that's better," Oikawa says. "It's okay to disagree with me, Yahaba. But I hope you'll try to keep an open mind, no matter what your personal feelings are."

"I promise," Yahaba says. He can promise to try, at least.

"Great," Oikawa says. He takes the ball from Yahaba and waves him away. "You can go get changed. Leave the clean up to the first years today, okay?"

Yahaba blinks. It's a little earlier than he usually leaves, since he tends to stick around to at least watch over the first years cleaning, but if Oikawa is sending him off, he won't argue. Perhaps it's a form of an apology, Yahaba thinks, for making him spend so much time with someone he, well, whatever he feels about Kyoutani. Or maybe he just wants to make sure Yahaba has time to finish reading all the massive books he's been assigned before the tournament. With Oikawa, it's probably both.

He's thinking of one of those massive books, written by an old coach that took his college team to Nationals several times, when he opens the clubroom door to find himself staring at a broad expanse of someone's back. Not that this is that odd of an occurrence, of course, since Yahaba is now accustomed to seeing all his teammates in various states of undress down to their often worrisomely patterned boxers, but this particular back isn't one he's used to.

Kyoutani turns around, pulling his clean shirt down over his head, surprisingly soft-looking skin and extremely taut muscles disappearing under the fabric. "Ugh," he snaps, features twisting into a frown when he sees who it is. "What're you staring at?"

Yahaba hurriedly shuts the door and heads to his lockers, trying to ignore the way his blood is heating up. "You're not supposed to leave practice until you're dismissed," he says with as much calmness as he can muster.

"You're so fucking- Can't you go five seconds yapping at me about the fucking rules?" Kyoutani asks.

Yahaba can't keep looking at his locker. It will become too obvious that he's avoiding meeting Kyoutani's eyes. Praying his face is under control, he turns and smiles. "If you prefer, I can sing about them instead. Since you like my singing voice, and all."

Kyoutani slams the door so hard as he leaves that Yahaba is halfway surprised the whole building doesn't shake.

The rest of the second years arrive as Yahaba finishes changing. Watari looks at him worriedly but doesn't say anything.

"What did you do to Kyoutani?" another one of the second years asks. "He looked ready to murder someone."

"That's just his face," Yahaba says with his most mollifying smile.

"You sure? He looked ready to go after you in practice, too. You should be careful, he could really hurt you."

"He's welcome to try," Yahaba says, and realizes his smile must have slipped into something much more sinister than intended when the other boys step back from him warily. He hastily laughs and makes his excuses, slipping out of the room.

"Scary…" he hears someone say as the door closes. "So even Yahaba can be-"

Yahaba doesn't stick around to find out what he can supposedly be. He hurries to the train station, trying to regain his calm. He thinks about soothing things like piano music and the feeling of a perfect toss and definitely does not think about Kyoutani's stupid angry face or the way the stupid muscles in his stupid back had rippled or how his stupid ears turn pink whenever Yahaba gets him riled up. And he definitely, definitely does not think about getting in closer to that angry face with his own or how those muscles might feel tensing beneath his fingertips or whether those ears might turn even redder under the scrape of his teeth.

He's so busy not thinking of those things that he almost misses his train.

---

Yahaba is able to avoid Kyoutani for the rest of the remaining practices before Spring High, much to his relief. Kyoutani skips most of them and Yahaba even entertains a slight fantasy that Kyoutani won't bother to show up at the tournament at all, but when he gets to school the morning of the first day, there Kyoutani is, slouched against the bus and holding a uniform that looks new.

"His number is even higher than any of ours," Kindaichi remarks. He and the other first years arrived early to do most of the loading on the bus. Kunimi is half asleep on his feet, leaning his head into his friend's back as if he's a very large pillow.

"It should be," Yahaba says. "You've done more for this club in one year than he's done in two."

"Not if he gets us to Nationals," Kindaichi says.

"If he does get put in and we do get to Nationals, it won't just be because of him," Yahaba says. "Our team's wins belong to everyone who stepped foot on the court."

Yahaba lets Kyoutani get on the bus ahead of him so he can see where he plans to sit and avoid him. Kyoutani heads to the very back, so Yahaba snags a row toward the front for him and Watari. A sneaky glance out of the corner of his eye tells him that Kyoutani has stretched out in the back row, even putting his sneakers up on the seats. Yahaba turns around, clenching and unclenching his fists while trying to corral his flare of annoyance before he snaps and starts yelling.

"It's nice to see you so pumped up before a tournament," Watari says, smiling.

Neither Yahaba nor Kyoutani are called onto the court through their first game. Yahaba makes sure to keep a buffer of players between him and Kyoutani, but he can still feel the tension radiating from him from the other side of the reserve box. Yahaba does his best to ignore it and focus on the match, passing along anything he notices through Watari, Matsukawa or Kindaichi as they switch on and off the court.

Kyoutani stomps off the game is done, not waiting for orders of which games to watch and when to come back.

"Ah well," Oikawa says, holding out a hand to stop Iwaizumi from following him to drag him back. "It's a given that a guy like that will behave how he likes off the court."

"Still," Hanamaki says. "If he uses up all his energy being pissed off when he's on the sidelines, we won't be able to use him later."

Yahaba snorts quietly.

"You okay?" Watari asks him, peeking out from the towel he has over his head.

"Yeah," Yahaba says. "Only it'll be really annoying if after we've had to put up with that guy, he's not even useful to us."

Watari blinks and dries off his face. "If you think about it," he says with careful neutrality. "Kyoutani probably doesn't have much experience being kept on the sidelines during a match. He was the ace at his middle school, and even before that, he was used on the court a lot, right?"

"That's right," Yahaba says.

"I guess he doesn't have a lot of experience with it," Watari says and watches Yahaba calmly.

It takes a moment for it to click. "You can't really expect me to-"

"All the other reserves are too scared of him to say anything," Watari says. "And you just said you wanted him to be useful to the team."

"I hate you," Yahaba groans, knowing Watari has him trapped. "Why can't you do it?"

Watari blushes. "I promised Nakata-san that I'd go watch the girls's game if I had a chance."

Yahaba sighs heavily and goes in search of Kyoutani, finally finding him out in one of the grassy areas where teams keep warmed up during breaks. It's fairly deserted, just a few stragglers here and there. Kyoutani is bumping a ball on his arms, an impressive scowl writ deep across his face.

He steels himself for a moment before approaching. "Hey," he says.

"What do you want?" Kyoutani asks, catching the ball and planting his feet as if he expects Yahaba to challenge him to a fight.

"You've never been a reserve before, have you?" Yahaba asks. Although he already knows the answer, he waits for Kyoutani's grunted affirmation. "You know, volleyball isn't like a lot of other sports. Even though we still call reserves benchwarmers, at these official tournaments, they don't give us a bench to sit on. We have to remain standing."

"Why the fuck are you talking about stuff that I already know?" Kyoutani asks.

Yahaba ignores him. "The players on the court are always moving, staying warmed up, but for us reserves, we can be stuck just standing for hours. And if we move around too much, we risk getting yelled at by the refs or distracting our team. So you're just standing there, unable to move, getting more and more tense. Especially if you have the mindset that you could be put in at any moment, it can almost be harder on your body than playing is."

"So you're here to tell me to relax?" Kyoutani asks, disgusted.

"No," Yahaba says, barely containing the reflex to roll his eyes. "I'm here to show you the stretches you should do between matches tomorrow and the small ones you can do while the team is playing so that you don't lock up or cool down too much. That way, when the coaches look for someone to put in, you'll be ready."

"Did Oikawa send you out here?" Kyoutani asks, but his stance has shifted to not be so aggressive.

Yahaba doesn't bother to answer that, thinking it's easier if Kyoutani assumes he's there under orders. Outside of what he has to say to explain the stretches, they don't talk. When he's done, he looks up to see Kindaichi and Kunimi have come outside and are passing back and forth.

"It looks like we'll be playing Datekou tomorrow," Kunimi says. "Wakunan and Karasuno also moved on."

"Right," Yahaba says. "Oikawa-san will want the video of their matches, but then we'll be heading back. Let's go get packed up."

Even Kyoutani follows him back into the gymnasium without complaint.

---

After the match with Karasuno is over, when the tears are shed and the nets pulled down and the scoreboards flipped clean, Yahaba splashes water on to his face in the bathroom sink and holds out his hands in front of him. They aren't shaking, which is odd, because Yahaba feels as if they should be shaking, as if his whole body should be shaking so hard that he can't see straight. But his hands are steady and still, his legs don't crumple beneath him, and his shoulders aren't trembling.

"Yahaba," someone calls and he turns to see one of the first year reserves. "The bus is packed up, Oikawa-san was saying he's about to get everyone who is still inside."

"Okay," Yahaba says and his voice doesn't falter. "Thanks for telling me."

The boy hesitates for a moment. "Um, nobody knows where Kyoutani is…" he says. "He left after the game. He seemed upset."

Yahaba wants to ask why he's the one being told this, why it should be any of his problem if Kyoutani has wandered off, but he knows why. "I'll get him," he says.

The first year looks relieved as he jogs away.

It isn't difficult to find Kyoutani. He's back in the same place he was after their first match, although that seems about a hundred years ago now. He's sitting on one of the benches, hands clasped loosely in front of him as he studies the ground, face blank. His hands aren't shaking either, Yahaba notices.

Yahaba sits down next to him. "The bus is almost done being packed up to go," he says softly.

Kyoutani snorts, but it's not his usual derisive one. "Aren't you going to punch me or something?" he asks.

"Why would I do that?" Yahaba asks.

"You said if I dragged the senpai's moment through the mud, you wouldn't forgive me," Kyoutani says. "Usually when guys say something like that, they'll back it up with punching. And clearly it's not like you're the kind of guy who'd never think of doing something like that."

Yahaba blinks. "You didn't drag their moment through the mud," he says. "You played well, once you got your head back together."

"It was my spike that lost the first set," Kyoutani says. "The scores were close. If we had won that one, or if so many of my spikes hadn't been blocked, then-"

Yahaba gingerly rests a hand on Kyoutani's shoulder to stop him talking. "Did you see how Iwaizumi-san looked when we went to line up?" he asked. "He was probably thinking about his spikes that got blocked and the balls he couldn't save. I could be saying 'What if I had just scored with one of my serves?' I was brought in as a pinch server and didn't score a single point through a serve. What does that make me? I'm sure everyone else who stood on the court today feels the same way."

"So what are you saying?" Kyoutani asks in a harsh voice, finally looking up from his hands. "That everyone made mistakes so it doesn't even matter?"

"No," Yahaba says. "That's not what I'm trying to say at all. I'm saying the same thing I said before. Every point gained or lost belongs to the team as a whole. That's the philosophy Aobajousai works under, that the senpais have passed down to us. We win or lose, not as many individuals, but as one team. So no one can take sole responsibility for a win or a loss. We have to shoulder it together. And today, I- I saw you become part of that. But if you run away now, and blame yourself, then you'll just stay the way you were before and the team will, it will," his voice cracks as he speaks and he stands up, turning to face Kyoutani where he sits. "We need you. For next year. For our revenge. So please, keeping lending us your strength!" He extends his hand, palm up.

Kyoutani stares at him, at his hand still held out, and with each moment that passes Yahaba feels more and more foolish. What was he thinking, trying to give some cool guy speech like he was Iwaizumi or Oikawa? Especially to someone like Kyoutani? He'd made an absolute idiot of himself and for nothing. He can feel his flush rushing up his neck to flood his cheeks and he's about to cover his face with his fingers when Kyoutani reaches out and grabs his hand, hoisting himself to his feet.

"Okay," he says, dropping Yahaba's hand and rubbing his shoulder. "Okay."

As he walks past Yahaba in the direction of the parking lot, Yahaba notices his ears are red again.

Chapter Text

Just as the third years had threatened, Oikawa treats the team to ramen. Matsukawa sends them all home to shower and get changed into more comfortable clothes and Hanamaki gives them the address to meet at in an hour. Yahaba goes to Watari's house, since taking the train would take too long and he has clean clothes in his bag anyway. Besides, he wants to make sure Watari is okay. He'd taken the loss especially hard.

"How was talking to Kyoutani?" Watari asks him as they walk to the ramen place.

Yahaba makes a face. "Which time do you mean?"

"All of them, I guess," Watari says. "Are you two going to be able to play together next year? It'll be important for our captain and ace to get along. And our setter and ace, now that I think of it."

Yahaba licks his lips. He thinks about what Oikawa had told him, back at the beginning of the year, that Yahaba would someday have a moment where he'd understand how having players who would support him would give him the freedom to support them in return, how with six people, the strong would be even stronger. He thought about when he had been sure that his toss was so short that it couldn't be hit, that he'd lost the team an important point, only for Kyoutani to slam it through the block with his left hand.

"I'm not worried," Yahaba says, smiling slightly as he looks down at his hands.

"Oh, really?" Watari is watching him with an expression like he's figured something out, which makes Yahaba very nervous.

"What?" he asks.

"Nothing, nothing," Watari says though his smile is in clear contradiction to his innocent expression. "Just thinking about next year, is all. Working with Kyoutani will be really interesting, don't you think?"

"I suppose," Yahaba says carefully. "I just hope he'll behave without Iwaizumi-san around."

The ramen place turns out to be less of a ramen place and more of a full restaurant. They're waved into a back room where most of the team has already gathered. In contrast to the heavy mood that lingered over the bus ride home, everyone seems to be feeling lighter, warmer. Kindaichi's smile is wavering, perhaps a bit wet, and Iwaizumi is quieter than usual, but people are laughing, joking.

"I'm only paying for ramen," Oikawa warns. "So anything else you get, you'll have to pay for yourself!"

"But we can get as much ramen as we want, right?" Kunimi asks. "As many helpings as we want?"

"I knew I liked you for a reason," Matsukawa says to Kunimi as Oikawa splutters.

Yahaba knows when Kyoutani arrives because there's a wave of startled silence. Yahaba would guess that most of the other team members assumed Kyoutani wouldn't show up for this. Even he wouldn't have said with certainty that he would.

Seemingly unaware of or at least ignoring the reactions his appearance has garnered, Kyoutani sits down in one of the chairs by the end of the table, not close to anyone else. He looks down at the menu with utmost concentration and the bubble of quiet passes as everyone gets back to their conversations.

Even as he's getting up from his chair, Yahaba is sighing at himself. He pokes Watari, stealing his attention away from the boys around him, and gestures with his head at Kyoutani. Watari blinks at him for a moment and then follows.

Kyoutani jerks slightly when they sit down next to him, effectively creating a bridge between him and rest of the team. He eyes them with suspicion, particularly when Yahaba props his head on one hand and puts on his most carefully wholesome expression, but Watari's chronically trustable look seems to soothe him somewhat. The waitress comes by and takes their orders before they have a chance to talk, but after she leaves Kyoutani is, if not completely relaxed, at least slightly less tense.

"Poor Oikawa-san," Watari says. "Do you think his wallet will survive this?"

"If he's low on money, I'm sure his fan club will buy him lunches for the rest of the year," Yahaba says. "Ah, they'll probably bury him in gifts tomorrow, won't they?" Every time their team lost, Oikawa's fans would bombard him in gifts the next day to cheer him up.

"I think it's nice," Watari says. "And he usually shares, at least."

"I wonder if any of them will stick around next year," Yahaba says. "Some of the ones I talked to seemed to be getting into watching volleyball."

"It's more fun playing when people are cheering," Watari says. "But I don't think any of us have the appeal Oikawa-san does."

"Maybe if we dress up Kunimi as something cute, like a kitten," Yahaba says with as much false seriousness as he can muster.

"He'd never agree," Watari says, a smile tugging at his lips.

"We could get him while he's sleeping," Yahaba says.

"Kindaichi would probably wake him up," Watari says and taps his chin. "Hm, unless maybe you told him it was an order from his new captain? "

"You're going to be the new captain?" Kyoutani asks, clearly unable to pretend he isn't listening any longer.

"Yes," Watari says.

Yahaba frowns at him. "Don't say yes," he says. "It's all the second years decision. We haven't voted yet."

"Oikawa-san has been mentoring him for months," Watari informs Kyoutani, leaning around Yahaba. "So the rest of us are going to vote him."

"What's that look for?" Yahaba asks when Kyoutani grimaces slightly. "Don't tell me you want to be captain."

"I don't want to be captain," Kyoutani says, grimace still in place.

"Don't worry," Watari says to Kyoutani. "Yahaba's actually pretty easygoing."

"Why the 'actually'?" Yahaba asks. "I'm almost always easygoing!"

"Not around me," Kyoutani says.

"I- that's- I'm working on it," Yahaba finally mumbles, doing his best to ignore that he's blushing and Watari is wearing that look again. He's saved any further embarrassment by the arrival of the food and then by various speeches by the third years. Oikawa gets booed by the other third years for excessive shmoopiness, but Yahaba personally found Iwaizumi's the most sentimental.

Yahaba lingers in front of the restaurant after they've finished and Oikawa has paid. There's a part of him that doesn't want to head home, doesn't want to go to sleep and really have his last day on this particular team be over.

"It's sad, isn't it?" Watari says. He'd hung back with Yahaba. Kyoutani, apparently more at ease among the group when attached to the other second years, is dawdling behind them in a way that must be intended to look nonchalant.

"Yeah," Yahaba says. "It's going to be so different without them."

"It's a new beginning, too," Watari says.

That reminds Yahaba of something. "The junior high tournament is coming up. Will you go with me to look at their third years? We can get an idea about who to pay attention to next year."

"Of course," Watari says and turns. "Kyoutani, you should come with us too!"

"Eh?" Kyoutani and Yahaba both say. Yahaba isn't sure which of them sounds more nonplussed.

Watari is undeterred. He smiles and holds out his hand to Kyoutani. "It's a good idea for the ace to take part in stuff like this! I think Iwaizumi-san went last year. Give me you phone and I'll put in our numbers so we can meet up."

Maybe it's because Watari just oozes genuineness, but Kyoutani hands over his phone meekly, looking a bit cowed. Yahaba stares, aghast, but can't come up with any grounds on which to object.

"Great!" Watari says. "We'll text you about it soon, okay?"

"Yeah," Kyoutani says and beats a retreat.

"What are you doing?" Yahaba hisses to Watari, who turns that radiating innocence on him.

"You said you weren't worried about working together with him, didn't you?" he asks. "And he doesn't seem to mind, since he agreed. So what's the problem?"

Yahaba is saved finding an answer to that when Oikawa approaches and slips between them, slapping them on the back.

"Well then," he says, voice that same odd mix of light hearted and serious that he uses just before a match. "I'll be leaving the team to you. I'll be counting on the both of you, so work hard, okay?"

"We will," Watari says.

"Definitely," Yahaba agrees.

"Good," Oikawa says. "Because next year you need to avenge us third years by destroying Karasuno and Shiratorizawa, then go on to Nationals and never lose a single set so that everyone can see the true strength of Aobajousai! And then, when they interview you, tell them it's all because of your amazing former captain!"

"Um," Yahaba says. "We'll try our best, but I don't think any team has ever won every single set at Nationals."

"And even if we go to Nationals, we might not even get a chance to play both Karasuno and Shiratorizawa, depending on the match ups," Watari says.

"Ugh, you two kids are so levelheaded that it kind of bothers me," Oikawa says. "Can't you try to be a little more adorable?"

"We'll definitely get your revenge," Yahaba promises. "So you should make sure to beat the third years from those teams in university for us, okay?"

"See, that's much more adorable," Oikawa says and gives his most terrifying grin. "And you don't have to tell me that. I was already planning on it."

---

He wishes he could be surprised when Watari stands him and Kyoutani up on the day of the junior high tournament. Yahaba arrives early, of course, yawning against the morning chill. Kyoutani arrives only a bit later, appearing next to Yahaba in the hallway and looking as tired as Yahaba feels.

"Hey," Yahaba says to him. "Watari should be here any minute."

Kyoutani grunts and goes to the vending machine to get a soda. He cracks it open, drinks it, squashes the can and pitches it into a trash can all while still waiting for Watari's arrival. Finally, after nearly a quarter hour has passed, he speaks up. "Where is he? The tournament is going to start."

Yahaba looks up from his phone that he's been pretending to play with. "Watari usually isn't so late," he says and as if they've summoned it, a text arrives.

Hey!!! Something came up so I can't make it today, sorry!!! (-ω-、) But have fun without me!!! (*^ω^)

Yahaba narrows his eyes and hits the call button. "Something came up?" he says as soon as Watari answers.

"Hi, Yahaba!" Watari says, sounding peppy as ever. "Yeah, I'm really sorry. It's a, um, a family thing."

"A family thing?" Yahaba repeats, because he knows Watari is a terrible liar and will fall apart if Yahaba just keeps him talking. "What kind of family thing?"

"Um, you know. Sickness. My mom, she's sick."

"What does she have?"

"The flu?"

"It isn't flu season," Yahaba says.

Watari laughs nervously. "She's just unlucky, I guess! And so I have to stay and um, help her. With her flu."

"You-!" Suddenly conscious that Kyoutani can't help but overhear, Yahaba ducks around a corner and shields his mouth by the phone as he hisses. "I can't believe you are doing this to me, again."

"Doing what to you when?" Watari says. "I have no idea what you are talking about. Though if I were doing something, it would be for your benefit, because I am your best friend. But I'm not doing anything."

"I can get a new best friend," Yahaba says. "One who doesn't meddle!"

"You need someone to meddle, Yahaba," Watari says, not even bothering to sound hurt by Yahaba's fake threat. "If you had your way, you'd just avoid everyone you had a crush on until you died of old age."

"I do not have a-" Could he be sure Kyoutani couldn't hear him? Yahaba decides he can't risk it. "I do not," he hisses. "Have anything like that, on anyone like that."

"Then what's the problem?" Watari asks.

"I hate you and I hope you catch the fake flu," Yahaba says and hangs up on him. He runs a hand through his hair and tries to force himself to relax as he turns the corner again to Kyoutani. "He's not going to make it," he says.

"Are you okay?" Kyoutani asks warily.

"I'm perfectly fine!' Yahaba snaps and then realizes how ridiculous that sounds. "I just- let's just head in, okay?"

Kyoutani frowns but follows him in. They lean against one of the railings and Yahaba searches for something to say that will distract Kyoutani. Luckily, a jersey color catches his eye and gives him the perfect thing.

"Oh, hey, that's your junior high team, isn't it?" he says, gesturing at the team coming on to the court.

"Yeah," Kyoutani says, giving them an unimpressed look over. Then he nods across the gym. "And there's yours."

Yahaba jumps and looks over to see the familiar colors. "…Yeah," he says.

"What's that pause for?" Kyoutani says.

"I just didn't realize you remembered what team I was on."

"You yelled at me after a match, of course I remember it," Kyoutani says.

Yahaba can feel himself blushing. "Oh," he says. "I guess I just thought… well, you never brought it up, so I assumed you didn't remember. I can't have been the only one to yell at you. You were really-" No, that's being insulting again. Yahaba bites his lip, trying to think of how to end that sentence in a way that doesn't make it seem like he's trying to pick a fight.

Kyoutani just snorts. "Everyone else was too scared of me to yell."

"I was scared of you, too," Yahaba says. "I just forgot for a minute."

"Well, that explains one time," Kyoutani says. "What about all the other times you've yelled at me?"

If it were anyone else, Yahaba would think Kyoutani was teasing him. His natural inclination would be to make fun of Kyoutani back, but talking to Watari has unsettled him. Maybe it would be better, going forward, if he were more polite to Kyoutani. "I'm sorry about that," he says finally.

"Gross," Kyoutani says, making a disgusted face.

"What?" Yahaba says, wondering if he's missed something happening on the court.

"You acting all wimpy and nice. It's gross. Just act normal," Kyoutani says, glaring in the vague direction of one of the team line ups. Yahaba thinks he might be blushing again.

"Fine," he says, surprised. "Apology redacted, then."

"Good," Kyoutani says. "Which teams are we supposed to be paying attention to, anyway?"

Watching the matches makes it easier to act normally. Kyoutani's observations are different from the ones that Yahaba would think to make and having volleyball to focus on means that he can't overthink anything or provoke any kind of argument. They get through the early matches in relative peace and Yahaba can relax.

Then comes a break, where most of the players and refs can get a light lunch. Yahaba and Kyoutani go to the fast food place around the corner. Many of the other spectators had the same idea and so they have to head back to the stadium to have room to sit down, finding a spot just outside where they can sit on the steps.

"You eat a lot," Yahaba comments, watching Kyoutani wolf down a bucket of chicken.

"I worked out this morning," Kyoutani says around a mouthful, making Yahaba wrinkle his nose.

"We're supposed to be using this time to rest and recover from the last tournament," Yahaba says. "So don't overwork yourself."

"Shut up, captain," Kyoutani says with a disrespectful eye roll.

"I'm not officially- oh, forget it," Yahaba says with a sigh. He'd hardly be here scouting out new talent if he wasn't going to be captain next year. "You realize the coaches are around here somewhere too, right? If they catch you saying anything against their orders, it's them you have to worry about getting in trouble with, not me."

Kyoutani grunts and eats his chicken while Yahaba licks salt from the french fries off his fingers and tries not to notice how Kyoutani's knee bumps against his own.

They're about to head back in when a voice calls out, "Yahaba-san?"

He turns and blinks in surprise. "Otake-san," he says. It's definitely him, freckles and all. "Hey," he says. "What are you doing here?"

"Watching my brother's team," Otake says and holds up a cheer banger. He looks between him and Kyoutani. "You're, um?"

When Kyoutani remains silent, Yahaba jumps in. "This is Kyoutani. He's on our team, too, he just wasn't around for that training camp. Kyoutani, Otake-san is from one of the teams we train with sometimes."

"Oh, nice to meet you," Otake says. He scratches his head awkwardly. Though Yahaba carefully doesn't show any nervous habits of the sort, he can understand the impulse. He's not at all sure what to say now. He'd sort of figured he'd never see Otake again, though now that seems silly considering they could run into each other at almost any tournament.

"Good luck to your brother's team," Yahaba says finally.

"Thanks," Otake says, shifting foot to foot. "It was, um, good to see you. Are you going to do the training camp again this year?"

"Probably," Yahaba says. "We don't have any definitive plans yet, though." He'd decided to wait until Oikawa was off at college before he brought up the idea with the coaches of inviting Karasuno to do a training camp with them this year. It seemed safer.

"Oh, good," Otake says with a blush. "I'll see you there then, maybe?"

Yahaba nods and they part ways.

"That was awkward as hell," Kyoutani says as they get back into the stadium seats. "Did you yell at him about something, too?"

"No!" Yahaba thinks there's probably something wrong with him, that he can get through such a weird conversation with the first person he's kissed without a blush even threatening, but Kyoutani saying one thing can make his neck burn. "I don't… I don't go around just yelling at people, okay?"

"Then what did you do to him? He looked like he wanted to die just talking to you."

Yahaba taps his fingers against his legs, once, twice, and oh, fuck it. "We kissed, okay?" he says. "At training camp. But we didn't expect to, you know, keep running into each other."

Kyoutani gapes at him. "You like boys?" he asks, finally.

"Don't you ever listen to school gossip?" Yahaba asks. He's gripping the railing hard enough to hurt. "Yes, I'm gay, everyone who talks to anyone has known that for years."

"Do I look like the type of guy who listens to gossip?" Kyoutani says.

"You look like the type of guy who might try to punch me for looking at him," Yahaba says, which isn't entirely fair and he knows it. He sighs and tries to relax his stranglehold on the railing. "Is it a problem for you?"

"No," Kyoutani says. Then he snorts. "Though if you like that guy, you have shit taste. He seemed like a wimp."

"You think almost everyone is a wimp," Yahaba says. "And I don't really like him. We don't keep in touch."

"Oh," Kyoutani says. "Good."

Yahaba looks at him, trying to ignore his heart stuttering. "Good?"

"I don't think the team captain should be kissing other team's players," Kyoutani says. "It doesn't seem right."

That actually surprises Yahaba enough that he laughs. "I can't believe that's what bothers you about this. You're such a weirdo," Yahaba says. "If it makes you feel better, I promise not to kiss any other school's players until I leave the club, okay?"

Kyoutani actually looks gratified at that, though it might just be from the whistle blowing to start the next games and end their conversation.

At the end of the day, they walk to the train station together, though they get on separate lines.

"Thanks for coming today," Yahaba says. "You helped a lot."

"Yeah," Kyoutani says awkwardly. "Tell Watari good luck with whatever happened."

Yahaba tries to hide the sudden murderous intent he feels. "Sure," he says. "Practice starts next Tuesday. We're voting for team captain, so don't be late."

"Yes, captain," Kyoutani snorts and steps on to his train, not looking back to see the rude gesture Yahaba makes at him.

Yahaba calls Watari as soon as he gets home.

"How did it go?" Watari asks excitedly.

"There were some good players on Kitagawa Daiichi," Yahaba says even though he knows that isn't what Watari means.

He's rewarded with an angry noise. "Yahaba! Come on! Did you have fun, was anyone murdered, did you guys, you know, bond?"

"Yes, no, and shut up," Yahaba says.

"I'm the best friend in the world," Watari crows and nothing Yahaba can say will convince him otherwise.

---

As expected, Yahaba is voted in as the next captain. Even Kyoutani votes for him and Yahaba tries not to be too touched by that. The training regimen for the rest of the year isn't strict, leaving them time to study for exams and prepare for the athletics festival. The third years stop by every once in a while, both to practice and catch up.

"Iwa-chan and I got accepted to the same university," Oikawa announces as he bounces into the gym one day. "We got scouted at the same time, isn't that nice? We'll get an apartment together and go to classes together and play on the team together and-"

"How far away will you be?" Yahaba asks, knowing Oikawa could be planning on listing every single thing he and Iwaizumi will be doing together for the next several years.

"Only a few hours," Iwaizumi says.

"Good," Yahaba says. "Bring your team to play practice matches with us during breaks so we can win all our tournaments." He turns away to get back to practice.

"Captain Yahaba is scary!" Oikawa says, wrapping arms around Yahaba and resting his chin on top of Yahaba's head. "So businesslike!"

"Hey," Yahaba says, trying to wiggle out of his hold to no avail. He's expecting Iwaizumi to tell Oikawa off the way he normally does whenever Oikawa crosses some line of social niceties that Iwaizumi cares about, but to Yahaba's surprise he stays silent, looking away.

Oikawa doesn't seem to notice. "Yahaba, what drills do you have everyone doing? It doesn't look like you-"

"Don't backseat captain me," Yahaba says, giving up on squirming free. "If you want to be useful, go help Kunimi with his serves."

"Bossy!" Oikawa says but lets him go to glom on to Kunimi instead.

"Ready to get back to it?" Yahaba asks Kyoutani, who he'd been practicing with. "Iwaizumi-san, are you here to play as well? We could use someone to practice blocks against."

Iwaizumi jumps slightly and scratches his head. "Yeah, of course," he says, but Yahaba notices a bit of hesitance in his voice. It makes him feel unsure in response, since Iwaizumi is usually the opposite of hesitant.

Yahaba shakes his head to quash the feeling and directs them into the drill he wants to do. Focusing on practice is good and he's happy to have any opportunity for Kyoutani to work with Iwaizumi, who he still accepts corrections from the easiest. While Kyoutani isn't as obvious as, say, Kindaichi, it's clear how much everything Iwaizumi says means to him, be it praise or critique. He listens so intently when Iwaizumi speaks, a complete mix of eagerness and his usual tough guy look, that Yahaba is torn between finding it hilarious and adorable.

It's only after they finish that the awkwardness Yahaba had picked up on before from Iwaizumi returns. He stays to help them clean up, a good guy to the end, but he's odd with Yahaba the whole time, never quite looking at him.

"Well, thank you for stopping by," Yahaba says when the clean up is done and they've changed. "It's always very helpful to have you here."

"No problem," Iwaizumi says, rubbing at his head again awkwardly. "Now that Oikawa and I know what we're doing for university, it'll be easier for us to find time to swing by."

Yahaba smiles. "We all really would appreciate it," he says, meaning every word. "Though we wouldn't want to hold you guys back from doing more rigorous practice to prepare for the university-level."

Iwaizumi shrugs. "We'll have plenty of time for that," he says as they get in sight of the school gate where Oikawa has cornered Kyoutani and is talking to him excitedly about something. Kyoutani doesn't look confused or more murderous than usual, so Yahaba is willing to bet it's about volleyball. He's about to say so when Iwaizumi speaks up before he can. "Oikawa's really going to miss you, you know."

"Oh?" Yahaba says, surprised less by the sentiment then by how strange Iwaizumi sounds saying it, flattened almost. "Well, I'm sure we'll keep in touch…? I know he'll want to check in on the team."

"Yeah," Iwaizumi says, still in that odd uninflected tone. "But, I mean, I know he's really enjoyed spending more time with you these last few months. I can tell."

Yahaba feels lost somehow. "He's been really helpful," he says carefully. "I've learned so much from him."

"Right," Iwaizumi says and they don't have time to say anything more before they get to the gate and Oikawa is there, smiling and waving.

"Yahoo~," he says. "Yahaba, are you walking to the train station?"

Yahaba shakes his head. "I have a shift at the grocery store today," he says. He glances at Kyoutani. "Which I guess means I'm walking in your direction," he says, giving Kyoutani a way to escape Oikawa if he needs one. Yahaba is not sure if leaving the two of them alone together off the court for too long is such a good idea. Kyoutani is still fairly wary of Oikawa and Oikawa, well, is Oikawa and has fun needling him.

Kyoutani takes him up on it and they fall into step after saying goodbye to the third years. Yahaba is still thinking over his conversation with Iwaizumi and misses when Kyoutani says something.

"What?" he asks. "Sorry."

"And you yell at me for having bad concentration," Kyoutani says. "I was asking what's got you all," he waves a hand at Yahaba's face.

"I'll need you to translate that," Yahaba says in his driest tone. "I don't speak vague hand gesture."

Kyoutani doesn't even bother snorting at him for that kind of statement anymore. "You've got your weird polite company face on," he says. "Even though nobody's around."

"You're around," Yahaba says to cover his internal grimace. When did Kyoutani start being able to read his facial expressions so well?

"I'm not polite," Kyoutani says. "You only use that face with me when you're being a dick and you're not being a dick."

"Do you want me to be a dick?" Yahaba says and then shakes his head at himself. "Sorry, it's just reflexive at this point. I'm just… confused about something."

"Is it about Iwaizumi-san?" Kyoutani says and glares when Yahaba jerks slightly in surprised. "Don't look so shocked. I'm not an idiot, you know. You started looking like that when you were talking to him earlier, so it doesn't take a genius to put two and two together."

"I'm just so flattered to find out you apparently keep such close tabs on me," Yahaba says. "I never realized I occupied so much of your attention span."

"See, now you're being a dick," Kyoutani says. "What did he even say to you?"

"Not really anything," Yahaba says with the smallest of shrugs. "Just some stuff about how much Oikawa-san enjoyed training me to be the next captain and how he'd miss me. It was just… off somehow. I don't know. He seemed weird earlier, too. Usually he yells at Oikawa-san for grabbing me but this time he didn't."

"Does Oikawa grab you a lot?" Kyoutani asks with a strange expression of his own. "He's never grabbed me."

"That just shows he has a working sense of self preservation," Yahaba says while he thinks. "I don't think he does it, like, a lot, but he does sometimes? He only started doing it when he became captain and I became his reserve setter. Or…" His mouth twists as he thinks more about that timeframe. "Although I guess it could be when everyone found out I was gay? They happened at the same time."

Now Kyoutani actually does snort. "Isn't it obvious then? Iwaizumi-san probably thinks Oikawa has a crush on you or something."

Yahaba actually stops walking in surprise. "You don't actually think that's what it is, do you?"

"Why not? Is it really such a weird idea?" Kyoutani says over his shoulder, not bothering to stop with him. Yahaba has to trot to catch back up with him.

"It's just- Oikawa-san doesn't- The person that- Iwaizumi-san really shouldn't think that!" Yahaba scrubs a hand over his face as he tries to reconcile this idea. "If Iwaizumi-san thinks that, then… Oh, what a mess…"

"I might be wrong," Kyoutani says. "Don't freak out about it."

"I'm not freaking out about it," Yahaba protests even though that is exactly what he's doing. "I just- oh, never mind."

"Shouldn't you be flattered, anyway?" Kyoutani asks. "Isn't Oikawa supposed to be, you know, really good looking?"

"It's not about that," Yahaba says. "It's just… oh, I can't tell you. He's not my type, anyway."

"You have a type? Gross," Kyoutani says, and then, after a pause, "What is it?"

Buff guys who dye their hair blond and get up in my personal space without realizing it, Yahaba does not say. "Do you want to sit around and gossip about boys with me, Kyoutani?" he says instead, sticking his hands in his pockets. "I had no idea you were into that kind of thing."

"You're the worst," Kyoutani says and then they are at the corner where their paths diverge, so the conversation is dropped.

---

Even though Yahaba can't shake the very concerning idea that Kyoutani has planted in his head, he doesn't get a chance to do anything about it before the seniors graduate and leave. It's probably a good thing, because he can't imagine Oikawa would be grateful if he meddled, even if just to clear up a misconception. He's so busy worrying about that situation that he forgets to worry about how it will be to be captain without Oikawa nearby to answer any questions he might run into, like a safety net.

He tells himself it's a good thing and he won't rely on Oikawa too much. He's a calm, collected third year now and he can handle being captain by himself.

"I can't handle being captain by myself," he whispers into his cell phone ten minutes before the first practice with the new underclassmen begins. "Oikawa-san, I don't know what to do with them! What if they're really rebellious? What if they're all taller than me? What if someone gets injured? What if none of them are team players? What if they all are really lazy? What if they quit the club? What if Mizoguchi-sensei kills one of them? What if Kyoutani kills one of them? What if two of them try to kill each other? What if a bunch of them gang up and try to kill me?"

Oikawa's voicemail, predictably enough, offers no advice. Yahaba sighs and hangs up and exits the bathroom stall he was hiding in to head for the sink and splash water over his face. He stares at his reflection in the mirror and wills it into looking more confident.

"You can do this," he tells it. "All the third years believed you could do it. Just stay calm and-" He jumps when the door opens and Kyoutani comes in. "What are you doing here?!"

Kyoutani looks supremely disturbed. "It's a bathroom, take a wild fucking guess."

Yahaba covers his face with his hands as Kyoutani goes about his business and remains like that, half-sagged against the wall until he hears Kyoutani washing his hands.

"What's wrong with you now?" Kyoutani asks and Yahaba uncovers his eyes to find Kyoutani standing distressingly close, peering at him.

"Want to switch with me?" he asks. "You can be the captain and I'll be the juvenile delinquent."

Kyoutani actually looks affronted by that. "I've never even shoplifted, you know," he says. "And why are you freaking out about being captain now? You've been captain for ages."

"First years," Yahaba says.

"You're afraid of the first years?" Kyoutani sounds as if he's sure he must be misunderstanding. When Yahaba nods, he snorts. "You'll yell at me for breathing wrong but you're afraid of some first years?"

"It's not… what if they don't listen to me? Oikawa-san made everyone listen to him so easily and I- Kyoutani!" he squeaks as Kyoutani grabs him by his wrist and drags him out of the bathroom toward the gym. "Hey!"

"Don't be a baby," Kyoutani says. "Literally the first thing I thought when I met Oikawa was that I wanted to punch him, so I'm pretty sure you don't have to worry about making a worse first impression than that."

"You want to punch me, like, all the time," Yahaba says even as he stops struggling. It occurs to him that Kyoutani is trying to be comforting.

"Not all the time," Kyoutani says and Yahaba blinks, wondering if Kyoutani's ears are really turning pink or if that's an illusion created by the light plus an overly hopeful imagination, but before he can come to a conclusion they've made it to the gym. Yahaba tries not to swallow his tongue.

Watari is waiting by the entrance. "Hey," he says and gives Yahaba a strange, happy glance which makes Yahaba realize that he and Kyoutani are still practically holding hands. He yanks his wrist back.

"How do they look?" Yahaba asks.

"Like first years," Watari says. "All a mixture of terror and excitement and acne. There's a few characters, but that's not such a bad thing. Ready, captain?"

With Watari looking at him so confidently and Kyoutani glaring at him out of the corner of his vision as if daring him to get scared again, Yahaba really has no choice but to square his shoulders and nod.

It goes well. He doesn't stumble over his first captain speech and nobody kills anyone. There are, as Watari had put it, a few characters among the first years, but it wouldn't be Aobajousai if there weren't. They all seem happy enough to listen to him and Watari. Especially Watari. Actually, Yahaba begins to realize that quite a few of the first years seem almost… afraid of Yahaba and go to Watari with their more minor problems rather than to him.

"Do the first years seem scared of me?" he asks the other regulars as they head out.

"They're first years," Kyoutani says. "They're scared of everyone."

Yahaba rolls his eyes. "They're scared of you, not everyone. And that actually makes sense. Being afraid of me doesn't make sense."

"Ah," Kunimi says in his usual bored tone. "That might be my fault."

"What did you do?" Yahaba says.

"Not really anything," Kunimi says. "I overheard them talking about how scary Kyoutani is, so I told them about the time you threw him into a wall and yelled at him." He punctuates the end of his statement with a shrug. "Now I guess they think you're scarier."

"Kunimi!" Yahaba says, aghast. "I- That's not completely-"

"I didn't tell them anything that's not true," Kunimi says. "And now they'll definitely listen to you."

"He's not wrong," Watari says around a snicker.

Since yelling at Watari is like yelling at a puppy, yelling at Kunimi is as helpful as pouring water on a duck and Kindaichi already seems nervous about the entire thing, Yahaba chooses to glare at Kyoutani. "Shouldn't you, I don't know, be mad that they don't think you're the scariest or something?"

Kyoutani looks more amused than anything else. "Nope. I'm glad people are starting to see your true colors, captain," he says and gives Yahaba such a mean grin that Yahaba feels warmth pooling in his veins and has to look away.

He gets a call from Oikawa that night.

"Sorry, I was in classes and then practice and I have soooo much homework, I think I'm going to die," Oikawa says all in a flurry. "But I knew you'd be fine! How did it go?"

Yahaba fills him in on what Kunimi had done. After Oikawa is done with his giggles, he says, "Oh, but it's not such a bad thing for first years to be slightly afraid of you! You should enjoy it. So, what finally got you out of the bathroom, anyway?"

"Kyoutani dragged me out," Yahaba says, flopping down on his bed and pushing his math homework aside.

"Mad Dog-chan, huh?" Oikawa says in such a neutral tone that Yahaba's hackles instantly go up. "That's sweet."

"Oikawa-san," he says in his sternest voice.

"It's good you two are getting along."

"Oikawa-san," Yahaba hisses.

"What?" Oikawa says in an innocent tone that doesn't suit him at all.

Yahaba considers throwing his phone into the wall and thinks better of it. He doesn't have enough money for a new phone. "How long have you known?" he asks defeatedly.

"That you have a crush on him? Oh, Yahaba, it's been obvious for absolutely ages."

Yahaba makes the quietest wail of despair he can manage. "Does everyone know?" he asks.

"Don't be silly, my powers of observation can't be matched by just anybody," Oikawa says. "I'm sure he has no idea, for instance."

"Well, that's something, at least," Yahaba says with a sigh, pressing his his arms over his eyes to drive off what feels like an impending headache.

"Is it?" Oikawa asks. "You might be surprised at what his reaction would be."

"No offense, but you're the last person I want to hear that kind of advice from," Yahaba says.

"Mean, Yahaba, too mean," Oikawa says, though there's something strange in his voice. He keeps speaking before Yahaba can decide what it could be. "I'm glad practice went well. You just need to be more confident in yourself, Yahaba, and remember to rely on the other regulars. If even Kyoutani is standing behind you, you're off to a good start!"

"Go do your homework," Yahaba says gruffly, but he's pleased all the same.

---

The problem with talking to Oikawa about anything, of course, is that the things he says tend to bury themselves in Yahaba's mind, impossible to shake. Often that's been useful, when the things he's remembering are about volleyball or self confidence, but this time it's what he said about Kyoutani. You might be surprised at what his reaction would be, Oikawa had said. And what the hell was that supposed to mean? That he thought Kyoutani wouldn't mind? That he'd be flattered? That he'd somehow, maybe, return Yahaba's feelings?

Yahaba had never let himself imagine such a thing, not with any of his crushes. The last thing he needed was to get some kind of stupid hope up only to have it dashed in the worst way possible. He had become an expert at identifying and cutting off any train of thought that might lead to such a dangerous territory before it could get too far.

Oikawa's words ruin everything. It's like he'd flipped a switch and turned off all of Yahaba's usual self control. He finds himself hanging off of all of Kyoutani's reactions, looking for any hints that could be used as evidence about his feelings. He files away every word, every fidget or flush or grunt, looking for some kind of secret hidden meaning that probably doesn't exist. It's enough to drive him to distraction.

Worse still is the places his imagination will go. Yahaba, well, he was never exactly thrilled about where his mind would wander when he was alone in bed or the shower, but he'd grown used to it. He lets himself engage in those fantasies, get them over with. He can't control his hormones, he reasons, can't control his body's reactions.

None of that, however, had prepared him for the absolutely terrible fantasies his mind comes up with now.

The ones that aren't kindled by the way Kyoutani's shirt rides up when he stretches, but by the cute way he moves his lips slightly when engrossed in a book.

The ones that aren't about pushing him into the wall of lockers and biting his lower lip, but about holding his hand for real.

The ones that hit him out of nowhere in the middle of practice or class and leave him sure his blush can be seen from outer space.

Yahaba doesn't know how to handle those types of fantasies at all.

Chapter Text

"It's so weird having a cultural fair without me having to track you down and bully you into participating," Yahaba says to Kyoutani. Along with Watari, they're sitting beneath one of the trees and eating lunch as Yahaba looks through the papers the club members had filled out with their talents so he can fill out the submission form correctly.

"Yeah, you can be pretty fucking annoying when you put your mind to it," Kyoutani says, but there's not much bite to it.

Yahaba flaps a hand at him anyway. "Please, you'll make me blush," he says, then glares at the paperwork. "Why do so many of our club members have such terrible handwriting? You'd think they'd have better coordination than this…"

Watari leans over to pluck the sheet Yahaba is trying to figure out from his hands and holds it up, tilting his head. "I think this says… wait, no, that wouldn't make any sense."

"I didn't know Kunimi can lick his own elbow," Yahaba remarks. "Although I don't think you can really make a competition out of- Kyoutani, stop that."

Kyoutani looks up from trying to lick his elbow. "What? I just wanted to see if I could."

"Worry about your own talent instead," Yahaba says. "I'm not letting you sign up with arm wrestling just because Iwaizumi-san did it."

Kyoutani glares at him. "Why not?"

"Because you never managed to beat him," Yahaba says. "It would just be a big let down for all our fans."

"Are you trying to pick a fight with me?" Kyoutani asks, rolling up his sleeves. "I'll beat you at arm wrestling right here, right now."

"Keep your shirt on, I'm not going to arm wrestle you," Yahaba says, taking the excuse to eye Kyoutani's forearms with pretend distaste. "I don't arm wrestle. Pick another talent. Even you have to have at least one other thing you're good at."

"Tough talk with the guy who still has a blank sheet," Kyoutani says. "It's too bad you can't put down being an asshole."

"Play nice, you two, or I'll have to get a spray bottle," Watari says absently. "I think this says juggling, by the way."

"That has potential," Yahaba says. "The juggling, not me being an asshole. I don't know how I'd turn that into a competition."

"And yet you two manage it every day," Watari says. Yahaba pokes him in the ribs. "Hey!"

"You're supposed to be on my side," Yahaba says.

"I don't take sides. I'm completely neutral at all times," Watari says with a wide-eyed expression of injured innocence that he must have picked up from Yahaba. "Though you should probably pick another talent, Kyoutani. And you need to think of one, Yahaba. Our captain and ace need to participate in a unique way."

"Ugh," Kyoutani says. "Am I allowed to do something physical, at least?"

"Don't worry, Kyoutani, none of us are holding our breath waiting for you to come up with any other type of talent," Yahaba drawls.

"I'm going to fucking hit you," Kyoutani says. "On the day you stop being captain and can't kick me out of the club, I'm just gonna to walk up to you and hit you."

"I'm terrified," Yahaba says, meeting Kyoutani's glare with a politely blank look. "Have you ever even been in an actual fight or are you all talk and no action?"

"I wasn't kidding about the spray bottle," Watari says, waving his hand between them to break their staring contest. "Kyoutani, how about you compete with people to see how many push ups you can do in a minute? I've seen people do that on TV."

"Yeah," Kyoutani says. "I can win at that."

"Excellent!" Watari turns to Yahaba. "And you, come up with something, okay? The festival needs to go well, Ai has put a lot of work into it."

"Ai?" Yahaba repeats and feels a grin spread across his face. "You call Nakata-san Ai now?"

Watari instantly goes red. "She said that I could," he says.

"That's adorable," Yahaba says. He pretends to wipe a tear from his eye. "I can't believe it, my little Watari is growing up and calling girls by their given names already. I remember when you couldn't even look at a girl, let alone talk to one."

"You do know that I'm older than you," Watari says.

"Don't complain," Yahaba says. "You're just lucky our upperclassmen have graduated and you only have to deal with me and not their idea of sex ed."

Kyoutani makes a choking noise. "What the fuck?"

"You really don't want to know," Yahaba assures him.

---

In the end, Kyoutani does end up signing up with Watari's suggestion and Yahaba puts down mental arithmetic like he's done the years before, only this year it actually gets selected. He also forces Kunimi to change his talent from elbow-licking to chess, since Kindaichi let it slip that Kunimi is extremely good at it and just put down something else in hopes of not having to participate.

Other than that, Yahaba has very little to do with the prep for the festival, since he's busy running practices and getting the new regulars into shape. When the festival itself comes around, he's surprised and pleased by how well the underclassmen have done setting it up.

They don't pull as large a crowd as the last couple years, but Yahaba expected that. None of their members have as much drawing power as Oikawa and Iwaizumi had together, but they do alright. A significant number of people come to challenge Kyoutani, as if testing to see if his reputation is earned. Yahaba gets challenged himself fairly regularly, too, though generally by a very different type of person. They both end up ordered by the coaches to take frequent breaks to relieve the mental and physical strain.

In a turn that Yahaba can't decide between labeling fortunate or unfortunate, Watari doesn't usually join them on their mandated breaks, being too busy with Nakata. Yahaba is pleased for him, of course, but spending so much time alone with Kyoutani and no buffer is dangerous. He was half hoping, half dreading that Kyoutani might wander off to one of the isolated places he usually went to brood in, the library or by the dumpsters, but instead he sticks close to Yahaba throughout the morning. When they get a longer break in the afternoon, a chance for them to eat and explore the festival, Yahaba isn't surprised when Kyoutani follows him out.

"Is there anywhere you want to make sure to see?" Yahaba asks.

Kyoutani shrugs. "I don't really know what's around. I didn't spend time hanging out at the other ones."

"You just came for Iwaizumi-san?" Yahaba asks and smirks. "That's adorable. I'm sure he'd be flattered to know how much you admire him."

"Shut up," Kyoutani says. "I know you call Oikawa all the time. You say stuff sometimes that's obviously something he said. Its a different kind of annoying than the stuff you come up with on your own."

Yahaba can feel himself blush. "Let's go check out some of the games," he says quickly. "You're a competitive freak, you'll love them."

Of course, Yahaba can't help but compete against Kyoutani when challenged, so they both end up playing the games. Kyoutani is better at the shooting games, but Yahaba is better at all the club-themed scooping things out of water booths, earning him a wide collection of tiny sports equipment and musical notes he can dry off and put on a keychain. They're pretty evenly matched when it comes to ring toss, so they spend the most time there, challenging each other to best twelve out of twenty-three and so on until they are asked to move along and give someone else a turn.

"We were tied, too," Yahaba says sadly. "I really wanted to see your angry face when I beat you."

"As if," Kyoutani snorts. "I would have won."

"Now the world may never know," Yahaba says.

"We can play another shooting game to settle it," Kyoutani offers.

"Nice try, but no," Yahaba says. "Anyway, I'm hungry. Let's go find something to eat."

"Chicken," Kyoutani says and Yahaba chooses to take it as a suggestion, not an insult, so they head off.

The stall they end up at is manned by the boys and girls basketball clubs, who are all aflutter over the news of some scout coming to see their tournament next month. It's impossible not to overhear them talking about who might have a good chance to get offers from universities. Apparently, the ace from the girls team is a definite shoe-in at the best university in Miyagi but is holding out for offers from other prefectures.

"Must be nice," Yahaba comments as they find a quiet spot to eat. "Being able to trust in getting in to university like that."

"You're smart enough to get into any of the schools around here," Kyoutani says. "Weren't you planning to stay in Miyagi?"

"I…" Yahaba looks down. "I don't really know what I'm going to do. That's what my parents expect me to do, anyway."

"Screw them," Kyoutani says. "My dad wants me to stay and do construction like him but I'm not gonna. It's my life, the way I figure it, so as long as I find a way to make it work, it's none of his business."

"What do you want to do, then?" Yahaba asks, wondering how it must feel to be so sure.

"I want to be a vet," Kyoutani says. "My mom was one before she- well, she was one, is the point. So I want to go to veterinary school."

Yahaba isn't sure if it's okay to push. Kyoutani had never brought up his mom before, though Yahaba knows that she's not around in his life now. "That's impressive," he says. "I figured you'd say pro volleyball player or something."

"Eh," Kyoutani says. "That'd be fun but it's hardly forever, you know? And I love working with animals. My dad says I'm too stupid to get in, but he doesn't know how good my grades have been these last few years. I mean, that's why I chose to come here over the other schools that invited me. Because the school has such a good reputation academically, so I have a chance."

Yahaba stares at Kyoutani. He's not sure if he's ever heard him talk about anything that wasn't volleyball for so long without getting angry. There's color on his cheeks, but at least some of that is enthusiasm, not embarrassment, and his lips are twitching up into a tiny smile.

"Well?" Kyoutani says when Yahaba doesn't say anything, too caught up in how handsome Kyoutani looks. "I told you my embarrassing dream. Tell me yours."

Yahaba swallows. He'd only ever mentioned this idea to Watari, and even then not in detail. "My parents want me to be a programmer," he says. "That's what they do and if I stay in Miyagi, um, I don't know if I'd be able to have the self-confidence to stand up against them."

Kyoutani never stops getting that half-disbelieving, half-offended look whenever Yahaba talks about letting someone push him around. "But if you did?" he asks.

"Well, I've been thinking about how much the volleyball club has meant to me," Yahaba says, rubbing the back of his head. "In so many different ways. And I'd kind of like to give back to it, if I could. So I was thinking of becoming a teacher, of mathematics maybe, since I've always been good at that, and then become a club advisor."

"Huh," Kyoutani says. "Sounds like you'd enjoy it. You should go for it."

"It's not that easy," Yahaba says. "I told you, if I stay in Miyagi I probably will end up doing whatever my parents want me to, and I don't have the money to go to school somewhere else, even if I did get in. So really the only way I could do it would be if…"

"If you got a sports scholarship?" Kyoutani finishes for him.

"Yeah," Yahaba says.

"If we make it to Nationals, you'll definitely get one," Kyoutani says. "Being the captain and setter and all. And you still might even if we don't, if we play well. What's that look for?"

Yahaba was staring again. "Nothing," he says and looks down, fighting to keep the smile off his face. For a player as talented as Kyoutani to think he stood a chance of being scouted made it seem almost possible. "If you want help studying," he says impulsively. "I'm pretty good at it."

Kyoutani looks at him and Yahaba can't tell what he's thinking. "Thanks," he says finally. "That's nice of you."

"You don't have to sound so shocked," Yahaba says. "C'mon, our shift starts in less than ten minutes."

---

"I hope we made enough that the coaches treat us to a nice meal at the end of training camp again," Yahaba says as he helps put away the last of the boxes. He has to stifle a yawn as he does, unexpectedly tired from the day. He closes his eyes as he stretches out his back and arms, sighing happily at the relief from the tension of being cramped up in a chair for hours. When he opens his eyes, he's surprised to see Kyoutani staring at him, going red around the ears. "What?" he asks, trying to ignore his mind doing that annoying reading-into-things-that-are-probably-meaningless trick Oikawa's set it up to do.

"Nothing," Kyoutani says, blushing harder and looking away. "Can we go home now?"

"You can't!" Nakata exclaims, looking up from where she's helping Watari fold up one of the large banners. "The rocketry club is going to do a fireworks show. You two should come with us!"

"A fireworks show?" Yahaba says. "Is that really safe?"

"I'm sure it's fine, if they got approved," Watari says. He's a more trusting guy than Yahaba, who still feels skeptical. "And it'll be really cool. You two should definitely stay to watch it, it'll only be another hour."

Yahaba glances at Kyoutani and shrugs. "It could be interesting," he says. "You don't get a lot of chances to see a school burn down, I guess."

"Are the food stalls still open?" Kyoutani asks. "I'll stay if they are."

The four of them end up spending the next hour wandering around the festival grounds, trying different foods and finding a place to watch from. Watari, thinking ahead, had brought towels for them to spread out and sit on, so they grab a spot on a hill overlooking most of the school grounds, far enough off that Yahaba is pretty sure that even if the rocketry club does set off an unplanned explosion, they should still be okay. They set up the towels, Watari and Nakata on one and Kyoutani and Yahaba on the other.

It's not until he sees Nakata shyly take hold of Watari's hand and has to clamp down on the snickers that bubble up at the resultant immense blush across Watari's entire head that Yahaba realizes the whole thing feels very double date-like. That makes his laughter die in his chest, replaced by the abrupt pounding of his heart. He glances over to Kyoutani to see if he's noticed, but of course Kyoutani is just focused on eating his food. Yahaba tells himself not to be stupid and looks up at the stars as they become visible in the growing darkness.

"It should be starting soon," he says, softly so as not to disturb Watari and Nakata, who are giggling about something together.

"Good," Kyoutani says. "I want to get home in time to have a bath before I go to sleep. My arms ache."

"I'm not surprised," Yahaba says. "You must have done thousands of push ups today. You shouldn't have done so many against the people you were already obviously beating."

"If you don't try your hardest, it's disrespecting your opponents," Kyoutani says, rubbing his arm. "Iwaizumi-san told me that."

"Did Iwaizumi-san also tell you that spikers are useless if their arms are too sore to hit the ball right?" Yahaba says and absolutely blames Oikawa putting weird ideas in his head for the fact that the next words out of his mouth are "Here, let me." He nudges Kyoutani's hands out of the way and replaces them with his own, fingers digging deep into the muscles there, pressing against any tension he can find.

"I'd never be useless," Kyoutani says but doesn't complain about Yahaba touching him. In fact, he leans in to the contact, closing his eyes. "You're good at this," he says after a minute, voice tight.

"Oh?" Yahaba's voice isn't much better. He shifts to switch arms and hopes the darkness is already enough to hide how red his face must be. "Well, that's good, I guess. I need my ace in working condition, after all."

"Calling me your ace makes it sound weird," Kyoutani says, eyes still closed.

"But you are, aren't you?" Yahaba says, using the opportunity to take a closer look at Kyoutani's face than he usually gets a chance to. He really is good looking, Yahaba thinks. If he didn't put off such an intimidating aura, more people would probably have noticed. "I'm the captain and the setter, so that makes you my ace."

"Weird," Kyoutani repeats. "You're a weird guy." He suddenly opens his eyes, catching Yahaba off guard, no time to spring back or look away. Kyoutani's face is close, far too close to his own, he can see the way his eyelashes flutter as his eyes widen and feel his surprised exhale against his cheek.

"Um," Yahaba says, an automatic reaction to fill the silence that's gone tense and electric. He can't seem to make himself move or come up with a quip, some insult to defuse the situation. He bites his lip and watches Kyoutani's gaze snap down to follow the movement.

"Look, it's starting!" Watari's excited voice cuts through whatever was holding them in place and they both spring back as the first firework explodes overhead, casting Kyoutani's reddening cheeks in blues and greens.

Yahaba wrenches his eyes away and forces himself to look up, to watch the fireworks show, but the booms of the explosions seem quiet next to the thuds of his own heart and all he can focus on is the inescapable warmth of Kyoutani's body next to his, no longer quite close enough to touch but hardly out of reach.

"That was so cool," Nakata says after the last colors have drained from the sky. "I can't believe students put that together."

"Yeah," Yahaba says, his voice thin and high in the night air. "I need to catch my train," he says and beats a hasty retreat without even saying a polite goodbye to Nakata. His cheeks are burning the whole way home.

---

Not for the first time, Yahaba thanks any god or spirit that might be listening for the fact that they take Monday off from practice. It makes avoiding Kyoutani so much easier when he only has to hide out during lunch time. He intentionally lags behind everyone else after class, making sure Kyoutani is nowhere to be seen by the school gates before he leaves. He'd considered calling in sick at the store, but the festival had really set his wallet back and Kyoutani rarely shopped on Mondays, so he goes in and keeps an eye on the door, ready to dart into the back room if he even sees a hint of blond hair.

It makes for a lot of heart pounding false alarms, but Yahaba considers it a worthy sacrifice. No matter how he tries to spin it in his mind, he can't imagine anyone, even Kyoutani, not being able to figure out exactly what Yahaba had been thinking about in that moment. And if Kyoutani knows he has a crush on him, that means, that means-

I don't think we should hang out anymore, Nagao had texted. Hadn't even managed to say it to his face, hadn't managed to say anything to his face, and that had hurt, had hurt enough that somewhere along the way Yahaba had managed to wring up some manner of anger on his own behalf like Watari was always saying he ought to, and he doesn't think Kyoutani would ever be that cowardly, to not say it in person, at least, but if he felt that way-

They were supposed to be on the same team-

A team that needs them to be able to work together-

Kyoutani might leave again, he'd done it before-

But because of him-

Who was supposed to be the captain, who has supposed to be the one everyone could rely on-

A team that had given him everything-

That had decided to stand behind him, even if he wasn't the strongest or the most talented, had decided to believe in him, believe he could lead them to victory-

And he might have destroyed all of it.

Hw could he have been so stupid?

By the time he makes it home, Yahaba might be even more tired than if he'd actually exercised that day. He can't concentrate on his homework at all. After spending half an hour on a problem that he belatedly realizes is from last week's homework, Yahaba gives up.

He decides to go for a run, hoping that will settle his churning mind, grateful his father is gone all week for some business trip and not around to ask him what he's doing. He pulls on his running shoes and is putting on a playlist that he hopes he can play loud enough to drown out any unwanted thoughts when his phone rings.

The name on the caller ID gives him pause.

"Oikawa-san?" he says as he picks up. Oikawa usually doesn't call him if they haven't been texting first.

"…Yahaba," Oikawa says and even with the technological distortion Yahaba can tell something is wrong. "I told him. I told Iwa-chan."

"Oh," Yahaba breathes. If Oikawa is calling him, sounding like this, he doesn't need to ask how it went. "Are you… okay?"

"I'm on a train home," Oikawa says. "I was… I was wondering if you…"

"I'm on my way," Yahaba says and changes course for the train station.

---

Oikawa looks half-dead on his feet when Yahaba meets him at the train station. He doesn't say anything as Yahaba fusses over him, making him eat some food before bringing him back to Yahaba's home. Yahaba's mother, who remembers Oikawa as Yahaba's charming captain who helped her baby boy come out of his shy little shell, is more than happy to let him stay over, so Yahaba bundles him into soft clothes and surrounds him with blankets and as much sweet food as he can find.

"Do you want to talk about it?" he asks tentatively as Oikawa unwraps a gummy candy shaped like a fish and bites its head off listlessly. "Um, it's not that I mind- you can stay here as long as you want, but is there a particular reason you aren't going to your house?"

"Iwa-chan probably already called there," Oikawa says. "My parents would definitely tell him and then he'd come and I just… I can't do that. Not yet."

So that means their friendship isn't over, at least, Yahaba thinks and breathes an internal sigh of relief. "Okay," he says as gently as he can manage. "Do you want some hot chocolate?"

Oikawa nods and Yahaba goes to the kitchen to make some, trying to think of what to do that could help and coming up blank. He settles for giving Oikawa the hot chocolate and settling down beside him, quietly trying to do homework while Oikawa sits staring into his mug. When it gets late enough, he sets Oikawa up in the bathroom with a toothbrush, then puts down the futon. He lets Oikawa have the bed.

"He really did have no idea," Oikawa says into the darkness after Yahaba's turned off the lights, as subdued as Yahaba has ever heard him, even counting all the times they'd lost. "What an idiot." Yahaba isn't sure if he's talking about Iwaizumi or himself.

"I'm sorry," Yahaba says. "Did he… did he say anything?"

"He didn't need to," Oikawa says.

"I'm sorry," Yahaba says again.

"Yeah," Oikawa says, voice choked. "Me too."

---

Oikawa makes him promise not tell anyone on the team that he's staying with Yahaba, for the same reason he doesn't want his parents to know. Yahaba doesn't really disagree with him, as he's sure Kindaichi would tell Iwaizumi anything he asked in a heartbeat. Still, Oikawa forcing him to promise and double promise and triple promise makes him miss his train, which in turn makes him late for morning practice.

He usually early, so the coaches don't yell at him the way they would Kyoutani or Kunimi, but Watari keeps shooting him worried looks he tries to ignore. He jumps into drilling with the first years, giving Watari and Kyoutani practice on receive formations together. With Watari babysitting Kyoutani, Yahaba figures he'll be too busy to poke at Yahaba. His plan works and he's able to escape from practice without any questioning.

Lunch will be tricky, he knows. He's leaving his classroom, trying to decide if it would be too suspicious to drop in on the second years under the excuse of making sure Kindaichi is eating enough for his most recent growth spurt, when he's grabbed by Kyoutani.

"Let go!" he snaps as Kyoutani drags him to a deserted hallway. "What's your problem?"

"What's your problem?" Kyoutani says, though he drops Yahaba's arm and steps away. "Stop avoiding me!"

"I'm not avoiding you," Yahaba says, which is almost kind of true, because he'd forgotten that he was supposed to be avoiding Kyoutani. With looking after Oikawa, all of his own problems had flown out of his mind.

Kyoutani doesn't look impressed. He continues to glare up at Yahaba, eyes steely. "Don't fucking avoid me," he says. "You're the one who gave me the whole fucking speech on teamwork so just, whatever it is, just forget it, and stop avoiding me, okay?"

"Okay," Yahaba says, raising his hands as his mind reels. "Okay."

"Good," Kyoutani says and turns away, leaving Yahaba to follow him out to their usual lunch spot as he tries to figure out exactly what he just agreed to.

---

He's on his train home when he gets a call from Iwaizumi. He answers it, knowing it would be suspicious if he didn't pick up. Iwaizumi probably chose this time because he knows that practice would be over and Yahaba would be free.

"Iwaizumi-san," he says as he picks up. "It's unusual for you to call."

"Yeah," Iwaizumi says. Yahaba doesn't know Iwaizumi as well as he does Oikawa, but he thinks his voice sounds strained. Then, because Iwaizumi is nothing if not polite, "I hope you're doing well."

"I am, thank you," Yahaba says.

"I was wondering if you'd heard from Oikawa?" Now Yahaba is sure Iwaizumi sounds off, tense in a way he hasn't heard before.

"I talked to him last week about who to speak to for practice matches," Yahaba says. That was the last time he spoke to Oikawa before he'd gotten the call the night before.

"Oh," Iwaizumi says. "Hey, um, if you hear from him, can you let me know?"

Hmm, how would he react if he didn't know what was going on? "Is everything alright, Iwaizumi-san?"

"Everything is, it's…" Iwaizumi's sigh is turned into a hiss by the static of their connection. "Just, if you hear from him, can you tell him I need to talk to him?"

"Of course," Yahaba says though he's not nearly so sure if it is a good idea to pass on that message. In the end, though, he figures it isn't his call to make and tells Oikawa when he gets home. Oikawa says nothing in response, though he accepts the milkbread Yahaba bought him at the train station and tears into it right away. Yahaba thinks he'll have to remember to pick up more sweets when he has a chance after school. It's obvious Oikawa needs them.

---

By Friday, it's clear that something needs to change. Oikawa may be in mourning, but he is also a hyperactive eighteen year old used to spending several hours a day on intensive volleyball practice, and hiding out in Yahaba's room for almost a week has left him bored. While Yahaba is at school, practice, and work, Oikawa not only takes care of the homework he's gotten his professors to let him make up online by vigorous application of his charm via telephone, but also watches all of Yahaba's DVDs, reorganizes said DVDs to be in the order of his taste preferences, reorganizes Yahaba's closet by the same metric, shamelessly flirts with Yahaba's mother until she's calling him Tooru-kun, and fouls up the kitchen with all sorts of attempted baking projects because apparently no amount of bought sweets are enough.

Frankly, it's enough to make Yahaba scream and as hard as he tries, he knows his teammates have picked up that something is going on with him. The fact that there's almost no way they'd guess that he's helping Oikawa hide out in his room like some love confession fugitive is little consolation because without that context, he's aware his behavior just looks fucking weird.

He manages not to show up late again but it's close, he turns down invitations to hang out after school, he's always checking his phone in case Oikawa has texted him with some minor emergency, he's distracted during class and lunch. Kyoutani keeps glaring at him and Watari sends him these concerned, confused looks, open invitations to talk if only he had something he was allowed to talk about.

At least things with Kyoutani have gone back to normal for the most part. Yahaba's taunts are perhaps a touch slower and Kyoutani seems to be avoiding looking at him for too long all at once, but he hasn't made any move to quit the team, still comes to lunch with him and Watari, still makes fun of Yahaba and grunts or snorts when Yahaba makes fun of him back. It would be a relief if Yahaba could take the time to think about it, but he's too concerned with Oikawa to focus on anything else for more than a few minutes.

The only time he's not distracted is during practice, where years of experience clearing his mind to focus on the game comes in handy. Everything else melts away, all his concerns about Oikawa, Iwaizumi, the state of his kitchen and the relative safety of his music library all drift to the back of his mind so he can immerse himself in the task at hand.

That's what finally gives him an idea of what he can do to help. It's not a perfect idea - it means going against one of the few specific things that Oikawa has asked of him - but after careful consideration, he decides the pros outweigh the cons.

He'll need help to pull it off. Getting Kyoutani and Watari involved is easy. All he has to do is say that he has a volleyball-related problem and they should meet him that Sunday at their gym, adding that they should keep it quiet for now. The second part of his plan is a little more tricky. He needs two more people, but he isn't as sure about the secret keeping abilities of the other team members.

In the end, he takes a chance and calls Hanamaki and Matsukawa. Unlike Iwaizumi and Oikawa, they had stayed local after graduation, living together in an apartment not too far off from Yahaba's train line. They've come to help with practices a time or two before, so Yahaba could have gotten them there on that excuse, but the idea of trying to lie so boldly to either one of them gives him the shivers.

"Oikawa-san is here and needs to do something to get his mind off of things," he tells Hanamaki.

"Oikawa is with you?" Hanamaki asks.

"That's right," Yahaba says.

"Iwaizumi's been looking for him, you know," Hanamaki remarks conversationally. "He mentioned that he asked you and you said you hadn't heard from him."

"That's right," Yahaba repeats.

"I always knew Oikawa would get you in the divorce," Hanamaki says and Yahaba is glad he can't see him wince. "Do you know what they're fighting about?"

"They aren't fighting, exactly. Anyway, I think playing volleyball will help Oikawa-san, so I'm trying to put together a 3-on-3 game. Would you and Matsukawa-san be able to come play?"

"Lemme check," Hanamaki says and there's a few moments of muffled conversation. "Sure," he says. "We love kicking Oikawa's ass back into gear."

Finally, it's Sunday morning and all he has left to do is get Oikawa to the gym. He waits until Oikawa has finished eating breakfast while watching some documentary on Yahaba's computer and has started making considering glances at Yahaba's bookshelves like he's preparing to reorganize them. Then Yahaba strikes, tossing some extra practice clothes at Oikawa's head.

"Get changed," he says, holding up the key to the gym. "You're going to help me with my serve."

Oikawa makes a face. "I don't know if I really feel up to that right now."

"Too bad," Yahaba says, putting on his toughest captain face. "The Interhigh is coming up and if we're going to crush Karasuno and Shiratorizawa, we need every weapon possible."

Oikawa turns the shirt over in his hands, still looking undecided.

"Don't you want to see the look on Kageyama's face when he can't receive the serve you taught me how to do?" Yahaba wheedles, appealing to Oikawa's petty side. "Please, Oikawa-san… It's going to be a battle of your two setter kouhai, don't you want me to win?"

"I do really want you to destroy him," Oikawa admits. "Fine, fine, I guess I can help you for a little bit. But when you win, you have to tell Tobio it's because of my wonderful mentor abilities, understand?"

Despite his protests, Oikawa is clearly excited on the train ride over. He has his hood pulled up and thick sunglasses on to hide his identity from Iwa-chan's spies, Yahaba, obviously, making Yahaba a little embarrassed to be sitting next to him, but he wriggles in his seat happily and has a bounce in his step as they make it through the deserted school grounds to the gym. The others are already there, hanging out by the steps as they wait.

Oikawa tries to run as soon as he sees them, only for Hanamaki to catch him.

"You tricked me," he says, struggling against Hanamaki's hold. He takes a longer look at the gathered players. "Is this some kind of intervention?"

"This isn't an intervention, this is a 3-on-3 game," Yahaba says. "And it's for your own good. Think of it as me returning the favor from my first year."

"Which way should we divide up teams?" Watari says, apparently taking everything that had just happened in stride. Kyoutani doesn't look nearly so calm, he's practically beaming confusion at Yahaba. "Third years versus alumni?"

"No way," Hanamaki says. "We were promised a chance to beat Oikawa. We'll take Yahaba as our side's setter."

"Yahaba and I need to work on our coordination," Kyoutani says, glare ratcheting up a few levels on the intimidation scale. "So we need to be playing on the same team."

Yahaba smiles at that despite himself. "Let's choose randomly," he says.

In the end, Kyoutani gets his wish. He, Yahaba and Hanamaki make up one team while Oikawa, Watari and Matsukawa make up the other. They don't have anyone to keep score for them, so they have to flip the boards themselves, and no referee to help with tough calls, but that's alright.

"It's too bad we're on the same side, really," Yahaba says quietly to Kyoutani as Oikawa's team squabbles over who should serve first. "We could have restarted our competition from before, finally broken the tie." It's a bit risky, he knows, to bring up the day of the festival, but-

"Don't be stupid," Kyoutani says immediately. "I would obviously win."

Yahaba purses his lips. "You really think so, do you?"

"Of course," Kyoutani says, cracking his knuckles in a way Yahaba is positive he's told him is disgusting. "I'm the ace, after all."

"Well then, ace," Yahaba says, widening his eyes and smiling sweetly. "I'm sure you wouldn't mind running a little side competition of our own, would you?"

Kyoutani narrows his eyes and leans in. "Like what? Obviously you can't plan to score more points than me. You're a setter."

"I'm a setter?" Yahaba says with pretend amazement. "Thanks for clearing that up for me, Kyoutani, I was never sure. "

"Shut up and tell me what you have in mind, asshole," Kyoutani says.

"Which is it, shut up or tell you?" Yahaba asks.

"You fu- tell me." Now Kyoutani's ears have turned that lovely pink shade Yahaba likes so much.

He ducks his head to hide his smirk. "Mm, I was thinking we could compete over receiving Oikawa's serves," he says. "It's okay for me to receive, since Hanamaki-san has a pretty good toss. Whoever makes a clean receive of more of his serves wins. Sending it back as a free ball doesn't count."

"What does the winner get?" Kyoutani says. "We never came up with something last week."

Yahaba blinks. "You're right," he says and tries to think of something they could compete over. Maybe he could offer to convince Hanamaki to arm wrestle Kyoutani if he won?

"How about the same thing as before?" Kyoutani says, looking away. "Whoever wins can ask a question and the other one has to answer it honestly."

Yahaba stares at Kyoutani for a second. "Sure," he says. "I don't see why not."

"If you two are done flirting," Hanamaki says, making them both jump. "Can we start the match?"

"O-of course," Yahaba says and goes to his point in the receive formation. He's sure if he had even an iota less self control, his face would be as red as Kyoutani's seems to be. He takes a long, slow breath to steady himself, push any thoughts on how mortifying it is to be called out on flirting with his probably straight crush by his snarkiest upperclassman, focus only on preparing to receive Matsukawa's serve.

By the time they take a time out after the first set to drink water and wipe their faces, Yahaba is sure his plan is working. Oikawa is livelier than he's been since he arrived on Monday, eyes more focused and a flush on his cheeks. Hanamaki and Matsukawa are a big help, poking at him until he can't help but react as he normally would, getting him to laugh and joke in a way Yahaba couldn't manage to do, but it's really the game that seems to be working the most magic.

"We're out of water," Matsukawa says. "And no first years to order to get us more…"

"I'll refill them," Yahaba says. "I'm the one who brought everyone here, after all."

"I'll come with you," Oikawa says.

Yahaba eyes him skeptically. "If you try to run again, I'll trip you," he warns.

"So untrusting!" Oikawa says and follows him out. He waits until they've gotten to the fountain before he speaks again. "You and Mad Dog-chan certainly seem to be working together well."

"Oikawa-san," Yahaba says warningly, beginning to fill the bottles up.

"I saw you flirting with him earlier," Oikawa says. "I never realized you could be so bold and obvious about it, Yahaba! I'm impressed!"

"Oikawa-san," Yahaba hisses. "People can- he- can't we talk about this later?" Like when we are home and he can't potentially overhear us?

Oikawa sighs. "Okaaaaaay," he says, drawing the word out. He leans in to whisper in Yahaba's ear, "He was flirting back, though." He laughs and jumps back, clearly enjoying Yahaba's attempts to keep control over his expression.

"You must be feeling better if you are teasing me," Yahaba says, trying to ignore the content of said teasing for now.

"I am," Oikawa says and rubs the back of his head. "I guess I just… I was sort of running away, wasn't I? From all of it."

"It's understandable," Yahaba says. "But, well, yeah. You can't live in my bedroom for the rest of your life, Oikawa-san. For one thing, I would murder you."

"Scary," Oikawa says. He takes the water bottles they've filled and heads back in.

Yahaba watches him go and has a moment of indecision. Oikawa's doing better, but it still isn't enough. He can't figure out what would be enough. Only one person probably could.

He pulls his phone out and sends a new text to Iwaizumi.

If you could say anything to Oikawa-san now, do you know what you would say?

He gets an answer almost immediately. Iwaizumi's text is short, desperate.

Have you heard from him???

Please answer my question, Iwaizumi-san, Yahaba writes back. I'm going to be busy for a while, so take your time. He shuts off his phone and heads back in.

---

They play for hours. Since its not an official game of any kind, or even an official practice, there's nothing to stop them from asking to go again. It's actually a good thing to test their stamina, Yahaba reminds himself as he rubs an aching arm. They'll be going in to training camp soon, and playing almost constantly. Though it's unlikely that there will be anyone at training camp who can rival Oikawa-san's serve for being hell on the receiver's arms.

They finally decide to break for good well past noon and lie panting on the gym floor.

"I need food," Watari says, putting a hand over his eyes. "University-level play is really terrifying, isn't it?"

"You did well," Matsukawa says. "All three of you."

"I'm so proud I could cry," Oikawa says. "Or maybe that's the pain from when Mag Dog-chan spiked right into my face?"

"Which of us won?" Kyoutani asks Yahaba. "I lost count in the last few sets."

Yahaba, the only one other than Hanamaki to still be sitting, looks down at Kyoutani next to him and pauses in stretching out his fingers. "I don't know," he admits. "I was never keeping count."

Kyoutani sits up, suddenly furious. "What? Why would you propose a competition and then not even-"

"I wanted you to be playing full force on receives from the beginning," Yahaba says. "We'll be going into the Interhigh soon and the underclassmen will be relying on us for defense. If you're able to receive Oikawa-san's serves that well, you should be able to handle whatever gets thrown at us there."

"You manipulative piece of shit," Kyoutani says, though he doesn't actually sound angry. Maybe he's just too tired to get truly fired up, but Yahaba thinks he sounds almost amused. "I can't fucking believe you."

"Well, it worked, didn't it?" Yahaba says. He had also wanted Oikawa to feel pressured by Kyoutani, so he'd be sure to concentrate on the match, but he decides not to mention that for now. "And I figured you would keep track, anyway."

"What are you two talking about?" Watari asks.

"They were running a side competition," Hanamaki explains. "I overheard them setting it up. Something about who could receive more of Oikawa's serves properly." He shakes his head. "Kids these days. I would never make a bet related to Oikawa's serves."

"So immature," Matsukawa agrees. "That reminds me, we should all get ramen together again sometime soon."

"I just want to know who won," Kyoutani says sullenly.

"Well, if it's just my serves, I can tell you," Oikawa says. "I always pay attention to stuff like that!" He raises a finger and wags it at them. "Both of you did pretty well, though I noticed several areas you could improve on that I'll be discussing with Yahaba later-"

"Get to the point," Kyoutani says.

"Get to the point, please," Yahaba amends for him, because Oikawa did used to be the captain.

"No sense of dramatic timing," Oikawa says sadly. "Fine, fine. It was close, but Mad Dog-chan received three more of my serves than Yahaba did!"

"Hah!" Kyoutani says.

"I want a rematch," Yahaba says instantly.

"I thought you didn't care who won," Kyoutani says.

"Just because I had an ulterior motive doesn't mean I don't care," Yahaba says, wiping sweaty bangs off his forehead.

"So what did Kyoutani win?" Matsukawa asks.

Yahaba is about to answer when he glances over at Kyoutani and stops. Something about the way Kyoutani is looking down makes him think twice about telling everyone what they were actually wagering. "Bragging rights," he says in a light tone, suddenly concerned about what Kyoutani might be planning to ask him.

Hanamaki slaps Kyoutani on the back. "See, you still have room to grow, kid. You have to extort your captain into buying you things, not just getting a sense of superiority over him. You should already have that!'

"Don't listen to him, Mad Dog-chan," Oikawa says. "People who don't treat their captains with love and respect are just small and jealous types!"

"Leave me out of this," Kyoutani says.

"I'm still hungry," Watari says. "We should go get food somewhere."

They end up deciding to go to the food court at the nearby mall. On such a nice weekend, it's busy with groups of friends and couples on dates, so their group doesn't stand out much as they grab food and sit at one of the outside tables.

Yahaba turns his phone back on as they eat. When he sees the number of messages, he can't help but raise his eyebrows.

"I'll be right back," he says and steps away, turning a corner so he can read Iwaizumi's messages without having to worry about his expression in front of the others.

(1) You do know where he is

(2) Please tell me where he is Yahaba its really important

(3) Is he in Miyagi with you???

(4) You werent kidding were you

(5) Did you know? I guess you did

(6) I don't know what Id say. I dont know what the right thing to say would be

(7) Hes my best friend

(8) That doesnt seem like enough

(9) Im coming to Miyagi

(10) I need to talk to him

(11) I need to know hes ok

(12) Its all so confusing

Yahaba stops reading the messages there, though there are dozens left in his inbox. He leans against a pillar and hits the call button.

"Tooru?" Iwaizumi's voice is thick with hope as he picks up.

"Just me," Yahaba says. "Iwaizumi-san, I didn't say you had to tell me what you'd say to him. It's not really my business. I just want to know if you know what you want to say to him."

He can hear soft sounds that he recognizes as the announcements on a train as Iwaizumi is silent for a moment. From what Yahaba can make out, he's not far off. "I… I do, yeah."

"Alright," Yahaba says. "And… as Oikawa-san' s friend, do you think I should tell you where he is?"

This time he doesn't hesitate. "Yes," Iwaizumi says.

"We're at the mall closest to Aobajousai," Yahaba says. "In the food court by the South entrance."

"I'll be there soon," Iwaizumi says.

"Don't make me regret telling you," Yahaba says and hangs up. He heads back to the group, smile fixed in place and quickly slips back in to their conversation on a recent scandal about a pro volleyball player.

"What's up with you?" Kyoutani asks him quietly, jabbing him with his knee under the table.

"Is that your reward question?" Yahaba asks just as quietly.

"No, dick, it's just a normal question," Kyoutani says. "You really go out of your way to be impossible, don't you?"

"Only when it comes to you," Yahaba says and, okay, he guesses he can't really claim Oikawa had nothing backing up his claim that his flirting is kind of obvious at this point. But Kyoutani doesn't really seem to mind, and Oikawa had said he was flirting back, and Oikawa usually wasn't wrong about these kind of things.

Yahaba decides to take a chance for once and jabs Kyoutani back with his own knee, only instead of pulling away, he just… leaves it there.

"Gross," Kyoutani huffs. But he doesn't pull away either.

Time stretches on and Yahaba is starting to worry that Iwaizumi won't show up before people start talking about leaving when Oikawa looks up in the middle of a story and freezes. His eyes go doe-wide and face pale.

"Iwa-chan," he says softly.

"H-hey," Iwaizumi says. He's standing a few meters away, a duffel bag in hand and too-big jacket falling off his shoulder, his expression about as wretched as Oikawa's had looked just that morning, maybe even worse.

"Wow, I suddenly remembered that thing I need to be doing," Hanamaki remarks to the sudden silence. "Right, guys?"

"Yup, that thing," Matsukawa says, getting up. "Let's get right on that."

"Uh-huh," Watari says and makes a break for it.

"What?" Kyoutani asks with a frown. "What's going on?"

"C'mon," Yahaba says, getting up and pulling on Kyoutani's arm. Remembering that Kyoutani doesn't like crowds, he leads him out of the mall and down a few streets until they are at a park, now deserted with the sun going down. He sits on one of the stone slab benches, the backless type made more to look pretty than feel comfortable, drawing up his knees to sit cross-legged.

Kyoutani sits down next to him, a little closer than he has to given the size of the stone. "Any chance you'll explain what the hell is going on to me?"

"Ask me again when I know how their conversation went," Yahaba says. He rubs his eyes and sighs, suddenly feeling very tired. "I hope I did the right thing… I just needed Oikawa-san out of my house."

"Oikawa was in your house?" Kyoutani says, forehead crumpling as he traces patterns over the rough stone.

"It's a long story," Yahaba says. He lightly pokes at Kyoutani's thigh with his foot. "You still haven't asked your question. You worked so hard for it, you shouldn't let your prize go to waste."

Kyoutani goes still for a moment before his fingers resume their movement over the bench. He stays quiet, frown deepening, and when Yahaba leans in to see him better in the softening light, he realizes Kyoutani is wearing the particular expression of stubborn annoyance that actually means he's nervous.

"Hey, no need to look so serious about it," Yahaba says, a curl of strange, sweet anxiety shuddering through him. "It's not like I'm in the habit of lying to you constantly and this is your only chance to make me answer honestly, you know."

Kyoutani snorts at that but looks up, eyes meeting Yahaba's, close enough that Yahaba can see the shadows his eyelashes cast on his cheeks. "Is it true that you were flirting with me?"

Yahaba swallows, reigns in his natural instinct to pull back. "Yes," he says quietly. "I was."

Kyoutani takes a moment. He doesn't pull back, either. "You do that a lot," he says, somewhere between a statement and a question.

"Yes," he says. "I do."

"You have for a while," Kyoutani says and this time it's definitely a statement. "Why?"

"At first it was to annoy you," Yahaba admits, because, hey, honesty.

Kyoutani doesn't look surprised by that. "And now?" he asks when Yahaba goes quiet.

"Do you mind it?" Yahaba asks, because having a clue about what Kyoutani is aiming for in this conversation would be a great help, and Yahaba is wary of trusting his instincts when his heart is pounding so hard in his chest and his mouth has gone so dry.

Kyoutani doesn't answer, just waits. When had he become the patient one?

"I still do it to annoy you sometimes," Yahaba says, trying to speak as slowly as he can to maintain some illusion of control. Still, he can't help but turn away, neck warming, as he says, "You're cute when you're annoyed."

Kyoutani's exhale is loud against the cooling night air and Yahaba's fingers clench against his knees as he desperately, desperately tries not to draw parallels between this and the last time he told someone he liked them.

"You think I'm cute," Kyoutani says, like he's not sure he understands.

"When you're annoyed," Yahaba says and bites his lip because if he's going to do this, he shouldn't be disingenuous about it. "And other times. Most of the time. All of the time."

"Oh," Kyoutani says. "That's…" He trails off, the silence twisting tight and cold around Yahaba, making him want to shake.

"Can you finish that thought maybe?" he asks and can't help the hard edge in his voice. "Before I throw up?"

"What?" Kyoutani says and has the gall to sound more shocked in that one word than he has the whole rest of the conversation. "Why would you do that?"

Yahaba gapes at Kyoutani, forgetting that he didn't want to look at him. "Because?" he says, voice high. "I just told you I have a crush on you and you might- you might get angry, or be disgusted, or quit the team, or avoid me, or-"

There's a flurry of motion and a burst of pain on Yahaba's right cheek, sending him reeling backwards and he thinks Kyoutani has headbutted him for a moment before he realizes no, Kyoutani just tried to kiss him-

And really, really misjudged the angle, apparently, because Yahaba's cheek will definitely have a bruise on it tomorrow and he's falling off the stupid backless bench. He grabs at Kyoutani to try to catch himself but only succeeds in pulling Kyoutani down with him. They fall in an extremely undignified pile of joints and limbs, though Kyoutani does manage to catch himself on his forearms so he doesn't crush Yahaba beneath him.

"Uh," Kyoutani says as he stares down at Yahaba, face completely red.

"Well, this is off to an excellent start," Yahaba says and grabs the front of Kyoutani's shirt so he can wrench him down into a proper kiss. Kyoutani is tense against him at first, but when Yahaba presses up more insistently he responds, lips opening as a soft gasp ghosts across Yahaba's mouth.

Yahaba can't decide if he wants to try to go slowly or quickly or what, but Kyoutani makes the decision for him, deepening the kiss with tiny frustrated sound that would make Yahaba giggle at how cute it was if it didn't seem so hot to him right now. Yahaba's more than willing to match his pace, loosing his hold on Kyoutani's shirt so he can reach up and tug on the hair at the back of his neck, yanking Kyoutani down even as he pushes his body up against him, scraping his teeth against Kyoutani's lower lip the way he's been dreaming of doing for months, loving how he can feel the reverberations of the groan that earns him.

Kyoutani eventually pulls away, panting. He offers Yahaba a hand to help him sit up, though neither moves to get back on the bench.

"So," Yahaba says. "I win that one, then."

Kyoutani glares at him. "What?"

"Our first kiss," Yahaba explains patiently. "I won it."

"You can't win at kissing," Kyoutani says.

"You hit me in the face," Yahaba says, poking his cheek where it still is tender. "I'm pretty sure that means I win."

"I want a rematch," Kyoutani says instantly.

"Are you asking me out, Kyoutani?" Yahaba asks in what he might as well admit is his most flirtatiously annoying manner.

"Why are you making it sound like an insult when that's clearly what I'm trying to do?" Kyoutani snaps.

Yahaba grins and shrugs. "I told you," he says. "You're cute when you're annoyed."

"You have twigs in your hair," Kyoutani tells him. "You look ridiculous."

"You probably think I look adorable," Yahaba says even as he hurries to brush his fingers through his hair to clean it. "You probably think I'm the most adorable person you've ever seen."

"You're the most annoying person I've ever seen," Kyoutani says and kisses him again, just as deeply but more confidently, sucking gently on Yahaba's lip as he pulls away and surprising Yahaba into making the most embarrassing noise he's ever uttered where someone else could hear him.

"I won that one, right?" Kyoutani asks as he pulls away, breathing heavily.

"Yeah," Yahaba says, trying to figure out where he left his usual composure. "You- yeah. Yup. Definitely, yes."

"You like kissing me," Kyoutani says and Yahaba thinks he's chosen a very weird moment to brag when he sees the confusion in Kyoutani's eyes.

"Yes," he says.

"You like me."

"Yes, Kyoutani, obviously I-"

"Then why did you run away?" Kyoutani asks, vexation clawing its way into his voice. "On the night of the festival, I thought we were- but then you left and were avoiding me and I thought I got it wrong but now- you're so confusing!"

"I don't mean to be," Yahaba says, licking his lips. "I just… I got scared. Like I said before, I thought you might be upset or not want to be around me anymore or, or something like that."

"Why would you think that?" Kyoutani asks.

Yahaba looks down. "Other people-"

"Fuck 'other people', then," Kyoutani says and grabs Yahaba's arm, hard enough that it almost hurts, and, bizarrely, it makes him think back to the first time they'd met, when Yahaba had grabbed Kyoutani almost the same way. He looks up. "I've never been like other people, and neither have you, so just, don't compare us to them, alright? Just be you. Can you do that?"

Yahaba blinks at him and looks down at Kyoutani's hand on his arm. He tugs lightly until Kyoutani loosens his grip enough that Yahaba can slide his arm back, Kyoutani's fingers running down his skin to his palm.

"Yeah," Yahaba says as he tangles their fingers together and leans in to rest his forehead against Kyoutani's, closing his eyes and breathing in the dizzying, comforting smell of his skin. "I think I can manage that."

---

Three weeks later, Yahaba is overseeing practice when a sudden outbreak of excited babble makes him turn around. Oikawa and Iwaizumi are standing at the gym entrance, Oikawa waving excitedly with the hand thats not firmly entwined with Iwaizumi's. His grin is an extra gigawatt more intense than usual, just as it has been ever since Yahaba and Kyoutani made their way back to the food court to find the two of them clasping hands and staring deeply into each others eyes in a display so incredibly romantic that Kyoutani said it made him want to dump a soda over their heads.

"Yahoo, Yahaba!" Oikawa calls as Yahaba makes his way over. "Surprised to see us?"

"Not really," Yahaba says. They had been in town for a few days for the first birthday of Oikawa's newest nephew. They'd said they wouldn't have time to make it to the team's practice before their train left, but Yahaba knows that Oikawa wouldn't let a last opportunity to see the team off before the Interhigh go to waste.

"Everyone's looking really good," Iwaizumi says, nodding at different team members around the gym. He spots Kindaichi looking over with barely contained excitement and chuckles, extracting his hand from Oikawa's grip. "I should go say hi," he says apologetically and with a momentary blushing glance at Yahaba, he leans in and kisses Oikawa's cheek before jogging over.

"Aw," Yahaba says.

"Don't aw at me," Oikawa says, still wearing a shit-eating grin. "I haven't forgiven you for interfering yet."

"Of course you have," Yahaba says. "You're disgustingly happy now."

"It's true," Oikawa says and slings an arm around Yahaba as he glances around. "So, captain," he says, squeezing Yahaba's shoulders. "The Interhigh is just around the corner. Your first chance to lead the team. Are you going to make me proud?"

Yahaba surveys the team. The new regulars, all finally getting comfortable in their positions, are doing defensive drills, their sweat gleaming under the gym lights. Kindaichi bounces on the balls of his feet as he explains a new spiking formation they've been working on to Iwaizumi as Kunimi nods along, turning a ball over in his hands. Watari, steady and sure, is setting to Kyoutani. He catches Yahaba watching and winks before getting back to business.

Kyoutani doesn't look over, too intent on the drill he's working on to notice any distractions. He's been like this the last several practices, infectious intensity spreading to the rest of the team, making them all play harder than ever in preparation for the tournament ahead. Kyoutani would snort and say that everyone should have been working like that anyway, but Yahaba knows the difference having a dependable ace can make to anyone feeling unsure of their own abilities. He knows for all of Kyoutani's talk, he'll be that dependable ace, for the team, and for him.

They're a good team. The best team, maybe, and Yahaba is willing to fight to the end proving that.

He turns back to Oikawa with a smile. "Yes," he says. "I'm sure of it."