Kenma knows some people within the club might expect him to hand over his resignation form the very same day classes start for him as a newly minted third year with Kuroo gone, a Todai freshman now instead of the loud, smirking third year captain dragging the team around everywhere.
A part of himself expects to do it too, to fill up the form and leave it on their advisor’s desk while he’s out getting coffee from the old machine down by the west door and be done with it and settle for a quiet third year.
It’s the part of him that makes him strangely maudlin when he’s done with games and when Kuroo texts him from his dorm and sends him pics of his day and he spends a few minutes zooming in his smile and just staring, the part that aches.
Kenma doesn’t hate that part of himself, but he’s grown to second guess it sometimes, so he goes as far as getting the form. He gets it on his last formal day as a second year, with Kuroo still walking the hallways with the rest of the third years, thinking that he’s going to think about it.
In the end the decision is not hard, and not in the way he might’ve expected.
One day Kuroo sends him a blurry pic of a cat outside the Todai building with some attached mild complaining about the campus that Kenma can easily dissect to reach the core of excitement and slight nervousness.
He looks at the shitty, blurry picture, the dark dashing blob with a tail in the center with Kuroo’s sneakers peeking in at the bottom and thumbs through his phone to save it. It lands next to a picture of the Nekoma team, snapped on their second to last morning practice.
It brings a faint smile to his face and a certain warmth: they are all kind of piled up on one another, Kenma to the side, slightly leaning on Inuoka, and they are all asleep under a patch of sunlight beneath one of the gym’s windows.
Well, everyone except Kuroo. He’d taken the picture on Kenma’s phone (and Kenma never questioned why he had it in the first place, because he’s not actually sure he wants to know), and then he’d squirted them all with his sports drink.
Kenma leaves his phone on his pillow and wiggles his toes towards his console, not really feeling like moving, and that’s when something flutters over his desk from a sudden gust of wind.
It’s the form. It flutters and dances over his books and then falls onto the floor.
Kenma thinks about quitting the club.
He thinks of the picture on his phone: of Yaku curled into Lev’s side, and Taketora thrown haphazardly over everyone’s legs, of Kai drooling and Inuoka’s head on top of his.
It aches in a different way than that other ache, the one he’s learned to second guess. It aches in a weird way, an almost good way. Something like the numb way his thumbs feel after finally making it through a particularly challenging bit of a game, or the way he feels raw and exhausted after texting with Shouyou for a while.
Or the way he feels after a match, when Kuroo’s high from victory and high fives him hard enough for it to sting, when everyone else rushes to them and there’s hair ruffling and hard pats on Kenma’s back.
The form flutters again on the floor. Kenma thinks about picking it up and filling it.
Until he doesn’t anymore.
He lets the form flutter around for a few hours, like a limp flightless bird and then he finally gets to his feet to pick it up, crumple it and throw it, and then when he eats dinner that night he feels strangely drained. But also light, like he’s stripped himself from something that’d been weighing him down.
His first morning practice as a third year starts with a blur of gray and red moving fast towards him on his peripheral vision the moment he sets foot inside the gym, and then a pair of lanky arms gracelessly falling over him as Lev contorts himself in all sorts of ways to properly envelop him like some sort of octopus.
“Kenma-san!” He basically screams, thankfully far away enough from his sensitive ears that it doesn’t outright hurt. Lev puts his chin over the crown of his head and Kenma sighs, “Kenma-san! I am so happy! Some of the other second years thought you would bail on us! But you didn’t! Now you can keep tossing to me.”
Kenma jabs a finger on Lev’s belly, the motion slow and soft but practiced, and Lev squeaks gratifyingly and stumbles backwards a few steps, giving Kenma a window to let him sidestep him to go put his stuff on the bench.
Inuoka catches sight of him and gives him a brilliant grin, but quickly goes back to helping Shibayama stretch, laughing at something the other boy says as he’s almost touching the floor.
Tora is off to the side of the court, with a couple of starry eyed first years gathered around him. Kenma can’t tell what they’re talking about, but the sound of Tora’s obnoxious smug laugh carries over and Kenma’s sure Tora’s head will have grown three sizes by the time they officially start practice.
He ties his shoes with a certain laziness, giving himself a moment to miss Kuroo next to him, mirroring his motions, making observations in his calm, steady voice, leaning the slightest bit against Kenma’s own body, sometimes even slumping his weight a little just to hear him say Kuro, heavy and chuckle as he lay off him and got on his feet, ready to work everyone into the ground.
He’s been done tying his sneakers for at least thirty seconds when a pair of gigantic feet come into his field of vision.
“Toss to me, Kenma-san!”
His first third year practice ends with him uncomfortably soaked in sweat and a tiny thing of a boy standing in front of him on the court while Tora loudly directs everyone else in their cleaning duties (while casually neglecting his own, Kenma notices), his big big eyes seeming to want to swallow all of Kenma up. Kenma fidgets under that heavy gaze.
“Kenma-senpai,” the boy squeaks out, and Kenma spares a few seconds of his time to feel keen sympathy for him (well, keen). It doesn’t last long, since the boy almost immediately thrusts a hand in his direction and Kenma’s body tightens up in response to the sudden movement.
The boy’s hand stays there, probably waiting for his, and Kenma blinks down at it, thinking about what course of action to follow. He gingerly shakes it, because it’ll probably lead to the least troublesome outcomes.
That earns him a dazzling grin from the other boy (Suzuki… Something? Kaito?), and even though his hand is slippery with cold sweat, Kenma doesn’t feel like grimacing.
“I’m Suzuki Kaito! Please take care of me!” The boy tightens his hold on Kenma’s hand, and Kenma feels like he should nod, so he does. “I saw you at nationals! In that game against Karasuno!”
Ah, Kenma thinks and shuffles his feet.
“You have such an excellent game sense! And your dump shots! They look so effortless,” Kaito speaks so fast that Kenma is at once both reminded of Shouyou and worried that he’ll choke on his own spit.
“Thank you,” he says, because he thinks that’s the proper response, “everyone works hard,” he adds because it’s true.
That’s apparently the right way to respond, because Kaito’s grin grows until it seems to be overtaking his face. He gives Kenma an unnecessarily deep bow and then he runs to a waiting cluster of first years, who receive him with eye rolls and back slaps and hair ruffling.
Kenma goes to help with the balls, and Shibayama gives him an encouraging smile before they both get to work in comfortable silence.
“So I’ve been told you have a little fan,” Kuroo sounds delighted, “emphasis on ‘little’. More like ‘tiny’. Like a teacup fan.”
Kenma rolls his eyes.
“You should stop getting your information from Lev. It makes you sound like an elementary school boy. One who isn’t even particularly bright. The one who eats glue.”
Kuroo snickers warmly, and Kenma feels his stomach clench viciously. He rubs his hand over his belly in a vague attempt to soothe the ache with Kuroo’s mirth in his ears.
From: Kozume Kenma
To: Hinata Shouyou
Can I ask you a private question?
From: Hinata Shouyou
To: Kozume Kenma
Subject: re: (none)
From: Kozume Kenma
To: Hinata Shouyou
Subject: re: (none)
How does having a crush feel for you?
The following day, coach Nekomata has coach Manabu round them all up after they’ve set the nets up and brought the balls out. Kenma slowly walks up to coach Nekomata, who smiles at him in a particular way, and Kenma just knows then that whatever’s about to happen is going to make his life unnecessarily harder.
Kenma is proved right as soon as Manabu herds the last of the first years (and Lev) into a semicircle around Nekomata.
“Today we are holding elections for our new captain and vice captain.”
Kenma wins the captaincy by a landslide.
He feels a surge of nausea when Nekomata peruses the tally on the whiteboard with that smile on his face and says,
He wants to say no. He wants out of this, he wants—
Someone slaps his back, hard. He almost stumbles forward, but then the arm’s sliding around his shoulders, and the arm’s owner is letting out a boisterous peal of laughter.
“C’mon, dude! Cheer up! ‘s not like you’re gonna be out there on your own! We aren’t expecting you to be Mr. Congeniality. Just keep doing your thing! Your brain and heart thing—”
“Tora, that’s embarrassing—”
“— and leave everything else to me! Your dependable vice captain!”
Tora ruffles his hair, and Kenma tries to shrink away from the rough treatment, but Tora’s stronger and faster, and all that much more determined than him.
Kenma stays with Tora’s hand on his hair and his laughter and noise in his ears; with everyone else standing around them, smiles on their faces, and he has the weird thought that maybe he can do this.
“I can’t do it.”
He’s hiding under his bedspread, lying down with his legs drawn to his chest and his toes wiggling against the soft fabric of it.
“You can,” Kuroo tells him. Kenma hears only the distant sounds of people talking, so Kuroo must already be in for the night. “Coach Nekomata wouldn’t have done this if he didn’t think you can do it. Neither would everyone else, the team cares about you.”
One of Kenma’s hands fists the fabric of his shirt, over his quivering stomach.
“...And I think you can do it, too.”
Kenma bites his lip on a long, shaky exhale. He hadn’t noticed he’d been holding his breath.
There are a lot of things he stops noticing when he’s talking to Kuroo.
He breathes in deeply and then lets the air out slowly.
“I have duties,” he says when he feels he won’t betray anything he’s feeling.
“So push them onto Yamamoto. Kai did a lot of my stuff for me.”
“You’re not a good role model, Kuro,” Kenma says, trying to sound a little chastising.
“You’re talking to a Todai student, you know?”
Kenma rolls his eyes.
“I know you’re rolling your eyes at me! How rude, Kenma!”
Kenma buries a smile onto his pillow, and in the following lull in the conversation, he imagines that Kuroo knows this and is smiling too.
(From: Hinata Shouyou
To: Kozume Kenma
Subject: re: (none)
!!!!!! it feels nice! floaty! and scary!!)
His first weeks as captain pass by quickly. He tosses to everyone, and he gives pointers on form and technique, he deals with Lev, and with Tora when he gets too fired up, and at some point he goes huh, this doesn’t feel any different from before.
Then two weeks after that realization they have a practice game with a team they’ve never played before, and a guy as tall as Karasuno’s setter sneers down at him and wonders, out loud and mean, why anyone would choose someone like him for a captain.
“And Yamamoto didn’t go off on the dude?”
“Manabu-san held onto his arm the whole time. Lev towered over him, however. He’s apparently very intimidating to people who haven’t seen him trapped inside his own shirt.”
There’s silence after that. Kenma closes his eyes, pictures Kuroo in the room with him.
“Are you okay, Kenma?”
“He didn’t say anything I haven’t heard before, Kuro.”
“That doesn’t mean it ever starts sucking any less.” Kuroo sighs into the receiver, Kenma cringes at the loudness, but doesn’t pull the phone away from his ear. “High schoolers are dicks.”
“Kuro, you were a high schooler a few months ago.”
“But I’ve clearly evolved,” Kuro jokes.
“Clearly,” Kenma agrees, drily.
Kuroo chuckles. and Kenma misses the dumb way his face contorts when he’s laughing.
Two weeks before the Interhigh preliminaries Yaku surprises them by dropping by their evening practice unannounced. Shibayama and Lev run up to him, and Kenma watches as one stands by with a face splitting grin, vibrating in place for the opportunity to get to practice with him again, and the other overwhelms him with his loud tales of what’s been going on.
Yaku listens for a while, trying to be patient with Lev’s enthusiasm, but the moment when he steps on the landmine subject of his height is evident as Yaku kicks his shin and abandons his kneeling form without paying any attention to his pitiful whining of ‘yaku-sa~~n’.
Kenma’s mouth is about to form a Yaku-san when he’s suddenly wrapped in his deceitfully skinny arms.
When he finally pulls back, there are tears shining in the corners of his eyes.
Kenma fidgets in place. He can hear the whispers of the first years, who’ve never seen Yaku other than maybe in tournaments.
“Yaku-san,” he says, and tries to manage a smile with the creeping uncomfortable sensation of all those eyes on them.
Yaku notices, because for some reason he decided to adopt Kenma as his during Kenma’s first year, and following that he’d shown himself strangely adept at reading him, and he walks into a welcoming circle of the rest of the third and second years.
Yaku watches them do their drills and offers pointers to all the new first years, paying extra attention to a hopeful thing of a boy with plasters on his legs that Kenma knows wants to be a libero someday.
Kenma hums. The sun’s warm on the crown of his head, the game on his PSP is loud and colorful.
“I’m proud of you.”
Kenma’s character dies.
Yaku snickers. Kenma tips his head back and closes his eyes.
“I’m not doing anything different,” he says, quiet.
It’s Yaku’s turn to hum, then.
“Do you feel like you need to?”
Kenma thinks about it.
“Then that’s that,” Yaku concludes, squeezing one of his shoulders.
Kenma opens his eyes. A couple of middle school kids go into the convenience store, excited about something, they shove at each other, and snicker at vague gestures the other makes; a couple on the sidewalk steal shy glances at each other, their hands aren’t quite touching, but to Kenma it’s clear as day that they want to be holding hands.
“So how’s that dirty dog lover?”
Kenma knows Kuroo and Yaku email each other occasionally, but he’s not going to be the one trying to make those two admit they’ve crossed the line from frenemies (if they’ve ever even been that) to plain old friends.
“He enjoys his classes. He wants to join the volleyball club but he’s too tired by the end of the day, so he’s waiting for the next semester. He’s kind of adopted a stray cat from around the campus.”
The middle school boys come out from the convenience store, steaming buns in both their hands; they’re still laughing. Kenma watches them walk away until they’re mere dots and then nothing at all.
Yaku’s voice is soft when he talks next.
“It’s okay to say you miss him.”
Kenma swallows his spit, and thumbs around his PSP’s menu for something to do.
“He comes home some weekends.”
“It’s still okay.”
The battery on Kenma’s PSP dies out. He stares at the screen until Yaku says they should be going home.
That night he lies on his bed and thinks Yaku knows.
He figures there should be some urgent sense of something alongside that realization.
There’s only an accompanying realization that Yaku’s probably known for longer than he himself has, and maybe he’s not as observant as he believes himself.
One week before the Interhigh preliminaries, he forgets some papers Manabu asked him to fill out on the gym.
There are no club activities scheduled that evening so he doesn’t expect to run into anyone when he goes to retrieve them, but he can tell there’s someone inside by the squeak of their sneakers, and the sound of a ball slamming against the floor as he reaches towards the door.
It’s Kaito, and as soon as he notices Kenma, he stumbles face first to the floor.
“Kenma-senpai! I mean— Kozume-senpai! Uh, captain!”
Kenma cringes at the boy, whose nose is dripping blood. The kid notices and tries to plug it, but he basically stabs himself and starts bleeding more copiously.
He picks his forgotten papers on his way to getting the first aid kit.
“I was a setter too, in middle school,” Kaito says while Kenma hands him some cotton.
Kenma knows this. He remembers what positions all the first years played. He makes a noncommittal sound, and sits down on the court next to the boy.
“But I’m not as good as you are,” Kaito goes on.
Kenma would flinch away from the words if they had any ill intent, if they’d been let out to guilt Kenma into— letting him on the first string, maybe? But there’s only honesty.
Kenma’s eyes go downwards to the floor and then up again, meeting Kaito’s briefly.
“I’m strong because the team is strong. Because everyone works hard.”
“I know. But you also have a sense as a setter that I don’t have. I’m not sure you can learn that.” He sticks a cotton wad up his left nostril and winces. “I don’t think I ever stopped to think why I wanted to be a setter.”
Kenma hums, and watches as the boy tries to stare down the bridge of his nose, eyes crossed and ridiculous.
“Do you want to try another position?”
Kaito looks upwards then.
“Maybe? I might just play every position until I find one I definitely want to stay as!”
He goes quiet. After a little while a smile spreads across his face and he turns to look at Kenma.
“There’s something I’m good at, though.”
Kaito shows him.
Kenma walks home weaving what he saw into his future strategies.
The first day of the preliminary rounds comes around faster than Kenma expected.
Tora is a ball of energy next to him as they follow coach Nekomata and coach Manabu around. The first years are wide eyed and loud in their amazement, and Kenma thinks that they’re probably going to sleep all the ride back, thankfully.
When they check their group, Kenma fails to recognize their rival team and sighs.
Tora ruffles his hair.
“We’re gonna win this!”
Kenma looks up at him, and when he’s sure he’s got Tora’s undivided attention, he speaks.
He can tell his smile looks a little bit predatory, but he can’t help himself.
Cats are natural-born predators, after all.
Nekomata’s soft peal of laughter follows him as he leads his team into their side of the court, eyes scanning the players already there, stretching. His eyes linger on a couple of them, the ones he thinks will give them trouble, and once he’s done he jabs a finger in Tora’s gut softly so he’ll get everyone into their stretches too.
“ C’mon. It’s for morale!”
“I’m the captain. I say no.”
Tora rolls his eyes at him, everyone else looks between them with amusement in their eyes.
“You know,” Shibayama starts, and he sounds quiet but determined, “I think the vice cap can overthrow a decision from the captain if he has a democratic consensus.”
Kenma glares at Shibayama.
That’s probably all kinds of lies, but he can’t call him out on it since he never actually bothered to read the rules for the club.
“Everyone for the positive?”
The only one whose hand doesn’t shoot up is Kenma. Lev looks at him with some guilt, but his hand ultimately stays up.
Even their new wing spiker (a scruffy first year called Nakamura Atsushi with a good cross and a good eye for openings) has his hand up, and Kenma isn’t even sure he knows what he’s voting for.
Tora smiles at him smugly.
Everyone’s hands converge at the center of the circle.
Kenma prepares himself.
“We are the body’s blood. Flow smoothly and circulate oxygen so the ‘brain’ functions normally.”
And so do they on the second day.
He gets a call from Kuroo on the morning of the third day.
“Come open the door for me.”
“You have your own key,” he mumbles, burrowing his face into his pillow.
“Yeah, but I forgot it at the dorm and mom’s already commuting to work so I can’t use hers.”
“How do you forget your—”
His eyes widen.
He gets out of bed and walks to his window, still holding his phone to his ear. He pulls back the curtain.
Kuroo looks up at him and waves, phone still pressed to his ear. He sees Kuroo form the words as they come through the phone, with a little distortion that makes everything all that much weirder.
“Hi there. Gonna open the door for me now?”
“Why aren’t you in your dorm? At Todai?”
“I have a perfect attendance record, I can afford to miss one class for this.”
Kenma’s hand shoots to his gut, that familiar trembling feeling he’s come to associate with Kuroo coursing through him underneath his open palm.
Kuroo’s eyes follow the motion.
He lets the curtain fall back in place.
Kuroo goes with them on the bus, and everyone is exceedingly loud about it. Kenma plays something or the other on his phone and listens to the conversations going on until he falls asleep sometime during some story about Lev and one of the new middle blockers.
Kuroo wakes him up when they’re there, Kenma’s phone safely ensconced in the front pocket of the shirt he’s wearing. Tora is rounding everyone up and reminding them to take their bags with them and check for their phones and water bottles.
Kuroo smiles at him, lopsided and happy. Kenma digs his fingers into his legs.
Kuroo is not allowed to stay with coach Nekomata and coach Manabu, so he sees them off before they go into the court and high fives everyone.
Kuroo holds onto Kenma’s hand after their high five, and looks him in the eye. Kenma’s heart beats double time. And a lot of it is Kuroo’s hand enfolding his, but there’s also something about that day, being there with this team.
“You’re gonna beat them,” Kuroo tells him, “the team’s strong, and you make good calls.” He squeezes Kenma’s hand, “I’ll be watching from the bleachers.”
Kenma nods. Kuroo smiles. It’s soft, and maybe even intimate for a second, but then it turns into his game face, all smug smirking, and he walks away.
It’s the semifinals, and they’re losing 20-21 on the third set.
Kenma looks to his left, to where Tora is heading, and when the blockers make a move towards him he prepares to take a dump shot—
—only to get it blocked.
They have figured him out.
It’s Lev’s turn to serve. He’s not particularly bad at it, but he’s not particularly good at it, either.
“There’s something I’m good at, though.”
Kenma chances a glance at the warm up area. He catches Kaito’s eyes. Kaito’s own widen, but then he stands taller.
This is risky. They haven’t tried this yet, Kenma hasn’t gotten many chances to keep working with Kaito in the past week and a half. And even if he had, it wouldn’t have been enough time.
But it could work. The other team has no idea who Kaito is, has never seen him on the court. They could pull it off—
—they could lose because of him. He could ruin this for everyone. He could—
“You make good calls.”
He imagines Kuroo’s eyes on him and takes a deep breath.
He looks at coach Nekomata, and once he gets his attention, he looks at Kaito. Nekomata nods, and calls for a member substitution.
Kaito looks shaky when he enters the court, but once he has the ball in his hands his face goes smooth.
Kenma looks forward, and waits for the squeak of Kaito’s sneakers, and the thump of his hand hitting the ball.
The ball sails over him, looking like it’ll stop just short of the net, but makes it all the way to the other side, bouncing next to the other team’s libero’s hand.
They manage to stop the other team’s momentum and score a tight win, with Kenma setting to Lev and Lev hitting a straight that blows two middle blockers like they weren’t even there.
The team tackles him and he puts up with it, even when they’re all sweaty and gross smelling and crushing him.
He looks towards the bleachers, and spots Kuroo immediately, grinning like a fool.
They lose to Itachiyama on the following match.
It dampens everyone’s moods for about as long as it takes them to realize they’re still going to the Interhigh.
He wants to take a few minutes for himself to report the news to Shouyou while everyone else is heading to the bathroom, but his phone’s not in his bag. He frowns. If he loses this phone, he’s probably not getting another one for a long while, and he needs it to—
A hand appears in front of his face, dangling his phone.
He takes the phone from him, and sends a quick email to Shouyou. Once he’s done he blocks it and puts it in the pocket of his sweatpants.
He looks up at Kuroo. The smile on Kuroo’s face is infectious, big and honest, and titillating.
“You did it.”
Kenma nods, a soft smile sliding into place on his face.
“I knew you could.”
They smile at each other like idiots, standing barely inches apart in the middle of a deserted hallway, and Kenma spares a few seconds to think about the way Kuroo has of finding him no matter where he’s gone to. His heart clenches.
Kenma beckons him into bending down to his face level. And then he kisses him. Soft, light, short.
He pulls back from the contact and looks up at Kuroo, takes in his blown pupils, his slack mouth.
You make good calls, he hears, as an echo in Kuroo’s voice, and kisses him again.
Kuroo’s hands go to his cheeks, he makes a noise that’s strangled and somewhere between a whine and a moan as he pants against Kenma’s mouth and kisses him again, again, again.
You make good calls.