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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.