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pride falls

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After a week, the pain has dulled into an ache that only makes itself known when he moves. Oikawa turns over onto his side, wincing as the motion jostles his right leg. He whimpers, pulling his knees close to his chest and wrapping his arms around himself. It’s a distinctly vulnerable position, and one he wouldn’t be caught dead in, normally. But there’s no one around to see him, now, and so shame deserts him. He hugs himself and feels the pain radiating through his body, a hot ache under his skin that leaves him feeling dizzy even after it fades.

Magic is a tempting pull, hovering just beneath the pain in his awareness. It’s a dark and comforting presence, familiar like the feeling of the rain on his face or the taste of sugar on his tongue. It’s something he knows intimately, has never been without. And yet he doesn’t reach for it, doesn’t let the shadows envelop him even when they could easily heal him.

The bed is stiff and uncomfortable, the sheets clean but lacking any distinct scent. He’s lying on top of the blankets, hair mussed over the pillow. Light steams into the room from a large window in the corner, but he turns away from it. When he shuts his eyes, he sees the glow of his own magic behind his eyelids— more shadow than light, the two intertwining in a braided pattern.

Energy runs across his skin like static electricity, shocking him into awareness. At any other time, he’d respond to his magic by letting it wash over him, shifting between forms as easily as breathing. But now, he resists that feeling. The magic continues to run over his skin, sparking painfully without an outlet.

Magic is many things. But it finds its home in memory, returning there when it has nowhere else to go.

“Fine,” Oikawa concedes, voice raspy. He imagines the braided pattern of his magic behind his eyes again, this time seeing the strands of shadow and light pull away from each other. “Show me a good memory, at least.”

Exhaustion overtakes him, and Oikawa remembers as he dreams.

It had rained all through the night, but he hadn’t considered what that would mean at the time. Now, crouched in the grass and covered in mud, he looks at the remains of his den and feels the disappointment rising in his throat.

He’d chosen this spot specifically, beneath the oldest tree in the small patch of forest. The gnarled roots made it harder to dig out space for the den, but they gave it structure and security once the work was done. He’s never shied away from hard work, had enjoyed the feeling of accomplishment that had come with finally finishing the project.

Now, it’s ruined. The rain had loosened the earth, the entrance of the den shifting into something lopsided and unrecognizable. But that isn’t the worse part— no, that’s the large rock that’s fallen over the entrance, making it impossible for him to get back into his den to fix the damage.

Fox kits don’t cry. But at the moment, he really wants to.

He’s too distracted by his thoughts— by the emotions, even more, unfamiliar and complex as they are— to hear the rustling in the grass behind him. He doesn’t even turn when someone else enters the small clearing, but he stiffens when he hears a voice.

“Oh, oh wow.” It’s a young voice, a human voice. The boy comes into view a moment later, edging around the clearing as he surveys it. He’s a little thing, still rounded with baby fat. His skin is one of the familiar colors of the earth, his spiky hair dark and windswept. He has a small net balanced against his shoulder, his free hand balanced against his hip.

It might be a trick of the sunlight, filtering down through the tree branches, but the boy looks like he’s haloed in soft light.

He’s looking right at the fox kit, kneeling down in the mud to gaze at him head on. “A fox,” the boy breathes, hazel eyes bright with excitement. “I was just looking for beetles.”

Not all of the words make sense, but the kit recognizes the net, knows what it’s used for. His body jumps into motion, finally, as he leaps back and turns abruptly, scampering away as fast as his feet will carry him.

“Hey, wait!” the boy calls behind him. “Is this your nest? What happened to it?”

He doesn’t try to comprehend the boy’s words, just keeps running. He doesn’t have a name for the emotion he feels, just knows that’s it’s more potent and confusing than the disappointment of losing his den.

He returns to the den the next day, determined to salvage it. He doesn’t expect the rock to be gone from the entrance, instead set off to the side of the tree. The earth tells the story— the rock had been dragged away, leaving a path of newly-turned dirt in its wake.

He crawls into his den, padding out the sides and fixing its shape as he goes. The ground is still damp from the rain, but he doesn’t mind the feeling of it against his fur as he curls up in the ground and wraps his tail tightly around himself. The feeling of accomplishment is back; his den is still good, useable. He hasn’t failed.

Time is an elastic and irrelevant thing to him, so he doesn’t know how much has passed while he naps in his den. He’s woken by the sound of footsteps, and then by the sharp smell of something that does not belong in the forest. He blinks open his eyes to the sight of the boy— the same boy, but dressed in different clothes, and this time without the net.

“You’re back,” the boy says, smile revealing the gaps of missing teeth. “I knew that was your house— den! I asked my dad, and he said foxes have dens, not houses. Or nests.”

The kit thinks he should run again, maybe. The boy doesn’t have a net with him, this time, but that doesn’t mean he can be trusted. He’s kneeling again, edging closer to the den with one hand extended. As he gets closer, the lines on his palm become visible— scratches and callouses, like he’s been tumbling around this forest for as long as the kit has.

“You’re pretty,” the boy is saying, now. “I like your fur— it’s like fire, or the sunset. I never knew foxes were so pretty, before.”

He leans closer, and the kit seizes his chance. He leaps out of the den and under the boy’s outstretched arm, running past him and out to the edge of the clearing.

“Hey!” the boy says, turning as his face scrunches in anger. “Don’t run away, again! I fixed your house— den for you!”

The kit hears him, but that doesn’t stop him from running.

He won’t stop visiting. Every time the kit tries to make use of his den, the little boy comes back. Sometimes, he’s wearing a t-shirt with a giant lizard printed across it. Other times, he’s in crisp white shirts that he seems to take pleasure in smearing mud all over. There are usually leaves and twigs tangled in his hair, a new scrape on one of his knees or dirt rubbed into his palms.

Mostly, he sits on the rock and talks while the kit regards him suspiciously. He’s remarkably verbose for such a young human, rattling on about the bugs he’s seen and the food he’s eaten that day, or about the things his mother and father have taught him, or about how nice the clearing is and how smart the kit is to have found it.

The kit like those times, a little. He thinks he is very smart to have charted this spot by the old tree.

“I brought snacks,” the boy says one day, pulling open his bag and setting a series of things against the ground. “I don’t know what foxes eat— I haven’t gotten that far in the book I got from the library— but I brought nuts and fruit and some cheese.”

The kit has never gotten too close to the boy, before. But the idea of food he doesn’t have to hunt himself is appealing, and so he circles slowly, getting gradually nearer to the boy.

The spread is impressive, once the boy has finished laying it out: nuts and berries and cheese, small boxes of rice and some kind of meat, and bread packaged in clear plastic. He looks up as the kit gets closer, smiling brightly.

“So?” he asks. “What do you want?”

The kit sniffs around the offerings, tail raised in the air. The berries and nuts don’t smell the way they do in the forest, and so he rejects them. He edges closer to the boxed food, but the containers are too small for him to get into. He steps back, frustrated.

“You’re picky,” the boy comments, ripping the plastic from the bread. Immediately, a sweet scent fills the air. It’s unlike anything the kit has ever smelled, before.

He doesn’t quite consider moving before he’s right next to the boy, front paws rested against his thigh as he nudges at the bread with his nose. The boy startles when the kit makes contact, his tanned skin taking on a reddish hue. But then he’s holding out the bread and grinning.

“You want this? It’s just milk bread.”

The kit nudges the bread with his nose again, considering. There’s thick white cream pressed in the middle, and he laps at it with his tongue. Sweetness spreads across his tongue, better than anything he’s ever tasted. When the boy drops the bread to the ground, the kit makes quick work of it, jaw open wide to reveal rows of sharp teeth.

“Woah,” the boy says, as he watches. “I kinda thought you were soft and tiny, like a cat. But you’re really dangerous, aren’t you?”

The kit merely looks at the boy, tail flicking through the air in annoyance. He is definitely nothing like a cat.

Something changes, after that. The boy comes around just as often, but now usually with offerings of milk bread. The kit decides that if the boy was looking to hunt him, he would’ve done so by now. So he gradually lets the boy get closer and closer, justifying to himself that he’s after the bread and not the soft touch of the boy’s hand across his back.

There’s no way to justify why he curls up in the boy’s lap while he sits on the rock, just that he feels at peace with the sun beating down on him and the boy’s soft touches against his fur.

“You like sweet things,” the boy wonders, “and you’re soft, too. Sweetheart.”

The kit doesn’t realize, the first time, that he’s been given a name.

The boy talks a lot, but he leaves out important things. The kit doesn’t know his name, or where he goes when he’s gone for a day or two at a time. He has no idea where the boy goes when he leaves the clearing.

The kit wants to speak with him, wants to tell the boy about his life the same way the boy tells him things, a constant stream of excited words. He knows he should be able to. There’s a niggling thought at the back of his mind, telling him he could speak to the boy if he wanted to. He just has to try hard enough.

The next time the boy comes back to the clearing, the kit isn’t waiting for him. The boy circles the small space, brow furrowing, packaged milk bread clutched tightly in his hand.

“Sweetheart?” he asks softly.

There’s a rustling in the trees, and the boy jumps backwards, hands poised in front of him defensively. “Who’s there?” he calls out, suspicious.

No one responds, but a second little boy steps into the clearing. His skin is much paler than the first’s, his dark auburn hair mussed over his forehead and his eyes wide and deep.

“Who’re you?” the first boy demands. “And why— why aren’t you wearing any clothes!”

The newcomer glances down at himself, then shrugs. He hadn’t really considered that part of things, when he’d changed from fox to human. He doesn’t spend enough time as a human to be seriously concerned with such things.

The first boy, his boy, is shrugging out of the sweatshirt he’s wearing and thrusting it towards him. “Here,” he says roughly, “put this on.”

The kit— the boy— complies, pulling the soft green fabric over his head. He struggles with the sleeves, until he feels a strong grip tugging at his wrists, situating the garment over him properly. It falls to just above his knees, keeping him covered and warm. He hadn’t considered how cold humans get, but that explains why they’re so concerned with clothes.

“Who are you?” his boy asks again. “What’s your name?”

Ah, he knows the answer to that question. When he opens his mouth to speak, his voice is rough, unused.

“Tooru,” he says, throat scratching uncomfortably. “Oikawa Tooru.” He has to space each syllable out carefully, afraid of losing their preciseness to rougher sounds.

“What’re you doing wandering around the forest?” His boy is scowling, arms crossed over his chest. Without the sweatshirt, he’s dressed only in sleeveless cotton and shorts. He must be cold. “How’d you get here?”

I live here, Oikawa thinks of responding. But he hadn’t gone through all of this trouble just to explain himself. There’s something he desperately wants to know.

“Name,” he says, after a long moment’s pause.

“Huh?”

“Your name,” Oikawa says, gesturing towards his boy. His brow furrows in frustration as his boy just stares at him.

Finally, something clicks. “Oh,” the boy says, scratching his head and laughing. “Hajime. Iwaizumi Hajime.”

Oikawa mulls the words over, distress rising in his chest. There are too many syllables, and he hasn’t spoken in so long. He can’t wrap his tongue around them.

“Wa,” he starts, and immediately knows he’s gotten it wrong. “Iwa— wa, wa, wa—” Somehow, his attempt dissolves into the sharp, barking sounds of a fox’s call. That’s not what he’d meant to do, at all. He’s not a fox right now, he’s a human.

He claps his hands over this mouth to stop himself, color rising in his pale cheeks. His boy is just staring at him, cheeks round and brow furrowed with concern.

“Hey, are you okay—?”

Oikawa doesn’t give him a chance to finish. He turns abruptly, hands still held over his mouth, and runs. He can hear his boy calling after him, but he keeps going, because shame is wracking his entire body. It’s unlike any emotion he’s ever felt before, and he hates it.

The next time Iwaizumi comes to the clearing, the kit is waiting for him. Iwaizumi sits on his rock and pats his lap, and the kit steps towards him slowly, carefully. He climbs dejectedly onto the rock, burying his face against Iwaizumi’s stomach. Iwaizumi tuts in concern, but within a moment his hands are stroking over the fox’s fur, calming him.

“What’s the matter?” he asks softly. “Where’ve you been, sweetheart?”

The kit can’t answer, not like this. And, he thinks bitterly, he couldn’t answer as a human, either.

But Iwaizumi doesn’t seem to mind. He keeps petting the kit, speaking slowly and calmly. The kit is lulled into sleepy state, content against the warmth of Iwaizumi’s body.

“…my mom got so mad, when I came home without my sweatshirt,” Iwaizumi is saying. “She didn’t believe me, when I said I saw another kid, here. But I did! She got so upset, and I was scared she’d tell me not to come here anymore, so I stopped talking about it. Because I want to keep coming here, to see you.”

The kit flicks his tail lazily, pleased by the sentiment. Maybe he hasn’t ruined everything by trying to be human, after all.

“And,” Iwaizumi continues, “maybe I’ll see that kid again, too. He looked scared, and kinda sad. I’m worried about him.”

For a moment, the fox feels a flare of something like jealousy. But beneath it, more potent, is something like hope.

The next time, it’s Oikawa waiting. He’s dressed in Iwaizumi’s green sweatshirt, his hands hidden in the sleeves. Iwaizumi looks at him and blinks rapidly, like he can’t believe what he’s seeing.

“You’re real,” he mutters, rubbing at his eyes.

“Iwa-chan,” Oikawa says with practiced ease, as though he’s said it a million times. He waves, smiling. “Hello.”

“Hello,” Iwaizumi responds, as though by rote, before his face scrunches. “What did you just call me?”

“Iwa-chan,” Oikawa says again, smile frozen on his face. He had tried, desperately, to get his tongue around Iwaizumi’s entire name. This was the best he could come up with, in the end.

Iwaizumi scowls. “Don’t go shortening people’s names without permission.”

“You… don’t like it?” Oikawa asks, head tilted to one side. His features are distinctly vulpine— upturned nose and pointed chin, and those large, fathomless eyes.

Maybe Iwaizumi reads the hope on Oikawa’s face, the fragility of his smile. Whatever the reason, he shrugs. “It doesn’t matter. Just don’t make a habit of it, Oikawa.”

His name sounds so much better on Iwaizumi’s tongue than it ever has on his own.

The kit shows up in the clearing more often than the boy, but Iwaizumi gets to know them both equally well. With the kit, he’s all soft words and gentle touches, as though he’s still scared the animal will run off at any moment if he moves too suddenly. With the boy, he’s rougher— he punches Oikawa in the arm and tugs at his hair, grabs him around the wrist and pulls him into the forest, insisting they climb trees and look for beetles.

“How come I never see you at school?” Iwaizumi asks one day, when they’re tried and lying on their backs in the grass.

“School?” Oikawa asks. Being around Iwaizumi means his speech has gotten much better, but he still doesn’t always have an answer to all of his questions.

“Yeah, school,” Iwaizumi repeats. “I’m in third grade. There aren’t that many schools around here, and you must live nearby, so… don’t you go?”

Oikawa pales for the briefest moment, before he recovers. “Of course, Iwa-chan,” he insists. “Of course I go to school.”

He still knows where the house is. Even as a kit, he sticks close, pulled by light and shadow towards the people who live inside. There’s a man and a woman, and a girl, getting closer to adulthood. Sometimes, he’ll lay on the hill overlooking the house as the sun sets, watching the lights in each room flicker on in turn.

Today, he doesn’t watch from the hillside as a kit. Still human, still dressed in Iwaizumi’s now-ratty sweatshirt, he heads towards the front door. He reaches out and knocks, once and then twice.

It takes a few moments, but eventually the door swings open to reveal a tall woman— upturned nose, thick auburn hair, smile frozen on her features as she looks down at Oikawa.

“Tooru?” she asks, voice breaking.

He’s practiced the words, knows exactly how to say them. But as soon as he looks at her he feels like something is breaking through his chest, impaling his heart. He’s longed for her, he realizes. It was easier to forget that, when he was a kit.

“I want to go to school,” he says, voice carefully light.

It takes his mother a few moments to process his words. “You… you’re going to be human? That’s what you want?”

“I want to go to school,” he repeats, brow furrowing. He doesn’t know if he wants to be human, all of the time. He just doesn’t want Iwaizumi to be away from him for hours at a time, going somewhere where Oikawa can’t reach him.

In the next instant, his mother is kneeling next to him, her arms around his shoulders, pulling him close. He can feel wetness against the top of his head.

“Can I?” he asks, uncertain at her reaction.

“Of course,” his mother says, squeezing him tighter. “Of course, baby, come inside.”

It takes months. His sister, now in college, sits him down at the kitchen table and helps him through reading and math. He follows his mother around the house as she works, listening to her words on the phone to pick up more vocabulary. At night, he sits beside his father on the couch and they go through the newspaper together, Oikawa pointing out each thing he doesn’t understand so that his father can explain the context to him.

“You haven’t been around much,” Iwaizumi says, brow furrowing.

“My sister is home from school,” Oikawa says, lifting his chin in the air. “We are watching all the Star Wars movies.”

Iwaizumi frowns, looks over Oikawa’s new, clean clothes and shakes his head. He doesn’t ask too many questions, and Oikawa is grateful.

He learns quickly. When fourth grade begins, his mother enrolls him at the local elementary school. When she leaves him by the door of his classroom, he freezes momentarily. He’s never seen so many children his own age, even after all the movies and television he’d watched over the winter.

“Hey— Oikawa!” a voice calls out behind him.

He turns and sees Iwaizumi, dressed in a new blue shirt for the first day of school. He’s frowning at Oikawa like he’s trying to figure something out.

“Iwa-chan!” Oikawa says, relief making his voice brighter than usual.

“You’re in this class?”

Oikawa nods, and holds out his hand. He’s shaking slightly, can’t get himself to stop.

Iwaizumi huffs and rolls his eyes, grabbing onto Oikawa’s wrist. “Well, come on. We’re going to be late.”

He tugs at Oikawa, keeps talking as they head into the classroom. “You can sit by me, okay?”

Talking to the other children is a challenge. Even with all of his careful preparation, he doesn’t have much he can relate to them on. Iwaizumi is endlessly popular, constantly surrounded by other kids as he tells stories and makes people laugh. He doesn’t actively seek out company, but attracts it all the same. And Oikawa shadows him, sticks close even though the other children don’t pay him much attention.

Sometimes, they’ll be sitting on the playground and Iwaizumi will just stare at him, wrinkles forming in his brow.

“What is it?” Oikawa asks one day, self-conscious.

“Nothing,” Iwaizumi mumbles. “It’s just weird, sometimes. Seeing you at school and not the forest.”

“You’re weird,” Oikawa returns, sticking out his tongue. It’s something he sees other kids doing a lot, teasing each other.

“You’re weirder,” Iwaizumi insists, shoving Oikawa.

Oikawa shrieks as he rolls over in the grass, voice high and loud and not-quite-human. When he manages to right himself, he looks up at Iwaizumi with pink cheeks and wide eyes.

But Iwaizumi doesn’t seem to have noticed the sound Oikawa made, is too busy clutching his sides and laughing.

Oikawa sees Iwaizumi every day, in school, so when they meet in the forest now Oikawa stays as a kit. He’s promised his mother than he’ll try to be human as much as possible, but it still doesn’t feel as natural as being a fox— running through the forest, curling up in his den, nosing at Iwaizumi’s sides when the other boy comes to visit.

And Iwaizumi never stops visiting. He brings milk bread and sits on his rock and pets the kit’s fur, relaying stories to him that Oikawa now knows from both sides.

Even when he goes to sleep as a human boy in a warm bed, the press of his mother’s kiss against his brow, Oikawa drifts off thinking about the sun against his fur and the gentleness of Iwaizumi’s voice.

“Why’re you always reading those books?” Iwaizumi asks one day at lunch, pointing to the blobby gray alien on the cover.

Oikawa shrugs, deliberately cutting his meat into small pieces. Before, the kids had stared when he grabbed the beef and started gnawing on it whole. But it’s been months, and Oikawa is learning.

“I like them.”

“You’re obsessed, more like.” Iwaizumi sips at his juice, rolling his eyes.

“They’re cool,” Oikawa insists. He flounders, searching for the words to explain how he feels. “They’re… not human.”

Iwaizumi huffs. “Whatever, weirdo.”

The word never sounds quite insulting, coming from Iwaizumi. The other kids still regard Oikawa oddly, think he’s too quiet most of the time and too loud in the remainder. But Oikawa is learning, slowly. People like it when you pay them compliments, when you ask them questions about themselves and listen to them talk. They admire kids who are good at sports, or who can tell funny stories.

None of it comes naturally, to him. But he works and works and works, and eventually it becomes routine.

The years pass, slowly. After he starts school, an elder man comes by the house and talks to his parents for a long time. After that, his father starts driving him into Tokyo on the weekends. There is an old white house there, and three other boys who are sometimes human and sometimes aren’t.

He doesn’t know if they all get along, exactly. Bokuto is loud and charming, Kuroo sly and sometimes too quiet. Sawamura does his best to keep the peace, but Oikawa finds that a little annoying. He wishes Sawamura would just get angry, every once in a while.

But there is understanding, between the four of them, who are both human and not. At the white house, Oikawa can be a fox and a person, can slip between the two as fluid as water and never worry about being seen.

“It’s magic,” their teachers tell them. “And also responsibility.”

“Why’re you never around on the weekends?” Iwaizumi asks one day, as they’re headed home from school. “It’s my birthday, soon, and I was going to have my party next Sunday.”

“It’s a secret,” Oikawa says flippantly, shrugging exaggeratedly and spreading his hands.

Iwaizumi kicks him lightly in the shin. “That’s not an answer, dummy.”

“Ow,” Oikawa whines, edging away from Iwaizumi. “Don’t be so mean, Iwa-chan.”

“Then give me a real answer,” Iwaizumi growls, crossing his arms over his chest.

Oikawa wrinkles his nose. “I have to go see my teacher,” he says at last.

“Teacher for what? We go to school together.” Iwaizumi’s brow is scrunched again, like he’s trying to figure out a particularly difficult puzzle. Oikawa doesn’t know how to tell him that he doesn’t have all the pieces.

“It’s not for school,” Oikawa says. It’s for something much more important, but he can’t explain any of that to Iwaizumi. He’s promised to keep it a secret, and he saw what happened to Kuroo when he’d tried to explain himself to his friend. That can’t happen to Oikawa and Iwaizumi; they absolutely cannot be separated. “It’s just… for something else.”

Iwaizumi rolls his eyes skyward. “You’re so lame,” he says. But he lets the subject drop, and tries not to look too pleased when Oikawa shows up at his birthday party, wrapped present clutched in his hands.

“You’re going to get me in trouble,” Oikawa teases, shaking his head. “I’ll have to go for extra lessons next week.”

Iwaizumi hugs him tightly, knocking them both to the ground. “Worth it,” he says.

His magic grows, as he does. His teacher explains to him that shadow magic is the power of independence, and light magic is the power of connection. When they measure their magic, Sawamura is the only one of them who is perfectly balanced between the two. Bokuto is almost entirely light, and Kuroo is almost entirely shadow. Oikawa’s magic hovers close to Kuroo’s— of the ten pearls that measure him, eight turn the purple-black of shadow magic, and two become the yellow-gold of light.

Of the four of them, he understands magic the best. He steals books out of the dusty library on the second floor, carrying them home with him to read throughout the week. He comes to understand himself better through them.

Guardians are meant to keep the world in balance. If there’s too much light or too much shadow, the world will fall into chaos. Guardians create magic of their own, use it to switch between forms. Oikawa wonders what that means for him, when he isn’t balanced at all. Kuroo and Bokuto are the most extreme among them, but they produce the most magic. Sawamura is balanced, and can ground the others when he needs to. Oikawa doesn’t know where that leaves him— he doesn’t have the most magic, only adds to the chaos when he uses his in tandem with the others. He doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do.

Middle school is better than elementary school, if only because everything has become routine. He and Iwaizumi are in the same class and join the volleyball team. That’s another thing that takes up his time and attention, but it’s worth it when he and Iwaizumi pull off a particularly difficult combo. Iwaizumi will turn to him, arm raised, and Oikawa will slap his palm in a high five that seems to spark with energy.

By high school, he’s learned how to play the game. Now, instead of surrounding Iwaizumi, people flock around Oikawa. He isn’t necessarily comfortable with the attention, but it’s gotten easier, over the years. He knows how to tease and flirt, charm and finesse his way to what he wants. And he does feel genuinely happy with his life, he thinks. As a human, Oikawa has most everything he wants.

But not a day goes by that he doesn’t race to get home and shrug out of the confines of his clothes, opening his window and transforming so that he can run out to the forest as a fox. The cool dirt beneath his feet and the rustle of leaves around him feel more like home than anything else, except maybe those moments when Iwaizumi looks at him and flashes one of those rare, pleased smiles.

“I came by yesterday,” Iwaizumi is saying, rolling up the sleeves of his blazer. “And you weren’t here.”

Oikawa’s sitting at his desk, a heavy book about magic propped up against the window. “Hm?” he responds, only half-listening.

“Where were you?” Iwaizumi asks, a bit more insistently.

He shrugs. “Don’t remember,” he murmurs, turning the page of his book.

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Iwaizumi grumbles.

“I was just busy, leave it alone,” Oikawa says, waving an idle hand.

Iwaizumi gets to his feet and steps in front of his desk, looking down at Oikawa. “What’s got you so preoccupied?” he demands. “Volleyball season is over— is this about university?”

“University will be fine,” Oikawa says absently. “I have to go to Tokyo, anyway.”

Iwaizumi seethes. “Will you stop that?” He bats at the book with one hand, slamming it closed so that it falls against the desk with a thump.

Oikawa jumps, looking up at Iwaizumi with wide eyes. “What was that for?”

“You’re not even listening to me!” Iwaizumi runs a hand over his hair, frustrated. “You’re been half-here all day, and now you’ve just decided you’re going to Tokyo? What the hell, Oikawa, I thought we’d at least talk about this together!”

“There’s nothing to talk about,” Oikawa says quietly. “I already decided. That’s where I need to be.”

Iwaizumi lunges forward, fisting a hand in Oikawa’s shirt to jerk him upwards. “When exactly were you going to tell me that, huh?”

Oikawa takes a gasping breath, but bats his eyelashes and tries to play it off. “What’s this, Iwa-chan? Why are you suddenly so concerned?” He can feel the press of Iwaizumi’s fingers through the fabric of his shirt. It’s as though sparks are running underneath his skin, gravitating to the point of contact.

It’s been happening more and more, lately, and he can’t shake the feeling. Being around Iwaizumi used to be a balm, calming and sure. Now, Iwaizumi makes him antsy, jumpy and paranoid. He doesn’t know whether he wants to hold onto him and never let go, or run as fast as possible in the opposite direction.

They’re staring each other down, each balanced on the edge of a precipice and unsure if the other will catch them if they fall. Oikawa blinks, lips pulling into a saccharine and insincere smile.

“You’re being a jerk,” Iwaizumi says at length, pushing Oikawa away before he can say anything. He reaches for his bag, pulling the strap onto his shoulder. When he’s turned away from Oikawa, he speaks again, quietly. “We’ve been best friends for ten years, asshole. I know when you’re hiding something from me. Don’t call me unless you’re ready to be honest.”

He’s gone before Oikawa can call him back. He sits, staring at the ceiling for too long as his fan slowly spins.

There is absolutely no way he can tell Iwaizumi the truth. He glances back to his book, opening the cover and flipping through the pages. The history is filled with stories of guardians who’ve been shunned and feared, killed and ostracized. They are hard creatures to accept, forever straddling two worlds. More often than not, the stories call them monsters.

Oikawa pillows his head against his arms and sighs. “You can’t think I’m a monster, Iwa-chan,” he murmurs into the silence of the room. “Even if you hate me for lying.”

He knows he’s asking for trouble, but that doesn’t stop him from meeting Iwaizumi in the clearing the next afternoon. He’s long outgrown the rock, and now sits cross-legged in the grass as he waits for the fox to approach. When Iwaizumi sees him, his face lights up with tenderness.

“There you are,” he says, ripping off a piece of milk bread and tossing it towards Oikawa. “Sorry I haven’t been around as much, lately.”

Oikawa munches up the bread and comes closer, pressing his head down against Iwaizumi’s knee. Iwaizumi takes up his invitation, stroking his fingers gently between the fox’s ears.

He can feel the tension in Iwaizumi’s body— the anger runs between shadow and light, muting the golden warmth that usually surrounds him.

“Sorry,” Iwaizumi mumbles after a bit. “I don’t really feel like talking, today. I thought seeing you would make me feel better, but I’m just so goddamn mad.”

The fox doesn’t ask him to explain himself, just crawls into Iwaizumi’s lap and lets his tail curl around them both when Iwaizumi holds onto him tightly, bows his head over the fox’s body.

The fox doesn’t have to consider too closely what it means when there’s wetness against his fur, or when Iwaizumi starts shaking softly, his grip tightening as he cries.

He and Iwaizumi haven’t walked home together in over a week. Graduation is approaching like a train at full speed, and Oikawa feels like he’s tied to the tracks, unable to get out of the way. He tucks his hands into the pockets of his blazer and sighs.

It’s a moment later when he feels a presence behind him— the air fills with the staticky, burnt sensation of magic. It’s a magic that’s entirely the opposite of Oikawa’s own— mostly light, with a distinct thread of shadow running through it.

Oikawa rolls his eyes, pauses, but doesn’t turn around.

“Ushiwaka-chan,” he says sweetly. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

He can hear Ushijima’s steps as the other comes forward, turning so that he and Oikawa are facing one another. His features are strong, lips pursed as he regards Oikawa carefully.

“You’re spending a lot of time as a human, lately,” Ushijima comments.

Oikawa bites down on the inside of his cheek and rolls his eyes. “You’re saying that to me like that?” He waves a hand to indicate Ushijima’s human form. “I’m not seeing any feathers.”

Ushijima shrugs. “I wonder if you’re making the right choice.” His tone indicates that he’s come to a decision on the matter, and has found Oikawa’s choices wanting.

“Amazing,” Oikawa chirps. “The first time you manage to string more than three words together, and it’s to give me an opinion I didn’t ask for!”

Ushijima’s expression is still impassive, unreadable. “You’re limiting yourself,” he says. “You have abilities that could change the entire world, and you waste them pretending to be something you aren’t.”

Oikawa’s perfectly false smile breaks. “I’m human,” he hisses, brushing past Ushijima.

“You’re never going to reach your full potential, that way. Your kind can’t do anything without wielders, can they?”

Oikawa whips around, snarling. “So what? That’s the way it’s supposed to be— guardians and wielders, partnered together. It’s not as if you’re any different, Ushijima.”

Ushijima doesn’t react. “I am,” he says simply. “I do not want a wielder, and I do not need one.”

Oikawa shakes his head, incredulous. “Bullshit,” he says. “That’s not how we work.”

“That’s what you’ve been taught,” Ushijima returns easily. “But that isn’t the only way things can be.”

Oikawa stares at him, struck momentarily dumb. He’s always been able to sense magic, to generate it and to use it to shift between forms. Anything more than that is distinctly beyond him— guardians aren’t meant to be manipulators of magic. The way Oikawa has always heard it, they’d otherwise be too powerful. Wielders— those who can use magic but don’t create any of their own— keep guardians in balance, and in check. In a way, wielders are the only force that keeps guardians from truly becoming monsters.

“I would have thought you could sense it, with your abilities,” Ushijima says. He’s frowning, as though Oikawa’s ignorance honestly disturbs him.

“Sense what?”

“The world is opening,” Ushijima says simply. “And when that happens, you need to make sure you’re on the right side of the door.”

“I know we’re magical and all,” Oikawa mutters, waving a hand dismissively, “but you don’t need to talk in metaphors, Ushiwaka-chan. It’s probably a big strain on your mind.”

Ushijima’s frown deepens. “Please don’t call me that.”

“Then keep your cryptic comments to yourself,” Oikawa says, turning away. “I don’t need your kind of magic. I’ve always been fine with my own.”

Ushijima merely nods. “If that’s how you feel,” he says, his dark eyes fixing Oikawa with a stare. “I hope you won’t regret it.”

He probably doesn’t mean it as a threat. But after he goes, Oikawa still feels shaken. Without a wielder, there really is nothing he can do on his own.

He can’t sleep, that night. Light rain is falling outside his window, but the soft noise isn’t what’s disturbing him.

He’s read nearly every book on magic that he has access to, had asked a million questions of his teacher when the old man had been around. But now he stands on the edge of a cliff— looking out on a world that will rely on him but never know him, with allies who have their own concerns, and unknown quantities like Ushijima floating around.

There’s always been a single constant in his life, but he’s gone and ruined that connection.

Part of him wants to become a fox and run through the forest, forgetting the complexities of being a human, if only for a little while. But when he reaches the clearing, he’s still human— dressed in now damp pajamas, and barefoot. And he isn’t alone.

Iwaizumi is sitting by the old rock, a worn army surplus jacket around his shoulders as he sits on the ground, hugging his knees. The rain is still falling, moonlight filtering in through the leaves and catching the sharp angles of Iwaizumi’s face. He looks up when Oikawa approaches, eyes widening.

“What’re you doing here,” he says roughly. “You haven’t come by here in ages.”

I have, Oikawa wants to say. I’ve spent more time here than you have.

“I know you gave up on this place,” Iwaizumi continues when Oikawa doesn’t speak, “But I never did. I come here all the time, to think.”

I know, Oikawa thinks desperately. And I stay with you, because I want to know every part of you, even the parts you won’t let me see as a human.

“I’ve decided something,” Iwaizumi says, staring at the ground instead of Oikawa.

For a long moment, there’s no sound except the rain falling around them.

“What is it?” Oikawa asks, finally finding his voice. His heart is beating too fast, every cell in his body terrified of what Iwaizumi is about to say.

Iwaizumi bites down on his lower lip, glowering for a moment. “I’m going to school in Tokyo. There’s a good program I got into, and it’s got nothing to do with you. You decided without me, so I’m doing the same.”

He feels numb all over. “You’re coming with me to Tokyo?”

“Did you even listen to what I just said? I decided to go to Tokyo for myself. If you weren’t being cagey and weird, maybe we could’ve decided together— are you crying?”

Oikawa lifts his fingers to his cheeks, startled to find tears there. “No,” he says, “I’m not.”

“What is there to cry about?”

Everything, Oikawa thinks. He and Iwaizumi will be going to the same place, but not together. And Iwaizumi will never know how much he means to Oikawa, how badly Oikawa wants to tell him everything, but how scared Oikawa is for Iwaizumi to know the truth. Because Iwaizumi will stop caring about him, if he knows, and Oikawa can’t live with that, he can’t live without Iwaizumi and he’s known that for a long time, now—

“What are you so scared to tell me?” Iwaizumi is on his feet, his grip tight around both of Oikawa’s wrists, holding him still, keeping him from running away. “What could possibly make me stop caring about you, idiot?”

Oikawa can feel his entire face heat up beneath his tears. He hadn’t even realized that he was speaking, but now he’s held tight by Iwaizumi, forced to face the stubborn fire in his hazel eyes.

“I— I can’t tell you—”

“Don’t you trust me?” Iwaizumi asks harshly. “Have I ever given you a reason not to trust me?”

Of course, he hasn’t. It’s always been Oikawa keeping secrets.

“I don’t want you to leave me,” Oikawa whispers, eyelashes heavily with tears. “I’m scared of being alone, again.”

Iwaizumi rolls his eyes, lifts himself up slightly on his toes so that he can rest his forehead against Oikawa’s. “I promise I won’t,” he grumbles. “But you need to tell me.”

“I’ve been lying to you ever since we met,” Oikawa lets out in a rush. He can feel magic sparking between them where they touch— their foreheads against each other’s, Iwaizumi’s hands around his wrists. “No, not the first time. Before I was me, like this, that was all real. And it’s been real since then. But I didn’t tell you, because I wasn’t supposed to. And then it had been so long, and I didn’t know how.”

He’s bordering on hysterical, words all jumbling together. There are so many inside of him, and so many emotions, he can’t even remember how it felt to be limited in what he could say or feel.

Iwaizumi sucks in a long breath, like he’s steeling himself for something. “Fine,” he says quietly. “Don’t tell me. Show me.”

“W-what?”

Show me,” Iwaizumi says with quiet intensity. His eyes meet Oikawa’s, and Oikawa sees no fear, no hesitation, no anger in Iwaizumi’s gaze. Just the same sure and solid strength and faith that have always been there.

He can rely on that strength, absolutely.

Oikawa takes a deep breath, reaching out with his extra perception for the threads of magic around him. A soft aquamarine glow surrounds him, and his body slowly gives way to raw magical energy, reforming just as quickly into that of a fox.

He doesn’t hit the ground— instead, right as he changes, Iwaizumi gathers him up in his arms, crushing him tightly to his chest.

“You little idiot,” he grumbles quietly. “Did you honestly think I didn’t know?”

Iwaizumi sinks down to his knees, still holding on tightly to Oikawa. “I thought you weren’t real, the first time I saw you. You were like something out of a fairy tale, a weird kid that just showed up one day in the forest. And when you came back, I thought maybe you were a ghost, because you didn’t seem to exist except when I was here. I was so confused when you actually showed up at school—it was like I wanted you to be real so badly, you actually came to life.”

The fox lets out a soft yip, curling closer into the warmth of Iwaizumi’s body.

“But of course, it was you all along. It was always either one of you or the other— I never saw you together. And then, when you started coming to school, sometimes you’d make those funny noises or your teeth would look too sharp. You’ve always seen too well in the dark, even though you’re near-sighted. And you disappear on weekends, or on some nights.”

Iwaizumi is shaking slightly, overcome. “But you know, I don’t think it’s something I ever figured out. I just knew. When I look at your eyes, it doesn’t matter if you’re a person or a fox. It’s always you.”

“You can’t fool people who care about you so easily, you know? But now you have to explain things to me. Like how any of this is possible.”

He wants to respond to Iwaizumi, to ask a million questions. And just like the first time, that desire to connect pushes him to draw on the magic again, until he’s surrounded by the same soft glow, his body shifting back just as easily.

He lands in a heap on top of Iwaizumi, completely naked. Iwaizumi falls back, his full weight against his elbows, yelling in surprise as his cheeks tinge red.

“What the— warn a person, would you?”

“Iwa-chan,” Oikawa says, face red and messy with tears.

“Idiot.” Iwaizumi leans over to flick his index finger against Oikawa’s forehead. “No more crying, okay?” He reaches out and grabs Oikawa’s hand, his palm calloused and warm.

Before Oikawa can respond, he feels a surge of energy unlike anything he’s ever experienced before. The world seems to tilt, and then he can see his magic—threads of shadow and light, intertwining in a complex braided pattern. But it’s not just his magic, because there’s too much light in it. It’s his and Iwaizumi’s, together—perfectly balanced.

The entire clearing lights up with an aquamarine glow. When it fades, Oikawa feels a weight in his hand. He and Iwaizumi look down at their clutched hands, which are now holding two aquamarine stones, shining with their own inner-light, like smoldering embers.

“What…” Iwaizumi mumbles, looking on in shock.

Oikawa is laughing, rubbing the tears from his eyes. “It means you’re mine,” he says, and then he throws his arms around Iwaizumi’s neck. Suddenly, he’s complete.

“Iwa-chan…” Oikawa wakes up peacefully, a comfortable warmth spreading through his body. He smiles to himself, before he shifts and his leg makes an awkward angle, sending pain shooting up Oikawa’s side. He hisses, fingers digging into the sheets.

“He isn’t here,” a deep voice says. “You made sure of that.”

A heavy weight settles on his chest as Oikawa glances up to see Ushijima Wakatoshi entering the room, regarding Oikawa carefully. He steps close to the bed, reaching out to lay one hand against Oikawa’s forehead. Oikawa scowls, pulling back from his touch.

“You have a fever,” Ushijima tells him.

Oikawa turns away, hiding his face against his pillow. He hears Ushijima sigh.

“You’re aware that what you’re doing is going to kill you,” he says, voice lilting just slightly in question.

Oikawa doesn’t answer, but he does turn his head so that he can look Ushijima in the eye. His lips pull back from his teeth in a feral smile, revealing perfectly-spaced teeth that are too sharp to be human.

He’s laughing, silently. But even he isn’t sure at who’s expense he’s making a joke.

Chapter Text

He has probably bought too much food. He’s juggling three bags from the corner market as he heads down the street, the warmth from the takeout heating his palms. It had taken awhile for them to fill his order, since one of the clerks had never shown up for work. Kenma would never be able to make it through this many meat buns on his own—but he’s not going to be alone, tonight.

His phone vibrates softly in the pocket of his hoodie, and Kenma grimaces slightly as he rearranges the takeout bags in an attempt to reach it. A picture of a black cat greets him from the phone screen— there are spots of white on his paws, and a bright red collar around his neck.

Kuroo (05:54): Sorry, can’t make it tonight! Bokuto and I are on a fox hunt.

Kenma blinks softly at the message before setting the bags down on the sidewalk so that he can reply.

Kenma (05:56): don’t you usually need dogs for a fox hunt?

Kuroo (05:57): Sure, when there isn’t a bird of prey and the world’s smartest cat involved.
Kuroo (05:58): Also, did you know that foxes are more closely related to dogs than cats? But people hunt foxes with dogs.
Kuroo (06:00): It’s a little messed up! Like having the dogs kill their cousins. :(

Kenma can’t help the smile that comes to his face as he reads through Kuroo’s messages. For someone who’s been immersed in magic his entire life, Kuroo has a strange affinity for small scientific facts. For the past few weeks, Kenma’s inbox has slowly filled with them whenever Kuroo’s bored or trying to nudge Kenma into conversation.

Kuroo (06:03): You’ll be okay without me, yeah?

He snorts softly as he types out his reply.

Kenma (06:04): of course. stay safe.

Kuroo (06:06): Will do! Have fun with Lev.
Kuroo (06:07): Shifting now— won’t reply for a few hours.

Kenma frowns slightly as he tucks his phone back into his pocket, glancing back at his bags of takeout. He’d been planning a dinner for three, but he supposes Lev might be able to make it through most of the food on his own. He’s eighteen, and by rights should be mostly done growing. And yet he seems to be eating enough to double his already formidable height.

Kenma picks up his bags and continues down the street, shaking his head. The motion shakes the long red gem that hangs from his ear, light refracting from it and onto the sidewalk.

He balances the food against his hip, knocking again at the door. He’s been waiting outside Lev’s apartment for ten minutes, now, with no signs of life from inside.

Lev has never been late to one of their hang-outs, before. Generally, he arrives too early, rocking back and forth from the balls of his feet to his heels as he waits for Kenma to arrive. For all his exuberance and general erraticism, he’s dependable and precise when it comes to dates and times. And if Lev wasn’t home for some reason, surely Alisa would have let Kenma in by now.

Setting the bags of food down, Kenma knocks again, and waits. A minute goes by without any response. He tries the doorknob and it turns easily, the door swinging open to admit Kenma to the Haiba residence. The lights are on, but there’s no Lev bounding down the hallway to greet him.

Kenma mutters his apologies for intruding as he enters the house, toeing off his shoes as he glances through the living room and kitchen for Lev. The apartment seems deserted— there’s no Lev lounging on the couch watching TV, no Alisa at her desk working on her thesis.

“Hello?” Kenma calls out, his voice softer than he intends. “Lev, are you here?”

There’s no response. Kenma heads down the hallway towards the bedrooms— the doors to both rooms are closed, and Alisa’s seems dark, as well. But there’s light seeping out from under Lev’s closed door.

“If you’re playing a trick on me, I’m going to kill you,” Kenma mutters, heart beating just a little bit faster as he opens the door to Lev’s room.

Lev isn’t there. He’s usually such a big presence in the small room that it would be impossible to miss him. Swallowing, Kenma glances around, even opening the door to the closet to make sure Lev hasn’t gotten himself stuck inside. He glances at his phone, checking for any missed messages. But there’s nothing, not from Lev or anyone else.

He’s just about to leave the room when he hears a faint rustling. Adrenaline spiking, Kenma turns abruptly, searching for the source of the noise.

“Who’s there?” he asks. “Lev?”

He hears the rustling again, following by a low, animalistic whine. It’s coming from under the bed.

Swallowing, Kenma lowers himself to the ground so he can crane his neck and get a better look. The first thing he sees are a pair of jeans, so long that they could only belong to Lev. There’s a t-shirt beside them— bright yellow, one of Lev’s favored, garish colors— and a pair of boxers. Kenma reaches out his hand to brush the clothes out of the way, and flinches back. The clothes are warm, as if they’ve been just recently worn.

Something rustles around in the corner of the bed, and Kenma hears a growl.

“Lev…?”

Round eyes blink open from the shadows. Kenma can see two vibrantly green irises, punctuated by narrow, feline pupils. Something scrambles closer to him, claws scratching at the wood flooring as it moves.

“No, no,” Kenma mutters to himself, as the creature comes barreling towards him, picking up speed. “This isn’t happening.”

He throws himself out of the way, rolling across the floor just as the large, fast lion cub comes tumbling out from underneath the bed. His fur is ashy gray, mottled in places with darker coloring. He opens his mouth and lets out what is probably an attempt at a roar, but sounds more like a gurgle.

The cub rushes forward and loses his balance, tumbling into a heap on the ground and whining softly as his tail flicks through the air. He looks pathetic like that, small and sad.

“Lev?” Kenma calls again, scrambling up to his knees.

The cub looks back at him and blinks again, like he recognizes the name.

He’s going to have to throw out this hoodie when all of this is done. Kenma has the cub bundled up in his arms, but he won’t stop squirming, claws slicing deep gashes through the sleeves of Kenma’s sweatshirt. From the way his arms are smarting, Kenma’s probably got a few scratches that have broken the skin.

“You should be able to change back,” Kenma tells the cub in a placid voice. “Kuro can change back and forth— just try.”

The cub looks up at him and blinks, opening his mouth and showing off his very sharp teeth. He growls again, and Kenma can feel the vibrations against his chest as he struggles to keep his grip on the cub.

“I know this is hard,” Kenma mutters, searching for the right words. “You’re probably confused. But it’s okay. I’ll help you.”

The cub snarls, scratching with more intent at Kenma’s arms. Kenma flinches, pain weakening his grip for a moment before he rallies and manages to keep the cub from escaping.

“You know me. Remember? I’m Kenma.” He keeps his voice soft, but even to his own ears he sounds more reluctant than consoling. “We’re… friends.”

The words don’t seem to have any effect. The cub keeps squirming, snapping his jaw threateningly.

“Come on, Lev,” Kenma mutters. “Work with me.”

Instead, the cub bites down hard on Kenma’s right hand.

Kenma opens his mouth but doesn’t scream— the pain lances through him, the pressure from the bite cutting through all of his thoughts and making it impossible for him to focus or react.

The instant the cub relaxes his jaw, Kenma drops him to the ground, sinking to his knees while blood stains the edge of his sleeve. It doesn’t seem to be a very deep wound, but then again Kenma has no real basis for comparison.

The cub scurries away, growling and snapping his jaw.

“Stupid,” Kenma calls after him, feeling dizzy. “What are you going to do when Alisa gets home? Bite her, too?”

The cub freezes in its tracks. Kenma holds onto his wounded hand with the other, keeping up the steady pressure as he tries to figure out what to do. He could call Kuroo, but if he’s patrolling as a cat he won’t have his phone with him. He momentarily considers reaching out with his magic, but he doubts Kuroo is within range of his telepathy.

But that doesn’t matter. Lev is Kenma’s friend. This is definitely something he can handle on his own.

The cub’s moving again, this time slower and with less snapping of his teeth. He pads towards Kenma gently, green eyes wide and clouded. He lays out on the ground beside Kenma and whines softly, head against his front paws.

“…um,” Kenma says, intelligently. “Do you know who I am, now?”

The cub whines again, scratching at the floor.

“Are you worried about Alisa?”

The cub perks up at the name, nudging at Kenma’s knee with his nose.

“You’ve got to stay calm, okay?” Kenma says softly. “But I promise I’ll help so that you won’t hurt Alisa.”

Go to sleep, go to sleep, go to sleep..

Once Kenma has gathered his wits enough to reach for his magic, he projects the suggestion out towards the lion cub. It takes a few long minutes, but Kenma can feel it when the suggestion takes hold, the cub’s eyelids drooping as he toddles around as if he’s drunk.

He finds a large duffle bag in Lev’s closet and maneuvers the cub into it, his head hanging out so that he can breathe while he dozes off. The bag is heavy when Kenma hoists it over one shoulder, and his hand is still throbbing with pain. But there’s nothing more he can do for Lev, on his own, and so he has to get him to the others. Determination fills him, and Kenma takes a deep breath before heading out the door.

Reaching out for the magic in the world is now second nature to him. Usually, his magic and Kuroo’s form a lax thread, a connection that is constant but not always active. Now, when he reaches for it, the thread goes taut. Kenma pulls at the magic, shaping it how he wills.

Don’t look at me, he thinks out into the world, fueling the thoughts with magic. Don’t look at me, don’t see me, don’t notice anything unusual here.

Whether his magic is actually working or the city goers are too self-absorbed to notice a small person hoisting a lion cub along in a duffle bag, Kenma somehow makes it to the station and onto the train that’ll take him to the guardians’ headquarters. He doesn’t let himself relax, keeps pushing out his thoughts into the world with the backing of the magic he’s drawing from Kuroo.

Don’t notice us. Don’t notice us. Don’t sit on me! —don’t notice us.

When he finally makes it to the correct stop, Kenma rushes from the train and runs as fast he can while still carrying Lev. His shoulder screams in protest of the weight, but he can’t switch it over to his other shoulder without aggravating his injured hand. So he stumbles along the best he can, past the old yellow house he’d once lived in as a child, and towards the small, white house surrounded by an overgrown garden.

He makes it to the door— it’s old and wooden, with four figures carved into it. The fox, the crow, the owl, and the cat are all facing in separate directions, standing guard over the house.

Kenma finally lets himself breathe, relief flooding through him. He’s made it.

The door swings open a moment later, revealing two people—one dark-haired and solidly-built, the other paler with a cloud of silvery hair. Sawamura steps forward first, eyes widening with concern as Kenma sways on his feet.

“Kuroo sent us a warning, said you were in trouble?” he asks, brow furrowing as he looks down at the cub. “Is that…?”

“Lev,” Kenma says shortly, mostly out of breath. “My friend. He’s…”

“One of us,” Sawamura says with a firm nod. He reaches out and gathers the bag up in his arms, lifting the cub’s weight with little difficulty.

Kenma’s arms feel like noodles, limp and rubbery as he tries to keep himself upright. Just when he feels like he’s about to fall over, Sugawara reaches out to steady him.

“Kozume-kun,” he says in a hushed tone, “You’re hurt.”

“I’m okay,” Kenma mumbles, abashed at his showing of weakness. He wishes, suddenly and desperately, that Kuroo were there.

“Come on inside,” Sugawara says, pulling him along. “We can take him out back.”

Sawamura takes the lead, still hoisting the cub, who has thankfully stayed asleep all the while. Kenma can feel his control slipping, the reserves of magic ebbing away from him. He lets Sugawara guide him through the house and out the back door to where the garden opens up into a wide expanse of grass and trees.

Sugawara sits him down on the ledge of a low brick wall, holding Kenma’s injured hand between his own and examining it carefully.

“Your friend did this?”

“He’s stupid,” Kenma mutters. “I don’t think he really recognized me.”

Sugawara frowns sympathetically before turning to Sawamura. “Daichi?” he asks.

Sawamura, who’d knelt down to set the cub in the grass, freeing him from the duffle, turns back briefly. “Go ahead.”

Sugawara nods, then closes his eyes in concentration. Kenma watches as the orange stone embedded in the bangle Sugawara wears on his wrist begins to glow. He can feel the pull of magic between Sawamura and Sugawara as the latter passes his hand over Kenma’s wounds. His skin pulls together neatly, the cuts and bite wound closing over cleanly and leaving only small pink marks in their wake. He stills feels weak, and a bit dizzy. But the pain has mostly receded, and Kenma manages to look up at Sugawara with a small smile.

“Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it,” Suga says, brushing the silvery hair back from his forehead with the back of his hand. “Just rest for a second, okay?”

Kenma nods as a wave of exhaustion passes over him.

Half an hour later, Kenma opens his eyes to the sound of thunder behind him. He blinks up in surprise, but it isn’t raining. Instead, the back door bursts open and Kuroo races into the yard, looking around frantically.

“Kenma!” he calls out when he sees him, crossing the yard in quick strides and coming in close, eyes scanning Kenma for injury. “Are you alright?”

Kuroo’s very presence is reassuring, and Kenma nods lightly as Kuroo brushes one hand gently against his cheek. Kuroo’s flushed, his t-shirt pulled on haphazardly and his hair messier than usual. He must have just shifted back to his human form. The red gem that matches Kenma’s dangles from his left ear, catching the light as he kneels in front of Kenma.

“You didn’t have to worry,” Kenma tells him, reaching out to run his fingers through Kuroo’s dark hair.

“I could feel it,” Kuroo protests, brow furrowing. “You were frantic, and then you were in pain.” His golden eyes narrow dangerously.

“I’m okay now,” he says. “But your dumb magic turned Lev into a lion.”

Kuroo blinks. “You’re joking.”

Kenma waves a hand behind them, to where the gray lion cub is curled up in the grass, stirring slightly from his nap.

“Fucking kill me,” Kuroo mutters under his breath, getting to his feet.

“Oi, Kuroo!” a loud voice calls out from the doorway. “Are you forgetting about something?”

As it turns out, Kuroo and Bokuto did not find the fox on their hunt. Instead, they’ve come home with a tiger. He doesn’t look as large as the ones Kenma has seen at the zoo, but maybe he’s still growing. His fur is a vibrant yellow-orange, streaked through with black as he follows Bokuto out to the yard.

“He’s thinking like a human, mostly,” Kuroo explains as he stands off to one side with Kenma. “We told him we could help him out if he came with us, and he was surprisingly cooperative.”

“Who…” Kenma starts to ask, but in the next moment, the tiger is growling menacingly, sprinting across the lawn on powerful legs. “What the— Lev!”

The cub has just started blinking himself awake, rising on shaky legs as the tiger bounds towards him. Next to the tiger, the cub seems woefully young and small. But he catches on quickly, rounding on the tiger and snarling himself. The two pause for a moment, considering each other through their glowing eyes. Then, the tiger lunges.

The two cats tumble together, rolling over in the grass as they scratch and bite at each other. The tiger tries to get the lion pinned, but the lion is quick, and smaller. They circle each other, teeth snapping and tails whipping through the air.

“Kuroo!” Sawamura calls out, sprinting across the lawn and steering clear of the literal cat fight, “Stop them!”

Kuroo leans back, looking mildly affronted. “Why me?”

Sawamura purses his lips and crosses his arms over his chest. “They’re cats.”

“So?”

Sawamura looks like he’s steeling all of his patience. “So, they’re yours. Do something before they decide they want to attack us instead of each other.”

“I didn’t ask for this,” Kuroo mutters, rolling his eyes. But he steps forward, eyeing the two uncertainly as he tries to decide how to intercede.

The tiger has the lion pinned under one strong paw, now, as the lion hisses and struggles. Kuroo steps in front of them, rubbing at the back of his neck.

“Oi,” he says firmly. “Knock it off.”

The lion and tiger ignore him, continuing to claw at each other.

“Stop them,” Kenma calls out, even though he’s maintaining a safe distance. “Don’t let him hurt Lev.”

Kuroo rolls his eyes and mutters something, but then he tries again. “I said, knock it off.” He punctuates the statement with a brief pulse of magic that rolls over the yard and has everyone wobbling on their feet.

The fight pauses for a just a moment, but then the lion hisses and bites down on the tiger’s tail. The tiger roars, batting at the lion with his paw.

Kenma feels the magic surge in Kuroo’s direction as his temper spikes. He can almost see the shadows curling at Kuroo’s feet as his hands ball into fists at his sides.

Stop,” he hisses, his voice quiet but full of power. “Now.”

Kenma blinks when he catches sight of Kuroo’s face. His lips are pulled away from his teeth, now longer and sharper. His pupils have narrowed to slits, feline and flashing with anger. There’s something savage in his expression, and he looks less human than he does even in his cat form.

Kenma steps back instinctively, not sure what he’s looking at.

Kuroo rounds on the tiger and lion, growling. “You’re human. Act like it. I know this is confusing. I know you have a whole new set of instincts to deal with. But you can control it.”

Kenma feels the tug of magic as Kuroo reaches for it, the double-helix pattern of light and shadow that Kuroo pulls close to himself.

“Feel that?” he asks. The lion and the tiger are against the ground, looking up at him with wide eyes. “Reach for it. I’ll help you.”

It takes a few moments, but Kenma feels it when two new presences tug at the thread between him and Kuroo, pulling the magic towards themselves. The yard lights up with a soft red glow for a moment, and when it fades there are two young men lying prone against the grass, covered in shallow scratches and breathing heavily.

One of them is even tanner than Kuroo, his hair mostly shaved except for the patch of blond that runs over the top of his head. He’s panting, trying to push himself up on his elbows before he falls back against the grass.

“Sorry,” he mutters in a rough voice. Kenma recognizes him— it’s Yamamoto Taketora, who works at the corner store.

The other person is Lev, is long limbs splayed as he doesn’t even try to maintain consciousness. He looks up at Kenma once and blinks before his head dips forward and he passes out against the grass.

“I am not cut out for this,” Kuroo mumbles, lowering himself down to his knees as he tries to catch his breath. “Bokuto, Sawamura— can we get them inside? They can sleep it off.”

The other two rush forward to help, hoisting Taketora and Lev up. Kenma comes forward and allows Kuroo to lean one arm over his shoulders so that he can balance his weight against Kenma and get back to his feet.

“Exciting night?” he asks, grinning weakly. His face is completely back to normal, all traces of wildness gone.

“You could say that.”

Kenma spends the night in Kuroo’s room, on the second floor of the old white house. Kuroo shifts back into a black cat before getting into bed, curling up against Kenma’s chest and purring contentedly as Kenma pets him softly until they both fall asleep.

Exhaustion overtakes Kenma easily, and he sleeps without dreams. He wakes in the morning to sunlight filtering in through the window, Kuroo still sound asleep with his head ducked under the pillow. Kenma pets him lightly before getting out of bed and washing up. He glances at his arms in the bathroom mirror and sees only faint pink lines that will soon fade. There’s no lasting damage done.

He wanders down the stairs and into the kitchen, and blinks in surprise at the people he sees sitting at the old wooden table.

Akaashi is a by now familiar presence. He’s digging into a hearty breakfast, eyes tired and curling hair mussed over his forehead. He wears an ornate silver ring on his right hand, a golden gem glowing from its center. The shirt he’s wearing seems too large for him, loose on the shoulders and neck. Kenma blinks at him before realizing it must be Bokuto’s shirt— he never saw Akaashi come in, last night, but he spends more nights with Bokuto than not.

Sitting across from him at the table is a person that Kenma’s met only once before. He has his elbows against the table, both hands curled around a mug of coffee that he doesn’t seem to actually be drinking. He has short, spiky hair and tanned skin, a stubborn set in his jaw. He’s already dressed for the day in worn jeans and a cotton tank top, his powerful arms tensed and bare. There’s a dark tattoo on his right upper arm— an intricate pattern of vines and leaves curled around his bicep, and underneath that something written in script that Kenma can’t read. He wears a delicate silver chain around his neck from which hangs a turquoise gem.

His name is Iwaizumi Hajime. He’s the wielder and partner of Oikawa Tooru, the fourth guardian, whom Kenma has never met.

Kenma nods his greetings as he shuffles across the kitchen to make himself a cup of tea. Akaashi and Iwaizumi aren’t speaking, but Akaashi’s frowning as he eats, like he’s trying to bite down on some minor irritation.

When his tea is ready, Kenma pulls out a chair and sits down at the table between Akaashi and Iwaizumi. It’s odd, sitting with them in silence. They aren’t like the guardians, who grew up together and have easy rapport. As wielders, they’re connected to the world of magic by virtue of their association with their respective guardians. They don’t really have any connections to each other.

Kenma briefly wonders if that’s a failing on their parts, a weakness.

The silence is shattered ten minutes later when Bokuto comes barreling into the kitchen, already dressed with his hair perfectly gelled and styled. “Morning, Kenma!” he calls out with a wave. “Oh, hey— Iwaizumi. I didn’t know you were coming by today.”

Iwaizumi looks up and nods at Bokuto, then shrugs. “It’s been another few weeks. I can’t just keep sitting around.”

“Gotcha,” Bokuto says agreeably. He comes up behind Akaashi and plants a kiss against his forehead, grinning to himself when Akaashi blushes. “Morning, Akaashi.”

Akaashi shakes his head, but his voice is fond when he says, “Good morning, Bokuto-san.”

Bokuto beams at him before rummaging around in the cupboards and fridge, making himself breakfast. “Anyone else want something?” he calls behind him.

Iwaizumi and Kenma both decline. Iwaizumi pulls out his phone a moment later, tapping through it while he gnaws at his lower lip.

Then Kenma hears hooting from beyond the large window. He glances up with the others to see two owls perched in the branches of the tree closest to the house, looking at Bokuto expectantly. One is almost pure white, with a splattering of black feathers amongst its wings. The other is mostly brown, its feathers ranging from the colors of wheat to deep chocolate.

Bokuto stands in front of the window with his hands on his hips, glaring at them. “If you’re owls, you can hunt your own breakfast,” he tells them flippantly. “Only humans get to eat my cooking.”

The snowy owl ruffles its feathers and hoots. The darker one spreads its wings in a gesture like a shrug.

“Argh,” Bokuto mutters scowling at them. “Don’t make me look bad in front of the others, okay?”

Akaashi rests his forehead against his fist, shaking his head. “Honestly.”

“Are those…?” Kenma begins to ask, but Akaashi cuts him off with a nod.

“Bokuto-san’s new recruits.”

Counting Lev and Taketora, that makes four new guardians they’ve found since Kenma became Kuroo’s wielder. Two cats, and two owls. Are there going to be foxes and crows showing up en masse soon, too?

“God damn it,” Iwaizumi grumbles next to him, glaring down at his phone.

Akaashi winces, rubbing at his temple with delicate fingers. “Would you please try to contain yourself?” he asks, voice all strained politeness.

Iwaizumi looks up with lifted brows. “Excuse me?”

“I know you’re worried,” Akaashi continues, voice steady and even. “It’s coming off of you in waves, and it’s giving me a headache.”

“What,” Iwaizumi says.

But Akaashi’s words have called Bokuto over from the window, and he hovers around his wielder, frowning. “Akaashi?” he asks, “Is it getting worse?”

“Don’t you start,” Akaashi sighs, pushing his chair back from the table and taking his plate to the sink. “I’m fine. There are just too many emotions in this house. I’m going to go for a walk.”

“I’ll come with you!” Bokuto announces, following him out of the kitchen.

“You need to eat,” Akaashi tells him patiently.

“I’ll grab something on the way, c’mon,” Bokuto says exuberantly. Kenma can still hear the remnants of their voices as they head up the stairs.

With Bokuto and Akaashi gone, only Iwaizumi and Kenma are left in the kitchen. Iwaizumi is still staring at his phone, but Kenma finds himself feeling increasingly awkward. Of everyone he’s met since Kuroo, he’s had the least interaction with Iwaizumi. He finds it difficult to get a read on him, maybe because he’s never met Oikawa and gotten a feel for their relationship.

It’s not in Kenma’s nature to reach out to people, particularly people who seem as intimidating as Iwaizumi. But the nature of magic has him questioning a lot of things, lately. His own magic is supposed to be mostly light— the magic of connections and relationships. He should be able to do this.

“…is something wrong?” he asks quietly.

Iwaizumi looks up and blinks, like he hadn’t known Kenma could speak. “Of course not,” he mutters, running one hand through his short hair, “My best friend has just been missing for weeks, and now the only people who can help are distracted by all this.” He waves a hand towards the window, to where the owls had been perched.

That’s not entirely fair, Kenma decides. The others have been looking for Oikawa— that’s where Kuroo and Bokuto had been last night, before they’d come across Taketora. He pushes forward.

“That’s been worrying you for a while,” Kenma notes. “Something happened just now to make it worse.”

Iwaizumi looks slightly abashed, pressing his hands against his coffee mug. “You’re weirdly perceptive,” he says.

Kenma just shrugs in response.

Iwaizumi is quiet for another moment, and then he clears his throat. “I… got a message. From Oikawa.”

Now it’s Kenma’s turn to be surprised, frowning at Iwaizumi. “Did he tell you where he’s been?”

Iwaizumi snorts. “Of course not. He’d never make anything that easy. Here, take a look.”

He passes his phone over, and Kenma sees a received email on the screen. There’s no greeting, just a list of what looks like names.

Makki
Yahaba
Kunimi
Tobio

Beneath the list is an automatically generated line of text.

“He didn’t just send this,” Kenma murmurs, pointing at the text. “It’s a delayed message. He could’ve written it weeks ago, and it only got sent now, automatically.”

“Of course,” Iwaizumi groans, pushing away his mug and letting his forehead hit the tabletop. “What the fuck are you playing at,” he mutters to himself.

“Do you know what this means?” Kenma asks, pushing the phone back towards Iwaizumi.

He pushes himself up, grabbing his phone and shaking his head. “I mean, we know a guy from college, and Oikawa calls him Makki… but the rest aren’t familiar, at all. I wouldn’t even know where to start.”

Kenma nods, turning over the facts in his head. Everything about Oikawa’s disappearance is suspicious, and begs the question— is Oikawa lost, and unable to return, like Kuroo had been? Or is he staying away deliberately?

“Oh good, you’re here,” Shimizu says breathlessly, walking into the kitchen. Her silky black hair is tied back at the base of her neck, and she’s holding onto an iPad that she’s flipping through hurriedly. “Where is Bokuto?”

“Just left,” Iwaizumi says, tucking his phone away in his pocket. He shoots Kenma a significant look, and even without magical telepathy Kenma can understand his intent— he doesn’t want anyone else knowing about Oikawa’s message just yet.

Shimizu frowns slightly, but doesn’t comment. Within a few moments, Kuroo and Sawamura come padding into the kitchen, talking in hushed voices.

“What’s going on?” Sawamura asks, glancing at Shimizu.

“The university just called the police and animal control,” Shimizu says, glancing down at her tablet. “Apparently, there’s a coyote loose on campus.”

“A coyote,” Iwaizumi says flatly.

“Those aren’t native to Japan,” Sawamura puts in.

“Neither are Crimean lions and Bengal tigers.” Kuroo shakes his head. “Alright, who’s going to go bring this one in?”

“You and your wielder are both here,” Sawamura says, nodding at Kenma by way of acknowledgment and greeting. “You should go.”

“It’s a coyote, not a cat,” Kuroo protests. “This one isn’t mine.”

Sawamura frowns at him. “Well, it definitely isn’t a crow. And we shouldn’t think about it like that. We’re all in this together, remember?”

“So what’s stopping you from going?” Kuroo insists.

“Suga isn’t here, yet,” Sawamura says. “I wouldn’t be able to handle a coyote on my own. Besides, you’re both mammals. You’ve got at least something in common.”

“Coyotes are like wolves, or dogs! It’s probably one of Oikawa’s.” Kuroo’s voice goes dark, exasperated.

“So then I’ll go,” Iwaizumi says, abruptly getting to his feet.

“Um,” Sawamura starts to say, but Iwaizumi lifts a hand to cut him off.

“This coyote is Oikawa’s responsibility, right? Then it’s mine, too. I can go.” There’s something sure and steady in his words, reassuring and calming.

“Wow,” Kuroo says with an abortive laugh. “You are nothing like him, are you?”

Iwaizumi’s frown deepens, and he shakes his head before stepping towards the doorway.

“Hold on, hold on,” Kuroo says. “We’ll come with you. That alright, Kenma?”

In all honesty, Kenma has no interest in wrangling people-turned-animals. He really doesn’t want a new collection of scars on his arms, or elsewhere. But Kuroo looks at him with his typical half-smile, confident and charming. And Kenma realizes he’d do anything with Kuroo, including this.

“Fine,” he says, getting to his feet. When he steps closer to Kuroo, he asks, “Are Lev and Tora okay?”

Kuroo nods. “A first shift is a big deal. I don’t really remember mine, but it takes a lot out of you. They’ll probably sleep through the rest of the day.”

“I have to tell Alisa,” Kenma starts, brow furrowing.

“We’ll take care of it,” Kuroo assures him. “I promise, you’ll get your obnoxious friend back in one piece.”

Kenma rolls his eyes, jabbing Kuroo lightly in the side. “You’re obnoxious, too.”

“I’m charming,” Kuroo insists, batting his eyes theatrically.

From the doorway, Iwaizumi clears his throat. “You two coming, or what?”

Kuroo laughs and steps forward, passing Sawamura on the way. “For the record, one of these days you’re going to get a flock of unmanageable crows following you around, and I will show you no mercy.”

Sawamura’s smile is all steel. “I’d expect nothing less.”

“If you’re staying, you can help me,” Shimizu says. “I’m working on something.”

Kenma, following Kuroo and Iwaizumi out the door, doesn’t hear the rest of what she says.

The train ride to the university is awkward, at best. Kenma and Kuroo sit side by side, Iwaizumi across from them. He keeps his arms crossed over his chest, deep in thought. Kenma briefly considers reaching out with his magical perception to glean some of what Iwaizumi is thinking, but immediately thinks better of it. He’d accidentally read Iwaizumi’s mind the first time they’d met, and he doesn’t think Iwaizumi viewed that very kindly.

“So,” Kuroo says, after a few moments’ silence, “When did you meet Oikawa, anyway?”

Iwaizumi looks up, at that, then pauses for a moment as he thinks. “When we were seven or eight, probably.”

Kuroo’s eyes widen briefly. “He never told me that.”

Iwaizumi shrugs.

“It’s weird,” Kuroo insists. “He only told us he’d found his wielder last year.”

Iwaizumi fidgets with his necklace, fingers wrapping protectively around the aquamarine stone. “Well. We didn’t have all of this,” he gestures to the necklace, then the space between Kuroo and Kenma, “until then.”

Kuroo rests his elbow against his knee and his chin against his palm. “I see. I think I’m a little jealous, though.”

Kenma, who’d been tapping away on his phone and keeping himself carefully out of the conversation, frowns at him. “Don’t be,” he says.

Kuroo flashes him a smile. “Not like that,” he insists.

Iwaizumi leans back into his seat, shaking his head. “I can see why you’d get along with him,” he says shortly.

Kuroo preens as though he’s been paid a great compliment.

The university buildings are crawling with authorities when they arrive. The three of them could pass for typical students— they all are students, after all— but that’s not serving them well at the moment. The campus is shut down, all students turned away until the animal is found and contained.

“How the hell are we going to find it,” Iwaizumi grumbles from their vantage point across the street.

“I think I can handle that,” Kuroo says. Kenma feels him tug on the magic around them, and guesses that Kuroo is looking for a concentration of aberrant magic. That could lead them to the coyote.

After a moment, Kuroo looks up with a grin. “He’s by the athletics facilities.”

“He?” Kenma asks.

Kuroo shrugs. “The magic feels like a he, I think. Let’s go find out.”

They circle around the back of the main building. Kenma projects the thought of don’t see us don’t notice us don’t stop us over and over again as they sneak past the police and other authorities in front of the entrance. By the time they reach the track and associated buildings, they’re all slightly winded, but it takes Kuroo the longest to catch his breath.

“Alright,” he says, after a moment, “Now we just need to…” He trails off, focusing on the aberrant magic again as he turns in a slow circle. Finally, he points towards an equipment shed. “There.”

The three of them walk over, freezing when they notice a young man standing in front of the door. He’s tall, maybe even taller than Kuroo, with curling dark hair and tired-looking eyes. He’s leaning his back against the door, speaking softly under his breath.

Kenma throws Kuroo a glance, lifting his brows to ask what now? Kuroo only shrugs in response.

Before they can come up with a plan, Iwaizumi has stepped forward. “Matsukawa?”

The man in front of the door startles, looking around frantically before his gaze settles on the three of them. “Iwaizumi,” he says, sounding relieved.

“You know him?” Kuroo asks.

Iwaizumi shrugs him off to respond to Matsukawa. “What are you doing here? No one’s supposed to be on campus, right now.”

Matsukawa raises both of his formidable eyebrows and smiles wanly. “Couldn’t I be asking you the same question, then?”

“Sure,” Iwaizumi says agreeably. “But I asked first.”

Matsukawa swallows, shifting until he’s directly between the three of them at the door, blocking their path. “I, ah, probably can’t give you an answer that makes sense.”

Iwaizumi plants his feet and crosses his arms. “Try me.”

It’s strange, Kenma thinks, how different Iwaizumi seems right now from how he was back at the house. The tension and worry probably haven’t gone away, but right now he looks nothing but strong and confident.

“Matsukawa,” Iwaizumi says softly, when the other doesn’t respond for a moment, “We’re friends, right? You can trust me.”

Matsukawa looks nervously at the ground, then at the sky. He takes a deep breath, like he’s steeling himself for something.

“He won’t hurt anyone, I promise,” he says, slowly and sincerely. “I just need to get him out of here before pest control can find him.”

“Who’s he, Matsukawa?” Iwaizumi asks evenly.

Matsukawa looks up, his smile nervous and sheepish. “I told you it wouldn’t make much sense.”

Iwaizumi waits.

“…it’s Hanamaki,” Matsukawa says in a low voice.

“Makki.” Iwaizumi looks stricken, his hand reaching instinctively towards the pocket that held his cell phone— and Oikawa’s message.

Matsukawa looks at him imploringly. “I told you it wouldn’t make sense.”

Kuroo clears his throat from behind Iwaizumi, stepping forward with a rueful expression. “Your friend became the coyote that’s been terrorizing the campus? No, actually that sounds pretty typical, for us.”

Matsukawa frowns, like he can’t tell whether Kuroo is making fun of him or not. “And you are?”

“He’s a friend,” Iwaizumi mutters. “Sort of. In any case, he’s probably the person best equipped to help Hanamaki, right now.”

Matsukawa’s expression grows no less skeptical. “He told me to wait for him,” he murmurs, almost too low to hear.

“Who did?” Kuroo asks, tapping his foot with impatience.

For a long moment, Matsukawa doesn’t respond. He looks conflicted as his eyes flit to Iwaizumi and then back at the equipment shed. With his heavily-lidded eyes, it’s hard to decipher exactly what he’s feeling from his expression. But Kenma imagines that he looks almost guilty.

“Oikawa,” Matsukawa says finally. “He came by our apartment over a month ago, and asked to speak to us each privately. When we talked, he told me to look after Hanamaki no matter what. I promised to take care of him.”

“There’s no way,” Kuroo interjects. “Over a month ago— that was before Kenma and I unlocked the new guardians’ powers. There’s no way Oikawa could’ve known this guy would be one of them.”

“I don’t know what any of that means,” Matsukawa says blandly. “I just know what I promised.”

Kenma glances at Iwaizumi, who’s staring at the ground, his fists clenched. It takes him a moment to ground himself, schooling his reaction back to something calm.

“You and I are going to have a talk,” he says, voice rough. “But for now, we need to get Hanamaki out of here.”

“I’m not—” Matsukawa starts, but Kuroo cuts him off with a wave of his hand.

“You can come too, of course,” he says soothingly. There’s a keenness in his eyes, like he’s just figured out something important, or maybe amusing. “I have a feeling you’re going to get caught up in all of this, too. Sorry, buddy.”

“I’m already involved,” Matsukawa murmurs, scratching at the back of his head. “My best friend turned into a coyote this morning.”

“It happens to the best of us.” Iwaizumi frowns, gesturing for Matsukawa to move away from the door. “Let’s get this over with.”

Kenma’s never seen a coyote before, except in some old American cartoons. Hanamaki looks a little bit like a fox, or a wolf, maybe. His coat is a pale brown that looks almost pink in the sunlight, his stomach and snout snowy white. He’s surprisingly docile when Matsukawa opens the shed door, immediately running towards his friend and running circles between his legs.

“Hey, Hanamaki,” Iwaizumi says, kneeling down to look him in the eye. “You still you, in there?”

The coyote bears his teeth, but the look isn’t intimidating. It almost seems like he’s mocking them, laughing.

“I’ll take that as a yes.” Iwaizumi rolls his eyes. “Kozume, can you pull that trick again? Get us back to the house without anyone seeing?”

Kenma jumps at being addressed— he hadn’t realized that Iwaizumi even knew his name. He nods.

“I can do it,” he says softly.

Kuroo puts one strong hand atop Kenma’s head, ruffling his two-tone hair. “Kenma can do just about anything,” he says proudly.

Lev and Taketora are still asleep when they make it back to the house. Kuroo goes to check on them, muttering something about them being his problem, now. Sawamura escorts Hanamaki and Matsukawa to one of the upstairs rooms, leaving Kenma standing awkwardly in the living room with Iwaizumi.

Iwaizumi sits down heavily on one of the couches, rubbing a hand over his face. “That’s some power you’ve got. Useful.”

Kenma shifts from foot to foot, awkward with praise even when it’s delivered so honestly. “I’m still getting used to it.”

“You’ll probably have a lot of time to practice, going forward. All this shit happening that we can’t explain.” Iwaizumi leans back against the cushions tiredly.

Kenma just nods, before he thinks of something. “What can you…?”

Iwaizumi huffs. “Not much of anything, without Oikawa.” He toys with his aquamarine gem. “I used to be able to feel him, all the time. Even when he wasn’t around. Now it’s like… he’s there. But it’s faint. Like someone threw a sheet over a lamp, and now the light’s too dim.”

He can’t imagine what it would be like to lose his connection to Kuroo, now that he’s found it. The very thought is terrifying. Kenma reaches out for the magical connection, tugging on it nervously. Within a few moments, he feels Kuroo tugging back, and then the connection oscillates as though Kuroo is pulling it up and down just for the sake of it. Kenma almost smiles.

Iwaizumi’s looking at his phone again, at the list of names.

“Oikawa knew about Hanamaki,” Kenma says, unsure of how to phrase the fact as a question.

Iwaizumi sighs and leans further back. “Yeah. Looks like he did.”

Kenma waits.

“Maybe everyone on the list is a new guardian— all the ones he’s supposed to be here to look after, now. And if they’re all people he already knew, or at least spoke to…”

“They might be able to help you find him,” Kenma says, completing the thought.

Iwaizumi nods. “It’s worth a shot, at least. Though having one name for each of them isn’t much of a starting point. But it’s better than nothing.”

Kenma bites down on the inside of his cheek. It isn’t like him to push forward into difficult situations voluntarily, but he feels a strange affinity with Iwaizumi. He’d lost Kuroo once, after all, and it had taken them most of their lives to find each other again. If he can help Iwaizumi and Oikawa reunite…

“I’ll help,” he says, before he can think better of it.

Iwaizumi blinks at him. “You sure about that?”

Kenma nods. “Kuro will help, too.”

Iwaizumi looks at him gratefully— his entire face is transformed when he smiles.

Kenma hears the latch of the door behind them, and the two of them turn to see Bokuto and Akaashi entering the house, arms full of takeout bags.

“We brought lunch,” Bokuto says brightly. “Since we’ve got so many extra mouths to feed, these days.”

“Let’s take it to the kitchen before it gets cold,” Akaashi prompts, nudging Bokuto down the hallway. Before he follows, he turns to Iwaizumi, a thoughtful frown pulling at his lips. “Hope suits you much better,” he says.

“…thanks?”

Kenma’s about to follow the others to the kitchen when he realizes Iwaizumi isn’t behind him. He turns back to see Iwaizumi standing, facing the wall with his phone in his hands, eyes shut and lips pulled downward.

“Tooru,” he says softly, obviously not meaning for anyone else to hear, “I’ll find you.”

Chapter Text

Today, Oikawa is awake when Ushijima enters the room. From the look of him— slightly rumpled, dark hair stuck out at odd angles— he must have just shifted back into human form. He’s carrying a small tray in front of him, holding small plates and a cup of steaming tea.

Oikawa’s lip curls. “What’s that for?”

Ushijima doesn’t startle, but blinks in surprise at being addressed. “I was going to wake you,” he says simply. “You need to eat.”

He sets the tray down on the bedside table, then pulls out the plain wooden chair from the desk and sits down facing Oikawa on the bed. He doesn’t say anything more, but Oikawa feels the weight of his gaze. He probably won’t leave until Oikawa at least tries to eat.

Resigned, he turns to look at the tray. There’s warm bread and cut vegetables, everything looking fresh. There’s a small farm surrounding the Ushijima family home, and Oikawa wouldn’t be surprised to learn that that’s the provenance of this meal. For a moment, he wrinkles his nose. He’s always preferred sweet foods, more sugar than is advisable. Everything on this plate is fresh, including the cut of chicken in one corner.

“Is there something wrong?” Ushijima asks.

“Not at all.” Oikawa grabs at the chicken, ripping into it with just his teeth. Saliva immediately fills his mouth— how long has it been since he last ate? He’s been in and out of consciousness for the past few days, and can’t really remember.

Ushijima nods, apparently satisfied. But he doesn’t leave the room.

When he’s eaten all of the chicken and half of the vegetables, Oikawa turns back to him with an appraising look.

“I haven’t seen Semi-kun around, lately,” he says, voice carefully nonchalant.

Ushijima merely blinks, but Oikawa can see a flicker of something in his dark golden eyes.

“I’m not sure of why that should matter to you,” he says.

“It doesn’t.” Oikawa shrugs and takes a careless sip of his tea. “But I have to wonder if he just got tired of your terrible personality, or if you sent him away for a reason.”

This time, Ushijima doesn’t manage to quash the entirety of his reaction. His brow furrows, and for a moment he looks lost, and so much younger. Then he blinks and shakes his head, eyes dark and impenetrable as a bird of prey’s.

“If you’re going to question my motives, I’ll be forced to question yours.”

Oikawa huffs a laugh. “Wow, Ushiwaka-chan. That sounded almost strategic!”

Ushijima doesn’t rise to the bait. “You’ve purposefully removed yourself from Iwaizumi Hajime.”

“You’re not allowed to talk about him,” Oikawa growls.

“That doesn’t change the facts,” Ushijima says calmly. “So— did he get tired of you, or did you send him away for a reason?”

Having his own words thrown back in his face by Ushijima of all people is more than Oikawa can bear. He pushes himself up on his elbows, preparing to stand. The instant he swings his legs over the side of the bed, Ushijima gets to his feet. And he’s not preparing to confront Oikawa, he’s getting ready to catch him if, when, he falls.

It’s too much for Oikawa to stand, especially when his feet hit the floor and he realizes that his legs won’t support his weight. He’s trapped.

“Damn it,” he mutters, clutching the sides of the bed.

Ushijima is still standing, hovering awkwardly at Oikawa’s bedside. “I did not mean to insult you,” he says finally. “I just want to know what it is that you’re trying to protect.”

Oikawa sighs and lets his head fall back against the pillow, food sitting uncomfortably heavy in his stomach. “The same thing as you, probably. Isn’t that much obvious?”

Ushijima wets his lips, his deep voice perturbed. “I would like to believe that we are on the same side. I’m just not sure that I can.”

Oikawa waves a hand at him. “Go away, now. I need to sleep.”

Ushijima doesn’t argue. And when he’s gone, Oikawa curls up and turns back towards the wall, letting the magic and memories wash over him once more.

The night that Oikawa and Iwaizumi graduate from high school, Oikawa tugs Iwaizumi back to his house late at night and the two of them climb up onto the Oikawas’ roof to look up at the stars.

Iwaizumi sits practically, his back against the slanted incline of the roof and his knees drawn up to his chest. He’s carefully balanced so that he won’t fall. Oikawa ignores his prudent example and sits perpendicular to him, leaning back on his hands and draping his legs across Iwaizumi’s.

“I’m not going to catch you if you fall,” Iwaizumi mutters at him.

“Yes, you will,” Oikawa tells him.

Iwaizumi doesn’t bother arguing with him. “So? What was so important that you needed to show me right now, past midnight?”

Oikawa points upward at the black sky, the silvery stars winking back at them. “Do you know much about constellations, Iwa-chan?”

“You mean, after ten years of hearing you explain them all to me, all the time? Yeah, of course I do.”

Oikawa smirks. “What if I told you that was only half of it?”

“Huh?”

Oikawa reaches out with one hand, holding it palm up and waiting expectantly. Iwaizumi flushes for just a moment before placing his own hand, warm and calloused, over Oikawa’s. Oikawa curls his fingers around Iwaizumi’s, bringing their palms tight together.

The thread of magic between them is still new; it’s only been a few days since it was born. But it blooms easily between them now, a braided pattern of shadow and light that they can both see as it wraps around them.

“Okay, Iwa-chan,” Oikawa says in a hushed voice. “Look up.”

The sky has changed when they both tilt their heads up towards it again. Instead of the familiar silvery stars, now there is a completely different pattern of lights, in all sort of different colors— aquamarine, red, golden, orange. Iwaizumi jumps at the change, and Oikawa puts a steadying hand on his shoulder.

“Don’t worry,” he says kindly, if not a little patronizingly. “It’s always been this way, even if you couldn’t see it before.”

“What,” Iwaizumi says, dazed. He rubs at his eyes, like it’s too much to take in all at once. “What is it?”

“Iwa-chan,” Oikawa says, leaning even closer into Iwaizumi’s space. “I’m going to tell you a story now, okay?”

Iwaizumi looks over at him, gaze steady. He nods. “Yeah. Go ahead.”

“I’m not really sure where magic came from,” Oikawa begins. “I don’t know if anyone is. If we knew that, the rest of this might be easier to figure out. But the point is that the world has two kinds of magic— shadow and light.”

“You’re shadow,” Iwaizumi interrupts, reaching out with his free hand, almost touching the space where his and Oikawa’s magic connects.

Oikawa smiles and shakes his head. “Not entirely. Maybe… eighty percent? Something like that. The rest is light magic. Everyone is some combination of the two, and how much you have of each is dependent upon who you are as a person.”

“So what does it mean that you have more shadow than light?”

“Iwa-chan,” Oikawa chides. “I’m never going to get through this if you keep interrupting me.”

Iwaizumi huffs and shakes his head. “Fine, fine. Keep going.”

“Anyway,” Oikawa starts up again. “Shadow magic is the strength that comes from independence, from making your own decisions and acting on your own. Light magic is the strength of connections, that kind that comes from forging relationships and drawing support from the people around you.”

Iwaizumi just nods, now, his brow wrinkling with concentration. Oikawa knows he’ll commit all of this to memory.

“Even regular humans have some balance of magic, but not enough for it to really matter. They’re unaware of it. But in every generation, there are those born into the world called guardians. They’re creatures who are made of magic, produce more and more as they live. They both are and aren’t human.”

“That’s you,” Iwaizumi says, with absolute certainty.

Oikawa’s cheeks heat up. Even though Iwaizumi knows, now, it’s still hard to sit beside him and admit that he isn’t human.

“That’s right,” he says finally. “The four guardians protect the four cardinal directions. The fox is the guardian of the west.”

Iwaizumi blinks up at him. “So… there’re more of you?”

Oikawa lifts his chin indignantly. “There’s only one of me, Iwa-chan! But yes, there are three other guardians. The crow in the north, and the owl in the east, and the cat in the south.”

As he says this, he points up at the sky. Four points of light create an axis across the inky black of the night— orange, golden, red and aquamarine arranged as the points of a diamond.

“Oh,” Iwaizumi says, his eyes fixed on the aquamarine light. “You’re a star.”

Now Oikawa’s entire face is red. “No,” he says, bashful. “Or, maybe? The stars might be where our powers came from, or they could just be there to guide us. We don’t really know.”

“So who are those lights?” Iwaizumi asks, pointing to the points beyond the cardinal four. Maroon, green, purple and turquoise.

Oikawa wrinkles his nose, his eyes fixed on the maroon light. “The ordinal points. The four of us hold magic in balance, and are meant to protect the normal world from falling to chaos, either through too much shadow or too much light. The ordinals… they’re like a secondary security system. If we fail.”

Iwaizumi is silent for a moment, considering this.

“Honestly, I think they have some other purpose,” Oikawa says quietly. “I don’t spend much time with them, but. I’ve never read anything about them actually being needed. The cardinal guardians never fail. So why are the others even here?”

He jumps when Iwaizumi presses one hand down on the crown of his head, ruffling Oikawa’s hair. “I bet it drives you crazy, huh,” he says, voice fond. “Knowing bits and pieces of this, but not everything.”

“Well, yes,” Oikawa admits, pouting at him.

Iwaizumi shakes his head, chuckling. He keeps running his fingers through Oikawa’s thick brown hair. When he speaks again, his voice is pensive. “So, what about me, then? Why am I here?”

“Iwa-chan!” Oikawa tells him insistently, shaking slightly. “You’re the most important of all! You’re a wielder!”

Iwaizumi frowns. “Like one of those people who fuses metals together?”

“A wielder, Iwa-chan, not a welder,” Oikawa says flatly.

Now Iwaizumi’s laughing. “Yeah,” he says. “So what is a wielder?”

Oikawa leans back on one hand again, the other still holding onto Iwaizumi’s. “That’s an interesting question. You’re the first one.”

Iwaizumi frowns but waits, patient for explanation.

“I produce magic,” Oikawa says. “When I shift between forms, it releases that magic into the world. People and places, objects… they all have magic, have a character of light and shadow. But they can’t really use it. Only wielders can do that.”

“So you’re saying…”

“We’re connected, now,” Oikawa continues. “Wielders are rarer than guardians, and they can only really be effective if their magic perfectly balances their guardian’s, and they have a personal connection, besides. So now… my magic is your magic. I can manipulate magical energy itself, but I can’t turn it into something else. You can. You can draw on our connection to do…”

“To do what?”

Oikawa purses his lips before laughing self-deprecatingly. “I actually don’t know. I told you, you’re the first. We’ll have to play around with it a bit and figure out just what you’re capable of.”

“You know that’s a little weird, right? Telling me that all of a sudden, I’m magic.” Iwaizumi reaches for where the aquamarine gemstone hangs on a slim chain around his neck. It’s warm, warmer since he and Oikawa have been holding hands.

“Deal with it,” Oikawa says airily. “You’re special, Iwa-chan.”

“So none of the others?” Iwaizumi asks, half of a question.

Oikawa shakes his head. “We don’t really have a chance to build strong connections, with other people. When we were young, there was too much risk. Sawamura and Bokuto definitely don’t have anyone like that. But Kuroo…”

Iwaizumi waits again, letting Oikawa collect his thoughts.

“When we were little, maybe a year or two after I met you, Kuroo used to spend all of his time with this kid who lived near our teachers’ house. But then, his teacher told him that Kuroo couldn’t see his friend anymore. He locked himself in his room and didn’t come out for days.”

“You think that kid was his wielder?”

“Maybe,” Oikawa says, still half-lost in thought. “Or maybe Kuroo just really cared about him. It’s hard to tell what would come first.”

Iwaizumi frowns at that, his lips pressed into a firm line. “Why would they do that? Why would your teachers keep them apart?”

Oikawa tilts his head up towards the stars again, his eyes dark and glassy. His thoughts all jumble together for a moment, but then he shakes his head as though to clear it and turns back to Iwaizumi with a bright smile.

“I have no idea,” he admits. “Those old men were pretty secretive, you know!”

Iwaizumi’s still frowning. “I don’t get it. If wielders can use your magic, wouldn’t it be better for you guys to be paired up earlier? Wouldn’t that help you?”

Oikawa shrugs. “I don’t know if that’s how it works. In a lot of the stories, guardians don’t even have wielders. They just live out their lives, mostly alone.”

“That’s stupid,” Iwaizumi declares.

“Huh?”

“You’d never survive on your own,” Iwaizumi scoffs. “You need me.”

He says it so simply, almost like a joke. But there’s a bold truth to his words, and they cut deep into Oikawa’s heart. Of course, he thinks. Of course he needs Iwa-chan. He’s known that for a long time.

But now Iwaizumi knows the truth, and he hasn’t pushed Oikawa away. He hasn’t run away himself. They’re going to go to college together, are even going to live in the same apartment. And now there’s a magical connection between them, so that whenever Oikawa is lonely he can reach out and know that Iwaizumi is there.

He starts to laugh, pure and happy. Iwaizumi startles beside him, then just shakes his head and starts laughing, too. They lean against each other, laughing under the stars as their legs tangle together.

The next few months are a flurry of activity. Oikawa has always known he’d end up in Tokyo eventually, because it’s where this generation’s epicenter of magic is. Bokuto and Kuroo have lived there their entire lives and Sawamura is moving there for university. The white house they were taught magic in now belongs to them, but they get an apartment closer to the center of the city, too, more convenient for getting to eight am classes.

Oikawa doesn’t consider either of those places home, however. That honor belongs to small apartment that he and Iwaizumi get together, which slowly fills up with Oikawa’s astronomy textbooks and Iwaizumi’s calculus and chemistry notes.

University in the city is a different experience from high school out in the countryside. Oikawa has never liked how cramped and urban Tokyo is— there are no convenient woodlands for him to go running in, not many places he can exist unnoticed as a fox.

But he does get to come home every day to Iwaizumi’s cooking and a night of studying together, so he considers the tradeoff worth it.

“You’re coming to lunch with us today, right?” Iwaizumi asks one morning, finishing off his breakfast as Oikawa sips at his too-sweet coffee and flips through one of his notebooks.

“Hm?” Oikawa asks, looking up and blinking. Usually they don’t eat lunch together, since their classes have them on opposite ends of campus and their schedules are even more disparate. “Who’s us?”

Iwaizumi sighs, kicking at Oikawa’s legs under their tiny kitchen table. “Me and Hanamaki. I told you about him, remember? He’s studying physics, we have a lot of the same classes.”

“Oh,” Oikawa says primly. “Iwa-chan’s new friend.”

Iwaizumi rolls his eyes. “Don’t be an idiot,” he grumbles. “I want him to be your friend, too. I think you to would get along, despite everything wrong with your personality.”

Oikawa swats at Iwaizumi across the table. “Rude.”

“True,” Iwaizumi says matter-of-factly, neatly evading Oikawa’s counterattack. “Just show up, okay? The cafe we like, at noon.”

“Alright, alright,” Oikawa sighs, running one hand over his face. Then, he has a spark of inspiration. “I’m going to bring a friend, too!”

Iwaizumi blinks at him. “As long as it’s not a fan,” he says.

Oikawa’s friend is Matsukawa Issei. He studies philosophy, and is generally a better conversationalist that most people Oikawa has met in Tokyo. Most importantly, he seems to turn a blind eye to Oikawa’s idiosyncrasies.

“So you’re going to come to lunch with me and Iwa-chan,” Oikawa tells him that morning when he catches him in the hallway. Matsukawa shrugs and agrees good-naturedly.

A few hours later they’re waiting outside of the cafe when Oikawa sees Iwaizumi approaching with another student in tow. He’s taller than Iwaizumi, and maybe taller than Oikawa himself. But not taller that Matsukawa, which Oikawa counts as some kind of petty victory.

“Iwa-chan,” Oikawa calls out, voice full of false cheer. “You’re late.”

“Sorry.” Iwaizumi pauses in his steps, looking at Oikawa with a rueful smile. He’s wearing a shirt that bares the majority of his arms, his jeans dark and well-fit. University suits him well, Oikawa thinks suddenly. He still looks like home, but with an added layer of assurance. Even the aquamarine gemstone that he keeps tucked into his shirt adds to the impression, its delicate silver chain just visible inside his collar.

Oikawa’s heart hiccups inside of his chest. But a moment later, that emotion is replaced by something else entirely when he gets his first good look at Hankamaki Takahiro.

At first, Oikawa doesn’t register anything about Hanamaki’s appearance, except for the fact that the other man can look him straight in the eye. Oikawa’s vision blurs for a moment, and then he feels the magic of the world shifting around him, concentrating on Hanamaki. It bubbles underneath his skin, like it’s being held there. And there’s something else— a presence, faint but insistent. It’s like the sound of a dog scratching at the door, whining to be let in or out. Quiet, but undeniable. It’s as though there’s someone else trapped beneath Hanamaki’s skin.

Oikawa can feel the magic rising in him, but he can do nothing to stop it.

“Hey,” Hanamaki says easily, as if he isn’t aware of how wrong this is, of how wrong he is. “Iwaizumi’s told me a lot about you.”

Oikawa bares his teeth and growls. It’s unlike any sound he’s ever made before, coming from deep inside his chest. It’s rough and guttural, like the sound of a car engine backfiring. Oikawa moves before he’s aware of it, making the same sound and coming to stand between Hanamaki and Iwaizumi.

“Oikawa,” Iwaizumi says warningly, stepping closer to him.

He’s only dimly aware of Iwaizumi’s voice, of the surprised way Hanamaki and Matsukawa are blinking at him. The rational, human part of his mind is somewhere far away, the fox’s instincts completely in control.

Tooru,” Iwaizumi says, clasping one hand around Oikawa’s wrist.

Whether it’s the the physical contact or the sound of his given name, something in that moment snaps Oikawa back to himself. He shakes his head, clamping his jaw shut with a click.

“I…” He shakes his head more violently, unable to clear it completely. The fox circles round and round in his mind, demanding to be released.

“Excuse us,” Iwaizumi says firmly, nodding at Matsukawa and Hanamaki. Then he tugs Oikawa around the corner and into the men’s room.

Oikawa’s breathing is labored as he leans back against the cool tiled wall and tries to gather his thoughts.

Iwaizumi rounds on him, expression flickering between confusion and anger. “What the hell was that?” he asks. “What’s gotten into you?”

He doesn’t know. He doesn’t know, and that realization is terrifying. His hands are shaking, and Oikawa can feel the insistent pull of his magic, the desire to shift forms and get away from more complex human emotions— shame, confusion, longing.

He slumps against the wall, looking up to see Iwaizumi standing over him, face full of concern.

Oikawa gives into instinct, circling his arms around Iwaizumi’s broad shoulders and pulling him close. He buries his face against Iwaizumi’s neck, still shaking.

“What is it?” Iwaizumi asks. He doesn’t pull away.

“I’m sorry,” Oikawa whispers, trying to pull Iwaizumi even closer.

“Oikawa?” Iwaizumi asks, even as he returns the embrace, hands strong and steady against the small of Oikawa’s back.

“I’m sorry,” Oikawa repeats, words hiccuping out of him. “Can I just… just let me hold you for a second, okay?”

Iwaizumi is silent for one tense moment. Then he runs his hands up and down Oikawa’s back, strong and soothing. “Alright.”

Oikawa clings to him, letting the contact ground his magic and calm his racing heart.

Iwaizumi leaves the bathroom first. By the time Oikawa collects himself enough to follow, Iwaizumi has already gotten them a table and is sitting down with Matsukawa and Hanamaki, who are chatting easily back and forth.

Oikawa pauses a few feet away from the table, his heart too big for his ribcage. He feels a mess of emotions, and can’t tell whether he likes seeing these people gathered like this, comfortable and warm.

“Oikawa,” Iwaizumi says in a too-cheerful voice. “Feeling better? It’s not like you to get sick so suddenly.”

He’s such a terrible liar. Oikawa could almost laugh, but Iwaizumi lifts his brows and jerks his head towards Matsukawa and Hanamaki as though to say Look, I smoothed things over. Just play along, idiot.

So Oikawa does, sweeping in and taking the last chair, between Matsukawa and Iwaizumi. “Sorry about that,” he says smoothly. “Let’s meet properly this time, okay, Hanamaki?”

He has to wait until the end of the week to make it back to the white house. He leaves Iwaizumi behind, telling him he’s going out to run errands. Instead, he takes a train out to the suburbs to the old, abandoned street that has served as the stage for his magical education.

He presses one hand against the old wooden door, the fox carved into it shifting slightly as it admits him inside. Oikawa doesn’t bother checking if the other guardians are home. He heads straight upstairs to the last room down the hall— the library.

She’s sitting at the old blackwood desk there, which makes sense because he’s rarely seen her anywhere else. Shimizu Kiyoko looks like moonlight— pale skin framed by shining dark hair, eyes gray and glowing like clouds passing over the full moon. She looks up at him when he enters, frowning slightly at the sight of him.

“Oikawa,” she says. “Are you here to steal more of my books?”

For once, he isn’t. He’s here to see her, because there’s no one else he ask about what’s happening.

“I actually have to ask you a question,” Oikawa says easily, pulling out the chair across from Shimizu and sitting down, crossing his legs at the ankle.

He’s never really been able to figure her out. Shimizu comes from an old magical family, the original owners of this house and the one that stood on this ground before it. She probably knows more about magic than any of the four cardinal guardians, because she was born into this life in a different way. Magic isn’t something inherent in her person, it’s something she’s learned through careful, lifelong study.

It makes her both helpful and potentially dangerous.

After a moment’s pause, she asks, “What is it?”

Over the years, Oikawa has worked to cultivate tact. He abandons it now, knowing that Shimizu has never fallen for his particular charms.

“Why don’t you just live a normal life?” he asks, keeping his voice carefully idle. “There’s nothing tying you here, you could leave and just forget about all of this. Why do you stay?”

It’s a roundabout way of asking the question he really wants the answer to. He guesses that Shimizu will be smart enough to parse the difference.

“What makes you ask that?”

Oikawa licks over his dry lips, shrugging exaggeratedly. “Hmm, who knows?”

For a moment, he thinks Shimizu will dismiss him and refuse to give a real answer. Then, she bookmarks the page in the book she’d been reading and closes the old, leather-bound cover carefully.

“I think it’s important that I be here,” she says finally, looking down at the book and tracing its title with her fingers. She doesn’t look up at Oikawa.

“But you don’t fit,” Oikawa says, and he doesn’t mean it unkindly. “You’re a wielder, but your magic doesn’t match any of ours. Why would that happen?”

She’s quiet a moment longer, but then she says, “I think you should just ask what you actually want to.”

“It’s like we’re putting together a puzzle without having all the pieces.” Oikawa runs a hand through his hair. “Everything should fit together, and if you’re a wielder who doesn’t fit any of us, that means…”

She just looks at him, waiting for him to complete the thought.

“Are there other guardians?” Oikawa asks.

Shimizu sighs quietly. “Other than you four and the ordinal guardians, you mean?”

Oikawa nods.

“I don’t know,” Shimizu admits. “You’ve read enough of these books to know the way they’re written. They’re stories and legends, rumors and myths. It’s not like having something factual to go off of.”

“But is there even a chance?” Oikawa insists.

She’s goes quiet again, and Oikawa knows that her silence has nothing to do with him. She’s thinking something over to herself, grappling with something. The shadows are always thick, around Shimizu. She’s the most independent person that Oikawa has ever met.

“I hope so,” she says finally. “I think there is a chance, and so I’m waiting.”

Of course. She must be lonely, Oikawa realizes, tangentially connected to their world but not as inherently a part of it as the guardians are. Oikawa remembers the acute loneliness he’d felt before he met Iwaizumi. For the first time, he wonders if Iwaizumi had been lonely, too.

“Do you think there’s someone who’ll turn up, eventually?”

Shimizu smiles a bit sadly. “If any of this means anything, then yes. It’s like you said— why would I be here, otherwise?”

It’s a sobering thought, that the entirety of their lives might not mean anything at all. The world at large is an arbitrary place, but magic gives it purpose, shapes emotions and relationships into pieces that fit together and make sense, into a story that seems to be building to some greater point.

At least, that’s what Oikawa wants to believe.

He doesn’t mention it to Shimizu when he sneaks into the library on another night, and steals the book she’d been reading.

Oikawa tells himself that he should just let things happen on their own, that he should stop worrying. And for a while, it’s easy. He’s busy with school, with balancing his time with Iwaizumi with his duties as a guardian. And there’s all the time they spend working on their magic together, unlocking Iwaizumi’s new talents. More often than not, there’s so much to balance that Oikawa doesn’t even have a moment to spare.

But the thought lingers in the back of his mind, even though Hanamaki is now Makki, to him, and he and Mattsun come over every week for movie nights. The four of them fit together well, and Oikawa thinks that there’s more light in the room when all of them are together.

One day, both Oikawa and Iwaizumi sleep through their alarms. The morning becomes a rush, both of them throwing on jeans and t-shirts and grabbing their books, forgoing breakfast and racing out the door as soon as they’ve brushed their teeth.

They’re laughing a little as they race down the street, Iwaizumi growling that this is Oikawa’s fault for having kept them up late the night before. Oikawa insists that he’s innocent, turning back from where he’s running ahead of Iwaizumi to wave at him teasingly.

He’s not looking where he’s going, but he feels like he’s been doused in cold water when he notices a magical presence beside him. He whips around, looking around at the crowds milling by, trying to find the source of the magic.

His gaze settles on two boys who look like high schoolers. They’re tall, both with dark hair. One’s is gelled straight upwards to a point on top of his head, and the other’s is parted in the middle, his eyes sleepy beneath his bangs.

They’re walking close together, talking quietly. Oikawa feels magic from them, and then same kind of contained presence he feels from Hanamaki. But he can’t tell who it’s coming from— the two boys are too intertwined for Oikawa to get a clear reading off of either of them.

He’s been standing still so long that Iwaizumi’s caught up with him, reaching out and grabbing Oikawa by the shoulder.

“What is it?” he asks roughly. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

Oikawa shakes his head, schooling his expression back into something pleasant and casual. “Nothing at all,” he says.

Iwaizumi looks at him searchingly. He doesn’t believe him, but eventually he sighs and pushes Oikawa forward.

“C’mon, then. We’re late enough as it is.”

The two boys are far up the sidewalk by this point, heading in the opposite direction from Oikawa and Iwaizumi. Oikawa gazes after them for another moment, trying to memorize their faces and their school uniforms.

When he finally moves to continue walking beside Iwaizumi, he catches sight of another figure in the same uniform.

Apparently that school only enrolls tall, dark-haired students, because this one fits the same profile. His hair is very fine, falling across his forehead artlessly. He keeps his gaze fixed on the ground, his steps steady and purposeful.

But then, as if he senses Oikawa’s eyes on him, he looks up.

His eyes are a deep, dark blue. They’re wide and look almost innocent, but the second his gaze locks with Oikawa’s, something happens.

A darkness wells up in the magic around them, overwhelming Oikawa with its intensity. His own magic is mostly shadow, but he’s never felt anything as potent, as painful, as this. The darkness is spiraling in the high schooler’s eyes, like whirlpools. Oikawa’s going to be sucked in, unable to look away.

His knees buckle, hitting the pavement roughly. There’s a pressure building at the base of his neck, like some invisible presence is trying to force is head down. He tries to resist it, but the impulse is so strong it’s painful. Tears prickle the corners of his eyes.

Oikawa.” Someone grabs him under the arm, forcing his upright. Immediately, the pressure alleviates. He can feel the light magic ebbing off of the person beside him, bolstering his own and grounding him.

He shakes his head. “What…”

Iwaizumi is beside him, still holding him. Oikawa glances around, searching for the high schooler. He has kept walking, further up the block, following the path taken by the other two.

Oikawa wonders if the look he’d seen in that boy’s eyes was longing.

Oikawa awakens with a start, gasping out in pain. His knee feels as though it’s on fire, and he can’t even draw it up to his chest without the pain of it stopping him. He tries to breath, tries to focus on what’s real in this room and shake the memories away.

He’s lying on crisp white sheets. There’s a window on one side of the room, out of which he can see the greenery of the Ushijima farm. The walls of the room are painted off-white. The half-empty tray is still on the bedside table.

Ushijima is standing in the doorway.

His face is like carved stone, all sharp lines and broad expanses. Oikawa hates that his expressions are all so similar, that his emotions never seem to be deep or complex. It makes him almost indecipherable.

“What,” Oikawa hisses, “are you just staring at?”

Instead of answering, Ushijima crosses the short distance between them. He looks as though he wants to reach out, to check Oikawa’s fever or do something to alleviate his pain. Instead, he takes a careful step backwards.

“That’s only going to get worse,” he comments. “We need to draw the poison out.”

Oikawa almost laughs. A poison of the body would be easy to heal, or it would have already killed him. This is something different entirely: a magic that has rooted itself in his skin, breaking him down from the inside.

“Do you see a healer?” Oikawa gets the words out from between clenched teeth. He throws out one hand in a careless gesture, indicating the emptiness of the room.

“Sawamura’s wielder is the only one who has those powers,” Ushijima says factually. “I still wonder why you didn’t go to him immediately.”

“If you haven’t figured it out, I don’t really have the time to explain it to you.” Oikawa’s fingers dig into the sheets, the heat from his knee spreading steadily across his leg.

“You don’t have much time, at all.” Ushijima frowns, as though this fact inconveniences him. If Oikawa didn’t know any better, he’d take the furrow in Ushijima’s brow as a sign of concern.

“So?”

“So, you cannot die. Otherwise, all of this will be for nothing.” Ushijima says. “We have to get the poison out, even if we can’t heal you at the same time.”

Oikawa knows he’s right. But the prospect of the pain is still terrifying, as terrifying as the memory of when he’d gotten the wound in the first place. And the one person he usually relies on when he’s scared isn’t here.

He closes his eyes, biting down on the inside of his cheek. “Fine,” he growls out. “Do it fast.”

Ushijima nods, then helps Oikawa maneuver onto his back, his legs out straight in front of him. Oikawa winces as he reaches down to pull up one leg of his loose sweatpants, pulling it up over his knee to reveal the pale skin underneath.

The wound is a jagged gash across his knee, cutting deeper into the soft skin of his thigh. It isn’t bloody or scabbed. Instead, the wound is like a hole in Oikawa’s body, revealing a space that’s dark and fathomless— blue, black and purple all twisting together into what looks like a black hole.

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Ushijima admits, blanching slightly.

“Shut up,” Oikawa hisses, holding out one hand. After another moment’s pause, Ushijima grabs on, their hands clasped tightly.

Their magic has always been compatible. Oikawa is mostly shadow, and Ushijima is mostly light. They’re both guardians and so can’t connect in the same way that either of them would with a wielder. But there’s still something profound and natural about their connection, even as it sends shivers up Oikawa’s spine.

He can feel Ushijima’s magic bolstering his own, the two circling around each other but never quite meeting, like magnets repelling one another. Ushijima reaches down with his other hand and places it almost gently over Oikawa’s knee.

The moment Ushijima reaches for the foreign magic, they both feel it. This is shadow magic in its purest form, no light in it at all. It’s deep and strong, but it is also filled with pain and loneliness.

Sweat breaks out over Oikawa’s brow as Ushijima begins drawing out the magic. It fills the room, a cover of darkness falling over them even though it’s midday.

At first, the process is simple. The shadows are drawn out of him carefully, almost easily. But Oikawa knows the exact moment that Ushijima feels how deep they’ve gotten.

“You know,” Ushijima says roughly, his face scrunched with the concentration it takes to maintain the connection between them. “You know who he is.”

“Focus,” Oikawa snaps, just as the pain begins to set in.

“I can’t— you know,” Ushijima says again, dumbfounded. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Oikawa thinks that he should give Ushijima a little bit more credit, because he’s able to keep up the conversation while continuing to draw the magic out of Oikawa steadily. But because their magic is connected, Oikawa can feel the emotions building up inside of Ushijima— shock, incredulousness, betrayal.

“Where is he, Oikawa? Where is the Shadow King?”

He picks the wrong moment to ask the question. The aquamarine stone hanging beneath Oikawa’s shirt begins to burn. The shadows pooled the deepest won’t come easily, and pain lances through Oikawa’s body just as he opens his mouth to answer.

Instead, he screams.

Chapter Text

Most people would probably consider it a nice day. The sun is beating down upon them, warming the grass as Kenma sits with his legs in front of him, hugging his knees. A gentle breeze blows by, tugging at his loose hair. But the back of his neck is still too warm, the uncomfortable sensation of sweat building in the curve of his throat and under his arms.

He’s about to call out to Kuroo, to tell him he’s going inside, when the wind picks up abruptly. Shielding his eyes with one hand, Kenma glances skyward to see three shadows diving towards him like missiles.

Or, not missiles. That much becomes obvious as they get closer— they’re owls. The three of them are flying in a small V-formation, the great horned owl at its vertex as he leads the other two. The snowy owl flies on his right, the speckled brown on his left. They tuck their wings close to their bodies as they descend, getting as close to Kenma as they can without colliding with him.

He winces when they blow past him, each of them diving to retrieve a small bundle of clothes from the grass before continuing on to land behind one of the overgrown trees in the backyard. Kenma looks after them, scowling.

“They’re late,” Akaashi mutters, coming up beside him. He’d laid out the clothes for the owls half an hour ago, expecting a quicker return.

“Sorry, Akaashi.” Shirofuku Yukie is the first to reappear, now in human form as she smooths down her reddish-brown hair and grins playfully. She’s wearing a knee-length white shift dress that mimics the color of her feathers. “It’s a lot harder to fly when you’re worried about not being seen.”

“Something tells me none of you are good at that,” Akaashi says.

“Don’t judge all of us based on him.” Konoha Akinori steps out from behind the trees, jerking a thumb behind him to where Bokuto must still be. He reaches up to pluck a stray twig from his dirty blond hair, rolling his eyes. “When’s lunch, by the way?”

“Hey!” Bokuto calls out, running out from behind the trees and tugging up his shorts as he goes. “I’m the teacher, here! You’re supposed to give me respect.”

Yukie turns to Akaashi with a scheming smile. “He’s cute, isn’t he? He actually believes that.”

Hey,” Bokuto says again, deflating slightly.

“Oi, Bokuto!” Kuroo’s voice cuts across the yard from where he stands at the edge of the fence with Lev and Taketora. “Some of us are trying to work, here. Shut up, will you?”

“What’s that, Kuroo?” Bokuto asks challengingly, “Are you still trying to catch up? It looks like you’ve got a lot of work left.”

Kuroo grimaces, at that, hands on his hips. He’s been working with Lev and Taketora all morning, but their transitions from animal to human form are still messy at best. Tora has more control than Lev, and Lev has better instincts, but neither of them can transition as smoothly as Kuroo, or even as well as Yukie and Konoha.

Kenma sighs from his position in the grass, wondering if Kuroo takes the other cats’ ineptitude as a reflection of himself. This routine has become commonplace, over the last week— each guardian rounds up the novices under their purview and works through their magic with them. Sawamura still hasn’t found any new crows, and he and Sugawara have been spending most of their time locked up with Shimizu in the library, working on some secret project.

As for Oikawa’s recruits…

Kenma glances over to the far corner of the yard, where Iwaizumi is standing under one of the trees facing Hanamaki and Matsukawa. The two haven’t formed a guardian-wielder bond yet, but Kuroo has mentioned that he thinks it’s only a matter of time. Even now, when Kenma reaches out with his extra perception, he can sense power gathering around Hanamaki as Iwaizumi and Matsukawa work to balance it.

“You look like you’re thinking very hard, Kenma-san!” A shadow falls over Kenma as Lev jogs over to him, leaning down but still looming over where Kenma’s seated in the grass.

Kenma frowns at him. “Aren’t you supposed to be training?”

“Kuroo-san says there’s no point teaching me if I’m not picking up on anything,” Lev says cheerfully, folding his long limbs so that he can sit beside Kenma. “Besides, I wanted to talk to you!”

That never bodes well. Kenma shoots a glare in Kuroo’s direction, but he only turns around and offers Kenma a cheeky wink as he continues working with Taketora.

The owls and Akaashi have all drifted, slightly, carried by their conversation and Bokuto’s increasingly voluminous protests about his teaching ability.

Kenma focuses his attention on Lev with a sigh. “What did you want to talk about?”

“When were you going to tell me that you’re dating your cat?” Lev says, words coming out in a rush, like he’s been holding onto this question since Kuroo explained the nature of magic to him.

Kenma’s cheeks color in a way that has nothing to do with the heat. “Never. Because I’m not.”

Lev tilts his head, blinking his vibrant green eyes. “But you and Kuroo-san,” he starts, frowning.

“He’s not my cat,” Kenma says. “He’s just a person who is sometimes a cat.” And that’s true enough. Even when Kenma wasn’t aware of Kuroo’s human nature, he was still never just a pet. He was always too intelligent, too perceptive, too human.

“But he is your boyfriend, right?” Lev continues eagerly.

“I never said that.”

“Hmm.” Lev rests his chin against one hand, more pensive than Kenma’s ever seen him. “But you’re bonded, right? The way Akaashi-san and Bokuto-san are.”

Kenma blinks his agreement.

“And Bokuto-san and Akaashi-san are dating,” Lev continues, like he’s putting together the pieces of a puzzle.

“Don’t think too hard about it,” Kenma grumbles, trying to force down the uncomfortable feeling rising in the pit of his stomach. “You’ll hurt yourself.”

Lev laughs, the insult not even fazing him. “I’m glad I can talk to you about this stuff, Kenma-san. I think it would be really scary, if everyone here was new.”

Kenma thinks back to the day that all of this had been explained to him, how his bond with Kuroo was the one solid connection he had amidst a sea of new information and new faces. He can’t really disagree with Lev.

“I also wanted to apologize,” Lev says, barely pausing for breath. “For when, the first time— I hurt you, didn’t I?”

Lev’s face is suddenly too close to Kenma’s, his eyes round with concern.

“It’s no big deal,” Kenma mumbles.

“But I’m really sorry!” Lev leans even closer. “I didn’t mean to, you know? And Kenma-san, you’re my best friend! I don’t want you to be mad at me.”

It probably says something about Kenma’s life that his two strongest connections are with people who can turn into a cat and a lion cub, respectively. Still, there’s no doubting the sincerity of Lev’s words.

“I’m not mad at you,” Kenma says. “It wasn’t your fault.”

“I’m going to learn to control it,” Lev says, nodding vigorously. “So that I won’t hurt anyone, and I’ll be the greatest guardian you’ve ever seen! Even more powerful than Kuroo-san or Bokuto-san!”

This time Kenma allows himself a roll of his eyes. “Don’t get ahead of yourself.”

Lev laughs, leaning back to lie down against the sun-warmed grass. “I guess knowing all of this does explain a lot about you, Kenma-san. But it’s still weird seeing you around so many people, all the time. I thought you didn’t like crowds.”

“I don’t.” He’s gotten to know the other guardians and wielders only in snatches of moments; there’s been too much going on for him to speak in depth to any one of them. He doesn’t feel comfortable around them all, yet, and there are new faces appearing all the time.

“But you’re still always here,” Lev says. “You’re not running away.”

His face is burning. He’d forgotten how emotionally intelligent Lev can be, despite also being the most oblivious person on the face of the planet. And Lev knows Kenma better than anyone here, save for Kuroo. He’s probably the only one who realizes how uncomfortable Kenma gets around so many new people, how isolated he can feel even when surrounded by others.

It’s a chink in his carefully-cultivated armor. Kenma suddenly feels raw and exposed.

“I don’t really have a choice,” he says finally, twisting his hands in his lap. “It isn’t about me. You know that what’s happening here is bigger than that.”

Guardians keep the world in balance, protect it. Kenma doesn’t know exactly what they’re protecting it from, but he imagines the twining shadows that constantly threaten to pull him into himself and into despair. If guardians protect the world against that, there’s no more important cause he could support.

“Mm,” Lev hums agreeably. “I think you’re also getting better, you know? You smile a lot more than you used to.”

Kenma frowns severely. “No, I don’t.”

“You do,” Lev insists. “I think it’s because of Kuroo-san.”

Instinctively, Kenma looks back over the yard to where Kuroo is standing, calling out orders to Taketora as he allows his own magic to swirl around him. Kenma knows Kuroo’s magic so intimately, now, that it’s easy to see how Kuroo is manipulating it, releasing it in pulses that Taketora tries to catch and mold.

Seeing magic has reframed Kenma’s entire understanding of the world. He knows that he’s mostly light, a golden glow that can be easily extinguished by shadow. But he also knows that he can find solace in Kuroo’s shadows, a comfortable place he can retreat to whenever the world gets to be too much. The bare knowledge that Kuroo understands him and won’t judge him for his weakness is enough to make Kenma feel stronger.

But putting a name to that relationship is harder. Guardian and wielder is too functional, too esoteric. They’re partners, sure, but that doesn’t even begin to cover the wealth of feelings that Kenma has for Kuroo.

They’ve promised to always be by each other’s side— but Kenma still feels an uncertain giddiness when Kuroo’s near him.

“He’s not my boyfriend,” Kenma says aloud, forgetting himself for a moment.

“Sure,” Lev says. “But you want him to be.”

Before Kenma can respond, Kuroo turns towards them and cups his hands around his mouth, projecting his voice.

“Hey, Lev! Break time’s over. Get your ass back here, now!”

Lev rushes to his feet, stumbling over his long legs as he scrambles to obey the order. “Bye, Kenma-san! We can talk more later, right?”

“Sure,” Kenma mutters, barely audible. It’s not as if he had an answer for Lev right now, anyway.

Kenma lets his thoughts wander, after that. He and Kuroo have trained with their own magic, their own connection, but right now getting the new guardians up to speed is taking precedence. For Kenma, using magic is quickly becoming second nature. Maybe it’s because the nature of his magic is so tied to his thoughts and others’— a thought is all it takes for it to work.

He lies back in the grass with a sigh, looking up at the clear blue sky. Spring is quickly racing by, and soon it will be summer. Time has moved so much more quickly, since he’d met Kuroo.

It’s a few minutes later when Iwaizumi breaks off from Hanamaki and Matsukawa and jogs towards Kenma. Hanamaki is in coyote form, curling up around Matsukawa’s legs as he leans back against the tree trunk.

“Hey,” Iwaizumi says, lifting the hem of his shirt to wipe the sweat from his brow. “Can I talk to you for a sec?”

Kenma blinks. “You already are.”

Iwaizumi grins wanly. “You know, I thought you were shy the first time we met, but you’re really just blunt as hell, aren’t you?”

Kenma shrugs. “You were saying…?”

“Right.” Iwaizumi shakes his head, taking a seat beside Kenma. “Shimizu was saying part of your magic is finding people.”

He frowns at that. “I don’t think that’s how it works.”

“But you found Kuroo, didn’t you? When he was missing?”

That is true. But that had been a result of the nascent bond between the two. Kenma had dived into his magic headfirst, searching for the thread of connection between them and using that to find out where Kuroo was.

“He was just next door,” Kenma mutters. “And using a lot of magic. It was easy to sense him, because of that.”

Iwaizumi nods, frowning. “I wish I could find Oikawa, that way,” he says wistfully. “But my powers don’t work that way at all.”

Kenma still wonders what exactly Iwaizumi can do, when his connection to Oikawa is active. Each of them have such disparate talents as wielders that it’s impossible to guess.

“So what are you asking me for, then?”

Iwaizumi scuffs his heels through the grass. “I think it’s pretty stupid, not to mention dangerous, of us to keep waiting for these new guardians to transform before we find them. So if we could look for them ahead of time…”

Kenma shakes his head. “We have no idea of knowing where they’ll show up,” he says. “Or who they’ll be.”

“You don’t,” Iwaizumi says, reaching into the pocket of his jeans for his cell phone, “But Oikawa did.”

It takes a few moments to pull up the list. Kenma remembers the names, starting with Makki. Oikawa had obviously found some way of pinpointing who the new guardians would be, before the others even knew that there would be new guardians at all. The more Kenma finds out about him, the less he’s inclined to trust Oikawa. He and Iwaizumi are partners, the same way Kuroo and Kenma are. So why didn’t he tell Iwaizumi anything?

“So we have the names,” Iwaizumi is saying. “Yahaba, Kunimi, Tobio… with that, and your magic, maybe we could come up with something.”

Honestly, it sounds like a great deal of effort that might not yield any reward. And part of Kenma is apprehensive, independent of that— diving into the flow of magic had been terrifying, the first time. Now, when he draws on it, he uses Kuroo as an anchor. But if he drifts further, looking for other guardians… he could get swept away in the tide of shadow and light.

“Oikawa spoke to Hanamaki before he disappeared,” Iwaizumi says roughly. “He warned him. What if he spoke to these others, too? What if he told them where he went?”

The tinge of desperation in Iwaizumi’s tone is too much for Kenma. He clenches his hands in the fabric of his shirt, trying to find a graceful way out of this.

“I don’t know if it will work,” he says, finally.

“I know,” Iwaizumi responds. “But could you at least try?”

Kenma heaves a heavy sigh. “It might not work.”

It’s hard not to like Iwaizumi, with his blunt honesty and easy practicality. But Kenma is suspicious of that, as well. He’s already bound to enough people. He doesn’t need more connections pulling him in different directions.

“But you don’t know that it won’t,” Iwaizumi says, pushing himself back to his feet. “And anyway, isn’t finding all of these guys what we’re all working towards?”

Kenma’s about to respond when a flash of aquamarine light bursts in front of his eyes. Iwaizumi, on his feet, lets out a gasp of pain. The gemstone hanging around his neck is glowing, bright enough that it seems to burn through the white cotton of his t-shirt.

“What,” Iwaizumi stutters, clenching his jaw against the pain. Small trembles wrack his body, and he clutches his right knee, hissing as he loses his balance and falls forward.

Kenma doesn’t move in time to catch him, and Iwaizumi collapses onto his hands and knees, chest heaving. Beads of sweat drip down his face, and he screws his eyes shut, chest heaving.

“S-someone,” Kenma calls out, his voice cracking, “We— he needs help.”

He hates the way anxiety spikes through his chest, impaling him and keeping him frozen in place as he stares ineffectually at Iwaizumi. But his body won’t respond, and he doesn’t know what he would do, if he could move.

Luckily, they aren’t alone. Bokuto’s group is closest, and it’s Akaashi who reaches them first. He looks from Kenma and Iwaizumi with mild alarm before immediately reaching down to grab Iwaizumi’s arm, offering him support.

In the next instant, Akaashi crumples as well, falling to his knees beside Iwaizumi and pressing both hands against his chest. He doesn’t steel himself against the pain as well as Iwaizumi, and his stoic exterior shatters as he screams.

By now, Yukie, Konoha and Bokuto are surrounding them, and the others are running in from the far corners of the garden.

“Akaashi,” Bokuto says, voice strangled as he reaches for his wielder.

The others stand a hair’s span away, looking alarmed.

“He’s an empath,” Yukie says quietly, “It has to be— emotional pain, not physical. Too much for him to block out.”

Bokuto picks Akaashi up in his arms, clutching him tightly as Akaashi tries to even out his breathing. But every time he seems to calm, he shakes violently and lets out another pained scream.

“He’s screaming,” Iwaizumi hisses, hair drenched with sweat. The aquamarine gem is still burning against his chest.

“We can see that,” Konoha snaps, looking frazzled.

“Not him,” Iwaizumi wheezes. “Too— Oikawa.”

Kenma snaps to attention at that, déjà vu washing over him. Hadn’t he experienced the same thing, not so long ago? It was Kuroo’s pain that had let Kenma find him, when he’d been corned by Daishou. And that, too, was more of an emotional pain than a physical one.

“Make it stop,” Bokuto growls. The golden stone in his ring flashes, and light magic floods the area, washing over Akaashi and Iwaizumi with purpose.

“What the hell is going on?” Kuroo snaps, finally reaching them. Lev, Taketora, Matsukawa and Hanamaki are behind him, the coyote slipping past the others and coming to stand protectively over Iwaizumi’s prone form.

Bokuto is still emitting light, bright and too warm, like the sun’s rays. In his arms, Akaashi is quieting, breathing heavily as he clutches onto Bokuto’s arms for support.

Iwaizumi glances up, face red and voice hoarse. “Someone hurt him,” he says, eyes glazed over. He’s no longer seeing the backyard, but some faraway place. His features contort with anger, teeth bared as he says, “I’m going to kill them.”

And then he collapses backwards, unconscious.

Bokuto carries Akaashi into the house, and Kuroo and Matsukawa hoist Iwaizumi between themselves. They disappear into the bedrooms, Bokuto rushing ahead and calling out for Sugawara as they go.

Kenma collapses onto the couch in the living room, hands shaking. He hasn’t felt so utterly impotent since he’s been able to use magic. But in those moments, there was absolutely nothing he could do to help. The pain had come on so quickly, and now he’s left alone while the others scurry around, being actually useful.

“What good am I?” Kenma murmurs, hugging his knees to his chest.

Hey.” Kuroo’s back, standing behind the couch and looking down at Kenma disapprovingly. “Cut that shit out.”

Kenma sighs. “I didn’t do anything.”

“You were going there, again,” Kuroo says, coming around the couch so he can sit next to Kenma, right beside him even though the couch is long enough to seat four comfortably. “I’m not going to let you.”

Kenma slumps against Kuroo’s side as Kuroo slings an arm over his shoulders. “Will they be alright?”

Kuroo frowns. “I don’t know,” he says. “It wasn’t physical, so there’s not much Sugawara can do for them. Akaashi’s the one who might be able to glean something off those emotions, but now he’s down for the count…”

Kenma swallows nervously. “Something terrible is happening, isn’t it?”

Kuroo’s silent for a long moment, picking at the loose threads in his worn flannel shirt. “I don’t know,” he says finally. “Ever since everything with Daishou, it’s been obvious that things are happening that we don’t understand. I don’t know who would be keeping Oikawa away from us, or what they’re after. Honestly, it’s a little frightening.”

Or terrifying, Kenma thinks. He curls closer to Kuroo, head against Kuroo’s shoulder.

“Iwaizumi thinks I can find the other guardians,” he says quietly. “Do you think that would help?”

Again, Kuroo doesn’t answer immediately. Kenma can see the wheels turning in his head as he puts the details together, trying to find a comfortable angle on a situation that they only have pieces of information about.

“Well,” he says, “it couldn’t hurt, right?”

They sit cross-legged on the couch, facing each other. Kenma reaches out for Kuroo’s hand, clutching it tightly. They don’t need to be physically connected for Kenma to draw on Kuroo’s magic, but he feels better this way. Kuroo’s palm is warm and calloused against his, and Kenma takes a deep breath as he sees the double-helix glowing red behind his eyes.

Yahaba, Kunimi, Tobio.

He repeats the names in his mind like a mantra, thinking about the particular feeling of Iwaizumi and Hanamaki’s magic and searching for something similar. Waves of color wash over him— red and golden, with touches of orange and aquamarine. He follows the aquamarine, going deeper and deeper into the magic as the names bounce across his mind like an echo.

He’s not sure what he’s seeing, the first time he notices someone. It’s definitely shadow magic, a swirling vortex of darkness that gives off the same ominous presence as a sea monster— it could reach out and grab Kenma, drowning him, before he was even aware of it.

Maybe it’s because of the nature of his own magic, but Kenma fears shadows that deep. He shies away from them, continuing his search.

Finally, he spots a more even pattern of magic, shadow and light dappling together. He goes closer, feeling something light and solid before him. He smells gardenias.

He blinks open his eyes, gasping for breath as Kuroo holds tightly to his hand.

“What happened?” he asks, when he’s given Kenma a second to catch his breath. “Did you find someone?”

Kenma holds onto Kuroo and nods. “I think so,” he says slowly, trying to pull the knowledge he’d gleaned from the ephemeral space of magic to the real, solid world. “I think it’s Yahaba.”

They had laid Iwaizumi down in Oikawa’s room. Kenma’s never been in there before— it’s about the same size as Kuroo’s, but instead of a western-style bed there’s a futon along one wall and a low table pushed up against another. Considering its occupant hasn’t been here in weeks, the room almost feels too sterile. The walls are pure white, as is the enormous desktop monitor on the table, and the bookshelves are stacked neatly. There’s even a neatly-ironed shirt hanging from a hook on the back of the door.

Iwaizumi is curled up on the futon, scowling in his sleep and muttering to himself. His face is mashed into the pillow, and he’s clutching it with desperately curled fingers.

Kenma isn’t sure how to approach him, but Kuroo has no such qualms. He crosses the room quickly, stands in front of the futon and yells out, “Oi, Iwaizumi! Get up, we’ve got work to do.”

Iwaizumi jolts upright in bed, still clutching the pillow as he looks around with clouded eyes. “Wh—what?”

Kuroo grins at him, waving one hand. “Good morning. Feeling any better?”

“What happened?” Iwaizumi’s voice is rough as gravel. He drags a hand over his face, blinking the sleep from his eyes. He shudders violently before squaring his shoulders, lifting himself up and getting to his feet.

“We were hoping you could tell us, actually,” Kuroo says, voice kinder now. “You just sort of collapsed. Do you remember anything?”

His eyes narrow as Iwaizumi considers this. Lips pressed into a firm line, he nods. “It was… the connection. For weeks, I haven’t been able to feel Oikawa at all. And then suddenly, it was like it was on fire. Like someone was stabbing something into my skin.”

Kuroo winces. “And you have no idea what caused it?”

Iwaizumi shakes his head. “No,” he says gruffly. “I couldn’t get anything from it, only that Oikawa was— is?— in pain.”

He stares down at his bare feet, hands clenched at his sides. For a moment, Kenma feels guilty. Maybe he should have been looking for Oikawa, with his magic, rather than the new guardians. But he’s not sure he could pinpoint Oikawa even if he tried. If Iwaizumi, who has such a strong and direct connection to him, can’t glean where he is, then what chance does Kenma stand?

“We found one of them,” Kenma says quietly. “Another of the names on the list.”

Iwaizumi swirls to face him, expression open and incredulous. “Seriously?”

Kuroo and Kenma both nod in unison.

“Then what’re we waiting for? Let’s go.”

Matsukawa is sitting at the kitchen table, Hanamaki curled up at his feet. Shimizu, Sugawara and Sawamura are standing by the stove, heads bowed together as they discuss something between themselves.

“You’re okay,” Matsukawa says, clearly relieved, when Iwaizumi enters the kitchen with Kuroo and Kenma.

Iwaizumi rubs at the back of his neck. “Yeah. Sorry to worry you.”

Hanamaki looks up and gives a soft yip before pressing his head down against his front paws.

“Hm?” Iwaizumi asks him, cocking his head. He shakes his head. “Don’t stay like that too long, okay?” And then, turning back to Matsukawa, “Make sure he changes back soon.”

Matsukawa nods, nudging at Hanamaki’s white-furred stomach with his toes. Hanamaki rolls over onto his back, clearing enjoying the attention.

“Are you guys going somewhere?” Sawamura asks, stepping forward. He looks constantly tired, lately, deep bags under his eyes and a line across his brow that he refuses to acknowledge.

“We’re just going to go check on something,” Kuroo says. “You can hold down the fort here, right?”

“Not like we have much of a choice.” Sawamura sighs. “Be careful, okay?”

Kuroo favors him with a cheeky two-fingered salute. “Of course.”

“You didn’t want to bring Matsukawa and Hanamaki with us?” Kuroo asks as the three of them walk down the street.

“Would you have brought Haiba?” Iwaizumi shoots back.

Kuroo barks out a laugh. “No way. That guy’s more trouble than he’s worth, right now.”

Kenma frowns, but decides it’s not really worth his time defending Lev’s honor. He is too unpredictable at the moment, too unused to his own magic.

“Hanamaki’s getting the hang of it,” Iwaizumi says thoughtfully, “But he has nothing near Oikawa’s finesse with it.”

“To be fair, no one has Oikawa’s finesse,” Kuroo says. “I swear, most of the time he seemed more magic than person.”

Iwaizumi scowls. “Yeah, well. I don’t think any of that newer set is ready to be let out into the world. I’m not going to be responsible for them if something goes wrong.”

“You’re probably right.” Kuroo’s walking along the edge of the sidewalk, arms splayed out at his sides like he’s balancing on a tightrope. “Matsukawa hasn’t become Hanamaki’s wielder yet, has he?”

“No,” Iwaizumi mutters. “I don’t really get how that works, anyway. Oikawa and I knew each other for years before…” He trails off, lost in thought as his sneakers scuffle against the sidewalk.

Kuroo hums to himself, thoughtful. “None of the other newbies have wielders,” he says sagely. “There must be some reason—”

“Turn right,” Kenma says, poking Kuroo in the side.

It’s a quaint-looking café, surrounded by a white picket fence and designed with a motif of vines and pale pink flowers. Wide umbrellas stand over the outdoor tables, and the servers wear crisp white aprons over their green and pink-striped shirts.

“This place looks like how grandmothers smell,” Kuroo says, nose wrinkling with distaste.

“No one’s telling you to live here,” Kenma says to him. “We just have to find Yahaba.”

“And how do we go about doing that, again?” Iwaizumi asks.

Kenma presses his lips together and reaches out for the magic, again. It’s easier, this time, now that he knows what he’s looking for. He’s surrounded on all sides by the muted, latent magics of individuals— small snatches of shadow and light that don’t matter much. Beside him, he can sense Kuroo’s deep shadows and Iwaizumi’s radiant light. But beyond that, if he follows the softer aquamarine light and the scent of gardenias…

“There,” Kenma says, pointing towards a table in the back. A young man in the café’s uniform sits there, brushing his soft hair back into place with one hand as the other holds up a notepad that he looks at with fierce concentration. His table is covered with other bits of paper—receipts and orders, from the look of it. He must be doing the accounts.

“That’s Yahaba?” Iwaizumi asks.

Kenma nods. “As far as I can tell.”

“Alright.” Iwaizumi squares his shoulders. “Let’s do this.”

Thankfully, Yahaba’s table is back in a corner, so the three of them approaching doesn’t garner much of a reaction from the other people in the café. Iwaizumi takes the lead, coming up near Yahaba’s chair and clearing his throat.

“Yes?” Yahaba asks absently, before looking up to blink at Iwaizumi. “I’m sorry, Watari should be manning the front— he can find you a table—”

“We’re not here about that,” Iwaizumi says, straightforward as ever. “Listen, there’s something I need to speak to you about. About Oikawa.”

The name gets a reaction. Yahaba’s round brown eyes go even wider, and he looks almost scared for a moment before he schools his expression back to careful neutrality. Now that they’re closer, it’s easy to see that Yahaba doesn’t look quite healthy— his cheeks are flushed, and there’s a light layer of sweat clinging to his skin despite being in a shadowered corner of the cool café.

“You’re… Iwaizumi-san?” Yahaba says, looking at Iwaizumi critically.

If Iwaizumi is surprised, he hides it well. “That’s right. And these two are Kuroo and Kenma. I take it you know my name, that means you know Oikawa.”

“I’m Yahaba Shigeru,” he says politely, with a nod of his head. “But I haven’t seen Oikawa-san in a while. Yahaba frowns like he’s not sure how to reconcile Iwaizumi’s presence with his mundane café job. “Where has he been?”

The question has Iwaizumi clenching his fists. And even though Kenma isn’t reaching for his magic, he can read Iwaizumi’s thought, potent and unmistakable—

I don’t know. I think it’s my fault.

“I need to know the last time he spoke with you,” Iwaizumi says aloud. “And what he said. It’s important.”

Yahaba bites down on his tongue. He’s looking increasingly uncomfortable, eyes darting around the café to make sure no one else is paying attention to them. He keeps absently patting down his hair, as though if it lies perfectly, the rest of the situation will also fall into line.

“He said a lot of things,” Yahaba says quietly. “Listen I don’t— can you tell him I changed my mind? I don’t want this, anymore.”

“You’re fighting it,” Kuroo says in wonder, leaning closer to get a better look at Yahaba’s face. Yabaha shirks back, uncomfortable. “You probably should’ve transformed days ago, but you’re fighting it. Why?”

Yahaba keeps leaning further back in his chair, putting as much distance between himself and Kuroo as possible. “I don’t know what you mean,” he says firmly.

Kuroo scoffs. “Be reasonable. You’re obviously in pain.”

“I’m not,” Yahaba insists, teeth clacking with the force of his words.

“Kuro,” Kenma says, tugging on Kuroo’s sleeve. “Shut up.”

“But he’s—” Kuroo looks irritated, and confused. Like he can’t fathom why someone wouldn’t want to transform into an animal at will.

“Not everyone’s like you,” Kenma continues, tugging at Kuroo again. “Come on. Let Iwaizumi talk to him. You can buy me apple pie.”

“Fine,” Kuroo grits out. He turns to Iwaizumi. “You got this?”

Yahaba, staring between the three of them, looks about ready to bolt. Iwaizumi runs a hand through his hair.

“Yeah. Let me talk to him alone.”

Kenma pulls Kuroo away from Iwaizumi and Yahaba. When they’ve found a table to sit at a few feet away, a shorter waiter with close-shaved hair comes by to take their order. He’s friendly in an unpretentious way, smiling at them when Kuroo says they’ll be sharing a single slice of apple pie. His name tag reads Watari Shinji.

When the pie and drinks arrive, Kenma stares at them for a moment. Devoid of any context, this moment could be a date—the two of them sitting in this fancily perfumed café, eating dessert and talking about anything that isn’t magic. And he wants that, he realizes. He wants to be able to just go out with Kuroo, and spend time with him, and be together just for the sake of it. He wants to have a normal relationship.

Kuroo sips at his coffee and looks suspiciously over the edge of the mug, over at Yahaba. “You still listening to them?” he asks Kenma.

Kenma stabs a piece of apple with his fork. “That would be eavesdropping,” he says blandly. “And we’re too far away to hear.”

“Sure, to hear,” Kuroo replies easily. “But that’s not exactly what you do, is it?”

Kenma doesn’t deign to respond, but he does let the magic surround him, focusing in on Iwaizumi and Yahaba.

“—I thought it would make me cool,” Yahaba is saying, face half-hidden behind one hand. “Or, I don’t know, special. Oikawa-san always seemed special, you know? I wanted to be a part of that.”

“I understand the feeling,” Iwaizumi says, reaching up towards the aquamarine pendant under his shirt before he stops himself. “But then, what changed?”

“I don’t feel special anymore,” Yahaba says, worrying his bottom lip between his teeth. “I thought Oikawa-san would be here. But he’s not, and now I’m just— I’m scared, Iwaizumi-san. It feels like there’s someone else living in my head, trying to get out.”

“I know it must be weird. But if you don’t run away from it, we can help you. I promise.”

“I don’t want it, at all! Can’t you just make it go away?” Yahaba bites down on his lip, hard enough to draw blood. “I just feel— I’m so alone, now. I just want to go back to normal.”

“No one’s going to force you to do anything,” Iwaizumi says. His voice is low, reassuring. “Believe me, none of us chose this.”

“You did.” Yahaba interrupts.

“How’d you figure that?”

“Oikawa-san told me,” Yahaba says, staring down at his lap. “That some people are born with magic, and other people get it through connections. He said you wouldn’t be part of this at all, it if wasn’t for him. That you chose it.”

“I…” Iwaizumi trails off, looking dumb-struck. “I mean, I guess. But that’s not really the point. If you keep fighting this, it’s going to hurt you in the long run. And if you let us help you, you definitely won’t be alone.”

Yahaba shakes his head. He shivers slightly, cheeks red with fever. “I don’t know… where is Oikawa-san? Why won’t he answer my calls?”

“I wish I could tell you,” Iwaizumi says lowly, wistfully. “Look, here’s my number. Just— think about it? I don’t want you to get hurt, kid.”

“I’m only a year younger than you.” Yahaba smiles weakly.

“Definitely still a kid, then.”

There’s a low noise from behind them, and both Yahaba and Iwaizumi turn to face another of the café’s employees. He’s scowling at them, arms laden with heavy boxes. His hair is dyed a strange combination of yellow and black, and with his slumped posture and heavy brows he looks distinctly at odd with the cheerful colors of his uniform.

“Who’s this?” he asks, voice rough.

“Kyoutani,” Yahaba says, voice pitched high but undercut with irritation, “Aren’t you supposed to be doing inventory?”

“You’ve been talking to him for half an hour,” Kyoutani grumbles.

“So? That’s none of your business,” Yahaba snaps.

“I’m gonna get going,” Iwaizumi interrupts, pushing himself to his feet. “Yahaba— call me if you need me, okay? For anything.”

Yahaba swallows before nodding twice. “Alright.”

It’s a long walk back from the café to the train station, and Iwaizumi, Kuroo, and Kenma don’t speak much at all. The sun is setting behind them and the streets are strangely empty. Iwaizumi is brooding and Kuroo’s somewhere far away in his thoughts, no doubt still mulling over Yahaba’s stubborn reluctance to transform.

Kenma’s trying to edge away from the awkwardness he feels between the three of them, not paying much attention to where he’s going. He doesn’t realize there’s someone close by until he’s crashed into them.

He stumbles backwards, glancing up to see a tall young man with violently red hair. It sticks up from his head at odd angles, revealing a wide brow and far-set, too wide eyes.

“Ouch,” the newcomer says, even though he hadn’t budged an inch when Kenma walked into him.

Kenma takes another step back instinctively, until he’s right beside Kuroo.

Kuroo glares at the redhead for a moment, lips pulling into a grimace. “Watch where you’re going next time, alright?” he says casually, pulling Kenma around the redhead and further up the sidewalk.

They both stop and blink when the same man appears directly in front of them, again.

“You didn’t say sorry,” he says, voice lilting. “That’s sorta rude, you know?”

“What the hell,” Kuroo says, spinning around.

The redhead appears directly in front of him again. “Hel-lo, Cat-san. You’re not very bright, are you?”

He’s wearing a baggy sweatshirt that falls over his wrists and knees. But when he lifts his hand to wave cheekily at Kuroo and Kenma, his sleeve falls back to reveal the silver bracelet around his wrist, set with a large maroon stone.

The gem glows from within, sparking with the tell-tale signs of magic.

“Who are you?” Kuroo asks, stepping directly between the man and Kenma. He turns his head back in Iwaizumi’s direction. “Iwaizumi—”

They’ve been cornered. There’s another man standing in front of Iwaizumi, arms crossed over his chest. He’s less chatty than the redhead, lips pulled into a straight line. His hair is dark at the tips, and on one wrist he wears a bangle identical to the redhead’s.

Iwaizumi ducks around this one, coming to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Kuroo. “Something tells me we aren’t being mugged,” he mutters.

“You hear that, Eita?” The redhead calls out to his companion. “They think we’re criminals.”

“I think you’re kind of a freak,” Kuroo mutters under his breath.

“Rude,” the redhead tuts again. The space where he was standing is suddenly empty, and then he reappears next to his companion— Eita. The two walk with purpose back towards Kenma and the others, the redhead with an idly playful expression and Eita with cold focus in his eyes.

“Who are you?” Iwaizumi demands. “What are you— how did you do that?”

“Wielding powers sure are cool, aren’t they, Iwaizumi-kun?” The redhead asks, leaning against Eita’s side. “We thought you’d know all about them.”

“He’s teleporting,” Kuroo says, voice half awe and half irritation.

“Tendou,” Eita says, pushing the redhead away from him, “Shut up for a second.”

He clears his throat and steps forward, hands raised as though to show peaceful intentions. “Don’t mind him. We’re just here to talk. I’m Semi Eita, and this is Tendou Satori.”

“Great,” Iwaizumi drawls. “What the fuck do you want?”

“Mean,” Tendou chides, before Semi elbows him in the side.

“You’re seeking out new guardians,” Semi says evenly. “Have you found the Shadow King, yet?”

Kuroo rolls his eyes. “Not this shit again. How many times do we have to say we don’t know?”

“I think you do,” Tendou says, stretching his arms up over his head. “At least, Oikawa-kun seems to know. But he’s being so difficult about it. It’s really not fair, you know? To hold onto such a big secret.”

“—you know where Oikawa is,” Iwaizumi says, voice almost too low to be heard.

Tendou smiles widely. “Of course. But you know, it’s hard to get anything useful out of him. I keep telling Wakato—”

Whatever he’s about to say is lost, because as Iwaizumi growls and takes a menacing step forward, Tendou chokes. He brings his hands up to his neck, pulling at some invisible noose as he struggles to breath.

“Where is he?” Iwaizumi demands hotly. His hands are extended in front of him, fingers curled as though he’s choking Tendou. Beneath the cotton of his shirt, the aquamarine stone blazes. “What have you done to him? Where is he?”

He lifts his hands, and Tendou rises in the air, kicking his feet ineffectively.

“Hey,” Kuroo says, putting a restraining hand on Iwaizumi’s shoulder, “Calm down, for a second—”

“Put him down,” Semi hisses, stepping forward. His dark brows narrow dangerously over his eyes, and he extends a hand. Above his palm, shadow and light begin to spiral together, tighter and tighter until they’ve formed a small, volatile sphere. “Now.”

Kenma struggles to process everything that happens in that next moment. Iwaizumi is still holding Tendou in the air without making physical contact, and Semi swings his arm, sending the sphere of magic careening towards them with a flash of light.

“Hey!” Kuroo yells, again, before throwing himself between the sphere of magic and Iwaizumi and Kenma. He extends both arms in front of him, and Kenma feels him tugging on his magic as a wall of shadow comes up in front of them. The sphere crashes against Kuroo’s wall, and the world seems to explode into white noise.

Semi’s attack collides with Kuroo’s shield, sending all five of them tumbling in different directions. Iwaizumi loses his control over his magic, and Tendou tumbles to the ground a moment later. He pushes himself up on his hands and knees, coughing as Semi steps protectively in front of him.

“Honestly,” Semi mutters, extending a hand once more, the maroon stone set in his bangle gleaming. “We’re all on the same side, aren’t we? If you know who he is, you have no right to keep that to yourselves.”

“We don’t know,” Kuroo says hotly. As Semi gathers energy for another attack, Kuroo splays his hands and reinforced his shield. Kenma feels him pulling at their shared magic, putting more strain on the connection than there’s been since it formed. Maybe it’s because Tendou and Semi have their own connection to draw on— facing them is taking more magic than facing Daishou did.

As if he’s read Kenma’s mind, Kuroo turns back to him. “Can you— search for weaknesses, or something? Like last time?”

“Of course you know,” Tendou is saying, having regained his voice. “Or at least, he does.” He points one figure accusingly at Iwaizumi.

“Excuse me?” Iwaizumi blinks, looking baffled.

“Don’t play dumb,” Tendou chides, voice childish but angry. “Everyone knows you were the first wielder. If Oikawa knows, he definitely told you.”

Kenma focuses on Tendou, letting his magic draw out any other thoughts he might not be voicing. He catches glimpses— Tendou’s thoughts are jumpy and erratic, leaping from one topic to another with seemingly no rhyme nor reason. It’s almost like the way he teleports, disappearing and repairing somewhere else entirely.

“He’s not lying,” Kenma murmurs. “He definitely thinks Oikawa knows, and that he told you, Iwaizumi.”

“But he didn’t,” Iwaizumi says. He looks stricken, and utterly betrayed. Of course, there are many things Oikawa hadn’t told him. He hadn’t even told Iwaizumi where he was going. How betrayed must Iwaizumi feel by that? How can he still count on the trust between him and Oikawa when Oikawa apparently knew the biggest secret of all, and left without telling anyone?

“Enough of this,” Semi says. He swings his arm again, letting loose another burst of magical energy that slams against Kuroo’s shield.

Kuroo hisses, pulling on more and more magic to reinforce the block and keep the three of them safe.

“Someone call for backup,” he mutters, wincing as Semi’s magic tries to force its way through. “Kenma— call Bokuto!”

It takes Kenma a moment to realize what Kuroo means. But then he nods, reaching out as far as he can with his magic before he finds a burst of light that almost exactly the same as his own magic.

We need help, he thinks frantically, We’re being attacked. Kuro needs help.

He’s too far away to tell if Bokuto receives his message. But he also doesn’t have time to dwell on it, because Tendou charges at them, disappearing momentarily and then reappearing right next to the block, stumbling backwards and rubbing at his head.

“Ow,” he whines. “Why didn’t that work?”

“He’s trying to get through,” Kuroo says, shuddering as he pulls on more and more magic. “I can’t— I won’t be able to maintain it, at this rate. Iwaizumi, a little help here?”

“I can’t,” Iwaizumi says, voice rough with frustration. “I didn’t think I could do any of that, without Oikawa. It only lasted a second, and now…” The gem on his chest gives off a weak flash of light before going dim again. “God damn it.”

“We’re not going to let you destroy all of us just because you’re being stubborn,” Semi says, bringing both of his hands together. The sphere that gathers there is much larger than his earlier attacks, the size of a basketball. He hoists the spiraling energy over his head and hurls it towards Kuroo’s shield.

The shadowy wall shatters on impact.

Tendou rushes forward, but Semi staggers on his feet. He’s dripping with sweat, face flushed and too red. He takes a step forward before falling to his knees, collapsing under the weight of the magic he’d expended.

“Eita,” Tendou gasps, turning back just before he’d been about to reach Kuroo and the others. “Eita!”

Kuroo falls to his knees, as well, his eyes rolling backwards as he struggles to maintain consciousness. “Holy shit.” He coughs, clutching his chest as though something has been lodged in his heart.

“Kuro!” Kenma rushes forward, catching Kuroo just as his head tips backwards and he loses consciousness. Kenma shakes him, terrified. “Kuro!”

“Get back,” Iwaizumi says, stepping in front of the two of them, placing himself as a barrier between them and Semi and Tendou.

Semi is struggling to his feet, arm slung over Tendou’s shoulders.

“We’re going to find out what we came here for,” he says roughly. “Wakatoshi said—”

“Ushijima?” Iwaizumi’s brow furrows with confusion. “What does he have to do with—”

“Hey!” A booming voice calls out, breaking the tension of the standoff. “Get away from them!”

Kenma, still clutching tight to Kuroo, breathes out a sigh of relief. The cavalry has arrived.

Bokuto rushes forward, one hand extended as light gathers against his palm. He aims it like Zeus hefting a lightning bolt, hurling it as the space between Semi and Iwaizumi.

The ground cracks, and Semi and Tendou are thrown back by the sheer force of Bokuto’s magic.

Semi takes the brunt of it, staggering for a moment before collapsing back against Tendou. He’s surrounded by a maroon glow for a moment, and then his human form is replaced by that of a large bird— long-necked and elegant, a snowy swan with black-tipped feathers.

Tendou holds the swan tenderly, eyes going even wider. “Eita,” he says, desperately, “Eita, wake up!”

“What is going on here?” Bokuto demands, stepping forward. Kenma’s never thought of him as cutting a particularly impressive figure, but right now he looks powerful and focused. He seems haloed in light, his strong arms crossed over his chest as he looks fiercely at Tendou.

“What did you do to him?” Tendou demands. His pupils are narrowed to pin-pricks, his breathing heavy. “If you hurt him, I’ll—”

“I didn’t do anything,” Bokuto says. “Why were you attacking my friends?”

“I don’t have to tell you anything,” Tendou spits. He glances back at Iwaizumi, brows narrowed over his wild eyes. “Whatever, we can always go back to the source.”

Before anyone can stop him, he’s teleported away, still holding tight to Semi’s unconscious form.

“No!” Iwaizumi yells, rushing forward into the now empty space. “Get back here! Where the hell is he?”

It’s no use. Tendou and Semi are gone, and Iwaizumi is left screaming is frustrations into the orange sky.

Kuroo’s skin is clammy, his pallor pale and sickly as Kenma tries to hoist him to his feet. Bokuto comes up beside him, kneeling slightly to pick Kuroo up in his arms. Kuroo sighs softly as he’s jostled, turning his face into Bokuto’s chest as though to hide his face from the setting sun.

“Is he… is he okay?” Kenma asks, feeling impotent now that he has nothing to hold onto.

“He’s Kuroo, he’ll be fine,” Bokuto says, smiling brightly. But there’s a hesitance in the pull of his mouth.

“Come on,” Iwaizumi says. His voice is hoarse from screaming, but now he simply seems resigned. “Let’s get him home and figure out what the hell is going on, here.”

“Yes,” Kenma says too quietly. “What is going on?”

“Huh?” Iwaizumi asks, frowning.

“What do you know?” Kenma asks, voice still quiet. He feels too hot, like his emotions have been set to a boil and are now threatening to simmer over. Kuroo is hurt, and for what? “What did they want?”

“I don’t know,” Iwaizumi growls. “Don’t you think I would’ve said if I did?”

“Hey,” Bokuto says, eyes darting between Kenma and Iwaizumi, “Don’t fight, we have to get Kuroo back to—”

“You’re hiding something,” Kenma mutters, frustrated. “You’ve been hiding it since the first time you came to the house. I felt it again, today.”

Iwaizumi takes a step back, hands raised. “I’m not hiding anything,” he says firmly.

“What is your fault, then?” Kenma demands, stepping forward. He’s never felt so angry, before. He wants Kuroo beside him, awake and happy and there to support him. He doesn’t want new unknowns popping up at every moment, threatening that which he’s come to hold dear.

“That’s—” Iwaizumi stumbles over his words. “That has nothing to do with this.”

“Then why are you always thinking about it?” Kenma hisses.

Iwaizumi sighs, slumping as though the entire world has just been placed on his shoulders. “I’m telling you, it isn’t important.”

“Don’t you—”

Iwaizumi lifts a hand, cutting him off. “I don’t think it matters much. But I’ll tell you, anyway.” He swallows audibly, looking down at his feet. “All those weeks ago, the last night I saw Oikawa… I told him something I thought he already knew. And he didn’t take it well. So if there’s something he felt like he couldn’t tell me, maybe that’s why.”

“I don’t get it,” Bokuto says, shifting Kuroo in his arms. “What did you tell him?”

Kenma doesn’t need to ask. He thinks he already knows.

“It doesn’t matter,” Iwaizumi repeats, running one hand through his spiky hair. “I just need to find him.”

His anger has largely cooled by the time they make it back to the house. They lay Kuroo down in his bedroom, but Bokuto, Sawamura and Shimizu all agree that there’s nothing more that they can do for him. They’ll have to let him sleep it off, let his magic replenish itself.

Alone and worried, Kenma curls up on the living room couch and tries not to think.

After a few moments, Iwaizumi enters the room and sits down on one of the heavy armchairs.

They stare at each other for a while before Kenma finally thinks of something to say.

“What about Kunimi and Tobio?”

“Huh?”

“Do you think one of them is the Shadow King?” Kenma asks, mulling over the facts that he already knows in his head. “What if someone else finds them, first? Will they be in trouble?”

“I don’t know,” Iwaizumi says lowly. “We just have to make sure no one else does find them first.”

“What’s happening?” Kenma asks, thinking of Kuroo, thinking of the way Semi had collapsed, thinking of Iwaizumi and Akaashi that morning.

“I wish I knew,” Iwaizumi says. When he speaks, his thoughts ring potent in Kenma’s mind.

I wish Oikawa was here. Because he would know.

Chapter Text

It’s odd, walking through the dirt and grass with his feet bare. The damp of the soil under his toes reminds him that it’s not often than he’s in places like this—green and grassy, full of the gentle thrum of nature—as a human. It makes the temptation worse, circling slowly in the shade of the trees, the aching desire to transform into the fox rising.

Oikawa fights the temptation. He’s gone so long without it, now, but the fox’s instincts are still vivid and loud within him, demanding he take notice. But he can’t give in, no matter how much he wants to. And here, smelling the gentle aromas of the flowers wafting around him and hearing every buzz of each insect’s wings, all he wants is to run through the grass as a fox and not a human.

The Ushijima family gardens are expansive and lush, and this is the first time Oikawa has looked at them for any length of time. The rest of his stay here he’s spent indoors, but since Ushijima drew some of the shadows out of him, he’s been able to walk—or at least hobble—around.

He supposes he should thank Ushijima, as distasteful as the idea is.

Absently, Oikawa reaches up to press his fingers against the aquamarine stone that hangs around his neck. Usually, it’s slightly warm to the touch, magic drawn to gather inside it. But only a few minutes ago, it had burned white-hot, flaring up before going cold.

He’s not sure what that means, and it troubles him. The gem is a symbol of his connection to Iwaizumi, an emblem of the fact that they fit together perfectly. If it’s behaving strangely after their long separation, that’s probably no one’s fault but Oikawa’s.

He’d probably dwell with those thoughts for longer, but when he begins his fourth circuit of the small grove of trees, he’s interrupted by a brilliant flash of light coming from the center of the grassy lawn.

Maroon magic flares, covering the grove like ink spreading through water. Oikawa lifts a hand to shield his eyes, and when the light has faded, Tendou Satori is kneeling in the grass, panting heavily, his cheeks almost as red as his hair.

When Oikawa sees what— who— he’s holding, his heart stops.

The swan has beautiful white feathers, tipped in inky black to match its beak and feet. Its eyes would be black, too, Oikawa knows, except that right now they aren’t open. The bird lies limply against Tendou’s chest, long neck twisted oddly and wings splayed out on either side of its body.

“Semi,” Oikawa says, the name catching in his throat.

Tendou isn’t crying—he seems beyond that, hands shaking as he clutches the swan, eyes wide and pupils dilated, unseeing. His every movement is a physical manifestation of his grief, jerky and unfocused and pained.

The two of them like this, guardian so still and wielder frantic with loss, are a version of the nightmare Oikawa keeps having. His breathing goes shallow, hands clammy as he watches Tendou push himself to his feet, still holding onto the swan gingerly.

“Wakatoshi!” Tendou cries out, frantically. “Wakatoshi!”

There’s a figure moving through the gardens towards them, shadowed by the setting sun. When he hears Tendou call his name, he breaks into a brisk run.

Ushijima reaches them in a matter of moments, his golden eyes flickering over Tendou and the swan as his lips pull into a severe frown. For a moment, his gaze flicks over to where Oikawa stands in the shadow of one of the trees. Tendou didn’t seem to notice his presence, but Ushijima definitely did.

“What did you do?” Ushijima asks Tendou, his voice even and deep.

Tendou blinks at him. “It doesn’t—what? Fix him, Wakatoshi. You can, can’t you?”

Ushijima’s frown pulls deeper. His expression is largely unimpressed, but there’s a sadness lingering in his eyes, heavy and hidden.

“Lay him down here,” he says, reaching down to help Tendou spread the swan out in the grass. Now, Oikawa can see the gentle rise and fall of the bird’s chest, a sure sign of life. But the breaths are shallow and inconsistent.

“Help him,” Tendou says again, weakly.

Ushijima reaches out and presses one large, strong hand against the milky plumage of the swan’s chest. “I’m going to try. Tell me what happened.”

Oikawa can see the magic gathering around Ushijima, the last dying rays of the setting sun lingering around him in the form of light magic.

“We,” Tendou starts, swallowing thickly as he tries to gather himself, “We wanted to find the Shadow King for you.”

Ushijima freezes, his magic stilling in the air as he levels Tendou with a formidable stare. “What?”

“I heard you talking with Oikawa,” Tendou says, words suddenly pouring out of him in a stream. “You wanted to know who the Shadow King was. And I know you told us not to come back, but we needed to see you, to explain—and I thought if we found him first, you’d forgive us and stop being mad.”

Ushijima blinks, like he can’t believe what he’s hearing. “What did you think you could possibly do?”

It’s only Oikawa’s well-entrenched disdain for Ushijima that keeps him from cringing at the bite in his voice. Tendou, to his credit, holds his ground.

“We went to see—he and Oikawa are like me and Eita, aren’t they? So if Oikawa knows, he must know, too. So we went to see if he would tell us.”

Oikawa’s blood runs cold. He knows what’s coming, doesn’t need to ask the question that Ushijima vocalizes next.

“Who did you go to see, Tendou?”

Tendou squares his shoulders. “His wielder. Iwaizumi Hajime.”

Oikawa’s breath leaves him abruptly in a choked gasp, his feet moving without his conscious permission until he’s stumbling across the grove, coming to stand beside Ushijima.

“What—you saw him?” he says, unable to control himself, to school his expression or his tone into anything that doesn’t betray the impossible depths of his caring. “How did Semi—what did you do to him? You didn’t hurt him.”

The last sentence isn’t a question, because it can’t be. Iwaizumi cannot be hurt. It is an impossibility that Oikawa’s mind can’t even fathom, despite Semi lying in such a state right before his eyes.

“What are you doing here?” Tendou spits out, eyes narrowing. He turns back to Ushijima, hands in the air. “Wakatoshi, what the fuck! I thought he was your prisoner! Why is he just walking around?”

“My prisoner,” Ushijima says mildly, blinking in the dim light.

“What did you do to Iwa-chan,” Oikawa screeches, pushing into Tendou’s space, teeth bared.

“You should be asking what he did to me,” Tendou spits back, one hand coming up to massage his neck.

“I don’t care about you,” Oikawa says.

“Oikawa,” Ushijima says, glancing up from where he’s been kneeling next to the swan. Oikawa can see the faint threads of magic spread over the two of them, connecting Semi and Ushijima together in a series of intersecting points, light and dark coming together in tangled knots. “I think you can help him more than I can.”

Oikawa tilts his head to one side. “How do you figure that?”

Ushijima sighs heavily, as though admitting his own uselessness in this situation pains him. “I can only dampen the effects of magic. You’re the one who can amplify them. Semi isn’t suffering from a surge of either shadow or light, like you were. It’s more as though he’s been depleted.”

Oikawa blinks. He’s never heard his own magic described that way. He’s always had keener senses than the other guardians, has been able to see more. But he never realized that he was the one making the magic more potent, more visible.

“I can’t create more magic,” Oikawa says, kneeling down beside Ushijima anyway. “If he’s really lost that much, it won’t save him.”

“It’s a temporary solution,” Ushijima says. “But one that will keep him alive until we can find a permanent one.”

“So he’s not—he’ll be alright?” Tendou says, yanking at his red hair and fidgeting on his feet, utterly impotent in this situation.

“I don’t know,” Ushijima says, as ever unable to say anything but the truth.

Oikawa pushes the two of them from his mind and presses his long fingers against the swan’s feathers. Semi’s magic is closer to his own than Ushijima’s, the shadows stronger than the light. Oikawa reaches out for those shadows, gathering up his own and willing Semi’s magic to build on itself.

The core of Semi’s magic is hollow, as though something has burned it out from the inside. Oikawa can’t fix that, but he wills what remains to be more potent, stronger. After a moment, he senses the shadows growing thicker and darker, the light flaring just a bit brighter. Oikawa grits his teeth and urges the magic further, pushing it beyond its own limits.

He loses track of time until he feels the pressure of a strong hand against his shoulder.

“It’s enough, Oikawa,” Ushijima says, voice low in his ear. “He’ll live.”

“You said it was temporary,” Tendou cuts in, kneeling beside Semi again.

“It is,” Ushijima says, and the rest of his words blur together as Oikawa feels the impact of using magic again after so long. He wobbles, pitching sideways when he tries to push himself up to his feet. But Ushijima catches him, hands against his back, holding him upright.

“Oikawa,” Ushijima is saying again, voice close, “We can’t delay it anymore. We can’t stop it.”

“How are you going to save Eita?” Tendou demands again, but Ushijima silences him with a look.

“We were never going to be able to stop it,” Oikawa says, one hand reaching up to clutch at the aquamarine stone.

“So,” Ushijima says, “Have you made your choice?”

The book he had stolen from Shimizu is an ancient text, with a thick, leather-bound cover and yellowing pages written on in four or five different languages. Oikawa pours over it, copying out the Japanese passages and struggling to translate the rest. Knowledge comes to him in glimpses and phrases, nothing absolute.

Shadows destroy, light creates.

Four locks held in place, each undone in turn by a key.

When the locks are broken, shadows reign.

Not for the first time, Oikawa wishes magic was more like science, something measurable and certain. As it is, he’s left with these fragments that don’t add up, figurative language that could mean literally anything.

Iwaizumi comes home from a night lab to find Oikawa pouring over the book, and frowns at him.

“That’s not for school, is it?” He asks the question the already knows the answer to, one hand under Oikawa’s arm to pull him to his feet.

“It’s important,” Oikawa says around a yawn, shifting closer to Iwaizumi and leaning against his side. “Mm. You’re warm.”

“And you’re exhausted.” Iwaizumi sighs and pushes Oikawa towards his bedroom. “It doesn’t matter how important it is, if you tire yourself out like this.”

“Yes, Mom,” Oikawa says teasingly, yelping when Iwaizumi elbows him in the side.

“Shut up and get some sleep.”

It’s late summer when Sawamura finds Sugawara. The connection between their magic is a vibrant orange, arcing in graceful curves around them the first time Oikawa meets Sugawara. There’s a shrewd intelligence behind his bright eyes and refreshing smile, and Oikawa finds him an interesting counterpoint to Sawamura’s defiant honesty.

A few months later, Bokuto finds Akaashi. Their magic is golden, so bright and beautiful Oikawa mistakes it for a trick of the sun’s rays at first. Akaashi barely speaks, the first time Oikawa sees him, but his dark eyes convey his thorough judgment without words. Oikawa supposes Bokuto would need someone capable of subtlety to curb the overwhelming power of his magic and personality.

The months pass quickly. His first year of university ends, and the next begins in turn.

It’s a little after that that Oikawa finally notices the door. The white house has long since been their established home base, the old wooden door carved with symbols of the four guardians facing inward from the cardinal directions.

Except now they aren’t facing towards each other, anymore. The fox is leaping out towards the left, the crow flying upwards, the owl gliding right. They’re each facing away from the center, away from each other.

Only the cat is left looking inwards, standing vigil in solitude.

“I can’t believe I didn’t realize it,” Oikawa mutters to himself, running one hand through his increasingly-messy hair as he paces in their apartment. Iwaizumi sits on the couch, eying him warily.

“Didn’t realize what?” Iwaizumi asks. “Sit down, you’re giving me a headache.”

Oikawa plops down obediently beside him, but he can’t still the nervous energy in his limbs. “We’re the locks, Iwa-chan! And three are already undone, and I don’t even know what’s going to happen when the fourth is, yet—”

“Pretend I’m stupid and don’t understand anything you’re saying, and then explain it to me again,” Iwaizumi says, rolling his eyes.

Oikawa takes a deep breath, trying to quiet his thoughts enough to make them coherent. “You and I were the start,” he says, before the too-cheerful chime of his ringtone cuts him off.

It’s Sawamura’s number.

“Oikawa,” he says, when Oikawa picks up the phone, “Kuroo’s missing.”

There’s been something going on with Kuroo for a while, now. Oikawa can’t actually recall the last time he saw Kuroo as a human, but Bokuto’s been trailing the black cat’s movements and hasn’t been too worried, until now. He tells Oikawa the last place he saw Kuroo, and that night Oikawa shifts into the fox and goes out to continue the search.

He knows what he’s looking for, and the trail of Kuroo’s magic seems obvious to him. Kuroo’s magic is a close match to Oikawa’s, one degree darker. So Oikawa follows the shadows, the fox running mostly unseen through the dark of the night.

What he finds eventually is a cheap apartment complex a few train stops away from the university. The magic grows thicker, here, but the shadows are interspersed with more light and the fox tilts its head, confused.

He follows the trail up the stairs, standing at one end of the hall.

Kuroo is laid out in front of one of the doors, magic pulsing weakly like a fading heartbeat. The fox can smell the blood on the cat, even from so far away. Concern flares through him, so human and personal an emotion that he nearly shifts forms involuntarily.

The black cat lifts itself up to scratch gently at the door. Oikawa can’t fathom what Kuroo’s trying to do until the door swings open, revealing a young man with a wary expression. His hair is dark at the roots but dyed blonde beyond that, and Oikawa startles when he senses the immense potential for light magic emanating from him.

He kneels slowly and picks the cat up in his arms, and Oikawa is struck by the feeling that he should be home, curled up around Iwaizumi.

It’s then that he knows that this young man is the fourth key.

He goes back to the book, desperate for answers. He doesn’t know how long it will take for Kuroo and his wielder to form a proper bond. The wielder is familiar, but it takes Oikawa a few days to place him as the boy Kuroo used to play with as a child, after his mother died. Oikawa remembers vividly when his teacher had forbade Kuroo to see his friend anymore—Kuroo had locked himself in his room for days, refusing to see anyone. And even though he’d joked about it at the time, Oikawa had recognized the convoluted spiral of emotions in Kuroo’s magic as heartsickness.

Oikawa had found Iwaizumi so early, it doesn’t seem so impossible that Kuroo might have found his wielder around the same time, even if they were kept from each other. Oikawa had never told the others about Iwaizumi, mostly because he wasn’t sure how to explain that he wouldn’t even bother with being human if it wasn’t for the sake of his friend. Those emotions were too private and complicated to explain.

A part of Oikawa wants to talk to Kuroo about all of this. If the fox was the first lock to come undone, and the cat is the last, then they’re quickly spiraling towards something that Oikawa doesn’t yet understand. He could use Kuroo’s shrewd intelligence, his craftiness and subtlety.

But Kuroo is now in the arms of the fourth key, and it isn’t Oikawa’s place to interfere with that, even as a sense of impending doom builds behind him. Whenever Kuroo does form a proper bond with his wielder, all four locks will be undone. And what happens after that is anyone’s guess.

He spends more time as a fox, after that. His connection to his magic is deeper, in that form, and his emotions and thoughts are less oppressively complicated. He doesn’t have to think quite so much when he lets the fox’s instincts guide him.

Iwaizumi is sitting up on the couch, reading through one of his textbooks, when the fox nudges its way past the door and into their apartment. The smile that crosses his features is tender, even though his brow furrows slightly with exasperation.

“Again?” he asks softly, shaking his head. He sets aside his textbook, patting one of his thighs as he beckons the fox closer. “Come here, sweetheart.”

The fox has no reason to ignore that request. Oikawa leaps up onto the couch, pressing his head down against Iwaizumi’s legs and curling up beside him. After a moment, he feels Iwaizumi’s fingers stroking softly through his fur, and he rumbles deep in his chest, content.

“You’re doing this more and more,” Iwaizumi says softly, one arm curled protectively around Oikawa. “You can tell me if something’s wrong. You know that, right?”

The fox whines low in his throat, pressing down more firmly against Iwaizumi, making himself as flat as possible. Iwaizumi shakes his head and keeps petting him.

“Okay,” he says finally. “But sooner or later, you’re going to have to talk to me.”

The fox flicks his tail, gradually lulled to sleep by the rhythmic movement of Iwaizumi’s hand over his fur.

When he becomes the fox, now, the chain around his neck contracts until the aquamarine stone is held close against his fur, never dislodged or lost the way his clothing is. It’s a comfortable presence, a reminder that he isn’t ever just the fox, no matter how comfortable he is in this form.

The park isn’t quite as comfortable as the wilder forest he’d spent most of his time in as a kit and a child. But in the center of the city, it’s as close as he can hope to get. Today, he’s nestled against the roots of a tree, letting his mind rest as the sun blazes hot and comfortable against his fur. He’s halfway to sleep when he hears the sharp call of a bird above him.

His eyes flicker upwards, and he sees the shadow of a large eagle blocking out the sun.

Oikawa’s human mind knows this eagle, knows exactly who it is. But the fox registers eagle as predator above all else. Adrenaline rushes through him, and he’s on his feet before he realizes it, darting across the park between the larger trees, clinging to the shadows.

The bird calls out, again. Oikawa imagines it’s telling him to stop, to wait.

He can’t do that. He keeps running, determined to get out of reach. When Eagles hunt foxes, the latter have very little chance of survival. Oikawa, as a fox, has never given much thought to his own life. But the aquamarine stone presses hot against his fur, and it reminds him that he someone to live for. So he keeps running.

He feels a gust of wind behind him, blowing dirt and dried leaves past him as he leaps over the gnarled roots of a tree and ducks behind it. The eagle calls out in frustration, unable to come in close with the massive tree trunk blocking its path. It bats its wings, letting out a cackling sound.

The fox inhales deeply, perched on the edge of the roots and prepared to run once more. When it hears the eagle drawing back, it takes off.

A moment later, Oikawa’s being lifted off of the ground as the eagle digs its talons into him and pulls him into the air. Oikawa yelps, twisting in the eagle’s grasp but unable to break free. He continues to flail, trying to claw at the eagle’s wings. But it’s no use.

The eagle doesn’t fly them very far, out of the park and past it to a cluster of apartment buildings. It flies in the open window of one of them, dropping the fox unceremoniously onto a hideous olive-green carpet.

The fox yelps at the indignation, pushing itself up to its feet and circling, trying to glean if it’s been injured. Then a much larger shadow falls over it.

“You should shift, and get dressed,” Ushijima Wakatoshi says, tying off the drawstring of the track pants he’s just pulled on. There are white feathers caught in his hair, a reminder of the eagle he was just a moment ago. His muscled chest is bare, and he leans over to grab a bundle of clothing from his couch and tossing them towards the fox. “I need to talk to you.”

Oikawa brushes his fingers through his hair and examines himself in the glass of one of Ushijima’s windows, looking for scratches along his bare torso. Ushijima lacks finesse even as an eagle, but he hadn’t broken the skin. The fox was never in any real danger.

From behind him, Ushijima clears his throat.

Oikawa doesn’t turn around. “You said you wanted to talk,” he says loftily. “So, talk.”

“I’d rather you turn around first,” Ushijima says. “And perhaps we can sit down.”

Oikawa rolls his eyes, shifting slightly on his feet so that he’s turned halfway towards Ushijima. “You know, Ushiwaka-chan, normally when people need to talk they call, or text. Send an email. Or maybe one of your friends is a carrier pigeon?”

“Would you have answered if I’d called you?”

Oikawa huffs. “Of course not.”

“Then you see why I had no choice.”

“You could have made the choice to leave me alone,” Oikawa snaps. “Why do you have an apartment in Tokyo, anyway?”

Ushijima shrugs his broad shoulders, then crosses the room to his kitchen table. He pulls out two chairs, sitting down in one and glancing between the other and Oikawa. Oikawa mutters under his breath, but finally sits down in the other chair and props his feet up against the legs of Ushijima’s kitchen table.

“Fine. Whatever. Just tell me what you want so I can go home.”

Ushijima folds his hands in front of him on the table, looking down at them and then up at Oikawa. But his gaze isn’t focused on Oikawa’s face, but rather the stone hanging around his neck.

“You have a wielder, now,” he says simply.

“I do,” Oikawa says, eyes narrowing as he tries to decipher why Ushijima’s voice sounds so hollow.

“Did no one ever warn you of the dangers, of that?”

Oikawa swallows convulsively. He’s never once regretted becoming closer to Iwaizumi. Before he’d told Iwaizumi about magic, there’d been a constant rift between them. Now, Oikawa can tell him things, and be honest with him, and they’re close than ever—

Except that Oikawa hasn’t told him about the locks and keys, or why he’s been so worried lately. How can he tell him, when he doesn’t know what it is that he’s afraid of?

“Was that what you were trying to do?” Oikawa snaps, lifting his head so that he can look pointedly across the table at Ushijima. “When you claimed you didn’t need a wielder?”

Ushijima blinks his dark golden eyes. “I don’t.”

Oikawa turns away from him. “Of course you don’t,” he sneers. “But I do. And I’m happy, with this. So why do you care?”

“Because you were the first lock, Oikawa,” Ushijima says plainly. “You cardinal guardians are meant to keep magic bound and contained. By finding a key, you began to let more magic loose into the world. And it seems the other cardinal guardians are following suit. If you all find wielders, there will be nothing holding the world’s magic in balance, anymore.”

It’s a version of a story that Oikawa has heard, before. His teacher had always taught him that as a guardian, Oikawa worked to keep the world’s magic in balance. But he’d never said anything about Oikawa being a lock, or that finding a wielder might upset that balance somehow.

But Kuroo’s teacher had kept him away from his friend, back when they were children—

“So, what?” Oikawa laughs darkly. “Are you saying the world is going to descend into chaos, and it’ll be my fault?”

Ushijima blinks again, his expression unnervingly reminiscent of a bird watching its prey. “You’ve already allowed more magic into the world. It will have to find hosts. More guardians will appear, and in turn they will create more magic.”

So he’s created a positive feedback loop, Oikawa thinks dimly.

“Is that such a bad thing?” Oikawa asks, even though his pride balks at the fact that he has to ask Ushijima of all people for information, for help.

“It’s not the way things are meant to be.” Ushjima frowns. “There will be too much magic in the world, and it will try to correct itself.”

“How?” Oikawa thinks he already knows the answer.

When the locks are broken, shadows reign.

“Something will need to destroy the excess magic. None of us can do that, can we?”

Oikawa shakes his head. Of course, they can’t. Guardians pull magic from the world around them and generate shadows and light. But it works much like physics—magic cannot be created, nor destroyed. At least, not by the guardians Oikawa knows.

“So something will be born that can. And when it does, it will destroy all magic, attempting to correct for what’s happened.”

Ushijima should really look into voice-acting, Oikawa thinks. He has the dark and ominous tone of voice down, and could probably make good money as a stock villain in some shounen anime, provided that he didn’t need too wide a range of emotions.

Oikawa leans back in his chair. “You’re not explaining why this is my problem,” he sing-songs, shrugging his arms exaggeratedly.

Ushijima looks at him with a confused expression, brow furrowed. “How do you not understand? You and I are made of magic. If it’s destroyed, we will be, too.”

Oikawa bites down on the inside of his cheek, feeling his teeth grow sharper as the fox’s self-preservation instinct flares within him. He cannot be destroyed, because he has to go home to Iwaizumi.

“But it’s more pressing than that, even,” Ushijima says. When he tilts his head, a few strands of dark hair shift to one side, and he reaches up to nudge them back into place. “The bond between a wielder and a guardian draws on the guardian’s strength in order to create usable magic for the wielder.”

“I know that,” Oikawa snaps, because he’s not a complete idiot, and he’s done with Ushijima talking down to him.

“Then what did you think would happen to you after Iwaizumi became your wielder?” Ushijima asks. “You are a lock that has become undone. There is no more use for you. The longer Iwaizumi draws on your magic, the more it will drain you. And then there will be nothing left.”

Maybe a part of Oikawa has always known this. Each of his forms, fox and human, relies on magic to exist. And now that there’s another, fully human, drawing on that same pool of magic, surely something will have changed. But he’d never stopped to consider that—

“At some point, he will draw on your magic faster than you can regenerate it,” Ushijima says with finality. “And when that happens, this bond will kill you.”

It’s strange, to be walking home in borrowed clothes from Ushijima, the shirt hanging much too wide on his frame and dwarfing him. But he can’t allow himself to change back into the fox right now, not when there’s too much he has to process.

If he’s released more magic into the world, maybe that’s why he keeps sensing it in people like Hanamaki, and those high schoolers, and even one of the waiters at Oikawa’s favorite café. And now that Sawamura and Bokuto have their own wielders, the pattern will only continue.

Kuroo is the last lock holding magic in place, and Oikawa is not going to be the second person to tell him he has to step away from the person he seems to care most about it. If anyone had ever told Oikawa the same about Iwaizumi, he wouldn’t have listened.

He’s not listening now, even knowing what his bond with Iwaizumi means for him. He’s still walking in straight line back towards their apartment, and he’s still not sure that he won’t crumble into tears and let Iwaizumi hold him in his arms when he does, taking all of Iwaizumi’s stability and comfort the way he always has.

As though activated by his thoughts of Iwaizumi, the gem around Oikawa’s neck begins to glow. He reaches for it, confused, but then a dull, buzzing pain forms around one of his arms, squeezing tightly. It’s not so terrible a pain that he can’t shake it off, but it comes with a wave of light magic so potent that Oikawa immediately knows its source.

He’s not the one actually in pain—it’s Iwaizumi. Without a moment’s hesitation, Oikawa breaks into a run.

His hands are shaking as he struggles with the keys to the apartment, finally stabbing the proper one into the lock and undoing it with a frantic snap of his wrist. He pushes his way inside, calling out, “Iwa-chan!” before he’s even bothered to look around.

But then he spots Iwaizumi, sitting on the couch with his feet up against the coffee table, flipping channels on the television. He’s dressed in one of the tanks he usually works out in, but one of his arms sports a thick white bandage wrapped around it.

“Iwa-chan!” Oikawa says again, rushing forward. “What happened?”

Iwaizumi glances up, frowning at him. “Why’re you so pale?” he asks. “What are you—”

Oikawa launches himself at him, knocking the breath from Iwaizumi’s chest.

“You were in pain!” Oikawa says, though now the feeling has faded and it’s more like a memory at the periphery of his awareness. He squeezes his arms around Iwaizumi’s torso, clutching at him.

“I’m going to be in more if you don’t let go of me,” Iwaizumi says, voice strangely faint. Oikawa releases him, shuffling to sit beside him on the couch.

“What is that?” he demands, gesturing at Iwaizumi’s bandages.

“My tattoo?” Iwaizumi blinks at him.

“Your—tattoo? What?”

Iwaizumi heaves a tired groan. “You’re not honestly going to tell me you forgot, are you? I told you three times, at least. My appointment was today. I was half expecting you to show up there.”

Oikawa’s still frowning, reaching out to touch Iwaizumi’s arm before he draws his hand back. “So that pain was… you were getting a tattoo?”

Iwaizumi blinks again. “Yes?” And then, in a lower voice, “You could feel it?”

Oikawa shifts uncomfortably. He’s been spending more time as a fox, so it makes sense that details that don’t matter to the fox would fall through the cracks. But he usually doesn’t just forget things entirely.

“I could feel something,” he says after a moment. “I knew you were in pain.”

Iwaizumi huffs. “It wasn’t so bad,” he says. “I barely felt it, and it was all black ink, so it was over pretty quickly.”

Oikawa folds his hands in his lap, thoughtful. “What does it look like?”

Iwaizumi leans forward, shuffling papers around on the coffee table until he finds the one he’s after. It’s a small square, creased and folded in half. Iwaizumi passes it over to Oikawa. He unfolds it gently and looks at the carefully-inked design.

It’s a pattern of a vine, a simple design with carefully-drawn leaves and interlocking lines. It’s bare bones, but pretty. No more complicated than it has to be. Underneath that is writing in western script, the letters interlocking in the same way as the lines of the vine.

Tu deviens responsable pour toujours de ce que tu as apprivoisé.

“So this,” Oikawa waves the paper, “Is here, now?” He reaches for the bandages again, fingertips hovering a hair’s span away from touching them.

Iwaizumi nods. “I’ve been thinking about it for a while. And anyway, we’re in college, now. Isn’t this the time we’re supposed to do things like this?”

Oikawa shrugs, a bit helplessly. “What does it mean?”

Iwaizumi doesn’t respond right away, leaning back against the couch and lifting his chin to gaze upwards at the ceiling. “It’s French,” he says at length. “From this book my mom used to read to me when I was a kid. Actually, she thought of it after I came home one day and wouldn’t shut up about the fox I’d seen out in the woods.”

He laughs, but Oikawa has no breath to join him. He can’t exhale, stalled in anticipation.

After a moment, Iwaizumi continues. “Anyway. It just says, ‘You are forever responsible for that which you have tamed.’ I’ve always liked the sound of it.” He shrugs, playing the entire thing off as if it isn’t a big deal, at all.

“That sounds complicated,” Oikawa quips, words coming easily even though his heart is racing. “Can your tiny brain even figure out what all those words mean?”

He expects a shove, or a punch. But instead Iwaizumi just turns towards him, his eyes clear and green as he nods.

“Yeah,” he says. “I know exactly what it means.”

There’s a static in the air, a feeling reminiscent of the day that Oikawa and Iwaizumi’s magic had joined together. When Oikawa blinks, he can see it behind his eyes, an aquamarine glow that braids itself together, spiraling closer and closer inwards. It’s beautiful, and potent, and he can’t imagine that bond breaking, that connection severed.

Forever, Iwaizumi had said. He has the word printed into his skin, a reminder that will never fade. And Iwaizumi is human, his body itself a more permanent thing than Oikawa’s constantly-shifting form.

When Oikawa glances down Iwaizumi is still staring at him intently, eyes flickering from Oikawa’s to glance over his lips, the curve of his cheek, the slope of his jaw.

If one of them were to move forward, the rest would come easily. Iwaizumi’s hand against Oikawa’s cheek, Oikawa’s breath ghosting across Iwaizumi’s lips. Iwaizumi would close the distance between them, steady and sure and his.

If Oikawa lets him, Iwaizumi will kiss him in this moment.

His throat goes dry, and he struggles to draw a rattling breath. Instead of leaning forward, he pushes himself back, pursing his lips until he can gather his thoughts enough to let out a dry, airy laugh.

“Well!” he says, getting to his feet and clapping his hands together. “Are you going to help me with dinner, or what? Don’t think I’ll let you off the hook just because you’re wearing a bandage, Iwa-chan!”

Iwaizumi doesn’t get up immediately, even after Oikawa hustles away to the kitchen.

“Yeah,” he says at length. “I’m coming.”

It’s probably concerning, how often he’s been hanging around the local high school. But there’s really nothing else for it. How else is he supposed to find those students who’d positively reeked of magic?

For a few days, he has no luck whatsoever. Then, he spots a tall third year with a head of pointy hair, and walking in his shadow is a second student, with tired eyes and short bangs that frame either side of his face.

Last time, Oikawa wasn’t able to parse which one of them the magic was coming from. This time, he knows what to look for. Or maybe the magic has grown stronger, more distinct. Either way, he can sense the slow thrum of magic in the shorter boy, ebbing and flowing gently like waves against the beach or the shallow breathing of someone sleeping.

But his magic is still curling around both him and his friend, tied like the bows that hold shoestrings together. It’s no wonder Oikawa couldn’t tell them apart, to begin with.

Now, however, he’s left with a dilemma. How is he supposed to approach this kid, and get him away from his friend, besides?

You’re charming, he tells himself defiantly. You’ll think of something.

“Excuse me—!” he calls out, smiling as bright as he can as he tries to edge around the taller one. But the turnip-headed kid holds firm, angling himself between Oikawa and his friend with a befuddled expression.

“Can I help you?”

Kunimi Akira doesn’t seem fazed by anything. Oikawa invites him to come have coffee with him at his favorite café, and the kid barely blinks.

“Kindaichi will come, too,” he says after a moment’s pause, as though it’s decided. So Oikawa ends up paying for both of their drinks and then tries to find them a secluded table where they can all talk. Kindaichi seems content to follow Kunimi’s lead, but he keeps looking at Oikawa skeptically.

“I know I’m very attractive,” Oikawa drawls, reaching across the table to tap Kindaichi under the chin, “but you’re going to catch flies if you keep gaping like that.”

Kindaichi shuts his mouth with an audible click of his jaw, cheeks turning bright red. Kunimi, who’d been busy sipping at his coffee, sets his mug down now and gives Oikawa a bland stare. There’s a keen intelligence in his eyes, even though his gray irises are cloudy and he looks constantly sleepy. It’s a distinctly human look, the way he levels his gaze as Oikawa and waits for an explanation.

“Are you going to explain why you asked us here?” he asks. “Or are you just being sort of creepy?”

Normally, Oikawa would feign offense. Now, he merely raises one brow. “To be fair, I only asked you here, Kunimi-chan.”

He uses his honorifics pointedly, trying to establish that he has the upper hand. But Kunimi just blinks and says nothing, waiting for more of an explanation.

Oikawa sighs. “You’re annoyingly perceptive. Has anyone ever told you that?”

“Our upperclassmen used to say that all the time—” Kindaichi begins to say, before Kunimi kicks him under the table.

He lets the silence fall over both of them, cornering Oikawa into talking.

“Alright, alright,” Oikawa says, spreading his hands as though he’s just revealed his hand of cards. “There’s something I’d like to explain to you. But you may have to take it with a grain of salt, to start with…”

He’s not really sure how much of his story Kunimi and Kindaichi believe. Kindaichi had listened with eyes wide as saucers, interrupting to ask questions far more often that Oikawa thought was necessary. Kunimi might not even have been listening, for all that he’d reacted. But when they’d stood up to leave, Kunimi had thanked Oikawa for the coffee with a small bow.

What a weird kid.

“Would you like anything else, Oikawa-san?”

He glances up to see Yahaba Shigeru, straightening his shirtsleeves and standing with his practiced waiter’s smile. He’s been working here ever since Oikawa started frequenting the place, and knows Oikawa as a regular. He’s a good kid, a bit too serious at times and entirely too tightly wound. But Oikawa imagines there’s a humor lurking in his light brown eyes.

Oikawa blinks twice, and when his eyes open the second time the potent buzz of magic hangs over Yahaba like a cloak.

“Yes, actually,” Oikawa says, lips curving into a winning smile. “When’s your next break, Yahaba?”

“Um, in about ten minutes,” Yahaba responds, looking suspicious of this line of questioning.

“Okay! I’m ordering a slice of strawberry shortcake for nine minutes from now! Bring it out and then come share it with me, okay?”

“Why would I—”

“Ya-ha-ba,” Oikawa says, spacing out each syllable like a note on a scale. “I’ll tell you a cool story, I promise. It’ll be completely worth your time, and I’ll leave a good tip.”

When he walks out of the café an hour and a half later, leaving behind a slightly confused Yahaba, Oikawa nearly runs into another high-schooler. He steps back instinctively, an apology poised on the tip of his tongue before he looks up and actually sees who he’s run into.

He’s seen this kid before, the same day he’d initially seen Kindaichi and Kunimi. He’s even dressed in the same school uniform, and like Kunimi and Yahaba magic hangs over him.

Except, he’s not like Yahaba and Kunimi at all. Instead of a soft, muted interplay of shadow and light, he’s cloaked entirely in darkness. It still looks softened, as though Oikawa is seeing it filtered through water, unable to make out the entirety of it. But he knows with certainty that there is no light in this magic, no connection to anchor himself to.

Instead, this boy is surrounded by a whirlwind of shadow.

Oikawa knows he should talk to him, the same way he’s just spoken to Kunimia and Yahaba. He should explain what’s coming, because as soon as Kuroo and his wielder properly establish their relationship there will be nothing holding the magic back anymore, and all three of them will become guardians.

But there’s something about this one. His eyes are too dark, his magic utterly inconceivable. Oikawa has never known shadow to exist without light.

“What are—who the hell are you?” Oikawa gasps out, forgetting his usual manners and playful charm. The shadows are building around them, not as strong as they’d been the first time but still oppressively present.

The boy looks up and scowls. “Kageyama Tobio,” he says, as though it’s obvious. Or maybe he’s just earnestly responding to the question. The furrow between his brows looks as though it’s been carved out of stone, it’s so deep and engrained. Oikawa wonders if he even knows how to smile.

Kageyama. It makes sense in a way that would be funny, if it wasn’t so serious. Even his name means “shadow.”

“Well,” Oikawa says, rallying himself. “Do watch where you’re going next time, Tobio-chan.”

He doesn’t run away. But he does turn on his heel and walk very deliberately away from Kageyama and his shadows.

He’s been avoiding going home, which hurts more that the rest of it. But Iwaizumi is too perceptive, and Oikawa knows the truth is written on his face more and more, these days. He still hasn’t figured out how to tell Iwaizumi, or what to tell him, even. It’s not an easy conversation to start.

By the way, Iwa-chan! You know this magical bond that I pushed on you with no warning? It’ll probably end up killing me, sorry about that! Hope you can deal with it!

Iwaizumi would never accept such an outcome. And so until Oikawa comes up with a solution, he can’t tell him. He’ll wait out at night until he knows Iwaizumi will give up and go to bed, and then he’ll sneak into the apartment as quietly as he can, leaving early again the next morning.

It leaves him spending more and more time on his own, wandering the city as the shadows falls in the early evening. Today, he’s heading past the cinema when he sees a familiar silhouette. For the first time, he doesn’t make an attempt to avoid the person it belongs to.

“Oh—Ushiwaka-chan.”

Ushijima turns at the sound of his unwanted nickname, dressed not in his usual sports attire or the school uniforms Oikawa had seen him in occasionally before they’d started college, but rather in dark jeans and a polo shirt. Oikawa has half a mind to ask if someone else had dressed him.

“Oikawa.” There’s always a flatness to Ushijima’s voice, but Oikawa’s getting better at parsing the different tones. Lately he’s sounded resigned, almost sad. Oikawa hadn’t thought him capable of such complex emotions, before.

“Before,” Oikawa starts to say, grinding his teeth between words, “Before, when you said the world was opening… you meant the locks were going to come undone, didn’t you?”

Ushijima nods, curtly.

“But that was before—I mean, I didn’t have a wielder, at that point. Somehow, you knew anyway.”

“I’m not blind,” Ushijima says. “I am the ordinal guardian closest to you. I could sense the magic gathering for a shift, even before it occurred.”

“Why didn’t you—how could you not warn me?” Oikawa’s voice is pitching higher, even though they’re both keeping their voices even and low. With the crowd of people moving past them, it’s unlikely they’ll be overheard, but causing a scene would be in no one’s best interests.

“I tried to,” Ushijima say, lips pulling downward. “I told you wielders were not the right path, for you or myself.”

Oikawa throws his hands up in the air. “That is absolutely not what you said! You just kept acting holier-than-thou, like you always do, without really explaining anything. How is anyone ever supposed to understand that?”

Ushijima shrugs, a gesture so subtle that if it weren’t for the breadth of his shoulders Oikawa wouldn’t have noticed it at all. “Animals can be warned away from danger with minimal explanation. When they know that something is dangerous, they alter their path accordingly.”

“But we’re not animals,” Oikawa hisses. “Look at us, standing here! You’re just as human as I am!”

Ushijima blinks. “Which is to say, not very human at all?”

Oikawa opens his mouth to argue automatically, but then closes it again with a click. Even a few days ago, he would’ve fought Ushijima on this point tooth and nail. But how can he, when he’s met Kageyama Tobio? There’s no aspect of human connection in him, only darkness that builds upon itself and grows deeper and more isolated. If ever there was proof that they aren’t meant for this world, for interaction with normal, real humans, it’s Kageyama.

“You said the world would correct itself, when the magic became too much,” Oikawa says, laying out each word carefully. “That correction is going to be a guardian, isn’t it?”

Again, Ushijima nods. “A guardian whose magic draws only on shadows. The Shadow King.”

He’s already here, Oikawa thinks, almost hysterically. If he’s really come to destroy the guardians, the now-useless locks, maybe it’s only fitting that Oikawa was the one who found him. After all, Oikawa’s bond with Iwaizumi was the start of all this.

“But we’re all about balance,” Oikawa says. “Even you and I…” His voice trails off, nose wrinkling in distaste. Ushijima and Oikawa have always been drawn together by virtue of their complementary magic. It’s a connection Oikawa never asked for, but he’s assumed that the complement is necessary to something.

Ushijima inclines his head, but waits for Oikawa to continue.

“So if there’s a guardian made wholly of shadow, they’d do more to upset the balance than to correct it,” Oikawa says, trying desperately to fit the pieces together. “So shouldn’t they have a complement, too? What about a guardian made wholly of light?”

“That would make sense,” Ushijima says calmly. “But the Shadow King is the guardian who has the power to destroy us. Therefore, that is the guardian that I wish to find, before it is too late.”

“And when you find him?” Oikawa asks, voice low.

He tilts his head upwards, shadows catching the sculpted slope of his nose and glimmering gold of his eyes, his face more reminiscent of his other form as a white eagle than Oikawa’s ever noticed, before.

“An animal’s first instinct is to survive,” Ushijima says. “I’m going to destroy the Shadow King before it has a chance to destroy each and every one of us.”

Hysteric, unbelieving laughter bubbles out of Oikawa before he can help himself. He clutches his sides and laughs, doubling over. After a moment he’s able to glance back up at Ushijima and rub the tears from his eyes.

“Are you joking?” Oikawa asks. “That would be—you can’t kill someone, Ushiwaka-chan.”

Ushijima’s expression doesn’t change. “The alternative is that we would all be destroyed.”

This is a point Oikawa needs to argue. Surely, once Ushijima learns that the Shadow King is a person, a young man, he’ll change his mind.

Wakatoshi!”

Wakatoshi-kun!”

They both turn at the chorus of Ushijima’s given name. Standing in front of the cinema’s marquee are two men, side by side and beckoning Ushijima forward. One of them stands with his hands crossed over his chest, dressed in a chambray shirt over dark jeans, his hair smoky blond at the roots and edging into inky black at the tips. He’s frowning slightly, movie tickets clutched in one hand. Beside him is a man with a shock of brilliant red hair that stands up at seemingly impossible vertical angles—though, having met Kindaichi, Oikawa supposes nothing is impossible. The redhead has his hands tucked into the pockets of his baggy sweatshirt, and when he looks up his eyes seem spaced too far apart, his pupils too small for the roundness of his eyes.

“Oh, wow,” Oikawa breathes, laughter bubbling up again, “Ushiwaka-chan, are these your friends?”

Ushijima looks at Oikawa disapprovingly. “Of course.”

“Wakatoshi-kun, hurry up!” the redhead calls, balancing one elbow on the other’s shoulder before he shoves him away. “Semisemi hates missing the trailers, y’know?”

“Shut up, Tendou,” the other—Semi?—mutters. And then, calling out to Ushijima, “We are going to be late.”

“I will be right there,” Ushijima tells them before turning back to Oikawa. “I hope you’ll think about what I’ve said—Oikawa?”

But Oikawa isn’t quite listening, anymore. Because as soon as he’d bothered to focus on Semi, he’d seen the now-familiar display of muted magic around him, curling in spirals over where he and Tendou had touched, dipping down from his collar and splaying across his shoulders. There’s an echo of wingbeats forming from the shadows and light, beating against Semi’s ribs.

Ushijima places a firm hand on Oikawa’s shoulder. “What are you seeing?”

Oikawa shakes his head, clearing it. “Go enjoy your movie, Ushijima. You’ve given me enough to think about.”

“Alright. But we will need to speak again.” Ushijima takes his leave, walking forward to join Tendou and Semi. They step away from each other so that Ushijima is walking between them, each draping an arm over his shoulders. Ushijima’s magic, bright and potent, meets Semi’s halfway, but they repel away from each other like magnets, unable to connect yet.

Tendou says something, and Ushijima turns his head to one side and smiles slightly. But Oikawa can see the tenderness in the glint of his eyes, his face calmer than Oikawa’s ever seen it. He recognizes the way the lights flare in Ushijima’s magic, growing stronger the longer he’s in the company of his friends.

Oikawa has never seen Ushijima look so happy, or happy at all.

He loves them, Oikawa realizes.

He waits until it’s late at night, so late that Iwaizumi will have to have gone to bed in order to be up for class the next day. Oikawa isn’t really sure what’s going on in his own classes—he’s been missing some, sleeping through others. A degree seems like a very far away goal for him, not connected to the actual concerns of his life.

Concerns like how he’s going to fix things without destroying another guardian in the process. Concerns over what Ushijima will do if he finds out who the Shadow King is. Concerns about how Oikawa will maintain any relationship with Iwaizumi without draining his own magic and life in the process.

He doesn’t know what to do. Anxiety spikes through him, demanding he take action. But there’s nothing he can do, except nudge his way past the door and into the apartment. The lights are all off, and Oikawa sighs heavily as he toes off his shoes and heads towards his bedroom.

“I knew it,” a voice says, and Oikawa freezes in his tracks as Iwaizumi flicks on one of their lamps and gets to his feet, looking at Oikawa with hard eyes.

“Iwa-chan!” Oikawa yelps, taking a step back. “What are you doing awake?”

Iwaizumi crosses his arms over his chest, frowning. “What kind of stupid question is that, dumbass?”

“I… don’t know?” Oikawa says, blinking in the light.

Iwaizumi rolls his eyes, muttering under his breath. “You’ve been doing this for weeks, now. Did you really think I was just going to sit here and let you?”

“Doing what?”

There’s still a few feet of space between them, and Iwaizumi doesn’t move to cross it. “You come home after I’ve gone to sleep, and you leave again before I wake up. If you’re avoiding me, can you just tell me why so we can get over this, already?”

He says it like it’s so simple, like any of the stupid fights they used to get into as children. Easily resolved, once they’d just talked it out. But Oikawa knows that can’t happen, this time.

“Please,” Iwaizumi says after a moment, voice pitched low. “Please, Oikawa. Just tell me what’s wrong. Aren’t I supposed to be your partner?”

Oikawa looks up through his lashes. Iwaizumi’s face no longer looks stern, just open and impossibly sincere. He’s always been a pillar of strength for Oikawa, something solid that he can depend upon no matter what. And Oikawa isn’t stupid enough to think that Iwaizumi provides that support for no reason. Even before their magic had come to connect, revealing the truth of Iwaizumi’s heart, Oikawa had known.

And that is exactly why Oikawa cannot tell him. Because Iwaizumi cares about him so much, and if he learns that their connection is actively killing Oikawa… it would destroy him. He would blame himself, even though it’s Oikawa’s fault, for longing for that connection before he understood what it really meant. He was the one who’d leapt blindly, and if he can’t fix things, Iwaizumi will have to live with the devastating consequences of Oikawa’s decision.

He cannot do that to Iwaizumi. There is no one more precious, no one more deserving of protection. Oikawa absolutely cannot be the one to cause him heartache.

Iwaizumi is still standing like a sentinel between Oikawa and the door leading to his bedroom. There is no way forward, here. So he turns around and heads back towards the door to the apartment.

“I’m—I have to go,” he says, and he hates the way the words choke in his throat, laden with too much emotion.

“Hey!” Iwaizumi calls out. “Don’t just walk out on me!”

Oikawa fumbles with the doorknob, trying to let himself out. But then he feels someone gripping his other wrist, holding him firm. The aquamarine stone against his chest thrums with power, even though Oikawa isn’t drawing on his magic. There’s no one beside him, no physical hand holding onto him.

It’s Iwaizumi, from across the room. Oikawa turns his head to see Iwaizumi reaching out with one hand, as though he could’ve stopped Oikawa from so far away. But thanks to his magic, his touch is projected, his strength an entity separate from his body. He can hold onto Oikawa even when he’s nowhere near him.

He’s already so good at this, Oikawa thinks, breath hiccupping. He uses his magic like it’s second nature, like it’s always belonged to him. He has no idea what he’s doing.

“Oikawa,” Iwaizumi says again, stepping forward. “Come here.”

Oikawa turns in place but doesn’t step forward. It doesn’t matter; Iwaizumi has crossed the distance between them in a matter of seconds. Then, he’s right in Oikawa’s space, close enough to touch.

And oh, how Oikawa wants to. He wants to collapse against Iwaizumi, and hold him close, burry his face against Iwaizumi’s neck and let those arms go round him, grounding him and keeping him safe. He wants to hold Iwaizumi for a lifetime, wants to kiss him and know him and never stop. He wants it so badly he aches with it.

“Tooru,” Iwaizumi says softly, as though reading his mind. He leans in, reaching up to cup Oikawa’s cheek in one hand. His fingers are calloused but soft, and Oikawa feels like he’s being struck by lightning where they touch.

And then Iwaizumi’s face is even closer, his mouth opening slightly as he nudges Oikawa forward so that their lips meet.

Oikawa can’t really decide what Iwaizumi tastes like—mint, salt, whatever he’d had for dinner?—but that doesn’t matter. Because his lips are warm, and his touch is gentle, and Oikawa wants to live in this moment forever. He wants to be this connected to Iwaizumi for the rest of his life, for far beyond that.

He never wants to stop kissing Iwaizumi.

But he can’t do this to him.

So he reaches up, one hand on either of Iwaizumi’s shoulders as he pushes him away. Iwaizumi whines, a strangled sound, before he blinks back to himself and stares at Oikawa, trying to gauge what had gone wrong.

“I—I can’t,” Oikawa says, fingertips hovering over his lips. “There’s—guardian business. Big, important stuff happening. I’m going to stay with the others for a few days, and then. We’ll talk. I just need to get this sorted first.”

“Oikawa,” Iwaizumi starts to say, but he doesn’t gather himself fast enough. Oikawa turns abruptly, fumbling with the doorknob until he can let himself out of the apartment, slamming the door behind him.

He runs until he reaches the biggest park he can find, and then drops his human form abruptly. His clothes collapse into a pile around him, cell phone still tucked into the pocket of his jeans as the fox digs its way out from the neck of his shirt.

He knows he’s done something wrong. The fox demands that he go home, that he go to Iwaizumi. Because this is what he wants, to be with the one he’s always been meant for.

But the fox is stupid, because it should realize that anymore time spent with Iwaizumi will only serve to hurt him worse, in the end.

The fox, at least, knows enough to realize that it doesn’t want to die. Because that would mean never seeing Iwaizumi again.

He circles the park once, twice, finally settling between the roots of an old tree. Curling up, the fox settles his head against his paws and tries to sleep.

The sunlight wakes him, filtering through the sparse cover of the tree’s leaves. He blinks into the light, lifting his head and then immediately stiffening when he senses someone standing a few feet away.

It’s impossibly early in the morning—no one should be up so early, and hanging around a park besides. But there stands Kageyama Tobio, in running shorts and a t-shirt, wiping the sweat off of his brow and looking directly at the fox.

His eyes are still unnerving. They’re too blank, as though there’s nothing behind them but more and more darkness. Oikawa has never seen eyes like that, not on man nor beast.

“You’re,” Kageyama says, face scrunching up in thought. “You have…”

He pauses, as though he doesn’t have the right word for what he means. But he reaches out with one tentative hand, and the shadows follow him. Oikawa’s own magic wants to follow, the shadows that make up the majority of his being gravitating towards Kageyama.

The shift happens before he’s even aware of it. Aquamarine light surrounds him, and then the fox is gone, leaving Oikawa kneeling against the roots of the tree, gasping for breath. He blinks up at Kageyama, eyes wide.

“Did you just—”

“You’re a person!” Kageyama yells, pointing a finger towards him.

Oikawa sighs, reaching behind the tree to retrieve his clothes, sighing when Kageyama continues to stutter at him.

“You’re awfully loud for so early in the morning, Tobio-chan,” he drawls. He refuses to call Kageyama by his surname, refuses to acknowledge that this a person born of shadows.

Even after he pulls his shirt over his head and starts pulling on his pants, Kageyama continues to gape at him.

“What,” Oikawa snaps, “You can manipulate magic already, but seeing it in action surprises you?”

He shouldn’t be so harsh, he knows. When he’d gone to speak with the others, Hanamaki and Yahaba and Kunimi, he’d been as gentle as possible. He’d laid things out from the beginning, patiently explaining even though he knew they wouldn’t believe most of it until they felt their own magic blooming. But Kageyama is a real, active threat. Oikawa doesn’t feel responsible for him in the same way he feels towards the others.

“That’s what it is?” Kageyama says at length, “Magic?”

“Obviously.” Oikawa gets to his feet, dusting himself off. Kageyama is still staring at him. “What?”

Kageyama swallows, fists clenched at his sides. “What are you?”

There’s something like fear curling around Oikawa’s feet, building within him. Kageyama could destroy him, if he had full access to his magic. Kageyama is supposed to destroy him.

“That’s rude,” Oikawa says, trying to play off his fears. “I’m not a what. I’m a who.”

“You know what I meant,” Kageyama starts to say, and then stops himself. “Who are you?”

Oikawa clears his throat, lifting his chin and waving one hand jauntily. “Oikawa Tooru. The Guardian of the West. I’m very powerful and important, so don’t forget it.”

“Oikawa-san,” Kageyama says, bobbing his head. His hair is very fine, so that when the light touches the crown of his head Oikawa can see every individual strand.

“Well?” Oikawa asks after a moment. “What are you just hanging around for? Go on.”

Kageyama frowns, making his features look even more severe. There’s no levity to anything about him, not in the way he stands with his feet planted nor in the rough tone he adopts when he speaks.

“You know magic,” he says, almost thoughtful. “I think I—I have it, too.”

Obviously, Oikawa almost says again. But then, how does Kageyama know that? As far as Oikawa can tell, none of the other would-be guardians have access to their own magic yet. Not Hanamaki, not Kunimi or Yahaba, not Semi…

And yet the shadows are dark and potent around Kageyama, and he’d forced Oikawa to change forms, and the first time Oikawa had seen him he’d felt that undeniable pressure forcing him downwards, as though the magic wanted him to bow in Kageyama’s presence.

“How do you figure that?” Oikawa sneers, because he’s not sure what else to do.

Kageyama presses his lips together. “Does magic—does it keep people away from you?”

Oikawa blinks, at that. His magic makes up the very essence of his connection to Iwaizumi, bolstering him with light. It’s brought him closer to the person who matters most, not further away.

But that’s the light magic, he reminds himself. He and Iwaizumi connect because they complement one another. Without any light, Oikawa doubts he would be able to get close to Iwaizumi in the first place.

Can someone made up entirely of shadows connect to anyone at all?

“No,” Oikawa responds finally. “It doesn’t.”

Kageyama gazes down at the ground, face scrunched up with the efforts of his thoughts. When he finally looks up again, his eyes are round and hopeful, making him look years younger.

“Could you teach me?” he asks. “I want to know how to control it.”

Oikawa doesn’t want to be anywhere near him. He’s the reason Oikawa’s life is ending, metaphorically and literally. Why would he volunteer to spend more time with the object of his destruction?

“No.” Oikawa slips back into his shoes, stretching his arms above his head. “Go away, now.”

Kageyama freezes for a moment, confused. “Oikawa-san,” he says, “Please teach me magic.”

“No,” Oikawa says again.

“Why not?” Kageyama cries out, frustrated. “You’re a—a magic spirit, or something! Please teach me!”

Oikawa scowls, turning on his heel. “I’m not here to help you!” he yells. “I have enough going on. So figure it out yourself!”

Kageyama stands stock still for a moment. But before he can speak, again, the world starts to tilt around them. Magic floods Oikawa’s senses, and he winces, eyes pulling shut almost painfully.

Behind his eyes, he sees the old carvings on the door to the white house. The fox, the crow, the owl and the cat. As Oikawa watches, the cat begins to glow with red light, shifting so that it now faces outwards.

“No,” Oikawa says softly. “Goddamn it, Kuroo, not now.”

But there’s no way left to stop it. His senses are overrun with a flood of light and shadow as the last lock on the world’s magic is undone.

Oikawa blinks open his eyes and immediately lifts a hand to shield them—the small space of the park floods with magic, swirling around him and Kageyama and clashing against itself. Shadows flirt with light, creating complex patterns that Oikawa cannot begin to decipher. He sucks in his breath, feeling the external magic calling to the magic inside of him. It tugs at his heart, demanding that he take notice. For a moment, Oikawa can’t breathe.

And then the sensation fades. The lights dim and the shadows retreat, leaving only the rosy glow of early morning around them. Oikawa sinks to his knees, breathing heavily as the aquamarine stone blazes, trying to ground him in this newly-configured world of magic.

He’s so caught up in it that he barely remembers Kageyama is there, until he hears him cry out in pain.

Oikawa looks around until he sees Kageyama on his knees, hands clutching his head. The shadows around him have only grown darker and deeper, looking like an ocean around him, black and oily.

“Tobio—”

“Make it stop.” Kageyama grimaces, fingers digging into his scalp in a way that must be painful. “I need it to—it needs to stop.”

For a moment, Oikawa forgets his fears of Kageyama, and instead sees a boy struggling to overcome a power so potent and unknown that he can’t even hope to manage it. Sweat beads down Kageyama’s brow, his face contorting with pain. When he looks up and meets Oikawa’s gaze, his eyes aren’t even blue anymore. They’re black and opaque, pupil and iris blending together.

“Hold on,” Oikawa says, reaching out with his own magic. He’s mostly comprised of shadows, and they seem drawn to Kageyama’s magic. Maybe, Oikawa can pull some of the overwhelming power away from him. “I’m going to try to—just don’t do anything, okay?”

The process seems to work, at first. Oikawa tugs on the loose threads of Kageyama’s magic, pulling them closer and closer to himself. Kageyama’s still breathing heavily, but his eyes gradually clear, his teeth unclenching.

But the shadows grow thick around Oikawa. He’s always found strength in independence, as prided himself on his individual strength. But he’s never experienced shadow magic like this, before. These shadows aren’t just alone—they’re lonely.

The curl around Oikawa like smoke, so thick he can’t breathe. The connection between him and Kageyama strains, like a thread pulled so taunt that it begins to come apart at the center. Oikawa can sense it happening, but he doesn’t know how to stop it.

And then the magic snaps, and Oikawa feels the blowback like physical pain as he falls sideways, all his weight coming down against his right knee. He bites down on the inside of his cheek to keep from screaming, but the shadows sense his vulnerability. They coalesce around his knee, sinking deep into his skin as Oikawa thrashes against the pain.

When he can draw breath again, Oikawa looks up to see Kageyama on his feet. But the blowback must have hit him, too, because the shadows are curling around him like a maelstrom.

What could possibly stop this kind of power? Oikawa already feels like he’s being ripped apart—maybe this was meant to be, the Shadow King realizing his true strength in front of the arrogant lock that set all of this in motion.

Oikawa sucks in his breath, preparing himself for the worst. But as the shadows swirl around Kageyama, he doesn’t move towards Oikawa. Instead, his arms gradually seem to stretch, his nose extending and his legs growing thinner, until his entire body dissolves into shadows, only to be reformed a moment later.

Oikawa can’t make out what kind of bird he is, but Kageyama leaves behind glossy blue-black feathers when he flies away a moment later.

He coughs as he struggles to his feet, but his right leg won’t support his weight anymore. The magic around him has calmed since Kageyama’s departure, but Oikawa can feel the painful pulse of shadow magic deep with him. His skin has been ripped away from the spot, leaving a void space of dark magic that looks like the purple-black sky of the galaxy.

Oikawa bites down against the pain, fumbling in his pockets until he finds his cell phone.

Oikawa (04:55): don’t you dare say i told you so
Oikawa (04:56): but i need help

He sends along a pinpoint of his location, then falls back against the tree with a pained sigh.

A moment later, his phone lights up with a new message.

Ushijima (04:59): I will be there shortly.

In all the time since then, Oikawa has yet to make up his mind. Ushijima had seemed like the safest bet—he already knew what was going on, and had no connections to the other guardians that would’ve given Oikawa away. Because even now, he doesn’t know how he’s going to return to Iwaizumi before he finds a way to live through this.

He sighs, pacing in the hallway of Ushijima’s home. If he tells Ushijima who the Shadow King is, Ushijima’s solution will be simple and direct. And there is a part of Oikawa, born largely of fear, that wouldn’t be sorry to see the Shadow King’s magic wiped off the face of the earth. But there’s another voice in his head, one that sounds distinctly like Iwaizumi, that reminds him that Kageyama is a child, lonely and confused. Nothing that happened was his fault, and he probably doesn’t even know that he’s meant to be their destroyer.

He can hear voices coming from one of Ushijima’s guestrooms. They’ve laid Semi down there, hoping that with rest his magic will replenish itself and he’ll come to. That hasn’t happened, yet.

“It wasn’t my fault,” Tendou says flippantly. “They’re all so unhelpful! And then that cat put up this magical shield—”

“Kuroo was there, as well?” Ushijima’s low baritone asks. Oikawa’s heart skips a beat—Tendou hadn’t mentioned that, before. Oikawa had thought his fight had only been with Iwaizumi.

“Well, yeah, it’s like they’re travelling in packs. Iwaizumi and the cat and the cat’s wielder, I think.”

“What happened?” Ushijima demands.

“What happened to Semi happened to the cat, too,” Tendou admits. “The magic, whatever it’s doing to them—he fainted, too.”

Oikawa swallows convulsively. They were only able to help Semi because Oikawa could amplify the remnants of his magic. Who is going to be able to help Kuroo?

He’s long since realized that there are holes in his plan to stay away from all of them. He just didn’t think they’d be as urgent as this. And he really hasn’t been there for Kuroo at all, leaving him to find his wielder because he thought that’d be best at the time.

But if Kuroo needs help, now, Oikawa has to go.

He’s already turning, preparing to leave, when he hears a voice behind him.

“Oikawa.” It’s Ushijima, voice carefully blank. “Where are you going?”

Oikawa looks back over his shoulder. “You heard Tendou,” he says, not bothering to deny his eavesdropping. “If Kuroo needs me, I’m going to help him.”

“And you think that would be the best course of action?”

Oikawa scoffs. “It’s the only course of action! Semi was half-dead when Tendou brought him here, who knows what’s happened to Kuroo since then?”

Ushijima purses his lips. “Kuroo is a cardinal guardian. His body is better equipped to handle large surges of magic, more used to it. It won’t be as dire for him.”

“You don’t know that!” Oikawa’s voice comes out like a hiss. “Besides, what are we really accomplishing here, anyway? You have no plan.”

Ushijima frowns. “I would, if you would work with me. You know where the Shadow King is, and I can dampen his magic enough to incapacitate him.”

Oikawa shakes his head, thinking back to the oppressive heaviness of Kageyama’s shadows. “You don’t know that,” he says. “You’ve never faced anything like this.”

“And you don’t think that together, we would be enough?”

Oikawa almost laughs. There is nothing together about him and Ushijima. They are brought closer by the circumstances of their magic, but they don’t even really like each other. Given the choice, Oikawa would never work with Ushijima on anything, let alone something this dire. He can’t trust in Ushijima.

“All of this doesn’t matter, now,” he snaps. “Kuroo’s in trouble, and I’m going to help him.”

As his emotions spark, so does the aquamarine stone around his neck. It grows as his magic responds to his feelings, lighting up.

“Stop,” Ushijima says, voice pained. “You know what that’s doing to you—”

“Shut up!” Oikawa snaps, and the stone blazes brighter. “Just, stop talking! You keep making everything worse!”

The shadows gather around him, even though he doesn’t know to what purpose. Some part of his rational brain tells him to stop, that none of this is actually Ushijima’s fault. He’d only been trying to help, in his strange way, with his cryptic warnings and bland comments about their impending doom.

“Oikawa,” Ushijima says urgently, “Stop it. If something happens to you, we won’t be able to—”

“I’m done with this,” Oikawa sneers. “You don’t know what you’re doing any more than I do. You couldn’t stop Tendou and Semi from bonding, either, could you? That’s why you sent them away!”

Ushijima swallows, looking pained. “I didn’t want anything to happen to them—”

“Or were you just upset that they chose each other, over you?” Oikawa demands. He knows his anger at Ushijima is misplaced. What he’s feeling, deep down, is guilt. Guilt over not being there for Kuroo, guilt over not communicating with the others, guilt over leaving Iwaizumi. Despair, really, over having not seen him for so long.

Ushijima’s expression settles like stone, utterly blank. “I will not allow you to destroy yourself,” he says flatly.

“How are you going to stop me?” Oikawa asks flippantly. The gemstone flashes with light, but it dims abruptly a moment later, because Ushijima has reached out clasped his hand all the way around it. “What the hell are you doing,” Oikawa hisses. “Let go.”

“As long as you have this, you’re vulnerable,” Ushijima declares. “Iwaizumi could draw on your magic again, and kill you without ever realizing it.”

“I’m a cardinal guardian,” Oikawa spits back. “If Kuroo can survive this, so can I. Let go.”

Ushijima doesn’t budge. “You’ve had a wielder for a year longer than Kuroo has,” he says plainly. “You’ve been sharing your magic with Iwaizumi since then.”

“I don’t care!” Oikawa cries out, putting one hand over Ushijima’s wrist and trying to tug him away. The silver chain digs into the back of Oikawa’s neck as they grapple. “I don’t care, I’d rather stay connected to him and be vulnerable, it doesn’t matter—”

Ushijima blinks heavily, features contorting into a grimace. “You can’t be so selfish. We all need you.”

“Stop,” Oikawa says, pleading. “Ushijima, just stop—”

But the eagle, Guardian of the Northwest, doesn’t heed him. His hand squeezes over the stone, and it feels like he’s drawing the life out of Oikawa’s heart.

“Stop, please—Ushijima!”

The stone shatters.

Chapter Text

Rain falls heavily on the roof of the house, sounding a staccato rhythm against Kenma’s eardrums. He’s not really aware of any other noise, just the uneven tap-tap-tap of the rain and the heavy beating of his own heart.

He’s curled up on one corner of the couch, arms wrapped around his legs, knees pressed against his chest. The rain had come on suddenly, the sky darkening all at once just after the sun had started to rise. No one’s bothered to turn on any of the lights in the living room—it’s too early, and though no one’s still asleep they’re all scattered throughout the house. Kenma certainly isn’t going to get up to flick the switch on one of the lamps himself.

Kuroo’s been unconscious for almost twelve hours. At first, Kenma had told himself that it would be only a matter of time before he woke up. It had been easy to believe, yesterday. When Iwaizumi and Akaashi had fainted, before, it had only been a few hours before they’d woken up. But Kuroo remains deathly still, his face ashen. Eventually, sitting by his bedside had become too much for Kenma. So he had gotten up, descended the stairs and curled up here. Now, his tongue feels heavy in his mouth, his thoughts clouded.

Iwaizumi and Sawamura are sitting in the armchairs on the other side of the room. Iwaizumi is gesturing between them, and Kenma supposes he must be speaking, although Kenma can’t make out his words. He has neither the energy nor the desire to reach out with his magic to glean bits of the conversation.

Sawamura faces Iwaizumi head on, his dark eyes focused. But he shakes his head every so often, lifting his hands as though he’s holding off the waves of Iwaizumi’s frantic anger. Iwaizumi gnashes his teeth, runs his hands furiously through his spiky hair. His emotions are coloring his manner, his composure a thread frayed until it splits into a half-dozen smaller, weaker strings.

Kenma deals with his emotions in an entirely opposite way. He can feel himself retreating, curling up to protect the most vulnerable parts of himself. But even as he drifts further away from his current reality, he knows it won’t work. He’s already given the most precious pieces of himself away, and until Kuroo is back beside him they won’t return.

Scuffling sounds behind him, but Kenma doesn’t turn his head to bother seeing who’s coming down the stairs. Soon enough, however, Bokuto, Sugawara and Shimizu are standing in the middle of the living room. They all took tired, heavy circles under their eyes. Bokuto’s mouth is set into a firm line, and Shimizu is absently pulling her fingers through her dark hair, trying to put it to rights. It’s Sugawara who steps forward, clearing his throat until he has everyone’s attention.

“How is he?” Sawamura asks.

Sugawara shakes his head. “We don’t know, exactly.” He fiddles with the silver bangle on his wrist, fingertips smoothing over the glowing orange stone. “Before, when he first came home with Kozume, he was out of balance. Too much dark, and not enough light.”

Kenma sucks in a breath. When they’d first come here, Kuroo had been hiding from Kenma exactly how badly off-balance he was. Kenma never even knew, until Sugawara had started drawing the shadows out of Kuroo.

Was it the same, this time? Could Kuroo feel himself growing weaker? Had he hidden that from Kenma?

“But this isn’t that.” Sugawara is still speaking, and Kenma forces himself to pay attention to the other wielder’s words. “It’s not imbalance, it’s absence.”

Shimizu cuts in. “Usually, when any of you use magic, it’s only a small portion of what you’re really capable of. And then, when you switch forms, you regenerate that magic. It’s like when you exercise—as long as you eat well and sleep afterwards, even if you feel strain, you’ll eventually regain your strength.”

Kenma’s never sure what to make of Shimizu. It makes sense that the guardians stay together, even the new ones who are without wielders. But Shimizu is a wielder without a guardian. Kenma doesn’t know how she fits into the story, or why she sticks around. Her presence is unsettling.

“So, he’s resting now,” Sawamura says, brows knitting together. “That means he’ll regain his strength, won’t he?”

Bokuto makes an irritated noise. “I don’t think it’s working,” he says, crossing his arms over his chest. “I kept trying to give him some light, to see if that would help, but it wasn’t doing anything at all.”

Kenma remembers when Akaashi had fainted—Bokuto had emitted bright waves of light magic, as warm and healing as the sun’s rays. And that had seemed to help, at the time, keeping the darkness at bay.

“It’s not the same kind of rest,” Shimizu says, her voice almost too soft to be heard. But Bokuto immediately goes silent, letting her speak. “He’s used too much magic without regenerating it. And now that he’s unconscious, he can’t switch forms to generate more. I’m not sure…”

She trails off, as four pairs of eyes subconsciously shift in Kenma’s direction. Because they’ve come to the same realization as him, at the same moment.

It isn’t Kuroo whose been using up his own magic. It’s Kenma.

Kenma’s been drawing on Kuroo’s magic since before he’d officially become Kuroo’s wielder. And since then, it’s become his primary means of interacting with the world. He gleans bits of people’s thoughts subconsciously, and influences them to keep them from noticing the new guardians, or any number of other things. He’d gone looking for Yahaba, and had reached out to Bokuto after Tendou and Semi ambushed them.

He’s the reason Kuroo’s like this, now.

“We’ve all been using a lot of magic,” Bokuto says boldly, frown still fixed on his face. “And I felt how powerful those other two—Semi and Tendou?—were. Kuroo was guarding against them the entire time, before I got there.”

Kenma’s sure he hasn’t spoken aloud, and yet Bokuto’s words are aimed to alleviate his guilt. He sucks in a ragged breath, unsure if Bokuto consciously intended to make him feel better or not.

“So, what can we do?” Sawamura asks.

Sugawara spreads his hands. “We don’t know. The magic deficiency is affecting his physical, human body, and I healed that damage. But I can’t make him regenerate his magic.”

They don’t know what’s going to happen to Kuroo. The thought echoes around in Kenma’s skull, blocking out everything else. They don’t know. And that means, that means—

“We can’t keep waiting,” Iwaizumi says. His expression is shuttered, his eyes a stormy gray-green in the dim light. “I’m not just brushing this aside, but what happens if those two come back? There’s only two of you left, now.”

“I can handle them,” Bokuto says, rolling his eyes. “Those bastards hurt Kuroo, I should go find them anyway, make them pay for—”

“Bokuto.” Sawamura’s firm voice cuts through Bokuto’s tirade. “No one’s going to go looking for trouble, especially not now.”

“Besides, they’re not who we need to find. You heard what they said, didn’t you? If we find Ushijima, we find Oikawa.” Iwaizumi’s shoulders are squared, his chin lifting as he speaks with certainty. And Kenma knows that this is what he’s been waiting for—an inkling of where Oikawa might be, any chance to find him. Now that he has a clue, he’s not going to let it go.

“Who is Ushijima?” Kenma asks, curiosity overriding his other emotions for a moment.

“The Guardian of the Northwest,” Sawamura says, his face pinched. “He’s an ordinal guardian, like Daishou.”

Kenma bites the inside of his cheek as he remembers the snake—a curling mass of shadows that had come after him and Kuroo. But he’s also a man, about Kuroo’s age, with a voice like poisoned honey and hard green eyes.

“What does that mean?” Kenma asks, “Ordinal?”

Bokuto lets out a huff. “It means they’re not as cool as we are.”

Sawamura frowns at him. “I don’t think that’s what Kozume was asking. The ordinal guardians are like us. But while the four of us have to be in contact, have to keep the balance, I’m not entirely sure what the ordinal guardians’ purpose is. We don’t really speak to them much.”

“That doesn’t matter,” Iwaizumi snaps. “Just tell me where to find Ushijima.”

“Do you know?” Sugawara asks Sawamura.

Sawamura shakes his head. “I’ve never actually met Ushijima. Oikawa’s the one who has the most contact with him.”

Bokuto mutters something under his breath, kicking ineffectually at the rug he’s standing on.

“What was that?” Sugawara asks him.

“Sakusa talks to him a lot, I’m pretty sure,” Bokuto mumbles. His lips are pulled down into a severe frown.

“So he can tell us where Ushijima is?” Iwaizumi says, taking a step forward. “Can you ask him? Now?”

“I’d rather not.” Bokuto says flatly, turning his head away.

“What?” Iwaizumi snaps, eyes widening in disbelief.

“Sakusa’s a pain in the ass! I hate talking to him, he’s always acting like he’s better than me!”

Iwaizumi blinks several times in rapid succession, like he can’t believe what he’s hearing. “Are you kidding me? That’s the only reason? This guy might be the key to finding Oikawa, and you’re not going to find out because you don’t like talking to him?”

Bokuto’s features contort with indignation. “Hey, don’t act like you know everything! No one likes the ordinal guardians, it’s not just me!”

“Actually,” Sawamura says mildly, “Moniwa isn’t so bad.”

“Then ask him where Ushijima is,” Bokuto snaps.

“He won’t know,” Sawamura says, frowning now. “I don’t think he talks to any of the others, much.”

“Fine,” Iwaizumi snaps. “Then you have to talk to this Sakusa guy!”

“Hey,” Sugawara cuts in, “Everyone calm down. We’ll figure this out. Did anyone find out what Semi and his wielder wanted? Do we know they’re not coming back?”

“They were after the Shadow King,” Kenma says flatly. And everything does seem to keep circling back to that. Daishou wanted to know who that all-shadow guardian was, and so did Semi and Tendou, who said they were acting on Ushijima’s behalf. Maybe the ordinal guardians have some reason for wanting to find him.

“But why not the other?” Shimizu says, one hand against her chin. Her voice is wispy, more like a thought than something she’d intended to say aloud. And as soon as the words leave her mouth, she looks up, her expression abashed.

“Shimizu?” Sawamura asks. “The other what?”

Shimizu glances sideways at Sugawara, who shrugs his shoulders. Something passes between them, and Kenma almost reaches for his magic, determined to decipher what they’re thinking, before he remembers that is isn’t his magic that he’s using.

“Shimizu?” Sawamura asks again.

She looks guilty, Kenma thinks. But when Shimizu lifts her chin and looks up, again, there’s a determined set to her features, her gray eyes reflective like moonlight.

“The shadow guardian, or Shadow King, if that’s what we’re calling him… his power can probably destroy magic. But there’s another—the light guardian. The one who can create magic.”

“You told us that before,” Bokuto cuts in. “What does that have to do with the ordinal guardians?”

“I don’t understand them,” Shimizu says. “But I do think that the guardian of light could help us, right now.”

Sawamura hits one of his palms with the opposite fist. “That guardian could save Kuroo,” he says, eyes bright with realization. “He’s burned out on magic, but if someone could create more for him…”

“So we need to find the light guardian?” Kenma asks, nails digging into his palms. If there’s anything, anyone who can wake Kuroo up, Kenma will find them. He has to find them.

Shimizu shakes her head sadly. “I’ve been looking,” she says. “Ever since new guardians started appearing, I’ve been looking for the guardian of light. And I haven’t been able to find them.”

“So we’ll look more, now,” Kenma says, his breathing going shallow, voice reedy. “We’ll all look.”

“Kozume,” Sugawara says softly. He waits until Kenma is looking at him for he continues. “We’re just… we’re not sure how much time Kuroo has.”

“…what does that mean.” Kenma doesn’t recognize his own voice, it sounds so harsh and strained.

“Guardians are made of magic,” Shimizu says, “And right now, Kuroo is almost completely depleted.”

“It’s like if you lost a lot of blood at once,” Sugawara says. He steps closer to Sawamura, sighing softly. “There’s no telling how long his body can maintain itself, especially because it isn’t absorbing Bokuto’s magic.”

“We’ve never tried that, before,” Bokuto protests, but he’s agitated, his mood shifting abruptly. “We’ve all always had enough magic on our own. How was I supposed to know he couldn’t take some of mine?”

“No one’s blaming you,” Sugawara says softly.

They keep talking, but Kenma is no longer listening. Because they’re skirting around the main issue—that Kuroo’s magic is gone, and it’s all Kenma’s fault. If Kenma hadn’t been drawing from him over the past few weeks, Kuroo would’ve had enough magic to fight off Semi and Tendou. He wouldn’t be lying upstairs, unconscious. He wouldn’t be in danger of dying.

Kenma doesn’t know how he could’ve let this happen. Kuroo is always the one looking out for him, protecting him. And now there’s only one person who might be able to save Kuroo, and that person isn’t Kenma. They have no idea where the guardian of light is, or if they’d be willing to help.

Kenma is utterly useless, and Kuroo is going to pay the price. It’s Kenma’s fault.

His mind goes blank, static interrupting his thoughts as he gets up from the couch. He’s headed for the door before he even realizes it, floating away from the conversation like a balloon drifting away in the breeze.

“Oi, Kozume!” It’s Iwaizumi’s voice. But Kenma doesn’t stop.

When he hoists open the door, a spray of rain mists his face. But he doesn’t step back inside. Mind still blank, emotions too powerful to process, Kenma breaks into a run.

Rain pelts his face, but Kenma keeps running. The droplets drip over his nose, his hair sticking to his forehead and cheeks as it gets weighed down with water. He isn’t dressed for this; he’s down to just a t-shirt and jeans, his sweatshirt forgotten somewhere back at the house. But none of that matters. No amount of physical discomfort could possibly matter, right now.

Because Kuroo might be dying. And Kenma doesn’t know how he could ever live without him, how he could live at all knowing that it’s his fault.

He doesn’t pay any attention to where he’s going. He used to live in this neighborhood, but it’s been a decade since his family moved away. Nothing seems familiar, and Kenma doesn’t know how far away from the house he’s gotten. Most times, when he heads there from the station, Kuroo is with him, talking to him, laughing at him, smiling at him.

There’s a vise around his heart, squeezing painfully. It’s been half a day since he’s heard Kuroo’s voice. And the reason is because Kuroo had been protecting all of them, because in the end, the wielders were useless. They couldn’t do anything to defend themselves against Semi and Tendou, and it had only been because of Kuroo and Bokuto that they’d gotten away.

His thoughts go round and round in circles, and Kenma keeps running even though his lungs are burning, even though the soles of his sneakers are unsteady against the wet concrete of the sidewalk. He doesn’t know what else to do.

Then, as he’s stepping forward, he loses his footing entirely. His foot slides across the sidewalk, unable to keep steady, and Kenma falls down hard on his knees, throwing out his hands at the last moment to catch his weight. Pain smarts against his palms as they hit the concrete. He’s disoriented for a moment, dizzy. It’s hard to tell which direction is up, and which is down.

He glances around, and sees that he’s ended up near the city center. There are shops on either side of the street, a low amount of traffic as the morning has just begun. He’s fallen just outside of a restaurant, the alley filled with trash bins and a dumpster behind him.

Kenma turns his head, and when he glances down the alleyway he sees the flash of dark eyes coming from the shadows beneath the dumpster.

The image catches on his memory, and suddenly he’s seeing golden eyes, Kuroo’s eyes.

Kenma pushes himself to his feet and takes a step towards the alley. There’s a spot of red in his vision, and when he glances down he sees a discarded tracksuit jacket thrown across the ground. He reaches down and picks it up, seeing the name of a school written in white across the back of it. Nekoma.

The name means nothing to Kenma, but the dark eyes and discarded clothes stick in his brain, propelling him forward.

“Hello?” he calls out, crouching low and craning his neck towards the dumpster. “Can you—can you understand me?”

He doesn’t know why he’s doing this. He’s got no proof that whatever is underneath the dumpster is a guardian, and even if it is they might not remember how to understand him. It’s probably a fruitless endeavor.

Just as Kenma is about to give up, a small head peaks out from beneath the dumpster. Liquid dark eyes blink up at him, surrounded by dappled brown and black fur, topped off with a pink nose and thin whiskers.

“Oh,” Kenma breathes out.

The kitten is tiny, opening its mouth to make a plaintive sound, so soft it’s as though he doesn’t want to be a bother. Kenma almost laughs.

“Are you a person?” Kenma asks, kneeling down further and extending a hand. “Do you—can you understand me?”

The kitten doesn’t respond, but slowly emerges from beneath the dumpster. The rest of his fur is the same pattern as that on his face, a baseline brown coat with a shifting pattern of black across his back. He regards Kenma through round eyes, tilting his head as if assessing him.

It’s a familiar interaction, and suddenly tears are burning behind Kenma’s eyes. The kitten lets out a soft, inquisitive noise in response.

“I’m sorry,” he chokes out.

He doesn’t really know who he’s addressing, but the next moment there’s a soft warmth against his side. When he glances down, the kitten is pressed up against him, rubbing his nose across Kenma’s arm.

He’s trying to comfort him.

Kenma hiccups in the back of his throat, willing himself not to cry. He reaches out instinctively, fingers grazing across the back of the kitten’s head and down his back. His fur is soft, but soaked through with rain. He’s trembling beside Kenma.

“Sorry,” Kenma says again, looking around him. He spots the red jacket and drapes it over his arms, scooping up the kitten and wrapping the jacket around him. The kitten calmly accepts this treatment, curling into the jacket and pressing his head against Kenma’s chest.

“Do you know who you are?” Kenma asks. “Can you change back?” He considers reaching out with his magic, testing to see if this kitten has any of his own. But then he’s reminded of Kuroo, and the fact that drawing any more magic at the moment could prove fatal to him.

So Kenma has no way of knowing. Still, as he clutches the kitten to his chest, he feels a warmth spreading over him. He can feel the kitten’s heartbeat, gentle and small. It’s both familiar and not, and Kenma’s own heart aches within his chest.

“Hey! What are you doing out here?”

Kenma turns around abruptly, still holding onto the kitten. There’s a young man standing by the back entrance of the restaurant, looking out into the alley with a fierce expression. He’s short, perhaps even shorter than Kenma, his hands balanced against his hips as he glowers. Rain catches on his light brown hair, darkening it as he stands there. There’s a white apron tied around his waist, and he’s wearing a red collared shirt emblazoned with the restaurant’s logo.

His gaze locks with Kenma’s, and immediately his entire demeanor softens. His brown eyes grow wide with concern as he takes a few steps into the alley.

“Are you alright?” he asks, voice still a bit harsh even as he tries to convey his concern, “You look like you’ve been cry—”

“I’m fine,” Kenma says abruptly. He turns away, clutching the kitten so tightly that he yelps quietly in protest.

“What’s that?” the young man asks, craning his neck to try and get a look at the kitten. “And why’re you hanging out by our dumpster, anyway?”

“It’s a kitten,” Kenma says shortly. He can’t deal with this, right now. He dislikes new people at the best of times, and right now his mind is too scattered for him to even begin to deal with this properly.

“I—” The young man cuts himself off, pouting slightly as he thinks something over to himself. “Look, you look pretty bad, right now. So if you want to sit on the steps over there for a second, I’ll bring you a drink, okay?”

“I don’t need—”

He lifts both his hands, and his expression makes Kenma feel as though he’s being scolded.

“Sit. And don’t leave until I get back!”

He scampers off, leaving Kenma standing in the alley. Part of him wants to walk off, but he’s not entirely sure of where he’d go, right now. The kitten is making himself comfortable, curling up in Kenma’s arms and allowing himself to be held.

He doesn’t feel like he could walk the entire way back to the house, right now. And he’s not sure he’s ready to face everyone again. So Kenma heads over to the steps at the back entrance of the restaurant and sits down, exhaling deeply.

The kitten shifts in his arms until his head is poking out of the folds of the sweatshirt. He lifts his nose until he’s looking directly at Kenma, eyes too deep to be just an animal’s.

Kenma gulps a breath. “You can’t stay like this,” he tells the kitten. “You have to come back to the house, and they’ll teach you how to change back. Normally, Kuro would…”

Because of course, the kitten must be linked to Kuroo the same way Lev and Tora are. Kenma’s still not entirely sure what that means, why some of the new guardians are linked together in this way. But Bokuto has Shirofuku and Konoha, and Oikawa would have Hanamaki and the others if he was here. The only one left without new guardians is Sawamura.

“We’ll take care of you,” Kenma says. “Don’t worry.” He’s not really sure who he’s trying to comfort, at this point. The kitten doesn’t seem particularly worried.

“Ah, you’re still here!” A voice calls out, and Kenma looks up to see the same young man from before, this time clutching a drink in one hand. He comes down the steps and holds it out to Kenma, smiling. “Here you go!”

It’s apple juice, lightly chilled. Kenma maneuvers around the kitten to take it in both hands. For a moment, the young man just looks at him expectantly. Then, when Kenma twists the cap off the bottle and takes a tentative sip, he sits down beside him.

“I haven’t seen you around here, I don’t think,” he says conversationally. “Have you ever been to our restaurant, before?”

Kenma shakes his head.

The young man huffs. “Well, you should! We have the best stir fry in the city.”

Kenma supposes he’ll have to take this person’s word for it. He barely feels comfortable getting McDonald’s with Lev; he’s not about to start frequenting busy restaurants by himself.

“If you need to get back to work, I won’t keep you,” Kenma says.

The young man glances back at the door and shakes his head, smiling. “I was just doing early prep. We won’t be busy until lunch, though if Shibayama doesn’t show up before then…” His voice darkens as he scowls.

The kitten meows lightly. The young man glances down at him skeptically.

“You know, that doesn’t look like a normal kitten. He’s got markings like a mountain cat, or something. Is he your pet?”

Thinking of Lev, and how much difficulty it’d been to get the lion back to the house without anyone noticing, Kenma startles. “Yes,” he says. “He’s my pet, I came out looking for him.”

He glances down at the kitten as though he can corroborate his story. Instead, he just meows again, curling up in Kenma’s arms like he’s about to fall asleep.

The young man looks skeptical, but the lets the topic drop. He sits in relative silence on the steps as Kenma sips up the apple juice, thirstier than he’d realized. And it takes him a moment, but then he realizes that this person is causing no anxiety in him. If anything, his presence is calming, his demeanor honest and kind.

For some reason, that kindness brings the tears back to Kenma’s eyes. He blinks them away, draining the last of his juice and turning back to the young man to voice his thanks.

“Don’t worry about it,” he says, before Kenma can speak. He waves a hand, dismissive. “You look a bit better, now. Are you going to be alright?”

“Yes,” Kenma says, after a moment’s thought. Maybe that will change, but at the moment he really does feel like he’ll survive this. He slowly gets to his feet, careful not to jostle the kitten too badly. “Thank you,” he says, and he means it.

“No problem.” The young man smiles. “My name’s Yaku, by the way. My family owns this restaurant. You really should try it, sometime.”

“I…” Kenma trails off, uncertain of how to answer. He ends up bobbing his head. “I’m Kenma.”

Yaku smiles. “See you later, Kenma.”

Kenma nods again, before heading out of the alley and back onto the main street. The kitten is still snug in his arms as he begins to walk back the way he came. It’s only a few minutes later that he looks up at the sky and realizes the sun has come out. It hasn’t been raining for a long time, now.

It’s easy to find his way back now that Kenma’s had a moment to catch his breath. Yaku’s kindness and the warmth of the kitten against his chest bolster him, filling in the empty spaces that have ripped through him like fissures over the past few hours. Maybe the problem is that there’s just constantly too many people around, at the house, and without Kuroo Kenma doesn’t know how to navigate his place amongst them.

But there’s another voice in his ear, one that sounds exactly like Kuroo, telling him not to take himself so lightly. He’s a wielder, and no matter what that means in the long run right now he’s supposed to be back there, figuring out how to fix things.

“I don’t know what to do without him,” Kenma says quietly, tilting his head down so that it’s as though he’s speaking to the kitten. “Kuro… he always knows what to do. I’m not like that.”

But without Kuroo, who are they left with? Bokuto, who’s moody and unpredictable; Sawamura, who’s attention seems split, most of the time; and Iwaizumi, who won’t be dependable until they find Oikawa. Kuroo’s been the one keeping everyone together.

“And if he can’t do it, right now, I’ll have to,” Kenma says softly. There’s resignation in his voice. Given any other choice, he wouldn’t pick this path. But this is something he has to do. “We’re partners,” he murmurs into the wind.

The kitten looks up at him and blinks twice, and it’s as though he’s understood him.

Kenma takes a deep breath as he walks past the yellow house he used to live in as a child, towards the old white house that serves as the guardians’ headquarters. He’s just walked past the overgrown lawn and towards the front door when he realizes the way is blocked. But it takes another moment for him to really process what he’s seeing.

There’s a man standing in front of the door, banging on it with one fist. “Let me in!” He demands, voice gruff and impatient. “I know you’re in there!”

He isn’t very tall, and his hair is a strange pattern of bleached and black (though Kenma supposes he doesn’t have room to judge, in that regard). Most noticeable, however, is the fact that this man has another balanced over his shoulder, holding him in place with one arm as he uses the other to batter against the door.

The second man has his fingers bunched into the back of the first’s shirt, and his face is flushed red with fever. His eyes are slightly glazed, and each time the first man yells he flinches, like the loud noise is physically painful.

“Kyoutani,” he rasps, “shut up.”

Oh, Kenma realizes. It’s Yahaba. Except that his hair, previously a milky brown, is now dusted with silvery-gray. He looks impossibly tired, his voice weak and his hands shaking where they’re clenched into Kyoutani’s shirt. Kyoutani’s holding him effortlessly, but when Yahaba speaks, he whips his head around, looking murderous.

“You shut up!” he snaps.

Kenma should take charge of this situation, he thinks. He should step forward, and ask what’s going on, and stop these two from screaming at each other on the guardians’ front lawn. But he doesn’t move.

“Let go of me,” Yahaba says, voice rising despite the effort this seems to take. “I told you to put me down, what the hell do you even think you’re doing, I’m going to—”

Kyoutani growls low in the back of his throat, but he doesn’t let go of Yahaba. “Shut up,” he says again. “You were just going to let whatever the fuck this is happen to you, and you were about to pass out, you stupid—”

They don’t have a chance to continue, because the door swings open to reveal Iwaizumi, who surveys the two of them with a confused expression. He’s holding his cellphone in one hand, and now he glances between it and Yahaba.

“When you texted me, you didn’t say—” Iwaizumi starts, but Yahaba cuts him off.

“I didn’t text you,” he says, and his voice has suddenly lost all of the bite that he’d directed at Kyoutani. The scene could almost be hilarious—Yahaba balanced over Kyoutani’s shoulder, facing away from Iwaizumi as he addresses him, Kyoutani gnashing his teeth all the while. “Kyoutani stole my phone.”

Iwaizumi regards Kyoutani, raising an eyebrow in question. Kyoutani doesn’t look sorry in the least.

“You’re magic, or whatever, aren’t you?” he demands. “Then, fix him.”

“Be quiet,” Yahaba hisses, fingers digging into Kyoutani’s back. “Just stop butting in!”

“Yahaba,” Iwaizumi starts, taking a step forward. “You still haven’t…?”

Yahaba whips his head around, thrashing in Kyoutani’s grip until Kyoutani is forced to let him go, sending him tumbling to the ground. Kyoutani makes an abortive noise of protest, reaching out as though to catch Yahaba, but he’s not quick enough. Yahaba lands on his hands and knees, letting out a small, pained whimper.

“I told you,” he says between heavy breaths, “I don’t want to.”

“Whatever the fuck is going on, it’s hurting you!” Kyoutani throws his arms in the air, clearly exasperated. “Why are you being so stupid?”

“Leave me alone!” Yahaba barks out, his voice reverberating with an inhuman quality. Kyoutani steps back instinctively, eyes wide. Because as Yahaba braces himself on his hands and knees, he’s changing—his teeth too sharp, his pupils contracting and the whites of his eyes disappearing as his irises expand, glowing amber.

“…what the fuck,” Kyoutani says, a shiver running down his spine.

But then Iwaizumi is stepping between them, pushing Kyoutani behind him. “Yahaba,” he says evenly, kneeling down slightly, “It’s alright. We’ll help you, just take a deep breath.”

But Yahaba doesn’t respond. And even without reaching for his own magic, Kenma can tell what happens next, because he’s seen it often enough. Magic is gathering around Yahaba, maybe drawn by the desperation of his emotions. It swirls around Yahaba in a dappled pattern of light and shadow, obscuring him from view for a moment.

As the shadows disperse, Kyoutani lets out a startled cry. Because Yahaba is gone, and in his place is a small animal, all white and gray, his amber eyes two bright spots against his pale fur.

Yahaba has become an arctic fox.

“I’m seriously the only one freaked out by this?” Kyoutani grumbles, looking from Iwaizumi to Kenma. The fox looks up at Kyoutani and blinks, unimpressed. He flicks his tail and curls up, hiding his face from Kyoutani.

Iwaizumi doesn’t respond for a moment, his eyes fixed on Yahaba. But Kenma knows that isn’t who he’s seeing. He’s thinking of another fox, maybe the first time he saw a transformation like this. He must be feeling the exact way Kenma had felt just a little while ago, when he’d found the kitten.

“I…” Iwaizumi starts speaking, but then trails off. He shakes his head, trying to dispel his thoughts as though they were cobwebs. “Kyoutani. Thank you for bringing him here. You did the right thing.”

“Woah,” a voice calls out from the doorway. “What’s going on here?”

Kenma glances at the door to see Matsukawa, surveying the scene with a wry expression. The coyote is at his heels as usual, but now Hanamaki nudges around Matsukawa and comes to stand by Yahaba, brushing his nose against Yahaba’s fur.

“Oh,” Matsukawa says, as though he’s figured everything out. “He’s cute, isn’t he?”

Kyoutani makes an irritated noise at the same time that Hanamaki looks up and blinks at Matsukawa, unimpressed.

“Don’t worry,” Matsukawa says, stepping down into the front yard and trailing his fingers through Hanamaki’s fur. “You’re definitely the cutest.”

The coyote seems satisfied with this, and steps aside so that Matsukawa can reach down and lift the arctic fox into his arms. Yahaba allows this treatment, letting out a mildly annoyed yip as Matsukawa adjusts him in his arms.

“I’m guessing this guy’s on our team, then?” Matsukawa asks, turning to Iwaizumi.

Iwaizumi spreads his hands, still looking a little dazed. “That’s the story.”

“You want me and Hanamaki to show him the ropes?”

Iwaizumi nods. “If you could.” He points a thumb at Kyoutani. “Take this guy with you, too.”

“He’s not—” Kyoutani cuts himself off, like he’s unsure what he wants to say. He glances at the fox, eyes narrowed suspiciously. “He’s not fighting you.”

Iwaizumi laughs, but the sound is hollow. “Yeah, well. Being like this is what one part of him wanted, at least.”

“Then I’m done here,” Kyoutani declares, his narrow eyes shifting from Matsukawa to Iwaizumi and back again.

“Huh?” Iwaizumi asks.

“I’m not—forget this,” Kyoutani grumbles, turning back towards the pathway. “I’m done.”

The arctic fox lets out a yelp of protest, but Kyoutani is fast. He’s maneuvered past Iwaizumi and around Matsukawa before either of them has a chance to blink, and then he’s jogging down the sidewalk, not looking back.

Yahaba barks twice, then curls up in Matsukawa’s arms with a huffy, prideful noise.

“I hope you appreciate me,” Matsukawa says mildly to Hanamaki. “At least I didn’t react like that.” Then he turns to Iwaizumi. “Should we go after him?”

“I—” Iwaizumi shakes his head after a moment. “No. We’ve got enough going on here as it is. We don’t need someone who doesn’t want to help.”

Matsukawa nods, and after a moment he leaves the yard with Yahaba and Hanamaki. Iwaizumi and Kenma are left alone. Iwaizumi turns towards him, face tired.

“You’re back,” he says.

Kenma nods.

“Are you alright?” Iwaizumi asks, scratching at the back of his neck, suddenly awkward.

Kenma shakes his head this time.

Iwaizumi nods in understanding. “I’m sorry.”

The house is quiet, by the time Kenma steps away from Iwaizumi and into the foyer. Matsukawa has taken the others to the backyard, and maybe Sawamura and the rest are there, at well. At this point, Kenma doesn’t really care. He remembers, vaguely, that Lev and Taketora were supposed to come over today to train with Kuroo. But that thought leads to a dangerous line of thinking, so he pushes it away as he slips out of his shoes and pads up the stairs.

The lights in Kuroo’s bedroom are off, but the curtains are drawn back and bright morning light floods the room through the window. Kuroo is laid across his bed, covers pulled up around him. In the yellow light, he looks peaceful, his expression calm in sleep as his chest rises and falls slowly.

But to Kenma, the scene doesn’t seem natural at all. Kuroo rarely sleeps peacefully. He crowds his pillows around his head, drowning out some perceived noise as he curls up and waits for sleep to come. He tosses and turns, often mumbling out incomprehensible words. To see him so still, so lifeless, is worse than seeing him tormented by nightmares. He’s a blank space where he should be everything.

Kenma shakes his head, setting the kitten down at the foot of Kuroo’s bed, still nested in the old red sweatshirt. The kitten curls up into a C shape, looking up at Kenma questioningly. Kenma trails his fingers over the kitten’s head and down his spine, but it’s a superficial gesture. His heart isn’t in it.

He turns away from the kitten and towards the head of the bed, climbing up onto it and positioning himself behind Kuroo. It takes a moment of maneuvering, but he manages to rest Kuroo’s head against his lap. He lets his fingers pull gently through Kuroo’s messy hair, the movement calming in a way nothing else has been.

“Kuro,” Kenma says softly, and it feels like when he used to speak to Kuroo as a cat, before he knew Kuroo was human, too. Except even then, Kuroo could look at him, and be there for him, even if he couldn’t respond.

“Please wake up,” Kenma says. “I can’t lose you.”

But Kuroo doesn’t stir. His skin is clammy, where Kenma’s fingers rest against his face. Kenma can feel his heart rate increasing, panic rising in him like the inevitable crash of waves against the shore.

“Please,” Kenma says desperately. “I don’t have magic to give you. I don’t have any way to help. But you need to wake up. Please, Kuro.”

He thinks back to the first time he and Kuroo had met, the first time Kuroo had been able to speak to him as a human. When Kenma had gotten overwhelmed, Kuroo had asked permission before embracing him. The physical proximity and the feeling of Kuroo’s strong arms around him had been enough to keep the shadows at bay.

“Can I hold you?” Kenma asks, knowing that Kuroo can’t respond. It’s alright, because he doesn’t think Kuroo will mind.

He pulls Kuroo close, his head against Kenma’s chest as Kenma’s arms go around him. He can barely feel Kuroo’s shallow breaths, but it’s enough.

At least for now, he’s alive.

Darkness surrounds him, and he’s not quite sure where he is. When he glances down, his feet aren’t balanced on anything solid. He’s floating in some undefined space, but that doesn’t worry him as much as it should. Instead, he feels far away from his thoughts, both hyperaware and not present at all. It’s an amplified version of the sensation he feels when he does magic—able to completely read the world around him, for once not left wondering what people think of him.

It should be overwhelming, but it isn’t. Then, there’s a flicker of movement in the corner of his eye, the shadow of an animal darting from one hiding place to another. But when he turns his head to look, he doesn’t see anything. Again, a dart of movement, but when he follows the shadow it recedes. The pattern repeats twice, three times, leaving him feeling dizzy and frustrated. He’s supposed to be able to see this shadow, he’s sure. He wants to.

“Come out,” he says, and he’s startled by the sound of his own voice. This place should be silent, he thinks, a place for solitude and quiet thought. But his voice bounces around the shadowed space, reverberating against walls he can’t see.

There’s a mildly annoyed noise from behind him. When he turns toward it, he isn’t quite sure what he’s seeing.

The creature is beautiful. That fact is overwhelming, absolute. He’s formed almost entirely of shadow, curling into a humanoid form like dark folds of silk. His face is obscured by a dark shock of hair, golden eyes burning like candle-flame from under his messy locks. When he sees Kenma staring, his mouth stretches into an uneven smile that cuts across one side of his face.

He isn’t quite human. The shadows curl around him, forming triangular ears on top of his head, the sharp points of claws at the ends of his fingers. One shadow curls around him, a tail, flickering idly back and forth.

Kenma’s overcome by the sensation that he’s staring into the deepest corner of space, something too vast for his mind to fully comprehend. If this creature were one thing or another—completely human or completely beast—he would be easier to understand. But like this, all aspects of him come together, he’s overwhelming.

“Kuro,” Kenma says, because no matter what form Kuroo takes Kenma always knows him. There’s a question in that simple word, the syllables stretching across the space between them.

For a moment, the Cheshire grin flickers, replaced by a severe frown, golden eyes snapping shut for a moment. Everything in the ill-defined space seems to surge towards him, as though he’s sucking up the very essence of the universe with his breath.

Then the world tilts, and when Kenma looks up again the space between them has grown impossibly, infinitely long.

He lets out a shocked cry of protest, reaching out. “Kuro!”

The creature looks up at him and smiles, but it’s a sad expression even on his inhuman face. He lifts one hand, but Kenma isn’t sure whether Kuroo is reaching towards him or waving goodbye.

Kuro!”

Space surges around him, going too fast for Kenma to move within it. Kuroo gets further and further away, and there’s nothing he can do.

Kenma sits up abruptly, his hairline drenched with sweat and his breathing ragged. Kuroo’s head is still pillowed against his chest, and Kenma reaches out for him, pressing his hands against Kuroo’s cheeks, his forehead. His skin is cold, but his breath comes softly against Kenma’s skin. He sits back with a heavy sigh, trying to calm the frantic beating of his heart.

He reaches up to touch the red gemstone that hangs from his ear. It’s slightly warm, as though he’d been calling on his magic without realizing it. And surely, wherever he’d just been, that place had been magic. But now, as he tries to call up the images, they’re fleeting. He knows Kuroo had been there, but he can’t remember what he looked like, what form he took.

Before he can think on it for too long, there’s a crash from somewhere beneath him. It’s a muffled noise, but loud enough to be heard through the walls, probably coming from downstairs. Kenma startles when he hears it, again.

He glances down the bed to see the kitten peeking out from the folds of the red sweatshirt. Kenma turns to him with a serious expression.

“I’m going to go see what’s going on,” he says. “Watch Kuro for me.”

He’s not really sure why he says it, but the kitten seems to take the words to heart. He pads out from the sweatshirt and steps gingerly across the bed, coming to rest on top of Kuroo’s chest, curling up there. He looks up at Kenma expectantly.

Kenma nods at the kitten once. Then he gingerly gets up without shifting Kuroo too much, and heads for the door.

As he heads down the stairs, the crashing noise gets louder. Kenma follows the sound to the foyer, reaching up to cover his ears.

It’s the door, large and oaken. Generally, it’s always held tightly closed—Kenma’s only ever been let into the house by someone else. But now the doorway is wide open, because the door has been forced open, blowing in the wind. The gales throw the door this way and that from its hinges, slamming it against the wall and creating the thunderous noise at intervals.

It hadn’t been so windy, this morning. But it had rained, entirely out of season. Kenma stares at the doorway with his lips parted, unsure of what to do.

“Kozume!” Iwaizumi has to yell to be heard over the slam of the door, coming up from behind Kenma. “What happened?”

“How should I know,” Kenma mutters, but then he waves a hand at the door. “I thought it was always locked.”

Iwaizumi blinks rapidly, his eyes fixing on the engravings in the door ever as it smashes back against the wall. “Me, too. At least, I can never get in open on my own.”

“Should we… try and close it?”

Iwaizumi’s already moving towards the door, one hand reached out to grab at the edge of it. But he shifts at the last second, and instead of grabbing the door itself his fingers graze along the engravings, lingering on the fox.

For a moment, the wind picks up even more, and the door hits the far wall so harshly that Kenma’s sure it’ll snap in two. But when it pushes back in the opposite direction, it pushes Iwaizumi with it, until he stumbles out of the doorway. The door slams back into place, hitting its frame with a decisive click and then going still.

Kenma can still hear the wind howling outside, but the door isn’t moved by it any longer. And now Iwaizumi’s on the other side, outside of the house entirely.

Kenma moves gingerly towards the door, regarding it suspiciously, like it’ll swing towards him again at any moment. But instead, it’s easy and normal to turn the knob and open the door, revealing a windswept and harried Iwaizumi standing on the lawn.

“I hate this house,” Iwaizumi grumbles when he sees Kenma.

Kenma opens his mouth to respond, but then he hears someone clear their throat. Both he and Iwaizumi turn towards the source of the noise.

“Um.” He’s tall, much taller than either Iwaizumi or Kenma, and the way his dark hair sticks straight up only adds to the affect. But despite his formidable height, the newcomer looks nervous when he catches both of their attention. He’s dressed in a loose gray hoodie that’s puckered in the front, like he’s hiding something under it. But after a moment he bends at the waist in a frantically respectful bow. “I’m sorry! Is this a bad time?”

Kenma can’t help the irritation that flares within him, can’t keep the bite out of his voice when he asks, “Are you Kunimi, or Tobio?”

The newcomer looks confused, but his expression darkens for a moment when Kenma mentions the last two names from Oikawa’s list.

“I’m, ah,” he bobs his head again, his eyes more fixed on Iwaizumi than Kenma. “Kindaichi Yuutarou.”

That isn’t a name on the list. Kenma can feel residual magic around Kindaichi, but he doesn’t give off the same vibrant aura the guardians do. He’s met so many of them lately, Kenma’s sure that he’s able to tell the difference, now. At least, as much as he can tell instinctively, without using actual magic to check.

“You—” Iwaizumi takes a step forward, brow furrowed. “Wait a minute. I’ve seen you before.”

Kindaichi’s face is scarlet, by this point. He looks at Iwaizumi and smiles apologetically. “Oikawa-san told us to come here when we needed help! I’m sorry to bother you, but—!”

Iwaizumi crosses his arms over his chest, looking Kindaichi up and down. “Calm down for a second. Start at the beginning. And who’s ‘we’?”

“Ah, that is—” It’s a wonder this kid ever manages to speak at all, he’s so flustered. But eventually he gathers himself, nodding determinedly. “Me and Kunimi-kun.”

Iwaizumi and Kenma exchange a look. They’ve been distracted, since meeting Tendou and Semi. They haven’t gone looking for the others on Kenma’s list, and Kenma suddenly wonders if that’s been a grave oversight.

If one of them might be the Shadow King, maybe the other is the guardian of light.

“Where is he,” Kenma says, his voice too low and too fast. It takes Kindaichi aback, and he steps back involuntarily, one hand coming up curve protectively over the protrusion of his hoodie.

“Are you Iwaizumi-san?” Kindaichi asks, his eyes fixed on the aquamarine stone around Iwaizumi’s neck, as though it’s affirmation of something. Despite his blustering, he stands tall now, the hand not curving around his stomach tucked into the pocket of his jeans.

Iwaizumi takes a deep breath. “That’s right,” he says after a moment, his demeanor noticeably calmer than it’s been all day. He faces Kindaichi with a kind expression and a low, even voice. “When was the last time you saw Oikawa?”

Kindaichi bites his lower lip. “A long time ago, now. He didn’t want me there, probably, but I didn’t want Kunimi-kun to go off on his own, so I heard the whole story. But now it’s…”

Kenma hears Iwaizumi let out a tiny sigh—it’s the same as it was with Yahaba, and Matsukawa and Hanamaki. Everyone who might have a clue as to where Oikawa is has outdated information. He obviously spoke to all of them before he disappeared, at the same time he prepared the list to send to Iwaizumi. The only really warm lead they have is Ushijima.

“What happened, Kindaichi?” Iwaizumi asks.

Kindaichi glances from side to side, either nervous or guilty or both. He looks up at Iwaizumi, searching for something in his expression. Kenma can’t imagine what he sees—Iwaizumi’s unfailing honestly? His stubborn faith in Oikawa? The worry that’s been fraying him down for weeks, now split into frustration and despair?

“I think he’s stuck,” Kindaichi mutters, and there’s a hint of exasperation in his tone. He reaches up to unzip his hoodie, one hand still curled against his stomach to hold something in place. And when he’s done, it’s clear why.

There’s a small bundle of dark fur pressed against Kindaichi’s chest, moving slightly with the motions of breath. Kenma can’t make out eyes, or anything other than small patches of white and gray among its fur. It’s hard to tell what, exactly, the animal is.

Iwaizumi takes a step forward. “That’s Kunimi?”

Kindaichi keeps Kunimi balanced against his arm, holding the small animal steady. “Yes,” he says, nodding. “It’s just—he’s been asleep, for a long time. And I don’t know—it’s all still really weird, I don’t know what to do, but—Oikawa-san said this would happen, and I didn’t really believe it, but then it did happen—and I just want him to be okay!”

Iwaizumi reaches out. “Can I?”

Kindaichi looks nervous, again, but after a moment he nods. Iwaizumi lifts Kunimi gently into his arms, and now Kenma has a better look at him. White fur at his ears and along his snout, dark black circles around his eyes and lighter gray fur along his stomach. He’s not an animal that Kenma’s never seen in person before, like the lion and tiger and coyote. He’s a raccoon dog, a very young one, by the look of him.

“Is he hibernating?” Iwaizumi asks himself, cradling the raccoon dog gently.

“What?” Kindaichi yelps. “How long would that last?”

“I don’t know,” Iwaizumi admits. “I’ve read a lot about canids, but guardians don’t really follow any established rules.”

Kindaichi looks down at the ground, kicking at the grass with one foot as he mutters something to himself.

“What’s that?” Iwaizumi asks.

Kindaichi looks up, scowling now. “I just—I thought maybe Kageyama did something to him.”

“Kageyama?” Iwaizumi asks, but Kenma startles like he’s just been doused with cold water.

Kageyama. Shadow.

“Oikawa-san didn’t tell us anything about him,” Kindaichi continues, looking irate, now. “And it’s not my fault, so I’m not going to apologize!”

Iwaizumi takes a step back, still holding onto Kunimi. “Woah, kid. Take a breath. What happened?”

Kindaichi holds out a hand, and at first Kenma thinks he’s motioning for Iwaizumi to give Kunimi back to him. But then he sees that Kindaichi is holding out his hand to show it to Iwaizumi, palm up. There’s an ugly gash from his wrist to the edge of his palm, purple and black. But it’s more than that—it looks like the skin has been ripped away, leaving nothing behind but a void. It’s shadow, embedded inside him.

Kenma supposes he should be scared. He remembers searching for the others, the overwhelming feeling of shadow magic that repelled him as he tried to get closer. That had been frightening, overwhelming. But right now, even as he looks at the angry wound, all Kenma can think is that Kuroo is made mostly of shadow, and therefore it can’t be all bad.

“This… Kageyama did this to you?” Iwaizumi asks, looking at the wound with narrowed eyes.

Kindaichi nods.

Iwaizumi blinks his eyes slowly shut for a moment, and Kenma can nearly see him gathering his thoughts, deciding what to do next.

“Alright,” he says finally. “Let’s get inside.”

It’s a strange sight. The coyote is curled up on one side of the couch, creating a crescent shape with his body. The arctic fox is nestled next to him, and now the raccoon dog rests against the fox’s white fur. They all seem comfortable, the coyote’s eyes half-lidded and the arctic fox drifting gently towards sleep. The raccoon dog had blinked awake once, for a moment, taking in the scene before deciding it wasn’t worth the effort. He’s been asleep since.

The others had gone to the kitchen, Iwaizumi gathering them for some long-deserved explanations.

Bokuto’s gone, off to find Sakusa. Kenma doesn’t know whether that means he’s gone as a human or an owl, but Akaashi is missing, too. Sawamura, Sugawara and Shimizu are absent, too—Iwaizumi mentions that as soon as Kenma had run off, they’d gone back to their search for the guardian of light. But now they’re all in different places, when Iwaizumi and Kenma might have just found out who the Shadow King is.

Kageyama Tobio, Kindaichi confirms. The guardian who injured him, who attacked with shadows even though Kindaichi couldn’t quite put that name to them. The last name on Oikawa’s list.

Did he know? Kenma wonders. Surely, Oikawa would’ve realized how vital that information is. So why would he have hidden Kageyama’s name among the other guardians’? Why had he left at all, without telling Iwaizumi?

Kenma finds that he resents Oikawa, more than a little. If he hadn’t been so selfish, so stupid as to go off on his own, maybe Kuroo would be awake right now. Maybe they would have already found the Shadow King, and the ordinal guardians would have no reason to bother them. Everything that had happened with Daishou, and with Tendou and Semi, it was all because of this King.

And if Oikawa had known all along…

Kenma is pulled away from his dark thoughts by a sudden surge of magic. At first he panics, thinking he’s drawn on his own powers without thinking again, but then he realizes—this isn’t coming from him.

It’s the guardians, tucked away in that corner of the couch. It’d be impossible not to notice the way their magic is surging, given physical form as it braids itself into complex patterns around them. Kenma imagines he can parse whose magic is whose—the scent of gardenias follows Yahaba’s, and Hanamaki’s has sharper angles. Kunimi’s is loose and flowing, almost like water. And yet, at the moment, they’ve all come together.

Bokuto couldn’t give his own magic to Kuroo, Kenma remembers. And yet these three have no problem linking theirs.

“What’s going on?” Iwaizumi steps into the room, running one hand over his face. He looks older than he had yesterday, or the day before, worry lines running between his brows and a heavy weight on his shoulders.

Kenma gestures towards the guardians, and Iwaizumi pauses in his steps, staring at them.

“Oh,” he says quietly, voice slightly awed. Then, he turns away abruptly. “It feels… it’s like his. Their magic is like Oikawa’s.”

Kenma supposes that makes sense, but he waits for Iwaizumi to continue the thought.

He sits himself down heavily on one of the armchairs, elbows against his knees and head in his hands. “I don’t understand,” he mutters. “Why didn’t he want to be here, for this? He clearly cares about them…”

He’s silent with his thoughts for a moment, before he bites down on a groan. “Damn it, Oikawa! What the fuck? Why did you leave me to deal with all of this without you?”

Kenma doesn’t know how to comfort him, or if he even wants to. He’s frustrated with Oikawa, too, albeit for different reasons. But he still can’t help but feel that the guardian has left an unhealable rift here, and that if he’d only come back, maybe everything else would start making sense.

It’s only mid-afternoon, but Kenma is exhausted. The only thing to do now is wait for Bokuto and Sawamura and the others to return, so that they can find Ushijima and track down the Shadow King, and hopefully find Oikawa in the process. But for now, all Kenma is left with a heavy and oppressive loneliness.

He climbs back up the stairs and heads for Kuroo’s room. The rain has picked up again, not as harsh as before but steady enough to be heard against the roof. Kenma sighs as he pushes open the door. The kitten is still curled up on Kuroo’s chest, sleeping from the look of it.

And Kuroo is silent still, the same as he’s been since yesterday. Kenma gulps down a noisy breath before he climbs onto the bed, adjusting himself behind Kuroo and resuming his earlier position.

The waves of emotion he’s been avoiding all day crash over him all at once. He feels the tears building up behind his eyes, and he rubs at his face with the backs of his hands, furious at himself for doing something as useless as crying. Crying isn’t going to bring Kuroo back to him.

He hiccups out a short breath, and the dam breaks. Hot tears pour down his face, and his breathes come out short and stuttered. He can’t breathe, he can’t even think, because Kuroo’s absence is like a gaping hole, a sensation so powerful he can’t ignore it, no matter how much he’s tried to.

He hunches over, pressing his forehead against Kuroo’s. But that only serves as a reminder of how cold he is, how he isn’t reaching up to comfort Kenma, to ask him what’s wrong.

If Kuroo never wakes up, and it’s Kenma’s fault, Kenma doesn’t know what he’ll do. How he’ll live with himself. What his connection to this place will be. What his connection to anything will be.

He doesn’t hear the door creak open. But suddenly there’s a warm presence beside him, nudging at Kenma’s side with patient insistence.

Kenma can’t stop his sniffling, his stunted breaths. But eventually he turns to see the gray lion cub on his hind legs, reaching up to press his nose against Kenma’s leg, trying to get his attention.

“Lev?” That can’t be right, because someone was supposed to call him and Taketora, to tell them not to come by the house. Who was supposed to do that, again? Kenma can’t remember. But worry stabs through him—Lev is still terrible at switching between forms. Without Kuroo’s help, will he even be able to?

Kenma brushes the tears out of his eyes, glaring at Lev. “What are you doing?” he demands.

But the cub is insistent. Lev climbs gracelessly onto the bed, the sheets and blankets pulled awkwardly beneath him as he settles against Kenma’s side and rests his head near Kuroo’s chest.

“Stop it,” Kenma bites out. “Go away, Lev.”

But the cub doesn’t listen. He sits stubbornly beside Kuroo, all of them piled together messily on the bed. The kitten blinks open his eyes, regarding Lev carefully before he moves, batting his tail against Lev’s forehead. But Lev doesn’t seem to mind, his mouth opening to reveal his sharp teeth in an expression like a smile.

“Stop messing around,” Kenma says. He can’t breathe, doesn’t know whether he wants to keep crying or laugh at the scene before him.

But then there’s another noise, and then Kenma sees the tiger padding into the room. Instead of heading straight for Kenma, he rounds the bed and climbs onto it from the other side, laying himself flat on Kuroo’s other side. He’s too close, the warmth of him making Kenma feel stifled.

He hiccups again, not sure which of them he should be looking at, which one of them he should be scolding. Surely, the bed’s legs are about to give out, given the amount of weight on them. But Taketora and Lev merely press closer, sandwiching Kenma and Kuroo between them, the kitten still keeping his balance on Kuroo’s chest.

And then, the magic begins to gather around them. Tora’s is bright and bold, stripes of shadow and light flaring up. Lev’s is thin and curling, cracking like a whip as it intertwines with Tora’s. And then, from the kitten, something soft and round like bubbles, delicate but luminescent and beautiful.

Before Kenma’s eyes, the three strands of magic begin to pull together, melting away from their distinct forms and into something fluid and joined. The magic twists itself together, three strands growing less and less clear, until the entire room is filled with a deep red glow.

The gemstone hanging from Kenma’s ear blazes with light, growing warm against his cheek.

For a moment, Kenma holds his breath. This is magic more powerful than any he’s ever felt, not just shadows and light but whatever exists at the intersection of the two, pure and unbridled and connected.

Kuroo’s eyes blink open a moment later, and when they do they’re blazing with an inner glow, molten gold and startling. Kenma pulls back, but then the realization hits him—Kuroo has just woken up.

The tears bubble up inside of him again, and he can do nothing to stop them from falling.

Kuroo groans slightly, shifting around and blinking. After a moment, the light fades from his eyes and he shoots up, the kitten meowing in surprise as he leaps off Kuroo’s chest and lands on Taketora’s back.

“What,” Kuroo breathes, glancing around. His eyes are hazy, as though he’d been merely asleep, and he reaches up and rakes one hand through his hair, his fingers lingering over his own earring, as though sensing warmth from it. “Kenma…?”

Kenma can’t speak. He has his hands in front of his mouth, trying to stifle whatever embarrassing noise he’s about to make—a sob or a laugh or something indescribable.

“You’re crying,” Kuroo says, and then his tone darkens. “Why are you crying? Who hurt you, I’ll—”

“You did,” Kenma says. “You’re the one making me cry.” He acts without thinking, without considering the amount of company with them. Kenma lunges forward, hands on either side of Kuroo’s face to pull him forward. Caught off-guard, Kuroo moves as Kenma pulls him, and then their faces are barely an inch apart.

But Kenma doesn’t want any space between them at all. He tilts his face to one side and presses his lips against Kuroo’s, kissing him with all the desperation and emotion he’s had no outlet for. And Kuroo makes a muffled noise against his lips before kissing him back, his eyes fluttering closed so that his lashes tickle Kenma’s face. His lips are slightly cold, but they grow warmer under Kenma’s attentions. When Kuroo licks across the seam of Kenma’s lips, he’s warm and real and alive.

Then, the kiss begins to taste a bit like salt.

Kuroo pulls back, but only to wrap one arm around Kenma’s back and rest the other against the back of his head, pulling him close so that Kenma’s head rests against Kuroo’s collarbone.

“Shh,” Kuroo says gently, stoking his hand up and down Kenma’s back. “You’re okay.”

It takes Kenma a moment to catch his breath. “You weren’t.”

“It’s okay,” Kuroo says determinedly. “I’m here.”

Kenma curls his fingers into Kuroo’s shirt, digging in. “You’re not allowed to leave me.”

Kuroo presses his lips against Kenma’s forehead. “Of course I won’t,” he insists loftily. “I love you.”

There’s a gentle heh-heh-heh noise from beside them, and when Kuroo and Kenma turn the lion cub is looking up at them, teeth bared as he makes that small sound like a laugh.

“Shut up, Lev,” Kenma growls.

But then Kuroo’s laughing, too.

Kuroo sits back after a moment, clutching at his head. “I feel dizzy,” he says, blinking into the light. He turns towards Taketora, then sees the kitten for the first time. “Who’s this?”

Kenma shrugs. “A new guardian.”

“I see,” Kuroo says, “So, can you…” His voice trails off as he pitches forward, and Kenma lets out a small noise of protest as Kuroo falls against him.

“Kuro,” Kenma says, shaking him.

“Sorry,” Kuroo says tiredly. “I just need to…”

The red glow comes over him before he can finish the thought, and then it’s the black cat curling up in Kenma’s lap, pressing his head into Kenma’s stomach. Kenma reaches out and places his hands against the cat’s back and stomach, feeling the insistent beat of his heart.

“It’s fine,” Kenma says, picking the cat up and pressing his face into Kuroo’s dark fur.

He looks up at a moment, met by three pairs of feline eyes looking at him expectantly.

“Thank you,” he says, and he means it.

Whatever the other guardians had done to help Kuroo, it seems to have taken a lot out of them. The three of them curl up together on Kuroo’s bed, sleeping peacefully as Kenma carries Kuroo out of the room and down the stairs.

Kuroo’s half asleep in his arms, but he’s warm and his heart is beating regularly—it’s nothing like the cold, still unconsciousness that had claimed him before. Kenma’s body feels flooded with emotion, his immense relief and surging affection drowning out the despair and loneliness he’d felt earlier. It’s almost too much for him to process it all at once; he feels like he’s just run a marathon and needs to catch his breath.

But he doesn’t have time, for that. He heads into the kitchen, sees Iwaizumi, Sugawara, and Matsukawa sitting around the table. Sawamura is standing behind Sugawara’s chair, but when Kenma enters the room he turns abruptly.

Kuroo!” Sawamura’s face stretches with the force of his startled, unexpected smile. It makes him look years younger, and Kenma briefly has a flash of memory—Kuroo and Sawamura, maybe fifteen years old, racing each other across the yard and laughing when they’d tied, immediately dashing back for a rematch.

The cat looks up at Sawamura and bares his teeth in the equivalent of a smile. Sawamura schools his expression, breathing a heavy sigh of relief. But he still reaches out and picks Kuroo up in his arms, looking down at him.

“You’re okay.”

Sugawara’s gotten up from the table now, too. “What happened?”

Kenma explains, as clearly as he’s able to. Sugawara taps his chin against the knuckles of one hand, looking thoughtful all the while.

“So… some of the new guardians can connect to the cardinal ones, in ways that they can’t connect to each other. Is that right?”

Kenma shrugs. “How should I know,” he says.

Iwaizumi’s gotten up by this point, as well. “Thank goodness,” he mutters. “I didn’t want to have to think about what that would’ve meant, about guardians and wielders—”

He doesn’t have the chance to finish the thought. Because the small kitchen is filled with an aquamarine glow, the gemstone around Iwaizumi’s neck lighting up like a beacon. Iwaizumi startles, staring down at it. But as they all watch, white-hot fracture lines appear along the surface of the stone, tearing through it like fissures during an earthquake.

The world seems to freeze for a moment, the gemstone lifting slightly away from Iwaizumi’s shirt as it continues to glow.

And then, it shatters.

A strangled cry rips from Iwaizumi’s throat. He reaches for the stone just as it breaks apart, and it lands in several jagged, uneven pieces in his hand. The shards flare for a moment with aquamarine light, and then they go dead and cold.

No one moves. None of them know what to say, or what this means.

Iwaizumi is shaking, tremors running down his spine as he stares with blank eyes at the shards.

Tooru.” He doesn’t look at any of them, doesn’t give any indication that he knows he’s spoken aloud. He pivots on his heel, and he runs.

Kenma follows. He sees Iwaizumi wrenching the front door open, and then he disappears outside. When Kenma makes it outside, he sees Iwaizumi standing on the sidewalk, looking frantically at the sky.

“Stars,” he mutters, “where are the stars?”

“Iwaizumi—” Kenma says, though he’s unsure of how to continue.

Iwaizumi pivots to face him, and Kenma isn’t prepared for the sight of Iwaizumi’s wrecked expression. His eyes are wet with tears, his entire face pinched as he tries to hold himself together.

“I can’t—I can’t feel anything, anymore,” he says, frantic. “Where is he? What happened?”

But Kenma has no answer to give him.

Iwaizumi sucks in a ragged breath, looking down at the shattered pieces of the gemstone still clutched in his hand. He’s clutching onto them so tightly that they’ve cut into his hand, thin lines of blood dripping down his wrist.

“I—” Iwaizumi starts to speak, then cuts himself off. He tilts his head towards the sky, teeth digging into his bottom lip. “I can’t do this anymore, not without him.”

“We’ll find him,” Kenma starts to say, because he doesn’t know what else could possibly comfort Iwaizumi at this moment. He can’t imagine what it would feel like, seeing the tangible symbol of his relationship broken to pieces.

“But we haven’t, yet!” Iwaizumi’s hands ball into fists, the blood still flowing from one palm. “I—I don’t know what to do, anymore! He’s…” His voice trails off, and abruptly Iwaizumi collapses onto his knees.

“He’s all the best parts of me,” he says breathlessly, as the tears begin to crawl down his face. “No one gets it, but he is. Without him, I’m just—I’d just stay in one place. Never change. But he’s always been so special and bright and when he pulls me along with him, I can go anywhere. I can deal with magical bullshit and the world could fucking end, but I’d be able to face it. But not without him. They all keep looking at me like they expect me to do something for them, help them—because he sent them to me, and whatever he told them they believe, they believe in the two of us—but it’s just me.”

The ground is soaked from rain, but Iwaizumi doesn’t seem to notice. His chest heaves with the force of his sobs, and it’s painful to watch him. He’s been so strong, so steady, ever since Kenma’s known him. But now he’s falling apart, and the one person who could hold him together is the reason for it.

“Come back,” he says, slamming his fist against the sidewalk. “Tooru, come back.”

The wind is picking up again, clouds gathering once more in the sky. Kenma looks up when he feels a drop of rain against his cheek, but Iwaizumi hasn’t moved.

Then there’s a noise like the crackle of electricity, a maroon flare of light surrounding them before Tendou is left standing right in front of Iwaizumi.

You,” Kenma says poisonously, advancing.

But Tendou doesn’t pay him any attention. He reaches down and grabs the collar of Iwaizumi’s shirt, hoisting him to his feet.

“You’re coming with me,” he declares, and though his voice is lilting there’s something wild in his eyes, his appearance rumpled and expression manic.

“What the hell,” Iwaizumi says roughly, reaching up to push Tendou away. “Get off of me—”

“He’s going to kill Wakatoshi,” Tendou screeches, yanking Iwaizumi forward. “And I’m not going to lose both of them.”

Before Kenma can decipher what that means, or what’s happening, the maroon glow surrounds Iwaizumi and Tendou.

When it recedes, they’re both gone.

Chapter Text

Everything happens very slowly, at least to Oikawa’s eyes. He can see every tendon in Ushijima’s hand contract as his fist squeezes around the aquamarine gem, sea-colored light spilling between his fingers. And then fault lines erupt across the gem’s surface, white hot and vivid. For an instant, the gem looks like a puzzle that’s just been knit together—the seams are visible, but it’s still whole. But that only lasts for a blink of an eye. Then, the energy surges within the gem, and Oikawa lets loose a scream the moment before it shatters apart.

Now the fault lines are running over his own skin, burning into his body. He doesn’t know where the shards scattered to, only that he’s sure that he’s about to meet the same fate. He had thought that the pain that came with Kageyama’s magic was bad, but this is so much worse. Kageyama’s magic is a loneliness that has never known anything else. But this, this is knowing something precious and potent and powerful, and then having it ripped away.

Oikawa.” Someone’s calling out his name, but Oikawa’s in too much pain to register who, or why. “I didn’t mean to—”

He opens his mouth to scream again, but the sound that comes forth isn’t human. It’s a wild and desperate call, an animal crying out upon being wounded, frantic to survive. Then there’s the flowering sensation that usually comes when Oikawa shifts forms—his magic blooming in his chest, letting him release one form and inhabit the other. But now that feeling is so much stronger than it usually is. And it’s different, too—the fluid ease is gone, and now Oikawa’s being forced out of one form and into the other, and it’s the difference between reaching down to touch his toes and someone forcibly snapping his body in half.

When it’s over, he isn’t the fox. His human body is still standing in Ushijima’s hallway, panting for breath. But his mind has shifted, the fox’s instincts surging forward. Oikawa tries to move, tries to speak—but he can’t. His human mind, his thoughts and emotions and rationale, are trapped behind a pane of glass, covered over in vines. He’s watching the scene through a filter, unable to interact with it. Panic rises in his throat, and it tastes like blood.

“Oikawa.”

Ushijima is standing before him, his expression more openly distressed than Oikawa has ever seen it before. His golden eyes are flickering with magic, his mouth a taut line as he stands a few feet away, assessing the situation. Birds are like that, Oikawa thinks darkly. They circle overhead, waiting for the right moment to strike. They have the benefit of distance when they need it.

His hatred for Ushijima rises up with sudden, vicious clarity. The eagle is a threat. The eagle has taken something from him, something he can’t get back. And for that, the eagle has to pay.

Oikawa isn’t aware of the fact that his body is moving until he feels Ushijima’s skin under his fingertips. He grabs the other man by the shoulders, throwing him against the wall with a strength he wasn’t aware he possessed. Magic is spilling out of him, shadows curling around his feet and between his fingers as he slams Ushijima against the wall again, opening his mouth to snarl at him.

Ushijima’s eyes are wide and frightened. Oikawa isn’t sure what he looks like at this moment, but it’s probably alarming—animalistic contortions of human features, his jaw open and so taut it hurts.

“Calm down,” Ushijima is saying. “If you could just reign in your emotions, this wouldn’t be—”

The fox lets out a hissing whine, nails digging into Ushijima’s shoulders, ripping through his shirt. Ushijima flinches against the pain, but he keeps trying.

“You need to calm down, your magic is unstable,” he says.

Oikawa wants to laugh, because of course he knows that. How else would he be in this state, the fox’s instincts in control of his human body? But then again, Ushijima has always been painfully attached to stating the obvious.

“If the connection breaks, maybe we can save you—”

But that isn’t what the fox wants to hear. He knows what the connection is, and he wants it, at all costs. So this time, when he lunges, he takes Ushijima to the floor, landing solidly on top of him. There’s blood pooling underneath Oikawa’s fingernails as he growls at Ushijima, his teeth sharp against his tongue as he licks over them. Saliva pools in his mouth, and he tastes the tang of iron.

Just before he makes to attack, there’s a deafening sound like thunder and Oikawa’s body is thrown back, away from Ushijima and against the opposite wall. Disconnected as he is from his body, Oikawa doesn’t feel the pain.

Ushijima is already getting to his feet, hands surrounded with the powerful glow of his light magic. For someone who so hates to rely on others, he’s always done better with light than shadow. And now the glow is in his eyes, surrounding his face like a halo.

“I do not want to hurt you,” he says, anger making his words brittle. “But if I have to subdue you by force, I will.”

Oikawa throws back his head and lets out a yelping laugh in three short, sharp syllables. The sound hisses from between his teeth as shadow magic pools around him, dark and soft and familiar.

Ushijima steps forward and raises one hand, light magic gathering just above his palm in a tight sphere of power. Oikawa knows this game—he’ll wait until the magic is fully concentrated, then strike out with it, hoping to stun Oikawa.

But Oikawa isn’t scared of the force of Ushijima’s magic. Not when the fox spent so much of his childhood chasing after the owl. His light magic is even stronger than Ushijima’s, so much so that it’s overwhelming at times. But the fox has always hated losing, and had spent so much time building up tricks and strategies to make up for what it lacked—the brightness of light magic, the advantages of flight.

Just as Ushijima moves to strike, shadow magic trails along the ground between them. When the light magic comes toward Oikawa at full force, the shadows coil almost gently around Ushijima’s ankles. And when Oikawa dives out of the way of Ushijima’s power, the shadows yank Ushijima down forcibly. He hits the ground with an audible thump, his chin colliding with the floor just as his sphere of light magic hits the wall.

The wall explodes with the force of the impact, and the fox yelps with triumph, because now there exists something else as broken as he is.

Ushijima is running towards him, light magic streaming out from behind him. The fox is aware that the eagle is his natural adversary, but he finds it difficult to be scared of Ushijima. After all, the owl’s light magic is so much brighter, so much purer. There’s a potency to it that Ushijima’s magic simply lacks. And anyway, light has never been the fox’s fear, even though it is so contrary to his own nature.

Ushijima doesn’t bother transforming, just swings one arm in an arc like the flapping of his wings and lets his light magic follow the movement. The fox is caught off guard for a moment, the magic slamming into his side and sending him skidding out over the rubble and remains of the destroyed wall. He manages to land on his feet, but now they’re outside, in the grass surrounding Ushijima’s family home.

The fox grinds his teeth. Even if the magic isn’t as potent as the owl’s, it’s still an irritation. And the owl has his own weaknesses, his power coming with a steep price. He’s more vulnerable to shadow than the eagle is, because what the eagle has in spades is stability, the ability to weather both shadow and light.

Oikawa, still removed from himself, thinks that he should have that same ability. His magic is the inverse of Ushijima’s, and he has enough light in his own nature to keep him from being particularly vulnerable to others’. And yet he’s never felt less stable than he does at this moment, his emotions bleeding out of him in different directions, his mind in shattered pieces.

It isn’t fair. Why is he the one who has to deal with this confusion, this pain? Why does it always fall to him?

For a moment, something fierce and dark sings in his veins. He wants to knock Ushijima down from his place of superiority and confidence. He wants Ushijima to feel what he’s feeling, to know this terrible, terrible darkness. He doesn’t want to be alone with this weight on his chest, threatening to crush him. His magic is spiraling around him, too fast to control or contain. It grows in a thick cloud, dark and foreboding.

He’s never felt this much magic before, is barely aware of where it’s coming from. But it sears through him like fire, and Oikawa knows he isn’t meant to have this much power. His body can’t possibly take it.

Ushijima is coming towards him again, but this time the fox swerves away from the light magic, turning to run further into Ushijima’s gardens, towards the grove of trees. He’s always felt most comfortable in places like that, where the leaves grow into one another and the light and shadows dapple the floor.

Everywhere he steps, the ground rips beneath his feet, deep cracks forming in the ground. It’s like someone is tearing into the earth, as though it were as flimsy and thin as paper. Above him, dark clouds are gathering, the atmosphere filled with static and the damp promise of rain.

The earth holds such potential for destruction, he thinks idly. Like the guardians themselves, the world has a capacity for magic that can either knit things together, or tear them apart. Heal, or hurt. Create, or destroy.

Oikawa supposes he’s been kidding himself, maybe for his entire life. He’s never been a benevolent spirit. Maybe all his connections have been forced, false promises that were meant to end up this way—shattered to pieces and scattered on the wind.

“Oikawa,” Ushijima says heavily from behind him. His breathing is ragged, like it’s taking everything in him to just keep up. When Oikawa turns towards him, Ushijima looks like a mess. His dark hair is rumpled, his shirt ripped, scratches along his arms and on his cheeks. When Oikawa meets his gaze, Ushijima takes a deep breath. “I’m sorry,” he says quietly. His tone is awkward, like these words have not often sat on his tongue.

It isn’t good enough. Oikawa feels his teeth shifting into something closer to the fox’s—long and sharp, meant to kill with ruthless efficiency. He licks over his lips, eyes wild as his magic spirals around him. Then, he lunges.

Ushijima makes no move to get away. Oikawa collides with him, teeth snapping just above the vulnerable skin of his throat. But Ushijima isn’t struggling to get away. Instead, his strong arms encircle Oikawa, holding him close against Ushijima’s chest, pinning his arms against his sides.

“I know it hurts,” Ushijima says. There’s light magic spilling all around them, forming immense wings that fold together over the two of them. Oikawa screams at the sensation, because light is all about feeling connected, and right now nothing could be more painful. “Where are you?” Ushijima asks. “Come back.”

He combats Ushijima’s magic with his own, struggling against him as his shadows dip and fold around Ushijima’s light. But there’s no way to push through, no means the fox has of breaking the eagle’s hold on him. He shrieks, loud and ringing, but Ushijima’s face is set in stern lines and he refuses to let Oikawa go.

Finally, Oikawa snaps his head back before diving forward again, his teeth digging into Ushijima’s skin as he bites down on his neck, off center. This time, Ushijima screams, magic and physical pain colliding as the wings of light around them shatter, Ushijima’s concentration utterly broken.

“Oh, Fox-kun?” A voice rings out, meant to be lilting and playful but too loud, too desperate for that. Oikawa doesn’t relinquish his hold on Ushijima, but his eyes dart to the side, where they’re met by a flash of red. “Step away from Wakatoshi right now, got it? Or else.”

The fox knows that Tendou is hostile—his magic feels like the eagle’s, like the swan’s, and marks him as utterly foreign to the fox. He considers dispatching Tendou with a bit of his own magic—without the swan at his side, there’s nothing Tendou can do against him.

But even as he reaches for more of his magic, the rest of the scene registers. Because Tendou isn’t standing there alone. He has someone else held close in a vise grip, keeping one arm around the other’s neck.

It’s a man, with tanned skin and dark hair, and green eyes that Oikawa can just make out from the distance. One of his hands is clenched by his side, holding onto something so tightly his knuckles have gone white. With his other hand he pulls at Tendou’s arm, trying to break free of him.

His mind freezes—both his distanced, human self and the fox’s dominant instincts.

“Look,” Tendou says, dragging his captive forward. “I brought you your pet. So now you can let Wakatoshi go, right?”

There’s a gemstone embedded in the bracelet on Tendou’s wrist, glowing faintly with maroon light. The fox’s gaze fixes on it, because he cannot process the sight of the person in front of him. The gemstone’s light pulses like a heartbeat, and every flash of color is an active affront to Oikawa, an annoyance like a wasp’s sting.

His thoughts are slow to start up again. Too many of them are pulling him different directions, urging him to feel different things. And so he dismisses them all, and focuses the dominant thought—that none of this would be happening if Ushijima hadn’t broken his own stone, and therefore he wants Ushijima gone.

Ushijima’s eyes flare with golden light as he tries to fight off Oikawa’s magic. But the fox is cunning, and he bites down harder, preparing to rip out the other guardian’s throat.

Before he can, Tendou’s captive lets out an affronted noise. He grabs Tendou’s arm and swings the other man over his head, so that Tendou lands heavily in the grass on his back, letting out a startled cry of pain.

“I told you to get off of me,” Iwaizumi growls, one hand still clenched tight as he turns now towards Oikawa. He looks angrier than Oikawa’s ever seen him, the darkness of the sky shadowing his features as his eyes blaze.

“Tooru,” he says, voice carefully measured. “Let him go.”

He should say something. He should apologize, or offer an explanation. He should go to Iwaizumi now, and make sure that there’s no distance between them again, ever. He should do something, anything.

But Oikawa can’t move. The fox is still in control, even though he’s having trouble reconciling Iwaizumi’s presence with his current situation. And the fox’s feelings for Iwaizumi have always been simple and uncomplicated. Ever since that day in the grove when the fox decided to let Iwaizumi reach out to him, touch him, hold him, he’s had nothing but unwavering and unconditional acceptance of him. The fox is aware that Iwaizumi is someone he needs, perhaps the one thing he needs above anything else in the world.

But Oikawa can’t voice any of that, or anything at all. His mouth is filled with the taste of blood as he continues to hold Ushijima down, and if he opened his mouth now, would he even be able to form human words?

It had been so hard to learn again, after he’d first met Iwaizumi. The dressings of humanity have never come easily to him.

“What are you doing?” Iwaizumi is coming towards him, hands clenched into fists. “You’re hurting him—let him go.”

But the fox doesn’t want to let go. There is a simple, direct satisfaction in a hunt seen through to completion, and this time it’s amplified by the fact that a fox should not be able to fell an eagle. But he’s managed this victory, and he isn’t about to relinquish it.

“Why aren’t you listening to me?” His voice isn’t angry—or maybe it is, but not just that. Iwaizumi’s voice is layered with different emotions, too many for Oikawa to parse out.

He doesn’t have an answer to the question, in any case. He couldn’t possibly explain, to himself or anyone else, how he ended up like this.

Ushijima makes a pained noise, his eyes stuttering shut for a moment. When they open again, there’s an olive tinge to their normal vibrant gold. Oikawa realizes that usually, there’s magic lighting up Ushijima’s eyes—bright gold drowning out the subtler shade of his irises. But now, since those golden wings shattered, he doesn’t have as much magic, and not nearly enough to keep up that effect.

It should be laughable. All these years that he’s known Ushijima, and this may be the first time he’s seeing the real color of his eyes.

Tooru.” Iwaizumi is so close, now, kneeling down in the grass and reaching out one hand towards him. He seems to be at a loss for any more words, his eyes roving over Oikawa’s face and categorizing the differences he sees there. He reaches out one hand tentatively, fist unclenching and letting what he’s been holding onto fall into the space between him and Oikawa.

They’re small, crystalline shards—all of them a dull, lifeless aquamarine color, stained in places with dried blood.

But Iwaizumi isn’t paying attention to them, anymore. His hands are near Oikawa’s face, fingers against his cheeks, his jaw, trying to get him to relinquish his grip. He handles him with firm precision, like one would an animal. When Iwaizumi puts pressure on Oikawa’s jaw, he manages to pull him away from Ushijima, the other hand resting on the back of Oikawa’s neck.

The contact of their skin sends a fire burning down Oikawa’s spine. He’s barely aware of the fact that there’s blood spilling from his mouth, or that Ushijima is coughing on the ground, clutching both hands over his neck. Shadows swirl around Oikawa like a whirlwind, but he panics when they obscure his vision of Iwaizumi for even a moment.

That panic sparks something—Oikawa’s own faint light magic. It reaches through the shadows to the spaces where he and Iwaizumi touch, latching onto Iwaizumi with force, illuminating his brown skin and the lines of his bare arms.

Don’t go away from me again, Oikawa thinks. Don’t let me go away from you.

And then the shadows and light engulf them both.

Oikawa is thrust back to himself with the force of a rubber band snapping after being stretched to its limits. The glass standing between his human mind and his animal instincts shatters, and the two halves of himself collide with such force that when it’s over, Oikawa isn’t sure which half is which anymore.

He takes a deep breath, the scent of wet grass and pine sharp in the air around him. For the first time in his life, Oikawa doesn’t feel like he’s in pieces. He laughs with the relief of it, and when he does the laughter sounds from several places at once, echoing around him.

“Oikawa?”

He turns slightly and there is Iwaizumi—standing tall and sure and solid in front of him. There’s a strange glow drifting off of his skin. If they were standing back in their grove of trees, Iwaizumi would be in the spot directly free of any of the leafy canopy, the light hitting him directly. He looks so bright, so wonderful, that Oikawa laughs again.

Iwaizumi frowns. “That is you, isn’t it?”

His question and expression dim Oikawa’s euphoria for a moment. He glances down at his hands, but they don’t seem quite right, to him. His skin goes from pale to dark, his wrists and hands shadowed entirely in a way that mimics the fur of his fox form. His nails are dark claws, but his hands are still shaped like a human’s. For a moment, nothing makes sense.

He glances around them, and it’s like they are in the grove where they’d met as children. There’s soft grass beneath their feet, and trees all around them. Light and shadow dance across the buds of flowers and the bark of trees. There’s a stream running beside them, a few feet away. Oikawa moves toward it instinctively, glancing down to see his own reflection in the running water.

At first, he thinks the distortion of the water is responsible for what he’s seeing. But then he reaches up and runs one hand through his hair, and his fingers catch on the fur of the fox’s ears growing between his auburn locks. Nine tails extend behind him, brownish-red tipped in white, forming a fan behind his back. When he blinks at his reflection, his normally-brown irises are haloed with a glow of aquamarine.

He turns around again, now that he knows what Iwaizumi is seeing. Oikawa supposes he should be alarmed at his own appearance, and the sudden collision of what he’s always thought of as two distinct parts of himself. But he doesn’t feel unsettled at all. Rather, there’s only relief filling him now, as though this is just affirmation of something he’s always known.

“Are you going to talk to me, now?” Iwaizumi’s arms are crossed over his chest, one foot tapping impatiently as he waits for Oikawa to focus on him.

Oikawa wonders if he can talk, like this. He tilts his head to one side. “What do you want to talk about?”

Like his laughter, his voice seems to be coming from multiple directions at once. Iwaizumi blinks, but his gaze remains fixed on Oikawa.

Then, he’s moving. Oikawa barely registers it when a fist collides with his jaw, sending him sprawling backwards into the stream. He feels the moisture gathering in his tails and wrinkles his nose in discomfort, all before he realizes there’s heat and pain building on the side of his cheek where Iwaizumi has struck him.

He’s solid and real, and the punch had only been proof of that.

“Oikawa…” Iwaizumi’s chest is heaving, the light around him growing brighter and stronger. “What the fuck? Why did you do this to me?”

Oikawa bows his head. He’s long since owed Iwaizumi some answers.

He keeps staring downwards as the stream rushes around him. Iwaizumi casts a shadow as he stands over him, but Oikawa doesn’t look up.

“Do you think that if I explain it to you, you’ll be able to understand?”

Iwaizumi huffs, choking out a dark laugh. “At this point, literally anything would be better than you telling me nothing at all.”

Oikawa is quiet for a moment, after that. Guilt settles heavily over him, and it’s hard to breathe with the weight bearing down on him. He doesn’t know where to begin, how he could possibly explain himself. And more than that, he’s scared. Being in this place, in this form, with Iwaizumi—it’s confirmed something that he’d begun to guess at, the moment before his stone had broken. And he doesn’t know how he’s going to face the truth of it.

“I don’t know how to explain it to you,” he admits.

Try.” Iwaizumi’s voice brokers no argument. “You’re the one who dragged me into this, aren’t you? I’ve felt only flashes and gotten hints at what’s been happening to you, and now we’re—I don’t even know where, and you’re, you’re—”

Oikawa nods, resigned. He can’t keep the bitterness from his voice when he replies, “I’m sorry for dragging you into something you didn’t want.”

“Fuck you.” Iwaizumi grabs him by the shoulder and tugs him upwards in one swift motion, snarling. “Of course I wanted it. I’ve always wanted you. Haven’t I been telling you that from the start?”

“What…?” He can’t possibly mean that. Iwaizumi has never known what he’s getting into, with Oikawa. At the start, he’d seen just a wild animal, and then just a lost kid. He couldn’t have known that getting close to either of them, to both, would lead to all of this. Even after Oikawa told him about magic, he hadn’t known that being a wielder might kill his guardian. Iwaizumi’s always been flying blind. So how can he say things like with such conviction?

Iwaizumi makes a short, impatient noise. Then his grip on Oikawa shifts, until Oikawa is being crushed against his chest, held so tightly that it’s impossible to do anything but feel and smell and touch Iwaizumi.

“Of course I want you,” he says, and his voice is cracking with emotion. “I can’t believe this, I’ve missed you so much.” Then he’s laughing, so happy that the sound makes Oikawa’s chest ache.

“Iwa-chan…” Oikawa reaches up to return Iwaizumi’s embrace, but the moment before he makes contact shadow magic surrounds him, repelling him away from Iwaizumi as though they were oppositely-charged magnets. They land a few feet apart, both up against the river.

“I don’t understand,” Oikawa murmurs, staring down at his hands. Why can Iwaizumi touch him, but he can’t do the same?

Iwaizumi is sitting on the ground, crossing his legs and looking at Oikawa expectantly.

“Forget that, for now. Tell me what’s going on.”

Oikawa looks up, and their eyes meet.

“Please, Oikawa,” Iwaizumi says. And so Oikawa nods and takes a deep breath.

It reminds him of high school, in a way. Whenever there was something they needed to talk about—or, more often, whenever there was something Iwaizumi was trying to get out of Oikawa—Iwaizumi would sit down on one side of the court, close to the net. Oikawa would take the opposite side, and Iwaizumi would roll a volleyball towards him. As Oikawa would begin to talk, he’d hit the ball back, and they’d continue passing it between them as the conversation slowly got easier and easier.

Now, they’re in the same position, except that instead of a volleyball net there’s a flowing stream beside them, and instead of their high school they’re in some magical nether-space that Oikawa isn’t quite sure how to describe.

But Iwaizumi waits for Oikawa to speak first, like he’s always done.

“I’ve ruined everything,” Oikawa says. There’s no ball to push back and forth, so he settles for gripping one of his own tails, running his fingers through the white fur at its tip.

Iwaizumi considers this for a moment. “How do you figure that?”

Oikawa licks over his lips. “I tried to tell you before, a long time ago. When Kuroo went missing. The guardians… we’re locks, on the world’s magic. And you wielders, you’re the keys. Since we’ve come together, we’ve unlocked the magic in world. And now there’s more than there should be, and as a result we’ll be destroyed.”

The mention of Kuroo brings on a fresh wave of guilt. How much more time does he have? Oikawa had gotten distracted, with Ushijima and now this, but who will be there to help Kuroo? How will he survive without his magic?

“I remember that,” Iwaizumi says. “Even though you’d never told me who Kuroo was, before that. But I’ve been seeing him a lot, lately.”

Iwaizumi doesn’t sound like he’s talking about a dead man, and there’s a biting reproach in his words. He wouldn’t be so cavalier if Kuroo was dying, would he?

“Where is Kuroo?” Oikawa asks.

Iwaizumi scratches the back of his neck, looking a bit perturbed as he glances around. “Probably still curled up with Kozume. We had a run in with another guardian, and that freak wielder with the red hair. Kuroo protected us. But he used too much magic, and the others thought he wasn’t going to…”

He trails off, and is quiet so long that Oikawa prompts, “Iwa-chan?”

Iwaizumi looks up, and there’s a redness spread across his cheeks and a furrow creasing his brow. “I thought the same thing had happened to you, and I wasn’t even there to help.”

Oikawa swallows nervously. “I’m here,” he says, a bit helplessly.

Iwaizumi nods, but the pained expression doesn’t leave his face. “But you haven’t been. Fuck, Oikawa, you were just gone. And I didn’t know what to do.”

This is the moment for Oikawa to apologize. But instead he just smiles wanly, tails curling around him. “I told you I’d ruined everything.”

“I’m not buying that,” Iwaizumi snaps in response. “I’ve seen the way Bokuto is with Akaashi, and Sawamura and Sugawara, and Kuroo and Kozume. I’ve seen it more than you have, at this point. If you’re all locks, and we’re all keys, why is it all on you?”

“Because I was first,” Oikawa insists, temper heating. “I was selfish! I wanted you before I even knew what that meant, and that led the others to the same thing! Now the entire world is going to be flooded with magic, and it is all. My. Fault!”

“Then why didn’t you come to me for help?” Iwaizumi demands. “You were blocking me out for weeks, even before you left! You went on and on with all this bullshit, that we were meant to be together, that our magic made us special, and then you didn’t even tell me anything! How could you have possibly thought that was the right thing to do? Why are you so damn stupid?”

“If I’m so stupid, why does it matter?” Oikawa sneers.

“Because I could’ve helped you!” Iwaizumi roars, getting to his feet and throwing his hands in the air. “Because I could’ve been there for you! I thought that was what you wanted!”

Oikawa chuckles, tails covering him like a shield. “And what would you have wanted from me, in return?”

Iwaizumi freezes. “What?”

Oikawa’s eyes narrow to slits, amber with thin, dark pupils. “That’s the way it always works, you know. Everyone needs something from me, and I try my best to give it. But no one really wants me.”

“What are you talking about?”

The tails fan out again, and Oikawa’s magic comes back in full force. His fingers end in sharp claws, his ears are pointed and furred. Neither his eyes nor his voice is human, and the shadows swirling around him only serve to underscore that fact. Nine fox tails curl around him, shifting like snakes across the ground.

“This is all of me,” he says. “No one’s ever seen me like this, before. No one wants all of this.”

Iwaizumi swallows visibly, his Adam’s apple moving against his throat. He looks stricken, but not frightened.

“So?” Oikawa says tauntingly. “What do you think, Iwa-chan?”

A myriad of emotions flit over Iwaizumi’s face—confusion, indignation, shame. Oikawa doesn’t know where most of them are coming from, but something within in him is satisfied to have inflicted on anyone the overwhelming multiplicity of emotions that he’s been carrying around with him for too long. Even if that person is Iwaizumi.

But finally, Iwaizumi sits himself back on the ground, legs crossed and elbows balanced against his knees. He looks at Oikawa with a steady gaze.

“I’m missing something, here. Tell me what you’re talking about.”

Oikawa startles, at that. He’s never tried to explain this feeling, before, because part of its insidiousness is the fact that there’s never been anyone to explain it to. He’s well aware of his own selfishness, but he’s never been so bad as to want to inflict this on anyone else.

But Iwaizumi is still looking at him, eyebrows raised as though to say, I’m waiting.

So Oikawa takes a deep breath, and begins.

“I never told you why I wasn’t human the first time we met, did I?” Oikawa says, keeping his voice low. The low rumble of the stream is the background of his words, and Oikawa picks at the grass as he talks so he doesn’t have to focus on his own speech. “At that point, I’d been a just a fox for ages, probably years.”

“But,” Iwaizumi cuts in, “Your family is human.”

Oikawa smiles wanly. “They are. And so was I, when I was born. I was an adorable baby, Iwa-chan, you should see the pictures sometime. But cardinal guardians are born with both natures. And being a fox kit is a lot better than being a human baby—you can move around on your own, and your thoughts are clearer, and you don’t have to cry and wait for someone to help you when you’re upset.”

“You preferred being a fox.” There’s no question in Iwaizumi’s tone, but Oikawa nods in response, anyway.

“I hated being a human,” Oikawa says, with vigor. “I could never keep that form for very long, at all. My teacher had come by right at the beginning, and explained things to my parents. But even that didn’t prepare them. My mother couldn’t take me anywhere, because she never knew when I’d shift forms. Most of our neighbors didn’t even know she’d had a second child. They assumed she’d miscarried, during her pregnancy, because they never saw me.”

Oikawa can see the indent in Iwaizumi’s face where he’s biting on the inside of his cheek.

“That must have been hard, on her.”

Oikawa hums, noncommittal. “I guess it was. By the time I was four or five, I’d figured it out—she only wanted me around if I could be human, all the time. But I… I just couldn’t. Even when I tried, it was too hard. And then I realized that if I had to be one or the other, I’d rather be just a fox. So I left.”

“Just like that? When you were five?”

Oikawa nods. “I told you, being a fox is different. I didn’t think like a kid, when I was in that form. And, well, you saw. I was still alive, when we met. So I managed.”

Iwaizumi’s silent for a long moment, so long that Oikawa grows uncomfortable. “What?” he demands.

Iwaizumi clears his throat. “Nothing. It’s just—that’s a long time to be alone.”

Oikawa lifts his chin, frowning. “It was better, that way,” he declares imperiously.

Iwaizumi doesn’t bother responding to that. He’s waiting, again, for Oikawa to continue.

“Well,” Oikawa says. “You know what happened, next. After I met you, I thought being human might not be so bad. So I went back home, and tried it. And it worked, for a while. I was too caught up in catching up on all the things I’d missed, and so I didn’t really think about being the fox during the day. And it was easy enough to sneak out at night… So it worked.”

“For a while,” Iwaizumi repeats.

“Hm.” Oikawa spreads his hands. “My sister got married, when we were in elementary school. And then she had Takeru.”

The furrow in Iwaizumi’s brow grows deeper. “I don’t understand.”

Oikawa laughs hollowly. “They thought… I don’t know. That I’d hurt the baby? I mean, you can’t blame them, I suppose. No one would let a wild animal near their newborn, would they?”

“They said that to you?”

“Of course not. But it wasn’t hard to figure out. They never let me be alone with him, not even years later. And by then I’d realized why. I was never the fox, in front of any of them, not even when my dad would drive me down to Tokyo for the weekend. But even if I only showed them one face, they couldn’t forget that I actually had two. They couldn’t accept me.”

“Oikawa…”

He laughs again, dark and brittle. “But it’s not just them, you know? They wanted the human Oikawa Tooru, but it’s not like being with the guardians was any different. We never would’ve gotten along, even, if we weren’t all magical. I mean, we didn’t get along, not while we were all human. We were too different. The fox got along better with the crow than I did with Sawamura…”

He keeps going, no longer waiting for Iwaizumi’s responses. “And I won’t pretend I wasn’t getting anything out of it. It felt good, you know, to be part of a set. To feel like something needed me. So I could give my human self to my family, and the kids at school. And I could give the guardian to my teacher, and to the others. And there was no one who knew all of it, who wanted all of me. But at least each piece fit somewhere.”

“I never knew,” Iwaizumi mutters to himself. “I figured—people have always liked you. Even in middle school, there were always girls following you around and you were all the teachers’ favorite.”

Oikawa covers his face in both hands to stifle the sudden, hysterical laughter that bubbles up in him.

“What?” Iwaizumi bites out. “What are you laughing at?”

“Iwa-chan,” Oikawa says through his laughter, tears gathering at the crinkled corners of his eyes, “People only like me because I try to be like you.”

Iwaizumi blinks owlishly at him. “You’re out of your mind.”

“No, no,” Oikawa laughs. In fact, they’re both in his mind, at the moment. “All those things people like about me, I never would’ve known how to be like that if it wasn’t for you. Even just stupid things, like the way you’re good at sports, or were quick in school. I saw that people admired those things about you, so I tried to copy them.”

“But… you were always better than me. In school, and even at playing volleyball.”

He shrugs. “Not at the very beginning. It took me ages to catch up to you in school, I just always made sure you couldn’t tell. But it was more than that, too. You were always good at getting people to smile. Everyone likes it when you pay attention to them. I didn’t know how to do that, for myself, so I just followed your lead.”

Iwaizumi’s cheeks are red, by this point. And that makes sense, because he’s always been a bit blind to his own talents. But he’s so good at connecting to others, at making people feel comfortable and valued. Oikawa’s observed him have that effect on others, and he’s felt it himself, firsthand. Nothing has ever felt better than being the focus of Iwaizumi’s attention, the object of his admiration.

“That’s just like you,” Iwaizumi says, after a moment. “Taking a cue from someone else and running with it, to that extent. You always have to be the best at everything, don’t you?”

Oikawa bats his lashes and lifts his chin, nose in the air. “Don’t be jealous just because I work hard, Iwa-chan. None of that came easy, you know.”

There’s a beat of silence, and Oikawa can feel the weight of Iwaizumi’s gaze.

“Yeah,” he says. “I think I do know, now.”

The moment stretches between them, and Oikawa hears the buzz of insects in the silence. It’s strange—this place shouldn’t have so much detail, but then again Oikawa has never done anything halfway. Even manifestations of his magic, bolstered by his memory, are as close to perfect as he can make them.

“So what happened?” Iwaizumi prompts, a beat later. “What changed?”

“I don’t know.” He shakes his head, hair falling over his eyes. “More and more, there were pieces that didn’t fit. Ushiwaka-chan wasn’t exactly like me, or our group, but he knew more, and he acted like something terrible was going to happen. And I could feel it, too. And then, all the new guardians started showing up, and I, I—”

Iwaizumi is still waiting, as steady as ever.

“I didn’t know what I could do for them,” Oikawa admits. “I knew that, by coming into contact with me, their lives were going to be ruined. No one wants all of this, but they weren’t going to have a choice in the matter. And when I tried to explain it to them, they looked at me like I had all the answers, like I could fix things. And I couldn’t give them anything. I couldn’t save them from this.”

“They’re all alright, you know,” Iwaizumi says, talking quickly. “Hanamaki and Yahaba and Kunimi. I’ve been with all of them, they’re all fine. And they’ll deal with it, the same way you have your whole life. But they won’t be alone. What’s happening—that’s not your fault, Oikawa.”

Oikawa purses his lips together. “It is,” he says simply. “And anyway, even if they can deal with it, it’s not what they want.”

“You know, you spend a lot of time worrying about everyone else,” Iwaizumi says, suddenly.

“Huh?” Oikawa blinks as he looks up, surprised. He’s more used to Iwaizumi calling him selfish. More often than not, he feels selfish.

“Your family wanted one thing from you, the guardians another, and I’m still not really sure what the fuck is going on between you and Ushijima… but it’s all about what everyone else wants.” Iwaizumi is getting up again, and crossing the space between them. When he kneels down in front of Oikawa, he doesn’t move to touch him. But they’re so close that Oikawa can feel the magic sparking between them, struggling to connect.

“Tooru,” Iwaizumi says softly, his face suddenly very close. “What do you want?”

The question hits him with more impact than Oikawa could’ve guessed at. He’s winded, the breath going out of him abruptly as he struggles to wrap his mind around the last few hours, the last few weeks, his entire life. What does he want?

He looks up and sees Iwaizumi’s woodland eyes—green flecked with gold, light lingering there no matter how angry or intense Iwaizumi becomes. He’s wearing a sleeveless shirt, and Oikawa’s gaze lingers on the tattoo wrapped around his bicep, the interlocking leaves and careful words.

When he looks up at Iwaizumi, he’s sure of one thing.

“I want to go home,” he says, voice thick with the tears suddenly rising in his throat. “Iwa-chan, I want to go home.”

It’s more than that, even. He wants to shed all of the responsibilities and guilt that have piled up on him. He wants to step away from everything, without feeling like he has a duty to keep the world propped up on his shoulders. He wants to crawl inside of Iwaizumi and live there forever, to feel warm and safe and cherished without fear.

Iwaizumi’s hands are on his shoulders, tugging Oikawa forward against his chest. Iwaizumi is solid and warm, and a gentle glow of light surrounds them both. Oikawa sighs into the contact when one of Iwaizumi’s hands comes to rest against the crown of his head.

“Okay,” Iwaizumi breathes out, his own voice rough with emotion. “Okay. I’ll take you home.”

Oikawa hiccups and shakes his head. “You can’t.”

“Why not?”

“I can’t control it, any more. Ever since the magic unlocked, there’s been more and more of it. It’s been building up, and now there’s nothing—you saw me, before, with Ushiwaka. I couldn’t control it.”

“I’ll help you,” Iwaizumi says, determined.

“I don’t think you can. We’re broken. There’s nothing holding our magic together, anymore. And that’s why… that must be why the Shadow King is really coming. If I didn’t burn out on magic on my own, he can finish the job.”

“What the fuck does that mean?” Iwaizumi’s grip on him becomes tight, desperate. But the pain isn’t unwelcome.

Oikawa shifts, looking up at Iwaizumi and sighing softly. “Thank you for coming here with me. I’m glad I got to see you again.”

“Shut up,” Iwaizumi growls. “What are you saying? The Shadow King—that kid—he’s not going to do anything to you. I’ll protect you. That’s what I’m here for.”

Oikawa shakes his head. “You can’t.”

“What—Oikawa! You dragged me into this, didn’t you? Don’t try to push me away again! Don’t ever do that to me, not again.”

He doesn’t want to, Oikawa thinks dimly. All he’s ever wanted is to keep Iwaizumi as close as possible, as selfish as that’s been. Iwaizumi’s done nothing to deserve the pain that will come if something happens to Oikawa. But even maintaining this space where they can talk is draining him, demanding too much focus as his magic spirals into something wild and uncontrollable.

He should say it now, while he has the chance. But he doesn’t know if doing so will make all of this hurt more.

Oikawa!”

Light and shadow separate before them, pulling away from one another and ripping apart everything—the grove, the stream, the trees. Nothing is left but shadow on one side and light on the other.

The earth shakes as Oikawa snaps back to himself, blinking open his eyes to see the ruined grounds of Ushijima’s garden. Oikawa feels distant from himself, but it’s a different sensation from before. The fox isn’t in control this time, either—they’re both still one, within Oikawa’s mind. But neither of them has any control over what’s happening, now.

Iwaizumi’s kneeling a few feet away from him, and further behind him are Ushijima and Tendou. There’s blood splattered across Tendou’s shirt as he holds Ushijima up, trying to stop the bleeding from his throat.

Iwaizumi shakes his head as he looks up, like he’s trying to dislodge the last vestiges of a dream. Oikawa can see himself reflected in Iwaizumi’s eyes, his own vacant and glassy. Already, the magic is gathering around him, rising like wind.

The sky darkens above them, thunder rolling through the garden with ominous force. Oikawa is barely aware of it as the magic circles around him, lifting him into the air.

“Oikawa!” Iwaizumi screams, running towards him. “Fight it! Let me help!”

He does try. But the magic is unlike anything he’s ever felt before. He can sense himself in it, but it’s wild and untamed, purer than his magic has ever been. The shadows are thick and dark, the light a pinprick struggling to break through.

Ushijima shrugs off Tendou’s support and gets to his feet, but his skin is frighteningly pale. He keeps one hand clutched against his throat and extends the other in front of him. Magic gathers around his fingertips and palm, drawing some of Oikawa’s towards him.

It’s what he tried to do for Kageyama, Oikawa thinks. Drawing the excess magic into his own body, so that Kageyama would have the ability to control what was left. But Ushijima’s magic is opposite his own, not nearly as similar as Kageyama and Oikawa’s. How could he possibly hope to take so much shadow into himself without it killing him?

There’s really only one person who has the capacity to handle Oikawa’s magic. And that person isn’t Ushijima.

It takes an infinite amount of effort, but Oikawa manages to lift one of his arms, extending it forward as he points directly at Iwaizumi.

Iwaizumi looks up at him and blinks, but then he nods. Scattered in the grass around him are the shattered shards of his gemstone, and they flare for a moment with aquamarine light. Shadows and light gather between him and Oikawa, and Oikawa feels the magic pulling out of him and towards Iwaizumi.

Now, the magic is everywhere around him, thick in the atmosphere as it continues to hold Oikawa several feet off the ground. What was left in his body goes to Iwaizumi, but Oikawa thinks, somehow, that that is how it should be. Iwaizumi has always deserved the power that comes with magic more than him, and he’ll use it well. Oikawa can be certain of that.

The magic left around him is coalescing into something, a shape that Oikawa can’t see. He’s left at the center of it, viewing the world through a haze of shadow.

Oikawa blinks upwards, and sees a black bird circling overhead, flapping its powerful wings. He’s been expecting it, so he sighs softly as his eyes begin to drift shut.

The last thing he hears is Iwaizumi’s frantic cry of his name, and then he knows no more.

Chapter Text

Kenma gapes at the space where Iwaizumi had just stood, now empty. Rain continues to fall, plastering Kenma’s hair to his forehead and cheeks. He hadn’t reacted fast enough, and the only thing his magic had done was register Iwaizumi’s anger and disgust at seeing Tendou. But Kenma couldn’t, didn’t, help him.

“Iwaizumi!” It’s Matsukawa’s voice, and it’s followed by a chorus of growls. The coyote and arctic fox run ahead, circling the spot where Iwaizumi had been, snapping their jaws threateningly. Even the raccoon dog follows, slower on shorter legs, sniffing around the sidewalk and looking around with wide, concerned eyes.

Matsukawa turns to Kenma. “What just happened—”

He doesn’t get a chance to finish his answer. The door bursts open again, and the guardians come running out onto the yard— Bokuto, Sawamura, and Kuroo, back in human form. Kuroo comes to stand between Matsukawa and Kenma, ignoring the former entirely.

“What happened? Are you alright?”

Kenma reaches out to hook his fingers into the fabric of Kuroo’s t-shirt. He moves his head slightly, somewhere between negative and affirmative. He’s still staring at where Iwaizumi had been, and sees the remnants of magic still in the air. Aquamarine pooling like ink in a glass of water, swirling softly, cut through with a bold flash of maroon.

More people are filing out into the yard— Sugawara, Akaashi, and Shimizu. She stops short of the rest of the group, staring at the same spot that Kenma’s been fixated on.

For a moment, time freezes. Before, there’d been the chaos of everyone speaking at once, the animals circling at their feet and growling. But now Kenma can’t hear anything. He can barely feel Kuroo next to him, and instead his attention is caught on the sudden staleness in the air. Even though it already rained, the air feels as it does just before a storm. It’s stale and still, waiting for something.

Shimizu steps forward, hands raised slightly. She shakes her head, as though trying to dislodge a particularly persistent thought. She reaches up to shift her glasses, rubbing over the bridge of her nose absently.

But what really warrants attention is her eyes. Usually they’re a cool gray, hidden behind the gleam of her lenses. But now they shine on their own, glowing like the moon with an echo of light. Her mouth opens in a soundless gasp, lips curling in an o-shape.

And then thunder booms around them, and Kenma’s dimly aware of Kuroo calling out for him, grabbing him by the arm and jerking him backwards as a burst of light flares in his vision, blinding him.

Darkness surrounds him, and it all happens too quickly for him to even be frightened.

He wakes up with a weight on his chest, something damp beneath his back. It takes a moment’s effort to force his eyes open, lids heavy and body aching in the bone-deep way he hasn’t felt since the horrors of high school athletics.

It’s then that he registers that the weight on top of him is Kuroo. He’s sprawled across Kenma, arms splayed at his sides as though he’d been trying to act as a shield. They’re going to need to talk about that— Kuroo’s got a hero-complex, or something, but in any case he needs to stop throwing himself in the path of danger to protect others.

Kenma shakes Kuroo by the shoulder. “Wake up. Kuro, wake up.”

Kuroo groans, shuffling a bit. His eyes blink open, gleaming brighter gold with magic. “What…?”

Shimizu!”

The cry jolts them both into awareness, scrambling to their feet and looking around for the source of the noise. They’re in a grassy clearing, and though the ground beneath them is damp it isn’t raining down on them, anymore. The sky is dark, and they’re surrounded by the dimness of dusk. Kenma spots the coyote, pushing himself put to his feet, and behind him the arctic fox and raccoon dog lying prone. Akaashi and Bokuto are on their feet, supporting each other— Bokuto’s arm around Akaashi’s shoulder, Akaashi’s around Bokuto’s waist.

And then, further on—

Shimizu’s lying on the ground, her body trembling. Sugawara and Sawamura are on either side of her, each grasping one of her hands and trying to hold her still.

Kuroo grabs Kenma’s wrist and tugs him along, Bokuto and Akaashi running after him until the four of them are standing over Shimizu and the others.

“Can someone please explain what’s happening?” Bokuto grouses, more angry than Kenma’s ever heard him.

“That was magic,” Sawamura says, baffled.

“Of course it was,” Bokuto grumbles, “But who—”

Sugawara is leaning over Shimizu, and Kenma sees the flare of orange light from the bangle on his wrist as he runs over her with his own magic. But whatever he’s doing isn’t enough, because across Shimizu’s legs fault-line cracks are blooming, cuts that extend from her thighs down to her ankles. The lines break like lightning against a stormy sky, forking and thinning at odd intervals. The cuts are no more than a hair’s span across, bleeding red across Shimizu’s pale skin.

“Sugawara,” Shimizu is saying, her voice hoarse. She pushes his hands away, trying to sit up. “If I— If that was magic—”

“Lay down.” Sugawara tries to push her back down, brow furrowing as shadows and light blanket her legs. When his magic dissipates, the cuts remain. He hasn’t been able to heal them at all. “I don’t understand,” he murmurs.

“It’s magic,” Shimizu insists, palms flat against the earth as she pushes herself to a seated position. She winces as the motion jostles her legs. “Where did it go? I can’t feel it anymore, but it was there— you felt it, didn’t you?” She turns abruptly to Sawamura, looking at him intently. Her eyes are no longer glowing in quite the same way, but Kenma sees the remnant of moonlight around her irises.

Sawamura swallows, then nods. “I felt it.”

“All that light,” Bokuto puts in. “But where did it come from?”

Shimizu bites down on her lower lip, eyes squinting shut as she tries to school her expression and fails. “I'd rather know where it is, now.”

“Shimizu-san.” Akaashi kneels down beside her, voice as even as ever. “Can you explain to the rest of us what happened?”

She takes a deep breath. “I don’t know what magic— connecting— is supposed to feel like. But I could see the echo of magic, where Iwaizumi and the other wielder had been.”

“Tendou.” Even though Kenma’s voice is soft, the others all turn to face him. “He grabbed Iwaizumi, and teleported.”

Kuroo’s grip on Kenma’s wrist tightens. “That bastard,” he snarls.

“That must have been it,” Shimizu continues, between deep breaths. “It was the echo of that magic, and somehow, when I saw it…”

“Yes?” Sawamura prompts.

“When I saw it, I think I did then same thing.” Shimizu’s cheeks color, and she looks away, almost bashfully.

“You teleported us all to wherever Tendou took Iwaizumi,” Akaashi says, voice tinged in disbelief.

“That’s amazing!” Bokuto cuts in. “So does that mean— where’s your guardian?”

“And it wasn’t all of us,” Kuroo says, glancing around. “Where’s Matsukawa?”

“He doesn’t have magic, at least not yet,” Sawamura says. “I wonder if that had something to do with it.”

“Let’s figure out where we are, first,” Sugawara says, voice mild but reproachful. “We need to get Shimizu home, and find Iwaizumi, and—”

Whatever else is on his list of tasks is lost as a dark shadow falls across all of them. Kenma feels it like a physical weight, draped across his shoulders like the x-ray blanket he wears when he goes to the dentist. It’s not enough to knock him down, but there’s a pressure working against him, making it more difficult to stay upright. He’s never felt magic this powerful before, not even when he’d gone as deep as possible into Kuroo’s mind. Dizziness overtakes him, and Kenma sways, leaning into Kuroo’s side for support.

The coyote is snarling, head turned towards the source of the magic. He lifts his head and howls like a wolf, the arctic fox and raccoon dog behind him, making keening noises of their own.

The darkness ebbs like a wave going back to sea, and leaving Kenma with the same feeling of displacement he’s felt when he stands at the shoreline and lets the waves retreat away from him, leaving him stuck in the sand.

The instant the darkness has faded enough for him to think straight, the coyote tears off in the direction it’d come from, the other two guardians following him.

“Shit,” Kuroo says from somewhere above him. “That can’t be a good sign.”

Sugawara and Sawamura help Shimizu to her feet, one of her arms draped over each of their shoulders as they hold her upright and help her along. Kuroo and Bokuto run off in the direction of the magic, following the path Hanamaki and the others had taken moments before. Kenma and Akaashi follow in between.

Kenma wonders if the roiling in his gut is normal, if everyone else feels this deep, dark sense of foreboding. Can they feel anything else, when the world around them is full of such potent shadow magic?

Shimizu has brought them to a grassy hill. As they walk along, Kenma’s able to map a bit of the place— there’s an old-fashioned, sprawling white house down the hill away, one of its walls knocked out entirely. They’re headed away from it, towards the small grove of trees that sits at the end of the lot, past the beds of flowers and crops. The entire place looks as though some kind of monster has ripped through it— the stone-laid paths are torn up, and there are tree branches and plants littered across the hillside. The sky is still stuck at dusk, and Kenma can’t seem to remember what time it’s supposed to be. It feels natural to say that the world is always like this, light retreating and giving way to shadow.

He’s caught up in these thoughts, and doesn’t realize that Kuroo has stopped running ahead of him until he slams straight into Kuroo’s back. He looks up, rubbing at his nose, but Kuroo doesn’t turn to apologize. And as soon as Kenma follows his line of sight, he realizes why.

“Fuck,” Kuroo says vehemently. “Oikawa.”

Kenma has never met Oikawa Tooru in person, but he’s seen the fourth guardian in pictures and memories. He’s a tall young man with artfully arranged brown hair, a commercial-worthy smile and dark, knowing eyes. Kenma has had an image of Oikawa in mind for weeks, at this point, colored in by the stories he’s heard from Kuroo and the way Iwaizumi has acted in the other guardian’s absence.

But nothing he’d imagined has prepared him for his first actual sight of the fox.

The grove of trees sits atop another hill, still several yards ahead of them. The trees encircles a maelstrom of magic, more shadow than light. It rises like a tower from the ground, thick like smoke around the blurred figure of a young man. He’s curled up, arms around his knees, but his head leans back at an odd angle. His eyes are closed, as far as Kenma can see, and every few minutes his body sparks with aquamarine energy, like electricity from a frayed wire.

At the base of the spire of magic stands Iwaizumi, barely visible through the trees. His back is turned towards Kenma and the others, and he has both hands extended over his head, each curled as though to grasp something out of his reach. His skin, too, is sparking with the unstable glow of Oikawa’s magic. And as he curls his fingers, his skin splits along his arms, cuts forming like tree roots from his wrists.

It’s just like with Shimizu, Kenma thinks. Is the physical damage the result of straining to use magic when you aren’t properly connected to your guardian?

Kenma doesn’t have time to dwell; there’s too much to take in. His gaze tracks the direction that Iwaizumi is reaching in, and his breath catches as he realizes what the other wielder is trying to hold back.

Above the spire of magic, a black bird is poised in midair. Although it flaps its wings, it doesn’t move, and Kenma focuses he can see how Iwaizumi’s magic circles the bird’s body, holding it up in the air and away from Oikawa. The bird caws, the sound splitting the air.

Kuroo and Bokuto both shudder, reaching up to clasp their hands over their ears. As the bird flaps its wings, shadows pour around them. The darkness rolls across the grove, and as it hits Bokuto and Kuroo fall to their knees, eyes wide open in shock. Kenma glances behind him when he hears someone cry out, and finds Sawamura on the ground, Sugawara staggering to keep himself and Shimizu upright.

Kenma shivers as he glances up again, because now he’s certain. The black bird is the guardian of shadow, the last name on Oikawa’s list.

Kageyama Tobio.

The Shadow King.

The next wave of shadow magic is darker and deeper. Kenma is frozen in place, struck through with the same fear he’d felt when he’d gone searching for Yahaba and Kunimi and found the deep swell of shadow magic, instead. There’s no seeing through it, no hope to be gleaned from that much darkness. It manifests as a deep loneliness, cutting straight through Kenma and surrounding him. He knows what it’s like to be lonely, and so the magic brings up memories he can’t escape from. It’s suffocating.

Don’t come any close. Stay away from me. I don’t want you here.

Kuroo is turning, ahead of him, struggling against the pressure keeping him on his knees and throwing himself in front of Kenma, clutching at his shoulders and shielding him as the next wave of magic crests over their heads.

I don’t need you. I don’t need you. I don’t need you. I don’t need anyone.

Next to them, Akaashi is at Bokuto’s side, shaking his shoulders. He’s trembling, but Bokuto isn’t moving at all.

Sawamura and the others are all on the ground, now, looking shell-shocked. Quiet tears drip down Sugawara’s face as he keeps one arm around Shimizu. And she sits wide-eyed, her expression overcome with sadness and regret.

I don’t want you. I don’t want anyone. I like being alone.

Even as the thoughts penetrate his mind, making it impossible to focus on anything else, Kenma knows that sentiment is a lie. Being alone isn’t the same thing as this crushing loneliness, this despair that blocks out all else.

And Kenma’s surrounded by these people, by the very physical proof that they’re feeling exactly what he is. And yet he’s never felt more alone, and it’s like a compulsion that crawls up inside of him, scratching at his chest in a desperate bid to get out from between his ribs. Kenma knows he’s trembling, and Kuroo is shaking, too, but he doesn’t let go.

Kuroo’s magic is rising all around them, but it’s erratic and jagged, spiking like a heart monitor. It feels too wild for Kenma to connect to it, but he can still feel Kuroo in the back of his awareness, tugging at their connection. Usually when he does that it’s playful, a reminder that he’s there. Now, it’s frantic, a series of tugs that don’t let up.

“Kuro.”

The thought itself is like a burst of light in the dark, and Kenma feels the swell of magic rising in him. He can’t be alone, because Kuroo is right beside him. A red, comfortable glow surrounds him, extending from his skin to encompass Kuroo, as well. It’s warm and familiar— a connection.

All at once, Kenma can breathe again.

Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Sugawara reaching for Sawamura, the rich orange glow of their magic extending around them as Sawamura takes jagged breaths. Sugawara presses Sawamura’s head against his chest, enveloping him in a shaky embrace. The orange glow arcs and feathers around them, growing stronger.

Akaashi is still kneeling in front of Bokuto, calling his name and shaking him. “Look at me, please,” he says. “Bokuto-san.”

But Bokuto is shaking his head, lifting his hands to push Akaashi away, curling in on himself. He presses his hands against his head, eyes squeezed shut and teeth digging into his lower lip.

“Oh, no,” Kuroo says, and he’s speaking through his teeth, body strained as he steels himself against the dark magic around him. “It’s the shadows, Bokuto can’t—”

“He’s too much light,” Kenma says, completing the thought. That explains why Kuroo had been so frantic to reach him, to shield the light of Kenma’s own magic with his shadows. It was something he’d learned what seems like a lifetime ago, now— each kind of magic affects its opposite most. Among them, Bokuto and Kenma’s magic is the most potently light. And so of course, the Shadow King’s magic can affect them the most.

“He’s not listening,” Akaashi says, his normally calm voice hitting a frantic edge. He lifts his hands like a conductor in front of an orchestra, the golden stone on his ring gleaming. Kenma feels the magic surrounded Akaashi as he brings his hands down on either side of Bokuto’s face, slapping his hands against Bokuto’s cheeks in an attempt to shock him back to awareness.

Bokuto’s eyes snap open, but they’re wide and unseeing. He rocks back, away from Akaashi, as though looking at him is painful.

Magic radiates out from Akaashi in ordered lines, golden and bright. It brings with it a surge of emotion— hope and affection and enthusiasm, all the things that Kenma has come to associate with Bokuto. He feels the magic cutting through the darkness, filling him with a confidence he’s never felt before.

It’s as though Akaashi’s magic has pinpointed Bokuto’s emotional essence, and is spreading it around them, a brilliant counterpoint to the loneliness brought on by the King’s shadows.

Bokuto doesn’t respond to it, right away. A frown line creases across Akaashi’s brow as he continues to pool his magic, letting it converge on him and Bokuto and then ripple out around them.

Kenma wonders if there’s any way this feeling isn’t reaching Bokuto— it’s almost as overwhelming as the King’s loneliness, but not as piercing. Maybe because the shadows had been dark emotions and darker thoughts, all wound up together, and those kinds of thoughts can subsume even the happiest moods.

It’s something of an epiphany, when he thinks on it. Akaashi’s powers are based around emotions, and Kenma’s around thoughts. They’re related, but distinct, and maybe what Bokuto needs right now is the latter.

Kenma reaches out to clasp Kuroo’s hand, squeezing it tightly as he calls on their magic. It comes up around him, and he takes a deep breath as he searches for the brilliant burst of gold that is Bokuto’s magic, accompanied by the fresh smell of snow.

It’s okay, Kenma thinks, with all the conviction that Akaashi’s magic gives him. We’re all here. You’re not alone.

Bokuto’s magic flickers around him, but it isn’t enough. He doesn’t know Bokuto well enough to be able to reach him the way he needs to. So instead, Kenma turns his magical awareness towards Akaashi.

Tell him what you need to, he thinks. Bokuto will hear you.

Akaashi’s magic is made of those same ordered lines that Kenma had seen earlier, curling shapes running through them like notes against the staffs of sheet music. His awareness flickers when Kenma reaches out to him, confused for a moment. And then, Kenma’s overpowered by thought.

You are worth so much more than you know, Akaashi thinks fiercely towards Bokuto. And I am never going to leave you.

Kenma amplifies the thought as much as he’s able, trying to draw out the power of Akaashi’s emotions and give them logical form. But he’s never been very good at this, has he? His thoughts are always too loud, and his emotions too far away. Maybe he isn’t the best person to try bridging the two.

But another feeling wells up inside him, indignant at the thought. Kenma’s the only one who can do this, it insists.

It sounds like Kuroo.

The gold of Bokuto’s magic flares for a moment, then goes quiet and still. Kenma blinks his eyes open into the dim light of the grove, and sees Bokuto slumped against Akaashi, hands hooked into Akaashi’s black t-shirt as he hides his face against the crook of Akaashi’s neck.

“You’re fine, Bokuto-san,” Akaashi says, and although his voice is measured and patient, there’s something indulgent about the way he strokes over Bokuto’s back, hands moving in rhythmic circles.

Iwaizumi hasn’t noticed that they’re here, or else he doesn’t care. His attention is still fixed on Oikawa and the Shadow King, holding them away from each other with magic that he shouldn’t, by rights, have access to.

Now, it’s easy to see Hanamaki and the others circling the shadowy spire of magic, grinding their teeth and hissing when the dark magic repels them away from Oikawa.

“They’re in animal form. It’s easier to block out dark thoughts, that way,” Kuroo says from in front of Kenma, as though he’s the one who can read thoughts.

Which explains why the canid guardians aren’t falling apart in the face of the Shadow King’s magic, like the rest of them. Kuroo and Sawamura stand in front of the others, calling up a wall of defensive magic that shields the rest of them from the constant onslaught of shadows.

Above them, the black bird continues to cry out at odd intervals, flapping his wings frantically. Each beat fills the air with oppressive darkness, but now, bolstered by Akaashi’s efforts and shielded by Sawamura and Kuroo, they withstand the worst of it.

Kenma doesn’t know how Iwaizumi is able to stand it. Surely, the darkness of the Shadow King should be affecting him the most— his magic is nearly as light as Bokuto’s or Kenma’s, and he’s standing right at the eye of the storm.

And then Kenma spots a small, flickering gleam of light at the base of the hill, and a flash of red that accompanies it.

Bokuto is leaning back against an old, thick tree, still trying to catch his breath. His eyes are dim, and there’s a heaviness to his voice that Kenma has only seen before in Kuroo’s memories. Still, when he follows Kenma’s gaze his eyes narrow with focus.

“Is that Tendou?”

Hanamaki, Yahaba and Kunimi are still circling, throwing themselves against the tower of Oikawa’s magic as though they’ll manage to break through the barrier keeping them away from the other guardian. But nothing they try is working, and after a moment Iwaizumi notices their efforts.

He blinks as though he’s dislodging a heavy thought, glancing around and seeing Kuroo and Kenma and the others, as well.

“What are you doing here?” he demands hotly, shifting his attention away from Oikawa for only a moment. “You need to get the guardians out of here, Oikawa thinks he’s going to—”

In the end, it doesn’t really matter what Oikawa thinks. Because the second Iwaizumi loses his singular focus, his hold on the Shadow King breaks. The bird lets out a triumphant caw as he flies upwards, shaking off the remnants of Iwaizumi’s hold. Shadows gather around him, making him appear massive, his silhouette blocking out the sun entirely.

Then, the bird begins his descent, speeding through the air in a precise line that leads straight to Oikawa.

No!” Iwaizumi reaches out with both hands, doubtlessly calling on his magic. But whatever he had done before fails to work this time, and the way he grabs out at the air is an ineffectual as if he wasn’t a wielder at all.

“We have to do something,” Kuroo calls out, but his voice is strained as he tries to maintain their shield of magic against the growing potency of the King’s power.

But there’s no time, there’s barely enough time to think, and the shadows are thick and foreboding as the coyote and the others howl in frustration and Iwaizumi screams out, an inhuman and despairing sound.

Kenma’s heart is stuck in his throat, as powerless as the rest of them as they watch the Shadow King tear across the sky. The moment slows, and Kenma imagines he can see each feather in the bird’s wings, gleaming a black so dark that they shine deep blue and purple in tricks of the light.

He doesn’t know what to do. It seems impossible to believe that they’ve worked so hard, gone through so much to find their way to Oikawa, and now they’ve arrived only to bear witness to this.

And just as Kenma’s thoughts turn to that darkest inevitability, a brilliant light floods through the grove.

There’s a ripping noise from the base of the hill, and when the light disperses what remains are a pair of golden wings, extending out from the back of the tall man who’s just stumbled to his feet.

At his side, Tendou looks wild and frazzled. “Wakatoshi, no.”

But the other man— Ushijima Wakatoshi— doesn’t heed him. The wings fold around him, and he’s briefly surrounded by a maroon glow. Then, instead of man, there is a large white eagle. He looks to the sky for only a moment before launching himself into the air, leaving behind a trail of light in his wake.

He throws himself between Oikawa and the Shadow King. The eagle is easily two or three times the black bird’s size, but his movements are fatigued and strained. Light spreads out around him as he flutters in front of the Shadow King.

But the Shadow King doesn’t slow. The black bird collides with the eagle, shadows cutting straight through the larger bird as white feathers scatter to the wind. The two birds scramble against each other for a moment, wings flapping and beaks snapping, shadow and light magic colliding around them. But the black bird’s magic is stronger, extending out in a grid of lines that pierce the eagle’s wings and chest.

Tendou screams as the eagle falls from the sky, racing to catch him. But he can’t move fast enough, and the eagle lands hard against the ground, light and shadow digging into the earth and creating a crater the size of a man. Tendou runs towards the crash site, but when he gets there it’s impossible to see what’s going on inside the crater.

“Why did he do that?” Akaashi hisses, face paling.

“Because,” Bokuto coughs, pushing himself to his feet. “Look.”

He points to sky, where once again the sun is visible. The eagle’s efforts have broken through the Shadow King’s magic— just a crack, but enough for the light to break through.

It’s the first glimmer of hope they’ve seen.

Sawamura turns towards Kuroo and Bokuto. “He gave us an opening. We can’t waste it.”

The black bird is still circling around the tower of magic, dark eyes gleaming as he looks for an opening. Sawamura glances between Kuroo and Bokuto, who both nod at him. They’re communicating in a way that goes beyond thought to pure understanding— Kenma doesn’t pick up anything specific in their thoughts, just the sensation that they each know what they’re supposed to do. He’s reminded of the lock on the white house’s door, the four animals positioned around a perfect circle. Even though Bokuto hadn’t been able to share his magic with Kuroo, maybe this is something that goes beyond that. Maybe their magic is connected in a different way.

The Shadow King caws out into the air, heralding his next dive towards Oikawa. But in the moment he begins to move, the other three cardinal guardians react all at once.

Sawamura and Kuroo drop the shield that’s been covering the rest of them, and Kenma grits his teeth as he prepares for the onslaught of dark thoughts again. But even though he feels the loneliness creeping up his spine, he isn’t overwhelmed this time. Because Bokuto lifts both hands over his head, brilliant light magic concentrating there for a moment before he hurls it skywards, towards the Shadow King.

The black bird balks at the light magic, veering away from it. The shadows around him are disrupted for a moment, and it’s in that space of time that Kuroo moves. Kuroo reaches out, shadow magic rippling with light extending outwards like a whip. It curls around the Shadow King, dragging him closer to earth.

Sawamura brings up the rear, clapping his hands together in front of him. From his right side, shadows gather, and light on his left. They swirl together into a bubble-like sphere that closes in around the Shadow King. The bird flaps his wings frantically, calling out with despairing noises. Shadows gather inside the confines of Sawamura’s magic, exerting pressure.

“We need to contain him,” Sawamura calls out. “You two—”

He doesn’t need to finish the thought. Bokuto and Kuroo are on either side of him, hands extended as they summon up shadows and light that swirl around Sawamura’s magic, reinforcing it.

Between the three of them, their magic is equal. Kuroo’s shadows counteract Bokuto’s light, and Sawamura sits at perfect balance between them. The grove is flooded with the force of their strength, and Kenma isn’t sure whether it’s too bright to see, or too dark.

He can hear the bird crying out, a sound that becomes more and more human as the guardians’ magic drags him to earth. He hits the ground with a deafening thud, another crater ripping apart the ground and sending a tree toppling over as its roots are pulled from the earth. The bird lands heavily on his right side, and the magic around him is blown backwards as he’s surrounded in a tight, spiraling cloud of shadows.

Sawamura keeps his hands extended, keeping a balanced layer of magic over the Shadow King, trying to contain him as Kuroo turns slightly to shield Bokuto with an arc of shadow.

And then the magic fades, all at once. Kenma feels it like the air being drawn out of his lungs, the sudden absence of something that had been as necessary as oxygen only a moment before.

Only Oikawa’s magic remains, swirling around him in tighter and tighter spirals.

And when Kenma can breathe again, the black bird is gone.

Left in its place is a young man, wincing in pain and surrounded by loose black feathers. His dark hair falls over his eyes, and he reaches out to cradle his right arm, which he’d landed on heavily. He looks down at himself and takes in his appearance, and then his eyes widen in surprise.

“I’m human,” he says, his voice hoarse from disuse. “What did you do, I don’t want—” There’s an intensity to his voice that indicates he would be yelling, if he were able to. But before he had finish his sentence he catches sight of Oikawa, and his eyes suddenly go darker, a liquid black that is lonely and anguished and remorseful. His eyes flicker between Oikawa and Iwaizumi, and pain radiates outward from his thoughts.

I don’t want to see that. I don’t need to be reminded of what I don’t have.

The thought is so overwhelming that it calls up a wave of shadow magic with it, but Sawamura moves forward and reaches for the magic, drawing it into himself before it can crest into another powerful wave.

Kageyama Tobio blinks his impossibly dark eyes at the rest of them, scowling as though preparing for a fight. Then all the energy seems to leave him abruptly, and his eyes flutter closed as he falls backwards against the earth.

For a moment, no one speaks. Kageyama lays on the floor, and no one makes a move towards him, frightened of the seemingly infinite power he’d displayed just a minute earlier.

“He’s just a kid,” Bokuto says, awed.

“A kid that could probably kill us,” Kuroo says, eyes drifting between Kageyama and the rest of them, as though he’ll have to leap into action to defend them at any moment.

“Still,” Bokuto says, frowning as he crosses his arms over his chest. Both he and Kuroo are breathing heavily, their chests heaving. The world around them is still dark and shadowed, but now it’s because the sun has set, and not the effect of the Shadow King’s magic.

Sawamura moves between the other two, slipping out of the black track jacket he’s wearing and kneeling to drape it over Kageyama. He brushes the hair back from Kageyama’s face, looking down at him with concern creasing his brow. He bends to pick Kageyama up in his arms, and the other guardian’s long limbs hang oddly, his body completely limp.

“Whatever he is,” Sawamura says quietly, “he’s one of us.”

“Are we sure he isn’t still a threat?” Akaashi wonders aloud, looking skeptically at Kageyama.

Shimizu steps forward, nodding to Sawamura. “Leave him with me. The rest of you need to see to Oikawa. And Ushijima.”

Sawamura frowns at her. “You can handle him?”

She nods. “He’s asleep. And if he does wake up, I can handle his magic. Better than the rest of you, anyway.”

Kuroo opens his mouth as though to protest that, but then clicks his jaw shut again.

“So, what first?” Bokuto says, looking from the crater on the other side of the grove, to the spire of dark magic still encircling Oikawa.

“Ushijima,” Sugawara says with finality.

Kenma doesn’t see Iwaizumi or the other canid guardians as they cross the wrecked grove to the spot where Ushijima had fallen. When they reach the crater, he can see Tendou kneeling in front of Ushijima’s human form, cradling his head. There’s blood spilled across Tendou’s long fingers.

Sugawara runs ahead of the rest of them, coming to an abrupt stop in front of Tendou. “Let me help,” he says quietly. “I can try to heal the worst of it.”

Tendou looks up at him, his pupils contracted to specks of darkness against his wide eyes. “Healing?” he sneers. “That’s cute.”

Sugawara doesn’t rise to the bait. “That’s not all I can do,” he says evenly. “But I think it’s what might actually help Ushijima, right now.”

Tendou looks up at him with hostility, but doesn’t say anything else. After a moment’s staring, he merely nods.

Sugawara kneels down beside him, glancing back at Sawamura. “Daichi, do we have enough to…?”

Sawamura nods. “Yeah. It’ll be fine. Do whatever he needs.”

Sugawara reaches for Ushijima, and Tendou helps position his head against Sugawara’s knees. The orange stone at Sugawara’s wrist blazes with light, and Sugawara reaches forward to press both of his hands against the gaping, angry wound at Ushijima’s neck. Magic concentrates there for a moment, and Sugawara frowns in concentration as he extends the orange glow forward.

Kenma’s seen Sugawara heal before, and he’s been healed by Sugawara before. But it’s still a small miracle every time, watching the skin knit back together. Only pale lines are left to mark the outline of wear the wound had been. Sugawara moves from Ushijima’s neck down to the wound in his chest, blood seeping through his shirt. He runs his hands down Ushijima’s arms, sealing the cuts there, as well.

Sugawara sits back on his heels after a moment, breathing heavily. “I dealt with the physical damage,” he says, “but he’s almost completely out of magic. I can’t fix that.”

Tendou’s face is pinched and pale. “What does that mean?” he demands. “Who’s going to fix him, then?”

“It’s like with Kuroo,” Bokuto puts in, smiling in a way that he must think is helpful. “Where’s Ushiwaka’s flock?”

“Flock,” Tendou repeats.

“You know,” Bokuto says, waving a hand. “The rest of his guardians. The other guys— I don’t know. What’s a group of eagles called?”

Someone behind them clears their throat. “A convocation,” a voice says.

They all turn to see Semi Eita, standing with one arm braced against the nearest tree. He looks ruffled and winded, his hair falling into his eyes and littered with white feathers edged in black. He’s by no means a small person, but the t-shirt he’s wearing dwarfs him, the neckline dipping to reveal his collarbones and the hem falling halfway to his knees.

“A group of eagles is called a convocation,” he says.

Eita!” Tendou is on his feet in a moment, pushing past the others to throw himself straight at Semi. He throws his arms around the guardian, pulling him close and smearing blood across Semi’s cheeks as he presses his hands against Semi’s face.

Semi coughs, staggering. “Satori, what—”

Tendou cuts him off with a kiss, pressing his lips to Semi’s with an intensity that’s palpable even from feet away. Kenma knows the exact tenor of that kiss, the kind of intimacy that is only available when you first see someone after you thought you’d never get the chance again. Tendou doesn’t let go of Semi for a long moment, keeping the two of them held together, the maroon gem set in his bangle blazing as it absorbs the magic of their connection.

Finally, Semi pushes Tendou away gently. He looks pale and drawn, his voice fuzzy with exhaustion. But his cheeks are tinged pink, and he keeps one hand at Tendou’s waist. “Hold on,” he says. “Let me help Wakatoshi, first.”

Tendou nods, one arm around Semi to keep him upright as the two return to Ushijima’s side. Semi kneels down in front of him, and Sugawara edges out of the way as Semi reaches out to brush the dark hair away from Ushijima’s brow.

“Wait,” Tendou says, grabbing at Semi’s wrist. “What are you going to do? What’s this going to do to you?”

Semi smiles wanly. “Who knows? None of this magic shit makes any sense.”

He pulls away from Tendou and cradles Ushijima’s head softly. Leaning forward, he presses his lips against Ushijima’s brow. Magic rises up around them, spreading out from Semi’s back like wings—light tipped in shadow, a brilliant facsimile of his swan form.

And, just like with Kuroo and the other cat guardians, Semi’s magic is able to reach out and connect with Ushijima’s. Kenma can sense the way Ushijima’s faint magic—earthy and stable—is bolstered by Semi’s, which is forceful like a gust of wind. The two entwine, maroon light spreading out around them, until—

Ushijima coughs, sputtering, as his eyes open and he thrashes in Semi’s hold, moving like a drowning person just pulled out of the ocean. Tendou holds him down on one side as Semi tries to keep him steady. Ushijima’s eyes blaze golden as he forces himself upwards into a seated position.

“Easy there,” Tendou chides. “Take a breath.”

“I didn’t have much magic left to begin with,” Semi reminds him. “Don’t push it.”

“The Shadow King,” Ushijima growls, trying to push the two of them off. “Where is he? Did you kill him?”

The rest of them blink at him.

“Excuse me?” Kuroo says.

“No one’s killing anyone,” Sawamura says firmly. “We’ve got this under control.”

Ushijima looks at them through narrowed eyes. “Is that so.”

Uncomfortable silence settles over them. Kenma thinks that he might be scared of Ushijima, in other circumstances. He’s a powerful presence, even with his magic weakened. He’s being propped up by Semi and Tendou on either side of him, but the ferocity of his stare is enough to have Kenma taking an involuntary step backwards.

“You seriously wanted to kill him?” Sawamura asks, expression stiffening into hard lines. “He’s one of us.”

“Humans kill each other all the time,” Ushijima says simply. “They rarely have second thoughts just because they belong to the same species.”

“Yeah, and people who kill each other are bad, you know?” Bokuto says, eyebrows threatening to disappear into his hair as he looks at Ushijima incredulously. “We’re supposed to be protectors, and do good. So what the hell’re you talking about?”

Ushijima blinks at him dismissively. “How do you propose to do any good when you’re dead?”

“Hey,” Sugawara cuts in, “We don’t know that he was trying to kill anyone. And we’ve got him contained now, so—”

“Why do all of you refuse to understand?” Ushijima growls, Semi struggling to keep him from getting up. “Oikawa was the same way. The Shadow King exists to destroy the cardinal guardians. You’re all in danger, as long as he lives.”

“Okay,” Kuroo says. “Let’s just say we take all that as given. If he’s only after us, why’d you throw yourself between Oikawa and Kageyama?”

Ushijima blinks at them again. “It’s my duty.”

“Huh?” Tendou’s looking at Ushijima oddly, head cocked to one side.

Ushijima sighs heavily. “It’s not my job to explain this to you. But all of us are connected, so I suppose it’s inevitable. Ordinal guardians exist to preserve the balance as much as you do. And the way we achieve that is by making sure nothing happens to the cardinal guardians.”

“So you’re saying you saved Oikawa’s life because it’s your job,” Kuroo says skeptically.

“Yes.” Ushijima nods. “The same way the other ordinal guardians would protect the rest of you, if it was necessary.”

Kuroo chokes on a laugh. “No, no. That can’t be right. Daishou tried to kill me, there’s no way it’s his job to—” He dissolves into hysterical laughter, and Kenma steps forward to grab his hand, grounding him.

“Kuro,” Kenma says. “All we knew was that he was desperate to find the Shadow King.”

“I don’t believe this.” Kuroo shakes his head.

“Not to interrupt,” Akaashi says, “But don’t we have bigger issues to worry about? Like Oikawa-san.”

Kenma glances back at the spire rising up over the tree line, a frown pulling on his lips. He’d thought that the dark magic was all coming from the Shadow King, and once they’d subdued him the rest would fall away. And some of it definitely is gone, dissolving into the air when Kageyama shed his animal form. But the magic around Oikawa hasn’t budged, and it swirls in increasingly angry spirals, utterly chaotic.

“Why’s he doing that?” Bokuto asks, frowning. “I mean, it’s just us. Why’s he shielding himself like that?”

“He wasn’t even letting the other canids in,” Sawamura says thoughtfully. “Bokuto, you and Kuroo, when you met the others connected to you, did you ever think of them as a threat?”

Bokuto chortles a laugh, and Kuroo shakes his head.

“No,” Bokuto says. “My magic knew Shirofuku and Konoha were on my side from the start.”

“Same,” Kuroo puts in. “I mean, Yamamoto and Lev’s magic is different from mine, but it’s like the different between mint and milk chocolate. You still know they’re the same thing, even if it comes in different flavors.”

“So shouldn’t Oikawa-san recognize Hanamaki-san and the others, then?” Akaashi’s brow is furrowed in thought. “He’s even pushing Iwaizumi-san away.”

“That magic barely feels like Oikawa.” Sawamura’s eyes are trained on the horizon, and he squints as he tries to make sense of it all. “It’s definitely him, but there’s something wrong with it. Oikawa’s magic has always been finessed. Now it’s just running wild.”

He turns towards Kuroo, raising one brow in question. Bokuto follows suit, and soon Sugawara and Akaashi are also turned towards him.

“What,” Kuroo grouses. “Why are you all looking at me?”

“You have the darkest magic of any of us,” Sawamura says, as though it’s obvious. “And you lost control of it only recently.”

“Plus, you’re smart,” Bokuto adds with a shrug. “You’ve always liked figuring out the weird little details that go along with this stuff.”

Kuroo rolls his eyes, but then he stills and takes a deep breath. Kenma feels the magic extending out around him, a probing glance that brushes around the edges of the grove. His eyes stutter shut for a moment.

“I think the Shadow King’s magic is still… here, somehow. And Oikawa’s magic is reacting to it with a lot of hostility.”

“But ours isn’t,” Bokuto says.

“But it tried to,” Kuroo says, eyes still closed as he concentrates. “When we first got close, our emotions and magic was all affected. But we were able to ground ourselves, because—”

“We had our connections with our wielders to balance us out,” Sawamura cuts him off. “Those bonds kept the darkness from growing, and the light from being overpowered.”

“And Oikawa lost his connection to Iwaizumi,” Sugawara says, amber eyes going dark with concern.

Kenma remembers the furious tugging at his bond with Kuroo, like Kuroo had been drowning and was pulling at a rope, trying to reach the shore. Without Kenma anchoring him, would his magic have gone wild like this, too? What would that even feel like?

Ushijima clears his throat. “When his gem broke, Oikawa lost control. Ever since he bonded with Iwaizumi, his magic has increased exponentially. He no longer knows how to contain it on his own.”

He says this all somewhat dismissively, and Kenma realizes that Ushijima doesn’t have a gemstone. There’s no one around who could be his wielder, either. His magic is faint, but the golden wings that had extended around him had been full of light. If Oikawa’s shadows were aggravated by the Shadow King, was Ushijima’s light dwarfed by him?

“So Iwaizumi and Oikawa just need to reconnect,” Bokuto says. “Then everything will be okay.”

“…can they do that?” Kuroo looks skeptical.

“How would we know?” Sawamura says. “There’s only the four of us who’ve ever bonded that way, in the first place. Or, I suppose, the five of us.” He casts a glance in Semi’s direction.

“Well, we know no one’s ever connected a second time, because as far as we know no one’s bond has ever broken, before.” Kuroo says, and he and the other guardians shiver involuntarily at the thought.

“That doesn’t mean it’s impossible,” Semi says.

The others turn to him, surprised at his voice after he’s been silent for so long. He merely shrugs in response.

“I don’t know,” he says, voice carefully distant. “But I’ve been thinking lately that bonds might not be as… straightforward as we think. Or as absolute.”

Tendou frowns at him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

At the same time, Ushijima reaches out to pinch the fabric of Semi’s t-shirt between his fingers. “Is this my shirt?”

Semi bats both of them away. “I was in your house, Wakatoshi. I needed something to wear. And can we focus on Oikawa before he completely destroys everything?”

“Okay. Who has ideas on how they can reconnect?” Sawamura asks.

There’s silence for a moment, before Kenma says, quietly and flatly, “Maybe they just need to talk to each other.”

It’s uncomfortable, when eight pairs of eyes focus on him. But he does his best to ignore the sensation, staring down at his hands instead of at any of them.

“Iwaizumi… he still wants his bond. But he hasn’t been able to talk to Oikawa about it this entire time. Maybe it’s that simple.”

Kuroo’s hand settles at the base of Kenma’s neck, softly grounding him. “There’s no reason to think that wouldn’t work.”

“Except that Oikawa-san doesn’t seem to be a position to speak to anyone, at the moment,” Akaashi says.

But Kenma’s already thought about that, too.

“I think I can get into his head,” he says, still not meeting anyone’s eyes. “If Iwaizumi’s there, too, maybe I can bring him with me.”

Bokuto blinks at him. “You can do that?”

“Maybe.”

“You’ll have to get through all the shadow magic first,” Sugawara says. “Can you handle that?”

“I’ll be with him,” Kuroo says, because that much is obvious. “I’m not scared of Oikawa’s shadows.”

“And someone should make sure that the Shadow King stays away from Oikawa, in the meantime,” Akaashi says, glancing back to where they’d left Shimizu and Kageyama.

“So we’re splitting up,” Sawamura says, lips pursing for a moment. It’s easy to see why he wouldn’t like the idea— the basis of their magic strength is connection, so splitting up might be disastrous. But they also have more than one person to consider. “Fine, let’s do it this way— Suga and I will take Ushijima and the others back to Shimizu, so we can keep an eye on them.”

“Keep an eye on us?” Tendou hisses, one hand over his heart like he’s been wounded.

“Yes,” Sawamura says sternly. “Ushijima’s been injured, and Suga’s the only one with healing magic. Unless you want to go running off somewhere else?”

“No,” Semi answers for the three of them. “We’ll go with you. And we don’t go near the Shadow King.”

“Good.” Sawamura points and Bokuto and then Kuroo. “You two, get Kozume close to Oikawa. Akaashi can go, too, in case anything goes wrong.”

“No problem.” Bokuto grins fiercely, throwing an arm around Kuroo’s shoulders.

“We’ve got this,” Kuroo says, his magic already picking up in shadows around them.

Kuroo leads the way up the hill, and Kenma stays directly behind him, focusing on the glinting red of Kuroo’s earring. He wonders if Kuroo has enough magic left to get them both through this, and if he’d say anything if he didn’t. Kenma will have to draw on whatever he has left to get into Oikawa’s mind, and he has no way of quantifying how much magic that will take. He can only hope that Kuroo can see this through.

Boktuo walks at Kuroo’s side, one arm held aloft with a small orb of light magic fluttering above his palm, guiding their way. Akaashi walks at his side, dark eyes clouded in thought as the four of them walk along.

Kuroo reaches back to help Kenma up the last of the hill, until they’ve finally reached the eye of the storm. Shadow magic fills the air, spiraling tight into the tornado-like blur surrounding Oikawa. The other three canid guardians are circling around the base of it, but every time one of them lunges to get close to Oikawa, they’re repelled by a blast of magic. Nothing’s getting close to him.

“The Shadow King,” Kenma says, thinking back, “His magic didn’t put them off at all.”

Kuroo lets out a thoughtful noise, running one hand through his messy hair. “They’re acting on instinct, probably. That’s why guardians have animal forms, really—humans ignore their instincts too much.”

“Yeah,” Kenma says, stretching the sleeves of his hoodie down over his hands, “We all think too much.”

Kuroo smirks. “That’s not always a bad thing, you know. But magic gets into your head and your heart, and it can be hard to ignore. When you’re an animal, it’s easier to cut through all that noise and focus.” He’s looking off towards Oikawa, golden eyes hazy. “Hey, Kenma?”

“Mm?”

“Be careful.”

Kenma’s about to say he will be, but before he can get the words out Kuroo grabs him around the waist and pulls him close. Kuroo’s lips meet his in the next moment, warm and soft. And in that moment, there’s nothing else to do but melt into the kiss. Kenma lets his hands settle against Kuroo’s chest, pressing into him as he licks into Kuroo’s mouth and ignores the need to breathe.

They probably don’t have time to be doing this. But that only seems to make it more imperative that they do.

When they finally break apart, Kenma frowns at Kuroo. “After all this, you better take me on a real date, Kuro.”

Kuroo barks out a laugh, his fingertips tracing the curve of Kenma’s cheek. “I promise.”

“Hey!” Bokuto calls out from a few feet away from them, hands splayed as he keeps a shield of light magic up around them. “Flirt later, get to Oikawa now!”

Beside him, Akaashi just shakes his head.

Kuroo brings his hands together over his head, magic gathering in the space just above his fingertips. Then he jumps upwards, hurling the magic in front of him. It moves in a jagged line, cutting across the grove and straight to the center of Oikawa’s magic.

“Kenma,” Kuroo calls out, “Now!”

Kenma follows the current that Kuroo’s created for him, closing his eyes and reaching out with his magical awareness. The entire landscape of magic in his mind’s eyes is different than usual, pulsing and angry. But Kenma follows the trail Kuroo’s making for him, reaching out for the unfamiliar awareness at the end of it.

At the same time, he searches for someone much more familiar. He thinks of the rough tenor of Iwaizumi’s voice, the gray-green color of his eyes and the multitude of emotions that cross his face whenever Oikawa is mentioned.

For a moment, Kenma is pulled in two opposite directions. But he reaches out, tugging his two goals closer and closer no matter how hard they resist. A band of pain squeezes down around Kenma’s skull, and he opens his mouth to scream. But he refuses to let go, tugging until he can feel his two targets coming closer and closer.

Together, he thinks desperately, they need to be together.

And then, after so much resistance, suddenly it’s much easier. The two forces rocket towards one another, as if they want to be close. As if being apart was the entire problem.

Then they collide, and Kenma’s awareness explodes behind his eyes.

Kenma groans as he sits up, rubbing at his temples. When his vision stops spinning, he finds himself standing in a shadowed grove, different than the one he’d just been in with Kuroo and the others. There’s a babbling brook running beside him, and then, more distantly, Kenma can hear the sounds of someone crying.

He looks around, finally settling on a dark shadow on the far side of the grove. Kenma walks toward the shadow, holding his breath.

Someone is hunched over there, rubbing at their eyes. After being so close to that person’s magic essence, Kenma recognizes them.

“Tooru?”

The person looks up at him, eyes flashing with inner fire. It’s impossible to tell how old he is, his features looking both impossibly young and old at the same time. His eyes are amber, pupils thin. A number of furred tails extend around him, shielding his body from view. He isn’t human.

The tears continue to drip down his face, even as he rubs at his eyes with the backs of his hands.

“Are you… okay?” Kenma tries again.

“I’m lost,” Oikawa says, and his voice seems to come from everywhere at once.

Kenma doesn’t know what to do, about that. But he’d come here to help, so he takes a deep breath, determined to find a solution. And hadn’t he already thought of one, anyway? The other person he’d brought along with him—

“Tooru. You’re not lost.”

Oikawa and Kenma look up at once to see the figure casting a shadow over them. Iwaizumi stands just before Oikawa, looking worse for wear. His hair is flattened against his head, and there are cuts like tree roots running from his elbows to his wrists.

Iwaizumi seems oblivious to Kenma’s presence, kneeling down in front of Oikawa and reaching out to pull his hands away from his face.

“Are you ready to listen to me, now?”

Kenma feels like a voyeur. He doesn’t think he can pull away from Oikawa’s mind, now, without taking Iwaizumi with him. The gemstone on his earring blazes, using magic to maintain whatever space they’ve landed in. But Kenma still feels as though he should offer Iwaizumi and Oikawa some privacy now.

Iwaizumi hardly notices him. He keeps his hands wrapped around Oikawa’s wrists, not letting him escape. When he speaks, there’s a rough sincerity in his voice, exhaustion and pain and affection all rolled together.

“You told me that everyone wants something from you,” he begins, sighing softly when Oikawa turns his head away, not wanting to meet his gaze. “And maybe you’re not wrong, about that.”

“You never said what you thought I wanted. And I’m starting to think that maybe you don’t know. Even though that seems impossible.”

Oikawa blinks open his eyes, looking up at Iwaizumi but not saying anything in response. He looks almost frightened of what Iwaizumi is about to say.

“I want something from you, too,” Iwaizumi says. He clears his throat. “I want you. I want to be with you, all the time. Even if it’s going to hurt. I want that, for myself and for you.”

Oikawa unfurls his tails, eyes wide with disbelief.

“I know you’re scared of letting people in, of letting them see all of you. Even me.” Iwaizumi speaks without assigning blame. “But I know you also want to be closer to people.”

Oikawa makes a dismissive noise at that, tails flickering disdainfully.

“Oh?” Iwaizumi says, crossing his arms over his chest. “Do you think I’m wrong?”

Oikawa doesn’t need to say anything. It’s obvious from the way he’s holding himself away from Iwaizumi, chin and nose in the air.

Iwaizumi laughs hollowly. “How many times do I have to tell you that that bullshit doesn’t work on me? I know you. And there’s no way you don’t care about the others, because if you didn’t you wouldn’t have sent me that list. You even put Kageyama’s name on it.”

Oikawa freezes, tails pointing towards the sky.

“Why would you do that, if you didn’t want me to take care of them? If you didn’t want me to find them? You keep pulling away from me, and it’s probably because you think you’re being noble, or something. But you’re not.”

“Hajime…” Oikawa’s voice is an echo of a whisper, reverberating around the grove.

Iwaizumi’s eyes crinkle at the corners as he smiles wanly at Oikawa. “You’ve kept yourself away from all of us for too long, because you were scared. But it’s time to come home, Tooru.”

He releases his hold on Oikawa’s wrists and gets to his feet. Without moving any further away from Oikawa, Iwaizumi extends one hand towards him. It’s an invitation, an offer of hope. All Oikawa has to do is reach out and take it.

Oikawa’s looking up at Iwaizumi with naked emotion in his eyes— fear and longing and hope and desperation. He’d been aware, all along, what getting close to the Shadow King would mean. And he never moved against the other guardian, not even when it would’ve meant his own death not to. But he also refused the other guardians’ help, and purposefully kept himself away from Iwaizumi, causing them both so much pain.

Is he selfless, or selfish? Noble, or just stupid? Kenma can’t decide.

“Come home, Tooru,” Iwaizumi says again.

Oikawa sucks in a shaky breath and closes his eyes. He reaches out blindly with one hand, missing Iwaizumi entirely the first time he reaches out. But the next time his palm finds Iwaizumi’s, and his fingers squeeze around Iwaizumi’s wrist. The grove floods with aquamarine light. It surrounds Oikawa and Iwaizumi, growing around them like vines.

“It’s going to hurt,” Oikawa says in his echoed voice.

“I can handle it,” Iwaizumi assures him.

Around them, shards of an aquamarine stone swirl like planets held in orbit by the force of their gravity. As the glow spread, it encompasses the shards, pulling them closer together. They come to rest atop of Iwaizumi and Oikawa’s hands, two new stones fused together from the broken pieces.

Where the pieces have fit together, they look like petals. The two new gems show their cracks, but they’re beautiful all the same. Fused back together, the gems have become two newly-bloomed roses.

Oikawa and Iwaizumi reach out with their free hands, each grabbing one of the stones. The magic rises around them, and then Kenma is pushed out of Oikawa’s mind with the force of a canon.

Kenma’s on his knees again, coughing and sputtering as he feels someone’s hand pressing against the small of his back, offering silent support. The haziness clears from his eyes and he sees Kuroo leaning over him, biting down on his lower lip.

“Are you okay?” Kuroo demands.

Kenma nods after a minimal assessment. He’s back in the physical world, but he can still feel the chaotic storm of Oikawa’s magic around him.

“It didn’t work?” he asks.

Kuroo helps Kenma to his feet. “I wouldn’t say that, exactly.”

Just before them is the spire of shadow. Oikawa is still held aloft within it, seemingly unconscious. For a moment, Kenma feels only despair that his and Iwaizumi’s efforts had come to nothing. But then he sees a charge of light running through the shadows.

Iwaizumi stands at its base, hands extended before him. In one, he clutches the aquamarine rose, and with the other he reaches out to make a ripping motion, as though he’s pulling the strands of magic away from each other.

In time with his movements, a heavy current of magic is ripped away from the spire, flaring out and curling like a whip cracking.

“Hanamaki!” Iwaizumi cries out.

The coyote runs towards him, catching the magic halfway between them. His own magic rises around him, anchoring the current of Oikawa’s and holding it in place.

Iwaizumi repeats the motion, tearing another current of magic away from the spire.

“Yahaba!”

The arctic fox comes up on Iwaizumi’s other side, magic heavy in the air as he catches the next current and anchors it.

Iwaizumi presses forward, taking another piece of the spire and ripping it away from what’s left. Oikawa is still hovering in the center of the storm, but now a soft aquamarine glow surrounds him, shielding him from the chaos.

“Kunimi!”

The raccoon dog takes longer to arrive, shuffling along on his tiny legs. But he, too, does as Hanamaki and Yahaba have done. He plants his feet as his magic melds into Oikawa’s, another connected circuit.

The entire grove is flooded with aquamarine light, and Iwaizumi keeps his hands extended, pulling on the last of Oikawa’s magic and drawing it towards himself. He holds everything together, the other guardians bearing their teeth in concentration as Oikawa’s magic thrashes against their hold, struggling to be free of its confines. Wind picks up around their feet and small twigs and leaves are pulled away from the trees, swirling around them.

“Don’t let go,” Iwaizumi calls out. “We can do this.”

Sweat beads down his brow, the rose-gem in his fist pulsing with frantic energy.

And then, slowly, ever so slowly, the magic begins to die down. The aquamarine glow flares around Oikawa for a minute, and then he transforms in midair from human to fox. The spire of shadow magic is gone, and the fox plummets towards the ground.

Iwaizumi lets out a hoarse cry, running forward and reaching out with his magic to catch the fox in midair. He lowers Oikawa slowly towards him, catching him in his arms and burying his face against the fox’s fiery fur.

He falls to his knees, fox held tight against his chest. The coyote lets out a triumphant yip and races towards them, followed by the arctic fox and the raccoon dog. The three other guardians pile onto Iwaizumi, their magic intertwining and reaching out for Oikawa’s.

By the time Kenma and the others reach them, Iwaizumi is laughing and crying into Oikawa’s fur.

“You’re okay, sweetheart,” he says, again and again. “We’re going to be okay.”

He looks up at Kenma after a moment, expression raw and happy. “Thank you.”

“That was pretty amazing,” Bokuto says, hands set on his hips. “Hey, Akaashi, do you think me and Konoha could—”

Akaashi raises a hand. “You’re not going to try it.”

“But Akaashi—”

The fox sits curls in Iwaizumi’s lap, his head against his front paws and his tail curved around his body. His chest moves slowly in his sleep as Iwaizumi absently brushes his fingers through the fox’s fur.

Despite the peacefulness of that scene, Ushijima’s living room is otherwise crowded and noisy. Ushijima himself sits on folded legs at the front of the room, Semi and Tendou flanking him on either side. Hanamaki, Yahaba, and Kunimi, still in their animal forms, are curled around Iwaizumi. Bokuto, Akaashi, Kuroo and Kenma are leaning against one wall, and opposite them sit Sawamura, Sugawara, and Shimizu. Kageyama, still unconscious, is laid out with his head against Shimizu’s knees. He’s restless in his sleep, tossing and turning as she holds him steady.

“I’m glad to see that Oikawa is unharmed,” Ushijima says, looking with impassive eyes at Iwaizumi.

Iwaizumi frowns at him. “He was here with you the entire time, wasn’t he? Why the hell didn’t you tell any of us?”

Ushijima blinks at him. “It wasn’t my place. And… trying to make Oikawa’s decisions for him can be disastrous.”

Iwaizumi looks at him quizzically, brow furrowed as he tries to figure something out. But he lets it go, sitting back with a sigh and making sure not to jostle Oikawa too much.

“I think that, for now, everything is under control,” Sawamura says. He has a calming voice and an authoritative presence; it’s easy to believe him. “Although, Ushijima, I think we’re going to need to talk more about you and the rest of the ordinal—”

“That isn’t your place,” Ushijima interrupts. “If Oikawa wants to speak to me when he wakes up, I will discuss my position with him. You would be better off talking to Moniwa.”

Sawamura’s smile strains. “You know, I think we could avoid a lot of these problems in the future if we’d all just communicate a bit better.”

Ushijima is unmoved. “My view is that we should destroy the Shadow King and avoid anything like this happening ever again. Is that something you want to communicate about?”

Bokuto, Sawamura, and Kuroo immediately stiffen.

“We already told you,” Sugawara says, putting a restraining hand on Sawamura’s forearm, “No one is going to touch him. His magic’s been completely contained since he fell unconscious. He isn’t a danger to anyone, right now.”

“Oh? And what are you planning to do once he wakes up?” Tendou asks.

“The three of us were able to contain him once,” Bokuto huffs. “There’s no reason we can’t do it again.”

“So you’ll all keep babysitting him until the end of time?” Tendou taunts. “Don’t you have other, important guardian business to attend to? Or are you just betting that he won’t slip past you all and murder someone?”

“Whatever his power is,” Sawamura interjects, “Being around us seems to contain it. And since Oikawa, Kuroo and Bokuto have other guardians to draw strength from, we don’t have to worry about them burning out.”

Sawamura has yet to address the biggest elephant in the room—the fact that he isn’t connected to any new guardians, himself. At least, none that they’ve been able to find. But surely, they must be out there. Even Ushijima has Semi.

Ushijima leans back. His olive complexion is still pale from strain and the loss of blood, but the wound on his neck is mostly healed and his magic appears to be rebuilding its strength.

“If you’re not going to listen to me,” he says calmly, “I think it’s about time that you leave. I’d like to start rebuilding my home without interruption.”

That task is probably going to take a while, Kenma thinks. An entire wall of Ushijima’s house had been blown away, and his grounds are left in upturned chaos. When Kenma had flipped through the news on his phone, he’d seen reports of freak storms and uncommonly strong winds across Miyagi.

At least they’re not left with a body to explain away.

“You know, Ushiwaka, you could be a bit more welcoming,” Bokuto says, even as the rest of them rise to their feet. “We’re all guardians, aren’t we? Be nicer.”

Ushijima frowns at him. “No.”

Hours later, when they’ve finally gotten back to Tokyo from Miyagi and the darkness of the night falls over them, Kenma and Kuroo sit on the back lawn of the white house and look up at the stars.

“I don’t think I ever showed you this, did I?” Kuroo asks, reaching for Kenma’s hand.

Kenma shakes his head, letting his fingers interlock with Kuroo’s and sensing the magic gathering around them.

“Look up,” Kuroo tells him.

Kenma does, and has to stifle a gasp. The stars spread out across the inky night sky are no longer dim pinpricks of white. Instead, there’s a rainbow of lights glittering above them. Kenma sees aquamarine, orange, gold and red arranged in a tight diamond, surrounded by maroon, turquoise, purple and green.

“There’ve been more and more popping up, ever since you and I met,” Kuroo says softly. “I guess I never focused too much on the ordinal guardians before, because it didn’t seem to matter, but…”

“You’re thinking about what Ushijima said.”

Kuroo nods. “I guess part of me didn’t want to admit that Daishou and I could be more connected, beyond just being guardians.”

“We’ve been distracted,” Kenma says. A month or so ago, finding Daishou had been their priority. But then the search for Oikawa had begun, and that had taken precedence over anything else.

Kenma glances back towards the house, to where Iwaizumi had taken Oikawa upstairs to his own bedroom. Tonight will be the first time in many months that all of the cardinal guardians are residence, here.

Kenma reaches out and brushes his fingers through Kuroo’s dark hair. “It’s okay. You don’t have to jump right into thinking about the next thing, right now. Give yourself a break.”

Kuroo leans his chin against Kenma’s shoulder, wrapping his arms around Kenma’s waist.

“You’re right,” he breathes. “It’s over.”

Chapter Text

For the first time in ages, the magic doesn’t feel like a hook under his skin, pulling him upwards and unsettling him. The desperate hunger that’s so long defined it has abated, replaced by a heavy, comforting feeling. He’s wrapped up in it, utterly surrounded. He hasn’t known this kind of peace in months, or maybe he’s never felt the world around him be so utterly still.

Oh, he realizes. This must be death.

But beyond the heavy feeling of magic around him there’s something else— a more physical sensation, someone gently stroking over the crown of his head. The feeling repeats every few moments, a delayed rhythm that’s just as lulling as the blanketed magic laid over him. Between the two, it’s hard to collect his thoughts. But eventually, he manages.

When he first blinks open his eyes, he can’t see anything. The light is too blinding, obscuring everything else that might’ve been in his vision. It’s a little ironic, probably, that he’s made up of so much darkness, but knows without a doubt that he loves and longs for light like this. He sighs softly, letting it wash over him as the gently stroking of his hair continues.

His vision clears, eventually, the light fading just slightly. And out of the brightness he sees the form of a person slowly defining itself— the ridge of a man’s forehead, the slope of his nose and the cut of his chin. He’s smiling indulgently, his dark hair mussed and flattened against his forehead. His arms are extended, white scars like roots drawn from wrists to elbows. He’s tired, his forehead creased and his shoulders set low.

But he’s the most beautiful thing that Oikawa’s ever seen.

They’re in his room, Oikawa notices. His room in the white house, where he’d stayed on weekends as a child, the white curtains are pulled back from the wide window. They’re both laid across Oikawa’s futon. He’s covered halfway with a thin white sheet, and his head is leaned in Iwaizumi’s lap as Iwaizumi continues to idly pet his hair.

Now Oikawa knows without a doubt that he’s dead. Because he’d never brought Iwaizumi to this place, and these two parts of his life have never been so fully intertwined. He’d worked so hard to compartmentalize them, to keep his life as a guardian separate from his life as a human. But that had never worked, had it? Iwaizumi had always been there to throw a spanner in the works. He’d always known about both sides of Oikawa, and so his very existence had blurred the lines that Oikawa kept trying to maintain. Like waves washing over whatever one might draw in the sand.

Still, he’s willing to accept this. After months of seeing Iwaizumi only in his dreams, only as a replication of his memories, he will take this new and smiling Iwa-chan, even if he looks tired and worried.

Oikawa sighs again. “What a wonderful dream.”

The rhythm of Iwaizumi’s fingers in his hair stills. Iwaizumi leans over him, indulgent smile shifting to something wry and knowing. “This isn’t a dream.”

It takes a moment for those words to register, but the instant they do the last of the mist around Oikawa’s vision and mind clear and he yelps, pushing himself upwards. The sudden movement brings with it a jolt of pain, and it’s only then that Oikawa notices that the worse pain— the constant ache that’s been lingering under his skin for so long— is gone.

But Iwaizumi doesn’t give him a moment to realize anything else. He wraps his arms around Oikawa’s waist, pinning his arms to his sides. He pulls Oikawa back against his chest, holding him there in the secure and solid warmth of his embrace. “Shh, sweetheart. Take a breath.”

Despite himself, Oikawa relaxes into Iwaizumi’s hold, sighing again and feeling the embarrassing prickle of tears at the corners of his eyes. He’s wanted this for so long he doesn’t know what to do now that he has it. It’s such a simple thing— the embrace of the one you hold most dear. And yet he’s been without it for so long.

He tilts his head, a flash of aquamarine light catching his attention. And there, balanced on the windowsill, are two gemstones. Fault lines run through them, showing where they’d been cracked and put back together. But now they sit there, perfect and intact, a matching set. Two roses, just beginning to bloom.

The tears are heavier, now, clouding his vision all over again.

Iwaizumi must follow his gaze, because after a moment his grip on Oikawa tightens. “We haven’t had time to put them back on chains,” he murmurs.

Oikawa hiccups out a sound, something between a laugh and a sob. Iwaizumi still wants them— he still wants Oikawa. What a stupid, wonderful thing for him to have decided.

Before Oikawa can say anything else, he hears an abortive, high pitched noise. He turns back to glance at the foot of the futon, and that’s when he realizes where the comforting magic has been coming from.

Hanamaki is curled up at the corner of the sheets, a beautiful pink-brown coyote with brilliantly white spots of fur. His dark eyes glance at Oikawa as he tilts his head and bares his teeth, again making a sound like laughter. Snuggled against his side is a spot of silver-gray fur, tucking into itself in the shape of a crescent moon— Yahaba. And between Yahaba and Hanamaki is a small circle of black and gray— Kunimi. Their magic is new and familiar all at once, intertwining and reaching out to Oikawa, welcoming him home.

Oikawa lets out a shaky sigh, an uncertain and pathetic sound. But it feels so good, this embrace of darkness and light. It smells like flowers, and feels like the warmth of the earth beneath his feet. How could he have ever walked away from this? And how are they able to offer it up so freely? Do they not realize the magnitude of what they’re giving him?

Three sets of eyes blink up at him, and Oikawa realizes that they know exactly. And that’s why they’re here.

Iwaizumi clears his throat. “Um, guys? Could you give us a minute?”

Hanamaki rises to his feet, dislodging the other two. He shakes himself out like a dog after a bath, sending magic scattering around him. He steps lightly off of the futon and heads for the door, sending one knowing look at Oikawa as a parting gift. Yahaba gets up next, reaching out to bite down on the scruff of Kunimi’s neck, carrying him away. The way he moves is most familiar to Oikawa, like looking through a distorted mirror— an orange-red shadow following silver-gray. Kunimi yelps at him, a high-pitched whistle of a noise that’s nothing so much as a complaint.

Oikawa feels like his cheeks will split from smiling. As the three guardians leave the room, their magic converges like tributaries into a river, bolstering Oikawa with energy and warmth.

He shakes, laughter spilling out of him. “I love them.”

Iwaizumi’s grip loosens just a bit. “What?”

Oikawa turns in his hold, so that they can face each other. He reaches out towards the doorway, as though he could touch the magic that Hanamaki and the others have left behind. “I’ve never gotten to feel this close to anyone,” he says in a rush. “It’s so— I’m so— I love them so much. Do you think they’ll forgive me?”

Iwaizumi blinks at him, his green eyes lit up with a soft halo of light. “You’ve never felt that close to anyone?”

A heavy stone drops into the river of Oikawa’s happiness, sending ripples towards the shore. He turns his head away from Iwaizumi, abashed.

But Iwaizumi reaches out and grips Oikawa’s chin, forcing his gaze upwards again.

For a moment, they just look at each other, brown eyes into green. Guardian and wielder, variable and constant, shadow and light. But then something between them snaps and reforms, and for a moment they’re just two people who have never been very good at getting along without one another.

“I should be so mad at you right now,” Iwaizumi tells him in a rough voice.

Oikawa blinks, pursing his lips for a moment. “Are you?”

“That depends. Did you hear what I said to you, before?”

Of course he did. He can see the memory even now— from behind a veil of heavy shadow, Iwaizumi had been a gleaming light, reaching out to him with comfort and acceptance, defiant and strong. Those feelings had reached him, even if he’d been unable to do anything about them, at least not without help.

And anyway, he’s always known.

Iwaizumi shifts slightly, reaching up to stroke Oikawa’s hair back from his brow. “Maybe you should just rest some more,” he says. “I didn’t want to take you away from the others, but afterwards I’ll keep my promise. I’ll take you home.”

It takes a moment for that to register. And then Oikawa tilts his head, because can it possibly be that Iwaizumi doesn’t know? Home has never been a place, for him.

“Hajime,” he says, breathless. “I’m home.”

Iwaizumi blinks at him, and for a moment Oikawa is certain he sees tears standing in Iwaizumi’s eyes.

Oikawa takes a deep breath, licking his lips. His throat is so dry, and his body aches in the way it used to after a particularly hard day’s volleyball practice. A comforting ache, the kind that tells him he’s accomplished something.

“Hey, Iwa-chan?”

Iwaizumi blinks at the nickname, a myriad of emotions crossing over his face too quickly for Oikawa to parse all of them.

“Do you know who I love the most?” Oikawa continues.

But Iwaizumi doesn’t let him finish. He holds up one hand. “Wait.”

Oikawa tilts his head, frowning.

“If you’re going to say that, you have to accept what it means.”

Oikawa sits back, brushing his fingers along the sheets that are warm from his and Iwaizumi’s weight. “What does it mean?” he asks.

Iwaizumi clears his throat, and when the words come they’re so precise it’s as though he’s been holding them in, ready, for far too long.

“You have to let me stand by you, and you have to tell me things. You can’t keep shit like this from me, or try to protect me from things that are going on with you. You can’t just leave.”

Oikawa knows he hasn’t been fair. He’s relied on Iwaizumi’s feeling, on his constancy, but given him nothing in return. He wouldn’t blame Iwaizumi if he didn’t want to hear what Oikawa has to say, anymore. He looks down at the wrinkles in the sheets.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” he says thickly.

Iwaizumi laughs bitingly. “Well,” he says, “that’s just fucking stupid.”

Oikawa looks up with wide eyes, trying to glean something from Iwaizumi’s expression. He’s frowning, his features like carved stone. But then the image breaks, and Oikawa sees the familiar crinkles around Iwaizumi’s eyes.

“You’ve already hurt me,” Iwaizumi says.

His words hit Oikawa in the gut, guilt and sadness coming on too quick for him to react properly. Of course, he’d known what leaving would mean. Iwaizumi had opened his home, his life and his heart to Oikawa over and over again, and Oikawa had rewarded that infinite trust by walking away from him. He should have expected this. The tears are back, hot as he holds them in, threatening to spill over.

“But,” Iwaizumi continues, as though unaware of Oikawa’s churning emotions, “I’ve hurt you, too.”

Oikawa looks up, and now the tears are dripping down his cheeks. He starts to shake his head, to deny this ludicrous statement, but Iwaizumi keeps going.

“I’ve hurt you, and you’ve hurt me, and we’ll both do it all over again.”

Oikawa thinks back to a million little things— his jealousy over Iwaizumi’s easily blooming friendships, the times when Iwaizumi’s teasing had gone too far, the moments when Iwaizumi had been angry with him and his words had been designed to hurt.

Iwaizumi sighs, leaning back. “But, that’s life.”

Oikawa tries to reign himself in, swallowing thickly. “The way I hurt you is different,” he says shakily. “Life with magic— it’s dangerous.”

The aquamarine gemstones catch the light coming in from the window, casting color across the whiteness of the room.

“Maybe,” Iwaizumi responds after a moment. “But, I couldn’t walk away from magic now, even if I wanted to. It’s part of me.” He reaches out, and both of the gemstones lift into the air, floating gently until he catches them both in the palm of his hand. “You’ve changed who I am.”

Oikawa can’t look him in the eye. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Iwa-chan.” He’s so selfish. He’s wanted Iwaizumi so badly, and for so long, and to make his own loneliness go away he’s cursed Iwaizumi to the same kind of existence he has, set apart from the rest of the world.

“I’m not.” Iwaizumi’s words are solid and sure.

Oikawa glares at him through his tears. “Why not?” he asks, irate.

Iwaizumi shakes his head, that off-center and indulgent smile back on his lips. His green eyes cloud with thoughtfulness as he tilts his head up towards the ceiling. “Because it’s not just about you, is it? Or me, or any of the others. This, all of this, is something big and important. And I’m going to be a part of it.”

He speaks with such certainty, with such clarity of purpose. Oikawa, who’s always been about as constant as a flickering star, can’t understand it.

“I’m going to be a part of it,” Iwaizumi says again, and “And I want to be with you, all the while.”

Oikawa gapes at him. He’s surrounded by the same warm glow he’s always been, but now Oikawa notices the soft halo of light in his eyes, the magic-formed scars on his arms. And beyond what Oikawa can see, there’s a sense of surety and weight in his words. He’s still the same little boy that Oikawa met so long ago, in a grove where shadow and light intermingled, but he’s also matured into a person who would never be caught up in something, or with someone, that he didn’t want to be.

In many ways, Iwaizumi is hardly human anymore.

Oikawa looks down at where he’s clenched his hands in his lap, and feels magic thrumming under his skin, in time to his fiercely-beating heart.

“Hey, Hajime?” he says, still looking down.

“Hmm?”

“I love you.”

The room is silent and still around him, until Oikawa musters the courage to look up. Iwaizumi is looking right at him, his eyes wide and his expression soft.

For a moment, neither of them speak, or move. And then they’re both lunging towards each other, and Iwaizumi catches Oikawa with a hand at his waist, and Oikawa digs his fingers into Iwaizumi’s hair. Their faces linger close together, puffs of each other’s breath blowing across their faces.

Oikawa tilts his head, and Iwaizumi leans in. Their lips meet for the barest moment, and then the tension in the air snaps and they kiss more fiercely, for a long moment that seems to go on forever. Iwaizumi curls his tongue over Oikawa’s lips, and Oikawa moans softly as his fingers curl harder into Iwaizumi’s hair.

All the words between them, all of the magic, none of it matters anymore. Because this cannot be explained, and it cannot be wrong. Oikawa’s heart is full to bursting, but that’s alright, because Iwaizumi is so close to him that whatever spills over will be caught. There will be no love wasted between them.

When they finally pull away from each other, Iwaizumi is shaking slightly. Oikawa cups his hands against Iwaizumi’s cheeks, looking questioningly at him.

“I almost lost you,” Iwaizumi says, like he can’t bring himself to believe it.

Oikawa shakes his head. “But you didn’t. You saved me, Iwa-chan.”

Iwaizumi chokes out a laugh, still trembling. “You know no one else calls me that, right?”

Of course no one else does, Oikawa thinks darkly. If they did, he’d have to kill them. But he also thinks back to being human in Iwaizumi’s presence for the first time, and being unable to say his name properly. Despite Iwaizumi’s grumbles, Oikawa’s never really thought that he minded the nickname. So now, he frowns.

“No one else calls me that,” Iwaizumi says, “and so when you were gone, it was like a part of me had died. A whole part of who I am, which is how you see me, and how I can be with you, and it was just— gone.”

He pitches forward, burying his face against Oikawa’s neck, and Oikawa clings to him tightly. When he feels Iwaizumi’s tears against his bare skin, Oikawa tightens his grip, letting one hand drift upwards to card softly through Iwaizumi’s hair.

“Tooru,” he’s saying, over and over. “Tooru.”

“You’re okay, Iwa-chan,” Oikawa tells him softly. “You’re okay. I’m here, and I love you. I’m never going to leave you again.”

Iwaizumi is still holding onto their gemstones in his hand, and now they light up, surrounding Oikawa and Iwaizumi with their magic. It curls like vines around them, thick strands of connection that are as anchoring as the oldest tree roots but as flexible as grass being blown through by the wind. Oikawa sighs, breathing in deeply, Iwaizumi’s weight comforting against him.

In the few moments it takes Iwaizumi to compose himself, Oikawa feels heavy waves of exhaustion crashing over him.

“You need to sleep,” Iwaizumi says, pulling away from him and pushing Oikawa back down onto the futon. “Sugawara said it was going to take a while for you to recover.”

Oikawa nods sleepily, but he reaches out and grabs Iwaizumi’s wrist. “You’ll stay?”

Iwaizumi is already laying down beside him, pulling Oikawa close to his chest. “Mm,” he agrees quietly. “I’ll stay.”

The next time Oikawa wakes up, the world around him is entirely more solid. He isn’t dead, after all, and that in and of itself is a small miracle. But now that his head has cleared, a million other concerns have crept back in. What had become of the Shadow King? And Ushijima? And more importantly, what’s going to happen now?

Iwaizumi doesn’t bother to knock when he enters the room. He’d left at some point, is obviously freshly showered and changed into dark jeans and a loose shirt. He comes to sit beside Oikawa in bed, holding out two thin silver chains.

“I figured it was about time we put these back where they belong,” he says, lacing Oikawa’s gem through and fastening it around his neck.

Oikawa hums softly, reaching up to cup the stone between his hands. It pulses with magic, the same as ever, but the rhythm is slightly different, now. It hasn’t been left entirely unchanged by all that’s happened.

“Can you forgive me?” Oikawa asks, when Iwaizumi is done putting his own necklace on.

Iwaizumi frowns at him. “Did you break them?”

Oikawa shakes his head. “No. But it was my fault.”

Iwaizumi gives him a sideways look, like he knows Oikawa isn’t telling him the whole story. He reaches over and flicks Oikawa’s forehead.

“Ow!” Oikawa complains, halfheartedly.

Iwaizumi chuckles. “You’re going to get wrinkles if you keep thinking so hard,” he says, voice a lilting mockery of Oikawa’s. “Besides. They’re prettier this way, aren’t they?”

It sounds very much like something Oikawa would have said, himself. He smiles.

“And now that you’re awake, get up and get dressed,” Iwaizumi tells him gruffly. “The others have been waiting to talk to you.”

It’s honestly amazing, how much the trappings help him feel human again. A warm shower, clean underwear, a buttoned shirt. So often, Oikawa is caught between two forms, magic ready to burst his skin and reconstitute him as something else entirely. When he combs down his still-damp hair and scrutinizes his reflection in the mirror, it’s as though he’s locking himself into human form for the time being.

Iwaizumi is waiting for him in the hallway, a funny expression on his face. When Oikawa tilts his head in question, Iwaizumi leans in to kiss the corner of his mouth.

“What was that for?” Oikawa asks, hating that his cheeks are turning pink. Maybe he can play it off as the residual warmth from his shower.

Iwaizumi smirks at him. “I figure you could use a little more kindness, before the others rip into you. They’re pretty mad, Tooru.”

His lips curl into a pout. “I guess I can’t really blame them,” he says finally. “But you’ll keep them from being too mean, won’t you, Iwa-chan?”

“Hell no.” Iwaizumi’s response is quick and unforgiving. “Just because I can’t bring myself to chew you out doesn’t mean that I think you don’t deserve it. Come on, you’re not putting this off anymore.”

Despite Oikawa’s half-hearted whining, Iwaizumi pokes and prods him down the stairs and towards the kitchen. It’s always been their de facto meeting place, because it’s always been easier to keep four teenage boys in one place with the promise of food. Bokuto and Oikawa were often the ones who needed bribing, and Sawamura and Kuroo became their most accomplished chefs. Oikawa’s stomach grumbles at the thought, and he’s wondered if anyone’s bought milk bread recently.

That distracting thought only lasts a moment, because soon he and Iwaizumi are standing in front of the open doorway into the kitchen. As Oikawa expected, there’s a small crowd of people gathered around the table. Kuroo, Bokuto and Sawamura are sitting, their positions mirroring the cardinal directions. Sugawara is standing next to Sawamura, leaning over the table to point something out on the newspaper spread out there. Shimizu shakes her head and points to something else, tucking a strand of dark hair behind her ear. Next to her is Akaashi, Bokuto’s wielder— his eyes are half-lidded, and he might look almost bored, but Oikawa senses the focus that he’s not actively showing. And there, next to Kuroo, is—

Suddenly, a pair of brilliantly golden eyes are fixed on Oikawa’s. Kozume Kenma probably thinks he’s unassuming— he slouches, and keeps his head down, and his hands are clasped in front of him like he doesn’t quite know what to do with them. But his eyes are deep and luminous, and fix Oikawa with a stare that makes him feel like prey. The fox violently contests this idea, but Oikawa still can’t shake the sensation.

“You were there,” Oikawa says, apropos of nothing. “In my grove, you were the one who helped—”

The others are all looking at him, now, but Kuroo lifts a hand to stop them all from jumping into the conversation. He’s clearing the air, giving Kenma a chance to speak.

The wielder blinks at Oikawa, the light catching on the blood red of his earring. He nods.

Oikawa wonders if he should feel violated, because of all that Kenma has seen of him. He barely feels comfortable with the fact that Iwaizumi saw him at his darkest and most vulnerable, and Kenma is worse than a stranger in that respect. He knows things about Oikawa, but not things that Oikawa has consciously shared.

But more importantly, Kenma had brought Iwaizumi to Oikawa when he needed him, and that may be the reason that Oikawa is still alive.

“Thank you,” Oikawa says softly. “Thank you, Kenma.”

Kenma blinks at him, and the intensity of his gaze shifts into something shy. But when he speaks, his voice is steady. “You’re welcome, Tooru.”

Oikawa smiles, then walks into the room and up to Kuroo, jabbing him lightly in the side. “All of this is your fault, you know.”

Kuroo lifts one brow and looks at Oikawa skeptically. “Oh, yeah? How’d you figure that?”

Oikawa shrugs. “You were the last holdout. The only lock left without a key. And now, look at us. We can barely all fit in the kitchen, anymore!”

It’s true enough— with Iwaizumi and Oikawa added to their number, there’s a small crowd of them gathered. Definitely not enough chairs around the table, and less and less room to stand in.

Kuroo purses his lips for a moment. “Maybe that’s something that just the four of us should talk about.”

The wielders— Akaashi, Kenma, Iwaizumi, Sugawara and Shimizu— glance between themselves. But it’s Shimizu who makes the decision.

“We’ll leave you alone, for now. But don’t try to keep secrets. I don’t think the four of you could, anyway.” She has the same soft, unassuming voice that Oikawa remembers, but there’s a reproach in her tone that he assumes is directed at him. Shimizu’s always been a bit scary, and hard to understand. She’s also almost completely invulnerable to his particular brand of charm and evasiveness, which makes her even more formidable.

“I never even try to keep secrets,” Bokuto says proudly.

Sawamura shakes his head. “Just give us a bit. We’ll fill everyone in, later.”

The wielders seem content with that, at least for the moment. Iwaizumi grabs Oikawa’s hand and squeezes it, leaning in to murmur in his ear. “I’ll be nearby if you need me, okay? I’m not leaving you.”

Oikawa doesn’t deserve so much reassurance, not when he’s always the one leaving. He nods, and squeezes Iwaizumi’s hand tighter. “I know. It’s okay.”

The five of them leave the kitchen, after that, leaving Oikawa with the other three guardians. They’re still sitting around the table, leaving an empty chair between Sawamura and Kuroo that’s Oikawa’s designated spot.

He takes a deep breath, pulls the chair away from the table, and sits down. The moment he does, the entire world shifts.

When Oikawa opens his eyes, he’s seeing in double-vision. He’s vaguely aware of the way he’s leaning back in his chair, sitting at the kitchen table, but that’s not where he really is. Right now, he’s on another plane of existence entirely.

He looks first to his left, where Sawamura is now standing. No longer dressed in his comfortable black sweats, his figure is half-shielded from view by the massive, feathery wings extending from his back. One curls around him, casting him half in shadow. His eyes are darker, black and fathomless. His features are extended and warped, his nose beak-like. Behind him, a great plain stretches, dotted with trees that are dyed all the colors of autumn. Above him, orange light arches around a central point, a luminous feather shape.

Oikawa blinks, startled for a moment, but instead of focusing back on the kitchen it’s Bokuto that he sees next, on Sawamura’s other side.

Like Sawamura, Bokuto now has beautiful and expansive wings. However, instead of curling around him, Bokuto’s spread wide on either side of him, showing off plumage of white, gray and black. His eyes are wild and shine amber, his head rotating smoothly from side to side. The light he exudes is almost blinding. The space behind him is full of snow-capped mountains, rising out of the earth and extending to jagged points. The sun shines brilliantly against the snow, casting a glare. And directly above Bokuto, magic shines like lightning, breaking out across the sky and splintering off in smaller threads.

It’s too much to keep looking at. His vision shifts again, seeking darkness, and that’s when Oikawa notices Kuroo.

Kuroo has no wings, but of course, he wouldn’t. Instead, a shadowy black tail sways back and forth behind him. Pointed, dark ears poke out from his messy hair. His pupils are narrowed to slits, his hands ending in dark claws. Around him, the dark expanse of an ocean spreads, reflecting a deep night sky. And above him, red magic pulses like a heart, with the narrow strands of veins and arteries spreading out from it and making their way back, an endless loop of magic.

Finally, Oikawa turns his awareness to himself.

Once again, nine fox tails surround him. His hands, like Kuroo’s, turn dark at the edges and his nails are more like claws. He has the ears and eyes of a fox. Around him spreads a grove, the trees casting shadows even as the sunlight fights to break through. Above him, aquamarine magic blooms like a rose, a tight bud expanding out with the spread of its petals. Vines and roots extend out from it, and Oikawa is surrounded by the glow of a magic that is not merely his own.

“Did you ever wonder,” he asks the others, his voice echoing strangely, “what it truly meant to be a guardian?”

The others turn to him, all at once. They seem to have come to the same realization he has, their expressions calm but slightly guarded. Even Bokuto’s constant movements are slowed, rhythmic instead of distracted. Kuroo’s tail flicks once from side to side.

“Of course we wondered,” Sawamura says, and when he speaks his voice pitches high like the call of a crow. “But how could we have known?”

Maybe Sawamura doesn’t mean the words to be reproachful, but that’s how Oikawa takes them. He bows his head, his tails curling inward.

“I should have told you,” he says, and the admittance of his own mistakes tastes like ashes on his tongue. “As soon as Ushijima told me, I should’ve come back.”

Bokuto begins to nod in agreement, but Kuroo holds up a hand.

“I think I understand why you didn’t,” he says, as his tail sways back and forth. “Sometimes we all have trouble being open with one another.”

Sawamura sighs. “You two, especially.”

Bokuto shrugs, flapping his massive wings. “They can’t help it,” he defends. “Sometimes, I feel like my magic makes it so that I have to tell people everything. Light wants company, all the time. Like, last night, I had to stay up and tell Akaashi about everything I was feeling yesterday, so that he could understand and tell me I wasn’t alone. I needed to do that. But maybe, with you guys, it’s the opposite?”

They often forget how astute Bokuto can be. As connected as Oikawa is to his magic, he thinks that Bokuto might have the best instincts about his own. Maybe it’s something about how light magic operates— it doesn’t seed the kind of doubt that darkness does, that Kuroo and Oikawa have always had to manage. Bokuto’s weaknesses are always more apparent, less festering.

He’s lost in his thoughts, and doesn’t realize he’s being watched by all three of them for a moment. He looks up, and to his horror Oikawa realizes that his eyes are itching with the first sign of tears.

“I couldn’t tell you,” Oikawa says. “I should have, but I couldn’t.”

“Why not?” Sawamura asks, not unkindly.

Oikawa shuts his eyes and takes a deep breath. “Because then you would’ve known that this is all my fault. If I hadn’t bonded with Iwa-chan, the first lock on everyone’s magic wouldn’t have come undone. I put all of you in danger. And it was my fault, alone, so I had to find a solution on my own.”

There’s silence, for a moment, and then Kuroo laughs harshly. “Oh, yeah? And how did that work out for you?”

Kuroo.” Sawamura shakes his head. “Are you really in a position to be saying that?”

“Of course.” Kuroo shrugs, his ears tilting slightly towards Sawamura and then back to Oikawa. “I know how it feels, remember? Shadows feed on isolation. They tell you that you’re better off alone, and that everyone else is better off without you, too. I lived with all of that in my head for months. And I know that listening to those feelings never works out, in the end.”

“Only because Kozume told you so,” Bokuto says, shaking his head.

Kuroo shrugs again. “Just like you needed Akaashi to tell you you weren’t alone.”

“Enough,” Sawamura says, a gust of wind blowing over them as he flaps his wings, probably just for the effect of it. “We’ve always known that magic is a burden. It affects not just the world, but our emotions and thoughts. But now we have to deal with the fact that we’ve brought more people into this.”

There’s no denying that their wielders are the most important people to each of them. And where the four of them, despite knowing each other for years, have always been slightly separate from each other, the wielders seem to be bonding together. At least, Iwaizumi had been familiar enough with Kenma.

“Connecting to more people makes us more vulnerable,” Oikawa says. “By having a wielder at all, we’re letting someone else draw on our very life forces. That might be why your wielder can only be someone you trust absolutely.”

The other three nod— they have no misgivings about their respective partners.

“So that bond, if it stands on its own, could very well kill you,” Oikawa continues. “Unless there’s something else to keep it stable.”

“The new guardians,” Kuroo cuts in. “We figured that out. I have three, now, and they’re what saved me before we came to find you.”

Oikawa purses his lips. “And Makki and the others saved me,” he agrees. He turns to Bokuto and Sawamura questioningly.

Bokuto puffs out his chest with pride. “I have Konoha and Shirofuku. They’re strong, if anything happens they can do what your guardians did for you two.”

Sawamura is quiet for a moment. When he speaks, his voice is deep and thoughtful. “We’ve been going after the new guardians for weeks, now, but none of them have been mine. I haven’t felt that connection with any of them.”

“Do you think there’s a reason, for that?” Bokuto asks, like he’s only just considered this.

Oikawa laughs sharply. “Of course there is. Haven’t you all figured it out, yet? Nothing that happens in our lives is a coincidence. Iwa-chan and I met when we were children, and yet that was still somehow meant to happen.”

“I don’t know if it’s that simple.” Kuroo steps forwards, water rippling out around him. “I thought about that, with Kenma. Since we met when we were kids, too. But I think it’s more like— because we met, our fates became connected. Everything is dependent and building off of everything else. Kenma knew Lev and Yamamoto, and they became connected to me. You knew Hanamaki and the others before they became guardians, right? So it’s more like…”

His tail strikes the ocean around him, sending more ripples out from a central point. It’s a clearer demonstration of what he’s trying to explain than he could have articulated.

“Maybe you’re right,” Oikawa concedes. After all, he and Iwaizumi have already had this conversation— they’re no longer going to look back, and Oikawa isn’t going to apologize for something he can’t bring himself to regret.

“Y’know,” Bokuto cuts in, “A lot of us seem to be getting hurt, more and more. And Sugawara’s the only one who really has powers who can help with that. And the more he uses them, the more Sawamura’s going to be in danger.”

Sawamura frowns. “I’m fine. I’ve been fine, up until now.”

Bokuto waves away his reassurances. “I’m just saying. Having some crow chicks around might be good for all of us.”

“They must be out there,” Kuroo says. “We’ll help you find them, Sawamura.”

Sawamura sighs again. “Yeah,” he says eventually, “Okay.”

“Besides,” Oikawa says, “Something tells me none of us are quite done, yet.”

“Oh,” Kuroo says. “You felt it, too?”

“Felt what?” Sawamura asks.

“When our guardians saved us— I’m guessing it was the same for you, Kuroo?—their magic feels good, but somehow incomplete. Like a circle that hasn’t fully closed.” Oikawa says, trying to describe the way that Hanamaki, Yahaba, and Kunimi’s magic had felt to him.

Kuroo nods in agreement. “Yamamoto and the others’ magic made me feel less empty, but not entirely whole. So there may be more guardians out there, for all of us.”

“So we’ll find all of them,” Bokuto declares. “We’ve been doing a pretty good job, so far.”

“Yeah,” Sawamura says, so blandly it’s impossible to tell if he’s being sarcastic. “Only two of us have almost died.”

“So that leaves just one more thing,” Oikawa says, before he loses their attention.

The other three complete his thought in unison.

“The Shadow King.”

“Kageyama Tobio,” Oikawa says with a sneer. “Ushiwaka said he exists to correct the balance we’ve undone. Because we have wielders and new guardians, and there’s too much magic in the world, now.”

“Is he sure about that?” Kuroo wonders. “I mean, what happens when we die? Doesn’t our magic just get reborn into new guardians?”

“Maybe if Tobio-chan manages to take us all out,” Oikawa says with less care than he feels, “it’ll reset the system. And things will go back to how they were before we found our wielders.”

“But—I don’t want that,” Bokuto says, eyes wide. “Things weren’t good, before! They were lonely.”

“It’s not going to happen,” Sawamura says definitively. “We’ve seen the Shadow King, now— he’s just a kid. I don’t think he actually wants to hurt anyone. And we’re definitely not going to let him kill any of us.”

“You’re awfully confident about that, Sawamura,” Kuroo says.

“I won’t let it happen,” Sawamura says again, stubbornly.

“Maybe you won’t need to.” Oikawa’s wondering aloud, at this point. “Ushiwaka never really talked about the other guardian, the one made only of light. But everything happens in balance, doesn’t it?”

“We talked about that,” Bokuto says. “When we thought Kuroo was going to die. We thought the light guardian could save him.”

“But we’ve had no luck finding them,” Sawamura says.

Oikawa smiles, all teeth. “Well. Before you didn’t have me, did you?”

“And who’s fault is that?” Kuroo cuts in, again.

“Interrupting is impolite, Kuroo-kun,” Oikawa says sweetly. “And anyway, I thought we were all going to forgive me, now.”

“Not a chance,” Kuroo says. “I’ve been taking shit for disappearing ever since I got back. You’re not off the hook, not by a long shot.”

“I agree,” Bokuto says.

“Same here,” Sawamura says. “But let’s make it a rule, for all of us— we’re never going to survive this if we keep things from each other. Are we a team, or aren’t we?”

Bokuto makes a fist and thrusts it towards them. “I’m in,” he declares.

Sawamura barely hesitates before extending his own hand to meet Bokuto’s. “Me, too.”

Kuroo laughs. “Of course.” He rests his hand on top of Bokuto’s and Sawamura’s.

Three sets of eyes— the crow’s black, the owl’s amber, and the cat’s gold— are all fixed on Oikawa.

He smiles, hoping they can’t see the tears in his own eyes. He’s really going to have get over these excessive emotions sooner, rather than later. Otherwise his entire reputation will be ruined.

He places his hand over Kuroo’s. “We’re a team.”

He doesn’t know if they call on their magic consciously. It starts with his own, an aquamarine strand that curls like a vine around him. Soon, it’s joined by Sawamura’s arching orange, and then the crackling flare of Bokuto’s gold. Finally, the blood red of Kuroo’s magic whirls around them, the four strands coming together and blending until all Oikawa can see is deep purple-black and brilliant white-gold.

Abruptly, the four of them are thrown out of whatever other plane of existence they’d been on. Instead of sitting down in their chairs, all four of them are getting to their feet, heading to the open part of the kitchen. Bokuto throws his arms around Sawamura and Kuroo, and the two of them pull Oikawa into the center of the embrace. There are no words, but the feeling is one of the most freeing that Oikawa’s ever felt. It’s not as if a burden’s been lifted from his shoulders, but rather that three others have come to help him lift it. He laughs at it all, and when he does the others hold him tighter.

Maybe it’s possible to move forward, from here. They’ve refocused on finding the guardian of light, and now Oikawa has not only the support of the other cardinal guardians but also the canids who make up his own faction. And, most importantly, he has Iwaizumi to stand beside him through it all.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to come with you?” Iwaizumi asks.

It’s been two days since Oikawa woke up, and he’s still a bit unsteady on his feet. But Kuroo had passed along the news just an hour ago, and Oikawa knows this isn’t something that he can put off for very long.

“I don’t think I can say what I need to if you’re there,” Oikawa says, the barest hint of an apology in his tone.

Iwaizumi shrugs, unfazed. “I know there are things you need to do alone,” he says. “I just like knowing about them ahead of time.”

“If I’m gone too long, come find me,” Oikawa says, lips curving into a smile.

Iwaizumi chuckles and pushes him towards the door.

Kageyama is sitting outside in the backyard, in the same place he’d apparently been since waking up this morning. Oikawa stands a few feet away, at first, simply observing him. He’s wearing a t-shirt and shorts that must belong to Sawamura, because they fit Kageyama oddly. The shoulders and sleeves of the shirt are loose, the shorts not long enough to sit right on Kageyama’s long legs. He has his knees drawn up to his chest, his head tilted back to consider the sky through the tree’s branches and leaves.

He looks young, and innocent. Oikawa reminds himself that appearances can be deceiving. And yet, as he gets closer, there’s a part of him that wants to treat Kageyama as the vulnerable child he appears to be. The fox, curled up in the back of Oikawa’s mind, both fears the Shadow King and longs for him. It’s an uncomfortable mix of emotions, making Oikawa nauseous.

Kageyama is cradling on arm against his chest, his shoulders hunched. The closer Oikawa gets, the more he can see the dark strands of magic swirling around Kageyama. They aren’t as potent as they’d been on the day that Kageyama had first transformed— or at the moment he’d flown as a dark bird above Oikawa, about to snuff out his magic and his life. Maybe it’s the presence of all four cardinal guardians, but Kageyama’s powers have been muted since they brought him here, even now that he’s regained consciousness.

“You’re hurt,” Oikawa says, when he notices Kageyama cradling his arm. This was not what he’d intended to say, but the words escape him regardless.

Kageyama looks up at him, blinking his too-dark eyes. He frowns. “I fell on my wing when they brought me down.”

Now Oikawa’s frowning, too. He doesn’t remember that part of things, though the others have filled him in. Sawamura and the others had contained the Shadow King in order to keep Oikawa safe. And then they’d thought that bringing the young guardian home would be a smart move.

“I haven’t been able to change back,” Kageyama says, then. He looks up at Oikawa questioningly, until Oikawa realizes.

“You think I can tell you why?” He’s sneering, but he can’t help it. His superior attitude is the only way to distance himself from the more complicated emotions that Kageyama elicits from him.

Kageyama shrugs, and looks back at his arm. “Even if I could change back, I can’t fly until this heals.”

Sugawara surely could’ve healed Kageyama’s arm completely, Oikawa thinks. So why didn’t he?

He lifts his chin, looking down his nose at Kageyama. “Am I supposed to pity you?”

The other guardian doesn’t answer, and Oikawa realizes there’s no need for him to. Either way, Oikawa does pity Kageyama. He understands the appeal of retreating into your other form, of holding your emotions at bay like that. For Kageyama, who’s magic is built on loneliness and isolation, his other form must be so much easier to deal with than all the inadequacies of his human self.

After a moment’s silence, Kageyama asks, “Why are you here, Oikawa-san?”

“I live here,” Oikawa says, lifting both his brows.

Kageyama doesn’t respond, but his frown deepens.

Oikawa sighs and smooths his hair over to one side. He lets his mocking smile drop, eyes narrowing as he looks at Kageyama. “What did you do to Kindaichi?”

Iwaizumi had told him about the scar on Kindaichi’s hand, a mirror to the dark wound on Oikawa’s knee.

Kageyama refuses to meet his gaze, now. “I didn’t mean to.”

“But you’re not even going to deny it?” Oikawa demands.

Kageyama purses his lips. “You already know.”

He doesn’t know the details, Oikawa almost argues. But it’s true that he understands how Kageyama’s powers work, perhaps better than any of the others. That first day, when Kageyama had felt isolated and out of control, his magic had lashed out and found Oikawa as a target. The wound in his knee had festered, the darkness growing over the weeks that Oikawa had kept himself away from his allies and friends.

His knee isn’t completely healed. The pain has abated, mollified by his renewed connection with Iwaizumi. But it’s still a vulnerability, and one he can blame Kageyama for.

“Why are you here, Oikawa-san?” Kageyama asks again.

Oikawa draws himself up to his full height, towering over Kageyama as he remains seated on the ground.

“I came to warn you not to hurt my people, again,” Oikawa says, lips pulling away from his teeth. There’s a ferocity behind his words, a possessiveness for his guardians and their assumed wielders. They belong to him, and are his responsibility.

Kageyama looks down at his lap, and is silent for another moment. When he starts to speak, he doesn’t look back at Oikawa. “When we first met, I thought I was like you,” he says slowly, like he’s figuring this out as he’s saying it. He grumbles, anger tinging his every word. “I’d never felt like that, before.”

“We’re nothing alike,” Oikawa spits out immediately. He knows his words are a lie.

Kageyama doesn’t argue with him. His brows draw together, lines folding across his face and making him look older— positively ancient. Oikawa recalls seeing him before his magic had been unlocked— wide-eyed, with feathery hair blowing across his pale forehead and a blank, expectant expression. He looks so different in this moment, like he’s carrying the weight of every dark feeling that has ever existed, since the beginning of time. What a terrible burden that must be.

“Would you give it up, if you could?” Oikawa asks, before he can think better of it.

Deep, oil-dark eyes blink up at him. Kageyama doesn’t ask him to clarify what he’s talking about. “No,” he answers, and something like a harsh, discordant smile ghosts across his features. “I wouldn’t.”

Oikawa nods. “Neither would I.”

But he thinks he understands Kageyama a bit better, now. He’s dangerous because he loves his magic, as much as it has the potential to hurt himself and others. If they could excise the darkness from Kageyama, he’d no longer be a threat to him. But he would never willingly give up the power, and the freedom to fly. And deep down, Oikawa cannot blame him for that.

Maybe this is what makes them alike— the selfishness that keeps them clinging to their magic, despite the contrary impulse to be normal. Or maybe Kageyama has already abandoned that impulse entirely, and Oikawa hates looking at him because he recognizes that given the choice, he’d also pick magic over normalcy. Kageyama is a distorted mirror of his emotions, and an uncomfortable reminder of his own faults.

But it’s Oikawa’s fault that he’s like this. Oikawa has made his choices, and they’ve led to the birth of the Shadow King. So as much as he’s scared of Kageyama, and as much as he hates him, he’s also responsible for him.

And yet, every time he looks at Kageyama, a siren goes off in the back of Oikawa’s thought, and all he can think is— Get away, get away, get away from me.

But Oikawa isn’t going to run away any longer.

Kageyama is pulling out grass, his brow still furrowed furiously. “Did you come here just to stare at me?” He doesn’t speak impolitely, exactly, but there’s something in his tone that shows that he doesn’t understand social niceties. He’ll offer his respect to Oikawa through honorifics and practiced bows of his head, but he doesn’t really feel that respect.

Oikawa shakes his head. “I came here because you feed every one of my darker impulses, Tobio-chan,” he says, blandly and loftily. “And I need to know that I can face you without giving in.”

Kageyama doesn’t get up, but he stares right back at Oikawa. Magic builds around both of them, and Oikawa doubts that either one of them called it up intentionally. Like the first time, Kageyama’s magic is like a black hole, pulling Oikawa’s towards it. But somehow, instead of being sucked in, Oikawa’s magic is able to pull away into something like a stable orbit. He doesn’t realize how he’s doing it, until he feels the press of a warm hand on his shoulder.

“You’ve been gone awhile,” Iwaizumi says, as though he notices nothing of the building magic and tension between Oikawa and Kageyama.

Oikawa gasps for breath for a moment, and Iwaizumi lifts a hand in greeting towards Kageyama.

“Hey,” he greets simply.

Kageyama bobs his head. “Iwaizumi-san.”

Oikawa looks between them for a moment, seeing the way that the brightness of Iwaizumi’s magic burns through the oppressive darkness of Kageyama’s. And even though he knows it’s an unfair reaction, he hates seeing the two in the same space. He can see how the darkness longs for light, and the idea that that darkness might focus on Iwaizumi is unacceptable.

“Why isn’t your magic going crazy, anymore?” Oikawa demands.

Kageyama doesn’t look embarrassed or shamed. He hasn’t apologized for anything. “I don’t know. But Sawamura-san said that if it wasn’t under control, he’d kick me out.” He tilts his head away from them as he continues, muttering under his breath, “I have nowhere else to go, and he’s scary.”

Oikawa almost laughs. Kageyama really is a kid, isn’t he? “Fine,” Oikawa says. “Come on, Iwa-chan, let’s go.”

He grabs Iwaizumi by the elbow and tugs him away from Kageyama, who doesn’t protest their leaving. But when Oikawa glances back, he sees Kageyama sitting in the same spot against the trees, ripping grass out of the ground and looking so small.

“I think we can leave him to Sawamura, for now,” Iwaizumi says. “You don’t have to be scared.”

“I’m not,” Oikawa says immediately.

Iwaizumi arches one brow. “Really.”

“I’m not,” Oikawa says again. “It’s not— it’s more complicated than that. I think, if I’d never met you, I’d be a lot like him.”

Iwaizumi stops, and blinks at him. Then he smiles. “Well, there was hope for you. So there must be hope for him, too.” Then he jabs Oikawa in the stomach with his elbow.

Oikawa yelps in pain, squirming away from him. “Mean, Iwa-chan!”

In late summer, the café offers something of an oasis from the warm weather. Oikawa leans back in his chair on the patio, looking up at the mint and rose-striped umbrella that’s currently shielding him from the sun. Waiters in pressed shirts scurry to and fro, taking iced drinks and sugary confections to other tables. In front of Oikawa is a formidable spread of cakes and tea cups.

One of the busboys, a formidable-looking young man who keeps his shirt unbuttoned at the collar and his sleeves rolled up past his elbows, walks towards him with his eye on the empty plates in front of Oikawa. Then he makes eye contact and pauses abruptly, his dark eyes narrowing. Within a moment, he’s turned on his heel and headed towards an entirely different table.

From behind Oikawa, someone sighs.

He turns to see Yahaba, who’s frowning severely and holding his empty serving tray defensively against his chest.

“Coward,” Yahaba says icily, his voice so low that Oikawa’s sure the word wasn’t meant to be heard.

Today is supposed to be a happy day, so Oikawa schools his expression into something reassuring. “Don’t worry, Yahaba,” he says smoothly. “Give Kyouken-chan some time. We’ll make him come around.”

Yahaba’s creamy complexion goes ruddy all at once. His hair has started to turn more brown than silvery, again. “I’m not waiting for him!” His blush deepens as he realizes the volume of his voice. Then, softer, he says, “Don’t misunderstand, please. I don’t need him.”

It’s a conversation they’ll have to return to, Oikawa knows. For now, he merely nods. “Whatever you say,” he says agreeably.

Yahaba clearly isn’t buying his easy acquiescence. He opens his mouth to argue, but is interrupted by a different waiter calling out to them.

“Oikawa-san!” Watari calls out. “It’s been awhile!”

He waves in response. Oikawa has always liked Watari, ever since he started frequenting this café. There’s something calming, something stabilizing, about his presence. But now when he looks at him, he sees something different in Watari. It’s faint, but unmistakable— the light bending around him in a shield-like aura. Oikawa looks at him more keenly, and sees the way light and shadow dance around him as he darts from table to table.

“Oh,” Oikawa says softly, feeling very foolish for a moment.

Yahaba shoots him a questioning look.

“You should keep an eye on him,” Oikawa says casually. “He might be going through some changes, soon.”

“What?” Yahaba squeaks, turning a critical eye on Watari, who’s still oblivious.

“Yes, what?” Another voice echoes. From the table beside Oikawa’s, Matsukawa leans over and rests his elbow on the arm of Oikawa’s chair. “Speak up, Captain. No more secrets, remember?”

Oikawa scowls at him. “I thought I told you not to call me that.”

“What?” Hanamaki puts in, pitching his voice an octave higher. “Oikawa-san can give everyone else nicknames, but doesn’t like them for himself?”

“I’m not your captain,” Oikawa protests. “You make us sound like some sentai squad, or high school sports team.”

Kunimi, who’s sitting on the other side of Hanamaki and Matsukawa’s table with Kindaichi, raises his hand without looking up. “I agree with Matsukawa-san,” he says.

Kindaichi nods, a little too fervently. “I think it fits,” he says.

“You’re all terrible,” Oikawa tells them.

“Yeah, well,” a rough voice says. “They are your team. Terrible is like, a prerequisite.”

Iwaizumi’s just entered the patio area, arms crossed over his chest as he surveys the scene before him— Yahaba standing by Oikawa’s chair, the other four seated at a separate table. He shakes his head and goes to ruffle Kindaichi’s hair, nodding his greetings at the others.

“You’re not allowed to be mean to me,” Oikawa tells him, offhand.

“I’m more than allowed,” Iwaizumi shoots back. He’s wearing just a t-shirt and jeans, but the sun glints off of his skin and the luminous stone hanging at his neck. His eyes meet Oikawa’s and he smiles. “You are terrible, just accept it.”

Oikawa tilts his head back and looks down at Iwaizumi. “Fine. But only if you accept that that means you have terrible taste.”

Iwaizumi shrugs, pulling out the chair next to Oikawa and sitting between him and Matsukawa. “I accepted that a long time ago,” he says easily. Then he leans over and kisses Oikawa’s cheek.

This kind of affection has become something of a routine between them, over the past few weeks, and yet the simple press of Iwaizumi’s lips still sends sparks flying across Oikawa’s skin. He can feel his cheeks heating up, and abruptly leans forward, letting the front legs of his chair hit the ground with an audible thump.

“Uh,” Oikawa says, completely inarticulate.

Kunimi rolls his eyes, but hides his snigger behind one hand. Kindaichi is blushing almost as much as Oikawa, while Hanamaki and Matsukawa laugh. Iwaizumi looks warmly at all of them, and then he’s laughing, too.

He fits so easily at their center, Oikawa thinks fondly. In Oikawa’s absence, he’d established himself amongst these people, earned their trust and respect. Oikawa’s fear, that they’d all realize that they were stuck with him because of forces beyond all of their control, hasn’t played out. They’d all eagerly brought him here, once they heard that he was well enough. He can’t even doubt that they’re happy to be here with him, despite their teasing.

It’s not a feeling he’s very used to. He keeps waiting for someone to ask something of him, or to leave. The longer it doesn’t happen, the warmer he feels. And now that Iwaizumi’s here, Oikawa’s vision is flooded with light too bright to see beyond.

“Hey, Yahaba? Do you have a break yet?” Iwaizumi asks. “Come sit with us.”

Yahaba scurries off to drop off his tray and apron, reappearing a few moments later to take the seat next to Oikawa. He sits there for a moment, fidgeting in his chair and pushing his hair out of his eyes. He looks like he’s uncertain of his place, here, and Oikawa feels a stabbing surge of empathy for him. If they were both foxes, Oikawa would rub noses with Yahaba to reassure him.

Instead, Oikawa reaches over and presses a kiss against Yahaba’s forehead. “Don’t worry so much,” he murmurs in Yahaba’s ear.

It’s either perfect or abysmal timing, because at that moment Kyoutani walks past their table again. Seeing the entire display, he mutters under his breath, “Weirdos.”

Yahaba’s about to get out of his seat, no doubt to confront Kyoutani, but Oikawa grabs him by the wrist and forces him back down.

“Don’t be jealous, Kyouken-chan,” Oikawa calls out, his voice practically a purr.

Kyoutani glowers at him for a moment before darting away.

“Do you really think that’s the best way to win him over?” Iwaizumi asks.

“What, calling him a mad dog?” Oikawa asks innocently. “Well, I can’t possibly mean it as an insult, can I?” Not when he’s a fox himself, surrounded by other canids.

“Kyoutani-kun isn’t very happy,” Watari says a moment later, as he reappears. He doesn’t wait to be asked before pulling up the chair next to Yahaba.

Matsukawa smiles knowingly at Watari. “That’s because Oikawa here is a real piece of work.” He doesn’t even sound disparaging as he says this.

“Hey! What happened to me being your fearless leader?” Oikawa demands.

“You said you didn’t want to be a captain,” Kunimi murmurs.

“And no one ever called you fearless,” Yahaba says, arching a brow.

“Hey, Oikawa can be my fearless leader,” Hanamaki says. He gestures as the enormous plate of deserts in front of him. “As long as he’s paying for all of my creampuffs, anyway.”

“Excuse me?” Oikawa tries to convey exactly how much that won’t be happening through the disdain in his voice.

“Oh yeah, I forgot about that. I should order another drink.” Matsukawa takes another bite of the pastry in front of him. “Iwaizumi said you were paying, by the way.”

“Yup,” Iwaizumi says easily. “I did.”

“It’s really okay though,” Kindaichi says, “We didn’t honestly expect—”

“Of course, you did,” Iwaizumi corrects him. “Come on, order something more.”

Kunimi, meanwhile, appears to have the entirety of a chocolate cake in front of him, eating it in careful, tiny bites. Something tells Oikawa that he has no intention of paying for the dessert himself, either.

Oikawa holds his head in his hands. “You’re all so mean to me,” he says pitifully. “I have the worst team in the world.”

“I think you mean best,” Hanamaki says.

“Team?” Watari asks.

“Don’t worry,” Iwaizumi says to him, “I’m assuming we’ll fill you in at some point.”

The group dissolves into laughter and the conversations splinter off from there. Oikawa props his chin up against one hand and watches them, feeling the dopey smile pulling at his lips despite himself.

Everything will be okay, he thinks, as long as he has these people beside him.

An hour or so later, they filter out of the café with full stomachs and one mostly-empty wallet. Oikawa has given up grumbling about the bill, because he’s distracted by the way Matsukawa and Hanamaki pull ahead of the others, their heads leaned together conspiratorially. And then Kindaichi shifts a bit closer to Kunimi, who rolls his eyes before wrapping his slim fingers around Kindaichi’s wrist. Watari, Yahaba and Kyoutani they’ve left together at the café. Which leaves just Oikawa and Iwaizumi.

“We’ll walk these two to the train station,” Matsukawa calls behind him, indicating Kunimi and Kindaichi.

“Remember to come by the house tomorrow, all of you,” Iwaizumi says. “We’ve still got more things to talk about.”

They nod and agree, and soon they’re heading off in the opposite direction from Oikawa and Iwaizumi. The two of them linger on the sidewalk for a bit, the setting sun casting their shadows long against the pavement. As Oikawa steps closer to Iwaizumi, their shadows blend together until they become entirely indistinct from one another.

“I don’t know what this is all for, yet,” Iwaizumi says thoughtfully, “but I don’t think you could’ve picked a better group, regardless.”

Oikawa hums thoughtfully, reaching for Iwaizumi’s hand and intertwining their fingers. “You know how mirrors can reflect lasers?”

Iwaizumi doesn’t comment on the non sequitur nature of the question. “Yeah,” he says, thumb brushing against the skin of Oikawa’s palm.

“I think that each of them is like a mirror,” Oikawa says. “And there’s magic projecting from all of us, like lasers, but the more people who fit together like we do, the more the magic is reflected back and kept in the same space. It’s stronger, but it’s contained.”

“I guess that makes some kind of sense.” Iwaizumi looks up at the sky, a thoughtful expression on his face. “You owe them big time, then.”

Oikawa nods. “We already knew that, didn’t we? And I owe you most of all.”

Iwaizumi doesn’t disagree. He brushes his fingers against the back of Oikawa’s neck, pulling him close for a quick kiss on the lips. “I’ll take that off the top of your tab.”

Comfortable, delightful warmth blooms in Oikawa’s stomach. He leans in and kisses Iwaizumi longer, harder. “Okay,” he says, breathless, when they part.

“Are you going back to the house, tonight?” Iwaizumi asks. They’ve been alternating between there and their apartment.

Oikawa nods. “Sawamura’s been going over some maps, and it looks like we have to start searching for the guardian of light on foot. It’s not going to be easy, but—”

His words are cut off when he sees someone walking on the opposite side of the street. Immediately, he begins to move towards them.

“Hold on a second, Iwa-chan,” he calls behind him, before breaking into a run.

“Oikawa!” Iwaizumi yells back. “Be careful crossing the street, at least!” But he doesn’t move to stop Oikawa. Maybe he understands that this, too, is something he has to do alone.

“Ushijima!” Oikawa calls out, for once dropping his nickname for the other guardian.

Ushijima pauses in his deliberate steps down the street, turning to look at Oikawa. There’s a flash of pale scar tissue visible at the neckline of his shirt, and his eyes flare with muted golden light. Aside from that, he looks the same as he always has, his eyes as sharp as the eagle’s and his face perfectly impassive.

“Oikawa,” he says.

Oikawa stops a foot or so away from him, crossing his arms over his chest. “You kicked us out of your house before I’d even woken up,” he complains.

“You’d overstayed your welcome,” Ushijima says simply.

It’s at moments like these that Oikawa could almost consider Ushijima a friend, could almost believe that his statement is a joke and not just a bland assertion of fact.

“This is the part where you ask me if I’m okay,” Oikawa prompts him.

“You didn’t ask me, if I was.” Ushijima blinks, waiting.

Oikawa rolls his eyes. “We’re both obviously still alive,” he says. “And I think if the last few months have taught us anything, it’s that we’re not very good at taking care of each other.”

Ushijima shrugs. “I did my best. You weren’t in active danger in my care.”

“Put then on your resume when you adopt,” Oikawa retorts. “I’m sure it’ll go over really well.”

Ushijima sighs, like he finds speaking with Oikawa to be particularly tiring. “I have no desire for children.”

Something about his statement rings with dishonesty. Light magic surrounds him, but it’s patchy in places, infected with a darkness that doesn’t usually characterize him. Oikawa frowns, reminded of what he’d wanted to tell Ushijima in the first place.

“I’m going to say something to you, and I want you to listen,” Oikawa says.

Ushijima doesn’t respond, but he meets Oikawa’s gaze and waits.

“Between the two of us, I have more darkness. I know isolation and independence better than you do.” It’s a simple fact, and one that Ushijima can’t argue with. “You’re about as bright as any of us, but if you keep trying to go it alone you’ll be going against your own nature. So, stop it.”

Ushijima frowns, his brows drawing together. “I never tried to bring anyone else into this.”

There’s a subtle rebuke in his words, reminding Oikawa that it was his longing for Iwaizumi that started all of this. But as he’s realized over and over again, there was no stopping that. It was meant to happen from the start.

“That doesn’t matter,” Oikawa tells Ushijima. “Tendou and Semi are a part of this now, anyway. And if you keep pulling away from them, you’ll only be hurting them and yourself. Trust me.”

Ushijima is still reluctant. “What has worked for you may not work for everyone,” he says.

Oikawa huffs in frustration. “Oh, come on. Letting people in is what saved my life, Ushijima. And no matter how much you tried to get rid of them, having Semi and Tendou around saved yours.”

“They have each other,” Ushijima says quietly. “They do not need me.”

Oikawa admirably resists the urge to strangle him. “It’s not that simple,” he insists. “Nothing is as simple as we think it is. I couldn’t survive on my own, and I couldn’t survive with just Iwa-chan, either. No one can. We all need different people in our lives, you included. There’s probably a bunch of other guardians out there, waiting for you to find them.”

“I don’t—” Ushijima starts to respond, but Oikawa cuts him off.

“Don’t be scared,” Oikawa insists. He doesn’t let Ushijima argue with him, but his voice takes on a shade of gentleness. “It is scary, but don’t be scared. You won’t be rejected.”

Ushijima looks down at his feet, then up at the clear, rose-tinged sky. “Why are you saying this to me?”

Oikawa shrugs. “Because I’m very magnanimous and you don’t deserve me,” he rattles off. “And because I think we’ve been going about this all wrong. You’ve been trying to help me from the start, even though you got most everything wrong. So call this returning the favor.”

Ushijima is either too startled to speak, or he simply has nothing else to say. He holds Oikawa’s gaze for a long moment, before he’s distracted by the light catching on Oikawa’s aquamarine gemstone.

“It’s fixed,” he says.

Oikawa touches two fingers to the stone, feeling its gentle pulse of magic. “It was too strong for even you to destroy completely,” he says, offhand.

Ushijima does not apologize for breaking the stone in the first place. Oikawa does not apologize for attempting to tear out Ushijima’s throat. Maybe if they were just two people, these would be things they’d have to discuss before moving forward. But they aren’t just that. They’re also an eagle and a fox, and those guardian spirits understand each other. They don’t expect apologies for acting on instinct, for self-preservation and out of pain and love.

“Ushijima-san!” An excited voice cuts through the layers of their conversation, jolting Oikawa back to reality. “What are you doing here?”

Ushijima presses his lips together before facing the newcomer. “Goshiki,” he says simply.

Goshiki is perhaps only a few years younger than Ushijima and Oikawa, but he looks more like a child that anything. His straight black hair falls over his forehead and he offers Ushijima a half-bow, bouncing upwards excitedly at the end of the gesture.

“Is this a friend of yours?” Oikawa drawls at Ushijima.

Ushijima lifts both his brows and says nothing.

“Hello,” Goshiki says, facing Oikawa with a bright smile and a confident glint in his dark eyes. “I’m Goshiki Tsutomu. Ushijima-san was my senpai in high school.”

The instant Oikawa’s eyes lock with Goshiki’s, he can see a spiral of darkness and shadow fanning out from his shoulders. It takes a moment for the vision to stabilize, but once it does Oikawa can clearly see the outline of feathered wings extending outwards from Goshiki’s back.

Fate must think itself very funny, indeed.

“It’s nice to meet you, Goshiki-kun,” Oikawa says with his patented smile. “Oh, Ushiwaka-chan? I’d keep an eye on him, if I were you.”

“What did you see,” Ushijima says shortly.

Oikawa waves a hand at him, turning back towards the cafe. “I’m sure you can figure it out. Bye, Goshiki-kun, Ushiwaka.”

“Oikawa,” Ushijima says, and Oikawa counts it as a victory that something like frustration has crept into his tone.

“See you later,” Oikawa says. He takes a few steps, but then remembers one last thing he’d meant to say.

“Oh, and Ushijima?” he calls, looking back over his shoulder. “Don’t come for Kageyama. Don’t even think about it.” He smiles, but his expression is as sly and predatory as a fox’s.

Ushijima meets his gaze, and doesn’t respond.

Iwaizumi is waiting for him at the street corner. Oikawa drapes one arm over Iwaizumi’s broad shoulders, tucking his face against Iwaizumi’s neck.

“Iwa-chan,” he complains. “I’m tired, take me home.”

Iwaizumi wraps an arm around Oikawa’s waist. “Then stop running off on me,” he says.

“I’m not running off,” Oikawa mumbles. “There are just a lot of things I need to do.”

“I know. But let’s worry about the rest of it in the morning.”

“Home, now?” Oikawa says.

“Yeah,” Iwaizumi agrees. “Let’s go home.”

The sun is high overhead the next day, and three young men stand on a hillside overlooking a grove of trees. In front of them are four animals—a coyote, an arctic fox, a raccoon dog and a red fox. It’s the red fox that steps forward first, the chain around his neck catching the sun’s rays. Set amidst his fur is a rose-shaped gemstone, glinting with barely-contained power. The fox looks up at the man standing in the middle of the other two, baring his teeth.

Iwaizumi looks down at him and blinks, unimpressed. “Don’t just stand there smirking at me,” he says pointedly. “Aren’t you supposed to be training your team?”

That’s right, the fox remembers. These other three are his family, and he’s going to show them this place as only one of their kind can experience it. It’s something he’d never thought he’d be able to share with anyone else, but right now he’s surrounded.

The fox still likes to be alone. He doesn’t always need company. But this ability to share, this feeling surrounding him right now, he wouldn’t give it up for anything. He looks up at Iwaizumi and yips at him, amber eyes fixed on Iwaizumi’s green.

“Alright, alright,” Iwaizumi grumbles. He crouches down and extends a hand towards the fox, petting over the top of his head and down the length of his back. The fox leans into his touch, preening. “Go on, sweetheart,” Iwaizumi says softly. “I’ll be right here, waiting for you.”

The fox flicks his tail in response, turning back towards his companions. He lifts his nose towards the sky, letting out a high-pitched bark. Then, he races towards the trees. He hears the cackling call of the coyote behind him, followed by the quick series of yelps from the arctic fox. The raccoon dog joins in with a low whine, following the others.

The fox races on ahead, trusting the others to catch up. He knows they will.

Chapter Text

Kuroo holds Kenma’s hand lightly as they walk down the sidewalk, the rising high in the sky above them. The day is clear and blue, a gentle wind rustling around them as houses grow older and more distinctive. Instead of the cookie-cutter models that populate the neighborhoods closer to the train station, they’ve arrived on a street where the gardens are mostly overgrown and the houses’ paintjobs are all faded shades of white, yellow and peach. There are no children playing in the street, no old couples tending to their gardens. Only one street on this house is occupied, but it holds more than it seems.

“So Bokuto’s got his hands full,” Kuroo is saying, counting off on his free hand. “Shirofuku, Konoha, and now the two new ones… plus, I think that girl, Suzumeda? She and Shirofuku seem pretty attached. But I don’t know that any of the new kids have actually formed a bond with a wielder, yet. Should we be worried, about that?”

Kenma’s only half-listening, since most of the time Kuroo repeats himself in his rambles and just wants the illusion of someone paying attention to him. But now he looks up and arches one brow in Kuroo’s direction.

“How should I know?” he asks.

Kuroo grins cheekily at him, reaching down to ruffle Kenma’s hair despite Kenma’s squawked protest. “I dunno. I figured maybe you’d downloaded a bunch of information from like, the magical ether space, and you were just holding out on me.”

“Why would I do that,” Kenma asks.

Kuroo shrugs. “I don’t know. But it was a better alternative than thinking we really are just completely out to sea, still. I guess I figured that, with Oikawa back, things would start making more sense. But…” He trails off with a shrug and a sigh.

Kenma understands. It’s been a few months since they’d found Oikawa and Kageyama, but nothing much has changed in that time. Despite the fact that new guardians have been popping up with increasing frequency, they still haven’t found the one they’ve been looking for. Whoever the Guardian of Light is, they’ve done a good job of hiding themselves.

Finally, they arrive at the old white house. The oaken door, with its elaborate carvings of the four cardinal guardians, greets them. But instead of opening the door, Kuroo reaches out to take Kenma by the shoulders, twirling him around until they’re facing one another. Before Kenma can ask what Kuroo is up to, Kuroo dips down and presses his lips against Kenma’s, kissing him fiercely. The sensation bleeds through Kenma’s entire body, down to his toes, and he holds on tightly to Kuroo’s arms, like he’ll blow away without the support.

“What,” Kenma says, breathless, when Kuroo pulls away. “What was that for?”

Kuroo pouts at him, though his golden eyes glimmer with mischief. “You weren’t even paying attention to me, on the way here.”

Kenma rolls his eyes. “You’re impossible.” But he stands on his toes so that he can kiss Kuroo again, anyway.

When they step into the house, after that, the entryway is dark even though it’s midmorning. Kuroo steps lightly into the hallway, then stops suddenly and holds up a hand to keep Kenma from moving, as well.

Kenma’s immediately on the alert— he didn’t think that anyone but the guardians could get into the house on their own, but that doesn’t reassure him. Plenty of danger has slipped past them, come up on them completely unaware. So Kenma crowds in close behind Kuroo, sending the spark of a question between them using his magic.

But when Kuroo turns to look at him, he doesn’t look apprehensive. Instead, he’s sporting a shit-eating grin, his face cast in shadows though his golden eyes sparkle. He holds up his index finger against his lips, then tilts his head towards the living room, indicating that Kenma should look but be quiet about it.

Puzzled, Kenma cranes his neck to see what Kuroo’s gesturing at. When he does, he ends up shaking his head in exasperation.

Oikawa and Iwaizumi are lying on the large couch in the living room, tangled up together and completely unaware of the world around them. Oikawa is on his back, head tilted to one side as he laughs. Iwaizumi lays over him, kissing Oikawa’s neck and wearing the softest expression Kenma’s ever seen on his face.

Don’t let them know we’re here, just yet, Kuroo says to Kenma through the connection of their magic. This way, Kenma gets not just the sound of Kuroo’s voice but also the subtle inflections of his emotions— he’s feeling mischievous and teasing, yes, but there’s something else there as well. Something kind at its core, and so quintessentially Kuroo that Kenma trusts it.

So Kenma waits, trying not to watch even though it’s impossible not to. Iwaizumi and Oikawa aren’t engaging in anything all that serious— there are soft, fluttery touches between them and the light sounds of Oikawa’s laughter and Iwaizumi’s good-hearted grumbles. Iwaizumi lets one of his hands drift beneath Oikawa’s shirt, and Oikawa laughs louder, spasming upwards involuntarily.

“Iwa-chan, no,” he protests, breathless, “you know I’m ticklish— no!”

He’s practically shrieking with laughter, now, as Iwaizumi trails his fingers all over Oikawa’s sides. His hands settle in Iwaizumi’s dark hair, tugging at the short strands as he curls in on himself, laughing and crying.

When Iwaizumi looks up, he’s grinning, lower lip caught between his teeth. “Take your punishment,” he says gravely, but then he leans up to kiss the tip of Oikawa’s nose.

Oikawa wraps his arms around Iwaizumi and kisses his cheeks, first one and then the other. They’re both smiling and laughing, and for a moment Kenma thinks that the past few months must have been a dream, that all the negative emotions he’d felt from either of them couldn’t have been real when they’re so blissfully, simply happy right now. Then, Kenma realizes that all that hurt and pain and longing has perhaps made this moment possible. It wouldn’t seem so sweet and simple if he didn’t know how much they’d longed for it, and how much they cherish their togetherness now.

Kenma casts a sideways glance at Kuroo, thinking he understands why he didn’t want to interrupt them. Iwaizumi and Oikawa have waited for so long, for this, and over the past few weeks they’ve all been busy with the crowds of new guardians. Kuroo is letting their alone time linger, even if just for a few extra moments. Kenma reaches out to grip Kuroo’s hand, squeezing it tightly so that he’ll know Kenma understands.

The softness of the moment shatters when a phone starts ringing, the noise too sharp and insistent for the mood.

Oikawa groans softly and gropes around between the couch cushions until he finds his phone, glancing at it before thumbing the button to answer the call.

Iwaizumi sits up, still bracketing Oikawa with his thighs. “Are you joking?” he asks incredulously. He still has one hand up Oikawa’s shirt.

“Iwa-chan, stop!” Oikawa squirms away, batting at Iwaizumi’s hand. Then, into the phone, he says, “Hello? Ushiwaka?”

Iwaizumi frowns, then leans down to kiss along Oikawa’s neck and collarbones, ignoring the way Oikawa tries to push him away. Even then, Oikawa’s efforts are decidedly half-hearted.

“What?” Oikawa says suddenly, sitting up so quickly that Iwaizumi falls back against the other end of the couch. “What do you mean, you scheduled a meeting? I thought you were going to confess!”

“Wait, what?” Iwaizumi asks, laying back against the cushions and bringing his hands up behind his head. “Who’s he confessing to?”

Oikawa waves a hand at him, motioning for silence. “No, no. It’s fine. Do it your way. But do it soon, Ushiwaka. You’re hearing me, right? I’m being serious.”

“It does happen,” Iwaizumi says gravely, and Oikawa kicks at him. This backfires, however, as Iwaizumi easily catches Oikawa by the ankle.

Oikawa’s still listening to the phone, but a moment later taps to end the call and sits back against the couch with a long-suffering sigh. “He’s so impossible.”

“Is he seriously calling you for romantic advice?” Iwaizumi asks, readjusting so that Oikawa’s legs are settled over his lap.

“Why shouldn’t he?” Oikawa huffs. “I’m a great person to go to for advice! I’m good at everything.”

“Ha,” Iwaizumi says dryly. Then, he trails his fingers up Oikawa’s legs and murmurs, “If you’re done taking calls, sweetheart, can we pick up where we left off?”

“Yeah, no,” Kuroo says, stepping forward into the living room and lifting both hands. “Sorry, lovebirds, but I can’t take this anymore.”

They’re not birds, Kenma thinks, but love-foxes doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

“What? Kuroo!” Oikawa sits up all at once, looking seriously affronted.

“And Kenma,” Kuroo says, helpfully, as Kenma steps up beside him.

“You were watching?” Iwaizumi asks dryly, both his eyebrows slightly raised.

“You are in our shared living room,” Kuroo reminds them, in the same tone. “Plus, your shift ended about ten minutes ago. I figured you’d want out of here as quickly as possible.”

Oikawa wrinkles his nose as he gets to his feet. He stretches his arms over his head. “I didn’t realize, we’ve been here most of the night.”

Kuroo looks around, brow furrowed. “Where’s everyone else, then? It’s just been the two of you?”

Oikawa shrugs his shoulders. “You know how it’s been. Since Tobio-chan’s been living here, no one else is around longer than they have to be. I’m meeting Hanamaki and the others at our apartment, later. They don’t like coming here.”

Kenma and Kuroo have been having their own meetings at Kenma’s apartment, and staying there most of the time. Kenma hadn’t really noticed, but they’ve become decentralized. Sawamura keeps up a schedule, and the four cardinal guardians meet often enough, but the house isn’t the epicenter that it used to be.

Kuroo lets out a too-loud laugh. “And so you two decided to spend your babysitting time making out?”

Iwaizumi shrugs, utterly unabashed. “Oikawa’s got a tab he’s running down.”

Oikawa’s cheeks color, but when Iwaizumi gets to his feet Oikawa wraps an arm around his waist. They stand close together, matching aquamarine stones shining from the chains around their necks. The magic around them thrums in a gentle rhythm, chords of light and dark twisting towards and away from each other in a complicated dance.

Iwaizumi pecks Oikawa on the lips, as if to prove his point.

“Gross,” Kuroo mutters, without any real conviction.

“Don’t be jealous, Kuroo-kun,” Oikawa says sweetly, batting his eyelashes. “Besides, you wouldn’t think so if you and Kenma weren’t still half-dancing around each other. Months, I leave you alone, and this is the best you can do? You’re hopeless.”

Kenma doesn’t need Oikawa, the chronic avoider, judging his relationship. Oikawa’s words sound like a dare, so Kenma does the first thing he can think of. He slides one hand against the back of Kuroo’s neck, forcing Kuroo’s head down until Kenma can plant a kiss— much more intimate than the peck Iwaizumi had given Oikawa— against his lips. Kuroo parts his lips, and Kenma deepens the kiss, pressing closer until he can feel a soft rumble rising in Kuroo’s chest.

He steps back, blinking. “Are you purring,” he asks flatly.

Kuroo’s cheeks are red, and he claps a hand over his mouth. But that does nothing to stop the rumbling noise. “Kenma!” he says, aghast. And then, trying to save face, he continues, “No, I’m not.”

Oikawa laughs aloud, and Iwaizumi only barely tries to hide his grin.

“Alright,” Oikawa says, “Point taken.”

Kenma presses one hand to Kuroo’s chest, over his t-shirt, where he can feel the purring until it dies down a moment later. Kuroo runs both of his hands through his hair, blushing but looking pleased nonetheless.

“So,” he says, “Where is His Majesty, then?”

“Where else?” Iwaizumi grumbles. “Outside, practicing magic. I swear, that kid…”

“And how’s the shield holding up?” Kuroo prompts, frowning now.

“Fine,” Oikawa puts in, brushing his bangs to one side. “But you could probably stand to reinforce it.”

Kuroo gives Oikawa a slanted, sideways glance.

“Oh, don’t give me that look, Kuroo!” Oikawa snaps. “I wasn’t going to let anything happen! We were making out for maybe twenty minutes.”

“We’ll take care of it,” Kenma says, grabbing for Kuroo’s hand. “See you later, Tooru.”

Oikawa smiles, then, more genuine than conniving. “Bye, Kenma.”

The yard in back of the house is wide and expansive, dotted with trees that are older than Kenma by many years. The grass has become sun-scorched as they head into the summer, the leaves in the trees still a vivid green. At the far edge of the yard stands a lone figure, cast in shadows by the trees.

They still don’t know what to do about Kageyama Tobio. Left unchecked, his magic had wanted to destroy Oikawa— a way of restoring balance, Oikawa had explained. When they talk to Kageyama, he seems to have no awareness of that, no actual intent to snuff out Oikawa’s life. But even so, they can’t just leave Kageyama to his own devices.

The solution they’ve come up with is imperfect, but necessary for the moment. A ring of magic encircles the yard and the house itself, light and shadow blending into a braided rope of gold, orange, aquamarine and red. Each of the cardinal guardians takes a shift at the house to keep an eye on Kageyama, and no one of them is singularly responsible for him. They keep reinforcing the magic shield, ensuring that Kageyama cannot leave.

As Kenma and Kuroo walk through the garden towards Kageyama, the shadows around him become more distinct. They extend outwards from his back like massive wings, but one is bent at an odd angle. Any bird with wings like that would not be able to fly.

Despite this, shadows dance around his feet and over his head. Their trajectories are too exacting to be called playful, but Kenma can sense the experimentation in the way they shift and move in different patterns.

The closer they get to Kageyama, the more oppressive the air becomes. Kuroo grips Kenma’s hand tightly, and their magic spreads over them, a cloak of red that keeps the shadows at bay.

Still, when they’re still a ways away from Kageyama, Kuroo’s knees begin to buckle. He has to throw arm over Kenma’s shoulders for support so that he won’t fall to the ground.

Kenma isn’t affected the same way, although he recognizes the overwhelming presence of Kageyama’s aura. It’s the same presence he’d felt when he’d searched for Oikawa’s other guardians, a maelstrom of darkness so deep and powerful it’s terrifying. Kageyama doesn’t feel like any of the cardinal guardians, the way that Lev’s magic feels like Kuroo and Yahaba’s feels like Oikawa. He’s singular, in that respect. He’s alone.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to him,” Kuroo says in Kenma’s ear.

Kenma understands that. He isn’t scared of Kageyama, even if he thinks it would be smarter to avoid him. It’s just strange, every time he feels this potent magic. It makes it hard for Kenma to remember ever feeling so alone, even though he knows he did. But those feelings grow dimmer every day, drowned out by the light around him. (And the light inside him, Kuroo would say.)

Kageyama doesn’t turn to face them.

Kuroo tightens his grip around Kenma. “Let’s do this quickly, yeah?”

Kenma nods, and feels the red gemstone hanging off his ear flare to life. His and Kuroo’s magic manifests in his vision like a glowing double-helix, blood red and thrumming with power. As Kenma watches, the thread of magic contorts, gathering shadows and light until a cat composed of shadows stands before them, illusory as the shadows of which it is made.

Kuroo flicks his wrist and snaps his fingers, and the cat takes off, floating on air as it circles the perimeter of the yard. As it touches the magical shield, magic leaches off of it and laces itself into the strands of the other guardians’ magic, reinforcing the braided pattern.

When the cat has finished its circuit, it dissipates into smoke, and the tugging feeling on Kenma’s magic releases slowly. Kuroo reaches up to wipe the sweat from his brow, still leaning against Kenma.

“Are we just… keeping him trapped here, forever?” Kenma asks slowly. It’s a topic that none of them like to think about.

Kuroo sighs. “I don’t know. But what else can we do, knowing what he’s capable of? There’s no single one of us who can curb all that power. And we haven’t found all the other new guardians, yet, we don’t know what might happen if he found them first—” Kuroo cuts himself off with a hiss, frustrated.

Kenma nods. “I know. But we have to come up with a plan.”

There’s no good answer to that, yet, no plan they’ve been able to come up with. The guardians are still learning every detail of their power, every previously unknown pitfall. As it is, the fact that all four of them remain alive is something of a miracle.

The situation remains incomplete, but what else can they do?

Kuroo pulls himself upright and lets go of Kenma, cupping both of his hands over his mouth as he yells across the yard. “Oi, Kageyama!”

Kageyama turns around slowly, his shadowy wings following him like a cloak. He blinks at Kuroo and Kenma, who are currently backlit by the sun.

“Yes,” Kageyama says, after a few moments, like he’s unsure why he’s being addressed, or how to respond. He stands perfectly straight, his shoulders back and his head high, but there’s something stiff and awkward in his movements. He wasn’t born a guardian, and yet he’s uncomfortable in human skin.

“You doing alright?” Kuroo asks.

Kageyama presses his lips together and frowns. “Yes,” he says, after another long pause.

Kuroo grins at him. “Okay, good. Kenma and I are going to stick around for a while, and we’ll call you when it’s time for lunch, okay?”

Kageyama nods, and then, after waiting to see if Kuroo will say anything else, turns around. The shadows follow him, and it is clear that Kuroo and Kenma are being dismissed.

“Weird kid,” Kuroo mutters, rubbing a hand over his chin.

They head back into the house, after that, and try to rid themselves of the uncomfortable feeling of being jailers.

They stay at the house well into the afternoon, enduring an uncomfortable lunch with Kageyama sitting at the table with them. He doesn’t say much, just devours his food with singular purpose before getting up and heading back to the backyard. But whenever he’s around, Kenma can feel his gaze lingering on Kenma, the red gemstones, and the threads of magic between him and Kuroo. He’s sure that Kageyama can see that magic, but he looks at it as though it’s a novel thing every time.

Soon enough, however, Bokuto and Akaashi arrive to take their own shift. Bokuto waves Kuroo and Kenma towards the door with a laugh. “Go have some fun,” he says.

“Not too much,” Akaashi puts in dryly.

Kuroo offers them a two-fingered salute. “We’ll do our best.”

Walking around the city is different than it used to be. Kenma had developed a system— looking down at his phone, keeping his shoulders hunched, always knowing exactly where he was going so that he didn’t risk getting lost. He observed the people around him only so that he could discover the best means of avoiding them. He only went where he needed to, and never ventured very far down unknown roads.

But now, there’s Kuroo. Kuroo, who grabs Kenma by the hand and insists they have to go somewhere new. Kuroo, who leads Kenma along and refuses to tell him where they’re going. Kuroo, who expects Kenma to follow and to trust him.

And the thing of it is, Kenma does trust him. He wants to go wherever Kuroo will take him, because since he’s met Kuroo his world has kept expanding. And for once, Kenma doesn’t mind that. He may even be excited about it.

Still, as the two of them walk through the streets of Tokyo, there’s an itching conversation settled at the back of Kenma’s mind. It’s been months since Kageyama’s powers manifested, and yet they still haven’t found the Guardian of Light. If Kenma had any sort of clue, a name or a face, he might be able to better look for that guardian. But at it is, he’s entirely useless.

Kuroo’s hand is warm around his, and as Kenma follows him he thinks that, challenges aside, this new version of normalcy is something he can live with.

“So, I know I promised you a normal date,” Kuroo is saying, voice half-apologetic. “But the thing of it is—”

Kenma presses his lips together, but he doesn’t have the heart to be mad. There’ll be time for normal dates, someday. He’s sure of that much.

“I don’t hate this,” Kenma tells him. Kuroo flashes him a brilliant smile in response, and that alone makes everything else worth it.

Then, Kenma finally looks around Kuroo to see the reason they’d stopped, and why Kuroo sounded so apologetic.

Daishou Suguru is sitting on a bench at the corner of the street.

Kenma hasn’t seen him for months— has never really seen him normally, sitting as he is in jeans and bright green sneakers, tapping at his phone with a too-wide smile on his face. His hair is brushed off to one side, and there’s the subtle swirl of magic around him. It curls like snakes slithering through tall grasses, making it impossible for Kenma to forget how they’d originally met— Daishou bleeding out of the shadows, whispering terrible things to both him and Kuroo, demanding to know where the Shadow King was.

Well, Kenma thinks sourly, at least they finally have an answer to that question.

Kuroo sucks in a breath, eyes narrowed as he focuses on Daishou. He’s on-guard as much as Kenma is, remembering the same incidents. But of course, since then things have become more complicated. Ushijima had said that ordinal guardians have a particular duty towards their cardinal counterparts. And the ordinal guardian closest to Kuroo is Daishou.

As they step closer, Kenma falters. Because despite the grin, there are tired lines around Daishou’s eyes, and his shoulders slump as though he’s been defeated. Not even the way he licks his tongue back and forth across his lower lip can affect the smugness that he’d had, the last time Kenma had seen him.

“I think you’re supposed to make nice with him,” Kenma tells Kuroo. “The way Oikawa is, with Ushijima.”

Kuroo frowns at him. “If that’s Oikawa’s version of nice, then can I push Daishou over and call it a day?”

“Kuro.”

“Ugh.” Kuroo clenches his teeth. “I don’t want to.”

“You have to, anyway.”

Kuroo stamps his foot a little impatiently, but then he settles. “I hate it when you’re right,” he says.

“No, you don’t,” Kenma corrects him.

Kuroo sighs, but lifts his chin and drops Kenma’s hand. Then, he goes to talk to Daishou, Kenma trailing a few feet behind.

“I sort of figured you were dead,” Kuroo says, too loud, as he approaches, hands tucked into the pockets of his black jeans.

Dish looks up, and doesn’t seem remotely surprised to see Kuroo. “I sort of hope you were,” he returns, voice slick as poisoned honey.

“After you were so eager to find the Shadow King?” Kuroo says, challenging. “What good would that have done you?”

Daishou holds his eyes closed for a moment, and when he blinks them open again his gaze settles on Kenma for just a moment. “Are you just here to gloat, Kuroo? That’s so petty.”

“You’d know.” Kuroo frowns, however. He crosses his arms over his chest, but sits down on the bench beside Daishou. “What is there to gloat about, exactly?”

Daishou licks his lips, again, looking past Kuroo for a moment and at the shop across the street. His brow is furrowed for an instant before he smooths out his expression, spreading his arms across the back of the bench.

“You were last,” he says, “and yet…”

“I was last at what?” Kuroo asks, anger giving way to puzzlement.

Daishou huffs. “You were the last guardian to find his wielder,” he says, as though it’s obvious. “You all went in order, didn’t you? The fox, then the crow and the owl, and then you.”

Kuroo’s frowning. Kenma knows he doesn’t like being reminded of the time when he hadn’t found his wielder, but the others had. Kenma tugs on their bond, the magic flowing between them. It’s a reminder that things have changed since then, and won’t be going back.

“I was last,” Kuroo says at length. “So, what?”

Daishou bites his lip, as though holding back his next words. Then he deliberately unclenches his jaw and says, “I was first.”

“Wait, what? I thought— Oikawa—” Kuroo’s expression goes from bewilderment to concern, all at once. “Explain yourself.”

Daishou sighs, affecting boredom. Then he reaches into the pocket of his jacket and pulls out two delicate golden chains. Hanging off of each is a luminous stone, deep green and hard as jade.

Kuroo blinks rapidly. “Hold up. But back then, before, you made it sound like you didn’t believe in wielders, at all!”

Daishou looks down at the gems instead of at Kuroo. “I believe in them,” he says flatly. “That doesn’t mean they always work out the way you want them to.”

Kenma can’t imagine that being the case. Even if he had wanted to, could he ever have walked away from Kuroo? He can’t fathom that, because he knows with utter certainty that he’d never even want to walk away from Kuroo.

“Daishou,” Kuroo says, voice going lower, “Who?”

The snake’s eyes fall shut again. “Does it matter? She didn’t want it. Or me.”

Kenma finds that understandable. But then, he’s always preferred cats to snakes, and there’s no love lost between him and Daishou.

“Did you talk to her about it,” Kenma says quietly, voice so uninflected that the words barely pass as a question.

Daishou blinks up at him with a frown. “What’s the point?”

Kuroo smacks Daishou on the shoulder. “The point is that a dick like you only gets so many chances at love, and you probably shouldn’t waste them.”

Kenma scoffs. As if Kuroo is any better at directly facing things. Kuroo’s negative emotions at projected inward rather than outward, but Kenma isn’t sure that that’s any better.

Daishou’s breath catches and he looks forward again, face open and incredibly vulnerable for the briefest moment.

Kenma and Kuroo follow his gaze, and see the young woman who has just exited the store across the street. Her hair falls straight over her shoulders, and she reaches up to tuck her fringe to one side. She’s dressed simply for the summer, in a short skirt and a loose blouse, holding a shopping bag at her side. As she walks, she plays with the hem of her skirt, casting her gaze downwards.

“Oh, shit,” Kuroo says. “Is that her? Are you sitting out here to stalk her? Are we helping you stalk her?”

“No,” Daishou hisses, elbowing Kuroo in the chest. “Shut up.”

“Are you going to try and talk to her?” Kenma asks, mostly to interrupt the battle of pushes and shoves Daishou and Kuroo are currently engaged in.

Daishou wraps his arms around himself and frowns. “I might have to. Now that there’s no chance the Shadow King can help me.”

Kuroo frowns. “What does that mean?”

Daishou gets to his feet with a shrug, dusting himself off as though the exposure to Kuroo has left him covered in lint. Or maybe cat hair. He looks down his nose at Kuroo, smiling slyly. “It means get out of my face, you stupid cat.”

“Shut up, snake,” Kuroo says. “Tell me what you meant.”

“Mm,” Daishou says, pretending to consider it. “I don’t think I will.”

“Daishou,” Kuroo says warningly.

But the snake merely offers him a flat salute before turning to walk down the street, in the same direction the young woman had gone.

“Ugh,” Kuroo fumes. “What an asshole. And if he’s really going to talk to her, I can’t just beat it out of him.”

Kenma sets a hand against Kuroo’s shoulder. “You wouldn’t do that, anyway.”

“I would,” Kuroo protests. “I’m sick and tired of him being so fucking cryptic! Why won’t anyone just tell us what’s actually going on?”

Because they don’t know, Kenma thinks. Maybe each of them only has a piece of the larger puzzle, and they’re clinging to the knowledge that they do have in the hopes of not being overwhelmed.

“Kuro,” Kenma says, glancing down at his phone to check the time, “We’re going to be late.”

Kuroo grumbles as he gets to his feet. “I know, I know. Let’s get going. We’ll deal with the snake later.”

The Yaku family restaurant is full to the gills when Kenma and Kuroo arrive, but thankfully they’ve already got a table reserved at the back. Chairs are arranged around a large circular table, piled high with food. Four young men are already sitting at the table, and as Kenma and Kuroo approach, it’s Lev that spots them first.

“Kuroo-san, Kenma-san!” he calls out. “I ordered a bunch of food! I told them you’d be paying for it all, Kuroo-san!”

“It’s because he wanted to keep talking to the waiter,” Kai says in his calm, staid way when Kuroo bristles. They’d only found Kai a few weeks ago, but he’s taken everything very much in stride. He has round, intelligent eyes in both his human and animal forms, and a smile that makes Kenma think he’s more amused than unmoved by the antics around him.

Next to Kai is Shibayama, who still has the look of a kitten even though he’s human, today. He looks around at the other guardians with a wide, expectant expression, hanging off of Yamamoto’s every word as he tells some no-doubt exaggerated story.

Between Lev and Kai are two empty chairs, which Kenma and Kuroo seat themselves in. As they sit, something seems to lock into place, and Kenma feels a rush of magic around him. He’s growing more used to sensations like that; with every new guardian they find, the magic in the air grows thicker and more potent. And when related guardians gather together, the feeling of magic is so strong that Kenma wonders that he never knew it existed before he met Kuroo. It’s impossible to ignore, now.

Yaku appears a moment later, hefting a tray laden with yet more food. His expression softens when he sees Kenma, and he neatly steps around Lev as he puts the dishes down on the table.

“These guys have been waiting for you for half an hour,” Yaku tells Kenma, eying Kuroo and Yamamoto suspiciously. “You’re not all in some kind of cult, are you? Or a gang?”

“No,” Kenma says easily. “They’re just friends.” It’s a strange word to use, but he doesn’t have another that he can share with Yaku. And when he says it, he realizes that it’s true.

“Well,” Yaku says, “that messy-haired one looks shady, if you ask me.”

Kenma somehow manages to keep a straight face when he says, “Oh. He is.”

Kuroo pulls away from where he’d been talking to Kai, shooting Kenma a wounded look over his shoulder. “Hey, Kenma! You’re supposed to support me, you know!”

“And you’re supposed to keep them all under control,” Kenma says in response, gesturing around the table. Kai and Shibayama are well-behaved, but Lev and Yamamoto are piling their plates higher and higher, screaming challenges at each other as they scarf down their meat.

Yaku laughs. “It’s nice that you have such a big group of friends. I wondered, that day—” He cuts himself off, shaking his head. Then he turns slightly, as if feeling someone’s gaze on the back of his neck.

At the table, Lev looks at Yaku over the rim of his plate, his eyes slanted with focus. He looks like a lion crouching in the grass that has just discovered its prey.

Yaku, however, is unperturbed. “Sit up straight,” he snaps. “I’m not going to pick up after you if you spill all that food on the floor.”

Lev straightens immediately, looking affronted. Beside him, Yamamoto howls with laughter.

“I’ll leave you to your meal,” Yaku says, turning to go.

Kenma feels a pang of something, like he wants to reach out and ask Yaku to stay. But that doesn’t make sense, and there’s no reason for Yaku to remain amongst them. He can’t, not if they want to eventually talk about guardian business. But the feeling lingers, even after Yaku is gone. When Kenma looks up, he catches Lev’s eye, and thinks he sees a similar emotion lingering in his green eyes.

“Yamamoto,” Kuroo snaps ten minutes later, the third time his conversation with Kai is interrupted, “shut up.”

The conversation stills for only a moment, and then everyone is laughing. The room is filled with light, and Kenma sees magic dancing around them. It’s the warmest he’s ever felt, even before Kuroo rests his hand against Kenma’s knee, under the table.

They all have so much to face, Kenma thinks. Shibayama and Kai barely know what it is to be guardians, yet, and Yamamoto and Lev aren’t much better off. And yet, they seem ready to face all of it together. Maybe Kuroo inspires that confidence in them, or maybe they’re just a group blessed with incredible resilience. Either way, however the magic chooses its guardians seems to be working.

But in the back of Kenma’s mind, the itching sensation that’s been present all day only grows louder. He winces, reaching up to rub at the base of his skull.

“Kenma-san?” Lev asks.

But Kenma is turned away from him, looking out the window. Just as he does, a streak of white wings passes outside, a bird flying past.

Kenma doesn’t need to think about what he’s seeing. He knows what it is.

He’s never been one for effort or initiative, and yet he’s on his feet in an instant. This is too important to ignore.

“Kuro!” he says, and his voice isn’t loud, not compared to Lev’s or Yamamoto’s, but everyone around the table stills.

Kuroo’s on his feet a moment later. He doesn’t question Kenma, just waits.

Kenma points in the direction the bird had flown. Neither of them hesitate; they run.

He’s running so fast that his lungs are burning, but Kenma doesn’t stop. The instant he and Kuroo step outside, light assaults his senses, so bright that he can’t see past it. Kenma doesn’t even try to, just follows the wings he’d seen, reaching out with his magic to find the direction that the light is going in. Kuroo is at his side, following immediately whenever Kenma makes a sharp turn.

He has no idea where he’s leading them. They take three turns, then keep running for a time, then seem to circle back in the direction they’d come. But the light is burning brighter in front of Kenma, and he has no doubt that they’re going the right way.

Finally, the air around him clears of magic and he makes sense of where they are— one of those spots of grass in between the high-rises of the city, a small cluster of trees and flowers set aside to make the space feel more real. And standing leaned against one of the trees, hands behind his back and chin tilted skyward, is a young man with violently orange hair.

Kenma pauses, because he recognizes him. They hadn’t met for very long, and it had been months ago, but he’s sure it’s the same person. A young man who it hurts to look at, because his presence is like the sun itself— too bright.

“You,” Kenma croaks out, because he doesn’t know what else to say. Should he have realized, the first time they met? By not recognizing him, had Kenma doomed all of them to these months of misery and uncertainty? “The bird,” he says, still trying to catch his breath.

The young man turns to look at Kenma. His gaze is perceptive and hyper-focused, brown eyes intense in a way that seems hardly human. But then he blinks, and his entire countenance changes. He smiles, wide and genuine.

“Hey!” he says. “I know you! Or, well, we accidentally knocked you over, that one time!”

“I…” Kenma says, because his mind is still running in circles.

“I’m Hinata,” the young man continues. “Hinata Shouyou. Why were you running so fast?”

Kuroo looks just as baffled as Kenma feels. “Were you just a bird?” he asks.

Hinata looks up at Kuroo and seems to deflate a little, as though Kuroo’s very presence is intimidating. Kenma can see why that might be, on an abstract level, but it’s still laughable. There’s nothing actually intimidating about Kuroo.

“A bird?” Hinata asks, tilting his head. “What are you talking about? The only birds around here are the crows.”

Kenma frowns. There’s a niggling sensation in the back of his mind, and when he reaches out with his magic his suspicions are confirmed. “Why are you lying?”

“I’m not!” Hintata says, defiant.

“Kenma,” Kuroo mutters in an aside, “He doesn’t feel like a guardian.”

When he takes a moment to notice, Kenma realizes that Kuroo is right. Kageyama is constantly surrounded by a maelstrom of shadow magic, and the other guardians where their patterns of light and shadow obviously, if not to the same extent as the Shadow King. Hintata feels like light magic, but he’s not creating it the same way a guardian would.

“But that doesn’t make sense,” Kenma says, brow furrowing. “I saw a white bird—”

“Um,” a soft voice says, and Kenma looks up to see a young woman sitting in the tree branches above Hinata’s head. She’s a small thing, knees drawn up to her chest as she holds out her hands for balance. Warm, golden-blonde hair frames her face, and she’s wearing a blouse as white as the feathers of the bird Kenma had seen.

But nothing about her physical appearance really registers, because as soon as Kenma sees her he’s overcome with light. It’s not like the sun— not too bright to look at. Instead, it’s a warm and inviting presence, pulling in all of his senses until he can’t look away. Her magic is like a magnet, like quicksand, a force strong and undeniable. For the first time in his life, he wants to get closer to a person without knowing anything about them. He steps forward, just as Kuroo drops to his knees beside him.

“Oh,” Kuroo says, very softly. There are tears gathering in his eyes, and he makes no motion to brush them away.

“Yachi-san!” Hintata says, looking up at her in alarm. “It’s okay, I was going to cover for you!”

Yachi smiles nervously. “It’s okay, Hinata-kun. I don’t think they mean any harm. Right?”

Hinata pauses to consider this. He points with his thumb over his shoulder at Kenma. “I like him,” he says definitively.

Yachi’s smile grows slightly more confident. “See? It will be fine—” The branch she’s leaning against splits, suddenly, and Yachi falls. Hinata is there to catch her in an instant, but they both land on the ground in a jumbled pile of limbs.

Hinata makes it back to his feet, first, and then helps Yachi up. As she dusts herself off, light radiates around her in the shape of wings.

“You’re…” Kenma pauses, looking for the right title, “The Queen of Light?”

“Um,” Yachi starts to say, tugging at the ends of her hair. She looks between Kenma and Kuroo nervously.

“Kenma,” Kuroo says suddenly, reaching out and grabbing Kenma’s hand.

In that moment, Kenma’s vision is flooded with both shadows and light. He sees the engravings on the door to the white house— the fox, crow, owl and cat all facing outwards. But now, before his eyes, he sees new carvings forming in the wood— a snake, a weasel, a bear and an eagle. They face inwards, watching the original four animals with gleaming eyes of green, purple, turquoise and maroon.

All at once, the world tilts on its axis.

Of course I’ll hurt you.
Of course you’ll hurt me.
Of course we will hurt each other.
But this is the very condition of existence.
To become spring, means accepting the risk of winter.
To be come presence, means accepting the risk of absence
.”