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somewhere in between

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There’s this one day in late April, or early May. They walk home together, and Kuroo doesn’t talk.

By itself, there’s nothing weird about not talking. They never talk all the way home; they fall too easily into quiet lulls crossing the street and on the station platform, drifting in and out of conversation about small, inconsequential things. I fell asleep in Bio today. My ankle hurts. What’s for dinner?  But today Kenma can’t help noticing there’s something tight about Kuroo’s silences, something like a white sky before a storm. It’s in the bounce of his knee up and down on the train, and in the way he worries his lower lip between his teeth, relentless, almost hard enough to tear the skin.

If he thinks hard enough, Kenma can map it back to an hour and a half ago. After practice, their captain had called Kuroo over to his locker, and they’d stood buttoning up their shirts side by side, heads nodding together, talking in low voices that melted under the white noise of the locker room. And when they’d finished with whatever it was Kuroo had ushered Kenma out and not said a word.

It’s only after they get to Kenma’s house that they fall into patterns that are more normal. Kuroo follows him in when Kenma opens the gate, leaves his shoes neatly to one side in the entranceway and toes into the slippers Kenma’s mother always sets aside just for him. He lets Kenma lead him up the stairs, closes the door to Kenma’s room behind him so they can arrange themselves as they always have—Kenma cross-legged on the rug, back braced against the side of his bed, Kuroo’s head in his lap as he lets his body sprawl across the floor. He opens his biology book, Kenma his phone, calling up a Reddit thread for the new game he’s playing and proceeding to skim through it with only half his attention.

Bow users are important. While Fliers aren't as common as Horse Emblem, being able to oneshot them is a godsend before—

Maybe it’s the positioning that does it, the physical act of putting his body at ease, that finally makes Kuroo talk, minutes later. “Senpai wanted to know why we always walk home together.”

Kenma doesn’t answer, only inclines his head to show he’s listening. He doesn’t stop reading, either—My rule with items is to not use any until the last 3 matches—because too much focus too soon will scare them both. Instead he keeps Kuroo in his peripheral vision, marking carefully the way he breathes, the invisible pressure on his chest when he draws it in deep and slow.

“I said your house is next to mine.”

Something about the act of repeating his own words makes Kuroo frown, a little furrow forming between his brows as he turns them over partway between his mind and his mouth. Kenma reaches down and pats at the wrinkle with two fingers until it smoothes out under his touch. Your house is next to mine is a statement of pure fact and always has been. In a sense, there’s nothing to deliberate.

“Did he say anything else?”

It’s not as if he really wants to know, but Kuroo’s voice has trailed off and gone quiet in that very specific way that says he’d like to be prompted before he says the next thing. All he wants is the assurance that Kenma is listening—and because he’s Kuroo, who on every other day walks tall and speaks first and asks for nothing, Kenma figures he could do worse than give it to him when he does ask, every time.

He doesn’t protest, either, when Kuroo takes the hand from his brow and grasps it in his own instead. “He said, ‘You two are awfully close.’”

You two are awfully close. It’s not hard for Kenma to fill in the gaps, spoken or not. Kozume has no fight in him. Kozume’s nothing like you at all. He’s got to be running more if he’s going to build up his stamina. Could you talk to him, Kuroo, he listens to you. Never mind that they run at opposite ends of the line during practice, that there are reasons for this besides the aforementioned pitiable stamina, besides Kuroo’s much longer legs. It has something to do with how they both know that as early as now Kuroo’s possibly being groomed for captain, that Kenma’s going to get extra laps for at least another month, and the unspoken question that lingers on the tip of more than one tongue: How are you two even friends?

“And?” Kenma asks. Prompting again—he squeezes Kuroo’s fingers between his, gentle pressure right over the knobby joints where the bones connect.

“I told him we did grow up together.” Kenma had caught that part, earlier. Kuroo had laughed as he said it, but it hadn’t quite been his laugh—long and loud and yowling, head thrown back, chest open. His eyes had been somewhere else, sliding across the room to where Kenma stood stuffing a crumpled, damp towel into his backpack: C’mon, let’s go home.

He’s not laughing now, as he lets the book lie facedown across his belly and looks up into Kenma’s face, half-obscured still by the phone. “Has anyone asked you about me?”

“Once. Sort of.” Kenma shrugs. When he looks down to meet Kuroo’s eye he sees he’s rubbed his lip raw from all the gnawing. “I think they like talking to you better, because you actually answer their questions.”

It was that guy, that other first year. Yamamoto Torasomething. It had been a Thursday; Kenma remembers passing drills and a voice like a tiger’s growl in his ear and his cheeks beginning to sting and heat up with something like defiance. Just because you and Kuroo-san are like family, doesn’t mean—

(That day, Kuroo had been passing to Yaku-san, and he’d looked in their direction as if he’d heard the sound of his name, but he hadn’t come over. He hadn’t asked what it was about, either, on the way home or anytime after.)

Kenma studies Kuroo’s expression, follows his gaze down to where it rests on their linked hands. His forehead has begun to wrinkle again, but Kenma’s other hand can’t reach over to smooth it this time. Kenma’s other hand is holding his phone and scrolling down almost mechanically, like he’s still reading when he knows he’s not. He doesn’t see why he should put it down—has in fact begun to wonder distantly if doing so would be admitting there’s something more here than what they’ve always had, something different they suddenly need to talk about.

Not so long ago, when they were younger, it was fair game to share everything—food, clothes, touches dispensed in that unthinking little-kid kind of way. Kuroo taking his hand when the light changed, walking to the store for ice cream. Kenma swiping a smudge of dirt from Kuroo’s cheek with the pad of his thumb. Then, what, they’d turned fourteen and thirteen and Kuroo had shot up a head without warning, and suddenly there was too much of him to fit in Kenma’s bed at sleepovers. And while neither of them had minded curling into each other to make the most of the space, knees between each other’s legs and arms looping every which way, Kuroo’s fingers and Kenma’s hair, Kenma’s small hands and Kuroo’s broad back, there had been something different about the mornings, something to do with waking up too warm. Suddenly, questions of normal, of too close, of just friends.

In the years since, they’ve never talked about drawing lines. The lines are just things that happen according to a logic of their own—there’s never been a need to say in so many words that we can’t do this anymore, okay, maybe we can still do this but only sometimes, only here at home, I know how you hate questions—

“Do you want—sorry.” Both their palms are slick with sweat now; Kuroo untangles their fingers and pulls his hand away like it’s his fault, wiping it down on one pant leg in long, too-purposeful strokes. Kenma brushes his own palm once down the front of his shirt and waits for him to continue, doesn’t look up when he asks, “Do you want me to start answering them differently?”

Kenma brings his eyes back to the screen. He keeps scrolling without reading, lets the thread fly by, as much for Kuroo’s ease as for his own. “Like how?”

“Like it’s nothing.” Kuroo inhales, and Kenma can hear it shudder in his chest. “Like there’s nothing to ask about.”

Except that would be a lie, and Kuroo is only sometimes good at lying. This is something that Kenma knows about Kuroo that he is sure no one else does; he’s seen him talk his way out of a missed assignment here, a broken curfew there. But Kuroo can’t say things convincingly if he doesn’t believe them, and while Kenma has no doubt he could recite the words if asked—“it’s nothing”—they both know the truth is something else.

“It’s not nothing, Kuro.”

“I know,” Kuroo says. He looks about to bite his lip again. “Is that okay with you, though?”

Kenma decides this should be the part where he puts his phone down, so he can catch Kuroo’s face (warm, unreasonably warm even for someone who claims to be more hot-blooded than the average person) between his two hands (clammy again, and gross, but whatever) and give him his full (albeit upside-down) attention—because sometimes, once in a very rare while, they do things that scare them both.

“I just want us to be what we are,” Kenma tells him. “I don’t care about the rest.”

Torasomething is wrong, Kenma thinks. Kuroo isn’t like family, but neither has Kenma ever called Kuroo anything that might distinguish what he is. He never calls him his childhood friend, or his best friend, or his teammate, or even his captain, past or present or future—shrinks from the thought of calling Kuroo his anything. Kuroo is himself; anything else has always seemed, somehow, to fall short.

Which is to say that for now maybe it’s enough for this—all this, whatever this is—to continue. The practicing separately, the walking home together, the extra running, the annoying questions. And everything they have at home, Kuroo’s head in Kenma’s lap and their fingers tangling and interlocking and holding on so long they get sweaty from the warmth, Kuroo grinning his ugliest grin in the moments he finally realizes how silly he’s being.

“‘Kay, then,” he says, and opens his hand—and Kenma, reaching out, slots his fingers without thinking back into the spaces between.