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the walk home

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i like my body

when it is with your body

 

– e.e. cumming

 

 

 

 

i.

As a child, Kenma could never hold scissors properly.

He'd slip bony fingers through one crevice and give his thumb plenty of room to roam against the wider side, but all he'd show for it was jagged paper edges and red pelts on the rims of his fingers. And pain, lots of it—a dull ache that persisted for the day. He doesn't like using scissors anymore.

"Ahh, that's because most scissors are made for right-handed people," his mother explains, when he doesn't want to cut and paste stars on his solar system art project.

This is what Kenma hears: You're not like most people.

 

-

 

Kuroo Tetsurou is tall. By Kenma's standards.

He casts a looming shadow standing in the right angle in the right light, and Kenma's never had to crane his neck to look at another boy before. It's convenient in a way; the sun had been too hot and too bright, and his mother's always lectured him for only ever staring at his feet.

Kuroo Tetsurou is his age. But not for long, in exactly one month, Kuroo tells him.

It crosses Kenma's mind to tell him his birthday had been only yesterday, but the thought does not rise to his throat. He doesn't want to seem as if he's fishing for birthday greetings. And he doesn't want to be asked how many kids had come to the birthday party he'd never had.

Kuroo Tetsurou has bed hair like attempting to clear the most challenging level on a game without ever having played the walk-through: a disaster.

He sleeps with two pillows pressed to the sides of his head, to block sound. The notion seems so senseless, until Kuroo tells him his parents never stop shouting—that they don't know any other way to show their love anymore than to yell.

And then, finally, he learns: "I'm Kuroo Tetsurou, by the way."

He plops down in the second swing, without asking Kenma whether he'd be okay with having company. But Kenma doesn't mind, not really, not when Kuroo stares blankly at the sky, kicks his legs, and doesn't ask Kenma why he can't meet a person's eyes for more than a few seconds at a time.

"...Kozume Kenma," he introduces himself, more slowly, hesitantly.

They sway together, always out of sync.

 

-

 

Looking back, Kenma decides these had been the two most important moments of his life.

 

 

 

 

 

ii.

Morning brings with it a dull sense of something unpleasant settled in his stomach. Kenma rolls over once, tangled in his blankets, and ducks his face under the covers to bring himself back into temporary darkness. He likes it: the dark. He finds comfort in being cloaked, in being so shadowed that even the rare person at his side might only make out his figure faintly, never enough to actually see. The light barely passing through his window, through the cracks in his firmly shut blinds and curtains, is almost blinding in contrast.

Mornings are nice too, Kenma had decided not too long ago. It's not frequently that he cracks open his eyes along with the sunrise, but on the occasions he does, it's calming to switch on his GameBoy and loll on his bed for hours, passing time with his games until the smell of breakfast already on the table beckons him to rise.

This morning, however, does not allow him such a luxury. It doesn't even allow him more than a few minutes to himself—just him and that dull, unsettled feeling in his stomach to ponder over—when loud footsteps headed to his room cause him to groan. He's here already.

He counts down. Ten steps up the stairs. Four steps down the hall. Seven steps to stand before Kenma's bedroom door. And two firm, careful knocks before that propriety dissolves and the door slams open.

And then an oily voice sings, "Kenma!"

"Go away," he grumbles into his pillow, eyes closed, frowning against his blanket. He's fairly sure he hadn't said it loud enough to be heard, but then, Kuroo has always had a peculiar way of catching every little thing about a person they didn't want noticed.

Kenma feels his mattress dip, and then that voice next to his ear teases, "Hm? Did you say something?"

"...I said it's too early." He chickens out. He always does, even when this boy with his wild hair and intuitive eyes pricks at every part of him.

"Maybe if it wasn't the first day of school, sure."

There it is again. Something dark and heavy settles in Kenma's stomach. He curls tighter into a ball, glaring at the criss-cross stitched pattern that forms his blanket, and goes to grapple for his GameBoy in the tangled mess of sheets until he remembers he had foolishly left it on his bedside table behind him.

Kuroo, who's now busied himself looking for some slit to slip his hand through with which to yank off the blanket, doesn't seem to notice. "But your mom asked me specially to come over and get you up and make sure I get you there on time. She worries about you a lot."

Kenma remembers this time last year. It had been an early morning just like this one, the sky blue and the leaves on the trees turning a vibrant green, when his feet had automatically changed direction from the path to school and led him to some abandoned park instead. He'd thrown down his backpack and pulled out his GameBoy, and the day had passed in quiet peace, like a memory that existed in some timeless limbo. He'd quietly slinked back home when the school day had ended and children had begun to gather in the park, but of course he would never have been able to get away with his truancy; his mother had received a call from the school, and Kenma had found both his parents waiting for him when he'd inched open his front door, demanding answers.

And Kenma had stared at his feet, clutching his backpack to his small chest, and muttered that he didn't want to go to school with all those right-handed people.

His mother simply hadn't understood, and since the incident, she shoots him quick, worried looks every now and then when she thinks he's not watching. But Kenma is always watching.

"Don't make your mother worry, stupid," Kuroo lectures him loudly, knocking against his head. "And get up, would you? I'll be late because of you, too."

"I didn't ask you to do this," Kenma huffs, his upper lip shaking in annoyance.

Kuroo hears him clearly this time. "Oh? Got a mouth on you now, do you, brat?"

That's all the warning Kenma receives before firm hands suddenly force their way into his blanket, dig under his back, and yank him sloppily off the bed. His eyes shoot open, head whipping out from under the cover, only to see Kuroo's smirking face as he holds the boy firmly to his chest.

"Get changed," he drawls smugly. Then he sets Kenma down on his feet just as quickly, catching him when he stumbles after unexpectedly being righted from his horizontal position. Once he's sure the brunet is not going to keel over, he bounds out of the room, shooting down the flight of stairs and towards the kitchen, where he can be heard exclaiming, "Operation: Kenma's First Day is underway, Kozume-san! Can I have extra egg in my lunch box?"

Kenma clutches desperately at his falling blanket, one leg of his pajamas wound tightly around his knee, and curses the day his mother had decided Kuroo would make some sort of perfect, surrogate second son.

It's been only several months since Kuroo had found him lounging quietly on a swing and taken the one next to him, that fateful day at the park. Somehow, somehow, they have yet to part ever since. Kuroo's barged his way into Kenma's home, into his room and his mother's heart, and made it a home for himself as well.

 

-

 

The feeling doesn't quite settle. It rears its ugliest form now and then; in the shower; when looking for his matching sock; while double-checking he's packed all his necessary chargers. It dulls a bit at breakfast, when all of Kuroo's smug looks numb it with irritation instead. But then they're slipping on their shoes, accepting their lunches and kisses from Kenma's mother, before starting down the familiar path Kenma knows all too well. And it rears again.

He peeks at Kuroo, secretly behind the cover of his bangs, and finds the boy carefree at his side. He has his hands tucked in his pockets, humming some relaxed tune and smiling the vague grin that Kenma's realized is never not on his face. Some form of irritation pricks at Kenma again. This is Kuroo's first day at a new school, yet still he's the picture of ease. It's a form of unfairness in the world, Kenma thinks, as a looming building of a blinding white color comes into view and his stomach flips.

"See, look?" Kuroo tuts, scratching the back of his head. "You made us late and now we're gonna have to fight our way through this lot of people."

An even less pleasant thought, Kenma thinks uneasily, watching hordes of students push one another in their attempt to see the class listings. He's content to stand back, just wait until the crowd dwindles before cautiously looking for his name printed in small characters along with hundreds of other, faceless names.

Kuroo has other plans. "Come on," he sighs, and catches Kenma's wrist, pulling him into the monster's belly.

"Kuro, wait—" he begins, but his voice has never had much presence, much like the rest of him. All it takes is several hundred voices speaking over him at once, and his gets lost somewhere in the noise. He finds himself alone in the crowd not a moment later. A shove, a kick, and Kuroo nowhere to be found.

Kenma feels his lungs contract, finds air hard to breathe in. He’s all alone in this vastness and the crowd is stifling, made up of grubby children who chatter a mile a minute and won't stop laughing—why won't they stop laughing? Kenma feels sweaty hands against his neck, something powerfully fruity waft under his nose, and an accidental elbow to his side makes him shrivel into himself.

"Sorry," the perpetrator throws over his shoulder, half laughing as he catches up with his friends.

Kenma rubs his aching side, retreating behind his bangs, and restlessly gropes his way through the crowd of children until he stumbles upon a small opening, almost tripping on his way out to clear, open sky. Taking in air is like taking in life.

Kuroo finds him hunched against the entry wall, his beloved GameBoy clutched in white knuckles, his eyes glassed over as he plays on instinct.

"There you are!" he exclaims, shaking his head, and snatches away the console before Kenma even looks out from under his bangs. "Where did you go? I looked up both our classes already since you completely disapp—"

But finally he catches golden eyes, dull and murky and overcome with a certain kind of darkness to them. His tongue ties. Kenma tries shoving his hands behind his back, but this is Kuroo, who's always had a peculiar way of catching every little thing about a person they didn't want noticed: like how Kenma's knuckles are still painted white, even with nothing to grasp on to.

He curses low under his breath, paling. "Sh-shit. Kenma, I'm sorry, is this my fault?" he demands, pressing the game back into Kenma's palms. Even he can tell now, that the console is more than just a toy to his friend. "Your mom told me you're not so good around people sometimes? Is this about that? Shit, I'm sorry, Kenma."

"...It's okay," Kenma mumbles, because he's always hated apologies, has never known what face to make when he's at the end of one, or how to accept one with grace even when he feels like there's a flashing Game Over in his chest. He switches his game back on and stares at the screen, hypnotized.

"No, it's not okay," Kuroo growls at himself, smacking his forehead. "I feel like the biggest ass."

"You're not an ass," Kenma replies automatically, rubbing one foot over the other with unease.

Kuroo shoots him a long, shrewd look. But he must see something in his tense posture, in the way he shifts his weight or swats his bangs or tilts his mouth with heightened unease, that makes him warm. He must realize that self-degradation is not what Kenma needs right now.

Kenma glances up at the fingers that slide over his hair, at Kuroo's palm patting his head and mussing up his locks. He falters at the sudden gentleness on his face, a look he has never seen on Kuroo before, all warm eyes and firm jaw like he's being affectionate with precise focus. Kenma has to look away.

"It'll be okay," Kuroo murmurs to him then, barely heard over the crowd. He doesn't stop petting Kenma's head, the smooth, monotonous glide of his fingers visibly easing the boy with the white knuckles. Shuffling a little closer, he repeats, "It'll be okay."

Kenma bites his lips, slowly pressing his console to his knees along with not-so-white knuckles, and almost believes it to be true.

 

-

 

There is no Kuroo in his class.

The realization hits outside the plastic barrier between him and the muffled noises of children he can hear beyond the door. He's standing quietly in the hall like he's forgotten how to walk in, only his backpack straps there to clutch for support.

Kuroo had departed for a classroom down the hall with the children his age, tossing one last wave over his shoulder before his back had straightened and he'd disappeared into the mill. And then Kenma had been alone for, he realizes, the first time in a long while. It's been several months since that fateful day in the park, since Kuroo has barged into his home, and Kenma can't remember a time when he'd left even once. Already his presence hangs like a dense cloud, in the barrage of texts and the afternoons filled with volleyball and the quiet evenings when they lounge with video games. Already Kuroo has somehow made himself a presence that Kenma can't remember having lived without.

There's a burst of laughter from the other end of the door, one that jolts him into the present. His hand has reached for the handle, but he's yet to make himself known to his class.

Kenma sighs. Kuroo or no Kuroo, he's done this every year that school has been an issue in his life. It will always be an issue.

He slides open the door.

The noise increases exponentially, and now Kenma can see how everyone’s divided themselves into groups. A gaggle of girls near the front of the class burst into laughter over a magazine clipping of some pop idol, while an even larger group of boys wrestles over a gaming console and knocks over an entire row of desks that they pay no mind to. Kenma’s palms sweat at the sight. He can’t imagine ever handing his GameBoy to another, can’t imagine never having it available to him.

There’s a seating chart drawn up on the chalkboard, but it’s clear no one has paid it any mind just yet. Kenma carefully finds his own name, then glances at his assigned seat. A small flock of boys has perched themselves around it. A sandy-haired child he doesn’t recognize is sitting in Kenma’s seat, laughing over something his neighbor says to him. He’s carefree in the way all boys this age are meant to be.

Kenma quietly shuffles close. It should be simple. A simple 'Excuse me, that’s my seat' should be enough for him to reclaim what is his own. But then there’s another burst of laughter from the friends, and he takes the seat in front instead. He pulls out his game and instantly loses himself in it, white knuckles attempting to make dents in the plastic as he stares at the flashing logo and tries to settle his relentlessly tapping foot.

His character drops down into the virtual world, awaiting his orders. Kenma approaches the nearest NPC with ease and starts a conversation, and he’s presented with a new quest and a choice: ignore the request, or proceed with bravery. He presses ‘proceed.’

It’s only when their teacher slinks in minutes later, attendance sheet in hand, that the boys disperse and Kenma quickly switches to the desk that is rightfully his own.

“All right, kiddos, settle down!”

The first day of homeroom has been the same for as long as Kenma can remember: a mad scramble for seats, a long and winding speech from their teacher about how they were now one year older, and a collective jitter at the start of class introductions. Kenma might like the routine, if not for the last.

“We’ll start by the window,” their teacher decides cheerfully, and Kenma rubs one foot over the other when the boy at the front of his row reluctantly stands.

“I-I’m Takara Itaru,” he says, jittery and nervous, but then he takes a calming breath and carries on much steadier than before. “I like soccer and video games and Math. Let’s be good friends.” His soft, kind introduction is met with smiles, which he shyly returns as he takes his seat. Kenma frowns.

The second boy stands and introduces himself grandly, ending with a chirpy “let’s get along well!” supplemented with a wink and a lopsided victory sign held up to one eye. The class answers him with good-natured jeers and his friend on the other side of the room throws a wadded piece of paper at him, eliciting a laugh. Kenma huffs to himself quietly; the boy is almost trying too hard.

The third student stands and bows rigidly, pushing up his too-big glasses when they slip to his nose. Kenma shrinks behind his bangs. His feet won’t settle. The student stiffly says his name and someone prematurely elects him the class president and most of the class agrees excitedly and the student doesn’t exactly look displeased about it and then—then it’s Kenma’s turn.

Silence rings in the classroom. Kenma burns a hole into his folded hands in his lap. After a moment he can hear rustling and shifting, as the students in the next row crane their necks to attempt to see the face of the peculiarly silent boy hidden behind his bangs. He swallows, his throat tight and closed up.

“Umm… fourth boy down the row?” his teacher calls awkwardly. “Introduce yourself.”

Kenma’s chair scrapes when he stands slowly, the shrill sound seeming to echo. “Kozume…” he whispers to his desk. His fingers fidget with one another and long for the familiar touch of a console. “…Kozume Kenma.”

He sits back down.

The teacher coughs. “Don’t you want to say anything about yourself?”

Kenma finally looks up, and someone audibly takes in a sharp breath at his peculiar yellow eyes that seem to pierce through everything, that he’s always hated—they garner him too much attention. He sees twenty-five pairs of eyes looking back at him, all of them perplexed, none of them kind. His feet rub together. Digging his nails into his arm, he quickly shakes his head and shrinks down again.

Seemingly knowing better than to push the issue, his teacher nods towards the last student in their row, who scrambles to her feet, but the attention never really seems to lift off the peculiar brunet by the window. Every so often someone will shoot him a furtive glance or whisper something to their neighbor, thinking that he’s not watching. But Kenma is always watching.

“All right, someone’s gotta take the attendance down to the office!” Met with a collective wail, their teacher laughs. “If no one volunteers then I’m just picking someone at random! Let’s see here… I choose—oh. Um.”

She doesn’t need to say the name for every eye in the room to stray towards the window.

Kenma shoots up and marches to the front of the room, resisting the urge to snatch the attendance sheet pressed to his hand. Holding it protectively to his chest, he exits the room without ever looking up from his shoes.

It’s only when the door slides shut behind him, bottling up any noise on the other side, that he can breathe again. There’s no one in the empty hallway, not in front of him or behind him or looking at him. He could feel them all—all those sharp, calculating gazes, piercing him from head to toe, trying to figure him out or dismissing him. He doesn’t understand why people can’t just leave him alone.

Lips white and shaking, he slinks down the hall towards the office. He’ll take his time.

Making progress down the hallway, he frowns when a burst of laughter from a stray classroom follows him, and he plans to quicken his steps, not stop. But then he hears the familiar, oily voice he’s grown accustomed to in the preceding months, and realizes he’s unknowingly reached Kuroo’s classroom.

His breath catches. He should keep walking, but for some reason he can’t resist backtracking, peering through a part in the door to find that messy bedhead. Kuroo is standing up, beginning his own class introduction.

“I’m Kuroo Tetsurou,” he tells his class, smiling big but with that touch of something sinister that his face was never not without. “I just moved here a few months ago. Since it was the middle of the term, I had to finish up last year with a bunch of tutors.” His nose sticks up. “So that probably means I’m smarter than all of you, honestly. If you ever need help with studying or anything then let me know—and maybe I’ll take pity on you peasants.”

The classroom bursts into laughter; some snort, some boo him loudly in jest, and the boy in the seat next to his stands up to swing an arm around Kuroo’s neck and yank him back down. Kuroo protests with an indignant “hey!” but he’s laughing too, eyes twinkling when a couple boys clap him on the back or ruffle his already mussed hair.

Kenma slowly steps away.

Closing the miniscule gap in the door, he shuffles back down the hall as had been his original path. For some reason his ears won’t stop ringing and he feels inexplicably embarrassed, though over what, he doesn’t understand.

And he realizes belatedly that Kuroo, for all his kind smiles and gentle pats on the head and pushy friendship, has always been a right-handed person.

 

-

 

His mother’s eyes follow him from the moment he returns home, to when he kicks off his shoes, to when he slips past the kitchen and towards the stairs without looking at her or even looking up from his game at all. He doesn’t mean to ignore her; he just needs this, needs the cool touch of the console atop his fingers.

“How was your first day?” she asks him, trying to hide the tinge of worry in her voice. Kenma hears it anyway. He hadn’t skipped or run away to the park or anything this time, so there was no need for her to sound like that or look like that.

“Fine,” he mumbles, and doesn’t elaborate, one foot already on the first step.

“There’s… a package here for you,” she informs him delicately.

He pauses. The step creaks under his foot, but he retracts it and finally puts down his game, eyes trailing towards the living room. He can see something brown and very parcel-like on the coffee table. His parents had pre-ordered him the newest game on the market months ago, as a birthday present, and he doesn’t know what else it could be. Abandoning the stairs altogether, he eagerly changes path to the living room, and thinks he spies his mother smiling out the corner of his eye.

He tears apart the packaging, fingers the cool plastic of the cover, and has just begun unwinding his controller when the sound of his own name gives him pause.

“Kenma!” Kuroo’s standing at the entryway, eyebrow quirked. “We gonna practice volleyball today or what? You said you’d toss for me!”

For one second—for one horrible, retched moment that makes his blood run cold—Kenma wonders whether telling him ‘no’ would mean Kuroo would instead go find those boys from his class who’d been patting his back and ruffling his hair. He can’t get the memory of the classroom out his mind. But the controller in his hand keeps him grounded.

“…No,” he says softly, turning back to his gaming system. “My new game came today.”

“Wha—you serious?!” Kuroo whoops, instantly rushing over to join him on the floor. He grabs the second controller, the one that had somehow become his before Kenma had realized it, and begins setting up for a second player. “Shoulda told me, you dolt! We gotta give it a proper spin, of course.”

Kenma just stares at the start-up screen on the TV and pettily grumbles “not a dolt” under his breath, ears ringing. They rang when Kuroo chose to stay close, and they rang when Kuroo felt a million miles away. Maybe his ears were just broken. Maybe Kuroo had ruined them.

The older boy picks up the game cover, reading off the back. “'Build your own fantasy world while simultaneously cultivating your army to battle rival kingdoms and protect the princess. Over one-hundred customizable characters.’” He whistles low. “Wow. You sure have a good taste in games, Kenma.”

Kenma hides behind his bangs, wondering why that felt like an even greater compliment than Kuroo telling him he liked Kenma’s tosses the best over anyone else’s.

The first step of the game invites them to create their own avatars. Kenma gets to work immediately, taking the task with the utmost importance. He picks out state-of-the-art armor, equips his character with only the best weapons, and balances his stats for a well-rounded soldier.

So engrossed in his task, he only checks on Kuroo’s character once he’s satisfied with his own. His eyebrows immediately furrow. Kuroo has fashioned himself a shrimpy sort of mage cloaked in white, brown bangs covering his face and a spell book tucked under his arm. And his stats—he mouths the words to himself: zero strength and plus-five intelligence.

Kuroo is watching him, looking amused, so he asks outright. “Why, though? A character like that… is useless on the battlefield.”

“Hmm?” Kuroo’s oily smile is slipperier than usual, but his gaze holds a touch of something softer. “Not as useless as you might think.”

Kenma burns the controller with his glare, and decides Kuroo had certainly ruined his ears for good.

 

-

 

The feeling plunks back down in his stomach the moment the school comes into view. He’s been doing a good job of tapering it thus far. He hadn’t even noticed it until this moment, really, because he’s been running on a new-game high since last night. He and Kuroo had played for hours and hours, until it had been time to stop for dinner, and then Kuroo had just stayed at Kenma’s to eat instead of going home so they could play some more. Finally he had to be ushered away by Kenma’s chuckling mother, who had told the two boys to get some rest, not aware that Kuroo would just climb their front tree into Kenma’s room that night so they could keep discussing characters and strategies. That elation had lasted him through most of the morning and the amiably quiet walk with Kuroo—but it can’t stay away forever.

Kenma shifts his feet, white fingers squeezing his backpack straps, and tries to pretend he’s not bothered as he keeps on marching ahead.

Suddenly yanked backwards, he looks up in alarm to find Kuroo’s concerned face looking down at him. He asks, “You okay?”

Kenma hesitates, then opens his mouth.

“Kuroo-kun!” They’re interrupted before he can speak by a boy Kenma thinks he only vaguely recognizes, who comes barreling past the school gates, smiling wide at Kuroo like Kenma’s not even there. “Did you just get here, too? Let’s walk to class together.”

Kuroo looks between them, frowning. “Well, I’m here with Kenma.”

The boy seems puzzled. “Who?”

Kenma takes the opportunity to wiggle free of Kuroo’s grasp. “Go ahead,” he mumbles, then takes off quickly without another word or without looking back. Somehow, he feels more embarrassed than he ever has. Kuroo has always been taller than him and more outspoken than him, but he’s never felt bigger and more blinding than this moment.

“You go ahead,” he hears behind him. “I’m gonna walk Kenma to his class.” Then there’s the tell-tale sound of footsteps thumping against soft dirt, before Kuroo is by his side again. He drawls, “Slippery little fellow, aren’t you?”

Kenma frowns, brain telling him to feel shame but pumping heart furiously opposing it. “You’re not my keeper,” he whispers sourly, not sure whether he wants Kuroo to hear or not.

Kuroo throws both hands behind his head, then shrugs. “Never said I was.” That’s all. He doesn’t elaborate more, or explain himself, or bring up Kenma’s mother and how she worried for her son and had latched on to his first ever friend to keep an eye on the boy or else he might run away again and not come back this time. He doesn’t say it, but it’s all Kenma can think about.

“Didn’t have to,” he grumbles, and this time Kuroo doesn’t hear.

He walks into class alone. Kuroo had insisted on taking him the whole way, and Kenma had humored the idea for a brief moment before deciding he did not want his classmates seeing him accompanied by an upperclassman and asking him questions. Kuroo gets shooed away, and Kenma proceeds alone.

The same boy from yesterday is in his seat once again.

Kenma sighs, seeing this, and does not hesitate this time to situate himself in the desk in front. But this time, he’s only just sat himself down when a pig-tailed girl he recognizes from the second row marches over with purpose, hands on her hips.

“Hey!” she squeaks, and Kenma startles badly until he realizes she’s speaking to the boy behind him. But then, “That’s Kozume-kun’s seat! Move!”

The laughter that could be heard behind him slowly tapers off, and Kenma stares down at his hands in horror, something burning in his throat. When he dares to look, the entire flock of boys has their eyes trained on him, some surprised, others annoyed. His heart thuds in his ears.

“I didn’t know he was there, geez.” The sandy-haired boy in his seat gets up, looking more annoyed about being yelled at than having to move. He shoots Kenma an irked look over his shoulder as he relocates to the next row. “If Kozume wanted his seat so bad, then he should have just said.”

By now the entire classroom has stilled, a few children craning their necks to see the commotion, others whispering, and Kenma sits frozen in the chair he had temporarily claimed as if he were a deer trapped in a kingdom of lions and even the slightest movement would turn him into prey that they could easily rip apart. He’s too numb to even grapple for his console.

The girl smiles, and takes it upon herself to sweetly say, “You’re welcome, Kozume-kun.”

“Ehh? He’s Kozume Kenma?” a boy at the front of the room suddenly pipes up, appearing bemused. He taps his chin. “I thought that’s what I heard him say yesterday, but he was so quiet that I missed it. He’s not exactly what I thought a delinquent would look like, though.”

“What do you mean?” someone asks. The whole class is murmuring.

“Well, my old man’s a teacher here, you know? So I heard some of the adults talking yesterday.” He gets up on the podium, then, and announces to the entire room, “I heard Kozume skipped so many days of school last year that he almost didn’t pass the grade.”

Now all twenty-four pairs of eyes are on him again.

Kenma clutches his backpack to his chest, staring down at his knees, and for once in his life he is unnerved by the silence. He’s unnerved because this silence is louder than twenty-four people speaking all at once, carried within it the screams of every eye in the room piercing into his body, picking him apart to dissect him and forming opinions.

He realizes he hasn’t breathed in for a full two minutes, and suddenly his lungs are begging him for air, but he’s just so scared to do it in front of all these people—because what if he breathes the wrong way, and they hate him for that, too?

So Kenma slowly gets to his feet, the scrape of his chair infinitely loud in the stark silent classroom, and briskly walks towards the door.

“Wait,” the same pig-tailed girl from before speaks up. “Kozume-kun, the bell is about to ring—”

The door harshly cuts across her words when it’s shut behind him, and Kenma doesn’t stand around waiting to hear the muddled words of his peers through the barrier. He takes off down the hall, dodging teachers and stray glances, glare firmly planted on the floor as he exits the building. His feet take him away automatically, to the courtyard at the side of the school where he’s learned through careful observation that the school guards will rarely parole, to the hole in the fence just small enough for a single student to squeeze through, to the secret alleyway where no adults loitered to come upon truant students, to the park that last year had been his sanctuary.

Kenma plants himself under the shade of a tree, pulling his GameBoy from his bag, and only when the cool touch of the console fits on his trembling fingertips and he is free of the eyes of the world—only then does he take in air.

Time works differently here. Days normally pass excruciatingly slow for Kenma. But here, he could blink and look up and the sun would be setting, though his bones would be aching in a way that spoke of the many hours that had supposedly passed. Here, he doesn’t notice everything about anything, nothing but the small screen before him.

Perhaps that’s why it escapes his notice when the sun rises to mid-sky, morning melting away to afternoon. He simply glances up, in the middle of a save, and Kuroo is suddenly standing there.

“Really, Kenma?” he says, when he notices those golden eyes widen in shock. His lips are pursed tightly. “You’re going to fall back into this bad habit?”

“…What would you know about it?” Kenma huffs, glaring at his game. The save message has disappeared, but he’s forced to press pause for the time being.

“Your mom told me.” Of course she had. No wonder he had been found so easily. She tells Kuroo everything about him, whether Kenma wants him to know those things or not. “Probably because she thought you might do it again. She said I should keep an eye on you—”

“You’re not my keeper.” He repeats the words from that morning, more venomously this time, eyes narrowing.

“Of course I’m not.” Kuroo shoots him a funny look. “I’m your friend.”

Kenma doesn’t say anything.

“What, you don’t think of me as your friend?”

No response comes back to him, again, and Kenma carefully unpauses his game and resumes his play, eyes aglow from the light of his screen and still managing somehow to appear dull. It’s a dismissal in its most obvious form. There are boys lining up at the door wanting to be Kuroo’s friend, more eager than a small brunet with a penchant for gaming who was too wary of the word. Kuroo could walk away right now and Kenma would let him, no fuss, no hard feelings.

“Don’t ignore me,” Kuroo hisses, stepping closer. Kenma can hear the scowl on his face translated into his voice without looking up. “Fine, forget that. Come on. It’s only lunch hour right now, so if we make it back, you can still be present for half the day and you’ll get in less trouble.”

He presses on his controls harder and with more purpose.

“I went into your classroom looking for you, you know, to swap lunches. I heard the kids talking, what they were saying.”

His character suffers a critical hit, and he watches blandly as his life bar is depleted by half.

“Little fuckers, all of them. Who cares what they think?”

“I…” Finally Kenma looks up, for a brief second, just long enough for his defeated character to be restored and dropped back at the save point, and then his lips are thin and tight as he glances back down at his game. “I was born left-handed,” he tells Kuroo, quietly. He’s never, ever shared this with anyone before, and never thought he would. “But I made myself learn to be right-handed.”

It had taken so much practice and so many pelts on his fingers, so many accidental cuts and scratches along the edge of his palms and paper wasted on jagged edges. But he had been so sick of it, feeling like he stood out anywhere he went, and taught himself to become just like everyone else in his world. Yet, still, he had never truly stopped feeling like a left-handed person.

Kuroo folds his arms, frowning. “Do you think anyone cared, Kenma? Do you think anyone noticed?”

“I cared. I noticed.”

“Because no one will ever be as absorbed in you as you are in yourself. That’s how people are. And, you know, that’s the good thing about people, is that they don’t think about others long enough to remember their faults.” He nods resolutely. “This thing’s gonna blow over, and those kids will move on to talk about something new, and you’ll make friends who’ll make you forget about all this, too.”

Kenma shakes his head. It doesn’t work like that with him. His brain retains information for an infinite amount of time, useless information, like someone looking at him a certain way or quirking their mouth into a potential sneer. He notices when kids talk and almost always assumes it’s about him, hates the sound of collective laughter more than he hates not having a save point before a final boss battle, and can’t stand having more than one pair of eyes on him at any time. And he doesn’t have any friends.

“Go away, Kuro,” he finally says, bringing his knees to his chest.

“Not without you,” the boy insists. He stamps a foot to the dirt. “Do you want me to beat those kids up for you? Tell ‘em off? Because I can! I’ll go do that right now—!”

“Don’t,” Kenma ekes, panic squeezing his stomach. Everyone would only whisper harder, after that. “Don’t, don’t say anything to them.”

“Why not? They made you upset!”

“They… didn’t say anything that wasn’t true…”

“Then what do you want me to do?” Kuroo folds him arms once more, frowning, but he doesn’t look truly upset. He looks wrought with worry, chewing mechanically on his bottom lip and leaving a fresh, red wound where his teeth meet his mouth. “If you tell me what you want me to do, then I will.”

Kenma doesn’t respond. He simply retreats back into himself, returning to his primarily safe mechanism of ignoring everything around him until people left him completely alone.

Kuroo doesn’t leave. He takes another hesitant step forward, and then his voice sounds almost choked when he pleads, “Kenma, please, I’m only an eleven-year-old boy. I’m not equipped to handle something like this. But I want to be. I—I want to be your friend.”

A high-pitched tune begins in Kenma’s ears. He tells himself he won’t look up, but ends up doing so anyway.

“I could tell, you know? Even before your mom told me. I knew the world you see and the world I see are different, that you don’t live your life the same way I do. It’s not like I jumped into this friendship without knowing this, all wishy washy. I’ve always been prepared to be here, if you need me.”

“Why?”

A single word—that’s all he utters. But the glimmer in his eyes is a jarring golden color, irises alight with something intense and invasive.

Kuroo stumbles, for the first time, nose dusting a curious shade of red. He has to look away. “I-I don’t know? At first I just thought you were kind of cool, I think, sitting there all alone on the swings and looking so at peace. Then I got to talk to you and actually know you, and I found out you’re not just kind of cool, you’re really, really cool.” He takes a deep, steadying breath, then blurts out all at once, “You’re really smart and you’re really quiet in this edgy sort of way, and you’re good at games and you say funny things under your breath sometimes and you’ll always send me tosses if I badger you enough. I-I like all those things about you! I like being your friend!”

Then he makes a garbled sound of embarrassment, head tilted up to the sky but face hidden behind his overlapping hands.

Kenma doesn’t immediately react. He simply observes, curious gaze analyzing this boy from head to toe, trying to decipher whether the red dribbling across his cheeks was real, whether the words he had spoken could be considered trustworthy. The thing about Kuroo is, he might be pushy and loud sometimes, might get on annoyingly well with his mother and wake him up at the crack of dawn, but he’s never not been sincere.

“…You won’t change your mind?” Kenma asks, quietly.

Kuroo balks in surprise, that he had actually spoken a full sentence to him, but then determinedly straightens his shoulders. “If you don’t change your mind about me,” he declares, “then I won’t change my mind about you.”

Kenma understands what he’s trying to say: that friendship is a mutual bond, and he has to want this, too.

And he does—he does want this. He likes Kuroo’s friendship too, likes having a friend to walk in amiable silences with, likes having a partner with whom he could conquer his video games, even likes practicing volleyball together in the park and having his hair ruffled when they pull off a tricky move. He likes Kuroo chatting with his parents at the dinner table so he doesn’t have to, likes being told that his tosses are incredible and his taste in video games is even better, likes that Kuroo doesn’t mind if he doesn’t offer more than a few words to a conversation. He likes that Kuroo has never looked at him strangely, not even once, not even on their first day.

He clutches his knees, and promises, “I won’t.”

Kuroo grins. “Then I won’t either.” He extends a hand. “Now, come on. Before the lunch period ends.”

Kenma reaches for it, but curls his fingers into themselves before their hands can touch. “I don’t need you to do anything for me,” he says, biting his lip. “Just…” ‘Just be my friend.’

“Got it,” Kuroo laughs, and this time he is the one to jilt forward and wrap his fingers around Kenma’s palm, pulling him to his feet with one mighty tug and bringing him out of his isolated clearing. He doesn’t let go the entire way back to school, not because he worried that Kenma might run away again, but because he seemed to really not want to.

Kenma chances furtive glances at his side profile as they walk together, letting him chatter about how he wished he could teach those kids a lesson and how the two of them would always have lunch together from now on and ‘please don’t tell my mom I swore, okay?’ and decides right then that he’s very, very lucky. Maybe having a friend wouldn’t fix everything in the world, wouldn’t magically make everything okay when it has never really felt so. Kids would always talk and laugh, and Kenma might always feel strange and alien wherever he went. But it feels like the beginning of something new and grand, having Kuroo here and trusting that he always would be.

Kenma smiles, hidden, and squeezes the hand in his.

 

 

 

 

 

iii.

The new year comes, and Kuroo moves on to junior high. Kenma hasn’t exactly been dreading it—though he has been spending hours rolled up in his blanket with his games, all his incessantly ticking clocks shoved into his closet—but he has been expecting things to change. Surprisingly, nothing does.

School remains an insufferable chore. But Kuroo still likes to walk him every morning since his own isn’t too far ahead, and he likes to pick up Kenma after school too, so they can walk home together. Once, Kenma had gotten tired of waiting and so he had gone on ahead, and when Kuroo had come over that night, he hadn’t stopped bellyaching about how he’d waited so long thinking Kenma was just taking time to come out, and even gone up to his classroom to track the boy down.

“Only to find the cruel knife of betrayal twisted in my heart,” he’d said dramatically, collapsing on Kenma’s bed with his limbs splayed. He had been smiling a smile full of laughter.

Kenma had rolled his eyes, but now, he always waits.

Then one evening, he waits so long that the sun has started to go down and the security guard who comes out to shut the gate looks at him worriedly. He asks “you all right, son?” in a delicate voice, and Kenma huffs, crouches lower to put his chin on top of his knees, and keeps glaring at the ground. Eventually the guard shrugs and leaves him be, and not soon after, Kuroo comes running like he’ll never catch his breath.

“Kenma… sorry… practice,” he wheezes, bent over with his hands on his knees.

Kenma quietly clambers to his feet, clutching his backpack straps tightly, and begins walking in the direction of their homes without a word. Kuroo doesn’t immediately follow, perhaps ashamed or perhaps unsure, but eventually Kenma hears the grating sound of shoes over asphalt and senses a presence close behind him.

“…You’re angry,” Kuroo says quietly, as if testing the waters.

“I’m not.”

“You are. You’re totally pissed.” Despite himself, he huffs out a laugh. “You were totally giving me the silent treatment a few seconds go.”

Kenma doesn’t want to dignify that with a response, but he realizes Kuroo would then just think he’d been right. “I’m not giving you the silent treatment,” he insists.

Kuroo immediately catches up to him, to walk by his side, and rebuts cheekily, “Well, yeah, not now you’re not, since I pointed it out.”

Kenma glares at him from the corner of his eyes. Maybe he had been giving him the silent treatment, just a little bit, so would it kill Kuroo to pretend to be even slightly bothered? Would it kill him not to figure Kenma out so easily and disarm him with just a few words?

“Why were you late?”

“Oh!” A skip enters Kuroo’s step, and suddenly he runs on ahead, just so he can turn around with the backdrop of the setting sun and hold up a victory sign, simply beaming at his friend. “I joined the volleyball team! I’m totally the tallest on the team, too!”

Kenma doesn’t say anything, but he’s not exactly surprised at the news either. Kuroo’s mind has never not been centered around volleyball since the moment he’d met him. He’d been out practicing serves the day he had found Kenma on the swing set alone in the park. He’s always dragging Kenma out, asking for tosses and encouraging him to reluctantly receive a few balls himself, and whatever cool moves he sees on TV, he immediately wants to try together. He always wants Kenma there.

Kuroo frowns. “What, not gonna congratulate me?”

“Why would I congratulate you for that? Don’t they let just anyone join?”

“Your best friend’s one step closer to being on the best team in Japan, you know!”

There are so many things he can pick apart from that one sentence. He settles for a curt, “I don’t remember ever calling you my best friend.”

Kuroo squawks in protest. “You can’t have a GameBoy as your best friend, Kenma, you just can’t! It’s too sad!”

Kenma glares at him and tries to shut the front door in his face, but Kuroo is quicker than a whip and squeezes himself in between the crack before he can be completely shut out. Laughing, he kicks his shoes off messily by the shoe rack, then goes barreling into the living room in search of his controller. “Kenma, come on, let’s play a game!” he calls.

Kenma huffs, staring blandly at Kuroo’s things that he had discarded in the hall like this was his own home, then blandly at Kuroo himself as he rummages through Kenma’s games cabinet.

With a sigh, he sits himself cross-legged next to his best friend and settles in for the evening.

A few hours into their gameplay, Kuroo suddenly pauses their double-team match against the final boss and a serious sort of look ghosts across his face. He’s never been the type to mince words—one of his more infuriating qualities—but Kenma notices when he waits half a millisecond longer than usual to speak.

“Hey. You know the team’s not gonna replace you, right?”

A beat of stark silence follows.

Kenma doesn’t speak, just stares.

It seems to embarrass Kuroo. He’s never turned crimson down to his neck before, or flailed to overcompensate his awkward emotions before, or avoided Kenma’s eyes before. He’s doing all those things now.

“Forget it, let’s just play,” he huffs, dutifully picking the controller back up. They both have no choice but to turn back to the game when he unpauses or otherwise risk dying instantly, so it’s all they do—just pass the evening playing video games like every other night when they’re not practicing volleyball in the park. Kuroo doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge the strange moment, so Kenma doesn’t either. But he wonders if this means nothing has changed, or if everything has changed.

 

-

 

It quickly becomes apparent that the club is no mere pastime for Kuroo, that volleyball is not just some game. Kenma thinks it absurd, but perhaps he had actually meant it when he’d yearned for the best team in all of Japan. His practices certainly run well into the late hour, or maybe Kuroo chooses to stay longer and practice harder than anyone else. It’s usually almost dark now by the time his shadow crosses Kenma’s by the school gate, a volleyball having become almost a permanent fixture on his silhouette.

“Kenma, you can go on home without me if you want,” he finally offers one such evening, spinning the ball between the pads of his hands. “Promise I won’t heckle you about it. It’s been getting pretty late these days.”

“…I’ll wait,” he responds, smashing buttons on his game. He could either wait and play video games on his console, or go home and play video games on his TV—made no difference to him.

Kuroo places a hand on the small of his back and gently guides him away from a trashcan, so Kenma doesn’t have to look up from his battle. “You sure?”

“I don’t do things I’m not sure about.”

“Hmm. True.”

But I don’t want some weirdo coming up to bother you, since you’re so cute.

At that, Kenma finally pauses his game. He quirks an eyebrow up at Kuroo, but he’s smiling like the conversation had been completely normal and Kenma’s eyes immediately sink into suspicious, barely-there slits. “What?”

“I said I don’t want you getting bothered, you know, by like punks or something. Just ‘cause we’re in the suburbs doesn’t mean it’s perfectly safe at night. You shouldn’t be sitting outside the school that long.”

“Yeah, but after that—” Kenma frowns, brow furrowed deep. “I thought I heard…”

“Hm?” Kuroo just keeps smiling at him, looking politely perplexed. He still hasn’t moved his hand away from Kenma’s back, even though there haven’t been any stray trashcans or mailboxes or anything for a whole street now.

Had he just imagined it?

“No. Nothing.” He turns back to his game rather slowly, then quietly reiterates, “I’ll wait.”

Kuroo only teases him a little bit, about that. ‘Aww, you really do love me,’ he likes to sniffle, on the days when they reunite after the sun has already set, and Kenma glares through his bangs in annoyance but he doesn’t really mind putting up with it. He likes hearing Kuroo talk about practice, mundane stories about the new techniques he has learned and the moves he had watched on TV that he could now practice in a real match instead of just at a neighborhood park with Kenma’s tosses. Kuroo sparkles a lot, when he talks about volleyball, and even more so when he knows Kenma is listening despite pretending to be preoccupied with his game.

“I used to think spikers were the coolest,” he says, one day, “but lately I’ve been playing middle blocker. You know, because of my height and everything. And it’s super fun. It’s really fun looking at someone’s face after you completely shut them down.”

“…You have a terrible personality.”

“I just have passion.” He puts a hand to his heart, then smirks at Kenma. “You know, that thing that gets you up at 2AM every morning to play video games.”

Kenma narrows his eyes by a millimeter, insinuating a threat. “Don’t tell my parents. They’ll take the TV out of my room.”

“I won’t if you toss for me a bit!”

A sort of tortured sound escapes Kenma’s throat, as he weighs the benefits of accepting versus declining. The smug look Kuroo is sure to wear, when he realizes he’s got a way to twist Kenma around his finger, makes it especially difficult to give in. But, eventually, Kenma relents. “…Fine.”

Kuroo wears smugness like a suit.

“But you can’t use that for anything else. One favor per threat. It’s only fair.”

“Deal!” he laughs, and Kenma allows himself to be pulled away from their usual path home, towards the park, however begrudgingly.

They spend most nights in the park, after that, practicing spikes until Kenma’s arms become sore and he’s too cranky to fall for Kuroo’s wheedling. Kenma wonders, sometimes, if Kuroo’s not tired of practicing after hours when he’s already exhausted from a full afternoon of volleyball, but it’s a question that doesn’t need asking when the answer’s written plainly on his beaming face. When Kuroo looks like that, Kenma can sometimes find the strength in himself to send him more than five tosses at once—but only sometimes.

On the morning of Kuroo’s first practice match, he prods Kenma’s forehead and declares, “I’m gonna win for both of us!”

Kenma is unenthused. Burrowing deeper under his blanket, he squeezes shut his eyes that he had forcibly pried open and turns over on the bed so he doesn’t have to look at Kuroo’s face, grumpy about the early morning wake-up call. “No, thanks. Just win for yourself.”

“Is that your way of wishing me good luck?”

“…Believe what you want.”

Kuroo cannonballs onto the bed just so he can put his mouth against Kenma’s ear and say, very loudly, “Thanks, Kenma, you’re the best!” and only laughs when his friend whips a pillow at his head without missing a beat. Kuroo’s laughter echoes down the stairs and lingers within the walls of Kenma’s home even after he’s long gone.

Kenma eventually wakes well past noon, turning on his console before he’s even slinked off to the bathroom so it would be ready for him when he returned, and spends the day with his games. Once he considers taking out his books and poring over homework problems, but then decides he’d rather wait for Kuroo, who would often inadvertently end up finishing a few of Kenma’s questions for him during their usual tutoring sessions.

Thoughts shifting towards Kuroo, Kenma eyes the pale orange sunset reflecting through his window, and his phone suddenly feels heavy in his pocket. He considers sending a text, but then decides against it; if Kuroo hadn’t yet barged into Kenma’s room, then he mustn’t have returned home yet.

As if bringing his thoughts to fruition, his door handle turns slowly.

The muted clunk of turning metal is all the warning he receives, and then Kuroo stalks into his room silently, face lowered to the ground.

Kenma mouth arches. It’s rare for Kuroo to make no noise when he arrives, usually accompanied by a flurry of activity or sound so Kenma can prepare for the invasion. It’s even rarer, still, for him to be so silent that even Kenma cannot pick up a vibration in the air.

‘Kuro, how was the game?’

A question left unasked, because the answer is before him—in Kuroo’s arched posture, in the way he thumbs through the manga on Kenma’s bookshelf, how he plants himself on the edge of the bed and doesn’t look up before flipping open to a random page. Not a word spoken. Kenma chances furtive glances in his direction, attention divided between his losing game and his surly friend, sweat beading along his hairline. He doesn’t know what to say, not the way Kuroo always does.

“Kuro…” This might be easier if he could see his face. But then, Kenma thinks, he doesn’t know what he’d do if he sees Kuroo’s face crumpled or doused in tears. He swallows, throat turning grainy just at the thought. “Do you want to play some video games?”

The reply is brief, curt. “No.”

The sound of paper sliding against paper, and the flipping of a page. Kenma rubs one foot over the other, his gameplay mechanical now in the stifled room, thinking of Kuroo’s beaming face from the previous night as they practiced receives and his laughter this morning that never really subsided even after he’d left for his match.

“…Do you want to level up?”

Kuroo snaps his manga shut, his resounding sigh gruff and just a tad irked as he rounds on him. “Kenma, I told you I don’t wanna play—”

Kenma’s pointed gaze stops his words. His game is paused and a telltale ‘save?’ message flashes meaningfully on the screen, in anticipation for Kuroo’s answer.

Kuroo’s mouth trembles, just for a second. “Yes.”

So Kenma slides off his comforter, one hand cradling a volleyball he finds lolling by his bedside and the other catching the sleeve of Kuroo’s sweatshirt, and the boy silently allows himself to be led out to their usual practice net at the park, despite the darkening sky. Kenma’s arms begin to ache after the tenth toss and his stomach rumbles complaints of a missed dinner, but he persists, sending as many as Kuroo needs to work out his frustration. He’s still there when Kuroo rips grass from his feet and sends it flying in the breeze, shouting ‘shit!’ over and over as he chokes back angry tears, and when Kenma’s mother comes looking, he pulls Kuroo behind his back so he can wipe his smeared face with dignity.

“Ahh, I feel so uncool right now,” Kuroo says in a bottled voice, wiping his running nose with his sleeve.

“You were never cool, though?”

He bursts out laughing, and a few stray tears leak from his eyes but he doesn’t really notice them or doesn’t really care, not in front of Kenma. He just pinches one of Kenma’s cheeks in retaliation, laughing again when his hand is angrily swatted away. But things are better, now that he’s laughing. This is how it’s supposed to be, Kenma thinks. Kuroo is supposed to laugh and drag Kenma into things and see through Kenma when he says he hates something and bounce back stronger from his losses. This is how they’re supposed to be.

 

-

 

Kenma’s graduation from elementary school is quiet. He stands for a stifled picture outside the school gate with his parents on either side, hands wrapped around his backpack straps and not a trace of a smile found on his face. There’s a picture with Kuroo too, and it’s far from stifled; Kuroo’s got one of Kenma’s cheeks trapped between his fingers, tugging it into a half-titled sort of smile as he smirks at the camera himself, and the look in Kenma’s eyes speaks of his fury.

“Kenma, your cheek’s all red! Should I pinch the other one a little, to even out your face? Looks kinda freaky this way. And learn to smile, would ya? Look at this stupid look you’ve got on your face. People are gonna think you’re Sadako with your bangs all saggy like that, and your eyes are all like, ‘I’m going to eat you in your sleep.’ This is why you don’t have any friends.”

Kenma doesn’t want the picture, but he can’t understand for the life of him how that means it ends up getting hung in Kuroo’s room.

“So I can remember my good friend Kenma,” Kuroo sniffles as he tacks it up, pretending to cry. “He’s not dead, he just never comes out of his goddamn room.”

“I hate you.”

“Sometimes I think I can still hear his voice.”

Kenma grabs his PSP—a graduation gift from his parents—and tries to slink out of the room in a huff, but Kuroo takes him by the back of his collar to keep him from escaping. Kenma glares from over his shoulder.

“I need you to toss for me,” he explains, grinning shamelessly.

Kenma tries to wriggle out of his grasp or slip away when Kuroo’s distracted with putting on his shoes, but it’s all futile and eventually he finds himself standing unwillingly in the park with a volleyball coming at him from up above. Almost instinctively, his hands come together to create a perfect set for Kuroo to slam into the ground. It’s been a long time since he’s received a ball with his face—ever since he’d realized it was more work to patch up a bloody nose than it was to just set the damn ball.

Kuroo whoops loudly after his clean spike. “Yes! Your tosses are always so good, Kenma! I mean, we have a setter on our team too, but he’s never gotten used to me being taller than everyone else. Every time he sets to me, the ball’s at a different height.”

“Setting’s easy,” Kenma mumbles, playing with the hem of his shirt. “You don’t have to jump or dive or move around as much.”

Kuroo belts out a laugh. “That’s ‘cause you’re too lazy for all that. Normal setters will dive for the ball too, if it comes at them.”

Kenma grumbles something under his breath but does not defend himself. He doesn’t like moving, he doesn’t like running, he doesn’t like getting sweaty and out of breath. Kuroo knows all that. But volleyball is okay, and being a setter is okay. And he likes when the ball connects, like he’s pulled off a perfect combination attack in a game, and he likes the look on Kuroo’s face—all proud and happy and smug—when he gets to spike off of one of Kenma’s tosses. Kuroo knows all that, too.

“Mm, you should join the volleyball team,” Kuroo says, not completely out of the blue. He’s been throwing subtle hints out for months now; Kenma had noticed the ten percent increase in his compliments about his tosses.

“No. It’s too much work.”

“It’s really not.” He claps him hard on the back, and Kenma glares when he almost buckles from its strength. “I mean, you’ll have to do some running and stuff. But, Kenma. Kenma. I’m telling you, there’s nothing like being in the middle of a real match and the team’s on the other side and you can pick out their weaknesses, and then you get that perfect set-up between the setter and the spiker, and the look on the other team’s face when you score a point and your whole team high-fives you! Kenma, there’s really nothing like it!”

Kenma plops down right there on the grass and pulls his PSP out of his pocket, disinterested in Kuroo’s passionate speech. Volleyball is a nice pastime and (sometimes) a nice way to spend an afternoon with his only friend, but he doesn’t want to make it a chore.

“You’re wasting your potential just sending me a few tosses now and then every other afternoon. You’re smart and level-headed. I think you’d be a great asset to the team.”

Kenma keeps on pressing buttons and ignoring the flurry of movement in front of him—that is until Kuroo drops into his line of vision, on his knees before his friend, and takes Kenma’s cheeks between his hands to pull his face up leveled with his own. Kenma’s eyes widen a fraction, and he only vaguely registers the dour tune that accompanies a Game Over message as his character is defeated.

“Kenma,” Kuroo croaks, his expression reminiscent of the day he’d been mourning a lost match. “I really want to win. My team is okay, but with you we’d be the best. I want to win with you.”

A gust of wind travels past to play with the grass and Kenma’s hair, and when it leaves, so does all the air inside of Kenma’s lungs. He breathes out slow. “…Okay.”

So come April, Kuroo hands in an application for Kenma to join their volleyball team. He’s the only new recruit, and he’s saving them by bringing the player count back up to six so they can participate in matches; despite Kuroo’s impassioned love for the sport and the team, it’s not so popular at their school. But Kenma kind of likes that, the quiet gym and the nervous team, so unlike the roaring stadiums he had seen and come to fear on TV. He doesn’t mind joining so much.

And Kuroo is there, and he can’t stop that stupid grin from sliding on his face whenever he sees Kenma practicing a toss, or picking up a receive, or gathering volleyballs at the end of practice.

“I mean,” Kuroo says, one afternoon as they walk home after practice, “we’ve been practicing in the park together for a while now. But this is the first time we’re officially teammates.”

“Stop with the sap, it’s so embarrassing.”

Kuroo prods the back of his head. “Don’t think I didn’t notice you squealing inside when your serve made it over the net. How d’you like the team?”

“It’s okay.” He’s directed away from a streetlight by Kuroo’s gentle hand, as usual.

“What a lukewarm sentiment. You don’t like it?”

“I don’t like it, but I don’t not like it either.” He blows his bangs off his forehead for a second. “I don’t really care. It’s a little fun, I guess. I don’t like running so much, but I like it when my strategy pays off. So it’s not all bad.”

“Mutou-kun is in class two,” Kuroo adds, delicately, after a brief moment to think. “That’s next to yours. Why don’t you talk to him more, try to make friends?”

“He doesn’t like video games, I heard him telling Shiba-san.” He almost scowls at the memory, at how scandalized he had felt, and how foreign. He can’t get along with someone like that. “And you—I already have you as a friend. I don’t really need any more than that.”

Kuroo doesn’t respond to that, and Kenma wonders whether he imagines it when he spies Kuroo rubbing an arm over his eyes from the corner of his vision. It’s probably for dramatic effect, he tells himself. Kuroo’s always been a fan of the theatrics.

“I’m touched, Kenma,” he says, voice just a little thick. “So touched to be the chosen one.”

“I didn’t choose you, you just wouldn’t leave me alone.”

“Wow, harsh.” But he’s laughing, the sound grown soft with affection.

They stop for ice-cream on the way home. It’s rare for them to take detours, if at all, since Kenma is usually dying to confine himself in his home after a long day of mingling with students. But the sun has started to up its output in the passing month, and Kuroo’s offer to treat is one he can’t pass up. They sit on a bench outside the convenience store, cones in hand, feet kicking aimlessly.

“Do you think our team has a good chance of making it far?” Kuroo asks.

Kenma frowns, distracted by the drip sinking down his cone towards his fingers. He always consumes his ice-cream strategically to avoid a sticky mess that would be troublesome to clean up. “Not as much as any other team. Probably.” He doesn’t say it to be mean; it’s just fact.

“Why not?”

“Our serves are average. Our receives are average. You’re a good blocker so our defense is pretty good, but that libero boy” —he hasn’t quite learned the names of everyone yet— “he flinches whenever a strong spike goes towards him. Scared of the ball, probably. Not that I blame him…” He mumbles the last bit, knowing he would probably do the same before sacrificing an arm to the sport.

Kuroo frowns deep, not minding the sugary mess his fingers have become, droplets of ice-cream falling also to the ground and smearing his shoes. “Dang. Well. Kinda wanted you to say we were strong. But.” A breathy laugh bursts past his lips. “But I knew you’d be honest and to-the-point.”

“Sorry…” he mumbles, rubbing his feet together.

He watches Kuroo clean himself up as best as he can, and suddenly wants to tell him, ‘Maybe our team will make it.’

But the thing is, Kenma’s not in the business of saying things he doesn’t mean, not in the business of having baseless confidence or making empty promises. He believes what he sees with his own two eyes. Their team is small and unpracticed, and Kuroo is really the only one in it with big, big dreams. Their libero is fearful of the ball, their wing spikers consistently complain of aching knees, and Kenma, he doesn’t really care one way or the other. Volleyball is a little fun, but so is staying in his room and playing video games all afternoon.

But Kuroo is there, on the team, and he’s so happy whenever Kenma is still there, too. And Kenma likes playing with Kuroo, and being with Kuroo, and just Kuroo in general.

So he’ll stay.

But he doesn’t really mind if they lose.

 

-

 

It’s right at the cusp of summer, at the turning point between dewy air and unbearable sunbeams, when Kenma plays his first practice match and, immediately following, comes down with a fever. He hadn’t even tried so hard—not like, say, Kuroo, who had lunged and slid and jumped for the ball whenever he could—but he had still exerted three times his usual effort because Kuroo had seemed like he really wanted to win.

But they don’t win. And Kenma opens his blurry eyes the next morning only to squeeze them back shut when he feels a sting, sweat pouring from his forehead and fingers trembling from weakness, fading in and out of consciousness. His room smells of sweat and pain patches and pollen.

His phone buzzes from somewhere inside his blanket, and he considers ignoring it in favor of sleep, except that he knows there’s only one person, aside from his parents, who has his number and would be messaging him at all.

‘You okay?’ Kuroo’s text reads. ‘I tried coming over just now and your mom said you’re sick.’

‘Fever,’ Kenma texts back, with extreme difficulty, and then, ‘Game.’ It’s all he can manage, probably not even spelled right, before his hand collapses from sheer weakness and he can’t be bothered to attempt to lift it again. It’s sufficient enough, he thinks.

Several minutes pass in the muted noises of his parents rummaging downstairs, and then Kuroo climbs through his window.

He’s put one foot on the ground, the other still dangling over the ledge, when he pauses. “You don’t think your mom will mind that I’m here, will she?”

“Why are you bothering to ask when you’re already here?” Kenma croaks, struggling to peer at his shadowed figure as he finally makes a full landing and discreetly fingers a rather fresh cut on his leg that he’d likely acquired shimmying up a branch.

“True.” Kuroo shrugs, dropping down beside Kenma on the bed. His legs are folded in a strategic position as if to hide the cut from view. “You sound like a seventy-year-old chain smoker, it’s kinda cool.”

Too tired to open his eyes, he hopes Kuroo can feel his glare from behind his eyelids.

“Geez, stop tryna kill me with your eyes closed, Kenma.” A sudden finger pressed to his forehead forcibly smooths out his wrinkles there. “Good to see you have enough energy to get all cranky about every little thing, as always. You’ll have ulcers by the age of twenty, I just know it.”

“Better that than murdered for vengeance by any one of twenty people with a vendetta against you.”

Kuroo barks a laugh at that, instead of taking offense, and the conversation dwindles.

Kenma frowns into the darkness, eyes closed. “There are bandages in the hall closet.”

He thinks he can hear surprise in the silence, before there’s a chuckle and the mattress dips. “Silly trying to hide anything from you, when you’ve got those All-Knowing Eyes.” Kenma wonders if he should apologize, knowing well how he unnerves people this way, how they feel about being watched and dissected. But Kuroo says, “It’s really cool when you do that.”

The noises from below filter in louder when the bedroom door opens. He thinks he can hear his father chuckling at the TV and his mother busy in the kitchen. This is not his first fever, and most likely would not be his last unless he quits volleyball right this second—but he thinks he hears Kuroo digging through his hall closet, lies here listening to his best friend hissing over his wound, and knows this won’t be his last.

“Been a while since you had a fever, though,” Kuroo says, when he returns, and the noise is bottled up once more when he shuts the door. The mattress dips again when he rejoins Kenma on the bed. Suddenly something cool and damp is pressed to Kenma’s head, and he doesn’t have to look to know Kuroo has laid a wet washcloth across his forehead. “How long?”

“Two months,” Kenma croaks.

“Not since you first joined the team…”

Kenma hears it, the unspoken ‘because of me’ as his sentence trails off. It’s weird, to hear hesitation in Kuroo’s words, to hear him second-guessing himself. He’s never shown any mercy before when dragging Kenma into things, and normally the experience is laced with an air of smugness because Kuroo can tell when Kenma actually enjoyed the things he had been coerced and pushed and prodded into. Kenma hates having a fever and that’s the truth, but it’s not as if he hates giving it his all in something once in a while.

As if on cue, Kuroo clicks his tongue and smacks Kenma’s shoulder, accusing him, “Wow, that means you literally have been putting no effort into practice for two whole months, Kenma. Slackers get benched, but since that’s a vacation for you, guess I’m gonna have to think up something tougher.”

Kenma groans loudly, pulling his blanket up to cover his face. "Get out of my room."

Kuroo doesn’t get out. He snickers a little, but then he promises solemnly to keep quiet and sits crouched against Kenma’s bedside as he fades between the brink of consciousness and sleep, feeling his washcloth and running out to dampen it again when it’s warm to the touch. Kenma thinks he imagines a moment when his mother enters to find Kuroo splayed at the end of his bed and he begs to stay a little bit longer, but he’s so far gone at the time that it could have been a fever-induced dream.

When he wakes again, suddenly, his room is empty and the street below is quiet, moonlight seeping through his curtains. He slowly uprights himself, and the cloth on his forehead tumbles into his lap. It’s still cool to the touch so Kuroo must have just been here, even though Kenma realizes belatedly that it’s almost early morning.

There’s a juice box on his bedside table that could only have come from the vending machine down the street, with a note attached. 'Drink up and feel better soon. You’re gonna do fifty push-ups at our next practice.' And because it’s Kuroo, and he’s the most obnoxious person Kenma knows, he had signed off with 'XOXO.'

Kenma collapses again, with a resounding sigh, almost wishing another fever would descend upon him.

As Kuroo had promised, he is not kind at the next practice despite the dash of relief in the crinkles around his eyes when he sees Kenma arrive, looking healthy if not a bit annoyed. Kenma gets on the ground, however huffily, and finishes fifty push-ups as instructed at the end of practice. He takes so long that the rest of the team retires and files out of the gym, and then it’s just him, still struggling through his punishment, and Kuroo, who plants himself beside him and loudly cheers him on while taking delight in his murderous scowl.

“Kenma, if one mean look from you could scare me away, then we wouldn’t have made it this far, now, would we?” he laughs, as they finally make it to the change room.

Kenma doesn’t respond, just collapses on the bench and simply sits there, arms sore and mood soured and hating the sticky feeling of sweat in all his crevices. Kuroo strips quickly and tosses his workout clothes in his gym bag, then raises an eyebrow.

“Not gonna change? You stink, my friend.”

“My arms are noodles,” he rasps. He’s trying to send signals to his brain to lift even one arm, just one, but his fingers don’t even so much as twitch.

Amused, Kuroo draws closer even though he’s just in his briefs and socks and should probably be concerned about dressing himself first. Or, at least, that’s what Kenma is thinking while he tugs the hem of Kenma’s shirt over his head for him, all up close and sweaty when Kenma’s vision, blurred temporarily by fabric, switches back to the change room. He gets an eyeful of his exposed torso.

There’s one thing Kenma is only just realizing about his best friend: he has abs now, or at least the beginnings of them, the muscles of his abdomen appearing firm and compact from this close.

It’s foolish that this never occurred to him before, with all the volleyball practice Kuroo has done, all the running and weightlifting and matches that tested his endurance. The rest of him is just as athletic. He looks almost like one of those warriors Kenma likes to roleplay as in his many games—impressive and strong. Kenma is suddenly hyperaware of his bony arms and his ribcage that protrudes out of his chest and that Kuroo is standing close enough to notice all these things about him.

“…I can dress myself, thanks,” he says, shifting his gaze to a spot on the wall.

Kuroo shrugs, not perturbed, and backs away. “Let’s go get ice-cream on the way home. It’ll be my apology, for working you so hard.”

“Since when do you apologize for that?”

He chuckles. “All right, fine, maybe I just wanted to go get ice-cream with my best buddy because I told him I would make him do fifty push-ups at our next practice, but he still came and did them all, and I’m very impressed that he didn’t just quit the team on the spot.”

Kenma fights it very hard but his lip eventually twitches, and they both know that’s as close as he’s going to get to a smile.

They decide not to opt for the cheap, convenience store kind, just for today. Kuroo leads him instead towards the shopping center, though it requires a bit of walking and Kenma begins to grumble about the long trek they would have going home, and eventually they arrive at a proper ice-cream parlor. It probably had been packed full at some point during the day, when school had first let out, but since they’ve come following practice and gym clean-up, it’s desolate and quiet now.

There’s just a girl behind the counter, looking about the age of fifteen or sixteen, who snaps to attention when Kuroo slides into her view and begins perusing the flavors on the menu board behind her. Kenma notices, with careful consideration, how she tucks her bangs neatly behind her ear and stands a bit straighter, hiding her magazine from view. Kuroo had rolled up the sleeves of his uniform shirt to his shoulders, and she can’t seem to look away from his arms.

Kuroo, for all his peculiar awareness and perceptive eyes on the court, doesn’t seem to notice any of this. Kenma wonders if it’s weird that he does.

“Kenma, you’re probably gonna go with plain vanilla, right? Since you’re so boring and unadventurous and all. Hmm.” He rubs his chin. “Guess I’ll go with that, too.”

The worker smiles prettily, her ponytail bouncing, as she scoops vanilla into little cups and hands them over. Kuroo’s has two scoops inside it, even though he had only asked for one. He frowns.

“F-Free of charge,” she says, fiddling with the ends of her hair. “Because you’re, um, our one-hundredth customer served today. Yeah.”

“Wow, lucky!” Kuroo beams brightly at that, laughing, and she looks as if the wind has been knocked out of her and won’t stop staring and isn’t really blinking at all. But he still doesn’t notice, despite her blatant gaze. He turns to Kenma instead, and cheerily says, “Kenma! Do you want it?”

And then that brazen stare quickly switches targets, straying for the first time towards the boy who had hidden himself away in Kuroo’s shadow, who stands there silently with his one scoop of ice-cream and his bangs shrouding his face. She frowns deliberately, just staring.

Kenma feels queasy, finds it hard to swallow, and it’s been so long since he’s felt this way standing next to Kuroo but he’s so embarrassed.

“…No,” he whispers, and slides his cup back on the counter. “I don’t want any.”

“Hm? That wasn’t an option?” Kuroo is saying when Kenma turns on his heel and slinks out of the parlor as briskly as he can without breaking into a jog, and he hears Kuroo’s startled noise from somewhere behind him but still doesn’t stop. There’s a bench just a few steps down and that’s where he seats himself, rubbing his feet one over the other and trying to will the feeling to dissipate, thinking of eyes boring into the top of his head and Kuroo’s arms and the overwhelming scent of vanilla.

“What the hell, Kenma?” Kuroo catches up with him quickly, frowning, a cup of ice-cream in either hand. He shoves one into Kenma’s hold, then plops himself down beside him. “I paid for it, so you gotta eat it. And what was that about, exactly?”

The question is rhetorical. He doesn’t really expect an answer, because Kenma was like this sometimes and Kuroo had just come to accept it; he knew, after so much trial and error, which buttons he could push and which ones to just let be.

They simply sit in mundane silence on the bench and Kenma reluctantly spoons vanilla into his mouth, watching the sun set. And when everything is dusted in stripes of pale orange and purple and gold, he glances at Kuroo’s profile muddled in the shadows of the descending sun, and wonders whether he had somehow accidentally made friends with an impressive sort of boy. He stares where the girl had been unable to look away, at Kuroo’s taut arms, and the ice-cream melted under his thumb feels maddeningly sticky, like he’ll never wash it away thoroughly enough and it would leave its mark wherever he touched before he could. Kenma has never really thought of anyone as good-looking before, never really cared enough about these things to notice them. But Kuroo is objectively so, in this light, in this angle—maybe all the time.

Kuroo finishes first, then sighs as he gets to his feet. “Guess we won’t be coming here again. The ice-cream was good, but that girl…” He scowls. “She was looking at us funny.”

Kenma’s heart thuds in his ears. Which of those excruciating minutes had Kuroo noticed?

“I mean, is it really so weird for a guy to buy another guy some damn ice-cream?”

‘Kuro, that’s not why,’ Kenma wants to say, but doesn’t.

“Whatever. Come on, Kenma. I like our convenience store better, anyway. We can stop by there tomorrow and cleanse our palettes or something. Or there’s this bakery that opened up near the train station, and I heard they have the best apple pies. Have you ever tried it before, Kenma?”

He hasn’t, so Kuroo readily makes plans for them to visit soon, and he’s still describing the immeasurable deliciousness of apple pie to his friend who is barely listening as they trek home, too distracted by the taste of vanilla on his tongue and the sleeves of Kuroo’s uniform still rolled up to his shoulders.

 

-

 

“I don’t like cats.”

“I’m going to Nekoma.”

The two sentences are said in almost near-perfect synchronization. There’s a beat of silence that follows, as both boys make eyes at the other. Kenma rubs his feet together, gearing up to say something at the sudden declaration, but it’s Kuroo who laughs first.

“Sorry. Why don’t you like cats?”

“One scratched me the other day.” Kenma points to the band-aid plastered across his knuckles, and frowns. “They don’t like me, so I don’t like them.”

“They’re assholes for sure, gotta admit. I read somewhere that they’ll eat their owners after they die, won’t even wait longer than a day or two to betray you. How metal is that?” He chuckles, but it’s the only sound in the room and eventually it dies down into awkward nothingness. Kenma waits for him to say more, but is forced to breach the topic when he doesn’t.

“Nekoma. Why?”

“It’s a good school. And, you know, their volleyball team used to be really good!” His eyes are suddenly alight with something akin to joy, or perhaps excitement, anticipation. Only volleyball ever made him look like that. “They were a powerhouse school, and the coach was amazing. I heard he retired last year, but they still have these intense training camps with all the best schools in the area, like, every summer.”

“It’s far,” is the only thing Kenma says.

Kuroo’s face falls a little, and he looks almost guilty as he replies, “Well, yeah. I’ll have to leave kinda early, to catch the train and all, so… I don’t know if I’ll be able to walk you to school next year.”

Kenma doesn’t say anything at that, just stares at his wiggling toes. But when Kuroo continues looking perturbed at the idea of abandoning his friend, he has to roll his eyes. “I know how to put one foot in front of the other.”

“Still…” Kuroo’s chest puffs up. “Don’t miss me too much, though.”

Kenma’s surprised his eyes don’t completely vanish into the back of his head. “Won’t be a problem.”

“What, you’re not gonna miss me?”

“Nope.”

Kuroo’s eyes gleam. “Are so.”

“Am not.”

“Are so.”

Kenma bunches up his face into the most repugnant and irritated sneer he can manage. “Am not.”

Kuroo bursts into laughter at that, effectively ending the petty squabble, and when he stops his eyes and his face and his actions are much softer as he delicately takes Kenma’s hand into his own. A thumb brushes nimbly over the band-aid. “It doesn’t hurt too much, does it?”

“Not anymore, not really.” He pauses for a second, breath catching, then adds, “And cats aren’t too bad, I guess. If you leave them alone.”

Kuroo looks up in surprise, clearly searching his face for some kind of emotion but finding none. His expression hardens as if he’s steeling himself to say something, and Kenma has the distinct feeling that the entire conversation had always been leading up to this question.

“Will you go to Nekoma, too?” he asks. “Even if you have to get up an hour earlier? And I’ll make you play volleyball?”

It sounds awful, all of it. But the alternative doesn’t even ghost his mind when he replies, “…Sure.”

Kuroo looks inexplicably pleased, happy to have received the answer he sought, happy they would reunite in a year, happy they would play volleyball together again. Kenma thinks to himself that only he would be, over such a trivial thing, and doesn’t remind him that he’s still roving his thumb over Kenma’s knuckles.

 

-

 

The morning of Kuroo’s first day at Nekoma begins without fanfare. Kenma is awoken and forcibly dragged from his bed by his best friend, and his backpack is stuffed full of games and chargers when he grumpily descends for breakfast. Kuroo is already seated, pristinely wearing his new uniform but with his school blazer draped on the back of his chair.

“Aren’t you late?” Kenma asks, suspiciously. He had been planning to sleep in blissfully now that Kuroo would no longer arrive at the crack of dawn to walk him to school.

“It’s only the entrance ceremony today,” Kuroo explains, after carefully swallowing his rice. “I just have to be there by the afternoon.”

“Ahh, Tetsurou-kun, you look so handsome now that you’re in high school,” Kenma’s mother coos, bringing more fish to the table. Her eyes are wet as if she were about to see off her very own son, and Kenma stares rather blandly at the entire display.

Kuroo scratches the back of his neck, appearing almost shy. “Thank you, Kozume-san, though I don’t think I’ve changed much overnight.”

“Nonsense! You’re just so grown-up now. Isn’t he, Kenma?”

Kenma rolls his eyes and almost ignores the question, except his gaze secretly lingers across the table from over the rim of his bowl, and he can’t help but to notice things. Kuroo is different now, in a way. Just last night he had been over for dinner, stuffing his face and laughing himself silly over some manga while sprawled out on Kenma’s bed. But now—something about his movements is slower, deliberate, every move he makes more controlled and with purpose. Those silly grins that were once so common for him have been tightened into small, polite smiles and the occasional smirk. And every word he speaks is clean and well-spoken, almost like that of an adult.

Perhaps it’s the title of high school student. Perhaps it’s the uniform.

Kenma watches him finally adorn his blazer, so regal and poised and handsome.

Things hadn’t been like this when they’d started middle school. Kenma had thought, then, that things might change, only to wake up to the same old Kuroo who walked him to school and badgered him for tosses and dripped ice-cream down to his sneakers, who cried over lost matches and always needed help leveling up. That Kuroo is not the same one standing before him now, looking so proud and at home in his Nekoma uniform. And Kenma becomes distinctly aware that something—something, something, though he can’t tell what, can’t pinpoint it—something is definitely changing.

 

 

 

 

 

iv.

Nekoma is okay, Kenma thinks. Kuroo is here, and the other second-years are amiable enough; they’re always impressed with Kenma’s strategies and encouraging him when he lags behind on his runs. He and Yamamoto have formed some sort of strange comradery after their patchy start which Kenma can’t remember having ever really agreed to, but it’s been forged nonetheless and he has come to reluctantly accept it as a fact despite how they never really speak of it. And the boy called Fukunaga is still an enigma, but there is nothing even vaguely threatening about him that Kenma can sense, even when he comes running with a bucket to cool heads.

But Kenma might still just quit.

He confides in Kuroo with his niggling demons, one afternoon when he sits himself down on the steps by a riverbed on the walk home, knees pulled to his chin, contemplating volleyball practices from today and days past. Kuroo quirks a curious brow, and Kenma fosters the idea of keeping everything from him, knowing how hurt he might be to learn Kenma was having these thoughts.

But it’s a silly notion, hiding anything from Kuroo, who gives one look into his eyes before telling him, firmly, “Don’t quit, Kenma.”

Kenma glares at the rippling water. “The senpai don’t like me. Akisawa-san got upset that I was put in the last practice match instead of him again. Now all of them…”

Perhaps no one resents him more than their third-year setter, who had pitched up a fuss when their coach had offered Kenma the starting line in the match and hip-checked him on his way to the bench. Now all the third-years glare at Kenma, whispering things behind their hands and forcing him to run extra laps and dumping all their clean-up duties upon him above anyone else.

“They’re not the only ones on the team.” Kuroo says this delicately, as if testing the waters.

This time last year, Kenma had quit the junior high team. He simply hadn’t seen a reason to continue; Kuroo was no longer there, he had never really forged any strong bonds with the rest of his teammates, and they’d had enough new recruits that even without Kenma they could officially enter matches. It’s not that he’d disliked the team, but volleyball just hadn’t been particularly fun last year, so he hadn’t pursued it. Kuroo had given him a long, disapproving look at the news but hadn’t pushed the issue, well aware of Kenma’s tendencies. Maybe, now, he’s afraid Kenma would readily do the same thing again.

“They’re the ones who get to make all the decisions,” he mumbles, pulling his knees closer.

“You only have to put up with it for a few more months,” Kuroo reminds him. “I know you can hold out. And I think there’ll come a time when you’ll be glad you figured out just how persistent you can be.”

Kenma eventually allows himself to be swayed by Kuroo’s words, however reluctantly, but the next day’s practice is the same excruciating ordeal as any other, and he’s limp and sweaty even before the third-years task him with picking up all the volleyballs alone, snapping at Fukunaga to take down the net when he tries to scoop up a couple. Kenma glares at the floor as he sweeps across the gym and doesn’t meet Kuroo’s stare that’s been following him for a while. He’s the last one to enter the change room and endures a small lecture about working faster, and then he’s next to Kuroo’s locker, slipping out of his volleyball shoes with a stony expression.

“Kenma, your tosses were especially good today!” Yamamoto appears on his left, his voice booming in the small space. “They fit my hand just right.”

“Shut up, Yamamoto,” Kenma huffs, feeling several eyes on his back.

“What? Learn to take a compliment, man!”

“Knock it off, Yamamoto,” Kuroo interrupts lazily, rolling his eyes. “And go put a shirt on.”

“Y-Yes, Kuroo-san.”

He scurries away before receiving a full lecture from an upperclassman, and behind him, the third-years noisily exit the room, muttering under their breaths all the while about something undoubtedly unkind, if Kenma had to guess. The duties of locking up the gym had already been passed from their captain onto Kuroo, and Kenma wonders not for the first time why they still bothered to remain on the team if they didn’t enjoy it, if they didn’t want to perform any duties, if they only held bitter resentment towards the sport.

“They’re just mad because the team was shit and we’re finally looking up now that you’ve joined,” Kuroo says, noticing where his eyes had strayed.

Kenma rolls his eyes. “Sometimes too much praise is not praise at all, Kuro. And hurry. I want to catch the earlier train today.”

“Hm?” Yaku looks up after overhearing. “You’re not coming to the arcade with us?”

“Arcade…?” Word slowly sinking in, he glares suspiciously at Kuroo, who’s avoiding his eyes as best as he can.

“Shit. Well. I was kinda hoping you’d get all lost in your game like usual and I’d take you there without you even noticing.” The secret in the open, he readily admits, “We made plans to stop by the arcade, and I told everyone you’re going. There’s a new game I wanna cream Yaku in.”

“Hmm, that’s a funny way to say ‘get annihilated by.’”

Both second-years scowl, sizing each other up.

Kenma sucks in his lower lip, undeterred by their staring contest. “I’m not going.”

Someone places a gentle hand on his arm, and over his shoulder he’s met with the appeasing, if not slightly eerie, smile of his upperclassman. Of all the Nekoma members, he’s not yet been able to get a proper read on Kai Nobuyuki, for that soft expression is never not on his face no matter how carefully Kenma observes him in any situation. “Come on, Kenma,” he urges him, politely. “It’ll be a nice team outing to build our relationship.”

“Third-years aren’t going, though,” Kuroo hurries to add. “They’ve got some study group.”

Kenma doesn’t want to push off a senior’s hand, so he stares at it long enough that Kai understands his meaning and immediately pulls it away, and then Kenma is free to grab his things and slink towards the door. “I’m not going,” he grumbles. “I’m tired from practice.”

“Everyone’s tired, but this is to help us unwind,” Yamamoto speaks up, frowning. Kenma ignores him and slides open the door, stomping his feet once to ensure his shoes are properly adorned. “Oi! Kenma, listen to me when I’m—!”

Suddenly a volleyball goes flying across the room. There’s no actual force behind it, but it arches through the air before making a soft landing directly on the top of Kenma’s head, then skidding away somewhere as if to hide. Kenma immediately claps a hand over the targeted spot, turning on Yamamoto with an angry scowl.

But it’s Fukunaga who stands there with his arms raised, like he’s some basketball star who had just scored a three-pointer. Everyone in the room is staring at him, stunned, waiting for him to speak.

There’s a beat of silence, then he says, quietly, “…Go, Pokeball.”

Yamamoto and Kuroo burst into laughter simultaneously, the latter doubled over from how hard he’s snickering and the former slapping his knee.

“Looks like you’ve been captured, Kenma!” Kuroo exclaims, giving Fukunaga a clap on the back. The boy seems rather pleased to have had his tactic received so well, even if that just means a miniscule raise in his eyebrows and a twitch of his nose.

Kenma glares about the room and attempts to make his escape once more, annoyed, but is stopped by a hand clamping down on either arm. It’s Kuroo and Yamamoto, one on each of his sides, and they’ve got him in a vice grip that Kenma doesn’t even try pulling out of for how futile his attempts would be.

“Guess you’re coming with us!” Yamamoto laughs, pulling him along.

“I don’t want to go,” Kenma grumbles again, but it’s lost in the void of noise that is the Nekoma volleyball club.

They arrive at the arcade in a flurry of activity; Yamamoto still has an arm slung around Kenma’s shoulder to physically drag the rumpled boy along, hollering excitedly at the first sight of the game center with no actual coherent words; Kuroo and Yaku are in the middle of an intense debate about whether they should face off in a best-two-out-of-three or a winner-takes-all tournament of the newest game; Fukunaga happily dribbles a volleyball like it’s a basketball as if he has suddenly decided to switch sports teams, occasionally giggling under his breath at some inward monologue; and Kai brings up the rear, still smiling that placid smile he so often wore. People seem to nervously part to give them room on the sidewalk when they pass.

The afternoon passes in much the same, frenzied way. Yaku wins the first round of the new game, but Kuroo wins the next two, and then they’re back to arguing over whether they’d agreed to only count the first or all three. Kai situates himself by the crane machine and attempts to win a snow-white vulpix plushie for his baby sister, consistently feeding the slot coins and not seeming at all bothered that he’s doing terribly. Yamamoto challenges Kenma to every game in the place, who attempts to slink away at any given opportunity but is usually located by an obedient Fukunaga, who brings him back to be subjected to his teammate’s buffoonery once again. It takes Kenma annihilating him in every single challenge for him to finally crumple, admitting defeat, and then the three boys simply park themselves at the nearby food court with milk tea and handheld consoles, passing the time this way until their upperclassmen join them.

They’re a rowdy and eclectic bunch, drawing eyes from every direction. But, surrounded by such noisy teammates, Kenma is the last person on their radar and he—he likes that a lot.

The return home is much quieter. Kai, sans plushie, takes Yamamoto with him in the direction of their neighborhood, Yaku breaks away from the group when they near his street, and the remaining three boys walk quietly towards the train station. Kuroo and Kenma’s train arrives first, but Kuroo suggests they take the next one so Fukunaga would not have to wait alone, and Kenma huffs a little under his breath but does not oppose.

Once Fukunaga is safely on his way home, they board their own train.

“Mm, that was fun,” Kuroo sighs, leaning back comfortably in his seat. He glances down and sees only a mop of brown hair, and grins. “Right, Kenma?”

Kenma is distracted, frowning down at his console as he attempts to beat the high score that Kai had somehow managed to obtain in his game. “…I guess. My legs are tired.”

Kuroo chuckles. “Ulcers at twenty. I’m telling you.”

Kenma glares. “I will not.”

“Will so.”

“Will not.”

Kuroo grin is sly when he suddenly leans in really close, almost until their noses are touching, and drawls, “Will so.” And he’s so near and it’s so overwhelming that Kenma wavers, flitting his eyes away, and they both know he’s won.

The ride home after that is silent, punctuated by Kuroo’s smothered yawns and Kenma pressing buttons but not much else. Their compartment is nearly empty and the sun has almost completely disappeared beyond the horizon by the time the boys arrive at their stop, and Kenma grumbles when he’s made to get up and his knees ache.

When they’ve walked a sufficient distance, just a couple of streets down from their own, is when Kuroo slings his bag around to his chest and crouches on the asphalt.

Kenma raises a brow.

“Get on,” Kuroo says, pointing to his back by way of explanation. The sun has gone down now, darkness surrounding them, and the single bulb of the streetlight illuminates his shoulders. “You said your legs hurt, right?”

There’s a beat of no movement, and then Kenma is rolling his eyes and bypassing his friend, not interested in the offer. Kuroo clambers to hold tight at the hem of his sweatpants, keeping him in place. When Kenma looks, startled, he’s grinning a cheeky but embarrassed sort of grin.

“Come on, Kenma. Don’t make a guy look more uncool than he already does.”

“It suits you, though,” is what Kenma says in return, but his golden eyes glint sharply in the streetlight and he’s already shuffling closer, securing the straps of his backpack before draping himself over Kuroo’s frame.

Kuroo takes in a stabling breath, then stands, hands hooking under Kenma’s thighs and his body impressively steady. At the end of last year Kuroo had surprised everyone by rising a few more inches in height, and his entire body had grown accordingly; longer arms and firmer shoulders and a broader back. Kenma thinks about this for a lingering moment as they begin to move.

Steps light and controlled, Kuroo’s voice is soft to match the dim moonlight when he asks, “Did you have fun today, Kenma?”

“You already asked me that.”

He laughs. “I’m asking you again, now that your legs aren’t hurting.”

Kenma burns a hole into the back of his neck with his stare, almost a little annoyed that Kuroo could read him so well. But a bigger part of him is just resigned to the fact that Kuroo would always know him, inside and out—that with anyone else it was always just Kenma doing the noticing, but with Kuroo this was a two-way street.

“I didn’t hate it,” he admits.

Kuroo hums cheerily but doesn’t say anything in response, doesn’t tease or goad just to purposefully irk his best friend as he so often delights in doing. He knows what a big deal this is for someone like Kenma, who doesn’t make friends easily, doesn’t socialize often, and hardly ever enjoys his rare attempts at the two. Kenma is grateful for this. He keeps staring at the skin of Kuroo’s neck, down its sloped angle where it connects with his shoulder and disappears under the collar of his jersey. Red suits Kuroo in every way, in the same way that it juxtaposes Kenma’s very being.

Their houses in view, Kenma leans forward and speaks against the shell of Kuroo’s ear, voice hardly louder than a whisper, “…I probably won’t quit.”

He thinks Kuroo might be beaming up at the moon, but neither of them says a word on the matter.

 

-

 

The third-years retire from the team following Spring High, soon to be replaced by Inuoka Sou and Shibayama Yuuki, two sparkling first-years with big, big dreams much like the rest of the team. They tremble a little, at Kenma’s golden hair and equally golden eyes that are even more terrifying in a way, but then they watch him get lectured by Kuroo for actively avoiding Yamamoto’s crazed spikes in a three-on-three match and decide he’s not so frightening after all.

“You’re kind of a funny guy, Kozume-senpai,” Inuoka laughs, when he hands Kenma a water bottle and catches a glimpse of his irked, distorted face behind his bangs.

Kenma feels his spine crawl instinctively at the word: senpai. He’s only been an upperclassman to a teammate once in his life, to a first-year middle blocker on his junior high team whom he had rarely even spoken to anyway, so the feeling of being a senpai had never really stuck. Now, all he thinks of is running extra laps and sweeping the gym alone and getting hip-checked out of spite, of bitter, unkind words and childish rivalries.

“I don’t really like that hierarchy stuff,” he says, frowning. “You can just call me Kenma.”

Inuoka almost pinks. “O-Oh! I couldn’t do that, I mean, a senpai is a senpai—”

“I really don’t like it,” he insists.

“Th-then,” Shibayama interjects, “maybe… Kenma-san?”

Kenma is still frowning, but he forms his mouth around the formality to try it out on his own tongue, and decides that while it’s not ideal, it also doesn’t cause his stomach to squirm uncomfortably. “That’s fine,” he sighs, and thinks Kuroo might be grinning but determinedly ignores him.

The new coach arrives only days later, an elderly man whom Kenma hears had once led this team to greatness. When he introduces himself, Fukunaga begins to shake alarmingly until Kenma realizes he’s giggling and mouthing to himself, “…Nekomata High School…”

Even the most grueling practices they’ve ever endured feel like nothing, following that. Nekomata works them and polishes them and shines them, never holding back on critique, always armed with a new training regimen. They spend an hour daily on receives alone, and Kuroo sniggers because he knows this is Kenma’s least favorite part of the sport but now he can’t skive off the way he could before, not under Nekomata’s careful scrutiny. But the entire team seems to be expending twice their usual effort, as if they’re all vying for a chance to impress the legendary coach.

Nekomata pulls him aside one afternoon. “Too good for receives, are you?” he asks. But he’s smiling.

Kenma shuffles on the spot, feet rubbing together, and stares at the floor. “Not really.”

“Hmm, you’re pretty good at them already, I’ll admit.” He rubs his chin. “Seems like you’ve been practicing them for a while.”

Kenma doesn’t tell him that he’s been subjected to Kuroo’s torturous spikes since the age of ten.

“But that’s not why I singled you out.” There’s something eerie about the way his face changes. He’s still smiling, but Kenma gets the sense from his eyes that he’s being dissected, not in an unfriendly manner but more like he’s being thoroughly analyzed. He wonders if this is how people usually feel under his golden gaze, and squirms again. “You’ve got good eyes, boy. A good head on your shoulders, and a good problem-solving mindset, too. Me and Captain-kun are having a strategy meeting after practice today, and I want you to sit in. What do you say?”

He asks this as if wanting to let Kenma believe he has a choice in the matter, though they both know that is not the case. How troublesome, Kenma thinks, but bobs his head once.

Kuroo looks on from a distance, something akin to pride in his eyes.

They linger back after the gym has been cleaned up and their uniforms have been changed into, following Nekomata to the staff room to discuss the team and the upcoming practice match with Fukurodani Academy. Nekomata listens closely to what Kenma has to say, has Coach Naoi take notes on what he pertains as strengths and weaknesses of each team member, and generally seems pleased by the end of the discussion.

Kuroo and Kenma stop for ice-cream at the nearby convenience store once they’ve been set free, lounging on the bench outside and watching the sunset dull into purple.

“He was really impressed with you.”

Kenma shrugs. “I didn’t really do anything, though.”

“You didn’t do anything flashy,” Kuroo corrects him. “Doesn’t mean you weren’t doing something.”

Kenma doesn’t say anything, spinning the popsicle in his mouth to have an excuse not to. It was useless arguing with Kuroo when he was like this, all gung-ho about praising Kenma and being insanely proud of him and wanting him to see he was an integral part of the team. He’s fairly sure Kuroo’s not worried about him quitting the team anymore, so sometimes he wonders why he’s still so insistent about these things.

“That stuff you said at the meeting,” Kuroo begins, conversationally. “About how our defense is really strong, and our spikers have potential. Did you mean it?”

“You know I don’t say things I don’t mean. Why are you beating around the bush?”

“Shit. Right.” Kuroo laughs, a sheepish sound, tugging a hand through his messy hair. “Guess I just wanted to ask… Do you think our team has a good chance of making it far?”

Kenma considers this carefully.

Just yesterday he had watched as Tora—somewhere along the line he had begun calling him Tora without realizing, but it was simply faster and more efficient to say than Yamamoto, is what he had told himself—Tora had wanted the volleyball pump on the top shelf of the storage room, so he had asked Fukunaga to get on his shoulders, and neither of them had seemed to realize that their combined heights would mean Fukunaga would crack his head against the ceiling so hard he would see stars. Kenma had watched this take place and wondered to himself, not for the first time, how he had made himself a place in a team full of such idiots.

But there are other things to consider. Like the way Shibayama blushes crimson, whenever Yaku casually praises his receives. The way Inuoka can follow orders and adapt to any circumstances in the middle of a match, soaking in changes like a sponge and with an agreeable laugh. How Kai is always smiling, but it’s so opponents can’t read his unmoving face when he goes in for an attack. Yaku performs best when there’s a pretty girl in the stands, but even if there isn’t one, he still always pulls through. And he and Kuroo, they’re so in sync that they don’t need words to communicate when to go in for a tricky play.

“Hm.” He looks up, bangs falling away from his face in the instant when he smiles. “I’d like it if we did.”

Kuroo is visibly taken aback, and stares long enough that Kenma’s stomach squirms and he has to look back down. But eventually he relaxes back on the bench and laughs, loud and uncontained, before his voice melts into honey when he says, “Me, too.”

 

-

 

Bokuto Koutarou is loud, silly, and wins Kuroo’s friendship as easily as his team defeats Nekoma in every practice match. He swings an arm around Kuroo’s neck and ruffles his messy hair, boasting of his skill and offering to teach Nekoma a thing or two, and Kuroo kicks him in the shin to push him off before they’re caught up in a bout of wrestling. This is how they had met, one year ago, and nothing has changed.

Kenma had looked upon them once, so caught up in their friendship, and imagined a flash of a classroom from years ago, Kuroo surrounded by laughing peers and Kenma left to peer in through a crack in the door. Now, he rolls his eyes, turning back to the trail of ants he’s been watching slowly eat away at a watermelon carcass outside the gymnasium. He is joined eventually by Fukurodani’s second-year setter, a boy who sighs under his breath at his overzealous captain and doesn’t feel the need to talk to Kenma even when they’re right next to each other. Kenma likes him, somewhat.

“That guy’s a hoot,” Kuroo says, on the train that night. “I mean, a total idiot, of course. But in an endearing way.”

“When you’re with him, you’re kind of an idiot, too.”

“Oh, yeah?” Kuroo smirks, then leans in a little, so their arms nudge. “And what am I like when I’m with you, Kenma?”

Kenma knows what he’s trying to do, attempting to get him to squirm with that flirty smile that somehow had made a home on his face since the start of high school. He narrows his eyes, then huffs, “Insufferable.”

Kuroo’s smile widens, but he doesn’t say anything more.

Haiba Lev joins the team not long after, a latecomer who is all arms and legs and brimming with confidence even though he still can’t properly connect with a toss, or block, or receive. Tora gets good and angry whenever he proclaims his ambitions to become the ace, and Kenma might find it funny if Lev wasn’t always asking him to practice together, never satisfied no matter how many tosses Kenma sends his way.

A week into Lev’s induction, Kenma slips his T-shirt over his head before collapsing on his bed, allowing Kuroo to nimbly stick pain patches all along his sore muscles. Arms folded on his pillow, he buries his face into them, almost enjoying the sensation of Kuroo’s fingers just barely ghosting over his skin. He can see that the hair on his arms has raised up, the rest of the hair on his body following suit, and he wonders briefly whether Kuroo is looking closely enough to be able to tell.

“Will you be able to play the match against Karasuno?” Kuroo asks, pursing his lips in worry.

They have several practice matches lined up for Golden Week, one of them with an old powerhouse school named Karasuno that Kenma has heard used to be close rivals of Nekoma. It doesn’t mean much to him, even when he hears tales of old, but Nekomata seems excited and so does Kuroo, about the so-called Battle at the Garbage Dump.

“I’ll have to play, won’t I?” he grumbles into his pillow. “We won’t have a setter otherwise.”

“Wow, Kenma, I’m impressed by your dedication to the team.” He says this with another one of his cheesy smiles, but Kenma can tell by his steady voice that he really means it, and thinks it’s stupid, so stupid, to get all happy when they haven’t even won yet just because Kenma’s playing.

“It’s not dedication, it’s just fact,” he huffs, and sinks low enough into his pillow that his bangs hide his face, because he’s fairly certain the expression he’s making is one Kuroo would definitely tease him about.

The stench in the air is saturated with medicine when Kuroo finishes, patches covering Kenma’s arms and running all down his back before stopping just at the band of his shorts. Kuroo fingers the skin there, asking, “Should I get under here, too?” and then laughs when Kenma throws a pillow at him—only to regret the action when pain shoots through his overused muscles. By way of apology, he jogs to the bakery near the train station and brings back an apple pie that smells so delicious that even Kenma cannot frown for long, though he fights very hard to keep it in place nonetheless. The afternoon passes like this, eating pie and reading manga and eventually dozing off when the room feels too warm.

When Kenma wakes, night has fallen outside his window, and Kuroo is still asleep beside him on the bed. He has a manga still clutched in one hand, and the other rests on Kenma’s back.

Kenma stares at him, long and hard, at his peaceful face and the rise and fall of his chest. Looking at him like this, he is reminded of a sticky summer evening they had spent on a bench outside an ice-cream parlor, Kenma gazing at his profile against the setting sun, vanilla on his tongue, something warm and shameful alive in his stomach.

Parts of Kuroo’s bangs are stuck to his forehead, and Kenma has the urge to brush them aside but doesn’t. His nose twitches in his sleep, his breathing disrupted, and Kenma has the urge to pinch it but doesn’t. Somewhere inside he knows he should wake Kuroo and urge him to go home, to sleep in his own bed and get a more comfortable night of rest—but he doesn’t.

He just puts his head back down, and dozes off once more.

 

-

 

Hinata Shouyou enters Kenma’s orbit and displaces his entire ecosystem in one fell swoop, taking up a space in his life that once only Kuroo had occupied. Kenma doesn’t realize it at first. Initially he is just a rival; they text about the progress of their volleyball teams, whether they win practice matches or advance in the Inter-High tournament. But soon Shouyou is asking him for game recommendations, then for game strategies, and sometimes Kenma will just call because typing everything out is too much of a bother. And eventually he receives messages by the daily, always waking to find at least six or so texts waiting for him every morning, because Hinata is that insufferable kind of texter who needs six messages to convey what he could say in one.

Kenma’s phone has never been this busy. For years, only his parents and Kuroo had his number. Then in high school they had created a team group chat, but it’s only really alive whenever Tora dares to post one of his stupid memes, only to get chewed out by both Yaku and Kuroo while Inuoka responds with at least fifty laughing-face emojis. Kenma usually ignores the entire situation.

“Your phone is blowing up, Kenma,” Kuroo says one night, looking up from his assignment when he’s distracted by the periodic buzzing of a new message. “Who’s that?”

“It’s Shouyou,” he informs him, busy typing out a reply.

“Hm? The shrimpy at Karasuno? You guys still keep in touch?”

“Shouyou isn’t really the type to let go once he’s got his hands on someone.” It reminds Kenma of someone else in his life, though he doesn’t say it.

“What do you two even talk about?”

“He just wants to know what I’m doing.”

“And what did you say?”

Kenma blows his bangs from his face. “I told him I’m playing video games.”

Kuroo hums noncommittally, turning back to the problem he had been working on, but looks up again at the next buzzing sound. “What did he say now?”

“He wants to know if I ever do anything else besides play volleyball and video games.” After a pause, he adds, “Not in a rude way. He’s just curious, I think.”

“What are you gonna say?”

“That sometimes I read manga, too.”

It’s quiet for a while after that. Kenma’s phone doesn’t buzz, so he cautiously unpauses the game he had put on hold, and Kuroo is able to successfully work out his homework problem to move on to the next. When they’ve lulled back into their usual nightly routine, another message arrives.

“What did he say?” Kuroo asks immediately.

“He wants a manga recommendation,” Kenma says, after checking his phone. But rather than type out a reply, he places the device in his lap and twists so he can stare at Kuroo, eyes narrowed in slight annoyance. “Why are you so curious?”

Kuroo lazily spins his pencil between his fingers, and shrugs. “I don’t know. I guess it’s because you’ve never really had a friend besides me before, so I wondered what you’re like with him versus how you are with me.”

‘And you’re jealous?’ Kenma wants to ask, but doesn’t. He doesn’t think Kuroo is, though, nothing in his posture or his voice or his eyes betraying the emotion. He’s simply curious, wanting to have even a small part in this new piece of Kenma’s life.

“Shouyou’s not my friend,” Kenma tells him, frowning. “He’s my rival. Sort of.”

“Hm?” His usual oily smile slips into place. “You two sure seem friendly to me.”

“Well, it’s not… he’s not…”

Kenma’s mouth pinches into a tight frown, suddenly feeling queasy or irked or something equally unsettling, his toes wriggling together. He’s reminded of one afternoon, when they’d been not too much younger than this, and he had told Kuroo he didn’t need more friends, he had said ‘you are enough.’ Somehow it feels like cheating, or lying, or like he’s taking it all back, to suddenly consider Shouyou a friend—a title that, up until now, has belonged solely to a boy he’s known since childhood, who had found him on the swings one day and never let him go since.

He’s still thinking of this when summer training camp begins, when Kuroo will smile playfully any time he sees him talking to Shouyou or watching Shouyou play.

And it’s not just Kuroo, but that everyone at the training camp has reached a consensus. It’s the rest of his team, and the Karasuno kids, and even Bokuto; everyone marvels at this unlikely friendship blooming between a shrinking violet type of boy like Kenma and a powerful beam of sunlight like Shouyou. So Kenma must come to accept it to be true.

But if Shouyou is a friend, then that means that Kuroo, well, he must be something even greater.

This realization reaches him late night, his futon pressed against the wall, in a darkened room filled with his slumbering teammates. Kuroo is next to him, two pillows pressed to his ears in habit. He had given Kenma the corner spot and pitched up beside him purposely, for he knows Kenma has trouble sleeping in unfamiliar places, that he’d stayed awake their entire first night at a training camp in junior high and then nearly passed out at morning practice from exhaustion. Now, no matter which strange place they go, he will do his best to make it feel like home—even if that means simply sticking close, shrouding Kenma in someone familiar. This is Kuroo: a being so tightly intertwined around Kenma’s own that any place is new and unfamiliar if he is not within it.

After that it’s easier, admitting that Shouyou is a good friend, that he reluctantly sees all of his teammates as friends as well. As long as he’s sure that no one could ever displace the boy who had found him on the swings one day, and never let him go since.

 

-

 

Fall comes quickly this year. Kenma looks outside one day to find leaves littering the streets, none left to decorate the barren trees across the neighborhood. This is Kenma’s favorite season, after the stickiness of the summer dissipates but before the frigid winter air can settle in its place, but Kuroo has never been very fond. He doesn’t like dressing in layers, or the early darkness, or that it’s even harder to drag Kenma out of the house in this weather.

“The whole team is going so you have to go, Kenma,” he snipes on this particular morning, yanking at the blanket Kenma is trying desperately to keep wrapped around himself.

“If the whole team was jumping off a bridge—”

“Then we damn well would jump off that bridge. We’re all in this together!”

With one last mighty pull, he unrolls the cocoon Kenma had created for himself, and throws the blanket into the hall so he would have no choice but to physically get up if he wanted to retrieve it. Kenma glares ferociously at Kuroo’s smug face as he finally leaves his bed, shivering in just his pajamas. As a small act of rebellion, he takes longer in the shower than he usually would, but Kuroo just smartly taps his watch and informs him he had come an hour early knowing Kenma is slow to leave the house.

It’s Fukunaga’s birthday, and it had been his surprising request to visit a karaoke bar with the team. Tora had jabbed his arm, amused, and asked if he would actually sing, but his answer had been a shake of his head and a placid, “I like to listen.”

So they gather near the shopping center, at an inexpensive karaoke place that’s popular among Nekoma students. The third-years collectively treat, though Shibayama shyly reveals he had bought a cake from a corner store with a personalized message, and Fukunaga adoringly pets his head in a way reminiscent of dog-owners with their puppies.

Kenma sits quietly in a corner of their room, knees pulled to his chin as he mechanically sucks down soda through a straw, so he can keep an eye on the activity without needing to take part.

Tora and Lev quickly monopolize the two microphones.

“Yamamoto-senpai, if I get a higher score than you, then I get to be the ace, okay?” Lev laughs, thumbing through the selection.

“Like hell I’m gonna lose!”

They decide on some edgy rock song that Kenma’s never heard but is fairly sure has shattered his eardrums by the time the two finish, and Lev demands a rematch when Tora is declared the winner by the machine’s algorithms. They get through three more songs before Kuroo finally snatches a mic and sings some embarrassing folk song they had all learned in elementary school, and Yaku teases that he hasn’t heard this since he was ten. Kai laughs when an argument ensues about music tastes, indulging in a bowl of shrimp chips. Fukunaga really does seem content to just listen, beating a tambourine rhythmically as accompaniment to every singer and swaying in time to the music.

Eventually Tora pushes Inuoka and Shibayama forward and practically forces them into performing some sappy love ballad together; it’s embarrassing for them and excruciating for everyone watching, and that’s when they decide to switch off the karaoke machine for good. They cut Fukunaga’s cake instead, who starts giggling when asked what he had wished for and refuses to say.

It’s not the worst day of his life, Kenma thinks, though he ignores Kuroo when he asks whether Kenma had enjoyed himself in his usual, self-important way.

The memory of that day is buried in a bed of snow in the following week, turning the city white and clean for a brief, beautiful moment before it’s trampled by bustling crowds of people. The team meets an hour before their regular practice time that morning, smothering yawns or, in Kenma’s case, guzzling coffee while rubbing at bruised, sunken eyes and resembling an unapproachable wild animal. They’re each armed with a shovel.

“Nekomata-sensei will be here in less than an hour, so let’s get this cleared up quickly,” Yaku directs them, after divvying up snow mounds to each of the team members. They get to work clearing out the snow surrounding their gym—or that’s how it’s supposed to go, in theory.

“Yamamoto-senpai, if I can finish faster than you, then I get to be the ace!” Lev decides, gleefully catapulting himself into a pile of snow. He emerges with a laugh, his beanie skewed, and begins plowing so fast it’s as if he were not human.

Tora falls into his trap, unnecessarily fired up as he begins flinging snow over his shoulder, not even realizing he’s sending it all into Inuoka’s designated area. Yaku attempts to put a stop to their shenanigans but accidentally gets a mouthful of snow for his efforts, and Kuroo laughs so obnoxiously that he slips and falls face-first into snow himself. Kenma rolls his eyes at the display.

Inuoka and Shibayama excitedly create snow angels and tiny snowmen, while Fukunaga gathers stray sticks and stones as decorations. Pretty soon everyone has abandoned their task to help, the pull of creating art from the snow stronger than the act of shoveling it.

It’s Kai who eventually glances at his watch and informs them that they only have twenty minutes until practice starts, and then there’s a mad scramble to pick their shovels back up and get to work. They don’t finish, don’t even scratch the surface of what they had set out to do, but they manage to create a neat path from the courtyard to the gym entrance so their coaches would not have to wade through inches of snow, and decide that it’s good enough.

They leave the gym together after practice, huddling for warmth, and eventually stop at an oden stall to fill their stomachs and warm their bodies, making sure to ask for extra eggs while their muscles are still high strung from their workout. Kenma picks at his food, and spends most of the time watching the rest of the team stuff their faces, somehow still trying to put more food into their mouths even when their cheeks are already bulging from the load.

“You guys some sort of circus group?” a man from the next stall asks, eyeing their matching uniforms and the array of interesting hairstyles in their team. Yaku snorts so hard he almost chokes on his food.

“In a way,” Kai replies, amiably.

Kenma smiles into his bowl, and it doesn’t dampen even when he feels Kuroo’s eyes on him from across the table and glances up to meet them. Kuroo is taken aback at first, but then easily returns it, cheeks flushed from the cold or the steam or something else.

Kuroo decides to stay over for the night, since they’re already studying in Kenma’s room when it gets fairly late. Normally he’ll roll out the spare futon on the floor, but it’s chilly tonight and Kenma digs a heated blanket out from his closet, so they squeeze themselves into Kenma’s bed even if it means their pillows are each dangling halfway off the mattress and Kuroo has to be pressed flushed against his back. He can’t pull out his console because Kuroo is always lecturing him about diminishing his sleep quality, so all he can do is lie here listening to his best friend’s heartbeat mingled with his steady breathing, his nose pressed to the back of Kenma’s neck. He’s not sure if the ringing he eventually falls asleep to is the frigid wind outside or his own ears.

Kuroo is already gone by the time he wakes, his side of the bed empty but rumpled enough to suggest someone had been there at all.

This is what Kenma thinks, at least.

But he’s rubbing sleep out of his eyes on his way to the bathroom, when he cracks open the door to find that Kuroo is very much still here. And he’s not wearing a shirt. And he’s got shaving cream smeared all over his jaw.

Kenma swallows, hard and lumpish.

The thought had come to him, occasionally throughout the night, that that was definitely stubble he could feel rubbing against the skin of his neck whenever his best friend burrowed closer. Kenma hardly ever needs to shave, doesn’t grow hair fast enough to need to. But Kuroo does, every morning. Kenma has seen what he looks like during exam week, when he’s been unshaven for three days straight and is constantly scratching the hair along his chin, the sound of it distracting Kenma from his games.

He looks—different—with shaving cream on his jaw, angling his chin upwards as he squints at himself in the mirror in every direction, stray droplets of water running down his Adam’s apple.

Then Kuroo gives him a side-along glance without warning, and smirks. “I know you’re not feeling shy about peeing in front of me, Kenma. That’s old news by now.”

He realizes he’s just been standing frozen at the doorway, toes rubbing together.

“Oh, wait.” Something seems to occur to him. “Do you gotta take a shit? I’ll gladly step out for that.”

Kenma glares at him when he passes, for his obscene words. Kuroo just chuckles to himself as he returns to angling his jaw in the mirror, ignoring the sound of the toilet cover going up behind him. Kenma also tries to ignore him, as he strips out of his clothes and steps into the shower, forcing himself not to look over his shoulder and check when he thinks he feels eyes on his back. They used to do this all the time—share a bathroom and change in front of each other—but it feels different now, like he’s so aware of everything, of every motion and every sound Kuroo makes at the sink that he can hear over the rushing water. Kenma takes a deep, steadying breath when he’s done washing himself, then pulls back the shower curtain with his eyes screwed shut like he’s expecting something, before easing them back open.

Kuroo is nowhere to be found, but there’s a smiley face drawn on the steam in the mirror.

 

-

 

For all the worry and anticipation, the early morning runs and the late night practices, Spring High passes them in what feels like the blink of an eye. Everyone is crying on the train back home, tears of relief and joy, and Kuroo squeezes Kenma’s hand in a vice-like grip against the cool plastic of their seat for the entire journey. It becomes something they never talk about, during or after.

They meet for a shrine visit, all of Nekoma, on the morning of the new year.

It’s crowded and noisy, and Kenma has to be dragged there. As it is, he spies the crowd from the entrance and almost turns right back around, except his nose bumps Kuroo’s hard chest and then he’s being steered back into the grounds with his heels dragging.

“I got a really good fortune last year!” Inuoka tells them, as they all line up to pick from the lot for the coming year. “I’m sure it helped us get to Nationals!”

“I got a good one, too,” Yaku adds, rubbing his chin. “What do you say? Should we all try for a good one this year? Maybe if all of us have good luck, it’ll mean we’re going to totally dominate at Nationals.”

After everyone has a slip in their hands and they’ve formed a small circle in a quiet corner of the grounds, Kuroo says ‘one, two, three, go!’ and they brandish their fortunes for all to see like they’re drawing guns in a shootout. There’s a flurry of activity and some quiet murmuring, and this is what they find: everyone has moderate to high luck for the coming year, except for Lev, who had been the only one to pick a cursed fortune.

“Nothing we can do about it,” Yaku says, darkly. “Guess we’re gonna have to kick Lev off the team.”

He seems to take some sort of sadistic pleasure in watching Lev’s face crumple.

The third-years disappear together for a short while, to buy themselves new charms for help with their studies; the college entrance exams would begin sometime at the end of the month, and with Nationals now to focus on, they’ll need the extra luck to reach their choice universities. Something squirms in Kenma’s stomach as he remembers this, remembers that this is Kuroo’s last year at Nekoma and then he’ll be somewhere far away instead of right down the street like he’s always been. How this had slipped his mind, he’s not certain.

When the third-years return, Kuroo makes a beeline for him and presses something into his hand.

“I got one for you, too,” he explains, smirking. “I’m not gonna be around next year to tutor you or get on your case about doing your homework, so you’ll need it, don’t you think?”

Kenma glares down at the trinket in his palm, somehow inexplicably annoyed at everything Kuroo had just said, but shoves it into a coat pocket anyway.

The team doesn’t have a chance to meet again until school resumes once more. The snow has already begun to clear, despite the season; it never stays too long, usually getting quickly stamped away by cars and people. But the air is still frosty. Kuroo shuffles right by the gym on their way to the changing room, shivering, but Kenma pauses at the door, eyes scanning the heads of his teammates and realizing there’s one more person in their midst than usual.

Inuoka excitedly brings forward a boy with cropped hair and a shy smile, a hand clamped around his wrist. “This is Teshiro-kun!” he introduces them, proudly. “He’s in my class. I just found out he used to play volleyball in junior high.”

“What position do you play, kid?” Kuroo asks, leaning in close and rubbing his chin, probably appearing more menacing than he seems to realize.

“S-Setter,” the boy squeaks out. Kenma takes him in carefully, when he says this. He has long fingers and broad palms, and there’s an intelligent sort of look in his eyes, trembling aside. Even if he had not said it, Kenma probably could have guessed his position.

“It’s kind of late, but he wants to join the team,” Inuoka speaks for him. “He said he came by at the beginning of the year to ask about signing up, but he was a bit scared—umm, I mean, intimidated by the team, and never did.”

Nekomata narrows his eyes, and all he says is, “Let’s see what you can do, then.”

It’s clear that Teshiro is no beginner. His fingers are nimble and he thinks fast under stressful circumstances, and while there are fumbles every now and then, he is able to sync up a toss at least once with every member of the team. Both coaches seem impressed, and there’s no question that he’ll be welcomed onto the team.

“We need a reserve setter anyway,” Nekomata muses, “since Kenma tends to start slacking off right near the end of the second set.”

Kenma is well aware that the boy follows him with his eyes all practice, though he does his best to pretend he doesn’t notice, reminded of Karasuno’s intense setter and feeling uneasy. He focuses his attention on sending Lev tosses, arched high and angled precisely, and is satisfied when he’s able to whip them across the court as usual.

Teshiro looks on in wide-eyed awe.

Kuroo sidles up next to him, nose raised up high in pride, and tells him, “He’s our brain.”

Kenma puts a hand over his face when he overhears, embarrassed that his best friend needed to boast about this to every new person they met. No matter how much he might complain, Kuroo is never not looking for an opportunity to raise him up on a pedestal, like it gives him a certain thrill to show people that Kenma is more than what he appears at a first glance.

“He’s really cool,” Teshiro whispers, and Kuroo looks damn pleased.

Kenma tries to pretend he doesn’t notice that there are suddenly two pairs of eyes following him all practice.

That same night he receives a text from Shouyou, who’s begun packing up for Nationals already and wants to know if Kenma thinks ten T-shirts will be enough or if he should pack more. ‘Oh, and please give me a good game recommendation for a long bus ride!’ he requests at the end of his message, with a heart emoji tacked on for good measure. Kenma smiles down at it.

“What’s got you grinning?” Kuroo appears in the doorway suddenly, as he always does, a steaming cup of cocoa in either hand. “It’s that shrimpy, isn’t it? You only make that face for him.”

Kenma scowls. “I’m not grinning. And I don’t make any sort of face for Shouyou.”

“Yes, you do.”

“No, I don’t.”

Kuroo hands him a mug, then settles down next to him on the floor, one knee propped up. “You do. What could he possibly have said that’s got you so happy?” His gaze drops down, to where Kenma still foolishly has his phone on his lap with the message displayed in the open. His mouth forms a silent oh. "A heart?”

Kenma’s neck grows warm. He quickly stuffs his phone away before Kuroo could see anything else incriminating, but can tell by the smile that twists his lips that he’s already got ideas in his head about how best to be obnoxious about this.

“How come shrimpy’s heart emoji has you smiling, but whenever I use one it only makes you throw your phone against the wall?”

“Because Shouyou’s is sincere. You only add yours to annoy me.”

“Not true.” Hand against his heart, he declares, “My heart emojis are as pure and sincere as myself.”

“So, not at all?”

“Wow. Harsh.” He laughs. “You really don’t think I’m sincere about it? You don’t think I’m thinking about how it’ll make you smile when I send you one?”

“No, and no.”

“Hmm?” Kuroo is still smiling, against the rim of his cup, but the gleam in his side-along glance is suddenly without mirth and hardens his face, like he’s considering saying something that’s not simply meant to tease. Kenma waits, but he says nothing in the end.

They sip their cocoa silently for a little while, staring at the foam swirl in their cups. Kuroo has a textbook laid out on the bed that he had been working through all evening, but he doesn’t seem ready to return to it just yet. Some might find it strange, two boys sitting in pitch silence in a room, not saying or even doing anything except giving each other company, but this is how they thrive.

Kenma is uncharacteristically the first to break the silence. Thinking of something Kuroo had said, he feels compelled to ask, “What… kind of face do I make for you?”

His reply comes instantly. “A really ugly one.” Setting his cup down somewhere safe, he leans in so he can emphasize the features on his face. “You get these wrinkles on your forehead, like, real deep and accentuated. And the frown’s not just any normal frown, it’s at least a centimeter longer than usual. It’s such a special brand of ugliness that I’m actually kinda flattered, since it’s all for me.”

Kenma huffs. “I’m serious.”

He smirks. “So am I.”

Drawing circles on the rim of his cup, Kenma considers this. He wonders whether the face he makes for his best friend (his something greater) is really so horrible. In his defense, Kuroo’s personality is just downright obnoxious sometimes, and he likes to tease and heckle and he loves being right about everything. But he’s not always like that—they’re not. Sometimes Kuroo will nuzzle his neck with his nose in slumber, or trace the band-aid on his knuckles with care, or guide him down a straight path with a gentle hand to his back. He’ll let Kenma doze on his shoulder on the train, and climb up any tree if it means he gets to see him, and give him silent company on lonely days. He’ll boast to people about Kenma when they can’t see his worth, and he’ll make Kenma feel like the team and maybe the whole world would be nothing if Kenma was not in it. Kenma wonders what kind of face he makes, then, if it’s really still so ugly.

He glances up, as if to ask. But the words are choked into nothingness by the sudden gleam that had manifested itself in Kuroo’s eyes. He's looking at him with that hard emotion, like something powerful was teetering on the tip of his tongue, and searching Kenma’s face like he had read every single one of his gentle thoughts. A hard slant to his mouth and a shadow across his forehead, his face looks murky and dark and without an ounce of humor that normally defines him as a person. It makes his stomach squirm something fierce, fire burning there, thinking of vanilla and shaving cream and how Kuroo’s mouth had look pressed up against his cup of cocoa.

"Kuro, what...?"

Kuroo breathes in once, the sound shallow and hushed.

“That’s not the only face you make,” he says—croaks—his voice thick with something raw that squeezes Kenma’s chest. His Adam’s apple bobs, once, and the floorboard creaks under the weight of his palm. “Sometimes you” —his dry swallow is so loud that even Kenma hears— “you make the one you’re making right now.”

No one says anything, after that, the declaration putting weight on them like gravity demanding notice. But it's not like before, the quiet. The easy silence from moments past has turned into something brazen and sticky like ice-cream melting under his thumb and dripping down to his sneakers, or the condensation and disappointment from a steamy shower adhering to his skin. Every move Kuroo makes is one Kenma is so keenly aware of; heel of his palm pressed to the floor, and a twitch of his bicep when he puts his weight on it; the rise and fall of his chest, quickened and minute; bottom lip sucked under his teeth, rolling in this immoral way as he gnaws on the skin there.

Kenma tucks bangs behind his ear and nervously flutters his lashes down at his mug, finding it hard to meet his best friend’s eyes when he’s looking at him with this electricity. He whispers, “…What kind of face is that?”

A beat of silence.

“Should I show you?”

He begins to move. Kenma picks up vibrations in the air, so attuned to every move of Kuroo's body, even though he is as silent as the grave when he brings himself closer, so close that their knees touch and Kenma can smell a spritz of cologne that he’s still shocked to find that Kuroo even wears. He hadn’t seemed to worry about those kinds of things in junior high, but then he had shot up in height and his body had grown, and Kenma had smelled cologne on him for the first time and his chest had ached something fierce to learn that Kuroo had started caring about things like whether he smelled attractive.

Kuroo gentle eases the mug from his hands and sets it aside. Kenma doesn’t have anything to look down at anymore other than his useless hands. His hands that are so shockingly still that he has to wonder whether they’ve just gone numb from all of this, this moment, this intensity.

Kuroo brushes bangs from his face and tuck them ever so gently behind his ears, then settles his palms there, Kenma’s cheeks held between them. Their noses could have touched for how close he leans in, and Kenma doesn't like it, how much he likes the way Kuroo looks with his eyes half-lidded and murky and drunk on love.

“Should I show you, Kenma,” he murmurs, “what kind of face you’re making right now?”

Kenma burns, trying to swallow but finding it impossible. He feels hot and helpless and so filthy for the way his stomach is squirming for his best friend, and there’s cocoa on his tongue instead of vanilla, and frigid winter air prickling at his skin instead of the sticky summer heat, but it’s the same, it all feels the same and he’s so embarrassed and so afraid and ashamed, embarrassed and ashamed that sometimes he stares at Kuroo’s body for too long, that he likes the scent of his cologne and the feel of his stubble on his neck, that he wants Kuroo to look when he’s stepping into the shower or kiss him, make his mouth completely his own. He wants his best friend in the world in ways that he’s only seen in movies and he wants to be wanted that way in return, however impossible it may be to think or even imagine that Kuroo could look at his body and burn with desire.

“Kenma, look at me,” Kuroo says in his most soothing tone, stroking his thumb to his cheek to coax him.

And Kenma—he makes the split-second decision to pull his face away.

“Kuro, this isn’t… I don’t—”

He breaks himself free of the hands working circles into his skin, too gentle, always gentle. But this is Kuroo, the boy who dribbles ice-cream down to his sneakers and cries when he loses practice matches, who laughs so hard he falls into the snow and wrestles with Bokuto like they’re still children. He’s the boy who’s been walking Kenma to school since they were ten, since they were both skinny and small and didn’t think about anything else but volleyball or video games. He’s not supposed to be feeling—this.

Kuroo instantly lets go.

He’s looking at him with caution and just a touch of panic or shame or something else Kenma can't decipher, hands suspended in the air like he had been caught doing something criminal. “Kenma, I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable,” he says, carefully. “It was just a joke.”

Something in Kenma’s mind jumps at the word, grappling to hold on to it. He looks up. “…A joke?”

“Yeah, just a prank.” He hisses through his teeth, teasing his hair and genuinely looking apologetic. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think you were gonna take it so seriously. You were making that ugly, frowny face again so I thought I’d see if I could wipe it off.”

A prank. Kuroo likes playing those a lot, that was a fact.

He considers this for a long moment, then glares up at his friend, grousing, “That was a terrible prank.”

“Sorry, sorry,” he laughs, quickly scooting backwards, to where he had originally sat a safe distance away with his mug of cocoa. “I’ll go for that good ol’ shaving cream in your hand while you sleep trick next time.”

“Next time?” Kenma snaps.

And Kuroo is laughing again, then, and promising he wouldn’t—'no, really, I mean it, don’t kick me out!’ He makes another joke about ulcers at twenty, and how the trick would be near impossible anyway since Kenma usually forewent sleep in favor of playing games. Eventually he settles down with the textbook he’d been reading prior to their cocoa break, and Kenma pulls up a strategy guide on his phone for his latest digital obsession, and the night passes like this.

It gets fairly late before either of them realize, but Kuroo doesn’t ask to stay the night, and Kenma doesn’t offer.

Once he’s gone, once Kenma’s put two empty mugs in the kitchen sink, bid his parents goodnight, and crawled into bed, is when Kenma thinks about what it means to think only of his best friend as good-looking, to associate vanilla with his body and cocoa with his mouth, to see him as something familiar and so much like home. He thinks and he thinks and he thinks, until he’s lost himself in his ruminations and realizes belatedly that his hands are finally trembling, have finally caught up with the rest of him. No matter how much he tries, he can’t get them to stop.

 

-

 

They plow on to Nationals, and Kenma can’t remember a time when he had ever played this hard. It’s just hitting him all at once, that this is what his friends want so badly, that his destined battle with Shouyuo is so close within their grasps, that Kuroo has dreamed of this for as long as he has ever known him.

Tora tackles him in a bear hug in the hallway, and even Fukunaga inches closer step by step. Kuroo watches from afar, not even trying to help him, the traitor.

They slip into the bath altogether that night. It’s a quiet ordeal, everyone still weary from their deuce and the excitement of watching Karasuno’s match afterwards.

Kenma sits with his knees to his chest, simply watching.

The third-years settle themselves in a corner of the bath, speaking in hushed tones about what’s next to come in the tournament, while Lev sits on a stool and allows Shibayama to shampoo his hair, giggling every time water dribbles down his back. Tora is not even pretending to be humble as he soaks up praise from the other first-years, while Fukunaga is taking delight in playing with the water, squirting pistols with his hands.

The upperclassmen are the first to leave.

“Kenma!” Kuroo calls, before he disappears behind the sliding door. “Don’t stay in too long, or you’re gonna overheat.”

“That goes for all of you,” Yaku adds, his head poking out of the doorway so he can hold two fingers against his eyes, then point them about the room. ‘I’m watching you.’ The door shuts just barely before he can pull his hand back into himself, and they can hear him snapping at Kuroo beyond the barrier.

When Kenma’s not paying attention, the new first-year setter wades over to him and seats himself a respectable distance away, still a bit shy. “Kuroo-san sure does look out for you a lot, Kenma-san,” he says, smiling.

Kenma turns his eyes on him, probably sharper than was necessary.

Tora snorts, having overheard. “Practically raised him, is what he did. They’re like family.”

“Shut up, Tora.”

“It’s true,” he insists.

“That must be really nice,” Teshiro marvels. “I’ve never had anything like that, like a childhood friend. All my friends from junior high went to different high schools, too, so I can’t even say any of my friendships have lasted longer than three years. It must be really amazing, being friends with someone for so long!”

“…I guess,” Kenma responds, glaring down at his knees.

The first-year is still looking at him with these wide, bedazzled eyes, so Kenma doesn’t tell him that sometimes it’s not so nice—sometimes it’s weird and confusing and makes him second-guess himself even though he knows he shouldn’t, not with this person. It makes him notice stupid things, like how Kuroo hasn’t slept over in what feels like forever. That he’d said, “That was a good game today, Kenma” with so much pride brimming in his eyes, but hadn’t ruffled his hair or given him a one-armed hug like everyone else on the team. And he hasn’t sent Kenma a heart since that one strange night before Nationals.

“Kenma-san?” Shibayama calls, smiling sweetly. He’d finished shampooing Lev’s hair a while back and was now also finishing with Inuoka, who’s got his head ducked as he washes it out. “Did you want me to wash your hair for you, too?”

He manages a small, tired smile for the first-year boy. “No. Thank you.”

“Kenma-san doesn’t really like being touched so much by other people,” Inuoka stage-whispers, so that the reminder would reach everyone in the room.

And Tora, persistent to the end, hastens to add, “Except for Kuroo-san.”

“Shut. Up. Tora.”

“It’s true!”

“Wahhh. Kenma-san, your face is really red! I think you’ve been in the bath too long.”

Kenma drags himself out of the water with one mighty pull, biting down hard on his lip so he would not snap anything too harsh in front of the first-years as he stomps to the dressing room. He’s frigid enough towards Tora as they’re setting up for bed that the boy seems to repent for his actions, and he determinedly ignores Kuroo’s quizzical look over the matter.

There is no more talk of such things for the rest of the tournament, with volleyball to focus on and the matches getting steadily harder, day by day.

And then, much like the Spring High, they blink and suddenly they’re going home, the train ride long and winding. Kuroo and Kenma’s hands stay in their own laps this time.

Once they’re back at school, the club officially over for the rest of the term, the third-years throw themselves into their textbooks. Kuroo doesn’t have time to come over or lounge or spend the night; he and Yaku and Kai are holed up in study rooms in the library almost around the clock, solving math problems together, translating English passages, and reciting Japanese poems. Occasionally Kenma will think about opening his own books, but then he’ll simply pick up the charm he’s kept stashed in his desk drawer, turn it over and over in his hands, pondering it, before finally putting it back and returning to his newest video game.

Kuroo sits for his entrance exam on the same day that Kenma defeats the final boss. Now there’s no escape, no distraction from his thoughts lingering to Kuroo’s stony face as he had set out that morning, a look that melted into quiet surprise when Kenma had presented him with one of the Kit-Kats in his secret stash and told him to win. He had knocked against Kenma’s forehead, grinning, and declared, “I’ll pass for the both of us.”

It reminds him eerily of a similar day from childhood, so when Kuroo comes over that evening and collapses wearily on Kenma’s bed, face down and wordless and deflated whole, he fidgets unsurely from a distance. This is not something they can simply level up in, if need be, and Kenma doesn’t know any other way to show him comfort when he’s like this.

Eventually he crawls onto the mattress himself. Hand flat atop Kuroo’s back, tracing the path up to his shoulder, he asks, “Kuro, how was the exam?”

There’s no single response at first. Then Kuroo props up one arm and makes a twisted gesture with his hand that Kenma realizes belatedly is a thumbs-up sign.

The acceptance letter arrives a month later.

“Ahh, what a load off,” Kuroo sings, dangling the letter above Yaku’s head, who had still yet to receive his own. The libero blushes, going in for a swift kick at Kuroo’s leg that he unfortunately manages to avoid.

“Kuro, stop acting twelve and eat your lunch.”

“Ha! That’s rich coming from you, Kenma.” But he obediently sits himself down and says a quick thank-you for the meal before digging into the lunch box Kenma’s mother had prepared for him, with extra of everything because she was so proud of him, for making it into his first choice.

Yaku scowls, but also joins them quietly. He lets the breeze rustle the leaves overhead before saying, “It’ll be kinda weird, though, not seeing your ugly face every day.”

“Wow. I’m really feeling the love. Thanks, man.”

“You know what I mean.”

“I know that sentence would have made perfect sense without ‘ugly’ thrown in there, and other than that, I know nothing.”

Yaku shoves his shoulder, hard, but he’s grinning. “I’m saying I’ll miss you, you buffoon.”

“I’m touched,” Kuroo responds, with the blandest face and flattest tone he can manage.

Yaku flicks a pickled plum at him. “The hell was I thinking, trying to get all emotional with this Neanderthal-for-brains.” He huffily shuffles rice into his mouth, further irritated by Kuroo’s laugh and turning redder by the second, before finally throwing his chopsticks down and rubbing his fingers against his scalp. “I mean,” he spits, “three years is a long time to know each other, and you’re kind of okay sometimes, shit personality aside. And—oh god.” Something seems to occur to him. “I can’t even imagine what Kenma must be feeling right now.”

Kenma, who up until now had been ignoring the conversation, looks up at the mention of his name. They’re both looking at him expectantly, waiting.

“Can’t wait for him to go,” he mutters, around his food.

Kuroo smirks. “There you have it.”

Yaku looks between the two of them, gnawing on his lip and looking unsure. But whatever it is he wants to say, he doesn’t. They eventually pack up their things when the first bell rings and go their separate ways, and whatever it is he had wanted to say never gets said. Not by him, not by Kuroo, not by Kenma.

And then, Kuroo graduates.

 

-

 

Kenma likes train stations. He likes them on quiet mornings, when the only ones on the platform are himself, his best friend, and a few weary businessmen heading to work, too exhausted to talk amongst themselves. He likes them on late afternoons, or early evenings, when they’re returning from practice and it’s late enough that the entire station has already cleared out before their arrival; everything is quiet and pale orange and surreal, then. He likes the rhythmic whirring of wheels on the track, soothing in their monotony, and he likes that familiar touch of his best friend’s knee pressed to his own.

He doesn’t like them like this: noisy, hot, and bustling with families, Kuroo checking the time on his ticket with his suitcase at his feet.

“You’re sure you have everything?” his mother asks, the fifth time now. She’s nervously looking at her watch again and again, and Kenma thinks not for the first time that Kuroo had grown up to be so relaxed and responsible because his own mother was not.

He shrugs. “If I don’t, you can just mail it to me.”

Kenma’s mother sniffles. “Make sure you eat the lunch I packed you as soon as you get there.”

“I will, Kozume-san. Thank you, again.”

His train arrives then, and there’s a collective rush on the platform to begin boarding. Kuroo kisses both mothers on the cheek, endures gruff pats on his back from both fathers, then turns to Kenma.

“Make sure you study hard, brat,” he tells him, smirking. “Eat your vegetables. Don’t stay up too late playing video games. Don’t be too mean to Yamamoto, even though he usually deserves it. Lead the team well with the other third-years, and make it to Nationals again this year. I know you guys can do it.”

Kenma glares at a spot over his shoulder, waiting for him to say the most important thing and growing steadily irked when he doesn’t. Finally, he is the one to broach the topic.

“Aren’t you going to ask me?” he demands.

‘If I’ll miss you?’

“Mm, nah.” Kuroo shrugs one shoulder, but he’s grinning. “I don’t have to ask to know you will.”

He ruffles Kenma’s hair, once, then picks up his suitcase and disappears into the crowd.

Kenma goes home and collapses on his bed, holding up the charm to the air and staring at it, wondering what Kuroo had been thinking when he’d picked it out and realized it meant he couldn’t be by Kenma’s side anymore.

Then he thinks of Kuroo’s last day at Nekoma, how he’d graduated amidst a shower of cherry blossoms, looking like a picture out of a movie wearing his uniform, his diploma rested against his shoulder while he laughed carefree with his fellow third-years. That evening they had spent at the park, the same one where they used to copy volleyball plays they’d watched on TV as kids, the same one where they had met for the very first time. Kuroo had collapsed on a swing, Kenma following suit, and they’d just swung there aimlessly in silent company like they often used to do, for a long, long time.

And sometimes, Kenma noticed, they managed to fall in sync.

 

 

 

 

 

v.

Life without Kuroo feels different in the smallest ways. It’s in the way Kenma will pause, mid-battle, and realize his game’s been thrown completely off because he’s gotten used to the sound of a page, be it from a textbook or a manga, turning somewhere behind him while he plays. It’s in the way he’ll begin to doze off on the train but then catch himself, remembering that no one is here to wake him at his stop or to lend him their shoulder. Waking himself at dawn, coming home alone to an empty room, making cocoa for himself, and never stopping anymore for ice-cream at the convenience store; these are all new things.

New first-years join the team, fresh-faced and eager, and Tora keeps nudging him, prodding him, looking at him pointedly. But Kenma absolutely refuses. “It’s cheesy,” he grumbles.

“Don’t you want to continue Kuroo-san’s legacy?”

“Maybe if his legacy wasn’t so embarrassing…”

So Tora takes over the duty, reciting for the first-years their usual pre-game mantra, ‘we’re like the blood in our veins,’ though he shoots Kenma a disapproving frown every time he is the one to take charge. “I thought you of all people would want to keep it up.”

“I don’t do everything Kuro does,” Kenma snaps, putting an end to their back and forth.

And it’s just a fact of life now. Kenma doesn’t attend his university or share his apartment. He’s not in the study group Kuroo has created with a group of boys he had just met. He doesn’t go out every night, getting ice-cream cones with pretty girls or trying food stalls with pretty guys. He’s not particularly excited about the future or looking forward with ambition. He doesn’t even belong on the same volleyball team anymore.

Bokuto does. Kuroo had toiled and studied to get into his first-choice university, and Bokuto had accomplished the exact same feat by getting himself a volleyball scholarship. Now the two are always posting pictures together, of them playing video games or ordering takeout or goofing around at practice.

It’s not that Kenma is jealous, really. It’s that he lies here on his bed every other night, staring at the study charm and thinking things—of that one strange night before Nationals, of a frightening afternoon spent outside of an ice-cream parlor, of shaving cream and smiley faces on the mirror, of heart emojis. It’s that Kuroo has gone on to happily live his new life, and Kenma is still stuck here, always getting asked about Kuroo, ‘how’s Kuroo, have you talked to Kuroo, is Kuroo doing well, do you miss Kuroo?’

‘Yeah, I miss him,’ Kenma sometimes wants to snap. ‘I miss him damn a lot. Is that so weird? Is it weird to miss your best friend? Did you think I wouldn’t?’

That’s another small change: that his chest is always, always aching now, sometimes unbearably (when he comes home to an empty room) and sometimes gentle and soft like it’s just become a part of him (every other time in between).

This is the beginning of a life without Kuroo.

 

-

 

“You’re being nice to the first-years, right?”

“I guess.”

“You guess?” He can practically hear the rolling of eyes through the phone. “Don’t go around terrorizing the little munchkins. They can hardly stick up for themselves.”

Now it’s Kenma’s turn to roll his eyes. “Just because we haven’t become instant best friends doesn’t mean I’m terrorizing them.”

“Hey, now!” A chuckle. “Don’t go around becoming best friends with anybody. That title is already taken, by yours truly.”

He doesn’t say anything to that.

“Hm? Kenma? You still there?”

“…I’m still here.”

Kenma fingers the plastic cover in his hands, staring at the words written on the back of the game cover but not really taking them in like a functional being. It’s his newest game, had arrived in the mail that morning while he’d been away at school, and he’d bounded up the stairs and excitedly ripped off the plastic all of fifteen minutes ago, just about to pop open the case for the first time—when Kuroo had called.

“You doing anything for Golden Week?” Kuroo wants to know.

“We have a practice match with Karasuno.”

“Oho? Dare I say, this seems to be becoming a tradition? If they continue it next year, three years in a row, then we can definitely call it that.”

“I wouldn’t know. I won’t be here.”

“Oh, yeah. Well, I’m sure the shrimpy will keep you updated.”

He hasn’t talked to Shouyou in a while, Kenma realizes. Pulling the phone from his face, he quickly taps out a message to the sprightly boy asking how he’s been before returning to his call.

“—and it’s been a total blast,” Kuroo is saying. “Bokuto’s the same, old airhead, but he seems to be getting by all right. He goes home every weekend to get tutored by Akaashi, because he has no shame. I mean, doesn’t that embarrass him, getting tutored by a high schooler now that he’s in college? I told him Akaashi’ll have entrance exams to worry about soon, so he can’t keep bothering him like that.”

“I don’t think Akaashi is too bothered,” Kenma says. As long as he actually gets to see his old friend now and then.

“Patience of a saint, that one. I tried tutoring him once, but there was just a lot of yelling involved. Punching and kicking, too. Bokuto cried. Now I just leave it up to the professional Bokuto wrangler—”

Suddenly a digital tone buzzes in his ear, and Kenma glances at his phone in surprise to see that Shouyou is calling him.

“What was that?”

“…Shouyou wants to talk.”

“Ah. Well, all right, I’ll let that brat take it from here, then.”

Kenma frowns, something bubbling in his abdomen that feels distinctly like panic. It’s been all of ten minutes, and the last call from a week ago had been only slightly longer. His mother had said it would take time for things to settle and for this new distance to feel comfortable and old, and then their friendship would be renewed. But phone conversations with Kuroo feel weird and stilted anyway, and Kenma is slowly realizing that most of their friendship had been built around the two boys lounging in his room on afternoons, just quietly enjoying each other’s company without the need to speak much. Now, speaking is all they can do.

“I can call back Shouyou some other time.”

“Hm? It’s okay, the little guy doesn’t seem like the patient type. I have to head out soon, anyway. I’m meeting my study group.”

They murmur their goodbyes, and then Kenma listens for half an hour to Shouyou’s complaints about how the new first-years on the team are all taller than him and all have the personality of Tsukishima, who is so mean even when Shouyou is just complimenting him for playing well. They follow this with an hour-long discussion about games and the newest Shounen Jump and their teams, and Kenma doesn’t really say much but Shouyou doesn’t mind since he can chatter enough for the both of them.

The silence in the room feels exponential when they hang up.

With nothing more to distract him, Kenma pops open the case in his lap and inserts the CD into his PlayStation, listening to the mechanical whirring of it being read by his console and the hum of it coming to life. Familiar sounds. There’s a brief walkthrough, and he works through it in automatic motions, pressing X to skip forward faster and sighing quietly to himself when this lasts longer than two minutes. Eventually his avatar plops down in the virtual world, and he speaks to a few NPCs, searches for a few quests, but then the first challenger comes and squashes him in seconds flat, and that’s when Kenma realizes he has no idea what he’s doing.

He hadn’t retained any information, hadn’t even bothered to care enough to pay attention to how he could equip his character, even though it’s normally something he treats with the utmost importance. He’s just so distracted and bored, of this game, of all the games. He can’t stop glancing periodically at his blank phone screen and wriggling his toes together in anxious habit.

When the cool metal is pressed against his palm, fingers roving across the pad of numbers, is when he hesitates. Is it strange to talk twice in one day? Is it a bother?

Eventually he swallows and dials the number anyway, listening with growing impatience to the dial tone.

“—don’t I feel special.”

He breathes out, numbingly relieved. “Kuro.”

“What’s this? Kenma, calling me for once?” There’s a muffled scratching sound of keys undoubtedly turning a lock, and a door creaking open. “It’s been, what, just two hours since our last call. Is everything okay?”

“Everything is fine.”

There’s a pause, and then Kuroo reiterates, slower, “Is everything really okay?”

“Fine.”

“Okay, okay, geez. Can’t blame a guy for worrying.” Kenma thinks he hears crockery clinking together, a noise of suction when a refrigerator is opened, some cutlery against porcelain. “So will I be getting an explanation for this charmingly unexpected ring on my mobile?”

He picks at the pattern on his bedspread, not really seeing it. It’s a horrible one with gardenias because that’s Kuroo’s favorite flower and he’d been accompanying Kenma’s mother at the shopping center when they’d spotted it. One early summer following that, Kuroo had unexpectedly brought a potted gardenia to his room and set it down on his bedside, and his only answer to Kenma’s pointed gaze had been a shrug and “because it matches.” Kuroo’s always doing things like that, for no reason other than he wants to.

“No reason,” Kenma says into the phone.

“Hm?”

“…What are you doing?”

“I am just getting home, and heating up some leftovers before they get spoiled just sitting in my fridge. I met up with my study group so we could review the last chapter we went over, but there’s another assignment I have to get done by tomorrow. I’m probably just gonna take my food over to the table, put on a match, and plow through this thing.”

‘Home,’ is all Kenma can think.

“You talk to the shrimp? What are you doing now?”

“Yeah. New game.”

“Oh? Just came in today?” He laughs. “That means, what, you’re probably already on level fifty or something, aren’t you?”

He’s barely passed level one. But he doesn’t say this. “Not really…”

A microwave goes off in the background, and then Kuroo says hurriedly, “Kenma, I really gotta get this assignment done. So if you have something you wanna say to me, then you better speak now or forever hold your peace.”

Kenma inhales, deep, then says, “Just stay.”

“What d’you mean?”

“On the line.” His neck feels warm. “We don’t have to talk, just stay on the line.”

He can’t concentrate on anything, not without Kuroo somewhere in the background making some sort of white noise, humming as he ponders a question or rifling through papers, sometimes purposely tapping a pencil because he knows it’ll get under Kenma’s skin and he delights in seeing him all riled up. He needs Kuroo’s presence.

There’s a beat of silence. “That phone bill will be off the charts.”

“Never mind, then,” Kenma instantly snaps, twisting one of the gardenias to pieces and wrestling with his embarrassment. It had been a longshot anyway. “I’m going back to my game, bye.”

“Wait, wait, wait!” He’s laughing. “I was just stating a fact. Doesn’t mean I was saying no.”

“…Obnoxious tool,” Kenma mutters under his breath.

“What was that? I’m hanging up right this instant, don’t think I won’t!”

“Do whatever you want.”

But he doesn’t hang up. He spreads his things out on his table and switches on a volleyball match on TV at low volume, and occasionally he can be heard playing with his papers or chewing thoughtfully. Sometimes he’ll sigh, long and dragged out and pensive, or tease Kenma about switching off his game and taking out his own homework. This lasts for an hour or two until one of them yawns, he’s not sure who, but they both realize they’re exhausted from the day and there’s an awkward, lingering pause because neither wants to be the first to suggest they hang up. Kuroo does, eventually, bidding him goodnight and disappearing behind a dial tone. And Kenma, he hadn’t made it to level fifty, but maybe he’s never played better his entire life.

 

-

 

They win two games against Karasuno, but lose one. The team has really come into itself compared to the ragtag group of boys they had played last Golden Week, Hinata and Kageyama’s partnership especially. He watches them leap at one another for unpracticed high-fives with unblinking eyes, the sensation of loss that wells up inside of him too strong for mourning a mere practice match.

The train ride home is a rowdy one, with Tora boasting loud enough for the entire compartment to hear about their incredible new first-years and Lev making a fuss about his low score count on Inuoka’s tally. Teshiro sits down next to Kenma and dejectedly asks for pointers on how to improve his game; the one match they had lost, he had been the setter on the court.

They return to their gym for a small strategy meeting, enduring pinpointed critique about their gameplay but an equal amount of praise over their teamwork, and then they’re dismissed to get changed out of their sweaty clothes.

“And if everyone can report back to me within ten minutes,” Nekomata adds, grinning, “then I’ll take us all out for dinner. Yakiniku sound nice?”

There’s suddenly a mad scramble for the changing room. Everyone pointedly glances at Kenma, who rolls his eyes but dutifully quickens his steps just a tad. He’s still the last one into the room, however, while Tora is the first one to get changed and be out the door, followed by Inuoka. They can be heard excitedly hollering about meat, and Kenma thumbs his temple as he slowly unzips his jacket.

There’s a startled noise that echoes from the gym, followed by sounds of people talking over one another, and Tora’s uncontained laughter.

‘It’s just meat,’ Kenma thinks to himself, exhausted by their melodramatics.

Footsteps thump against hardwood, steadily increasing in speed and loud enough to cause vibrations in the air, and then Tora is bursting through the door, and he’s smiling, or crying, or both, and he excitedly bellows into the room at top volume—

“Kuroo-san is here!”

The elastic of Kenma’s sweatpants loudly snaps around his hips when he accidentally lets go of the hem.

Lev immediately perks up and goes barreling out of the room half-naked, while Shibayama and Fukunaga hustle to adorn their shirts before running out looking like sane people. Teshiro whispers an explanation to the confused first-years, and they all slowly file out as well, looking openly curious as to who this person could be to elicit such a reaction from their upperclassmen. And Kenma—he slowly unpeels his uniform from inside his bag, and continues dressing.

“Kenma, aren’t you coming?” Tora asks, a complicated expression on his face.

He blandly gestures down to his half-dressed state. “I need to finish changing first, obviously.”

“Well. All right.” With one last frown, a mix between uncertainty and disapproval, Tora leaves him alone in the changing room.

The animated chirping of the team reaches him in solitude, muddled enough that he can’t make out any words, but that’s certainly Kuroo’s voice he can make out in between—slow and silky and deep. Soothing and familiar.

His pulse quickens. He and Kuroo had last talked a week ago, and the boy had said he probably would not come visit for Golden Week if the team would be away for a practice match in the middle of it. Kenma remembers this clearly, as well as the sting of disappointment that had accompanied it. He wonders briefly if he’s dreaming, then, for Kuroo to really be here right now.

Clothes adorned, Kenma lingers for a moment at the door, listening to the noises of the reunion taking place beyond, and reminds himself that it’s been only a month. One month since Kuroo’s straightened back had vanished in the crowd and he had last seen his kind face, his oily smile. One month is not a long enough time for too many things to change, is what he tells himself.

He opens the door.

Golden eyes rove over the many gathered bodies, and find unmistakable bedhead. It’s him. He’s got his back to Kenma but it’s him, it’s his broad back and wide shoulders, his long limbs and that mole on the back of his neck, wearing sweatpants with his university logo stamped down the side instead of Nekoma like Kenma is used to. Lev notices him first and eagerly points him out, and then Kuroo is turning, and Kenma’s ears won’t stop their high-pitched song, but it’s just been a month, just one month, he tells himself, so nothing has really changed and—

He sucks in air.

Kuroo is wearing glasses.

And he’s grinning too, when he sees Kenma there, hands coming out of his pockets so he can stretch them out towards his old friend, beckoning him closer with eyes that are soft like honey and full of undying affection. There’s no air inside of Kenma’s lung for the entirety of that single moment.

Then, some semblance of coherency returns to him. The whole team is watching.

“What?” he deadpans.

Kuroo blinks. “Just thought we could, I don’t know, have this joyous reunion where you come running into my arms and I hold you to my chest. Or something.”

Kenma shuffles closer, trying not to think of being pressed against Kuroo’s chest. “It’s only been a month.”

“A whole month.” Kuroo rewords it to make it sound more heinous than it is. His arms are still dangling a bit uselessly in the air, as if hoping Kenma would change his mind and come bounding in for an embrace anyway. The first-years have started giggling.

Kenma carefully observes his old friend as he draws closer. He has thin, black frames perched delicately on his nose which suit him in every way, make him look poised and intelligent, as he’s always been. Everything about him looks different, really. Everything from his look to his air says university student. There’s always been an age gap between the two of them, unspoken but always existent; Kenma has never felt it stronger than he does right now, aware of the faded Nekoma tracksuit he’s got on that he’s owned for three years.

“Put those away,” Kenma grouses, pushing his arms back down to his sides when he’s close enough. “Why are you here, anyway?”

“What, I can’t stop by for a surprise visit? You told me you’d be back by tonight.”

“Are you staying long?” Shibayama asks, hopeful.

“Ahh, nope.” He scratches the back of his neck. “Afraid I gotta head back the day after tomorrow.”

“You look really cool with your glasses!” Inuoka compliments him, looking rather impressed with this new addition to his face.

“Oh, these things?” With a laugh, Kuroo snatches them right off his face. “I actually only need them for reading. Just put them on now for a little dramatic effect.”

Kenma rolls his eyes. “How did I just know…”

Nekomata, who’s been observing the joyous if not slightly clunky scene from the sidelines, chuckles then, and gives Kuroo’s shoulder a squeeze. “Why don’t you join us, since you’re here? We’re heading out for barbecue. My treat.”

Kuroo’s entire personality changes when speaking to his old coach, straightening and forcing out a meek, “Oh, I couldn’t trouble you, sir.”

“Nonsense!” He barks a laugh, and begins inching Kuroo towards the entrance in his imposing way that’s difficult to counter or refuse, until the old Nekoma captain is all but shoved out the door first, with the rest of the team following and failing horribly at hiding their amusement. Kenma smiles, too, from the back of the group.

Their destination is cozy and small, but noisy. Nekomata seems to be friendly with the owners, who greet him kindly and waste no time wrangling up a table for such a large number of students. They sit cross-legged in a giant circle, almost rubbing elbows for how close they are, and Kenma gets the distinct feeling that everyone is attempting to be tactful in the most blatant way by leaving the space next to him unoccupied. Kuroo ultimately ends up sitting there.

He’s got his glasses folded and tucked in the collar of his shirt. Kenma glances at them discreetly, at the way they raise the fabric just slightly enough that a sliver of skin there is visible to him. He’s always hated when Kuroo wears V-necks, because they reveal so much more than regular T-shirts and he can’t keep himself from noticing.

“Kenma!” Kuroo’s call almost causes him to leave his skin, thinking he’s been caught, but he puts his chin on the back of his knuckles and simply grins. “How was the game?”

“…We lost one,” he tells him, fiddling with his phone. He doesn’t have anything particular to do on it, but Kuroo has leaned in and the pointed tip of his shirt has stretched even farther down, so it gives him something else to stare at.

“Aww, you’ll get ‘em next time.”

“We did get them next time. We lost the second match, but won the third.”

He laughs. “You always were the persistent type. Always liked that about you. You weren’t ever excited about a lot of things, but the things you liked well enough, you really threw yourself into.”

“Why are you speaking in the past tense?” Kenma asks, suddenly annoyed for some reason. Hearing Kuroo talk, it almost sounds like he’s describing a friend he had known long, long ago, instead of just Kenma whom he’s known since they were ten and been together with always until just a month ago. He doesn’t like it, hearing himself described as if he’s a thing of Kuroo’s past.

Kuroo’s face registers shock for a moment, before he smirks. “Was I? I don’t really recall.”

“You were,” he insists, and puts his phone down so he can glare at his friend fully. “And why did you tell me you weren’t going to come visit for Golden Week?”

Another expression of shock flickers across his face. “Are you angry?”

Not angry, per say, but simply—confused. It’s been a long chain of emotions in the past week, disappointment and yearning and shock and relief, and he’s never liked this feeling of being off kilter. “I don’t like surprises,” is all he says.

“I mean, it really was a last-minute decision, so I couldn’t have said anything even if I wanted to.” He appears sheepish anyway, gnawing on his lip, then offers, “I’m sorry? I just really wanted to come home and see everyone all of a sudden. It’s not like I meant to tell a lie.”

‘Home,’ is all Kenma can think. It’s a struggle not to blurt out his forgiveness, after that.

His dignity is saved by the arrival of the food, effectively distracting every conversation at the table. Nekomata and Coach Naoi take charge of the grill at one end of the table, and Kuroo is instructed to man the other end. He has to lean over Kenma every time he wants to flip the meat, and Kenma breathes in his scent whenever he gets good and close. It’s different now than it used to be, that one strange night before Nationals; it’s more musky and subtle, mature.

And he puts his hand on Kenma’s knee, sometimes, to keep himself balanced.

Kenma doesn’t eat much, despite the food Kuroo keeps piling onto his plate. He quietly sips his juice from his corner of the table and watches everyone else—watches how they interact with Kuroo, if he’s being honest. The first-years blush prettily under his attention, and Teshiro, whenever he calls him “Tama-chan.” They are awed and impressed and a little winded all at once, in his presence, falling easily for his charisma. The upperclassmen are bursting with questions, about his university and living alone and his volleyball team, each going a little starry-eyed at every answer, and Fukunaga seems especially pleased that Kuroo had remembered he loved eggplant but not peppers when he designs him his plate.

Nekomata indulges in a cup of alcohol despite Coach Naoi’s protests, and when he tries to press some on Kuroo as well, he only laughs politely and turns him down with a delicate, “I’m not even nineteen yet, sensei, much less of age.”

“Hm?” Nekomata squints at him. “Bah, kids these days look like adults so young. It’s hard to keep track.”

He does look like one, Kenma thinks—an adult. He looks like one and acts like one, always has a little bit, and the pull he has over every person in the room is one of his many charms. Everyone wants to be Kuroo’s friend, everyone wants to talk to him and have him pay them attention and like them, and it’s always been this way. Even sitting here together with everyone like this, Kenma feels as if he’s peering in through a crack in a classroom door. And all he has to do to be at Kuroo’s side is to open it, just open the damn door and step inside and he knows Kuroo would welcome him if he did, but there’s always something stopping him, the shame in his stomach or the fear in his heart.

“Kenma, are you full?” Kuroo asks, looking at him in concern.

“I just don’t have an appetite,” he mumbles. It’s been difficult to swallow all night, his throat feeling snug and grainy since the change room.

“Bull. If I bought you an apple pie you’d gobble it right up, wouldn’t you?” Laughter subsiding, he places a gentle hand on Kenma’s head and smiles down at him. “How about we pick one up on the way home, then? I want you to eat something. And it’ll be my apology for showing up out of the blue.”

“I’m not angry that you came,” Kenma huffs, just barely inaudible enough under his breath that it remains a secret. “I’m angry that you made me think you weren’t going to.”

“Hm? Did you say something?”

He looks up at his childhood friend and squeezes his fingers around his cup and it feels instead like he’s got a tight grip around his own heart enough to strangle it to bits. It doesn’t usually feel this unbearable, except when he comes home to an empty room.

“…No, nothing,” he says, and takes out his phone so he’ll have something else to stare at.

 

-

 

It’s an achingly familiar feeling, walking home under the moonlight with Kuroo. For years it was the most natural and most mundane part of their lives, usually preceded by rigorous volleyball practices or late tutoring sessions in the library, and now it’s become a rare evening they can both cherish getting the chance to experience again. Kenma doesn’t have a console in his hand, not just because the last of his battery had drained on the train, but because he’s enjoying the silent buzz of insects emerging in preparation for the approaching summer, as background noise to Kuroo’s lazy humming and the occasional crinkle of plastic when the bag slung around his wrist, carrying a freshly baked pie, bumps his leg. But a part of him misses it: the gentle pressure of Kuroo’s hand on his back, guiding him down a straight path.

The team had said their drawn-out goodbyes to Kuroo, who had promised that the next time he visited in summer would be together with Yaku and Kai, and they had seen Fukunaga off on his train like they often used to do. And now they’re alone, and it would be a laughable thing to say it’s the first time. But it feels like the first time, feels different from every other time alone in the past.

For one, there’s plentiful space on the sidewalk, and yet they’re walking so close and so pressed together that they bump hips and arms and shoulders. And they’ll mumble an apology each time, but they don’t talk about it and they don’t move away.

For another, they shoot each other furtive glances, then look away when their eyes meet.

There’s electricity sparking in the atmosphere.

“Hey,” Kuroo says then, his voice hardly above a murmur to match the atmosphere, “I’m really glad you didn’t quit the team.”

Kenma sighs. “The team would probably be crushed if I did. I figured it would be troublesome listening to them whine, or lecture me, or follow me around trying to get me to come back. The better option seemed like not quitting.”

“Hmm? What a roundabout way to say you don’t want to let down your friends.”

“Shut up, Kuro.”

He readjusts the bag on his wrist, his smirk infuriating. “I knew I didn’t have to worry about you anymore, though, after what you showed us all at Nationals. You might not love it like an obsession, but you’ve grown attached enough to want to keep playing. It’s given you a lot of friends, and a team you can depend on.”

“…Stop trying to dissect me.”

“It’s not ‘trying’ if I’m an expert at it, now, is it?”

Kenma saves himself the trouble of beginning a petty squabble and simply increases the width of his steps somewhat to stomp ahead, but Kuroo follows him easily with his long, lazy strides. Eventually the mood dissipates back into a quiet lull, arms bumping once more, and when they’re near their homes Kenma realizes he doesn’t want to return at all. If they go home then he’ll have to share Kuroo with his mother and father, who’ll want to sit him down and fuss over him and ask him questions. Normally Kenma doesn’t mind this, just quietly observing the commotion, but for right now he just wants Kuroo to himself, even if all they do is walk in circles all night.

Perhaps Kuroo realizes this, in his intuitive way that’s always allowed him to notice everything about a person. “Let’s go sit in the park for a while,” he suggests, already changing paths.

Kenma wordlessly allows him to hold a hand to his back and guide him away.

The swing set is abandoned but swaying lightly in the breeze. This is where they seat themselves, their pie left safely on a nearby bench, just aimlessly kicking at the ground as they rock back and forth. Nothing surrounds them except each other, the sound of scuffing dirt, busy insects, and the streaming moonlight.

“How’s your university team?” Kenma asks, not because he’s particularly curious, but because it’s the kind of thing he knows Kuroo would be excited to talk about.

He only shrugs. “S’alright, I guess. Bokuto’s there, so that’s fun. But it’s not like any of us first-years are on the starting line or anything yet, since we haven’t proven ourselves. Oh, and our libero’s even bossier than Yaku was, if that’s even possible.” He glances at Kenma very quickly. “And the setter is… not the same.”

Kuroo’s new setter. Somehow the thought had never occurred to him until just now, but he must have one.

“You’ll settle into it,” he says. “You always do.”

“Mmm.” He runs a hand through his hair, his smile wistful. “Feels weird, though, not having you there.”

Kenma frowns. “Why would I be there?”

Kuroo shakes his head, smile broadening until the sudden loneliness touches his eyes, magnified by the faded light of the moon. “I don’t know. I guess you wouldn’t. But sometimes it’s weird, I’m still always turning around and expecting you to be there, on the bed playing video games or on the couch reading manga. You know when you’ve known someone so long, and they feel like a part of you?” He frowns as well, then, biting down on his lip. “Or maybe I’m the only one who feels like that…?”

Kenma thinks of always being distracted during his games, of missing the white noise of his best friend always somewhere in the background. He thinks of coming home to an empty room, and of sending furtive glances to his clock most afternoons before remembering, a cold feeling plunking down into his heart, that nobody would be coming over.

“No,” he says. “You’re not the only one who feels like that.”

Kuroo’s answering smile up at the moon holds an edge of relief, and Kenma stares at it, at the curve of his mouth and the tilt to his jaw, how ethereal he looks now and always ever since he had settled into himself just shy of leaving boyhood. Kenma has never felt this even once, never particularly felt that the skin he resides in is really his own—except for moments when Kuroo’s hand is on his back, his fingers dusting through Kenma’s hair, their knees pressed together on the train, his nose burrowed into the back of Kenma’s neck. Moments like those, Kenma feels grounded and whole and embedded in reality, and Kuroo might never understand just how much of him is tied up in Kenma’s existence.

“Well,” Kuroo says, suddenly, and the chain of his swing rattles noisily when he gets to his feet. He stretches, arms above his head, the skin above his waistband exposed. “Should we get going?”

Kenma sucks in air, feeling panic crawl up his spine. He’s not ready to go yet.

“Don’t look at me like that.” Kuroo chuckles, low. “That pie will taste best when it’s fresh. It’s pretty late, too, our parents will worry.”

“But, Kuro, I…” He swallows, then says, lamely, “My legs are tired.”

“Hm?” Brow raised, Kuroo glances down to where he’s nervously wringing his feet. His stare holds itself there for a moment, inscrutable but intense. But the moment passes quickly and he tousles his own hair, his smile warm and compliant. “Can’t be helped. You did play a lot of matches today.”

He shuffles forward, and Kenma thinks this means he’ll reseat himself on the swing and they can go back to staring at the moon whilst pretending they’re not sneaking glances at each other, rocking quietly in the park where they had first met as boys and continued meeting for most of their lives.

He crouches instead on the sand, bent at one knee, and gingerly takes one of Kenma’s feet into his lap.

“…Kuro,” Kenma whispers, oxygen expelled from his lungs, “what are you doing?”

“Your shoelace is coming undone,” he explains, untying the knot to tie again. He has the hem of Kenma’s sweatpants rolled up to his ankle.

“I can do it myself.”

“I never said you couldn’t.” Kuroo says this in his most soothing tone, the even voice he uses when trying to coax him into things he knows Kenma would enjoy with just a little pushing. “But I’m right here so I thought I would do it, just because. I don’t need a reason, right?”

He grins, a blinding one reminiscent of when they had been just boys, one he doesn’t use often enough anymore. And Kenma thinks that he’s always doing this—always doing and saying things like this, indulging him in things for no reason other than he wants to. It’s not enough for him to have been the first person to ever give Kenma everything: his friendship, his devotion, his entire existence. He could never ask Kuroo for more than he has already received, has never even thought he should ask for more than Kuroo finding him one lonely day in the park and deciding they had the potential to become one half of each other’s whole. And yet, somehow, Kuroo is always discovering new ways to give him even more of himself.

“M’kay, all done.” Kuroo seems content to have finished his task, and takes great care in peeling the fabric of Kenma’s sweatpants back over his ankle.

Kenma barely registers when his foot touches solid ground once more.

Then Kuroo’s back is bared before him, all smooth and taut lines under the thin fabric of his shirt, and he smiles over his shoulder. “Get on.”

Kenma squeezes the chain fisted in his hand. The single word cracks on its way out: “What?”

“You’re tired, right?” The smile broadens. “Been a while since we did this, but I’m sure I still can.”

“You want me to get on your back,” Kenma narrates. He had meant it to be worded as a question, but instead is blurted out as a fact, plain as day before him.

And there are other things, other facts, that are poignant and unmistakable in this moment. That Kenma’s palms have become so slick with sweat that they slip half a millimeter on the chain he’s still struggling to hold on to. And that Kuroo’s back and the implications of being pressed against it are worlds different from what it had all meant back in his first year at Nekoma.

Back then it was easy, simple, to let Kuroo carry him places and bump into his arm and fall asleep on his shoulder. When they had been boys all they thought of was leveling up in volleyball and the final bosses in video games and whether to get ice-cream on the way home. Kenma hadn’t wanted to notice, that Kuroo’s body was shifting, becoming more hard muscle than knobby knees, more velvet angles than chubby cheeks. He hadn’t wanted to notice that Kuroo had sculpted arms and girls stared at them, that he was good-looking with the sun as his backdrop and tried to smell attractive and needed to shave every day. He hadn’t wanted people pointing out to him that he disliked being touched by anyone who was not Kuroo, that if Shouyou was a friend then Kuroo must be something even greater. He hadn’t wanted to be reminded at every corner that Kuroo had gone on to live a new life and Kenma was left behind missing him, staring at a charm every other night with his fingers hesitating over the numbers on his phone.

More than anything, he doesn’t want Kuroo looking so handsome in his new glasses, so at home in his university-logo sweatpants, offering Kenma his back like nothing has changed at all in the last three years.

These are, for certain, all the things that Kenma has never wanted.

But if someone were to ask him, right here, right then, what he does want—that would be a myriad number of answers, too. He wants to lose himself every day in his video games, but only with a presence behind him creating mundane white noises. He wants to play as setter on a volleyball team, but only with a teammate he trusts so wholly that they don’t need words to communicate. He wants to get vanilla ice-cream on warm summer days, but only with a certain someone. He wants a steaming mug of cocoa on winter nights, but only with a certain someone. He wants pain patches eased delicately onto his back after grueling practices, but only by a certain someone. He wants to be touched and traced and caressed, every inch of him explored, but only by a certain someone. He wants to be looked at when he steps into the shower and kissed like his mouth is not his own, but only by a certain someone.

Kenma dry swallows, his tongue pressed to the roof of his mouth and unmoving.

Everything he doesn’t want and everything he does, everything he’s never wanted and everything he ever will want—they all converge to a single focal point, all meet at the defining crossroad of his entire being.

Lips shaking, Kenma leans forward to slide his hands up the wide expanse of Kuroo’s shoulder blades and lays his chest to his back, as if waiting to be carried away by his best friend in the world. But he digs his nails into Kuroo’s shirt, keeps him grounded here long enough that he can speak against the shell of Kuroo’s ear, voice hardly louder than a whisper, “…I probably love you.”

He collapses back on the swing, burning.

And Kuroo doesn’t move, not one inch. He stays sitting in his awkward, crouched position and staring hard at the sand, his face hidden behind tense shoulders but the air surrounding him one of stunned incredulity at what exactly had just happened without any sort of prior notice. The silence is stark, so still and so unmoving that it feels as if someone’s pressed ‘pause’ on their life, as if they’re approaching some final boss battle or the climax to a story or something and someone had paused everything so they could step away, take a breath, come back when they were ready to face it and press ‘proceed.’

Then Kenma rattles his chain a little and kicks at the ground uselessly, reminding Kuroo that he is still here and waiting.

That’s when he whips his head around, mouth and eyes opening and closing out of rhythm, and repeats in heavy disbelief, “…Probably?”

Kenma glares at his shoes. Looking down at his laces, knotted by Kuroo with such delicate care, he decides maybe embarrassment comes second and Kuroo comes first—that such an impassioned word might be okay to use for anyone else but not for him.

“I do,” he declares, firmly.

Kuroo balks. “I—wait—hold on.”

He jumps to his feet in one fluid motion, head tilted up to the moon but face hidden behind his overlapping hands. He seems to be breathing in and breathing out, slowly. Kenma tries to make out the expression on his face, but it’s too shadowed and distorted by the moonlight, and he gets the feeling Kuroo doesn’t want his face to be seen right now anyway. He goes back to kicking at the sand, waiting.

Eventually Kuroo releases all the air pent up in his lungs in a single go, hands sliding down his face to mold around the shape of his neck, fingers interlocked at the back. He’s not smiling, Kenma notices, but he wouldn’t call the pinched form of his mouth a frown either. He simply looks… troubled.

“Kenma…” The name eases out of him slowly, and Kenma clenches his toes and simply sits there continuing to wait. “Kenma, I… I didn’t push you into anything, right?”

He frowns, brows pinching together, at the unexpected response out of the dozen scenarios he had imagined in the split-second before he had confessed. “…No?”

“I wasn’t being presumptuous, tying your laces or offering to carry you?” He purses his lips. “You didn’t feel, I don’t know, like you had to say something like this because of how I was acting?”

Confusion and disbelief and impatience festers inside of Kenma until it’s released in the form of annoyance. He glowers up at him. “Stop beating around the bush.”

“I’m not.” Head shaking, Kuroo falls back down to his knees for their eyes to level, and the sudden motion of his hand suggests he had meant to hold one of Kenma’s but changed his mind at the last second. With his most patient tone, he explains, “It’s just important to me that your words are your own. That you didn’t say something you didn’t mean because I caged you into it.”

“You know I don’t say things I don’t mean.” His eyes narrow suspiciously. “What are you trying to say, Kuro?”

“God, is this—” He swallows, several times, looking choked. “Is this real?”

Kenma simply picks up one of his hands, juggling it nimbly atop his fingers, and presses his palm flat against the beating heart beneath his ribcage. He says nothing. But years of friendship has made them both experts in understanding that Kenma’s silences carry the weight of the world, that him bringing Kuroo’s touch onto his body signifies his feelings in exponentially greater ways than mere words ever could.

Kuroo looks as if he doesn’t breathe, for that single moment in time. And then his entire body takes liquid form when it melts flush against Kenma’s, when his chest is joined with Kenma’s lap and his cheek presses sloppily to Kenma’s stomach, arms coming round his middle to hold him there and hands fisted so tight at the back of his Nekoma sweatshirt it’s as if that’s the only thing keeping him grounded to reality.

Kenma ignores the burn on the back of his neck. He slides his legs open, just a little, so Kuroo can claw himself even closer, tighter, snuff out even the hair’s width of space between them. Fingers tangling into messy bedhead, he brings his mouth against Kuroo’s ear, and whispers, “Kuro, how long?”

“Forever.” He doesn’t need even a moment to think; he’s always known the answer. “Our forever. Since the day that we met.”

Kenma purses his lips, unseen, and the mechanical sounds of his mind working are almost audible for how carefully he mulls this over.

“That can’t be true. We were only ten when we met.”

“Yes.” And Kuroo laughs, the sound shaky and wet and muffled against Kenma’s stomach. All of him shakes along with it. “Yes. I was ten. And I fell in love at first sight with the boy sitting on the swings at the park. He was watching me practice my serves and didn’t laugh every time I failed.”

Kenma returns to that day, the afternoon his mother had confiscated his games and pushed him out for fresh air. Ignoring the lone boy practicing with his volleyball in a corner of the park, he had shuffled himself over to the swings and sat himself down for a good ten minutes, just staring at the ground and fiddling with his feet, before beat-up sneakers had entered his line of vision and a curious ‘hey, are you alone?’ had forced him to meet nervous, hazel eyes. Kuroo hadn’t been derailed even when Kenma had retreated behind his bangs and said nothing more than his name; he’d kept the boy company for the entirety of his park visit, comfortably silent and occasionally offering information about himself that Kenma hadn’t asked for but still filed away in his mind, and before parting he had asked ‘c-can we meet again tomorrow?’ with a hopeful smile. Kenma hadn’t given a straight answer, just visibly mulled the offer before shrugging one shoulder and returning home—but Kuroo had been there the next day, and the next, and pretty soon he was with Kenma every day all the time and never even thought of leaving, and it just became a fact of Kenma’s life that Kuroo had wedged himself into every part of it.

That little boy had been in love with him.

No matter how much he repeats the thought in his mind, trying out this new fact of his life, it makes no semblance of sense.

“…Love at first sight is shallow,” is all he says. What had Kuroo liked about him anyway? His bony shoulders? His shaggy bangs that were often likened to a murderous spirit in a horror movie?

Kuroo laughs again, amused this time, and puts his chin to Kenma’s abdomen so he can look up at him, smirking. “Have some consideration for a guy who just put his heart on his sleeve for you, would ya?”

Kenma only shrugs, but he’s biting his lip to fight a smile.

“All right, fine, maybe it wasn’t love,” he relents, humoring him. “Maybe it was just a schoolboy crush, or maybe I just thought you were really cool or really cute and really wanted to try being your friend. But I’d like to think it was—love. That our story started in this grand way. And even if it wasn’t, that’s what it became.”

Kenma frowns. If Kuroo had really loved him so long, then, “Why… didn’t you ever say anything?”

“Because you weren’t ready,” he says, simply. He doesn’t need to think about the answer to this either.

A crease ripples through Kenma’s forehead. “That’s not for you to decide.”

“Who else, if not me?” He raises a brow in challenge, as if daring Kenma to refute, to say that Kuroo doesn’t know every inch of him, every fiber of his being, every touch and every glance and every silence. The smirk broadens when he’s met with no contest, but turns brittle and mirthless just as quickly. “I would have said it, if I thought you were ready to hear it. I almost did, a couple times. But things changed, one day. Suddenly you seemed bothered that people saw us getting ice-cream together, and you became nervous about sharing a bathroom with me, and you started giving me these looks that I couldn’t decipher no matter how much I tried.”

Memories flash through Kenma’s mind: the girl at the ice-cream parlor staring at Kuroo’s arms, his best friend dragging a razor up his angled jaw, that one strange and fearful night before Nationals. Moments he had spent noticing Kuroo, never realizing he was wholly and carefully being noticed in return.

“You were testing me.” The thought tumbles out of his mouth as soon as it manifests.

“Hm? That night, after Tama-chan joined the team, right? Yeah.” He hadn’t said it meaning to accuse, but Kuroo appears sheepish anyway. “I thought—maybe I was just hopeful. Maybe a part of me was just upset there was something about you I couldn’t figure out. You were always giving me a look I couldn’t understand, and I thought, at first, maybe you had realized my feelings and were putting distance between us. Turning me down in your non-confrontational way. You didn’t seem happy about that night, either.”

Kenma frowns. “It wasn’t a joke…”

“Of course it wasn’t.” He scoffs. “Like I could ever joke about something like that, with you especially. I still can’t believe you fell for that one.”

“I didn’t. I just—"

“You just wanted to believe it wasn’t real, so you did,” Kuroo finishes for him, in his way where he understands everything about Kenma that’s somehow both incredible and annoying at the same time. “See? You weren’t ready.”

Kenma struggles for a moment, not wanting to relent and give Kuroo the satisfaction but unable to refute when the truth is so plain before them. The words have to be forced from his mouth after unhinging his jaw, but eventually he admits, “…Fine. I wasn’t ready.”

There is, surprisingly, none of the smugness he’s come to expect from his best friend in moments like these. Kuroo searches his face, slowly, thoughtfully, then asks him in his most careful voice, “And you’re ready now?”

“I wouldn’t have said anything if I wasn’t.”

“That’s… true.” His chin skids across Kenma’s stomach before he’s pressed his cheek back against it. Kenma digs his fingers even deeper into his scalp, and the noise he makes of contentment seems to suggest he enjoys it; Kenma files this information away for use another day. “So.”

“So.”

“You and me.”

“Yeah…”

“Seems kinda, I don’t know, anticlimactic?”

“How?”

“I mean, almost a whole lifetime of pining, and this is it? I imagined a lot how I might confess to you someday, and all of them were a hell of a lot grander than this. I mean, I have sand going up my legs. Hmm… Should I climb up on top of that jungle gym and declare it to the world or something? ‘This boy is mine!’ Like that?”

“If you do that, I’m leaving you.”

Kuroo belts out a laugh, his whole body shaking from the force of it and shaking Kenma’s too, where they’re joined together. “You know what, I change my mind. I like it like this,” he decides. Nose burrowing into the fabric of Kenma’s sweatshirt, he hums contently once more and murmurs, “Suit us, somehow.”

And he doesn’t see, but Kenma smiles when he does. “I think so, too.”

 

-

 

Kuroo’s bedroom has always felt a little like forbidden territory, in a way. It’s not that Kenma has never been inside it; it’s that some time early in their friendship, it had just become an unspoken agreement between the two boys that Kenma’s room would be their regular hangout spot. His room was where he felt most comfortable, the place where he kept all of his precious games, and Kuroo was always leaving things behind there anyway: manga or textbooks or clothing. Kenma’s home was also three entire houses closer to the station than Kuroo’s, so it was naturally where they would always gravitate towards after school. There had never been much need for them to make use of Kuroo’s room, even though it was slightly bigger than Kenma’s and had a double bed optimal for sleeping over.

Kenma muses over all of this as he eases open the door to Kuroo’s bedroom, peering in through the part in the doorway.

Kuroo is seated at his desk chair with his glasses perched on his nose, textbooks and papers and stationery littering every surface of the table as he pores over a problem. When he looks up at the slight creak of the hinges to find him there, he smiles. “What are you doing just looking in from outside? Come over here.”

Kenma opens the door fully, without hesitation. “Your mom said you’re studying.”

“Just trying to get ahead,” he explains. He pulls the glasses from his face and tosses them onto an open textbook, rubbing feverishly at his eyes. Kenma kind of misses it, the view of his face adorned in black frames, how good he looks wearing them.

Would it be weird to ask him to put them back on? Probably. And he’d never hear the end of it.

“What are you doing here, anyway?” Kuroo asks, folding one leg over the other in a way that means he’s settling into peak obnoxiousness. Kenma is wary.

“Well, you’re leaving tomorrow.”

“I am.”

“And, yesterday…”

He leans in, his sudden smirk oily and expectant. “Yesterday?”

Yesterday they had embraced under the moonlight in a deserted park and professed their feelings for one another, feelings that reached far beyond mere friendship and were still a rather foreign concept to a boy who’d been married to his video games since his first console at age five. Kenma glares at the ground, refusing to fidget under the impish gaze he feels upon him.

“…Yesterday you left all the pie at my house. I brought some over for your parents.”

Kuroo leans back, brow raised. “How unexpectedly thoughtful of you.”

“My mom made me.”

“Ahh.” He nods once, understanding, before that crafty smirk returns to his face. “Is that the only reason you’re here?”

Kenma knows what he’s trying to do, trying to get him to admit ‘I just wanted to see you.’ Even if it’s the simple truth, he knows better by now than to admit to such a thing, to add fuel to his best friend’s mischievous fire.

“Do I need a reason to be here?” he snaps instead, glowering. “You’re in my room all the time.” He pulls his PS Vita from his pocket and flops down on Kuroo’s bed stomach-first, feet in the air and hooked at the ankles. “You can go back to studying,” he tells him, without looking over his shoulder or even away from his screen.

Kuroo’s answering sniggers seem to echo throughout the room, more amused by his huffiness than anything else. Kenma determinedly focuses on his character even when he hears the wheels of the chair scrape against hardwood, followed by the soft thumping of heels approaching him. The mattress dips somewhere to his side as another body climbs the bed, and then Kuroo’s hand is on his back.

This is, of course, nothing new for them. Kuroo’s hand resting on his back is the one touch that’s become so common in their relationship, that sometimes Kenma daydreams about one day being asked to identify Kuroo’s body, and asking to have a hand placed to his back so he could tell from touch memory alone. Guiding him away from stray trashcans on the walks home, easing pain patches onto his sore muscles, clapping him encouragingly in the middle of a match; these are only the beginnings of a long list of reasons for their defining touch.

But it feels new, in this moment.

“Hey, Kenma,” Kuroo drawls next to his ear, and it’s nothing he hasn’t done before, but it’s utterly different than every other time in the past. Kuroo’s deep, relaxed voice is infuriatingly attractive; how has he never noticed this before today? “Flip over, won’t you?”

Kenma complies, only so Kuroo would stop speaking into his ear, but then he’s left with the devastating reality of looking right up into Kuroo’s face. It’s not fair, thinks a voice in the back of his mind, when Kuroo smiles at him like this, all soft and sunlit like golden honey.

Then he’s leaning in, swooping in so close that his bedhead tickles Kenma’s forehead, and he thinks for one heart-stopping second that Kuroo is going to try and kiss him. Panic instantly balloons in his stomach; he’s not ready for this. But then Kuroo changes tracks, angling his body so he could flop down next to Kenma on the bed and watch him play his game. Oh.

“Uhh, I don’t know if you realize this,” Kuroo points out, “but you’re dead.”

He blinks, then peers at the screen to find that his avatar had indeed been slain without him realizing. “You distracted me,” he accuses, annoyed when he’s forced to restart.

“I do have that effect on people,” he jokes, settling himself onto the mattress.

This is, somehow, worse than the thought of being kissed too soon, too fast. Kuroo’s greater muscle mass means that Kenma gets slanted into his side, pressed up so snug and tight against his body that everything from their shoulders to their hips to their knees are bound together. His warmth seeps into Kenma even through articles of clothing, and Kenma wishes he hadn’t worn shorts today, the skin of his exposed legs feeling sensitive against the soft rub of the fabric of Kuroo’s sweatpants. He smells of soap and deodorant, mingled with the scent of something soothing and naturally his own. Distracting in every way.

Kenma perseveres, determinedly glaring at his screen and probably smashing the controls harder than necessary, but if Kuroo notices anything then he doesn’t say. He seems content to simply lie here, occasionally watching, occasionally closing his eyes and breathing in slow, considerate motions.

Eventually Kenma’s arms get tired; he’s been having to play with his arms straight up in the air so they could both see.

He digs an elbow into Kuroo’s side, and tells him, “I’m going to sit up.”

“Hm? Me, too.” Kuroo clambers up first, straightening his back against his headboard, and then holds out both arms, grinning lazily with his normally half-lidded eyes.

Kenma stares. “What.”

He thumps his chest once. “Come here.”

“…Stupid.” Neck burning, he ignores the offer and tries to stretch himself out next to him instead, except Kuroo’s arm catches him about the waist and tugs him against his body anyway. He harrumphs. “Kuro.”

“I got a taste of what it’s like to hold you last night,” Kuroo hums against his ear, voice muddled but with an underling tone of something hard and intense. None of the gentleness from a moment ago remains. “Don’t think I’ll ever be satisfied.”

Something squeezes in Kenma’s stomach. He picks at the arm tied around him, relieved that they’re back to chest so Kuroo couldn’t see what likely embarrassing expression he’s making in response to the searing declaration. His neck burns fiercer, though. Maybe Kuroo can see the redness.

“Fine,” he relents, his voice quiet, and tries to ignore the firm lines of Kuroo’s chest or his heartbeat echoing in his ears. He’s wanted this for an immeasurable amount of time as well, after all. Putting up resistance falls within his character, but it’s not as if he hates it, the feel of Kuroo’s body fitted around his own.

He unpauses his game.

And Kuroo begins to move his hands.

Goosebumps erupt across Kenma’s forearm, when Kuroo’s fingers ghost across the nape of his neck, pulling aside the stray hairs stuck to it so he can press his nose against the exposed skin. And then he’s dragging his hands along the fabric of Kenma’s shirt, feeling it out, discovering every corner of it, then hovering by the hem before slipping boldly underneath. Kenma startles at the sudden direct contact, and thinks briefly of pulling away—but Kuroo is so careful with his movements, never crossing a line and staying respectfully away from the band of his shorts, only dragging the warm pads of his fingers up Kenma’s stomach, across his chest, down the slope of his collarbones, and back again, feeling his skin everywhere, every inch of it, all of him.

“This is okay, right?” he breathes into his neck. “God, I. Kenma. I’ve wanted to touch you like this for so long.”

Kenma fiddles with his console, toes curled from the sensation of pleasure traveling down his spine. “If it wasn’t okay, I would have said so.”

He feels a puff of laughter skate across his nape. “That’s what I like about you. Unapologetically candid.”

Having been granted the permission he needs, Kuroo passes his afternoon this way. Kenma wonders if he doesn’t get bored—there must be only so many ways to touch his body before the novelty of it wears off—but Kuroo never falters, never stops. The positions of their bodies changes as time passes on, but Kuroo’s hands tracing his skin remains a constant. He’s as into it always as he was the very first touch.

Never once in Kenma’s life has he ever imagined that Kuroo could want him this way, could like him, could like his body, could burn with such unbidden desire when he looks at him. But now there’s no room remaining for doubt in his mind.

Kenma ends up staying the night, too tired and, frankly, too unwilling to return home.

It’s difficult, falling asleep knowing that when he awoke Kuroo would have to leave again. Restless and awake, he eventually rolls over on the mattress and tucks himself under Kuroo’s chin.

Kuroo seems to breathe in deeply, and hold it.

“Kenma,” he whispers in the dark. His hand had automatically come to rest on Kenma’s back, to hold him close. “Are you sad I’m leaving?”

Perhaps it’s the cloak of the night which makes him so affectionate and bold. “I am,” he admits, cheek pressed to the inside of Kuroo’s shoulder.

“Do you still have the charm I gave you?”

“Yes.”

“Then just look at it when I’m gone and think of me, and time will fly by. I promise.”

Kenma frowns, something niggling in the forefront of his brain, and realizes belatedly, “…That’s why you gave it to me, isn’t it?” ‘So I would look at it and think of you.’ He doesn’t tell Kuroo that every night he’s been doing just that, falling completely into the downward spiral of his scheming.

“Busted.” Kuroo chuckles, soft and low. “What can I say? Guess I’m just a cunning guy who likes you too much.”

Kenma rolls his eyes even if it remains unseen between the crevice of Kuroo’s collarbones, and falls asleep there, in his arms. He dreams of the day he fell in love with Kuroo (outside an ice-cream parlor), the day he realized he loved Kuroo (cocoa on his tongue), and the day his love was answered (on a swing set in a deserted park). And in the morning Kuroo packs his things and leaves once more, but not before pressing a kiss to Kenma’s forehead and promising him, gently spoken into his ear, that he would come back for him soon.

 

-

 

Summer arrives this year in a sluggish manner, sneaking up on them in the form of morning heat and sweat-soaked uniforms. Suddenly there’s no escape from the cicadas’ shrill cries, and the portable fan in the Nekoma changing room suffers abuse at the hands of every team member. Kenma particularly hates it; running under the scorching sun, waiting for the train in this humidity, melting on the sidewalk before he’s even reached home.

The last day of the term especially feels like the finish line at the end of a very long, very grueling race. Holding out until the end of the day is difficult, with pop quizzes in two of his classes, a particularly heinous lunch rush, Nekomata asking him to work with the new first-year spikers, and Lev badgering him for tosses as if he doesn’t already receive eighty-percent of Kenma’s attention during every practice.

“Go practice your receives before you come asking for more tosses,” he snaps at the second-year, slinking off to the other end of the court before he could be bothered again.

“You sounded like Yaku-san just then,” Inuoka tells him, laughing.

“Kenma telling someone to practice receives.” Tora pretends to sniffle. “Never thought I’d see the day.”

“Shut up, all of you,” he grouses, planting himself on the bench and not planning on moving for a solid fifteen minutes at least. Massaging his own shoulder, he pulls his phone from his sports bag and runs through his messages; there are five from Shouyou, unsurprisingly, but also a couple from Kuroo. One of them is just a picture of a ticket stub, and Kenma licks his lips when he sees it, something building in his stomach.

He only manages to rest for five minutes before the coaches catch him slacking and order him towards the first-years, and his afternoon is spent trying to sync tosses with the newcomers and grumbling about the ache in his arms. They stop for popsicles on the way home, though Kenma uses his more as a makeshift pain reliever for his sore shoulders, so Fukunaga snaps his own in half so they can share. Arriving home, Kenma thinks of nothing more than a blissful nap as he crawls his way up the stairs, kicking open his bedroom door because his arms have no strength left in them to complete the task.

He comes to a halt.

Kuroo is there, on his bed.

He looks up in alarm at the sudden intrusion, away from his phone screen, before a familiar smile settles on his face. “I was just about to text and ask where you are,” he tells him, putting away his phone.

“When did you get here?” Kenma asks, still unmoving.

“I’d say… about twenty minutes ago?” He shrugs, then looks Kenma up and down. Whatever he sees causes him to smirk in amusement. “Long day?”

Kenma guesses what he must look like; wrinkled uniform and disheveled bangs, probably minimal color remaining in his cheeks but growing circles under his eyes, his bag limp in his hand and dragging on the floor because he has no strength to wear it properly. He nods, wordlessly.

Kuroo gladly opens his arms, a gesture that seems to say ‘come here.’

He might have hesitated, once, or refused outright. But this is Kuroo and they haven’t seen each other in months and he’s too tired to pretend that he doesn’t want the things that he really, really does. Abandoning his bag in the hall, he silently shuffles forward until his cheek is pressed to Kuroo’s chest and he’s buried in his arms.

Kuroo puts his chin on top of his head, and chuckles, the sound vibrating his entire body. “Do I need to give Lev a lecture?”

“How did you know it was him?”

“You’ve got that special brand of I-hope-Lev-gets-shampoo-in-his-eye look on your face right now.”

“…I don’t have that kind of face.”

“Yes, you do.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Yes, you do.” He laughs. “Don’t question my expansive and detailed knowledge of Kenma faces. You won’t win.”

Kenma looks heavenward but says nothing despite every urge to do so, knowing arguments with Kuroo had a tendency to carry on much longer than they should. And he does hope he would lecture Lev, just a little.

Once his bag has been put away and his uniform changed out of, they climb the bed and Kenma allows Kuroo to nestle him between his legs. Kuroo, who had noticed the way he beat his shoulders while dressing, presses his thumbs against the flesh there and begins to roll them in slow, circular motions, easing the dull ache while simultaneously catching Kenma up with his life in between pressing sporadic kisses to his neck. And Kenma listens, sans console. He and Kuroo have kept closely in touch, of course, phone calls and video chats becoming staples in their routines, but it’s an entirely different thing to be in the same room, the same space, once more.

Kenma’s mother stops at the doorway once, asking the boys if she should start dinner, and doesn’t bat a single lash at their position. It’s not a new thing, Kuroo massaging Kenma’s aching bones or icing his bruises. It might even have been their very first touch, as boys.

Once she’s gone, Kuroo discards all pretense to fully wrap his arms around Kenma’s middle. His head drops onto the back of his neck.

“Kuro,” Kenma complains, angled forward from all the added weight. “Stop it. My mom will see.”

“Nah, I can already hear her going downstairs,” comes the lazy reply, and then, “I missed this.”

Kenma struggles for a moment, but eventually echoes, “…Me too.”

They remain like this, when free of prying eyes. Behind Kenma’s closed bedroom door they stay wrapped up in one another, thinking of nothing else but the moment, talking in hushed tones and occasionally holding on tighter. Kuroo looks enchanted when Kenma’s fingers loiter at the hem of his shirt for a long time before finally gripping it fully, and he looks up into his eyes to ask, “Can I?”

A wordless nod, and the thin fabric slides up his chest and down his arms like it’s taken liquid form. It feels a bit lewd, Kenma thinks, having Kuroo’s body so frankly on display in his homely bedroom, and Kuroo has one of those bodies too that’s all definition and grace and resembles a hand-sculpted marble statue more than it does normal human form. He places his palms flat on his chest, taken in by the searing heat and velvet flesh he feels there.

Then his mother’s voice drifts somewhere from the bottom of the stairs, muted through the closed door. “Kenma, your father’s picking up some chicken on his way home. Did you boys want any?”

“…Yes, please,” they reply in unison, never looking away from each other.

Kenma slowly retracts his hands, suddenly feeling vulgar for what he’s doing in his parents’ home with his mother’s bustling in the kitchen acting as their background music.

Kuroo appears amused. “All done?”

Kenma glares, tossing his shirt at him. “Just put your shirt back on.”

“I don’t want to put it back on. I’m hot.”

The double meaning is surely by design.

“Kuro.”

“All right, all right.” He’s snickering, but he obediently tugs his shirt back over his exposed torso. “My turn now, right?”

Kenma only has time to quirk a curious brow, before Kuroo sends them both tumbling back onto the mattress. His breath is knocked out of him, but not more so than when he feels a wandering hand against his skin and Kuroo’s nose grazing the pulse on his neck. And Kenma lets him, quietly slipping fingers into his messy hair and biting his lip at the sensation of Kuroo kissing his stomach. He wonders (and hopes, a little) if things would always be this intense when the two are alone together.

The chicken is good. The entire dinner affair is perfect, in fact, with Kuroo absolutely charming his parents like he’s always done and Kenma nibbling at his food quietly as he watches his family laugh together—all three of them.

Kuroo doesn’t stay the night, declaring it too dangerous a game, and Kenma leaves early in the morning for practice, so the following day feels suffocating like any other except when the volleyballs have been put away and they’re all dressing out of their workout gear, Shibayama takes one step out of the changing room and makes a noise of delight to find all of the ex-third-years waiting there in the courtyard.

“Whoo, boy.” Yaku whistles low. “Five new first-years? The team sure did get popular.”

Lev goes bounding out of the room, beaming and dripping snot from his happy tears, and tries to pick him up for a hug only to get a swift kick to his rear.

“I heard you’ve been torturing our precious setter, Lev! What do you have to say for yourself!”

“Stop with the ‘precious setter’ already…” Kenma grumbles, avoiding the first-years’ stares.

“You look really impressive somehow,” Kai tells Inuoka, causing the boy to flush prettily from the attention. “Did you grow taller?”

“A few millimeters, yes,” he responds, shyly rubbing his neck.

Kuroo looks on, smiling hazily like some proud uncle.

The flurry of activity never truly dissipates, even as they move away from the gymnasium, towards the school gates, and down the road to the convenience store where they often used to stop for ramen or popsicles on the way home. There’s a brief run-in there with their school’s baseball team and tensions rise, but their old captain whom Kuroo always used to have some weird rivalry with during sports festivals isn’t there, so the encounter glosses over without much incidence.

They eventually relocate to Tora’s home, per his insistence. His little sister is there, already getting a head start on her summer homework in the living room, when they all parade in with loud greetings. She doesn’t seem disturbed, though; on the contrary, she seems absolutely delighted to have the Nekoma volleyball team so up close and personal to herself.

Stars in her eyes, she skips up to Kenma first. “Wow, wow, you’re the brain!” she gushes, not seeming to mind when Kenma retreats behind his bangs and doesn’t respond. “You were really cool at Nationals this year!”

“And your spikes are always so well thought-out and precise, it’s incredible!” she tells Fukunaga, who seems distinctly pleased by the compliments. His eyes widen a fraction and he gives her two thumbs-up.

“You’re an amazing all-around player and your adaptive capabilities are incredible,” she praises a blushing Inuoka. “With you on the court, the team’s overall defense is definitely boosted beyond comparison!”

Then she turns towards Lev, and frowns. “You should really work on your blocking and receiving, you know,” she advises him, solemnly. “Your sister’s always having to apologize to everyone in the crowd whenever you make a mistake.”

Yaku seems to think this is the funniest thing he’s ever witnessed, and they can see a cord in his neck pop from laughing so hard.

Eventually Tora ushers his sister away, embarrassed by her forthright disposition, and takes them all up to his cramped, cozy room. Kenma has only been here twice, both times just to borrow an assigned reading for English, and it’s just as much of a slovenly dump as always. He kicks aside piles of clothes to make room on the floor for them to sit in a tight circle, pulling out the snacks they had purchased from the convenience store and a dusty set of cards that have seen better days. They play through every game they can think of, though it quickly becomes obvious that some are more inclined towards card games than others.

At some point Shibayama reaches for the pillow on the bed, and squeaks loudly in fright when he finds a dirty magazine shoved underneath.

Tora chokes, turning red. “Th-That’s not mine! I’m holding it for a friend!”

“Yamamoto-senpai, you’re really pervy,” Inuoka marvels, flipping through the first few pages.

“Oh, what? Like you don’t have any?!”

“Aha! So it is yours!”

“Th-That’s not—!”

The boys crowd themselves around it, some delighted, others simply curious. Kenma hangs back, rolling his eyes, never having understood the appeal of looking at the body of someone who was not special to him in ways no one else could be. Surprisingly, Kuroo also chooses to ease back next to him, which does not escape the notice of the other boys.

“Kuroo-san, did you want to look?”

“Mm, nah,” he replies, batting them away when they try to come near.

“Bah, Kuroo hardly ever looks,” Yaku tells them. “See if you can find a nice blonde one, though. Those usually get him going.”

“Shut up, Yaku.”

Kenma raises a brow, filing away this information but not saying anything. Kuroo notices him staring and smiles his most innocent smile, and when he’s sure the others are preoccupied, he runs his fingers through soft, discolored hair before Kenma huffily pushes him off.

Tora’s parents return while the boys are still in the middle of cleaning up the mess they had created, and only laugh at the sheepish apologies of the team crowding their home. They’re as easygoing as their son, and work themselves up into excitement about bringing out their nabe pot with so many people gathered to share a meal with. The kitchen quickly dissolves into a frenzy of mismatched cooking endeavors; peeling potatoes and dicing cabbage and slicing tofu, everything a different size and shape. But the end result is not the complete disaster everyone had been expecting, when they all seat themselves around the modest dining room table and throw ingredients into the bubbling pot.

“Well, I think it’s hard to mess up making hot pot,” Tora’s father laughs. “With so many hands working at once, so many people adding in their own things, it seems like it would be easy for it to turn out terrible. But that’s what makes it all come together, don’t you think?”

“Kind of like volleyball,” Kuroo muses.

“Kuro, please don’t make food-related volleyball metaphors,” Kenma groans. “It’s embarrassing.”

Fukunaga dumps a plate of tofu into the pot, then says, softly, “…We’re like the tofu in our broth…”

Tora bursts into laughter. “What’s that supposed to be?”

He simply clacks the end of his chopsticks together like they’re pincers.

The meal, thankfully, passes without much incidence. The team is on their best behavior in front of Tora’s parents, though Lev does pour too much hot sauce into his soup and practically melts onto the table, steam rising from his head that Teshiro fans away with a thick newspaper. Shibayama runs back and forth between the kitchen and the table, fetching water and napkins and extra vegetables, until Tora gets lectured by both his mother and Yaku for letting the poor boy run all the errands. Akane busily piles food into Kenma’s bowl, calling him too skinny and pale to be a healthy player, and Kuroo takes extreme delight in echoing every word she says as if hearing it once wasn’t already enough to get Kenma all riled up and irritated.

They dutifully clean up after themselves and politely turn down the offer to spend the night, then head out into the warm summer moving together as a pack. Kai, who lives closest, is the first to break away, and everyone follows one by one until it’s just Kuroo and Kenma left seeing Fukunaga off on his train.

It’s just like a natural instinct, now, when they end up at the park.

“Man, I missed doing stupid shit together with the team like this,” Kuroo drawls, throwing his hands behind his head. “We should plan something bigger, like the beach. Before I have to leave again.”

“Too hot,” Kenma grumbles, collapsing on the swing.

“That’s why you go into the water.” Kuroo takes the second swing.

“Too wet.”

Kuroo rolls his eyes, but doesn’t push the issue. They both know, anyway, that he would still drag Kenma along and plop him down under a shaded umbrella at the very least, and Kenma would grumble as he slathered sunscreen onto his pale skin, but he would secretly enjoy spitting watermelon seeds with Fukunaga, or making sand sculptures with the first-years, or watching Tora get bit by a scorpion, or refereeing the team’s beach volleyball match. By dusk he would be more drowsy than grumpy, and he’d put his head against Kuroo’s shoulder as the team enjoyed eating barbecue and playing with sparklers and frightening themselves with ghost stories. It doesn’t sound completely awful in the first place; Kenma just needs a little pushing is all, and Kuroo knows by now how best to wheedle him into doing things.

“…When do you have to leave again?” Kenma eventually asks, thinking of what he had said.

“Hmm.” Kuroo rubs his chin. “Training camp starts in two weeks, so some time before then.”

“Oh.”

“I’ll come visit one more time, though, before the summer ends,” he assures him, and with a quick clearing of his throat, adds, “You should come visit me, too.”

Kenma raises his gaze. “At your apartment?”

“Yeah, I’ll show you around. My university, my humble abode, all the best places to eat. We can go explore the whole area, just you and me.” He laughs. “You’ll hate it. It’ll be great.”

Kenma imagines this. He imagines himself showing up at Kuroo’s doorstep, sporting a baseball cap to protect himself from the sun and flushed cheeks that weren’t solely turned red from the heat. He imagines showering in Kuroo’s tub, and being made to share Kuroo’s bed because he didn’t have a spare futon, and waking up to Kuroo brewing him coffee. He imagines Kuroo dragging him out for a good time, but then actually finding him the coziest and quietest diner he can because he knows those are some of Kenma’s favorite types of places. He imagines sitting between Kuroo’s legs all evening and letting him play with his hair, letting him touch and trace and caress all of him, not having to worry about stopping because someone else might see. He imagines a life unhindered by anyone else, just him and Kuroo living out their days together, like it had been back when they were just boys.

“I’ll come visit soon,” he promises, and smiles completely unbidden up at his best friend in the world.

Kuroo’s breath audibly hitches, matching the wonderment on his face, before he’s leaning in to bump his forehead to Kenma’s and their noses collide in a brief touch. “God, I love you,” he breathes, eyes fluttering shut. “I really love you, you know that?”

Kenma glances down where his wrist is clamped in Kuroo’s hold, ears ringing. “You’re so embarrassing,” he mumbles, but doesn’t make any move to pull away.

“I’m just a cheesy guy, I guess.” He’s grinning. “This is what you signed up for and you know it.”

‘I guess I did,’ Kenma thinks, looking up at him and his glorious form in the moonlight, the same way he had looked the night Kenma had decided his feelings needed to burst forth. He had made the choice and regret has not skirted his mind even once. There have been moments of embarrassment, but not the same shameful kind of curdling in his stomach that had become a part of him while growing up with this boy; it’s like a timid exhilaration, born from the wonder of having his childhood best friend touch him and love him and want him.

“…I don’t hate it,” he admits.

“Well, I sure hope not,” Kuroo laughs. He begins to rock back and forth on his swing, and because their hands are clasped in the middle, the motion rocks Kenma as well. “I’m not planning to stop being disgustingly cheesy any time soon, but I’m also not planning to let you go. Can’t have those two colliding, now can we?”

“I never said I was planning on keeping you forever, though?”

“Oof, too harsh.” He puts a hand to his chest and pretends that it aches, in melodramatic fashion. “Don’t hurt me like this.”

Kenma has to bite his lip, to keep from smiling.

But, of course, Kuroo notices anyway. He squints. “Are you smiling? You are. I know that face. You’re taking some sick pleasure in being cruel to me, aren’t you?”

“I’m not smiling.” He puts on his blandest face as proof, which is impressively devoid of any emotion.

Kuroo is the one person who could never be fooled by his stony expression, which is why it’s a cruel trick played by the universe, Kenma thinks, for him to have fallen for this boy. “You are smiling. That’s absolutely cold-blooded.”

He glares, rising to the bait. “Am not.”

“Are so.”

“Am not.”

“Are so.”

Their squabble echoes among the rustling leaves, the only sounds in the deserted, moonlit park aside from the cicadas and the rattling chains of their swings. Kenma ponders how some things about them could have remained so stagnant through the years when everything else has changed so completely, how the boy he’d been watching practice his awful serves at the park at age ten could have one day become the second half to his whole. He wonders if Kuroo could have predicted any of this, back when he had approached him with his pushy friendship and his budding crush. Looking at him bathed in the moonlight, he hopes not. He hopes that the extent of their feelings, the extent of what they always had the potential to become, had been a winding journey for both of them.

Eventually their quarrel loses steam, as they usually do, and it goes quiet again. It’s quiet like monotonous rides on the train, like lounging on a bench outside a convenience store, like late night phone calls that have no purpose other than to communicate presence. The summer breeze feels comforting in the coolness of the night, and Kenma doesn’t know how long they sit there on the swings but he knows that he likes this—likes Kuroo, and being together, and the hand in his, and knowing that Kuroo likes all of this, too.

They sway together, perfectly in sync.

 

fin.