“I just don’t understand,” Semi mutters under his breath. He’s talking to himself, Kenjiro thinks.
Semi shouldn’t be in the gym. Neither should Kenjiro, for that matter—Washijo isn’t going to let them take too much time off from practice, but they have a week’s reprieve after losing to Karasuno. Kenjiro found his way in the gym anyway, using his new set of captain’s keys.
He wasn’t going to practice. Not really. There’s not much a setter can practice on their own. He just needed some quiet, and knew no one was in the gym. He certainly didn’t expect Semi to bust in twenty minutes later, demanding to know what he’s doing there, and badger him until Kenjiro is forced to say he’s leaving.
Kenjiro closes the gym behind them. He takes his time locking it. “You aren’t a member of this club anymore,” he reminds Semi. “You don’t need to understand. Or even be here. Shouldn’t you be studying for entrance exams?”
“That isn’t what I mean,” Semi says, exhaling loudly. “I just—I don’t get you.”
Kenjiro doesn’t turn to face him. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t understand what happened to you,” Semi says. “You’re a stubborn piece of work, and you’ve got one of the strongest personalities out of every bonehead I know, and I just don’t understand why you changed.”
“You aren’t making sense,” Kenjiro tells him. He pulls the strap of his bag higher on his shoulder. “Maybe forget studying for the rest of the day. Excuse me, I have to go.”
Before Kenjiro can take more than three steps, Semi says, “I saw you play in middle school.”
Kenjiro stops, turns, and stares at Semi. They’ve been on the same team for two years, and Semi’s never mentioned middle school before. Why bring it up now, when it’s too late to matter? “So what?”
Semi waves his hands in the air, searching for the words. “Just—you were there. You were assertive. You were starting to develop your own style. I don’t understand why you changed into—what you are now.”
“To win,” Kenjiro says. Duh. Of course. What a stupid question. “Why do you care? No matter how I play, it still wouldn’t have guaranteed you a spot as a starter.”
“That’s not what I mean,” Semi says again, irritation written plainly on his face. “I don’t care about what happened in the past, Shirabu. My volleyball career’s done with. But I still want Shiratorizawa to win.”
“We’ll handle it,” Kenjiro says evenly, despite how nervous he’s getting. He doesn’t like where this conversation is going. “Now, if you’ll excuse me.”
Semi doesn’t even let him turn around this time. “Shirabu, just let me ask you one thing.”
Kenjiro sighs heavily. “Fine.”
Semi looks to the side, at the collection of past Miyagi championship trophies, sitting in a glass display. It looks a little sad in the empty hallway, with a blank spot intended for that year’s trophy. “You changed your setting style for Wakatoshi. Don’t bother denying it, that doesn’t matter anymore. What I want to know is, what are you going to do without him?”
“I have no reason to doubt my abilities,” Kenjiro tells Semi. He means it. He does. “Or anyone else’s, for that matter. Every year the third years leave. And every year Shiratorizawa pulls together.”
“I guess you’re right,” Semi says, but it doesn’t look like Kenjiro’s answer has satisfied him.
Which isn’t Kenjiro’s problem. “Are you going to let me leave now?”
“Fine, but—” Semi sighs again. “Shirabu. You don’t have to do everything Washijo says, if it doesn’t make sense.”
Kenjiro levels him with a look of utter disdain. “That didn’t get you very far, did it?”
Before he can react, before Semi gave give him yet another lecture about being rude, Kenjiro turns and marches away. As he rounds the corner he allows himself one glance backwards. Semi is standing in the same spot by the gym doors, arms crossed, frowning at the floor.
If he didn’t know any better, Kenjiro might think Semi was actually concerned for him. He puts it out of his mind and walks back to his dorm.
He doesn’t think of that conversation again. It certainly isn’t on his mind that night, as he finishes his homework. Nor does he remember it when practice resumes in a week.
Goshiki goes into a slump, and he doesn’t think of it. Taichi sprains his ankle, and it’s still far from his mind. They lose their first practice match, and the next, and the one after, and it never occurs to him.
No, Kenjiro doesn’t think of it at all.
It’s May. Preliminaries for the Interhigh are a few weeks away.
Kenjiro’s dorm is dark, blinds blocking the setting sun, the only light coming from the lamp on his desk. He sits with his head in his hands, chewing on his lip, trying to keep his breathing steady.
Dimly, he notices a strange sound. Ringing. Something is ringing beneath his head. He opens his eyes, and finds his phone, lying on his desk. Calling someone. He must have dialed a number without realizing it.
The line connects, and Kenjiro scrambles to pick up his phone.
“You never call me,” the person on the other end says. There’s a lot of background noise—is he at a party? “Are you, like, dying or something?”
“Semi,” Kenjiro says. “Semi, I—”
Thinking of what to say is overwhelming, so he stops trying.
“Whoa, hold on,” Semi says, sounding genuinely shocked. “Just hold on a second, let me go outside—” He must take his phone away from his face, because his next words sound distant. He says a quick goodbye to some unknown people, and then there’s a rush of air, and the background noise changes from chatter to wind.
“You didn’t have to do that.”
“It’s fine,” Semi says. “What’s wrong?”
“Don’t be stupid,” Kenjiro says, strangely upset. “You shouldn’t stop what you’re doing just for me. Go back to your party.”
“Don’t call me stupid. And I said it was fine.”
“I’m hanging up.”
“Shirabu.” Semi sighs. There’s the Semi he’s used to. Kenjiro annoyed him so often when he was at Shiratorizawa, he can perfectly picture Semi’s irritated face. “It wasn’t a party. I was at dinner with some classmates. We go out to eat all the time. I’m not missing much.”
“You’re missing dinner,” Kenjiro points out.
“No, I ate. We were about to go to karaoke. Why so concerned about me, all of a sudden?”
Kenjiro yanks his phone away from his ear. His thumb hovers over the End Call button. He should press it. He doesn’t know why he called Semi. They’re not even friends. Hell, he used to try his hardest to avoid Semi because he was so sick of his so-called friendly advice. He should end the call, block Semi’s number, get over himself, and go back to normal before practice tomorrow.
“Shirabu,” Semi says again, but this time his tone is gentle. “Did something happen?”
Kenjiro doesn’t answer. He doesn’t end the call, either.
Semi exhales, and Kenjiro hears some movement—probably Semi taking his phone away from his ear to make sure the call didn’t disconnect. “Listen, I know we weren’t close, but you can talk to me.” Semi’s voice gets a little smaller. “I won’t tell anyone. Promise.”
Kenjiro groans. He drops his phone on his desk with a clatter, followed by his head. “Fine,” he mutters, mostly to himself, as he switches his phone to speaker mode. “Fine. You win.”
“This isn’t a competition, Shirabu.”
He sighs, burying his head in his arms. Semi might not be able to hear him, but he doesn’t care. “Coach kicked me out of practice.”
There’s such a long pause, Kenjiro starts to wonder if the call did get disconnected. “Are you serious?” Semi says.
“He said I couldn’t come back until I get my head on straight.”
“I can’t believe this. You’re the captain, why would he—” He stops, as if he just realized what’s going on. “Shirabu, are you okay?”
“Yes.” No. Maybe. He isn’t sure. “Do you remember what you said to me last year?”
He’s deliberately vague. Despite their tenuous relationship, Kenjiro often found himself stuck in conversation with Semi. Most of these conversations weren’t pleasant, but still—he’s hoping Semi will ask him what he’s talking about, because he’s hoping to lie.
To his surprise, Semi answers, “I do.” He continues, shocking Kenjiro further: “I should never have said that to you. I’m sorry.”
“I’ve been thinking about that a lot, actually,” Semi continues. His words come out in a rush. “I wanted to apologize for it ages ago, but we never really got along, so I figured you might just laugh at me. I didn’t mean to doubt you—and I especially didn’t want you to doubt yourself. So, I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.”
Kenjiro sits up and stares at his phone. For the first time he wishes this conversation were taking place in person. If he could see Semi’s face, he could tell if he’s joking or not.
“I—I don’t know why you’re apologizing,” Kenjiro manages. “You were right.” His voice catches on the last syllable.
“I wasn’t,” Semi insists.
“Yes you were!” Kenjiro shoots up from his seat. If he doesn’t start moving, he’ll start shouting, and he doesn’t want the rest of the students in the dorm to hear him. He paces the length of his dorm and back again, waving his arms to emphasize what he’s saying to someone who can’t see him. “I don’t know what I’m doing! I can’t sync up with anyone, I keep flubbing my serves, I’ve gotten more net touches this month than I have my entire life —I just—I keep getting things stuck in my head—I’m no good at this!”
“Okay,” Semi says. “Okay. First of all: am I on speaker?”
What the hell does that have to do with anything? A spike of irritation runs through Kenjiro’s spine. “So what?”
“If you’re going to pace, the least you can do is take your phone with you. I can’t hear you otherwise.”
“I wasn’t pacing,” Kenjiro grumbles as he stops pacing. Still, he picks up his phone.
“Okay, you weren’t. Second: that doesn’t mean I was right. It just means you’re having trouble adjusting. That’s fine. It happens to everyone.”
“I’ve had six months to adjust!”
“And only a month and a half with the new first years,” Semi points out. “And Interhighs are soon. Everyone gets nervous.”
“I’m not nervous,” Kenjiro snaps. “I’ve never been nervous before a tournament before.”
A pause. Semi must have been walking this entire time, because his breathing is getting a little labored. “Are you worried because you’re the captain?”
“Ushijima never had this much trouble,” Kenjiro replies. He sits down heavy on his bed.
“It’s not fair to compare yourself to Wakatoshi. He was a... special case.” There’s a quiet click on the other end of the line. Kenjiro imagines Semi licked his lips, like he does when he gets nervous. “Besides, Jin did most of the work. Can you talk to Kawanishi about dividing up responsibilities more evenly?”
“It’s not that simple.”
“You don’t have to do everything, Shirabu.”
“Ugh. You don’t get it.” Calling Semi was a huge mistake. Now he’ll probably be calling him every day to ask how he’s feeling. Kenjiro is annoyed just thinking about it. He flops down on his bed and scowls, dropping his phone by his head.
“How’s practice going?”
Why is he still trying? “It’s the same.”
“Then do something different.”
“That’s not how Shiratorizawa works,” Kenjiro says, irritation slipping into his voice.
“That’s not what I meant,” Semi says, sounding even more winded. “If setting and blocking isn’t work for you, practice something else for a while. Receives, or serves, whatever. That’ll help you get over your block.”
Kenjiro squeezes his eyes shut. “Why do you sound out of breath?”
“What? Don’t change the subject!”
“You’re practically wheezing in my ear, am I supposed to ignore that?”
“How can I be wheezing in your ear if I’m on speaker?” Semi says. He can’t seem to keep all the exasperation out of his voice. Kenjiro is surprised to realize Semi’s been trying to be reasonable this entire conversation. Usually all it takes is a few words and Semi’s ready to go off. “It’s a half hour walk back to campus, okay?”
“Why did you go to a restaurant half an hour away from campus?”
“I’m allowed to be a stupid uni student sometimes,” Semi grumbles. “We took the bus to get here. And you definitely changed the subject.”
“You haven’t even been at uni for two months. Are you seriously out of shape already? ...Wait. Wait a minute.” He remembers something else Semi said during their conversation last October. Kenjiro sits up. “Semi, are you still playing volleyball?”
“...Ah.” Semi exhales. “No. I’m not.”
“Your university doesn’t have a team?”
“No, they do... They don’t compete, though. It’s more a hobby team.”
“Then why aren’t you playing?”
“I just...” Kenjiro imagines Semi’s gesturing with his free hand as he searches for the words. “I need time away from playing.”
Kenjiro feels his brain crawling along, trying to figure this out. “I don’t understand,” he says. “I thought you loved volleyball.”
“I do, I guess I just—need to figure out who I am without it.”
Kenjiro stares at his phone, watching the seconds on the call timer tick up. He doesn’t understand.
Semi laughs nervously. “It sounds kind of dumb when I put it that way,” he says. “But that doesn’t matter. We’re not talking about me.”
“What are your classes like?” Kenjiro asks.
“Shirabu, we’re still not talking about me.”
“Please,” Kenjiro says, which probably shocks him more than it does Semi. “I want to talk about literally anything other than the volleyball club. Just—just help me get my mind off it, okay?”
The sound of rushing wind dies down—Semi must have stopped walking. “Oh,” he says, sounding as bewildered as Kenjiro expects him to. “Well. Okay. Uh, I don’t think my classes are that interesting, really. They’re just the basic, entry-level ones all first years have to take.”
Kenjiro rests his arms on his knees. “Are they all in lecture halls?”
“Only a couple. One of them is Japanese Literature—it turns out we went over most of the course requirements at Shiratorizawa, so half the time I’m bored to tears. And I still don’t like that class.”
“What a shock,” Kenjiro says, though he had no previous idea that Semi wasn’t a fan of Japanese Lit before. “I suppose it’s safe to say you’re not majoring in it.”
“Nah. And before you ask, no, I have no idea what I’m going to major in. What about you?”
“I’m not sure,” Kenjiro admits. His brain is having trouble adjusting to talking about the mundane, so he says the first thing that pops into his head. “I guess I’ll end up going into medicine. If I have to be brilliant, I might as well help people.”
To his surprise, Semi laughs. “I see captaincy hasn’t made you any more humble,” he teases, which doesn’t hurt like Kenjiro thinks it should. “That sounds like a noble goal, though. Helping people.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” Kenjiro mumbles.
“Yeah, well.” There’s an odd shuffling sound on Semi’s end of the line. “Oh, before I forget. It was your birthday recently, wasn’t it? Happy belated birthday.”
“Thank you,” Kenjiro says, a little numbly. The surprises keep on piling up. Since when did Semi know when his birthday is?
“Eighteen now, huh?” Semi says. The comment makes him sound like an old man.
“Yes.” Duh. “That makes us the same age.”
A second of silence. “Oh god, it does,” Semi mutters to himself. Has he seriously never noticed? Then, louder, he adds, “Man, it’s hot out today. Looks like summer’s come early, huh?”
“Now who’s changing the subject?” Kenjiro asks. He feels an odd sensation in his cheeks, almost like he’s about to smile.
“Hey, Shirabu, do me a favor and look up to see if there’s any ice cream shops near my university.”
“What? No. You do it.”
“If you’re going to eat up my phone battery, it’s the least you can do.”
Kenjiro sighs, exaggerating his displeasure. He picks up his phone. Normally he wouldn’t, but—if Semi, someone he never had an easy relationship with, can make him feel better, then giving him directions to an ice cream shop is the least he can do.
That doesn’t mean he’s going to pick one nearby, however. Have fun walking another twenty minutes, Semi.