An arm slips around Kenma’s shoulders and a warm weight settles on his back. “Hey,” Kuro says lazily, “You gonna finish that?”
He points to the half-eaten sandwich sitting on Kenma’s desk. Kenma got distracted by a strategy game on his phone and completely forgotten about it.
“It’s fine,” He says. “You can have it.”
Kuro pulls back and sits himself on one of Kenma’s classmate’s chairs, which disturbs him for some reason. “No way, you should eat more.” Kuro pulls out an apple and a pudding cup from his pocket and places it on Kenma’s desk. “We’re going to nationals, so you need to keep your strength up.”
Kenma sighs. There’s no way he’d be able to eat all of that food before lunchbreak ends, even if he were constantly hungry like some other members of the Nekoma team. “Go back to your classroom, Kuro.”
“A~ah, you’re no fun.” Kuro puts his head on Kenma’s desk and stretches, so he really does look like a cat. He casually shoves the food closer to Kenma.
“I’m serious,” Kenma says. “You’re just scaring everyone.”
Kuro looks around and finally notices the nervous glances of a few of the second year girls who were eating lunch in the classroom. The underclassmen aren’t and probably never will be used to Kuro’s wild hair or self-assured smirk along with his height, and he always seems a little displeased by it.
“Alright, I get it.” Kuro stands up and clasps a hand on Kenma’s shoulder firmly, nearly knocking him off balance. “But I want you to eat all this before practice, you hear?”
Kenma opens his mouth to tell him that’s impossible, but Kuro removes his hand too quickly again. He frowns. Kuro’s always been a little too touchy-feely for his taste, and he’s been like that since they were kids. He’s always been grabbing Kenma’s arm to lead him somewhere or show him something, or he’d drape himself over him if he were tired or feeling dramatic. Kenma had gotten used to it long ago, though thankfully Kuro stopped doing it in public too often when they got into high school.
Kuro waves as he walks away. “Eat up!”
Kenma is so preoccupied he answers, “Okay,” and he freezes up. Kuro laughs at him from the hallway. The bell for the end of the lunch period rings, and Kenma gives an annoyed stare at the food on his desk. There’s no way he’s going to eat all of it before practice.
That afternoon Kenma does something he hasn’t done since middle school: observe Kuro.
Kuro is a good captain. He’s encouraging to those who need it, and is more than willing to kick the ass of whoever is slacking. He sniffs out scoring opportunities better than anyone Kenma’s ever seen. He’s flexible and cunning, and his body moves as if he’s already got his next ten steps figured out.
This is all normal.
Kenma can’t shake off the feeling that’s something’s wrong. He sits off to the side and purposefully ties his shoes too slowly, using it as an excuse for a different angle.
A water bottle appears from outside of Kenma’s field of vision and gently taps him on the side of the head. “Hey,” Tora says, “You’ve been spacing out for five minutes now. Stuck on a game, huh?”
Kenma takes the water bottle and drinks from it, grateful for the beautiful excuse he was just handed. “Yeah. I’ll get it.”
“Well if you need help, let me have a go!” Tora laughs. The last time he tried playing one of Kenma’s games he was so frustrated he played the same level over and over for three hours, even though Kenma kept telling him the game had an easier difficulty.
Instead of bugging him to join practice, Tora sits down next to him. “Ah man,” he says, heaving a sigh. “You gotta lend me some of them--uh--dating sim games. Maybe then I’ll be able to talk to girls...”
“That’s not really--”
“What’s going on?”
Apparently Kenma by himself was harmless enough, but with the boisterous Tora by his side, Kuro just couldn’t ignore their slacking off any longer. He stands with his hands on his hips and one eyebrow raised.
Tora speaks first. “Kenma wasn’t feeling well, so I was keeping him company, is all!”
“Oh, really?” Kuro says, his tone saying he doesn’t believe that at all. He flicks Tora’s forehead. “Get back to practice, idiot. And you...” He points to Kenma. “We need our setter now, come on.”
He offers his hand, and Kenma grabs it, allowing Kuro to pull him up. Kuro puts a hand on his back and guides him onto the court, dropping his hand back to his side once they get a few steps in. Kenma stops moving immediately. No, that’s wrong, he’s sure of it. Normally Kuro would shove him all the way back to his position. He’s been doing that since they were kids, saying it was to make sure Kenma didn’t make a break for it.
Kuro looks at him quizzically, like he’s starting to believe Tora. “Something wrong?”
“No,” Kenma says quickly, and he brushes past Kuro to take his place on the court.
There’s a small seed of panic in Kenma’s chest and it permeates everything he does. His tosses are too high or too low or too far from the net, and his receives are a mess. He nearly smacks into Lev more than once. And finally, though not entirely accidentally, Kenma trips over his own feet and lands on his hands and knees.
The gym goes quiet. The entire year has been focused on supporting Kenma as a setter, but no one knows what to do when he falls to the ground because he’s never done that before.
Just as Kenma predicted, the first person to kneel next to him is Kuro. “You okay?”
Kenma sits up and inspects his hands. They look okay, and don’t sting enough to make him think he may have hurt them. His knees feel alright too, though there’s still the possibility one or both of them may be bruised by tomorrow. “I’m fine.”
Kuro puts a hand on Kenma’s shoulder, but he’s looking over at the rest of the team, as if trying to figure out who or how they messed up enough to screw Kenma up. He wants to tell him that it’s no one’s fault but his, but then he remembers it’s Kuro’s fault, and swallows his words. “Maybe you should sit out for a while.” Kuro says, glancing over at Coach Nekomata, who nods in agreement.
Once again Kuro takes his hand away too early and leaves Kenma to get to the bench by himself. He’s perfectly capable, sure, but it feels wrong. It’s completely wrong, wrong, wrong. Kuro is breaking eye contact too early, stopping physical contact too soon, and keeps half a step more of distance from Kenma than normal. It’s all so subtle he’s sure no one else might ever notice, and maybe Kuro’s not conscious of it. But he knows, and knowing makes it difficult to breathe. For the first time in years Kenma is terrified that Kuro will realize he’s not the type of friend he wants and will leave him behind.
Kenma walks to the bench as if he were in a trance. Coach Nekomata looks at him from the corner of his eye. “So,” he asks, “what’s wrong with you?”
“Nothing,” Kenma half-lies. “I just don’t feel well.”
Coach seems like he’s not sure if he should believe him, but he lets it go. “Alright. Just drink plenty of water and cool down.”
Kenma nods. He has no intention of rejoining practice. He steadies his breathing and becomes just a pair of eyes, watching, observing everything he possibly can. He tells himself that Kuro isn’t going to suddenly stop being his friend. There’s no need for a panic attack. He just needs to wait and watch.
After practice Kenma stop being a pair of eyes long enough to join the rest of them in the changing room. He’s pulling his shirt over his head when behind him Kuro says, “Did I give you expired food?”
“Huh? Oh.” Kenma had completely forgotten about the reason behind Kuro’s lunchtime visit. “Dunno. I didn’t eat it.”
“Oh?” Kuro frowns and leans down to inspect Kenma’s face. “So this was because you didn’t eat enough?”
Kenma waves him off, though he’s a little surprised that Kuro is still trying to figure out why Kenma wasn’t performing during practice. “You’re worrying too much.”
Kuro does something surprising. Instead of arguing or insisting Kenma should eat more, he pulls back to the other side of the changing room and says, “Maybe.”
The last piece of the puzzle clicks together in Kenma’s head. He puts his school uniform back on slowly, reviewing what he’s learned over and over. There’s one reasonable answer, but he thinks he’ll need another day just to make sure.
“Hurry up, Kenma.” Yaku says, holding the door open for him. Everyone else has left already. Kenma nods his thanks and walks through.
The next day Kenma watches while staying cool, isn’t made to sit out of practice, and no one fusses over him. He doesn’t eat any extra food or talk about anything weird. The only thing he does out of the ordinary is take even longer than usual getting changed after practice, so when he finally leaves the changing room Kuro is waiting for him impatiently and everyone else has gone home.
“I thought you’d fallen asleep for a while there,” Kuro says, looking a little annoyed. “I was about to go get you. C’mon, let’s go.”
Kenma doesn’t move. “I want to ask you something.”
Kenma’s directness catches Kuro by surprise, and it takes him a few seconds longer than usual to say, “Alright, ask away.”
The room is so quiet that a roar echoes in Kenma’s ears. His lungs feel like he’s breathing in water, but he makes himself maintain eye contact with Kuro. He asks, “Do you have feelings for me?”
His question doesn’t have the impact he expected. Kuro just looks confused. “You’re my best friend...?”
Kenma shakes his head. “No—no, I meant,” he swallows and it hurts his dry throat, “romantic feelings.”
Kuro blinks once, twice, and takes a deep breath before he laughs. “I should have known better than to try to hide it from you,” he says with a light tone. “You’re too good at reading people.”
Kenma breaks his self-imposed rule about keeping eye contact and stares at the floor. “I don’t see how this is funny.”
Kuro shrugs. In a split second his expression shifts from amused to angry. Kenma doubts it’s anger directed at him, but it still startles him into taking a step back, which doesn’t escape Kuro’s notice. “It doesn’t matter.” He says, turning away. “I wasn’t going to tell you because it doesn’t matter. Nothing’s going to change. Just forget about it, okay? Pretend this never happened.” Kuro stalks out the door and down the school’s courtyard. When he gets to the front gate he turns the opposite direction they take to go home, which jolts Kenma back to reality. He runs to catch up, but when he reaches the gate Kuro is already halfway down the street, and Kenma has to go back to the gym to get his bag anyway.
For the first time since he entered high school, Kenma walks home alone.
When he gets in his room his phone buzzes. Kenma extracts it from his bag and unlocks the screen. He has a text from Shoyo. It says, hey! how’d your day go? which is a pretty typical text to get after school.
Kenma doesn’t know how to explain the situation or even if he wants to, so he says, i think i had an argument with a friend.
He peels his sweater off and flops on his bed. His phone buzzes again. ah?!?!?! what happened???? Kenma chews on his bottom lip and stares at his ceiling. It’s a little dusty. He should clean it.
He rolls onto his side and types out a reply, i have something i want to say to him but i don’t know how.
why don’t you write it down and give it to him?
Kuro isn’t waiting for Kenma outside his house in the morning, but he half-expected that. For one thing, he couldn’t get to sleep for hours last night so he woke up late. He’s missing morning practice. That’s not unusual, at least, since Kenma will often stay up all night to beat a game. But normally Kuro will at least try to see if Kenma’s awake, and he didn’t hear anything from his mother about Kuro stopping by, so he can only assume he’s still upset over what happened yesterday.
Kenma makes the walk to school by himself. It’s getting colder, so he tucks his hands inside his sweater. No one looks at him twice when he enters the school, which is exactly the way he likes it.
Morning practice is over, so Kenma heads to the third year wing. He sees a familiar mess of hair loitering in the hallway. “Kuro,” he calls out.
Kuro turns at the sound of his voice. He grins and waves. Yaku stands next to him. They must be getting ready to head into their classroom. “Kenma! You missed practice again. You’re making me look bad.”
The casual air about Kuro kind of annoys Kenma. He slips a piece of paper from his pocket, folded once and wrinkled from his walk to school, and shoves it at Kuro’s chest. “Here,” he says, waiting for Kuro to grab it from him before he turns and walks away. He’d be too embarrassed to see Kuro read it in front of other people, and his first class is starting soon anyway.
He’s halfway down the hallway when he hears Kuro snort and Yaku ask, “What? What’s so funny? What is that, anyway?”
“Nothing, just something I asked him to get me.” Kuro says. Kenma glances back to see him elbowing Yaku with one arm and putting the note into his bag with the other.
Kenma spent half the night trying to think of what to say and how to word it. Everything either seemed too dry, too rude, or too embarrassing. Eventually he settled on a single line: “I’d never be able to forget something like that.” And, even though Kenma didn’t think of himself as an artist, he drew one of those sour-looking cats Kuro always liked seeing him draw when they were kids. He thought it was appropriate.
Kuro catches his eye and quirks a half-smile. Kenma looks away and heads to class. They’ll talk about it later.
At practice everything is fine. Kenma’s serves go well, Kuro’s blocks go well, they all practice receives until Kenma’s arms go numb, and everything is practically normal again. Kenma leaves the changing room on time and they walk home together, alternating between talking about nothing and comfortable silence.
Kenma’s house is a few down from Kuro’s, but Kuro always walks past his house to say goodbye to Kenma, which he does again today. But, in the first real deviation from routine that afternoon, first Kuro looks around to make sure there’s no one else on the street with them. Then he says, “When you gave me that note...”
Unable to find his voice, Kenma nods to tell him to continue.
Kuro hesitates a fraction of a second, probably looking for words. “I didn’t want to make you uncomfortable or make you feel cornered.”
“You sure it’s okay?”
“Yeah.” Kenma’s voice cracks a little, so he clears his throat. “And it’s okay if I’m uncomfortable sometimes.”
Kuro laughs. “Really?”
“Just a little.”
“Then,” Kuro’s eyes flick downward and his expression becomes serious. “You’re okay with this?”
“Yeah. I am.”
The street is quiet and empty when Kuro leans down, tilts Kenma’s face up with a finger under his chin, and kisses him. It’s very soft and much more gentle than the sort of firm touches Kenma has come to associate with Kuro. Even so, it makes something in his chest flutter and his head dizzy.
Kuro breaks the kiss as quietly as he started it. He smiles. His face shows the kind of pure joy Kenma’s only seen a few times over the course of their long friendship, and it gives him a different kind of ache in his chest.
“See you tomorrow, Kenma.” Kuro says. He almost turns to leave, but stops himself. “And thanks.” He walks away, and Kenma doesn’t go inside until he can’t see him anymore.
The next day at school Kuro’s touches and looks are a little too long, but Kenma doubts anyone but him would notice the difference. They do, unfortunately, notice that the corners of his mouth point upward a tiny bit more, and he’s not sure how to explain it away, especially with Kuro snickering off to the side.
But it’s okay. He’s okay with it.