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Beat of your Drum

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Kyoutani Kentarou has always been too much. He can’t remember a time when he wasn’t overflowing the space he was meant to take up, when he was just enough. He plays with his toys too hard, he talks too loud, and he feels too strongly. It’s exhausting, he knows, for people to be around him.

That’s the phrase his mother used. “He’s too much, it’s exhausting,” he’d overheard her saying to his father one day. He was supposed to be watching TV, but the pictures were too loud and he’d broken the remote, so he’d had to run away from it to the kitchen. “I don’t know how much longer I can do this, Genjirou.”

“You’re the one that wanted to have a baby,” his father had said, voice not yet rough from smoking the way it would be when Kyoutani was older. “I told you we should wait, or that you should quit your job.”

“I don’t want to quit my job,” his mother had said. “I make more than you; you should be the one to stay home with him.”

“Don’t you dare throw that in my face.” Now his father’s voice had started rising. Kyoutani hated it when his parents yelled. “I agreed to work night shifts for you, put my hopes of starting my own company aside for you, and now you talk about how much I’m earning?”

“I’m trying to be practical!” his mother had yelled and slammed her hand down against the counter top, sending a fork clattering to the ground.

The sharp sound of the metal against the tile mixed with their loud voices and the TV still blaring in the other room, turning into a whine that beat in on Kyoutani’s head, and he began to cry, small hands balled up in fists as he hit at his own ears to try to drive the sound out.

“Wh- Oh, now look at him!’ Suddenly, his mother had been crouching in front of him, trying to pull his hands away. The sudden touch was too much and he had lashed out at her, smacking her in the face. “Shit! Genjirou, could you help?”

“You’re the one who set him off, you should not know not to touch him when he gets like this,” his father had said, or maybe Kyoutani just imagined that he had said that. His memory is hazy, too caught up in his meltdown. It might have been any number of memories, stitched together later when this memory became The Memory, the important one.

The memory of the night before his mom left.

He’d stayed in his room for days after she had gone, refusing to come out. He hid under his bed, even going so far as to bite his dad’s hand when he’d dragged him out.

“I want mom,” he’d shouted, trying to hit any part of his dad that was available.

“Tough luck, kid,” his dad had said, holding Kyoutani as far from his body as he could while still marching him to the bathroom for a bath. “We all want shit we can’t have and she’s not coming back any time soon. Fucking bi-”

“But she’s my mom!” Kyoutani had wailed, because wasn’t that supposed to be how these things worked? “She’s my mom and I want my mom and I love her!”

“Well, I love her too, but that doesn’t change the facts, now does it?” Genjirou said, voice ragged. “Maybe she just didn’t love either one of us assholes enough to stay, you think about that?”

Kyoutani does think about that.

They make do. Genjirou picks up more and more shifts, even if it means leaving Kyoutani home alone longer than most kids his age are. Kyoutani has to learn how to get through his fits by himself. They sell the TV. They get rid of any toys Kyoutani can hurt himself on, or at least tuck them out of reach. They eat shit food and don’t talk much and Kyoutani knows it’s all because he's too much.

His mom calls, and sometimes he even goes to visit her. Only for a few hours, never overnight, just in a park or some small restaurant where his dad can sit in the car nearby and grab him when it’s time to go. His mother always wants to touch him, want to ruffle his hair or pick him up, but Kyoutani flinches back from it enough times that she stops.

The visits get less often.

Things with his dad get worse sometimes, but mostly they get better. Genjirou doesn’t yell as much, now that his wife is gone. He smokes more, but he drinks less. He's tired from work and rarely home, but he tries to find things for them to do together on his rare days off. Tries to find things Kyoutani can stand to do.

He forces Kyoutani to go to a volleyball game, and Kyoutani sees someone who is so strong that nothing can stop him. Someone who breaks through a wall of people, destroys them, and it’s a good thing. The press of the crowd around him falls away, the sound of the stadium falls away, and it’s just one player, standing alone and scoring points by being so much more than anyone else.

“I want to play,” Kyoutani tells his dad on the walk home. His eyes are closed because the crowd got too much again once the game was over; his hand is tucked into his dad’s so he doesn’t run into anything. “I want to be a volleyball player.”

“Yeah? You want to join a team, then,” Genjirou says. “You musta got the gene from me. I played in high school, y'know.” This is, of course, impossible, as Kyoutani’s dad had never been young enough to be in high school, but is an interesting idea nevertheless.

The problem, Kyoutani quickly finds, is that volleyball involves a lot of other people. Other people are one of Kyoutani’s least favorite things, along with crowds and loud noises and the mean dog on the way to the store who tries to bite him all the time.

“Your teammates aren’t your enemy, okaaay?” his middle school coach constantly tells him in the overly soothing voice used by teachers who are sympathetic to problem kids like him, at least until he tests their patience one too many times. It's almost worse than straight up yelling. “We’re all on one side here, okaaay? Do you think you can remember that?”

“They should just stay out of my way,” Kyoutani says, pressing a thumbnail into a scrape on his knuckle and wishing he was done with this conversation already.

“Kyoutani-kuuun,” the coach whines, leaning forward like getting into Kyoutani's space is going to help get his point into Kyoutani's head. “You can’t play volleyball alone, okaaay? You’ll have more fun if you’re playing with friends. Does that make sense?”

It does not.

Kyoutani isn’t stupid. People think he is, they almost always think he is, but he isn’t. It’s not like he hasn’t realized that volleyball is a team sport. But he’s the best out of all of his year there, by a wide margin. He’s not only the strongest but the fastest and has the best strategies out of all of them, and the others should fall in line and just work to support him if they want to win. He doesn't get why they don't see that.

Oh, volleyball, that sounds fun,” his mom says when she next calls. She’s started a job at a new vet clinic, this one with better hours. He wonders if this means she’ll ask him to come visit again soon. It seems unlikely. “Are you making friends?

“I don’t like them,” he says, clutching the receiver, toes brushing the tile floor of the kitchen. “They never listen to me.”

You need to listen to them, too,” she says, just like the whiny coach. “And make sure you’re nice to them, and don’t get too loud and don’t—

“I know,” he says, too loud and too angry. Too much.

Don’t get upset with me,” she says, voice crackling down the phone line in a way that sets Kyoutani's head pounding. “I’m just trying to help.

Genjirou grabs the phone. “Lay off the kid, Kana, would you? Volleyball is good for him and I— Oh, yeah? Well, it’s not like you’d know, would you, so why don’t you just— No, I’m not going to hand the phone back, not if you’re going to talk to him like that— Oh for the love of—!” He pulls the phone away and glares at it, dial tone shrilling away, before he hangs up. “C’mon, kid, let’s get the food in the microwave. We’ll need to leave in thirty if we’re gonna make the game.”

So, life goes on. Kyoutani gets stronger and stronger at volleyball and the better he gets, the more his team is willing to work around him. With him. Whatever. He’s the best and they know it, and the more they see that in actual tournaments, the more they’ll excuse his antisocial tendencies and unreliable moods, or whatever they’re dressing it up as this week.

He doesn’t care about his team, or the other team, for that matter. He doesn’t care about the referees or the dumb coaches or the people hollering in the stands. He doesn’t even care about the trophies or the scoreboard or winning. There's only one thing in volleyball that he cares about and that's the moment when the ball rises in the air and for an instant everything finally makes perfect sense.

There’s just the burn in his legs as he launches himself into the air, the whistle of the ball as it sails by, the flutter of the net waiting to try to thwart him. There’s the sharp, perfect smack of the ball against his hand, the reverberations down his arms into his stomach, into his soul, where he can take all of his too much and channel it into that one point of contact, forcing the ball to go where he sends it. The slam of it against the court. The weightlessness in the air, the sudden shock of returning to the ground. He's alone in that moment and everything is clear. Everything is right.

That’s the reason why he loves volleyball. Nothing else matters.

In his second year, he plays Shiratorizawa in an official tournament and gets destroyed. It’s the worst game he’s ever played in. The other ace, Ushijima Wakatoshi, is so much stronger than him that it’s a joke to put them on the same court. It’s obvious from the first set that he’s outmatched, outplayed, hopelessly outclassed. He’s just a pathetic little boy pretending at being a strong player. He loses his cool, loses his focus, and the ball stops listening to him. Nothing goes right.

“Good game,” Ushijima says to him afterwards, shaking his hand. He's looking down at Kyoutani, in the way that a soaring eagle looks down at a scrubby pigeon. Not even judgmental, because to pass judgement would imply they had any commonality on which to judge.

“It wasn’t,” Kyoutani says, furious at himself. At volleyball. At everything.

“No,” Ushijima says, unperturbed by Kyoutani's ferocity. “It wasn’t.” He turns and walks away, off to his next match without a backward glance.

He skips the post-game breakdown with his team, leaves early to walk home. Past the clinic where his mom used to work, past the grocery store, past the house with the mean dog.

It’s an ugly thing, with coarse hair and mean eyes. The second he comes into view it yanks against its metal chain, growling furiously, snapping, hovering over its bowl protectively. As if Kyoutani wanted to steal its stupid dog food, anyway.

The barking is hoarse and awful, like the yelling of his parents, like the buzzer signaling another lost point. It wants to kill him and he’s never even done anything to it, just walked down the street like a normal person, and suddenly it's more than Kyoutani can deal with.

“Fuck you!” he yells back at the dog. “Fuck you, stop barking at me”! He kicks a stone off the sidewalk. He’s not aiming at the dog, just wanting to startle it, but his aim is bad and the stone goes straight where his gaze was pointing, hitting the dog on the side.

It yelps and falls over in its scramble away, knocking over its bowl, only to jump up and growl more furiously, yellow teeth gnashing against the empty air. Kyoutani feels actual fear bubble up inside of him, as if the dog might manage to break the chain lashing it to the fence with the strength of its fury.

He remembers his mom coming home one night from a long shift where a cat had been intentionally hit with a car. It’s the worst kind of person who hurts animals, she’d said, ranting to his father. The worst kind of person. How awful of a, of a creature do you have to be to do that?

He runs all the way home.

The next day, Kyoutani goes back. Just to— just to check.

The dog is still there, still growling and snapping at him as fiercely as ever. It doesn’t seem scared of him or anything, which brings up a tangled mix of annoyance and relief. Annoyance that he came out of his way out of unfounded concern for some dumb dog that hates his guts, but relief that he hadn’t actually done any damage to it.

He’s about to turn back and head home, when he catches sight of the food bowl. It’s still tipped over from when the dog had hit it yesterday. That can’t be right though, surely, because the owner would have had to flip it back up to feed the dog. Right?

“How often do dogs need to eat?” Kyoutani asks his dad that night over microwave curry, his dad listening to the radio broadcast of some tennis match.

“Huh?” Genjirou is understandably startled. Normally they don’t talk during dinner, unless they’re listening to a volleyball match. “I dunno, maybe once, twice a day? I never had dogs, only cats, and only ones that hunted for themselves.”

“Oh,” Kyoutani says. “Mom would know, right?” He regrets saying that immediately after asking. They never talk about his mother unless it's for planning reasons.

His dad’s face goes through a series of expressions Kyoutani couldn’t hope to understand. “Yeah, she’d know,” he says finally. “Want to try to get her on the phone?”

“No,” Kyoutani says, too loud and too quick. “No, it’s not important.”

“Alright,” his dad says and doesn’t push it. He never does.

Kyoutani goes back to see the dog the next day again. The food bowl is righted this time, thankfully, but it’s empty. Maybe the dog already scarfed down all its food, he thinks to himself. But then, if it cleans its bowl, isn’t that worse that it went so long with it flipped over?

He doesn’t want to ask his mom, but he knows he needs to find out from someone.

The clinic his mom used to work at is a five minute walk from where the dog lives. Mind made up, Kyoutani doesn’t second guess himself as he marches into the shiny white building. The sound makes him recoil at first - there’s a little yipping dog in the corner of the waiting room, a TV playing some program with wildlife on one of the walls, a phone shrilling away as a receptionist talks loudly to an old lady clutching a very fluffy white cat about medications. The lights are too bright, fluorescence eating into the colors and turning them harsh and unfriendly.

Still, Kyoutani braces himself and gets into line behind the old lady. A little poodle wearing some kind of tutu sniffs at his messy sneakers. Somewhere in the back, a dog starts to howl.

“Can I help you?” A second receptionist, or maybe some kind of assistant, has come from another room and is looking down at Kyoutani with judgement in his eyes. Even Kyoutani can tell he looks more out of place than normal here, a scowling kid with no pet in sight. His shorts have grass stains on them and his t-shirt has a few holes near the hems. He doesn't look like he belongs anywhere near this nice, clean place.

“How often do you feed a dog?” he asks, stubbornly ignoring his unease.

“A dog?” the man asks, looking around as if searching for someone. “Is your mom or dad here?”

“I’m asking you a question,” Kyoutani says, voice getting louder as he struggles to remain calm. The noise is getting worse. “I just gotta know, how often do dogs eat? Is it once a day? Twice a day? What about water?”

“Is your dog a patient here?” the man asks. “Is he sick?”

“I don’t have a dog,” Kyoutani says. A cat is yowling somewhere. Is it hurt? “I’m asking about a dog. Just tell me how often dogs need to eat!”

“Please, lower your volume, you’ll upset the animals,” the man says. “So you don’t have a dog?”

“No! I just need information!”

“Each dog is different in their nutritional needs,” the man says. “You should ask your parents these kinds of questions, young man. Now, let’s go out and find them, okay?” He reaches out to place a hand on Kyoutani’s shoulder, probably to guide him out the door.

“Don’t touch me!” Kyoutani knows he isn’t supposed to yell in public, he knows that, but he yanks himself out of the man’s reach anyway. He can't handle being touched right now. “I just want to know how often dogs need to eat, it’s not that fucking hard!”

The man’s face has lost any sympathy it might have possessed before. “I’m going to need you to leave,” he says, steely. “You’re upsetting the patients and our clients.”

“Fucking fine,” Kyoutani snaps and hurls himself out the doors. He keeps going, putting several blocks away before he stops, panting, and presses his fists to the sides of his head so that the pressure is all he can focus on.

He’s furious, not just at the people at the clinic but at himself. He can’t even go into a place where his own fucking mom used to work and ask a question without freaking out. No wonder the dog hates him, no wonder everybody does. He can’t do anything right. He should just leave well enough alone.

Disgusted at himself, Kyoutani slinks home, his veritable tail between his legs. He grabs the volleyball and slams it into the garage door until he can’t feel his palms anymore and then he does squats until he tips over.

It’s fine. It’s all he’s good for, anyway.

His dad knows something is wrong, because he’s not an idiot either, but neither of them have ever talked about feelings if they can help it. Instead, Genjirou just goes out his way to give Kyoutani more opportunities to get his energy out via physical activity. It’s always helped in the past, after all. So it goes for all of summer, into the heat of August.

That’s why Kyoutani is at the park one Sunday, leaned up against a tree and drinking water after hours of hitting the ball back and forth. His dad is a more grueling task master than the Minimisan coaches ever could dream of, sending him through drills that drain Kyoutani’s energy while building his muscles and reflexes.

Now they’re taking a break, his dad off getting them something for lunch from one of the carts set up by the nice walking paths. Kyoutani is waiting for him to get back, cooling off a bit in the shade.

A loud, carrying giggle catches his attention, stabbing into his ears and ricocheting around his brain. Annoyed, Kyoutani looks around for the cause and sees two boys, not too far off his own age, laughing nearby as they walk. One boy, the taller one whose laugh was so annoying, is bumping a volleyball on his arms as they go, which is the first thing that makes Kyoutani’s eyes linger, but then he sees that the other boy is holding a leash for a medium-sized dog.

It’s not the same kind of dog as the one that hates Kyoutani, not even the same color or build, really, but it’s the same size and it looks so shiny and healthy, and before Kyoutani has consciously made up his mind, he’s on the move.

“Hey!” he calls out, voice rough. “Hey!”

“Hmmm?” the taller boy turns, grabbing his volleyball out of the air and tucking it against his hip. He has a soft, delicate face and sharp eyes that trail over Kyoutani’s sweaty form. “Can we help you?”

“You,” Kyoutani says, pointing at the other kid. “Your— your dog.”

“Oh, you wanna meet him?” the boy says and clicks his tongue at the dog. “Go on, he’s super friendly. His name’s Sora.”

“His name is Stupid, because he’s stupid,” the other boy says and trills another giggle. “Just like his papa, right, Iwa-chan?”

The dog-boy glares at his friend. “Shut up! His name is Sora. Don’t listen to him, Sora, he’s just jealous that you’re cuter than him.”

Kyoutani couldn’t care less. He’s standing stock still as the dog sniffs his hands and legs. Is it going to bite him? Is it going to bark?

Instead, the dog just sticks a surprisingly cold nose into his hand, sneezes, and sits down, tail wagging.

“You can pet him if you want,” the owner says. “He likes scratches around his ears.”

Kyoutani extends his hand nervously. What if he pets too hard? His fingers sink into surprisingly dense fur. “Doesn’t he get hot?” he asks before he can think better of it.

The owner just laughs. “Yeah, sometimes, so we always give him lots of water,” he says and lifts a water bottle in his other hand. “Just like you and me, I guess.”

Kyoutani starts to scratch the dog, at first very gently, and then with more confidence as the dog — Sora, that is — presses back against it and closes his eyes, tail thumping. He nearly jumps out of his skin when the dog flops over onto his back, presenting his stomach for more pets. Kyoutani has to kneel on the ground for that.

“Hey, he likes you,” the more annoying boy who called Sora stupid says. “Maybe Stupid has a type, huh?”

“How often do you feed him?” Kyoutani asks the owner, ignoring his friend. Sora doesn’t seem to be too fat or too thin, so the owner kid has to be doing that right.

“Twice a day. And treats, too, I guess. I think my little sister sneaks him stuff from the table, but I’m trying to stop her.”

“Fun police,” his friend grumbles.

“I am not,” the boy protests. “I’m trying to keep him healthy and you know my mom will be pissed if he starts trying to eat from the table. He’s only gonna get bigger, you know.”

“What do you feed him?” Kyoutani asks.

“Just kibble,” the boy says with a shrug. “Why, you thinking of getting a dog? The shelter I got him at was really helpful. They gave me all kinds of packets and stuff.”

“Where was that?” Kyoutani asks and commits the address to memory as best as he can. It’s not too far out of his way, he thinks, though in the other direction from his school and away from all the train routes near his house. Then he nods and gets up.

“You’re welcome!” The annoying kid calls after him, but Kyoutani doesn’t care about that.

He has a new lead.

Kaidoh Animal Shelter is nothing like the vet clinic. It’s painted a funky yellow color and has black pawprints on the sidewalk leading in, as if a dog or large cat had stepped in paint. There are big windows upfront that let passersby peek into some of the rooms where multiple cats are sleeping on cat trees or playing on the ground, and there are pictures taped up that advertise different dogs, cats, and even a few rabbits that are up for adoption.

It smells like animal fur when he steps in, which is to be expected, but it’s also surprisingly quiet. Maybe it’s a slow day, or maybe the animals they have right now just don’t have much of a draw.

There’s a girl in one of the rooms cleaning out a litter box. She has long, bleached blonde hair and a yellow shirt on that declares her to be a volunteer in big black kanji. She catches sight of Kyoutani and waves at him through the window before finishing up scooping the poop out of the box into an orange bucket. She comes out, bucket and all, and steps around the desk.

“Hello, welcome, hi!” she says. “Are you here to look at the animals?”

“I have some questions,” he says. “About dogs.”

“Oh, okay,” she says. “Mind if I take out the trash real quick?” she gestures at her bucket, which does smell a bit, and wrinkles her nose.

Kyoutani nods and she disappears into the back, where he thinks he can hear some dogs. While she’s gone, Kyoutani looks around the room a bit more. The windows to the cat rooms take up most of the wall space. Inside, they have whiteboards stuck up to the glass. Each of them seems to be full of lists. They seem to be of names and then notes. Stuff like “Haru - no breakfast Friday (surgery)” and “Christine - fearful of loud noises”. They must be notes for their care, Kyoutani realizes, and looks over them. He tries to guess which cat is which. Is the grumpy looking siamese in the corner the one that shouldn’t be pet on his rear end? Is the tiny tabby on top of the cat tree the one that gets jealous if others are fed first? He hadn’t even realized cats could have so many individual needs. He thought they were just cats.

“Sorry about the wait!” The girl is back, drying off her hands on her jeans. “You’re interested in learning about dogs?”

“I just have some questions,” he says and chews his lip. “Uh… you feed the dogs here twice a day, right?”

“That’s right!” she says. She’s cheerful, but not in an overly chirpy of a way. Her voice has a husky quality to it that makes it not too unpleasant for him to hear, though it’s a little loud for his liking. “They get breakfast and dinner. Well, we have a couple special needs cases here that need different schedules, but that’s the basics. We give kibble twice a day and on special occasions, we give wet food, too.”

“Wet food?” Kyoutani asks, confused. Do they put water on the kibble?

“Yeah, like from a can? Or even nicer stuff. Some people cook chicken for their dogs, or fish! So like I said, if it’s a special occasion, we’ll cook up something for them.”

“They can’t just have it raw? Dogs are hunters, right?” He thought they were just tamed wolves, basically.

She laughs, but Kyoutani doesn’t think it’s in a mean way. “Yeah, they’re hunters, but the meat we have in stores and stuff isn’t that fresh. It could make them sick. So it’s better cooked, just to be safe. I mean, not with seasonings and stuff, but plain. They go nuts for it.”

“Do they only eat meat?” Kyoutani asks.

“Oh, no way,” she says. “Cats only eat meat — obligate carnivores, you know? — but dogs eat all kinds of stuff. Actually, for the really sick dogs, we give them rice and scrambled eggs.”

Kyoutani cannot imagine a dog eating eggs. “That’s good for them?”

“When they’re sick, yeah!”

“So dogs can eat anything?” Kyoutani asks.

“Well, not anything. Not chocolate, or grapes, or onions, lots of stuff.” She grabs a book from the side of the desk and flips around in it. “Here, look.” She pushes the book toward him and he sees it’s a list of dog nutritional guidelines. A lot of it goes over his head, all broken down into kcals and talking about amino acids and stuff, but there’s a whole list of things dogs can and can’t eat.

“Sorry if it’s a little complicated,” she says, watching him frown. “That’s one of my own books — I’m going to become a vet tech, is the plan, I’m studying at Aobajousai right now. I just love this stuff.”

“Huh,” he says, fascinated despite himself. He never knew dogs were so complicated. Then he remembers his main reason for being there. “How do you— how can you tell if a dog isn’t eating enough?”

That brings a frown to her face. “Well, you mean if it’s leaving food behind a lot?”

“No, like…” he’s not sure he should bring up the actual dog. If she knew he’d kicked a rock at a dog, she’d probably stop helping him. She'd probably kick him out. “How can you tell if you’re feeding it enough?”

“Well, it should have a good weight.” She turns and pulls a paper out of a stack and hands it to him. It has a bunch of drawings of dogs at different sizes, labels going from EMACIATED to OBESE. “And you can compare to the numbers normal for the breed, too.”

“Thank you,” he says. “I— can I keep this?”

“Sure,” she says. “Good luck with your dog!”

Kyoutani doesn’t bother to correct her.

The diagram isn’t actually that helpful. The dog has so much fur covering it that he can’t easily see its body from a distance, and there’s no way he’s getting close enough to those sharp teeth to get a better look. But he’s pretty sure from walking by different times of the day that it’s not being fed twice a day. It makes him uneasy.

He checks some books out of the library, one about animal nutrition, and then a bunch to help him translate the scientific terms he doesn’t know. They aren’t very useful either, since he can’t weigh the dog, but they are interesting.

Now he has something to focus on besides volleyball, since his teammates are still annoying as hell. And he starts carrying chicken strips in his pockets when he walks around the neighborhood. He tosses them at the dog whenever he goes by. It makes him feel a little better and buys him time to walk by before the dog starts trying to attack him again.

As far as middle school memories go, it’s just about fine.

In his last year of middle school, his team plays Shiratorizawa again and loses again. Ushijima isn’t even there and they lose, and that should be his strongest memory from the tournament, but, weirdly enough, there’s another match that sticks into Kyoutani’s mind even more.

It’s the third round of the tournament. Kyoutani has played in all the matches, since the coaches know he’s the best and keep him in no matter what. His teammates, though, have been driving him out of his mind the whole time. Their captain has taken it upon himself to decide when Kyoutani is too much of a quote-unquote liability to be given the ball, based on how worked up he is and how many mistakes he’s made.

It’s fucking stupid. Even when he’s making mistakes, Kyoutani knows he’s stronger than anyone else on the court. The best strategy is obviously to funnel the ball to him. Even if he fucks up 40% of the time and hits it in 60%, that’s still a majority and better than the others can do, right? But not according to Tagawa, who insists that if Kyoutani is making errors that it throws off the team’s rhythm and means he needs a chance to calm down and refocus.

Kyoutani hates Tagawa.

They’re up against some no-name team, the kind no one cares about, and it’s clear from before they even start the match that his team is going to win. The other team is full of shrimpy kids who are more focused on telling each other “Don’t mind!” and “Nice pass!” then hitting the ball hard during drills, they look intimidated by just the sight of Kyoutani, and their setter is some pretty boy with a weird, polite smile aimed at absolutely nothing. It’s gross.

The setter is probably the best on the team, but he’s not even a good player. He’s trying in the beginning, probably, but he’s too cautious by about a thousand percent, and his spikers suck anyway. He clearly gives up when his team is a set and a half down, starts making plays as if he’s reading them out of a guidebook instead of actually playing a real match.

Not that Kyoutani can claim his team is any better. His setter is some second year idiot who flinches whenever Kyoutani shouts for the ball and messes up his tosses more than half the time. Kyoutani runs into a few kids that don’t know well enough to get out of his way when he’s in the zone, and Tagawa has the audacity to put a stop on Kyoutani getting balls sent to him when it wasn’t even his fault. He was trying to score points, which is the goal of the game. It just means he has to snake balls from other players if he wants to hit, which makes everyone more pissed off.

He runs into one of the first years hard enough that the coaches pull him out to look at his shoulder, even though it’s totally fine and he could have told them that. When they do, he hears a loud giggle that rattles through his brain, keying up some instinct to flinch, and he turns to see he’s being watched from the stands by some high school kids in white and green uniforms. One of them is actively laughing at him. It’s the worst, especially because he knows that giggle but can’t quite place where. He’s never been good at faces.

He gets put back in just in time to destroy the other team, who have the audacity to get all wet in the eyes about it as if crying after losing changes anything. They should’ve just practiced more if they were gonna whimper about it now.

He’s fuming by the time they’re lining up to shake hands, especially when he gets matched with the pretty boy setter. His fancy hair-do is only a little messed up from his sweat and he’s still trying to smile even though he’s obviously on the brink of tears, and it’s so, so infuriating.

Kyoutani barely touches their palms together, too keyed up to stand the feeling of skin on skin, before he drops his hand and turns to stalk away. He needs to get out of this gym, away from both these teams and the spectators, before he loses his mind.

He’s shocked when a hand lashes out, snake-like, and wraps around his arm, yanking him back. Nobody grabs at Kyoutani. Not if they want to keep their fingers, anyway.

“Hey!” It’s the dumb setter, voice thick with genuine anger. “What the hell?!”

Kyoutani stares down at where he’s been grabbed. He’s surprised by how strong the kid is, actually. “What the hell, what?” he asks, wondering what the fuck this kid even wants from him.

“What, you think you don’t owe us a respectful handshake? You think you’re that much better than us? You, you, you’re supposed to shake my hand and say good game, asshole!” His voice is shaking with fury.

Kyoutani snorts. Fat lot of good all that passion does the kid now. Maybe if he was less worried about being a respectful opponent than he could have been a good one. He remembers what Ushijima said to him a year ago. “It wasn’t a good game. Both sides sucked.”

He can see the boy’s free hand clench up, his stance shift, and Kyoutani wonders if he’s going to actually get punched. He’s honestly a little excited for it. Not even Tagawa would be brave enough to do that.

“Yahaba, c’mon,” one of the other no-names says, all gentle, and the setter’s body turns loose in a second. Kyoutani should’ve known he was full of shit. Lots of guys liked to do that posturing, knowing they’d never have to follow through since one of their friends would pull them back before they had to risk their pretty noses.

The second his arm is dropped, Kyoutani turns away. He grabs a volleyball and slams it into the wall, annoyed at the crushed anticipation of thinking another player could have turned out to be actually interesting, even if only off the court.

There’s another giggle from the stands, and Kyoutani accidentally hits a ball back into his own face. At least the sting of that provides some sense of release.

Kyoutani would love to be done with the volleyball club after that, but the coaches force all the third years to sit down with them and talk about their future.

“You’ve gotten a lot of offers of sports scholarships,” the head coach enthuses at him, all proud of himself like it was his direction that made Kyoutani a strong player. “You should think carefully about where you want to go, okaaay? A school like Wakunan could set you up really well to go far in tournaments and start your career as a pro, you know?”

“I don’t want to become a pro player,” Kyoutani says suddenly.

“They have a great system of— what?” his coach is so shocked that he drops his pen, scrabbling around for it on his desk. “But you’re so good at sports and you’re— what else do you want to do?”

“I want to be a vet,” Kyoutani says. He’d never even consciously thought it before, but now it seems right. He wants to work with animals, not like that one asshole guy who kicked him out of the clinic, but like the girl who answered all his questions and gave him fliers.

“Your grades aren’t good enough for that,” the coach says, then pulls them out and frowns. “Oh, I guess your math and science grades are actually… but you’d need to do better on English to get into any of the prep schools for programs like that, wouldn’t you? Are you sure you don’t want to go to a trade school, if you don’t want to be a pro? There’s a lot of school involved to be a vet, you know, and it's really hard subjects.”

“I’m not stupid,” Kyoutani says, fingers clenching on the sides of the plastic chair seat. “You didn’t even know my grades until a second ago.”

“Let’s calm down, okaaay? I’m on your side here, Kyoutani-kun.”

Kyoutani doesn’t even see the point of responding to that one. “Can’t I go to one of the sports scholarship schools and study there? They have to be good at other stuff, too.”

“I— I suppose that could work,” his coach says, looking disgruntled at the very idea. "But that's not really— have you thought this through? I'm just trying to look out for your future, Kyoutani-kun."

Eventually, his coach gives him a list of three schools that have invited him for volleyball and also have good science programs that will help him get into university for animal medicine. Johzenji, Aobajousai, and Oomasaki.

Kyoutani choses Aobajousai.