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The Aoba Jousai locker room is a wake. Even Kyoutani is conspicuously silent, as kneepads and jerseys and dreams of nationals are tucked away into duffel bags for the last time that year, or for some, the last time ever.

Beside the uncharacteristically stoic Oikawa, Iwaizumi burns with inadequacy as all the words of comfort and encouragement his aching teammates need to hear stick in his throat and choke him. Oh, he knows Oikawa will eventually spew out some bubble-headed platitude with a dumbass smile, but Iwaizumi’s role is a different one. Oikawa’s words goad and inspire; Iwaizumi’s heal and direct. And never have a group of people yearned for direction more than his teammates, his brothers in arms, do at this moment.

Iwaizumi stares at the backs of his hands while his fingers dig into his thighs, struggling to figure out where to begin. It isn’t until he formulates a single sentence or two before the quiet in the room is broken by someone he thinks none of them expect.

Kindaichi stands before Iwaizumi and Oikawa, bowing low at the waist with his red-rimmed eyes and tear-crusted face. “It has been an honor to play alongside you and to learn from you.”

Something constricts in Iwaizumi’s chest. In that moment, he realizes that there is nothing left to say that his heart-broken kouhai hasn’t already. No amount of “we should have”s and “if only”s would change the final score; no amount of second guessing would convince Iwaizumi that they could have played harder or better. Karasuno won because they are better.

Wordlessly, Iwaizumi stands and pulls Kindaichi to him in a bracing hug. It’s something he has never done and never thought he would do for anyone but Oikawa, but it feels right to him. He isn’t surprised when Kindaichi sags into him and dampens his shoulder with tears and probably some snot. It’s okay, though. Kindaichi needs this, and Iwaizumi needs to feel useful.

They remain there like that for what feels like hours, but the clock on the wall betrays a mere thirty minutes gone since they had slumped into the benches in utter defeat. No one even hears the door open and close. They might stay another thirty minutes in this stupor if Mizoguchi-san does not clear his throat and shatter the silence once more.

Beside their coach is Irihata-sensei, who is as stone-faced as ever, which Iwaizumi finds oddly comforting.

“It’s time to go,” Irihata says. “The last games of the day are already underway. Karasuno will play Shiratorizawa tomorrow. You may attend it if you wish, and I will provide a day pass for the principal to excuse your absences.”

None of them will go, Iwaizumi knows, but he will not be surprised if several of his teammates take advantage of the day pass offer to stay at home and sulk. He is considering it himself, and probably will if Oikawa does — if only to keep his moody friend from drowning himself in the shower like a piss baby.

The sight of his teammates filing out of the dressing room is disconcerting to Iwaizumi. Matsukawa and Hanamaki are the first ones out, as if they can’t leave it all behind fast enough. Iwaizumi knows better; his fellow third years are leading by example and making it easier on the younger members of the club. Next is Yahaba, who yanks Kyoutani behind him by the arm. Watari follows, dragging his duffel bag behind him like it is made of lead.

Slowly but surely, the members of the team trickle out until only Oikawa and Iwaizumi remain where they are, with Kindaichi throwing a questioning look at them over his shoulder before shutting the door.

Now that they are alone, Iwaizumi buries his face in his hands. “You should go talk to them,” he gasps in a tear-stained voice. “They need you.”

“I know,” Oikawa replies in an enviably even tone.

Iwaizumi knows it is hard for Oikawa to walk out there alone after having years of work rendered inert, but he can’t seem to extricate himself from that spot without his knees and ankles and will withering beneath him.

He waits until Oikawa shuts the door behind him before his fist collides with his own face.

Something cracks in his hand, but Iwaizumi doesn’t care. It’s not like he’ll need them for volleyball, and whatever he broke should have a chance to heal before he starts university. It’s a chance to feel something — anything — other than this inescapable weight leeching out every ounce of resistance he can muster. He had thought that carrying Oikawa on his back for half a mile to the hospital after racking his knee had been a heavy burden. Failure, it seems, is as omnipresent and indefatigable as gravity.

With a roar of frustration, Iwaizumi kicks the bench. The sound of it clattering on the floor and crashing against the wall feels like a hollow victory for him, but now he can feel something new. His face hurts, his hand really hurts, and his foot now stings like there are a thousand bees in his shoe. The tingling of his battered toes keeps him from tasting the tang of blood in his mouth, as well, or maybe he would have taken satisfaction in that, too.

Hot, fat tears dribble down his face unchecked; Iwaizumi made damn sure that Oikawa didn’t see them. They had cried over every other loss to Shiratorizawa, but he refuses to mourn the final matchup that will never happen. To regret the one they might have won if they had only been stronger. He knows that is a road best not traveled.

But losing fucking sucks, and Oikawa deserves better than that.

Iwaizumi sinks to his knees, leaning against the wall next to the toppled bench. Every breath he attempts shudders and dies in his chest as he cries even more freely. It really is over. All of it.

He flinches when he hears the door creaking open but doesn’t look up. He’s too ashamed.

“I-Iwaizumi-san?” comes Kindaichi’s shaking voice. “Are you all right?”

His voice thick and rough, Iwaizumi mumbles, “Go home, Kindaichi. Get some sleep.”

“No.”

Though his chin lolls against his chest, Iwaizumi’s eyes dart in Kindaichi’s direction. This slightly-abrasive first year has been nothing short of admirable in his earnestness and desire to please his senpais. Every command is met with a prompt affirmative and the utmost urgency in carrying it out. Kindaichi has never said no to him before, especially.

“No,” Kindaichi repeats. “I’m not leaving you here like this.”

An irrational surge of anger blanching his better judgment, Iwaizumi jerks his head towards Kindaichi and yells, “It wasn’t a question. Leave me alone, and go home. Come back next year and kick down every fucking door in front of you until you’re standing on the Orange Court. You can do it, because you’re good enough, and you will do it because I fucking told you to!”

Iwaizumi is surprised to find that, by the end of his rant, he is not only standing, but prodding his — and it is definitely the one he just injured — index finger sharply into Kindaichi’s chest. The younger boy looks at him sadly before lowering his chin and shaking his head. “If you want me to go, I will. But if you’re going to hit anyone, hit me. Don’t do this to yourself. You deserve better.”

Kindaichi sighs and starts to leave. “But I’m going to get Oikawa-san.”

His shout of protest is drowned out by the slamming door. Iwaizumi can’t make his limbs do anything but tense up and wait for Oikawa’s smarmy voice and artificially cultivated cheer.

The door opens again, but the moronic banter Iwaizumi expects is dull and watery. “Iwa-chan is such a caveman.”

“Shut up, Asskawa,” he replies on reflex.

Oikawa doesn’t reply. Instead, he takes Iwaizumi’s battered hands in his own and places a light kiss to the now-swollen knuckle. “Hajime, please,” he says finally.

It has been about eight years since Oikawa took to using the ridiculous pet name ‘Iwa-chan.’ The use of his given name startles Iwaizumi into finally meeting Oikawa’s gaze. He expects heartbreak, disappointment, and probably some snot-laced tears on his chin. All of those are there, of course. But Iwaizumi is surprised by the warm, genuine smile that greets him. Not that jackass smile Oikawa gives to his fanclub or to television cameras that occasionally follow him around. It’s the one that has accompanied Iwaizumi on every journey in his life worth taking. Scraped knees, bugs in jars, glow in the dark stars, and so many volleyballs.

“We lost, Tooru,” Iwaizumi breathes. “How are you supposed to beat Ushiwaka now?”

Oikawa shakes his head. “It doesn’t matter.” When Iwaizumi almost jumps in shock at these words, Oikawa squeezes his hands and holds them to his own chest, ignoring the grunt of pain it brought. “It took me three years to figure it out, but I finally get what you tried to tell me. I just needed Tobio-chan to help me realize it.”

Too tired to do anything else, Iwaizumi gapes at Oikawa. “What the hell are you talking about?”

With a condescending chuckle that makes Iwaizumi want to punch the other boy in the throat, Oikawa gives him a pitying look. “I’m surprised you didn’t see it. Tobio and Chibi-chan were holding hands when they were in the handshake line. I know you are terrible with the ladies, but I think Iwa-chan can figure out what that means.”

“Kageyama and Number 10 are . . . I did not see that coming,” Iwaizumi says honestly. “But what does that have to do with anything?”

Oikawa’s smile spreads into the one reserved for people beneath his attention, and Iwaizumi wants to smear it off his face. “Perspective, Iwa-chan. Perspective. Who does Ushiwaka-chan have who is willing to assault a locker room for him?”

“The only thing waiting for him is the coffin he sleeps in,” Iwaizumi says, guffawing at the old joke the two of them have shared since middle school featuring Ushijima as a blood-sucking creature of the night. It’s ridiculous, of course, but Oikawa is ridiculous so it fits the situation.

And so what if Iwaizumi ignores what Oikawa is implying?

But Oikawa’s words do succeed to one effect: Iwaizumi’s hand really, really hurts, and he thinks he might have broken his toe. The perspective Oikawa is talking about begins to set in, and Iwaizumi wonders if his best friend has truly gained some much-needed wisdom after all. “You really do get it now, don’t you?”

“Winning isn’t very fun without Iwa-chan.” Oikawa lowers his gaze. “Losing isn’t fun at all, but Iwa-chan is always there.” Perking up, Oikawa drops Iwaizumi’s hands and throws up a peace sign. “Now Oikawa-san is here for you, Iwa-chan!”

Flexing his aching hand, Iwaizumi rolls his eyes. “Oikawa-san can help me by finding me some trainer tape. Jackass.”

It almost pains Iwaizumi more than his aching hand that Oikawa has managed to wrangle his mood without so much as a dodged head-butt or a kick to the shin. He reckons he should be more upset about being handled like Kyoutani, but knowing that Oikawa is not only okay, but has also grown a little bit as a person (a very, very little bit), lifts some of crushing weight from his shoulders. Losing still sucks, but he’ll always have Oikawa’s dumb ass to look after.

Though it curdles his stomach to think about, Iwaizumi acknowledges that Oikawa has done what no violent temper-tantrum could do. However, broken glass in his mouth would be preferable to saying it aloud, so he settles for a grunt and wiping his cheeks clean with his good hand.

Oikawa carefully tapes Iwaizumi’s hand before sliding it into his own. “Let’s go home, Iwa-chan. I’m sure my mom will make you your favorite.”

Iwaizumi resigns himself to a night on Oikawa’s floor and teases, “Do you even know what my favorite food is, Bakakawa?”

“Rude, Iwa-chan!”

After slinging his bag over his shoulder, they leave the changing room side by side, ignoring the disaster behind them. Iwaizumi’s lips pull into a small smile that he knows Oikawa can’t see, relief pouring into every limb.