As he watches the Karasuno volleyball club disembark from their bus in front of Fukurodani Academy, Akaashi Keiji can hardly believe that this is the same awkward, scrappy team that had blown into Kanto last year like a hurricane. They're quieter, and they walk with a sure-footedness appropriate to a club that made nationals in their past two tournaments.
Well, a little bit quieter.
Next to him, Nekoma's Yamamoto waves emphatically as he sets eyes on his best friend from the Karasuno bunch and bellows something Akaashi is sure he will never understand. Karasuno's baldy (Tanaka?) tackles Yamamoto with what's likely some bizarre form of affection, and the rest of the team follows in a far more sedate manner.
"How was your trip?" Akaashi asks of Karasuno's advisor, Takeda.
Takeda grins. "Hinata-kun only threw up twice."
Not sure of the story behind that particular stat, Akaashi nods and scans the rest of the Karasuno contingent. "Where's Ennoshita-san?"
"Ennoshita-kun has a heavy course load this year, so he retired after the Interhighs." Takeda gives Akaashi a pinched smile. "Tanaka-kun has taken over the captaincy, and Yamaguchi-kun is the vice-captain. It's a good chance for him to acclimate to the captaincy for next season. An idea we owe to you, actually."
Akaashi nods. "Learning from Bokuto-san was very valuable, and my vice is a second year, as well." He looks at the newcomers for familiar faces and immediately recognizes Hinata and Kageyama, last year's stars of the show. "How are your freak quick duo doing?"
This time, Takeda's eyes light up as he gives his second years a proud gaze. "They keep getting better and better."
Of all the Karasuno players, Akaashi thinks the one that had stuck in his mind in the past year the most is their broody setter. Kageyama Tobio is the prototype of what every team wants in a setter. Sharp-eyed, quick thinking, and doesn't hesitate. Akaashi has sweated long, cruel hours of practice to hone his skills, and he still can't hold a candle to Kageyama's excellence. And the idea that he is even better than before sends a chill down Akaashi's spine.
He bids Takeda a good stay and moves his way to shaking hands with the players, learning that Tanaka and Nishinoya are the only remaining third years. The four second years are the usual suspects, and a large pack of first years look around in awe much as Karasuno's veterans had done their first time in Tokyo.
After he sees Karasuno to their room for the week, Akaashi heads back to his own team’s club room to change for the upcoming matches. However, he doesn’t get far before he hears his name come in a breathy huff. “Akaashi-san!”
Akaashi looks back and notices Kageyama trotting over to him. “Is there something I can help you with, Kageyama-kun?”
However, as Kageyama opened his mouth to convey his request, his cheeks turn bright red and he looks away. Akaashi raises a brow, scratching his head as he tries to decipher this strange conversation.
Finally, Kageyama looks at his feet as he asks, “Would you want to practice with me later?”
“Huh?” Akaashi can’t stop the surprise in his voice. “If you want. I don’t know what you could really get from me, but all right.”
Kageyama’s head tilts to the side as he blinks at Akaashi. Akaashi wants to ask what that look means, but their current level of communication is already at a standstill. Instead, he opts to give Kageyama an awkward smile and says, “I’ll, um, see you later then.”
He bangs his shoulder into the corner he’s turning as he walks away from Kageyama, wondering the entire way to his club room how he’s going to survive a night’s worth of conversation with someone he isn’t sure he understands at all.
* * *
The haze of the day hasn’t settled after sunset, and Akaashi is toying with the idea of begging off form his practice session with Kageyama as he wearily treads to the second gym. However, inside, Kageyama is surrounded by a scattered spray of balls as he sets one after another to a line of water bottles placed all across the net.
Karasuno’s tiny blonde manager tosses the ball and calls out a number, and as he watches, Akaashi realizes that she is identifying certain bottles and Kageyama is hitting them with his sets.
It isn’t until Kageyama misses one that either notice that Akaashi is there. The manager girl yelps and drops the ball in her hands, and Kageyama scrambles to drop into a short bow. “Thank you for coming, Akaashi-san!”
Startled by the almost aggressive gratitude, Akaashi takes a step back and puts his hands up. “You’re welcome. What did you want to practice?”
Kageyama straightens. “Can you toss to me?”
Blinking in surprise, Akaashi looks back and forth between the manager and Kageyama before giving up and sighing, “Sure. Do you want to hit outside, right side, or middle?”
“All of them.”
Shrugging, Akaashi heads to the setter’s spot, not bothering to reason out why he’s there and accepts the remarkably well-placed tosses from the manager, who Kageyama later introduces as Yachi.
However, from the first spike, Akaashi is surprised by the power behind them. “Were you a spiker at some point, Kageyama-kun?”
“No.” Kageyama resets for his next run-up.
The next hit is just as well-executed, and it rankles for Akaashi more and more until they’ve emptied the ball bin twice. With a groan, Akaashi holds his hand up at Yachi and shakes his head. “Just a minute, Yachi-san.” He turns to Kageyama. “What exactly are you trying to do?”
Kageyama bites his lower lip and lowers his gaze. He’s quiet for a long time, and Akaashi is about to repeat the question before he finally answers, “I don’t want to be the way I was. I want to understand and be better.”
Akaashi gapes at Kageyama before looking at Yachi in askance. “Um, I’m not sure I get it.”
“Kageyama-kun was told by Ukai-kanteku that he’s going to be the vice-captain after Tanaka-san retires from the club,” Yachi explains. “He wants to do a good job.”
“Okay.” Akaashi rubs his hands roughly over his eyes, trying in vain to jam some sense into the situation. Giving up on assigning logic to it, Akaashi frowns and sits on the floor. He reels back when both Kageyama and Yachi sit opposite him in a similar fashion. “What the hell is happening?” he grumbles to himself.
His hands churning in his lap, Kageyama gives Akaashi a hopeful look. “Doesn’t it help if I can play all the positions?”
At this, Akaashi snorts before he can stop himself. “That’s not how it works.” He’s more than a little concerned when Kageyama and Yachi share a tense look. “Listen, I don’t think this is going in the right direction.
“Yachi-san, who was the last vice-captain of your team before Yamaguchi?”
“Tanaka-san!” Yachi squeaks.
“And before that?”
“Suga-san,” Kageyama offers. “He was here last year.”
Akaashi nods. “And what positions do they play?”
Yachi chimes, “Tanaka-san is the ace, and Sugawara-san was a setter and sometimes a pinch server.”
“And do they both play every position?” Akaashi looks squarely at Kageyama, brow raised.
Kageyama’s eyes light with understanding before he shakes his head. “No.”
“Then why are you spiking a hundred balls you don’t have to when you’re a setter?” When the question goes unanswered, Akaashi continues, “You were picked to be the vice-captain because of what you do, not because of what you don’t.”
Pushing to his feet, Akaashi says, “You’re the best setter I’ve ever seen, and you do everything you can to help your spikers. The tosses you do for Hinata-kun are ridiculous and impossible, but you do it because you want to win. If you want to be a leader, do what you’re doing because you helped take your team to nationals. Don’t waste your time hitting meaningless balls because you’re afraid you’re not good enough.”
With that, Akaashi turns and leaves the gym without a second glance.
Going back to the clubroom, he digs his phone out of his bag and calls the only person he can think of.
“Hey, Ennoshita, do you have a few minutes to talk?”
* * *
The next morning in the gym, Akaashi sighs heavily when he sees his team is playing Karasuno first thing. It’s impossible to miss the wounded glance Kageyama sends him from the other side of the net, or Yachi’s worried gaze darting back and forth between them.
Akaashi sighs and heads over to the Karasuno bench.
Kageyama’s eyes widen when he sees Akaashi approaching, and he loudly gulps half of his water. “Can I have a minute?” Akaashi asks, wincing when Kageyama starts choking on his mouthful.
But Kageyama nods and follows Akaashi to the corner of the gym and waits, gaze downcast, for Akaashi to pass down his sentence. “I’m not here to yell at you. Don’t look like that.”
“Sorry,” Kageyama says quietly. “I shouldn’t have bothered you.”
Shrugging, Akaashi replies, “You didn’t bother me. You needed help, and I did the best for you that I could. Did you think about what I said? About how to lead?”
Kageyama nods. “I asked Yamaguchi about it last night, and he told me the same thing you did.” His face drops into a scowl. “He thought it was funny.”
“I think he spends too much time with Tsukishima,” Akaashi answers with a chortle. “But I’m glad you understand now. Go into this match with that mindset. Be the player your first years want to emulate, that they want to do well for. Remember how you always wanted to earn your place on the team fair and square against Sugawara?”
Blinking in surprise, Kageyama’s mouth opens and closes mutely before he finally manages, “How did you know?”
Akaashi gives him a smile that he hopes appears all-knowing. “I have my ways. But seriously, Sugawara, despite not being on the same level as you, made you want to try harder and be better. That’s your role. Not to outmatch your teammates at everything, but to inspire them to rise to your level.”
He claps Kageyama on the shoulder and turns the still-awed setter back towards his team. “Now, go over there so I can kick your ass, Kageyama.”
Something flashes in Kageyama, something primal and vital that makes Akaashi shiver in anticipation for the match. “You can try, Akaashi-san.”
When Akaashi returns to his own bench, Onaga nudges him and asks, “What was that about?”
The corners of his mouth twitch upwards as he says, “Oh, just captain stuff.”
It isn’t long into the match until Akaashi realizes that Kageyama has finally understood him. He clearly directs his attackers, and when one of the younger players makes a mistake, he explains the mistake and how to correct it without making his kouhai look like they’re about to wet themselves.
Well, he’s the same around Hinata, but some things never change.
After the close match and Fukurodani’s obligatory lap of flying falls, Akaashi once again approaches Kageyama. “If you don’t have anything else going on, you should join us in the third gym for independent practice.”
Kageyama mops the sheen of sweat from his face with the collar of his t-shirt and looks at Akaashi in surprise. “You want me to practice with you?”
Akaashi can see Kageyama practically vibrate with excitement. “Yeah. Just a handful of us. We’ll probably have enough for a scrimmage or two, as well.”
Nodding, Kageyama answers, “I’ll be there, Akaashi-san. Thank you for asking me.”
“Wouldn’t ask anyone else,” Akaashi says. “After all, it’s a captains only thing.”
As he walks away, Akaashi doesn’t miss the hiss of pleasure from Kageyama. Next, he makes a beeline for Nekoma’s bench one court over and punches Yamamoto on the shoulder. “Oi. Come practice with me in the third gym later. You and Fukunaga. Have Tanaka and Yamaguchi come by, too.”
Nekoma’s captain gives him a bright grin and nods. “You betcha. Kuroo-san told me I have to uphold Nekoma’s honor in his stead against you Owls.”
“Bring it, Scrub Brush,” Akaashi quips as he makes similar rounds to the Shinzen and Ubugawa benches, relieved that he can actually put together the gathering he promised Kageyama after the fact, at least.
Back at his own club room, Onaga raises a brow when Akaashi enters far later than the rest of their team. “What’s up with you and Kageyama, anyway?”
“Join us in the third gym and find out,” Akaashi says without breaking stride towards his locker to change into a fresh shirt not soaked in sweat.
* * *
The third gym is bustling when Akaashi arrives slightly later than he intends, held up by his coach bringing some possible line-up changes to his attention.
In the thick of the crowd of the camp’s best and brightest is Kageyama, conversing with Ubugawa’s setter and captain. A smile spreads across Akaashi’s face as he watches this, the awkward kid from just the day before blending in like he was always meant to be there.
Akaashi makes a mental note to thank Ennoshita for the advice, and to watch his back when the Spring High comes. He has a feeling Karasuno will make much more noise this year, and he has to be ready.