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destroy the middle (it's a waste of time)

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It starts, really starts, with Shigeru sitting on the bus next to Kyoutani on their way back from the first real, important practice game of the year. Their first real, important victory together as a new team.

It starts, really starts, when Kyoutani looks at him with fever bright eyes and a smile that practically glows even as the sun sets outside the windows of the bus, chatter humming through the air around him. He's alight with the victory, like sparks dancing across the surface of his skin, and this is probably the biggest smile that he's ever seen on Kyoutani's face—the first time he hasn't made an effort to hide his excitement like he has to protect himself.

There's no shyness in the way he combs his fingers back through his hair, the motion mussing the stripes shaved into his head, and he gives a sharp nod and a sound that might even be a laugh.

“We did good.” And it's so simple, three words in sequence. It's barely anything. But it's Kyoutani, who doesn't placate, who doesn't waste his words or say things without meaning them.

It's Kyoutani who says 'we' and he could mean their team, but there, staring directly at Shigeru like a thousand-watt bulb, it seems like he means just the two of them.

And Shigeru wants to share in that spark.

Instead, he turns away (because he can't stand to stare back at Kyoutani like this any longer), and he makes himself laugh and nod his head in return.

“Yeah,” he says. “We did.”

Her name is Miyamoto Aoi, and she's the third girl that confesses to Shigeru.

There aren't a lot of reasons that he picks hers to respond to, not really. She's on the girls volleyball team, which means they'll be able to talk about something at least, and she wasn't one of Oikawa's fans that just picked him to like next.

She's shy, soft-spoken, with inky hair that she keeps in braids resting on either shoulder. Her things are kept neat and tidy, a libero. She doesn't show up after summer vacation with a shiner on one cheek and both ears pierced. She's scared of dogs.

There aren't a lot of reasons. Not really. The fact that he's never met anyone more different than Kyoutani isn't a factor.

It isn't, but it helps.

He doesn't so much announce he's dating a girl to the team as get ratted out by Watari, turning up at his side and slapping him on the shoulder with a cheeky grin and a laugh. “I knew you had a thing for liberos.”

And Shigeru burns all the way to the tips of his ears, and he makes a choking sound from the back of his throat, surprised. He hates the creeping feeling down the back of his neck of the whole team turning to stare at him, and he straightens up quickly, managing not to shake Watari's hand off his shoulder.

He does the same thing he did while telling his father—he shrugs his shoulders and looks at the ground with a smile, embarrassed, shy, and chuckles at Watari grinning at him. “Yeah.” He can do this. “I guess.”

And if Kyoutani cares, he certainly doesn't say anything about it, just hovers with Kindaichi and Kunimi. The team gripes about him getting a girlfriend, which isn't a surprise in the least.

It's okay, though. He's not sure he really wants someone to congratulate him.

Somehow, it's easier, to be friends with Kyoutani after he gets a girlfriend. The ace is both exactly like Shigeru thought he was, and not the same at all. They start eating together, with Kyoutani wedged between Watari and Kindaichi. For awhile, he hunches over his lunches like he's worried about someone laughing at him—they aren't neatly made and it doesn't take much more than that to figure out that for whatever reason, Kyoutani makes his food himself.

He shows up late to practices sometimes, shrugging his bag off his shoulder and grumbling under his breath, shooting Shigeru looks like he's daring him to start shouting about it. Shigeru doesn't want to try and rise to that challenge—he lets the coaches scold Kyoutani on tardiness and corrects the first-years instead.

They make friends in unsteady measures like this; Shigeru offers Kyoutani tutoring in algebra if Kyoutani helps him with lifting weights, Shigeru decides this year they are going to nationals and gets Kyoutani to show up an hour early for morning practice so they can work together—so they can learn to connect, to miss less. Kyoutani practices spiking left handed for hours and laughs when Shigeru questions him about it.

“I don't like doing things halfway,” there's a glitter in his eyes, and Shigeru remembers sitting on the bus with Kyoutani practically sparkling next to him. He curls the fingers of his left hand inward, feeling the red skin of his palm with them. He grins, looking up again. “Besides, everyone was so impressed with Ushijima spiking left handed. I can do both—that's better.”

Shigeru laughs as well, shaking his head at how simple everything seems when Kyoutani says it. He doesn't waffle, he doesn't unhinge himself with doubts. Everything is treated like a resolution and he seems practically unshakable.

After practices, Shigeru walks home with Aoi. He's not sure if the girls team is pushing as hard as theirs is for nationals—she rarely seems concerned with the tiny iota's of progress that keep Shigeru up at night, seeking more ways to improve, to evolve, to win.

“Your prelims are coming up soon, aren't they?” She asks with her hands tucked neatly at her sides. Shigeru wonders if he's supposed to be holding one, or if that's too forward since it's only been a few weeks—he spends a lot of time second-guessing what he's supposed to be doing around Aoi.

He doesn't reach for her hand, he just nods his head instead. “Yeah, two weeks.”

“Have you seen your bracket yet?” He asks in return—their games are a few days apart this year, he supposes he'll end up watching the girls play for the first time, likely with the whole team in tow. She sighs, a delicate little sound without bite to it.

“We're playing Niiyama in the second round—Yuki-chan thinks we'll be able to win this year, though.” She sounds less certain, toying with her fingers and staring down at them. “I'm glad liberos can't be captains, I don't think I could handle people counting on me even more.”

“It's a lot of pressure—I started out trying to be the same as Oikawa-san.” He rolls his shoulders, not so much a shrug but an attempt at centering himself, remembering how to feel at home in his own skin. “But it's easier if I just focus on leading the team my way.”

“They seem,” she pauses, seeking the right word with a small smile. “Well, sort of wild.”

Shigeru blinks twice before laughing, nodding his head more eagerly than is required. “That's an understatement.”

“Ah—I didn't mean anything mean,” she flushes, shaking her head rapidly back and forth, braids bouncing against her shoulders. “Really. I'm sure they're all great—”

“Kyoutani wanders off if he senses a dog and Kunimi can fall asleep on any surface that's vaguely horizontal and not made entirely of wasps.” He pauses, grinning. “Usually Kindaichi.”

Aoi stifles a laugh, smiling behind her hand. “Kyoutani-kun is in my class—I wouldn't have thought he'd like being on a team.”

Shigeru could ask what Kyoutani is like in class, the question hovers on the tip of his tongue. He swallows it back again and rolls his eyes. “He doesn't like being on a team.”

He takes her hand, and she blushes more but smiles wider. He holds it until they get to her street.

Aoi gives him a single, shy kiss before their first Interhigh games. It's soft, and her chapstick tastes like vanilla. For good luck, she tells him.

His mouth doesn't tingle after, and he's forgotten about it by the time he's finished giving speeches and stepped out on the court.

Wakutani South is the first team they play against, and Shigeru is careful not to treat it like anything but a serious match. It's a lesson well learned from his senpai—every opponent they play against is going to want to win just as badly as they do. They can't afford to look down on any of the teams they're set against.

Still, with or without the serious mentality, it's not a challenging match. They take each set in quick succession, even when Wakutani fights back against them for every point. They file back to their section of the stands with Mizoguchi reminding them all to keep their muscles warm and not to stuff themselves with food—looking severe with his arms crossed over his chest. Kyoutani huffs for breath still, sitting on the floor between the seats and the railing, legs stretched out in front of him with his shirt hiked over his stomach, wiping sweat off his face.

Shigeru nudges the toe of his shoe against Kyoutani's calf, grinning when he lifts his head and drops his shirt again. “We did good.”

A grin catches on his face in return and he turns back to his food with laughter shaking his shoulders and sweat still sliding down the back of his neck. “Yeah. We did.”

He looks away to try and stop himself from noticing, and his eyes land instead on the wrapping of Kyoutani's lunch. It's a soft shade of blue, with cartoon dogs chasing after toys. He's, for once, not trying to hide it, and something about that makes Shigeru keep smiling.

Aoi makes him a bento for their second day of games. She blushes when he thanks her for it, fingers twisting the end of one of her braids around and around.

This time, when she gives him a kiss, he's ready for it and he kisses her back.

He doesn't let himself think about what kissing Kyoutani would be like.

He doesn't, he doesn't, he doesn't

The final spike that sends them to nationals arcs off of Shigeru's fingers not quite perfectly, but blasts from Kyoutani's palm and past the blockers in front of him. It doesn't actually feel real.

It doesn't feel real until the team is on Shigeru in a loud pile, jostling and shouting and slapping his shoulders. He's laughing and that doesn't quite feel real either, and Kyoutani is pressed up against his side with an arm sort of wrapped around his back and sort of just pressed there by Kindaichi's body behind them.

The whistle for them to line up blows and Shigeru is reluctant to shake himself free but does anyway, and he can feel the victory thrumming through him like an electric charge and he wonders

He grips Ennoshita's hand firmly with the net between them and the other captain struggling to choke tears to the back of his throat. His handshake is firm, though, and he grits his teeth into a hard line. “Next time.”

Shigeru nods his head in return because as a battle it was anything but easy and he's seen Karasuno grow too explosively in the past to do anything but believe that absolutely.

But they're all different than they were a year ago and Shigeru smiles, a small one. “We'll be ready for you.”

On the bus ride back, Kyoutani sits next to him again. This isn't strange anymore, it's become standard. And while they're all still buzzing with the win, with the promise of nationals practically singing in the air, they also finished playing five sets against the relentless offensive power of Karasuno, and after a short while the conversations give way to sleep.

Kyoutani drifts off on his shoulder, and Shigeru is stupid and lets him sleep there. He's even more stupid, and leans their heads gently together and closes his eyes, listening to the soft gusts of Kyoutani's breath before he falls asleep himself.

The girl's team falls to Niiyama a day later.

And Shigeru, well, he expects something different than what actually happens. He remembers his own loss last year far too well—tears and a disturbingly silent bus ride back, sullen, like they were all trying to hide their failures from one another.

The girls don't cry over their loss. They leave the court slapping each other high-fives and glowing and Shigeru resigns himself to not being able to understand the appeal of a loss.

“So,” they're seated neatly around the dinner table, and at the level tone of his father's voice, he finds himself seizing up like he's been shocked, fingers curling loosely into fists. “Have you started looking at colleges yet, Shigeru?”

He hesitates, flounders for a sense of calm that's usually so easily within his reach, and stares down at the food in front of him rather than meeting the steady gaze he can feel prickling down his spine. He hates having this conversation.

“I- I haven't. I was planning on waiting until after nationals…” It's the wrong answer, and Shigeru knows it, and his father sighs out like the words themselves are a disappointment to him.

“There's no point in putting it off that long, is there?” Shigeru doesn't ask why, but he does slowly lift his head with his eyebrows knitting softly together, lips parted around a confused sound. “You aren't that talented a player, waiting around like you're going to be scouted is a waste of time, don't you think?”

“I…” his voice gets stuck again and he clears his throat, mind empty of things to say. He slumps slightly in his seat, tilting his chin downward again, mumbling. “Sir.”

“I'd like to see a list of schools you plan to apply to in two weeks if you can manage it.” He smiles, returning to eating like there isn't a burning at the back of Shigeru's eyes. “Oh. And please invite Miyamoto-san for dinner again, if she has the time.”

“Hey,” it's Monday afternoon, and Watari leaning next to Shigeru's locker is a small surprise. There's a smile on his face, and he already has his bag over his shoulder. “Are you walking home with Miyamoto-chan today?”

Shigeru shakes his head, finishing tucking things into his bag with a soft hum. “She's tutoring today, so no.”

“Good,” Watari chuckles, grabbing both of Shigeru's shoulders and marching him toward the doors, grin stretching wider over his dimpled cheeks. “You're donating time to the Best Friend Fund this afternoon, then.”

Part of Shigeru wants to complain, to say that he has to go home and research colleges and be the person that his parents expect him to be.

But really, he can do all of those things after a few hours of Watari's company, and he'll probably feel much better about it, so instead he laughs and lets himself be shoved along. He doesn't even suspect Watari of ulterior motives until they hook around the corner, away from the chain restaurants that dot the edge of the Aoba Johsai campus area and instead toward a row of smaller, locally owned shops. It's quieter, less packed with other students.

But Watari is patient, and it's not until he has Shigeru staring at a shelf full of used books and wondering how much is in his wallet that he strikes.

“So, does Miyamoto-chan know what's going on?” It's not a malicious question. He has his head tilted curiously to the side, one hand on the strap of his bag.

“Going on with what?” Shigeru blinks, expression ripped open in surprise. He can't think of anything that she should know—

“With Kyoutani-kun.” Watari says it like it's obvious, and Shigeru nearly chokes.

“T- there's nothing going on with Kyoutani!” He's certainly not shouting that in the middle of a bookstore. That would be rude, and obvious, and entirely contrary to the point of denying it in the first place. Watari blinks at him for the denial, frowning slightly.

“So you're actually dating Miyamoto-chan?” He seems surprised, and slightly put out, and Shigeru nods because he doesn't exactly know how their conversation ended up here. “You know how you look at him, right? What're you doing?”

For a moment, Shigeru hesitates, seeking the best way to actually answer that. He doesn't want to lie to Watari and say that he has some kind of deeper feelings for Aoi. He doesn't, not really. She's nice, and she's easy to spend time around and by all accounts, he should feel that way toward her.

But he doesn't. She's little more than a friend he's especially fond of.

After a moment, he rubs the back of his neck and sighs. “Keeping the ball up.”

Watari looks at him and blinks, rubbing his hand over his head with a frown. “It's not a game.”

“No.” Shigeru laughs softly even as he agrees, shaking his head. “It's not.”

The time between the preliminary games and nationals passes Shigeru like a bolt of lightening. The weeks go by him in the barest blink and he feels sick and unprepared, tiredly coaching first-years onto the bus at four in the morning so they can make the ride to Tokyo.

It's how he ends up with Kyoutani settled into the seat next to him (of course), with tired eyes and a large pair of headphones covering his ears. Shigeru isn't really surprised—this must be a little early for him to be putting up with people.

There's a surprising amount of rumors around the school about Kyoutani. That he's in a punk band, that he once beat up an entire gang of bikers, that he was expelled from his middle school for attacking the principal—they grow more and more ridiculous as they go. A year ago, if someone had whispered in his ear these kinds of things about Kyoutani, maybe he would have believed them.

But Kyoutani is simpler than all that. He doesn't dye his hair because he wants to look tough, he has a dog and a younger sister, both of whom he seems entirely in love with (Shigeru has seen the three of them out on weekends, with Kyoutani holding his sister's hand with one and the dog's leash with the other, maybe even smiling). Bad with people, maybe, but never malicious. Kyoutani who has his music soft enough that Shigeru can only pick out the low hum of the bass and the peaks of the melody.

He leans his head against the window before the bus starts moving, and Shigeru tells himself that he has no right to want anything else.

There's a dream, the kind that haunts Shigeru every time he lets himself dwell on it—where he gets to sleep with Kyoutani in an actual bed. It's not a sex thing, which maybe makes it a little more strange—he just wants the chance to wrap his arms around Kyoutani, to pet his head and see if the black stripes feel different than the rest of it, to let Kyoutani snore into his chest (Shigeru would bet money that he does, at least a little).

Somehow, his most devious and shameful fantasies are about sleep. Shigeru sighs, slumping into his seat and closing his eyes. He tries hard not to think about it.

It takes more time than Shigeru even expects to get the whole team off the bus and situated in their section of the stands. The gymnasium itself is huge, and while he wasn't anticipating it, it seems they're a big enough team for people to spend time whispering about them when they try to find a way.

He notices it the first time he hears someone mumble Oikawa's name, and it take a lot of concentration not to let his shoulders slump like their former captain is still hanging off his body like a mantle, weighing him down.

Shigeru isn't Oikawa Tooru, and for the most part, he's given up the idea that he'll ever be Oikawa Tooru, but it seems harder to banish the comparison from the minds of everyone else. He gets lucky, in that the team is still too groggy to cause much trouble for people mumbling as they go past (except of course for Kyoutani, who's head whips around with a savage glare every time.)

They settle in, hang their banner over the railing, and get surprised by a group of supporters who apparently followed their bus up to the tournament—Watari's older sister having driven, with Oikawa and Iwaizumi and a familiar looking girl who's half hidden behind Iwaizumi when they approach. She's younger—probably still in middle school, with sharp amber eyes and black hair pulled into a ponytail behind her head, falling in curls along her back.

But really, the thing that makes Shigeru recognize her is that at first glance she looks angry, the corners of her mouth pull slightly downward and she looks at the team like she's sizing them all up for a fight. It's so familiar that Shigeru almost bursts out laughing, except he catches the sight of Kyoutani smiling from the corner of his eye. She mirrors the expression when she sees her older brother (it's passed an assumption on Shigeru's part at this point), pointing at him with one hand on her hip. “Nii-san! You better win today, got it?”

Kyoutani's chest puffs out immediately and he crosses his arms over his chest with the flick of a nod and Shigeru can see the tinge of pink at the tips of his ears. It's cute—the fact that their rebellious ace is so easily bossed around by his younger sister, and Shigeru can't help but smile. “Of course, I'm going to win.”

Watari throws his arm over Shigeru's shoulders with a laugh, bright and pleased, nodding at the younger Kyoutani. “Don't worry—our captain here is great at impressing the ladies, you'll be a great motivator for him.”

“Ah, I heard about that!” Oikawa pipes up for the first time, and suddenly he's on Shigeru's other side, purring. “Shi-chan has himself a girlfriend! A regular lady-killer, it seems. Just like I taught him, of course.”

Kyoutani, the elder, eases away from Oikawa with that slightly unsettled expression he always has, taking his younger sister's hand instead, shaking his head. “C'mon. Let's get you a soda, Rie-chan.”

The entire back of his neck is bright red and Shigeru wonders if that's still because of his sister.

They win two games but wind up playing eight sets, and by the end of the day, Shigeru's legs feel completely numb. He ends their final set on his ass, panting and trying to wipe sweat off his face, surprised by the rough hand thrust into his field of vision.

Kyoutani, looking no better than Shigeru feels, is staring down at him, still panting. Shigeru doesn't take his hand right away and he frowns. “We have to line up. Can't do that without our captain.”

His stomach flutters—at the phrasing, at the idea of taking Kyoutani's hand, at things he doesn't dare spare a thought to in the moment. He reaches forward and grips around Kyoutani's wrist, letting the ace pull him to his feet, stumbling when his legs are number than he thought. Kyoutani grunts but puts out his other hand to steady him, glaring slightly. He opens his mouth like he's going to say something, then seems to think better of it, nodding his head. “You okay?”

“Just tired.” Shigeru has to clear his throat before he can make the words come out, and he still has his fingers around Kyoutani's wrist and his pulse is fluttering under his skin—and Shigeru pulls his hand back sharply like he's being burned by the contact. “T- thanks.”

Kyoutani drops his other hand from Shigeru's side with a slow nod, frown in place again before he turns to join the rest of the team. “You played well.”

Shigeru follows after him and pretends his face isn't burning. He's too tired to dwell on this now and he shoves it out of his mind, focusing on shaking the hand of the enemy team's captain instead, treating him with respect. Focusing instead on giving his own team a speech about playing well and connecting, how he believes in them, before herding them back to the locker rooms to shower and change again.

 

He doesn't dwell on it until they're in a dark room with futons covering almost every square inch of floor. Usually, these team getaways are rowdy, but the lights have barely gone out before it's quiet in the room. Shigeru isn't surprised—they've played too much today to have the energy for fooling around like they usually do.

Still, despite the tired burn of his eyes, Shigeru can't seem to sleep. He blinks vainly into the darkness, gripping the soft fabric in both hands, trying not to think about Kyoutani asleep half a foot away from him. Watari is on the other side, and Shigeru tries to focus on his breathing instead, to match it with his own and get his body to relax.

It doesn't work, and instead, he closes his eyes slowly, relaxes the grip of his hands, and lets himself focus on Kyoutani instead. His breathing is deep and slow, and Shigeru was right in guessing there's the hint of a snore to it. His chest aches around empty space and even totally surrounded by teammates, he wants to be able to wrap his arms around Kyoutani and feel the gentle expansion of his chest with each breath.

That's how he falls asleep—picturing warm skin under his hands, the shower-fresh scent of his hair, rubbing his shoulders and feeling him melt into it…

He's surprised in the morning by Oikawa waving him away from the team before the games really get started, but, like a good kouhai he follows after him, shifting his bag on his shoulder. “Advice for today, Oikawa-san?”

“Play the opponent in front of you, though I don't think you need me to tell you that anymore.” He smiles and stops when the two of them are standing in a quieter hallway off the main arteries that lead to the gym. There's something in his eyes, more serious than Shigeru is used to off of the court. “But I have some different advice for you.”

“Oh. Alright,” he squeezes the strap of his bag tighter, shifting his weight slightly between his feet. “About what?”

“How's your girlfriend, Shi-chan?” He smiles and Shigeru's stomach drops to his knees. There's no possible way he could lie about this to Oikawa, he knows better.

“Aoi-chan is fine—we get along well,” it isn't a lie, and that's a start at least. Oikawa nods his head, his eyes narrowing.

“And how is Kyoken-chan?” There isn't malice in the way he asks it, but Shigeru cringes anyway, shoulders flinching inward. It's more than a flutter of guilt in his stomach, it's a pang that nearly makes him double over. Oikawa endures a moment of him saying nothing before nodding his head. “I thought so.”

“I'm not doing anything with Kyoutani-kun,” it's a weak defense but it's the only one that Shigeru has. Oikawa hums, nodding his head.

“That's the problem, though, isn't it?” He taps his chin then pauses, glancing over his shoulder. They fall just a fraction, and Shigeru's seen the change in posture before—Oikawa shedding persona and regarding him honestly. There's a softness to him that's comforting, even with how tense the moment makes Shigeru. “You aren't exactly falling in love with her, are you Shi-chan?”

There's no lying to Oikawa, he reminds himself, and he shakes his head. Oikawa doesn't sigh, but there's something that flickers on his face. “And there's a reason you're dating her instead of Kyoken-chan, right?”

“Y- yeah,” he's tried to picture before what would happen if he tried bringing home Kyoutani for a family meal. If he introduced Kyoutani as his boyfriend to his father and his two perfect older brothers. His throat feels like it's closing up at the thought.

“I know it's hard but if you push yourself further into this, it's only going to end with everyone getting hurt,” he squeezes Shigeru's shoulder with a soft hand, and it's the smallest smile he's ever seen Oikawa share with anymore. “It doesn't have to be right away, but you shouldn't push yourself into things that don't feel natural, Shi-chan.”

Shigeru breathes a small sigh, hanging his head after he nods, eyes closed. He doesn't want to be getting this kind of speech from Oikawa. Oikawa seems to realize it too because he straightens and drops his hand back to his side with a firm nod. “And don't let Kunimi-chan slack off on you!”

He flits off with that, giving Shigeru a wave. “Take a minute, if you need it!”

Realistically, Shigeru didn't think—

No, that isn't true. He steps onto the court believing that they can win this. There would be no point if he didn't think so, he wouldn't belong on the court with his team.

His belief isn't enough to carry them through—nothing is. Instead, it's a flame snuffed out in the empty space of his chest, leaving wisps of smoke to wrap around his lungs and choke him. It's a smoke that lingers there, settles heavy while they line up to thank their opponents for crushing them.

Did he really think his father was actually wrong?

He's not sure how to feel after their loss—mostly he's numb and tired and making a list in the back of his head of what he needs to do for his next application, how much studying for exams. He doesn't promise the team revenge, he changes quietly, withdrawn into himself.

That is, of course, until there's the tremendous slam of a locker beside him, enough that he cringes away in surprise only to be met by Kyoutani's fierce glaring in response. He doesn't seem to really be glaring at anything, and after a moment he drops his head, shoulders trembling. “Fuck!

Shigeru can't exactly leave him to rip the locker room apart. He plants his hand on Kyoutani's shoulder, surprised by how easy it is to guide him out of the locker room and outside. There aren't many people there; Shigeru isn't surprised—the final match is taking place now and likely everyone has gone to watch it.

“If you're going to start screaming, at least, do it out here,” his heart isn't in the scold, not really, and Kyoutani actually looks at him for the first time.

And Shigeru wishes he wouldn't. Because there's such a fire in his eyes, rolling off of him, making the air crackle with heat and energy, and Shigeru wants to be drawn into it. “Next time. We'll do the Spring Tournament—we'll beat them next time.”

He could lie here. He could nod his head and bump his knuckles against Kyoutani's shoulder and agree with him.

They would never be friends again after that, and Shigeru knows it. Maybe they won't be friends after the truth either.

“I'm not participating in the Spring Tournament,” it doesn't burn him to say, not at all. Kyoutani's eyes creep wider, and he doesn't even ask why, he just wheels around and slams the knuckles of his left hand into the brick wall behind him twice, shouting at it when he does. He can't hear well enough to tell if there's a crunching sound, but there's definitely blood on his hand.

“That's it, then? You're done?” He doesn't look at Shigeru when he speaks, slumping into himself. Shigeru sighs and isn't sure if he should try to touch him or not.

“I have to focus on entrance exams—it's not like I'm going to be continuing playing after high school,” he wants to shrug it off but can't quite seem to, and there's probably a crack in his voice but at this point Shigeru can't make himself care enough to stop. “I- I don't have the talent that you and Watari do, I'm sorry.”

Kyoutani doesn't whip around to face him, he turns slowly with his bleeding hand at his side and Shigeru shakes his head. “We should get that looked at.”

He reaches and catches Kyoutani's wrist, lifting his hand to look at it—there's already swelling around his knuckles and that alone makes Shigeru hiss a sympathetic sound through his teeth. Kyoutani is staring at him oddly, and Shigeru makes himself let go quickly, shaking his head. “C'mon.”

“Shi- ge- ru,” there's a prodding at the back of his shoulder but Shigeru is reluctant to look away from the volleyball magazine spread over his pillow. Katashi hasn't been home from college for more than a few hours and he's already being annoying. “Tell me about your girlfriend, already!”

That gets him to lift his head and he shrugs his shoulders, staring at his older brother with a slight frown. Katashi is the middle, starting his third year of university and still an expert at being irritating whenever he's given the chance. “What is it you wanna know?”

“What she's like, obviously. I mean, I know oto-san likes her, but that's it really,” he helps himself to a spot on Shigeru's bed and he scoots over to make enough space for both of them, flipping the magazine shut. So much for doing something relaxing with his new found extra time in the afternoons.

“She's a libero, she wants to go to school to be a teacher,” he prattles a list of traits off without any real passion in it. She bakes when she's stressed out, likes working with children, finds pressure hard to deal with. They're just facts, he doesn't even have particularly good stories to tell about her—they go on dates but it all seems uneventful. Katashi goes from grinning at him to slumped over, looking bored.

“You still depressed about your volleyball thing?” He asks, and Shigeru shrugs because the answer is more complicated than that. He doesn't really know what to do with himself without practice taking up his spare time, he feels like he has far too much energy, he's written and deleted at least fourteen different texts to Kyoutani because he can't figure out how the two of them are supposed to keep being friends.

“I'll get over it,” because he's not supposed to waste time being depressed over a club activity that he won't be continuing in college anyway. Katashi nods, eager to go along with it, and there's cheek in his smile.

“Well, I've got news to cheer you up… I'm asking Hana to marry me!” His chest puffs forward with pride as he says it, then he laughs, combing his fingers back through his hair and deflating. “Hopefully, she doesn't shoot me down.”

There's a flush on the back of his neck from just talking about it. Shigeru thinks about how he felt when he was wrapping gauze around Kyoutani's stupid bleeding knuckles after he punched that wall like there were words trying to fight their way out of his mouth.

“Have you ever—” his voice must sound strange, because Katashi blinks at him, looking confused. Shigeru clears his throat and tries again. “Have you ever thought about what you would do if oto-san didn't like Hana?”

“Eh?” Katashi frowns, tilting his head to the side like a confused dog. “Did he say something about her?”

“N- no! I was just… wondering,” Shigeru shakes his head, feeling stupid for having asked. “I- in general. Whoever you were dating.”

“I dunno! It's kind of a scary thought, right? I dunno what I'd do if he told me I couldn't stick with Hana,” but the tone of his voice is really an answer. He'd go along with it, no matter how sad it would make him.

Something bitter and cold twists in Shigeru's stomach and he pushes himself off the bed, willing his fingers not to shake. “That's great—that you're asking her to marry you. I'm sure she'll say yes.”

Katashi keeps staring at his back, watching Shigeru gather up his shoes and his headphones for a run, doesn't ask where he's going, just mumbles a quiet 'thanks' before he bangs out the door.

It was a stupid question to ask.

Katashi gets engaged and somehow it makes the pressure weigh heavier in Shigeru's chest.

He thinks, briefly, about what Oikawa told him. Not to push himself into things that don't feel natural.

His relationship with Aoi moves forward regardless, and sometimes when they spend time together there's more kissing than studying. And, eventually, there aren't enough plausible reasons not to keep moving further, so Shigeru does what's expected of him there as well.

And really, nothing has ever felt more unnatural.

In the end, Watari keeps him from having to figure out how to connect with Kyoutani on his own by insisting they keep studying together over lunch. Shigeru still gets pulled off by Kindaichi sometimes for team captain advice (no matter how well prepared he really is for it). And when he settles back in, Kyoutani stares at him with an odd, pinched look on his face.

“What?” Shigeru frowns in return, eyebrow raised.

“You didn't really want to quit, did you?” He snorts, and Shigeru doesn't miss how he says quit instead of retire. There was no rule saying that all the third-years had to retire because Shigeru did, but they decided to anyway. Shigeru's jaw tightens.

“There are other things I have to focus on, Kyoutani-kun,” Shigeru doesn't snap, he keeps his voice smooth and even because he knows it annoys Kyoutani more.

“Like your girlfriend?” He sneers, leaning forward, elbows on his knees with a flicker of fire in his eyes. “We all quit so you can go on dates.”

“I didn't peg you for the jealous type,” the retort is out of his mouth before he even thinks about it, but Kyoutani's face goes red.

“The fuck is there to be jealous of?” His hands flex into fists—the left one healed once again with a light pattern of scars on his knuckles, it draws Shigeru's eyes every time. “Do I look like I want a girl annoying me?”

“Wanting a girlfriend is the normal thing, you know.” Shigeru pauses, smirking. “So no, you don't.”

Kyoutani's face flushes further, frown dominating his expression. His posture changes, though, and instead he slinks back toward the wall behind him, eyebrows still pulled tightly together. “I don't even like–”

He cuts himself off, but not before the meaning becomes clear enough to make Shigeru's stomach twist. There's a beat, where Kyoutani's eyes flare wide, waiting for something to happen. Watari, saint that he is, doesn't freeze like Shigeru does, just shrugs his shoulders with a soft laugh, not even sounding awkward about it. “Guess that rules out jealousy then.”

It makes Kyoutani relax like he wasn't expecting it to be so easily accepted. Shigeru can't shake himself of the confession and it takes him an extra moment to thaw, swallowing. “Guess so.”

It doesn't sound sincere, but he can barely force the words out around his heart blocking his throat.

They keep eating lunch together, even when winter drives them inside, taking up a group of desks in Shigeru's class. Watari is always the first to make it and this time when he sits he nods at Kyoutani's usual spot. “His birthday is next week.”

“I know,” Shigeru doesn't look up from his notes, trying to parse his way through their new English vocabulary. Oikawa had him memorize all of the team's birthdays before he even took over as captain. “What about it?”

“We should do something,” he huffs like Shigeru is missing the obvious. In response, Shigeru just shrugs his shoulders.

“He probably has plans already,” he's being overly dismissive, he knows. He's put thought into the idea of actually getting him something, but no matter how he looks at it, it seems like an awkward thing to do. He's not really sure if he and Kyoutani count as friends or not. Perhaps something small, Kyoutani will probably hate anything he picks regardless.

Watari sighs at him but lets the subject drop when Kyoutani walks in and takes his seat, making a humming sound in the back of his throat when he scans over Shigeru's English notes in front of him. “I hate vocab.”

“It's better than grammar, at least,” Shigeru agrees with him there, for the most part, and Kyoutani nods his head. Shigeru can practically sense the subject still buzzing around Watari's mind, so he gives in before he winds up getting scolded for it. “Do you have any big birthday plans?”

“Huh?” Kyoutani stares at him oddly, like the question doesn't make sense. Shigeru is about to remind him that its next week but decides he doesn't want to pick a fight at the last second. Kyoutani shrugs after a minute, laughing. “My family doesn't really celebrate for it. Rie usually makes me a card.”

“What about with your other friends?” Watari blinks, head tilted to the side. Kyoutani actually laughs at that, like he thinks Watari is kidding but stops when no one joins him, rolling his eyes.

“Yeah, right.”

The night before he stays up until midnight and sends Kyoutani a text just as the minute changes.

> >happy birthday (00:00)

Asshole
go the fuck to sleep (00:05)

 

Shigeru can't exactly claim that he was suckered into it. There may have been some begging on Watari's part, but involving the team was entirely Shigeru's idea. It's easy to get Kyoutani to the club room after school, Shigeru just texts him that Kindaichi wants to practice jumping blocks and needs a powerful spiker to work with.

And so he has the whole team around a folding table set up in the middle of the room, with a cake in crisp mint and white. Vanilla, because Kyoutani doesn't like chocolate, candles and all. He even plans on Kyoutani being a few minutes late like always, invited Aoi even though she politely declined (she's tutoring).

His footfalls on the stairs leading up to the clubroom are heavy enough to be obvious, and Shigeru sets to lighting the candles before he opens the door—there's a banner overhead reading HAPPY BIRTHDAY in block letters, and he even managed to terrify all of them into wearing party hats. Shigeru is, all in all, proud.

The door swings open, and Kyoutani is greeted by all of them shouting congratulations at him, and he stops dead. His face goes from shock to that pinched sort of look he gets when he's nervous, and he doesn't move until Shigeru rolls his eyes and pulls him into the room, kicking the door shut. “You have to blow out the candles, idiot.”

“Shut up,” Kyoutani snaps though he doesn't put any real heat into it. Shigeru chuckles, and lines Kyoutani up in front of the table nodding for the team to start singing.

If he weren't so used to seeing Kyoutani angry, it might have been easy to mistake the emotion on his face for rage. He's red from the tips of his ears to the back of his neck, and he keeps shuffling his weight between his feet like he can't settle and the corners of his mouth keep twitching.

But he is used to seeing Kyoutani mad, and this certainly isn't it. He's practically vibrating, and he doesn't even make a complaint about any of it being stupid when he blows out the candles dotting the cake. If he had a tail, Shigeru is sure it'd be wagging.

He waits until Kyoutani is distracted eating cake and talking intensely about something with Kindaichi to slip the present he bought into Kyoutani's bag. There's no card with it, and it's hardly anything at all—but, the little frowning dog charm made him think of Kyoutani, and maybe that's good enough.

 

He's almost asleep when his phone vibrates with a text, and he rolls over to check it with a groan.

Asshole
thanks. it's cute.

He doesn't actually find out about Kyoutani attending the same university he is until he brings in his acceptance letter to show Watari. Even then, Kyoutani treats the information like it doesn't mean much of anything, simply stares at the envelope with a shrug. “Guess we'll be on the same team again."

Except they won't be, because Kyoutani got scouted to play volleyball and Shigeru is getting an economics degree from the same university that all the men in his family attend. He's not going to be playing, that much has been made clear to him.

Aoi gets accepted to a school less than an hour away by train, and they both agree that it's not too much distance.

He makes it a week or so into the term before he has Kyoutani pounding on the door of his dorm room (they're in the same building, of course they are). Shigeru still answers it, fresh from the shower with a towel draped over the back of his neck and hair damp, stuck to the sides of his face. It's hardly a formal look, and if he suspected it would be anyone but Kyoutani, he probably would've put a shirt on.

He probably still should've put a shirt on, but that's beside the point. He looks grumpier than usual, and Shigeru raises both eyebrows at him. “What's wrong?”

“Are you skipping out already? That's weak,” he shoulders his way into the room past Shigeru, and it takes him a moment after swinging the door shut to actually get what he's talking about.

“I'm not on the team,” he almost laughs when he says it because he never even told Kyoutani he was going to play on the team. It was never part of the plan, no matter what his assumptions were. He shakes his head, teeth gritting together, making the muscles of his neck bunch and stand out.

“That's bullshit,” he advances a step closer, hands clenched into fists. Shigeru doesn't move—he's never seen Kyoutani take a swing at anything that wasn't made out of bricks. Shigeru is the wrong person for him to try to intimidate. “Why the fuck not?”

“Because I didn't come here on a sports scholarship—I don't have time for it,” because volleyball isn't a productive use of his time in college, not while he's focused on getting his degree, on doing what's expected of him.

That's all he ever does, it's laughable.

“Bullshit,” Kyoutani repeats, but with more purpose, this time, calling Shigeru's bluff directly. He snarls it out and now Shigeru is tense too, standing up straight and gripping either end of the towel on his neck, frowning.

“What the fuck do you know?” He doesn't usually stoop to actually fighting with Kyoutani, not anymore. It's the point of admitting that neither of them are going to win, they're too stubborn to back down when faced with one another. Kyoutani advances another step so they're chest to chest, and Shigeru can smell his deodorant and has to pretend that it's not distracting.

“You're not as hard to figure out as you seem to think,” low words, straight through his teeth. Shigeru is too angry to realize he's put himself in a position that he avoids being in for a reason when Kyoutani leans closer to keep growling at him. “And you might be able to convince everyone else but I see right through your fake shit.”

Shigeru is pretty sure they aren't fighting anymore.

He can feel a warm shiver of breath against his mouth and that makes him snap back in surprise, desperate to put space between the two of them. He tries not to think about anything—not the wideness of Kyoutani's pupils, or where his gaze might be lingering, the fact that there's a pure and obvious look of want splashed across the burn of his cheeks.

“Whatever,” he snaps, inelegant, strained. “Is that it? I have to pack.”

“Pack for what?” Kyoutani sidles back, and even his anger sounds dimmer, forced.

“I'm going to visit my girlfriend this weekend, Kyoutani-kun,” the emphasis only serves to slap them both with the reminder, and Kyoutani's mouth drops open just slightly before he turns and bangs out the door on his own.

Spats barely mean anything between him and Kyoutani. They're the same as ever within three days, even if a real apology never makes its way out of either of them.

Doesn't matter, really. They're used to fighting.

If it means that Shigeru notices Kyoutani stares at him sometimes, with his brow pinched slightly together like he's trying to solve a puzzle—

Well, that doesn't matter either.

It probably shouldn't feel like such a huge deal.

He probably doesn't have the right.

But, regardless of what he should, it's like a punch to the stomach.

Aoi stares up at him, twisting the end of her braids around and around in the way that she does when she's nervous, feet shuffling. Her voice is steady, though, she's thought about this a lot, it seems. “I think we want different things out of this relationship—it's probably better if we see people who want the same things we do, right?”

They're at the train station, and Shigeru's holding her bag because her train is about to show up and take her back to school and he doesn't know how to say anything in response to that. Her eyes are watery and she reaches forward and gently pries the bag out of his fingers, leaning up and pressing a gentle kiss to his cheek, sweet and fleeting.

He probably says something, an agreement, a goodbye, he isn't sure. She gets on the train once it rattles into the station, and Shigeru walks back to school.

Shigeru has never had much time or interest in drinking. He's never actually been drunk before, or had anything other than alcohol slipped to him by Katashi when no one else was looking. And really, he didn't care that much for it.

Which is why when he shows up, banging down Kyoutani's door, drunk, it's not exactly a typical Sunday evening for either of them.

Surprisingly, getting alcohol wasn't really that difficult—all it really took was a text message to Matsukawa saying he was planning on going to a party and wanted to bring something. His roommate doesn't really spend much time much time in the room for anything other than sleep, and so sitting on his bed and working his way through the six-pack, he's pretty much left to his own devices.

Kyoutani opens the door with an eyebrow raised curiously, and Shigeru imagines that he doesn't get very many visitors. He doesn't really know how well Kyoutani gets along with his roommate but the room behind him is empty and quiet.

It's perfect—exactly what Shigeru needs. He tries to move but his legs don't quite work and he winds up mostly stumbling into the surprisingly firm shape of Kyoutani, and a laugh bubbles out of his mouth once he's been safely caught. It's good, it's perfect, even if he feels like his head is full of air and likely to float away at any moment.

For his part, Kyoutani seems… stunned to say the least, and he shuffles far enough back to swing the door shut with his elbow, shaking his head. “What the fuck, Yahaba?”

“It's been a bad day,” he laughs when he says it, and when Kyoutani's hands drop from his sides he shakes his head and digs his fingers into the fabric of Kyoutani's shirt. “Wait, I just wanna—”

He doesn't exactly hit his mark, his nose bumps against Kyoutani's and he almost bites his own lip, but as clumsy as he makes it, it's still a kiss.

A shuddering breath comes out of Kyoutani's nose, and then he's kissing back, tilting his head for an angle that actually allows their mouths to slide together properly, with his hands firm on either side of Shigeru's waist.

Shigeru feels like he's going to burst out of his skin. The slight brush of Kyoutani's tongue on his lower lip before his mouth opens feels like it drags electricity in its wake and Shigeru wasn't sure he'd ever have a kiss that felt anything like this.

He's not really aware of how he ends up against the wall by the foot of Kyoutani's bed, but being able to lean back against it is more comfortable, less like swaying in mid-air and clutching onto his shoulders for security. Kyoutani must not have been intending the move either, because when Shigeru's back presses fully against the wall he jerks his head back, wiping his mouth on the back of his arm and dropping his other hand away from Shigeru's waist. “What the fuckdrunk? What's going on?”

There isn't a rush of thoughts in his head—everything is moving sluggishly in his mind and the only thing that stands out enough for him to fit it in his mouth in the truth. “Aoi dumped me.”

Saying it makes him laugh. Because really, what better to have happened? He should thank her, probably. There's a flutter of expression on Kyoutani's face—surprise, frustration, something that might be concern in the right light.

He takes another step away, sighing and shaking his head, nodding at the bed. “You should sleep it off. I'll get you some water.”

When he turns toward the door, Shigeru finds himself flailing forward, catching himself on Kyoutani's back, arms wrapping around him. “I don't want you to leave.”

It's a good thing he's too drunk to feel stupid about it. Kyoutani tenses up for a second then sighs, prying Shigeru's arms off and sitting him on the edge of the bed. “I'm just gonna grab water for you, I'll be right back.”

He ducks out the door and this time, Shigeru legs him, sitting on the bed and shuffling his legs anxiously. His head still feels unsettled, and the feeling that he's constantly in motion washes over him while he sits. Kyoutani flicks the lock when he comes back in, holding out a full glass to Shigeru, taking a seat on the floor in front of him. “So. Your response to being dumped is to get drunk and make out with me.”

“Apparently.” Not too drunk for a little wit, it seems. He takes slow gulps of the water before looking down at the almost empty glass in his hands. “It's—not really the getting dumped that bothers me.”

Kyoutani doesn't answer, but he's watching Shigeru's face closely, clearly paying attention, waiting for him to say something more. “I don't—I don't think I ever really had feelings for Aoi. I'm a little glad, to be honest.”

“Then what the fuck is with all this?” Kyoutani gestures at Shigeru, and in response he sighs, shoulders slumping.

“It doesn't change what's expected of me,” he doesn't know how to put this into words, and now it feels like he is going to start crying. “At least, I got along with Aoi.”

“What's expected of you?” He repeats the phrase as a question and Shigeru laughs, hanging his head lower. Explaining, to Kyoutani of all people, the pressure that he feels constantly crushed by.

“Find a nice girl, get an economics degree and join my family's company, get married, be respectable,” he's trying to smile and he's entirely certain that there are tears on his face, despite his attempt to wipe them on his shoulder and not be seen. He can't actually remember the last time he cried in front of someone, and it feels far more personal than drunkenly kissing. But—despite their arguments, Kyoutani is someone he trusts enough to be vulnerable in front of.

“But those aren't the things you want.” It's not a question, and Kyoutani's brow is furrowed, his puzzle solving face back on. “None of it is.”

“It's never been a question of what I want,” he doesn't mean to be defensive, and Kyoutani pushes to his feet and drops to sit next to Shigeru, a hand patting awkwardly at his side. Shigeru takes the chance, leaning his head on Kyoutani's shoulder and closing his eyes. “I don't think I even like girls.”

Kyoutani laughs softly, muffling the sound against the top of Shigeru's head. He likes it, the feeling of it, and even if Kyoutani's hand on his side started out awkward, it's drawing little circles over Shigeru's shirt. He doesn't open his eyes, sinking further against Kyoutani and finding another little laugh in his chest. “I think I have a crush on you, Kyoutani-kun.”

“Idiot. Go to sleep,” Kyoutani snorts, nudging Shigeru off his side and taking the water before he lays down. For a second, Shigeru thinks he's going to do something feral (and extremely Kyoutani-like) and curl up on the floor to sleep, but instead he flips off the lights and lays down, not complaining when Shigeru's arms wind around him in the way they've wanted to for years.

In the dark, his voice is soft. “If you kiss me drunk again I'll headbutt you.”

It's that first morning that Shigeru wakes up with Kyoutani's head pillowed on his chest that he has the courage to pick up his phone and call Katashi. It's after getting to kiss him sober and mumble 'Kentarou' against his shoulder in an effort to find out how the name feels in his mouth.

Probably, it'll ruin a good morning. Probably it'll ruin everything.

He does it anyway. With the weight of exactly what he's doing resting on his tongue—defying the life that's been neatly constructed for him, even if it's small, just to someone who might understand some piece of it.