Originally published: 2016-07-24

You don't really remember a time before volleyball.

Of course, there must've been something: you're pretty sure, despite your older cousin's claims, that you didn't come out of your mother's womb with a volleyball clutched in your miniature hands.

But for almost as long as you can remember, you never cared much for kicking a ball around; instead, you loved to watch it soar into the air with the touch of your fingertips. You were small for your age – something your cousins loved to point out just to rile you up– but it never seemed that important until you started playing volleyball and almost everyone managed to reach the ball in midair way more easily than you could. The coach was sympathetic, saying that you were bound to hit a growth spurt sooner or later. But you knew that you couldn't wait that long: if the others could stretch their arms only a little and reach, then you would stretch further, you would just jump higher.

If the ball could soar, so would you.

There must've been other things besides volleyball, of course. Shounen animes, collecting figurines and Pokemon cards, birthday parties, playing hide-and-seek with your friends and cousins. You were, after all, sort of a normal kid. As junior high drew to a close, though, you realized that for you volleyball wasn't just something you did for fun. It was an all-encompassing, perpetually burning passion just shy of obsession.

(The "shy of obsession" part might be up for debate.)

When the time came around to pick a high school, the choice was obvious: Karasuno was the school with the strongest team in the area. You tried making up other reasons for your mother's benefit but of course you didn't fool her, you never could.

Karasuno hasn't made it to Nationals in the past few years; it's not a titan like Shiratorizawa or Aoubajosai. But it's getting stronger and stronger with every match and at the last Inter High preliminaries they took your breath away in the prefecture finals.

(They lost, and you could almost taste the defeat from the stands, but even as you watched the high school boys walk away from the court with their heads down and their shoulders shaking, you thought: they won't keep losing for long.)

They will only get stronger, and you want to be a part of it, you want to make it happen.

You aren't tall, you aren't particularly strong.

But you can jump and, if you can jump, you can fly.

The gym isn't really that big at first glance, but its high ceilings seem cavernous and more foreboding than any school building has any right to be. There's something in the smug way most of the senpais are looking in your direction that sparks a current of uneasiness among the first years – the largest batch of them in years, as one of the managers will tell you later on. At the moment, your attention is arrested by the coach: impossibly old in your eyes, with his grey-almost-gone-white hair, his thousand wrinkles, and his perpetual scowl. He says: we're not here just to have fun, we're here to win and you whole-heartedly agree.

He also says: the training will be harsh and after the first day, you realize what an understatement it is.

That first week you spend a chunk of your time finding out the names, faces, and tics of your new teachers; learning to navigate the waters of your new classroom (which kid falls asleep in class and snores loudly, which one seems nice and which one an asshole, which ones are okay to talk to and the ones you ought to avoid at all costs.) You spend your time finding your way around your new school, picking the best spot to have lunch (on the roof, without a doubt) and trying not to fall behind on your homework on your very first week.

If one day anyone asks you, though, the only thing you'll remember with stark clarity is how beyond exhausted you feel after each practice, as though a cannonball has punched the life force out of you.

"Does it get any better?" you breathe out one afternoon, as the shadows crawl into the gym and air seems to have abandoned your lungs forever.

"Dunno," Takeuchi, another first year like you – but who has a good ten centimeters on you, damn him– exhales, his eyes glassy. "I don't think I can feel my legs. Are they still there?"

You don't even bother to look from beyond the spot on the ceiling your eyes are glued to.

"Those large trunks below your midsection? Yeah, they're still there."

"Thanks, man. Now, if only they could move."

"If you can't put up with it," A second year – whose name you have yet to learn– drawls, walking past the spot you're both sprawled on the floor, "there's the door. We have no place for whiners here."

You can't quite muster the energy to get angry, only mildly annoyed. Your hear a snort, and when you look up you see another second year with his arms crossed over his chest, regarding his classmate with a smirk pulling at the curve of his lips.

"And you were any better on your first week, Ogawa? Didn't you throw up after practice that one time? Or was it twice?"

"Shut the fuck up, Tsukishima."

"You know, guys," the boy called Tsukishima tells you, a full-blown smirk on his face now. "Ogawa sounds like a stuck-up jerk, but that's only because, well, he is a stuck-up jerk– "

"Fuck you, Tsukishima," Ogawa-senpai replies without any heat.

"…but he's still a good senpai who means well – sort of, I guess." The smirk dissolves from his face, and he uncrosses his arms to place his hands on his knees as he leans forward to look at you. You notice his eyes look kind of honey-colored and the expression on his face doesn't seem mocking, but kind. "Coach Ukai really doesn't like whining. So you'd better shape up, and don't even think of cutting corners or he'll have your heads."

"Or there's always the door," Ogawa-senpai ever so helpfully points out.

Takeuchi quits the following week but you don't. Even when your name never gets called for the starting lineup at practice matches, even when the coach just shakes his head in dismay at your serves. You don't quit even though you watch Uchida-senpai play and you realize how far you still are of ever becoming an ace like him; you learn to ignore those who tut and say in soft voices are you sure you're cut out for volleyball, with that height?

(Your growth spurt is taking an awful long time to come.)

You try, and you keep trying, and there are blisters on your hands and feet but none burn as much as the hunger inside you.

You want to play, and you want to win.

Soon enough, you find out you might not be the only one whose hunger burns them inside out. One day as you're downing an energy drink, you overhear the two managers talk about a second year who has asked the coach permission to stay after hours.

"You gotta be suicidal," Nogushi-senpai says, her mouth slightly open, the braces on her teeth visible, before she seems to remember herself and covers her mouth with her hand. Miyamoto-senpai nods as she keeps folding towels.

"I guess he thinks maybe like this he'll get a chance to play… I hope he doesn't kill himself trying, he's always been so nice…"

Nogushi-senpai scoffs.

"Everyone's nice in your eyes, you're the worst judge of character ever."

An idea takes root in your mind, a stupid idea probably.

But you like it, and you're gonna go for it.

He's probably none too happy of you intruding in his private practice, but he hides his annoyance well, and you promise not to bother him at all.

(You mean it, then. It won't work out like that but the important thing is you mean it.)

You realize that you've never seen Tsukishima-senpai play. He's not one of the second years in the starting lineup despite being one of the tallest boys in the club.

(You try not to resent him for his height, because he's nice and patient with you and he didn't laugh in your face when you told him you want to become the ace, but damn him and his height to hell.)

He's not bad by any means, and you believe him when he tells you that he was both the captain and the ace of his former team in junior high.

But Karasuno has very high standards nowadays and right now, neither of you can reach them.

One of the teachers catches you sleeping in class again and threatens both to send you to extra lessons and to call your parents. You try to keep your temper under control as you kind of beg for mercy, and you're let off the hook with a dire warning. You can hear the snickers behind you and you don't need to look over your shoulder to know who they belong to.

"You know, you'd probably be able to keep awake in class if you didn't spend a gazillion hours hitting a ball in an empty gym. Then again, it's Ishikawa-sensei's class, so all bets are off. You know, he could make tons of money and retire from teaching if he just recorded his voice and sold it as a cure to insomnia."

Sakai tilts her head to the side, seemingly pondering on the benefits of their most boring teacher making a fortune and abandoning his students forever. You roll your eyes and she sticks her tongue out at you. Very mature, but it's not like you expect otherwise after the way you got acquainted with each other. You had taken a seat in the back next to the window and then a long shadow had loomed over you. That's my seat she said, in a deceivingly neutral tone. You barely glanced at her – a tall, scowling girl with bushy brown hair– and dismissed her with a I don't see your name written anywhere.

Next thing you knew, you were on the floor after she'd pulled the chair from under you, and during the long wait to see the dean you sort of became friends over your shared hatred of studying and your love for bloody video games.

"We'll never get rid of Ishikawa-sensei, the universe is not that kind," you tell her and, because it kind of bugs you, you feel compelled to add: "And I don't play alone in an empty gym, just so you know: there's a guy I practice with."

"Wooooow," she says, widening her eyes in the most exaggerated way possible, slapping her hands over her cheeks. "Do you mean to tell me that you've found someone as crazy for volleyball as you?"

You think of the focused gaze on Tsukishima-senpai's honey-colored eyes, the sweat sticking his dark blonde hair to his forehead, the way his mouth twists when yet another spike doesn't go exactly where he wants it to.

"Yeah, I think so."

"Oh, shit, we're doomed. Honestly," she says, resting her chin on her fists, "I don't get your thing with volleyball at all. It's like you breathe and eat nothing else. Do you dream of volleyball as well?"

The honest answer would be: yes. And often.

"It's just, well, a passion," you mumble, used to as you are to have to justify your obsession – you've grown to recognize it as such and you feel okay with it– very often, to your mother, your teachers and random passersby.

"Yeah," she muses, a note of what could be envy in her voice. "I guess it is passion."

She might feel less envious if she knew about the blaze that only leaves ashes and scars behind but then again, you don't know anything about fallouts either.

Not yet.

At some point, Tsukishima-senpai stops being Tsukishima-senpai. You drop the senpai first and, before you quite realize what's going on, you start to think of him as Akiteru. You don't call him that, of course: that'd be weird. You don't even call Sakai by her given name, and she's even been to your house more than a few times.

(With much fuss from your mother, all "my baby is so grown up, he's a young man now" and "leave the door ajar, young man, I wasn't born yesterday." She would've probably been less excited if she knew you two just played Counter Strike non-stop. You guess you're just not that grown up yet.)

You know you're not that sociable a guy. It's not like you're antisocial, no matter what your eldest cousin says when you ignore him every time he comes over (you ignore him because he's an idiot, period.) You get along fine with most of your classmates; you've even plotted pranks on teachers with some of them who get as bored in class as you do. You don't really clash with your teammates either: Ogawa-senpai remains, as Akiteru said, a stuck-up jerk, but he becomes less harsh on you once he sees you can keep up.

But you guess you just don't come across as friendly: too unwilling to feign interest when you feel none, way too intense when you're wrapped up in what you're passionate about. You've been told you can get scary at times, when your mind goes to the dark place where nothing seems to go your way and you can feel poisonous thoughts burning you like acid from the inside out. So far, only Sakai is fearless enough to attempt to pull you out of those funks, by kicking you in the shin, pulling at your hair, and calling you names.

(Diplomatic, she's not. Effective, quite so.)

Tsukishima-senpai – Akiteru– has such an open, friendly manner, though, that even for you he's easy to talk to. It helps that he's just as obsessed with volleyball as you are: he doesn't look at you like you're a weirdo, he doesn't tell you that you're chasing a pipe dream, that you'll never become the ace with that height. He's not condescending, in that well-meaning but often insulting way many people are. Instead, he competes with you; he pushes you, as though your difference in height or age didn't count at all. He smirks when he one-ups you, and he gives you a thumbs-up when you do. You share the same hunger, the same frantic desperation that gets even worse when other first years get called to be part of the starting lineup and you both remain on the stands, not even good enough for benchwarmers.

Akiteru is a relentless optimist who believes it'll all work out if he just tries hard enough. Your thing is not so much optimism as it is sheer stubbornness: you're not going to lose, not to your lack of height and strength, nor to anyone else.

In between grueling training sessions after hours, little by little unrelated volleyball data starts to filter in, spurred on at first by Akiteru's easy camaraderie and willingness to share pieces of himself as though it was only natural. As you gulp down energy drinks, as you tidy up the gym and throw towels at each other, you learn little by little the things that make him turn from Tsukishima-senpai into Akiteru. He talks about his favorite and his most detested subject at school (you both coincide that Ishikawa-sensei is unbearably boring), his favorite food, about his little brother who has just started playing volleyball.

"And how's he doing?"

"Well, so far, he hates receiving."

"What else is new."

In turn, you find yourself giving away pieces of yourself that you usually keep close to your chest. It's not that you're shy or reserved or mistrusting. It's just that, more often than not, you don't think those little details about yourself are interesting enough to share. But Akiteru listens, and he remembers, and he always hands you an orange juice carton because he knows you like it better than grape juice.

You even tell him the real reason behind your crooked smile, when as a general rule you prefer to let people believe it's just an odd quirk of yours. People tend to act so skittish after they find out, as though they believed partial nerve damage was contagious, or as though they were afraid it's something way more serious than it actually is. Once, you were asked if you weren't afraid your whole face would freeze like that, and they didn't believe you when you told them it wasn't really that big a deal. It could've been but it was not, and now it's just something that happened when you were seven years old which left you with a weird facial expression and little else.

Akiteru doesn't act skittish or like he should walk on eggshells around you; instead he tilts his head to the side and says:

"And here I thought you just smiled like that because it looked badass."

You blink, because that's not the usual reaction.

"You think it looks badass?"

He rubs the back of his head, a sheepish smile tugging at the corners of his lips.

"Well, yeah, it kind of does."

You don't know why his words thrill you so much. Maybe because, with your size, pretty much no one thinks of you as badass and to hear someone as tall as Akiteru say so carries a lot of weight.

After that, words just seem to flow easily between the two of you, and you think that maybe it's because he's one of the few people who doesn't look at you and thinks what an intense weirdo.

Or maybe he does but in his eyes, your weird intensity might not be a bad thing after all.

You're in the dean's office and the whole time he yells, his face turning borderline purple, you're more aware of the clock eating up volleyball practice time than you are of the threats of everlasting punishment and phone calls to your parents. Next to you Sakai has a somewhat glassy look in her eyes and the ghost of a smirk on her lips: for her a phone call to her parents it's not a threat, but a promise. She kind of lives to piss them off. Tsuda instead looks about to faint and you don't blame him, because you've only seen his mother once and she's terrifying. You don't quite know what Inaba's deal is but, like Sakai, he also fails to look properly chastised by the dean's anger.

To be honest it's not the dean who concerns you either, but Coach Ukai.

Maybe he won't even notice I'm missing practice you think, slipping into a morose mood. It's not like I play after all.

But it still gnaws at you, missing practice over something so stupid.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, something to liven up Ishikawa-sensei's sleep-inducing lessons. Inaba came up with the idea, because apparently his own father pulled a prank like that on his teacher back in the day, and he turned to the other three people in the class who might be crazy enough to go along with it. You waited until everyone had left the classroom after cleaning duty and while Tsuda, the most reluctant conspirator, stood guard on the door, you pulled out the screws on the teacher's chair and replaced it with tiny pieces of soap, so the chair would hold until someone tried sitting on it.

But the stubborn chair held under Ishikawa-sensei's weight, and it wasn't until elderly Miura-sensei sat down that it fell apart. It's not like she actually got hurt, but not even Tsuda was as cowardly as to not step forward when the entire class was threatened with punishment.

The dean goes on and on, and he might go on forever and ever, if it wasn't for the knock on the door. To your utter dismay, Coach Ukai appears on the threshold and the look in his eyes when they lock on yours makes you wish the floor would just open up and swallow you whole.

"He can't go to practice, he has to face punishment," the dean snaps and Coach Ukai's eyebrows climb up to his hairline.

"And you don't think I can dish out enough punishment to make him regret it?"

You feel your stomach fall through the floor as the dean considers it.

"Fine, Ukai-san, handle it your way. But I'm still calling his parents, and if anything like this ever happens again– "

"It won't," he replies with calm certainty and the thunderous look on his face makes you certain that you just won't regret pulling a prank, but being born as well.

After practice, ten times more brutal for you than for anyone else, Coach Ukai announces that it will be your sole responsibility to clean up the gym. On your own. Everyone sends curious glances in your direction and Ogawa-senpai snickers a little, and soon enough you're left alone, your labored breath echoing in the empty gym. It takes you two tries to get up from the floor, and you're using the mop more as support than to actually mop the floor.

You hear the echo of footsteps behind you and for a second, you fear a hallucination but no: there's Akiteru, taking off his indoor shoes. You stare as he gives you a sheepish smile.

"I thought I could lend you a hand, maybe."

"…why?" you manage to breath out, because there's camaraderie and then there's this. He shrugs.

"You look dead on your feet already and this way it'll be much faster."

By sheer stubbornness you manage to keep up with him despite your exhaustion, but only when you see him locking up the gym you think to ask:

"You won't stay to practice today?"

He stills for a moment, and then replies with a slight shake of his head, not looking at you.

"There's not much point in training all by myself," he says under his breath. It makes sense, but that doesn't explain the sudden heat that floods you at those words.

It must be the overexertion.

He eyes you as you two walk – well, drag your feet, in your case – towards the school entrance.

"I guess you can't phone your parents to come pick you up, can you?"

You snort. If your mother's gotten the dean's phone call by now, her reply will be something along the lines crawl your way back, you little miscreant.

(Yes, your mother actually calls you miscreant when she's angry: she's odd like that.)

Akiteru then, to your utter embarrassment, insists on walking you to the bus stop, because he fears you might faint on the way there, he says. You try to protest, but even to your ears your words sound weak: you just don't have the energy.

"Was it worth it?" he asks as you wait for the bus, leaning against a lamp post for support.

"Well… it would've been if it had been Ishikawa-sensei who fell on his ass."

He laughs, in that way that seems to shake up his entire body, and his hair glows golden under the street lights.

(You're aware that's a strange thought to have, but you're too tired to care.)

"And none of you thought to tape it?"

"No… we really didn't."


"We'll save it for the next time."

He stares at you in something that might be horror, might be awe.

"You're not thinking of pulling something like this again, are you? Ukai will kill you."

You remember Coach Ukai's expression and barely contain a shudder.

"No, probably not," you admit, because if the choice comes between volleyball and having fun in class, you already know which one you'll pick. Akiteru looks somewhat relieved and he straightens you out with a gentle push when you start to slide off the lamp post.

As he practically pushes you through the bus door and waves goodbye, you think that Akiteru might not be – yet– an amazing ace like Uchida-senpai, but he's still pretty awesome in his own way.

You don't talk much about your father, because there's not much to tell. You haven't seen him in years after all, and it's been a long time since you've caught your mother crying over him. Nowadays she only mentions him when she gets a phone call from the dean regarding your attitude or your grades (they're not that bad, you aren't dumb, you just get bored a lot) and then she sighs and bemoans your lack of a strong father figure.

To be honest, you don't believe you're missing that much.

Sakai knows, but you tell her because you already know she'll show you no pity, not when she ends up at your place at least once a week after another blazing row with her parents. You don't ask about it because her preferred method of therapy is painting the walls red at Counter Strike, and she doesn't ask you inane questions like what does it make you feel that your father has a new family in another city?

(It doesn't make you feel much of anything, not after all this time.)

You surprise yourself by blurting it out to Akiteru one afternoon. You don't plan on it, not really. He's talking about his little brother, who loves dinosaurs almost as obsessively as you both love volleyball, a little brother that he seems to love very much but who worries him too, because he doesn't seem to make friends that easily.

"He just comes across as cold, I guess," he tells you with a faraway look. "I'm afraid it doesn't help him to make friends."

Akiteru's concern rings honest, but it still rattles you a bit. Maybe because it echoes the words and questions of your aunt and cousins when they talk to your mom and believe you're not listening: has he made any new friends at school? Are they the right type of friends? You know how easily he gets into trouble. Has he started talking about girls? Well, at least volleyball is a team sport, he's bound to socialize at any rate.

And underneath all those questions, the words no one dares to say in front of his mother but he hears all the same: your kid is weird enough as it is, lack of a father figure and all, he doesn't need to get any weirder.

As though you could just tick off a series of boxes and gain normalcy status or something.

As though that was worth anything in the first place.

"Maybe your brother doesn't make any friends because the other kids are dumber than him, or because they don't care about the same stuff he does. Maybe he's okay the way he is."

Akiteru frowns.

"No one is okay without friends."

You throw a wet towel at his head.

"Not all of us are instantly liked by everyone we meet. Just give the kid some time and stop fretting, you mother hen, or he'll feel the pressure from you and that won't help him at all."

"I'm not 'instantly liked' by everyone I meet," he protests, letting the towel fall to the floor, and then his face twists with worry: "You really think I'm pressuring him?"

And then, because Akiteru is open enough to show his concern written all over his face, because when you shared your most treasured dream of becoming an ace he did not laugh, you find yourself talking about your cousins, who probably mean well but are really a pest more often than not, about your aunt's piercing questions, about your mother's sighing when she's at her wits' end at handling you.

It's the most you've talked about your family to anyone, even the school counselor you were sent to talk to that one time in junior high.

Akiteru once more defies your expectations because he doesn't regard you with unwarranted pity in his eyes, but with something akin to understanding.

"I… I see your point. I guess I better back off Kei-chan's case a little bit, right?"

You give him a jerky nod and jump to your feet to look for the closest ball.

You've had enough heart-to-hearts for one day.

"Let's go again, Tsukishima."

(You still don't call him Akiteru, not to his face, but you start to feel that might change soon enough.)

He stares at you wide-eyed, because you're both beyond tired, but you smile like a dare and he gets to his feet, unwilling to let you one-up him.

Sometimes, it's just that easy.

"So, are you two together or what?"

You look up from your bento to stare at Inaba. You can feel your forehead creasing into a frown.


Ever since the chair incident, Inaba and Tsuda have started to hang out with Sakai and you more and more often, maybe because facing the wrath of the dean is the sort of thing that forges friendships. As of late, they've even joined you to have lunch on the roof. You're not sure how you feel about it: you picked the roof in the first place to be alone, but then there was Sakai, and now there's Tsuda and Inaba as well. It's not like you have something against them.

But if you were alone right now, you wouldn't be facing this idiocy.

"Make sure to use small words," Sakai drawls in a bored tone, playing with the remains of her lunch. "This one here has taken way too many volleyballs to the head."

You hurl a red pepper at her forehead just on principle.

"I mean," Inaba backtracks, "you're always hanging out, she's gone to your house. Neither of you is that chatty to anyone else."

Sakai and you exchange a look at the "chatty" remark because what the hell. Inaba perks up and points at you both with his finger.

"See? That's what I mean, you even have a silent code and everything!"

Sakai stares at him. Then she stares some more.

And at long last, she bursts into maniacal laughter until she ends up rolling on the floor.

She is actually rolling one the floor with laughter. You didn't believe that could happen in real life.

"I don't think they're really together, Inaba-kun," Tsuda deadpans, and Inaba ends up grabbing him in a headlock in revenge.

"And we're never going to be," you emphasize, because what the hell is wrong with Inaba, really. You go back to your bento, Sakai's maniacal laughter slowly dying out as she tries to sit up again.

Inaba looks dumbfounded.

"So… you two aren't together."

"No way".

"Are you kidding me?" Sakai says, straightening out her clothes (with her hair she doesn't even bother.) "He's so not my type."

You wonder whether to feel offended or not but, to be honest, you're just as certain there's no way in hell you'll ever date Sakai so you can't begrudge her the bluntness.

"Besides," she goes on, "this one's in love with volleyball. He's gonna marry it one day and have tiny round babies or something."

You hurl another red pepper at her but this time she wises up and dodges it.

Later, when it's just the two of you, changing clothes for P.E class, Inaba tries to apologize and you wave it off.

"Man, and I really thought there was something going on between you two and that was why you ignored all the other girls," he says as he puts on a T-shirt. "But I guess it really is just volleyball for you, huh?"

You dismiss it because of course it's always volleyball for you, he should know better by now.

Something about his puzzlement must hang over your head like a cloud, though, because later that afternoon you blurt out to Akiteru:

"Do you think I'm a weirdo?"

He blinks and, okay, maybe that came out of nowhere.

"I mean… Do you think it's weird of me that I care more about volleyball than going out with a girl or stuff like that?"

You aren't sure why you're asking Akiteru of all people. Maybe because he's sort of an older person and you already know he won't laugh at you. Just the thought of calling one of your cousins to have this sort of conversation makes you shudder.

(Has he started talking about girls?)

Akiteru seems to ponder on your question, resting his chin on his fists, a small crease over his eyebrows. You watch him in silence, the white lights of the gym glimmering on his fair hair, casting dancing shadows on his pensive face.

"Well… I don't know."

You roll your eyes.

"Thank you very much, that was really enlightening, senpai."

"Well, I don't!" he says, waving his hands like a windmill. "I guess some people are late bloomers for this sort of stuff… and you're only fifteen, you're still quite young, I'm sure you'll have plenty of time to figure this out… this is a confusing age…"

He has the gall to pat you on the shoulder. You can feel your eyebrows rising on your forehead.

"Akiteru, you jerk, you're only a year older than me," you snap, and then freeze when his eyes widen.

It's the first time you've called him that outside of your head.

You start mumbling an apology but he waves it off.

"Don't mind, don't mind, I guess we can move onto first name basis after so many heart-to-hearts, right?" He beams at you and you feel your uneasiness wane. He has that effect on you.

"You know," he says after a while, his grin turning a bit sheepish. "I guess if you're a weirdo about this then so am I, because I'm also kinda obsessed with volleyball. In case, oh, I don't know, you hadn't noticed or something."

A snort escapes you but you also feel a weight lift off your shoulders because, once again, Akiteru makes it seem as though being a weirdo wouldn't be so bad after all.

At the very least, you'd be in good company.

Uchida-senpai jumps and it looks as though he has taken flight: a true crow soaring into the air, rising above them all. His spike hits the ball like a cannonball and there's no chance to receive it, not even for a high caliber libero like Karasuno's.

You're mesmerized.

When practice is drawing to a close you decide to approach him, or maybe it'd be more accurate to say that your feet make that decision on their own.


He looks up from the energy drink bottle he's been downing and regards you with a furrowed brow.

(He's sitting on a bench as you stand before him, and it's the only time he'll have to look up to meet your eyes, for he's as tall – maybe even a centimeter or two taller– as Akiteru.)

"Ehh… yeah?"

He sounds confused and you don't blame him, because this is the very first time you talk to him.

"I was wondering… if it's not much trouble, that is, senpai…" You're rarely, if ever, this mellow, and Sakai would laugh her ass off if she saw you right now. But this is Karasuno's ace and you can't help being in awe of him. "Could you show me your straight spike again?"

You wait, your heart in your throat, trying your best to ignore the looks and the whispers of the other third years. After all, you're just a first year runt not even good enough to play in practice games, pestering the team's ace. But you needn't have worried: Uchida-senpai's confusion dissolves into a warm smile. He leaves the bottle on the bench and rises to his feet.

"Sure thing, ehh… Takeuchi?"

That's not even close to your name but you feel so elated you let it pass. The ace is going to show you his straight spike and there's an irrational, hopeful side of you that expects some of his greatness will rub off on you by mere proximity.

He shows you and then he corrects your posture and gives you pointers. You try, again and again, until he lets out a whistle of admiration and you suddenly feel like you're on cloud nine.

"Wow, you're really improving a lot very fast," he says with an honest smile, and it's worth the exhaustion and the bruises.

Then one of the third years offers to block as practice and your high spirits come crashing down as he knocks down every single one of your spikes. Uchida-senpai does a poor job of hiding his disappointment with a smile that's nowhere as honest as before.

"Don't let that dishearten you," he says, squeezing your shoulder. "Kobayashi is our best blocker and I'm sure that, well…" His voice trails off for a moment, then he gives you another smile that cuts you like a knife to the gut. "I'm sure that by next year you'll get taller and it'll be way easier for you."

He squeezes your shoulder one more time and you do your best to hold it in until practice is over, and then you stride past the rest of the first years, you stride past Akiteru without looking at him, right towards the nearest deserted toilet. Once you make sure no one is there, you bang your head against the door once, twice, as you clench your fists until your nails dig into your palms, all the time feeling the scream you won't let out burning the insides of your throat like corrosive acid.

You've learnt not to do this sort of thing at home: it frightens your mother and makes her wonder if she shouldn't send you to a counselor again.

That evening you get home much later than usual, walking on your tiptoes and sliding the door closed with care not to make a sound, until you remember it's a Thursday and your mother works late. You thank all the deities you don't believe in: you don't think you'd be able to face her right now, as though what's just happened (what you've just done) was written all over your features, a neon sign over your head for the world to see.

(You catch your reflection on the hall's mirror and you don't look different, not really, except for the flushed cheeks and the stupid deer-caught-in-headlights expression of your eyes.)

After wolfing down the dinner your mother's left for you in the oven – whoever says a turmoil of emotion takes away appetite has never trained as hard as you do– you wander aimlessly around the house, too unfocused to even think of homework or playing video games or even watching TV. You end up throwing yourself into the bed to bury your burning face into the pillow. There's a part of you that doesn't want to ponder on the day's events because it's so embarrassing and another part of you that can't do anything else, the images replaying over and over again in the private widescreen of your own mind, complete with sound and smell and touch.

It's been a shitty week. Ever since your interaction with Uchida-senpai and Kobayashi-senpai, when your illusions were once more stomped into the ground, you could feel yourself slipping into one of your darkest moods, where all your thoughts are bleak and poisonous, your bitterness pouring out of you in waves that keep everyone else away. Even Sakai, usually fearless, has started to show some wariness at approaching you when you're under your very own storm cloud, and classmates and teammates alike have kept their distance. You don't think you've exchanged with either Tsuda or Inaba more than five words this week and if they talked to you, it didn't even register and they started to pull away from you, intimidated by the darkness of your mood, almost a physical entity keeping people at bay.

(You wonder now at Akiteru, who kept coming at you every day with a warm smile to ask you to stay behind for extra practice, when everyone else avoided you like the plague.)

A teacher called you out in class for not paying attention or maybe about a low grade or something equally inane that you couldn't care less about, and it took every ounce of self-control you had not to snap at him and tell him to go to hell in front of everyone. Like a mantra, you repeated to yourself the tricks that counselor taught you to keep your temper under control, and you managed to bow in apology without committing bloody murder. Your mother's been worried enough as it is, recognizing the signs of one of your funks but unsure of how to act, even after all this time and instead, you've felt her concerned gaze like a weight dragging you further down.

Your dark mood followed you like a solid shadow into practice and clung to you when you stayed behind to keep practicing with Akiteru. If he noticed, he said nothing, acting like normal. At least until you had to go and overdo it. You knew you were pushing yourself too hard, that you were bound to get hurt, but all the voices in your head snapped and so what? You felt the painful pull in your leg and stumbled, and in a flash there was Akiteru to help you up from the floor and, of course, to berate you for your sheer idiocy. His chastising words washed over you, already drowning in self-recrimination at your own stupidity. He put your arm over his shoulder to lift you up, an awkward position given your height difference, but he didn't seem to care as he kept berating you.

(It was a terrible time to notice how very warm his body felt against yours; how he didn't smell nice precisely, not after all your training, but he didn't smell bad either. It should've felt sweaty and gross and the fact that it didn't should've bothered you more than it did.)

Akiteru sat you on a bench and, to your utter embarrassment, he started to massage your leg. You could feel the heat crawling down from your face to your neck and further down.

"You don't have to do that. Really, you don't."

He waved away your protests, impervious to your growing embarrassment.

"Don't be a moron, if you have to sit out at our next practice, Ukai-san will have your head."

"Do you think he'll even notice?" you couldn't help blurting out like a petulant child, unable to mask the bitterness in your voice.

He gave you a faint smile, his fingers never stopping to knead your sore muscle.

"Are you kidding me? That old crow has eyes on the back of his head."

His light tone sounded a bit forced – you were not, after all, the only one here who never got to play in a game– and his attempt at humor was weak and kinda lame and yet, it managed to tug the corners of your lips into a smile, the first one you'd tried in a week.

He kept berating you, calling you stupid and moronic and all the synonyms he could think of, as his fingers worked your leg from the calf upwards with care and precision. His touch on your skin felt hot, way too hot, and it seemed to spread through your body like a fever. Strands of dark blonde hair, glinting under the white lights, fell over his face as he looked down at your leg with utmost concentration, biting his lower lip, all of his attention focused on your muscles. You became overly conscious of your labored breath, of the staccato of your heart against your chest; you felt aware of your body in a way you usually weren't. It hurt a little as Akiteru worked on your sore muscles, but as his hands climbed up your leg, your mouth turned dry when a sensation way different from pain started to coil inside you.

No you thought, utterly horrified when you recognized the familiar reactions of your body. This can't be happening.

You felt the sudden urge to push him off, to jump to your feet and ran like hell before he could tell what was going on. But his hands held your leg captive and you were struck by indecision, your face ablaze, your gym shorts starting to get way too tight. You bent over yourself, in a stupid attempt to cover up what was happening or maybe just not to look at his face when he finally realized.

Please, please, let the wooden floor swallow me whole.

(Even now, remembering it in the privacy of your bedroom, you feel your cheeks aflame.)

All of a sudden Akiteru's voice died down, and as the silence stretched, you felt your stomach fall through the floor.

He's noticed.

He removed his hands from your leg at once, leaving your skin cold and clammy, and started stammering about continuing to clean up while you rested, and you didn't dare to reply in case your voice cracked.

And then, the asshole had the gall to say:

"You know, it's quite normal, at your age, nothing to be ashamed about…"

As though he were a gazillion years older than you and the pinnacle of wisdom, the jerkass. Indignation warred with embarrassment and you ended up tilting up your head just to glare at him.

"You're only a year older than me, you asshole."

In any other circumstances, his helpless look would've been hilarious.

"I was trying to make you feel better!"

"Well, you suck at it!"

"Sorry, this is my first time inducing a boner –oh my god, please ignore that I said that, no, even better: just someone kill me, please."

This time his horrified, reddening face was one hundred percent hilarious and you couldn't keep your chuckle in as he hid behind his hands.

At least you weren't the only awkward train wreck in this conversation.

Then your good humor fled you when you remembered whose fault this predicament was, and you just had to make everything weird, didn't you?

You mumbled sorry because you were, because you'd both always had a good time training after hours and now you'd gone and made it hellishly awkward, and Akiteru had just been trying to be nice and it wasn't fair of you.

(And certainly not fair of your stupid, fifteen-year-old body..)

Akiteru, being Akiteru, felt the need to comfort you. Which you might've appreciated if such comfort didn't involve patting you on your thigh, way too high on your leg for your peace of mind.

And then leaving his hand there, as the moron froze up and stared at you with wide eyes that looked golden under the gym's lightning.

Even now, a long time later, in the safety of your bed, you have no idea what possessed you in that moment to smirk and say, with bravado you did not feel:

"You know, if you wanted to lend me a hand, you could've just said so."

Time seemed to freeze for a moment, as your heart hammered and he stared as though he could not quite believe the words out of your mouth.

(You don't blame him, as you have a hard time believing them yourself.)

Oh, shit, this is it, our friendship is done for you thought and it felt like a stab to the gut. And then, in a movement that was anything but fluid and yet it still took you by surprise, he cupped your face with his hands and pressed his mouth against yours. It was anything but gentle, your teeth clashing and his hands holding your face way too tight, the air getting punched out of your lungs. Your head started spinning, this could not be happening, what the hell, but when he made the slightest attempt to pull apart, your hands grabbed his shoulders to keep him in place.

It might've been the messiest, most awkward kiss in history, but it was also your first – the first one that counted, at least– and you were not letting go.

Somehow, you ended up laying on your back on the bench, your fingers holding onto wet, blonde hair (the sweat should've made it gross but it annoyed you to find out it didn't), the weight of his body on top of yours, his mouth intent on stealing the last bit of breath from your lungs, one of his hands sneaking underneath your T-shirt, the touch of his fingers burning a brand on your skin.

You pulled on his hair and he let out a moan against your lips and fuck, your shorts became impossibly tight, and then there was a pressure against you as one of his thighs slid between your legs. Your eyes snapped open to meet his gaze, his pupils blown wide, his lips red and wet. There was a dare in those golden eyes, a dare in the extra pressure of his thigh against you, and damn fifteen-year-old body to hell, your hips bucked up without your consent. A smirk began to tug on the corners of his lips and fuck him, you were going to bite it off if you had to.

Your kisses turned hungrier, wetter, your head was a carrousel and you couldn't have stopped yourself from rubbing off against him even if your life had depended on it.

It hit you faster and harder than ever before, leaving you dazed and breathless, with sticky shorts and your brain turned into wet cotton. You felt him kiss the gasp out of your mouth, kiss your chin and your neck, before his mouth abandoned your skin as he sat up on his heels. He regarded you with a faint smile, his hair a mess, his cheeks red and lips swollen, his shorts looking tight in a way you knew to be painful. He was breathing just as hard as you, his eyes never leaving yours.

(You remember the satisfied look on his face, his red, swollen mouth; his lean muscles and the smell of his skin and damn your traitorous body to hell, you feel your shorts tighten again.)

He rose from the bench and lent you a hand to help you stand up on wobbly legs.

"I… I think it might be best if… ehhh… well… if we cleaned ourselves up before… well, you know. Before cleaning up the gym," he stammered, looking at anywhere but you, his prior confidence up in flames. You nodded, still too stunned to speak, and he tugged on your hand to lead you towards the toilets.

(He didn't let go of your hand until you'd entered the restroom, where he left you to clean yourself up as best as you could, as he got into a stall and spent a suspiciously long time in there.)

Tidying up the gym was accompanied by a constant stream of words coming out of his mouth that you didn't even hear, chatting about everything and nothing. The last thing he said to you before fleeing was to take good care of your leg, and you were left alone to make the bus ride home in a daze.

Now you lie on your bed, your head still spinning just from the memories, and you wonder if you shouldn't be panicking or something. You know this is very much not normal: friends don't do this sort of stuff, this is not what your family expects from you when they say they want to see you interested in anything besides volleyball. This is not what boys talk about in the locker room: it's always girls and boobs and never boys and lean muscles, and this is another tick in the weirdo box.

But you surprise yourself by not caring much at all about it as your hand slides underneath your shorts' waistband, because being fifteen just sucks like that and you're becoming sort of okay with that.

(If you're honest, one hundred percent so, is this really a surprise at all?)

A last thought filters into your brain as you drift off to sleep, boneless and beyond exhausted:

Tomorrow practice is going to be awkward like hell.

Tomorrow turns into today and your prediction is on the mark: practice is awkward as hell.

You stick to your fellow first years, not because you're avoiding Akiteru, it's just what you always do during regular practice so there's nothing to feel guilty about.

Maybe, just maybe, you do avoid meeting his eyes, because the one time your gazes meet, his face turns tomato red and you can feel your own skin heating up before you look away and focus your attention elsewhere, anywhere.

You both keep your distance after that.

But it's still gnawing at the back of your mind, even though you throw yourself into training, your soul 100% on volleyball again. The shadows of your last descent into a dark mood seem to have dissipated at long last and once again you can feel the thrill of the ball touching your fingertips. Once again volleyball is what makes your blood burn; once again it's what pushes you forward instead of what drags you down.

At times you could swear you can feel his gaze on the back of your neck, scorching your skin, but when you turn to look, his attention seems to be elsewhere. His voice and laughter ring louder than usual in your ears as well or maybe you're just more attuned to them.

How annoying you think, because it's a distraction you don't need, because you don't want to admit, not even to yourself, that the weird vertigo in your stomach might be caused by nerves.

You've always had an inkling that romantic entanglements and that sort of stuff were overrated and now you know for sure.

An unbidden image of his ruffled hair and his wide-open eyes, his flushed skin and his swollen lips crashes into your mind, short-circuiting your brain, and you gasp as a stray ball hits your stomach.


Maybe it's just the annoyance at the sheer idiocy of your current predicament, but when practice is coming to an end you straighten your shoulders, lift up your chin and march towards the bench where's he's downing a water bottle.


He looks up at you and chokes. His face turns very red again, borderline purple-ish, as Ando-senpai, a fellow second year, pats him on the back. You stare, thoroughly unimpressed.

So it's been a while since you've called him senpai, true, but it doesn't warrant such a reaction. It's not like you're going to call him Akiteru in front of everybody else.

Especially not after what happened yesterday evening.

"I was wondering," You continue once he looks like he's recovered his breath, "if you'll stay today after practice?"

His eyes widen, as though he didn't expect in a hundred years you'd say that. When he nods, though, a smile spreads over his face, lighting up his gaze.

"Sure. I'll help you with your serve."

Ando-senpai gawks.

"Are you both crazy? How can you survive extra practice? I can barely survive this one!"

Feeling like you've accomplished something of utter importance, you nod and then walk away to help the rest of the first years with the cleanup.

Private practice turns out to be even more awkward. There's no other people to divert your attention, and each time your fingers accidentally brush it's like an electric current that makes you both jump apart and sets your faces ablaze.

Soon enough, though, you both remember the reason why you're there, and once more your passion for volleyball obliterates any other concern. After a while you're playing like you always do, as though yesterday hadn't happened at all.

It's a relief, really.

Except for the times a spike or a serve seem to finally go the right way and he beams at you, with that open smile of his, which makes his eyes crinkle and lights up his whole face. Your stomach drops as you return the smile helplessly.

This is way worse than what you feared.

A few times it's you the one who looks at him and finds his gaze already trained on you, when you're the one to spot the blush spreading over his cheeks. The first few times that you catch him, he looks away while muttering something or another, but then he starts glancing back at you, as if steeling his resolve. That feeling of vertigo returns with a vengeance and you also refuse to look away from him.

(You might no longer be able to.)

The two of you are rolling up the net when your fingers brush again and your faces are very close all of a sudden.

The hell with it you think, sick of these stupid nerves hindering your every move.


He swallows before looking at you. There's a smile on his lips, but it looks a bit nervous, a bit uncertain. Once, he told you that it looked badass, so you offer him a crooked smile as you throw all caution to the wind.

"Would you kiss me again?"

He has the ability to choke on air, you find out.

"Senpai?" you add, hiding your clenched fists behind your back, and that seems to get you a reaction.

(Who would've thought that's the sort of thing that pushes Tsukishima Akiteru's buttons.)

"Well, I can't refuse after you've asked me like that, can I?"

You snort, but you're stopped from saying anything else by his mouth on your own and his fingers tangling in your hair, as both breath and higher brain functions are robbed from you.

Romantic entanglements and what-not might be overrated but, oh well.

You're willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

After that, you regain a certain sense of normalcy: you still breathe and live for volleyball and during practice your mind doesn't have the time to wander in useless directions.

It's not like Coach Ukai's training from hell leaves room for much thought beyond when am I ever going to catch my breath?

A sense of normalcy with a slight variation: now when the two of you are left to your own devices, volleyball is no longer the only thing on your minds. You still play obsessively – that's what's drawn you together, after all.

But now after-practice activities include hands wandering underneath sweaty T-shirts, lips sliding over the sensitive skin behind an ear, fingers tugging on strands of hair. There's always the risk of discovery, someone could always come back to ask what's taking you so damn long and to close up the gym already, but you guess that might be part of the thrill or maybe you just don't care that much about consequences.

(You rarely do.)

You would've thought that Akiteru would take things like possible repercussions a little more seriously, but he's just as bad as you. Or maybe he's even worse, because he insists on slowing it down when you don't have the time for that kind of thing.

"Akiteru, get a move on before the janitor gets here."

"Hush," he whispers right next to your ear, before peppering the side of your neck with feathery-light kisses, keeping your hips in place with a tight grip and honestly, you could kill him.

But you also want him to keep going, so you don't.

You don't talk much about it afterwards. Actually, you don't talk about it at all, even when it starts happening more and more often, until it's no longer the exception to the rule but something dangerously close to the new norm. It'd become commonplace it if weren't for the way a single touch can still make your heart race, the way a smile makes your breath hitch and your head spin.

If Akiteru's having a major sexuality crisis over this, he hides it well. You're a bit surprised by the fact that you aren't.

(But deep down, didn't you wonder why you were the only one in your class not obsessing over girls?)

Funnily enough, now that you know you'll never be interested in girls the way everyone else seems to be, you start to pay more attention to your classmates' and teammates' "locker room talk". You don't take part in it (what would you even say?) but you listen, even though you suspect much of it is useless bullshit. Most of them don't even have actual girlfriends, and many of the things they say will never apply in any situation where they could be of any use for you.

Like for instance:

"No girl would let you slip your hand underneath her blouse the first time you make out, duh." Ogawa-senpai is saying, after Kato-senpai has spent a good fifteen minutes in the club room bragging about this girl he met at his cousin's birthday who supposedly let him fondle her over the bra.

His story is met by several skeptical stares.

"You're saying that because you're a virgin," he counterattacks and Ogawa-senpai gives him a very lofty look.

"No, I'm saying it because of experience. Which you clearly lack or you wouldn't have made this up. No girl would let your hands under her blouse the very first time you made out with her because she wouldn't want to be seen as easy. Everyone knows that. I bet you even the first years know that."

"So what if the girl's easy, what's the problem with that?"

Everyone turns to gape at you and only then you realize that you've spoken out loud. You try to cover up the awkwardness with a shrug.

"I mean, if you want to touch her and she lets you, isn't that what you want? Why the fuss?"

You get even more gawking and then Ogawa-senpai shakes his head.

"No one wants an easy girl. If she lets you do that sort of stuff on the first go, who knows how many other guys she's had before?"

"You don't know that for sure," you push on, as you feel your ears heating up. "Maybe she just really likes you."

"Beansprout here is right," Kato-senpai says while patting your shoulder so hard it pushes you forward, because he's the sort of asshole who nicknames everyone. "Maybe she just really liked me."

When that gets him a roar of laughter, he retaliates by slapping people with a wet towel. In the following ruckus you risk a glance at Akiteru, who looks mesmerized by his own shoelaces. Even from here you can see the pink hue spreading over his neck.

Any shame is long gone by the time you're alone and his hands slide upwards, past the hem of your T-shirt.

"You don't mind easy?" you ask, trying to go for nonchalance and failing spectacularly when your breath hitches as his teeth nib on your earlobe.

"Ogawa is an idiot who'll never get a girlfriend," he breathes into your ear, his fingertips tracing shivers on your skin. "And I'd really like to stop talking about him right now."

Whatever retort you might've planned gets stolen alongside your breath (and much of your brain functions) when his lips trade your earlobe for your mouth and you just hold onto his shoulders, your eyes sliding shut, all thoughts of anything outside the feel of his body and his mouth pressing against yours fleeing from your mind.

Karasuno doesn't make it to Nationals neither at the Inter High nor at the Spring Tournament; you don't even make it to the bench.

Akiteru somehow manages to keep his optimistic façade, his sunny smile set in stone but you wonder, as his second volleyball season is coming to an end, how he handles it. You know you're doing it poorly, because despite your height (that everyone and their mother seems keen on reminding you about all the fucking time), a part of you actually believed you'd make it into the starting lineup in your first year.

There goes that pipedream and you can feel the thoughts turn acidic and poisonous in your head.

Your mother makes worried noises, your teachers harp on the need to focus more on your studies than volleyball, Sakai pulls on your hair, and Genzo, the eldest of your cousins, suggests you should get yourself a girlfriend ASAP.

(You're very, very tempted to tell him exactly how well that would go and why.)

Akiteru, instead, tilts his head to the side, pensive.

"Maybe we're tackling this the wrong way. Maybe it's not more practice that we need."

"Practice makes perfect," you echo, as you've been told so many times. Akiteru shakes his head.

"No. Perfect practice makes perfect. Lousy practice makes… well, lousiness, I guess."

"That was profound." But you consider it, because it's not like your situation can actually get any worse. "What do you have in mind?"

"Well, I have like a million games recorded," he replies, scratching the back of his neck. "You could, I don't know, maybe come over and watch them with me, and we could figure something out."

It sounds innocent enough that you don't hesitate (much) before saying 'yes,' and later on Akiteru will swear that his intentions were one hundred percent pure and honorable, all the time while blushing like mad. You're not sure whether you believe him or if you even care.

It's the third Olympics game you're watching in a row as you lie on your stomach, your chin on your fists and your eyes glued to the computer screen, when you feel a feathery-light touch on the small of your back. You startle, a shiver running down your spine. You turn your head towards your right, where Akiteru is sitting on his heels beside you. When your gaze locks with his, he looks like a kid whose hand got caught in the cookie jar.

"Your, hum, shirt rode up. On your back. I was, eh, pulling it back down. Right."

You blink, your throat feeling dry for no good reason at all.

"Oh," you reply, ever so eloquent. You're pretty sure there're goosebumps all over your skin in the wake of his brief touch. "Is it alright now?"

"Eh, yeah, sure. No, wait." He bites his lower lip. "Let me…"

You feel his warm palm sliding down your back in a slow caress, from between your shoulder blades towards the small of your back, and he has to feel the shudder that wrecks your body. You close your eyes and swallow and this shouldn't affect you so much, but then it hits you: you're alone in Akiteru's room for the very first time, lying on his bed, his hands on you. And shit, you're feeling something stirring that you'd rather not, at least not right now.

You look at him, because you're bad at resisting reckless impulses, and his face is closer than before, and one of his hands takes your chin to tilt your head towards him; the other one a heavy, warm weight on the small of your back.

The kiss is awfully awkward, bumping noses and your neck twisted in an uncomfortable angle to meet his lips, but it's all what's needed to light up the fuse. You're not sure how your shirt ends up on his bedroom floor (Ogawa-senpai would think you so terribly easy; you don't actually see a problem with that) as you straddle Akiteru and bend forward to kiss him again, his hands sliding up and down on your back, your sides, your shoulders and the back of your neck, his fingertips first cold and then scorching against your skin.

(All that locker room talk is good for at least one good thing and it's that you've learnt not to embarrass yourself in less than five minutes: a progress of sorts.)

Volleyball temporarily forgotten, the game playing unwatched, uncared for on the computer screen, you chase the taste of his lips as Akiteru's hands slide downwards and the sneaky bastard gropes your ass. You gasp and then you bite his lower lip to cover it up, but not before he lets out a chuckle and then takes advantage of your distraction to roll over and switch your positions. You very narrowly avoid hitting your head against the wall, because things can never go really smoothly between you two. He takes a moment to look at you – you have the sneaking suspicion that he really enjoys that you have to look up at him– and you stare right back, at his mussed up hair, the blush on his white skin, his teeth worrying his lower lip.

(No girl has ever gotten your attention like this and, right now, you're pretty sure no one else ever will.)

Then he leans forward and catches your lips with a kiss, his chest pressing against yours, so very warm, and you close your eyes and hold onto his shoulders for dear life.

"Akiteru, I'm taking Kei-chan to the store to get his cookies! Don't forget to check the washing machine in twenty minutes and hang the clothes outside, all right? And don't let your friend stay too late, it'll get dark soon!"

Your eyes snap open and, on pure instinct, you push Akiteru off you and he falls in a mess of limbs on the floor, right on top of your discarded T-shirt.


"Akiteru, are you– ?"

"YES, MOM, I'M ALRIGHT!" he shouts and the doorknob stops turning and maybe, just maybe, your heart starts beating again. "I'll, I'll… I'll hang the clothes and everything, okay? See ya, love ya!"

You both stare at the closed door with trepidation until, at long last, you hear Akiteru's mom's footsteps fade away. You turn to stare at each other: disheveled, red-faced, still panting for air.

It can never go smoothly between you two.

You'd have believed that Akiteru would think twice before asking you over after that. The following week, though, he's waiting for you next to your shoe locker, leaning against it with a studied, very fake nonchalance.

"So, maybe you could come over? So we finish watching that game?"

You can feel the blood rushing into your ears as you nod, also trying for the fakest nonchalance ever.

Once is an incident, twice a coincidence, thrice is a pattern. It doesn't take you that long to realize that both volleyball and video games will only hold your attention for a short while before your hands end up reaching for more skin.

You wise up enough to ask him to come over on Thursdays, when your mother works late and isn't there to demand you to keep your bedroom's door ajar.

February comes and Sakai gets diagnosed with anger management issues and antisocial behavior.

Oddly enough, you have nothing to do with it: you're not even around when it happens and you only find out about it much later.

At the moment, you're living the cliché in a broom closet, your hands sliding underneath the hem of Akiteru's gakuran.

"This is a terrible idea," he's saying, but he makes no attempt to stop you when your hands rest for a moment on the small of his back, before you push him closer to you.

"Sure," you reply, tilting your head up to look him in the eyes. He doesn't look like he's going to push you away anytime soon.

"Anyone could hear us."

You roll your eyes.

"Are you planning on screaming? I didn't know you were the type."

He blushes up to his hairline and it's kind of terrible how endearing you find it.

"They could come in…"

But you've watched enough TV to take care of that beforehand, with a strategically placed mop under the doorknob. You have some self-preservation instinct.

Not a lot, but enough.

You step closer, close enough that you have to tilt your heads upwards and stand on your tiptoes as your chest brushes against his.

"C'mon," you say, going for husky and probably sounding something like raspy. "It's not worse than the gym and everyone's on the yard, no one will come."

He swallows as he looks down to meet your eyes, but his gaze glides over to your mouth. You smile, because you're pretty sure now he likes it and, just as you can't resist his touch, he can't really resist the dare in your smiles.

(They look badass, he's said.)

"You're a terrible influence," he whispers, right next to your lips, and you smile wider than ever.

"You're meant to be the responsible one here, senpai."

He shuts you up with a kiss, and that wasn't so hard, right?

No one comes crashing down the door and you manage to make your way back to your classroom only looking mildly disheveled and not like, well. What you actually were up to during the break.

You slide into your seat before the bell rings. You notice there are three chocolate boxes on Tsuda's desk, a towering and unsteady pile on Onodera-kun's (class president and resident pretty boy, according to Inaba's bitter mutterings) and none at all on Inaba's own desk. You try to be fair: he could have put them in the bottom of his bag, like you've done with the sole box you've received. You shudder a bit at the memory: you found her waiting by the shoe lockers, this petite girl with black plaits that you don't remember ever seeing before and whose name you could not remember, if you ever knew it. At least, she didn't expect much eloquence from you and your stammered 'thank you very much, they look great' seemed to make her day.

(You didn't get chocolates for Akiteru and he hasn't given you any. It would be weird, and stupid, but maybe he won't mind sharing yours after practice. You very carefully do not ponder on whether he might have received chocolate boxes, how many, and from whom.)

It's not until the bell rings and Nishimoto-sensei is already scribbling on the board that you realize that Sakai's seat is still empty. You turn to Tsuda.

"Where the hell is she?"

Both Tsuda and Inaba stare at you as though another head has sprouted from your neck.

"You haven't heard?"

"Where were you? Everyone knows."

"She might get into real trouble this time."

"The dean looked about to– "

"Gentlemen," Nishimoto-sensei's voice pierces the air like cutting glass. "Would you like some tea to go with your chit-chat?"

Inaba and Tsuda manage to look properly chastised, you probably look like you're ready to snap at him. You want nothing more than to jump out of your seat and run out of the classroom to get Sakai and find out what the hell's she's gotten into now, and it's probably only the memory of Coach Ukai's face the last time you got into trouble that keeps you in place.

The clock's hands have never moved so slowly.

You don't get to find her after class because you're told her parents were called to pick her up. You can imagine how well that must have gone.

But you end up finding out what happened, because everyone in your class seems to have seen or heard something. Once you rule out the most outlandish options, the facts seem to have been as follows:

Sakai decided, for reasons she didn't disclose with you beforehand, to buy a chocolate box for Yagami Keishi, the captain of Karasuno's basketball team. You suspect the reason she didn't tell you was because she's aware of the long-standing enmity between the basketball and the volleyball teams, and also very likely because she's heard you call him an asshole more than once.

(He is, by the way.)

You wouldn't have pegged Sakai for the type that falls for the popular basketball captain all the other girls are infatuated with but then again, you didn't expect a random girl to thrust a chocolate box into your hands either.

Girls can be weird like that.

(And now that you think of it, Sakai does keep a lot of posters of bishonen-looking guys who sort of resemble Yagami on the walls of her bedroom. But still.)

No one is quite sure exactly what happened (or everyone seems to be, but all the stories contradict each other) but from the sound of it, Yagami was less than gracious when he was offered the box. He might even have laughed at her unruly hair and her unfeminine height.

Sakai, being Sakai, punched him in the stomach.

What you suspect she didn't take into consideration, because you know she's got some issues but none so bad, was that he was standing by the handrail of the stairs.

It's not like he was even injured that badly, all things considered.

You try calling her, but at first her parents pick up the phone every single time and they must've confiscated her cell, because it leads you straight to voicemail.

It's close to midnight when your phone chirps: Sakai must've snuck out of her bedroom after her parents went to bed.

"I didn't mean to push him down the stairs," it's almost the first thing she tells you. "I was just so angry that I didn't see the stairs, I guess."

You've been angry enough that everything looked painted red so you can't exactly judge her.

You might judge her a little for her terrible taste in boys, but even someone as socially awkward as you can realize this is the worst time possible to point it out.

"Did they suspend you?"

"N-no, although the dean wanted to. Mom talked him out of it. She talked his ear off, I think. By the end of it, he didn't want to deal with us anymore. And Kowashi-sensei told him she's seen the whole thing and that, even though I was way out of line, Yagami was a total asshole. Well, she didn't put it like that, but…"

All of a sudden, you feel kind of guilty for never paying attention in Kowashi-sensei's class: she's turned out quite decent, after all.

"So, what's the verdict?"

"Well, on my parents' end, I'll be grounded until I'm off to college, or until something else catches their attention, you know what they're like. And the dean sent me to mandatory sessions with the counselor to begin with, also to apologize to the jerkass and he wanted to suspend me from club activities too, but then he realized I wasn't in any clubs. I think he's still mulling over that one. He'll come up with something."

"…it could've been way worse," you say, when the silence on her end stretches. "I've been to counseling: it can be annoying, but you'll live."

"I put up with you, moron, don't I?"

"You keep pulling my hair and calling me names, that's not the perfect picture of patience, you know."

"Go to hell."

"See what I mean?"

"Hush, I hear someone." A pause on the other end of the line. "I guess I'll see you tomorrow, if I don't get kicked out."

Sakai doesn't get kicked out. Instead, the school counselor comes up with the idea that, in order to curb any possible antisocial tendencies, she must join a club.

"In February? Who'll take you at this time of the year?"

She shrugs.

"I think I'll try out taiko. I've been told it might be good for my pent-up anger."

It turns out that all her pent-up anger doesn't come paired with any sense of rhythm whatsoever, so after a week taiko is out. You guess she'll try the art club next: you've seen her decorate the margins of her textbooks with doodles of Assassins Creed's characters that were still somewhat recognizable, so she's not half-bad at it.

Anyone could imagine your surprise when Miyamoto-senpai announces that the search for a replacement for Nogushi-senpai – who retired with the rest of the third years, leaving one over-worked kouhai behind– is over at long last. And standing beside her – towering over her, more precisely– a bushy, brown-haired head you know all too well. You stare. For once, she looks somewhat sheepish under your gaze.

"Miyamoto-senpai came to ask me herself, when she heard I wasn't in any clubs," she tells you afterwards, sounding a bit sullen. "It's not like this was my first option, you know."

"And here I was, thinking you were stalking me or something."

She shoves you with her shoulder, hard, but there's a mischievous smile dancing on her lips.

"You know, now maybe I'll figure out what you volleyball dorks get so hyped about."

You don't take offense at the volleyball dork remark, because it's kinda true after all.

To your secret surprise Sakai, so-called antisocial tendencies notwithstanding, fits right in at the club from the get go. Miyamoto-senpai looks a bit horrified at the brash manner Sakai talks to the boys but they don't seem to mind, used as they all are to Coach Ukai's harshness. But, then again, Miyamoto-senpai's always been a bit of a pushover, always leaving the yelling at the boys and putting them in their place to Nogushi-senpai. Sakai has no problems whatsoever taking over those duties and soon enough, it's like she's always been there.

"You know," she says as you help her gather stray balls, "this is kind of fun. Not as fun as video games but I kind of get why you're so into it. I mean, you're still a weirdo, of course."

This time you shove her and it earns you a scolding from Ogawa-senpai.

"How dare you treat our precious manager like that? Apologize to her!"

You stammer an apology under your upperclassman's glare, your eyes shooting daggers at Sakai, who is having a hard time keeping her laughter in check.

Ogawa-senpai's been strangely – and suspiciously– protective of Sakai ever since she's joined the club. You shouldn't be that surprised when he tries to get her phone number from you, but you still stare at him.

"You… like Sakai?"

He rolls his eyes at your sheer idiocy.

"She's pretty, she's pushed that Yagami asshole down the stairs. What's not to like?"

You recount the whole thing to Sakai afterwards, and she giggles.

Giggling, honestly.

"Well, he's not really my type…"

You snort, because for all of Ogawa-senpai's possible strong suits, looking like a bishonen is not one of them. She goes on, undisturbed.

"…but I guess it was still a nice thing of him to say."

"I think I should warn you that he has something against easy girls."

She stares at you for a moment, and then bursts into maniacal laughter.

"Oh, c'mon. Who has ever called me easy?"

"Wow, your aim sucks."

Your target on the screen rolls over out of sight, very likely to keep shooting at your character. You glare at him over your shoulder; Akiteru doesn't even try to keep a straight face, the corners of his eyes crinkling and a smirk pulling at his lips. You want to retort, something clever and a tad scathing to match, but you find his face much closer than expected: your nose almost brushes his cheek as you turn your head and it's stupid, but it throws you off-balance.

For how long has he been pulling closer and closer, while you were too into the game to tell?

"You know, there's no shame in admitting to needing a little help. It's your first time after all," he says, his eyes twinkling with mirth and the smirk beginning to spread over his face. You elbow him, hard, and as he lets out a dramatic 'ooof!', your character's head gets blown up.

Your attention snaps back to the screen as you curse, the words GAME OVER spreading before your eyes. You hear a chuckle right next to your ear, close enough for the exhale of air to tickle your skin.

Your eyes close for a moment, trying to contain a shudder and failing.

This fifteen-soon-to-be-sixteen-year-old body is so fucking stupid.

Letting the air from your lungs go in a long exhale, you open your eyes, still focusing on the screen, and shrug.

"Sure, whatever. Show me what you've got, senpai."

You offer him the joystick without looking at him, but he doesn't take it from your hands. Instead you hear some shuffling on the bed, and then you feel his warm, familiar weight behind you.


His long legs are now bracketing yours, as his arms circle around you, his hands sliding over your skin, leaving a tingle in its wake, until his fingers wrap around yours over the joystick.

"I'll show you how it's done," he says, every word a gust of warmth over the skin of your neck, and you can't even try to repress the shiver that seems to travel throughout your entire body like an electric current. He must feel it, as he rests his chin on your shoulder and leans against you; he can probably also feel the pounding of your heart, the stuttering of your breath.


"Let's see if you can put your money where your mouth is, old man," you shoot back, thanking small mercies for the way you voice doesn't break. You can't see his smirk but you'd swear you can feel it and you definitely feel his lips graze your earlobe as he speaks:


You curse him to hell in your mind as your hands start to get clammy. His fingers guide yours over the controls, his mouth whispering instructions in your ear, and somehow you make it into the next level without head-butting him or embarrassing yourself.

"Well done there, I think you've got the hang of it now."

"Thanks for sharing your wisdom, Mr. Miyagi."

You can feel his chuckle against your back, and you're sort of glad he can't see your expression from that position, so he doesn't catch the flash of disappointment on your face when his fingers release yours.

His hands, though, don't go that far, and they end up resting on your hips. You can feel their warmth seeping through the thin cotton of your shirt and you don't know how much more of this you can endure.

"Why don't you try the next level?"

There's a dare in his voice that goes beyond the video game and you clench your jaw, because you cannot pass up a dare when you hear it and he knows it well.

"Why not?" you reply with feigned nonchalance, grateful that your voice neither breaks nor sounds as though it had crawled its way through sandpaper, which is what your throat feels like right now.

You'd swear you can feel his smirk against your neck where he nuzzles you.

Nuzzles, honestly. What a son of a bitch.

The game unpauses and your brain scrambles for the tips Akiteru gave you when he wasn't being a little shit (a nearly 1.85m tall little shit) and somehow, your character muddles through halfway into the level without getting his head blown off.

Good for you, especially considering that Akiteru's fingers have started to fiddle with the hem of your shirt, rolling it up and down, fingertips brushing against your belly, against your sides.

He doesn't get a head-butt but it's a close thing. You bite your lip and narrow your eyes, gaze glued to the screen, trying to concentrate step by step on the way your fingers should move, the weight of the controller, anything but the warmth of his chest against your back, his longs legs bracketing yours, the tickles of his hair against your neck.

A sharp intake of air that does nothing to clear your head when one of his hands sneaks under your shirt, a feathery-light touch that makes your swallow and tremble, sparks igniting on your skin. You keep on playing out of sheer stubbornness and inability to give up on a challenge, but you can't hide your ragged breathing, you can't deny the uncomfortable tightening of your shorts. You feel about to explode at the seams, and your fingers clutch the controller for dear life.

The controller ends up thrown on the floor with a thud – and maybe the batteries fly out of it, you don't know, you can't care– when one of his hands starts crawling its way down your thigh. This time he gasps when you twist in his hold – and oh, now that you've moved, you can feel the proof that you're not only one affected here. You turn, your thighs pushing against his, your nose almost bumping into his chin, your hands holding onto his shoulders as you move to straddle him. His eyes are wide as he takes you in, so close to him now, his mouth slightly open, the flush in his cheeks a telltale sign that you weren't the only one going crazy. Your hands move from his broad shoulders to his neck, to cradle his jaw in your palms, your thumb tracing circles on his cheek. His eyes are half-lidded now and his breathing as fast and ragged as yours when you pull closer, almost close enough for your mouths to touch, close enough to share the same air, to feel on your lips each exhale.

"If you wanted to touch," you whisper, because you don't quite trust your voice, not when all of your nerve-endings are ablaze, "just touch, you moron."

He makes a guffawing sound, halfway between a laugh and a snort, but you feel the weight of his hands on your waist.

"Ever the romantic."

"Ever the fucking tease."

He does laugh then, his body shaking against yours, and his hands crawl up on your back to push you just a little bit forward. He licks his lips and you're so close his tongue almost, but not quite, touches yours, and that's it, the final straw. Because you know that, as hard as you can feel he is, the son of a bitch is capable of taking it slow just to fucking tease you and you're not in the mood for that.

Impatient he often says, as his mouth trails kisses that move away from where you need them the most, but this time you won't give him the time to speak, much less to tease you. You press your hips down and that gets you a reaction, you feel his hold on you tighten as he exhales against your lips, his pupils blown wide. And as he gasps and your head swims, you smash your mouth against his, the only thought playing in your head like a broken record is more, closer.

Your first year of high school comes to an end and it hasn't gone quite the way you pictured it would back in April when you first arrived at Karasuno. There's a bitter aftertaste when you think of the volleyball club, but also an iron-clad resolution for the following season.

You'll get past those blocks, no matter what.

The year's also taken a turn to the unexpected in ways you're not going to share with your aunt when she asks how your first year at high school was, that's for certain.

The Spring Break at the end of your first year marks also the first – but certainly not the last– time that Sakai steals the keys to her sister's "new" car (new in the sense that it's just been given to her, not that it is in any way new: you don't even know how it holds itself together.) Her driving license is still two years away and there's a world of trouble for you both if you get caught.

You still say yes and climb into the passenger seat when she picks you up one Thursday evening. You roll down the windows even though after dark the air is still chilly, and you let it pierce your skin and create a whirlwind of your hair. Sakai takes secondary roads as the radio blasts on and neither feels the need to talk, the sense of freedom, of recklessness, intoxicating all by itself.

In the future Inaba and Tsuda will join you, maybe a couple other guys on the volleyball team that you and Sakai have more or less hit it off with, but right here, right now, this first adventure is just yours.

She parks the car at a vantage point, from where you can watch the lights of Karasuno city spread beneath you, a distorted mirror of the sky above, punctured by stars. Her fingers tap on the dashboard in their own tempo, contradicting the song on the radio at every turn, and no wonder taiko did not work out for her. A chuckle escapes your lips and she narrows her eyes at you, as though she knew what you're thinking.

For all you know, maybe she does.

The song comes to an end and the radio host starts prattling on something or another. You glance at her sharp profile in the dark, her gaze straight ahead, one of her hands still clutching the wheel.

"Won't you get into trouble? Thought you were grounded until college already."

She scoffs at that, one of her shoulders rising and falling.

"Nah, they've gotten over that. Short attention span, remember? Besides, Sis is back from college, that's bound to keep them distracted." Her fingers keep tapping on the dash, following a rhythm all of their own. "They're not even home tonight, that's why I took the car. They had some important dinner or whatever, Sis' gone with them."

You wonder at the inner workings of the Sakai family, in which there are family gatherings that don't include your friend. Sis herself is a nebulous, faceless, and almost nameless shape in your mind that seems to cast a very large shadow, with her seemingly perfect grades and pristine behavior (the best scores in all of Miyagi! A full-scholarship to study medicine in Sendai! Such a brilliant future ahead!.)

Sakai, though, sounds fond of her role-model sister in a way she rarely does when she talks about her parents, and you can't help but wonder at that, perpetual only child as you are.

(What does it make you feel that your father has a new family in another city?)

You don't ask certain questions, though. You already know how annoying they can be.

"I thought some fresh air might work better than a game of Counter Strike this time," she says off-handedly, as you're making your way back. "Old people are always harping on the benefits of fresh air, aren't they? Must be for a reason. Besides, I didn't know if video games would make you think of your boyfriend and you'd go moping all over again."

Something akin to panic lurches in your chest as her words hit you like a whiplash. Your throat dries up like sandpaper and your hand grips the handlebar as though that would protect you from a verbal collision.

"My what?"

She doesn't turn to look at you but her eyes meet yours in the rearview mirror. The rise of her eyebrows feels very deliberate for emphasis.

"I hope you don't have a heart-attack when I tell you this, because you're way too young and only moderately pretty to die like this. Especially in Sis' new car. But just so you know, you and Tsukishima-senpai aren't that subtle. Especially since he's gone to the countryside to visit his grandma and you've been moping for the last week."

"How do you know he went to…?" You let your words fall off your mouth and perish when you realize just how stupid that line of questioning is: Sakai is, after all, one of the club's managers and Miyamoto-senpai is well-known for keeping tabs on everyone.

And sharing data, it'd seem.

"I haven't been moping," you snap, because it feels the easiest issue to tackle first. So what if Akiteru's away on a family trip? It's not like you're going through withdrawal symptoms or something.

(You can't be, right? As addictive as touch can be, you can survive without it for a week, surely.)

She rolls her eyes.

"If you say so," she sing-songs, and you'd shove her if she wasn't driving.

"I'm not. And he's not my boyfriend."

He's not. Whatever Akiteru is to you, whatever you're to him, you've never labeled it, but "boyfriend" sounds like something out of a shoujo manga and what you've been up to is certainly not shoujo manga material.

You're not going to get stupid over this.

"Sorry," she says, and her voice sounds honest. She glances at you. "I didn't know what you called yourselves. Or, well, if you call yourselves anything."

"We don't."

It occurs to you, belatedly, that perhaps you should've denied there was anything going on between you and Akiteru.

And then it occurs to you that would've been just plain dumb.

An uneasy feeling makes your stomach drop as Sakai's words replay in your head. You almost don't dare to ask the question that's burning on the tip of your tongue.

"Is… is it really that obvious?"

What you really want to ask and do not dare to is does everyone know?

Something in your voice makes her shoot an alarmed look at you.

"No, no, sorry, that's not what I– "

The car swerves and you yell at her to look back at the road because, as earth-stopping as your current emotional turmoil feels, it's not worth ending up with your brains splattered all over the pavement.

"Sorry!" she yelps, straightening out the car. "I mean, for that and, well, the shitty way I said it. No, it's not obvious for everyone, okay? No need to panic."

She chances another glance at you but turns her gaze back at the road before you yell at her to. You can feel your breath start to even out, but you still clutch the handlebar for dear life.

You're not sure what has made you panic the worst.

"I guess it's just obvious to me," she goes on, once she no longer seems concerned about you hyperventilating and having a heart-attack, "because, well, I know you. You only look star-struck when you see someone pull off a really impressive volleyball play – and Tsukishima-senpai is very nice and all, but he's not really one of our best players."

(At some point, Sakai has started to refer at Karasuno like our team and you wonder if she's noticed yet.)

"You don't look at anyone the way you look at him and well, let's face it: you seem immune to every girl in school, even the third years, and to every magazine with girls in bikinis that Inaba's shoved up your nose." She smacks her lips and takes the turn with the care of those not used to a car yet. "I don't think anyone else's figured it out, though. So don't die on me or anything, okay?"

You nod, more confident now that your heartbeat is somewhat back to normal.

"Sorry for springing this up on you like that," she says as the car approaches the end of the lane where your house lies. She sounds more contrite than you remember her ever being, so you just scoff and squeeze her shoulder, which does the trick.

"If I can say something else without risk of heart-failure, though," she adds a moment later, as you're stepping out of her sister's car, her brown eyes locked on yours, "He looks at you like that too."

You stare at her, frozen in mid-motion, before you close the door behind you. You dedicate her a very obvious and deliberate roll of your eyes.

"Stop it with the yaoi manga, it gives you weird ideas."


"Hush, this is a respectable neighborhood, you closeted yaoi fangirl."

She flips you off as she drives away and you laugh quietly to yourself while you make your way towards your house.

Afterwards, though, you lie in bed like an idiot, her words replaying in your head, until the chirping of your cellphone snaps you out of it.

A text from Akiteru of all people.

Bored outta my mind. Wanna come online and play sth?

The epitome of romance, you think to yourself, regardless of the speeding up of your heart as soon as his name appeared on your screen.

Sometimes, you get distracted by the inanest of things. The glint of moonlight catching on dark blonde hair; the unique shade of purple of a bruise; that brief, insignificant flash of skin where the hem of the shirt fails to meet the shorts; teeth nibbling on the end of a pen; the warmth of fingertips brushing against your cheeks, your neck; a smile with eyes closed, so open, so bright.

You don't wax poetic because it's stupid, because hormones are one thing, the thing everyone else is going through. And then there're the other things, the ones you try not to think about, because they're useless and idiotic, and you're not a thirteen-year-old girl about to scribble a boy's name all over your textbooks.

His laughter rings in your ears and you feel it against – no, inside– your chest, as though it bubbled through you, and this is the sort of thing that the three or four brain cells you've still got working for you have tried to guard you against.

Not that you've ever listened to the part of your brain that tries to exercise caution and self-preservation.

You close your eyes, because his grin can be blinding, but you snap them open when you feel his fingers reaching for your elbow: just a brush and it leaves you with goosebumps on your skin and a hitch in your breath.

And you smile back and lean into his touch, because self-preservation is overrated anyway.

The dark clouds turn into a raging storm inside your head as the door slams, a thunderbolt that reverberates in the entire club room.

But even thunder could not silence the insidious voices in your head, repeating like a loop the words you can't unhear.

Maybe you're just not meant for this. Have you ever thought of it?

(Many, many times, but each one of them you've slammed those words down, because you know them for the poison they are.)

You didn't punch Kato-senpai, you didn't scream. But something in your gaze, in your stance, made the much taller boy take a step backwards, his hands up in the air in a defensive gesture.

"Hey, hey, I'm not saying it to be an asshole," he began, but never finished because in a flash Sakai was there, standing between you too, her eyes narrowed and her hands on her hips.

"Then why would you say it at all, senpai?"

Her tone made sure it was not taken as a mark of respect, even though Kato-senpai would not have been able to tell her off for it.

"I was trying to be helpful," he said, a bit peeved.

"Well, it wasn't."

You'd recognize that voice anywhere, but right in that moment you didn't want to see his face, you didn't want to hear his platitudes. You just turned on your heels and left, ignoring Sakai and Akiteru calling after you, ignoring the stares of the perpetually spooked-looking first years by the gym's door. You might get told off by the coach later but in that moment, you couldn't have cared less.

There's a dull thud when your head bangs the locker and you rest your forehead there for a moment, feeling the sharp pain but also the coolness of metal under your skin.

Snap out of it you tell yourself, because you know how these things always start and you know how it'll end, but knowing doesn't make it any easier to stop.

A minute, ten or twenty pass, and you're unaware of the world outside the whirlwind of your own mind until a yelp snaps you out of it.

You turn a bit your head towards the door, still resting your weight against the locker and your gaze meets Hiraiwa's, a boy in your year but in a different class, you can't quite recall which. He seems startled to see you there.

"Uh, oh, I didn't expect to find anyone here, I thought everybody was still at the gym," he stammers, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. He gives you a considering look, his head tilted sideways. "Are you cutting practice too?"

You've never cut practice and you even tried to sneak out of your house that one time you had a fever, but your mother caught you at it. You don't reply though, afraid of what your voice might sound like right now.

"I was hoping not to meet anyone but… well, whatever," he finishes and he doesn't wait for your reply. Instead he heads over to one of the lockers, opens it and begins pouring its contents into his gym bag.

It takes you a ridiculous amount of time to figure out what's going on, so inconceivable you find the idea of it.

"Are you… are you quitting?"

He winces again and then his shoulders tense. He doesn't turn to look at you when he replies.

"Well, yeah. I mean, what's the point? The way it's going, I'll never make it to the bench. I'm not going to waste any more time in something so pointless."

You don't answer, because you can't think of a single thing to say. Kato-senpai's words still ring in your head, but the thought of quitting has never crossed your mind. Life without volleyball is unthinkable. You'll try, and you'll keep trying, no matter what anyone says.

Hiraiwa leaves the clubroom, leaves the club, and only later you'll realize that perhaps he was expecting you to say something, perhaps he just wanted someone to talk him out of it.

But what could you have told him?

If you need to be talked into staying, then maybe you weren't meant to stay at all.

Hiraiwa has a point, though. You can't keep wasting your time in pointless effort.

After closing up the gym, you approach Coach Ukai. He gives you a sharp look from under his thick eyebrows, his arms folded over his chest.

"Has your head cooled off?"

Coach Ukai is not the mollycoddling type. You appreciate that.

"I need to get better in midair battles. What do I have to do to work around a block?"

Something in his gaze changes. His look seems more intense, more focused on you than ever.

"You want to fight midair battles? With that height?"

It's the only one I got you're tempted to reply, the same way you do when your cousins tease you because of your sour face. Instead you hold his gaze, raising your chin.

"Precisely. I don't have the height or the strength, so I need to learn a way to get past a block without relying on that."

"Hmm," is all he says at first, but it doesn't sound like he's dismissing you. Actually it looks like, for the very first time, he might be considering you.

You watch videos online and you study them with a focus your lessons lack; you read all you can find and draw diagrams in your head.

The facts are these: at least half of the players in the teams that have made it into the first six spots in the Olympics are over two meters tall. One of the shortest players who have ever won a medal (Waldo Kantor, Bronze Medal for Argentina in 1988) was eight whole centimeters taller than you.

You're, in short, screwed.

(And there's a horrible pun there.)

Your opponents, however, aren't two-meters-tall professionals. They're high school students with limited experience, with bodies they have yet to grow into, prone to mistakes and screw-ups. They cover up lack of experience or finesse by relying on strength, on height.

You have neither of those things, so you'll have to find another way to beat them.

You'll have to be smart.

Not your strong forte, Sakai would say except, this time, she is proving to be surprisingly helpful, tracking down the videos of past Inter Highs where the players might've been close to your height. She doesn't stay with you to watch and analyze them because even friendship and her new interest in volleyball have their limits, but you appreciate it all the same.

You don't invite Akiteru over for these sessions. It's not going to be very useful for him, because lack of height is so not his problem but mostly, because he tends to make it very hard for you to concentrate, even on volleyball.

Your mother likes Akiteru. Not that she's seen him much, because you try to ask him over on Thursdays when she works late, but the few times they've crossed paths he's been all polite smiles and she keeps harping on it with pointed glances in your direction: "Your friend is so nice, he has such good manners."

She's also under the impression that he's tutoring you or something, and when you tell Akiteru, he snickers and if he says something along the lines of the advantages of hands-on learning, you swear that you're going to kick him.

Laughter still sparkling in his eyes, he just has to go and make that stupid joke, as you knew he would, but instead you tackle him to your bed and start tickling him mercilessly as he dissolves into uncontrollable giggles. You should've known, though, that he'd take advantage of the slightest distraction on your part to get the upper hand. Even as he convulses with giggles, his hands grab your hips and he has no qualms at using his superior size to his advantage. The world swirls before your eyes as you end up on your back, as his knees lock your hips in place and he pins your wrists to the mattress, your pulse racing under the grip of his fingers. You try to catch your breath as he grins at you, the very picture of the cat who ate the canary, and no one who could see him like this would take him for the good role model your mother seems to believe he is.

(No one else gets to see him like this, though, and the fierce thrill that courses through your veins at the thought takes you by surprise.)

"So what now?"

His breathing is still ragged after all the laughter, but he also sounds giddy and pleased with himself, his wide grin making his eyes crinkle, strands of dark blonde hair falling over his face, the shadow of a dimple on his cheek, and you feel an annoying warmth spreading under your skin at the sight. You wriggle underneath him, but his weight is enough to keep you in place and the grip on your wrists tightens just a little bit.

"Do your worst," you say, trying to cover the shortness of your breath with a smile like a dare, the one he never resists. His grin turns brighter, if possible; a mischievous glint in his eyes.

(Incandescent you think out of nowhere, a result of at least one vocabulary lesson that managed to drill itself into your brain, and you don't understand why the thought is accompanied by a pang, or why the pang doesn't feel at all unwelcome.)

He moves so one of his hands is holding both your wrists against the mattress, and the other one hovers before your eyes for a moment as Akiteru bites his lower lip, indecisive, his head a bit tilted to the side. It's stupid, but his gaze on you feels as tangible as touch. When he makes a decision, it takes you by surprise: his fingers catch a wayward strand of your hair and push it away from your face, a barely there caress that leaves your skin tingling. His grin softens into a gentle smile, and something in the focus of his eyes on you makes your chest clench and your heart race.

You've shared so much more than mere caresses by now, and yet. And yet your eyelids fall closed when his fingertips trace the curve of your eyebrows, draw spirals on your cheekbones, brush the corners of your mouth. You hear the rustling of the sheets when he moves and then you feel the exhale of breath against your lips before he catches them with his.

One of his hands cradles the back of your head, his fingers tangling in your hair; the other still clutching your wrists, but you wouldn't turn away even without the weight of his chest against yours, even without his knees bracketing your hips. You don't even think of resistance as his kiss turns fiercer, wetter; you don't think much at all, except that, if your hands were free, you'd like very much to grab those lean shoulders of his and feel his warmth under your palms.

Later, when his kisses move from your mouth to your jaw, then crawl down your neck, his hold on your wrists loosens and you could move your hands, but you find that you don't want to, leaving him free reign instead.

"Why always so slow?" you ask, voice barely above a gasp, as his lips trace the curve of your neck in a meandering, maddening pace.

"Why always the rush?" he replies back, right against your skin, and you could try to explain how the slower it goes, the more his touch feels like a scorching brand on your skin, the more it seems to hurt when it goes away. But right now your brain has turned into something like cotton candy, mushy and useless, and you don't even speak up when he begins to suck on your neck to remind him not to leave marks somewhere so visible.

Later, he sees the mark of circles around your wrists (the perfect shape of his fingers, you're sure) and turns tomato red, a never-ending apology bursting out of him as he twists his hands and looks anywhere but at your wrists. You shrug it off, because you don't really mind the marks and they'll be easy to hide anyway.

The hickey on your neck, the one you're not even aware of until your mother comes back from work later that evening and spots it, that one you mind a lot more. Especially when your mother's eyes first turn big and round like volleyballs, and then they narrow with typical motherly suspicion.

"Has Sakai or some other girl been over? I thought we've talked about this."

You frown, because you're still blissfully unaware of the path your mother's thought process has taken.

"Nope, just Akiteru. Why?"

She seems a bit taken aback by your reply, or maybe by your careless tone. Then her suspicion seems to increase tenfold.

"Young man," and shit, she never calls you that unless she's started to get mad, it's even worse than she calling you 'miscreant,' "you know very well I can put up with many things, but not lying."

"I'm not lying– "

She raises her eyebrows, one of her fingers tapping on the side of her neck, and suddenly your stomach seems to drop three floors down. You dash towards the hallway where the mirror is and then you see, in all its glory, the purple mark on your neck. You let out a choked sort of noise.

Akiteru, you fucking asshole, I'll kill you.

You hear your mother's snort behind you, a very unsympathetic reaction from a mother. You start pulling at the collar of your shirt, wondering if the school uniform will cover it. Maybe it will, but the gym T-shirt won't and this is all kinds of nightmarish. You catch in the reflection the movement of your mother shaking her head behind you, and then you hear her steps pulling away from you, but you're too immersed in your litany of oh shit, oh shit to pay her any mind. She returns, her pace brisk on the wooden floor, then she grabs your hand and puts a small tube in it. You stare at it in utter bafflement and she rolls her eyes.

"It's concealer. You and I share pretty much the same skin tone, so if it works on the dark circles under my eyes, it should work on your hickey."

"Ah… thanks."

She pinches the bridge of her nose, letting out a long-suffering sigh, and then she fixes her dark blue eyes, so very much like yours, on you.

"You know I don't expect you to tell me every little thing going on in your life. You're growing, and you're entitled to some secrets, some privacy. Just… just don't lie to me, please. I'm not the enemy here, okay?" She squeezes your shoulder, and something wavers in her usually sharp gaze. "I'm just trying to look out for you. So please, please take care of yourself, all right?"

You nod, an unwelcome knot in your throat, as she leaves you to discover the wonders of make up on your own.

I didn't lie to you you think, but dare not to say out loud.

And then, one day, you see it.

The second years are playing against the third years, while the first years take laps around the court (oh, the joy of not being one of them anymore.) You yell for the spike as you run forward, your feet leaving the floor behind as your hand reaches for the sky.

Maybe Chisuga, the boy playing setter for the second years, hesitates for a split second. Suwabe is taller, he's even played in practice matches against other schools. But he is a step behind and the ball flies to your hands instead. That split second gives three third years the time to jump for the block, their stretched hands a wall about to crush you.

But for the first time, you see.

A small gap between their hands where they aren't fast enough to cover, a gap born of carelessness: at some level, they've underestimated you.

A gap that costs them a point, the very first one you've ever won against a three-man block.

Your feet must touch the floor as you fall from your jump but you don't feel it. The only feeling is the roughness of leather against your fingertips; the only sound in your ears the thud of the ball hitting the other side of the court; the only sight, the one above and beyond the net.

There's a moment of stunned silence.

(Or so Sakai will tell you afterwards because, right then, you don't even notice it, too mesmerized for the novel feel of a scored point.)

The blood rushes into your ear, and once, you drank enough beer to get tipsy, and you wonder if you could get drunk of this sort of rush. The moment breaks with the pats of your teammates on your back, on top of your head; Kato-senpai's voice ringing from across the net: what the hell?

By the corner of your eye you catch Coach Ukai's pensive face, his hand scratching his chin; Sakai's grin and fist up in the air; a blur of shocked faces as the boys watching from the sides whisper and elbow each other.

And then there's the look on Akieru's face, which you only catch in a fleeting glance. Maybe that's why, for the first time in a long time, it's unreadable for you.

A few days later Coach Ukai announces your name as part of the starting lineup for a practice match against a neighboring school. A part of you dreads glancing in his direction, even as the rest of your teammates offer their congratulations on your hard-earned chance to play. In the end you do look at him, because you'd like to believe that you might be many things, but a coward is not one of them. You find that he is looking right back at you, a smile on his lips, both his thumbs up. You smile back, a knot dissolving in your throat, the air reaching your lungs with a little more ease.

It'll take you a long time (far too long) to recognize the sort of smile that doesn't reach the eyes.

If your life were a Hollywood movie, this would be the moment of the montage with the peppy music when suddenly everything seems to go the hero's way and it's one success after another.

Because this is your life and your life has never been Hollywood material, it doesn't turn out quite like that.

You get to play in practice matches every now and then, despite the mumbling of some of the older – and taller – players. Then you start playing more and more often as a part of the starting line, when your scores stop depending on your opponents' carelessness. You still train until you feel your muscles might walk out on you for self-preservation, but now you also pester Chisuga for tosses and, when he's in a giving mood, Ishida-senpai.

And yet, things don't always go your way. If you once thought that the frustration of standing on the sidelines was unbearable, every mistake during a game stings a hundred times worse.

"Don't kill yourself over every little thing," Ishida-senpai tells you and you nod even as Sakai gives you a suspicious glare from a little further away, as though she could already see you banging your head against a locker.

(She knows you well.)

Sometimes, you can feel that old poison creeping back into your brain when things don't go your way, when your arms and legs don't move quite the way you want them to.

It happens less and less, though, as the whirlwind in your head is muffled by the shouts of your teammates on the court. Every day you see the view from the top a little clearer, a little wider, as you get better at finding the cracks in the wall. You'll never know the thrill of slamming a ball past three blockers like your old ace used to, but you discover there's a thrill of its own in scoring a point by using the fingertips of your rivals against them.

When at long last you get your uniform with the number ten emblazoned in white, your mother beams at you and even gives you a one-armed hug.

"Congratulations, kiddo," she says and it's one of those times in which it's easy to smile back, when it feels like giddiness might burst out of you.

"Thanks, mom," and you mean it, because you haven't always made it easy for her, with your ups and downs, and there're more things that you could say, but one warm look from her makes you think that she might've understood all the same.

Sakai steals her sister's car keys once more to celebrate, and this time inside the car pile up a few of the team's second years, those brave enough to put their lives in their manager's hands.

"Get in, loser: we're going shopping," Chisuga says, apparently delighted to be able to use that line at long last, and Takagaki and Okamoto roar with laughter in the backseat. Sakai rolls her eyes, but you can tell she's in a good mood as well and this is one of those times when a smile comes easily to your lips.

"Sure, you whore. Now make room."

"That's not how the line goes–"

"Oh my god, Chisuga, one thing is watching movies with your sisters, but you're taking it too far."

"Mean Girls," Chisuga replies in absolute seriousness, "is a modern classic, Okamoto. Keep up with the times."

As Sakai takes you all for a spin and Takagaki shrieks that he fears for his life and everyone mocks him (but grab on tight each time Sakai takes a curve), you don't check your cellphone for new messages every few minutes.

Well, you try not to.

The screen seems to mock you every time and at last, you drop the phone in one of your pockets and you do your best to put it out of your mind. Instead, you laugh at Takagaki's displays of fear (guys, it's not funny, she's gonna kill us all for real), you bicker with Sakai and you put in your two cents in Chisuga's and Okamoto's heated discussion on so-called movie classics.

For a moment it's easy, the way things rarely feel for you outside of a volleyball court.

When you finally get home you're half-expecting an earful from your mother, but instead you get a pleased smile and a puzzling:

"You've got a visit."

You open your mouth and snap it shut when you see who is sitting at the kitchen table, a steaming tea mug between his large hands.

"Hi," he says, a sheepish smile on his lips. "I would've texted you ahead, but my cell died on me and I was already nearby so…" He bites his lower lip, his thumb tracing the rim of the mug. "Hope it's okay…?"

You stand stunned for a moment too long – long enough for your mother to elbow you – and then you nod furiously.

"No, sure, it's okay, don't worry, I would've just, you know, come back sooner, did you wait for long?"

This is his turn to stare at you, before he waves a hand and stammers no, not at all, and you end up pulling a chair to plop down onto just so you can cover up your awkwardness.

Smooth, you're not.

Once you've managed to make your escape to your bedroom, the closed door a barrier against your mother's curiosity, he asks you to put on the jersey. A bit baffled you comply, and there's a complicated look on his face as he regards you in your uniform for the first time.

There are things you could say, but they'd reek of pity he does not deserve, especially not from you.

The silence lasts for a beat too long, the intensity of his gaze spreading goosebumps over your skin.

"It suits you."

He doesn't quite smile, but you can hear the softness in his voice.

"Just…" He takes a couple of steps forward until he's right there in your personal space and you have to look up to catch his eye. His hands slowly slide down your sides, smoothing out the fabric and, as warm as his touch is, you still shiver.

(You always shiver, and you always give yourself away.)

"Now it's perfect," he whispers, the exhale from his words a caress on your skin as he leans in, a tiny smile on his lips. From this close you can catch the speckles of gold in his irises, which still manages to dazzle you, and out of their own volition your fingers grasp a handful of his shirt. The warm weight of his hand settles on your hip to pull you even closer, his body flush against yours as he cradles the back of your head with his other hand, the soft rubbing of his thumb against your scalp sending a pleasant shiver down your spine before his fingers tangle in your hair and pull on it a little. He tilts up your head and you stand on your tiptoes, fingers clenching on his shirt, eyes sliding shut as his lips press against yours, warmth spreading all over.

Your brand new jersey ends up horribly wrinkled, but that pales next to the marks blossoming underneath, the sort that will make undressing in the clubroom very uncomfortable for the next few days.

The first time, it might be your fault.

It's not like you forget. As practice comes to an end, Ishida-senpai approaches you, a crease between his eyebrows. You know what he's going to ask you before he opens his mouth, but it still takes you a little by surprise: never before has Ishida-senpai suggested staying behind for a one-on-one practice with you. Refusing doesn't even cross your mind: an important practice match is fast approaching and the new quick you've tried to pull earlier hasn't quite synched yet.

It's not until you catch Akiteru wavering by the door, his fingers tightening on the strap of his bag, that it hits you. A heavy weight settles on your stomach as you look at Ishida-senpai, already by the net with a ball turning in his hands, and then you glance back at Akiteru.

"Hey, you don't have to go, you know," you blurt out with your usual eloquence. "You can practice with us. You could use some tosses from an actual setter too."

He casts a dubious glance towards Ishida-senpai, who stares with a frown drawn on his forehead and probably wonders what's holding you up. Akiteru shrugs, a not-quite-there smile on his lips.

"Nah, I think we can skip this once. I've got an essay that I should've started already anyway."

His voice goes for nonchalant but falls short somewhere along the way.

(Not once has Ishida-senpai offered extra practice to Akiteru or to anyone who is not part of the starting line.)

He turns to leave but before he takes another step, your hand darts out to grab his elbow and pull him towards you. He misses a step, startled, and you hold on tight his elbow to steady him. The bemused look Ishida-senpai shoots in your direction goes pretty much ignored as you lean towards Akiteru, tilting up your head to meet his eyes, wide and bewildered.

"I'll make it up to you, okay?"

Your voice is reduced to a whisper by necessity, so you hope everything else you need to say is conveyed by your hand tightening on his arm, by your unwavering gaze. He regards you for a moment, still surprised at first and then with intent, as though there was a piece in a puzzle he couldn't quite fit.

Something in your gaze vanquishes the tension in his shoulders; in the tiny, barely there smile he gives you there's a little more warmth, a little less strain. He pats your shoulder with his free hand and squeezes for a fleeting moment before letting go.

"Just win the game, will you?"

You smile back because that's an easy promise to make: you'd never settle for anything less anyway and he knows it well.

Ishida-senpai might give you a weird look or two before he remembers what he asked you to stay behind for. Soon enough you're both immersed in practice, as though your muscles had never endured Coach Ukai's training from hell and you had endless energy. Anything unrelated to volleyball vanishes from your minds, the upcoming match and how to sync your quick the only relevant thing right now.

You're pretty sure you don't imagine the odd – suspicious, you might even say – glances Ishida-senpai casts at the finger-shaped bruises on your waist the next time you undress in the clubroom, but he doesn't ask what you'd never tell.

It's not the last time.

In the beginning, it happens far between and it's perfectly understandable, if still disappointing. Just like Ishida-senpai, there are other teammates that will ask you to stay behind for extra practice; there are times when Coach Ukai will suggest some specific training to polish your moves. At other times, Akiteru will talk about a study group, an upcoming exam, a dentist's appointment, picking up Kei-chan from his own volleyball club.

Frustrating, yes, but unavoidable.

And it's not like you don't see each other off the court often enough, both still desperate to get your hands on each other as soon as you find yourselves in a place with a door that locks. After your first victory, you get a celebratory blow job that makes you bang your head against the wall hard enough to earn you a bump; and, in the days that follow, Akiteru both chokes with laughter and turns red up to his hairline every time he sees you rub the back of your head. You try getting back at him, which truth be told is not really a loss for anyone.

It's still easy, and you're naïve enough to trust it will always be.

You try not to wonder what Akiteru's family thinks of you. His parents are unfailingly nice to you those few times you cross paths with them, and you try your best to remember the manners your mother has tried to instill into you. Akiteru's little brother seems a bit distant, but he's that way with almost everyone, Akiteru tells you, and it must be true because the day he brings home a friend from school, the Tsukishima family can scarcely believe it.

"Don't make a fuss over it," you warn Akiteru, "or your little brother won't bring a friend home ever again."

He promises that he won't, but you're not sure you trust him to behave like a normal human being.

Most of the time when you're over at Akiteru's you don't think of his family at all, except to be careful not to be loud if they're around. In and out of his room, though, you have to walk across hallways with walls peppered with family pictures.

The four of them at shrines, wrapped in scarves and coats against a snowy background; the four of them at the beach or the mountain; at someone's birthday, countless candles flickering on a huge cake; cherry blossoms falling on them in front of a school building…

So different from the walls in your own home, so different from the memories of your own childhood.

You don't waste your time wondering useless things: it's been a long time since you've caught your mom crying at the kitchen table late at night, when she believed you asleep, and even longer since you've asked her stupid questions with no good answers.

Your family pictures more often than not only have two people on them, and you've learnt that's okay too.

After a not-so-stellar performance at Inter High – still loads better than prior years, still not enough to make the cut to Nationals – Karasuno has its sights set on Spring High. There's a current of adrenaline igniting each one of you, a sole thought drumming in all of your heads:

Let's defeat everyone and go to Tokyo.

The hunger for victory burns furiously inside you and it must show, because nowadays Coach Ukai makes you play more often than not. Soon enough, in the eyes of your teammates you're no longer the newbie on the court, the wild card that might or might not pay off. A toss from the setter is no longer a rare occurrence, neither is the triumphal thud of the ball on the other side of the net after your spike.

Look at Karasuno's number 10 the boys from other schools whisper, loud enough to reach your ears. He's so tiny to be a starter, how tall is he? 170cm, tops?

Surprise turns into awe as the scales tip in Karasuno's favor over and over again.

Does number 10 fly?

Your teammates pat you on the back and ruffle your hair; the cheers from the sidelines ring in your ears; a fierce look of pride burns on Coach Ukai's severe face.

And then, one day, you start to hear it:

Look at that shortie number 10: that's Karasuno's new ace..

The memory of Uchida-senpai and the easy manner he blasted through a three-man block with is still fresh in your mind, so you can only feel bafflement. But your teammates don't look shocked at all, they don't dismiss such words with a laugh like you half-expect them to.

"Who else but you, beansprout?" Kato-senpai says, not unkindly and as you look at him wide-eyed and unbelieving, he snorts: "Who does our setter toss to when things get rough? Man, you can jump alright, but you're not that bright, are you?"

Your gaze searches the faces of the rest of your teammates but no one looks about to contradict Kato-senpai, not even Ogawa-senpai, and it finally dawns on you: they do trust you to pull them forward.

"Isn't that what it means to be the ace?" Coach Ukai says, in his usual gruff manner, before yelling again at the whole lot of you.

The ace, you soon find, is meant to shoulder all of his team's hopes but also, like a double-edged sword, the pressure weighing down on him when things start getting rough.

Karasuno faces Nekoma, their nearly legendary rival, the one the crows have always been unable to defeat. One day, that will change… but it doesn't look like that day will be today.

Blocked yet again, despite your speed, despite all of your tricks and feints. Frustration wells up inside you, the familiar bitter taste on your tongue, the rushing of poisonous thoughts ringing in your skull, a ringing that turns thunderous when Coach Ukai benches you.

Everyone steps out of the way after one look at the storm brewing in you, and not even Coach Ukai tries to stop you when you excuse yourself and step out of the gym. The hit of your head against the metal locker goes almost unnoticed, and you're only dimly aware of an empty bucket falling on you.

As you turn around on your heels, you catch a glimpse of a blonde girl sipping from a carton juice, her eyes wide open, very likely freaked out by your antics. In the blink of an eye you forget all about her, your feet already marching towards the court.

Sakai is waiting for you, an ice pack in her hand.

"You are aware that you can't play if you split open your head, aren't you?"

Before you can reply, the weight of Coach Ukai's hand falls on your shoulder. His brow is furrowed, his eyes dark underneath his thick eyebrows.

"Keeping it together as everything falls apart, being the pillar everyone else can rely on: that's what being the ace means, too."

He waits for his words to sink in and at your nod, he releases your shoulder and approaches Chisuga next. You can still feel Sakai's worried gaze on the back of your head when someone grabs your arm before you can step into the court and turns you around.

You find yourself face to face with Akiteru, the lines on his face tense, his gaze intent.

"You'll figure this out. Like you've figured it out before, okay?" He casts a nervous glance around, like he expects someone to yell at him or drag him away. When that doesn't happen, he squeezes your arm gently and lets go before the whistle blows.

You close your eyes for an instant, taking a deep breath as you square your shoulders, and when you open them again, you find yourself surrounded by your teammates. They're all waiting for you, and there's not a shadow of doubt in their eyes. They still rely on you, no matter the blocks, no matter the bumps in the road. As you step into the court, a single thought silences all others in your head: you can't betray that trust.

Karasuno does not beat Nekoma that day and defeat tastes as bitter as always.

But from now on, you won't forget what it means to have everybody's trust placed on you, and you won't fall apart when Karasuno needs you the most.

Aunt Chiosa is visiting, which would not be so terrible in itself if she had come alone, but no: Genzo, her eldest son, escorts her. And he seems just as willing to pester you as always.

Honestly, Genzo graduated from high school over three years ago: why doesn't he have a life of his own?

"Maybe you should get yourself a girlfriend, so you back the fuck off me," you snap at him after two hours, quite the record. To your dismay, he chuckles.

"But I do have a girlfriend, haven't I told you?" And then, the horror: he pulls out his cell and subjects you to what seems like a thousand pictures of a petite girl with a straight dark fringe and a freckled-nose, all accompanied by much gushing on the sweetness and general wonderfulness of Mariko-san.

After fifteen minutes of this torture you feel like throwing up, and it must show on your face because your cousin shakes his head.

"Ahh, you'll understand once you get yourself a girl, you know?"

You look at the girl in the picture, all shiny long hair and soft curves, and then of course you have to think of lean, muscular arms and a flat chest flush against yours, strong hands on your thighs and a mischievous smirk dancing before your eyes…

You shake your head.

"I don't think so."

He rolls his eyes.

"C'mon, I know you're in love with volleyball or something, but you're not going to make out or have sex with a volleyball." He frowns. "…right?"

He gets a punch on the arm.

"Well, I just had to make sure, you know! Anyway, one thing is being a late bloomer or whatever but, sorry to be this blunt, you don't want to be alone with your hand your whole life."

"I'm not alone with my hand."

The words blurt out of your mouth before you realize it, and you can't take them back once you see how his jaw drops open and his eyes almost fall out of their sockets. Words fail him for a moment or two and it's almost enjoyable for once.

"You… you're not fucking with me, are you? Are you really seeing someone? For real?"

There are surely a lot of things you could say but, instead, you just hook the collar of your shirt and pull it downwards, so he can see your shoulder. More precisely, the massive hickey Akiteru has deemed to leave as a souvenir on that shoulder. Genzo gawks and it's both hilarious and nerve-wrecking at once.

"But… but you've always acted like you didn't care about girls!" he blurts out, his voice almost a screech. "That one time I asked you about your friend Sakai, you almost punched me, and that's the only girl you've mentioned like, ever. There were times when I really worried about you and the volleyballs." He dodges before you can hit him again. "Who is she? What's her name? Is she in your class? Is she pretty? Do you have a picture?"

There's a moment when you're almost tempted. Tempted to just give away the name of the first girl who is not Sakai that comes to your head, and let Genzo and his overactive imagination fill in the rest of the blanks. It would be easy; it would get him (and Aunt Chiosa, and everyone else) off your back for a while.

"His name's Akiteru and he's a third year."

If a pin fell in the next room, you're pretty sure you'd be able to hear it, with the way neither of you seems to be breathing. He opens and closes his mouth a couple of times, and you can almost see the gears turning in his head. That part of your mind that's lightning-quick to point out your screw ups starts yelling why did you have to open your mouth? but you feel oddly calm right now. Whatever might happen next, it's going to be worth it just for the pleasure of shutting Genzo up.

Of course, you shouldn't have counted your blessings too soon.

"So you're dating a boy." He rubs his chin. "Well, I didn't see that one coming, but I guess I should have. It's better than the volleyballs in any case, I guess."

"You guess?"

He waves a hand dismissively.

"You know what I mean. You say he's a third year? Then he's your senpai – wait, he's not taking advantage of you or anything, right? Boys tend to have a one track mind–"

"I know, I'm one of them."

"If he pressures you," he goes on, talking all over you like usual, "you come to me right away, okay, kiddo? I can beat him up for you if it comes to that. I mean, I hope it doesn't, but just in case. By the way, are you taking care of yourself? Like, with protection and all? You know that just because no one can get knocked up it doesn't mean slacking off. Have you gotten all the way yet anyway? Okay, no, don't tell me that, I'd rather not know with that much detail."

It's your turn to gawk.

Why did you think this could be a good idea?

At least, Genzo retains a small modicum of common sense and he doesn't spill the beans to the rest of your family, but from that moment on, you have to put up with unwelcome advice that arrives via text even when he's away. You show the texts to Akiteru and you can't help bursting into laughter at the way he pales.

"…your cousin won't really come to beat me up, will he?"

You shove him with your shoulder, rolling your eyes.

"If you're gonna worry about anyone, worry about Sakai: she's already pushed one guy down the stairs."

For some reason, he doesn't seem to find that as funny as you do.

Months, even years later, you'll look back to those days and it will all seem a blur. There are lessons and exams you have to study for and conversations with your classmates and family engagements, but they will all fade from your memory or become a muddy image, overshadowed by the consuming fire of the upcoming Spring High. As Karasuno begins the preliminaries that pave the road into Nationals, everything else becomes background noise.

Everything, but the burning touch of fingers creeping underneath your shirt, the daze after a trail of kisses wanders down your spine, the reverberation of his laughter against your chest. This, you think, as you tangle your fingers in his hair and you pull him closer, this might be the only thing to boil your blood as much volleyball does.

But even this, what once felt so clear and blazing, becomes muddier over time without you fully realizing it. It's not like it burns inside you any less fiercely, and you'd like to think you're not alone in this.

As time goes by, though, just snatching a moment alone starts to seem like a herculean effort. The preparation for the preliminaries is swallowing you whole, true, and as for Akiteru, nowadays there always seems to be something: exams, family obligations, picking a university, you name it. You're aware that becoming a third year means you can no longer take schoolwork so lightly, especially if you're planning on going to university. It would be stupid to begrudge him that, and it's not like you're available all the time any more either.

And yet…

And yet, you start to wonder, and doubt, and fear. Try as you might to quiet that insidious voice in your head, Akiteru's evasiveness starts to feel too much like avoidance.

The Spring High preliminaries come upon you and all eyes are on the crows: will they fly, will they crash?

Karasuno stretches its dark wings and soars.

Each victory a conquest, a stepping stone on the road of writing Karasuno's name in history.

The writing of history engenders the birth of legends. The whispers that arise in your wake are no longer drenched in incredulity but awe:

There goes Karasuno's Small Giant; he can get past any block!

Rumors, exaggerations, blatant propaganda to increase interest in a boys' volleyball tournament, perhaps. When you step into the court, all those voices fade into nothingness; the only thing real is the trust of your teammates; the rivals to overcome at the other side of the net and the touch of the ball against your fingertips.

On the court, a fantasy title means very little.

You aren't tall, you aren't particularly strong.

But you can jump and if you can jump, you can fly.

It all comes to a head, it figures, after the match that ensures Karasuno's spot at Nationals.

The high is incomparable to anything else you might've ever known before: you can barely feel your feet touching the floor after that final spike, as a part of you is still soaring, and maybe it always will. The collective, crushing hug your team engulfs you in does little to ground you, because in their voices you hear the same high; on their tear-streaked faces you see the same euphoria that courses through your veins. Some of them laugh and cry at the same time, unable to decide on one emotion when everything feels multiplied by a thousand.

Okamoto is lying on his back, unable to get back on his feet after the exhaustion of five consecutive sets hits him with the strength of a freight train, and when you try to help him up you find that your worn out legs have turned into jelly. Takagaki has to wrap your arm around his shoulder to help you get in line with the rest, as Chisuga and Ogawa-senpai help Okamoto up. There's a watery screen covering your vision that turns the Karasuno's supporters into a blackened blur, making it impossible to find that one face you're looking for. The roar of their applause and cheers reach your ears just fine, though, adding to the dizziness of your high.

You're all exhausted beyond measure, but it takes the team a long time to reach the ground after soaring so high, and even Coach Ukai looks less gruff than usual. Although, of course, one of the first things he tells you is that there will be no slacking off from now on, because the teams you'll encounter at Nationals will be much harder to beat.

It's not like any of you expected anything else from him.

Due to her job, she couldn't make it to the game but your inbox is flooded with your mother's congratulatory voicemails, and even with messages from your cousins, who caught the game on TV and omg you looked so cool!1!

It's not the first time you wonder how come you're related.

The Karasuno boys' volleyball team makes a triumphant return to school, welcomed by a banner hanging from one of the windows and much cheering from your classmates that the teachers don't even attempt to put a stop to. Even Nishimoto-sensei deems it appropriate to congratulate you on your victory, and if that's not an unprecedented early Christmas' miracle you don't know what it could be.

During the next couple of days, the Karasuno team is subject to spontaneous pats on the shoulders and cheers as they walk down the hallways, and amidst the general euphoria, their ace seems to attract all eyes. Since winning that match more people have come up to congratulate you than you've talked to since you started high school.

"Well, you're the legendary Small Giant now," Inaba says with a grin. "You'll have to get used to the fame. Huh, I bet you'll have girls flocking to you now." He leans forward to whisper in a conspiring manner: "If there're any that you don't like, feel free to send them my way…"

Tsuda rolls his eyes, Sakai chortles and you kick her under the table as you do your best to keep a straight face.

There's a conspicuous silence from an unexpected quarter that, as days go by, begins to grate on your nerves, once the elation for winning the final starts to wane. Sakai casts you questioning glances each time you check your cell for messages and you know she'll soon put two and two together, so you don't try to keep it secret, you just can't acknowledge it out loud.

"Look, I don't know what's going on between you two," she says one day, after making sure no one is paying attention to your conversation. "And I'm not prying. But if you go now, you can catch him as his P.E class ends. Or you could sit around moping, whatever."

She has a point, as much as it pains you to admit it, and you leave her in a rush because there's been enough idly waiting already.

Akiteru looks startled when you corner him – that's what it feels like you're doing – and then sheepish and perhaps a bit rueful. He says something about how he meant to call you that sounds hollow to your ears, and the expression on his face looks tight and forced. You're horribly reminded of the first few months after your father left for good, when it'd take all of your mother's strength to hold onto a brittle smile that never reached her eyes.

"Akiteru, what's wrong? What happened?"

He tries to wave your concern off; and even though you're far from the best at reading people, he's always been a terrible liar. You have to push and prod until you finally get the whole story, and then you don't know what to do with the broken shards of Akiteru's confession, his hollow eyes and his lifeless voice cutting you from the inside.

For over two years, he's let his much adored little brother believe that he played as Karasuno's regular. The ace, even. You're no stranger to keeping things from your family and letting them assume whatever makes them feel best, but you still can't even imagine what he might be feeling right now, the ugly truth dragged into the open after all the time he's spent concealing it.

Concealing it from his brother, but also from you, because in all the times he spoke of his family he never came close to mentioning this.

His expression looks frayed around the edges, as though it took him all he has to hold onto it. Something twists inside you, because you're not an idiot, you've always been aware that, in competitive sports, someone's success means someone else's loss, victory always comes at the price of someone else's defeat. Only six people can stand on the court: for each one of them, there're so many more who can only covet a spot on the court from afar. You knew what it meant when Coach Ukai called your name but not his, you knew it but you didn't want to dwell on it and now you feel the reality of it twisting like a dagger in a wound you weren't even aware of.

You can no longer bear the uncertainty, so you keep pushing for answers, even though a part of you already knows they won't be to your liking. Still, you don't expect the words out of Akiteru's mouth. He starts rambling on about responsibilities and keeping his feet on the ground and letting go of make-believes and wishful thinking, his graduation is just around the corner and he needs to start thinking in realistic terms. You get what he means but, at the same time, you're not getting it at all.

"Are you talking just about volleyball or also about us?"

A lifetime goes by in the few beats it takes him to find his answer.

"I… I don't know."

It's odd: a moment earlier, a thousand thoughts were running through your head and now, a deafening silence seems to mute everything. There's no noise, no feeling: just numbness.

The words come out of your mouth, but you're not aware of your lips moving at all:

"Then tell me when you find your answer."

Somehow, your feet take you away from there, the silence even more deafening when he doesn't call after you, when he doesn't even once try to stop you.

Years later, you'll wonder – the few times you let yourself ponder on such things – how come the happiest time in your life also felt like the saddest.

Karasuno's dream is cruelly cut short in the third round of Nationals. The conquering heroes no more, you return to school to face your classmates' commiseration. They all mean well, talking of next Inter High and how much you can get to grow yet.

(No one's tears are as bitter as the third years', except maybe your own..)

A dark cloud has engulfed your whole world right now, and you can feel your mother's concern like a suffocating net wrapping around your limbs, but you can't do anything about it right now. You hear Aunt Chiosa tut as she shakes her head: the situation must be dire indeed if she dares to approach you directly instead of through your mother or her children.

"You can't make volleyball your whole world, young man. What about your grades, your future? You need other things in your life too, like friends or, I don't know, a girlfriend? What about those?"

This time is not your mother who gets her off your back but Genzo, which astonishes Aunt Chiosa to the point of utter silence.

The entire Karasuno club is in mourning and even Sakai seems dragged down by everyone's gloom.

"Remember when I told you I envied you, because of the passion you had for this dumb sport? Well, I take it back. It just sucks."

She gives you a gentle shove with her shoulder and you acknowledge her attempt at comfort with a nod, but you don't have the strength to reply. Both of you lean into each other with matching glum faces for sure, because Miyamoto-senpai comes to pull you back on your feet and drag you towards the rest of the team.

"I know you're feeling down, guys, but we aren't dead, alright? Karasuno will get another chance, you'll see." Her smile becomes somewhat strained. "Without us, maybe… but that's what you're here for, right? You can't give up now. You owe us better than that, I think."

Both of you hasten to nod, because no matter how shitty you feel right now, it'd be unforgivable to place any more weight on the third years' shoulders.

Little by little, Karasuno learns to pick itself up and so do you. It's hard and it leaves a bitter aftertaste in your mouth but, trite as it might sound, time does help to make it easier to endure.

The third years' graduation comes by and there're way too many tearful farewells and crushing hugs for your taste, but at least to yourself you can admit that you'll miss them.

Well, some of them in any case.

The third years' graduation has an entire different meaning for you that year, one you don't want to ponder about but you can't push aside either. Ever since that last conversation, you haven't spoken to Akiteru once. If he found his answer, he didn't feel like sharing it with you. There's no reason to believe that might change now, but your gaze still searches for him when graduation day comes. When you spot him, you have to blink several times: is that his second button missing?

A rush of stupid, useless hope floods your veins; which turns into corrosive acid as the day comes to an end and he doesn't seek you out.

Did you imagine it?

Was it just a bizarre accident?

Worst of it all: could he have given it to someone else?

Sakai takes one look at your face and asks no questions, although her fists clench under her desk. When Tsuda and Inaba try talking to you, she diverts their attention as best as she can. At one point, when Tsuda and Inaba are too busy to pay you any mind at all, she elbows you.

"I know I said I wasn't going to pry and I don't plan to, but if you need me to push the asshole down the stairs, just say so."

You shake your head: a part of you feels grateful for her concern, however violently she decides to display it.

Mostly, though, you just feel numb.

Feeling will return afterwards, lying on your bed, the ceiling of your bedroom a widescreen of the last few weeks' events, and it will rip you to shreds, but right now you can only stare ahead without seeing anything at all.

This time, it's your mother who finds you in the middle of the night sitting at the kitchen table, your head buried in your arms, your shoulders shaking, choked sobs slicing through your throat. She wraps her arms around your shoulders, like she used to when you were little after a nightmare; like you used to do for her after he left for good, when the strength that kept her together throughout the day seemed to abandon her at nightfall.

For a while, neither says anything: you let her hold you as everything you've tried to keep buried deep inside of you seems about to burst out all at once. Her fingers run through your hair softly, her cheek resting against your head, her warmth seeping into your skin.

"Sweetie, this… this is not about volleyball, is it?"

You can only shake your head, your body still convulsing by broken sobs. She waits for a moment longer, before she smacks her lips, a hesitant air about her:

"Is it… is it about your father? About how he didn't go to your games when you played at Tokyo?"

That comes so out of left field for you – you can scarcely remember the last time she's mentioned him out of her own volition – that it cuts your sobbing short.

The possibility of your father showing up to your games didn't even cross your mind once. It's been a long time since you've stopped thinking of Tokyo as the place where your father resides with his not-so-new family; it's been a long time since you've stopped thinking of your father at all unless somebody brings it up.

"No, that's… that's not it at all, Mom." You make an effort to speak, because you can only imagine the effort it took her to ask you that. "It's got nothing to do with–"

But you fall silent when it dawns on you, after all these years of watching your mother's silent suffering that you could not share or quite comprehend.

"Mom, did you… did you still love him? Even after everything… Did you still love him? Is that why it hurt you so much when he left?"

She stares at you, taken aback. It takes her a while to get her bearings, and then she nods, a rueful smile on her lips.

"Yes. It wouldn't have hurt half as much if I hadn't."

"He was an asshole."

She sighs. "Well, there's no denying that. But I still loved him." Her shoulders raise and fall in a shrug. "The heart has reasons that reason understands not, I guess. You'll figure it out when–" Her words get cut short as she tilts her head and regards you with wide, almost unbelieving eyes, her mouth slightly open, the world rearranging itself on its axis. Whatever she sees in your eyes turns her incredulity into sympathy. "Oh, sweetie. Who has broken your heart like this?"

Said like that it sounds trite and out of a shoujo manga and it makes you start sobbing like a moron again. She pulls you closer so you can bury your face in her shoulder and, little by little, pieces of the story start coming out of your mouth without any semblance of order or logic. At first, you sort of make an effort to keep certain crucial details vague, but in the end you just slip.

"…and then when I asked him if we were the make-believe he needed to let go of or not, he said that he didn't know…"

You're holding each other so tight that's impossible for you not to feel it when she tenses and you freeze up, but her fingers keep caressing your hair as though nothing strange had come to pass.

"And what happened next?" She asks, her voice calm and normal and somehow, you go on with your story, no longer bothering to keep pronouns gender neutral.

Once the tears seem to have finally run out, she hands over a tissue and squeezes your shoulder.

"There's no easy remedy for this," she says. "I wish there was some magic formula to make all the pain go away, but there's not." She pushes a strand of hair off your forehead with a caress. "And as hard as it might be to believe it right now, one day… one day you might even be grateful, that you got to feel this pain. One day, when you meet the right person, when you fall in love again, it might even feel like it was worth it."

You can feel the frown showing on your forehead and she is at least right on one account: you can't quite believe there'll be a time when this pain will feel worthwhile at all.

"What good could come from pain? I mean, are you gonna tell me that you're glad of what he put you through?"

"Well, not exactly," she admits and then her eyes lock on yours with fierce intensity. "But it got me you and I wouldn't trade it for the world."

Later, she walks you to your bedroom, her arm still wrapped around your shoulders and it's stupid and childish, but it does comfort you. It's not until you reach your door that she speaks again.

"Hmm, I know it might be a bit tactless of me to ask you this right now, but…"

A sudden flash of Genzo's lecturing you on safe sex makes you really dread her next words.

"The boy who used to come by all the time, the one who was tutoring you, Tsukishima-kun… It's him, isn't it?"

It's not as terrible as you dreaded, but your skin's still set ablaze.

"Eh… he didn't actually tutor me, Mom."

You can see the exact moment when she starts to rethink the uselessness of her open door rule when she's only ever applied it to girls, and you're grateful that she doesn't ask you anything else.

Sleep still takes a long time to claim you that night.