Futakuchi will never acknowledge this out loud but, at times like these, he understands why Moniwa used to beg Nametsu-san for aspirins: the team's level of hysterics and generalized overexcitement right before a match have turned into a taiko recital against his temples.
Fukiage and Koganegawa get their hands on a ball for practice, but they toss it so high they almost smash a light. When Futakuchi tells them to at least try not to toss the ball for the moon to spike, Koganegawa's self-esteem as a setter goes into crisis mode, and now Sakamichi is patting him on the back —as high as he can reach, at least— to cheer him up. Futakuchi tries to explain that it was a joke, but the memory of that ball that Koganegawa sent to Mars is still very fresh on his mind, because the boy keeps bowing and mumbling it won't happen again, and he won't let someone spike through his block like Seijo's ace did last year, and that he doesn't want to taint the good name of the Iron Wall. It gets to a point when Futakuchi can only nod, drag his hand over his face, and let the libero comfort him as well as he can.
He's pretty sure that he'll recover before the match.
In the meantime Fukiage, amid the confusion, disappeared somewhere, and Futakuchi takes advantage of his position to delegate the task of finding him to a first year kid whose name he hasn't learnt yet. Obara at the very least isn't getting into any trouble, lying on his back with his eyes closed in deep concentration. Regrettably though, his concentration ritual before the matches involves listening to K-Pop at such a volume that it nullifies any usefulness his headphones could have. He exchanges a glance with Aone, whose resignation seems to have already reached Zen levels today. Fukiage then reappears running at top speed and Futakuchi has to grab him by his shirt's collar when he runs past him so he doesn't bump into one of Kakugawa's players, and what the hell do the first years have for breakfast?
(If his old senpai were here, they'd be sure to tell him that he was so much worse, but they're not so he keeps grumbling mentally like an old man.)
Nametsu-san, an angel among all the managers, vanished fifteen minutes ago with the excuse of getting energy drinks and he doesn't blame her in the slightest. And now that he thinks of it, the first year that he sent to look for Fukiage hasn't returned. Great.
"Aone…?" He nods, no need for Futakuchi to add anything else, and he goes in search of their lost sheep, and why can't everyone be as quiet and useful as Aone.
(He's pretty certain that Moniwa used to say exactly the same thing, looking at him as though he were the sum of all of a mother's disappointments, but whatever.)
When he checks again that none of his own are setting anything on fire or getting into a fight with Karasuno's shaved-head or anything of the sort, he relaxes long enough to watch the other teams fluttering around Sendai's gym. A new year, a new Inter High and many of the teams are wildly different from the last time he's seen them. Dateko keeps the same starting lineup from the Spring High, but those teams whose third years didn't leave until the very last second are now full of replacements and new variables to take into consideration. Wakutani, from what he sees, is full of new people: he can barely recognize one or two players from sight; whereas Johzenji was an all-second-years team last year so there're almost no changes in their formation. It's not a particularly good team, but their bizarre manner of all of them going after the ball can be a pain in the ass.
His gaze sweeps around and halts for a moment on the black and orange bunch that makes up Karasuno: there's a rematch that, because of Aobajousai, they could not pay back in the last tournament. He doesn't quite recall the new captain, but something about him makes Futakuchi think that there're only two options: either the team clones its captains, or he's making a huge effort to mimic as best as possible the aura of unflappable impassivity of his former captain. When he meets Futakuchi's gaze, he holds it and gives him a slight bow, before he turns to shout something at the shaved-head and the libero. Even with the departure of the third years, Karasuno doesn't seem that different, although he spots a couple of boys that, judging from their wide-eyed gazes drinking everything around them, must be first years. Aone returns after placing their lost boy back in the constant ruckus of Dateko's first year bunch, and Futakuchi doesn't have to turn around to know where his friend's gaze wanders to, drawn by a magnet.
A magnet in the shape of a midget barely over 1.60cm with an orange mop on his head, whose jersey no longer carries a number 10 but a 7, but who will always be Karasuno's number 10. In that moment, he's talking to Karasuno's other middle blocker, the one who actually has got the height to be one, practically gesturing with his whole body, and Futakuchi blinks: is he seeing double or what?
Next to the no-longer-number-10, stands another figure with an orange mop on its head, even tinier if possible, and who, instead of the black and orange uniform, wears a summer dress with ruffles and some tights underneath.
"Oh my God, there're two of them?"
The little girl —because yes, apparently she's not the midget's clone but a child eerily similar to the boy he assumes to be her brother— has her arms crossed over her chest and she's tapping the floor with the tip of her shoe, in the universal move of the children who have started to lose their patience. Her pout is reflected on her brother's face.
"C'moooooooon, Tsukishimaaaaaaa, don't be so stingy, it's nothing to you. It's just for a spin. Natsu doesn't weigh much more than a couple of volleyballs."
But the bespectacled blond shakes his head, his nose up in the air and his arms crossed over his chest in a way that replicates the little girl's. A freckled boy by his side is doing a very poor job of concealing his snickering.
The child uncrosses her arms, stomps her foot on the ground and Futakuchi steels himself but, instead of bursting into ear-splitting crying, she begins to tug on the hem of the middle blocker's jersey, as though she could make him bend to her level by sheer force.
"Natsu, don't. Even if he's so stingy, you can't stretch his jersey: Yachi-san has a hard time keeping them in good shape."
At that, the kid's pout grows more dangerous than ever and now it's certain, the shrieking is about to begin. Toughened by dealing with his younger cousins, Futakuchi is already raising his hands to cover his ears, when he feels a sudden movement by his side and, to his astonishment, sees Aone approach the group with his silent strides. They're so immersed in their argument that it takes them a while to take in his presence and then, without uttering a single word as usual, Aone crouches down and bends his head. The siblings exchange a wide-eyed glance, before the boy clears his throat.
"Ehhhh… it's very nice of you, Aone-kun. Are you sure?"
"…you didn't bother asking me that," mutters the blond in a very audible way. His teammate shamelessly ignores him.
When Aone for all answer nods, the little girl looks once more at her brother, who shrugs and helps her climb on Aone's shoulders.
"Captain, what… what is Aone-senpai doing?"
Futakuchi discards the first three answers that come to mind and shrugs as Aone gives mini-orange mop a ride on his shoulders, the older version walking by his side. The little girl looks like she's at the summit of happiness, stretching her arms as though flying, the tinkle of her laughter rising above the ruckus of teenaged boys' voices. Her brother has to take one step and a half for each one of Aone's strides, almost skipping. He and the kid seem to be carrying on the conversation, the timbre of their voices blending in the distance, while Aone seems content just keeping them company in silence.
He doesn't smile, not in a way noticeable to anyone who doesn't know him as well as Futakuchi does.
Nametsu-san returns at long last carrying the energy drinks and a message from the coach. She shoots Aone one bemused look, blinks rapidly and seems to discard it to go on with her tasks: it's not the strangest thing the Dateko team has subjected her to in the last few years. Futakuchi talks to her for a while about the coach's instructions. By the corner of his eye, though, he catches a slight commotion in Karasuno's corner, when their setter gets back from who knows where, a juice carton in his hand, and he stops dead in his tracks as he reaches his team; his scowl looks engraved by fire. He looks around, his eyes getting more and more narrowed, and the bespectacled boy and the freckled one begin to snicker without any subtlety.
"Did you lose something, Kageyama?" the blond one says in a clear voice. The glare the setter throws at him is pure corrosive acid. Futakuchi starts to pay attention because, c'mon: it's a free spectacle, and for once it's not the morons on his own team at the center of it.
"Where did that dumbass go off to? Did he go to the toilet again? He knows he can't go on his own."
(Futakuchi and Nametsu exchange a look —yes, she loves other people's drama as much as he does, but she conceals it better— because what the hell, but no one on Karasuno looks weirded out.)
"No, no, c'mon, do you really think we'd let him go to the toilet on his own at this point?" says the libero clad all in orange, as though it was remotely normal to escort a sixteen-ish-year-old boy to the toilet. "He took Natsu on a stroll. Well, actually…"
He can tell the exact moment in which the setter's gaze sets on Aone and his red-headed escort, because his scowl becomes legendary. The knuckles of the hand holding the juice carton start to whiten and Futakuchi's perverse side (the 80% of his being, Sasaya would say) waits for the moment it'll blow up on his face. Shaved-head pats him on the shoulder.
"There, there, he'll take a turn around the yard with Natsu and he'll get back, don't make such a fuss."
"Shouyou always gets back to you like a boomerang, you don't have to make that conspipaped face, you know?"
"Constipated," mumbles the blond guy, as though in pain. The libero shrugs.
"You got what I meant all the same, didn't you?"
Futakuchi has to momentarily tear his attention away from the drama when a guy on Johzenji makes a passing comment to Nametsu-san that, perhaps in some alternate universe could pass for a compliment, but not in this one. In the blink of an eye, all of Dateko is on the edge of war, even Obara, who seems to still be able to listen even with K-Pop blasting in his ears (he'll take it into account for future reference). Last Inter High, when Moniwa was still the captain, Futakuchi would've had no trouble in being the first to make a few things clear to that asshole, but now he has the responsibility to prevent his teammates from leaving a puddle of blood on the ground right before a match.
This whole responsibility stuff sucks.
Johzenji's guy is spooked enough with the entire Iron Wall closing in on him and he wastes no time babbling some apologies, and I really meant it as a compliment, I meant no offense. Nametsu-san rolls her eyes.
"Drop it, guys, it's not worth it, it's far too stupid. You'll get your chance to crush him on the court."
(No one has ever said that Nametsu-san was characterized by her compassion.)
The guy flees at the first opportunity, but not before Futakuchi takes the chance to advise him into investing his money in gravure magazines, because as for a real girl, he's never going to get one.
(He's not that magnanimous either, so what.)
When he pays attention again, he sees that Karasuno's setter is still glued to the spot, the juice carton still intact but a black cloud pretty much crackling with electricity over his head. The rest of his team pays him no mind, except for the manager, who keeps throwing anxious glances at him and twisting her hands.
(Not the manager that looked like a supermodel but the other one, the tiny, nervous-looking blonde.)
At long last, Aone and his company finish taking the turn around the yard, and he bends down so the girl, with much giggling, can get off her tall steed.
"What do you say, Natsu?"
"Thank you very much, Aone-kun! You're so much nicer than Tsukishima-kun."
"Natsu, you shouldn't… oh well, it's not like it isn't true. Aone is way nicer than Tsukishima."
And the boy beams at Aone, and he could go for a career in toothpaste advertising if volleyball doesn't work out for him.
Is it his imagination or is Aone blushing a little?
"Oh my God, Aone is blushing," Nametsu-san whispers next to him; so no, it's not his imagination.
Aone bids them farewell with a bow, and almost at once the little girl runs towards the tiny blonde manager.
The look on the setter's face is one of those painting of storms and shipwrecks.
"Dumbass, don't just go off without letting me know."
"Kageyama, I didn't leave for Kamchatka, c'mon."
"Kaaaageeeeyaaaamaaa-kuuuun, you can't call my brother a 'dumbass.'"
The kid tilts her head, as though judging the validity of his apology. In the end, she seems to deem it good enough because she nods and turns her attention back to the manager, gesturing a lot with her hands and her whole body, just like her big brother. The tiny blonde looks somewhat overwhelmed at the constant singsong of her childish tinkling voice that never ceases to shoot questions and commentary, without pausing for breath.
No one comes to her rescue, no matter how many desperate looks the manager throws at her surroundings: the kid's brother looks too engulfed in his setter's stormy aura. To Futakuchi's surprise, instead of yelling or getting a vein to explode on his temple, the setter just hands over the juice carton to him. The redhead blinks several times, his mouth slightly open.
"I… thought the machine had run out of this juice."
The setter raises one of his shoulders and lets it drop.
"The one at the other end of the yard still had some."
Futakuchi wouldn't know how to describe the mini-middle blocker's expression without resorting to something ridiculous, like saying that his whole face seems to light up like a high intensity spotlight that hurts your eyesight. Maybe Karasuno's setter is thinking along the same lines, because his face twists in a very weird manner. He lowers his gaze, perhaps to hide behind his black fringe, but that doesn't conceal the red tips of his ears.
From the corner of his eye, he sees that Aone is now standing close to Koganegawa and the rest of the troublesome first years, but his gaze has wandered towards Karasuno's mini-middle blocker. Nametsu-san elbows him in a very unnecessary manner because, beyond his duties as a captain, Futakuchi doesn't need to be reminded of his duties as a friend.
That doesn't mean he has any clue what to say to Aone right now, of course. How do you tell someone, in a way that doesn't sound terrible: I'm so sorry that the midget you're so obsessed with is obsessed with his own setter?
But he walks towards him all the same and punches him without any force on his shoulder, striking his best Dateko's troublesome child pose, with his hands on his hips.
"You're not going to go all softie in front of Karasuno, are you?"
Aone raises the muscles that would belong to his eyebrows, if he had them, in a gesture that Futakuchi reads as no way.
"We're good, then."
He doesn't say it like a question, but if he can read Aone, the same happens the other way around. He glances over Futakuchi's shoulder, to where the Karasuno team is now standing in a half-circle, listening to their captain giving them a last minute pep talk, perhaps. The mini-middle blocker is sipping his juice, so close to the setter he might be leaning on him. Futakuchi, much to his own chagrin, clicks his tongue just like his grandma, but Aone shrugs and nods. Futakuchi smiles, baring all of his teeth.
"Then we'd better crush Ougiminami so we can go after Karasuno next."
Aone doesn't smile in a way evident to anyone who doesn't know him well.
But Futakuchi knows him well enough.