Watari plopped down next to him on the bus, a brittle smile on his lips. His tears had dried up long before they’d left the stadium; it seemed taking Kindaichi aside, as the only senpai to have shed as many tears as the first-year had, and grieving through the loss together had done him wonders. The smile might have been bitter, but at least he was smiling.
“Next year we’ll win,” he declared, shoving Yahaba’s shoulder as encouragement, to pull him out of his brooding. The words he said seemed like baseless confidence more than anything, but then he surprised Yahaba when he added, “We’ll be counting on you to take us to the top, Captain.”
Finally he unfolded his arms and stopped staring sulkily out the window. “Captain?” he repeated, incredulous, shaking his head. It sounded preposterous; he didn’t know how to lead.
Watari’s smile didn’t falter. “Yeah. Of course. You know, I… saw what you did off the court. For Kyoutani,” he elaborated, when Yahaba only looked confused.
Both their eyes trailed towards the seat two across, which Kyoutani had occupied all by himself. The third-years had chosen to sit together and the first-years were still rather nervous around him, after all. He’d used the extra space as leg room, kicking back with his head against the window to rest. Even in sleep he was scowling, looking stuffy and irritated in his cramped space.
Yahaba shrugged, looking away. “That wasn’t anything special. Anyone could have done it.”
“But you did,” Watari pointed out, shaking his head. “You psyched him up, got him to focus, put his head in the game. That’s more important than what you’re giving yourself credit for.”
“But Captain?” Yahaba argued, looking unconvinced. He’d messed up in the game, after all, and he wasn’t anywhere near as skilled as Oikawa. He didn’t think he had anything special about him that would rally the team to gather under his wing.
“Coach saw what happened, too, you know,” he told him pointedly. “He looked impressed, too. There’s a lot more to being captain than just skill – which you do have – like the resilience to win and convince others to do the same.”
“Mmm… I’m still not going to hold my breath,” he argued, leaning back against his seat again. Looking out the window, at the stadium that was getting farther away as the bus finally moved, he sighed.
“Guess I’ll hold mine for you, then,” Watari insisted, grinning.
The bus turned out of the parking lot, and the stadium disappeared completely from view.
At the start of their third year, their coach took Yahaba aside and named him captain after all. He was dazed at the news, and even Watari’s congratulatory cream puffs didn’t really snap him out of it.
Watari wasn’t the kind of boy to say I told you so, so instead he clapped his teammate on the shoulder and grinned. “I’m happy for you.”
Yahaba still wasn’t convinced as he slid open the door to the gymnasium, but finding himself suddenly surrounded by the new second-years certainly made things seem more real.
“I heard you were named captain,” Kindaichi exclaimed, looking excited on his behalf.
“Congratulations,” Kunimi spoke up from behind him, mindlessly swatting at his bangs. But even he managed a smile.
Yahaba’s answering smile felt wobbly but warm, like he was still unsure of himself and his ability to lead, like he still couldn’t understand why he’d been chosen out of all the possible candidates. But with this team, it seemed like it would be okay.
The clanging sounds of the gym door shutting behind them burst his bubble, as they all turned to watch Kyoutani quietly shuffle in. He hadn’t changed a bit during the break; same messy uniform, with his tie hanging loose and his sleeves rolled up to his elbows, and the same wild hair. The same perpetual frown on his face.
He glanced up to meet their stares, and surprisingly the first thing his eyes did was find Yahaba. He stared.
Yahaba wasn’t sure why he suddenly felt so defensive. It wasn’t as if Kyoutani had done anything, or even said anything yet. But still he took a step back, feeling discomfort prick at him that he hid behind his frown, and huffed, “What?”
He didn’t say anything for a moment, and finally his eyes trailed away towards the rest of the team, who were all still watching him silently. Unlike Yahaba, his discomfort was apparent on his face; it was in the way his gaze hardened and his lips shriveled, in the way he shuffled from one foot to the other or stared at the ground.
Then a single word, barely audible and much too gruff to match the sentiment behind it, tumbled past his lips. “…Congrats.”
He bid a hasty retreat, shoving his way past them to change for practice, and left his stunned teammates in his wake. Both Kindaichi and Kunimi seemed mildly surprised to see their wild card actually behaving for once, even though the third-years, and specifically Iwaizumi, were no longer around. Watari was the first to break the silence, and the smile on his face could have brightened up a night sky.
“It’s official then, I guess,” he laughed, clapping Yahaba on the shoulder. “The team has come to a consensus. You’re the captain.”
“I… uhh… yeah,” Yahaba agreed, semi-dazed as he stared at the general direction of the changing rooms.
It was Kindaichi who first came to him, fidgeting one practice as he mentioned to his new captain that he kind of wanted to practice combos with Kyoutani to use in a match, so that they could be synced when they needed it.
“I think it’s a good idea,” Yahaba approved thoughtfully, wiping sweat off his brow. He chanced a glance at Kyoutani, who had situated himself at a corner of the gym to practice his haphazard serves on his own. It seemed becoming a team player was not an overnight transformation; he was still awkward and grizzly and terrifying to the second-years, and neither party was willing to make the first move.
“Um, so… could you talk to him?” Kindaichi requested, rubbing the back of his neck and looking away.
Yahaba set down his towel, taken aback. “Me?”
“Well, uh, he seems to… listen to you?” Kindaichi stuttered, looking a little embarrassed to be needing a middle man for something like this. But he still didn’t have the courage to approach Kyoutani on his own. “I mean, out of everyone, he’ll do what you say the most.”
“Me?” Yahaba repeated, then shook his head. “I’m not so sure about that.”
“He comes to practice on time, doesn’t he? After you lectured him that one time? And he helps clean up after.”
Yahaba still didn’t think that meant he was suddenly the Kyoutani-whisperer. He was simply the captain, and so his words held more weight than they had before and, therefore, the team listened to him more readily than ever. But still, he was reminded once again that he was the captain, and so no matter how much he might have wanted to argue with Kindaichi’s logic, settling disputes and creating bonds between the team members were part of his duties.
“I’ll see what I can do,” he sighed, tossing his towel aside, and Kindaichi waited eagerly in place for him to return.
Kyoutani looked over when he approached, catching the ball in his arms and narrowing his eyes. It was either a sign of hostility or simply a curious look, and while once he would have automatically assumed the former, Yahaba had a strange feeling that now it was the latter.
“Practicing all alone?” he commented, raising an eyebrow.
Maybe they were both reminded of their last Spring High match, the game that had changed both their views on how a team should be in various ways, because Kyoutani glanced away. “I need to work on my serve.”
“Well, I won’t argue if you’re just trying to improve where you think you need to.” Yahaba shrugged. “But maybe you should put in more effort with your teammates. Kindaichi, for example.” He nodded over his shoulder, to the waiting second-year, and when Kyoutani only looked slightly puzzled, he explained, “He’d like to practice with you, work on some attacks. You should try.”
He kicked at the ground, then surprisingly asked, “Are you asking me or are you telling me?”
Yahaba considered that. If he was telling, then he risked the chance of inciting Kyoutani’s rebellious side, and if he was asking, then there was a chance of Kyoutani refusing him outright. So he stuck with the truth: “Mmm, a little bit of both?”
He stared at him, the volleyball squeezed between his hands, his eyes narrowing further. Then, without a word, he stalked around the captain, strangely taking extra care not to bump his shoulder as he did so, and made a beeline straight for Kindaichi.
Yahaba watched him go in dazed shock. He’d honestly only half expected his words to work, and certainly not to work so quickly at that. After all, there had been a time when Kyoutani never listened to him at all, or even outright ignored him. He’d expected the same to happen today.
Kindaichi flashed him a relieved smile over his shoulder as the two boys claimed a side of the net for their practice, one of gratitude and even slight awe, like he’d just worked a miracle.
He felt a little bit like he had.
Word somehow made its way around the team, and soon Yahaba found himself buried in requests by his teammates to act as a passageway between them and the unapproachable Mad Dog-chan.
It was mostly a fear surrounding the new first-years, who were already intimidated by their new senpai even without the scruffy third-year around to knock their knees. They clung to their captain for security, especially as there were rumors that no one handled Kyoutani quite like he did.
But even Kunimi approached him with complaints once or twice, even with simple requests like asking Kyoutani to help him gather up the balls after practice. And once, the Coach had asked Yahaba to please track down and drag Kyoutani back when he had failed to show up.
“You’re the new Iwaizumi-senpai,” Watari liked to laugh, not the least bit sympathetic with Yahaba’s grumbling. “It’s good, isn’t it? That he looks up to you? A captain needs to command respect.”
“I know, but…” He shrugged, because he wasn’t really sure what the problem was. It should have been a good thing if their wild card was suddenly allowing himself to be tamed, even if it was by Yahaba of all people. But it rubbed him in all the wrong ways that suddenly he could.
“I think…” Watari mused, finger on his chin, leaning against the rooftop fence, “that you still resent him a little.”
He frowned, not following.
“About the way he used to be.” The libero nodded, as if sure that he’d hit the nail on the head. “He had a bad attitude, right? And he would constantly get in fights with the senpai. Then he disappeared for so long, and that attitude still wasn’t fixed even when he came back. And so now he’s trying to change, and you can’t accept that so easily.”
Yahaba huffed, looking away when Watari just smiled innocently. No one would have liked to hear a tale spun so that they were suddenly the bad guy, after all. He wondered whether it was true – whether he refused to accept that Kyoutani wanted to change, to become a team player, simply because of how bitter their relationship had been in the past. He didn’t want to think so, but Watari’s words made a frustrating amount of sense.
“Maybe…” he relented, and wondered whether he was any less of a captain for admitting it.
Halfway through the lunch period, he wandered into the courtyard for juice to quench his thirst. As he sucked it through a straw, almost crushing the box in on itself in his eagerness, a scene outside the teacher’s lounge bid him to stop.
“No more sleeping in class, you hear, Kyoutani?” he heard, and watched as his very own scowling teammate exited the lounge, a plastic bag filled with bread clutched in his hand.
Their eyes met unexpectedly. Or maybe not so unexpectedly, since they were the only two in the empty hallway.
Yahaba felt like he should say something. “Uhh… haven’t had lunch yet?”
Kyoutani frowned, glaring over his head. Of course he hadn’t had lunch, after spending half of it getting chewed out by his teacher. It was possibly not his smoothest conversation starter.
Still, he watched Kyoutani fidget, watched him look up and down the hall uncomfortably, and felt oddly moved that he hadn’t simply ignored him and stalked off. He probably would have back when they had been first-years. The thought reminded him of what Watari had said up on the roof, about Kyoutani trying to change and how he refused to see it.
Pulling his straw out of his mouth, he hesitantly offered, “Um, me and Watari are having lunch on the roof. Wanna… join us?”
He jerked from the shock, twisting the plastic bag in his hand, before nodding curtly. “Yeah, sure.”
Watari seemed surprised but pleased to see that Kyoutani trailed after him when he returned, carefully observing the unfamiliar territory that was the roof. He stiffened when the boys moved over to make a circle and offered him a place, but then quickly took the empty space for himself.
He seemed content with just quietly scarfing down his food and letting the two talk, and so for a while the only noises were him ripping open his bread and Watari and Yahaba discussing school and PE and the team and the game last night.
When they brought up the idea of a practice match that afternoon, Yahaba frowned and turned towards Kyoutani. “You were late to practice this morning,” he scolded him, not having had a chance to do so earlier. “You should set an earlier alarm if you need to.”
Watari stiffened when he saw the answering scowl, holding up his hands as if to appease him. “Come on, Yahaba. Not when we’re all nicely having lunch. I’m sure he’ll reflect on it–”
“It’s not just this morning,” Yahaba argued, crushing his juice box in his hand. “He’s been skipping every now and then. He’s late more and more. The first-years are going to start thinking it’s okay. And it disrupts practice!”
Watari seemed to have a rebuttal, looking distressed by the sudden change in atmosphere, but he was beaten to it.
“The newbies,” Kyoutani grunted suddenly, to both their surprise. They glanced over to find that he was intensely staring at Yahaba, though he dropped his gaze to his bread when their eyes met. He fidgeted where he sat, cleared his throat, then grumbled, “The newbies… are scared of me.”
The two boys looked at each other.
“Well…” Watari began, like he wanted to say something nice or reassuring. But even he couldn’t seem to think of the proper response.
Yahaba wanted to scoff, maybe retort with something disdainful like, “Is that poor excuse really an acceptable reason?”
But the words, mumbled in the way they had been, got to him, and he really thought about it – about the dynamic of their new team, and how Kyoutani fit into it. The first-years were afraid of him, he realized. And there wasn’t even a reason for their fear; he didn’t act out in practice anymore, didn’t snap at his fellow third-years or those below him when they fumbled with a play; he didn’t scowl any more than he usually did, and Yahaba was pretty sure the light glower was just part of his face now; he was even an upstanding senpai in his own way, aside from his tardiness and truancy, because in the middle of practice matches he always had his teammates’ backs if a spike didn’t go through.
It was a fear based entirely off rumors and first appearances. And, well, who really would want to be part of a team that feared him simply for being the way he was?
“Skipping isn’t going to solve the problem at all,” he lectured him, but there was no real sternness to his voice, and the dilemma was suddenly all he could think about. Later he wondered when exactly it had become so important to him that Kyoutani was a part of the team.
It was like a silent agreement had passed between them. Kyoutani quietly showed up for practice on time that afternoon, and every practice after, and Yahaba furiously raked his brain for a solution on his behalf.
He was captain, he told himself, and team dynamics were important. During practice matches, he leveled the teams in such a way that the first-years found themselves teaming up with Kyoutani almost always, and if a member of the team approached him for volleyball help, he frequently found reasons to send them to Kyoutani instead.
“He’s not as scary as he looks,” he told them firmly, if he saw their nerves on their faces, or, “He’s willing to help, if you just ask. He’s the best player on this team, you know.”
Kyoutani never said anything about it, and for that he was grateful, or else he might have been too awkward to acknowledge it himself. But any time their eyes met, after he’d sent a trembling first-year his way for help with spiking, there was less and less hostility there – on both their ends.
And Yahaba couldn’t explain how warm he suddenly felt all over when he overheard in the locker rooms, “You know… Kyoutani-senpai isn’t as scary as I always thought!”
“What’s with your face?” Watari laughed, when he saw his wobbly smile, and Yahaba furiously wiped it off before it could embarrass him further.
The new Seijou team arrived at the Inter-High to many turned heads and hurried whispers. They all heard it, and they all pretended not to, though Kindaichi looked slightly green to be at the center of attention. It was a given, after all, that losing Oikawa would make them a target for the other teams to pick on.
“We’ll show them in the match,” Yahaba stated confidently, squaring his shoulders and turning towards his team. At least, he began to, except he immediately noticed they were one less in number: Kyoutani had, predictably, been unable to ignore their gossiping opponents and was already making a beeline straight for a nearby duo, his shoulders tense and his scowl dark.
All eyes trailed towards Yahaba, but it didn’t need to be said. Sighing, he dropped his things without a word and trailed after their mad dog.
“I hear Seijou’s nothing now, without Oikawa Tooru,” he overheard, just before Kyoutani wedged himself in between the two boys and roughly grabbed them by their collars. They startled, yelped, and seemed to deflate at the murder on his face.
Just as he had shoved his face into theirs, Yahaba clapped a hand on his shoulder. “All right, that’s enough,” he scolded, and when Kyoutani visibly tried to resist, his grip tightened. “Let them go.”
His teeth scraped together, and he looked physically pained as he was forced to release them. They scrambled away in a panic, and in their bitterness, couldn’t resist turning back to call out, “Seijou sucks!”
Kyoutani made a violent motion towards them, but Yahaba was quick enough to pull him back. The indignant snarl on his face melted away when he noticed the tight smile on his captain’s face – a smile that wasn’t as forgiving as he wanted to seem, like it was the only thing keeping him from chasing those two boys himself.
He pulled Kyoutani closer, mouth next to his ear, and mumbled, “We’ll show them on the court.”
Kyoutani met his hard stare in surprise, and then nodded.
On the bus back to school, Yahaba caught Kyoutani’s eyes and gestured to the empty spot next to his on the seat. Watari had been accosted by their first-year libero in training and was currently in the middle of fierce discussion about the match, and the others were dozing or were close to.
Kyoutani seemed to hesitate for a moment, his gaze trailing over all the empty seats available, before plopping down in the offered space.
“So… we showed them.” Yahaba grinned, and then he did something he would never have seen himself doing as a first-year, something that seemed right for this moment: he playfully punched Kyoutani’s shoulder.
Their wild card had, after all, completely shut down their opponents without any mercy to speak of, and both their matches today, they had won in only two sets. They had been extremely satisfying victories.
“Yeah,” Kyoutani grunted, rubbing his arm almost in wonder. “We did.”
“Don’t look so surprised. I told you we would.” He smirked. “You played well. With the team, I mean.”
“The team played well with me,” he replied automatically, and if it was possible, he seemed even more awed at that. Finding Yahaba’s eyes, he muttered, “You played well with me, too.”
“Um…” He rubbed the back of his neck and wondered why he felt so warm there. “We did. Because we’re teammates.”
“We weren’t before,” he murmured, in thought. The frown on his face seemed far away.
Yahaba thought he understood what he meant. This really had been the first time they had been a team, the first time they had stood on a court together from start to finish with the intention to win together. There had been a moment like that in last year’s Spring High, too, but he didn’t think that counted with how strained their relationship had still been after. But today had been the first time, and he was sure it was the first of many.
“We are now,” he insisted, grinning slightly. Kyoutani didn’t smile back, but he awkwardly looked away and that was just as good.
The bus hit a bump in the road, and he stifled an exhausted yawn after the impact moved them just a little closer together on the seat. Without warning, he plopped his head down on Kyoutani’s shoulder. The boy stiffened underneath him, but he couldn’t see the shock that was most likely on his face since his eyes had already fluttered shut.
“Hold still,” he mumbled sleepily, getting comfortable. “Captain’s orders.”
And the boy who had been dubbed Mad Dog actually held still the whole way home.