players: Kim Minseok/Xiumin, Lu Han/Luhan, Zhang Yixing/Lay, Kim Jongdae/Chen, Huang Zitao/Tao, Song Qian/Victoria, Amber Liu
word count: 6,700
warnings: long-winded step-by-step athletic instructions, potentially inaccurate sportsplay
summary: (Sports AU) Jongdae just wants to play volleyball.
a/n: Originally written for Chenpionships. (Original post here.) I've learned that I do not know Chen or Tao well enough to write appropriately. I tried. I searched inside myself for cattiness.
Seriously, though, has anyone else noticed how much Nishinoya looks like Minseok?
Graduating high school was easy. Getting into sports university was easy. Classes were easy. Making friends was easy. Even joining the volleyball team, one of the best in the nation, was easy. Jongdae thought everything was hunky-dory until he met the rest of the team and came face-to-face with the cattiest—and hottest, God damn—setter he'd ever seen.
Huang Zitao was soft-spoken with a voice that did not match his face or muscles, but his attitude spoke volumes. It said I'm a huge dickface.
When Jongdae introduced himself as an attacker, Zitao's eyes narrowed, and Jongdae resisted the urge to cover himself when he was looked over critically. What's the big deal? They were going to be working together. Jongdae wasn't short, but he wasn't exactly tall either; it couldn't be his height that had his team mate scoffing.
He steered clear of Zitao when he could, hanging around the other players. He's a bit surprised when the manager of the team, a smiley girl named Amber, told him the setter was the youngest on the team.
“No wonder he's such a brat,” Jongdae snorted, reaching for his toes while sitting on the floor. Amber smacked him with her clipboard but smiled.
The whistle blew, and the players split up to run drills. Jongdae was pleased that he wasn't in the same group as Zitao. The punk would probably set up impossible hits.
They were on opposite sides of the net—split into rookies and veterans—the two halves each using half of the court to practice spiking. It gave Jongdae a great vantage point to ogle the lean muscles and amazing derrière that wasn't even remotely modest in the regulation volleyball shorts.
Zitao was dedicated, that much was obvious. He wore a mask of fierce concentration, watching his team mate's approach critically before tossing the ball into the air and catching it on his fingertips, bending his elbows, and launching back at just the right place for the spiker to cup it with their open palm and slam it to the floor. With the variation of strength and height, the balls hit all over the half of the court, but no one hit outside the lines.
He returned his attention to the other setter and waited for his nod and watched the toss as he sprinted to the net and launched himself up from the floor.
This was the greatest part of volleyball. Once Jongdae's feet pushed off the floor, he was flying. He soared high above the net and was reaching for the brilliant lights and completely missed the ball.
His team mates were awestruck and dumbstruck. He'd looked so good in the air … .
Lu Han, the outside hitter, laughed and slapped Zitao on the back. “He jumps as high as you!”
“Almost,” Zitao mumbled. He dribbled the volleyball between his hands. His voice rang clearly over the animated din of the other rookie players surrounding Jongdae. “What are you even doing?”
“This isn't track and field. You completely missed the ball.”
“That-That might've been my fault. I didn't know where to toss it … ” the young setter stammered. Jongdae slung an arm around his shoulders.
“It's not a big deal. It's my first toss; we'll get it.”
Zitao frowned. He shrugged off Lu Han's restraining hand and ducked beneath the net. Jongdae completely ignored the way his shorts rode up a little. “It is a big deal.”
“Give him a break.”
“I'm not talking about him. We can work with technique, but it's hopeless if there's no talent. You,” Zitao poked Jongdae's chest with a finger, “worry about your attitude and focus.”
“My attitude? Like you're one to talk, princess!”
Behind the net, Lu Han was pushing Yixing to intervene. “Go, Captain, and fulfil your duty!”
But Yixing didn't have to step in. Zitao backed off with a final “Get serious, or get out.”
Miraculously, Jongdae made it through practice without doing anything too damaging—such as spiking the ball right into Zitao's face.
He tried to spin a volleyball on his fingers as he chatted with Yixing after practice. “Is he always so intense?”
“Zitao.” He said the name with the same tone he said broccoli or oysters, like it was something disgusting and would upset his digestion.
Yixing grinned and shook his head. He had a charming single dimple in his cheek; Jongdae wanted to poke it. “Just about volleyball, maybe, but he's really sweet.”
“Him, sweet?” The setter's dark face and slanted eyes that reminded Jongdae of the evil cat his friend's mom had affectionately named “Mr Snugglewhiskers.” Admittedly, if he'd been named that, Jondgae doubted he'd look all that happy, either. “Then why does he always pick on me?” At the captain's shrug, Jongdae whined. “Hyung!”
Minseok stood and hooked his hands behind his back to stretch his arms. “Okay, guys! Clean up, then go home. We'll start early, tomorrow.”
“How early is 'early'?” Jongdae held a hand out to help Yixing to his feet.
“Eight!” Minseok threw a towel at Yixing.
“All my team mates pick on me,” Jongdae moaned, tottering over to Amber to toss an armful of volleyballs into the bin.
She laughed, tucking her pen behind her ear. “Just because you're new. If you don't react, they'll stop. After a while, they'll go back to teasing Zitao. He's always the easiest target.”
“Really?” Jongdae was not convinced. The setter had an almost dangerous aura, like a ninja. Jongdae expected to see him leap ten feet into the air any moment, poof into smoke, and reappear on the opposite side of the court to return his own serve.
“He's nice once you get to know him. Really. Give him a chance.” She shrugged. “Or, you could skip right to bribery, which I would not recommend. He's not cheap.”
Jongdae kind of liked cheap men.
Jongdae shrieked as a volleyball rocketed out of nowhere and nose-dived into the bin, pushing it into Jongdae's hip.
“Nice shot, Taozi!”
The setter waved and tossed another volleyball into the air, slamming the heel of his palm into it and sending it rocketing towards them. Jongdae held up his arms, stepping back when the ball struck his forearms, but laughed when he saw it bounced among its brethren. “Assistance points!”
“Doesn't count in volleyball,” Amber commented.
“It should. I'd rack up a lot.”
“Attackers usually do the best in terms of scoring points.”
“Yeah, well many of my hits were blocked when I played, so … I'd do more assisting than anything else.”
“Hey. Long as you win, right?”
“That's my thought.”
There was one practice where Jongdae seriously considered quitting. He really did not see wanting to have fun as such a bad thing, but it was apparently against the morals and ethics of Zitao's Volleyball Lifestyle.
Jongdae asked Lu Han to toss for him, to get more practice in during the short break, and he saw Zitao chatting with Amber. He looked upset and pouty, gesturing to the court Amber shrugged and didn't look very apologetic. She sent him a smile, and Jongdae realised Zitao was complaining about him.
“Worry about my focus, huh?” He nodded to Lu Han. “Toss it.”
It's best to spike a ball at it's highest point, where it's certain to make it over the net. The angle of the arm and height of the jump are what direct the ball. Jongdae imagined a red crosshair on Zitao's head and pounded his fist into the lofted ball.
There were some shouts of warning. Jongdae should have angled the ball better, because even if the guy was a total jerk, taking off his head with a volleyball was probably considered overkill.
Regardless, Zitao's quick reflexes saved him. He laced his fingers together and brought his forearms before this face, blocking the ball and killing it on the floor. He did not look thrilled, but he settled for glaring daggers rather than throwing them at Jongdae and consenting to Amber's worried examination of his reddened arms.
Jongdae had to run laps for the stunt, but he felt kind of better.
A shrill whistle cut through the air after beginning stretches and drills. Song Qian, assistant coach and manager, hollerred for the team to finish picking up stray balls, take down the nets, and then migrate to the weight room down the hall from the gymnasium.
The team shuffled into a semi-circle around Qian. “We're going to be spending as much time off the court as on to train you all. Volleyball isn't just about slapping a ball around hard enough to scare the opponent away. That's a dumb tactic that only works in middle school gym class.”
Jongdae noticed he wasn't the only one looking a bit sheepish and nervous.
“I know some of you know this, but there are other new faces, so consider this a refresher, and I will be relying on you to help teach the rookies. We're a team. A family. Let's treat one another well, alright?”
The team nodded and mumbled affirmatively.
It suited Qian, who nodded once and clapped her hands. “First thing's first. Positions. Everyone will serve, because positions on the court rotate. Once the ball's in play, you move to your position.” Jongdae tried to pay attention as the assistant coach rattled off positions and descriptions, but he had a terrible memory. He could look it all up online, later, but he was pretty sure he knew it all, just from actual practice.
“Each playing position has their specialities and necessary abilities. The major one is jumping. Now, defenders at the net waiting to put up a block against an attacker will have standing jumps, but the attacker,” she slapped Jongdae's back, bringing him back from his wandering thoughts, “will have a running approach.
“To maximise the height of your vertical jump, whether coming up running or just standing, is using counter-movements of the legs and arm swings, like pendulums. Both of these actions have been shown to significantly increase the body’s centre of mass rise, where your weight is balanced at zero. The counter-movement of the legs, a quick bend of the knees which lowers the centre of mass before to springing upwards,” she crouched and sprung upright in demonstration, “has been shown to improve jump height compared to jumping without the counter-movement. Furthermore, jump height can be increased even more by swinging your arms during the take off, compared to when no arm swings are utilized. So, before you jump, swing your arms back,” she demonstrated as she spoke, slowing the motion so everyone saw, “and then thrust your arms over your head as you extend your legs. Your arms will pull up on the lower body, causing the lower musculature to contract more rapidly, making you jump higher. Imagine grabbing onto the monkey bars above your head and pulling yourself up.
“Practice jumping helps train your ability to jump higher as well as your lower back strength.” She turned and fanned her fingers across the small of her back. “These muscles are what spring the body into the air. These muscles can be exercised with common workouts, such as deadlifts.” Qian clapped her hands together with a bright smile. “Which is why we're in the gym, today! Everyone pair up with a spotter and go stand by a barbell.”
As fate would have it, Jongdae was paired with Zitao after the mad scramble of rookies to latch onto a familiar person. The setter at least looked confident in the exercise—and it took a lot of confidence, in Jongdae's so humble opinion, to look confident with his ass sticking out like a side table—while the closest Jongdae had ever gotten to weightlifting of any sort were hefting his text books and his grandma's fat toy poodle. Sure, he had worked out a bit in high school, but it wasn't any serious training.
Qian continued her lecture, “We are not doing the sumo deadlift, which is where your legs are far apart with your arms between your thighs. That's for when you want to work your legs. We are focusing on your back, so, Amber, come here, please.”
Amber set her clipboard aside and stood behind the barbell. She laughed nervously and wiped her palms on her shorts.
“No worries. I'm here to help you if you need it, but this is only the weight of the bar.” Qian raised her voice and stepped behind the manager. “Keeping your back as straight as possible, never round your back, bend your knees … Not a squat, Amber, imagine your spine is a broom handle; stick your butt out.” Qian grabbed Amber's hip with one hand and pressed her palm flat against the manager's lower back with the other. “Good. Now, bend forward, and grab the bar with your hands about shoulder-width apart. Grab it how it's comfortable … . Now, take a breath, and release it as you push with your legs to stand so your back is upright again. You want to draw our shoulders back straight, military-style, chest out. Bend your knees again and lean forward at the waist—your back is still straight—and you've completed one rep! Good job, Amber.”
Amber released the barbell and straightened with a beaming smile.
“Boys, I don't care how much you can benchpress or curl. It's a new year, and I want you to prove to me you can do this lift properly before adding any weight. This is not a contest.”
Jongdae joined the others in shuffling guiltily, macho tendencies withering beneath her glare.
Amber took up her clipboard again and sat on a bench to observe and take notes.
Zitao evidently remembered the lift; he immediately took up the stance Amber had demonstrated and slammed out a couple sets before Jondgae could even figure out where he should stand.
Setting the bar down lightly, he stepped back with a nod. “Go ahead.”
Jongdae licked his lips and shuffled between Zitao and the bar. Apparently, the spotter's best place was right behind or directly in front of the lifter. Standing behind was the most distracting, because when Jongdae glanced up through his bangs and saw himself bent over, the angle of was just perfect enough to give the impression of much closer proximity between his ass and Zitao's crotch. Exactly what he needed to think about while in a weight room full of men.
“Do you need help?” It wasn't snarky at all, but the comment still stabbed Jongdae through his fantastical haze. He shook his head.
“I got it.”
He didn't got it.
He was too hasty and didn't test the balance of the bar before beginning to stand, and he listed halfway. Instinct told him to lean the other way, but he was suddenly embraced from behind. Zitao grabbed the bar and helped rebalance it. “Set it down,” he said, right beside Jongdae's ear, and they bent as one.
Jongdae forced himself to stare at his feet.
He loosened his grip when rough fingers wrapped around his hands, shifting them apart a bit more. “Always check your balance,” Zitao instructed. “The work should all be in your back, not your waist and shoulders trying to compensate.”
“Okay … .” It took extreme concentration, but Jongdae ignored the light touches to his back while the setter spoke.
The heat from Zitao disappeared, leaving Jongdae's back almost cold—that kid had to be running a constant fever—and Jongdae took a couple of breaths before straightening his back and hauling the bar up with him. He caught Zitao's smile in the mirror. “Perfect.”
So Huang Zitao wasn't all bad. He was just mostly bad. Jongdae concluded that he enjoyed showing off and showing up Jongdae with the various weightlifting Qian had them do over the weeks, although he always had a smile when Jongdae did something right.
Probably a smug, Yeah, I taught him that. smile.
On the court, he was still insufferable—mega talented, gorgeous, and cute with all the older team mates except for Jongdae—and made it his mission to make practice hell for Jongdae.
At the tweet of the whistle, everyone turned to the coach and Amber. “Good job, guys. You're looking good. In order to look even better, you all need some experience. There's a training camp coming up that I expect you all to attend. It's just the weekend—we leave Friday and return Sunday—but there's plenty of time to get acquainted with another court and team.” The coach nodded through the chatter. “The gym we'll use isn't a school gym, so we'll stay at a hotel and run there every day. Two miles.”
Everyone groaned, including Jongdae. He glanced to his right, where Zitao was hanging over Yixing's back with his face in the captain's neck. Why this made Jongdae blush, he hadn't the foggiest idea.
Jongdae remembered his dad lamenting about how much volleyball had changed since he'd played. It's only within the last 30 years or so that the teams had assigned positions and would move from their rotations. Libero, the defensive specialist who could move on and off the court freely, didn't even exist, yet. Everyone played everything.
The bare basics remained the same: A match was played when a player on one of the teams began a rally by serving the ball, from behind the back boundary line of the court, over the net, and into the receiving team's court. The receiving team must not let the ball be grounded within their court. They may touch the ball up to 3 times, but individual players may not touch the ball twice consecutively. Typically, the first two touches are used to set up for an attack, an attempt to direct the ball back over the net in such a way that the serving team is unable to prevent it from being grounded in their court.
The rally continued back and forth, with each team allowed up to three touches, until either a team grounds the ball on the opponent's court—called a kill—or a team commits a fault, such as touching the ball more than three times, and loses the rally. The team that wins the rally is awarded a point and serves the ball to start the next rally. It's not rocket science. Jongdae has known the rules for years, so he found himself zoning out yet again while the coach launched into a practised speech about the technicalities and rules and art of volleyball.
He noticed he wasn't the only one not paying attention. Beneath the table, star setter Zitao had his phone out and was checking Instagram.
Jongdae pulled his own phone from his pocket and set it on his thigh, hiding the motion in a restless shuffling. Everyone had everyone's number, courtesy of Amber and wanting to keep everyone updated on practice times.
Coach was very into his oration; at least someone was. Jongdae opened his messages and brought up a new form, entering a simple emoticon and clicking SEND.
Second later, the room collectively looked to Zitao when his phone buzzed noisily.
“Am I boring you, Zitao? You know this well enough to explain it to your team mates?”
Blush prominent even on tanned cheeks, the setter shook his head. “You explain it best, Coach.”
“Thank you. As I was saying … ”
Zitao frowned at his phone.
September 8, 2014, 5:42 PM
Jongdae always set his phone to silent until he left campus, so he only noticed the new message when he saw his phone screen light up.
September 8, 2014, 5:43 PM
September 8, 2014, 5:43 PM
In retrospect, Jongdae should've expected some kind of retaliation. When 11 PM rolled around, long after practice had ended, and Jongdae finally collapsed to the grass, he cursed his boredom for ever thinking it'd be funny to get Zitao in trouble.
“Had enough already?” Zitao still stood upright, although he was just as sweaty as Jongdae.
Amber always locked the gym after practice, so Zitao had gotten his own volleyball and dragged Jongdae to the soccer field. A few stadium lights stayed on, enough to see by, and he finally tossed to Jongdae.
They practised until they found their rhythm, somewhere between devil-may-care and organised chaos. Jongdae had a lot of height to his jumps, which was initially unexpected, but he didn't have as much control to keep himself from flying so high.
“If you can get some variation, no one will be able to read you until too late.”
They made their way back to the dorms. If Zitao seemed to lean a bit too close to Jongdae without speaking, Jongdae didn't wholly mind. They were both radiating heat and glossy with sweat from practising so hard, but their mutual grossness cancelled one another out.
Jongdae focused on controlling his jumps and being more aware of his environment. He always heard his team mates, but it had been a cluttered sound. They had no pattern to him until he really focused. Then he noticed how Lu Han stayed very still right until the ball was served, watching it and calling players to receive and cover. Yixing was still as well, but his eyes were always moving and engaging. The team had organisation and reason, and Jongdae finally began to see it.
It was just a matter of becoming a part of it, then.
Along with regular practice, Jongdae and Zitao met on the soccer field or badgered Amber with exaggerated cuteness to let them borrow the gym and equipment room keys.
Progress was gradual, but the others noticed the improvement and praised Jongdae, who took all the credit and praise but shared smiles with Zitao when no one was looking.
Finally, after weeks of drills and extra practices and mock games, they played their first real game.
The school was another known name with a history of very successful teams. This year saw mostly lower grades, which was surprising, but there had been a push for senior classmen to focus on class and practical testing.
The days leading up to the game were largely sleepless. Jongdae did homework, called his mom, cleaned his room at least three times, and ran numerous laps around the campus to try and work off the nervous energy.
Running before dinner, he caught up with none other than Zitao. “I didn't know you ran.”
“Usually just when chased.”
Jongdae shook his head and slowed to a jog to match Zitao's pace. It was cool in the evening; it'd probably rain.
“About the game.”
“A bit, yeah.” A lot. What was sleep and functionality?
Zitao veered off the paved path and stopped beside a large tree. He blew his bangs off his face and wrapped the cord of his earbuds around his iPod before slipping it into his pocket. “You play a lot better than you did.”
Whoa. A compliment!
Oh wow. A blush, even. Zitao was blushing.
“So there's hope for me, yet.” Jongdae nudged Zitao's leg with the toe of his sneaker, tucking his arms into the sleeves of his sweatshirt following a particularly brisk breeze. It was cooler when he wasn't moving so much.
“I wouldn't go that far,” Zitao teased. He flipped a sleeve over Jongdae's shoulder. It was weird how different the setter was off the court. Like Yixing had said, Zitao was actually really sweet.
And cute. And adorable. And Jongdae needed to stop cooing and pay attention, because the next thing he knew, Zitao was in his personal bubble, and their foreheads were touching.
Speaking broke the moment, although Jongdae had never been close enough to count Zitao's eyelashes before.
“Practice starts late tomorrow, but still be there by 8.”
“Okay … .”
The setter started to jog back to his dorm, waving as he left. Jongdae tried to wave back, but his sleeves were tied together.
“Huang Zitao, you little shit!” He could hear the boy's laughter, as he struggled.
Two weeks later, everyone piled onto a bus packed for a sweaty weekend, praying the gym would have air conditioning. Jongdae shared a seat with Henry, one of the middle blockers, and entertained the bus with his emotional renditions of every current pop song that came onto the radio.
“Everyone's got a room mate, which,” the coach spoke over the chatter, “I've already assigned. You guys actually need to sleep, so don't bit— uh, complain, rather, about whom you're sharing with. It's just the weekend. I trust you can all put on your big boy shorts and deal with it.” He read off the list, and Jongdae's heart punched his eardrums when his name was read after Huang Zitao's with a distinct “and” in-between.
Of course he was paired with the player who wanted to make his life miserable. Sure. Figures. Thanks, Karma.
And of course he was paired with the player he had a flaming gay crush on and experienced explicit homosexual fantasies about. Thanks, Cruel Fate.
Zitao appeared as just as thrilled about sharing a room with Jongdae, although he pouted more than scowled. He disappeared for a short while, but Jongdae saw him clinging—which was used very loosely; Zitao was much too tall to cling to anyone; he hung on them—to Lu Han, who had Minseok by the hand and was shaking his head. They both looked amused.
Defeated, the setter shuffled back and passed Jongdae with a mumbled “Let's go.”
After dinner, Zitao stretched out on the bed he'd claimed wearing nothing but a towel, hair still damp from his shower and not showing the slightest sense of self-consciousness.
He had plenty of self-awareness, however, opening his eyes to look right at Jongdae. “What?”
Jongdae flinched and blushed. Why was he blushing? “I want you to toss at me.”
“You have to earn it.”
He threw his arms out. “Dude! Everyone else plays with me willingly. What's with the stick up your ass?”
Cat-like eyes narrowed, Zitao rolled over and sat up on his knees. The towel stayed snugly around his waist and thighs.
Not that Jongdae was hoping for any opportunity of misfortune, of course.
“Someone who plays for fun doesn't understand the importance of hard work and drive. The rest of us have been together for a year or more. I don't feel like I can trust you, yet.”
Jongdae scoffed and flopped onto the armchair situated in the corner of the room, facing Zitao. “So I have to sit on the sidelines until you feel better about me?”
“I control the court. It has nothing to do with you, personally. Everything that happens on offence is how I plan it; if I can't trust you to be where you need to be, then yeah. You're on the sidelines.”
“That's volleyball. There is an order. It's not chance when we score or when we lose. There is always a reason.”
Jongdae continued to scowl, even though the setter's spiel made sense, and he looked really hot when so intense. It took the fun out of the sport, which is part of why Jongdae had been rather iffy about joining a sports university. He could take direction, but he could only take it without the added attitude.
Unfortunately, Huang Zitao had an excessive amount of attitude. Maybe that's why his muscles are so big; they're full of attitude.
“So what do I do to gain your trust, O Mighty Controller of Balls?” Volleyballs. Jongdae did not have any other balls in mind.
“Play like you mean it.”
Game day dawned bright and sunny. Everyone was bouncy with energy. No matter how many games they all played, the nerves were the same. Jongdae sought out Yixing, staring off into space, and belted the captain's arms around his waist with a sigh.
“Nervous?” Yixing rocked side to side gently.
“A bit. It's a good nervous. We're going to kick ass.”
The captain chuckled. “I like your attitude. You're very good for the team.” He hummed, and Jongdae thought he'd zoned out again when he finally said, “Even Zitao says so.”
That had a blush crawling up Jongdae's neck, which he steadfastly ignored.
They all migrated to the locker rooms and changed for the practice game. Jongdae noticed his hands shaking a little and shook them out with a half-frown. He couldn't afford to be jittery. If he wanted to play, he had to get real.
The coach gathered everyone together for a pep talk. The Reader's Digest version was “Go kick ass.”
For a practice game, a lot of people showed up to watch. Classmates, families, and locals filled the bleachers, and the electronic scoreboard on the wall ticked down as Jongdae watched.
He wasn't in the starting rotation. Yixing kept him on the bench to observe first, so he sat beside Minseok, who wore a different coloured jersey and kept most of his attention on the game, ready to jump in if needed.
The game went swimmingly. Their opponents deserved the praise Jongdae had heard, keeping his team mates active and moving. There were achingly long rallies and shockingly brief ones mounting up to 2 matches each and a tense score of 11-09.
A strong serve sent the ball rocketing towards Jongdae's side of the court. It looked as if it would be out, but the closer it got, the more they all realised it was still good and no one was in a position to receive it.
Minseok dove and managed to catch the ball with his foot. While volleyball is usually played with the hands or arms, players can legally strike or push the ball with any part of the body as long as it's not a kick or long contact. Before becoming libero, Minseok played soccer. The skills came in handy with difficult receives in volleyball.
Zitao tossed the ball, letting his arms drop when Jongdae charged the net and killed the ball just behind the line of blockers. He caught the annoyed look of the tall, brunet blocker and tried to hid his smile. It nearly started a fight, but the brunet's right side hitter plucked at his jersey and shook his head.
Jongdae faced the opponent's middle blocker. He was tall. The right side hitter was tall as well, but the opposite hitter was about Jongdae's size and probably a good jumper.
He ignored the faces thrown his way and licked his bottom lip, anticipating the serve.
It was beautiful and landed perfectly on Yixing's forearms. Zitao tossed it straight up and backed away. It could go to Yixing or Jongdae.
Jongdae crouched; the blockers crowded him, and they all jumped in unison as Yixing spiked the ball over the net.
Their libero, a small player with big eyes, scooped the ball back into play. A set, and the small attacker playing the net bounced up, lips between his teeth, and slammed the ball right into Jongdae and Zitao's waiting block.
Libero to the rescue yet again, skidding with a cringe-worthy screech of skin on hardwood. He ducked out of the way for an attacker at the back to send the back back to Jongdae's court. It was another wild ball; no one was sure if it was in or out, but Zitao followed it.
He ran without looking and dove, but there wasn't as much floor as preferred, and his leg rammed into the cinder block. The whistle blew, and the coach, manager, and referee all crowded around him.
The ball bounced outside the line and rolled out of bounds.
Zitao clutched his thigh and rolled on his back, head thrown in pain. Jongdae stood anxiously at the net. He wanted to check on the setter, but there was nothing he could do.
He was waved over, though, and helped Zitao to his feet. While Jongdae held his wrist and waist, Zitao limped to the bench, where a nurse was waiting.
“You should see a doctor as soon as you can. I don't like the look of this swelling.”
Zitao shook his head. “I want to stay. I can get some ice for it; I'll be fine.”
The nurse looked at him critically over her glasses. Too often, she found athletes cared more about a bruised ego than torn meniscus or sprained ankle. She sighed and left to find some ice. If the kid wanted to be a dumbass about his own health, no one could say she didn't tell him otherwise.
No one scored; they had to replay the rally. Jongdae scored four consecutive points, but he knew he would've burned holes into the floor if it had been Zitao setting up the plays.
Get your head in the game, Jongdae. Even from the sidelines, Zitao's critical analysis of Jongdae's form and plays was evident. He just didn't take a break, even when injured. Jongdae admired his dedication but wished he wasn't so obvious; it made him nervous.
The opposing team held the ball. The brunet blocker faked Jongdae's blockers, and the ball barely landed in-bounds.
One more point, and Jongdae's team would win.
Next was a float serve, and no one could reach it in time, although Minseok managed to knock it up before it touched the floor, it went uncontrolled.
The serve was tossed lightly, and Jongdae's team readied for another float serve, but it was hit high and angled sharply over the net, straight at Jongdae. He didn't have time to move back for a clear receive; he pivoted on the ball of his foot and dropped to his knees, extending his arms and straightening his back to catch the ball neatly on his forearms and send it straight up. His arms stung, but he scrambled to his feet.
Lu Han called out a sharp “Captain!” just as the ball kissed his fingertips. Behind him, Yixing bolted to the net, just inside the lines, and leapt high. There was no block; the opponents were ready to continue the rally in mid-court. No one expected Henry to tap the ball gently over the net, completely ignored because of Lu Han's faked play.
They won the game.
The final whistle blew, and the bleachers roared. Jongdae was swept up in a sweaty hug; there was excited jumping and back slaps and booty taps, and everyone was shouting.
Zitao tried to get up to celebrate with the team, but he immediately regretted standing and sat back down. The team surrounded him, instead, mobbing the bench and hugging him and one another and still shouting in joy.
“We're celebrating tonight!” Lu Han announced, voice barely heard over the gym's cheers. He lifted Minseok beneath his arms and spun them both around, faces flushed.
Jongdae looked at Zitao, his bruised leg, and shook his head. “I'm going to take him back to our room. You guys celebrate for the both of us.” He wiped his face with a towel and helped Zitao to his feet.
“I'm fine, you know.” Zitao groused and complained the whole limping trip to the locker room and then their room. He winced with each step on his left leg, although he hid it well. Jongdae felt the stiffening twitch of pain, though, side-to-side with the setter.
He fumbled in his bag for their key, got Zitao settled on his bed, and jogged down the hall for fresh ice.
“Maybe we should go to the hospital … .”
Zitao shook his head and placed the towel-wrapped bag to his leg with a hiss. “I'll be fine. It feels better, already.”
“You sure? The ice helps?” At the setter's nod, Jongdae stretched out on the bed beside his legs, frowning at the swollen knee. He touched it gently, frowning further at how hot it felt. “I know what'll make it better,” he commented.
He took the ice from Zitao, holding it up momentarily to softly press his lips to the bruised flesh. Replacing the ice, he kissed Zitao's other knee, thigh, and lifted his T-shirt to kiss his hip. He got up on his knees between Zitao's calves and pushed the shirt up, following it with his lips in a trail of feather-light kisses and barely-there licks. Reaching his collarbones, Jongdae leaned up, as if to kiss the setter's lips, but sharply pulled the shirt over Zitao's face instead and laughed, earning a whack to his shoulder.
Zitao stripped the shirt off completely with an indignant huff. His lips curled down in an adorable pout that had Jongdae smiling gleefully. “You're needlessly mean sometimes, you know that?”
Revelling at Zitao's flushed face, Jongdae hummed and kissed his mouth. “It's part of my charm.”
“What charm?” Zitao asked. He chased Jongdae's lips, seeking more kisses. “You're just mean. I dunno how anyone else puts up with you. You just pick on me all the time.”
“Look who's talking!”
“I had to test you.”
“You were just testing my patience.”
“Mm-hm. And now look how far you've come.”
“Yeah, would you look at that … .” Jongdae ran his fingernails up and down the outside of Zitao's calves. Goosebumps rose in their wake.
The room was getting noticeably hotter. It was surprising the ice was still solid, although Jongdae was momentarily entranced by an escaping droplet of condensation running down Zitao's thigh. He licked his lips and met Zitao's eyes.
Someone knocked on the door, and the setter kicked Jongdae off the bed in his haste to snatch his shirt from the floor and cover himself. Jongdae yelped and landed on the floor—hard. He glared, and Zitao threw up his hands. What was I supposed to do?
“Zitao? Jongdae?” It was Yixing.
He flipped Zitao off. Jerk.
Zitao signed I love you with a sweet smile that slipped a little when he shifted beneath the blankets and drew up a knee.
A soft knock. “Are you alright?”
Right, people. Outside. Concern.
“Yeah! Yeah, hang on … .” He dragged himself to his feet and unlocked the door. The whole team poured passed him, carrying sodas and pizza and cake and Jongdae thought he saw a couple team mates with cases of beer and boxes of chicken, as well. “Uh, hi?”
“We felt bad that Zitao couldn't join us, so we brought the celebration to him.”
Jongdae quickly claimed the spot beside Zitao with a bright smile, forcing him to scoot over, grabbing a box of pizza as it passed.
Lu Han bounced onto the other bed with Yixing, pulling Minseok to sit on his other side. Everyone tucked up their feet to make room for the whole team—everyone except Zitao and Jongdae, who kicked off anyone who sat on the bed with a declaration that “The cripple needs his space.”—but spread out once people were relatively situated. There was a disorderly din, voices raised to be heard over other conversations with requests of passing food or drinks.
No one remembered plates or napkins, so things got a bit messy, and the coach stopped by once to tell them to quiet down once it got late. Amber was sent the second time, but her laughter quickly joined the general noise.
Jongdae, happy and full, scooted down and leaned against Zitao's shoulder.
It felt good to win. It felt good to be accepted as part of a team, like a big, dysfunctional family that was still in sync and could always find their balance. It felt best having Zitao at his side, experiencing it all with him.
“Aside from the knee,” he said softly, just so Zitao could hear, “how was the game?”
Zitao smiled and found his hand, stacking them together and lacing their fingers. “I had fun.”